Monday, September 30, 2013

"How Does Data Drive Your Instruction?"

"How does data drive your instruction?"

I was interviewing for a job teaching instrumental music in a highly-regarded mid-Atlantic school system when I first heard this question. I was prepared for things like, "Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses," and "How have you used technology in your classroom?" (I have to admit I laughed out loud at that one, as in many cases I was lucky to have a piano with 88 working keys, let alone one that was in tune - forget about technology!)

At the time, I made up an answer that probably clearly sounded to the interviewers - a music supervisor and a Human Resources staffer - that I had no clue what I was talking about. If that was their impression, they would not have been too far wrong.

Fast-forward two years to this past summer. I've had two intervening long-term vocal music substitute positions, and I'd already been passed over to fill one of them as a contract teacher because I hadn't yet gone through the vocal music interview, and there was another part-time opening at my neighborhood school which I figured would be the perfect supplement to my other part-time work, so I sucked it up and went in for that interview as well - although, to be honest, I wasn't holding out a lot of hope, having also been passed over for the instrumental music position at the same school, where I already knew the majority of the kids and would have been fairly easily able to run the instrumental music program.

Sure enough, there was that question again.

"How does data drive your instruction?"

OK, folks, I'm a MUSIC teacher. In a typical vocal music position here, the kind where kids come to "music class" all together, the school would schedule me with kids from 25-50 minutes per week, so even if there were no holidays, assemblies, field trips, or other circumstances that would preclude my seeing a class, I'd see kids in groups for less than an hour each week. I would have those 25-50 minutes to deliver a curriculum on a predetermined schedule and be responsible for assessments throughout the year. Music, along with the other arts, is one of the things that in my deep belief makes people HUMAN. HUMANITY drives my instruction. The love of making music individually and collectively, of performing and creating and moving to music, the sheer joy of music - THAT drives my instruction.

"How does data drive your instruction?"

It DOESN'T. And it NEVER. EVER. will. NEVER. It simply cannot drive my instruction. It *can* inform my instruction; it can show me places where I need to spend more time on this or that concept or activity, or it can highlight shortcomings I need to address. But DRIVE my instruction?

Never. Not as a music teacher, and I don't think it would drive it as a teacher of a regular academic (non-arts) subject, either. My students are not "data points" to me. My children are not "data points," except perhaps to the forces currently trying to re-shape public education, to distill it into manageable data that can be used to drive instruction. And I highly doubt that my children are "data points" to their teachers in school, no matter how their teachers might have answered that question.

"How does data drive your instruction?"

When I answered honestly at this second interview, that it does NOT drive my instruction, and that what does drive my instruction is wanting the joy and humanity of the arts for all my students, there was silence for a couple of beats; the music supervisor finally said, "Interesting...." and made some notes on her clipboard. It was not brought up again, nor do I think it ever will be, except possibly to be used against me. LOL (The interviewers also clearly did not think much about my views on school discipline, either; the looks of bewilderment that I wouldn't apply a punishment across the board to all offenders amuse me to this day.)

"How does data drive your instruction?"

How does data drive instruction at your children's schools? It's a good question to ask of your school's leaders.......

Update: After a Tweet about not being a data-driven teacher, I got a phone call from HR, prompted by the then-Superintendent who'd read the Tweet, reprimanding me for my stance. I hand-delivered my resignation 2 days later to HR, and was summarily Twitter-blocked by the ex-Super.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Carrots and Sticks, Part the Fifth: Punishment in School Settings - Solutions

Originally published on Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I started writing about rewards and punishments partly because a number of fellow parents and teachers have expressed surprise that we don't use rewards or punishments here at home, at least not in the conventionally-viewed sense. No sticker charts, no time-outs, haven't needed 'em, and when we tried them they only seemed to impede what we were trying to do. As a teacher, I've sat through my share of "behavior modification" workshops, only to find that discipline problems never seemed to be solved; if anything, temporary and tenuous truces were called, but no real lasting changes came about, leading me to wonder what shortcomings might exist in current common practices in school discipline. Turns out there is a LOT of evidence in that area, and I dutifully dug it up and wrote about that too. Then it only stood to reason that we need to start looking at better ways to handle behavior problems in schools, which in turn led me to Alfie Kohn and to Dr. Ross Greene, both of whom gave me real concrete solutions for navigating parenting a difficult preschooler.

Dr. Ross Greene has worked successfully with kids with some major behavior issues, even clinical ones, and has lots of concrete advice about it. For starters, check out this survey about school behavior climates. Granted, he's selling a commodity, which is his services in revamping school behavior systems, but his descriptions fit nearly every educational environment I've taught in outside my home, from a Montessori preschool through a private JK-12 academy to public schools from kindergarten through high school.  I found the following points to be particularly relevant to what I'll be immersed in for the next month or so:

    The philosophy guiding our thinking about behaviorally challenging kids is Kids do well if they want to rather than Kids do well if they can.
    In responding to challenging behaviors, the school relies heavily on a rubric system: a list of behaviors students mustn't exhibit and an algorithm for how adults should respond to those behaviors if they are exhibited.
    There are many "frequent flyers" in the school: students whose behavior has not improved despite frequent exposure to the school discipline system. (emphasis mine)
    The problems precipitating students' challenging behavior seem to occur again and again without ever being durably solved.    

Carrots and Sticks, Part the Fourth: Punishment in School Settings - The Problem

Originally published Friday, January 20, 2012; edited for spelling and tightening up the writing a bit.

