“How Does This Help My Education?”

recorder education

Somebody posted this on Facebook the other day, and knee-jerk-ish, I had to answer (somewhat paraphrased):

“Learn to read music. You never meet a dumb musician. I don’t necessarily mean garage bands, but reading music, playing in ensembles. Reading music makes you smart.

Of course, someone had to call names: they called me a snob. However, my point would be just the opposite. I wish that every student could learn to read music. It brings to mind that wonderful free afterschool music program in New York, Los Angeles, and hopefully other places: Harmony. Students receive free instruction and use of instruments to learn music. Watch how some of the NY students respond to a concert they played in, conduced by Placido Domingo. This program is based on the famed El Sistema program in Venezuela.

Students in these programs say they are doing much better in schoolwork since playing an instrument. They come to life, they say, after school is done and they are able to go make music.

As an English teacher and artist, I finally came to music later in life when I learned to play the recorder. Now I play well enough to confidently join in ensemble playing in various recorder ensembles. It’s so much fun playing together! It also takes super concentration, counting madly, focusing consistently, and being able to track with the eyes and with the mind.

Oh, are these intellectual skills? Might they not help with one’s education?


Primary Sources: will it help change things?

teacherTake a look at the Primary Sources website. This is an encouraging, positive look at the way teachers actually think and feel. Unfortunately, it’s not a real view of the everyday experiences of many teachers….well, yes, it’s a good picture of teachers working with students from day to day, but not such a great picture of the onerous extra tasks that teachers are saddled with, such as increased paperwork, endless meetings (unpaid), unpaid extracurricular assignments, burdensome and rather useless evaluations (though in the report, many teachers say they benefit from such evals), and the pressures of high-stakes testing.

That sounds grouchy, doesn’t it? We were at a restaurant yesterday, my husband and I, and our server was a student preparing to become an elementary teacher. As we entered the restaurant, we were discussing how education has become such an onerous field to enter, particularly since the culture pretty much blames teachers for everything that goes wrong. That really is a good view of things, in my opinion; think about how teachers (and their schools, eventually) bear the burden of student test scores. If students do not do well, who is responsible? The teachers and eventually the schools are! The inherent pressure of this, including the moves by made states to grade schools and to grade teachers (A-
F) and eventually base salaries and employment on these scores, all these pressures have to influence teachers’ performance.

Yet here was this beautiful, fresh-faced young woman ready to do her student teaching.283401581_bd9f0e3d46_zSeeing her, I realized that whatever I have to complain about in teaching, good people, good teachers, will continue to do the work and wait for the “pendulum to swing,” as we teachers like to say, to swing in the direction of more humanity and less regimentation, so we can teach our best in a better environment.

Will that study change anything? I do not think so, but it changes me, because it reminds me that good people will continue to do the work of good teaching despite whatever educational “trends” are thrown at them by legislators who do not know what it is like in a real classroom or school.

As I read the Primary Sources report, I thought to myself: good teachers, devoted teachers, real teachers think past all the negative in education. They teach, just as all good teachers before them, for the love of kids and for their subjects.

What Do Tests Reveal? Not Much

What do standardized tests reveal?

1. Teachers put up a poster with the main concepts. This is actually permitted; if a teacher posts something during the lesson with information about the main concepts, the poster may remain up during the test. A smart teacher, knowing that standardized testing is upcoming, will do just that.

2. Teachers have taught to the test. Sometimes this means that there has been a great deal of drill going on. Usually it means that teachers have had to neglect higher connections and meanings in order to make sure students retain the concepts.

3. Students have had plenty of computer practice taking similar tests. computer mouse
As a teacher, I know this works very well. Kids like computers and they can significantly improve scores once they practice.

What do standardized tests not reveal?

1. They do NOT reveal whether a teacher is good or not. teacher
This is an important point because these days, teacher evaluations often hinge on how test scores come out. Good teachers may or may not get good test scores, but it’s too bad that we are under such pressure to get good test scores that we often neglect good pedagogy.

2. They do not reveal whether students understand anything. Many times, they don’t understand!

3. They do not reveal whether students can apply what they’ve learned. Even though the Common Core purports to promote this type of excellent thinking, the producers of this curriculum have yet to provide tests that actually reveal it has happened.

Like many teachers today, I have struggled with the milieu created by standardized testing as well as evaluation rubrics that put pressure on me to teach in ways than are less than my best. One of these, surely, is teaching to the test.

The Simplest Way

I’ve noticed a couple of things about master teachers (compared to [shall we say] teachers in progress). One is that they are indeed masters of the voice and masters of timing.Image

The most important thing though is that they present things in the simplest, clearest way. They have a gift for seeing the essence of a skill or concept and presenting it directly, simply, and probably in various ways so the auditory, verbal, and kinesthetic learners can all get it.

Once they’ve taught clearly and directly, they usually provide good practice of the skill or concept, but that also gives them a chance to walk around and see how students are getting it, helping them fine-tune their understanding, perhaps expanding on the work for those ready for that.

I believe that even complex topics can be taught simply and clearly. For example, over the years, I’ve noticed that students have a hard time understanding and writing thesis statements. This can only mean that they were taught it badly at some point, IMHO. As an example of the simplest way: for my present college students, I found a cool app that helped me make a simple, clear presentation on thesis statements: http://www.animoby.com/a/2356.

