Why err on the side of a noisy classroom

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I’ve always felt a little embarrassed about my classroom management style. I know if many of my colleagues walked in during class — especially at the beginning — they would be appalled. It doesn’t look like I’m running a tight ship.

They would probably wonder: Why aren’t those kids in their seats when the bell rings? Why doesn’t she crack down on side conversations? Doesn’t that constant chatter bother her?

Here’s the secret: It does bother me, just not as much as it bothers other teachers.

And silence bothers me more.

Of course I want my students to listen and be respectful and make the most of our class time, but I think the costs of cracking down on normal social behavior are just too high, so I don’t do it. Instead, I tolerate some talking because I think in the end, most students learn more and enjoy learning more in this relaxed environment. I know I do.

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Like so much that’s worth learning, trade is complicated

tradeTeachers spend a lot of time trying to break down difficult concepts and make them easier for our students to digest, but what about when the truth is just complicated?

How can we combat the crisis of oversimplification in this country and get our kids to muddle around in complexity?

This weekend, I taught my last session of “Preparing to Teaching High School Economics” with a group of 10 Minnesota teachers who are new to econ this year. I decided to start the day by talking about trade, which basically feels like a four-letter word these days. (I wouldn’t blame them for skipping it altogether, though it would be a shame.)

I drew a simple supply and demand graph for them, showing the U.S. sugar market without any trade, then we opened the market and saw how lower world prices would affect both U.S. consumers (happy!!) and U.S. producers (very angry).

One by one, we worked through all of the implications. Who does trade help? Who is hurt? Why do the producers lobby their legislators, while consumers do not? How would a 20% tariff on Mexican imports affect American households?

Or what if you’re a low-cost country, like China, and trade means more exports rather than imports? How does that impact Chinese workers, who produce a lot of stuff (like toys, T-shirts and electronics parts) that they can’t afford to buy?

At the end of our discussion, one of the teachers asked: “So can we just leave it like that? Point out the good and the bad and not answer it for them?”

Continue reading “Like so much that’s worth learning, trade is complicated”

‘Flush with funds’ sounds nice

My school district spends about $13,000/student each year. President Trump’s children went to private schools that cost $30,000-$50,000. Baron’s elementary school in New York charges $47,000 per student this year.

So I wonder what our president means when he says our public schools are “flush with funds”?

I wonder what it would be like to work someplace that was, actually, flush with funds.

Compared to schools in Arizona, which get about $7,000 per student, we are relatively flush here in Minnesota. My classes might be jammed with 35 kids each, but at least I have updated textbooks and pretty reliable technology (Smartboard, Wi-fi network, Chromebooks) — and although I have to buy some of my own supplies, I don’t have to pay for my own ink or copies.

Also, teachers are paid a liveable wage, if not enough to entice the top college grads. On average, Minnesota public school teachers get about $60,000 a year, which is close to median for a college-educated American. (Yeah, I know we get summers off, but most of us work about 60 hours a week in the school year, so it still comes out to about $25/hour pre-tax.)

Still, if our school district had three times as much money per student? (Maybe we could have federal vouchers that size?)

For one thing, we could cut those class sizes down to 15 kids. It’s not that I can’t teach 35 kids at a time — my students excel each year on the AP Micro, AP Macro and AP Psych tests — but it definitely limits how much writing and public speaking practice our kids get. 

We could also offer our kids a lot more support. Our high school does what it can to help struggling students, like scheduling a free hour once a week where they can meet with teachers, but mostly we rely on them to “get it.” Imagine having the time to individually tutor struggling students on a regular basis?

We could hire people to deal with more of the non-teaching duties, too, like making calls and fixing technology when it (inevitably) breaks down. I dream of having an assistant who could handle paperwork!

I’d also love to have funds to be able to buy new programs when I learn about them — like MobLab interactive simulation games for economics. Not an option on our budget.

Compared to a lot of public schools out there, we’re doing pretty well on $13,000/student. Both of my kids went to my public school, and they were quite well prepared for college.

But $47,000 per student — a sum our legislators would never agree to — sounds pretty amazing. Now that would be a school system flush with funds.

Ready? Yeah, right

First day of second semester, and I arrived at school feeling so ready.

First semester finals graded ✔

Moodle course site updated ✔

Chromebooks assigned ✔

Textbooks ready to check out ✔

Seating charts carefully designed and printed ✔

Lesson plans ready ✔

What could possibly go wrong?

If you’re a teacher, you know the answer. Anything can happen. I was at school at 6:30 a.m. for  7:25 class, and it took until 7:15 to get my computer working. It was cold or tired or something — I don’t know. The wheel kept spinning, programs were unresponsive, and I was working on Plan B — the low-tech version — until the computer decided to fire up just in time.