When I started out this set of posts about rewards and punishments, my plan was to paint with broad strokes, find information that would apply across the board. A slight change in course is altering the setting of my thoughts right now, from family life and parenting more to school settings, but I think the basic premise absolutely holds true: if repeated punishments aren't working, that's a sign that a new approach needs to be tried. Since I started out, I've spent more time substitute teaching (That's "supply teaching" for my friends Across the Pond) and observing in schools with this subject on my mind, so that's the point of view I'm taking in my writing - but make no mistake, the same premises apply at home. :-)

Following are collected observations (with lots of parenthetical commentary, as usual LOL) gathered most recently at my daughters' school but also observed in 3 different Maryland school systems and in dozens of schools I've been assigned to in those systems.

Carrots and Sticks: Part the Third: Punishment

Originally posted on Friday, January 6, 2012

I started out my third post with "just" a focus on punishment and found it evolving to a more specific topic, which is discipline in school settings. While that's definitely an area I do want to address, this isn't that post, so I copy-pasted it all to some future post for me to work on later. This is hopefully going to be more general. It's also going to be, well, LONG. Go get a cup of coffee or refill your water bottle or whatever blog-reading sustenance you need to get you through here.

I first publicly addressed the idea of not-punishing in a post I did for a friend's blog this past summer. It gave me the chance to really put into words what my position was on traditional punishment and how I came to that place. Most of that was covered in my Carrots and Sticks: Background post, so I'll sum it up here and add some more recent thoughts and some links to back me up.

Parenting a special-needs child is HARD. It's even harder when the needs manifest themselves more behaviorally than physically, because it's so very easy to blame bad parenting for a child's difficulties when the child is acting out rather than, say, being unable to walk. Wheelchairs and Down's Syndrome are visible disabilities, but Sensory Processing Disorder and other neurological issues, not so much, neither to parents nor to others outside the family unit (teachers, relatives, well-intentioned strangers in supermarkets declaring that you should spank your child and teach her her a lesson she'll not soon forget. ::angry face goes here::)

Carrots and Sticks: Part the Second: Rewards

Are rewards and promises of rewards - "carrots," in other words - really the motivators they're marketed to be? Are rewards and punishments the best way for children to learn and engage in socially acceptable behaviors?

Here's a scenario for you: students in a school are asked to bring in non-perishable food items for a food drive. I can totally get behind this: times are hard and food pantries are really running dry much faster than they have in a long time as more and more families need their services to keep their kids fed. As an incentive, students are told that whichever grade brings in the most food items will win a pizza party for the ENTIRE GRADE!!! *waving flags, big brass band sounds, maybe some cheerleaders*

Over the course of the next week or two, big paper graphs are hung across from the cafeteria where all students will be able to see the progress of their grade and the other grades as the piles of food add up. Every time a teacher or a volunteer gets a chance to count food items and update a grade's graph for the day, you can see the children's excitement building: OUR grade has the biggest bar! No, wait, the second grade is catching up! Oh, NO! But wait, we're still ahead! And look! We're catching up to that grade!  All on their own, kids are excited about, well, they're excited about the bar graph and what it shows. To the younger kids, say up to first or second grade, it's a competition to see who will need to add another piece of paper, or who will have the highest bar, or beat the other grades in sheer quantity of boxes and cans, but to most of them from third grade upward, it shows......who's going to get a PIZZA PARTY!!!! *more waving flags and brass bands here* Very few kids are actually thinking, "Wow, this is great, we're going to be feeding a lot of people and families who really could use this food." (A great big "teachable moment" is winging its way out of the school and away from the children here.....)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Carrots and Sticks, and The New Paradigm: The Background

Originally posted on Thursday, December 15, 2011

I first blogged about rewards and punishments on a friend's blog this past summer [the blog has since gone dormant :-(]; the mothers on the blog had written about their stance on corporal punishment, and I suggested a follow-on post about viable alternatives to spanking and smacking and ended up guest-blogging that week. Not only did I come out against smacking, but against rewards and punishments altogether. That post is pretty much the condensed version of the novel I've written below.

I've had occasion to be thankful many many times throughout the past 10 years of my life for circumstances teaching me so many things. The biggest part of my last 10 years has been parenthood, which in many ways has radically changed how I do, well, EVERYTHING - but in other ways it has also reinforced a lot of things I was already doing as a teacher and began doing instinctively as a parent until I let well-meaning doctors, teachers, and even friends and family get advice in there that made me second-guess myself. It wasn't until I recently found an old evaluation form from a school principal who evaluated my teaching probably 14 years ago, give or take, that I actually remembered some of my pre-parenthood philosophies and realized how true to them I had stayed - or come back to. LOL

I do think that now that I've parented a strongly introverted "atypical" gifted child and a strongly extroverted and also-gifted but more neurotypical one, I have many new insights into children than I did before I had any of my own. I'm also pretty sure that if I'd had a son, or if I had more children, that my parenting - and teaching - would be even different than it already is, so I do recognize that I don't have all the answers - just a lot more than I did 10 years ago (with a lot to go, I'm sure!).

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Non-Academic Skills: Can We Teach Those?

Originally posted on Monday, October 29, 2012

This was originally written as Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast, her sights set on a point a couple hundred miles north but determined to give the Washington, DC area a wind-lashed deluge over the next few hours and interrupt my typing with power outages. The original post was lost; I was only able to retrieve the opening paragraphs, but I have more to add, so it’s due to be updated anyway.

With this in mind, my younger child decided to use the windy afternoon before the storm arrived to be outside and to burn off calories and to She'd been working on jumping rope recently. As recently as 4-5 weeks before, she was jumping awkwardly and managing perhaps 3 or 4 jumps before the rope caught on her legs. She would try again, over and over, before giving up in tearful frustration - and then, a minute or 2 later, with the tears not yet dry on her face, she was at it again, raging at the rope and at her inexperience as it happened again and again. And then, something very interesting happened.