Even the most elegant thinkers and highly intelligent folk often take the path of the simple and direct. The days are long past when people thought you were smart if you obfuscated. Instead, I believe that most learners need clarity and simplicity. Often I will layer anecdotes or facts into the presentation (such as when we are learning Impressionist technique, I can add in bits about artists’ lives or drop a few details about mixing colors), but for the most part, even skilled and smart learners appreciate the clear, direct approach, the simplest way.


Cutting Them a Break

Over the years, I’ve pondered the ins and outs of cutting students a break. 

Of course, we are all happy to meet the accommodations for Special Education students, for which we are legally obligated as well. I also find myself considering cutting problematic students a break, which include kids who have ongoing problems at home, troubles with drugs, and the ubiquitous victim mentality (the other face of which is the entitlement mentality).ImageOn the one hand, sometimes these students can be so demanding (if not downright annoying), that we may think it’s outside our purview to extend deadlines, allow for do-overs, and so on. On the other hand, once we know the true situations of many of these students, It’s likely that our compassion may overcome our irritation and we will reach out and cut them a break.

I note that even with this break, many of them still don’t perform well, but in my mind, at least at present, that’s probably another good reason to cut them a break. After all, even with our kind reaching out, when the student doesn’t benefit from our help, it’s another good lesson to them on how they may need to change their ways and begin to take care of their responsibilities for themselves.

Especially in the world of online learning, the machine is particularly unforgiving. The points add up, and that’s your grade. One bad assignment can ruin a student’s entire grade. From one point of view, we could say, “Oh, well, that’s the way it is is for everyone; too bad if the student can’t measure up.” But from another point of view: “This is education. Let’s give her another chance and see if she can learn to complete the assignment well.” 

During my whole career as a teacher, I’ve hated giving grades. They give such little information about how students have learned, and I feel the whole system is punitive and gives too much power to the teacher and/or the computer system. Students want grades and parents want grades; colleges want grades and football coaches want grades, so we give them. 

At least, then, we can cut the students with problems a little break, so they too can learn to navigate the system that is school. For those who take us up on it and improve their work, well, that’s good education!

Coming to Life


It is pretty exciting, isn’t it, watching the school building and the school grounds come to life. It is also poignant for me, since I retired from fulltime brick-and-mortar classroom teaching last May and now only teach parttime online.

As I’ve discussed in many earlier blogs, the online format is here to stay and growing every day. I know that there are many arguments for it, but there’s one thing that an online environment cannot really do, and that’s bring a building to life.

I have to admit that the students at the nearby high school surely look younger every year, especially now that I’m at retirement age. I feel a pang of sadness every time I think of the new teacher now in my classroom, facing my beloved students, and doing the work. I have to remind myself that everybody retires sometime, and now it’s my turn. And I still have my online students, who are interesting and engaging me now more than ever.

Responding: The House Vote on NCLB

On July 19, the House voted to give states the power of oversight of NCLB.

Critics say that it will never get Senate approval, and certainly that President Obama will never approve it.Image

Some of the argument swirls around the longstanding tradition of federal oversight of education, based on federal funding.

Others are arguing that this will end the supposed  good results of NCLB for inner-city, poverty-stricken, underprivileged children.

If you were to ask just about any administrator and teacher their opinion of NCLB strictures, you would hear strong criticism of high-stakes, summative testing, as well as general dismay at the decline in good teaching and overall education brought about by the pressures of NCLB standards, which for the most part have proven to be onerous to meet. Educators also agree that most teachers end up teaching to the test, which means that they often have to forego the most important aspect of teaching and learning, which is rich context and overall understanding. They will also wryly note that the pressures of having to produce ever-higher scores has caused some teachers to cheat, with their jobs and futures in the balance.

By now, at least 39 states have moved forward with the waivers of NCLB offered by President Obama in 2011, with the provision that they provide commensurate measurements of progress. Probably the reason that more states haven’t done so is the difficult task of providing worthy instruments to measure progress. It is a hard job to come up with these, and I would imagine that what states have brought to the table may not be much better than the federal instruments.

Obama has said that if the House bill passes the Senate, that he will veto it, so probably there’s no hope that education accountability will actually be passed to the states.

But this federal/state tussle neglects the larger problem with NCLB: high-stakes standardized summative annual testing to determine whether teachers are doing a good job.

By now, all of us must realize that while teachers do what they can to help students, it is after all the students who take the tests. I think for the most part, kids have good hearts and want to do their best, but there are so many issues in kids’ lives–family problems, nutrition, lack of education in the home (we could go on all day and every teacher knows it)–that on any particular day in the spring, there will be those who cannot do their best on a test.

At the foundation of this dispute is the simple question: what is school for? We can blithely say, Of course, it’s for educating children, but these days, the answer is not so simple, because we feed them, babysit them, look after them after school, sometimes wash them, look after their health issues, and often provide comfort and security in their frequent times of woe. This is human work; this is important work. All this cannot be measured by a test.

Of course, those who are providing the big education bucks want to be sure their money is being properly spent, which is behind all this drive for accountability. But schools are not businesses. No matter what the standardized tests say, you cannot measure much of the daily essential good that goes on in schools.

It is too easy to say that our schools are failing. I think that for the most part, administrators and teachers are well-qualified and doing a good job every day. It’s time to suggest that maybe our schools are doing far more than drilling a set of facts and procedures into kids’ heads so they can do well on a standardized test.

We are helping parents raise their children. We are doing a decent job of it. Let us go ahead and do this job without threatening us with losing our jobs if our kids don’t keep doing better and better on standardized tests.