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How to Teach Writing and Spend Less Time Grading Papers

Jordan Kohanim’s thoughtful explanation in Education Week regarding why he decided to leave teaching certainly resonated with lots of other teachers as evidenced in the comment section following his essay.  Kohanim cites the usual perfect storm of problems:  litigious parents, low expectations for students, inept administration.  He presents an altogether understandable description of a professional situation that had become untenable for him personally.  However, as a former English teacher, I had to wonder about this reason for leaving:

“My classes were big. If I worked six-hour days with no breaks, it would take 28 days to grade my students' 159 essays. I was an English teacher. My kids had to write. I had to grade. And I actually enjoyed grading, but 159 students? That was too much. Twenty-eight days to grade those essays was too much.”

Writing450When I first started teaching I had about the same number of students, so I can commiserate with Kohanim.  It was overwhelming.  I remember it well because my prep period was the last period of the day, and by that time I was too exhausted to do much more that sit and gaze fixedly at the stack of papers before me.

But that was a while ago, and since that time English teachers have figured out lots of ways to teach writing without acting like a major publishing house editor.  Doing the math, it turns out that Kohanim claims to have spent a little more than an hour grading each student’s paper.  Good lord. 

First of all, if an English teacher uses the writer’s workshop approach, by the time the teacher sees the final draft, it should be clean and publishable.  Secondly, teaching kids to write is about teaching kids to revise.  Sharing their work with others in the class, defending their argument, using spell check and other computer tools are all part of the writing process.  Teaching kids to write on the computer is part of the writing process too, and I would hope no English teachers are still expecting kids to write their essays first and then use the computer as a typewriter.

Finally, we should be teaching kids to write all kinds of things besides long-form essays or the moribund 20-page term paper.  Short paragraphs, directions, opinion pieces, jokes, poems, plays – even recipes.  The key to learning how to write well is to write and revise often, not to write one opus that the student won’t see again for weeks.  Gettng a paper or a test back weeks or even months later does nothing to enhance learning.

So, yes, I can see how forces that a teacher can’t control can become so frustrating that he or she may decide to leave the profession.  But knowing how to teach writing so that it is effective without being professionally debilitating is the teacher’s responsibility.  Besides, few students actually read myriad editing comments or appreciate reams of criticisms, corrections, and suggestions about their work. 

Someone suggested that English teachers should have paid “correctors” to grade essays.  That idea suggests to me a lack of understanding about teaching writing as a dynamic interactive process to improve communication.

I’m always sorry to see a good teacher leave the profession.  And Kohanim certainly cites some good reasons.  Grading papers probably isn’t one of them.







Virginia’s NCLB Waiver Is an Embarrassment

The criticism of the HBO series The Newsroom is that there’s too much talking.  Right.  And not enough shooting, I guess? 

Personally, I love the talking.   And I love Jeff Danielson as Will McAvoy, a Soledad O’Brien - type news anchor despite his claim of being a Republican.  I also love Sam Waterston as the hard-drinking head of the news division for the cable news network and Jane Fonda as the right wing owner of the network.

Newsrooms_Will_McAvoyIn one of the final episodes the news department is angling to host one of the Republican debates.  Things look positive until Will et. al. show the Republican leadership the format they would like to use – a format that actually requires the candidates to answer questions and follow-ups about real issues and defend their points of view.  Of course, this is the last thing the party wants, and the network loses the opportunity to host the debate.  Later we see a clip from an actual debate in which Michele Bachmann answers the question about whether she prefers Elvis or Johnny Cash. 

The episode reminded me of Eduwonk’s  proposed presidential debate questions regarding education – questions, of course, that will never be actually asked nor answered. 

For President Obama (paraphrasing):  The Department of Education gave Virginia a waiver for NCLB, but instead of instituting changes that would improve learning for all students, Virginia established lower achievement Soledad-OBrien- standards for some students based on race and family income.  Is this what you had in mind?  Please explain.

For Governor Romney (again paraphrasing):  You’ve said that states should have more flexibility in education.  Check out Virginia.  Are low expectations based on race and income OK with you?  Defend your answer.

