Thursday, April 30, 2015

Having zero tolerance for your crap

So, it's the last day of the A-Z blog challenge, and yes, it's been exhausting.  But it's day Z, the day that we're talking about zero tolerance, and by that I don't mean zero tolerance policies which don't work.

Today I want to talk about teacher's zero tolerance policies, specifically, what teachers won't tolerate in their classes.  Most teachers will put up with a lot because they have to. However, each teacher has a button that shouldn't be pushed. You already know that I won't put up with profanity or praising Kanye West.  But my biggest gripe is whiny students.

I tell students not to come and complain to me about their grades, their seats or anything else they just "don't like." I feel that if someone can't change a situation, he or she should shut up about it.  Life isn't about what someone likes or "deserves," and high school is a good time to learn this lesson.  So allow me to show you a situation where I stepped in with my zero tolerance policy.

Chris came up to me after class was over, the day after grades were submitted, and THREE days after I told the class I would no longer take any makeup work, to tell me that he’d tried to do lessons on the virtual tutoring program I said he could use over the weekend, but it wouldn’t work.

“Oh well, I guess you’re out of luck,” I replied.  I knew he was lying.  I don’t think he tried to do anything at all.  This is a kid who sat on one lesson for an entire week and didn’t finish it, a kid who took the work I gave him during the first three weeks and THREW IT AWAY. 

“It’s not fair!  You said I could do lessons and they would count!” he whined.

“You’re right, I did.  But you didn’t do it.”

“It didn’t work!”

“Why didn’t you email me?  You have my email address.” 

He stared at me.  “Because I didn’t think you checked your email over the weekend.”

“But you didn’t bother to try and find out, did you?”

A student who came into my room to get a bus pass heard this and said, “She gets her email on her phone.  She always answers her email.” 

Chris quickly shifted gears.  “This is so stupid, this is the only class I’m failing!”

“Really?” I asked.  I seriously doubted it.  “Let’s look at your grades.”  I pulled open the grading system and logged in.  He had a 63 in my class, a 57 in another, a 70 in one and a 65 in math.  I looked up at him.  “Seems that mine isn’t the only class you’re not doing well in.”

“No, I’m passing all those other ones!  Mrs. Zuma said she’d fix it for me.  Why can’t you fix it for me?”

I folded my arms.  “How about because I don’t want to? How about because you don’t deserve it?  How about because you doing a couple of exercises can’t make up for the fact that you did nothing and threw away work the first three weeks of class?”

Again he stared at me.  “Well, I don’t remember that.”

“Well, I do.  So I fail to see why I should do you a favor and let you pass a class when you show no knowledge of the material, you waste time in class and you disrespect me by complaining about it all.” 

“It’s not fair,” Chris kept repeating.  “It’s not fair.”

“You think so?”  I asked him.  What wasn’t fair to me is that I was listening to him whine, but hey, such is life.

"You're not fair, Ms. Marlowe!"

Now I stared at him. "I think we're done here."

"My mom's going to be so mad at you!"  

"Well, have her give me a call.  I'm sure I can explain it."  I held the door open for him and shook my head when he tried to protest.  "I think we're done here."  He stomped out, then turned and said, "I don't like you."

"Okay," I said.  I don't know why he thought this would hurt.  

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Just say no to yes

Once again, you’re going to accuse me of using a nonacademic buzzword for this post.  Big deal, I’m the one writing it, plus what I’m going to say relates to education, right?

So letter Y in the rapidly winding down A-Z blog post challenge is “yes-men.”

Too many yes-men fill the ranks of administration today.  Those of you with corporate jobs know what I mean and probably the rest of you do, too.  Yes-men are all over the working world, or on volunteer committees and in nonprofit organizations.  But why are they in positions of power?

The first school where I worked had an assistant principal named Ron.  Ron was a very nice man, but that was it.  Ron did whatever our sociopathic principal asked him to, whether it made sense or not.  The principal told Ron to go discipline the school nurse for “gossiping” and Ron did it, despite the fact she was being scolded for spurious reasons, and it wasn’t his place to do it.  If Ron was told to hand out flyers about our school activities, he did it, even if he had other, more pressing matters at hand.  In fact, the principal once told Ron to “make a Starbucks run” for a teacher she favored who needed coffee.  (The teacher was hung over that morning.)  Ron did it.

Why would any sane person do these things?  I thought it was just Ron’s problem, but then I moved to another school, TCS.  This time, Ms. Lear, another assistant principal, was the yes-man.  In fact, we joked about her being the principal’s lackey, since she never spoke up for the teachers or ever contradicted him, even though he frequently issued contradictory directives and made decisions that were in direct violation of the school’s grading and discipline policies. 

My principal, Mr. Ozcan, came in midyear when the previous principal quit, which is another story I won’t get into.  Mr. Ozcan decided we needed to increase school spirit and shake things up.  He wanted to start with the library. 

“Not enough students use the library,” he told me.  I was in charge of it that year, and I agreed.  I mentioned that we should have more computers for school use and more comfortable seating.  He said we needed a coffee bar.

Flabbergasted, I asked him who would make the coffee.  “You would,” he said pleasantly.

“I don’t know how, and I don’t want to,” I replied.  “I have classes to teach and a library to run, and I don’t want students drinking coffee in here.”

He wasn’t deterred.  He sent Ms. Lear down later to map out where the coffee bar would be.  I told her this was an incredibly stupid idea.  We needed more books, computers, and seating, not a cappuccino machine.  She smiled nervously and mumbled something about how changes were needed and “this is what [the principal] wants.”  Only after several teachers protested and pointed out that food and drink were forbidden in the classroom did he drop it.  But Ms. Lear certainly never argued with him.

Have I seen the same thing at CISD?  Does a bear – well, I think that goes without saying.

Here’s what I think: These administrators are unqualified or under-qualified for their jobs.  They’re finally in a position of (limited) power, and they’re going to do whatever it takes to stay there.  None of them care about education or kids or teaching.  They see these jobs as a stepping stone to a bigger job, probably because they wouldn’t get hired to be a manager or even a worker anywhere else.

As a result of this spinelessness, these administrators expect teachers to be yes-men as well.  These expectations become evident when teachers are asked to do things that seem to disrupt the classroom, cut into instructional time, or take away our already limited authority.  I see teachers bowing to these orders reluctantly at times and being outright defiant at other times. 

The good news is that more and more teachers are saying no instead of yes.  But that’s also the bad news.   

