Thursday, June 5, 2008

Teaching is like gardening

The picture of the calla lily above is from my garden. I have always loved to garden. When I was a child I used to take care of the rose bushes around the dog pen. I loved twining the roses in between the posts, and I looked forward to seeing the fruits of my labor.

Now, as an adult with my own home, I am gardening again. I grow your usual food: tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, spinach, collards, pak choi, carrots, radishes... etc. Sometimes things go really well; other times I deal with vermin, like Kehli who loves to slurp the centers out of just ripe tomatoes that she has harvested. As a result, I have put up fences around some of the beds, and have moved several of the planters out of the main yard.

But, my pride and joy are my flowers. I am not one of those people who loves perfectly landscaped gardens. Instead I inspire to a riot of colors and plants. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes not.

Last year was the first year I put in the back bed. I was so proud of myself. While I didn't put in the wall, I did pick, lay out and put in all the plants. It was a very pretty garden, and I had a number of plants that simply thrived. Still, I had others that failed to do well, and they had to be replaced this year. Even so, my first efforts were very pretty, and oh-so-neat.

Of course this year, the garden is out of control. I LOVE IT. It is a riot of plants, colors, and scents. I am very happy with it, and am planning to do a lot more work with it this summer. Of course, there is the usual work that needs to be done: weeding, trimming, hacking back, pinching, deadheading, fertilizing... it's a never ending process. But it's the daily, small stuff that makes the garden beautiful. It's also these daily chores that help the garden to thrive. Without this daily maintenance, the plants crowd each other, fighting for sun, the weeds choke emerging plants, and it just looks bad. You can never let it get away from you.

Teaching, in this respect, is much like gardening. It takes a lot of preparation beforehand to have a successful classroom. Just like you have to prep the soil, you need to set up a strong foundation for your students. You need to follow planting directions and meet the soil quality, water, and sun needs of each plant. You need to leave adequate room for the plant to spread. It's the same with students. They each have their own strengths and needs, and teachers must know what they are and meet them if their students are to thrive. And like gardens, there is a routine of things that must be done. In classrooms we need to reinforce new learning and ensure that the foundation remains strong.

Ultimately though, we need to decide what type of classroom we want. Do we need absolute order and try to bend Mother Nature to our will? Do we enjoy watching Mother Nature do what she does best? As teachers, we need to make the same decisions. We can quash children's curiosity and make them walk on the lines, sit in rows and never speak until spoken to. Or, we can encourage them to be who they are in all their messy glory. Some children will be quiet and understated like my ornamental bamboo, and others will be bigger than life like my climbing rose. Either way, we need to nurture our students. That's what teaching is all about.

Who is failing whom?

Take a look at this:

You can see this chart in context and read the entire document here.

Do ya get it? Statewide, schools are not meeting AYP. We could look at this in a number of ways: NJ schools, teachers, administrators, and students are really as bad as the public wants to believe. On the one hand, these stats mask the truly dangerous and academically lacking schools in a sea of other schools. This is not what NCLB wanted to have happen. The ED wanted to be able to highlight the schools that were doing amazing things and pressure schools that were not to do a better job of educating their students. And let's be real, there are some schools that need to do a better job.

On the other hand, I have to ask what AYP is not taking into consideration. What the chart above doesn't talk show is that some of the best schools in the state and in the nation are having trouble making AYP. This leads me to wonder if how they determine AYP is more of a problem than the schools themselves.

OK, so that was a facetious question/statement. I have real issues with how AYP is determined. As I talked about before, I just spent three days visiting amazing schools in an urban center close to my home. There were amazing schools, and not all of them met AYP. Because of that, all the amazing stuff they do get lost in the fact that they don't meet AYP.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

When good schools fail

My students (undergraduate and graduate teacher education students) have spent the last three days visiting several different schools in a nearby urban community. We were guests of these schools as part of the Urban Educators' Institute, an initiative to introduce university students to the schools, teachers, students, and communities that make urban education so amazing and challenging. The theme of this year's institute was What is right about urban education? The short ending to a long story is the schools, the teachers, the students, and the administrators are right with urban education.

The schools were different in many ways. Some had strong administrators who were responsible for creating a professional learning community. In other schools, the culture of the schools themselves guided the school environment, so that the administrators could let things flow on their own. Some of the schools were older than 75 years. Others were built as recently this year. All of these schools housed amazing programs that provided rich, rigorous, and wonderful learning experiences for their students. The evidence was every where, on the streets outside the buildings where we watched parents talking with teachers as the dropped off or picked up their children, in the halls which we decorated with students' projects, in the classrooms where we got to see students and teachers learning together, and most importantly, we heard about it from the students themselves. They told us what they were learning, why it was important, and there were even some tears as they related to the audience the importance of the teachers and administrators who challenged and nurtured them.

The teachers exhibited everything that we (at the university which employs me) hope to instill in our teacher education students; they all have the content knowledge, the pedagogical content knowledge, the skills, and the dispositions of successful teachers. And the students were amazing. And yet, these young men and women that we met were also members of the larger urban community that the schools served. And when we had the chance to talk to them, we were able to take away new ways to engage our own students.

Which brings me to a poignant issue about these schools and the expectations that have been placed on them by the state and the federal government. If I had children (or ever decide that I am bored of the child-free environment in which I live), these are the types of schools where I would want to send them. The programs are strong. The teachers are amazing. The administrators are dedicated. And many of them are identified as schools in need of improvement.

It's the new rhetoric they use today. Before they were called failing schools. Now they simply need to improve. Of course the irony of this is that these schools are outstanding centers for learning. And yet, when most people hear they did not make AYP (adequate yearly progress), they assume these schools must be homes to lazy students, teachers who have checked out, and incompetent administrators. The stark reality is that AYP fails to consider what is right with schools. It focuses on what is wrong. And it's not just urban schools who are in trouble.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Another "What not to Wear" Moment Brought to you by Kehli

This has nothing to do with education. It has to do with one of my three beasties (aka dogs), Kehli. You can see her lying on my bed here, and she's actually being quite agreeable. That's only because she is asleep.

Kehli is not a bad dog; she just has separation issues. I think that is because she was taken from her mother when she was very young. Sometimes the damage done is pretty mild... like when she chews up a box of Kleenex. Other times, it can be a little annoying, like when she chewed up my copy of David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005: Oxford University Press).

Needless to say, I was a little annoyed. But what she has done in the last two weeks is downright tragic. It's not that I don't empathize. After all, she and her two partners in crime have been alone up to twelve hours a day. I thought they would be OK with the back door open and all. I was wrong. The first to go were my favorite glasses.

This, for lack of a better word, sucked. And it's not like I could yell at her, because I didn't catch her in the act. It was a good reminder of the fact that I need to be a little bit neater around the house. But of course, I didn't learn my lesson. I came home today to another new and lovely act of eyewear desecration; this time the victims were my fave Smith sun/snowboarding glasses.

I'm just thankful they weren't the brand new ones I bought while up visiting my brother, his wife, and my brand new nephew. Kinda cute, huh?