Then I read an email from a student who wasn’t sure how his first-semester grade added up, so I went in to double check the math and realized I had done made a mistake in the weighting scheme. I tried to fix it and messed up my whole first-semester grade book. That launched a parade of students who of course immediately checked their grades on their phones and wanted to know: What happened??

Note to self: Do not read email just before class.

Of course there were new adds to each class, so I had to figure out where to put them — we’re pretty much at capacity with 36 kids. The attendance system wouldn’t let me take attendance for first hour (still no idea why). And my new glasses, first ever “progressive lenses” (yes, bifocals) made everyone look just a little bit blurry and gave me a slight headache.

My perfectly smooth, well-planned morning turned out to be a constant barrage of questions, changes, modifications and quick fixes. Nothing went seriously wrong, nobody got hurt, but still it was draining. It took me another hour at home just to make sure the gradebook, attendance, seating charts and logins are all right now.

I hope I didn’t forget to tell them anything today. I hope they’ll be forgiving. I hope tomorrow goes better.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is why your teachers always look a bit haggard at the beginning of a new term.

Learning history in the present

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Women marched peacefully on Saturday to demonstrate pride and autonomy — and to let President Trump know they won’t stand for any rollback of women’s rights.

Or, women marched and destroyed property Saturday to whine about losing the election.

Or, women marched Saturday as dupes of outside forces, including radical Islam.

Which version do you believe?

I believe #1. Most of my friends were at marches Saturday — in St. Paul, in Washington, D.C., in Seattle, in Philadelphia, in Wichita, in New York — and I trust their perspective. I would have joined them if I hadn’t been sick all week, because I’m concerned about women’s rights (and human rights) under the new regime.

Like many women, I was appalled by the video last fall, revealing how Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women, and I don’t like that he wishes Time’s “Person of the Year” was still “Man of the Year.” Like many women, I’m also worried about serious policy issues like women’s health care and access to contraceptives.

But I know people who genuinely believe versions 2 and 3, based on their personal views, their news sources, and their interpretation of current events. I was, frankly, startled to read their perspectives on Facebook.

I have a completely different viewpoint, which is why this event strikes me as a perfect opportunity for a history lesson.

Last fall, at the NCSS conference, I attended a great session on how eyewitness experiences become history. Whose story gets told? Why is that story told? And what is lost?

In the session, the instructor asked us to write down on paper what we had done that morning, word for word. What we ate, where we went, who we talked to, what we had learned in other sessions.

Then he proceeded to destroy most of our stories, telling us ¼ were destroyed in a flood, ¼ were destroyed by an invasion, another ¼ were suppressed by a new government. On and on, until one or two perspectives on the day remained for posterity.

It was a fascinating way to think about history. How do we know what living through the Plague was really like? Or slavery? Or the Civil War? Or the Vietnam War? Only by the accounts of those who were there (and lived to tell). For most events in human history, very few accounts survive.

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Why best practices don’t prevail

Bad news last week. My district’s school board has decided to delay implementation of later start times for high school students – a change that was scheduled for fall 2017.

No reason was given, but I imagine it involved pushback by parents and teachers of elementary school kids, who don’t like the idea of their schools starting earlier.

I understand that there are arguments and personal preferences on both sides (and that change is hard), but there’s no denying the benefits of letting teenagers get more sleep in the morning.

Thanks to extensive research by the University of Minnesota (and others), we know that when high school starts later, student performance improves; teen depression and anxiety levels fall; car accident rates fall; and truancy and behavioral referrals fall.

My high school starts at 7:25 a.m., meaning many kids are up at 6 and waiting at the bus stop at 6:30 a.m., more than an hour before winter sunrise — a fact that astounds my colleagues in other states.

Read this research report, and then tell me how this is still defensible.

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Kids work like crazy when they have a purpose

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What does motivation look like? I saw it in the faces of about 40 kids at Irondale High School (MN) on Saturday morning. They were the KnightKrawler robotics team members, gathered in the library at 9:30 a.m., waiting for the “big reveal.”

Saturday was the day when organizers of the global FIRST Robotics competition announced this year’s challenge, and there was a lot of nervous anticipation — not just at Irondale but at schools around the world.

Thousands of teenagers will devote the next six weeks to designing and building robots that can accurately throw wiffle balls, deliver gears to a lever, and climb ropes — among other challenges. Then they’ll be going to competitions, hoping for a shot at nationals.

“I’m nervous,” one of the students, Neely, told me. “The next 12 weeks of my life are going to be so busy.”

Why are students so eager to work extra hours on robotics — like, 30 hours a week — when we have so much trouble motivating students in our classrooms, especially in STEM fields?

There’s something magical about competition — and about robots.

Continue reading “Kids work like crazy when they have a purpose”

The dreaded conversation

Here’s one thing parents and teachers have in common: We both get nervous when the other is on the phone.

A call from school: Parents worry that their child is in trouble, is failing, is misbehaving – and that they (the parents) are somehow to blame.

