Tag Archives: teaching

Career Education and Way of Life Development

I (Clive) have often proposed in our blogs that schooling should be more “relevant.” In addition to teaching subject content, we should help students develop their general approach to life (which will vary significantly from one student to another). This can be done as we teach subjects – so long as we are selective in what we spend time on and how we teach it – but also through the class community, the teacher-student relationship, and individual and whole-class projects and chats from time to time.

I have recently read a wonderful book Designing Your Life (Knopf, 2016) by Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, in which the authors say that way of life development should go hand in hand career education. Already in school (they do not say how early) young people should be constantly exploring a range of possibilities for learning and doing, trying to figure out what things they enjoy, find fulfilling, and are good at. Then as they begin to consider more concretely what career(s) to take up, they will have a solid sense of what would fit with their way of life.

A key emphasis in the book is that it is not just a matter of choosing IT, law, engineering, etc. but what kind of IT, law, engineering, etc. Work in each field can take many different forms, and it is as much a matter of creating or designing a line of work as choosing one, and continuing to develop it further over time. For this people need a lot of information about the real world, a sense of a preferred and possible way of life, and experience in being proactive rather than passive in life situations. This can begin in earnest in school – I would argue, even in primary school.

 

 

Respecting Teachers’ Professionalism in Reading Instruction

booksIncreasing the reading ability of young people is a major focus of critics of schooling, and prescribed remedies constantly rain down upon us. It is refreshing, then, to re-visit Richard Allington’s What Really Matters for Struggling Readers (2006, 2nd edn.), as I (Clive) have recently done.

According to Allington, the remedies mandated at a system level typically have two flaws: (1) prescribing a single method for all students, and (2) not placing enough emphasis on the amount students read (including re-reading the same favorite works). With respect to the first, he says:

“Expecting any single method, material, or program to work equally well with every kid in every classroom is nonsensical. And yet we see increasing pressure for a standardization of reading curriculum and lessons…. The substantial research evidence that such plans have not produced the desired effects is routinely ignored in the latest quest for a cheap, quick fix.” (p. 34)

Regarding the second flaw in system mandates, Allington says:

“If I were required to select a single aspect of the instructional environment to change, my first choice would be creating a schedule that supported dramatically increased quantities of reading during the school day” (p. 35)

Unfortunately, federally funded Title I remedial reading and special education programs (in the US) have not increased the amount of reading children do. According to one study:

“[C]hildren who received reading instructional support from either program often had the volume of reading reduced rather than expanded as remedial and resource room lessons focused on other activities” (p. 43)

These “other activities” – such as extra phonics teaching, correcting pronunciation, asking comprehension questions – mean that children are interrupted in their reading. Apart from reducing reading time, this means children become used to being interrupted and read in a slow, hesitant manner, with half a mind on when the next interruption will come.

While attempting to support teachers in their reading instruction, then, it is essential to respect their professionalism so they are free to adapt to what works for individual students and give students abundant opportunities to read in peace.

 

Building a Genuinely Social Class Community

This term I (Clive) have two wonderful graduate classes, each with 25 students. One is on Foundations of Curriculum Studies and the other Reflective Professional Development. As part of the community building effort we go to the pub after class three times during the twelve week term (that evening we finish the class half an hour early). This week we had our second pub visit in both classes.

As always, I was impressed with how enjoyable it was and how much we got to know about each other. Only about half the students came, due to the frigid weather, family responsibilities, and school classes early the next day. But it was nevertheless entirely worthwhile.

Other strategies to build a social culture include: sitting in a large circle for most of the evening; having the students say each other’s names around the room each time we meet; chatting and joking at the beginning of the class and at other times; each student giving a brief presentation on their emerging essay topic (2 or 3 presentations a week) with responses from the 3 students sitting to their left or right; small-group discussions on interesting topics, with everyone in each group reporting back. All this leaves less time for me to talk, but I find the students say at least 90% of what I would have said; and anyway, I get to choose the weekly topics and readings.

It is only a 36 hour course, shorter than most school courses, yet a real bond is formed. The social atmosphere adds greatly to the enjoyment of the course and the discussions are deepened. It may not seem very “academic,” but I wouldn’t do it any other way!

