Saturday, April 13, 2013

Teachers Teaching = Students Thinking

All too often lately, from conversations with friends still leading classrooms, from broadcast and print sources and from social media outlets, I am scorched with and saddened by teachers’ frustration. Their passion for teaching is fading because they feel that they can be tossed from subject to subject or from school to school at an administrator’s whim. They are tired of always being asked to do more but receive so little if any recompense in return. They are angry because they are being turned into data collectors when all they want to do is TEACH. They know that test scores are not the be all-end all, and if they are allowed to lesson up and teach write, as well as right, their students will learn and will pass any test because they can think.

They understand that in a typical high school English class, for example, during a unit on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, they will address the following concepts, (although their examples that follow in the parentheses will probably vary from mine):
  1. Characteristics of the Puritan Period (Theocracy, Historical Contexts, i.e. God determines peoples’ fate, societal values)
  2. Elements of Literature (characters, plot, conflict, setting, symbolism, theme, tone)
  3. Vocabulary and Literary terms (allegory, allusions, imagery, Bildungsroman)
  4.  Literature Genre (Drama-Realism, slice of life theater)
  5. Thinking Skills (character/plot analysis, cause/effect, sequencing, justifying)
  6.  Writing Skills (analysis, persuasion, describing, critiquing)
  7.  Grammar/Mechanics (prewriting/writing/revising/teacher assessment)
  8. Comprehension (study questions, discussions, small/large group work, assessments).

When English teachers plan any unit, by focusing on these concepts, especially Number 5, the students will know how to answer any questions that might crop up on a state, a standardized or an SAT test. They will know how to analyze any passage that the test presents to them. They will be able to write a response to a prompt that earns them a proficiency rating, at a minimum. Why?

The students have been taught to think, not just to spit out answers that may appear on a test, or that they think a teacher wants to hear. Thinking is the keystone of education. When taught how to think and to trust their minds, students develop confidence in their ideas and abilities as well as in their inductive and deductive skills. Basic concepts plus higher level thinking skills equals learning (and a passing test score).

A graduate of public schools just prior to the early seventies (high school 1966/college 1970), I was taught by Bloom’s Taxonomy methodology: remembering/understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating. My teachers taught me to use both sides of my brain (although my left side remained eternally lethargic in regards to math). The college professors I had for my education classes instructed me how to do the same for my students.

Both Bloom’s Taxonomy and the Common Core Standards can be the foundation for the Show Me, Help Me, Let Me planning method. When teachers join these benchmarks with the eight concepts mentioned in the second paragraph (Literary Period Characteristics, Elements of Literature, Vocabulary/Literature terms, Literature Genre, Thinking, Writing/Grammar and Comprehension skills) they will create powerful plans that will spark understanding and a love for learning.

Ah if only teachers had it so easy.

Left to their own knowledgeable and professional devices, teachers will help their students build strong house of comprehension. Instead, administrators become the wolves peering in classroom doors with their curriculum demands phrased as to do suggestions.

Just yesterday, I visited the high school where I had taught for nineteen years to meet with the principal about my book. After a fruitful session, I moseyed on up to the English Department wing. As I climbed the stairs in the main intersection that led to Room 216, my home away from home for almost two decades, I noticed the flyers announcing upcoming events taped to the walls and felt as if I had never left, though it had been almost two years since I had ambled down these halls.  Very surreal, but I segue…

A few effusive hellos with colleagues, and a number of clicks on Amazon to buy my book after skimming it and remarking, “I must have this now,” were followed by their grumblings regarding administrative interference as to what, when and how they taught core material as well as personal choice literature. We laughed about how they all were going to become like Ditto, the instructor in the movie Teachers who never taught, but hid behind a newspaper while his students completed activity sheets. And administrators wonder why Johnny falls asleep during class.

An hour later, after settling in at my desk, I read a post by a teacher who was in the all-to-familiar, “I give up,” mode after an administrative edict. This overseer gave her a Walt Whitman poem, On the Beach at Night, a Common Core selection for ninth-tenth graders to use as a pre-test review resource. The post writer teaches low-level reading third graders.

Am I missing something here? What happened to the school of philosophy that strove to teach children to love learning, to find joy in expanding their minds, and to desire those “Aha” classroom moments?  Considering these two examples, are administrators’ goals to make the kids feel, “I can’t” instead of, “I can,” and to kill all enthusiasm for learning?

Why don’t they trust the education, skills and professionalism of the staff that they hired? Why don’t they realize that preparing children for the world after high school graduation is more crucial than grooming them to pass a spring time state test? Why don’t they prize learning over data that has no bearing on children’s education?

When students can reach into their brains and pull out the necessary higher level thinking skills they need to answer a question, they will pass the test. When teachers are allowed to prepare comprehensive lessons that incorporate various learning strands, instead of worrying about a slap on the hand if one of their charges doesn’t meet the mark, their students will pass the test.  When administrators can trust their teachers’ professionalism, knowledge and abilities instead of micromanaging their every move and just let them teach instead of focusing on their school’s AYP, the students will pass the test.

Life isn’t a series of multiple choice tests or writing to a prompt. In real life, people have to think, to analyze, and to make viable choices-for themselves, for their families and careers and for all those their lives and decisions touch. So do students.

The ability to think is a big part of the test success equation. Young people won’t be able to do this if all they have been taught is to pass a test. In the movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s unseen mentor told him, “Build it and they will come.” This can be paraphrased for today’s public schools, “Let teachers teach and the students will learn, and most importantly, will be able to think.”

Just for this blog, I am including this Mob Mentality Freebie that is a part of my complete The Crucible Unit Plan. This activity can be used with any novel that includes mob action or a mob mentality scenario. You can purchase the unit plan from my TpT store. For a brief synopsis, read about it on my Literature: Novel Ideas Page (Left sidebar) or click on the red book (Literature: Novel Ideas) on the right sidebar. It's Number 9 on the list and has a link to my store.
Meanwhile, here is the Mob Mentality activity:

 Happy Teaching,