How Might We…#MakeSchoolDifferent ?

A few days ago I was challenged by a fellow Tweacher (@mrsvannasdall) to share my thoughts on how to #MakeSchoolDifferent.  If you check out my previous posts, you’ll learn very quickly that I am a high school teacher in Texas.  And for the past four years in Texas, public school teachers, students, and administrators have been punched in the face with STAAR testing.  During this turbulent time I have been teaching at a Title 1 school, and have ended each year vowing to quit the profession unless major changes are made to our system.  Each year small but positive changes have been made so I’ve been holding on.  When I first started speaking out against the testing system we use, some people would ask me, “Okay.  So get rid of testing. Then what?  How do we make sure students are learning?”  And I used to cop out and say, “I don’t know.  But I know what we’re doing isn’t working.”  Well, after being asked the question enough times I started to look for the answer.  And I think there are at least 5 ways to #MakeSchoolDifferent and get away from the emphasis on standardized testing.

1.  Let’s stop pretending that a typical school day makes sense in comparison to “the real world”.  There’s a big push for “college and career readiness”.  Colleges allow students to choose their schedules and decide what days to attend class, so why can’t public schools do the same?  Research study after research study shows brain function in young people hits its peak between the late morning and early afternoon hours.  So why do we force kids to get to school ready to “learn” between 7AM-9AM (much less teachers)?  I guarantee there would be enough teachers willing to work a “swing shift”(think 10-6/11-7) if given the option, while others would still prefer the traditional early hours.  Why not have both?  I know of private schools that have morning schedules and afternoon schedules.  I would bet there are at least 50 qualified applicants for every teaching position that becomes available.  Maybe if public education was funded properly, districts would have more money to pay more teachers and have the ability to adopt a more flexible schedule.

2.  Let’s stop pretending that athletics needs to happen before, during, and after school.  Considering I live in Texas, this will definitely rub some people the wrong way.  In a recent meeting, I heard someone say, “If it wasn’t for football and no pass/no play, I wouldn’t be here.  I wouldn’t have gone to school.”  While some people agreed and said, “Oh yes, many of our students are the same way,” it made me cringe.  Where did that “football mindset” come from?  Perhaps from growing up watching older siblings or father play, but more than likely from watching Saturday college games and Sunday NFL games as a kid, and wanting to be the successful player.  In no way am I saying that it’s not okay to have goals, but what goals should we be emphasizing?  Why can’t athletics be an after school or weekend activity to allow students more time to work on academics and fine arts during the school day (going back to our school schedule)?  Coaches could be allowed to be just that:  coaches.  And we all know THAT coach that should not be teaching (notice I said THAT and not ALL).  So many people want to compare our students’ national scores or our education system to Finland.  What professional football (not soccer!) teams do they have in Finland?

Talking about THAT coach makes for an easy transition to my next point:

3.  Let’s stop pretending that when students say someone is a bad teacher that they just don’t like them.  In our end-of-the-year survey distributed by administrators last year, we were asked for suggestions on how to improve the current evaluation process.  I suggested adding student input to teacher evaluations.  I truly believe students are being honest when they say a teacher is bad because I have seen bad teachers in action.  On the flip-side, I would also say it’s worth investigating if kids are saying a teacher is “so cool” because “they don’t care about anything”.  I’ve peeked in classrooms of the names I repeatedly hear in both situations, and have seen the disorganization, heard the yelling, watched the cellphone being pulled out, and stacks of redundant worksheets being used.  Now is that to say that a bad teacher is hopeless?  Absolutely not.  It means they need help.  And they need help because ultimately it will help the students.  Students want strong teachers.  The students will be the ones in the classroom day in and day out, and we should listen when they speak up.  It’s important to show that we value their opinion.

