Category Archives: education

“Stop.” A Letter to Our Nation’s Education Leaders and Our Nation’s Teachers

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I did not write this, but Dr. Beers put it so eloquently that I think it is worth reprinting here.

Posted on  by Kylene Beers

To members of the U.S. Department of EducationThe National School Boards AssociationNational Association of Elementary School PrincipalsNational Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and AASA, The School Superintendents Association and our nation’s teachers:As a long-time Texas educator, nationally- and internationally-known and respected educational consultant on matters of literacy, and an award-winning author of educational books, I have one piece of advice – not requested but offered with a genuine heart: stop.

Stop any conversation you hear (or might have considered starting) that “our kids are behind” and “they must catch up.” I respectfully ask, “Behind what?” “Catch up to what?” Our kids are not behind as a result of a pandemic though at some other time I will happily discuss the insidious systemic racial inequalities that have always existed in our schools, inequalities that have kept many with fewer opportunities than others. But our students are not “behind” now because of this pandemic.

What they are is stressed, anxious, lonely, worried, frustrated, and afraid of what happens next. But they are not behind a reading level or a math skill or a science concept. Rarely have I ever encountered any one concept in any classroom that is only taught once. We teach and reteach; we push kids to apply learned skills, strategies, and concepts in increasingly complex ways across the grades. That will continue to happen and anyone who says, “But they should have learned about mixed fractions in third grade and now we’ll have to do it in fourth grade” is too worried about benchmark learning and not focused enough on what learning should actually be about.

In many ways, our students across all grades have learned skills no one would have expected them to learn at their ages.They have been required to sit at a computer screen for 5, 6, 7 hours a day and figure out different learning platforms. They have had to figure out what to do when a school requires they be in their synchronous learning classroom when the sibling or parent is using the one computer in the home. Many have learned to monitor their own learning while watching siblings, preparing meals for siblings, or being scared while they are home alone. Many have finally returned to schools to be told, “Don’t touch,” “Don’t hug,” “Don’t get too close,” “Don’t share,” . . . . In a world where we want them to experience all they can do, they have been put behind see-through plastic screens on desks pushed that have been pushed six feet apart and told all that they can’t do.

In spite of all that, they have learned critical skills. They have learned empathy; they have – whether they realize it or not – become global citizens. They have learned what it means to stay inside; to substitute “I want to” with “I should.” And too many have learned what happens when parents lose jobs; too many have learned, at far too young an age, what grief is. They have learned that fear in the pit of your stomach when you hear someone you love has contracted Covid. They have learned how to cope with difficulties we never dreamed of preparing them to learn.

They have learned that some neighborhoods had more neighbors to contract the disease; they have learned that some hospitals received fewer supplies or received them later than other hospitals; they have seen, now, far more white people receive the vaccine than people of color or people of poverty. And they have questions about that. Questions they have been told “Don’t ask” and teachers have been told “Don’t answer.” They have learned that kindness counts. They have learned what it means to be without and how good it feels to help and to receive help. They have learned that in the worst of moments, they survived.

To dare to say our kids are behind, is to demean all the parents and teachers in this nation who have done their best under circumstances we never dared to imagine but experienced each and every day. These circumstances, for many teachers, were made worse when ridiculous requirements such as how long they must be at their computers, what they must do to show they are indeed teaching, how much they must cover of a curriculum that mattered little this year, how they must buy their own personal protection equipment and use their own dollars to supply classrooms with sanitizers, and teach face-to-face with no vaccines were never ending. This year has caused even our most veteran of teachers to question how they keep going and has reduced our novice teachers to questioning if they will stay in teaching. And now, now they are reminded they must never, ever forget the forthcoming TEST.

Stop relying on that ridiculous state test. It doesn’t measure a critical thing about what was learned this year or what was taught. If universities can set aside the lauded SAT/ACT this year, then what are we saying to our children, parents, and teachers when we say, “Oh, yes, we’ll be giving THE TEST this year”? What are we showing we value? Yes, let’s have a long-overdue conversation about this test. But for now, STOP the demands to “Make sure the kids are ready.”

To the U.S. Department of Education, stop waiting for states to ask for waivers to give THE TEST. Step in and stop the insanity.

