Finals week

It’s finals week here, which–so far–has provided several very interesting changes. First, there were a lot more folks around when I stepped off the bus at 7:50 am. Not only were there more people, they were moving at increased rates of speed. Noticeably so. Clutching steaming cups in gloved hands, they streamed toward lecture halls and classrooms, comparing notes and talking theory. As I was dodging a bike hurtling around a bike circle, I overheard: “It’s just three simple compounds. Why can’t I remember it?” The other thing I noticed is that many students seem impressively adept at walking and reading. I’m a big fan of all things reading, but have never even contemplated trying to study and walk at the same time! I wish our students well this week as they walk and study and talk and test. I am also sending out positive energy that they will not only successfully demonstrate what they’ve learned this quarter during finals week, but also that they continue to develop and leverage their knowledge to keep striving toward their goals.

ready, set, … ?

I had the distinct pleasure of chairing the last of my graduate students’ Oral Exam presentations for the semester on Tuesday. Of the six students who completed their programs this semester, three focused on early literacy (which I’ll admit is more-and-more interesting to me, thanks to my students!). In addition to being incredibly pleased with their poise and expertise, I was inspired by their passion.

The student who finished yesterday presented her answer to a question I posed here about how to improve education in New Mexico. In short, her answer was: early childhood intervention. In addition to drawing our attention to the correlations between socioeconomic status and school-achievement, the student captured our attention with Dr. Estelle Farrar’s “Ready Child Equation.”  Have you seen it? Here it is:

Ready Families + Ready Communities + Ready Services + Ready Schools = Children ready for school (Ferrar, 2007, slide 12).

Simple. Profound. Vital.

New Mexico’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards in K-2 this fall creates a perfect opportunity to talk about what it will take to promote readiness for school success. We need all stakeholders to participate in this conversation. Who’s ready to talk?


Also, did you know that Dolly Parton founded a group that now GIVES books to almost 700,000 children every month? Local communities can become affiliates and send high quality, age-appropriate books directly to children’s homes.

In case you’re wondering, 70% of all New Mexico students meet the “eligibility” requirements for participation. There are 22 affiliate/sites currently operating in the north-western part of the state. If you know of any organizations looking for community service projects, please send them my way.

through the woods with no map

When I started writing the previous post, I thought it was going to be about assessment, and it was, but only indirectly. Clearly, I had other thoughts I need to express. This post will be about assessment which, I’ve come to believe, is the most important part of education we never talk about. Sure, we hear a lot about high-stakes testing and so-called value-added models, but those are just two elements in a much wider topic. The problem, I believe, is related to whose voices dominate the conversation.

Despite their apparent enthusiasm for using (questionable) test scores to make all sorts of decisions, the self-titled “education reformers” don’t seem to know much about assessment (never mind validity–more on that in a bit). People with actual experience in education (and by that, I do not mean that they attended school at some point in their lives!), on the other hand, have known for while now that valid assessment of student learning is perhaps the most important part of curricular design.

Therefore, I offer this brief assessment primer (just in case they’re interested).

Before making any curricular decisions, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What do I  want students to master? 
  2. How will I measure students’ (growth toward) mastery?
  3. What sorts of things do students need to do in order to achieve mastery?
  4. How will I know if students are moving toward mastery?
  5. What do I need to do (re-teach, provide extra scaffolding…) to assist students in their pursuit of mastery?

Notice question #2?

That’s the crucial step that a lot of people skip. Sometimes we teachers get so excited about our engaging / research-based / relevant / inspirational learning activities that we forget to stop and ask how we are going to measure student growth. Even though engaging / research-based / relevant / inspirational learning activities are crucial to support student learning, they’re of no use whatsoever if they aren’t aligned with valid (and documentable) assessment. I’m not a person who believes that if you can’t measure something it doesn’t exist, (how does one measure love or freedom?).  I do, however, believe that teachers (myself included) need to know and be able to articulate the purpose(s) of instructional activities in language that is accessible to students. In addition, we need to provide concrete descriptions of how students’ work will be assessed (along the way and at the end).

