Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Preppie Handbook

Most people outside of education don’t know much about one of the biggest headaches in the school world: the “master schedule.” The master schedule involves making sure that every student in the building is in an appropriate class for every period of the day. Given the number of students, the number of course offerings, the number of interventions that struggling students need, the number of accelerated courses that high-achieving students need, the number of courses that occur in other buildings, the fact that people need to eat lunch, and so on, it’s a miracle that any schedule anywhere actually exists. The seemingly simple addition of one course elective to a master schedule can upset the apple cart of every course for a particular grade level. Thus, to manage this nightmare, administrators and counselors must prioritize various course options and student groups, never to the satisfaction of everyone.

Once the computerized scheduling program sorts kids into classes, teacher names are moved into slots that determine who teaches what. When secondary teachers receive their schedules for the coming year, they typically pray for one thing: very few preps.

A “prep” is each separate course that a teacher teaches in a day. For example, last year, during first semester, I taught one English 11 class, one Honors English 11 class, and one English 10 class in a day, thus yielding three preps and a planning block. The second semester of that year, I taught three English 11 classes, thus yielding me that Holy Grail of High School, one prep and a planning block. I am here to tell you, however, that despite the appearance of my schedule sheet, I have never truly had one prep. Ever. None of us has. The notion of having “one prep” is a myth, a myth that increasingly worries me.

For the first several years of my career, I almost never taught two sections of the same course in a semester. I typically had a different prep for each period of the day. In English, those multiple preps present various challenges: knowing the texts available for each grade level, knowing the pieces in each grade-level anthology, knowing the grade-level writing requirements for each grade, and so forth. Having more than one prep undeniably involves more work, organizationally speaking.

When I say that I have never taught one prep, though, I mean this: We should not teach several sections of the same course in the same way or at the same pace. Each individual class is a different prep (regardless of its label) because the intellectual work involved in meeting each class’s needs is where the real work happens, and that work should never be uniform across groups of students. If we are ever to move forward in differentiating instruction to meet student needs (our ethical obligation to each child), then we must examine each period of the day individually, each class mix, each student, each situation differently.

Last year, I (the Queen of Preps) actually requested having only one prep. I asked my principal at my former school to give me all English 11, the course where I think the rubber will ultimately meet the assessment road as we move further along in Common Core implementation. I wanted to focus my energy on one set of books, one set of standards, while trying to figure out some key pieces of the puzzle. He honored that request except for that one English 10 (a long story involving a lunatic, classroom scissors, and the word “insidious” that I can share with you over a stiff drink someday). One would think my life was much easier that year as a result of so few preps, but in reality, I learned more convincingly than ever that giving a course the same name has no bearing on how differently each period plays out with different kids.

When I taught “one prep,” I was rarely ever on the same lesson on the same day with those classes. They voted on different major works to read, they chose different writing prompts, they progressed at widely different rates on everything. You know why? Because they are humans, not slots to fill in a schedule. Had they progressed uniformly, I would have found myself stuck in a science fiction story (and I don’t like science fiction, as a rule). They progressed differently because they are different, and handling those differences is my responsibility.

In tandem with this idea of the “one prep” myth is the fact that I think sticking to one prep, one grade level, or one student type is dangerous. We should all teach multiple grade levels during the same semester. We should all teach both advanced courses and intervention courses during the same semester. My reasoning for this is twofold:

1.      When you focus on one student type, you lose perspective. After a day filled with freshmen, you start to think that all kids have the immaturity problems that your freshmen have. After a day filled with honors kids, you think that all kids have the needy helicopter moms that those kids often do. You make dangerous generalizations about students and parents and humanity. We need a balance of people to keep us in balance.

2.    When you only experience one student type, you start prioritizing sameness in your instruction of them. When you have “one prep,” keeping every class on the same lesson plan on the same day becomes important when it really shouldn’t be. Uniformity becomes valued, and that’s bad. We will never learn to differentiate if we prioritize uniformity and sameness as instructional goals.

Of all the blog posts I’ve written, I expect this one to be one of my least popular with my colleagues. I’m fine with that. I struggle with differentiation every day. I wish I could have students who progressed in the same ways at the same times in the same semesters in the same rooms. That is just not going to happen. It is not real. It is not true. “One prep” is a myth, a myth that often keeps us from growing and understanding more about how students learn.

