Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The 3R’s, the Multi-age Classroom, Project Based Instruction, and Middle School

Rigor, relevance, and relationships are three of the latest groovy buzz words in education. While some educators see them as separate entities, I see them in a sort of intertwined, reverse sequential order. To get to rigor, the nirvana of learning where students experience daily intellectual challenges and become critical thinkers, a teacher must build relationships with students and construct lessons that students will find relevant to the world in which they live. Building that rigorous learning environment may sound like a pretty steep mountain to climb, but there is a brilliant short cut to the promised land. I believe the multi-age classroom, coupled with a strong project based instructional delivery system, is the surest way to educate our children for the demands of the 21st Century.

Why multi-age? The number one answer to that question is; It Works! I have taught middle school for more than twenty years, and the most rewarding of those years were spent working with multi-age students. Whether we combined 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students or just 7th and 8th, the formula led to success. Here are some reasons why multi-age works:

Multi-age builds lasting, positive relationships: Whether working with a sixth through eighth combination or a seven-eight grouping, teachers have time to build firm, positive relationships with students and their families. After spending the first several months of school getting to know a student, understanding what motivates their actions, and building bridges to their home, a teacher then has only four to six months to capitalize on all this good work. Then they hand off the child to a new teacher who starts the process again. Instructional time is lost while the new teacher gets a fix on what the student needs. In the multi-age classroom, the relationships developed with each student and their families will continue to deepen as the years go by. A clever middle school student cannot put anything over on an even more clever multi-age teacher. The teacher knows what was taught in the previous year, she knows the material the student mastered, what lessons were not mastered, and all the contact numbers for mom, dad, grandma, and the friendly neighbor who lives next door. In the multi-age classrooms, parents are drawn deeply into their child’s classroom. They volunteer more, are more committed to knowing what’s happening at school, and they truly appreciate the connections their child makes with the entire school environment. The continuity of the multi-age relationship is the key to building rigor into any kind of learning environment.

Multi-age allows teachers to draw clear connections between various curriculums. In a multi-age classroom, teachers can say, “remember last year when we studied . . .” Often, in straight age classrooms, the curriculum from the previous year is never mentioned, with the exception of the frustrated teacher wondering why his students weren’t taught a thing last year! Well of course last year’s teachers worked hard to fill their heads with important knowledge, but without structures in place to help students see the relevance of the old material to the new material, they simply don’t remember what they “learned” last year. In a multi-age classroom, there is a built in system which helps students connect the dots in their various curriculums.

Multi-age gives older students a clear leadership role. About mid-way through the school year, eighth grade teachers begin to complain about eighth-grade-itis. This phenomenon occurs each year as the eight grade class mentally checks out of middle school. Although high school is several months away, these big gallutes become increasingly difficult to teach. Often, their behavior gets them into a great deal of trouble and not only chews up instructional time, but forces administrators to deal with discipline issues that take away from their role of instructional leadership. In a multi-age classroom, eighth graders are given clear leadership roles. They acclimate the new students to the team's culture. They help the younger students learn complicated technology skills. Eighth grade students are asked to set a high standard of academic achievement for their younger peers. The expectation that eighth grade students will be positive leaders for their younger peers is highly motivating and keeps eighth graders working and learning to the last day of their middle school career.

Multi-age classrooms result in higher achievement for all students. Younger students in the multi-age classroom want to perform at the same level their older peers. Normally, seventh grade is a lackluster year. Not in a multi-age classroom. Because eighth graders do not approve, these younger students learn to control their immature behavior. With less focus on silliness and greater focus on being a mature learner, younger students push the eighth graders to achieve. The younger students, wanting to close the gap between them and their older peers, push even harder. The result is high achievement for every student. And because the teacher will only exit an eighth grade group, a legacy of high achievement becomes the culture of the team, handed down from grade to grade.