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Xactly as much time as a student thinks he needs

X is a bit of a stretch today because we’re talking about “extended time.”

Who doesn’t want extended time?  I know I do.  I don’t have enough hours in the day to prep for everything I want, or to grade everything, or to do more research and figure out a better way to teach a concept.  I’d love extended time.

But that’s not exactly what we mean on day X of the A-Z blog challenge.  Extended time is usually included as part of a 504, which is a set of accommodations a student may need in order to get the most out of his or her learning experience.  Students with dyslexia, ADD or ADHD, dyscalculia or various other learning disabilities may have a 504 plan.  It specifies that the student needs certain accommodations, such as having test questions read aloud to him or her, seating near the front of the room or bigger type on the class handouts. 

Students who have extended time get time and a half.  Often this may mean a student who has a diagnosis of a learning disability would also get an extra day or two to turn in assignments. 

Most of the students I had who had extended time never wanted to publicize it.  It’s not shameful or anything, but these students didn’t want to stick out as being “special” or “privileged,” especially when their friends didn’t get the same accommodations.  Most of them tried their hardest to still finish tests and turn things in on time. 

I did have a student once who decided he needed “extended time” for pretty much everything.  This sophomore probably did have ADD but didn’t have a diagnosis or a 504 plan to help him out.  He’d heard that students sometimes get extra time, so he told me he was supposed to get that too.  Let’s call the student Toby, because that was his name.

“Toby,” I said, “I can’t just give you extended time for a test.”

“Yes you can,” he said confidently.  “Omar gets it, and I get to have it too.”

“No, Omar has a paper from the school that says he gets extended time on tests.  You don’t have a paper that says that.”

Toby came in the next day and grandly handed me a sheet of paper, on which his mother had written, “I give Toby permission to get extra time.”

I can’t say to a student, “Are you an idiot?” even if that’s what I’m thinking.  But I CAN ask him subtle questions that will quickly make him feel like an idiot.  

“Why are you giving this to me?” I asked. 

“You said I needed a paper, so I got one.” 

“You can’t give me a paper signed by your mother.  I am not legally allowed to give you extended time on anything unless I have paperwork from the school and from Mrs. Cihan.”

“Did Omar give you a paper?  Because if he did, that’s not fair – I have a paper too!”

“No, THE SCHOOL gave me a paper ABOUT Omar.  If you want a paper, you’ll need to have your parents talk to Mrs. Cihan.”

“Can I go talk to her?”

“You’re not hearing me.  Your PARENTS have to talk to her.” 

“And then what?”

“They’ll set up a meeting.”

“And then what?”

I was tired of this by now.  “They’ll talk.  And after weeks of waiting and documentation, you’ll get your paper.  Now sit down and start your test.”

He sat down.  “Man, that’s not fair.”

Toby fell asleep the last 20 minutes of the test, then asked if he could skip his biology class to come and finish it. Meanwhile, Omar started immediately, worked nonstop and handed in his test right before the bell.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The waiting doesn't have to be the hardest part

Does anyone know how wait time works?

(Silence, followed by crickets chirping)

Okay, yes, thats exactly how wait time works, and its letter W for our A-Z blog challenge.  Why would I want to write about wait time?  Because its the only letter W buzzword I could think of, so dont be too critical.  Well, you CAN be critical, but do it in the comments section, so I can read it and cry later.

Wait time is just that time you wait in order for the students to answer your questions. Wait time means silence, anathema to most Americans. A friend of mine says the Japanese love to joke about how Americans always talk as if they're afraid the silence will take their tongues. Teachers are no exception. Most of us dont like silence, so if we ask a question and no one answers it, within a few seconds we'll break the silence by trying to explain the question again, or pointedly asking students to answer, or maybe just keep repeating it. I guess we'd rather stand awkwardly at the front of the class talking than stand awkwardly not talking.

Either way, it's awkward.

Im a big fan of wait time. See, believe it or not, students have been using wait time on us for years. They're experts at it. Students know that if their teacher asks a question and they say nothing, eventually the teacher will jump in and supply the answer, and the class will move on. But move on to what? Id rather my class comes to a screeching halt than move on when no one knows what Im talking about.  A wrong answer is better than no answer. At least then there's thinking happening.

So I've learned to wait out my students. As awkward as I might feel, waiting while students blink silently at me, it's nothing compared to how awkward they feel watching me blink silently back at them. Apparently students aren't used to teachers who wait because when I first used wait time in my classroom, my class didn't know what to make of it.

"Ms. Marlowe, did you forget what you asked us?" one student asked me.

"No," I replied. "Did you?"

Another student jumped in, "Well you're the teacher. Don't you know the answer?"

"Why would I ask you if I already had the answer?"

More silence. I glanced up at the clock then started scoring some quizzes I had on the podium. 

Finally, one student asked in the faltering voice of the truly penitent, "Can you repeat the question?"  That whispering, humble tone, so rarely heard but recognized by every single teacher worth her salt, is the sound of a student who realizes you just might have something to teach him. 

Well, Charly, thats all well and good for you, you may say, but what if the students genuinely dont know the answer or are confused by the material?

If my students dont know the material, then waiting is the only way I'll find out. I cant keep pushing forward, trying to drag my students along with me. 

I once worked with a teacher who was determined to push through his material, even though the students struggled with it. His theory was that the sooner they got through the material;  the sooner he could go back and review the material the students didnt get.  This teacher spent most of his time  lecturing without a lot of give and take. (I also heard from students that the Illuminati came up quite a bit in his lectures).  One day, I was asked to substitute for his eleventh-grade class while the class worked on a paper.

I dont remember what the paper was about, but I do remember a student coming up to ask me what he should say in his paragraph.

What do you want to say? I asked.

He just looked at me, then repeated his question.

Um, Bradley, Im asking YOU what you want to say.  I have no idea what point you want to prove, so if you want my help, you need to answer MY question, I said.

Cant you just tell me how to write it? he pleaded.

Write what?  Whats your paper about?

The crickets started chirping.  We blinked at each other.  I wanted to say something, but I figured Id asked enough questions. For some reason wait time never gets easy.

He tried another tactic.  Mr. Randall usually helps us with our papers.

Im trying to help you.  Ill ask again whats your paper about?

The Revolutionary War.

Okay, now were getting somewhere.  What do you want to say about it?

Crickets again.  Then, I dont know.  When Mr. Randall helps me, he just tells me what to say.

