Thursday, September 2, 2010

How should we "grade" teachers? It's a fair question for a profession that has long been conducted by individuals behind closed doors. Each of us, as a student, has no doubt had a teacher we felt belonged in a different job. Perhaps we even dreamed about a defiant moment in which that teacher's shortcomings were publicly revealed, like the climax of a Roald Dahl novel. But even Matilda might balk at publishing in the local newspaper teacher evaluations made with an unreliable system.

Recently, a method called the "Value-Added Model" has been used to evaluate teachers. According to an article in the New York Times, Race to the Top, the national program which will allocate funding to states, encourages the use of this method: It rewarded states that used it and disqualifying those that did not link student scores to teacher performance. Moreover, a recent series in the L.A.Times published evaluations of elementary teachers made through this model. While I do think teaching should be evaluated, there are several problems with the value-added model about which teachers should be aware.

First, it's based on student test scores. Test data for students at the end of one grade is compared to test data for the same students at the end of the next. If they've improved, it concludes that that improvement is "value added" by the teacher. But are test scores the best measure of what students have learned? Do they capture how well students write a supported research paper, or compose a poignant poem? How well they collaborate and empathize? An even more recent NYT article suggests that tests which measure this may be in the works. But the question remains: should we judge teachers based on student test scores?

Second, the model assumes that scores at the end of one grade predict scores at the end of the next. That is, a student who scores 70% on a standardized math test in 7th grade, if she has a good teacher, should score the same or higher on a similar test at the end of 8th grade. But does it matter if she's moving from algebra to geometry? if she's moving from one district to another? If she's moving from her mom's house to her dad's? What about the effects of summer vacation, during which time students who don't participate in academic activities often forget much of what they've learned? And what are the implications of setting the bar differently for students based on a statistical bell curve, predicting that some students are bound to score higher or lower than others?

Third, the model does not distinguish based on the starting point. That is, if students arrive at a class scoring 90% and leave it scoring 92%, there is less "value added" than if they come in at 30% and leave at 60%. The Times article describes such a situation for a Physics teacher, who receives a smaller bonus as a result. And when teacher bonuses are made public, she has to explain to her students why she didn't earn a higher one.

Fourth, the model does not account for collaboration. Only his teacher receives credit for the improvement of a student who receives extra help and support with school from parents, other teachers, other students, or school programs (and guess who shoulders responsibility for the student who doesn't have those advantages?).

In short, the Value-Added Model is based on dubious data that not only ignores contextual factors but may even reinforce inequalities and obscure the complex, collaborative work of teaching and learning. What's the alternative? Perhaps not the long-standing once-a-year evaluation by an administrator, but regular, rigorous observation by principals and peers. Or what about the portfolio system used by the National Board of Teacher Certification since the 1980s? Maybe a combination of these means with student test-score evaluations? How are other important public professionals like doctors and lawyers evaluated?

Teaching should be evaluated. But how teachers should be graded is not as simple as separating the Miss Trunchbulls from the Miss Honeys. And public humiliation of teachers based on a faulty system is worse than a newt in your drinking water.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Metaphors we teach by

How does English differ from other disciplines? After all, math, science, and social studies also require reading, writing, and critical thinking. Such was the question a friend raised to me: why is it we're always "getting into everyone else's class"? What do we have that's our own?

The answer, I think is this: metaphor. I'm stealing unashamedly from Northrop Frye here, who situates English between History and Philosophy: Frye suggests that if the basic unit of History is the event, and the basic unit of Philoosophy is the Concept, then English is really about metaphor. Of course there's overlap, but using language to bring two otherwise unlike things into relationship is the bread and butter of English class. I mean, it's our bailiwick. You know, it's what makes our world go around.

But metaphor isn't really about the cliches I've just used. In fact those happen when a metaphor "dies." Consider the word "arrive": derived from French, it originally described the moment when a ship came to the bank of a river or "a rive." English is full of these "kennings" which have become dissociated from their metaphorical meanings and come to stand simply (ok, metonymously) for themselves. The worst examples of this are everyday objects whose commercial names become synonymous with the thing itself: a photocopier becomes a Xerox; a tissue becomes a Kleenex. Will the same thing happen to the "Internet"--no longer a glowing, "World Wide Web" of knowledge but just a thing we access through the (Microsoft) window of our...I mean, the frame of know, our computer screens.

