Education, schools, and teaching

Teaching, testing, or creativity. Which one gets sacrificed?


I write the following as the personal opinion of a citizen. I'm very conscientious about not criticizing things in my profession. However, my wife asked me about something today that suddenly made me realize that I needed to say something. I realized that I needed to speak as a citizen, parent, and educator about something that everyone knows, but that so many with the ability to change things have ignored. Testing is killing teaching. Testing is killing creativity. Testing is killing a love of learning. Yet, sadly, testing isn't going anywhere.

My wife asked me if I knew about some sort of international recognition day that had to do with creativity. To be honest, it wasn't something that would have been likely to come up in my middle school class. It sounded like something that would have been used in younger grades. However, after she asked me, I realized how little creativity I have been making use of in my class over the past several years. It isn't that my class is intentionally unimaginative. What has become the problem is that the results of the high-stakes testing towards the end of the year has come to be so important that creating lessons that don't conform to what is likely to be on the tests hurts my students, my school, and myself. When your student's ability to take part in certain classes, or your school's reputation, or your own income or job security are based largely on the results of a single test, you don't dare to try and do anything outside of the realm of specifications for that test. This results in almost robotic adherence to exactly what you see on practice test questions or the precise words of the standards. The wiggle room is gone.

There are lots of political footballs and buzzwords that have dealt with this topic. Sometimes the number of tests are attacked. Other times, people try to blame new sets of standards like Common Core. Still others say that teachers are spoiled or lazy and just don't want to be held accountable in their job. The truth is that none of these are the true problem. Cutting down on how many tests or practice tests is certainly useful, but it doesn't get rid of the end-all be-all importance placed on the test results. Common Core isn't to blame. Teachers have always had to teach from a set of standards, and those standards have never been able to please everyone. After fifteen years in the profession, I can say that any true teacher that I have worked with has never complained about true, reliable accountability for their work. That brings us back to the weight placed on testing and the changes that it has brought to the classroom.

At this point, some of you may be asking what you can do about it. Well, there have been a few things that I have seen that are counterproductive. If you are a parent, trying to "opt out" of testing won't change things. In many places it isn't an option and it doesn't send the right message to the people that can actually change things. If you are a teacher, trying to publicly point out the problems with testing won't work either. It just looks like employees complaining about their job. The difference can be made by showing that we care long before the tests are put on the desks of the student.

We must get involved early. It starts with elections. Teachers and administrators do not make the tests or give them the weight that they do. Elected and appointed officials are the ones that make the difference. Some of this is done at the national level, but most of the decisions come from the local and state level. Study, get involved, and vote intelligently. After election day, stay involved. Standards, bills involving education, and even the textbooks used in the schools are all open to public discussion. Get involved in those discussions. Something that has happened with educators, parents, and even officials is that they don't point out the problems with a situation until after it has already been discussed, voted on, and approved. The old horse is already out of the barn when we try to close the gate.

I want to start being creative in my assignments again. I want my students to start being able to use their inherent creativity to enjoy learning more. I want the students to stop feeling the crushing stress that becomes a normal part of their day in the spring. I know that I'm not alone in this. We must act intelligently to bring a love of learning back into the schools and into our students' lives.

When it comes to teaching writing today, where is the love?


The school year is just about to begin for my students. Like seems to be the case far too often, there are new requirements for what to teach and how this year. The new requirements call for more reading and a whole lot more writing in all subjects. As a writer you would think that I am happy with this. Well, as a social studies teacher, I certainly am. I think that students can benefit greatly from learning how to write informatively. As a writer, I’m not quite as thrilled. The thing that I’m concerned about, as a writer, is that we aren’t quite teaching the love. I’m going to borrow some lines from Joss Whedon here to make my point. You can know all of the grammar and tools for proving a thesis in the 'verse, but if you don’t have love then writing may shake you right off as surely as the worlds turn. I worry that as the students get older, we are requiring less and less creativity from them. Non-fiction writing is a crucial skill in today’s world, and I don’t think that it should be less emphasized. However, fictional, creative writing seems to be falling away. I fear that we may be taking the love from the writing, and if that’s the case, then writing may become a matter of nothing more than work for future students. Writing will shake us right off from a lack of love.

I am not recommending any kind of change in standards or anything like that, nor is this any kind of complaint against current standards. This is a plea to the teachers, parents, and writers out there. Even if it isn’t in the standards or expectations, we need to make certain and instill some of that love for writing into our children. Many students love to read, but I wonder if any of them realize that it is up to them in the future to provide the stories that the next generation will read. If we don’t try to instill some of that love into the students, then the next generation may not have the gripping stories to mesmerize them that previous generations have enjoyed. I teach some creative writing as an enrichment course. Do I think that everyone in there leaves with a love of writing? Absolutely not! But if I can get three or four students a year to gain an appreciation for writing and maybe help foster a talent they have for it, then I feel that I have accomplished what I set out to do.