Key terms related to assessment so-called reformers need to understand:

  • Validity indicates whether the assessment actually measures what it purports to measure. Here’s an example: if we want to know whether a child has gained ownership over a word, a multiple-choice test can’t tell us that. All the test tells us is which answer she bubbled. Here’s another example: students who live near the zoo chose “elephant” in response to a question about which animal wakes them up in the morning. As a measure of what students know, that question is invalid. Children from urban (or suburban) areas may never have seen a rooster, which–of course!–was the “correct” answer to that question. For more on sound principles for assessment, click here.
  • Multiple measures means that we assess draw from many types of evidence to assess student performance to avoid making long-term instructional decisions without getting a full picture of what a student knows and can do. To find out about how multiple measures systems are used successfully at home and abroad, click here.
  • Formative assessment measures student progress during learning; includes a focus on daily practice as a means to achieving mastery on a final product; includes timely and useful feedback; allows teacher to adjust instructional plan for tomorrow; and focuses on student growth. This is also known as assessment for learning, because it promotes learning.

Of course, there is much, much more to know about assessment, but I’ve found that scaffolding learning where no schema exists (which appears to be the case with many people who view themselves as experts on education), it’s important to take small steps, and allow time for thought. I only wish that the folks driving the Common Core bus here in New Mexico would stop and consider the long-term implications of implementing a set of standards without (valid) assessment instruments. Yesterday, I heard someone (who claims decades of experience) propose that we teach our students strategies they can use to implement the CC, with nary a mention of assessment at all. ((sigh)) A girl can dream.

Choose Your Own Adventure (OR: implementing the Common Core with no materials, assessments, or…)

Is it just me, or does the implementation of the Common Core standards nationwide seem like a great big trap for teachers and public education?

How could we possibly be catapulting from the age of scripted, teacher-proofed materials in which teachers’ expertise was characterized (by some) as irrelevant to a situation in which a set of common standards are provided to teachers who–magically–will embrace a “different approach to instruction,” which–at least from what I’m reading–doesn’t include any curriculum scaffolds, instructional materials, or authentic assessment. Here’s a paragraph to ponder:

“The standards describe what students must learn and in which grade spans learning must take place, but they do not dictate how teachers should teach or what instructional materials they will use. Our superintendents, principals and teachers will decide how best to help students achieve the standards. …By the 2012-2013 school year New Mexico, K-3 teachers will be responsible for teaching the new standards, and by the 2013-2014 school year, all New Mexico teachers will be teaching the new standards. NMPED as well as your districts are creating documents and plans to guide educators in making decisions about how to implement the standards” (

So let me see if I have this right.

For the past half-decade or more, teachers who worked in schools that did not make Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) were often required (by site administrators and /or district officials) to standardize their instruction (via commercial publishers’ pacing guides) to ensure that all students in the same grade would hear the same script instruction at the same time. A striking characteristic of this very bleak period of American education is that teachers are regularly vilified by so-called education reformers (who also suggest that firing entire faculties would somehow change schools in a positive way), and few in the public sphere question the word of the well-funded. These teachers, whose professionalism the “reformers” publicly question, are now going to be free to decide how to best meet their students’ needs? Seriously?

I’m not a conspiracy theorist in general, but it strikes me as truly odd that the curricular pendulum has swung this far, this fast.

It’s not that I don’t believe that there are many, many excellent teachers out there, who are already helping their students succeed. I know those teachers. It’s not that I don’t believe that local school officials aren’t dedicated to ensuring that all students have access to a relevant and equitable education. I know those folks, too. My real concern is that despite the expertise, passion, and dedication at local levels, implementing national standards without first laying the groundwork poses a serious threat to public education. Implementing standards before measuring validity (or, providing a “scientifically-based” rationale) goes against every principle of good teaching.

Let me be clear here: I do not oppose having high expectations for students. (Ask my own students; they’ll tell you how demanding I am.) I do not oppose curriculum planning that provides a framework for developmentally-sequenced objectives. I do not even oppose state standards (although I have concerns about standardized approaches to education). I do, however, oppose over-simplified “solutions” to complex issues. And I really, really oppose policymakers who make promises they can’t possibly keep, and don’t take responsibility for failure.

Telling parents (and students) that the implementation of a set of national standards will change education is specious at best. Having common standards is not the same thing as ensuring that every teacher is an expert with theoretical, pedagogical, and practice-oriented knowledge AND the relationship skills required to inspire learning. Having common standards will do nothing to alleviate the fact that millions of students (22%, in fact) in the US live in crushing poverty, and that socioeconomic status is the most reliable predictor for future academic success. Having common standards without providing on-going professional development in which teachers, administrators, parents, and students engage critically in planning how to meet expectations for grade-level learning will lead nowhere (or worse).