A teacher friend, Jen, now working in Colorado, sent me this video she used to revive metaphors and remind her students of how important and ubiquitous they and other literary devices are in their daily lives. Wisely, she drew the examples from songs students had listed as favorites on an initial survey of their likes and interests.

While keeping metaphors alive is a worthy crusade for us English teachers, I think there's even more to it than that: when I ask English teacher candidates what made them want to become English teachers, many give responses about empathy: helping students to consider multiple points of view besides their own. Where else but English class could you "walk a mile in someone else's shoes" by reading about--identifying with--a narrator of another race, gender, or social class, or even travel to fantastic alien worlds so different and yet so alike our own?

Now there's a reason for tackling that class of tenth graders. It gives me chills. Literally.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Literature and Society

Why does literature exist in society? This fall I'll be teaching a course called "Literature and Society," and I've been thinking about this question as an overarching topic for the course. From the tales we tell every year at Thanksgiving dinner to Greek tragedies and political satires, stories play an important role in our lives. What constitutes literature? Why do we write it? Read it? How do audience, purpose, and genre figure in the answers to these questions? What do we mean by "society"? What role has literature played in your life? Can it have an effect on more than individuals? If so, how/why?

As I write this, I'm reminded of an assignment I've given and gotten that asks one to describe the literature that has been important to one's life over the years--one version of the "literacy autobiography." Perhaps this kind of assignment is the first step in engaging the larger question of literature's role in society.

One concern I have about broaching a topic like this in a course is that it's a common topic about which much has already been written. Is it inviting plagiarism to address this question? Or can that pitfall be avoided by changing the nature of the assignments? For example, the personal response I've recalled above can't be plagiarized; perhaps some kind of multimodal composition, like a website or movie, would also make dialing in a paper or downloading an essay more difficult.

For me, when I think of literature, I think of metaphor, the figure that distinguishes the literary from history's event or philosophy's concept (at least, according to Northrop Frye, although even he recognizes that there's overlap). If metaphor is distinctly literary, then one purpose of literature is to allow people to identify with experiences that are not their own, to see the creative connections between things that might otherwise appear distinct. The power of metaphor to make us see ourselves, each other, and the world differently is one reason I became an English teacher.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

What do teachers eat?

What do teachers eat? As a beginning teacher, my answer to this question included seven cups of coffee and a donut. The afternoon combination of sugar and caffeine acted like a defibrillator, shocking my brain, heart, and pancreas and (temporarily) heightening my energy level. But in a few hours, I crashed. And in the meantime, for the middle school students who came to me after lunch full of high-fructose corn syrup, having class with Hyper-Mike was like taking a tour of a fireworks factory by torchlight.

Ten years later, I've learned that the Sherry metabolism requires a sustaining breakfast and lunch and a sugar- and caffeine-free afternoon if I am to make it to dinner. For a long time, I made my own protein bars each weekend using this recipe from the Food Network's Alton Brown ( It makes for a quick and tasty breakfast or snack. And like other meals--oatmeal with nuts for breakfast or beans/lentils and rice for lunch--it provides complete proteins: certain combinations of foods, like grains and legumes, complement each other and provide sustaining energy (learn more here: And if you're really feeling daring, try quinoa (pronounced "keen-wah"), a grain-like food that provides a complete protein by itself and has been around since the Incas. It goes with almost anything and can be purchased in bulk for cheap. And taking quinoa in tupperware for lunch has the added benefit of attracting attention from students who ask, "What the heck is that?" And this as they unwrap a fruit rollup....

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Fresh Prince of Grammar

Who says teachers can't flip the script? Recently, Jen Harkness, a former teacher candidate, now teaching in Chicago, sent me this email:

"My students are learning the parts of speech as a component of their grammar unit, and they have been frustrated with the monotony of writing from the book. I decided to mix it up...and I wrote a poem about the different types of nouns. Then I put it to the theme of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (a TV show many indicated as being a favorite on initial surveys). I used my skills learned in [our English education class] to make an iMovie, and I even did a voice over! ...The students LOVED it. They were then asked to make [their own] poem, song, or rap about different parts of speech...."

