Thursday, December 29, 2011

Poking the Sacred Cows

It's day six of my holiday break and I have finally acknowledged the large stack of paper on the floor next to my desk. I had been ignoring it, hoping it would magically grade itself, but alas, this has not been the case. It's still there, still huge, still daunting. In the meantime, I have cleaned the entire house, gone to the dump twice, moved our furniture around, stacked another cord of wood, winterized the chicken tractor, and killed seven mice in the attic, but now, it's time. Time to grade the mid-year writing assessments.

While I was completing all of these other acts of procrastination, I was mentally composing another essay for an upcoming deadline, a piece has been freaking me out, both as a writer and a teacher. In order to be successful in this piece, I must come clean about my homework practices. For non-teachers, that may sound like an easy task, but it's not. Homework is a time-honored tradition among teachers, a sacred cow best left undisturbed to chew its cud in the median. We go about our daily business in its shadow, so used to its presence right there in the middle of things that we don't even see it anymore. Even discussed delicately, teacher-to-teacher, it elicits fight-or-flight defensiveness in some and outright anger in others.

But it's good to sharpen your Ticonderoga #2 and poke that cow from time to time, isn't it? Otherwise, how  do you know if it's just resting or if it's been dead for a while and you just had not noticed?

As I am writing about homework elsewhere, I am taking on another sacred cow at my school over here - the writing assessment. These assessments make up the giant pile of menace stacked next to my desk, and as I don't want to get around to grading them, I thought I'd spend some time poking them with a proverbial stick.

Twice a year, we give the students a prompt, two days to prepare an outline, two class periods to write a four-paragraph essay. Based on the responses I have read so far, this year's questions went fairly well, and I actually like reading these essays once I am into the groove, but it's an endless task. So, if I have to question why I give homework, I also have to question why I spend four full days a year of class time and hours at home spent grading on these writing assessments.

The students don't enjoy writing them, I hate grading what's the point?

In order to answer that question, I went over to my office and pulled out a couple of my student's files. Because we give these assessments every year from the third grade on up, I can spread a students' entire writing education out in one place. I can see how handwriting, vocabulary, and syntax evolve over the entire length of one student's education. Most importantly, I can see their individual voices evolve as thinking becomes more complex, more sophisticated. It's fun to pull these files out when a student is frustrated with the slow pace of his or her learning, or an apparent backsliding in skills, and show them how far they have come in such a short time.

One of my favorite things about my job is the strategizing I get to do behind the scenes. As I teach my students for three straight years in Latin and/or English, I have the opportunity to do some real long-term planning for the future. I taught high school English before I moved to middle school, so I know what will be expected of them in a few short years. Many of them will go on to attend the very school I used to teach in, so I have very specific goals about where they need to be in terms of independence, organization and self-advocacy by the time they head off to high school.

In sixth grade, we coddle them as we ease them into the relative chaos of middle school class transitions and increased homework load. In seventh grade, however, I ease off a bit. I give them a little bit more rope and see what happens when they are expected to plan ahead or stay on top of a long-range assignment. In eighth grade, I really let them have their heads, and expect that they will know how to take charge of their education when no one else is looking out for them. Writing assessments are part of that process. I hand them the prompt and directions, and they are expected to prepare their notes or outline, find supporting evidence and plan their writing. I give them no other guidance than the prompt itself. Timed writing assignments will become a fact of life for them in the coming years, and it's fascinating to see their progress as they master the task.

When I was first hired, I was informed that the writing assessment was simply a part of what I did in English class, and I was too overwhelmed with the details of a my new position (including my first year teaching Latin, twenty years since I last cracked open a Latin text) to question any reasoning behind the tradition. But now, long settled-in and armed with perspective and experience, I think it's good to question why I do the things I do. This week's re-evaluation of my homework practices has been really enlightening - I have dropped some of the less effective assignments and shored up my reasoning behind the better ones. So much of what I do, particularly the most subjective aspects such as grading and assessments, leave me feeling uneasy at times, unsure of my standards, perspective, or reasoning.

In the end, some of those cows were long dead and really needed to get rolled out of the road, but I am quite fond of the ones that remain. When I return to school in the New Year, the students will notice a change. I will be more confident in my choices, and the road ahead will be much less congested. True, the writing assessments will remain, lying placidly in the middle of that road, but at least I will be able to explain why they are there.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Come One, Come All and See the Loadstone Rock!

Come on over to the Core Knowledge Foundation blog to read my latest post on teaching A Tale of Two Cities, "Drawn to the Loadstone Rock." I was going to put it up here, but they stole it away...come check it out!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

This Middle School Life

Before I was faced with the death of a former student, I was working on an essay about This American Life's broadcast called "Middle School." In the second segment, Ira Glass talked with Alex Blumberg, a This American Life producer and former middle school science teacher.

Alex Blumberg

I don't know if they learned anything. They are so consumed with learning all these other lessons about where they fit in, in the social order, and how their bodies are now working and--

Ira Glass

And who they're going to be.

Alex Blumberg

--who they're attracted to, and who they're going to be, that facts and figures and geography, and all the other stuff that you teach in school, it just doesn't even penetrate.

Ira Glass

Wait, are you saying we shouldn't even bother to have them in school? We should just basically put them to work in the factory for two or three years?

Alex Blumberg

Yeah. I basically came away thinking you're sort of wasting your time trying to teach middle school students anything.
As you may imagine, I disagree. And the whole broadcast made me so, so sad. I was just so sad for the kids in that broadcast, particularly the kid who has no friends and was searching for some sort of place in a community. According to that story, middle school was a dose of purgatory he should not have had to deal with at such a young age. 

One of my students' parents asked me if I had listened to the broadcast, and when I said I had not had a chance yet, he said it was just the opposite of his daughter's experience, that she loved her middle school and did not feel as if she had to live through hell in order to make it to the other side. That should be what we - as parents, and as teachers - are aiming for, and yet I can't consolidate it, can't create a target that's easy to aim for.

Anne Lamott once said, in her memoir Operating Instructions, that the worst fear she had going into motherhood was the "agonizing issue of how on earth anyone can bring a child into this world knowing full well that he or she is eventually going to have to go through the seventh and eighth grades." No period in her own life, she explains, involved more "meanness, chaos… hurt and aloneness." 

That simply isn't the experience of my middle school, as far as I can see, and I don't think it's due to the fact that my school is private. It isn't the experience of my son's middle school, either - his is public. It's not a rich kid v. poor kid thing. I think it's because purposefully cultivate community. We have a formal character education curriculum. We teach virtues. And our students, for the most part, care about each other. My son's class is a community unto itself. He belongs, he enriches, he supports. As far as I know, that's the experience of most, if not all, of the kids in his class. 

Day after tomorrow, 98% of Crossroads Academy's student body will go shopping for gifts that will be given to children who will spend their holidays homeless, at The Upper Valley Haven. This is a tradition at our school. The students raise money through a penny drive, bake sale, and various other charity drives. After the money is counted, the students shop for presents according to the list we get from The Haven, and next week, a few of these students will deliver the gifts. 

Say what you would like about private school students, their parents, the tuition, but every time we shop for gifts, someone asks me or my boss about who these kids are and what they are doing, filling up carts with dolls and legos and markers and all sorts of other gifts. And every time we tell them, strangers hand us money. Every time. Strangers who can ill afford to do so, hand us cash in order to support the spirit they see in our students. 

And every year, I am grateful to be a part of such a group.