Saturday, September 29, 2012

PLPLive 2012

Over the last two days I had the extreme honor to be part of PLP Live 2012. This was my first time being a facilitator at a conference, and it was a pretty wild experience. Even though I haven't been to many conferences (three total in my 15 years - not that I don't want to do more, but it's often not in my budget) it's pretty easy to take a guess at the tremendous amount of work required to pull off even a one day affair. Kudos to both Brenda and Peter, whose hard work helped this day go off without a hitch.

I suppose I have to first mention how starstruck I was to be part of this group of people, and on several occasions while we were mingling, talking, and having dinner, I thought to myself, "How does a 4th grade teacher end up here with these people?" I don't mean to belittle myself by saying I'm *just* a 4th grade teacher, but really - experienced conference coordinators, innovative thinkers, foundation presidents, authors, community voices, well-written bloggers, national board certified teachers - these people are b-i-g deals, in my mind and in the minds of many others. From their formal keynotes to the informal discussions we had I was able to learn so much. And it reinforced what I have really been thinking about for the last few months: we really need to change the way we do things in schools.

(Edit added 9/29 at 11:10 PM - so after posting this and thinking more about a conversation I had this morning, I think I get it. I can see how *just* a 4th grade teacher fits into this group. These are amazing philosophers and thinkers, but that's just it - they are philosophers and thinkers. A majority of them aren't teachers or principals or if they are they haven't been in the classroom for years. So they can do all the talking they want, but really, this big change, this shift? That is up to us. Those of us who are *just* teachers are really the ones who are going to take their words and actually put it into action. How's that for a crazy revelation?? They can inspire us with their words, but without our action there will be no change. Makes us a lot more than *just* teachers, doesn't it??)

The second thing I loved about this conference was the format of our session. I was part of a fabulous team: Marsha, Gene, Sister Geralyn and Wendy, that created a series of stations that actually gave teachers some concrete ways that they could take the motivational keynotes they heard in the morning and put them in to practice in their classrooms. The beauty of the Minds on Media approach is that I wasn't the expert, and I didn't stand up in front of the group to tell them what to do and how to do it. Attendees were free to move through our five stations at any time or they could skip our stations and explore a topic of their interest. They could listen in on a conversation and then go work with their team to figure out what it would look like in their classrooms. It's a very freeing experience to be trusted with your own learning, and the participants ran with it. If you couldn't be at the conference with us the wiki pages will remain up for you to learn from if you'd like!

I was lucky enough to work with three different groups, all of which had very different needs. Our first group didn't even get to the wiki - our philosophical discussion helped people think about the purpose of e-portfolios, how they fit into the big picture of shifting, ways we could do e-portfolios differently than we did in the past to make them more meaningful, and baby steps we could all take to get started if we didn't want to dive right in. The second group came to me after visiting Wendy's station about connecting your classroom so they had a lot of very specific questions about melding the connecting piece with the idea of a portfolio. The third group I saw was already using some tools so we just had to talk through how they might morph what they were doing into a portfolio by adding a reflective piece. I learned so much with each group, and our discussions helped me think more deeply about why I do what I do with my students.

So those things were great, but they were not the best part of this conference. By far, the best part of PLP Live was being able to meet the absolutely incredible people that I have been learning from and with over the last two years. People often ask if it's really possible to develop relationships with people that you only ever speak to online. I reply to that with an absolute, resounding, 100% yes. From the moment we walked into the room together it was like we had known each other forever, and the comfort level made it very easy for all of us to work together as a team to get things done and to have really challenging discussions about our next steps.

It was a great opportunity to be able to take part in this conference, and I'm hoping that I can continue to take all that we did and all that I have learned being a PLPeep back to my classroom to make meaningful changes for my students.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Lessons from NASA

I think I probably took the same stance many did when they heard the agency was shutting down the space shuttle program. At first I was shocked - I know there have been accidents, but overall (in my layman's eyes) it's been a very successful program. It's our only method of getting people and supplies in to space. We will now have to depend upon others for transportation to the International Space Station. And my last thought was that it's a shame our government isn't willing to spend the money on such an important program.

While I'm not a space junkie, I do find space travel intriguing. I did stay up late  to watch the online stream of Curiosity land on Mars, and yes - I do follow Curiosity on Twitter. I would say it's an interest of mine, but not necessarily a passion.

