Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What are We Getting Paid For?

I recently read a blog post from Micheal Niehoff about how to attract and keep teachers in the profession.  (Let's Pay Teachers 100K per year). I was touched by the idea that all teachers should be EXPECTED to be practicing lifelong learners, participants and leaders in true collaboration, be mentor-advisor to students (part of adjunct teaching responsibilities) and have an extended work day and year to facilitate the requirements for the above. His post got me thinking about my own experience.

Thanks to recent negotiations, the high school district in which I work just increased the top rates for all teachers by about 7%. Those teachers in the top tiers are now making just over $100,000. It's great to get such a nice raise. I know I am well paid in comparison to teachers around the California and the rest of the nation.

Here's the problem.
I am somewhat frustrated that there are teachers who make the same money as I do but work far less. There are some obvious things that contribute to the "teachers are glorified baby-sitters" mentality that often comes from the general public who do not truly know what it takes to be competent in our profession. (Why should we pay them more? They already get tons of free time!) It is something they may have experienced in the manufacturing end when they attended school. There really are teachers who work their contract hours only: 15 minutes before the first bell and 15 minutes after the last bell. Some of them are even able to get most lesson planning and most grading completed within those hours. One does not always see the hard work and design that goes into a product as complex as teaching human children.

I sometimes think I am doing something wrong when I think about those colleagues. I struggle with the planning and grading part, because of the complexity of many of the critical thinking assignments. I sometimes let things sit for a while before I grade them. I am working on improving this facet of my career. I generally do not do those tasks when I have students in the room- when we are together in class, my focus is with them- guiding, managing activities and learning and leading. I am also learning to let go of control of the grades. Self reflection and peer evaluation has a place in this arena for both students and teachers.

The work outside of my teaching day I do includes content creation (I revise lessons and add some new things every year), I am advisor to 2 very active (and time consuming) clubs, I participate in a school committee (professional development), I participate in 2 district committees (ed tech and NGSS transitions), I mentor (informally) and collaborate with a new teacher in my department. On top of all this, I challenge myself to learn new things by attending and presenting at local conferences. Many of these things are unpaid, volunteer and yet still expected of me. Don't get me wrong- I do all of these activities willingly for the benefit of students, colleagues and my school. My work week often exceeds 50 or 55 hours per week. My site administrators often work more hours than that due to local and district expectations of attendance of athletic events and other extracurricular activities. I do not resent their pay or the responsibility for the entire school community.  After all, we are all in this for the benefit of students.

Here's what I think will make the conditions better.
It would help us to have fewer students in our class loads. I already have about 165 students that I see every day. There is a huge instructional difference in a class with 38 students and one with 25. I would willingly mentor 20-25  students for their entire 4 years if my actual class sizes were down to 25 students. I think it would keep them involved in school and continuing forward toward a positive career.

Collaboration and planning could be (better) shared if there were more teachers in each department willing to teach students with fewer (old) lecture notes and (really old) worksheets and more (updated) lab and inquiry activities that require critical thinking. We also need less discussion (complaining) about 504 and IEP requirements and more sharing of real world strategies to work with all students.
STEM Solar Cup Competition
Plenty of us already work super hard. But it would really be awesome to spread the extracurricular work around. I recently had to put one of my competitive STEM clubs on hold for a year because I could not find another faculty member (in a school with over 150 staff members) to help. We have a year to do some background activities for the competition next year and to convince another staff member to work with me. If I cannot find someone- I will do it next year anyway with the help of my husband and some parents and something else will have to give. There are only 24 hours in one day.

At least in my district, we are part way there (for those teachers in the top years and educational levels). But the ones who are always only on campus from bell to bell should have to make some adjustments. I am ready to teach and work in the world Mike envisions. I wonder if others would join me?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

I Have a Concern...

My first day of school Activity 
I teach 9th grade students. I am concerned about many things when they come to my class. Did they get enough breakfast this morning? Did they get enough rest last night? Are they well rounded people? Are they enjoying some free time as well as extra curricular activities? Do they have a crowd of supportive people around them?

However, my biggest concern is how well they are learning what I teach. I teach much more than Biology Content. I teach students about how to prepare (for future classes, for college, for career). I teach them skills that will carry them into the future. I teach how Biology is important in their lives. 

I worry that too many of them are agonized over about their grade more than true concern over what they have learned in my class. 

Spilling water during a lab makes a mess but is not worthy of tears.

Don't get me wrong- GPA is one important piece of the puzzle that allows for student options and choices for the colleges of their choice. But some times this becomes an unbalanced situation and can become the ONLY thing they are worried about. This trend toward the pursuit of the almighty grade is alarming to me. How do I encourage them to be more concerned about the learning than the score they got on something. I have been reading and listening to people who want standards based grading, taking scoring grading away and only giving feedback until they get it "right". That would be a complete paradigm shift to the students, their parents and to me. Do I really need to sit down and focus on every single point and eliminate it? Or do I make a culminating event for each unit that is NOT the test, but that can be assigned an assessment grade? Should it be Formative or Summative?

