Saturday, April 1, 2017

why I'll never be a "distinguished" teacher

Arkansas right now is judging evaluating teachers through a system called "TESS." They say it stands for "Teacher Excellence and Support System," but I'm not so sure I believe them. This system (that's supposed to be there to support teachers) is split into 4 domains:
  • Planning & Preparation
  • Classroom Environment
  • Instruction
  • Professional Responsibilities
D1 & D4 then are split into 6 subcategories, and D2 & D3 each have 5. On each little subcategory, teachers are rated as Unsatisfactory, Basic, Proficient, or Distinguished. So to recap: 22 things to be rated on, with scores from 1-4.

I perused the Arkansas Department of Education website for a few minutes to get some data for this and found a slew of powerpoint presentations. 22 of them, actually, with an average of 30 slides per topic.

All designed to explain to me exactly how to be seen as a "Distinguished" teacher.

All those categories are really good goals. Of course I want to know my content inside & out. I want my classroom to be a safe, comfortable place for my kids. I want to find ways to get math across to every single kid in my room so they all come out of my class with a solid foundation so they can face the problems this world throws at them.

In fact, here are some of my goals as a teacher:
  • Make my kids see that math isn't always terrible.
  • Show them that someone cares.
  • Teach them to stick to it and keep working when problems in life get hard instead of just coming up with excuses to quit.
In TESS, though, here's what I'm judged on: I submit a lesson plan along with answers to about a dozen questions. Then, one person comes into my room for one 45-minute class period. At the end, I answer some more questions about how I think the class went.

I'm with each class of kids for 45-minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 36 weeks. That amounts to 8,100 minutes each school year of time scheduled for each class. 135 hours. So somebody watches me for 45/8100--> 0.6% of the time I have scheduled with my kids. So basically, half a percent of the time I spend with my kids.

Nevertheless, this 45 minutes is used to judge my teaching...and planning...and relationship with my kids...and knowledge of my subject...and my professionalism.

So I've come to a conclusion: I'm never going to be rated as "Distinguished." So here's a list of some of the possible reasons why not.
  1. I have expectations for my kids, and they include way more than scoring proficient on a test.
  2. I don't think you have to be able to use big words to prove that you understand something. In fact, I think the quote attributed to Einstein is fitting: "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
  3. Sometimes in class, we talk about things that have nothing to do with math.
  4. I don't feel like I have to write papers about teaching, give lectures about teaching, or write page upon page of lesson plans to prove that I'm a teacher.
  5. I will never be able to get 100% of my kids involved and interested in math 100% of the time. It just won't happen.
  6. Gimmicks just aren't my style. I'm not going to put on a show every day.
  7. Sometimes, I lecture. Once a week at least in each class, actually. It's always going to happen.
  8. My classroom isn't pretty. It has tables, chairs, and a whiteboard. I don't spend time and energy on decorations.
  9. I talk to my kids, but I don't know every detail of their lives.
  10. I quite simply don't have the time. I teach 7 different class periods to kids, I'm a cheer coach, and I'm a wife and mom. There aren't enough hours in the day to do everything that has to be done, let alone all the extra stuff.
  11. I don't think every kid has the ability to "master" every concept from Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II.
  12. Building on the last point, I don't think every kid needs to learn every concept from those courses.
  13. I think that sometimes, failing is the best thing that can happen to a kid. Like Wat Disney said, "Sometimes a kick in the teeth is the best thing for you."
So, I probably won't ever be distinguished. But you know what? That's okay. I can't ever be everything to everyone. So instead, I'll focus on my kids instead of on test scores and ratings. And I think that will work out just fine.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

why write if it's hard?

Life is just plain crazy sometimes (right now, for sure), and I haven't gotten the chance to put more than a couple of sentences together in what seems like ages. Believe me when I say that it's adding to the insanity for me--Nathan has said many times that writing is my therapy, the thing that keeps me sane.

I'm a word person, but I'm not a big talker. That changes if you know me really well (or if it's really late at night...there's something about that time that makes my defenses come down), but for the most part I would rather do my talking on paper. My mind is a chaotic, jumbled place, with totally unrelated thoughts bumping into the thoughts I actually want to have and getting all mixed in together. You see, I think sometimes my mouth moves too fast for my brain and the words come out before I have a chance to really think about them, and then they come out all jumbled. When I write, though, I guess there's more processing time between my head and my hand. Somehow, the words have the chance to get straightened out along the way, and the chaos that is always in my mind doesn't get to interfere quite as much with the words that come out through my hands.

So I write.
not me writing, but those are my notebooks...so it counts.

