Things I Know 362 of 365: Education bought a round of bad evaluations for the house

Nice! Compulsory feedback #fail

– Gary Stager

To register next semester, I (along with all other Harvard ED School students) were required to complete our Fall term course evaluations. One would imagine signing off on the student loan promissory note was enough to get the job done, but it turns out telling others how they did their job is one of those fine-print requirements.

I’m of a mixed mind about the process.

To not see the erosion of validity in mandatory course evaluations, I’d have to be blind.

Then again, my answers were truthful and honest, but I’d likely never have completed the evaluations if left to my own post-semester devices.

Realizing this puzzle, I’ve been trying to think of possible alternatives.

Evaluations for two of my classes were particularly frustrating because I’d been keeping a mental list all semester of comments and compliments about what worked and what didn’t. I’d been waiting for the chance to offer feedback. When the chance came, though, I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say. I remembered bits and pieces, but completing course work and getting assignments down on the page throughout the semester had taken precedence over keeping a running evaluative journal.

For another course, I wanted more than text boxes could provide. I wanted the chance to sit with the professor and say, “I know you’re brilliant. I know you understand more about this field than I can probably ever hope to understand. I’ve got a little game of my own when it comes to teaching. Maybe we could help each other out?”

I dig wordsmithing, but I just couldn’t find a way to put that sentiment judiciously in a course evaluation.

My thinking on course evaluations at any level runs parallel to my thinking on single-scoop standardized testing. The bulk of the work has been done, and the feedback is supposed to paint a picture of the learning and teaching as a whole. It just doesn’t work. Evaluations need not be mandated if they are meaningful to those on either end.

If students benefit from frequent and multi-faceted feedback, it stands to reason the same could be said of teachers.

It could be as simple as, “What would you keep, and what would you change from today’s lesson?” or “What are two things you would have done to make today’s class better?”

Not only would such thinking model a willingness for improvement, but taking the feedback seriously would likely improve the level of instruction in the class as well.

Few things are as lonely as those few moments after a class of students has walked out the door and a teacher is left in the vacuum between the lesson that has just concluded and the next lesson to be planned.

Things I Know 331 of 365: I’ve had three great loves

I was sitting in my dorm room my freshman year of undergrad when the phone rang. I could hear from the quiver in my voice that my mom had seen what happened.

“Josh!” she said.

“I know,” I said, “I saw.”

We were both pretty broken up. The call only lasted 45 seconds.

“It’s back on,” I said.

“I’ll talk to you later,” she said.

It’s a rare day that I return to “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” parts I and II, otherwise known as the second season premiere of The West Wing. I still tear up.

It was a point of contention between my friends and I.

“You have to.”

“I’ve tried. I just don’t see it.”

“C’mon, it’s brilliant?”

“Really? ‘Cause I had to turn it off the last time I watched it.”

“Give it another try. It’s exactly the kind of show you’d love.”

It wouldn’t be until Arressted Development came out on DVD and my friend Rachel loaned me the first season, that I would truly see the beauty of the show that launched Michael Cera’s career, brought Jason Bateman back into the public eye, and cemented my appreciation for the mind of Mitchell Hurwitz. Though the show was cut down before its time, I am among the throngs of viewers waiting for it’s re-launch next year and subsequent movie.

A backyard surprise party for my best friend Luke somewhere outside of Los Angeles.

The rest of the partygoers have headed home. It’s the first birthday I’ve spent with Luke in our 17 years of friendship and I’ve no intention of moving.

“But I don’t care about football,” I say to his business partner David.

“You don’t have to care about football. It’s not really about football.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I love The West Wing too. And this show might be better than The West Wing. It’s the kind of filmmaking I want to be doing.”

“Really?”

“Yes.” Luke has jumped in. “You have to see it. I know you’re going to love it.”

“Clear eyes. Full hearts,” David says.

“Can’t lose!” Luke yells back in response.

Not until two months later, when I’m alone on the couch and they inspire goose bumps, do I understand the place of those words within the world of Friday Night Lights. One episode in, and I’m in love the way I wasn’t sure I’d ever be after Arrested Development or The West Wing.