To Dr. Jill Biden, thank you for your support of teachers and please see if you can perhaps push a little sanity into decisions being made right now.

And to all teachers: Stop listening to those who say your kids are behind. That’s a statement without merit, offered in unprecedented times, that is uttered by those who value testing, not learning, and statistics, not students. To those who say such things, I say they have not seen you delivering food to homes with little or none, staying online to talk to the kid who is alone, accepting work at any point in the unit, crying when one kid finally shows up because your heart has worried about that child/teen, and laughing with your students when a cat arrives to sit upon your shoulders. They haven’t seen all you have done to explain the unexplainable while you, too, wonder at this nation’s insanity.

Dear teachers, stop saying, “I can’t” because you have. You have shown up. You have done what you did not think you could. You have taught your kids under the worst of situations because it’s what you do. You are tired, stressed, anxious, worried, and feeling alone. I wish I could make those feelings go away. But I can remind you that feelings of inadequacy should be shoved aside. Please don’t think you can’t, because you did. You gave our nation’s students needed normalcy (though a new normalcy) and you showed them grace when few extended the same to you.

Our nation owes you so much and gives you so little. I wish we would all stop any belittling remarks toward teachers and those administrators who do support them. So, to all of the rest of us; stop saying what your child’s teacher did not do and start thanking that teacher for what was done.

Respectfully,

Kylene Beers, Ed.D.

Co-author with Bob Probst of Forged by Reading, Disrupting Thinking, Notice and Note, and Reading Nonfiction

National Leadership Award recipient by the National Council Teachers of English

Teachers Choice Award recipient for Disrupting Thinking

Past President of the National Council of Teachers of English

http://kylenebeers.com/blog/2021/02/22/stop-a-letter-to-our-nations-education-leaders-and-our-nations-teachers/

Digital Literacy in Teacher Education

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I had grand dreams about adding voiceover to this, and I still might. For now, a simple upload will do.

It never ceases to amaze me that the most intelligent and creative teachers (and pre-service teachers) freeze when I tell them they have complete freedom in a project. It testifies to the habit of grades and rubrics. Research is clear that inquiry and choice lead to better learning, but we still want a standard as a form of measurement.

The slideshow here is mostly work done by students in my ELA methods course. It took a fair amount of convincing for them to trust that I REALLY didn’t have an agenda or a rubric. Once they relaxed into the play of remix, they enjoyed the process. The first slide of the remixes (slide 3) is my example and the questions I asked when the project was complete. The remainder of the slides are student remixes and student reflections.

Teachers in my class enjoyed the freedom to create, and several planned to include a similar assignment in their own classes. This is the kind of creative project that is easy to do during remote instruction. Students shared their images on a discussion board and responded to them. In class we talked about how they felt about the project and how the minimal direction made it harder to do than an assignment with a concrete rubric and a template. It made them rethink how they might introduce creative projects by allowing students to play and explore with no expectations except to do something. The only grade is complete/incomplete, so if the few parameters were met, students earned full credit. It’s a nice way to break up required test paragraph practice and can certainly be a check for mastery. It also gives students an opportunity for self-expression and making connections between canonical literature and pop culture.

New Publication: “The Classroom Is a Mirror: Learning Spaces as a Reflection of Instructional Design”

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I have been an admirer and friend of Buffy Hamilton since we met in 2014. She is one of the most creative teachers I have ever met, and her commitment to her students in unparalleled. I have wanted to write with her for years, and finally the perfect call came from the NCTE journal Voices from the Middle. It was a short notice collaboration, but since I had studied Buffy’s practices for so long, I was able to take her ideas and teaching practices and compose an article that was published September 2020.

This article is about how classroom design that reflects student needs can help students feel good about their learning. The space put them in a mindset where they weren’t “doing school” as much as they were learning by choice.

I am excited about the article, written before the pandemic, and hope to write a follow-up with how Buffy has maintained her creative voice during the pandemic.

The article is available to NCTE members (https://library.ncte.org/journals/VM/issues/v28-1/30916), through university libraries and Galileo.

UNLV-my academic home sweet home

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COVID19 has done a lot of damage. It has devastated the economy, wreaked havoc on schools, and caused unparalleled harm to people around the world. COVID19 quarantines meant the spring semester finished online, and I felt cheated out of my one-year adventure in Las Vegas.

