How do we teach?

Bird Droppings February 15, 2010
How do we teach?

I have been in graduate school now since 2002 and earned two degrees and a third on the way. I will admit an increase in salary was a significant factor although for my master’s degree it was for initial certification. As I started teaching and then also on the side was being a student I found the two very much paralleled. While learning I was better able to teach. I borrow from Thoreau his idea of quitting teaching to be a learner as he tramped around New England. He also found he was a better teacher. Bill Gates Foundation has put out over three hundred million dollars in grants to improve teacher’s effectiveness and evaluate teachers.

“If you do not act now, you will be picking up the pieces of a broken school system and failing children who desperately need your help.” Governor James E. Doyle, Wisconsin

Here in Georgia we are faced with the possibility of a large number of schools that cheated on mandated tests. Evaluators used the number of erasers from wrong to right as a checking point and found 198 elementary schools that far exceeded the norm. Georgia requires testing of students at the end of the year in various subject areas in elementary school and then uses that data to evaluate teachers and schools. The problem is the students come into a school and a teacher gets this group of students and even if significant improvement occurs and test scores are low that teacher is deemed unworthy. In a new round of legislation within Georgia the idea of pre-testing students and post-testing students is being considered and that would give a much better picture of improvement.
In our county we are closing for next year what is called a career academy. The academy is a school where technical and perhaps what some might call off the wall courses are being taught in a charter school setting. Behavior is not an issue because students with behavior problems can not go. Students have to be academically at a certain level to attend and many courses require an entrance test. So to start with a select group of students attend the academy and most classes are significantly smaller than standard public schools classes. Teacher’s attitudes are different as many courses are dual enrollment and students are receiving college credit and being treated as college students, young adults and not just numbers on the attendance form.

“At the base high schools you are just another GP, a face in the school.” Senior at WCA

“I used to not really care about school that much. This changed the way I thought about school.” Senior at WCA

This is all focused around cuts in budgets and spending by state and federal departments which directly impacts local school boards. My own county faces a five and a half million dollar budget cut this coming year and closing the WCA (Career Academy) is only a two million dollar chunk. Other cuts are pending. More students in classes hold off on buying textbooks, computers, and other equipment. Recycle old school buses and reduce transportation and number of days of school have all been thrown out. For some they look around and have a difficult time understanding what is going on nation wide. My wife and I purchased a new house with a value at the time in line with housing in the area. We felt a good deal. My last tax assessment devalued the house to less than what we owe on the mortgage. My neighbors are in the same boat. But the difference in terms of education is from our part we are paying nearly a thousand dollars less in property tax. When multiplied by the numbers of house in the county in the same situation that equates into millions of dollars less the county has for schools. Compound with state budget cuts and it is serious.
So where do we start in trying to provide a higher quality education that is being demanded by legislation and yet do it for less money than five years ago. I always fall back on teachers. A good teacher can teach most anything. A quality teacher can teach from a peach basket and kids will learn. Perhaps we are looking at the wrong set of results as to what kids are learning. As I mentioned far too often the only thing looked at is that end of course test. We should be better reviewing what kids know coming in and what they leave with and the difference being the true indicator of learning. We continue to get away from some of the simplest ways of improving education and students learning. Just by chance I am working on a dissertation on the Foxfire Approach to teaching. While not a cure all by any means it is a tool that can change the attitudes of students. IN looking at interviews with students from the closing WCA program all were saying that they learned more in that environment. If you ask a bit deeper and you might get that what they learned was relevant to them. It had significance and they wanted to learn.
Tomorrow I am going up to the Foxfire property in Mountain City Georgia to meet with Dr. Hilton Smith liaison with Foxfire and Piedmont College. He is talking to a group of Gwinnet county teachers. Piedmont College has a unique philosophy in its education department and it is very oriented around John Dewey’s idea on education. Some think how can an educator from the early 1900’s even have anything of importance to me an educator a century beyond. Fact of the matter is Dewey was right with his progressive ideas and sadly we still teach on the most part in a traditional way going back to the early 1800’s. Renamed and repackaged but it is still for the majority traditional teaching. The ten Core Practices of the Foxfire Approach offer a glimpse at how this methodology works. The ten Core Practices are from the Foxfire Fund website.

1 • From the beginning, learner choice, design, and revision infuses the work teachers and learners do together.

2 • The work teachers and learners do together clearly manifests the attributes of the academic disciplines involved, so those attributes become habits of mind.

3 • The work teachers and students do together enables learners to make connections between the classroom work, the surrounding communities, and the world beyond their communities.

4 • The teacher serves as facilitator and collaborator.

5 • Active learning characterizes classroom activities.

6 • The learning process entails imagination and creativity.

7 • Classroom work includes peer teaching, small group work, and teamwork.

8 • The work of the classroom serves audiences beyond the teacher, thereby evoking the best efforts by the learners and providing feedback for improving subsequent performances.

9 • The work teachers and learners do together includes rigorous, ongoing assessment and evaluation.

10 • Reflection, an essential activity, takes place at key points throughout the work.

Most teachers might flinch a bit when talking about a democratic class room or experiential learning let alone reflecting on your thoughts. What I find amazing is we do this in AP courses, Advanced courses and in the case of our now closed career academy there as well. Granted these teachers may not be using the Foxfire Approach in detail but have been teaching using a philosophy that is considered progressive. When legislators design law and granted we elect these officials most are lawyers not educators and they are more adept at law making than at educating children. But it does not take much to know far too often they do not know what they are talking about.

“In my view there seems to be a distinct disconnect today between politicians and public school officials.” Jesse Bradley, Griffin Spalding school system retired superintendent

I wonder if it is being off from school that got me thinking about all of this. Several newspaper articles and my weekly National Educator Newspaper maybe lead me to these thoughts. It is on the news with here in Georgia teacher mandated furloughs and cutting of education budgets. For many of you this is not even important but as a parent and a teacher I find that it is education that will make a difference tomorrow. So for today take a look and question and as always please keep all in harms way on your minds and in your hearts.

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