Multi-age classrooms provide a smooth transition from middle to high school. A good friend of mine who teaches at another middle school in this district expressed this characteristic eloquently by stating that each new school-year on a multi-age team begins with students grieving for their friends who have moved onto high school. The new crop of “upper-classmen” mopes around for several weeks, mourning their missing friends. Through email and Myspace, they keep in touch, make plans to meet at the football games or see a movie together. On straight age teams, the high school registration process intimidates many eighth graders. This does not happen on a multi-age team. When registration time roles around, the multi-age eighth graders are filled with joy at the prospect of seeing their old friends again. They know their friends are waiting for them to show them around campus, point out the best place to meet for lunch, and school them on the teachers to avoid. They are not afraid of their future; they are ready to embrace high school.

It is clear that the multi-age structure is well suited for building relationships between students and their teachers, students and their peers, teachers and the families of their students. Multi-age also makes rigor a reality by creating an environment in which students want their peers to see them at their best. But there is an instructional model that enhances this near perfect scenario, and that is project based instruction. Any classroom can follow the project based instructional model, but the in the multi-age classroom, this model becomes most powerful. Here are some reasons why:

Project based instruction fosters collaboration. In the multi-age classroom it is important to create leadership roles for the older students. Project based instruction delivers many opportunity for older students to work with younger students. This is where teachers step back and let the eighth grade boy teach his seventh grade partner how to build a web page. There are many examples of how project based instruction allows students to work together to create products that truly demonstrate learning. In the 21st Century workplace, people must know how to work with colleagues. Project based instruction gives students practice on what kind of behaviors lead to a successful partnership. This is essential knowledge that will allow our children to compete with their world-wide peers.

Project based instruction allows for maximum differentiation. In the project based instruction model teachers can carefully group students to maximize growth. Students can be matched so that various strengths and multiple intelligences will be used. Students with special learning challenges can partner with peers having similar needs so that modifications can be targeted and never ignored. Because every student finds an area of learning in which they excel, all student move forward.

Project based instruction makes learning relevant. The premise of project based instruction is that students are learning for a purpose. The process of getting to the project phase of any unit is filled with challenging learning tasks. Students are motivated to master these challenges because they know they will get to build a project that demonstrates what they’ve learned. The project phase is where they bring together all they’ve learning, sift through it looking for connections, and then create something out of this knowledge. The freedom to create is the greatest motivator I have ever witnessed. I have seen it lift even the most recalcitrant student to high levels of achievement.

What are the limitations of multi-age/project based instruction classroom? The only limitation I’ve experienced is finding teachers who will “stand and deliver” the product. Many teachers think it is too hard to teach multiple curriculum. They do not want to master two or three years of social studies, math, or science. They are comfortable with the stories in the seventh grade literature book and don’t want to move out of that comfort zone. Other teachers simple don’t see how mixing different age groups together will make it easier to teach.

I recommend that when an administrator finds teachers who are interested in this kind of teaching, they allow them time to research the concepts, visit classrooms, and talk with teachers who have successfully implemented these learning structures. Administrators need to support the learning curve for teachers willing to come out of their comfort zone. This will foster greater professional growth and help teachers experience tremendous satisfaction in their work.

I am dedicated to spending the rest of my career developing teachers who understand the combined power of multi-age grouping and project based instruction to produce well educated students in a learning environment filled with solid relationships, relevant learning experiences, and rigorous intellectual challenges.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Zen of Parent Conferencing

I will never forget the first parent conference of my teaching career. I was teaching in a junior high school in Orlando, Florida when I received a memo in my teacher mail box requesting my presence at a conference with the parent of one of my students. The memo was from the assistant principal and contained only the location and time of the conference and the order to bring along my grade book. My undergraduate course work had never mentioned how to interact with parents, so I didn’t really know what to expect from the upcoming meeting. When I arrived at the conference, I was joined by the assistant principal, five other teachers, (none of whom I knew), and one very intimidated mother.

The small room where the conference was held had no table. The participants sat in chairs placed around the perimeter of the room, reminiscent of the way Saudi sheiks greet their visitors. Each teacher opened their respective grade book and listed missing assignments and low test grades, and then offered the advice that “Johnny” needed to do his homework, study for tests, and pay attention in class. The mother, eyes lowered, purse clutched tightly in her lap, seemed to be bracing for a blow as each teacher delivered the news that her son wasn’t making the grade in any class. I’m ashamed to say that when my turn came, I followed the example of my colleagues. W
hen the conference ended I had the uneasy feeling that I had participated in a mugging.