Crap.  Look, do you have the rubric?  Let me see what youre supposed to do.

The good news was; the rubric helped us figure out how to approach the topic.  The bad news is that the topic was the Civil War, not the Revolutionary War.  The worse news is that Bradley thought they were the same thing.  Sometime back in October, Mr. Randall had never stopped, and waited, to see if Bradley understood the difference between the two wars.

Wait time.

It's golden.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Vocabulary's deceiving appearances

So… Vocabulary, our V in the A-Z blog challenge.

Education experts are twisting themselves into knots trying to get teachers to teach content vocabulary effectively.  We’re trying, but I don’t think it’s working.

Kids nowadays don’t read much, so they don’t get the experience you and I had of coming across an unfamiliar word and trying to figure out what it means by using context clues or getting the dictionary.  I think kids’ vocabulary is shrinking as evidenced by complaints I hear regularly:

Me: “Joshua, that’s an interesting question, but not relevant to our discussion.”
Joshua: “What’s that mean?”
Me: “I mean your question doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re talking about right now.”
Kayley: “Ms. Marlowe, why do you have to use so many big words?”

Since when is “relevant” a big word?

Students hear me using words like “elaborate”, “insightful”, “rambunctious”— what they term “big words”—and assume that peppering their essays with 50 cent words will impress me and lead to stellar grades.  Admirable endeavor (do you like those words)? Except in most cases, the students don’t know how to use the words, leaving me weeping for humanity or trying not to wet myself laughing.  Allow me to give you some examples. 

As students get older, they gain acknowledgement.

The American dream reguards to numerous things.

Having brimful goals in life Bill Gates innovated a successful company.

The results of his strive and dedication not only effect his generation, it effects millions today!

I believe its better to dream big because dreams are much ambitious and awarding.

Rather you’re an optimist or pessimist, reality is a fact of living and should be applied in life.

The best way to approach this is with an unarbitrary logic.

With big dreams of walking on the moon, Neil Armstrong accomplished.

The king inducted acts that angered the Americans.

And these are just a few of the examples I’ve collected in the past 5 minutes of flipping through student work. I’d type more, but I need to change.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The underdogs just stay under, all the time.

What are underserved students, and why does the word “underserved” throw education-type folks into a tizzy?  Do we care?  Sure we do, because it’s letter U day in the A-Z blog challenge, and the entire time I’ve worked in education, I’ve only worked with underserved students. 

In eduspeak, “underserved” refers to students who aren’t adequately served by our public education system.  It may be because they live in poverty-stricken areas where property taxes aren’t enough to pay for adequate facilities and quality teachers.  It could be because they come from homes where education isn’t a priority because their families have other pressing needs, like putting food on the table.  Or it could be because the students have special needs and require more attention and resources than your average student.

The students I think are particularly underserved are ESL (English as a Second Language) students.  These students are trying to learn to speak, read and write the language as fast as they can, but they’re still penalized for not knowing it.  Most teachers know how to accommodate students who are English Language Learners, and they do their best, but these students still get screwed by the state. 

First of all, ESL students get no accommodations for the state tests, even in reading and writing.  It breaks my heart to read the essays they write for test prep lessons.  They’re trying their best to navigate the language, but the state won’t cut them any slack at all.  Essays on state tests are rated from 1-4, and no one wants a 1, but that’s what these kids will get.  Yes, it will bring down their overall test score and likely keep them from passing, but it’s important that the tests are “fair” to everyone. The only assistance they get is an English dictionary to help them, even though most of them can’t read it.  

The bilingual curriculum we have in Texas isn’t doing them any favors either.  A close friend of mine enrolled his son in school after he and his wife divorced.  His son had been living in Mexico.  So when Ed registered Victor, the school told Ed that Victor needed to be in bilingual classes.  Ed said it was disastrous.  Victor learned no English at all, and Ed had to fight to put Victor back in regular classes.  Bilingual classes are supposed to ease the students into speaking English, but the upshot is that someone just speaks Spanish to them all day.  It doesn’t help.  When students go to middle school or high school, they’re just as far behind and probably even less likely to want to learn English.  Secondary ESL teachers are battling to make them fluent.  By this time, many of them are resentful and are treated as though they are slow, so it’s not surprising they give up or begin to hate school.

I don’t think most teachers know what to do with ESL students.  English teachers are pretty creative in trying to come up with ways to check a student’s understanding, from quizzing him/her verbally to not penalizing for misspellings and grammar problems.  But I shudder to think how these same students fare in high-level math and science, which require pretty specialized vocabulary.  Who’s helping them there?

The sad thing is that the underserved populations remain underserved, and our methods of helping tend to hurt more than help.  Graduation rates may be stable or rising, but so are functional illiteracy rates.  That's a sobering thought on which to end your week. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Testing - the reason why most teachers drink

As the song goes, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

It’s not, really.  Frankly, it’s the worst.  I’m talking about testing time, the dreaded T for education and the A-Z blog challenge.  Before you think I’m about to go off on a rant about standardized testing and how awful it is, let me assure you that I am, but not in the way you think. 

Students don’t like taking standardized tests and think the tests are a special sort of torture designed by teachers who love to see kids suffer.  I’ve had many a student tell me, “You don’t know what it’s like, Ms. Marlowe!”  As a graduate of public education myself, yes, I do know.  In fact, anyone with a high school degree and under the age of 50 has spent countless hours taking standardized tests from about the time they were in 5th grade.

I understand why districts use high-stakes testing: High stakes testing is an easy, cost-effective and fair way to show what students have learned.  Are the results always accurate?  No. Do educators always draw the correct conclusions from testing data? Definitely not. Is it fair to tie teacher performance to student performance on the test?  No again, but that doesn’t make them completely useless.

Theoretically, every student in every classroom in every school in every city in the state takes the test under identical conditions. This way the state can be sure that student scores are indicative of student knowledge and not dependent upon the circumstances in which they tested. In order to maintain consistency in the testing environment from school to school, the state publishes an entire book on required procedures for state testing. Ironically, these procedures that are established to make the tests as fair as possible are what make the entire experience so unbearable for teachers and students.

The procedures are THE WORST. 

