Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

Don Quixote?

The Indy Star printed my recent letter to the editor today.  You can view it at http://blogs.indystar.com/letters/2012/10/20/an-imperfect-method-for-evaluating-teachers/

Or, you can read it here:

I am writing out of concern over the new evaluation systems being put into place in our school system, and all over the state. Among teachers like me there is a lot of misunderstanding about why these changes are being made. Exactly what changes are required by new state laws? Is the RISE rubric necessary? Why?

I was honored to have Tony Bennett visit my band class last year. Indeed, I have been a supporter of his, especially on the issue of teacher certification; the reforms he advocated are sensible and helpful. However, he has not made a convincing argument explaining how this new evaluation system would improve the quality of education. Instead, my fellow teachers and I are being required to devote a great deal of time and energy to paperwork in preparation for evaluations, as are our administrators. That time would be better spent preparing lessons or running our school. Furthermore, our school system already had a rigorous evaluation system in place. Surely, the new student achievement requirements could have been incorporated into our current system to achieve the desired outcomes and satisfy the legal requirements.

Of more basic concern is the philosophy behind the new law mandating that teachers’ pay be determined by student accomplishment. Because teachers have no control over students’ lives outside of school, we cannot expect teachers to ensure success even if students make no effort to succeed in school. To define the quality of a teacher based largely on student outcomes is to deny the responsibility of the student or the student’s family in the process.

I am convinced that most educational problems can best be solved at the local level. Therefore, most control should be at the local level.

Also, while our schools can always do better, the pendulum of public opinion has swung decidedly against teachers without any regard for the responsibility of students and parents. If we want to see real change, we must stop blaming schools and teachers as the sole source of our educational problems when in truth our schools reflect society as much as they mold it.

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When I showed this letter to a colleague last week, she called me Don Quixote and said I am tilting at windmills.  I believe she was saying that I am fighting a hopeless battle.  But out of curiosity, I looked up the reference:  it actually means “attacking imaginary enemies.”  (Tilting means jousting, by the way, and Don Quixote thought the windmills were giants.)

Well, wait a minute…  While the battle may be futile, are the enemies imaginary?  My goal is to point out that efforts to improve our educational system will be unsuccessful until our society holds parents and students as accountable as teachers and schools.  If there is a hopeless battle being waged, it is by those who seek reform without including parents and students in the equation.

Zombies and Student Discipline

This drawing was done by a student in my general music class.  The inscription says:  “Mr. Shaver  (HaHa, Not really – I just randomly drew this so here)”

It doesn’t look anything like me.  For one thing, I almost never wear a tie, or a top hat.  And I don’t have a mustache or a monocle.  But I do have hands.  How else would I hold my conductor’s baton when I direct the band…?  Just saying…

I guess it was the thought that counts.

This picture was drawn while we were listening to a portion of “The Planets” by Gustav Holst in music class.  I have found that if I let students doodle when I ask them to listen to a music sample they are much better able to control their restlessness and stay out of trouble.

On the other hand, one recent day while I was leading a class discussion on some fascinating aspect of Bach’s life I had to ask a student to stop drawing a map of his house explaining where the zombies’ entrances and exits were.  Not that it is wrong to be prepared, but his timing was inappropriate.

It probably seems obvious, but I will say it anyway:  classroom management and student discipline are the most challenging parts of a teacher’s job.  Consider, for instance, the recent Chicago teachers’ strike.  As my dad pointed out, you have to be impressed that while the students were out of school the police department put a bunch of extra cops on the streets to make sure kids were staying out of trouble.  Just think, teachers are expected to handle these young people in their classrooms every day – unarmed.

Just yesterday a 7th grade boy we will call Jack came to my music class wearing a pink breast cancer awareness bracelet on which was a slang term for a part of a girl’s body (I am trying to describe this delicately for the sake of any young kids who might read this).  Believing that this was surely a violation of our school’s dress and behavior code, I asked the student to remove the bracelet and give it to me, but he refused.  I asked a second time to make certain he had understood, and again he refused to comply.

I picked up the phone and dialed the assistant principal’s office.  As I did so, Jack angrily took the bracelet off and threw it across my desk, so I told him to wait for me in the hallway.  On his way out of the room he made a nasty comment about our school that included words like stupid, redneck, and another name for a donkey (again, I’m trying to be sensitive here).  When the assistant principal arrived I explained the situation and pointed out that Jack’s actions amounted to disrespect, which is itself considered a major discipline offense.  Throw in foul language and and insubordination, and the case is solid.  Jack received a one day suspension.

Please don’t think this sort of behavior is the norm at Backpack Middle School; most of the time things go along quite smoothly with only minor interruptions which are handled easily enough. For instance, when Calvin was using his pen cap to make a very realistic cricket chirping sound during band rehearsal, I expressed my appreciation for his skills and politely asked him to stop.  He then said he could also make the sound of a boiling witch, but he thought I wouldn’t like it.  I commended him for his judgment and continued with class.

Sadly, though, encounters with students like Jack are increasing.  Perhaps I will have to type up another entry speculating on the possible reasons for this.

