Thursday, September 20, 2007

Those Teachers Are Also In Napa

This is pretty old as things go in the land of the blogs, but [Archimedes] asked for this specifically, and it dovetailed nicely with what went on previous.

The San Francisco Chronicle published an article that was intended to pull aside the NCLB curtain, but ending up revealing something else entirely. Napa Valley High is a California Distinguished School that is also (gasp!) in PI because they aren't so distinguished when it comes to educating English Language Learners (ELLs). The steps the school is taking to reform instruction are causeing all kinds of consternation and outrage. Here's the big-time, haymaker pull-quote:

"There are a lot of people living good lives in this country who aren't able to write a cohesive paragraph and don't know grammar. I'm more concerned about them being able to put themselves in someone else's shoes - which is the essence of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' I'm more concerned with them being able to feel compassion and to question authority in a constructive way, which is the essence of 'Night.' I'm more concerned with them looking at the nature of friendship, which is at the heart of 'Of Mice and Men.' " -H. Zunin, 18 year veteran

Maybe some of this is sheer socio-economic preservation, the desire not to do anything that may alter the pecking order of life in the 707. More likely, this is a rather dramatic example of the prevailing misunderstanding of the nature of public school teaching. See, you can't, like, just do what ya want, as if you were firmly entrenched in a small liberal arts college* where the leaves turn pretty colors in the fall. There is a duty to provide exactly the nature and extent of education the young people who occupy your desks need. I hesitate to use the words ethical responsibility, but it pretty much doesn't matter if subject-predicate knocks your socks off, it's your job to get it done. If they need it, teach it.

Rather than showing the futility and absurdity of NCLB, the article illustrates its importance and ultimate success. Does anyone think the Brown kids over at Napa were on anyone's radar screen before they suddenly became a statistically significant AYP subgroup? Anyone think there was a single school structure in place to support those kids prior to 2002? I don't know, maybe there was, but NCLB ensures that, at the very least, there always will be. NCLB forces schools that would otherwise tolerate inequity of performance, inequity of access, inequity of outcome to reform. NCLB forces these schools to actually attempt to educate everyone, even the children and grandchildren of the people upon whose under-paid backs you built your wealth.

That said, we owe Ms. Zunin some measure of respect. Her actual professional environment required her to do a number of things -- teach ELLs to read and write, for example -- that she found either abhorrent, beyond her abilities, or both. Rather than join the ranks of shit-bag teachers who sign up for assignments they cannot or will not perform, she quit, left, presumably to a small or charter school that does a better job at keeping out those pesky Brown kids with all their pesky needy academic profiles. I wish her all the best in her continued zeal to teach BS Standard 1.1: Students will understand empathy, compassion, and friendship through literature they lack the skills to read.

There's a burgeoning generation of teachers teaching the kids Ms. Zunin rejects. They are generally young, or new to the profession, eager to reject the bitterness others try to pass off as wisdom. They have entered into things post-NCLB and are therefore unburdened with memories of the halcyon days of life-changing oboe practice and friendship bracelet construction. They have developed an understanding of their responsibilities that places an emphasis on student results over teacher actions and owns student behavior as a primary function of the effective teacher. They are not afraid to use the phrase educator achievement gap. They embrace this work, even as the coalition of the unwilling swells its ranks with folks who will wring their hands over misunderstood legislation, bolster every boutique school around, and ensure I always get the best deal on car insurance.

*If I were so entrenched, I'd teach:
EN189 The Literature of Men
EN 486 Advanced Fiction Workshop
AS 369 Gender Roles in Pop Music
ED101 Dynamic Instruction
ED743 The History of Piratical Activity in the Caribbean Basin: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Acquisition of Basic Skills in the 6-8 classroom


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude, you sound pretty bitter yourself. "Shit-bag teachers?" Are you trying to pass that off as wisdom?

9:53 PM  
Anonymous Rebecca said...