4.  Let’s stop pretending like we all haven’t made up grades because we had to have a certain number in by a certain time.  (I watched a teacher last year give students a grade for having a BINDER, and he didn’t teach AVID).  There is a large conversation starting about the purpose of grades, and I’m with the growing group that believe it’s time to rethink grades.  I recently read Salman Khan’s One World School House and agree that how we measure student growth and achievement needs to change.  However, it’s extremely difficult to have the “growth mindset” Khan mentions when our kids are so heavily driven by competition.  I would write more about this but instead I’ll just use links to show I’m not completely crazy.

5.  Let’s stop pretending that the teacher has all the answers and should have complete control at all times.  Thanks to SXSWEdu, one of the hashtags I like to follow on Twitter is #dtk12chat.  It focuses on design thinking and new ways to approach teaching and learning.  There are even some suggestions for “disruptive education”, some of which I’ve tried in my classroom, and my students LOVED the ideas.  I’m at the point now where I want a completely flexible classroom space, and want to do away with the desks that are permanently attached to chairs.  I want my students to have options from everything to how they use the space to create, to which assignments they work on, to what topics they study.  I’ve started with the latter and in just 4 weeks saw an improvement in attitude, inquiry, and product from some of my most challenging students.  One of my kids could not believe I was letting him write about any current event, even if it was about the NBA playoffs.  I set some guidelines but just giving him the option to choose his topic was huge.  It was some of the best writing he has done all year.  I’ve asked my students if we could get rid of the desks, what they would want in my classroom instead.  Overwhelmingly each class said that I still needed chairs or something soft to sit on, and moveable desks or clipboards to write on.  They said having freedom to stand up or sit/lay down would be helpful, too.  Just having this discussion, even though it was hypothetical, was so insightful and a lot of students kept the conversation going by talking about how they would “do school”.

Ultimately, students want to learn, and I think we should #MakeSchoolDifferent.  (Sorry for the lackluster ending this took way longer than I thought it would).



Why I Didn’t Blog for One Month (even after signing up for a daily blog challenge) #AprilBlogaDay

I hope anyone that actually reads my blog doesn’t think I just gave up a month ago.  I signed up for the #AprilBlogaDay challenge and was pretty excited to be connected with like-minded educators.

However, I bit off more than I could chew, as some teachers are known for doing.  I feel like it’s part of our make-up and why we sign on to do what we do in the first place.  We know we can’t save every kid, but we’re going to try regardless.

So, the past month I decided to give myself time to reflect inwardly because I realized writing and tweeting was actually adding more stress to my already pretty stressful semester.  Keep in mind that on top of teaching full-time, I am also taking two writing-intensive graduate classes at Texas State University.  I’ve been working on an article for publication as well as my first official grant proposal.  Simultaneously, I’ve still been tracking multiple bills that are being discussed at the Capitol, some of which are extremely beneficial to Texas students and teachers, some of which could be potentially detrimental.

Being so aware of possible changes, both positive and negative, made me even more aware of just how much I care about teaching and even more about my students.  I decided to focus what energy I had left to making the final nine weeks of school as productive and rewarding to my students as possible.  I completely threw out my traditional lesson plans for Lord of the Flies and Julius Caesar and decided to make my classroom more student-centered.  Luckily, I have access to a cart full of laptops, so implementing change wasn’t too difficult.  Instead of reading a novel together, watching the corresponding movie clips, and ending with a final project, I resolved to let my students have more freedom in their assignments.

Because this is the first time I’m doing this in my classroom, I set up some expectations and provided assignment choices.  I didn’t just tell my students to “Go learn something! Yay!”  Every student was expected to participate in self-selected reading (SSR), practice grammar, write current event article reflections, and analyze poetry.  I gave them a “menu of assignments” and gave them a due date three weeks away.  Each day we met I tried to allow for at least 45 minutes (if not 1 hour) to be used to work on their choice of assignment.

