Turning a critical corner

In summertime, I usually go through some version of the following stages:

(1) Overdrive. I can’t stop thinking and dreaming about the past year, the good, bad, and especially the way it ended.

(2) Escape. I let it all go and think about anything but teaching.

(3) Observation from Afar. Having taken a big step back from the daily realities of teaching, I reconsider my position as a teacher with a measure of detachment, before it’s really time to gear up for the new year. I ask myself, “What’s really going on here?  Where do I fit?”

(4) Judgement: Inevitably, I experience frustration over my relative lack of power in the face of a huge dysfunctional public education system. I judge the system for doing harm to students and also teachers in many ways. I am angry when I see the limitations of what I can accomplish under such conditions. (See my two recent posts, The New NYC School System and Old Attitude Problem About School for signs of this.)

(5) Inspiration: I recognize that I limit myself even further by staying angry. Soon enough I refocus myself on the most important thing, my own students and my own teaching, and find something to get excited about. This year I am excited to reinvent the East Harlem study I conducted with students 3 years ago at my previous school as a Crown Heights study at my current school. I also have ideas about how to improve the aesthetics of my classroom and how to make use of the class set of laptops that is supposed to be in my room this September! (Stay tuned for more on these developments.)

Once I regain inspiration to teach and have focused my attention on what’s good in my teaching life. I am better equipped to position my work within the bigger picture of public education.  Instead of wasting my time railing on standardized tests, this year I will take on the challenge of how to assess the skills and understandings I believe are most important for my students to acquire.

In a recent post at Get in the Fracas, my virtual colleague Dan Brown has just faced a similar challenge. Through an interesting anecdote, he illustrated that many people, including policy-makers, admit that that there are limits to what standardized tests show about student learning and quality teaching–but they also admit they are lost as to what other measures could be used.  Dan offers an overview of what else is out there.

This year I hope to address this macro issue of “How do we know when kids are learning?” at the ground level in my classroom.  This week, I met with my AP, who is on board with me designing and piloting assessments in a number of categories that we know are important but currently don’t measure.  Some of these are critical thinking, ability to participate in a student-centered discussion (face to face andonline), and literary understanding (distinct from basic literacy skills).

My English department is also on board with trying to make a shift from grading according to a mishmash of task completion, class participation and performance, to a more productive, student-friendly assessment system based clearly on growing mastery of standards and learning objectives.

I have my work cut out for myself and a good chunk of research yet to do, but the good news is I’m excited about it, I know it will improve my teaching, and I’m doing something to solve a problem.

[image credit cloopco.blogspot.com/ 2009/02]

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