I’ve said before we’re miseducating students if we don’t teach television as literature. In the same way I get lost in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia or Lord of the Flies, I get lost in the words of Sorkin, Hurwitz and Berg.

The West Wing was the second language of SLA. We often drank from the keg of glory and called for the “finest muffins and bagels in the land.” We paused in moments of appreciation when our dialogue become “Sorkinian.”

If your impression of a chicken includes, “Chaw-chee-chaw-chee!” or you are well-versed on never-nudes, I know we can be friends.

More and more, I’m an advocate of teaching Season 1 of Friday Night Lights alongside a reading of The Odyssey. I find the dead-on portrayal of small-town life inspiring and too close to the truth at times.

I’m sure, or at least hopeful, I’ll fall in love again. Until then, these are the three great television loves of my life.

Things I Know 316 of 365: It’s best to teach two types of writing

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.

– Benjamin Franklin

Yesterday, I was listening to and interview of one of my favorite television writers, Steven Moffat. He’s the head writer and executive producer of Dr. Who and Sherlock and one of the screenwriters of The Adventures of Tintin.

Moffat has been a fan of Dr. Who since he was a boy and was asked when he wrote his first script for the show.

I expected mid-20s.

Moffat answered 10 or 12. He and a friend scripted a 4-part series of the show on their own, in their free time.

My mind immediately went to how that interest could have been leveraged in school. The voice in my head sounded something like, “I’m sure they didn’t, but Moffat’s school should have had a program for script writing. He could have latched on to his passion much earlier.”

Thinking it over, I’m glad they didn’t. We might have ruined him. This was a boy so enamored and passionate about writing – this kind of writing – that he spent his free time playing with the form and structure.

While school could certainly have been the place for the development of his talent, it seems unlikely they would have given it room to breathe and time to develop.

I’m so tempted to argue that we should be teaching more forms and genres of writing in school aside from the expository and persuasive essays required by standardized tests. In the current curricular climate, though, we would teach those things in pieces with restrictions and a tone of teaching that says, “This is the way you do it.”

What I love about Moffat’s writing is how far he strays from the expected and how often he breaks the rules. It makes for interesting storytelling.

When I started my students on story slams, my guidelines were purposefully vague – tell a story, make it interesting. The judges in the audience were given two measures – content and presentation. We never stopped to define what a top score in either of those categories would look like. Rather than looking for certain characteristics, I relied on the idea they would know quality when they saw it.

If we could teach writing like this – if we could say, “Work until you think you’ve gotten to quality” – then I’d say we should carve out space in classrooms for our future-Moffat’s. Until then, their curation of their passions is safer in their free time.

Things I Know 313 of 365: I was a bit of a jerk

In cleaning out my box.net contents I found a folder containing my slidedecks from the first day of school of my fourth year of teaching. All was well and good until I found the class rules slide below.

Day 1 Per 3

Who wrote those two rules? When was I Severus Snape? The thing is, I had a decent idea what I was doing when I made this slide. I’d been in the classroom 3 years and came out of a decent teacher prep experience. The kids I’d taught the year before had taken the school from 47 to 81 percent passing the state writing exam. I had strong relationships with my colleagues, kids and their families. I’d headed up a partner student screenwriting program between our school and the local film festival.

Yet, there I was declaring war on cell phones and gum as though it somehow secured my power as teacher overlord.

Not only that, these were the first two rules I posted. Somehow gum chewing and the sight of a cell phone presented clear and present danger in relation to learning.

This list shows me what I told my students I valued on that first day of school, and it reminds me of how much what I said I believed stood in contrast with the beliefs I enacted as a teacher.

We do that, we get better at what we do, at being people with kids. If I had to guess, I’d say this authoritarian stance was a remnant of teaching students who were quite close to me in age and appearance. It was a stab at drawing a line between who I was and who they were. While I needed that line then, in the years that followed, I worked hard to erase it. I realized the way to teach was to connect, to become a person who mattered that asked students to do work that mattered.

It was a difficult lesson.

One I’m still learning. I’m grateful to younger me for sticking this slidedeck in the cloud time capsule to remind me how I’ve grown.

Things I Know 289 of 365: In teaching, the simple is complex

And so from that, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that complexity can come out of such simplicity.