The only portion that still had uniformity was poetry because it involved watching “Dead Poets Society” and completing reflection questions and analysis of the poems discussed in the movie.  We watched 15-20 minute clips over two weeks at the beginning of every class, and then students were given the rest of the time to work on the daily reflection/analysis activities along with their other assignments.  Meaning once the film clip ended, I did not say, “Okay, now everyone work on your Dead Poets assignment for today and turn them in before the bell”.  Instead, I gave them a full three weeks to complete the questions so they could come back to it at any time.  I had a few students take the papers home and ask their parents what they thought of the movie and the questions, but the majority of the kids did the work in class.

For SSR, if we were not watching a movie clip, I still projected a large 15 minute timer at the beginning of class and read my own book in front of the class.  However, instead of saying “everyone must read now”, I simply said: “If you want to use this time for SSR because you know you won’t do it otherwise, or you’re just ready to read, then please do.  If you’re ready to work on something else productively, you may do that but you are not allowed to distract those of us who are reading.”  Thankfully, the majority of my students used the time to read, and a lot of them kept reading after the 15 minute timer since they are allowed to use the remaining time however they want.  They just had to be sure to finish the required number of reading log entries by the due date.

Last year I started using but I was creating assignments and quizzes for my students.  This year I realized there is a “practice option” that allows students to work on actually mastering a grammar concept without a grade.  I typed up a list of grammar items that the practice section covers and told my students they had to practice every section at least 3 times before May 29th (end of our grading period).  Now this part is tricky because just because a student practices does not mean they master a section.  I can tell this by the red, blue, yellow, and green dots used on the site.  However, my goal is to expose students to as much grammar as possible without making it feel like a punishment, so I am actually grading on effort instead of the “scores” they get.  I have a few ESL students that I know have attempted sections multiple times, but still get a blue or red dot.  That to me means more than a green dot showing mastery.  Since getting good grades is so engrained in our students, many of them keep practicing even after they meet the requirement, and many of them have reported they are now more aware of errors in their own writing.  I haven’t had students tell me that when I used to do practice sentences and grammar quizzes, either online or by worksheets.  This site also covers MLA citations, and it has really helped my students understand I’m not being crazy when I talk about correct punctuation for quotations.

The most challenging part of this approach has been getting my students to write substantial article reflections without plagiarizing the entire thing.  I gave my students a list of websites to choose from and also said they could use any other source as long as it was appropriate and reputable.  Within three weeks, students had to choose two articles and compose two 250-word reflections using either Google Docs,, or by simply handwriting it.  In the future, I am going to assign the reflections on Google Classroom to help streamline the grading process.  I got my inspiration for this assignment from Kelly Gallagher’s “Article of the Week”.  However, since I’m experimenting with choice, I did not provide the articles, only resources to find articles.  My students have become more aware of the world around them, and we have had meaningful conversations from topics ranging from the riots in Baltimore, to the earthquake in Nepal, and to why a NASA spacecraft recently crashed into Mercury.  I have learned that prior to my class, my students don’t have much exposure to MLA writing, something that is crucial during upperclassmen classes and, of course, in college.  As of today, if they’re keeping up with their work, students have written four article reflections.  I have watched the majority of them improve from copying and pasting portions of an article and calling it their “summary paragraph”, to picking two relevant quotes and discussing their perspective of the topic.

This shift in choice has definitely changed my role as the “teacher” in the classroom.  I’m now more just a facilitator, making sure my students are somewhat on task (some of them take a long time to explore sites for THE article they want) and answering questions as they come up.  However, if you look at my gradebook, most of my class averages are now around 70%.  But I don’t think this means they aren’t learning, and I’ve tried to communicate that to my students.  I know I can’t just get rid of grades, but I do want to instill the idea of a “growth mindset”, and hope my students realize failing isn’t always a bad thing.

I would love to write more on this, but I’m also working on my FINAL final for the semester, and still have a mountain of assignments to check since everything was due this past Friday.  I decided to update my blog as a “break” from the other work I need to do.  Time to make time for myself again…