Saturday, November 12, 2011

Middle School: The Perfect Storm

When we middle school teachers alert other teachers that we are middle school teachers, we inevitably receive one of the following comments:  You must be crazy. Or God bless you.  Or You are a special person.   Other teachers know what happens after the students leave their cozy pods of elementary classrooms and what happens before they enter the liberation of high school.  And it is a bit crazy.  It is a time of intense change both socially and developmentally.  In fact, consider a newborn baby.  And then examine a three year old who can speak, control her bowels, feed herself, walk, etc.  Between the ages of 10-14, children experience the same kind of intense growth and change as they do between 0-3
These changes impact family structures greatly. The child who used to come home and tell parents everything is much more selective about what he or she shares.  He or she might even be surly.  Removed.  Irritable.  Erratic. Looking in his or her backpack creates arguments—because it feels like an invasion to the child’s desperately desired autonomy.  A focus on social issues overcomes the household so that the bathroom is never empty, the phone is never available, the computer is always taken.  Parents often complain that their children never come out of their bedrooms; that they don’t tell them if homework is done; that they don’t tell them about things that are happening at school. 

At the same time that all of this is happening, students change educational structures.  In our school they move from class sizes of 9-15 with one teacher to a team of 5 teachers who see 85-100 students a day for 40 minute periods.  In many schools in larger districts, students move from classrooms of 15-20 to large middle schools where teachers see 100-125 students a day.  It is impossible for a teacher to contact 85-125 parents every week. Parents who were once accustomed to getting frequent communication, positive and negative, from their elementary teachers, find that communication drops off as teacher load increases, during a time when their children are also communicating less.  To top it all off, parents were once accustomed to having one teacher to communicate with and now have up to 5 content area teachers, so aren’t always sure where to begin themselves when they have concerns.
It is no wonder so many teachers opt not to teach this level.  And it is no wonder that so many parents are unhappy with middle schools across the nation. It is a perfect storm of physical, hormonal, mental, and educational change.  And the children that parents once sent off to school are not the same ones that come home. 

During this time, students start experimenting at school.  What happens when they don’t do their homework?  What happens when they talk back to a teacher?  They try on different personas, looking for their identity, hanging out with different groups of kids.  They make mistakes.  But they are most often surrounded by teachers who both love and understand this age group and are willing to provide them with a clean slate the following day.  And so we know it’s okay for them to make mistakes.  It’s okay for them to try something new and abandon it the next week.  This is the time to learn from these errors.  And we’re there to catch them.  We also know that it is their responsibility  not to make excuses for themselves.  That it is their job to relay communication accurately to their parents.  That it is their job to take responsibility for their actions.  And so discipline, communication, classroom management, homework policies…none of those things are the same as they were in the younger grades.  Because we are dealing with a different kind of kid.
I frame this blog post in this context: The other day we sat as a faculty and read over comments that were made on our recent school survey completed by parents, students, and faculty as part of our self-evaluation process.   One major theme stuck out:  dissatisfaction with the middle school.  At first it stung.  But if we looked at numbers—out of the 61 parents who took the survey, only 4 of them were consistently negative—the parents were overwhelmingly happy with us.  More importantly, when we read the students comments, my heart felt like it would burst.  Over and over again, the majority of our students wrote that the greatest thing about their school was the teachers—that they felt challenged, understood, and cared for.  And that is our audience:  those 10-14 year olds who show up every day during some of the hardest years of their lives, trusting us, including us, and taking risks for us.  They are magnificent creatures, these middle schoolers—and maybe that makes us crazy.  Maybe that exposes us to criticism.  But I can’t imagine a more rewarding job.     


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How Curiosity Led Me To Game Theory

 We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” ~Walt Disney
In terms of the game theory, we might say the universe is so constituted as to maximize play. The best games are not those in which all goes smoothly and steadily toward a certain conclusion, but those in which the outcome is always in doubt.” ~George B. Leonard (1923)

 When a teacher is no longer curious, he or she has brought stagnancy and complacency into the classroom, and I find the idea of those entities being present in our children’s lives unacceptable.  And so every once in a while I do a quick self-check.  Am I still curious?  Do I still have wonder at how the human brain learns?  Do I still want to know more about my subject? Do I still want to know more about my students?  I feel like as soon as I fail that assessment, it is time to leave the classroom.
This year, however, the answer remains yes.  And my curiosity has led me down an unexpected path:  one that involves technology, game theory, and a flipped classroom approach.  Anybody who knows me well and has spent time in my classroom knows that those kinds of things make me extremely uncomfortable and certainly don’t define my teaching style.  But I’ve been watching other teachers make an incredible impact on their students and deliver difficult material in a way that caters to a variety of learners—both in ability and style—and I’ve started rethinking some of my practices.