– Will Wright

In working toward completion of a final learning task in which I design a learning organization, I’m re-visiting the reading from this unit of study.

In one 2002 Teaching and Teacher Education article from Judith Warren Little, I found this description of a comment made in a meeting of teachers. One teacher, Leigh, has asked her colleagues if the will all be implementing silent sustained reading uniformly across their classrooms. It stuck me that Little’s description of the conversation captures some of the richest conversations a teaching colleagues can have:

Leigh’s questions thus becomes the occasion for revealing differences in the teachers’ instructional preferences, and for negotiating what it will mean for the teachers to work together in “piloting” a new course. These are not mere matters of technique or procedure; fundamental issues of principle and purpose figure prominently in that negotiation. Further, these are no matters that could have been fully negotiated in advance. They arise in and through the work itself. As Leigh’s question is posed and modified, engaged or deflected, individuals find occasion to state their own preferences and intentions, locating themselves in a variety of ways in relation to the collective project of the group (piloting the course, developing this week’s curriculum), past and present relationships in the classroom (student choice), and the group’s way of being (decisions).

A classmate and I were talking today about the perceived disconnect between external perceptions of teaching and the internal complexity of the work. Little is describing four teachers faced with a simple question or whether they will all be practicing the same reading method uniformly in their classrooms, and she describes the complicated nature of the attempt to answer that question quite wonderfully. This is tough work.

Things I Know 264 of 365: Some stories keep going

The process of putting your life into order with a beginning, middle, and end forces you to see cause and effect.

– Catherine Burns

Thursday, I got just about one of the best message I’ve ever received from a student. Freda was in my senior Storytelling class last year. Along with the rest of the class, she participated in our weekly story slams where students were randomly selected to tell a story in front of the rest of the class without notes. The stories had to be true and in the first person.

For one of her stories, Freda told us about the one and only time she’d bullied another student.

Here’s the story. Freda’s starts around 5:50:
Ralen and Freda by MrChase

I remember thinking at the time how amazing it was any time a student felt free to open up and share part of themselves that might not otherwise be revealed. Those were the moments where I felt like I’d stumbled on something right.

Freda’s note today gave me that feeling again and reminded me those moments in the classroom were ripples that are still moving across my kids’ lives though we aren’t with each other everyday.

Here is Freda’s note in all its informal online missive parlance:

Mr. Chase. I have to tell you something. Remember Jermy? The kid I did my story slam about? He friend requested me. I apologized. He said he had wanted to send me a request for years and was worried I’d forgotten about him. I can’t believe it, how could I forget that? I told him that I’d never forgot it and regretted it for like… my whole life, and how I did a school project thingy on it and so, he asked for my number, and he called me up and he was crying, and I was crying and like… I’m just… I’m glad we had that assignment, and I feel so… lucky that I had a chance to tell everyone in class, and even more lucky that I was given a second chance to apologize… and… I guess… I never believed in fate before… but I might now… sounds corny but whatever… So yeah, I just felt compelled to tell you, right now. Thank you for being a great teacher, I love you.

In moments like these, it’s hard not to miss the classroom terribly.

Some Useful Words from Ted Sizer on a Common Curriculum

From Horace’s Compromise:

Some today, with earnest good intentions, urge that a common core of subjects be legislated for high school students. Depending on one’s point of view, much of this certainly is nice. Laudable or not in the abstract, however, if it is mandatory, it is an abuse of state power, an excessive reach of political authority. Again, the state is fully justified in providing it at public expense, if it wishes, and prescribing it for certain certificates and diplomas that citizens may voluntarily choose to earn.

Some others say that an adolescent should have a “high school experience,” something that is inherently a Good Thing, an experience that teaches young people to “get along with others.” Proponents of this view offer no evidence for support of their argument for mandatory “residence” at school. This is prudent on their part: there isn’t any. Most real reasons for enforced attendance actually turn on the need to preserve adults’ jobs. Compulsory attendance in an educational institution should cease when a young citizen demonstrates mastery of the minima, and most young citizens should master those minima before senior high school. As a result, schooling for most adolescents would be voluntary. Few would be compelled to attend high school, though a prudent state would vigorously encourage it. High school would be an opportunity, not an obligation.