In the meantime, with school about to open here in Virginia, I’m wondering if kindergarten classrooms will start with the teacher saying, “Welcome to your first day of school, boys and girls.  Asian students, I’m expecting you to do very well this year (unless you are poor).  White students, you’ll do well too, although not so well as your Asian friends (unless you are poor).  Black students and Latino students – good luck.  Only about half of you will meet school standards in reading and math.  And if you are poor as well, all bets are off.  I know we’ll have fun in kindergarten!”

Virginia’s performance standards are impossible to defend either at the state or federal level.  Is there any chance that Ms. O’Brien will be asking questions at the presidential debates?



How Pronouns Influence Thought

I remember the first time I heard it.

I was a new administrator at a private school.  The year was 1987, and the headmaster was addressing the faculty at our day-long meeting before the opening of school.  “We need to make sure,” he said, “that every student gets the individual attention she deserves.”

She?  Did he say she?  I had never before heard a top school administrator use the female pronoun when referring generically to students in a school that enrolled both boys and girls.  It was always he, the pronoun my college professors told me was the one to use when referencing both genders, as in “Everyone should bring his book to class.”  I accepted that reasoning the same way I accepted that mankind was a term that actually included women.   But I had never heard a person of note in a school use she to mean both girls and boys before that day.

It is hard to explain the effect that simple pronoun had on me at the time.  At this school, girls we not subsumed as a group under boys.  Girls were seen as important individuals in their own right.  Suddenly, when we talked about students, I pictured a girl in class.  It was a game changer.

PronounsLater, when I moved back to public schools as a principal, I adopted the habit of alternating my pronouns.  Sometimes I used he; other times I used she.  “Please be sure every student brings his permission slip
back,” I reminded teachers.  Or “When a student is late to school, she should first report to the main office.”  I tried to use he/his or she/her together as in “I want to be sure everyone has his or her assignment before he or she leaves class” but the results were often clunky and contrived (as you can see).  So I stuck with alternating the pronouns to be fair and not to alarm my fellow administrators who might worry that I was just another crazy feminist (I object only to the “crazy” part).  But once, after a district principals’ meeting, another female principal told me she found my use of the feminine pronoun “liberating.”  In a way, it was.  Schools are often remarkably conservative institutions. 

So I was very interested in a new study that suggests that we began to see changes in the ratio of male to female pronouns that researchers attribute to the publication of Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique.  Three university researchers tracked gender pronouns in 1.2 million books from 1900 to 2008.  The ratio of male to female pronouns was roughly 3.5 to 1 until 1950 and peaked at 4.5 to 1 in the mid-sixties.  But by 1975 the ratio shrank to 3 to 1, and in 2005 it was less than 2 to 1.  The researchers believe that Friedan’s use of she and her throughout her book  was unprecedented for a popular publication and began to change the way people thought about pronouns as they apply to gender.

James W. Pennebaker, the author of The Secret Life of Pronouns, says the numbers revealed by the study are “staggering.”  “Pronouns are a sign of people paying attention and as women become more present in the workforce, in the media, and life in general, people are referring to them more,” he says.  As of this week, for example, Augusta National has to remind its members when his or her dues need to be paid.

So if you think that what pronoun you choose when you talk about students doesn’t matter, I suggest you try using she instead of he a few times.  It looks and feels different.  Not necessarily better, but different.  Enough to make you think about alternating your choice so as to serve both genders equally well. 





Has the Range of “Normal” Kid Behavior Narrowed?

Tingley-021 color web“I remember the moment my son’s teacher told us, ‘Just a little medication could really turn things around’,” writes Bronwen Hruska in her heartfelt opinion piece in the NY Times.

Hruska’s son Will apparently had a hard time meeting his third grade teacher’s expectations in terms of focusing, lining up quietly, and attending to his work instead of goofing with his friends.  When Hruska protested that her son was just an average, energetic 8-year-old boy who didn’t need to be medicated, the teacher quickly backpedaled, insisting that wasn’t what she was suggesting (it wasn’t?).  She just thought the boy should be “evaluated.”