People (including me) tell themselves little lies all the time, lies that attempt to help them make sense of the world. A Big Lie we tell ourselves in education is that if we have one prep, if our kids are the same types of kids, if our lessons are the same for every class, if everything is the same, we won’t lose our minds. Once we start to believe that different kids are going to behave uniformly because we want them to, that sanity ship has sailed. We are pursuing the illusion of sanity through the myth of "one prep" instead of pursuing genuine sanity--seeing the world as the complicated and magical mess that it is.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Wo-Man of Steel

You want to control me, and you can't, but that doesn't make me your enemy.
--Superman, Man of Steel

George Clooney is a great movie star (for obvious cocktail-wielding, Dean Martin-esque reasons), but Russell Crowe is my favorite actor. His intensity, his larger-than-life screen presence, his believability in every role: the man can say and do nutty things in public all he wants—I’m on board.

Thus, 2013 was a good year for me. Russell Crowe movies were in abundance, including his supporting role as Superman’s biological father in the reboot, Man of Steel. (This is probably the point where you want to say something snarky about Mr. Crowe in Les Miserables. I don’t want to hear it. Regardless of what you thought of his singing—which I found to be charming and perfectly appropriate—if you missed what he was doing as an actor, what was going on behind those eyes, then you missed the boat. He acted the treble clefs off of everyone in that production. So shut it.) But I digress.

And his eyes. Oh, the eyes….

Like any fangirl worth her salt, I was there for Man of Steel on opening weekend, ready for Crowe’s Jor-El to be not only hotter than an exploding planet but also full of gravitas. If anyone could make the Superman story ring true, it’s Russell Crowe. And his eyes. Oh, the eyes…. Imagine my delight to find the entire film to be very engaging and to delve into some interesting issues of identity, ethics, and the love and sacrifices of two sets of very different parents for the same child. One line has stuck with me since I saw that film, and I have found myself referencing it in more than a few professional interactions:

“You want to control me, and you can't. But that doesn't make me your enemy.”

In that scene, Superman (played by young and handsome Henry Cavill) surrenders to U.S. authorities who want to turn him over to evil General Zod as part of a deal to save the rest of the world from Zod’s wrath. Superman turns himself in, but he very candidly calls the U.S. military authorities on their naive and fear-based decision-making. An uneasy trust forms between Superman and these military men. The basis of that tension is the fact that the seeming subordinate (the captive Superman) speaks the truth to his seeming superior (the U.S. government); the superior doesn’t enjoy Superman’s candor, but he respects it.

The tension that comes from dealing straight with people makes everyone uncomfortable, and, in education culture, I find that tension to be so terrifying that few people truly say what they mean and mean what they say. I do not believe that deceit is anyone’s intention. I believe that most teachers are “people-persons” and as such are very skilled in playing nice with the other kids. We learned in school (where educators tend to have excelled themselves) that talking back to your authority figures was not only punished but made the backtalker one of the “bad kids.” Most teachers cannot handle ever being perceived as the bad kid. They just can’t do it. It gives them a rash.

Thus, often, in important discussions—about discipline, about grading, about intervention, about policy, about the copy machine—the minute the situation becomes tense, participants backpedal. The unspoken perception is that tension is bad, tension is mean, tension is not nice. The truth of the matter is that good decisions rarely come about without that tension, the uneasy discourse that occurs when smart and caring people disagree. So often in meetings I hear these words: “Well, we just need to do what is best for kids.” Well, not everyone agrees on what “best” is in a given situation, and only arguing the two sides can yield results. That phrase is deployed in so many similar situations that, whenever I hear it, I don’t think the speaker is redirecting us back to what is right; rather, I think that the speaker no longer wants to hear dissent. Dissenters feel shamed and shut right up when these words enter the discussion, regardless of whether continuing to disagree and hash it out is absolutely the right thing to do.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a culture that often discourages speaking truth to power (or, a phrase my husband taught me, “speaking truth to PowerPoint”), a culture in which teachers encourage this mindset as much (honestly, even more) than their leaders do. At this critical time in education, when truth is our only way to ensure that our current set of reforms ever does our students any good, we are still stuck in a top-down perception of power that makes us cower in the presence of superiors and then feel safe to trash-talk them in the faculty room. It leaves us with some leaders begging people to be honest with them (which I see quite a bit) and other leaders perceiving any disagreement as subversion and sabotage (which I see quite a bit, too). It leaves us all feeling paranoid and persecuted, and no good decision-making ever came from paranoia or persecution.