A call from a parent: Teachers worry that the parent will challenge their judgment, ask for special treatment, defend and excuse their child’s actions, question their professionalism.

It’s such a relief when none of the above happens, when it’s just a simple phone conversation between two adults who are aligned, supporting the child.

Last week, I got both an email and a phone call from a parent whose student needs to make up work. The student had already been in to see me, and I had already explained what he could do.

When I saw the parent’s messages, here’s what went through my mind: Oh no, she’s going to question why I won’t let him make up work from October. She’s going to tell me that he needs a better grade for college. She’s going to imply that I’m not doing enough for him.

Thankfully, none of that happened. I’m not crazy to anticipate a stressful call – I’ve had these confrontational conversations with distressed parents in the past. Several times parents have even told me what grade their child “has to have,” creating unrealistic expectations all around.

But when I called this parent back, we had a thoughtful conversation. She had called because she wants her son to get caught up and learn what he needs to learn, and she just wanted to know what she should expect from him.

We calmly discussed the situation, agreed on expectations, and promised to check in again soon. We were immediate allies, and we both thanked each other for the conversation.

Afterward, I felt ridiculous for anticipating a worst-case scenario, but I’m sure I’m not alone. Bad experiences can hijack our rational thought processes and put any of us on the defensive. We need to be aware of this, so we can consciously alter our thinking and expect the best from each other.

Start every parent-teacher conversation with an assumption of good intentions on both sides, and be willing to listen more than we talk. We might not agree on the details, but we probably agree on what matters – that we want our students to be successful.

Note to readers: I will be taking a two-week break from writing. Happy holidays! 

Teaching teachers? At least model good teaching

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It’s bad enough when someone puts up a PowerPoint and talks at me for an hour about a dull topic like ACT test prep, choosing a textbook or the school’s new tardy policy.

But when a conference presenter who promises a session on “inquiry learning” puts up a tiny-font PowerPoint and lectures me about how to use active learning in my class, I honestly want to scream. If your method is effective, use it! The irony is killing me.

This weekend, at the National Conference for the Social Studies conference in D.C., I saw a number of incredibly engaging sessions and speakers, but still too much of this kind of “do as I say, not as I do” professional development.

This is a serious problem because we need to move away from using PowerPoint/lecture/notes every day in our classrooms, but we are never going to get there if the folks promising to train us in new strategies do not know how to use them – or simply neglect to do so.

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The elusive promise of ‘choice’

School-choice advocates are cheering the nomination of Betsy DeVos to head Trump’s Department of Education, while public school proponents are worried about what her leadership would mean for the future of public education.

What is it about charter schools and voucher systems, which DeVos unabashedly supports, that makes them so divisive?

Why do many conservatives believe so strongly in them, while many liberals fear and oppose them? I find this issue fascinating, since so many teachers I know have worked in public, private and charter schools. Every year, someone I know is moving from charter to public, public to private, private back to public and so on.

If many of the same teachers are cycling through this revolving door of schools, what makes any kind of school any different? Why prefer one system over the other?

For conservatives, it comes down to incentives. They want vouchers and charter schools because they believe more choices will lead to better schools, like more competition leads to better cars. Administrators and teachers will have to up their game to attract students.

For liberals, there are multiple issues: Who will look out for the underserved students, the ones whose parents won’t apply for vouchers or enroll them in the best charters? And what would deregulation do to the hard-won gains in teachers’ contracts, like livable wages (in some states)?

There is evidence that school competition leads to better outcomes for students, especially in places like New Orleans, where a citywide system of charters is clearly outperforming the pre-Katrina public school district.

But there is also evidence of charter schools that operate without oversight, take tax dollars without producing results, and shut down mid-year leaving students and teachers stranded.

Is there a way to harness the beneficial forces of competition, while learning lessons from the experiments that have failed? Can we have the best of both worlds?

In the best-case scenario, competition can promote innovation, which can be shared with all schools. The structure of charter schools encourages experimentation — they are not tradition-bound, so they can immerse kids in music or the environment or civic activism or humanities. (Their biggest failing, in fact, is that they mostly mimic traditional public schools, but with longer days and stricter discipline.)

But in order to make the competition fair, we need to ensure that traditional public schools have a level playing field with these new contenders.

First, let’s make sure that all schools receiving tax dollars accept any and all students — regardless of race, gender, income or disability. If vouchers do not cover the whole tuition, the school needs to waive the rest for low-income or special ed students who apply.

Second, let’s make sure that all schools receiving tax dollars administer the same assessments to their students, so we can judge their performance apples to apples.

Third, let’s free public schools from some of their bureaucracy, while adding enough accountability to charters to make sure they’re not fly-by-night schemes.

School choice and traditional public schools have co-existed for decades already. Let’s try to pull the best from both systems, rather than trying to promote one at the expense of the other. Then both sides can have something to cheer about.