Monday, June 18, 2012

Life in the Gray

Bowman asked the blogosphere to write letters to new teachers. Sophie Germain wrote one already. (Edit: Here's the collection) I wrote a post last year with practical tips. Here's my advice.

Dear Noobs,

This is what you need to know:
Despite what teacher movies, books you've read, your credential program, your master teacher, your new principal, your BTSA coach, and the blogosphere would have you believe; there is no black and white in teaching. Teaching is one huge gray area
I had to bold that. We make it seem like it's a noble profession full of clear choices and goals. You want every kid to succeed and feel safe. You have high expectations. You set big goals. You put your students first. NCLB bad. Diane Ravitch good. Worksheets and grades and rewards and punishments are tools of the lazy and the incompetent. You will never, ever give up on anyone.

That's all bullshit.

Look. I know. You're brand new and you just watched Waiting for Superman or Race to Nowhere or read The Schools Our Children Deserve or watched Sal Khan's TED talk and you are PUMPED. You are going to be an amazing teacher. Your kids will gasp with joy and be lost in wonder and LEARN LEARN LEARN. More importantly, you're not going to be that teacher. The one next door that goes home at 3 and gives out the same worksheets as he did 10 years ago.

Sorry. I know this won't mean much to you right now, but it doesn't work that way. In teaching, there is no clear path. There is no choice that is always right or always wrong.

There will be a time when your students are hurt by your high expectations and your big goals. Especially when you're new. You just won't have developed the skills yet to help your students meet all of your goals. It's true. There will be a time when you have actually damaged a kid because you set a high goal for them that you just weren't good enough to help them reach.

There will be a time when you can't keep your kids safe. You hear about a fight that's going to happen at lunch. You should report it right? What if a lunch time fight is something that can be managed? What if it happens, gets broken up, and everything is fine after? What if avoiding a lunch time fight means they'll now fight after school? Only this time they will bring others. And weapons. And nobody is around to stop the fight when one kid is on the ground and ten others are kicking him.

There will be many, many times when you shouldn't put your students first. Go home. Go to sleep. Get a massage. Take a day off. Spend time with your family. Play a video. Ask that teacher next door for a worksheet. Often, what's good for you is good for them. You should do what's good for you. Sometimes what's good for you isn't good for them. Sometimes you should still do it.

There will be a time when that teacher next door has the perfect piece of advice for your current problem but you blow him off because he's that teacher next door.

There will be a time when embarrassing a kid in front of his peers is the best thing you could have ever done for him.

There will be a time when you just. don't. care. about a topic you're teaching.

There will be a time when you use stickers and candy and points and extra credit and it will work wonderfully.

There will be a time when you need to kick a kid out. You've got 33 others. Don't make them suffer for the one.

There will be a time when you give up on a kid. You hate it every time but you've got 193 other students that haven't given up and you can only do so much.

There will be a time when you have a student that you love like your own but you need to recommend to the school board that this student be expelled. Because no matter what he means to you, he is a danger to the rest of the students.

There will be a time when you look a student right in the eye and lie to her.

You can't worry about always making the right choice or always making the wrong choice. At best we can deal in probabilities. Often what we think are our best and worst choices were the result of nothing more than chance. 

Sometimes you make the choice that you can live with. Sometimes you make the choice that you can't. 

Teaching is a human endeavor. It's messy and complicated and the best job in the world. There is no black and white in teaching. Only gray.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Burden of Proof

Brian Frank has a post where he talks about standards-based grading and evidence.
In a grading system where you take away points, evidence of misunderstanding and lack of evidence for understanding are both punishable offenses.  Standards-based grading, however, focuses our attention to confirming evidence of understanding.
I've had some recent posts stating that Argument is one of the pillars of science education. Here's where we get back to alignment. As Brian points out, one of the tenets of SBG is that the burden of proof rests with the students. Again to quote Brian:
The students isn’t punished for not labeling things the way you want them to; they simply can’t be given credit for understanding things for which they have provided no evidence. Maybe they will show that evidence later by labeling forces the way you want; or maybe they will show you evidence of understanding in a different way.
If we believe that one of the fundamental goals of science education, and indeed all education, is to teach students how to argue, then your grading system should align with that value.

I left a comment on Brian's blog with a link to this paper called Faculty Grading of Quantitative Problems: A Mismatch Between Values and Practice. This is by no means a rigorous academic paper but it has some points that are worth sharing.
If students are graded in a way that places the burden of proof on the instructor (as 47% of the earth science and chemistry faculty did), they will likely receive more points if they do not expose much of their reasoning and allow the instructor to instead project his/her understanding onto the solution. On the other hand, if they are graded in a way that places the burden of proof on the student to either demonstrate his/her understanding or produce a scientific argument, they will receive very few points unless they show their reasoning. Most instructors tell students that they want to see reasoning in problem solutions, however students quickly learn about an instructor’s real orientation towards grading by comparing their graded assignments with those of their classmates, or by comparing their own grades from one assignment to the next.
I love this idea of burden of proof. If we place the burden on the teacher, we need to interpret what the student means and students are encouraged to leave out reasoning because that might end up deducting points. I'm reminded of Scott McCloud's concept of closure in comics. We end up filling in the blanks between panels.1

If we place the burden on the student, the answer is simple. Why do you need to label forces in this way? I don't know if you know it until you show me.

1: I'm talking reasoning and argument here. Don't even get me started on the massive equity issues students confront when we fill in the blanks.


I've also got another post up at ASCD Inservice. This one is based on a Robyn Jackson seminar and is a small modification I'm making on teaching compare and contrast. It's on increasing rigor and if I'm going to stay on topic I'd say students will need to understand and negotiate with what constitutes acceptable proof of understanding. That is, if all I do is give students pre-written tests, I've placed a ceiling on what my students understand of proof. (Full disclosure: I get paid for these posts)