Start small.

In rethinking my approaches to subject matter, I decided to do a trial run of game theory in my typical 8th grade grammar unit.  When teaching grammar, I often feel as though I am leaving behind a group of students who don’t get it—yet I have to move on.  I feel as though there’s another group of students whose needs I am directly meeting, and then there is another group who is bored because they got it the first time, and now they are waiting while everybody else catches up. 
The Great Grammar God Game will be an 8 week unit.  Each student has created an avatar and username and as they earn points during the unit they climb the board.  This past week I would have simply covered nouns, but “Koogle” and “Yolanda” have each mastered nouns and pronouns, and are well on their way to covering the adjective material.  Meanwhile, most of the class is undertaking pronouns, and then a couple of students are still working through the noun material with me, getting some reinforcement.  I am running the program through Edmodo—kind of a cross between Moodle and Facebook—and on this program, kids access all of my video podcasts (also on Vimeo), all of their written practices, and all of the directions for other activities they must do.  They work with one another and help each other master the practice work; they meet with me about questions or struggles they might have; and when ready, they sit down and take a quiz independently.  They get four lives—and so if a student does not get an 80 or higher, he or she must retake the quiz.  It is my job, after all, to teach for mastery.  Today, a boy who failed his first and second quiz sat with me and we found a different approach for him to show me his knowledge.  Granted the time to sit with him because of the independent learning taking place in the rest of the classroom, I was able to find out that he does in fact have mastery over nouns.  He got a 95.
For each part of speech, the practice work is worth 50 points and the quiz is worth 200.  As the kids gain points they climb the board—they start out as a Nothing, move to a Mere Mortal, on to a Monster, Satyr, Centaur, Sprite, Hero, Demi-God, and finally a Grammar God.  It is also possible to become a Titan with extra points earned throughout the game.  One student came to see me after taking his quiz.  I told him he got a 96.  He didn’t blink.  “But how many points do I have?”
The idea of a student-centered classroom where students are working independently and all of their needs are being met is not a new idea—but some days it feels like an elusive one.  And I’m not sure how I could apply this kind of classroom to my subject matter entirely, but I’m working on melding my reading workshop philosophy with game theory; I think it will work. 

My nightstand is stacked with a new collection of books about educational gaming, 21st century learning, and technology for the sake of advancing learning.  It’s a place I never thought I’d find myself—but when you’re curious, you never know where you’ll end up.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

TEDx NewEngland: An Abstract

“We need to stop in the course of our busy lives and look at what we already have done and ask, ‘What else is possible?’”

“To deny the chaos of reality is a disservice to our students.”

“I am what I share.”

Generation Y “will be the one that needs to tackle global and economic issues” and they are a group of “strategic optimists” with “more dreams than memories.”

“There is $50 billion in 4th graders’ pocket change. Imagine what they could do with that.”

“We need to empower kids to become social entrepreneurs who make a difference for themselves and the world.”

"When you create value, you can claim value.”

“Character is not a trait. It is as malleable as anything else.”

“You and I are as infallible as anyone else and there are moral circumstances that will test this.”

“How do you cultivate your moral humility?”

The above quotes came from the scribbles I hurriedly made in my program yesterday as I sat in the audience at WGBH studios in Boston (and so I cannot claim complete accuracy…apologies to anybody whose words I butchered or accidently re-invented), watching the first ever TEDx NewEngland. I believe they repres ent the level of thoughtfulness and exploration that then guided conversations well into the evening and the wee hours of morning. Artists, scientists, researchers, sociologists, PhD candidates, and educators took the stage in what proved to be a highly successful event, leading us down paths of thought that filled us with admiration for a new generation, questions about our own fallacies, intrigue for the future, and hope that once-thought impossibilities could be seemingly possible. I don’t think my words can or should compete with theirs, and so I’ll leave my commentary brief. But I do want to congratulate the coordinators of TEDx NewEngland on their brilliant inaugural event and thank them for their support of the New England teachers of the year. Your generosity and new friendship is greatly appreciated and adored. Thank you.