While I understand & agree with your main point (which I believe is the need for teachers to focus on what their students need and not necessarily what their own interests are) I do need to question your vehement dismissal of teachers such as the one quoted and your take on NCLB. According to the article, Napa High School has 2,416 students, about 532 of which are ELL. Of those ELL students, 13 did not pass the grade-level test. 519 ELL students passed the test. All other groups passed the test. I would be willing to bet that the school is teaching these students what they need to know. Just looking at the numbers, this does not look like a failing school. This does not look like a school where the entire 9Th & 10Th grade curriculum needs to be dramatically rewritten. This looks like a school that needs to look at why those 13 students did not pass the test and address that specific issue.

As for Ms. Kunin…I agree with her. Knowing what a predicate is does not help my students become better readers. It might help them simply decode the words & diagram a sentence, but it doesn’t help them become better readers. It is my job to teach them how to read literature – how to respond to & discuss literature, how to explore ideas & themes, how to evaluate literature, how to explore social context. (And that isn’t just me trying to sound lofty – those are phrases taken directly out of my curriculum guide.) My students need this just as much as they need to know where the topic sentence in a paragraph goes.

10:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's up?

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd really like to know why you are buying into the dichotomy implied in Zunin's comments. Obviously, kids need to know how to write coherent paragraphs. Obviously, kids also need to know how to think critically about literature and connect it to their own lives. One does not preclude the other. And while NCLB may do a good job raising awareness of which students are not being taught to write paragraphs, it does nothing to measure which are not being taught reading comprehension and analysis skills. Standardized tests can't do that. It's great that you're into using data to analyze your own instruction. But you might want to broaden your definition of data.

2:50 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

What's up anon? Sorry I didn't write sooner. Your first comment came during 2nd period, the subsequent ones during 4th and 6th respectively.

Naw, shit-bag teachers isn't wisdom. Rhetoric, maybe, and probably more than necessary. I'll retract, but I gotta tell you, I find the resistance to doing what's right by kids pretty sad. But that's just me.

With regard to the dichotomy you mentioned, I think both you and rebecca may be taking too literally the example of paragraph writing and parts of speech. My point is not that those particular (throwaway) examples are the most important skills to teach, but rather, you teach what kids need, even if you really really want to teach about friends by using a book they probably cannot read. I love me my data anon, in all it's flavors, and I think you can figure out if a kid can read well and analyze by giving them a test. In many ways, this may be more pure than writing something, as it reduces the number of confounding variables.

Rebecca: I looked up the data too and I agree that the massive overhaul seems excessive, unless there's additional data about incoming students, etc. we don't know. My point is less about Napa's results, which seem distinguished, and more about how folks are responding to the need to bring change. It's the response to the situation that baffles and befuddles.

6:14 PM  
Anonymous southeastteach said...

I teach in a school system that was wedded to certain beliefs about instruction (no homogeneous grouping, self-selected reading, exaltation of the affective domain, integrated units, cooperative learning, lots and lots of graphic organizers, little emphasis on grammar or lexical studies, frequent dress-up and art stuff) and the implementation of these practices seemed to produce a huge increase in literacy and other achievement.
That held up for about 15 years. (We remained a high-poverty district with no significant demographic change.) We had a great reputation and the high school students that came to my room were almost always prepared and engaged. It was like a dream.
At a certain point our district achievement broke down, though, and the data seemed to show that the methods and philosophy we had in place were no longer effective. But nobody changed what they were doing, which resulted in an academic catastrophe. It was like we missed a turn in the road and kept on going even though we knew we were lost. Now we are a Read 180, skills-based system, which is ironically the kind of system we were before we made the big changes that brought our golden years.
You are right that the testing information will show us things we might not want to pay attention to. But sometimes the causes are unclear. In our case, the original teaching staff had almost completely turned over, gone to higher-paying schools because ours were so great. So maybe the achievement was really based on personnel. I worry that data-driven decisions might be pseudoscience, or guessing with numbers instead of guessing with feelings. At any rate, I find your blog interesting and pretty funny, but I never have made a comment.

7:10 AM  
Anonymous kt said...

