Tag Archives: elementary school teaching

Finland Is Making Me Mad, Again

For teachers the summer is a time to take a break and recharge. Many resent us. Many though, are happy when their kids return to us.

I’ve always relished the time and spend the weeks off catching up on household responsibilities. My yard and projects around the house require my attention — something I don’t actually mind as it’s a welcome change of pace.

All of which means I try not to get too involved in what my profession is currently in the midst of — education policy, changes in state standards, the newest and greatest approach to teaching.

I know that this is ignorant. Perhaps poor form of me. I just need some time to be with my family and be able to plan some adventures together.

And then there’s Finland.

I’ve never been. Although it does sound intriguing. It’s beautiful from the pictures I’ve seen.

However its beauty is not what makes me mad.

It’s this constant comparison of their education program versus ours.

I remember “U.S. versus…” conversations in my teacher certification courses almost 15 years ago. The luster of how we stack up against other countries around the world seemingly hadn’t, and still hasn’t, worn off.

Here’s the latest that appeared on my Facebook feed just today. Produced / directed by a fellow who likes to push some buttons. He’s not a favorite of mine, I admit, but I watched it anyway because it’s summertime. And I have some time. And I feel like I need to think about education. And it’s about Finland again.

Do you see what I mean?

I want more time for my students to play.

I like the idea of students being more engaged in their own learning.

I like the idea of teachers being less stressed.

I don’t like state assessment testing either.

What is it with the U.S.?

And just when I’m annoyed enough to wallow in how we’ve got it all wrong, because well, it looks like the United States is yet again behind other nations (#29 the video notes) I happen to look down and see Finnish viewers’ comments.

Viewers noted that the video had it wrong. Homework was indeed a thing that had to be done in Finland. Others mentioned how inaccurate the video is in its entirety.

Hmmmm… more to the story? Yet I clearly remember that this issue must have been a common theme, even 15 years ago.

From my journalism courses in college, I know it’s difficult to present an impartial article — and that’s if one strives to do so. Additionally, there’s only so much space on paper, only so many words allowed by editors in charge of editorial space.

Here are some other Finnish school bits and perspectives I came across.

Global grade: How do U.S. students compare?

So what’s my verdict on whether we really are that far behind our Finnish colleagues?

It is interesting to read about the number of Fulbright applicants interested in Finland seeking solutions to our nation’s educational woes. Seeing how U.S. students compare to Finland’s in various aspects is revealing. Knowing that the Finnish system was once equal to the U.S. yet made a concerted effort to improve forty some years ago is encouraging.

If the comparison was easy to make, we would have surely implemented changes and determined what we “should” be doing in the United States.

There are just too many variables in play.

Regardless though, there’s a lot we should be doing different. A solution to what we’re doing in the classroom needs to be sought out and implemented.

Why a solution?

I believe logic demands that we acknowledge that students being tested at the young age of eight and endure considerable stress learning strategies to “beat the test” seems downright counterintuitive.

How will a child love learning if they’re worried more about getting the answers right than trying out different solutions based on what they already know?

Isn’t it ok to be wrong and not endure a poor grade because a risk was taken?

Isn’t education’s intent to teach students to understand how each learns differently than their peers? To encourage them to solve problems collaboratively? To understand how to both lead and follow?

Isn’t it obvious that sitting all day without end is painful to us all – regardless of age?

Shouldn’t we worry about students enjoying their education? Be interested in their happiness? Seek a happy life?

So solutions are in order.

I challenge you to share your thoughts in the comments answering: How do you think we stack up against Finland?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Failing Our Students: Assessment Success

Boy Covering FaceEach year for the last fourteen I have stood at the front of the room reading from my Virginia SOL manual’s script.

I have been told to never veer off script. Which does in fact make sense if an education official far away is trying to get every teacher across a state to give the same directions without fault.

No unintended advantages, no intentional pauses, no giving secret signs that students’ answers are incorrect. It makes sense.

The whole prospect of testing every students across a state must certainly make someone at the top mighty nervous. When national nightly news reports that teachers have been found guilty of signaling to students in some predetermined way that their answers were incorrect, more testing documentation, parameters and scripts need to be written. It makes sense.

Except for one thing.

We’re dealing with humans and in my case, children no older than nine.