Students sit in rows of desks, bubbling in answers on answer sheets.  That’s no fun for them, but it’s torture for a teacher.  You, the teacher, have to stand there and watch the students test.  You can’t sit at your desk, you can’t read anything, you can’t grade papers, you can’t work on lesson plans. You CAN stand and occasionally walk around the room. You can perch on the edge of a chair. You can stare at students while they test. You can glance at the clock every 5 minutes or so. You can rearrange items on the desk of whoever’s room you happen to be in during the test because you're probably not in your own. You can “actively monitor.” All of this to prevent the possibility of any “irregularities” in the testing conditions.

Anything that might disrupt the testing environment can be considered an “irregularity.”  Does someone knock on your door?  Irregularity.  A student sits up and asks a question?  That’s an irregularity.  Discipline problem when you try to keep people from napping?  Big time irregularity.  The worst thing about “irregularities” is that if someone decides the disruption was “irregular enough,” that entire group of students may have their scores thrown out.  Then they have to take the test again.  And guess who’ll have to actively monitor that new test session?

Bathrooms and hallways need monitoring as well.  Students are only allowed to go to the bathroom one at a time.  If the line is particularly long, two students can go to the restroom, but a teacher has to stand in there and make sure they don’t talk.  This is to keep them from discussing the test or possibly cheating.  Teachers also have to “monitor” the hallways and make sure no one smiles, and no one laughs. Skipping in the halls is expressly forbidden. There must be no joy on test day.

In Texas, the STAAR test is timed and runs four hours long.  That’s a huge improvement from TAKS, which had unlimited time.  Students could actually stay at the school all day long, because teachers weren’t allowed to push students to finish.  I remember times when some administrators and teachers stayed at school until 7 pm in order to let a student finish the test.  Often students would take advantage of the unlimited time to put their heads down, even nap, knowing that they weren’t under any pressure to finish.  Teachers were told later that students were not allowed to sleep, but try enforcing that when you want to fall asleep yourself.

If anyone has it worse than the kids sitting in the desks or the teachers perched on the edge of a hard chair, it’s those poor saps in Austin.  They have to read thousands and thousands of student essays, chronicling what students have learned about “success” in their 15 years of life. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

As supportive as an uncomfortable bra

Support yourself, dammit.

Don’t think when you read my letter S for the A-Z blog challenge, “This isn’t an academic buzzword!  People use the word ‘support’ all the time!” 

Yes.  But can you tell me what “support” actually means?  Go on, think about it.  I’ll wait.

Since you’re not coming up with anything, I’ll just jump in again.  In every school I’ve taught, I hear the same phrase over and over, “We’re here to support you.”  Clearly “they” know we need support because the job is difficult.  We need principals who’ll stand behind our grading policies, administrators who will back us up on discipline, department heads to answer our questions, mentors to help us navigate the waters of education, and fellow teachers with which to commiserate and share ideas. 

Sounds great. So why am I including “support” in my list of buzzwords? Because it’s an easy thing to say – “We’re here to support you!” but putting it into practice is harder.  Have you ever had people say, “Call if you need anything!”  Do you remember what happened when you did call?

I was promised support when I started at CISD. My principal told me when I was hired that the yearbook was a big thing.  “We want to make it great!” she exclaimed.  “We have a big school, and we’re not doing enough to show school spirit.  The yearbook can really help get kids excited about who we are.”

True, yearbooks can boost school spirit.  But our sales for the past two years were abysmal, and students just didn’t seem interested.  Knowing the cost and time involved, I asked the principal if she REALLY wanted to throw more money and energy into a yearbook.  She assured me that she did and that she would “support [me] in any way possible.”

I quickly realized that she and I had completely different ideas of what “support” entails.  My idea of support was getting a budget I could use to buy memory cards and batteries for dozens of dead cameras.  My other ideas included advertising around school, emailing parents about the order process and attending as many events as possible in order to ensure we had full coverage. Go team!

My principal’s method of support was to add an extra class to my teaching load despite the fact that this limited my involvement in after school activities and ignore my emails about advertising methods and requests for funding.  In fact, she told me yearbook owed the school $2000 because of a deficit from the year before. This meant no batteries. No memory cards. No pictures.

When we asked her to look over pages we submitted for approval, she ignored them until weeks after the deadlines.  When she did finally look them over, she asked for all the pages to be redone because she “didn’t like the colors.” 

She didn’t support me at all.  She expected me to support myself.  To school administrators, “support” takes one form: do whatever an administrator says without bothering them over details, no matter how outrageous, damaging or impossible the request may be. I suppose they’re able to support us best when we don’t draw attention to our needs.

We had 31 teachers quit at the end of the first semester. I doubt they felt “supported.”  For a teacher, “support” means “receiving actual assistance when it’s asked for and not being treated like an idiot.”

We’re at cross purposes here, it would seem. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

They left out the "mediate" in "remediation"

We have a depressing topic today – remediation.

Remediation should be positive – finding a remedy, or as the dictionary says, reversing the damage.  In education, remediation should be the act of fixing the problems that keep students from achieving more and learning more.  But as you’ll see in today’s continuation of the A-Z blog challenge, what it should be is what it ain’t. 

I’ve only worked at one school that does remediation well, a charter chain that we’ll call KIPP, which is its actual name.  The entire school model revolves around remediation because the students needing it are the ones that are coming to KIPP schools.  A gifted child doesn’t need a KIPP school, but a kid who is struggling with the basics will improve.  KIPP spends the bulk of its time on remediation strategies; it also instills good study habits, a work ethic and accountability into its curriculum. 

“Why aren’t you still there?” you may ask.  “Poor life decisions,” I would answer.

I realize there are probably exceptions everywhere, as I’ve heard about floundering KIPP schools and lousy KIPP teachers.  But overall, this charter chain does it right.  I can’t say the same for TCS or CISD.  Remediation there is similar to waterboarding. 

The saying is “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” So what if you refuse to let the horse leave the water?  Will he drink then?  Or what if you keep shoving his nose into the trough, over and over?  Will that make him drink it?  Having taught remediation classes now for the past two years, I think schools are trying to force the students to drink but aren’t looking beyond that.

My school has an interesting way of dealing with students who struggle in certain subjects.  Right now, I have a senior in one of my writing classes who has always done poorly in English classes.  He’s a thoughtful, well-spoken kid, but for some reason he just won’t complete or turn in writing work.  Each year he’s failed his English classes, but passed other courses.  So now, as a senior, his schedule is packed with ALL language arts classes.  He has my class, English IV, a college prep writing class, and two other remediation ELA classes.