So why are we even on this journey without a map or waypoints at which we can stop to reflect on where we are, where we are headed, and make informed decisions about how best to complete the trip?

Which leads me to another question: who will benefit if the implementation of national standards fails miserably (and by that, I mean when scores on the new computerized assessments don’t skyrocket)? For-profit educational “experts” pushing scripted, teacher-proofed materials (again)? For-profit charter schools? Publishers with quick-fixes?

More importantly, who will not benefit from this (almost) national experiment?

Can school districts really promise parents that students won’t suffer (which seems like a pretty low bar to set, if you ask me) if they don’t provide on-going, systematic, and collaborative professional development for teachers, instructional coaches, and paraprofessionals to ensure that the people closest to the students understand how to design curriculum to meet individual students’ needs and keep everyone moving forward?

Is it realistic to expect teachers–many of whom work second or third jobs to pay their bills–to adequately identify students’ needs; implement multiple assessment measures; plan instruction; reflect on their practice; provide intervention where needed; adequately identify students’ needs; implement multiple assessment measures; plan instruction; reflect on their practice; provide intervention where needed; adequately identify students’ needs; implement multiple assessment measures; plan instruction; reflect on their practice; provide intervention where needed; adequately identify students’ needs; implement multiple assessment measures; plan instruction; reflect on their practice; provide intervention where needed; AND successfully move students toward career- or college-readiness without providing them the time and resources?

I explained all of this to a friend, who said, “I don’t know a lot about education policy, but that seems really stupid.” Exactly.

I’m not a pessimist by nature, but I fear that we all will–at least those of us without financial stakes in the game–suffer unless states, districts, schools, parent-organizations, university faculty, community organizations, and other interested stakeholders get involved (right now!) in making sure that the implementation of the Common Core Standards does not fail because we linked our future to promises that can’t be kept.

I decided to read the implementation plan published by the state department of education, and make sure I hadn’t mischaracterized the lack of teacher development in advance of the roll-out. Also, I wanted to see what specific suggestions the planners included, in case I was too hasty in my judgments. Here’s a description a major “instructional shift” the CCSS will inspire:

“Through reading, discussing, and writing about appropriately complex texts at each grade level, students build the general academic vocabulary they will need to access a wide range of complex texts in college and careers. Students gather as much as they can about the meaning of these words from the context of how the words are being used in the text. Teachers offer support as needed when students are not able to figure out word meanings from the text alone and for students who are still developing high frequency vocabulary.”

Hmmm. I thought the standards were research-based. The authors of this implementation guide must have read different research than I have on what it takes to develop academic vocabulary. Relying on context and wide reading alone is not enough (or even remotely enough) to develop students’ ownership of academic vocabulary. The research is pretty darn clear on what effective vocabulary instruction actually looks like, and the paragraph above doesn’t match.

Not good.

Language matters

“People without a voice are often people without a shaping role in the world” (Johnstone, 2002, p. 112).

Language shapes, and allows us to shape, who we are in the world. We use language to position ourselves, and to position others, in relationship to cultural expectations (Olsen, 2006).  Language constitutes, and is constituted by, our interactions with other people and the world (Fairclough, 1995, 2001; Gee, 1996, 2005; Halliday, 1978; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004; Johnston, 2004; Thompson, 2004). Therefore, language plays a central role in social development, because it is the primary way culture is transmitted (Haliday, 1978).

Right about now, some readers are probably wondering where this post is going. Why the academic treatise on language and discourse? Well, because one of the things at stake in the current monologue about education is the language we use. Do I mean that the English language is under attack? No. I understand (and teach) that language is dynamic and that to try to fix (as in “fasten (something) securely in a particular place or position“) language in a  particular context is a futile endeavor. Meanings shift, slip, and alter over time. That’s how languages work.

