Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Reflecting on Change - Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts I started for Middleweb. You can read the first part of our story here. This is part two that originally appeared on Middleweb.

Stormy Weather Ahead

After getting the administration on board with our teaming idea, our next step was to go to our grade level team and get them involved in the conversation. We were very excited to share our ideas with them. While the 12 classroom teachers and six itinerant teachers had never worked together prior to this year, we had come together pretty nicely. Sure, there were some philosophical differences that had yet to be hashed out, but if you accept Tuckman’s stages of group development, we had formed quite nicely. And we believed that people would be very open to talking about our teaming proposal and how it would benefit kids and adults.
We felt our proposal was a win-win situation for all. Students would be working with teachers whose instructional and management strengths matched both student needs and the subjects they would be asked to teach. Some students would also have fewer transitions and fewer teachers throughout the day, helping them feel more comfortable and confident.
After years of not having a voice, the adults would be in a better position to evaluate their teaching strengths and weaknesses and work with a team and students they felt were a good fit for them. Parents of the most challenged learners would have one contact person rather than three or four.
And the same would be true for our push-in teachers: Our ELL teacher, our math enrichment instructor, our autistic support teacher and our gifted teacher. Instead of having children scattered across all three teams, these teachers would have one team with whom they would work.
Even with all of these positives, we decided to first talk to our teammates individually or in small groups. Every group has more vocal individuals, and we wanted to make sure that each team member had the chance to listen as we shared all of our information. We also wanted to make sure that people who were not as comfortable speaking in large groups had the chance to ask questions or make comments.
So early one morning, with our main idea points neatly copied, the three of us headed out to talk to our respective groups and make plans for a large group discussion. The responses were not exactly what we had expected. I suppose Tuckman would say that we were beginning the “storming phase” for our group.
Our initial contact with our fourth grade teacher colleagues gave us a mixed bag of responses. Some people loved the idea. Some people really didn’t say much of anything. And some people got very, very angry. We assured each teacher that we were just introducing a possibility and that there would be group discussions about it so everybody could have a voice. Our goal was an open, honest conversation about strength-based assignments and what would work best for the kids.
“Open and honest” is not exactly what happened in the wake of our first sit-down chats. Stormy discussions, to which we were not invited, took place. The conversation often stopped as we walked into the room. We were blamed for “ruining” the positive spirit and the good year that our team was having. Our teaching methods were questioned in meetings where we were not in attendance.
All of this was terribly frustrating because we felt we’d done nothing wrong. Some  people accused us of going behind their backs to administration. That was the furtherest thing from our minds. We simply believed there was no reason to bring the idea before the whole group and have everybody invest time and energy mulling it over IF there was no way any change could even happen.
Some other teachers felt that we were criticizing their teaching ability. How could we? Sadly, we don’t get to see each other teach, so we have no right and no basis for saying that anybody was a good, bad or mediocre teacher. And even if we were lucky enough to learn from each other through visitations, we would never judge our coworkers based on our time in their classrooms.
In response to many negative comments, each of us, individually, went and talked to people in an attempt to have open and honest communication. We apologized for making people feel as though we went around them to higher-ups — or that their abilities were being judged. We might have handled that better, we said. But that is all that we apologized for. We were acting in what we deeply believed was the best interest of the most vulnerable kids in our new school, and that is what we constantly reminded ourselves as we went through the remainder of a suddenly very prickly school year.
Additional meetings were held with our entire grade-level team and the original administrative team that we’d met with. People were not open and honest in the meetings, and at some meetings insults flew. It also seemed like very little got accomplished for a variety of reasons — the biggest one being a fear of change.
While our grade-level team could agree that groups of identified students should be on one team to best meet their needs — and to make things a bit easier for the teachers providing special services — little else got accomplished.
Even though it was evident to all involved that there were teachers working with identified students who didn’t have the skill set to best meet their needs, nobody would volunteer to move. “But I love my team!” “My team works so well together!” they said. Our mantra was: “It’s not about the adults, it’s about what’s best for the kids.”
As the end of the year rolled around, we still hadn’t made it through Tuckman’s storming stage. Even though we wanted teachers to have a voice, that didn’t end up happening because people at all levels struggled with and sometimes openly resisted the change process.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Reflecting on Change - Part 1

A lot of you may be wondering about what you can do to make a change for the better in your school. I'll let you in on a secret - it's not easy (probably the opposite of easy), but when you see your kids happy and successful you'll know it's worth it in the end.