We certainly need to teach our students how to write and explain things with informative texts. It is a skill that they need to learn. But to my fellow teachers, parents, and writers out there, try to find the opportunity to instill a love for writing whenever you can. That is something that many of the children want to learn. That’s important for their futures, too.

A question to followers

I apologize for not having a new blog entry yesterday. Been a busy time in my household. I have a question for you all. I'm considering trying to do a video blog once a week. Do any of you follow a vlog or do one yourself? What do you think about them? 

Positive outlook

I wanted to share a positive outlook that only a teacher can have. One of my coworkers recently said "I had one student that had so much difficulty on a test that I stopped marking things wrong and started circling the things that they got right. That way when I gave it back to them I could say, 'Here's what all you got correct.'"

Can you teach someone how to write?

Everyone appreciates talent. The problem with talent is that those with a talent cannot understand why others can't do the same things that they can do. Why can't I walk on my hands? (Probably because I can barely walk on my feet!) Why aren't I a good basketball player? (Probably because I have a total lack of coordination) Why can't you draw? (See previous excuse) So if a talent is something that not everyone is capable of, can we teach people how to write? note to make writers

Many schools have courses or clubs that center around creative writing. I myself have run a club of that nature before and I am currently working with students daily on the same subject. Does that mean that writing is a talent different from other talents? Can the talent of writing be taught? If so, then is there hope for me at basketball, drawing, and maybe even walking on my hands? (I could also use lessons in social skills, but that is a subject for an entirely different post.) To answer that, we need to look at what is taught in creative writing.

I am not certified to teach creative writing. I don't teach a credit course on the subject. What I do try to pass on to those in the club or in spare time at school are a few skills and ideas that can help improve writing. I try to get hopeful writers to spend more time working on their characters and less time working on plot lines and twists in their stories. I show them how to create deeper and more believable characters. I talk with them about how to critique someone's work and how to work with a critique of their own work. All of this is intended to help the perspective writers grow. I do believe that a lot of people reading this can learn how to write. It is a matter of skills, and skills can come from instruction and practice. There are lots of resources. Speak to the people around you. I would bet good money that you know someone who considers themselves an amateur writer. Look around on the internet. There are all kinds of sites that are made to assist writers. It is out there.

So, if I believe that lots of people can be writers, why aren't we inundated with amazing writers all day, every day. Please note my careful wording. I said that a lot of people can be writers. I didn't say that everyone can be an amazing writer. Most people who consider themselves writers do so because they enjoy writing and find pleasure in it. They would love to write a best-selling novel, but whether they do or not, they will continue writing for the joy of it. They have learned some skills and they make use of them. These are the writers I'm talking about. I count myself among them. The amazing writers do have a talent that probably cannot be taught.

OK, even with that distinction, why don't we have a lot more writers. For the same reason I'm not a good basketball player: drive and determination. A writer wants to write. They do it for joy. They do it as their outlet. They do it for their readers, however small the number. Without that drive, you never put pen to paper, just as I never put on tennis shoes and work on my lay-up (which is a moment of epic slapstick comedy). So, to answer the question of whether you can teach someone to write, I say: You can lead someone to the keyboard, but you can't make them type.

Packaging matters!

package There are lots of time in education when it almost feels like "us against them." Of course, the "them" varies with the situation. Always remind yourself as an educator that for every one challenge that you face, there are always a dozen silent supporters thankful for what you are doing for them, their children, or the community. Additionally, always try to see their point of view. You see things that they don't every day, but the opposite is true as well.

Unfortunately, social media and the media in general allow for a very vocal and public opposition to schools, policies, or even individual teachers. As a social studies teacher, I don't even see this as any real problem because the freedom of speech is only useful if there is a way for people to hear you. The problem occurs when these vocal critics are ill-informed or misinformed. It is very hard to win back a good reputation for a school or teacher if it has been tarnished, and it doesn't matter if that tarnish is caused by inaccurate information. So, is there a solution to this problem?

The honest answer is "Maybe." While I haven't had much opportunity yet to test this theory, I truly believe that many of these criticisms can be headed off with proper packaging of the school, its programs, and even individual teacher's classes. It is very easy to cut off unwarranted criticism of a school if you simply provide a link to a local news article detailing how the school is already working on that problem. Consistent releases of information about school events, interesting classroom projects, etc. can also provide great packaging for a school that you only see from the inside, while most others only see it from the outside.

Naturally, this means more work for some members of the faculty. With the constant addition of more and more responsibilities, no one wants to volunteer for more burdens. However, if educators aren't their own cheerleaders, who will be? News stories don't happen on their own. Find a couple of teachers willing to learn how to write press releases. Better yet, have some teachers learn how to write press releases and pass that knowledge on to students in a journalism club. Write stories, take pictures, and flood the local papers with them. Put information on the schools website often. Inundate social media with everything that you school is doing and doing well. You don't have to be able to do a backflip to be a cheerleader for teachers.

