education, Teacher

How to Solve our Country’s Math “Problem”

The Globe and Mail recently featured a top fold, bold-font headline that screamed: “THE FIGHT TO SOLVE OUR MATH PROBLEM”!

I was disappointed to see there was no picture attached to this headline. I was hoping for a shot of an army of stern-looking math teachers, holding pencils and books, brought in by the government to get our kids back to basicsChicken-Little_Sky-is-Falling

The PISA results were released on December 4 and the hand-wringing and head-shaking began almost immediately. In case you hadn’t heard the earth-shattering news, our Canadian students dropped from 10th place in 2003 to 15th spot in 2012. The PISA is a survey (standardized test) of more 510,000 15-year-olds from 65 participating economies that focuses on mathematics.

John Manley, President and CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, ominously declared, ““This is on the scale of a national emergency.”

OMG! Call in the Math Army! This is worse than the ice storm of 1998!

So scary...just like our math scores. Hold me, John Manley.
So scary…just like our math scores. Hold me, John Manley.

Now, Mr. Manley, sir, I realize you are trying to help parents who want nothing more than to ensure that little Billy won’t be living in their basement (probably playing Call of Duty 16) when he’s 35. BUT, jeez Louise! It’s ONE test! Of 15-year-olds!

Don’t get me wrong. I love and respect 15-year-olds. My youngest child is 15-years-old. My other son was just recently 15.

I, myself (believe it or not), was once 15.

Priority#3 when I was 15. Cannot include picture of French boyfriend, who was priority #1, due to silly privacy laws.
Priority#3 when I was 15 – making sure I never ran out of Silver City Pink lipstick. Cannot include picture of French boyfriend, who was priority #1, due to silly privacy laws.

I remember being 15. Acing my math test was important, but it wasn’t my top priority.

I’m not saying the PISA results mean nothing. They do. They are a great snapshot of how our 15-year-olds are able to demonstrate some of their math understanding compared to kids the same age around the world.

But we teach so much more than math in our schools these days. We actually teach more than just academics. And this is the problem. We have too many things on our plate.

Let’s start with math, seeing as it’s a national emergency and all.

In my province, there are 7 strands of math that have to be covered over the course of the grade 4 year. These include everything from number sense to graphing to probability. Within each of these strands are a variety of specific outcomes. Each carries the same amount of weight on a report card. At last count there were 65 specific outcomes. If you are in grade 4, learning your multiplication facts up to 9 is 1 of those.

It’s not that teachers don’t know how to teach basic mathematical operations and number sense. (Trust me. We do. If I have to do one more in-service on how to teach multiplication, I will poke my eyes out with hot sticks.)

The problem is that there are sooooo many other things to teach that eventually you have to move on. If the kids don’t know their math facts, oh well, because now it’s time to teach them how to read a circle graph. With 65 outcomes to get through, there isn’t a lot of time for dilly-dallying.

And this overcrowded curriculum doesn’t apply just to math.

Schools today are expected to do the work that homes, churches and community groups did years ago.

SnapchatWe are now expected to teach children basic morality, like: thou shalt not post naked pictures of your classmate on the internet.

We are expected to feed kids who don’t get a proper breakfast at home.

We are somehow responsible for solving the childhood obesity problem, despite the fact that the government keeps cutting our phys.ed. programs.

There are even calls for schools to offer nature and gardening workshops (during school time) because children are not getting outdoor time when they get home. It appears their parents are incapable of prying their offspring’s little eyes of the screens and chubby fingers off the controllers and keyboards long enough for them to get outside and blow the stink off.

The tipping point for me occurred the other day when I heard a mother being interviewed on the radio. She was upset because her teenage daughter had gotten involved in prostitution. I was feeling sympathetic to her plight until she said, “The schools really need to be doing more to prevent this from happening.”

Seriously?!

SERIOUSLY?!!!

Let me see if I understand correctly…not only am I expected to teach reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, feed the hungry, and instil basic morality, but now you want me to put a stop to the world’s oldest profession?!

UNCLE!302_businessman_teacher_or_officeworker_surrendering_and_waving_the_white_flag

I’m waving the white flag.