I started this as a series of posts for MiddleWeb. You can read the original three posts there or I'll be posting them, along with the remainder of the series, here so you can see what happens when three elementary teachers try to do what's right even when a lot of others think it's wrong.

Last school year was a big year for my coworkers and me. We were pulled together from teaching jobs in five  elementaries and one middle school to staff a new intermediate school with grades 4-6. While the transition was challenging, I felt that it went extremely well. When you move to an existing school, you don’t really grasp how much is already in place in terms of procedure and culture. When you help open a new school that has no history or traditions, you have your cultural aha moment!
With everything that could have gone wrong in such a situation, much went right in our new building. But one thing that didn’t go well, at least in the minds of three of us, was how we as a building were meeting the needs of our youngest learners and students identified with specific learning disabilities. We felt our new school and its new structure was creating a volatile climate shift for some kids.
In all three grade levels, teachers were assigned to teams of four. In 4th and 5th grades there were two humanities teachers (teaching communication/language arts and social studies) and two STEM teachers (teaching science and math), with the understanding that reading in the content areas would be the responsibility of all four teachers. Additional teachers worked with each grade to conduct reading and math clinics for remediation or enrichment. This meant some students could have up to four different teachers each day: Humanities, math, science, and clinic. For some kids this setup worked out fine, but for others — especially 4th graders — it was just too much. Add four different teachers to a new building and a new structure, and you’ve got some confusing times for kids and their parents.
Students with identified special needs were spread out across all three of the 4th grade-level teams, making it challenging for our itinerant learning support teacher (ILST) to meet the Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) planof all of the students in her caseload. We had some teachers who had little experience working with identified students. We also encountered some “philosophical challenges” in regards to adaptations and accommodations for various learners.


Concerned about all these issues, two of my fourth grade teammates and I spent a lot of time researching an alternate method of teaming that might better meet the needs of all of our students as they transitioned from smaller, neighborhood-based primary schools to our larger, districtwide intermediate school. Our proposal, after a great deal of research, suggested that our identified learners and other average-ability students likely to have difficulty with the transition between schools be assigned to a classroom with two regular ed teachers and the ILST for the whole day.
We initially presented this idea of one large, co-taught class to a team of administrators and met with a tremendous amount of pushback from some of them. The biggest area of concern was separating all of the identified students from the other teams. While we were more focused on the idea of a strength-based, community approach for these students, we listened to and heard the concerns of the administrators.
Another meeting was scheduled. We used a Google doc to collect questions, concerns and suggestions, and we continued to search the Web for other research and success stories about teaming and grouping. After a few weeks we came back with a second proposal. This one had all of the identified students on one team of five teachers: the ILST, one Humanities specialist, one STEM specialist, and two teachers who taught all four subjects. Under this plan, the identified students would be part of a larger group of mixed ability students, but they would still have fewer transitions between teachers each day because two of us would resume teaching all four subjects in the traditional manner.


It took quite a while to get people to really understand this set-up, but a majority of the administrative team was open to the idea. They agreed that this might be the key to helping our students transition easier and find more success in 4th grade.
After gaining the support of the administration, our next step was to talk to our co-workers. My teammates and I were adamant about the fact that we wanted to be the ones to present this idea to our fellow 4th grade teachers, and we were granted the opportunity.
Little did we know what would be waiting for us when we talked to our teammates.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Why I DESPISE Standardized Tests

(A caveat before you begin reading. Usually if I have a complaint I will vent my concerns, and then I will try to offer solutions. There's none of that in this post. I am fired up. But more than that, I am sad. I am sad about what I'm about to do to my students, and I feel like I have no way out. Because if I don't do it, then somebody else will.  And if the poor kids have to do it, I'd rather they at least have a friendly, caring face there with them. So - proceed with caution. This is just me, angry and upset, about what teaching and education have become.)