Criticism is how we learn, and any good teacher or administrator is willing to listen to criticism that will help them grow. However, criticism about things that have already been addressed or that suppose information is factual when it isn't can harm the reputation of everyone involved. Some good packaging for your school and classroom can not only prevent unwarranted difficulties, but create more pride in your school and class as well.

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The teacher's secret to staying sane...

What I am about to tell you is obvious. It is something that will not amaze you or put you in awe of my remarkable intellectual and creative abilities. What it might cause you to do is face-palm yourself if you are an educator and did not think of this before. There is a simple way to promote stress relief among teachers that doesn't require a miracle or a prescription. One of the teachers in your school, preferably one in each group of classrooms, needs to maintain a stress drawer. In that drawer should be one of the basic necessities of life: chocolate. snack

I cannot take credit for the stress drawer that I help maintain for my fellow 8th grade teachers. It was started before I got to the school. I do try my best to maintain it, though. Here is how it works: One individual with a lot of willpower, or who is not too negatively impacted by sweets, should clear out one drawer in a filing cabinet. That drawer should probably be in a lockable cabinet. Then, with the help and donation of other teachers, the drawer should be filled with comfort food. I have found a variety of Little Debbie and Hostess snacks to be the most economical and effective choices, although hitting the clearance aisles after a holiday can result in some very tasty options. Kit Kats seem to be the guilty pleasure of choice this year. All of the teachers in your group should know where the drawer is. When the day is going roughly, a quick run to the stress drawer can get you through the rest of the day.

This is not going to solve any educational issues in this nation. It certainly isn't a panacea (I've always wanted to use that word) for all of the difficulties faced by the modern educator. What it will do is give a small outlet for stress as well as create a social experience among the teachers. I received a message today from a fellow teacher in the school that she and her student teacher were facing a chocolate emergency. I sprang into action and made certain that they got the chocolate that they need and felt glad that I was able to bring a smile to their faces. See? I didn't even eat the chocolate and found some stress relief. I wonder if they have a stress drawer like this in the White House, Kremlin, or Parliament Building? Imagine the world crises we could solve!

Waiting on inspiration...


Yesterday I visited a new blog being written by a young lady in college. She enjoys writing, but that is not the full-time career she is pursuing. Instead, she is currently majoring to be an elementary school teacher. You can read the post that caught my eye here This blog post reminded me a lot of a question that I and other veteran teachers get asked pretty regularly: would you recommend teaching as a career to a student today? Everyone has their own opinion. Many of us that are cynical will reply that we would never recommend this career to someone today because of the current political climate of "blame the teacher" or whatever difficulties are going on in their local district. Still others, almost with tears in their eyes, will reply that it is the greatest job you could ever have because you get to see the light in children's eyes as they learn. I'm not denigrating or disagreeing with either of these answers. Sometimes it depends on the grade level that you teach. Sometimes it depends on the school you teach in. Sometimes it even depends on what time of day you ask the question.

So, as a teacher, what would I answer. My answer is that it depends on who you are. This career is not for everyone. There are those that believe that anyone can be qualified to be a teacher. There are even those that believe that teaching shouldn't be a career, but instead something else you do after you have a lot of experience in another field. I say that people who subscribe to those beliefs haven't been in charge of a classroom. The truth is that teaching requires a special type of person that has a very specific kind of patience. It isn't necessarily the patience to do your grading or deal with upset parents or politicians making policies that pile more onto your workload, although that patience is necessary as well. You have to be the kind of person that has patience to wait for inspiration.

Inspiration for a teacher usually comes from only one place: our students. Better pay would be wonderful. More respect from policymakers would be glorious. If you get into the field of education for either money or respect than you will not remain long, even if those things were in abundance. You have to be in education for your students or you will not stay. I don't mean that your entire life should center around your students. Heaven knows that teachers usually sacrifice their social lives for their careers. I mean that when the day is over and the lights are off and you are trying to find that blissful sleep, you should be able to bring a smile to your face because of something that a student has said for you. Some teachers are fortunate enough to find these little bits of inspiration every day with their students. A lot of the teachers of higher grade levels find the inspiration a little more rarely but just as powerfully when they receive a note, letter, e-mail, or contact from a former student that wants to thank them for some long forgotten gesture that helped steer that student in a new direction. This must be the fuel that keeps you going each day.

So whether or not I would recommend this career to someone depends on who that someone is. Are they someone who can wait for that inspiration? There are times when you might go for a full year or two before finding that inspiration again. Do you have the patience to stick it out, put everything you can into a school year that might be stressing you to inhuman levels, and still push your students towards success? If that one letter can inspire you for years, if that one smile or flicker of understanding can get you through the day, then welcome to the Teacher's Club. Our dues are steep, but membership definitely has its privileges.