These are the ones that officials want to test in my take-everything-off-the-walls classroom. I even had to take down my clock so that no advantage would be had by looking at it. I tore down my classroom schedule. I had colleagues concerned about whether numbered coat hooks were worthy of covering.

Do you remember nine? I can’t say I remember much more than doing tie-dye during Art Class. I remember Recess where one day I sat on a warm piece of gum while swinging — that’s some serious trauma for a third grader who had to stand up on the bus all the way home. I remember my teacher’s name and where my class was in my elementary school. I don’t remember what happened for those one hundred eighty days I sat at my desk. Do you?

Fast forward to the present and I now stand in front of my students during a test session unable to encourage, unable to give a thumbs up, unable to lean down and convince them it will be ok.

If their little bodies require a bathroom break another adult must lead them to the restroom and determine that no other students are inside — ensuring that no conversation will occur having anything to do with testing.

Welcome to our present state of education and how we have chosen to assess our children – regardless of age, regardless of their fear and regardless of how fair or insignificant questions might be. I can’t bring a sense of calm or even introduce a pleasant you-can-do-it smile, because that would be a testing irregularity and that could send me to prison.

No really, it could.

I’ve been obligated to sign a paper that spells this specific consequence out.

What do I do? What should we do?

I would like to tell you I’ve got the magic dust and I’m ready to share.

I don’t.

Like many of you I continue to be amazed (well, disgusted actually) by what we’re asking little people to accomplish on a given day or two.

The expectation is that they will be amazing, be proficient, and use strategies that have been reinforced to the point that why we do math or read has long since been forgotten. Students will do exactly that which would make any adult nervous – choose the right question when given the answer, interpret a question in math that has more to do with one’s reading ability than computation skills, and choose all the multiple correct answers to one question in order to advance to the next confusing question.

It would make adults nervous. It makes me nervous and I’ve been doing this over a decade now.

Just yesterday we finished our last SOL. We’ve been doing a LOT of math earlier this week. It was like a factory in my classroom with all the worksheets flying from student to teacher, back to student and back to me to assess their success, and mine, at remediation.

For fourteen years I have done this. For most of those I taught fifth grade. Now it’s third.

That’s a Science, Reading, Math, and Writing SOL for most of those years. At an average of 25 students for 12 years, that’s about 300 SOLs plus another couple of years at 3rd grade equaling well over 400 SOLs under my belt – some years I had over 30 students.

That’s a good amount of worry for both student and teacher.

That’s a huge amount of focus on the importance of a few numbers each year that supposedly defines my success as a teacher.

Those numbers are also intended to define a student’s knowledge in a specific academic area. It’s all quite backwards, in my humble opinion, because how can one day’s assessment sum up a year’s worth of learning?

Regardless though, I and my colleagues around me, have all bought into the importance of these numbers because we stress, we worry, we do our best to motivate, and we remediate right up to the last day hoping that each students’ scores will be what we hope.

We know if our scores aren’t acceptable, next year we will have a microscope placed upon us to determine what we haven’t been doing “right.”

Whether students came to us prepared by those that taught them previously, whether students come from homes in which education is valued, whether students’ lives outside of school is a place where the importance of character is reiterated — those aren’t assessed or taken in account at the beginning of the state assessment.

Regardless, we teachers do not want our efforts to disappoint.

Repeat any mantra long enough and it slowly becomes both understood and heartfelt. Tell teachers that scores matter and reiterate it through countless workshops and school wide endeavors and we believe. When we believe it enough, we both unconsciously and intentionally pass on this importance to students. Goals have to be met, we’re told, and we tell to those that sit in our classrooms.

First goal: pass. Second goal: pass advanced. Ultimate goal: perfect score of 600.

Students, teachers, principals, specialists, school divisions and states all celebrate when those scores hit passing and above.

There’s cheering when it goes well, and downcast eyes when it doesn’t. There’s serious anxiety, walk down any school hallway this time of year and tell me you don’t see it on the faces of both students and teachers.

All of it outrageous. Just go ahead and let’s call it child abuse of the testing variety.

Perhaps these thoughts convey to you that my students didn’t do well and therefore I need a place to express my frustration.

Actually they did an excellent job. As students finished, their scores were posted for our administrator to view who in turn shared them with me. Impressive pass rate. Had some pass advanced scores too.

I was relieved, administration was complimentary, but for me, I’m not happy.

