Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Shaking up My Schoolroom

As I was tweeting on Twitter one night last spring, I noticed a barrage of tweets bearing the hashtag #dontfailme (a hashtag, for those of you who haven't discovered Twitter, is a way to “tag” tweets for easy searches and is created by using the # sign with the words running together without spaces or punctuation).  Curiosity won over me as I began to read these tweets, and I soon discovered people were tweeting about a special report CNN journalist Soledad O’Brien hosted entitled Don’t Fail Me:  Education in America.  In fact, so many people tweeted about this topic using the #dontfailme hashtag that it trended on May 15, meaning that it was one of the most popular hashtags being used on Twitter at any given point in time nationwide.  While this phenomenon impressed me, it also made me realize that I am not alone in my concern that education is in crisis mode.  I missed this report on May 15 but made sure to watch the re-airing later that same week.

Education in America:  Don't Fail Me Part 1
You can find other excerpts from this special on YouTube.

As O’Brien’s CNN special noted, the state of education in America is at a critical point now.  Look at any research or data, and you will find any number of alarming statistics ranging from only 16% of high school students enroll and complete Calculus (O’Brien) to approximately 1.2 million students fail to graduate from high school, more than half of whom are from minority groups (Alliance, p. 1).  In my opinion, the purpose of teaching and learning, is a “casserole dish”, if you will, of several ingredients:  developing engaging lessons, giving choices to students of how to present what they have learned, building rapport with students, giving feedback on student learning, and aiding students in developing resiliency.  Though different chefs may present arguments for different ingredients in the educational casserole, I feel the aforementioned ones make the most difference in my 22 years of experience.

While the end product of teaching is to provide society with productive and knowledgeable young adults who can build successful lives for themselves, teachers have to first impart this knowledge.  Schlechty states that it is no easy task as “. . . the world of the young and the world of adults have grown further and further away from each other” (2001, p 20). To educate students in today’s society, I feel you have to develop engaging lessons, give choices to students of how to present what they have learned, and build rapport with students.  

Teachers must keep students engaged as a part of learning.  I also feel it is important to give students choices in how they present the information they have learned.  It helps to make them feel independent and gives them more ownership.  Meeting with my students one-on-one to conference about options available to them and showing them quality examples of previous students’ work helps them decide on what they want to do.  Finally, in terms of teaching students, I believe that teachers MUST develop a rapport with their students.  Baruti Kafele notes that “. . . your students must actually like you if they are to do well in class—and in order for them to like you, you must show that you like them” (2009, p. 9).  Kafele is so emphatic on this point that he even asserts, “even a brilliant student needs a teacher who understands how to make solid connections with him” (p. xiv).  Developing relationships is quite important, and Schlechty documents that in order to provide engaging work, teachers “. . . must understand their students well enough to know which of these qualities are likely to be important to students . . .” (p. 107).  McLeod, Fisher, and Hoover maintain that a teacher’s classroom climate of learning is based on “. . . the relationships that are established between the teacher and students. . .” (p. 62).  As noted by these educators, students do not care what you know until they know that you care.

Teachers teach and students learn, or so we hope.  Even so, some best practices can help students learn better than others.  Brookhart (2008) did extensive research regarding teacher commentary on student work and found that “writing comments was more effective for learning than giving grades” (p. 7).  As an alternative teacher with smaller than average class sizes, I utilize this best practice on a daily basis and find that it does help.  My feedback comes in the form of written communication as well as verbal comments during one-on-one conferences.  The other strategy that I feel is vital is helping students, especially ones that are at-risk, to be resilient.  One of the crises that Kafele (2009) addresses in his book is the “self-crisis,” a term to describe the breakdown of an individual person.  If a student does not have a high self-esteem or a positive self-image or even a certain amount of self-discipline, he/she will not be very resilient, and resiliency is the key to overcoming setbacks, not only in an educational setting, but also in life.

Leading schools when you are not in a traditional administrative leadership position can sometimes lead to roadblocks in terms of school-wide change.  Even though I might not be able to change certain aspects of school organization and culture, I can still control what goes on within my four walls.  Also, by producing clear results via test scores, percentage of students finishing my courses with passing grades, etc. maybe others will take notice from my examples and make small changes in their own four walls.  Small changes can certainly lead to big results when it comes to teaching and learning, and when mixed properly make a darn good casserole!

Alliance for Excellent Education. (2009).  Retrieved from http:/ /www
Brookhart, S. M. (2008).  How to give effective feedback to your students.  Alexandria:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Kafele, B. K. (2009).  Motivating black males to achieve in school and in life
Alexandria:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
McLeod, J., Fisher, J., & Hoover, G. (2003).  The key elements of classroom management:
managing time and space, student behavior, and instructional
strategies.  Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
O’Brien, S. (2011). Don’t fail me: education in America.  CNN
Schlechty, P. C.  (2001). Shaking up the schoolhouse: how to support and sustain
educational innovation.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.


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