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June 24, 2008

Teaching on the edge

Fourth in a series of articles on my first year of teaching.

Every day, I felt like I was on the edge of big breakthrough with my students. Each one of them has so much potential and is so close to being successful. Once a student makes a choice to succeed, they could learn so much and do so well, but they just need a little push in the right direction. Each day I would try to give that push, and most days I would fail. Time and time again, my students chose not to jump off and soar to success but would just continue walking in the same direction straight off the cliff like lemmings and crash into the rocks below.

Read more below to find out what was missing from my classes.

The students are so close to success, and yet so far. Because of their unlocked potential, they are close. But because of the fact that they are so far behind, they don't really have the tools to succeed even when they try. The first and foremost tool that they are missing is resilience. Loraine and I talk a lot about resilience being the single most important character trait, and my students lack resilience in a big way. Even when they do make the choice to start trying, they give up at the first road block. Resilience is the skill that will allow them to turn their seemingly insurmountable excuses and disadvantages into challenges that can be overcome.

Along with resilience comes patience. As we talk about the "MTV generation, it's not surprising that so many of my students think that, like everything else in today's culture, learning should be quick, easy, and instant. While meeting the minimum requirements for graduation really are easy, there are few shortcuts to true success. For whatever reason, the system has utterly failed in showing students that there is a difference between the two.

I think I successfully convinced most students to try to work hard in my class at least once. That was done by my shear enthusiasm about the subject, which showed the students, "this stuff is cool and worthwhile." I engaged them and they did try. What I think I failed at was convincing them to try again when that first effort failed. I can owe this failure to a complete lack of preparation for the problem. My principal told me that my first job with these low achieving students was to engage them in the material, so that's what I did. He wasn't even sure that was possible with this group of students, so we never really discussed step two. However, it turns out engagement was not nearly enough.

Each day, we returned to the same problem. I had to convince my students to try again. We could have made so much more progress if I had been able to engender resilience. Instead of the daily emotional struggle to motivate the students to try, we could have spent the time actually trying, failing, and trying again until we did finally succeed. If we could find a way to get into that cycle, success would grow very quickly for these bright and talented students. But instead, I found myself starting over from square one almost every day.

The daily let downs are one of the reasons why teaching was so exhausting for me. Every day I would come home and collapse like a zombie. I would sit down in front of the TV and just veg, sometimes succeeding at grading student papers and some days just being incapable of functioning. Only when it was "time to go to bed" would I turn off the TV and finally realize that I needed to prepare the following day's lesson. You'd think that this vicious cycle could be healed, but teaching just took so much energy out of me that I needed time to recover each day. If I started working too early, my resilience would not kick in and it would seem hopeless to design another lesson that would "fail as miserably as the one the day before." After the down time, I would enthusiastically come up with an exciting idea for how to engage the students on the next day's material.

By the second semester, things got a lot smoother for me, which seems to illustrate my point that I was teaching on the edge every night. I only had to make it around one semester of misery before my success started to grow, and it was resilience that brought my through. I don't know how I built that resilience, nor do I know how to teach it. But it seems absolutely essential in order to get these students to succeed. I think that so much of the rest will fall into place once the students have resilience, which is why I am optimistic about teaching each one of these students. They are all right on the edge of success.

June 21, 2008

Learned helplessness

Third in a series of articles about my first year teaching.

Teaching in an urban school is challenging no matter what your subject, but I think the challenges are particularly profound when teaching a natural science like Earth science. The goal of a good Earth scientist is to observe a landscape and understand all the processes that helped shape it. How do you teach this to students that live in a concrete jungle? In the process of trying to figure that out, I happened across an idea that changed my perception of the problem in public school education for urban students.

Read more below to find out what I discovered.

There is a whole field of research called "geoscience education" that tries to explore how to teach Earth science better, and a few researchers are specifically exploring this question in urban settings. The generally accepted idea is that we should be emphasizing topics and activities that are "local" and "relevant." Local refers to the geography -- it means teaching about Earthquakes in the Bay Area and skipping tornadoes. Urban issues such as water quality in urban streams or landslide hazard in urban hillsides are particularly emphasized. Relevant means that the students have personal experience with the topic. As a research scientist, I started to build resources and tools that met these criteria, including my Schoolyard Geology website that grew out of my experience teaching at San Quentin prison.

When I started using these resources as a teacher, I found that they didn't work as well as I hoped. Topics like dinosaurs, planets, and stars garnered the most excitement -- topics that are neither local in scale nor relate at all to the lives and experiences of my students. They liked things that were cool, but that had little to no impact on their lives.