Like Russell Crowe, I tend to shoot my mouth off now and again. In social situations, I can be funny and charming and sweet and whatever, but if we’re having a conversation about kids, I lose my social filters. The same mouthiness that endears me to leaders who want to hear divergent opinions on issues is the same mouthiness that makes others feel like I am out to get them. That uneasy trust (or the absence of trust) is a daily part of my existence. Some people want to control me, and they can’t, but that doesn’t make me their enemy. The moral imperative of our profession (doing right by children) dictates that we learn to live with that tension. The ultimate authority over us all is that moral imperative, and we need to embrace the challenge and agony of arguing with people in authority concerning any issue involving kids.

I have no x-ray or heat vision, I have no super physical strength, and I am not immune to injury, but I have a voice, and I need to use it. Using that voice may cost me (professionally or perhaps even personally sometimes), but doing what is right almost never involves doing what is easy. Like the U.S. military in Man of Steel, my superiors and fellow teachers may not always understand when and why I choose to use my superpower, my voice. That tension doesn’t make me their enemy. That tension makes me an ally they can trust.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Clean Slate

The Cleaner

My husband is a cleaner; I am a picker-upper. You want this house vacuumed and mopped? Talk to him. You want the person in this house who regularly shuts cabinet doors, picks up underwear off the floor, and throws out old food in the pantry? Talk to me. I love getting rid of messes. I love giving stuff away. I love the feeling of open space, a new environment, a clean slate in the brain. Except for my relationships (which I tend to keep around for inordinately long periods of time), I am a slougher-offer. This tendency applies to school, too.

My school runs on a 90-minute semester block schedule, and I love it. Despite my undying love of teaching freshmen (something that makes me a bit of a rarity in the high school world), I do not want to teach in one of our freshman academies because those programs run on 45-minute year-long classes. When it comes to the short periods, I just can’t hang. Planning for the block is more arduous in some ways, of course, but there is a key reason I like it: midway through the year, I get a clean slate. At the change of semesters, I receive all-new kids, I reorganize my classroom (even when I don’t need to), and I start anew. A new school year in the middle of winter: I love that.

Every fall, I try new methods, new approaches, new resources, and I make mistakes with them every day. That clean slate in January allows me to act on those mistakes more quickly, to figure out yet another new approach, to fine-tune, fine-tune, fine-tune. During that second semester, I make mistakes again and then turn it around the next fall. This approach has become my own circle of life, if you will, an approach that makes me more innovative, makes me less wedded to what’s easy instead of what’s right, and keeps me more on my game.  

I was chatting with my beloved friend of 40 years this morning about home d├ęcor. We both want less stuff, less color, less of everything in our homes now. Fifteen years ago, when our kids were tiny and we were trying to make these houses we had purchased into homes, we were constantly filling them up with furniture, with toys, with memories. Now that’s we’re in (gasp!) middle age, we are stripping down (or trying to—those pesky kids still live here, you know). We know what we care about and what we do not care about, and we want the former to stay and the latter to go.

As I hit the middle of my 14th year of teaching, I think I am in middle age in my career now, too. I no longer sign up for every possible program or committee or summer opportunity anymore. I no longer feel the need to fill up my brain with everything in the instructional world. As with my house, I am trying to strip down, to get to the heart of what I care about, to slough off the stuff that I used to think was so important but turned out not to be in the end. Some of that mess just needs to go.

I am writing this piece as my beloved husband (The Cleaner) removes the cabinet doors from my upper kitchen cabinets. We renovated that room about 16 years ago, and the doors (our cheapest cabinet option at the time) aren’t what they used to be. I could reface or replace them, but in looking through Pinterest and English Country Living magazine, I see that a kitchen can look cute as a button with no cabinet doors at all. (The Cleaner is also The Money, and he likes the cost of this option a great deal.) So, honey, it’s a snow day, and I’m going to reorganize those cabinets, get rid of dishes I don’t need, and put those doors in the basement. When I get back to school on Monday, I’ll count down the last few days I have with the first-semester angels that I adore, but then I’ll metaphorically take the cabinet doors off there, too. It’s a new year, a new me, and I want a clean slate.

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