I push the limits a lot with what I do in my classroom, and I'm very thankful for the support I have to do what's best for my kids. But I'm pretty sure that I'm as close as I've ever been to getting in B-I-G trouble at work, and to be quite honest, I'm not even so sure that I care. After all, what is being written up or sent home without a few days' pay compared to the torture I'm forced to put my students through over the next three week?

I'm talking about the PSSAs. The Pennsylvania high stakes, bull crap, one snapshot picture of my students. The tests that are used to judge my school, used to label my kids, and next year they'll also be used to judge me. Let me tell you why I am SO fired up this evening.

1. I had to waste 45 minutes of my life, 45 that could have been better spent on planning or prepping for my students, to watch a video and take a test about administering the tests. I can't make this up. The ridiculousness of the video is almost difficult to put into words, but I can tell you that if I had heard the narrator say, "Be sure your students have 2 sharpened number 2 pencils with good erasers," one more time I would have used said pencils to poke my own eyes out.

2. Then, because the 45-minute "webinars" weren't bad enough, we had to have an additional meeting. During this meeting our administrators had to teach us what to do if children had cell phones in their pockets, how to do a fire drill if test books were still in rooms, what to do with disruptive students, how to summon a nurse, and .... my favorite.... what to do if a student pukes on a book. We also got to hear answers to amazing questions like, "Can students use post-its to mark their spots on the scantron sheet?" (Because we are not allowed to help our 9, 10 and 11 year olds track such a thing. That would be cheating.) "What about if a kid has a terrible bathroom emergency?" (You are allowed to let them go, and you may actually tell them what number to start working on when they come back if they ask.) And, "So can kids use calculators?" (honestly - not evening touching that one) Again, 45 minutes of my teaching life that I will never get back.

As annoying and ridiculous as that all is, it gets even better.

3. According to the PSSA information there are several accommodations available to ALL students. One of those accommodations is that students may have any of the tests, with the exception of reading, read aloud to them. But wait.... there's a catch. Even though every student has the right to have this accommodation, the only ones who will get it are the ones who ASK for it. If one of my special ed students, who is reading on a 1st or 2nd grade level, can't read a question I cannot simply read it for them even though this accommodation is included in the legally binding IEP we *must* follow. I have to wait for them to raise their hand and ASK me to read it or I can't provide this accommodation.

Riddle me this. If it says that reading the math test is an accommodation for all kids, why does ANYBODY have to ask for it??? If I want to read to my students, why can't I just read to them?

Oh, and riddle me this. If this is supposed to be a test of my students' abilities how in the WORLD are we getting an accurate measure of their math abilities when they aren't getting the accommodations allowed?

4. Many of our students are also legally guaranteed to receive small group testing. Just out of curiosity, how many of you think 17 is a small group? Or even 11? How about 10 or 9? Personally, I thought small group meant 5 or 6. I thought wrong.

5. We received notification that our reading clinics (Tier 2 and Tier 3 instruction for those of you RTII fans) will be cancelled on testing days, but the expectation is that we will use those 30 minutes for test-taking strategy review, skill review, class meetings, or class work. It is not to be used as a study hall or <GASP> any sort of free time where I students may actually be able to talk, relax or act their age after being force to sit still and quiet for 2.5 hours.

I'm upset. I'm angry.

My teammates and I have worked hard all year to help our students, no matter what their challenges, realize that they can be successful at anything they put their minds to. And to be honest, they are finally starting to believe it.  But guess what - everything about these tests sets them up for failure. They aren't getting the testing settings they need and deserve. They are not getting the support and accommodations they are legally required to get. If even one of my kids cries.........

The worst part? There is nothing I can do about it because, "Our hands are tied." Because, "It's not us, it's the state." Because, "That's just the way it is and there's nothing we can do about it."

At what point will we finally put an end to this madness?