For many people, language just is. My experiences teaching hundreds of college students over the years has taught me that many people do not view themselves as agentive language users, because our educational system has taught reading and writing (in particular) as tasks to master. Our historical emphasis on creating educational environments dedicated to transmitting receptive knowledge (see “liking kids is not enough” for more on this topic) has created legions of people who think of themselves as users not creators of language. Therefore, language is something many people don’t consider: “the more frequently and fluently a medium is used, the more ‘transparent’ or ‘invisible’ to its users it tends to become” (Chandler, 2002, p. 3). Asking people to think about language is like asking a fish to see the water in which it swims (not a new, but very apt comparison). Taking this metalinguistic leap–step back from language to see language–isn’t for everyone (I believe people are capable, just perhaps not interested and/or willing), and it doesn’t occur to everyone to pay attention to how language shapes who we are and how we operate in the world. (Obviously, I’m not one of those people…)

Exposure to particular language usage over time renders it seemingly neutral and invisible (Kress, 2003). Often these habitual discursive practices convey a sense of permanence and as being beyond question (Kress, 2003). Chandler (2002) suggests that the very fact that some categories, ideas, and/or sign systems have been granted a priori status requires that we question them, their origins, and who benefits from their normative status. That’s what I’m trying to do in this blog.

I want people to realize (or remember) that language is never neutral. Power is embedded, and embodied, in all discursive transactions (Foucault, 1982). The way we use language provides insight into how we as speakers perceive ourselves (Rymes, 1995). Our choices reflect our capacity to draw from language-as-a-resource “for… making the representation that we wish or need to make” (Kress, 2003, p. 82). Attending to language use can reveal the ways in which our discursive choices reveal our perceptions of ourselves in relationship to others (Alvermann, Young, Green, & Wisenbaker, 1999).

What happens if we don’t pay attention to language? We limit our ability to participate fully in the conversations that matter to us.

For example, let’s consider our current national conversation about education. Gee (2005)–who likes to use capital letters to draw distinctions–defines a Conversation as an on-going largely metaphorical discussion within a group, culture, or society about issues that matter: “one big grand conversation” (p. 49). In the rest of this post, I’ll use the capital C when discussing big-picture conversations about education.

Recently, the Conversation about education (particularly “education reform”) has reached more and more Americans. While there are more voices –for better or worse–in the Conversation, the language we’re using (even the collocation of education and reform seems “natural”) remains largely unexamined by the general public. This taken-for-grantedness has serious implications.

Teachers have historically not been as vocal as other participants in the national Conversation about education, despite the expertise and authority they possess. Unlike other professions, teachers are often (some might argue systematically) excluded from shaping the policies by which they must live. Instead, policymakers turn to so-called experts without actual teaching experience (and for the record, owning a company that trains teachers is not teaching). Similarly, as the locus of control over education has shifted away from local classrooms, schools, and communities, teachers have had minimal say in defining what it means for them to be highly qualified or for students to be considered proficient. Without a say in how they’ll be judged, teachers become easy targets. (Just look at Wisconsin, where teachers’ unions are being blamed for budget deficits.)

A recurring theme in our national Conversation is that teachers are defenders of the status quo who want nothing more than to reap their generous salaries without having to be held accountable for test scores, I mean: students’ learning. (Don’t believe me? Watch this montage of opinion about teachers put together by The Daily Show.) Given the vitriolic tone of our Conversation (which Diane Ravitch actually calls a monologue), I think it’s time think about words. In particular, I think it’s important to think about seemingly neutral words like education, reform, and transformation.

Education is a noun formed by the affixation of -ion (which means action or condition) and the verb educate, which derives from the Latin verb educare. Briefly, the root -duct- means to carry (think: aqueduct, conduct, deduct). The prefix ex- means out of or away. In the case of the word educate, the prefix ex- was assimilated to ease pronunciation. Try saying exducation and you’ll begin to understand the phenomenon of assimilated prefixes. For more information, see Words their way (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2008; 2011) or Vocabulary their way (Templeton, Johnston, Bear, & Invernizzi, 2010). So, education–at its root–means to carry out.

Reform is a verb, which when it has an object, means to “make changes in (something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it” (Oxford University Press, 2011). The word derives from Middle English and Old French. If we look to its etymology, we learn that re- is a prefix which means back or again, and form is a root which means exactly that: form (shape, create, build). So, reform means–at its heart–to form or make something again. Let’s see what happens if we replace the prefix re- with trans-, which means across or beyond (think: transcontinental, transport, transfusion). To transform means to make something completely or thoroughly different. What if we talked about transforming education instead of reforming it? Would that make a difference? Maybe. Maybe not.

What if we embarked on an etymological exploration to find a word that actually and accurately describes what some people are suggesting as “solutions” to our “problem”? First, let’s recap the problem: According to some, the problem of education is really a problem of “bad teachers”–not poverty, class size, or parental involvement–just bad teachers. Solution? Fire the “bad teachers.” OK, what’s next?

