The antsy time of year

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We are two-thirds of the way through our school year. Usually, this is the time period in which students start to get antsy. Winter is dragging on, gray skies remain consistent and school breaks are rare. While that may be the case again this year, I also find myself becoming increasingly unsettled as the year progresses.

My uneasiness this year is a culmination of years of reflection on my classroom mission. My district has taken on new initiatives the past few years (as all districts do) to solve the well-documented, disconnected nature between high school graduates and work place preparedness. One emphasis has been allowing teachers to communicate with business professionals in the area, discussing the skills they most want to see in potential employees and focusing on the four C’s (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication). Another emphasis is more data-driven and focused on curriculum continuity and viability. We have aligned ELA curriculum to the ND Common Core State Standards and redesigned units to address possible gaps. We have created common unit assessments, focusing on what we believe to be the most important standards, and we are required to meet and discuss assessment results to evaluate our teaching effectiveness. The implementation of these two areas no doubt costs money and time. However, these initiatives are becoming increasingly  contradictory.

The research and literature discussing skill-building for today’s work force mostly addresses the same concept: schools are missing the most important factors for encouraging future success. In his book Why School?, Will Richardson argues that schools are becoming obsolete. He says we are still operating under an “old world” system when teachers and information were scarce, instead of the current abundance of information that is reality. He says we should be focusing on “preparing students to be learners, above all, who can successfully wield the abundance at their fingertips. It’s a kind of schooling that prepares students for the world they will live in, not the one in which most of us grew up.” Instead of creating “learners”, it feels like we are putting an emphasis on the most assessable skills, not the most important.

Earlier this year my team created a learning goal for students for the purpose of evaluating our own professional growth. Of course, like many districts across the country, it needed to fit the parameters of a SMART goal (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely). We were told to look at the skills we value most at our grade level and attempt to build student growth. Here’s the problem, as a freshmen English team, we struggled to find ways to measure the most valuable skills we wanted students to attain. This struggle was multi-faceted: 1) the goal window consisted of 60 school days, or one-third of the year 2) we needed the assessment to be uniform and 3) it had to be an important skill set. As the graph below represents, the most important skills are the most difficult to assess, especially given the time parameters set forth by a SMART goal.




As a team, we settled on improving students’ comma usage to meet 80 percent proficiency according to a uniform scoring rubric. I can barely type it without getting bored. Ironically enough, an administrator rejected it and explained that “comma usage did not seem like something we have a passion for.” That is 100 percent correct. Unfortunately, all the areas we are passionate about are difficult to assess given the SMART goal parameters: critical thinking, resiliency, empathy, curiosity, creativity, etc. To appease the process, we broadened the goal and focused more on student growth than students reaching proficiency. It was still a “basic skill” on the “less important” side of the scale, but definitely easier to provide a uniform, viable assessment.

The process reminded me of a post from a couple of years ago by Dean Shareski (@shareski). He says I’m not anti-measurement. I’m anti- simple. It’s the same reason I hated SMART goals. When the concept was first introduced to me as a teacher it seemed to make sense.  You can’t improve what you can’t measure I was told. However, in all the years I was subjected to that idea, I don’t think I ever wrote one that I cared about. The moment I tried created a goal I realized it would be hard to measure. So instead I focused on writing goals that were easy to measure just to be able to say I had a SMART goal.” Like Shareski, I believe in accountability and student growth, but it should be more flexible to meet the needs of today’s learners. 

We need to align our purpose. We can’t continue to restrict student assessments to a simplified, out-dated system and expect to prepare them for an ever-changing employment environment of complexity and “abundance.” In his book, Richardson refers to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) definition of 21st Century Literacies. He argues that the majority of students today are graduating “illiterate” by these standards. It is hard to disagree when we are required to narrow our focus to meet a restricting criteria.

It won’t be as simple or cut and dry, but we should look at systems that evaluate today’s 21st Century literacies. This also means examining a self-directed professional development approach and a longer, messier process to measure professional effectiveness. In the end, it will allow us to evaluate whether we are really developing “learners”.  It will provide more meaningful results that will have an impact on student learning for years to come.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

A professional courtesy

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In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Twitter. That once blurry, unfamiliar space for sharing ideas has flourished into a terrific resource for information – especially for teachers.

I have worked in my current school district for 11 years, since before Twitter existed. In that time, the district-driven professional development for teachers has changed only slightly. The state still decides the number of PD days districts need and officials have allotted time for individual buildings to decide how to use predetermined time increments. Still, this “sit and get” approach fails to put growth in the hands of the teachers. What makes memes so funny? They speak truth.

With major advancements in technology and communication methods, it’s time districts look to reevaluate professional development strategies. There is always talk about “elevating the teaching profession” or “respect for teachers”, but the current model of professional development falls well short of those sentiments. District leaders should trust that teachers want to improve their instructional practices. To show that trust, leaders should look at self-directed professional development.