Why don't students like the local and relevant topics? I started to understand the answer when we studied earthquakes. I created an activity that discussed the hazard the Hayward fault poses to the BART system. Many of my students ride BART weekly and you can't get any more local than the Hayward fault, located just 5 minutes uphill from campus. I designed the activity to demonstrate to them that understanding earthquake hazard allows people to build BART safely. It was supposed to get across the idea that knowledge is power. Instead, my students commented with statements like, "I'm never riding BART again" or "What's the point in studying this stuff if we can't stop the earthquakes anyways?" I completely failed at getting across the message that we couldn't stop the earthquake, but that we could reduce its effects. Why didn't my students understand the point of this activity?

It was around this time that I started reading more in the science education literature. I ran across the idea of "learned helplessness," a concept that I remembered learning about in my psychology class in college. If a person's experiences teach them that nothing they do has any impact on the outcome, they eventually internalize a feeling of powerlessness. In psychology experiments, individuals eventually stop trying after they fail enough times. I grew up being told that I could do anything, and my experiences started reinforcing that idea until I gained self confidence. Many of my students grew up in environments where they were told they couldn't do anything. People around them struggle to get ahead and never quite make it.

A powerful example of circumstances that breed feelings of powerlessness that a student shared with me: A popular football player in our school district worked hard to get good grades and was just awarded a scholarship to University of Oregon a few years back, only to be gunned down and murdered on the street. The word around is that he was killed by a gang that was upset that he tried hard in school instead of joining their gang. According to a news article at the time, his cousin was quoted as saying, "Richmond [the city] killed my cousin. He never got a chance. He was the best person to come out of here ever." More than half of my students come from the city of Richmond, and who can blame them for feeling like it's all worthless when the best person ever to come out of their neighborhood was shot dead for trying too hard. Headlines look like this over and over again about their neighbors and peers. For contrast, the headlines about my former classmates include an actress in LA who has dated George Clooney and a gold medal winning Olympic athlete.

I mentioned in a previous posting that these issues need to be seen as obstacles and not used as excuses. As an educator in this setting, I found one of my hardest jobs was to walk the line between being a compassionate understanding person that understood the challenges my students face, and a teacher with the highest expectations for students that have unbelievable potential that didn't let them use the obstacles as excuses. This was further complicated by the fact that different students regularly turned in forged notes written by other students instead of their parents. An extreme example came from a student who brought a note explaining that he had missed class because his sister was sick and his mother had to work and couldn't take care of her -- the student was eventually expelled from school for repeatedly drinking in the mornings and coming to school drunk. However, the very next day, a student told me that she couldn't do the homework because she had to go to a funeral. She had no note. After I gave this student a stern lecture on the nature of responsibility and how she should have given me a note in advance of the absence, I called home to her mother only to find out that this excuse was legitimate, and that the funeral date had not been set until the afternoon before.

In order to unlearn this sense of helplessness, we need more than just high expectations. The expectations provide the destination, but students will never strive to attain them if their past experience teaches them that they will never reach above that bar. The solution to learned helplessness is to provide a pathway for students to gain success. And because it is a learned behavior, it will take time to unlearn.

A figure from the article You can grow your intelligence illustrating the growth of neuron connections in a baby. It's goal is to show you that you aren't born smart.

How do we show students that it's not too late, and that they can make an impact on their educational lives that will completely change the other parts of their lives? One of the things that I realized is that many of my academically underprepared students do not know what it means to learn. They have the false dichotomy of smart and dumb ingrained into their heads, so they don't realize that smart people are not born smart -- it takes work to learn. Rafe Esquith's book is titled, "There are no shortcuts" and that is the motto he uses with his class to emphasize that learning is a process that takes effort. Listening to an NPR story, I heard about another way to emphasize this point to students. Researchers went into classrooms and taught a series of short lessons on how the brain works. One focus of these lessons is an article called, You can grow your intelligence, whose main point is to emphasize that brain connections grow with learning. In other words, you aren't born smart -- you have to work at it. It's this sort of empowering idea that might jumpstart some of the young minds that currently believe that they are helpless.

While there is no clear solution to students that have no desire to learn, it's possible that some of my students suffer from a form of learned helplessness where it just seems useless to even try. Before they can succeed at learning, they need to believe that learning is both possible and has payoff for them in the end. Figuring out ways to empower students with success while keeping expectations high remains one of the single biggest challenges I faced as a classroom teacher.