The problem of education is that our students don’t score well on international tests. Well, actually, American students in low-poverty areas scored comparatively well on those tests, but that’s a fact often overlooked in the Conversation. Another overlooked (or just plain ignored) idea is that education should be about more than just test scores. Nevertheless, the problem is that our students don’t do well on those tests, so we narrow the curriculum to test preparation.

Next problem? Once we get rid of the “the bad teachers” and greatly reduce our focus to test preparation instead of education, we increase production. In recent opinion piece, Bill Gates (who is an education expert because of what???) suggested that we “get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students.” Increasing the number of students receiving the transmission from the “good teachers”  will surely solve all of our problems, economic, civic, and other. Sure, there’s extant research, which outlines  a relationship between class size and achievement. But, since that research was probably conducted by people who work in colleges of education –the last bastion of “insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy” (–we can safely ignore it, right? OK, so we’ve gotten rid of the “bad teachers”; we’ve increased class sizes; we’ve narrowed our curriculum to focus on test prep. Now what? We still need to ensure that no child gets left behind. Let’s provide teachers with scripts and teacher-proof the curriculum.

Let’s be more precise in our language choices.

The word dismantle comes to English from Old French and Latin. The prefix des- means removing (or taking away) and mateler means fortify or cloak in Latin. So, denotatively, dismantle means to remove fortifications or uncloak. Its meaning has evolved over time to mean to take something apart. That’s what the so-called reformers seem to be recommending: identify and fire “bad teachers”; rescind autonomy through demands that all teachers in a grade level are teaching the same thing at the same time regardless of the needs of the students in the room; disregard the influence of poverty; increase class sizes in order to make anything other than the transmission model of education possible; narrow curriculum to test prep; and reduce opportunities for students to engage in creative expression (bye bye, music & art!). From where I sit, the so-called reformers should really be called dismantlers. They don’t seem particularly interested in remaking public education, but taking it apart piece by piece.

To see the References, click here.

Methods don’t matter.

Relationships matter.

I’ve been struggling to find a way to start this blog post. I feel bombarded by the ideas and thoughts (and, because I’m a researcher, citations) that I’m trying to distill and encapsulate that I have gotten lost along the way. So, I’m doing what I tell my students to do: I’m writing toward clarity. What had I started out wanting to write about? I wanted to write about something I tell my teacher candidates and MA students all the time: the methods don’t really matter. Yes, I know that’s more heresy (or maybe I just flatter myself), but I believe it’s true.

Of course, I’m not saying that teachers should just go into classrooms and wait for learning to occur. That’s not how it works. The etymology of the word education tells us a lot. The Indo-European root of the word education is deuk, which means lead. In Latin, we find aqueduct, conduct, abduct, and duke, all of which connote movement, direction, and/or leadership. Shipley (1984) comments in the entry for deuk: “Note that education means ‘leading out’ not ‘pouring in’” (p. 62). So even at its very root, education is about leading students to knowledge. Therefore, it’s vital that teachers have a working knowledge of how people learn.

So, how do people learn?

How a person answers that question depends on her core beliefs about knowledge. So, before I get to the main point of this post (what was it again? Oh yeah—relationships matter more than methods), we need to take a very brief journey into the brain-bending world of epistemology. First, a caveat: this is intended to be a brief stop, not a long-term layover. I’ll include citations (if for no reason other than to prove I’m not just making all this stuff up), and encourage readers to follow their interests.

Grossly simplified overview of how people view knowledge

On one end of the spectrum, there are people who believe that knowledge is something that is separate from us, and is therefore something we have to pursue, master, and appropriate. On the other, there are people who believe that knowledge is something humans create through transaction with others, the world, texts, etc. (If you’re reading potential religious and/or political undertones in those two descriptions, you’re not wrong.)

Our primary guide on this tour (please forgive the tired journey metaphor…it just seems fitting), will be one of my heroes: Louise Rosenblatt. Although many people think of Rosenblatt only in terms of her contributions to literary analysis and theory, I think she was one of the most revolutionary thinkers about knowledge (and therefore education) in the last century.

The problem of binaries. In The Reader, the text, the poem (1978), Rosenblatt argued against binary views of readers and texts. The traditional (binary-based) orientation views the reader and text as static, pre-defined, and separate entities, which reflects dualistic thinking related to “the Newtonian stimulus-response paradigm” (Rosenblatt & Karolides, 2005, p. xviii). Specifically, Rosenblatt (1993) argued that the term interaction “had become tied to the Cartesian dualistic paradigm that treats human beings and nature, subject and object, knower and known, as separate entities” (p. 380). This interaction-view of reading defined the reader and text as fixed and predefined, and identified the job of the reader to as needing to dig “out a determinate meaning embedded in a text” (Rosenblatt, 1998, p. 890).