But it's interesting enough that I stop and read a few articles every now and then. As I browsed through my reader this morning I saw Laura's post (and the others in her series) about the final flight of Endeavour. These posts really made me wax nostalgic about my elementary school experiences. Some of my favorite, and one of my saddest, elementary memories were cramming as many classes as possible around the TV and watching the shuttles blast into space. I also read this post by Pamela Moran, and it reminded me of a message that I have heard before. NASA is scrapping the shuttle program, not because it doesn't work but because it's time to move forward. And we in education need to do the same thing.

But schools aren't like NASA. We can't just shut down our program  for 2, 5 or 10 years until we find what works or what our kids need. So what do we do?

First, I think we educators need to look at our attitudes and stop being so ridiculously offended when somebody tells us it's time to try something different. It may not be that you're doing something "wrong" (although some of you are, I will go ahead and say that even if nobody else will!) it's just that our kids need more.

NASA didn't get rid of the shuttle because they didn't work - they worked beautifully most of the time. They did exactly what they needed to do. Our schools are the same way. When we were preparing some of our kids for college and most for factory work, our schools worked beautifully and did exactly what we needed to do. But that's not the case any more. We need to stop being offended that people want us to change, and look more closely at how our students are different than kids used to be and how their adult lives will be dramatically different than the ones we're living today.

Second, we need to get administration in our buildings who are actual leaders with a vision and plan to move us forward. We need individuals who are more than people who took some classes, got a paper with their name on it, and had the desire to be the boss in a big fancy office. If leadership is not willing to change the way they work with teachers, model for teachers how schools need to change, and hold teachers accountable for implementing change, then small pockets of innovation will exist here and there, but our system will continue to be stagnent.

NASA had leadership who was brave enough to stand up and say, "This is the end of the shuttle program. We have a new focus now." If those in charge didn't have the courage to make an extremely unpopular decision in the eyes of most, our space program would just continue to be the 1-800-Got-Junk of space exploration. (Not that there's anything wrong with people who come in and haul your junk for you, I just don't think it's where we want to go with our national space program.)

Third, we need to stop teaching to tests. All we are doing is creating a population of small, anxious, stressed out human beings who things their world does and will always revolve around filling in bubbles. By 9 years old, my kids are already telling me it's cheating to look at resources to help you answer questions, it's cheating to talk with people when you don't understand and need help to finish some work, and it's cheating if you can't do everything from your memory.

While I have never been to a NASA facility, I did watch the livestream of Curiosity's landing. Not a single individual in that room was working on his or her own. While they each had their own monitor and seat, each report that was made came from a team. Each piece of data was being monitored by a team. And when the vehicle landed, no one single person stood out (well, except maybe Mohawk Guy); the success was felt by every single individual in that room. Those people didn't sit on their own and fill in bubbles, they worked together to solve problems that had never even existed before! They were creative and took a leap of faith using their knowledge and skills in the hopes that something amazing would happen. And it did.

I know it's impossible for schools to shut down and totally revamp how we do our work. But if each teacher would start making small changes in his or her classroom, if each district would reach out to those who would be effective leaders, and if each parent would be willing to move on from their love of how school worked for them when they went, we may be able to take some lessons from NASA and move from a good program that worked in the past to one that is really meeting the needs of our kids.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Negative Patient Service = A Better Teacher

After several days of being knocked on my behind due to pneumonia, I am finally starting to feel a bit like my normal self. And I want to share how this experience has made me think about how I want to do things differently for my students.

I started not feeling quite right on Sunday evening, but I attributed it to a tough workout on Friday and the appearance of chilly weather after several long weeks of it being hot and humid. I figured a nice hot bubble bath and calling it an early night would do the trick. I was kind of right - I felt better Monday morning, but as the day went on I started to feel worse. By the time I finished my walking path duty (a duty where we escort our walkers about 1/2 mile on our walking path) I was ready to go home and go directly to bed.

Usually when I get sick, it's allergies, a cold, or the ever popular sinus infection. I can't tell you the last time I had a fever of 100 or higher, and I always have the same types of symptoms - stuffy, stuffy head and a scratchy throat. I suppose I'm a creature of habit. This time was different. I was achy, I didn't want to eat or if I was hungry when I did eat it made my stomach hurt, and I started to have a cough. But no sore throat, no runny nose, no congested head. This just wasn't right, and that was confirmed when I woke up Tuesday morning with a fever of 101.3.

