Archives For Teaching

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Every November the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) gathers for an annual conference.

Last November (2016), emotions were tense…raw. Distressed elementary and intermediate grade teachers muttered about the language and actions of candidates, and how leaders were setting a bad example by engaging in behaviors that would not be tolerated in a classroom.

Frustrated middle and high school teachers grumbled about the inability of their students to judge facts for accuracy, completeness, timeliness, and relevance given the barrage of information coming from social media. College educators were stymied on what adjustments needed to be made to teacher preparation programs.

The 2016 conference was one of collective incredulity.  In response to the brutal political season that polarized the school year, what guidance would this national organization offer?

Sadly, the response from NCTE Conference was inaudible. Hushed.

In representing the profession, one that centers on the ability to confront all forms of text, the leadership provided few words. To be fair, the timing was perhaps too soon, and few in leadership could have anticipated the depth of polarization that had created the divides in schools and classrooms across the nation.

And so, at this year’s (2017) conference the leadership of NCTE needed to make some critical choices.

The name of the conference, “The First Chapter”, was one choice that promised a new beginning.

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Another choice was the location of this conference in St. Louis, Missouri, the city of Michael Brown and the 2014 riots. A city already dealing with large equity gaps in education. According to a study by Washington University in St. Louis, there has been a continued “disparity in St. Louis schools caused by an allocation of resources.”

An article in the WUPR newsletter by Victoria Johnson in March 2016 detailed the ratio of students attending unaccredited schools as 44% black students to 4% percent of white students. Her observation was that:

“Five miles is the difference between receiving one of the best educations in Missouri and attending one of the worst schools in the entire country.”

So far, this latest 2017 NCTE Conference had a promising title, “The First Chapter”.
So far, the conference had a significant setting, St. Louis.

So who would be the characters to move the plot?
Who would address the central conflict?

The writers.
Writers drove the plot of the 2017 conference.
Writers did what writers do best in responding to the rawness, the hurt, the confusion, the rifts, and the arrogance of the past…the past 12 months…still reverbing from the past 12 decades.

The writers speaking at NCTE confronted all conflicts head-on. They did not mince words. They used their outsider lenses that get to the inside of minds.

If they wrote books for students, they spoke about themselves as students.

“We don’t want to lose the boys. Don’t call them reluctant readers.”
Jon Scieszka (Knucklehead, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs)

“The cornerstone of culture is language. Don’t tell me my culture is wrong.”
AND “Our fear of discomfort makes us less safe. We need to be less faithful to our fears and more faithful to our future.”

-Jason Reynolds (YA author Ghost, Long Way Down)

If they wrote books for teachers,  the writers spoke about themselves as teachers.

 “When you read fiction, you go into the author’s world. When you read nonfiction, it comes into your world, and you have to decide if you stand with it or stand against it.” AND  “The world is tough. No one taught you how to teach after a gunman has killed people in a church, school, concert…. but the kids are looking at you.”
Kylene Beers (Notice and Note, Reading Nonfiction)

“We aren’t here to raise a score, we are here to raise a human.”
~Lester Laminack (Writers are Readers)

“Community is about diversity. Let’s make listening instruction something that brings people together.”
Lucy Calkins (Reading Units of Study, Writing Units of Study, Pathways to the Common Core)

“We say we teach all children, but do we teach all stories?”
Pernille Ripp (Passionate Readers)

 

And as storytellers, they chastised teachers into action:

“Now more than ever we live in a time when resistance matters….Teaching to resist. Writing to resist.”
-Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming, Locomotion, Another Brooklyn)

“In my book, I don’t shy away from racism and language because that’s what our young people are dealing with. And teachers, I need you not to shy away from it either.”
Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give)

The writers came to the NCTE to share with educators their  process, their craft, and their message that stories teach students to:

Read. Write. Think.*

The writers whispered, they cajoled, they teased, they argued, they humored, and they demanded. They sounded their “barbaric yawp”:

In separate and in panel sessions, the writers inspired…their words both provoked and soothed.

Then we all went back home…to our schools and classrooms…to our students.

So now what?
The NCTE 2017 in St. Louis was “The First Chapter,” and as readers, we already know that a first chapter can deceive. We may not have gotten to the page (as in page 17) when the real reason for the story is revealed.  Moreover, a happy ending is not yet in sight; education is complicated and messy with plot twists.

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For the next chapter (2018), NCTE leadership has selected the title “Raising Student Voice”  and placed the setting in Houston, Texas. Given the havoc created by Hurricane Harvey, this may prove a significant choice as well.
The writers have spoken. Now, let us see what that first chapter really began.
Get ready for the students!

Continue Reading…

CT Stae flagThe other day, I made a scan of my teaching and administrative certificates and sent them to my school office in order to update my records. If you teach in the State of Connecticut, as I do, you are required to provide the necessary transcripts and payments to secure and maintain a teaching or administrative certificate. The Connecticut Department of Education (CT SDE) has always been one of those great equaling institutions: no paperwork=no certificate.