As a school administrator I worked hard to remind teachers that it was not their job to suggest to parents that their kids had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and would be much better with medication.  Describing behaviors was one thing; diagnosing was quite another.  Still, teachers were often able to deftly intimate to parents that their child – usually their son – would do much better in school with a little medical help.  Their child would feel better about himself, they would suggest, if he accomplished more and avoided the teacher’s annoyance.

Their argument left me skeptical at best, seething at worst.  I couldn’t keep from wondering who was really going to benefit from the diagnosis – the child or the teacher?  Keep in mind that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 9.5 percent or 5.4 million children 4-17 years of age have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as of 2007.  Rates of ADHD diagnosis increased an average of 3 percent a year from 1997 to 2006 and an average of 5.5 percent from 2003 to 2007.

Eventually Hruska reluctantly decided to put her child on medication, which briefly helped him to focus but was not without side effects.  In fifth grade, however, he refused to take the pills, and eventually, on his own timetable, grew into a competent, organized high school student leaving his mother to question whether he really had ADHD or was simply growing up the way normal boys do.

Hruska’s point is that kids mature at different rates and that we shouldn’t be so quick to label normal childhood behavior as an aberration.  I agree.  But I also have to wonder if the surging numbers of youngsters on medication to induce more focused, docile behavior is somehow related to pressures on
teachers and schools to perform well on standardized tests.  Let’s face it:  if your students’ test scores determine your raise or even your continued employment, you may not have the patience nor the time to Kids allow a broad range of behaviors in your classroom.  Behavior that used to be considered “normal” for kids, especially boys, in elementary school now becomes a disruption, a problem.   It doesn’t take much to convince a parent that her child may fall behind, or even face the humiliation of retention without some kind of medical intervention.

My experience leads me to believe that in elementary school,  the classroom an active child is placed in can make all the difference for that child.  Some teachers work well with kids who haven’t settled into the school routine yet.  They plan hands-on activities, they take kids outside for recess, they provide learning tasks that can be broken down into manageable segments.  Other teachers insist on more rigid protocols like specific ways of sitting on the floor (“Cross your legs, don’t sit on them”) that are often difficult for some kids to adhere to and frankly, don’t matter anyway.

I should point out that I’m not discounting the ADHD diagnosis or the fact that some kids may find medication helpful.  But our focus on immediate results and accountability may have narrowed the range of normal kid behavior that schools find acceptable.   Kids simply don’t all mature at the same rate, and the teacher’s job is to help all kids find success, not just the docile ones.  






One Teacher and a Roomful of KIds

I’m sitting in the butterfly house at the Miller Conservancy in Ohio watching dozens of beautiful species flutter about the flowers and plants and occasionally attach themselves to the screens.  Children are warned not to try to catch the butterflies, but to let them alight by themselves on clothes or arms.  Children are free to hold small rubber paintbrushes, on which the butterflies like to settle.  The kids who wander through the butterfly house listen to the directions and touch the butterflies with their eyes but not their hands.  They have questions, and they try to match the butterflies with the pictures on the plastic sheet.  They try to pronounce the names of the species.  It’s hard to tell which is more delightful – the butterflies or the kids.

Butterfly houeIn a couple of weeks these kids, like the butterflies, will be captured and contained within the confines of the school.  No two will be exactly alike.  Some will be more beautiful than others.  Some will be bigger, and some will be faster.  All will be delicate and easily hurt.

But let’s not get too sentimental here. 

The point I want to make is this:  Whatever the flaming righteous rhetoric we hear at the national and state level about policies and budget, it will all come down in a couple of weeks to a teacher in a classroom with a roomful of kids.  That is the basic unit.   And that single adult has the capacity to make every day a delight or every day a misery for each individual child.  Whether it’s a suburban or city school, wealthy or poor, public or private or charter -- when all is said and done it’s one teacher and a roomful of children.

In a couple of weeks, during those opening meetings with teachers and administrators, there will be lots of talk about materials and supplies, curriculum, disciplinary procedures, attendance, budget, rules, and regulations.  There may be little or no talk about the power of the single teacher over the self-esteem of each child he or she teaches every day.  It’s easy to lose this essential concept in all the protocols and procedures and problems.