I have been teaching 26 years- but the kids have changed and the world has changed and I have changed. I am more concerned now than ever about the pressure each of my students faces to perform perfectly in an imperfect world. 

Recently, I read an interesting article about how we, as an educational community (teachers and parents) can work toward a more productive, less damaging focus. We can give students skills to succeed later in school, at the university or in early career. They have to learn to fail gracefully.

I have included a link to the article from KQED- Mind/Shift-How We Will Learn titled "What Do Students Lose By Being Perfect?" (Holly Korbey)

"What Do Students Lose by Being Perfect?"

We will survive our mistakes.
I hope you read it and join with me in the effort to encourage calmer students who are increasingly self reliant. I would like to see young people develop the ability to make mistakes without the horrible emotional breakdowns and constant worry that they got every detail perfectly right (or at least every single point possible). We all need to learn that failure or (fewer points on a piece of work) is not the end of the world.  

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Getting the Girls (and everyone else) Involved in STEM!

For years, there has been a lot of chatter about getting girls involved in traditionally male STEM careers like engineering in robotics and coding for computers. Actually, I would like to see more
support for all students who are interested in STEM activities. We have plenty of academic science and math courses. All students are required to take at least three years of science and math at my school. So girls see plenty of action in those fields at our school.

Unfortunately at this time, we offer no engineering courses and there are only a couple of advanced technology (all computer related) options. Obviously, the practical and hands on aspects of STEM are not yet being addressed in a formal classroom setting. I think funding, A-G requirements and credentialing contribute to this situation. We do have several STEM related clubs on my campus, including a robotics club, a health science club and a chemistry club.  

I am a co-advisor to one of the STEM clubs that competes with 40 other high schools in Southern California.  The name of the competition is Solar Cup, sponsored by Metropolitan Water District. Students construct a wooden canoe-style speed boat in which they put an electric battery powered motor that is recharged by solar panels. There are several facets to this competition including technical drawing and electrical engineering, construction, experimentation and design tests as well as research, creating technical reports, developing a business presence and a public service message about water conservation.

I am really proud to say that we have diversity among ethnic groups as well as gender balance in the LOHS Solar Cup Team. It helps to have a variety of tasks and ways to get the girls interested from the beginning phases of the event.  At the beginning of the year, we promote the club asking all potential team members if they are interested in art, racing, science and water conservation. I think the girls feel more comfortable being involved in a traditionally male dominated field (construction and engineering) because both advisors are women in addition to being science teachers. There are other women in the administrative support and organizational phases, but very few actually working with students to construct and engineer the boat. Neither of us is an engineering or construction professional, so we rely on the students to learn the process somewhat independently. We have been working with a parent volunteer who IS really good at mechanical design and construction. Needless to say, he has been invaluable in the technical aspects of the project. Our students develop expertise in these areas and they teach us new things all the time. The two of us have learned a great deal over the last few years about electrical design from our students, other advisors and the parents who volunteer to help us.

Since much of the engineering world is traditionally male-centric, I think it helps the girls to have a couple of willing and confident female role models. The boys also learn to view women and girls in these roles as well, so they won't be biased against females in this type of workplace.

I think it is interesting that some of our male competitors tend to overlook us- but our team is a force to be reckoned with. In our fourth year of participation, we have gone from 22 place (out of 40 schools) to 9th to 5th last year. This year we took 3rd place!

See what the sprint race (without solar panels) looks like from the vantage of the flag post (stern) of the boat.  Harry's Sprint Race (gopro video)

For several of our students (girls and boys alike) - it has been a life changing experience and has become a PASSION. Here are some of the choices our students have made as a result of the influence our club has had on their lives. One young man is finishing up his degree in materials science at Johns Hopkins University. A young lady is now majoring in mathematics at Cal Poly Pomona University. One of our girls is attending Chapman University majoring in theater production. Another young lady is currently in the nursing program at California Baptist University. One of our boys is at Cal Poly San Louis Obispo majoring in construction management. Two years ago, several of our seniors graduated and are currently pursuing majors in biology, engineering, astrophysics and environmental science.

This coming year we will have at least 2 seniors who are planning on going into engineering majors when they graduate. The male student is going to go into electrical engineering, which in itself is no surprise since he has been playing with wiring since he was a five year old. But our club gave him an outlet to shine and become a leader among his peers. The young lady got an opportunity to participate in an internship with a local solar electrical engineering start up firm. Her experience with us gave her the confidence to apply and the desire to move from biology to environmental engineering.

