#TeachingIs a Paradox

I just read my friend and colleague’s blog post titled “Teaching is Messy,”  I would strongly recommend you read it if you have the chance. Liz Prather starts her post with the following:

During National Teacher Appreciation Week, May 4-8, 2015, the Center for Teaching Quality invites all teachers to share their #TeachingIs story in an effort to dispel the popular myth of bad apple teachers and failing schools. Bill Ferriter, a CTQ blogger and 20-year veteran teacher in North Carolina, recently posted “#TeachingIs According to Twelve-Year-Old.  He had asked his 6th graders to describe their best teachers, and one of them responded:  “The best teachers are close and personal with the students, even if it is messy.”

This 6th grader is wise beyond his or her years!  As much as I crave order in my classroom and would love all of my students come it with the same skills and learn at the same rate, that notion is unrealistic.  Literacy is especially messy as has been outlined by countless talented educators such as Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, and Penny Kittle. Each of these experts states that a student’s literacy path is unique.  Some zoom along the path at break necked speed while others grow in spurts; others still wander off the path because they lack a stable home life, a lack of desire, or ability. Does that let me off the hook and allow me give up on any of them? Absolutely not! Every child can improve.  Because I teach the whole child, teaching reading and writing is a just a part of what I do.  I am passionate about that part, but there is much more to consider to effectively teach each child who enters my room. Often, the real teaching that happens in my room has nothing to do with my content. Once I have connected with a student on a personal level, I have a far better chance of teaching them literacy skills.

For me #TeachingIs filled with paradoxes.  One paradox in particular is “Spontaneity in the classroom requires lots of planning.”  Undoubtedly, this has been on my mind because the end of the year is fast approaching, and as usual, I didn’t cover some of the areas on my curriculum map as well as I had hoped. I plan endlessly but have never once in 21 years taught everything on that document.  Why?  Because I teach little human beings, and they can’t be regulated like manufactured goods.  No amount of quality control will ever assure that every student will come away every standard mastered that is listed on my curriculum map, and I can live with that.

Don’t get me wrong, I want students to learn all that stuff, but I am realistic.  It probably won’t happen.  Does it stop me from trying?  Never!

Each Student’s Literacy Journey is Unique

Students do not come to me with all the skills they are “supposed” to.  This is NOT an indictment of their prior teachers. Like me, they struggle with the same issues as when it comes to following a curriculum map with fidelity.

Because literacy skills require a solid foundation, determining my incoming students’ ability levels is paramount to improvement.  I am fortunate to work with a terrific group of language arts teachers who work hard to gather a lot of data. Good teachers use data to assess students’ current abilities and plan for the future.  I am incredibly grateful for the marvelous work done by the 6th grade ELA teachers at my school whose collection of key data from standardized tests, benchmark assessments, and baseline writings provides me insight into my future students’ ability levels. This information is priceless.

Because I have this information at the end of the year, I can adjust my curriculum map over the summer and focus on skills that will give me the most bang for my teaching buck.  Time is always the enemy in education, so it is imperative I focus on those skills which most impact student growth. For example, if after examining the baseline/post test writings, I see that a lot of students use apostrophes every time they add an s to a word, it is clear they have internalized the need for apostrophes but are still unsure when to use them.  This allows me to prioritize this instruction on my curriculum map and address the confusion.  If that skill is less important than others, I will teach it later in the year and focus on more pressing issues earlier so students have more time to practice those skills.

Some skills cannot be measured until I actually work with students.  Reading deficiencies often emerge in this way.  While the data from state and benchmark assessments identify students who struggle with reading, the real analysis starts when I can  sit down and work a group of students having the same issue. Sometimes reading fluency is the issue; other times, vocabulary is a major stumbling block; still other times, students can read fluently but are unable to process the information they just read.  This can be remedied by teaching students to read a sentence (yes, just a sentence), cover it up, and restate it as though they were explaining what they read to a younger person.  Often, students have to reread a sentence four or five times, but when they get it, they know it. It is as if blinders have been lifted, and students can see for the first time. If they continue using this strategy, my seventh graders will eventually comprehend complete paragraphs, and later, longer texts.

Because these interventions require time, I often miss the mark when it comes to meeting curriculum map deadlines, but had I plowed ahead, my students would be no better off than the day they first entered my classroom.