I’m not sure what the prevailing wisdom is here – he can’t be successful in these classes, so we take away any other course options and then he’ll be successful?  Maybe they hope that getting slammed over the head with the same information repeatedly will cause it to sink in suddenly.  But the reality is that he’s still failing, and he hates school now.  This senior does need to pass these classes to graduate, and he still shows up to do it.  However, he’s never met with a diagnostician or specialist who could help him understand why he’s struggling or to develop strategies to help him pass.  The school dumped him into the ELA pool and told him to swim when he typically sinks.

Karen is a lovely girl in one of my remediation classes.  She consistently does all her work, follows through and knows the material in and out.  Her grade is always an A.  So why is she in remediation?  Karen can’t pass a standardized test.  She tells me, “I look at the test, Ms. Marlowe, and there’s just so much.”  She has test anxiety.  But rather than have her meet with a school psychologist or counselor to have her develop coping strategies, she’s dropped into remediation.  Her mother is frustrated and can’t figure out how to help her daughter.  She does know that the constant remediation isn’t doing it.

Let me add another horror story to this lineup.  I taught journalism classes at TCS, where I had the same problems with underachieving students being moved to my class, despite the fact that they had no interest in journalism.  In addition, the school would put brand –new-to-the-country students into my class.  These students struggled to speak English, and they were dropped into writing elective classes that require someone to have a good command of the language already.  The school’s philosophy was that it was still an ELA class, so they’d learn more English just by being in there.  These non-English speakers were terrified.  Female students would often break down crying to me over their inability to understand the work.    Both my complaints and the ELA coordinator’s complaints were ignored.  We worked together to try and come up with activities for the students just to improve their speaking abilities, but it was rough. 

I may not have the answers, but I know this isn’t it.  It seems like a CYA move so that the school can show it tried to help when in reality, it didn’t.  The horse isn’t drinking, so let’s pen him in around a lake until he drinks or keep pushing his nose into the water.  He just needs a drink, and that’s all there is to it. Since he's still not drinking, let's hold his head under the water until he drowns. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

I have some questions, and I'm sure you do, too.

You may not think questioning is an academic buzzword, but then again, you may not think - well, I don’t quite know how to end that sentence…

But questioning is huge in the academic world – HUGE.  An entire theory and strategy goes into asking the correct questions of students so the teacher can increase student knowledge and understanding.  I can’t just ask, “What’s the capital of Florida?”  Actually, I can, but I should only ask that in the context of teaching a larger point.  Plus, if I ask that, the class will just look at me blankly, because I teach newspaper, not social studies.

So Q is next in our A-Z blog challenge.  Effective Questioning comes back to Benjamin Bloom, a man we teacher types both love and hate.  Bloom’s Taxonomy is a way of classifying the questions that teachers ask students.  Teachers should start with questions that build on the student’s knowledge, and then take those questions a step further to increase comprehension and help them apply the knowledge they’ve gained.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is pretty helpful for a teacher to evaluate on what level he or she is teaching.  If all your questions start with “What is..?” then a teacher is only operating on the first level, knowledge.  He or she then needs to ask more “how” or “why” questions to try and help students apply or analyze the facts they now know. 

In an English class, you want to start with questions like, “What is Lennie worried about?” before moving on to “What details show that Lennie’s worried?”  After that, you might move on to what inferences a student could draw from the passage, how a student thinks Lennie will deal with the situation (badly, you can be sure), and finally, what the student’s opinion is about how George handled everything. 

Questioning in this way will hopefully show you what the students are learning and how they are analyzing the information.  But Bloom’s Taxonomy isn’t just for educators, no sir. Believe it or not, students often use Bloom’s when asking questions of the teacher.

Knowledge – “What are we doing today?  …Yeah, I know it’s on the board, but can you just tell me?”

Comprehension – “So, you said if we turn it in late, we don’t get any credit for it?  Shouldn’t you just be glad we turned it in?  …What do you mean, no?”

Application – “What’s going to happen if I don’t have it today, because I forgot it at home? I mean I did it, I just don’t have it with me.”

Analysis – “Why do I only get 50 percent credit when I did 100 percent of the work?  What is each day worth?  …I don’t remember what the syllabus said.”

Synthesis – “What would happen if I just tell you what I did, and then you tell me what grade you would have given me?  …No really!”

Evaluation – “How can you say you won’t take it when you took Samir’s paper last week?  …Well, I was sick too, but I came to school anyway.  That’s why I didn’t turn it in, because I was sick.  So can I please get full credit?  …My mom’s going to be really mad at me.”

Saturday, April 18, 2015

My development as a professional is lacking

“It’s once again our favorite time of the year, professional development time!  Here’s hoping that today’s training turns you into a mean, lean, teaching machine, instead of the lazy, uninspired sacks of crap that you are.”

Today’s topic is professional development or PD, our letter P in the A-Z blog challenge, and I assume the above is what the school district thinks when scheduling it.  Professional development is supposed to be the time where educators learn to be better educators.  Teachers sit in a session and run through various learning exercises, designed to help us be more effective in the classroom. 

During professional development, you’re supposed to act, you know, professional.  Sometimes that happens.  More often, though, we talk to our friends, play on our phones, or basically do all the things we don’t want the students to do when we teach.  I like to think that in this way, we’re giving the facilitator the same experience we can expect in the classroom so that he or she can show us how to make these new teaching techniques REALLY WORK!!

My last PD session was a barrel of fun.  The facilitator, who I assume was forced to oversee this session by the district (I only say that because she simultaneously smiled and gritted her teeth for the entire hour), tried to teach us about anchor charts.  

For those of you who don’t know what an anchor chart is, get in line.  I still don’t know, even after an hour of professional development on the subject.  The facilitator said a lot of things, but never defined the subject.  What I heard were phrases like “vehicle for academic support,” “helping visual learners,” and “the district is requiring this.”

We were told we had to create the anchor charts to put up in our classrooms during the session, even though this same training emphasized that our anchor charts were supposed to be specific to the content we taught and were designed to be used by core classes, like English, math, science and history.  I’m none of those.  I sat between a Spanish teacher and algebra teacher wondering why I was even there. They cursed quietly. 

All three of us drew a three-story house on a piece of poster board based on an example from the overhead projector.  (If you’re wishing I’d provided a better transition from the last paragraph to this one, I can’t help you; I wasn’t really paying attention at the time. I have no idea how we got to drawing houses on poster board).  My house leaned precariously to the right, because I couldn’t see the screen from where I sat, so I tried to copy off my neighbor.    