I don't write because it's easy. In fact, sometimes writing feels like the hardest thing in the world to do. Sometimes I agonize over the right word to say just the right thing, because words have the ability to take on a life of their own when you least expect it. Sometime I go back and rewrite everything I've just done, or rip out pages full of ink from a notebook because I wasn't getting it quite right. Sometimes this writing thing feels like the hardest thing for me to do. But I write.

I write because it changes my outlook when I can see everything down on paper. I can organize my thoughts and figure them out; pin down exactly what it is I'm thinking. I can straighten out my hopes and fears (because sometimes the line between them is incredibly thin). When I write, my mind calms and the chaos is held at bay for a little while.

I write because I can pour myself out on paper--the good, the bad, and the ugly--and lay my soul bare without seeing exactly how people react. You see, I over analyze absolutely everything around me. Every tiny flinch or grimace or twitch seems like a reaction that I need to understand...but the problem is, I don't. So if my words are on paper--if my heart is laid out on paper--I don't have to try to decipher the reactions. Though sometimes, not knowing the reaction is almost as bad as trying to read every tiny facial expression when I'm talking to someone.

I write because life just makes more sense to me that way. The words and the sentence structure go together to give my thoughts a rhythm, and that rhythm has beauty and substance. Sometimes it's harmonious and sometimes it's discordant, but at least that way I can tell if it fits. That way, I can tell if I fit.

I write because when I write, nothing else really seems to matter. For that short time, I don't feel like there are a hundred different things that I need to get done or a hundred different directions that I'm being pulled. While I write, I get lost in an entirely different world.

I write novels because I believed C.S. Lewis when he said, "Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again." I don't think fiction is an escape so much as it's a deeper look at reality. In stories we can see ourselves for who we are and who we want to be, all at the same time. We are reminded of what truly matters in life, but it's done in a way that lets us think we've come to those realizations on our own instead of being preached at.

I write because I am part of every story, every character, every quest. I'm the hero and the villain, the damsel and the knight and the dragon. I'm the one standing to do battle and the one cowering in the dark to hide from the monsters.

I write because it is who I am. Whether my writing is read by millions or by no one, I write because writing in woven into the core of my being, the gift I've been given by the One who made me. How can I not?

Monday, February 20, 2017

can followers of Christ be depressed?

"Fragmented, my self knows no peace.
I cannot remember what it's like to be happy.
'Failed,' I say to myself.
'My hope fails in the face of what the Eternal One has done.'
Grievous thoughts of affliction and wandering plagued my mind--
great bitterness and gall.
Grieving, my soul thinks back;
these thoughts cripple, and I sink down.
Gaining hope, I remember and wait for this thought:
How enduring is God's loyal love;
the Eternal has inexhaustible compassion.
Here they are, every morning new!
Your faithfulness, God, is is broad as the day.
Have courage, for the Eternal is all that I will need.
My soul boasts, 'Hope in God; just wait.'
It is good.
The Eternal One is good to those who expect Him,
to those who seek Him wholeheartedly.
It is good to wait quietly for the Eternal to make things right again."
~Lamentations 3:17-26

So often, the Christian life is preached as being one that makes people "healthy, wealthy, and wise." We hear the prosperity gospel being preached from an overwhelming number of pulpits. We're told--sometimes subtly and other times very blatantly--that God's whole goal is to make us happy.

So...how do we come to terms with a book like Lamentations? It's a book of despair and grief which seems to stand in stark opposition to a God of love and grace.

Sadness and depression aren't often talked about in Christian circles, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. The prophet says in verse 17, "Fragmented, my self knows no peace. I cannot remember what it's like to be happy." Faith doesn't promise that life will be without sorrow. In fact, it promises exactly the opposite. Being a follower of Christ doesn't mean that you will be shielded from all the pain of this world. Sometimes, life hurts, and our thoughts and fears and heartbreak grounds us into the dirt.

What makes our despair different, though, is that we aren't left alone in our sorrow. When we're down in the dirt, our spirits crushed and our hearts in pieces, we aren't abandoned. Like Paul said,
"We are cracked and chipped from our afflictions on all sides,
but we are not crushed by them.
We are bewildered at times,
 but we do not give in to despair.
We are persecuted,
but we have not been abandoned.
We have been knocked down,
but we are not destroyed."
~2 Corinthians 4:8&9

Being a follower of Christ doesn't mean that you won't ever get knocked down into the dirt. King David was called a man after God's own heat, but if you flip through the Psalms you'll see where time and again David poured out his pain to God:
"My God, my God, why have You turned Your back on me?
Your ears are deaf to my groans.
O my God, I cry all day and You are silent;
my tears in the night bring no relief."
~Psalm 22:1&2

And like David, may we be able to say,
"Still, You are holy."
(v. 3a)


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

you carried me

No matter which side of the issue you're on, you should read Melissa Ohden's book, You Carried Me. I just finished this book, and it's definitely worth your time. I received the book in exchange for an honest, unbiased review, so the words here are entirely my own opinion.