Until now. Until Paul Vallas, Interim Superintendent of Schools in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Vallas has served 17 months as Interim Superintendent of Schools for Bridgeport, Connecticut, a 21,000-student school system. Before coming to Connecticut, Vallas had served as the Superintendent of the Recovery School District of Louisiana; and the CEO of Chicago Public Schools and the School District of Philadelphia. Vallas, however, was ousted by a Connecticut Superior Court Judge Judge Barbara Bellis’s weeks ago because he lacked graduate coursework and that the “alternative program” created for Vallas by the State Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor, fell far short. Pryor’s letter certifying Vallas’s credentials, according to Jacqueline Rabe Thomas writing (6/28/13) in the Connecticut Mirror, was not accepted by the judge who ruled:

“’There is no doubt that Vallas received preferential treatment,’ the judge wrote in her 27-page decision.The judge also noted that Vallas lacked the required prerequisites to enroll in the regular UConn [University of Connecticut] program in the first place, and that such an independent study hadn’t been approved for anyone else in the last decade. Additionally, the university’s governing board had never approved an independent study program.’Ultimately, the course standards were reduced,’ the judge wrote. ‘The court accepts Vallas’ testimony that the work, although done over the course of 10 weeks while fulfilling his employment as acting superintendent, could have been completed in a week.'”

Ultimately, the judge ruled that Vallas’s BS in Political Science/History and MA Political Science from Western Illinois University were not comparable for a certification in education according to Connecticut’s Department of Education (CT SDE). While his experience as the Executive Director of the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission, revenue director and budget director for the City of Chicago provided him the experience to deal with Bridgeport’s financial woes, he lacked training as an educator.

Vallas has a number of supporters on the Bridgeport Board of Education, and his ouster has received the attention from the state and national press. There are articles and editorials, mostly positive about his work in Bridgeport. The editorial headline from the Hartford Courant (7/25/13) was particularly sympathetic: Why Make It So Hard For Paul Vallas To Help Bridgeport Schools? Qualifications shouldn’t obstruct a promising superintendent

It would be a blow to the city of Bridgeport’s school system and its 21,000 students if Paul Vallas is not permitted to stay on as superintendent. Someone of Mr. Vallas’ experience and gravitas is just what the doctor ordered for the city’s ailing school system.

While I know little about Vallas’s efforts to improve the school system in Bridgeport, I was particularly attentive to several comments that followed this editorial discussing the role of the state’s colleges and university programs. These comments made clear that academic institutions should be concerned when their undergraduate and graduate education certificate programs are being discounted at the highest level.

Educators in the Constitution State spend time and money at state colleges and universities to meet the requirements for teacher and administrator certifications. Even the state-run Alternate Route to Certification (ARC) for those entering the profession with degrees other than education has been made more demanding. There are special graduate certificate programs offered at different institutions (Administrator-092, Literacy Specialist-097, Superintendent-093) each with requirements of extensive coursework of 30 credits or more.

In addition, CT SDE requires that educators provide all transcripts and results from subject area texts (PRAXIS II); these cost educators time and money. CT SDE website also states:

All prospective administrators enrolled in Connecticut administrator preparation programs seeking a recommendation for the Initial Educator Certification for Intermediate Administration or Supervision (#092) must pass the CAT (Connecticut Administrators Test) in order to be certified.

All administrators prepared outside of Connecticut with fewer than 3 years within the last 10 years of administration experience who apply for the Initial Educator Certification for Intermediate Administration or Supervision (#092) must pass the CAT. An applicant recommended by an out-of-state institution may be eligible for a one-year deferral of the CAT.

Paul Vallas did not meet these requirements.

The controversy has captured the opinions of state politicians, educators, and reached the federal level with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, siding with Vallas. They argue in the press over what Vallas has done for Bridgeport, or what he has accomplished outside of the state.

A more serious far reaching problem, however, is this example of the State of Connecticut’s unequal application of certification requirements to educators. If a certificate is not necessary for a high-profile educator to work as an administrator in the state, why have the requirement at all? If education course work is unnecessary, why should the state’s colleges and universities offer courses at all? And if there is no need for certificates or coursework, why have I paid money to the state to keep my teaching and administration certificates updated?

In Connecticut, the land of steady habits, inequalities in certification requirements make the state a little less steady.

Most stakeholders only have the experience of one point of view…from the student desk.

This coming week (May 7-11, 2012) is Teacher Appreciation Week. There will be the customary newspaper coverage of favorite teacher stories,  the hashtag #thankateacher will trend on Twitter, and celebrities will post videos thanking teachers as the most important influences in their lives. These are all wonderful and appropriate tributes to the profession that prepares our nation’s youth to become productive citizens.