Think of the commonly accepted separation between mind and body, male and female, black and white… (For more on Descartes’ influences on how we think about knowledge, click here.) One way I try to help my students think about this concept of interaction is to envision two players on a soccer field, each attempting to gain control of the ball. They run toward the ball and each other, collide, and then (we hope) get back up to continue their pursuit. In education, this might mean that the learner and the concept-to-be-learned might collide, but neither has much lasting effect on the other. Despite the interaction, the two remain distinct and self-contained (Rosenblatt & Karolides, 2005, p. xviii).

Transaction, on the other hand, reflects “the relationship that exists between the human organism and the world” (Rosenblatt & Provenzo Jr., 1999), which Rosenblatt associated with Einsteinian physics (which, by the way, is WAY out of my sphere of understanding). Rosenblatt (1993, 1995) drew the word transaction from Knowing and the known (Dewey & Bentley, 1949), in which the authors articulated a new terminology to emphasize interconnectedness, rather than the separateness of the old ways of thinking. The transaction-view of knowledge construction focuses on the on-going relationship between humans and their world, in which each was seen to condition or influence the other. Rosenblatt drew a parallel to ecology, where “[h]uman activities and relationships are seen as transactions in which the individual and social elements fuse with cultural and natural elements” (Rosenblatt, 2005, p. 3).

So, back to the point of this post…If we think of knowledge as something that is outside of us, then education based on this belief focuses on identifying and promoting the best methods to get that knowledge into students. We’re back to the transmission model again. If we think of knowledge as something that we create through interaction with others, then we need to focus on the relationships required to encourage dispositions toward learning. Here’s a story to put a human face on these ramblings.

During my first semester at the university where I now teach, I met a new graduate student who had entered our program shortly after achieving licensure. She hadn’t started out wanting to be a teacher. Instead, she was a lover of reading and writing, and had ended up teaching high school English at a private school. By the time I met her, she had been teaching in a large public high school for a few years.

My first impression of her—and she knows I’m writing this, by the way—was that she was not completely sure of herself as a teacher. The other graduate students in the class had strong opinions and some had more time in classrooms to draw from as we discussed the ins and outs of literacy assessment. I admired her for speaking up in class, even when she knew that her classmates would disagree. Looking back, I can see that her insecurity may have brought out the worst in some of her classmates. Despite that, she wrote me a note in which she told me how excited she was to be in a class that was making a difference in her teaching. I still have that note.

Time passed (and I fretted about whether I was doing a good enough job, but that’s the subject for another post), and I began to notice something about the way this student spoke about her own students. In discussions, she drew comparisons between her “good” classes and her “bad” class; she talked about “bad students” and their lack of motivation. I didn’t want to embarrass her in front of her classmates, but I knew I wanted to say something to her about how she talked about her students. We met in my office, and I was very nervous, because I was about to offer some constructive criticism and I didn’t know how she’d take it. I don’t remember specific details, but I know I asked her to think about what underlying beliefs might be influencing her view of her students and the labels she used to describe them. I think I offered to lend her my copy of a powerful book on how teachers’ language choices affect students’ learning.

By the next semester, this student had almost completely transformed her relationship to/with her students. Whereas before she struggled with getting her students to write, she became flush with excitement about the writing her students were doing—primarily on their own to meet their own needs. She successfully moved herself and her students away from an interaction-view of required reading. When I asked her about her perception of the change, here’s what she wrote:

I think several shifts happened.

After I read The Downsiders, I realized how much I missed reading for enjoyment. It also highlighted for me that I enjoy young adult literature. As a result I brought back read alouds in class. (I had done them previously, but it didn’t work as well as I had hoped.) I received a note at Christmas last year from a student who loved read alouds when he was a sophomore. He said he loved being read to like he was a little kid, but he was a little kid at heart.)

I brought Sacred Writing Time (SWT) into my classes, because I wanted to write with them. I also started sharing some of my writings/stories. The first year I did SWT, I started writing stories featuring my students. Class pets emerged the first year I began SWT. As you know, it took on a life of its own. [NOTE: Her students began writing to other classes, each of which had adopted an imaginary class pet.]