My frustration isn’t that students can’t do well or even that there’s an assessment. My frustration is that our educational system has gotten to the point in which a whole year’s worth of teaching, student success and challenges overcome comes down to one assessment.

How have we gotten to the point in which students’ scores are valued more than students themselves?

 

A Simple Story About A Farmer And A Pig

This is a simple story about a farmer and a pig.

Last Wednesday my class had just finished another benchmark assessment which was intended to determine who was progressing adequately according to our county’s learning objectives.

My students had taken them on laptops and gotten their results immediately, so they knew their score and knew which specific problems had stumped them.

This is the story I told to my class the next morning which I remembered first hearing from my former colleague Will. It seemed appropriate and timely.

This is a simple story about a farmer and a pig.

You see, a farmer doesn’t buy a pig or doesn’t allow a piglet to be born in his barn without a reason.

He feeds that pig and over time that pig gets larger – some would say fat.

The farmer keeps doing what he’s doing and waits it out. There’s cleaning, there’s worry about the cold or heat, and there’s quite a bit of anticipation.

And every day: food and time, food and time.

And then one day the farmer decides that enough time and feed has been fed to that now very large pig. The time has come.

The time has come to make sausage.

Because, again, the farmer doesn’t just raise that little piglet to become a very large pig because he likes pigs, or thinks pigs are cute, or is a fan of Charlotte’s Web.

The farmer instead knows that with enough time and enough food, his pig will one day be ready to become some very yummy sausage that he will use to feed his family.

Teachers are like farmers is what I told my class.

We spend a lot of time and a lot of effort on students. We spend this kind of energy because we have a goal too.

Our goal is to get you to learn and understand.

And we do it all kind of ways.

We do it by being creative in our lessons, having you help one another, and having you complete projects. We talk in front of you, tell funny stories, use videos, remind you to stay on task, and ask you a lot of questions.

We do it because we know that time will run out and if we’ve done our job, you’re supposed to know what you have been taught.

And then it will be time to make some sausage.

Except the sausage we’re making will be how you do on your SOLs.

I expect all of our effort to pay off.

I’ve worked hard every day, listened to when you didn’t understand, and tried again in a different way to help you understand better.

Now the farmer out on the farm might be able to spend some more time getting that pig ready. Maybe give that pig some more feed. Maybe wait just another couple of weeks or months.

We can’t do that here at school – and I know that might seem pretty unfair.

So instead I need you to understand that we only have so much time to finish what needs to be done.

Our day of sausage-making will be here soon and I guarantee you and I will both be disappointed if all this effort won’t have worked.

Just like you can imagine the disappointment of the farmer whose pig isn’t ready, even after caring for him for months and months.

So if you know you’re not ready to sit down in front of a computer and prove what you know answering forty questions about math or reading. If you feel like you haven’t understood it no matter how hard you’ve tried.

Well, then it’s time to spend more time asking questions and trying to understand why you don’t understand.

Oh, and let’s forget about the SOLs for a second.

If you haven’t left this classroom understanding more than when you came into this classroom in September. If you have been waiting for time to just tick on by every day instead of really trying your best. If you still aren’t kinder toward other people in this class because you’re now a whole year older than you were last year…

Do you think that you’re ready for 4th grade?

I ask each of you that question because I cared about each of you since the first day of school when you walked into our classroom. Each day since I’ve done my best to make our classroom a place you would want to come to.

If that didn’t help you get ready for what’s coming in the 4th grade then I either didn’t do my job, or you didn’t do yours.

Which do you think it is? And would it be fair to you if we sent you to the 4th grade and you weren’t ready.

This is really, just a very simple little story about a farmer and pig.

It’s about working day after day and getting ready for something much bigger. It’s about working on yourself to be better tomorrow, than you were today.

So, how will you spend today?

Faith in the Classroom

Almost every week we find ourselves in about the same place.

Four rows from the front of the auditorium, stage left.

My wife and I are fortunate to have found the type of church that when the sermon is over, we’re glad we went because the message spoke to us. It is almost always exactly what we needed, at exactly the right time.

It’s after the three songs are sung, the offering is made, and the pastor begins that I get out my phone.

Not to check Facebook or Instagram, but instead to try and keep up with the thoughts running through my head. Whatever ideas surface are jotted down.

This usually doesn’t happen immediately after the sermon begins, but after some time thinking about, well, what I’m thinking about as I try to keep listening to the message from the stage.