 

Year 13 of Our Longitudinal Study of Teachers

Clare and I (Clive) and our wonderful research team are now in year 13 of our longitudinal study of 40 teachers, 20 of whom began teaching in 2004 and 20 in 2007. Every year we interview them and, wherever possible, observe them in their classroomClive Becks. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) continues to provide funding for the project and will do so for at least another 2 years. We are now gearing up for the 2017 interviews beginning in late April.
Of the original 45 teachers, 3 have left the study and 2 have dropped out of teaching, a remarkable retention rate. As the years mount, interest in the study grows. Four of five proposals based on the study for the 2017 AERA Conference in San Antonio were accepted for presentation. We were also asked to write a chapter on Longitudinal Study of Teachers for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education, to appear this year. For their part, the teachers continue to show resilience despite the increasing challenges of teaching (which they tell us about), including: larger class sizes, reduced special education support, increased standardized testing of students, and top-down control of teachers’ practices.

Based on the study, perhaps the biggest problem we see in education today is this ill-conceived, top-down monitoring of students and teachers, which does very little good and a great deal of harm, and ignores the steadily developing expertise of teachers – which again our study reveals. We can only hope that governments and school systems soon begin to realize the harm they are doing. Meanwhile, we work to encourage teachers to look for the many opportunities for decision-making and professionalism that still remain in school classrooms.

A Constructivist Approach to Literature

On the weekend, Clare and I (Clive) saw a wonderful production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya Uncle Vanyaat the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake. We were struck (once again) with how “dark” the play is; but it is so well written and was so well done that we really enjoyed it.

A central theme of the play is how boring life can be. And one thing that occurred to me is how important it is not to take plays (or any literature) too literally. In experiencing such a play – or discussing it with students – we don’t have to accept that life is utterly boring, or even think that Chekhov believed it was.

Rather, we can take this idea as a starting point and go on to consider ways to overcome boredom in our lives, to the extent possible. We can enjoy ourselves, both as we experience the beauty and cleverness of the literary work and try to resolve the problems it raises. We can use the work for our own purposes, rather than feeling tied to a literal interpretation. I think this is part of what is meant by a “constructivist” approach to learning, and it can make literature more enjoyable and useful to teachers and students alike.

You Can’t Win Them All

Teaching can be very satisfying, but it isn’t easy. I (Clive) just received my course Clive Beckevaluation for last term and was reminded that “you can’t win them all.” I thought the course was my best ever, and most students rated it as “excellent.” But some just said it was “very good” (hmmm – why was that?) and one gave it a “good” or “moderate” on every item (what’s their problem?!).

 

One of the most important principles in teaching, I think, is that you can’t win them all. Some people don’t like it because it implies you aren’t going to try hard enough: it lets you off the hook. But on the one hand, it helps you be realistic and maintain your morale as a teacher; and on the other, it reminds you that everybody’s different. Different people want different things from a course and have different views on how to teach. Yes we should try to meet every student’s needs in a course, but no we shouldn’t be surprised or become dispirited when some students are not ecstatic about our teaching approach.

Gold StarBut come to think of it, if I found some good videos and varied the class format more, maybe I would get excellent from everyone…. Just joking!

 

The First Year of Teaching Can Feel Like a Fraternity Hazing

One of my (Clare) students sent me this article from the Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/04/first-year-teaching/477990/?utm_source=SFTwitter

As I read it my heart sank for these new teachers. I recall my first year of teaching (I lost 15 lbs. between September and December) from sheer work. Does it have to be that way? And given all that we have learned about beginning teachers I am not sure how much the situation has changed. Yes the first year of any new job is going to be a challenge but does it need to feel like “fraternity hazing)? I think no.

Brendan Hoffman / AP

This is the first story in a three-part series about teacher preparation and whether programs are doing enough to prepare new teachers to take over their own classrooms.

MIDDLE RIVER, MD—On a chilly November morning, Michael Duklewski stood outside his seventh-grade classroom as students filed in, some shoving each other playfully, others still half asleep. One by one they took a piece of paper from a bin by the front door and made their way to their seats.Image Michael Duklewski

“Good morning!” Duklewski, 33, said in a loud and confident voice over the classroom chatter. He closed the door and paused. A wad of paper flew through the air.

“I’m warning you man, the next time I see someone throw something, it’s lunch detention,” Duklewski said sternly, looking at the student who had thrown the paper.

As students in this second-period English class began to work on their warmup drill—to define the terms “setting” and “mood” in literature—the chatter continued. Duklewski walked over to the chalkboard in the front of the room where he was tracking the points for good behavior that each class had earned. Next to “second period,” he erased the number 14 and changed it to 13.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I already took off a point,” he warned. He waited as the conversations slowly died down, before launching into his lesson for the day on the play A Raisin in the Sun.

Duklewski, one of a growing number of career-changers that enter the teaching profession each year, switched from political lobbying to education after volunteering at an after-school program in Baltimore. This school year is his first, and it has been even tougher than he imagined. In the second week of September, reality hit. “I was like, ‘Oh God, I don’t know what I’m doing here,’” Duklewski recalled.