Melissa Ohden always knew she was adopted, but she found out as a young teen that there was more to her story than she knew--she was the survivor of a botched saline abortion. I can't even begin to imagine what that would be like. Her story starts at a point where a lot of stories have ended, a baby not meant to survive. Where her story goes from there, though, is hard to imagine.

So hard, in fact, that she's been accused of making up her story. Melissa's book--her life, the good and the bad, poured out on paper--is a story of hurt, betrayal, loss, and confusion. At the same time, though, it is a story of of healing, forgiveness, mercy, and grace. The writing isn't necessarily the strongest, which usually is something that really gets to me (typically I can't finish a book if I don't like the writing style), but in this case the story carried the writing when it got a bit weak.

I don't want to give away too much of her story, because it's not mine to tell and has much less impact from me. However, I will tell you that her story made me think about something I haven't considered.

When we talk about abortion, we talk about the victims: the innocent babies who are lost. There are other victims, though, ones we often ignore--the mothers. Sure, recently we've heard lots of women talking about how great it was that they had an abortion and how their lives are so much better, but that's not usually the case. Most of the time, a broken-hearted woman is left alone after the procedure.

Yes, we should stand up for the innocent victims of abortion, but we shouldn't forget that those babies aren't always the only victims.

For more on Melissa, you can visit her website: http://melissaohden.com/

Friday, January 20, 2017

the state of education

Imagine sitting down to do something knowing that you are expected to fail. Not because it's something that you aren't good at, but simply because it has been designed to be too hard for you to pass. Now imagine doing that a second time...and a third...and each time the task is purposefully made harder.

How disheartening would it be to see, over and over and over again, that some nameless and faceless entity (who, by the way, holds enormous sway over your future) sees failing as the best you can do?

And then, after you've struggled through this 3 different times, you have to do it again... "only this time," they tell you, "it's for real." Well, kind of for real...the results don't really count for or against you, but they are supposed to be used to predict your future performance. Oh, and those in charge of you are going to be judged on how well you do, but no pressure or anything...

Oh yeah--and you're a kid.

I'm sure some of you know exactly what I'm talking about. There are probably others, though, who have read this in disbelief. Surely nothing would ever be designed that way for kids. Sadly, our entire educational system is revolving around just such a system: ACT Aspire.

The ACT has been around a long time, and we've spent a lot of time and energy making sure high school kids are prepared for that test. It, in many cases, determines the college someone goes to and how much scholarship money they will get. It makes sense to want kids to do well on something like the ACT. It even makes sense to let them practice.

What doesn't make sense, though, is making teaching revolve around testing.

In most professions, the professionals are given freedom to work. After all, they are doing what they were trained to do. Of course there's management--and there are people who have trained for that, too. In education, though, that doesn't happen.

Teachers are told which "curriculum" to teach and when to teach it. Right now the go-to idea is Common Core (yes, Arkansas has their own standards, but they are just the same standards with a different name). The only true math content expert who worked on the math standards refused to sign off on the finished project, and that says a lot.

As teachers we aren't supposed to veer away from the curriculum, and we are supposed to make sure we cover every standard. But that should be okay, right? After all, Common Core was designed to be "more focused and coherent in order to improve mathematics achievement in this country. To deliver on this promise, the mathematics standards are designed to address the problem of a curriculum that is 'a mile wide and an inch deep.'" (from www.corestandards.org/Math/)

That sounds good...until you look at the standards. Here is a breakdown of just one course:
Algebra I
5 "Conceptual Categories"
10 "Domains" within those
23 "Clusters" within the domains

That in itself doesn't sound too bad--after all, there are 36 weeks in a school year so that gives plenty of time to cover 23 clusters, right?

Wait, though. In those 23 clusters, there are 103 different standards...and that's not counting all the times that there are "notes" for the teacher talking about all the other things that are part of the standard.

At the end of the list of standards, you have a glossary. Yes, some of the terms are relatively basic. I agree that kids in Algebra I should know what a variable is. Others, though, are ones like "Extraneous solutions" (yes, that's in there). They aren't numbered--maybe they thought that would be intimidating--but all together there is a collection of 50 terms.

Remember, Algebra I is typically a class kids take in 8th or 9th grade.

Then we have an Appendix. It lists 25 properties that the kids are supposed to know at the end of Algebra I.