June 20, 2008

Why Johnny can't read

The following is the second of several postings I'll write that synthesize my experiences as a first year teacher.

Near the end of the school year, a teacher friend loaned me a book called, "There are no shortcuts." The author, Rafe Esquith, says, "Poverty, greed [by administrators and bureaucrats], and incompetent teaching are just some of the reasons why Johnny not only can't read, but has no interest in reading." (p. 4, emphasis added).

Read more below about why fixing our educational system isn't going to be easy.

Esquith goes on to say, "Using a new reading series or changing the classroom environment isn't going to solve all our problems." Esquith is a winner of the American Teacher Award and has been a successful teacher for 19 years, much of it in a challenging urban environment. His feeling was echoed very strongly by a 25 year veteran science teacher who helped mentor me (and probably countless other teachers) with his wisdom. Bob Fabini says, in a slight paraphrase, "Every year they come out with some little tweak in the way we present material, and they expect it to completely change our results. It's not going to happen." It's true that research shows that there are ways to effectively present information and there are ways that just don't work. Each year, research on the brain and cognition get better, so why don't Fabini and Esquith think that techniques are our answers?

According to Esquith, Johnny will never learn to read until he wants to learn. Fabini came to the same conclusion. He shared with me that one of the biggest changes he's seen is his quarter century of teaching is that he feels like students have no vision about where they are going with their lives any more. Without this vision, it's not surprising that they don't want to learn.

It's true that each year there is a new trend in educational research. And each year, policy makers inflict this new trend on teachers. In our case, at the beginning of the year we had a crash course in popular new techniques to teach reading for understanding. Teachers weren't interested because, two days before school, they were more concerned with the fact that they had not yet been told what classes they would be teaching. (In my case, I was not even sure that I would be officially hired, I had not been assigned a classroom, and had not prepared the curriculum for even first day of class). And standing before all of us was some well meaning educational researcher who hadn't been in charge of a classroom in a decade telling these teachers how to best reach their students. While I feel her information was valuable, it was almost completely disregarded by the teachers because of the circumstances of its presentation. Esquith adds that many of the so-called experts brought in to help school districts work for private corporations that have a vested interest in selling you new materials to go along with these new ideas. Even though the fact that ideas are summarily ignored is unfortunate, in the end I don't think it matters either way. Here's why:

By the end of the school year, I think I became a really good teacher. I had students write in my yearbook and one of the most powerful entries was, "Even though I did not pass your class, I still think you are a good teacher." There were a lot of things I could improve, but I'll say it -- I'm an awesome teacher. But even with an awesome teacher with a Ph.D. in my content area (I taught all earth science, all day, every day), 60% of my students earned D's and F's. I had the truly sad realization that, when it comes down to it, teachers don't matter for most students.

Perhaps it's a different story for kids younger than high school. And I certainly feel that I made a huge difference for a few students. But for most students, I think I was totally irrelevant. Good students have the skills to teach themselves. Esquith describes this sort of student as, "practically on autopilot." (p. 9) They don't need excellent teaching to excel. Students with no desire to learn and no accumulated skills for learning will not rise to the challenge from even the best of the teachers. These students need substantial intervention before they can begin to learn in a classroom setting, and that intervention is well outside the range of most teachers.

Fabini and Esquith are both exceptional teachers, so they take the time to provide some of that intervention. Once Mr. Fabini realized that his students lacked vision and direction, he started taking the time to talk with them (often one-on-one) to help them sculpt these ideas. As an experienced teacher working with mostly college-bound students in classes like physics and AP Chemistry, he can take the time to do that. Be he and his students have the skills to get one-on-one time. The fact of the matter is that a lot of teachers are more like me -- new, inexperienced, and working with tougher kids. I had to deal with constant behavior problems my first semester. Most of my students are not self-motivated, so once I solved many of those problems I still couldn't just set the class working on something and then have meaningful individual discussions with them one by one -- they need constant supervision, support, and praise. My students, in general, do not respect or value teachers as authority figures while Mr. Fabini's do. He's earned a lot of that respect, but the fact of the matter is that he teaches a different sub population of students in physics than I do in Earth science. But over the course of a year, there are twice as many students taking Earth science at our school than take physics. My students are the majority, not his.

When Mr. Fabini says that his students lack vision, I feel like he means that their autopilot lacks a well programmed destination. While my students don't know where they are going either, many of them don't even have a steering wheel. The solution for both sets of students begins the same way (sit down and talk with them to help them find motivation and direction), but for many of my students, they feel like it is too late to actually reach a meaningful destination. That's why so many of them won't even bother trying. This is the idea of "learned helplessness" that I'll discuss in more detail in a future post. But in essence, when Johnny doesn't have any desire to read and sees no reason to do so, he will never learn how to read.