I began to share stories about my dog. I remember wanting to relate to my students. After I would share stories about my dog, then students would share stories with me and/or the class. Perhaps this is the key: starting the relationship with students.

Another transition happened too. I used to think that only teaching the classics was appropriate/necessary. I realized that I needed to bring in young adult literature (pairing it with classics and book talks). I was talking to another teacher this week who is struggling. I think one of the reasons she is struggling is because she hasn’t been able to relate to her students.

I think I’ve figured out my “teacher personality” and that has helped me tremendously. I care about my students, reading, and sharing reading. It oozes out of me.

Had this teacher stuck with what she’d learned in her licensure program–methods for teaching, classroom management–I’m willing to bet she would never have seized the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with her students. She might have been one of those new teachers who leaves after a few short, frustrating years. Instead of relying on the old binary of student vs. teacher, methods vs. motivation, she embraced the potential of (difficult) relationships and has become an exemplary and effective teacher of young people.



liking kids is not enough

Image via Wikipedia

When I am traveling in an unfamiliar city, I know that if I choose a national chain coffee shop I’ll get the same drink there as I would in the shop near my home. That’s because the chain ensures standardization by processing the same raw materials in the same way to ensure the same results. I like that in my coffee. I don’t like it in education.

What works in food service does not work in education.

Students are not raw materials that we can push through a manufacturing process to get uniform products (read: test scores). The industrial model of education ignores the fundamental humanity of the participants. But when cost becomes the most important factor, then manufacturers (or in this case, so-called education reform advocates) opt for standardization over personalization. As Allington (2002) pointed out, “the point of standardization is to ensure a minimum standard at a low cost” (p. 250).

So what does this have to do with teacher education?

I may be committing teacher-educator-heresy here, but I think it should be harder to become a teacher, because being a great teacher requires a commitment to fight against those pressures to standardize instruction. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying there shouldn’t be consistency–how else will students have equitable opportunities to succeed if teachers don’t design curriculum to meet students’ needs? (Oh, wait, silly me… teachers aren’t allowed to design their own curricula! That’s left to the “experts.”) Being a great educator requires a whole lot more than mastery of content, and that’s where I think teacher preparation programs need to change our focus.

Being a great educator requires dedication, passion, vision, dispositions toward to life-long learning, perseverance, and a willingness to commit to potentially difficult relationships with students, parents, communities, and policymakers. True education is about relationships not content delivery. It also requires a willingness to speak up (even if our voices shake) on behalf of those whose voices are almost always ignored: students.

When I ask undergraduates to write mission statements to encapsulate the reason they want to become educators, many of them write about equality, equity, serving their home communities, and creating a better future. Many, however, write about how much they like kids. Others can’t articulate (perhaps because they don’t know?) why they want to be educators. Some can’t think of anything else to do, and think they’ll have summers and weekends off. Others go into teaching as a stop-gap before marriage. And, they like kids.

Liking kids is not enough!

Being a great educator means being willing to work at the top level of Bloom’s taxonomy, not just the bottom (hmmm…we may need to change how we assess prospective teachers’ competencies…). This means that teacher candidates need to actively engage in designing lessons that will facilitate their future students’ learning, not just memorization of content. Teacher candidates need to read, write, think, revise, and otherwise engage in creating knowledge, not just sit passively and accept what others say. They need to resist the transmission model of education. I know there are complications with applying Paolo Freire’s “banking concept” of education in the US. However, the basic premise he describes–education as a deposit made (usually by someone more powerful) into students’ heads–accurately describes how many people still view education. Here’s a bit more heresy: I’m willing to bet that some (let’s hope not many…) of my teacher educator colleagues around the country still teach about constructivist approaches to education through lecture. I know I’ve seen it.

Lack of questioning troubles me. I once facilitated a conversation about banned/challenged books in which I posed the following question: “What will you do if a parent challenges a book you’ve chosen for a particular unit?” One student said she’d give the parents a list of all the books she wanted to use to see if anyone objected to any of them. Once I recovered from my shock, I asked, “Are you going to let the parents decide what math materials you’ll use, too?” A great teacher candidate would have answered the first question by explaining that the lesson plan s/he had written—which would be appropriately mapped to state standards and benchmarks, of course—articulated the rationale for lesson’s materials.