I sometimes feel that my appreciation for NCLB and the STAR test is a guilty secret. But coming from a science background, I have to second tmao's appreciation for data. Of course the STAR doesn't assess everything we teach. But it does give useful information.

I believe the teacher, regardless of subject, has the responsibilty for teaching students The Big Three: skills, concepts, and problem solving. I picture it as a an equilateral triangle with problem solving at the top. In my mind, problem solving is king, but if the two bases of the triangle aren't there, you must address those needs. At the same time, you can't neglect the top o' the triangle just because the base is shaky. (Of course, you must put extra supports in place when you problem-solve with a shaky base...)

For math, the breakdown is easy at the 4th/5th grade level.

Skills: how to use the multiplication algorithm
Concepts: what is multiplication? How does it behave? What's it good for?
Problem Solving: given a situation, how do I decide to use multiplication, and are the results I get reasonable?

For writing:
Concepts: What do I put in a paragraph? What parts does it need? Why do people write paragraphs?
Skills: How do I write a paragraph that provides the reader with a certain type of information or argument?
Problem Solving: What paragraph structure/type should I choose to convince my reader that what I think is true? How should I organize my evidence, and what evidence should I choose?

For reading:
Skills: fluency and decoding
Concepts: word knowledge, associations, and analysis, what does it mean to understand a story?
Problem Solving: what is this story about? What themes, morals, issues are in place? How does this relate to what I know? How does this change what I understand?

It seems to me that the STAR tests give us pretty decent information on a students' skills (although this is, of course, affected by English language skills), some information on their comfort level with concepts, and sketchy and unreliable info on a child's problem-solving skills.

But just because the tests don't get at the heart of why I love to teach, the information is useful. It helps guide instruction because I use those skills and concepts tested to define where my triangle base needs to be for all my kids at a certain grade level.

Of course, actually getting everyone to that base isn't easy. I've always had a knack for both teaching problem solving and assessing it. But this is my second year of teaching, and my ability to teach skills and concepts in reading/writing... well, it's constantly getting better, but there's still a long way to go.

Luckily for everyone involved, I teach in a high-peforming school. My kids and families are resilient, and I can focus on my strengths (teaching problem-solving), while building up my other skills in a supportive environment where the kids have many safety nets and I am given space to grow without being overwhelmed by guilt at my mistakes.

For those new teachers who are able to leap directly into the urban environment, it's impossible for me to describe how much I admire you. I did my perservice teaching in an urban district, and by the end I knew (bitterly) that despite my desire I wasn't up to the challenge. It makes me mad and sad that, for those teachers who (like me) need more time to grow, the chance to learn in a high-performing school is so rare.

9:53 AM  
Blogger andbrooke said...

I agree that it is our responsibility as teachers to teach whoever walks through our door, with the needs that they have. It's what we signed up for as pubic school teachers, and if we don't like it, we can always move on. It's the moving on that worries me, though. It seems that so many do. You talk about a "burgeoning generation of teachers teaching the kids Ms. Zunin rejects." I see that burgeoning generation, too, but I see them mostly as they walk back out the door. How many firebrands make it to eighteen years? How many TFA grads make it to five? And how useful is a generation of first-year teachers?

I have a hard time qualifying older teachers as shit-bags because they have accomplished something that you and I have not (yet): they've stuck around.

I sincerely hope the transition from idealist to bitter shit-bag isn't inevitable. Do you think this new generation will stick around, gain experience and wisdom, and not burn out?

By the way, I posted some of these same thoughts on my blog, Here's the link:

11:40 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Hi kt,

Thanks for the thoughts.

I want to be clear that the "shit-bags" I mentioned were the people who understand the job requirements and accept contracts knowing they cannot or will not meet those requirements. It's not a blanket statement on all teachers with many hours logged.

The question you raise is valid: What hurts the profession and kids more 1) effective folks who leave 2) less effective folks who stay. The dichotomy is obviously not so clear-cut as that, but to a certain extent, that's what we're working with.

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Nancy Flanagan said...