Here's Jen's video:

When I asked, Jen was kind enough to share some examples produced by her 10th grade students. Here's part of one:

"This first round is 'bout demonstrative pronouns
Points out specific persons, places, things, or ideas
Here's a couple examples right here
Singular "this" and "these"
Plural "that" and "those"
This is how our demonstration goes

Specifically, this girl, that boy,
These clothes, and those toys
We hope this knowledge brings you joy

This last round is 'bout interrogative pronouns
They're used for questions
In case you were guessin'
Who, what, whomever,
Whom, which, whatever
Demonstrative pronouns and interrogative questions
We really hoped you listened
We hope you learned a lesson"

I've learned a lesson about listening, thanks to Jen and her 10th graders: If you build on students' uses of language for your own teaching purposes, they'll return the favor. In fact, it's a lesson I keep learning and relearning as a teacher. A lesson I guess will always be...fresh.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Should we expect elementary art teachers to treat creativity and convention differently than middle school English teachers?

Recently a teacher candidate in a course I teach posted these images of student work from her elementary art classroom.

During a lesson on drawing vases, Jen showed her students how to create the lines that form the sides of the vase and then how to ornament the sides with lines and decorations in "smiley faces" that appear to curve around its contours and give the vase the effect of three dimensions. The images are by two different students from the teacher's elementary class. As you can see, one drew something that looks like a vase, while the other drew something that...doesn't.

In her commentary on our course wiki, the teacher wondered why the student who created the vase on the left hadn't followed the directions. When I read her post, my first reaction was, "Why should she have to follow the directions? Isn't what she drew beautiful (at least to her)? Especially at the elementary level, shouldn't we be encouraging creativity and self-expression over conforming to convention?"

Then I thought about my own experiences teaching English Language Arts. If I had assigned an essay to my students, and I had shown them the conventions I (or another audience) expected them to use in composing that essay, I too would be frustrated by a student who hadn't followed the directions.

In fact, I remember receiving an essay once on The Great Gatsby that began with a description of a glass bowl owned by the author's grandmother. When light struck it, this bowl refracted the light into different colors. Likewise, Alix argued, Gatsby was the prismatic central character around whom the other characters were arranged.

But the essay didn't use a single quote from the text--only examples and events--so I marked it down. I'm not sure I would do that now, but I'm guessing many teachers would have responded that way to such an essay.

On the other hand, we don't seem to hold other kinds of writing in English class to the same standards. For instance, many English teacher candidates tell me that one can't criticize or ask students to revise poetry.

But when they say this, I show them Robert Frost's first draft of "Design", and I share with them this poem by Jonathan, one of my former eighth graders:

There is a ripple
In the old fisherman's creek
The line is well cast,

The worm is squirming,
Fighting himself off the hook,
The nylon line pulls,

And the old rod bends.
It is a bite, a struggle
Against the fishy.

What a great poem! But what feedback would you give him about the last line?

So Jen's post about her students' vases had me thinking: Should our ideas about creativity and convention differ by discipline? By grade level? By mode or genre? What do you think?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Today I met for a reunion with teachers whom I had in class when they were teacher candidates. That was two years ago. Some have gone abroad to teach in Europe (or are considering it), one has worked as a principal of an alternative storefront high school before returning to the high school classroom, and several teach in the same district--even across the hall from each other!

As we often do in my family, I suggested we each share the best and worst moment we'd had since last seeing each other. As usual, listening to the best moments shared by these smart, savvy, strong, and sensitive women was inspiring. I was most struck by the comments of one who works in a school and district where conditions are difficult: Despite frustrations with her situation, she was happy to be able to be there for the "outsider" students who didn't fit into the cliques that are part of her school's culture.

Her comments remind me of what one former colleague once told me as a beginning teacher about how powerful it could be to make a connection with students: One bad lesson can leave one down in the dumps for days, but an insightful comment from the quiet student in the back can put one back on cloud nine.