June 19, 2008


The following is the first of several postings I'll write that synthesize my experiences as a first year teacher.

When introducing igneous rocks, I show a short video clip with a catchy song and dance. It's designed for grade school kids, but my students also find it funny. It begins with two children standing on a cliff looking down at a river asking each other, "How do we get down there?" A monster comes up behind them and yells, "HOMEWORK!" which scares them so much that they jump down into the river. My students did not gasp or laugh at this part, because they aren't "scared" of homework in the same way as the students in the video. In fact, they seem to have no response to the idea of homework at all. Homework was on of the single biggest failures I had as a first year teacher, and I think I finally understand why.

Read more below about how homework functioned in my classes.

I remembered having homework in high school each and every day in my classes, so I designed my course to include regular daily homework. The first homework assignment I assigned, 51% of the students turned in the next day. Of those, 20% had put so little effort that they received a score of zero in my gradebook. I was shocked. "How do these students expect to pass if they don't do homework?," I remember myself asking. Panic stricken, I sought advice from experienced veteran teachers. They asked me, "are you sure your assignments are worthwhile? Are they too hard?" I revised my approach and changed assignments making them easier, then harder, then easier again hoping to get results. I tried to integrate assignments into class time to make them seem more "essential." The school issued every student a planner, and I started requiring students to write the assignment in their planner. Still, the rate of homework completion just went down. By the end of the first semester, 40% of the students that started turning in homework to look good on the first day had dropped off. Fewer than one third of the students turned in the last assignment.

At the end of the semester, I passed out an evaluation form. One of the questions asked, "If you chose to do less than 50% of the homework, why?" I expected to find that my assignments were too hard, or perhaps too easy so that they seemed like a waste of time. Or maybe students had too many things to take care of at home. Instead, the answer was almost universally, "I don't like doing homework. When I go home from school, I'm done with school. I don't want to think about it anymore. The last thing I want to do is more school work once I get home." I even inquired further in class and they explicitly said it had nothing to do with my assignments. There is just a culture of not doing homework.

Second semester, I got a fresh new crop of students. This time I was determined to make a change. I hadn't made my expectations clear enough as a new teacher. I told my students the story of the previous semester and told them that I had to fail a large number of students that were engaged in class but never did any homework. I had my students calculate the score they could expect if they never lifted their pencil to do homework (a D+ if you get 100% on every test and every quiz, an F in the more likely scenario that your average was closer to a B on the other work). I gave them a quiz on the classroom expectations, and they all understood this concept. I set up a "Weekly Homework Bonus" where I awarded 5 extra points to every student that completed all the homework for the week by the end of the day on Friday. I reminded them that without homework, they wouldn't pass the class. I made the student planner a required part of the class and took away points if they forgot it, walking around with my clipboard to check off that they had correctly written down the assignment at the end of each and every class. I made my expectations crystal clear.

The first day of the new semester, they all dutifully wrote down the assignment in their planners. Only 42% of them turned it in the next day. Each week, I reminded the students about the grading policy and the expectations. I talked with individual students trying to motivate them. I did get results -- almost the same percent, 41%, turned in the final homework assignment of the semester, so I did not see the fall off that I did the first semester. Also, every student turned in at least some homework, but the problem was consistency. Only about 15% of the students received the "Weekly Homework Bonus" signifying that they turned in all assignments. This was usually the same group of students, usually about 5 or 6 in each class that provided consistent effort all semester long. Among the other students, they would typically turn in 1-2 assignments a week. There did not appear any systematic order to things -- no single assignment was popular or unpopular. The culture of not doing homework is too strong...

Why don't students do homework? There are certainly some undeniable obstacles. The household environment is not ideal for most of my students -- many live with grandma and share their room with younger cousins. Mother works two jobs and father is out of the picture. Grandma has had three strokes so far, even though she is in her late forties. Phone got disconnected because family can't pay the bills. Cousin got shot last week and the funeral is tomorrow. Mom has been sick a lot recently, so student has to work the night shift cleaning toilets so that she doesn't lose her job. Mother is a drug addict. Father murdered mother. It's frightening what some students have to deal with. No human should ever have to endure these things, let alone a 14 year old kid.