So take a few moments to remember the vulnerability and the delicacy of even the toughest kids.  Remember the power one teacher has to make a kid feel valued or useless, interesting or stupid.  Whatever policy makers talk about or plan at 30,000 feet, on the ground it’s still one teacher and a roomful of children.  That’s where the focus and energy should be.



Teachers Work in Isolation

Tingley-021 color web“In general when we look at what makes people happy and effective at work, it’s being able to spend time with a close group of people.  You need to structure work in such a way that people have those opportunities,” according to Ben Waber, president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions, a workplace consulting company.

In her “Workstation” column in the New York Times, Phyllis Korkki adds, “Taking frequent breaks allows worker to recharge their internal energy.  Individual breaks – a walk around the block or quiet time alone in a conference room – enable a worker to return, refreshed, to arduous pursuits.”

Consider the teacher.  A walk around the block?  Quiet time alone in a conference room?  A lot of teachers – elementary in particular – are lucky if they can find someone to cover for them for a two-minute run to the bathroom.

When I was a middle school teacher years ago, we were all divided into teams, each composed of an English, math, reading, and social studies teacher.  We had about 100 students assigned to us and a 4-hour block of time during which we could schedule our respective classes.  We had daily common planning time.  I consider it my Golden Age of Teaching.

It turns out, of course, that my experience was not common.  A recent study by Scholastic and the Gates Classroom foundation found that teachers collaborate with colleagues less than 5% of their day.  While the study also found that almost 90% of teachers believe that finding time to collaborate with one another is essential to retaining good teachers, the majority of them teach, plan, and reflect on their practices alone.In addition, numerous recent studies conclude that isolation of new teachers is detrimental to their learning their craft and a leading cause of leaving the profession.

So if we know that time to work collaboratively is crucial to developing effective teachers, how does merit pay fit into the equation?  Jeffrey Mirel and Simona Goldin, both professors at the University of Michigan, consider the question in an Atlantic article entitled, “Alone in the Classroom:  Why Teachers Are Too Isolated.”  Mirel and Goldin believe that Common Core is a step in the right direction in that it will align scope and sequence and teachers can collaborate on common lessons provided they have the time to do so.  But, they ask,  if teachers are competing with one another for merit pay, why would they want to collaborate with one another?  

I think they make an academic point as befitting their work, but honestly, I think teachers would collaborate regardless of merit pay if they had the opportunity to do so.  Working together improves everyone’s work and provides teachers with greater intellectual engagement.  I’m not sure merit pay will ever work in the relatively flat organizational structure that exists in a typical school anyway.

What is ironic and unfortunate about the reform movement is that efforts to “professionalize” teachers to make them more effective have focused on metrics like test scores and calibrations of teaching performance.  Collaboration – working together to improve instruction – is never mentioned, as if teachers’ professional knowledge doesn’t matter.  Instead, teachers continue the decades-old pattern of closing the door and working in isolation.





Fire at Will: New Authority for Louisiana Supes

Tingley-021 color webI’m going to be honest:  In my 15 years as a school superintendent, there were times when I wished I could just fire a teacher for not doing the job.  I didn’t feel this way often, which speaks to the high quality of the teachers employed by the district.  Still, I thought, how gratifying it would be to simply remove an inept employee from the classroom and the payroll without having to go through a long, drawn-out process and years of often unsuccessful professional development.  Then I would wake up, talk to my board president, remember due process, and work with the teacher on an improvement plan.

The problem, I thought, was tenure.  Once teachers get tenure (after three years), relieving them of their duties is time consuming and costly.  In addition, there is little guarantee that the district will prevail in a tenure hearing unless the teacher’s behavior is blatantly outrageous or illegal.  Simple incompetence is hard to prove.  So I did what I could with recalcitrant faculty members and focused hard on new teachers, knowing that it was my responsibility to make sure that anyone I recommended for tenure was highly competent. 