That's for a single math course. Algebra II has its own set, with 15 Domains, 31 Clusters, and a whole slew of standards (I was too disheartened to spend the time counting them).

I could keep going, but I think you probably get the picture.

As a teacher, I'm told that I have to be a professional. In fact, I have to get 60 hours of Professional Development each year. I'm not, however, trusted to make professional decisions about the education of my students. I'm supposed to tailor my instruction to fit each individual student in my class, making sure that I expect just the right amount from each student and that I keep all of them engaged throughout the lesson and that I ensure that they are all emotionally secure in my classroom.

I'm supposed to make sure to acknowledge all of my students' differences without calling attention to the fact that they are different (because, you know, the kids shouldn't actually see that they all have different abilities). I'm supposed to support their weaknesses, but not make any student feel inferior to any other. While I'm pulling all my struggling students up by their bootstraps (because, of course, we can't expect kids to have self-discipline), I'm supposed to push my gifted students to extend their thinking (without making them feel superior to any other).

And then, after teaching every student in the way that best supports each individual, I stick a standardized test in front of them. Not just once, either--we know have 3 "interim" tests that the kids have to take before they take the "real" test at the end of the year.

I have to be honest--I tell my kids to do their best to answer the questions, but not to stress. I tell them that I know the scores won't look good. I tell them that a test designed by a nameless, faceless entity that knows nothing about them can't tell them what they know and don't know. I tell them that they are so much more than a test score...

...but if education keeps going the direction it's headed, pretty soon those test scores will be the sole determinant of my value as a teacher.

Our teachers deserve to be treated like the professionals they are, people who have dedicated themselves to the kids they care for on a daily basis, the kids they lose sleep over at night, the kids who break their hearts sometimes.

More than that, though, our kids deserve more. Our kids don't need a "one size fits all" education. They should be shown their strengths, but they should also be shown their weaknesses. Without that, how can you grow? They should have something to work towards, a future that they shape with hard work and dedication. They should be shown that reward is not without risk and cost, and that your worth is not determined arbitrarily. They need to know that you don't make something of yourself just by showing up.

As much as anything else, they need to be given the chance to develop a love of learning instead of a fear of testing. Right now, the words of Einstein are very true: "It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education."

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

where is the Lion?

"How long must I cry, O Eternal One, and get no answer from you?
Even when I yell to You, 'Violence is all around!'
You do nothing to save those in distress.
Why do You force me to see these atrocities?
Why do You make me watch such wickedness?
Disaster and violence, conflict and controversy, are raging all around me.
Your law is powerless to stop this; injustice prevails.
The depraved surround the innocent, and justice is perverted.

ETERNAL ONE: 'Look at the nations and watch what happens!
You will be shocked and amazed. For in your days, I am doing a work,
a work you will never believe even if someone tells you plainly!
Look! I am provoking and raising up the bitter and thieving Babylonian warriors from Chaldea;
they are moving out across the earth
and seizing others' homes and property in their path.'"
~Habakkuk 1:1-6

ISIS is an evil, swarming across the land and destroying everything and everyone in their path. They wipe out women and children with incredible cruelty, all in the name of the "religion of peace." The atrocities those people see on a daily basis are unbelievable--things I am blessed to be able to say I can't even imagine.

It's easy to look at all that this world is facing and wonder why God could let such horrible things happen. Or at least, in the midst of all the horror, why would God let the innocent suffer?
image from CNN.com

There aren't easy answers to those questions, but even in the chaos and despair God is working. Besides the death and destruction that ISIS is leaving behind them, they are also leaving something they never planned: hope.

In their wake, they are leaving thousands upon thousands who are turning away from Islam and instead turning to what they are calling the "religion of freedom." The are turning to the One who promises to hold them while their tears fall, to the One who wraps His arms around them and promises to face all the evils of this world with them, to the One who is doing an awesome work even in the middle of the evil.
for more, click here

God hasn't stopped working. He hasn't turned His back on all those who are powerless to fight back against the "bitter and thieving warriors." He is there with them in their suffering, wiping the tears from their faces.

Sometimes we are like Israel when they were looking for the Messiah. We are looking for the Lion of Judah to come in, roaring, ready to devour our enemies. Like Revelation 5:5 says, "Stop weeping. Look there--the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David. He has conquered..."

We want the Conqueror, the King, the Mighty Warrior of Zephaniah 3 who will swoop in and establish His kingdom and let everyone see that He is in control. And like John, we look to see the Lion.

"I looked, and between the throne and the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders stood a Lamb who appeared to have been slaughtered." Revelation 5:6b

We look for the Lion, but we find the Lamb.