After throwing together some stuff for my sub, I left school and while still sitting in my car in the parking lot I called my doctor to get an appointment to be seen. My guess was the flu, but I just wanted to get checked because I have a student with special health needs in my class. I was promptly told by the very nice phone receptionist that there were no appointments available, but I could leave a message for the doctor. I went through the whole story, and I emphasized that I don't get fevers - something was wrong and I really needed to be seen. She apologized but repeated that there were no appointments and the doctor would get back to me as soon as he had a chance.

I went home and went right to bed. I could tell as soon as the Advil wore off, and my fever was still 101.1. More Advil, more aches, and I tried calling two more local doctors' offices to see me. Both had appointments available, but because I would be a "new patient" I couldn't have those appointments because I would need more time. Perhaps I would like an appointment for Thursday or Friday, or I could go to their clinic, a 25 minute drive from my house, because that's where they sent most people with colds.

To say I was frustrated when I hung up the phone doesn't even begin to describe it. *I* know myself. *I* know there is something seriously wrong, and the people who were supposed to be helping me weren't listening. Back to bed I went wondering if it was maybe time to head to an Urgent Care facility. The decision actually ended up being made for me. After taking my next dose of Advil and sitting in on an online meeting, I took my temperature and it was 103. I called my mom, a nurse, and asked her what to do. In her always loving mom voice she said to me, "Get your ass in the car and let Jerry take you to Urgent Care."

We pulled into the parking lot of the Patient First facility at 8:20. I signed in, and the receptionist immediately got my information. I finished with her and waited approximately 2 minutes before the assistant took me back. Each person I interacted with asked me lots of questions, talked with me, showed care and compassion, made sure I was as comfortable as possible, and answered my questions. As you read up above, I ended up being diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia. Just knowing that I was right - there WAS something wrong - helped me start feeling better immediately. After having my concerns pushed aside all day, the staff at Patient First did exactly what their name said and took great care of me. If it hadn't been for them (and my mom's sound advice) who knows what might have happened.

I've spent a lot of time sleeping, coughing, and thinking the last few days. While being so sick certainly was upsetting and worrisome, the fact that the "professionals" weren't listening to me made me feel ten times worse. 

I wonder how often kids know there's something wrong - they know which letters don't look or sound right, they could tell us which part of the math problem doesn't make sense, they could tell us which parts are hard to understand - but we teachers don't listen to them. I fear that often times, in the spirit of "cram as much down their throats so they are ready for the test", we don't listen to our kids when they try to tell us what is wrong or we don't even give them a chance to speak at all.

So here's another way that my life experiences are going to help me be a better teacher. Whether it gets me in trouble or not, I will make the time to listen to my kids. I'm going to expect that we be partners in their learning, I will ask them what's making the work challenging, I will listen to their answers, and I will work with them to help them feel better and be successful.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

My Open Letter to our Local News Station - WGAL

Dear News Director,

I'm a public school teacher, and I just had the opportunity to watch Matt Belanger's piece on educators being paid for their sick days. I have to tell you that I am 100% offended by this piece, and I'm hopeful that there will be a follow up piece sharing teachers' perspectives.

I have seen many, many reports in papers, online, and on live newscasts claiming how unfair it is that teachers' benefits and retirement plans are paid by tax payers' money. I cannot ever remember seeing WGAL do a piece where they follow a teacher for a week or two and see the work that an individual actually does - before, during and after school hours. I cannot remember seeing WGAL do any reports on the fact that we teachers in Pennsylvania have NO choice but to be part of our retirement program. We are required to put a designated amount of money into PSERS and the schools are required to match it. While we have entered into this contract with no choice, you get a job you're signed up for PSERS, the state can freely take money FROM our retirement funds or not contribute their fair share. Imagine the uproar if you worked for a private business, had profit sharing, and the company just didn't put in their fair share even after making a profit.

To add even more insults to injuries laws are being proposed that will negate these contracts, even though they were established in Pennsylvania's Constitution. I could potentially lose all that I rightfully earned by doing my job for the last 15 years, and I had no choice but to deposit into this flawed system. Again, I ask what the uproar would be if banks or investment institutions were allowed to simply take that money out of private individuals' investment accounts? I imagine it would be great and those individuals would not be vilified as teachers have been. (Oh.... wait..... yeah....)