Duklewski is one of three teachers The Hechinger Report, which partnered with The Atlantic to produce this story, has followed over the course of their first year to look at how training programs prepare new teachers for the classroom—or don’t. As the American education system faces a drumbeat of criticism for its stubborn achievement gaps and lackluster performance compared to other countries, education schools are under attack.

Traditional education schools are trying to reinvent themselves, and alternative fast-track routes are popping up to offer shortcuts to the classroom. Both models seek to help prospective teachers deal with rising standards, increasing student diversity, new technology and, inevitably, the gauntlet of spitballs, note passing, and, these days, illicit texting.

Michael Duklewski leads a lesson in his second-period English language-arts class. (Jackie Mader)

While aspiring educators now have more choices than ever before when it comes to launching their careers, new teachers continue to leave the profession at an alarming rate, suggesting a breakdown in training and support. At the same time, there is little evidence to show which education programs are graduating the most successful teachers or what kind of support is most helpful for rookies.

Duklewski chose the traditional route to becoming a teacher. In 2015, he graduated from Towson University, a state institution outside of Baltimore that has been training teachers for more than 150 years and graduates nearly 700 new teachers each year. He selected the school because of its strong reputation, and it helped that his mother earned her own teaching degree there in 1972. His course of study took two years, including more than 20 classes and 16 weeks of full-time student teaching—typical for traditional programs, which provide more in-depth pre-teaching training than most alternative programs.

Duklewski was hired to teach seventh-grade English language arts at the same school where he completed his student teaching experience. He was familiar with Middle River Middle School’s administration and policies and already knew many of the nearly 900 students in the sprawling, single-story brick building, located in a suburb of Baltimore.

“We’ve gotten into a habit of accepting that we treat the first year of teaching like a fraternity hazing”

Though Duklewski said surviving the initial year hasn’t been easy, many first-year teachers are so traumatized they don’t come back at all. Data on new-teacher attrition varies, but studies have found that anywhere from 17 percent to 46 percent of new teachers quit within their first five years. If teachers were trained better, more might stick around, experts say.

“We’ve gotten into a habit of accepting that we treat the first year of teaching like a fraternity hazing,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). “People say, ‘I just don’t think you can learn this ahead of time.’ Well, you need to set up those conditions ahead of time,” she argued.

Is it possible for teacher programs to prepare educators with everything they need to know on Day 1? Maybe not everything, according to the three teachers we followed.

For Duklewski, although he’s struggled at times with unruly students, he’s not sure what else his teacher education program could have done. There’s no better way to learn how to teach, he argued, than just jumping in and doing it.

* * *

A student works on a reading assignment in Duklewski’s English language-arts class. (Jackie Mader)

Back in second period, Duklewski, wearing black dress pants and a blue polo shirt, continued to give directions for the next part of the lesson: using evidence from the A Raisin in the Sun script to draw a diagram of the set.

As he ran the discussion he moved constantly around the room, stopping the lesson abruptly—and frequently—as students talked to their neighbors. He kept an even tone as he threatened to call parents and reminded students that one of the class rules is “don’t talk while others are talking.”

Four minutes in, second period was down to 10 good behavior points. “Don’t draw on your arm,” Duklewski told one student. He ignored a student hitting himself in the face with a red folder. Duklewski stared down a chattering group of students until they started working again.

It was now 10 minutes into the period. Duklewski stepped up to the overhead projector in the front of the room and counted down from three. The class fell silent. “Our purpose is to find details about the staging of the Youngers’s home,” Duklewski said, referring to the family in the play. “What rooms are there? What things are there?” Some students raised their hands, but a few boys continued to talk to each other, or, in a couple of cases, to themselves.

“Ladies and gentleman, I’m literally asking you to do nothing when other people are talking,” Duklewski said in a calm and assertive voice. “We’re going to practice being silent for fifteen seconds. If we can do that, I’ll put a point on the board. If not, I’ll take two off.”

Duklewski set a timer for 15 seconds. Four seconds later, a student started talking.

Less than three months into his first year of teaching, Duklewski exuded the confidence of a more experienced teacher. But his second-period class was difficult compared to the other four classes he’d been teaching, a difference he attributed to several strong personalities and too many students—33, far bigger than his other classes.

For the worst behavior problems, his chosen strategy is keeping students after class for a one-on-one talk instead of addressing them in front of other students. “Some teachers come straight at a student when they have an issue with them in class,” Duklewski said. “I found that doesn’t work with them, especially not in a classroom full of their peers. They get yelled at enough.”