#Just.can’t.do.it.all.anymore.

If the general public wants improved math scores, then we need to prioritize and delegate.

Families, community groups, and government organizations need to pick up the slack that our schools have slowly absorbed over the years.

The minute you start watering down a curriculum by adding in everything but the kitchen sink, you end up with a system that is mediocre at best.

The Asian schools that beat the pants off our kids in the PISA?

I guarantee you this: they are not spending their days talking about the dangers of SnapChat, while they pass out juice boxes and granola bars. They are doing kill and drill, all day long and then far into the night with tutors and special math schools.

Do I want their education system in my country? No. But don’t compare their math scores to mine, saying it’s apples to apples. If you want me to focus more on apples, just say the word. But you’ll need to get some of the other fruit out of my basket first.

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education, Princess, Raves, Suburban, Teacher

Cheers, fellow teachers! It’s World Teacher Day! Time to start celebrating, non?

writing134Oct 5 is World Teacher Day! What are you doing to celebrate?

I started celebrating today at precisely wine-o’clock. (Cheers, Me!) I’ve been in this profession (off and on) for more than 20 years, so I figure I’ve earned a few pops, as Don Cherry would say.

Teaching is a wonderful, fun-filled, amazing career BUT if you aren’t careful, it can drive you crazy.

Two years ago, I let it drive me completely and absolutely bonkers. My long trip back from Bonkersville took me more than a year to complete, but I came back with a brand new perspective.

Teaching is a job and you need to do it to the best to the best of your ability. You have kids who depend on you and parents who trust you with their most beloved little person. But in the end it’s a job and you can’t let it run or ruin your LIFE.

So, how can you be the best teacher you can be without going bonkers?

1. Do your job. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But sometimes it isn’t. We get bogged down in paperwork and standardized tests and we forget the real reason we are there…to teach kids. So, Priority #1 everyday: teach kids. Priority#2: everything else.

2. Accept the fact that you can’t do everything, for everyone, every day. It’s called being human.

3. Take comfort in the reality that you can be replaced. Yes…comfort. Once I realized that the world of school continued to spin perfectly fine without me, I felt like a load had been lifted off my shoulders. It was liberating to know that, yes, I made a difference but no, the world would not stop spinning if I stepped off for a day or a year.

This is my mantra. As teachers, we can't fix everything so we have decide what we can do and what we have to let go. It's the wisdom part that gets me all the time.
This is my mantra. As teachers, we can’t fix everything so we have decide what we can do and what we have to let go. It’s the wisdom part that gets me all the time.

4. Understand that you don’t have to teach everything or fix everything in one year. There are a lot of people in the system who will help your students over the years. It’s not your sole responsibility. I’ve taught or worked with almost every grade (including university students) and one thing every grade level teacher has in common is this belief that if “I don’t do it now, next year’s teacher won’t do it and little Johnny will be screwed.” Let me put your mind at ease. All (good) teachers, at every grade (including college and university) want what’s best for students. They will be OK.

5. During the school day, shut your door – physically and metaphorically – and focus on the students inside your room. They are your priority. (If you have trouble with this one, see #1.)

6. Teach students subjects. Don’t teach subjects to students. Know your students as well as your subject and I guarantee you will have a successful year. I love the fact that my son’s math teacher is a freaking math genius, but I also love the fact that she can relate to her students and make them feel like they can do anything. That’s a win-win.

7. Take care of your health. Eat right, exercise, get your sleep. You can’t do those things if you are working all the time.

8. If you do get sick, take a sick day. Seriously…no one admires the teacher who shows up with the flu and spreads flu bugs throughout the school. Hear me now: you aren’t that important! There are subs who can keep the world of school of spinning while you recover from the mumps. And don’t forget: your health includes your mental health, too. No one likes the crazy, cranky teacher. The occasional mental health day may be the thing that keeps your career on track.