Some version of this scenario was repeated in every conference I attended until I arrived at Brookside Middle School in Sarasota, Florida. I was assigned to a team of wonderful teachers led by Steve Batchelor. Steve had a totally different approach to parent conferences. He opened every conference by making introductions and assuring that the parents knew each teacher by name and subject area. He then asked parents to share what their concerns were and listened with sincerity to what the parents had to say. Although he had his grade book, it was never opened until the parent asked about grades or until the issue of grades became central to finding ways to help the child succeed. Most of the conferences I attended with Steve ended with smiles, laughter, handshakes, and a plan of action to help the student achieve success.

Over the years, I have sought to develop Steve’s sensitive approach to working with the families of the children I teach. Becoming a parent myself and attending a few unproductive conferences, (with my eyes lowered and my purse clutched tightly in my lap), helped crystallize the way I think about parent conferencing. I have come to believe that meeting with parents is an opportunity to fulfill my spiritual mission as a teacher. Through these meetings, I get a chance to connect with families and make a positive difference in the lives of the children I teach.

I open each conference with introductions, and never assume the parents know all the teachers. Then I ask the parent to begin the conference by sharing their concerns or observations. I’m sure to convey to the parent that as a teacher, I am working as their partner in helping to educate their child. I respect parents. I go into every conference believing that even the least advantaged parent loves their child and is trying to be the best parent they can be. I reserve any other judgment until I know otherwise. I acknowledge the parent’s role as their child’s first teacher, and communicate to the parent that I see them as the expert on their child.

So many parents come into parent/teacher conferences in a defensive mode. No doubt this comes from their previous experience or just the stirring up of old memories of their school days when they had little authority over their own lives. I want to disarm these parents. Sometimes it’s my error that’s causing the defensive attitude. If so, I’m not afraid to admit when I’ve made a mistake. Teachers make hundreds of decisions each day. Once in a while I’m bound to make a bad one. I admit this and look for ways to make corrections. This honesty has never failed to help build a positive relationship with parents.

Many times in middle school, students attend the conference. Whenever they do, I recognize their discomfort and make every effort to communicate to them how much they are valued by their parents and teachers. There is nothing more rewarding than watching a child who thought his teachers couldn’t “see” him suddenly recognize he is surrounded by adults who truly care about him and his success.

It is important that each conference concludes with a plan of action. What will each participant agree to do to bring about the changes needed? The plan everyone agrees to should be realistic. A few days after the conference, it’s a great idea to phone home or send an email to report on progress and show parents I'm are holding up my end of the bargain. The effort I show helps the parent and the child follow through at home.

In every parent conference, I attempt to reveal to the parent my sense of who their child is and who their child is trying to become. Each morning when parents send their son or daughter off to my classroom, they are sending me the most important part of their lives. I want parents to know that I get it, and I’m honored to be a part of their efforts to raise the best human being possible.

All of this insight into building successful relationships with my students and their families began in the early stages of my career with the fortuitous circumstance of working with an experienced and compassionate teacher like Steve. Just as I hope to have a positive impact on my students, Steve has had a lasting and very positive impact on my life as a teacher.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Is it Rigor? Or is it Something Else?

There’s a lot of talk in education circles today about rigor. Educators all over America are frantically waving copies of Thomas Friedman’s, The World is Flat, as they attempt to awaken their colleagues to the impending doom our nation faces if we do not deliver a rigorous and relevant education to every American child. Politicians talk about the need to return rigor to the classroom. Parents demand rigorous programs for their children. School administrators performing classroom walk-throughs look for signs of it, and teachers are resolutely attempting to prove their lessons are full of the stuff.

But what is rigor?