Now, as if to prove the adage, “Be careful what you wish for,” the Louisiana legislature passed a bill (Act I) last month that gives superintendents the authority to hire and fire without school board approval.   Christina A. Samuels reports that Robert L. Hammonds, legal counsel to the Louisiana School Boards Association, sums it up this way: “Most [superintendents] are not jumping up and down and clapping about the ability to make all these decisions unilaterally.” 

Ready fire aimThe legislation is a double-edged sword.  While it gives superintendents the authority to act independently without board approval, the authority to fire the superintendent still resides with the board.  I have had experience with wholesale firings and resignations at the college level when a new president came on board, and I can tell you that when the body count becomes too high, the next one to go is likely to be the chief administrator.  I suspect the same may turn out to be true at the K-12 level.

While giving superintendents more power over personnel, the bill also requires superintendents in districts rated C, D, or F to have performance goals built into their contracts.  About 80% of the state’s schools fall into those categories.

So now superintendents are between a rock and a hard place.  If you have to meet certain targets in your own contract regarding student progress and graduation, you may want to get rid of teachers who are obstacles.  On the other hand, unilaterally removing groups of teachers (especially locals)can cause school board members to look askance. 

Act I also extends the tenure period from three to six years.  At first this might be considered a good thing, but to be awarded tenure teachers must be rated “highly effective” five out of six times.  It seems unlikely that a new hire would immediately be highly effective in the classroom, which means a teacher would have to hit the mark by year two.  So much for staff development.

So the next school year in Louisiana will be carefully watched.  I will be interested in seeing which  will increase – the number of teachers fired or the number of teachers rated “highly effective."







And Now for a Little Humor

Nicholas Dawidoff’s essay, “The Power and Glory of Sportswriting” in Sunday’s NY Times reminds me of why I read the sports pages, not because I follow any particular team (except the hapless Cleveland Indians) but because I like the stories.“Athletes, after all, are characters to a sportswriter,” says Dawidoff, and the essence of good sportswriting is empathy for your characters.  The legendary sports writer Frank Deford, for example, can write about any sport with such wonderfully wry humor and insight that you end up sitting in your car listening to him even when you’ve arrived at your destination (what NPR fundraisers call a “driveway moment”).

How to Handle RevSports writers are very different from education writers, who tend to focus a lot more on the front office than they do on the players.  We write a lot about policy and politics as they affect large groups and not very much about the individuals – teachers and administrators -- who take the field for every game. Education comes off as serious business – and it is -- unless you’ve actually worked in schools for any length of time.  Then, if you don’t have empathy and a sense of humor, you won’t survive -- which is why advice for teachers and administrators works best when it can also make you laugh.

This is sort of a long-winded introduction to what Click and Clack call the “shameless commerce” part of my blog today.  The second edition of my book, How to Handle Difficult Parents:  Proven Solutions for Teachers (Prufrock Press 2012) arrives in bookstores and online today.   It has more real-life anecdotes and humor, and it contains a couple of new topics like how to work with  parents of special education students.  You perhaps wouldn’t think this topic is all that funny, but if you work in the field, you know it has its moments.  You also know that many parents of special ed kids didn’t start out as difficult but found they needed to become so in order to get services for their child.  There are, however, good ways to avoid this unfortunate turn of events and work with parents instead of against them.  

I’ve also added a chapter on coaching, which includes a number of tips on how to work with parents who think their child is destined for the Hall of Fame in whatever sport he or she is playing if the coach could only recognize the kid’s potential.  This chapter is filled with cautionary real-life anecdotes like the one about the parent who mooned the ref at a basketball game, the one who questioned the coach’s virility, and the one who got a golf club out of the trunk of her car not to threaten another parent at a soccer game, but simply to practice her chipping while the kids were playing.

You might say I’ve tried to come at the topic more like a sportwriter than an education writer.  Dawidoff says that “the appreciation of others is, for most, the reason to watch games, and it happens to be a noble human quality.”  What teachers do every day is admirable, and after all, teachers and athletes are similar in many respects – training, determination, courage, effort, salary – oh, wait, not that one.   





Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.