Self-directed PD would be a pretty big shift from our current paradigm, where attendance is taken at all events and strict accountability strategies are in place. However, I always go back to the phrase I heard about academic rigor in the classroom “If a student can simply copy answers, is the skill being assessed really valuable?” So I ask, “If a teacher can gain the information through other means (email, media, etc.) is the PD really valuable?” The most successful PD has been described as continual and content-specific, with time for implementation and support. This model could be achieved by allowing teachers to search out their own growth via any number of sources, while still providing district support for the teacher when necessary. Again, this requires trusting that teachers are intrinsically motivated to improve in their professional practice.

Let’s use technology integration strategies as an example. In a survey by Samsung, 90 percent of teachers believe technology integration has a strong impact on student achievement. However, two-thirds of these teachers think they are not adequately trained to effectively implement new technology. My district, West Fargo Schools, has tinkered with alternative methods for improving teaching effectiveness and varying professional development experiences. We have allowed master teachers in our buildings to share best practices, incorporated walkthroughs to see other environments, visited community businesses and collaborated through Professional Learning Communities. Those are great strides from the large blocks of meetings we would sit in a decade ago. However, these strategies are still restrictive in the fact that they assume professional learning only takes place on those designated days with those activities.

In this Freakanomics podcast, Dave Levin, a former teacher and co-founder of the KIPP schools (Knowledge Is Power Program) says  “…we are not training teachers right now to meet the challenges of our kids today. Right? So to this extent we are sort of still training teachers for classrooms of the past. So we’re not teaching teachers well enough how to effectively differentiate for the vast range of skills the kids have. We’re not teaching teachers effectively enough how to use technology to further teaching, and we’re not teaching teachers how to make school relevant for what kids are really needing to succeed in the colleges they may go to or the careers they may pursue 20 years from now.” My district prides itself on the varied learning opportunities provided to students (AP, dual credit, STEM, AVID, intervention, etc.) and rightfully so, these are great programs to help achieve academic growth. It’s interesting that the same avenue has not been provided to teachers. The “one size fits all” model restricts growth.

Self-direct PD would also be more cost effective for school districts. Professional development is an expensive line item for most districts. The 50 largest districts in the country spend $8 billion annually on PD. Eric Schulzke (@eschulzkeexplains how the current model of PD is widely excepted nationwide, but shows little improvement in student achievement. The lack of results would be why my district has tried multiple PD methods in the last decade, all different variations of the “sit and get” approach. It’s time to let teachers drive their own learning. Authors @Myers_Berkowicz provide a variety of resources for teachers who are seeking to independently continue their professional growth. It’s time districts allow teachers to seek out their own learning opportunities instead of continuing the “one size fits all” approach. Growth would be driven by teachers’ instructional needs rather than district initiatives.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

The bottom line: compassion

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Introduction: This post was written on August 17, 2013. It was originally intended to be posted that week. However, events transpired that made it difficult to publicize a post with a theme centered on compassion toward students. Since two and a half years have passed, the topic of this post has caused me much reflection. I will post the original post as intended, but I will include editorial comments in italics.

As the next post on this new adventure called blogging, I would like to spend it as many educators do – looking to the year ahead, full of possibilities and excitement. Personally, I have a couple of new classes on my plate this year, which have me delving into new curriculum and scanning the worldwide web for new resources to help enhance my students’ learning experiences. 

However, it wasn’t until last night that I came to realize the one key ingredient for every successful classroom. As teachers, the content comes easy for us. We have a passion for our subject area and we want to share that passion with our students. Last night, I attended the wedding of a former student and it was the second wedding this summer that involved former students (I know I’m getting old-but that is for another post). This particular wedding was different – not in the expected way such an event separates itself from the rest. No, this wedding was held in the same church where I had attended a funeral eight months prior for a current student who passed away during the school year.

These two events, although common in their location, obviously reside at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Last night, I found myself reflecting on another, more abstract, factor they had in common. As I sat and witnessed these former students express their devotion for each other, I couldn’t help but notice the immense love that transpired throughout the room. It was obvious that each person there cared deeply for this couple and each person wanted the best for them. This was not unlike the other occasion, where the same room, which was standing room only, was filled with individuals who cared deeply for the deceased.

That common factor of deep, unwavering affection slightly surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to draw such a similarity between two drastically different occasions. It helped me to reflect on the connection I had with each of these students. The importance of developing a strong relationship with students started to become clear. 

Since this post, a colleague of mine has described this investment in student learning as emotional currency. Teachers often are deficit spending when it comes to their emotional investment in students. Creating a balance becomes essential, but it is difficult to maintain.

I hesitate to use the term “caring” for this relationship because it really depends on the specific teaching management style of each teacher. However, in every classroom it should be evident that the teacher has a passion for the content, but a stronger passion for the students. At a conference a few weeks ago, student speaker Kayla Hill mentioned “Teachers who do a good job, not only have a passion for what they’re teaching, but for whom they’re teaching.”

As the school year begins, I will not only search for ways to make the content come alive for my students, but I’ll make an effort to make sure each student in my classroom understands the passion I have for them.

This post, although written years ago, has been difficult for me to publicize. The time that has passed since I have written this has forced me to reevaluate my commitment to my students. My philosophy centers on student growth and preparing students for their next step. However, I have realized that it’s impossible for me to perform my job without giving my full commitment to my students. 

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.