Being a great educator requires a willingness to take the materials and curriculum approved by schools, evaluate the needs of ALL of the students in the room, and facilitate constructive acts of learning. This means that teacher candidates need to be critically engaged in their own learning. That starts with showing up and doing the work. Yes, I know it’s hard to balance work, family, and school responsibilities. And, yes, I understand that emergencies happen. But if students can’t balance those things now, how will they handle them when they’re responsible for the learning of 30 kids (or, if they go into secondary: 150 )? I can’t count how many times undergraduate students have complained that I ask too much of them (I have a reputation–of which I’m quite proud–of being “the mean one” in the building!). These same students are the ones who can’t tell me why they want to take responsibility for educating our nation’s youth. Call me crazy, but I think teacher candidates should have at least a rough idea…

A great teacher scaffolds students’ learning by identifying where students are currently (assessment) and where they and the teacher want to go, and then building a structure which facilitates that growth. Speaking of assessment, a great teacher conducts on-going formative assessment in order to identify areas where students need additional opportunities to move toward ownership of concepts. A great teacher uses formative assessment data to evaluate her/his next steps for instruction. A great teacher communicates with students and parents about assessment data, and involves students in goal setting for future learning. When policy makers talk about assessment, they mean high-stakes summative instruments that do not provide useful information to teachers for reshaping curriculum. In some states, the teachers don’t even get the results back until after the school year finishes. How is that supposed to help those teachers help those kids? Ah, but we’re not really interested in educating kids, are we?

Teaching is a profession, a vocation. It’s not a job.

If you aren’t clear on the differences, see these definitions below (all from

profession /prəˈfɛʃ(ə)n/ noun. 1 a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification. Origin: Middle English (denoting the vow made on entering a religious order): via Old French from Latin professio(n-), from profiteri ‘declare publicly’ (see profess). profession (sense 1) derives from the notion of an occupation that one ‘professes’ to be skilled in (

vocation /vōˈkāSHən, voʊˈkeɪʃən/ noun. 1 a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation; 2 a person’s employment or main occupation, especially regarded as particularly worthy and requiring great dedication; 3 a trade or profession. Origin: late Middle English: from Old French, or from Latin vocatio(n-), from vocare ‘to call’ (

job /jäb, ʤɑb/ noun. 1 a paid position of regular employment; 2 a task or piece of work , especially one that is paid (


Note: to see the references that were not hotlinked, please click here.

having gone to school does not make someone an expert on education!

I have resisted the idea of starting a blog for a while for myriad reasons: who cares what I have to say? how would I find the time? what would I write anyway?!? And yet here I am.

I’ve reached my saturation point with policymakers and self-proclaimed experts (any come to mind?) who think they are experts in education because they went to school. That’s like me saying that I’m an expert in medicine because I’ve been to many medical appointments in my life. I would no sooner tell physicians how to practice than I would attempt to do surgery. I am, however, comfortable entering into constructive dialogue with the medical people in my life; I don’t shy from giving feedback about how their practice affects me. I look for doctors who are Board Certified, because I believe medical (and other) professionals should aspire to exceed the guidelines established by reputable external licensing agencies and professional organizations. That’s how we ensure quality. Why am I obsessing about doctors? Well, because a lot of people have no trouble at all applying a medical model of diagnosis and treatment to education. Unfortunately, it’s not a great fit. Plus, educators aren’t exactly in the same tax bracket as doctors…

I’m also fed up with business leaders who believe that, because they’ve been successful running a business, we should apply that same model which made them lots of money to education. Education is NOT solely about preparing automatons who will do jobs without question. Well, it shouldn’t be about that. I wonder sometimes about ulterior motives. If we don’t educate people to be critical thinkers, perhaps they’ll be more likely to buy whatever the business community is selling… I’m not a cynical person by nature, but have been less and less able to ignore the vitriolic, patronizing, and disrespectful tone of the conversation about public education. Whose interests are promoted in this discussion? Whose are ignored or dismissed as unimportant? Who benefits if we allow our public education system to be dismantled? Certainly not our children.

This blog, therefore, will be a repository of rants, thoughtful discussions, links, and other musings about the state of education (and education policy) in the US at this peculiar moment in our history. I don’t know that I’ll have anything new to add to the conversation, but I’ll try. I invite readers to join in this conversation, and welcome differing options. However, I’m not interested in vitriol, hyperbole, or politics. Rather, I welcome engaged and constructive discourse with an aim to find common ground and make plans for real reform.

Thanks for reading so far.