My contract was only for a year, and I knew that I couldn’t stay even if I was offered a second year because my family was still in Georgia. I loved Nevada. I never thought I would, but I did. My colleagues at UNLV were welcoming and made me feel immediately at home. I was part of the Teaching and Learning community from the first day. It was special. I loved the student body, with all its true diversity. I learned about more cultures than I imagined possible in such a short time and small space. My classes were places of discovery and dialogue, connection and community. Of course, there were a few people who didn’t love me or my teaching style, but for the most part, student comments were positive and their critiques genuinely useful for my growth as an educator. I was truly sad that I would only have a year there–and then that year was truncated by a pandemic.

A hiring freeze further killed any hopes of continuing my career at UNLV. I applied for several jobs, and interviewed for one not far from me, but was passed over for other applicants whose skills better served the needs of those universities. I started to think about alternatives to the academy. I wasn’t entirely sure what those looked like, but I was open to pretty much anything.

And then I started to hear questions from my colleagues. Would I be interested in remote work? Would I be available for online classes? Would I be willing to host live Zoom sessions of evening classes on Pacific time? That last one gave me pause, I’ll admit. 7-9:45 classes are hard enough, but when the actual time for me is 10p- 12:45a? I’m a night owl, but…

Finally last month I had conversations with the department chair about a one year visiting assistant professor position that would be fully remote. It would require a pay cut, but since I wouldn’t have to maintain a separate home, that was not an issue. The offer came, I accepted, and I’m pretty sure people in Las Vegas heard my shouts of joy. No one saw my happy dance, but it was exuberant.

So, my new home office (perks of being an empty-nester) is buzzing with new ideas, preparations for classes, both new and familiar, and plans to make the best of a new school year filled with challenges and possibilities.

Thinking, pondering, reflecting

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While I wait to learn where and what I’ll be teaching in the Fall, I do know that a good portion (if not all) will be online. So, to prepare, I am teaching myself how to create good videos. I can lecture, but I prefer interaction; I think it goes back to my acting/directing days when I much preferred a live audience to anything else. However, with the constraints of bandwidth, access, and Zoom fatigue, I need to keep my synchronous sessions focused and interactive and use asynchronous communication to do the heavy lifting.

It’s always a challenge to balance learning preferences and making sure the content is mastered. Adding distance further complicated matters. But this is the current reality. Some students will thrive, some will be frustrated. I know how to put together a solid online course, so I will work to my strengths. Video editing will add a level of watchability that I didn’t need to think much about five or six years ago. I want my students to feel connected; I think good video helps with that. How many of them feel like they know Instagram influencers even though they will never meet them? The connectivity of students has changed, so my teaching methods must adapt.

Hmmm…Instagram. As a teaching method? Insta-stories with polls as lectures? I may have to figure that out- or mimic it somehow.

So much to learn.

Rethinking grades

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I hate grades. There, I’ve said it. Grades, particularly in the humanities are often arbitrary and subject to the grader’s mood, the weather, fatigue, and any number of factors unrelated to learning. It’s always been true, but it seems like the pandemic has made many students hyper-sensitive to numbers and some are using quarantine as a convenient excuse for missing assignments, poorly written work, and incomplete tasks.

Don’t get me wrong; I know this semester has been a nightmare for a lot of people. I have students dealing with job loss, health issues, family issues, balancing working from home with making sure their school aged children get their work done, too. I implemented a grace-before-grades mentality for the final eight weeks of the 15-week semester: no late penalties, options to resubmit after corrections, fewer assignments, alternative assignments, and extended office hours (as in you-tell-me-when-and-I’ll-be there-for-you). But now that grades are due, I am hit with a larger-than-usual barrage of late assignments, many of them from January and February, well before quarantine. Few of these students were dealing with pandemic stressors; they just didn’t do the work when it was assigned. It’s finals week and many of them are dealing with the repercussions of procrastination, not COVID19.

It’s funny because it’s true.