9. If your classes are anything like the ones I see, you could literally work 24-hours a day and still not meet the needs of every child, every day. Do your best and then shut it down. Make sure you have a life outside of school. (see #7)

10. Enjoy it. Yes, class sizes are often too big and curriculums change and sometimes things just don’t make sense. But kids are worth it. Being able to watch children learn and grow every day is an amazing gift. Enjoy it.

writing133

Note: This pithy advice applies to teachers like myself who experience first world problems. Teachers who work in third world countries, war zones, or in areas of extreme poverty are, in my humble opinion, teacher-saint hybrids who have my amazed admiration.

Rants, Teacher

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­A guide or a sage? Spare me the crap. (Part 1)

standardised-testing-1Michael Zwaagstra, a school teacher and self-professed saviour of the education system, recently wrote an opinion piece that appeared in my local paper.

He said universities are brainwashing teachers to be a “guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage”.

Oh, spare me the melodrama.

Most teachers I know don’t have time to pontificate on whether they are guiding or a ‘sage-ing’. They are too busy teaching.

In a series of Common Sense Education videos on YouTube, Mr. Z has proclaimed that the “progressive ideology” of today’s education system is a failure.

Ah, yes. Once again, the education system is a failure. I’d be upset by this…if I didn’t hear it every other day…every other year…in every other century.

Back in the ‘good ole days’, teachers taught one lesson plan to the class and everybody learned it and we were all happy about it.

Yup.

At least, that’s the story that keeps going around.

And yet, it’s not quite true. In fact, it’s not true at all.

People who yearn for those rose-coloured days of school, filled with spelling tests and multiplication memorization, tend to forget a lot of the facts that went along with these things.

Back in the 1970’s, when I started grade school, we didn’t have children with special needs in our classes. Children with physical or mental disabilities were sent to a different school. In my case, their school was right across the street from my school. They were literally a stones-throw away and we never got together. The kids in my class who struggled were labeled “slow learners” and they failed at the end of the year.

People who wonder why kids never fail anymore, hear me now: because it doesn’t work.

Do you seriously know anyone who failed a grade (or two or three) who went on to great academic success because they had a chance to “catch up”? In my high school, these were the guys who went to the liquor store for you in grade 11, because they were already 20. They weren’t burning up the academic world thanks to being held back. They were just putting in time in a system that didn’t give a crap about them or their special learning issues.

In 2005, the Journal of Applied School Psychology published a study of students and discovered that:

Across grade levels, those events rated as most stressful by children were: losing a parent, academic retention, going blind, getting caught in theft, wetting in class, a poor report card, having an operation, parental fighting, and being sent to the principal.” 

Wow – kids would rather go blind than fail a grade.

And don’t forget about those kids at the school across the street. They were segregated from their peers, kids who may have lived across the street or were in their own family.

Thankfully, things have changed.

This new “progressive ideology” tries to treat students with respect.

All children are now considered worthy of a public education. We know that everyone benefits from integration (when it’s properly funded and implemented). Those who learn in different ways are taught in different ways.

Unfortunately, it is very, very hard to provide individual support when you have 30 students and one teacher.

Mr. Zwaagstra says that teachers are burning themselves out trying to adapt their lesson plans to meet every child’s individual learning style. He advises:

“Instead of wasting their time designing multiple lessons for each topic, teachers should put more effort into instructing the whole class at the same time.”

I agree that teachers are burning themselves out (please see a picture of me labeled, Exhibit A), but this ‘helpful’ advice just doesn’t ring true today.

We need to make some changes to our education system, but just declaring it a failure and going back to the good old days isn’t going to work. It’s 2013.  We have to look at today’s kids in today’s system and figure out what works best for them.

To be continued…

Teacher

Six is not the new sixteen

What's wrong with you, baby? How come you can't read yet? How will you ever get a job?!
What’s wrong with you, baby? How come you can’t read yet? How will you ever get a job?!

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Whenever I read doom and gloom stories, lamenting the reading scores of six-year-olds, I feel sad. When did six become the new sixteen? When did we start worrying about job prospects and future options for kids who still sleep with a nightlight?