Would these students have chosen these career paths without our club? Yes, they might have selected STEM pathways, but they (or their parents) all have told us that our club was a major factor in that decision.  However, I believe that the opportunities we provide help them to know better what they are getting into. All of our students, girls and boys alike, get to have hands-on experiences in STEM related career pathways.

The only thing that might be better is to develop courses like this to allow students that opportunity to practice technology and engineering integration into science and math.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Saturday School Antics

Our school has Saturday School sessions. This year we have had 7 of them. They are organized to get back some of the average daily attendance funding that is lost when students are not in school. Students come to school for 4 hours and have a snack break of about 15 minutes.

In our school culture, Saturday School is usually considered a privilege or opportunity and an enriching experience rather than as a punishment. There is an attendance incentive for students wishing to attend dances. We have a program which identifies freshmen students who have not earned a passing number of credits; they are encouraged to attend to get tutoring and additional learning skills as well as get some make up work completed. During this time of year many Advanced Placement teachers run classes as an opportunity to take practice AP exams. Some teachers offer Saturday school as an opportunity to earn extra credit.

Since I teach a lab class, I can only take so many students (about 35 or 40) into my Saturday enrichment sessions. I can't over fill my class room because there is just not enough physical space or chairs. Students are scheduled into my sessions on a first come first served basis. My class usually fills up in less than 24 hours. I usually have a waiting list 10 or 15 students deep. You might ask why I have such a following for what would normally be considered  something negative. I think it is a combination of the extra credit available, but also because of the cool labs and fun learning activities we can do in an extended period of time. You can do so many things when you have willing participants and extra time to gather, process and analyze the data.

I love teaching during our Saturday School sessions. I really like the time I get to do science activities that normally could not be done in a regular 55 minute class period. I normally plan a lab and some form of study game or practice and analysis for a test. I sometimes use Saturday School for a chance to work on a project we are doing in my class.

Last Saturday was our latest event and last session for the year before school is out. Since we have finals coming up, I thought I would give students the opportunity to review past tests and compare their performance to their study guides and to practice with a final from previous years. This is where things get pretty interesting, because the day could have been really boring- even if it was informative. There was not going to be a lab this time, so I took additional students including all who were on the waiting list, so I had 43 students in my room. I rearranged the desks for maximum spacing and borrowed chairs and a table from the room next door, so everyone would have a place to sit.

I broke the time into 4 activities. Students reviewed their old tests and study guides. The were not allowed to use their phones to photograph or copy the questions, but they could write notes to help them determine what they would have to study most for the final. I gave them about an hour for that process so they could review a couple of their tests.

Next, I had them write practice final questions on a shared google doc. I have a shared cart in my room with 20 chromebooks and a small set of 7 different chromebooks that I had purchased with grant money. In addition, I have 4 old desktop PC's that we use when we need solo tools. For this activity some students had to share devices, so it was rather noisy- especially when I told them they COULD NOT goof around on the document. Within minutes, someone started a comment bar on the side and the jokes WERE going around which I allowed as long as they were classroom appropriate.  It was a bit of a chore to format the doc in a useful way, but they LOVED the idea that they could watch each other and their teacher working on a document at the same time. When someone discovered that there were too many people in the document they shouted it out and several left so that others could contribute.

Then I gave them the practice test from a previous year's class. They worked quietly for another hour or so on the practice final and later, I gave them a key when they were done so they could check their answers.
While they were taking the practice test, I was organizing their shared questions into a kahoot session. I uploaded their questions and answers with some editing- to be sure the answers were correct and the questions were understandable.

Once all students were done reviewing their tests and checking their answers, we played the Kahoot game. This is where things get fun. The question comes up on the projector  screen and students use their phones, chromebooks, iPads or computers as their responders. It is very competitive. Students answer the questions as rapidly as they can and the system gives them 30 or 60 seconds to click in an answer. Once all students have answered, the game tells them how many points they earned, what place they are in on their device and on the projector who is in the top five. I cannot believe how loud it gets in the room when my students play this game. The students find it super exciting!

When the time came for students to leave at noon, we still had several questions to go and they did not want to leave. So we kept playing until the end of the game. I was just astounded. The class left about 10 minutes past the end time on a Saturday! They kept wanting to talk about what place they were in and how much fun they had been having. We had played jeopardy before and they were never this engaged. They love doing the labs, but this was really fun!

I will have to think about trying to incorporate this into a regular class session more often- maybe breaking it up into 2 days. The development of practice test questions is a critical thinking skill. They must decide what information is relevant. They need to figure out how to pose it in a question format with answers. The idea that they can teach each other something and then check for understanding for immediate feedback is really intriguing to them.

Next year as I plan new activities for Saturday School, I will have to keep this in mind, since it was such a successful and positive endeavor. I cannot wait!