Let’s start with what it is not. Rigor is not fifty math problems for homework when fewer will achieve mastery. Rigor is not more worksheets for the student who finished the assignment early. Rigor is not using a seventh grade text book with your high performing sixth grade students. Rigor is not covering more material in a shorter period of time. Rigor is not cold or impersonal. And most of all, rigor is not just for a select group of students.

So, what is rigor? The most concise definition of rigor I’ve encountered is taken from Teaching What Matters Most: Standards and Strategies for Raising Student Achievement by Richard W. Strong, Harvey F. Silver and Matthew J. Perini, ASCD, 2001. According to Strong, Silver, and Perini, “Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.”

Isn’t it ironic that this definition of rigor presents the possibility that even an advanced placement course may not be full of rigor? While the curriculum may be complex, time may not be given to allow the content to reveal its ambiguous, provocative, or personally and emotionally challenging nature. And because of this, students are simply memorizing huge chunks of facts, regurgitating them onto an AP exam, and then forgetting them forever. How discouraging it must be for both the teacher and the student to expend so much time and energy and have so little to show for their efforts.

But do we really need all this rigor? Can we just set it aside for our gifted and high achieving students or as we say in Florida, our Level 4’s and 5’s? Strong, Silver, and Perini make clear that a rigorous learning environment is for every student. Their findings show “the decision to withhold rigor from some students is one of the most important reasons why schools fail.” (Strong, Silver, Perini, 2001)

What is the mind set that would consciously design a system where some students receive a rigorous education and others do not? I don’t want to think about the history of class distinction, prejudice, tradition, and countless other factors that might have lead us to such a system. But I do want to think about what it will take to ensure that every American classroom provides the kind of rigorous learning environment that will guarantee all our students’ ability to successfully compete in the flat world in which they live.

Think about what kind of teaching methods will allow teachers to deliver their curriculum in ways which meet the requirements of rigor set out by Strong and company. Then factor in the skills we must help our students acquire so they may successfully encounter curriculum on this level.

We’re talking about instructional delivery methods like project based instruction which use an inquiry model to empower students to seek their own answers to important issues, create models that represent their findings, and explore ways their discoveries can make a positive difference in the world. We’re talking about classrooms that find ways to be connected to the world, whether or not they use the latest technologies, to help create those personal and emotional synapses that motivate students to embrace challenging curriculum. We’re talking about classrooms where students are taught the strategies they need to attack challenging text, detect bias, gather relevant information, and decide how to put what they’ve learned to work in a useful way.

But we’d better do more than talk. It’s time, really past time, that we make the changes that create these wonderful classrooms. If you’ve got ideas on ensuring rigor for every student, I want to hear them. Our combined efforts can have a powerful positive influence on the future of American schools.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Summertime Musings

Everyday I meet people who say they just couldn’t do what I do. They tell me how much respect they have for anyone who has the patience to teach, and many express great curiosity about how I handle difficult children, manage irresponsible parents, and assess mountains of student work. Even after I assure my admirers that working with middle school students is far more rewarding than they could ever imagine, I still fail to recruit them to the profession. But I know there is one thing about teaching that appeals to nearly everyone, and that’s summer vacation. When friends, acquaintances, and even my dear husband begin to turn a faint shade of green as they contemplate the fun I must be having as I lollygag through ten weeks of free-time, I wonder if I could ever explain that getting a little time off may be vital to the teaching profession.

I sometimes think of each new school year as being very much like getting a fresh chance to swim the English Channel. There’s no doubt about the challenge that lies ahead. When the swim begins, the pier is lined with cheering fans, wishing me well, but about ten hours into my swim, when I’m lonely and cold, my arms and legs start to feel like lead, and I know I have about twenty more hours of swimming before I get to the other side. As I fret over how I’m ever going to make it, I just keep pumping those leaden arms and legs until, miraculously, I find myself on the shores of France. For those of you who’ve gotten lost in this metaphor, in the teaching world, reaching the month of June is the equivalent of swimming ashore in France.