The ability to manage classroom behavior is one of the top concerns for every new teacher and can often lead to the undoing of a rookie. A 2014 report by the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education found that trouble managing student discipline is one of the many reasons teachers leave the classroom. Poor classroom management can also get in the way of learning, said Arthur Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and former president of Teachers College, Columbia University. “If a teacher can’t manage a classroom, nothing they’re going to do will be successful.” (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.)

Although classroom management is one of the most important topics for new teachers, it is one of the least taught in preparation programs, said NCTQ’s Walsh. “Programs swear up and down that they teach this stuff … [but] there’s little evidence that they’re being taught it,” she said.

In fact, a 2013 report by NCTQ found that many teacher-preparation programs fail to teach certain aspects of classroom management. Of 122 programs examined by NCTQ, the majority focused on the setting up of routines and rules in classrooms, an important skill. But 74 percent did not teach teachers how to use praise in their classrooms to reinforce positive behavior or other day-to-day tricks to keep classes focused and get unruly kids under control.

“If a teacher can’t manage a classroom, nothing they’re going to do will be successful.”For Duklewski, talkative students can be irritating, but they’re not enough to make him quit teaching.

By December, his second-period class was getting better; during the fall, he had started giving students the chance to earn the right to come to his classroom during lunch and watch cartoons on Fridays. (He nixed the cartoons before winter break.) He moved one particularly energetic student to the back of the classroom where he could sit on a window ledge, stand up or move around without distracting other students.

His class-points system, however, had fallen apart. Right before winter break, Duklewski switched to an individual-point system to reward students for independent behavior. Students could earn points by being on-task, finishing the class warmup first, or answering questions correctly. They could then earn small prizes, like pencil sharpeners, or larger prizes, like “renting out” his classroom for lunch with friends.

He also switched from pointing out negative behavior to pointing out positive behavior. Sometimes he found that just announcing what students were doing—“Jimmy is working on his warmup”—made a huge difference. And only a few weeks into the new system, Duklewski said that the changes were both improving student behavior and his own sanity. “I’m just happier, because I’m saying good things all the time instead of harping on bad things,” Duklewski said.

Happiness is relative for a new teacher. Since Duklewski took over his own classroom last September, it’s been nearly impossible to balance his workload with his personal life, a problem many new teachers experience.

Every morning Duklewski wakes up by 5:30 and he tries to be in bed by 9 p.m., although he often stays up late preparing lessons. He saves time by not eating breakfast in the morning and has 35 minutes to eat lunch—15 minutes of which is taken up by hall duty or checking on students in the cafeteria. After 13 to 15 hours at school each day, he drives home, eats dinner, watches a little television, and packs his lunch for the next day. His weekends are mostly filled with grading.

Moving from a role as a student teacher to a full-time classroom teacher was a bigger jump than he had expected. He realized after his first week that there were many things he didn’t know, like the exact procedure for a fire drill. Or how to balance teaching with noninstructional duties like communicating with parents, filling out attendance, and responding to each day’s barrage of emails.

“When it’s all resting on you, it’s just that much more exhausting,” Duklewski said. “Some of it you just figure out as you hit the ground running.”

On a rainy January day, Duklewski stood in front of his fourth-period class having already downed several cups of coffee to keep up his energy. At 10 p.m. the night before, he had thrown out his lesson plan on monologues, and then stayed up until 1 a.m. reworking it to include video examples.

Students were transfixed. After watching monologues from The Lion King, Harry Potter, and The Incredibles, the class discussed the purpose of a monologue. Duklewski then instructed them to write their own, using point of view and voice. On a worksheet, students answered questions about who they would be, why they were talking, and who they were talking to. Kids erupted into excited chatter as they began to plan and write their monologues.

“I’m myself, talking about sacking Tom Brady, to myself,” one student explained. He read his first line aloud. “Ohh I’m gonna sack Tom Brady!”

When the class ended, students filed out still chatting about their monologues. Oner bonus of an engaging lesson, Duklewski added, is that students stay on task and he doesn’t deal with as much misbehavior.

* * *

Duklewski was assigned a consulting teacher who observes him every two weeks. After those observations, he has a chance to discuss the lesson and receive feedback, such as on his classroom management approach or his use of tests.

The mentoring and a high level of support from his school have helped him keep a positive attitude, he said. “I feel the freedom to take risks, mess up and experiment because I don’t feel pressure. If I screw up, I screw up. They’ll help me fix it.” On his mid-year evaluation, Duklewski was rated “effective” on a scale that included the ratings “developing,” “effective” and “highly effective.”