Imagine you are six years old. You like running around aimlessly with your friends and playing video games and snuggling with your cat. School is OK, but reading is hard. Maybe your brain scrambles the letters, so you’re not seeing what the other kids see. Or maybe you can’t stay focused long enough to figure out what the words mean. You don’t really know what’s going on except that your parents keep bugging you to “pay attention” and you have to read with that “special teacher” who helps you and a few other kids.

Now, imagine you worked your little butt off for the whole year and your reading got a lot better. All of a sudden, you can read real books, some of them all by yourself. You’re feeling pretty good. You did all of the work your teacher asked you to do, but guess what? It still wasn’t enough to make all those grown-ups happy because you didn’t pass the “test” at the end of the year.

Well, gosh darn it. You tried your best and you did get better. How come it wasn’t enough?

Maybe it’s because you’re only 6 and you need more than one year of extra help. Maybe you spent most of this year learning how to tie your shoes and be a good friend and count to 10. Maybe your brain is just working slower on reading because it’s working overtime learning something else. Or maybe, just maybe, you have a learning disability, which means reading is going to be hard for you…maybe for awhile, maybe always.

An opinion piece by Paul Bennett in Saturday’s paper proclaimed Nova Scotia’s new literacy program Succeeding in Reading a failure. He said the assessments for the end of Year 1 (year 1 of a 3-year program, mind you) showed that 44 per cent of these grade 1 students failed to meet the expected standard for achievement. Ergo, the education system has once again failed these poor children.

Well, I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.

There is another way you could look at those numbers. Hmmm…what could that be? Oh, let’s see now. One hundred take away 44…carry the one…uh…56. That means 56 per cent of the children met the standards.

More than half…in the first year…of a brand-new three-year-program.

That’s starting to sound a bit better, isn’t it?

Here’s a novel idea: what if we started looking at test results differently?

Call me crazy but what if, instead of comparing widely different kids to each other, we compared them to themselves? What if we based their successes on their individual achievements?

Well, the critics will grumble, that’s not the way the real world works. These children are going to have to compete with people from all over the world to get jobs! They need to be competitive. 

Yes, yes. I agree. They will have to compete for jobs…in 15-20 years! Right now, no one is fighting them for the job of making their bed.

I want to know how many of these children became better readers over the course of the year. Based on my experience working with struggling readers, I would guess that almost every single child improved. Of course not all to the same extent, but some may have had farther to travel. These successes should be celebrated, not lamented.

Each individual result needs to be looked at, so we can see what each individual child needs in order to continue improving in the years to come. Tossing all of the results into one big melting pot and saying: Well, only this many kids passed the test, so therefore the entire program is a bust, is silly and irresponsible.

All kids learn differently, at their own pace. And they all need different things to be successful. How about we focus on that for change?

Rants, Raves, Teacher

Ensuring Good to Great-Teaching 21st century kids in a 21st century world

Quick: what’s the first rule of Fight Club? Remember the 1999 movie starring Brad Pitt where he takes his shirt off a lot and fights other buff guys in basements and parking lots? (OK, stop thinking about that now. Focus. Back to me.) So, the first rule of Fight Club?  You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club.

Being part of the teacher’s union is sort of like being part of Fight Club (minus the hot guys with their shirts off – that may happen in some places but sadly, never where I’ve worked).  As a teacher, I do my job and I don’t talk about what my union is doing, at least not in a non-positive, super-supportive way. Now don’t get me wrong. I appreciate everything my union has done for me. God knows, if I had to teach and negotiate my own contract, I would have left long ago. They allow me to do my job; however, just as there are things I could do better as a teacher, I think there are things my union could do better as well.

Across North America we are seeing teacher unions decimated by their government leaders and demonized in the court of public opinion. In order to balance budgets and leave no child behind, governments have slowly but surely worked to take power and control away from the unions and put it into the hands of administrators. In response, many unions have retaliated by threatening to strike, only to have that option legislated away. When they use the only other means available to them, their actual work with children, they find themselves attacked by parents and the press. Teachers are only in the profession for the money, the benefits and the summers off! It seems like teachers and their unions just can’t win.

So, where do we go from here?