It’s the only time this happens during the week.

Perhaps because I get so little time to think about what’s going on in my little head.

I’ve read about listening to God’s message.

I’m no evangelist.

I don’t hold signs on your neighborhood corner. In fact I’m careful to not put others in uncomfortable positions because of my faith – I’m convinced that’s not the intent of faith.

In class I recognize that I teach in a public school and so faith doesn’t come up in conversation – as it shouldn’t.

Instead I hold it close like a great hand of poker.

When anxiety hits teachers and students alike, when those around me worry about what might be coming in the days, weeks, or months ahead, I turn to my faith. I know that I’m not alone in battling the often overwhelming feeling of panic. I have some help.

I also remind myself that what’s ahead these next few months as we get ever closer to the SOLs has been achieved before.

This isn’t my first year, this isn’t my first rodeo.

Call it an act of faith, or call it my attempt at keeping anxiety at bay. It’s what I do as the weather warms and the calendar reminds me that while summer is closer, so is this year’s testing.

And if I knew the magic involved in getting every student to be awesome, every day of every year, I would share it right here with anyone who would take a moment to read it.

However I’m not a magician and I don’t have that kind of skill level or knowledge. In fact there are many days in which the awesomeness doesn’t happen. However what I do have is a bit of time at the front.

I place value in the side conversations about interesting facts. I believe in listening to a child’s story.

I know it’s important to remind students that no challenge is too great, no obstacle too overwhelming.

I place faith in the fact that while there are days in which my lessons are followed and completed without compromise, there are also days in which there’s real value in getting off track and sharing a funny story.

Here’s why.

The success in my class doesn’t come from repeatedly and consistently presenting an endless of amount of information. It doesn’t come from a barrage of facts that must be memorized.

Some teachers do exactly that, but I believe that doing so eliminates the fact that we’re in an endeavor involving human beings who want nothing more than to be happy and feel valued.

Instead I believe that if my students prove successful on a state assessment, it’s because they believed they could be and I played a part in reminding them that they had the ability within themselves to overcome. I have faith that my incessant desire to have them understand their abilities will in the end prove successful in a world of naysayers.

It will prove valuable far after they leave my classroom.

And that’s something I believe in wholeheartedly.

The Most Important Lesson

Each year I make the same deal with my students.

If they tell me it’s their birthday, and they make the request, I will make the hat.

This is no ordinary hat.

This is a custom, made to fit, and designed for just one student hat.

In fact, when some of my former students will visit me, often on Back to School Night, and I ask them if they still have their hat, they tell it’s still sitting on their bedroom dresser. For many of them this is many years after it was first made.

Why do they hold on to something made out of simple construction paper?

Perhaps it’s because no hat is alike.

Some hats dangle in all directions. Some are excessively tall while others are short and even slide down to sit on their nose – complete with eye holes. Some practically drag the sidewalk behind them. They’re decorated with names, stories and perhaps even ponies – if that’s what the birthday student loves. There are math equations, science terms and history lessons, but only if each somehow connected with the student. I’ll write questions on the hat in hopes that others will ask them about the dog they love or their little sister that makes them crazy.

Each time I begin one of these hats, I worry about the amount of time the production requires. In between science and reading, math problems and historical accounts. In between lunch and recess, resource and the bus loop… I staple, resize, crimp, fold, and cut.

Students watch me from their seats as they look up from completing a quiz or from behind their worksheets.

It takes more time than I care to admit. There’s constant cutting and even a resizing in the midst of the build. This all takes some time. Time away from what some would, no question, argue is a distraction from what’s expected to happen in the classroom.

So why does their smile stretch across their face when I sit that hat upon their head when I’ve finished?

While I think yes, it is because each is individually made just for them, I also believe it’s because of what I obsess over – the time it takes to make each one.

In an era of testing, meeting lesson objectives, remediation, and student anxiety; in a time when students are forced to acclimate to test taking strategies — all they want to do is share a story about what happened at the ball field or during last night’s sleepover with friends. They want us to make an effort to hear their story.

So seeing them proudly wear their hat as they follow me down the bus loop and get on the bus, is a memory for both student and teacher to remember.

When students know that you care enough about them to spend the time to make them happy – that’s a realization not quickly forgotten and quite possibly the most important lesson we can impart.

Escaping Classroom Failure

I try to be that teacher.

The one you wish you had. The one that you might have had long ago and wish you had again.