I get it - times are tough for everybody. EVERYBODY. Times are tough for teachers as well. It's time you stop choosing to make us "the bad guys" in this budget debate. Certainly there are some districts where unions have bargained outrageous contracts, but it's not all due to teachers. School board members (community members / tax payers) and district administration also have to approved that bargaining contract as well.

Perhaps it's time to take a closer look at the governor and state legislature and see how they have used (or misused) funds in the past to cause this funding debacle in the first place.

Next time you decide to run such a divisive piece, please, please think about the people on both sides and provide a fair and balanced report. Teachers are taxpayers, too, and we have spouses who have lost their jobs just like millions of others. Many teachers have lost their jobs just like millions of others. We are not the evil ones in this story. Please stop making it seem like we are.

Becky Bair

Saturday, September 8, 2012

How Testing Affects Kids (and Teachers)

This week we had to give our students our beginning of the year standardized assessments. Here in PA we are one of many schools using the 4Sight tests to assess our students, predict how well they will do on the PSSAs (our state tests), and determine where we need to provide more intensive instruction.

(I'll add my snarky aside here - this year we're all graphing our scores and getting prizes if we do better. Yippeeeee!)

I'm all for using assessments to help me learn what my students need to be successful, but this week was a perfect example of how testing negatively impacts all students.

After a great first five days of school, Wednesday and Thursday morning our school ran a two hour delay schedule to take the reading and the math test. On both days I took my students who needed a small group testing accommodations to a different location while a specialist came to my classroom to proctor my students who did not. On both days we had to sit quietly, in one spot, for just about two hours as students completed the test. The first affect? While I didn't see tears from my small group like some did, I could see the frustration and hopelessness on my kids' faces. Heads' down. Sad looks. Loud sighs. They worked so hard, but you could just see defeat on many faces. So much for having a growth mindset - right now some of my kids are feeling, despite my efforts to tell them it's just a pretest and we will all grow and learn throughout the year, that they are stupid and they will never do well on these tests.

But these testing days did more than just affect my students' mindset, it impacted their behavior as well. Now, some of you who are reading this will say that it wasn't really the test, and unfortunately I need to get used to the fact that my week one honeymoon is over. I vehemently disagree. My kids were awesome on Tuesday, and they even managed to keep it together on Wednesday afternoon. But sitting for two hours and being out of our routine twice just threw them for a loop. They all put out so much effort and energy trying to pick the right bubbles and stay quietly in their seats that they had nothing left to give me on Friday. It didn't help that all of the technology I tried to use didn't work either! But the fact of the matter is that I pretty much lost 2.5 days of instruction due to standardized testing this week. 2.5 out of 4.

For What???

(Another aside - I know this next statement is not going to show the growth mindset I'm trying so hard to have, but I'm writing it anyway.)

It is a fact that some of my students are not currently going to be able to meet the standards being measured on this test. That is why they have legal documents stating that they are working towards different goals and require accommodations. Forcing these kids to take these assessments that give me no usable information to guide my classroom instruction simply steals valuable instructional time and creates a fixed mindset and feelings of hopelessness in many of my kids.

When I try to advocate for my students, these are some of the responses I get:

"They have to get used to it. They aren't going to get to take the PSSAs on a lower reading level." Yeah I know, but perhaps if they took assessments on their levels I could get some usable data for instruction in my classroom. And I really don't think that the "practicing for the PSSAs statement is valid at any time.

"But we're required to show how they are progressing on the grade level standards." This is about the dumbest requirement I have ever heard. Wouldn't making progress on their goals demonstrate that they are making progress towards grade level standards?

"Unfortunately this is education. You're just going to have to deal with it." <sigh> Do I? Do I really have to just deal with it? Is that an answer that we should settle for in education?

Maybe I don't have the choice as to whether or not I give these assessments, but I recognize how they negatively impact all of my students and my opportunity to provide a positive learning environment for them. You can bet your booty that after recharging this weekend we're all going to have a fresh start, and I'm going to make the most of the time I have between now and the next test to help my students learn and grow at their levels and to gather a ton of evidence to prove to them and their parents that they can be successful.

No matter what those dumb tests say.