Country Kids

Several months ago I was standing at the BandLand door on a Monday morning greeting students as they arrived to drop off instruments in the band room before school.  Trying to make conversation, I asked questions like, “How are you?” and “Did you have a good weekend.”

As one 6th grade farm boy entered, I happened to ask, “So, what did you do this weekend.”

He stopped and thought for just a second before answering, “I helped neuter the pigs.”

Caught off guard by this, I just replied, “Good for you!”

But his answer got me thinking about some of my other country kids:  students who are growing up on farms with chores and responsibilities.  One such young man seemed a bit groggy one morning.  When I asked why, he told me that it was birthing season for his sheep and he had been up much of the night.  But he was at school on time and he wasn’t complaining.

The other day my wife and I were walking around the 4-H fairgrounds when I observed a boy who couldn’t have been much older than 13 or 14 grading the horse arena with a John Deere tractor that was two or three times the size of my car.  He was handling it like a seasoned veteran; there was absolutely no hint of carelessness or thoughtlessness.  He took his time and paid attention, and when he was done the arena was ready for a horse riding competition.

I have also had many young ladies involved in the county and state 4-H festivals showing horses, cattle, and goats.  I remember Emily who, at the age of 14 or 15, was entering her sewing project into the annual competition.  After several years of study and practice with her mom, she had completed a beautiful and complicated dress that met all of the requirements for the highest level of difficulty.

I don’t remember if she won the show, but I can tell you she was one of many who gained much more than a ribbon for her efforts.  She and these other young people have been some of my best, most reliable, most responsible, most respectful students.  They have gained skills and character traits that will serve them well in any endeavor.  Emily, for instance, has nearly completed her studies at one of Indiana’s top schools of pharmacology.  And she is just the kind of person you would want to dispense your medicines.

Think

My 7th grade music class at Backpack Middle School runs for 9 weeks at a time, and I teach two sections each term.  Factoring in a few years when I taught only one section per term, I estimate I have taught this course a total of 36 times.

The last unit we study each term is entitled “Form in Music,” in which we explore the many different forms compositions can take, such as binary, ternary, rondos, and sonatas.

One of the simplest musical forms to understand is “Theme and Variations.”  It is just what its name states:  a composer writes – or borrows – a melody, then composes variations of that melody by changing its notes, rhythms, etc.  We discuss the definition of the words “Theme” and “Variations.” I then provide examples, both musical (live piano examples, as well as recordings) and non-musical (think “basketball shoes” as a theme; think of all the different kinds of bball shoes as variations).

The class is also shown a Powerpoint slide with the following definition:

“Theme and Variations is the musical form in which a composer writes a theme, and then composes variations on that theme.”

They are then told that the unit quiz will include a question that looks the same, except for the first few words:

“Name the musical form in which a composer writes a theme, and then composes variations on that theme.”

The answer?  “Theme and Variations.”  Simple, right?  The words are even emphasized as they are in the statement here, and we review this question on the day before the test.  It’s so simple, a caveman could do it (think “Geico commercials…”).

In all the times I have taught this unit, there has only been one class in which every student got this question right.  Usually, four or five of the 20 students miss it.  That is 20-25% (think “discouraging”).

My point in this post, though, is not what you might think it would be:  “How can any student not get this?”  No.  I didn’t write all of this to lament the sad state of students, though it would have been valid.

Actually, I would like to ask one question:  Given the real life situation described above, does it make sense to evaluate teachers based on their students’ achievement?

Pencils and Education Reform

The following “Letter to the Editor” was published by the Indy Star in December, 2010:

The results of a 2010 Associated Press-Stanford University survey show that 68% of adults blame parents more than schools for the ills of our education system.  This and other recent writings may indicate a shift in the education reform debate toward a desire to hold parents more accountable for the success of their students in school.

But how?  As a middle school teacher, I would like to suggest a starting point:  Let’s stop providing pencils to students who don’t care enough to bring their own pencils to class.  Let me explain.

For years I have loaned pencils to students who are too lazy or apathetic to bring this most basic supply to my General Music class.  But the more I have done for them, the less they have done for themselves:  first pencils, then paper; then I tell them every word to write down in notes they will never study.  Meanwhile, other students who could be moving ahead are instead getting bored and aren’t learning anything.

Well, no more.  For any student who wants to learn, I provide the best lesson I possibly can.  Those students who come unprepared will not be required to do anything more than sit quietly, refrain from disrupting class, take tests, and fail.

This is where our communities come in.  If teachers everywhere follow this approach, inevitably some parents will complain to their schools’ principals when their students are failing.  Principals need to know that their communities support them.  If we want our sons and daughters to be taught challenging, worthwhile lessons, we need to get involved.  We should tell our principals to hold the line and insist that students take responsibility for their education.  Otherwise, for the sake of lazy or apathetic students, teachers will continue enabling irresponsible behavior and dumbing down lessons in a vain effort to ensure that all students pass, whether they want to pass or not.

Rob Shaver

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Update

It has been two school years since I enacted the policy described above.  In that time, the number of students who show up to my class unprepared has dropped significantly.

I have also tightened up my policy on work that is turned in late, with a resulting increase in the number of assignments being turned in on time.

While I still have too many apathetic students, it seems reasonable to conclude that low expectations benefit no one.

Thoughts?