Factors Beyond my Control

Many times, I adjust my curriculum map or lesson plans because of factors beyond my control.  National, state, community, and personal tragedies all impede the literacy instruction that I planned the weekend before. The 9/11 tragedy completely changed my students’ needs in 2001.  Tornadoes and floods ravage local communities and often require a different agenda than the one I had in mind.  Death, divorce, and problems at home frequently impact an individual child’s ability to focus. While this may only impact a single student, there are many, many of these personal crises occurring on any given day, so there is always a percentage of students who understandable struggle to stay focused. Some things can be anticipated, such as field trips and assemblies if enough notice is given, yet other things such as chronic absenteeism, family vacations, snow days, spring fever, and excitement surrounding an upcoming dance, sporting event, or One Direction concert are beyond my control, yet each one requires me to readjust my plans. Plowing on through the curriculum map would not help my students grow.

Sometimes Once is not Enough

Students understand literacy skills at different rates.  I don’t feel covering a skill for the sake of covering it is effective. If 70% or more of my students demonstrate the ability to apply the skills on a formative assessment, I test and try to reteach those concepts to students who struggle as we look at other texts.  If less that 70% understand, I reteach until the formative assessments indicate most do. Sometimes students grasp concepts quickly, but more often than not, each skill takes longer than the curriculum map suggests it will.

When I first started teaching, the culture of education was to teach everything on your scope and sequence. However, I believe the pendulum has finally swung in the opposite direction, and I am happy about this.  After years of seeing students graduate high school with third grade reading abilities, many states are recognizing that students won’t just “get it”  the next year.  Plowing on so that students have seen the content once will not guarantee success.

This year, my students’ baseline writings revealed the inability to write a single paragraph effectively, let alone the persuasive essay they were asked to complete.  After a lot of discussion during department meetings, our ELA team saw this as a trend across all grade levels and decided to have students focus on single paragraphs to ensure they could write a well developed paragraph with a topic sentence, supporting details, and transitions, for there was no point in having these students writing essays until they had mastered the paragraph.

At the end of this year, only 56% of my students can proficiently write a persuasive essay with supporting evidence (and that is without including counterclaims), but there has been marked improvement.  All but three or four students now effectively indent and use margins.  About 90% effectively use transitions.  The ability to elaborate is not where I want it to be and if tested today by the state, most would not be proficient in this area on the rubric, but most students progressed. Had I plowed on, I don’t think my students would have experienced the growth they did.

After further reflection on the post-tests, it is clear many  of my students still lack the ability to develop their own ideas and determine what constitutes an effective detail or example.  Circular reasoning still litters their writing and impacts their elaboration scores. Again, thanks to some amazing departmental discussions, many of the ELA teachers recognized the same trend. While many have improved because they effectively use a four square graphic organizer to plan content, others are not yet able to develop specific details and examples on their own.   Data suggests many of my students have not progressed to a level of proficiency in this area as required by my state, but they have grown.  I have their baseline and post-test essays and their scored results as proof.  The students also see their growth as writers, and they are proud.  This growth would not be recognized by the state if they had to take on-demand test this year (many went from low to high novice), but they have grown nonetheless.  Maybe when these students take the on-demand test next year, they will move from high novice to apprentice or even proficient as several demonstrated on the post-test this year.

Final Thoughts

Teaching is definitely messy. The curriculum is simply one messy part of teaching.  Yet, none of the messiness matters when that student who you encouraged or pushed or loved with kindness or toughness throughout the year finally gets it.  “It” might be the content.  “It” might be work ethic. “It” might be empathy for others or how to behave in a classroom.  “It” might be the understanding that they are loved by someone.  “It” might be that they matter to me and my life is forever changed because of them.  Regardless of the “it” they come away with, the reward of teaching comes not from checking boxes on a curriculum map, improved test scores, or accolades offered up by a teacher of the year award.  It comes from the messy business of teaching that occurs every day.

Most paradoxes apply to all walks of life, but these are some that ring true to my own teaching career:

True leaders are servants.

Content is mastered through personal connection.

To lead, you must follow.

Less is more.

Success can’t be measured.

Great teachers mess up.

May you find your own paradoxes and personal truths as you continue on with the messy business of teaching.  the reward that come with them in your own classrooms.  Thank you for what they do every day.  You change lives, a very messy business indeed!

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