But for the other 51 weeks of the year, the teaching profession is struggling under serious criticism. According to the National Education Association (NEA) website:

  • There are 3,232,813 teachers in K-12 public schools, and about 16 percent of these positions become vacant each year.
  • Forty-five percent of new teachers abandon the profession in their first five years.
  • More teachers believe collaborating with colleagues is essential to their work, but many districts still don’t provide time for teachers to learn, share and collaborate.
  • Teachers’ salaries still lag behind those for other occupations requiring a college degree, and the pay gap is growing larger.

The teaching profession dedicated to educating the nation has done a terrible job at self-promotion. Teachers today have failed to educate the public about the value of this great vocation in the same manner that they failed to teach the value of teaching to previous generations, most notably the parents and grandparents of students in schools today.  The result is that the very public that teachers need to enlist in support of the teaching profession is not confident in meeting the criticisms being leveled at educators today.

There is increasing negative political attention turned on the teaching profession. For example, in-between statements of  support for teachers, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was quoted as saying, “They [teachers] only work 180 days,” voicing the popular perception that teachers work only part time.
Of course, there is evidence that counter his claims that teachers do not work that hard; the Wall Street Journal listed a series of facts about the teaching profession in the June 2011 article, Number of the Week: U.S. Teachers’ Hours Among World’s Longest:
  • U.S. educators work 1,097 hours teaching in the classroom, the most of any industrialized nation measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  • American teachers work 1,913 hours a year, just shy of the U.S. average of 1,932 per year.
  • U.S. teachers are slightly more likely to work at home than private-sector workers, the U.S. Labor Department found. They aren’t paid to work weekends but are as likely to do so as private-sector employees — including those scheduled to work Saturdays and Sundays.
In my own state of Connecticut, during the February 2012 State of the State speech, Governor Dannel Malloy made a commitment to educational reform in one breath, and then slammed teachers and the practice of tenure in the next breath saying, “Basically the only thing you [teachers] have to do is show up for four years. Do that, and tenure is yours.” Not surprisingly, his educational  legislation promoting teacher evaluation reform is currently being met with serious resistance by the Connecticut State Teacher’s Union. Politics is polarizing the profession.
This negative attention is dangerous if schools are interested in attracting quality candidates to the teaching  profession. In his opinion piece in the 5/6/12 NYTimes “Teaching Me About Teaching” Charles M. Blow sounded this alarm pointing out,  “A big part of the problem is that teachers have been so maligned in the national debate that it’s hard to attract our best and brightest to see it as a viable and rewarding career choice, even if they have a high aptitude and natural gift for it.” His editorial was accompanied by statistics of the top tier college graduates who will not choose teaching for economic and social reasons; only 37% of responders believed a career in teaching is considered successful.
The irony is that for years teachers have not been effective advocates for their work. Teachers have demonstrated but not taught their students the rigors of teaching; the assumption is that the experience of being a student speaks for the entire profession. Certainly, all occupations have practitioners that can make work look easy to an uninformed public. Any product- a building, a meal, a vaccine, a championship trophy -cannot fully inform the public of the individual or collaborative preparation to make that product a reality. In addition, all work requires some level of training. Teachers study about their craft first at college and later implement these lessons in classrooms. However, the classroom is crucible, a brutal training ground that disputes the notion that “anyone can teach”  as almost half the nation’s new teachers vote for the profession with their feet, leaving within the first five years.

Being a student is only 1/2 of the educational relationship; teachers need to teach the significance of their role


For decades, K-12 teachers have collectively prepared students for careers in the sciences, in mathematics, in the arts, in the humanities, and in the industrial arts. Yet, in preparing students for careers beyond the classroom, there has been no direct instruction on the methodology on the craft of instruction for student learning. Consider how little students today understand about how much time and cognitive effort a teacher has to expend for each lesson plan. Day after day, period after period, students participate in an academic enterprise without acknowledging the multiple components that teachers have included in its construction: IEPs, multiple/emotional  intelligence strategies, Bloom’s levels of understanding, technology, curriculum content, available resources and facility limitations to name a few.
Teaching is challenging work, and in their commitment to provide the nation with all manner of numeracy and literacy skills, teachers have failed to express and assess student understanding of teaching. Students at all grade levels in public or private schools today have little understanding of the increasing demands of the teaching profession which now include incorporating Common Core State Standards, integrating technology for 21st Century Skills, and increasing scrutiny in newly designed evaluations. Ultimately, teachers have failed to communicate the significance of their contributions to a productive society that will result in recruiting the best and the brightest to the profession.
The public’s understanding of education often comes as a “recipient in the desk “point of view, not from the perspective of the teacher charged with engaging and educating every student. Unless the public is persuaded that teachers are critical for our democratic society, the profession will continue to suffer economically and socially. After basking in the attention from stories of the positive influence they have had on on the lives of individual students during Teacher Appreciation Week, teachers need to integrate one more lesson to their repertoire. How ironic that teachers must teach the significance of teaching.