Part of the issue is my fault for not being clear. When we went under quarantine in the middle of March, there were some semester-length assignments that could not be completed because they required interaction with students. Half of the work should have been done by the end of February, but when I offered an alternative assignment, I neglected to spell out the exact terms for what that alternative actually covered. I should have indicated the alternative only covered the length of time we were actually in quarantine. Several students assumed the alternative covered all four sections of the semester-long assignment. I assumed they would understand that the work due before the second week of March was not included in the alternative. My fault, so I spread grace and mercy like rain over the semester. Others, however, had no intention of doing the semester-long assignment and also assumed that any alternative would cover all the missing work. I will say that most of the students found creative ways to just do the work as originally assigned, so I know it was possible to do.

One thing I do love is giving feedback. I write pages of notes for assignments to that my students will know that I read (or listened to) their work to the end and that I want them to master the material and practice of becoming reflective teachers who put students first. So, when I get a response back from a student who turned in a missing assignment late and poorly done telling me that the work was A quality (not the very generous 58 it earned), I am reminded of why I hate grades. Other students want to do make up work so they can get an A in the course– even though they are missing assignments from the third or fourth week of the semester.

Feedback is useful only if students read it

Doing just enough to get (not earn) an A in a course seems to defeat the purpose of education, especially for people who plan to be teachers. So, I’m rethinking how I want to handle grades. Numbers don’t mean anything except as how they translate to a letter grade, which also doesn’t actually demonstrate critical thinking, creativity, ability, or mastery.

I am pondering taking a page out of academic publication submissions as a way to make grading a better reflection of student work and potential. I’m quite familiar with rejection, revise and resubmit, and reviewer feedback. I’m thinking major course assignments could be treated similarly.

  • Accepted without revision (A): The work submitted represents publishable quality, meets or exceeds the objectives of the assignment, and demonstrates mastery of the material.
  • Conditionally accepted (CA): The work submitted nearly represents publishable quality but may be lacking in form, mechanics, citations, or other minor elements of style. The work may meet the objectives of the assignment, but can be improved. May be resubmitted with corrections based on provided feedback.
  • Revise and resubmit, moderate revision (RMo): The work submitted may be lacking in more than one area: mechanics and style, meeting objectives of the assignment, and/or demonstrating mastery of the material. Details for improvement are in the comments. May be revised and resubmitted, but resubmission must be accompanied by an explanation of measures taken to improve the work based on provided feedback.
  • Revise and resubmit, major revision (RMa): The work submitted does not reflect a thorough understanding of the assignment objectives, nor does it demonstrate any mastery of the material. It is also deficient in form, style, and/or mechanics. The work may be resubmitted, but must be accompanied by an explanation of measures taken to improve the work based on provided feedback AND at least one peer-review by a colleague in the class.
Revise and resubmit is a learning opportunity, right?

My hope is that this kind of grading system would discourage procrastination, since revisions are possible. I know I give good feedback, so I am confident that students who utilize it could produce the level of work expected of college graduates. It means I must improve my practice for clarity and be explicit in my directions. I will also have to limit how much time is permitted for revisions;; I’m thinking one week for CA and two weeks for RMo and RMa would be enough, particularly since the work of the course doesn’t stop. I also have to think about how many times the same assignment may be resubmitted. No more than twice for the revise-and-resubmit, I think.

Revise and resubmit is grace and mercy

I’m still thinking, and I know that somehow even this system must translate to letter grades, but I have more work to grade right now. It’s just a few days until I have to submit final grades for everyone, and then I’ll have time (and maybe headspace) to think.

I do love a snarky meme.

Sharing a great column

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This is a great column by Stephanie Jones in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Professor: Doubling down on ‘diagnostics’ and  ‘aggressive remediation’ just benefits testing industry

Having more robust, creative, and rich in-school educational experiences should have been a priority before the widespread shut-down of schools, but it will be even more important to prioritize when schooling resumes some semblance of normalcy.  To do so will mean that focusing on tools that attempt to quantify student learning – such as high-stakes tests – will have to be put on the backburner, or eliminated entirely (which would, in the process, help with budgeting issues too since tests are expensive).