While researching teacher unions in the 21st century, I came across an interview with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.  Ms. Weingarten, whose union represents more than 1.5 million teachers across the United States, was a key speaker at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer. Her presentation Can Teacher Unions be Partners in Reforming Schools in the 21st century? focused on what teacher unions need to do better in this ever-changing world.

She admitted that unions, hers in particular, haven’t always put quality teaching at the forefront.

“We…were wrong. Not that we meant to be wrong but our job initially was about fairness, not about quality. Our goal was to make sure teachers and our other members were treated fairly. Our job has to be about quality as well. Due process has to be about fairness, not about job security for life. Not about being used as an excuse for managers not to manage or a cloak for incompetence.”

She said it’s not enough for some teachers to be great.

“What we have to do is ensure good to great for all teachers.”

In response to questions posed by Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, Ms. Weingarten touched on a variety of subjects, including the controversial “bar exam for teachers”, but her focus always went back to making teachers accountable.

“We need to have real evaluation systems that can assess whether teachers are doing their jobs. And if they’re not, you help them. If they’re not, they shouldn’t be teachers.”

“What we have seen is that schools that work…have collaborative environments where there’s a real thoughtful process for how you recruit, support, retain and yes, dismiss, teachers.”

So, how do we make certain that our children are getting the teachers they deserve?

First, she said, we need to ensure that teachers have the tools and conditions they need in order to teach properly.

“You can’t give new teachers a rigorous kind of methodology to teach and then basically say, ‘You’re on your own.’ It’s not fair to the kids and it’s not fair to the teachers.”

Then, she said, teachers need to ask themselves: Did I teach the material? And most importantly: Did the students learn it? This is where standardized testing has a role to play. Sometimes a teacher can present a lesson and feel that it was the best lesson she has ever taught, only to discover that the majority of students didn’t really understand.

Ms. Weingarten was quick to point out that while standardized tests serve a purpose, they should not become the end goal.

“You have to look at the data to see if kids get it,” she told the audience. “You have to have enough data so that people concentrate on it, but when it becomes predominant then education becomes about testing and not about teaching and frankly the current generation of tests have no connection with what we have to teach kids right now. [They] are about the memorization of facts as opposed to about how kids critically think.”

If the jobs of tomorrow require critical thinking and creativity, why are we still teaching kids to memorize facts and then regurgitate them on a series of standardized tests? According to Ms.Weingarten, this focus on testing is one of the most serious problems facing education today.

Teachers need to be trained to teach critically, she said. New teachers need to be able to walk into a classroom feeling prepared, as opposed to the ‘sink or swim’ model we have now. Half of all teachers in the United   States leave teaching within the first three to five years, she pointed out.

“Love is important. You have to love kids to be a school teacher. You have to know your content. And you have to have a pedagogical bag of tricks so that you can differentiate instruction.”

This ability to offer differentiated teaching is what makes teachers great, she said.

“It’s how we go to our toolkit and understand that Walter is different than Randi, that Celia is different than Michael. [It’s] how we actually engage with kids to try to create that seminal moment of learning.”

At the end of her presentation, she went back to her initial question: can teacher unions be a part of educational reform in the 21st century?

“If we actually want to help all kids, the union needs to be a partner in this,” she said. “At the end of the day, if we don’t start focusing on…how we are solution-driven, how we problem solve, how we ensure that all kids get what they need in the public space instead of this constant polarization, education is not going to get better.”

And that’s the goal, isn’t it? To continue to improve education so that it meets the needs of all children? Having unions and governments, parents and teachers, all at each other’s throats does nothing to help students. We need to work together to figure out how best to teach 21st century kids in the 21st century.

So, I’m doing it. I’m breaking Rules #1 and #2 and I’m talking about my union (albeit anonymously and with loads of trepidation). I am grateful for everything they do but I want to make sure the voices of students are heard above all else. In the long run, I think it’s the best thing for me, as a teacher and a parent, and for our planet as a whole.

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Presentation at the Aspen Ideas Festival, June 30, 2012 – “Can Teacher Unions be Partners in reforming schools in the 21st century?” Link to complete video of presentation: http://www.aspenideas.org/session/can-teacher-unions-be-partners-reforming-schools-21st-century