Ummm, TMAO...

As an old, thus presumably fried, teacher with 31 years experience, not to mention an oboe player, I'm with anon and andbrooke here: don't create false dichotomies and don't automatically pin those medals on young, enthusiastic teachers.

True, NCLB has put the bright lights on some pretty awful schools (more than any number of heroic Jonathon Kozol books) but stops short of pushing 21st Century learning skills (synthesis, analysis, creativity, collaboration) in favor of the multiple-guess and fact regurgitation. NCLB has settled for rote presentation and narrowed curriculum, a disservice to kids who deserve more and better of everything--resources, teaching, attention, depth, etc. I think that's the point Mrs. Napa was trying to make.

I say this as a person who has spent 30 years teaching kids who live in beat-up trailers how to play the oboe (and trumpets, saxophones and so on) including some kids with pretty marginal basic skills. Because it's important for all kids to have rich curriculum. Often, you're more effective by raising the bar rather than reverting to endless "basics."
That's something I learned around year 15 of my endless career.

And about the young turks, teaching circles around the, uh, old and self-satisfied shitbags? Frankly--and I'm piling MY unsubstantiated generalization on top of yours here--I find that unfocused and un-useful teaching is more likely to happen in the classroom of a relative novice. Andbrooke makes a good point...there is considerable value in sticking around, especially if you're paying attention to your results and tweaking upward every year.

Don't stop spilling your cyber-guts, however. I read your blog for posts like this.


1:08 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Hi Nancy,

I agree false dichotomies are dangerous. I don't believe I've created one here, and have taken care to not make this a generational issue or an issue of >15 years vs. <5 years. Many people have read that into what I'm saying here, and that's sad. I know many veteran teachers who kick-ass, and it's less because of the time they've put in, and more because of the ideology that frames their work -- the kind of ideology that runs directly counter to the ideas I've argued against in the last two installments. That said, the dichotomy I outlined was intentionally limiting, but given the existence of two problems, which is worse?

Again, the phrase "shit-bag" referred to folks who understand the job they're accepting a contract to perform, knowing they cannot or will not do what their students need. "Ms. Napa," at least, avoided this distinction. She left rather than change. Fine. Good. Better than the alternative.

Although potentially off topic, I take issue with your characterization of NCLB. There's nothing here that says ONLY teach basic skills. The law says AT LEAST teach those skills. If we can't handle the AT LEAST, of what value is the MORE?

8:47 PM  
Anonymous Nancy Flanagan said...

Thanks for your response, tmao. It's always refreshing to dialogue with the passionate (and I apologize for turning a noun into a verb, and an adjective into a must be a grad school thing). I am perfectly willing to concede that lots of worn-out teachers ought to take a hike, and that there are plenty of people safely ensconced in the suburbs who have no clue about teaching kids who don't bring many academic resources to the table. You win the age/experience argument, hands down; I am happy when teachers who won't accept responsibility stop teaching, too.

The false dichotomy I was referring to was the "enriched curriculum" vs. "must know the basics." Even Margaret Spellings and conservative luminaries like Abigail Thernstrom have been going around proclaiming that narrowing the curriculum to basic literacy and numeracy might be a good and necessary thing. I agree that it's not directly the result of NCLB, which, after all, is just 1300 pages of political blah-blah.

I see a more sinister socio-political side to this: we're narrowing the curriculum because it's what "those kids" need. So--when does this narrowing stop, because those kids are ready for real literature, trigonometry and playing the oboe (plus in-depth readings and discussion on power and influence in modern society)? If your answer is "never--they're always going to come with deficits and we're always going to be playing catch-up" then NCLB has potentially obscured real problems by claiming success when 11th graders can read--but aren't using their literacies to change their world.

My point is that if we ONLY handle the "at least" we have failed, but recast the failure as success in NCLB-speak. The false dichotomy is either teaching basics OR teaching rich curriculum and having the chutzpah to think WE can decide who needs which.

9:18 AM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

BS Standard 1.1....


3:32 PM  

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