“This,” the facilitator sing-songed, referring to the image on the overhead projector, “is what the district wants to see up in your rooms.  It will be part of your evaluation, so the anchor chart must be displayed.”

An overachiever at my table was making a beautiful house with labeled levels, people inside and trees and flowers outside.  Algebra, Spanish and I muttered “suckup” to each other.  The overachiever then raised her hand and said, “Excuse me, are you saying that this is what we need to display in class?”

The facilitator nodded.  Overachiever said, “But these all look the same. Shouldn’t mine be specific to my class?”

The facilitator blinked a few times. “Well, you see, this is a start, and you’ll…“  From there she kind of trailed off.  I saw her walk over to one of our administrators. They whispered furiously. It seemed obvious that someone hadn’t really thought this session through.  

Overachiever tried again.  “I thought these were supposed to be co-created with students.  Isn’t that what you said?”

The facilitator blinked a few more times and then ignored her.  She called out, “Five more minutes.  Complete your chart.” 

Algebra turned to me and told me I had the worst handwriting he’d ever seen, so I grabbed a purple marker and scribbled on his house. “Display THAT, math boy,” I said.  “Then your evaluator can wonder if you’re mentally challenged or just can’t draw.”  He reached over and ripped a chunk off the side of my chart. 

I turned to Spanish.  “Mine’s ugly.  Can I have yours?”

Spanish grimaced.  “It sure is.  It looks like a hoarder’s house. ” Someone said the hour was over, so we all jumped up and grabbed our stuff.

I still haven’t seen one of those charts up in anyone’s room.  I dumped mine in the trash when I left to go to lunch, but most people just left theirs on the table.  If my students want to see something that’s co-created and full of illegible writing and crude drawings, they can go to the restroom. 

I came home and Googled “anchor charts.”  This is what I found: “Anchor charts build a culture of literacy in the classroom, as teachers and students make thinking visible by recording content, strategies, processes, cues, and guidelines during the learning process.  Posting anchor charts keeps relevant and current learning accessible to students to remind them of prior learning and to enable them to make connections as new learning happens.  Students refer to the charts and use them as tools as they answer questions, expand ideas, or contribute to discussions and problem-solving in class.”

Sorry, still don’t know what it is. 

At least I’m beginning to understand the point of professional development, which I think is actually for the facilitator, not the attendees.  The facilitator gets to teach using “authentic learning” and “real-world applications” for a group of resentful, critical and disengaged students.  

Friday, April 17, 2015

I'm trying to be objective about the, you know, objective.

Today’s objective is learning what an “objective” is.  Really. We’re talking about the letter O in the A-Z blog challenge, so I thought my objective should be, you know, THE objective. 

When planning a lesson, good teachers always ask, “What’s the goal for the day?  What am I hoping the students learn? What do I want students to be able to do by the end of class?” The answer to these questions is the objective.   

If I’m teaching a lesson on compound-complex sentences, my objective is for students to be able to recognize this grammatical structure and use it in their writing. My stated objective for a lesson on the use of photography in news stories might be for students to explain how reporters use photos and videos effectively.  A side benefit, of course, is I get to show graphic, Pulitzer-prize winning photos that horrify the kids into silence, attention, and maybe get them thinking about what’s going on in the world outside of their zip code. 

Every school I’ve worked at insists that teachers write the day’s objective on the whiteboard, along with the relevant state standard.  Administrators and trainers must imagine that students come to class every day, desperate to know how they can prepare for the day’s lesson.  Tired of kids climbing on top of desks before the bell? Are sick of girls yelling at each other from across the room? Have you gone hoarse telling boys to stop throwing each other into headlocks? Worry no more, dear teacher. Five minutes at the beginning of the day, writing your objective on the board transforms these hormonal, puberty-stricken sparrows into mature, disciplined scholars eager to learn.

I don’t buy it.

Planning the lesson with a clear objective in mind is critical for successful teaching, but writing said objective on the board for students? That one is just for the administration.  My last principal said she wanted to walk into any teacher’s classroom, read the board and know what the lesson was about. “Learning is our business,” she declared, “and I want to see what you’re in the business of teaching on any given day.” So I wrote the objective on the board every day. Only once did students ever bother to look at it.  That was when Treyvon used a permanent marker to turn the “O” and the “b” in “Objective” into a particular part of the male anatomy. But were any of them better able to use compound-complex sentences in their writing? Nope.

Not surprisingly, I quickly discovered that administrators don’t read the objective either. 
In my yearbook class, I’ve kept the same objective on the board for three months.  The objective IS pretty general, so some days one might see connections between the board and the learning in the classroom.  But I’ve had the principal walk through my class on three occasions and positively note that I had my objective on the board, even though it wasn’t remotely related to what we were doing that day.

So either the principal doesn’t understand what I teach (which is true), or he doesn’t really care what’s on the board and just wants something to check off his list (true again.)  So why do I continue writing the objective on the board? I can tell you exactly why. My objective is to keep my job. And the principal’s objective? I’m not sure. I’ll make sure to ask him first thing tomorrow where he’s written it down because that would make all the difference in the world.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

No one likes a Negative Nelly or Ned.

What would our world be like if there were no rules?

That’s a dumb question because if you have kids or have spent any time around kids, you already know the answer to that.  But it’s the kind of rhetorical question teachers pose to students before coming up with class rules.  The teacher explains why we need rules, and the students tune it out.  They’ve heard the speech before and know what’s coming next: They’re about to get a list of the “shoulds” and “should nots” for the class.

Naturally, (or not so naturally) this leads to our next buzzword for the A-Z blog challenge.  Today is letter N, so the term is “negative based rules.”

In order to create a climate of fairness, sharing and positivity within the school, teachers are routinely advised to come up with the rules for the class with the students.  When discussing rules, the teacher should focus on what the students CAN do in class, not what they CAN’T do.  I assume this leads to empowerment and higher self-esteem for all.  A student can then enter a classroom and say to him or herself, “This classroom is full of potential and possibility because there are so many things I CAN do here!  I CAN speak respectfully to other students and adults!  I CAN keep my hands to myself!  I CAN participate in class discussions.  There are no limits to what I CAN do!”