Just like making it across the English Channel, excellent teaching requires lots of training and preparation. Of course you must be physically ready for the challenge, but mental preparedness may be the key ingredient that propels both the swimmer and the teacher. Summer break is my prep time; a time to increase my knowledge of how to be a better teacher. And even more importantly, it gives me a chance to restore my mental toughness, renew my creative juices, and get ready for the coming school year.

Naturally, I begin each summer break with a family vacation. The summer trips my family and I take are determined by how much we can learn from the experience. Is there some historic, cultural, environmental, or otherwise educational insight we can bring home from our summertime journeys? I’ve scoured gift shops at Alcatraz, Harper’s Ferry, and the National Archives for books, videos, posters and artifacts that will make their way back to my classroom. My husband and children are my partners and experimental students on these trips. As always, their patience and love sustain me as we all share in the fun of learning.

Summer is not an “off” time for me. Along with many teachers I attend workshops and conferences designed to refine my skills and send me back to the classroom at full speed, ready to guide students through joyful learning experiences. The more I learn, the more I am helping my students become the life-long learners demanded by the 21st Century workplace.

I admit that not all my summer break is spent preparing to swim the English Channel. During the school year, I never have a free weekend. There is always work to be done preparing good lessons, evaluating student work, and keeping parents informed of student progress. In the summer, I have the time to reclaim my rose garden, paint my son’s room, read some great books, and sometimes just wander mindlessly through a day or two.

I know it seems unfair that teachers get a whole summer to work and play in the relaxed environment of their homes, surrounded by their families. I concede that ten weeks is a bit much, and I would surely be happy with a little shorter break But I trust that those who truly understand the strength it takes to be a good teacher will also understand how the extended summer break helps us be the kind of teachers they want guiding their children. And for those who are still green with envy, maybe I can arrange to have them spend the day with twenty-five thirteen year-olds.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Care and Feeding of Millennium Generation Teachers

I used to have my doubts about the new generation of teachers who are just beginning to occupy America’s classrooms. My first encounters with these young people were not positive. I found them to be noticeably self-centered and very sure they had sprung into the teaching profession fully formed. These teachers never sought the guidance of experienced teachers, shunned that guidance no matter how gently offered, and gave the clear impression that they had chosen teaching because the profession allowed them to live a more leisurely lifestyle with plenty of time off to travel and engage in pursuits other than teaching. I worried how the deadly combination of arrogance and lack of skill would impact the lives of our students.

In my search to understand this behavior, I began to look into the research on the Millennium Generation. I discovered that this generation, also known as Generation Y, is comprised of nearly 73 million people born between 1977 and 1994. In comparison, the Baby Boom Generation gave birth to a little over 78 million people. Those numbers are a pretty neat match. A new generation has arrived on the scene that can almost replace the one that is getting ready to drive its convertible Cadillac into the sunset of retirement. Research says the Millennium kids are technologically savvy, great team players, and full of social conscience. They are the first products of the “self esteem” movement, and have spent their lives being praised for every accomplishment and rewarded for their smallest acts of selflessness. They have been deeply loved and nurtured by their parents and teachers. All this information seemed to be in great conflict with my first-hand experiences, or shall I say clashes, with this generation. It seemed to me that far from being the new “greatest generation,” these youngsters had been spoiled, (a word used here to mean ruined).

I was wrong. I stick by my impressions of those first encounters with twenty-something teachers, concluding that those young teachers are simply not good representatives of their generation. They are an aberration and proof that every generation has its bad apples. But what caused my Millennium Generation epiphany?

In the past year, I have had the privilege of working with a group of Gen Y teachers who I believe are as good, and probably better, than any representative of my generation of teachers. These kids are gifted teachers. They work hard and are completely fearless when it comes to trying new ideas. They understand that their lessons must be relevant to the lives lived by their 21st Century students. They expect to use real world technology applications in their classrooms and are eager to show the rest of us the way. They respect and even seek the guidance of their more experienced colleagues, and they don’t even mind me calling them kids. I love them, and I don’t want them to give up on the teaching profession.

