Everyone is An Expert

Something scary has been happening during the last ten years or so as we teachers have been dutifully working hard to nurture, encourage and educate our students:  Schools have slowly merged into businesses.  Why did most of us choose education as a major in college while many of our friends went the business route?  It was not for the money, which may have been a source of contention with others who called us crazy for not choosing a more lucrative career field.  It was certainly not for the Christmas bonuses nor the expensive business trips.  No.  It was for the chance to work with kids, it was for the chance to be creative and to develop lesson plans, it was for the chance to see struggling students find some success and to learn new ideas, it was for the chance to work in a profession in which you have the sacred opportunity to help change someone’s life.  I knew going into this that there would be many lean years and I’ve never been bitter about the fact that twenty years later, I am only now making as much as some of the business majors made upon graduation.  We all make our choices and I love my job; to me, that is worth it.

What I am a little bitter about is the fact that now businesses, politicians and others are swooping into our schools like the proverbial superheroes to fix all that ails us.  They are donning their capes and opening charter schools and touting the benefits of online schools, they are creating standardized tests with the help of big-business publishing companies which do not truly reflect a student’s ability and knowledge and they are begrudging teachers our benefits and unions.  I do not want to get into a huge political debate – that is not my intent here.  But I do want to point out the fact that I’ve always been bothered by those who are not educators claiming to have the knowledge of educators simply because they, too, went through the public school system.  Really?  I’ve been to a hospital many times, but never would I claim to have the wisdom to run a hospital.  I’ve visited Washington, D.C., but because of my time spent there, would I have the expertise to take over the capital, or for that matter, the country?  Of course not.  I respect what others do as well as respect the time and schooling which went into their working at that particular job. I personally have no desire to cut people open for surgery, but you can be sure that I am so happy there are people who have the expertise and the know-how to do just that!  I would never want to run our country, but am grateful that Mr. Obama is willing to do so.  My point:  Educators are trained professionals as well and should be treated as such.

However, there is another and perhaps, more important, entity at stake with the intrusion of business and politicians and that would be the students.  The following video called “Kids for Sale”    prompted my writing about this.  It was eye-opening for me and made me think about the ramifications to students, to teachers, to administrators and to parents if education continues in this direction.  I feel for these students and as a parent myself, I have witnessed the stresses these kids experience under the stifling weight of testing.  My youngest daughter spent weeks this past school year studying for the OAA’s (which I do not even know what that stands for nor do I care).  She would come home from school and spend countless hours filling out packets of worksheets to help her prepare for the upcoming tests and as I read the many notes from her teachers about the tests, I could read between the lines and feel the pressure being put upon them.  These test scores were not only an assessment of the students, but of them as teachers.  These scores would be calculated into their Value-Added score and would by some mathematical formula magically compute their value as a teacher and to the district.  Really?  How about the fact that my daughter’s teacher allowed some of the quieter students to eat in her room at lunch to avoid the chaos of the cafeteria because she knew how frightening that can be to some students?  Was her empathetic nature put into her Value-Added score?  How about the fact that my daughter’s teacher allowed her complete freedom in creating book projects to nurture her creative side?  Was that in the magic formula?  No.  But those test scores were and I really feel for her and the pressure she is under as an educator.

My daughter did not pass the math section of these mysterious OAA’s.  And truthfully, the only reason I cared was because of the reflection on her teacher in her Value-Added score.  I know my daughter struggles in math; she will always have to work harder than most in learning math concepts, but she is a proficient reader and passed that section with flying colors.  My husband and I haven’t even told her yet about the score and we are not sure if we will since it will only serve to make her feel badly.  But one bad test score does not a poor student make.  My daughter is creative, imaginative and loves to write stories and make up plays with her friends.  This is what I want to see nurtured in her as a student, not her ability to take standardized tests; creativity and strong language skills are what will serve her well in her career and life.  Dear Big Business, when interviewing prospective employees, have you ever asked them how well they did on their math section on the OAA’s?  I think not.  Please remember that as you line your pockets with taxpayer dollars as you “fix” our ailing schools.

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The Struggles of Teaching Writing in High School

I am taking a graduate class this summer which is about teaching writing.  The class got into a heated discussion last night about the differences between what we, as middle and high school teachers, need to teach versus what is expected to be taught at the college-level.  The idea of structured writing which focuses on formulaic structure with emphasis on correct grammar and spelling conventions was a hot topic, especially when Common Core Standards and standardized testing rest upon the shoulders of public school teachers around the country.  Should we focus on strictly content, or should we emphasize the correct writing conventions?  Should we allow spelling and grammatical errors to cloud the quality of the writing and lower the grade if the content is excellent?  It was an interesting discussion and here is my response to the issue:
The teaching of writing is such a subjective concept.  While one teacher or professor may love one style of writing, another could possibly hate it and criticize it, all the while cutting down the student’s confidence and killing their love of writing.  Therein lies the constant struggle as an English teacher.  When and how to grade for grammatical and structural issues within a writing piece and when to focus strictly on the content in order to give students a broad scope of the writing process so they will be prepared for most anything.  I’m not sure there is a correct answer for this problem nor will there ever be.

Having taught high school for many years, I feel I have a pretty decent grasp of how most high school students write (I would never categorize all students under one sweeping adjective since every student is different and should be recognized as such).  Many struggle with sentence structure and organization; sometimes reading a high school paper is comparable to a wild treasure hunt – trying desperately to find the purpose, the theme, the true “meat” of the paper in a sea of unorganized and random thoughts.  Most high school students need help with basic organization, so I always make sure we get the traditional essay down first, especially the thesis statement.  It may sound old-fashioned or stuffy, but I have found this essay becomes essentially “training wheels” for the students; it forces them to write in a more rigid fashion, but in doing so, teaches them the basic outline or skeleton of a writing piece and they can eventually veer from this format once they are more confident with their writing.  And, yes, on first drafts I do check for spelling and grammar issues, however, I always make sure I give positive feedback as well.  I do take points off for these issues, but I do so to ensure students are aware of them and the issues don’t undermine the quality of the writing.  Here is my take on this:  I want to be completely honest and let the kids know what it is they need to work on within their own writing because many times they are not sure or they are simply unaware of certain writing rules and conventions.  It’s the equivalent to having a big chunk of spinach protruding from your front teeth and walking around all day and having not one single person inform you of the offensive green leaf shoved unceremoniously in your mouth.  I would want to know when there is spinach in my teeth just as students should know what it is that is ails their papers.  By not telling, we are not helping to save someone the embarrassment of green teeth nor are we being honest with our students about their writing.

On the other hand, I agree that students should experience writing many different types of papers.  Simply writing the same tired and dreary five-paragraph essay over and over does not a good writer make.  We write novels during November’s National Writing Month, we write narrative pieces, we do many free-writes to start class; I really do try to mix up the types of assignments.  This is important to do so in order to play to the strengths of different learners in the classroom since I always have my left-brain students who love research and the structure of a thesis paper and my right-brainers who thrive with the creative assignments.  Balance.  If I were to describe what epitomizes an effective classroom in one word, it would be “balance”.  Kids have to work hard, learn the conventions, get upset when I give some constructive feedback, call me bad names in their heads, rewrite, edit, revise, be proud of the final draft, like me again as a teacher, gain confidence as a writer, then go out, have some fun with the writing and break the rules!  They need to be able to party with the proverbial lampshade on their heads with their writing, only after they’ve completed all the grunt work beforehand.  Then, I can send them off to college knowing that they have the confidence to write in many different ways with the freedom that they will be given outside the walls of a high school.  Image