Jones, S (May 1, 2020)

Teacher have argued against high stakes testing for years. Research is clear that these test accurately measure only how well a student takes a test, not whether they are learning content. The tests absolutely can’t determine imagination, creativity, or problem solving. Decades of high stakes standardized tests have led to narrowing the curriculum, decreased student motivation, and no evidence of improved student learning. Adding in the implications of implicit bias makes the tests even more meaningless. The anxiety and stress for both students and teachers caused by heavy reliance on test scores for determining “success” is also well documented.

If the USA is committed to superior education, then the powers that be must give teachers the power and the tools to do the work. Money spent on empty promise by publishers would do FAR more good for students if it were to be devoted to smaller class sizes, teacher support, and basic student needs (e.g. breakfast and lunch, school supplies). Post-pandemic reconstruction of education could potentially include a paradigm shift from publisher-driven curriculum to student-driven learning.

What I’m learning: Reflecting on teaching under COVID-19

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I’ve been reflecting on the lessons of this time of shelter-in -place lately, and there are some changes I will make as I teach going forward.

Home workspace. Green screen, table with laptop, camera, pens and pencils, and books.
Workspace

I am well acquainted with online teaching; I’ve done it, or some hybrid version, for years. I even earned an endorsement for online instruction with my Master’s degree. Still this pivot from face-to-face classes to unplanned remote instruction has made me rethink how I can better approach ALL of my teaching practices.

The very first change I will make is to focus on learning for the sake of learning, not for a grade. The primary complaint I hear from my graduate students who are already teaching is that, without the ability to grade work, few of their students are actually doing any kind of work. Students don’t check in, they don’t turn in assignments, and they don’t show up for synchronous meetings. The result is that the teachers are losing steam quickly. Why should they continue to create digital content when the impetus for students to do the work is gone? Why should students do the work when the grades don’t matter?

The lack of participation from students leads to a loss of motivation for their teachers, which means MY students aren’t keeping up with the assignments in their graduate studies. I cut the requirements in half, but the consensus from their Flipgrid check-ins is that they have no motivation to do anything at all.

I know that this crazy quarantine time is part of it. Uncertainty breeds complacency. BUT, several weeks in, I think we all need to find the purpose for learning again. After years of being part of the education system, it’s easy to forget about WHY we choose to follow the call to teach because we are focused on deadlines, due dates, and grades. Why do we learn? Why does learning matter? I have not made a practice of teaching that, so my students may not have really thought about it in years. I need to reinforce early and often that learning is personal, grades are arbitrary. If I model that teaching, then hopefully my students will pass it down to their students and the perception of school as drudgery will change.

One think I have done well as a teacher of adult is to open the semester with Ruiz’s Four Agreements. I think the idea that learning is for the self will flow naturally after 1) Be impeccable with your word, 2) Don’t take things personally, 3) Don’t make assumptions, and 4) Always do your best. I know Ruiz wrote more, but these four are sufficient and I can use them to lead to the understanding that ultimately, learning is for our own edification.

I need to ponder this idea further and decide how to make it the forefront of my classes: face-to-face, hybrid, and online.

On the less philosophical side, I’ve learned some practical things:

  1. If students are required to set up websites for a class (not by me), set specific parameters like most recent post first and dates on everything.
  2. Practice all the technology for the semester early and often and in class: Zoom, Flipgrid, photo/video editing, Hangouts, Twitter and Twitter cats and Tweetdeck, and how to find anything on the web, including YouTube tutorials for all of the above.
  3. Use dates for deadlines, not week numbers! Granted, some of this comes from teaching other people’s classes, so they set it up, but I have learned that abbreviations and numbers are far more confusing than actual words and dates. “WWA #3” – what is that and when was it due again?

I’m sure I will continue to learn more as this semester concludes, but just those three practical things will make a huge difference. I think students will appreciate the reminder that educators do not choose to teach because of grades. Education is a calling as much as a vocation, but it’s so easy to forget that with all the demands of quantitative data, content- driven curriculum, and the need for “rigor.” If we who teach can remember why we learn, perhaps this time of pandemic will have served a useful purpose.

#NCTE2019 Transactional Semiotics

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#NCTE2019 Transactional Semiotics

This is the slide show from a round table presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English convention (NCTE) that I didn’t get to do. I had a conflict with a panel presentation at the same time. I know, I’m that cool. I’m putting it here now as a reminder that I need to flesh it out and submit a manuscript for it.