Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Reality of State Testing

Today I think about testing and kids and teachers and real learning and what these state tests really measure anyway... Because we have to, being in the public school system, there is nothing to be said about it. We can complain about it all we want, argue with legislators, state and federal officials, and this will not make much of a difference. I am just curious what it does to people in a school. I can tell you that, since coming back from Winter Break, the talk has been all about state testing: what to focus on, test-taking strategies to use, short and extended responses in math and reading, test preparation, and on and on and on...

Question: Has state-mandated testing forced us to cover material for the sake of coverage, or are we covering material for depth, for the sake of learning itself? When we panic to make sure that certain items are covered before the test, to make sure that kids are at least exposed to material, I can tell you that the answer to the above question is certainly not learning for the sake of learning.
There is a better way. If we want to get back to learning for the sake of learning, for the sake of creating in kids a desire to learn more, we must change the way we do things. We must offer kids opportunities to do projects, to read and write and think and talk, to play; we must offer students the opportunity to become more than just great test-takers. We must offer our students a shot at being prepared for a future that will contain jobs that have not even been created yet.
A teacher commented the other day that even he was bored.

Certainly, there is a better way.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Leaning on One Another

I work with one of the greatest groups of people you could possibly want. They are truly amazing, and yet I don't tell them this enough. We held a "parent information" meeting just the other night to discuss the state test (ISAT) that is coming up all too soon. In my infinite wisdom, and being so typical of myself, I waited until the afternoon of the event before I really started doing any of the legwork for the event. Everything else was ready - I met with a group of teachers beforehand, spent time thinking about the pertinent facts and information we would share with them, and discussed the logistics of the event as well. Not to mention, this is the 4th year holding one of these nights! Everything should have gone off without a hitch. Should have.

It was 4:00 and the After-School Bus was late, five people stopped me in the hallway or caught me in the office with problems that needed solving right then and there, a parent called looking for her child, who was supposed to have been home 30 minutes earlier (the young man,a 2nd grader, ended up being right next door...), and 8 teachers were going to be out the following day. In elementary-school-land, this last piece tranlastes into both copiers being jammed for an hour at the end of the day! Not only did I still have to copy, make transparencies, and make sure we had enough sharpened pencils for our guests, I still had to run out and get the refreshments we had promised in all of our fliers advertising the event! It was 5:30. When I looked out the front door for the first time that day, another surprise awaited me. It was snowing. Blizzard-Style.

In most cases, I would have gone into a frenzied state of panic. I would, perhaps, have used a few choice words, stomped around as if in a temper-tantrum, and begun blaming everything else under the sun except for the fact that I tend to procrastinate at the very worst moments. And so I did just that. I panicked... until I remembered that I have the very best staff in the whole world. A quick call into the classrooms of a few very dedicated teachers, and they began putting everything together while I drove through the snowstorm to get refreshments.

I was reminded later that night by one of those remarkable teachers that I need to do a better job of delegating. Delegate? What's that? But she was exactly right. As leaders, we tend to have this thing where we think we should have all the answers, be able to do everything and do it the right way, be everything for everybody. And yet this is so far from the way schools are actually set up to run. If we want to get it right the first time, if we want to be all things to all people, we need all people. We need not only to delegate, but to do a better job of making this thing called schooling a community effort. Doesn't it take a village to raise a child?

By the way, that's the singular form. Child. Meaning one. It takes a village to raise a child. This implies that every child requires multiple adults pulling together to get it right for that child. And with multiple adults come multiple ideas, lots of perspective. And if we still don't get it right, at least there will be more than one person to blame.

We need to count on each other, lean on each other, depend on each other, rely on each other. I was reminded of this again tonight, when a teacher called apologizing. She was going to have to be out for at least two weeks. She had broken a bone in the most unfortunate of places, and yet she was apologizing to me. She would be on crutches upon her return, and yet she was dreading the feeling of putting her colleagues out, felt that she would be a burden to them. I was able to use my experience of the night before with her in this case. I told her that this was the last thing she should be worrying about, because this is what we do for each other. It may not be a classic case of being able to delegate some responsibility, and certainly not the most ideal situation, but this is what we do for each other because it is what we do for kids.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What we Influence

I was thinking today, after meeting with a group of teachers, about something I had recently read by Doug Reeves in his book, Daily Disciplines of Leadership. In the book, Reeves talks about the concept of leaders, if they wish to be effective, needing to influence behavior, not attitude or beliefs. No matter how impassioned our beliefs may be, they do not persist if not accompanied by successful behavior. He goes on to say that all this talk about creating "buy-in," the stuff that causes people to get on board, is not even necessary if we cannot first influence behavior.

He has a point. Acceptance comes only after successful experience. We have to go through some turbulent times, including reluctance and opposition, before we can expect to change deep-seated belief. Think about the student sitting in the back of a classroom, working the math problem that is just not clicking in her brain. Her eyes are glazed and she scoots lower in her seat, hoping against all hope that her teacher will not notice her. The great teacher will notice her, however, but this is a topic for another post...

This student might have a deep-seated belief that she cannot "do math." This belief probably pervades her every thought when she hears the word math. Her parents probably tell her that we weren't good in math either, honey.

This pattern can only be broken when the great teacher takes the time to show her just how easy it can be, maybe showing her that there are more ways than one to get to the same answer.

This pattern will only be broken when this student experiences success.

As with the teacher who has taught the same way year after year, and therefore does not believe there is another way, so, too, the way with the student.

Acceptance comes only after successful experience.