Next year, he wants to do a better job using student data to plan lessons that touch on the skills students are lacking—something he rarely had the chance to do this year because of all the other demands of his classroom and the hours spent preparing lessons. He also wants to get better at long-term planning. And he’s learned from his challenging second-period class that it pays to set up better rules and classroom procedures from the beginning of the year.

As spring break approached, a series of snow days and holidays threw Duklewski’s students off track. He increased the number of phone calls home to parents and doubled down on his positive praise. “I think we’ve come to some sort of understanding about how we’re all going to get along in class,” Duklewski said. He was also getting the hang of balancing his schedule, and had cut his work hours down—to less than 12 hours a day. It helped that he was seeing academic growth. On standardized writing assessments, the class average had gone up by about 50 percent in most of his classes. On reading tests, scores were also rising steadily.

“Next year, I expect it to be much, much easier,” Duklewski said. “I’ve already done everything once. I’ll have stuff to fall back on.”

Although he’s starting to plan his summer vacation, including work as a counselor at a summer camp, he still has one final goal for his students as the year winds down. “By the end of the year, they will not talk over other people while they are talking,” Duklewski said with a laugh. “If I teach them nothing else, they will learn that skill.”

 

 

 

Getting to Know Our Students

I (Clive) have long believed in having a warm, friendly class community and a good IMG_3114teacher-student relationship. However, my understanding of what this means continues to grow. This term in my graduate course with 22 students I seemed to develop a closer bond with my students than ever before.

As time went by, each would greet me in a friendly, open way with a smile on their face. They told me more personal information about themselves (often in emails about why they couldn’t be at class that evening!) Before and after class, at the break or in emails, they shared with me (and I discussed with them) individual matters, e.g., interest in going on to doctoral work; wanting to teach high school rather than elementary; wanting to take an individual reading course; moving from the public to the private school sector; the struggles of teaching while raising 3 children; not really wanting to be a teacher.

I found this closer relationship had several advantages:

  • There was a higher energy level in our engagement
  • Our interactions – and the class experience generally – were more enjoyable
  • Attendance was higher
  • I could better understand “where they were coming from”

This was quite apart from the help they received by discussing their individual concerns.

 

Sometimes people worry about an overly close relationship between teachers and students. However, a sensible teacher can figure out what is appropriate and what is not; and in general I feel we are still far too removed from our students. We need to be constantly developing appropriate links with our students, rather than being afraid of links in general.

In terms of appropriateness, one important point is to avoid having favorites. We should go out of our way to have meaningful conversations with – and hence get to know – every single student in our class. They will really appreciate it and our own teaching experience will be enhanced.

 

Topics and Methods for Class Debates

In previous postings, I (Clive) have recommended debates as a way to give students a voice in university and school classrooms and also introduce some variety into class activities. Of course, the topics have to be interesting to the students if they are to get really involved; and the overly combative tone of traditional debating needs to be avoided so there are no hard feelings.

This term, in my graduate class of 22, I used two debating topics that worked very well. They were: (1) Teaching Values in School and (2) Formal Professional Development for Teachers. In each case we formed 4 groups (by numbering off from 1 to 4 around the class, including myself) and then assigned “positions” to the groups as follows:

Teaching Values in School

Group 1: On the whole, teachers should keep their values to themselves

Group 2: It is often appropriate for teachers to promote the values they believe in

Group 3: On the whole, schools should advocate general “human” values (e.g., treating women and men equally) even if they conflict with the values of the family

Group 4: On the whole, schools should honor and respect the values of the family, even if they conflict with general “human” values

Formal Professional Development for Teachers

Groups 1 & 3: Formal professional development has a very important role to play in teacher learning and school improvement. Examples of effective formal PD include….

Groups 2 & 4: Formal professional development does not play a major role in teacher learning and school improvement. Examples of more important methods and factors are….

Each group spent 20 minutes preparing their case, with each person in the group proposing and outlining an argument and/or example. Then each group in turn presented their case to the whole class, with every member of the group speaking. Finally, we returned to the whole class circle and went around with each individual saying what they thought about the topic (we didn’t have time to go all the way round the class, but this final activity also proved very valuable).

Notice that the “opposing” positions were softened by using phrases such as “on the whole,” “it is often appropriate,” “not a major role” (rather than “not any role”). Also, the emphasis on giving examples to support one’s case was a big success – I hadn’t used this before.

So, this was my experience. If you have a chance to experiment with debates, let us know what topics you used and how it went – we can do a guest blog!