Having no negative-based rules is a nice idea, and I’m not one to disparage it, except I will, right now.  Personally, I think it’s better to lay out your classroom expectations.  For example, you as the teacher might say, “I expect that you’ll turn in your work – your work, not work that you copied off of Darryl’s paper or plagiarized from the Internet.  I also expect that you’ll put your phone away when you come in because that’s polite.  Also, I expect that I’ll be able to get a fourth of the way through this discussion before one of you interrupts me with a random question about whether Kanye West is talented or not.”

I may be just arguing semantics here, but I think setting out expectations rather than trying to avoid “don’ts” and “should nots” is a better way to approach class rules.  The teacher is saying that this is what she expects from the class, which leads to what the class can expect from her.  From there, the teacher can better explain what’s going to happen when the students don’t meet those expectations.  This method is still non-negative, but more practical.

Having said all that, I still have some negative-based rules.  I find that a few “do nots” are necessary.  Here are a few:
  1. Do NOT use profanity in my classroom.
  2. Do NOT sit in at my desk, in my chair, or touch anything on my desk.
  3. Do NOT argue with me if I have to confiscate your phone.
  4. Do NOT touch my Coke Zero, or ask if you can have some.
  5. Do NOT ask, "What are we doing today?"  Read what's on the board.
  6. Do NOT ask if we "can just have a fun day."  (See part F for reference)
  7. Do NOT tell me Kanye West is a genius and that I just don't understand him.
  8. Do NOT ask, "Am I your favorite student?"
Scratch that last one.  The list should be more positive.  You CAN ask the question, and you CAN be unhappy with the answer!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Model it for me, because I don't get it!

When we say “modeling,” I can tell you what we’re NOT talking about.  It’s not admiring the teacher’s fashion choices, like sensible shoes.  It’s has nothing to do with student projects slapped up on walls all around the room. 

Part M in our A-Z blog challenge has to do with how the teacher shows the students what needs to be done.  Modeling is demonstrating how the teacher expects the assignment to be completed, or the manner in which the students should do something.

For example, good teachers should set up their classroom procedures during the year, such as where papers are turned in, how students should ask to go to the restroom, where makeup work for absent students will be, and so on.  The reason to demonstrate classroom procedures is so everything runs smoothly, class time isn’t wasted and students feel more secure with familiar procedures.  In order for students to learn the procedure, the teacher has to model it.  She has to show them how to walk in the door, where to pick up the assignment, where to turn in the assignment, etc.  After that, an experienced teacher will have the students practice it as well.

 A teacher may model how to write a topic sentence, or the correct way to swing a golf club.  The teacher should be the expert who’s showing how it’s done.  The teacher does it, the class then does it with her, following which the student should do it on his own.

When students misbehave, or fall behind in class, or generally don’t know how to do something, the teacher is usually asked, “Did you model it (whatever it is) for them?”  That way, the teacher can then easily be blamed for the students’ failures.  One can’t expect a child to do something if he or she hasn’t been taught to do it.

 I don’t allow profanity to be used in my class at all.  My feeling is that students should learn to act professionally and appropriately, since school is their work environment.  (I don’t care where you work and what you do and if dropping f-bombs is okay there – this is MY classroom, got it?)  Furthermore, students tend to have filthy language that I don’t need to hear. 

I sent a student to the office for repeated use of profanity.  He’d been warned, as the whole class had, constantly, that I have no tolerance for it and won’t put up with it.  When he went to the office, he claimed he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to curse.  The administrator, Mr. Holden, called me to tell me it wasn’t the student’s fault because he didn’t know.

“Yes he does,” I said.  “It’s one of my classroom rules.  It’s up on the wall.”  Plus, profanity is one of the codes to mark in the office referral system telling why you’re sending a kid there.

“But he said he didn’t know.”

“So he’s lying,” I replied. 

“Did you model it for the class?”

I blinked at him.  “Seriously?  Did I model how NOT to swear?  I already don't swear!"

“Well, see, he…“ Mr. Holden trailed off.  It was obvious that Mr. Holden sent the student back to me because he didn’t have time to deal with him and wanted to minimize whatever the student did.  I waited for him to say that profanity wasn’t a big deal, but I had a code to point to that says it is.  Mr. Holden coughed, then said, “Did you contact his parents?”

“No, not yet,” I said wearily. 

“You need to do that,” he said curtly, before walking off.

I should have asked him to model it for me.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

If you fail to plan, then... you fail.

You’re a teacher. You know what your students need to learn this week, and you have a lesson planned for every day.  Hopefully, you have a necessary document as well – a LESSON PLAN.

So yes, the next part of our A-Z blog challenge is the lesson plan.  The Lesson Plan is an academic buzzword, but a necessary one.  You’ve got to plan how the entire class is going to run.  Kids are involved and as any parent knows, not having a plan means you better plan for disaster. 

I’ve known some teachers who just have a general idea of what they’re going to do and then “wing it,” or worse, “just let the learning unfold naturally.”  That means the lesson doesn’t just unfold; it bends, tears, gets thrown and stomped on, and winds up wadded up in the corner while the students eye it suspiciously. 

A plan is just that – a plan.  Teachers deal with external and internal interruptions constantly and must continually adapt and improvise if the students don’t connect with the material.  Teachers also know their students and are prepared for any manner of disruptions and student habits that can affect how much of the material they’ll absorb. 

Below is an example of a lesson plan I created for a journalism class.  It outlines the steps of the lesson for that day, identifies the standards being covered, and most importantly lets the administrators see what you’re teaching.  I also included some commentary so you can see my thought process.  It isn’t something I’d include in my regular plans that I submit to the administration because I know I’d get fired.  However, know that even if it’s in italics, it’s still part of the process.   

TEKS: E3.13 – Writing/Writing Process.  Students use elements of the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, editing and publishing) to compose text.
IJ2. (G) – Demonstrate an understanding of the elements of news through writing.
Materials Needed: Whiteboards, markers, pens, paper, slips of paper with various story topics handed out, LCD projector

·          Break up the story in the hallway – what captures your attention about the story?  Which part is interesting to you?  How will you convey the importance of this story to your best friend if she’s distracted or not paying close attention?
·          On the board – Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?  What We Need for a Strong Lead
·          Send Makesi to the office for trying to come in late without a pass.
·          Move Caitlynn, who will try to sit next to Isabel and talk the entire period.