Funny, impactful, caring, sincere, kind, patient, and understanding. I’ve had a few I still remember all these years later. They were helpful, insightful, introspective, and said the right thing at the exact right time.

I admit it. I admit it to you now with humility.

I am not that teacher every moment of every day.

I fall short. I fall short a lot.

I share this because not being the teacher I wanted (and want) to be  really annoys me. Perhaps writing about it will bring some solutions. Maybe my sharing will ease my annoyance with myself.  I think about my failures as I stagger down my trailer’s stairs at the end of the day. I reflect on them as I drive home. They introduce doubt.

And then I try to remember about who sits in my classroom each day and I remind myself that each of my students is not a widget to be sold or a cog that’s part of a bigger machine.

Each of my students is a little human with all sorts of history of which they themselves don’t realize. Their parents in turn have a life of which I know very close to nothing. Combined, all of it leads to a myriad of experiences with which students enter the classroom each morning.

So maybe who I am and how I do it is exactly what some of them need. If they’re little people who come wrapped in so many different packages, then being different than the next teacher, then doing it differently than my colleagues who I know are excellent – is ok.

Yet the doubt still creeps in.

What happens after they get on the bus at four in the afternoon and when they come back the next school day at nine in the morning?

I don’t know.

I can tell you about what happens during the school day and I try my best, my very best, to be understanding that each is a human being in the process of changing into a not so little person anymore.

Some days, I proudly confess, I am successful. Happily successful.

I reach my students and not only teach them, but I connect with them. That’s when I know that teaching is what I’m meant to do. When I pick up on a student’s displeasure or confusion and help bring a dose of confidence or reassurance – all is right in the world. When I change my teaching mid-lesson and the end result far outshines what I was planning to do initially – I am happy.

Then there are the other days when the awesomeness doesn’t happen, regardless of what I try. Jokes fall flat. Encouragement doesn’t encourage. My happiness does not sprout more of the same. Plainly said, students can be a tough crowd and sometimes aren’t at all receptive to the best of intentions.

Here’s where I think being stubborn is a good thing. It’s on these days that I do some of the following.

Option One: Mercilessly Plow Ahead

I gather steam and haphazardly continue what my lesson plans require of me without second guessing any of my antics. The jokes will continue regardless of how badly they are received. In fact, I may just amp up the zany in hopes of breaking through the tired-don’t-care-please-don’t-make-me personalities sitting in my room.

This is exhausting. This is a gamble. When it works, it’s like finally reaching the top of a long climb and seeing the vista. It’s completely worth it.

Option Two: The Sound of Silence

Fall back to my quiet place. Sometimes quiet really is the best medicine. In fact the sound of silence is a great remedy to recenter both teacher and student.

I don’t like the quiet in a classroom. I enjoy hearing their laughing too much. I love our conversations. I appreciate a good story – whether theirs or when I get to tell my own. Quiet is tough on me, but I continue to learn that some of my students work best when their teacher doesn’t interrupt them with a story about that morning’s crazy realization or what happened at my own home the night before.

Either approach isn’t foolproof, but deviating from what expected often works.

Option Three: The Honest Truth

What I think works best is what I find myself doing when I’m at a loss for how to proceed.

And it’s what I did yesterday – I was just plain ol’ honest with them.

I’m a believer that every teacher has to draw a line in the sand and share some real honesty. Whether their writing hasn’t been up to par, it’s obvious that they aren’t following directions regardless of prompting, they aren’t using time to catch up, or their efforts have been lackluster.

Yesterday I stopped all charades and worried less about balancing positive with criticism. With my filter set on a lower setting than usual, I let my worries and concerns known.

How I end the sugar coatin’ changes depending on what I think will work.

Sometimes it’s a letter I write and let them read as the morning begins. Other times I remind each student what I am impressed by and what each needs to improve upon. Occasionally I will sit in front of them all and share with them the thoughts that woke me well before my alarm began – this morning it was 2 am.

That last one. The one about being super honest while I tell them what thoughts spin in the teacher’s head – that’s what I did yesterday.

Effective? Today they were much more civil with one another. Their efforts improved. The writing looked to be done with more attention to detail and more missing work arrived on my desk. Not all of my students, but most of them. But most of my students heard what I had to say, so today I left feeling like I earned that paycheck again.

Fingers crossed for tomorrow.