So how do we continue to nurture this priceless human resource? First, we must give them what they need. They will not wait twenty years to become teacher leaders. If they make a valuable suggestion and see it handed off to some other member of the faculty, they will take their good ideas elsewhere. Administrators must respect them and listen to them, and make every endeavor to allow the valuable input of these young teachers to come to fruition in the life of the school. These young people already know that wise administrators clearly communicate, not only in words, but also in actions, how much they value talented teachers. Gen Y teachers expect things to make sense. Because when they don’t make sense, they will shop their skills to the highest bidder. Every administrator should have a “Have You Hugged Your Millennium Generation Teacher, Today?” bumper sticker as a reminder of how intently they must pay attention to the growth of these teachers.

All of this behavior is consistent with the generation of children who grew up being securely buckled into the back seat of the family’s mini-van. Administrators and experienced teachers must recognize their roles in continuing the nurturing environment which produced this generation of teachers. Gen Y teachers have arrived in our classrooms just in the nick of time. They will provide the energy, skill, and intelligence our students need to be prepared to compete successfully on the global stage which awaits them. We must provide the support our young teachers need. If we fail to do this, we simply will not have the resources to deliver the education our students

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Value of Experience

I have been inspired by a young teacher to create my own blog. My young colleague has a blog of her own in which she shares her unique and fresh perspectives on the current state of education. Her essays are beautifully written and clearly express the passion she has for teaching. When I read her blogs I am reminded of my first years in the teaching profession. Her blogs advocate pushing our classrooms into the 21st Century and reveal a healthy impatience with the culture of "this too shall pass;" those teachers and administrators who drag their heels on positive change, waiting for the collapse that will allow them to maintain the status quo. I am encouraged that my profession continues to attract young teachers who are bright, passionate, and willing to persevere in the face of the complex obstacles that make teaching a seemingly unattractive vocation.
I hope I will provide as much inspiration to this young teacher as she has provided me. And this is where the value of experience becomes important. I have never lost my passion for teaching. Over the past twenty years I have had many opportunities to lose that passion, but somehow nothing has shaken me from my mission. The list of obstacles to maintaining a deep passion for teaching really hasn't changed: poor salaries, some poorly trained colleagues, people who come into teaching to get their summers off, children from tragically dysfunctional families, politicians who make public schools their favorite punching bags, and the overwhelming challenge of pushing a monolithic bureaucracy mired in 19Th Century philosophies into the technology dominated world in which our students must learn to survive and thrive. With all these challenges, it's obvious that great young teachers need great experienced teachers. Experienced teachers who have kept their fires burning and creative juices flowing must be there for these gifted beginners. We can show how surrounding yourself with positive colleagues and always seeking to improve your practices leads to a long and satisfying career. And from these young teachers, we veterans can renew our spirits and continue to grow, both personally and professionally.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Finding a "Keeper"

This post is a response to the young science teacher with whom I am so lucky to be working this year. She encountered a teacher who expressed a rather defeated attitude about his work as a teacher. This set my young colleague to some very deep thinking about what's really in this profession for those of us who give it our all day in and day out.

"So, was your colleague wondering about the big question? Why do we teach? I teach, therefore I am!? Maybe that's it. I am a teacher. That's my identity, I can't help myself. I just have to teach. Not be an expert, know it all. Just a teacher. A guide. A leader.

Good teaching is all consuming. Nothing else can be in your mind; you must be intellectually and physically active every moment in which students are present. I like that. I enjoy pushing myself to figure out what each student needs and how am I ever going to provide for all those needs. If I don't try, who will? My 4th grade teacher, Sister Leandra, told me that every person has a purpose in life; a reason to exist. She told me to seek my purpose, look for "signs." So many signs led me (and I bet this is true for you, too) to teach.

Teaching may be the last bastion of altruism. A place where you can give of yourself for a greater good. If you are a skilled, thoughtful, intelligent practitioner, you can sleep peacefully every night knowing you've spent your waking hours engaged in small, but daily acts of heroism and compassion. Now, "where does that get" me?

Those of us who love teaching, never ask "where does it get you." That question just never comes up. Hang in there Jess. You're just not the kind of person who can be comfortable without the challenge of living a meaningful life."