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OP-ED | New School Year Brings Renewed Optimism

by Barth Keck | Aug 27, 2014 5:30am
(3) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Opinion

As another summer ends and a new school year begins, I am optimistic.

Even as the pressures on schools and teachers mount, I begin yet another year with the belief that I can improve as a teacher and that my students can succeed.

Never mind the hullabaloo from education reformers who readily ignore the actual achievements of public schools with talk of charter schools, the Common Core, and the biggest evil of all: teacher tenure.

It’s the people on the front lines — classroom teachers — who understand this timeless reality: The best education reform takes place in the individual classroom.

So while I often use this space to question the current “educational reforms” sweeping the nation, I’ll begin the new school year by sharing practices that have had real, day-to-day effects on students in my own classroom. In short, my three-step recipe for education reform in the high school English class:

1. Professional Collaboration: Working with colleagues in my department and in my building is the best way to adapt to education’s expanding demands.

“It is becoming increasingly evident that conflict over reform in itself has been impeding educational progress — quantifiable progress that has been achieved in settings where educators have managed to move beyond unproductive battles,” writes Greg Anrig in his e-book, “Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools.”

How best to “move beyond unproductive battles”?

“Recent research examining efforts to enhance collaboration in districts and schools strongly indicates that purposefully building trust works,” adds Anrig. “The weight of accumulating evidence suggests that it is time to reverse course from the ineffective reliance on the coercive ‘sticks’ that have dominated education policymaking to a new set of approaches that would promote effective teamwork and intensively collaborative practices.”

In other words, teachers and administrators must work together to create a community of learning throughout a school, just as teachers and students must do the same in the classroom. Not surprisingly, student achievement improves in this environment.

2. Independent Reading: Encouraging kids to read is the best way to make them better learners.

I have traditionally offered time for periodic SSR (sustained silent reading) in my English classes, but last year I collaborated with a reading specialist to institute daily, independent reading sessions. And I wasn’t the only one, as teachers throughout my department regularly set aside class time for students to read books of their own choosing. The reason is simple.

“Children who read for pleasure are likely to do significantly better at school than their peers,” according to research from the Institute of Education (IOE). “The IOE study, which is believed to be the first to examine the effect of reading for pleasure on cognitive development over time, found that children who read for pleasure made more progress in math, vocabulary, and spelling between the ages of 10 and 16 than those who rarely read.”

Effective independent reading entails more than simply “letting kids read in class every day.” But the fact remains: Kids who read are better learners.

3. Connecting with Students: Kids are much more than “data points” on spreadsheets.

This idea should be obvious, but for the doubters, Texas A&M researcher Jan Hughes found that “when children have a supportive relationship with their teacher, one where they feel a sense of acceptance and security, they are more likely to work hard in school, follow rules and persist when they get stuck on problems. The children are also more likely to perceive themselves as more academically capable.”

Veteran teacher Rita Pierson makes the same point more emphatically in a rousing Ted Talk.

One way I make connections with students is to display an effusive passion for my subject, including a healthy dose of humor. But that’s just me. The key is for teachers to relate personally to the variety of individual human beings in the classroom.

So say all you want about charter schools and teacher tenure. A good deal of education reform is already occurring where it really matters — in the individual classrooms.

Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(3) Comments

posted by: ABC | August 27, 2014  8:46am

Honestly, Barth “...in the individual classroom” sounds like nothing more than a platitude.  Kind of like “My child is more than a number”.

Are you rejecting all data analysis as a tool to improve education?  Or just the specific data that doesn’t quite fit into your narrative.

What springs to mind when I hear these trite slogans is that if our public school teachers don’t buy the utility of data analysis to inform our policy decisions, how can they successfully impart this valuable skill to their students? 

As for professional collaboration, its a nice thought.  But how do you recommend collaboration in a professional environment of distrust? 

There is an old saying in business “You get the union you deserve”.  And certainly there are historic and understandable reasons for having an intractable powerful union focused on the wants of the employees in our public schools.

But what about the students?  In our cities, its their often-poor disenfranchised parents who bear the burden of negotiating for an adequate education (and its not about more $$).  Sadly, these parents aren’t any match for the powerful, well-financed bullies at the CEA or AFT - employed by you and your colleagues.

Its rather disingenuous to call for “collaboration” when you choose to operate within the parameters of a collective bargaining agreement which stipulates behaviors for teachers and administrators down to the minute of every day - and where a teacher who wants to go above and beyond is discouraged from doing so by his or her peers. 

If you really want collaboration, stop the anti-student practice of sending your well-paid lawyers to squeeze every nickel and every minute out of the school day and out of education quality for students.  Become “at-will” employees.  If you want trust, you have to trust.

And thats one of the secret’s of successful charters.  They don’t need a 100 page+ document to require defined collaboration from the professionals in the building, many of whom actually enjoy doing this noble public service.

posted by: Bluecoat | August 27, 2014  8:37pm

I had a conversation with an 11th Grader From a Public School in the Middle of the State.
He can’t wait to get out of High School and hopes to go to College and possibly learn something.
This is an A Student who feels the Teachers today don’t give a crap,and He is sick and tired of the electronic assessments, and the “teach to the test” mentality. Seems to me, that the kids can see through the smoke and mirrors of today’s Crappy Common Core Standards which are influencing the curriculum.
The only optimism is for kids to get out of Public school.
“Recent research examining efforts to enhance collaboration in districts and schools strongly indicates that purposefully building trust works,” adds Anrig. “The weight of accumulating evidence suggests that it is time to reverse course from the ineffective reliance on the coercive ‘sticks’ that have dominated education policymaking to a new set of approaches that would promote effective teamwork and intensively collaborative practices.”

When you get idiotic statement’s like this, then all hope is lost.
this is collectivist nonsense. probably lit an candle and held hands when writing this.
What garbage.

posted by: Barth Keck | August 27, 2014  10:23pm

My thanks to ABC and Bluecoat for taking the time to write such passionate responses. While I don’t agree with everything you write, I appreciate the dialogue that results from your comments.

To ABC, I can honestly say that I do not “reject all data analysis as a tool to improve education.” In fact, I work every year with my colleagues (i.e. “collaboration”) to develop and conduct reading and writing diagnostic assessments for every student in our high school. Additionally, we collectively develop formative and summative assessments for each unit we teach to provide us “data” regarding our students’ progress.

Unfortunately, to many people, educational “data” begins and ends with annual standardized test scores—a very limited perspective that overshadows the real data that teachers and schools employ on a regular basis.

As for ABC’s assertion that all teachers “choose to operate within the parameters of a collective bargaining agreement which stipulates behaviors for teachers and administrators down to the minute of every day,” you are simply wrong. Yes, I have a contract that defines specific time periods for activities such as prep periods, but if I adhered strictly to those times, I would never get my job done. Nor would virtually any other teacher in my building since authentic lesson planning takes much more time than that guaranteed by any contract—time that is found only after school hours. In short, I’m offended by repeated accusations like yours that basically paint all teachers as greedy slackers who lean on their unions to protect them from responsibility. Perhaps you spend your time around more teachers than I, ABC, but I know the ones I work with are concerned, first and foremost, with teaching kids. Period.

Finally, to Bluecoat, I ask this question: Does your one conversation with one “11th Grader from a Public School in the Middle of the State” honestly qualify as evidence that “Teachers today don’t give a crap”? Maybe that argument works for you, but it’s a bit shy of the type of “critical thinking” required of students in the high school where I teach.