Perhaps they could stay at school to complete their work? Nope. In order to maintain safety on campus, students without organized activities are forced to leave the campus grounds immediately after school. Even if they weren't most return home by bus, and buses leave exactly 10 minutes after school lets out (sometimes they even leave early). After school help is almost totally out of the question for many, though there are a few under utilized tutoring programs on campus. The successful ones have a budget for snacks.

While these are obstacles, we remind our students that they cannot be excuses. The sad tales I mentioned in a previous paragraph are actually true statements about some of my best, most responsible students. These devoted students are able to somehow overcome these obstacles, so it can be done. The problem is not entirely in the obstacles, it's the will to overcome them.

My students told me that I was the only teacher to assign homework every day. I checked into this and of course it's not true. However, I am one of very few teachers that actually collects and grades the homework every day. I asked one teacher about it, and she said that there is no way she could handle the grading load (as much as 3 hours a night for me) to actually check student work every night. Students know this, so they allocate their time appropriately. She said that she used to have homework worth 30% of the grade like I do, but then cut it back to 15% because so few students were turning work in. She couldn't handle having so many students receive low grades because of lack of homework, so she made homework less important. I can totally understand and sympathize. I eliminated weekend homework because I typically had only one or two students complete it. It was a waste of my time to create meaningful assignments that nobody would complete. But there is a serious problem when we lower our expectations like the other teacher and I have done in order to accommodate our students desire not to work hard at their education.

Because teachers have lowered their homework expectations so far homework in non college prep classes has basically been turned into a useless joke at my school. "I grade for completeness, not correctness," I once heard a teacher announce to parents at her back to school night. Students have learned to operate efficiently in this system (they are "lazy," not "stupid"!). Because many of our students have limited academic skills, the homework that they can typically tackle on their own is fill-in-the-blank. Many teachers assign only simple worksheets, but these are incredibly easy to copy from other students. Operating efficiently within this system, students have learned to copy. Most copying of homework happens during class times in other classes, and is easy to circumvent if you are vigilant, but it takes a lot of effort. One of the comments on my evaluation in response to, "What does Mr. d'Alessio do best?," the answer was, "Stand over you making sure that you only do on work from his class." The culture of not doing homework is so strong, that students don't even want to take the time to cheat at home.

As you can imagine, a culture that does not value doing work at home will begin to bleed into the classroom itself. We have somehow failed as a system at giving students the desire to work. We haven't proven to them or justified to them that there is a reason to work. The students are smart, and like good engineers they all know how to get an acceptable result at the lowest cost. They perform that calculus to perfection each and every day as they avoid homework, cheat, or do a second rate job at it. So while I did a good job establishing expectations of hard work, I failed miserably at showing them that it was worthwhile. I did not prove to them that hard work had a payoff. For students from more stable backgrounds, that might come at home. But for my students, it hasn't come yet.

June 12, 2008

Grades are in...

I can't believe that I've almost made it through my first year teaching! In one of the stupider scheduling moves for a school district, our grades are due today but we have two more days of school. Our students ask us, "Why should we come when our grades are already turned in?" They have a point. The only answer is that the school will lose money if students don't attend class, but that understandably doesn't hold much weight for the students. Setting up themselves to lose money sounds like a poor management decision.

What it means for me is that my grades are done. Here are the stats:

Number of StudentsLetter Grade

Believe it or not, I'm actually happy about the progress my students have made. "Only" 60% of my students have D's or F's, which is much better than the 80% I had the first time I filled out report cards at the beginning of the school year.

After one year, I can honestly say that I'm starting to be a GOOD teacher. If that's really true, these numbers should give you an idea of the current state of our educational system. It certainly did a lot to open my eyes up to the specific issues. The next step: try to solve them.

June 6, 2008

A picture is worth a thousand words

Photo by Carlomagno 'Caly' Silva,
El Cerrito High School

There's just one week of school left, and it's been a wild, challenging, and amazing year. I hope to post several new listings to summarize some of my experience as a first year teacher, but I just received this photo in my email and couldn't resist sharing it. While friends of mine are now accustomed to me stopping to take photographs of random geologic features, one of my students actually took this photo over the weekend and sent it to me. I cannot begin to stress how amazing this is. This student, who is an immigrant from Peru and whose mother died last year, had a score of 35% in my class just one month ago. Since then, we had some great talks and another teacher and I have managed to motivate him so that his average is now up to 65% (and still climbing).

A few months ago, this student would have walked right over these ripples in the sand without even noticing them. Today, he was absolutely chomping at the bit to share this picture with me from his cell phone camera. It has been my goal to open my students' eyes to the world around them, and receiving this picture practically made me cry tears of joy.