Objective(s) (Purpose) [For the uninitiated, this is the teacher’s script.]
·     Yesterday we focused on how a news story is structured, or the inverted pyramid. Today we will focus on the lead, or the way to begin a story. Leads are important to learn because, in the news, you have to grab the reader’s attention quickly.  This will help you understand how to summarize a story quickly for a reader. By the end of this class, you will be able to understand what information you need to write a lead, and you’ll be able to write a basic, active summary lead.
·     Yes, we are going to write today.  No, we can’t do anything fun.  Today is a WORK day, so sit down. (Do not allow Tyrone to go to the bathroom, as he will ask five minutes into class.)

Learning Activities           
  1. Students will “overhear” the story about the breakup and discuss the most important part of the story with the teacher.  Students will decide how they would tell this story to a friend, and how they would NOT tell it.
  2. The teacher will explain the 5 Ws and H – who, what, where, when, why and how.
  3. Students will work with their group to take a story idea and break it down into 5 Ws and H.  Students will also repeatedly ask what the 5Ws and H are, even though it’s written on the board.
  4. Students will decide which of the 5 Ws and H is most important for their particular story.  At this point, Juan will ask, “What are we doing again?”  The phone will ring, and the office will ask if you can cover Mr. Jenkins’ class this morning because he didn’t show up.  You tell them that you are trying to teach your class right now, so you can’t cover it.
  5. Students will learn why passive voice lacks immediacy, and why it’s ineffective for grabbing attention. Mostly, they will argue with you when you tell them it’s not an effective lead.
  6. Leading questions: Which matters most in your story?  If you can only pick two elements to emphasize, which would you pick?  Is there a more effective way to convey the importance of this story?  Does the wording make it sound more important to the reader or less? Tell the class they need to pay attention, as the graded part of the class is about to start.  

Comprehension Activities
  1. Groups will formulate leads or hooks based on what they decided were the most important elements of the story sample. (Note: Separate groups for Caitlynn and Isabel, plus make sure you assign group participation grade today.)
  2. Groups will share them out to the class and receive class feedback to determine the most important element and if the sentence is active or passive.  (Tyrone will NOT be allowed to answer.)

Mastery Activities
  1. The teacher will show four photos from recent news stories to the class if the overhead bulb in the LCD projector was finally replaced.  She’ll have printed copies as backup, in case the printer is broken again.  The students will choose two out of the four photos presented and determine the 5 Ws and H in the story.
  2. Students then write basic summary leads based on the information presented, and compare it with other students who wrote about the same story to see if they agree on the most important elements. When an administrator looks in and asks what you’re doing, you’ll say, “Writing.”  She’ll say, “Then why is it so noisy?” She will then remind you about an after school department meeting you already know about. 

  • As you can see, the lead has to be strong and direct to get the reader’s attention.  It has to relate the main point of the story immediately.  To write a lead, you have to be able to answer the questions who, what, where, when, why and how. 
  • Students will take information about a local crime, and write down the 5 Ws and H.  From there they will write two leads based on the information, one that is active, and one that is passive. 
  • At least a third of the class will write nothing and claim they didn’t know they had to turn in their lead for a grade when you collect the papers at the end of class.  Two of them will try to turn the assignment in a week later and complain that you're not fair if you don’t take it.

Monday, April 13, 2015

It's all about that base, which is missing.

Letter K day in the A-Z blog challenge!  Today we're focusing on a "knowledge base." 

When educators talk about a students knowledge base, theyre referring to the students understanding prior to learning the newly taught concept.  Its the body of information that the student starts with. 

Here’s a definition from an education website: “Knowledge-based learning is learning that revolves around both the knowledge that the student already has, and the understanding that they are going to achieve by doing work. When learning is based on the knowledge that students already have, and knowledge they are going to be achieving, the learning is better connected to real life.”

Ideally, a class full of students should start a school year primed with all the concepts learned the year before.  You, the teacher, will add to this information and tap into the prior learning to weave a rich tapestry of knowledge that will be blinding in its brilliance while still having real-world application.

But most students prior knowledge base is much thinner and more insubstantial than you might think.  When I say thinner, I mean close to nonexistent.  It doesnt mean the students didnt learn anything previously.  It means they discarded the concepts as quickly as they gained them. Or worse, they never got the knowledge to begin with, which is all too common. 

When building a school, construction experts know that the foundation has to be solid in order for the building to go up properly.  As they found in Los Angeles building Belmont High School, you cant build a school on top of a landfill, or an old industrial site.  The ground is unstable and who knows what you might find under there toxic gasses, contaminated soil, or any number of cancer-causing agents. We know we cant build buildings this way, but why do we think we can build a solid educational foundation with incomplete or nonexistent information?

Let me give you an example.  Im a writing teacher.  Most of my students come to me with no idea of how to construct a coherent sentence, and I teach high school.  They have no idea what a run-on sentence or a fragment is because they dont know what a subject or predicate is. How did this happen?

Years ago, the education community decided to forgo teaching the basics of grammar and structure.  Im not sure what the thinking was behind this decision, but from what I can gather experts believed that teacher grammar "out of context" was ineffective. Instead, conventional wisdom at the time dictated that students would naturally absorb the rules and conventions of writing by becoming competent readers, which would then be reflected in their writing skills. Five paragraph essays were also dropped, labeled "inauthentic" and "formulaic." Instead, students were told to write narratives that showed their voice. 

Schools stopped laying the foundation for good writing and tried to build their instruction on assumptions.  As a result of these innovations in writing instruction, now kids can't write and trying to teach writing is impossible. Ive learned that telling students write in complete sentences means nothing, because they dont know what a complete sentence is.  They think the time we went to the store is a complete sentence.  Students are shocked to find the essay they turned in earned them a D, and they dont know why.  But miss, isnt this good?  Theyve been told that their thoughts, opinions and unique voice is whats most important in writing.  So they overlook basic mechanics like punctuation, spelling, and structure because they never learned that those things are important.  

There is no knowledge base.  Im trying to construct a framework over a series of potholes and cracks that keep getting wider.  The only thing I can do is tear it all down and try to start over.

The real world application is that if students cant write a complete sentence, their chances of succeeding in college or getting a job that doesnt involve asking if you want fries with that is slim.  The best, most authentic thing we can do is to make sure students know the basics before we move on, even if its boring or rote. 

When you lay a concrete slab, you have to mix and pour the concrete before letting it dry.  Yes, it may be boring and take a long time, but then the structure is more likely to remain stable.  We owe it to our students to stabilize their learning, in the same way, by doing the grunt work and taking the time needed.