Tuesday, July 14, 2009

We want to succeed

During summer school, I have the chance to catch up on my academic reading. Some ACT reports on college readiness and some other journal articles. I have to know what these places think of my English classroom.

However, I dislike the sweeping, broad strokes of disapproval without having much specific concrete steps on what teachers should be doing. I am one of those teachers who, if you tell me the kids need this stuff, I will put it into the curriculum. If you tell me to make sure a process is taught, I will teach it. If you tell me to take something out, I will do it. This year, I will be adding more grammar in the fall. I will be adding some more writing responses with specific requirements, especially for my new college-prep English I class. I will be adding more requirements to stuff we already do.

But what am I missing? I do not have a degree in pedagogy or English curriculum. I do not have all the answers. For instance, I am still trying to work out what the heck to do for a book report for independent reading that is rigorous, accountable, and that the kids can’t get off the internet or Sparknotes. I would love to have students read a classic on their own, but how do I know that they have read the book and didn’t just take it all off a movie or Sparknotes? Just give them a boring multiple choice test? There’s always a kid or several who figure out a way around it. I have tried everything—that I know of. I think this is rather pertinent—“That I know of.”

These studies want students to succeed. My district and I want our kids to succeed. I believe that the vast majority of our students succeed and try hard in everything they do. I have had two wonderful freshman classes in a row. The hard part, sometimes, is fighting apathy and recalcitrant students. Some students do every other 10-point assignment. Some must be mathematical geniuses in figuring out how to get the lowest D- possible, doing the least amount of work. There were times this last year with my regular senior English IV class that I could not understand the requirement of four years of English for these students. Even the good ones in that class still did only enough. When they still like to read the novel together in class rather than on their own, even silently during class time, simply because they hate reading, what can I do at this late stage?

Sometimes, grades do not matter to students. I find it excruciating when I have written on a paper of theirs, they look at the final grade of a C or something, then throw it away. Even after all my comments, they throw it away without looking. Even if they have the opportunity to turn in another draft, the standard phrase nowadays is “I’m good.” I actually had it once where I forgot the papers at home yet still had their grades in the computer. All they wanted to know was what the grade was. They never followed up to get their papers back. Even the F papers. How do I increase rigor here when they will not look upon recommendations for improvement?

So when this study came across my desk, I want some more specifics:

“For example, graduation requirements are often expressed in terms of credits (e.g., the amount of credits in various subject areas needed to graduate), rather than as specific academic courses (Potts et al., 2002). To the extent that high schools offer courses other than those in the college preparatory sequences, students may satisfy graduation requirements (i.e., amount of credits) without taking the specific courses that would best prepare them for further education (and work). That students choose such alternative coursework is clearly demonstrated in the percentages of students who took course combinations that may or may not have included the courses previously described.”

--from Courses Count: Preparing Students for Postsecondary Success, ACT Policy Report, 2005. http://www.act.org/research/policymakers/pdf/CoursesCount.pdf.

Potts, A., Blank, R. K., & Williams, A. (2002). Key state education policies on K-12 education: 2002. Washington , DC : Council of Chief State Schools Officers.

Of course they are going to choose basketweaving if it will fulfill a requirement. I remember my college writing course, I believe it was ENG 384 with Dr. Bruce Leland. He was an outstanding teacher and we all liked going to his class. I even helped him present to the IATE convention back in 1995. His class required three of these little flimsy paperback books, about $12 each, that included supplemental reading for discussion. We never talked about them and we were never tested over them. Nobody read them—I remember one girl did and she was furious that they were not used in any way for the course. Now, I am sure those were decent and thought-provoking reads. I am sure they enhanced the subject material. But come on, who the heck is going to do more than they have to do? And we were third-year college students trying to get ahead. A high school student will figure out the easiest possible way. We do it all the time. I read the Cliffs Notes for many books.

I honestly believe some students have figured out that they don’t have to strain themselves to get by. I had some English IV kids that could easily have taken the College Prep class of English IV but didn’t want to do the extra work. I know some math students are taking Pre-Algebra in their senior year because they have messed around enough to fulfill the simple requirements. And if they look bad in math, they don’t have to do as much.

Now this whole thing did come back to haunt me once. I remember Mr. Hickey’s Algebra I and II classes. We had 30-question problem sets every night for homework. Catch—he would only grade 4 randomly chosen problems. We would write down what we had on our paper for those 4 and turn them in. I learned that I didn’t even have to do the homework—just writ down all the problems (because we couldn’t use our books) and do them in class really quickly. I aced. Problem was that he knew it but couldn’t figure out a way around me. Then comes College Algebra and I am barely getting Cs. I just couldn’t hack it anymore. He said to me once, “This is because you never did all your homework in Algebra I and II so you don’t have a firm foundation.” I was getting straight As in Algebra I and II but somehow I wasn’t doing enough. You couldn’t have explained it to me at that age though. I only understand it now, many years later.

The other problem I see with some of this data is that they recommend taking math classes and science classes that most students do not take until their senior year. Yes, they are planning on taking them, but that doesn’t really help when they take the ACT at the end of their junior year, now does it?

Also, I would really like to point out that some students never take these tests seriously. Maybe not the ACT, but any of the other reporting data tests. Eighth graders know that the test doesn’t affect them in any way that they can see, so they go through it fast or not as completely as they probably could. I remember, I think my sophomore year, Matt Adrian connecting the dots on his standardized test just so that he could finish early and read his latest Stephen King novel. Nobody ever said he was stupid in school. He just knew that the test did not affect him. How do we express to kids that their score is going to be lumped into some vast set of data to be interpreted by bureaucrats and people that they have never even heard of, let alone what the heck a “bureaucrat” is.

So what exactly do I do? I mean, exactly. No, they don’t have to give me daily step-by-step lesson plans. I do want them, however, to express specific items in assignments that I can concentrate on.

My answer to most of this is to tell people to stop telling me what we are doing wrong. Start telling me what to do right. When you say to increase rigor: HOW? When you say to get students ready for college: HOW?

My biggest thing: Why the heck does each district have to reinvent the wheel here? In fifty states, in countless districts and classrooms, we have not figured out precisely what to do? There has to be some perfect model for rigor and college readiness—present it to us. I would be happy to work with it. But I simply cannot create it on my own.

Or, if I do, I guess I would be rich. Because I would sell it and you would all pay me.

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