Monday, February 8, 2016

Living it up in the ideal world!

I’m beginning to wonder if administrators, instructional specialists, and policymakers have absolutely no idea what kids are like, or have any recollection of what life was like when they were kids.

When teachers have to take their certification tests, they are often given this advice when reading the hypothetical teaching situations: “Think of what the best answer would be in an ideal situation.” For those of you unfamiliar with teacher-ese, that means think of what would be the best answer if all the kids behaved, worked hard in class, you had plenty of equipment and resources to use, and if your administration fully supported you. 

Anyone who’s spent time in a classroom is now doing a spit take, because none of those things are ever going to happen all at once.  But still, “they” want you to pretend it will.

Consider the following question:

A high school English-language arts teacher wants to ensure that students successfully complete a content-specific essay. Which of the following actions should the teacher take to best help students understand her expectations for the assignment's format?
A.      Supplying students with more information about the topic
B.      Asking students if they have any questions about the task
C.      Showing students examples of what to do and what not to do
D.      Assigning related readings and reviewing content
The correct answer is C.  However, most teachers will do all of the above.  Even so, none of those are going to work.  You’re assuming your students are listening, which they’re not.  They’re trying to text each other while holding their phones under the table. 

So after confiscating at least two phones, you’ll once again go over the instructions.  You’ll ask if there are any questions, which there won’t be.  Then you’ll ask a few students in the class to repeat your instructions.  One or two will do it correctly.  Within a few minutes, a student will ask you a question about the assignment that you already answered.  When the assignment is due, you’ll get about 50 percent of them back.  That’s a good day.

I think we can all agree that the ideal situation is never going to happen.  You veteran parents know what I’m talking about.  So why are teachers told to plan for something that won’t ever occur?  Why aren’t we given practical advice on what to do?  Why aren’t we then evaluated based on the fact that we handle classroom issues in a practical manner?

Most advice we get is very IMPRACTICAL.  For example, I was in training for a reading intervention class that runs on a 20 minute three station rotation.  This is a terrible idea for high schoolers, who can’t do transitions well, and an even worse idea to help students read.  The minute they can finally get into their books, they have to switch to another task.  It’s multi-tasking, and science has proven that multi-tasking doesn’t lead to effective learning. 

When I pointed this out to the workshop facilitator, she assured me that it would work.  “You just have to train them (the students.)”

“Okay, how?” I asked.

“Just practice with them over and over.  Run a timer so that they know when they have to transition.”

“What happens when some of them ignore the timer?” I asked.

“You encourage them to move to the next station.”

“And if they don’t?”  I could tell at this point that she was getting irritated with my constant questions, but I’ve worked with high school students.  “I agree that it needs to be practiced, and I plan to do that, but realistically it’ll take three weeks of practice before they get this down, and by that time we’d be behind on the curriculum.”

“You’ll just keep reminding them,” she said curtly.

“While I’m trying to run my own small group station?  That doesn’t make sense.  If I have to keep reminding him, isn’t that taking time away from another group, and disrupting the rotation anyway?”  I pointed out. “I’m just saying I know this is going to happen, so I need a strategy for someone who is insistent on not following the schedule.”

“Oh, they’ll follow it,” she assured me.  “Kids who waste time trying to find their book are just trying to cover up their nervousness about reading.  They know they aren’t good at reading, so they’re stalling.” 

“Yes, I’m aware of that,” I said thinly, because THAT WAS THE POINT I WAS TRYING TO MAKE that she clearly wasn’t getting.  “Most students will do whatever they can to get out of work.  But with such limited time, how do I move them along without taking time from another group?  How did you do it?”

That’s when I found out that she had never taught students with this program.  She was the trainer, but had no actual experience using this particular format.  I stared at her in disbelief.  “Then you don’t know how to make this work?”

“We’ve had other teachers who have used it very successfully,” she told me blithely. 

Too bad they weren’t in the room now.  I raised an eyebrow.  “And this was high school?”

“Well, um, actually it was elementary and middle school…” she said, trailing off.  “But ideally –“ I glared at her, and she stopped talking. 

Ideally, my students would not come from broken, poverty-stricken homes and be saddled with learning disabilities and behavior problems.  In an ideal world, they’d come to school excited for the lesson, full of enthusiasm and eager to show respect.  And ideally, they wouldn’t have reading comprehension issues to begin with, making this program unnecessary.  

I kind of like the ideal world, and would love to live there.  But I don’t think anyone can afford the rent.