Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving, Garfield Style

This past week I tried something completely different. It was an extra-short week due to the Thanksgiving Holiday but since my students and I had two days to learn Spanish, I decided to test their auditory skills by screening a video. The idea came to me when I was watching one of my favorite holiday specials on DVD. My girlfriend and I have been watching the Garfield Holiday specials for the past few years and while we were watching the Thanksgiving Special the other day, I thought to myself, why not show this video to my class in Spanish?

The students certainly enjoyed a change of pace and it's been my own personal experience that anyone in school always enjoys a video. At first, I was going to show the video with only the Spanish dubbed over the voices, but my first eighth grade class convinced me that it would be better for them if I included the English subtitles as well. After all, they would've picked up bits and pieces here and there but without the subtitles, some would've had trouble getting the concepts presented in the video.

As the video played, I started to wonder how many of my students actually knew who Garfield was. People my age are certainly familiar with the corpulent feline but since the Thanksgiving Special aired 20 years ago, odds are some students didn't know him at all. I looked around the room during the video and noticed that most of the students were paying attention and some were even laughing at the jokes. Word got around to my other seventh and eighth graders and many were excited to be watching a video in Spanish.

After the video in a few of my classes, I asked the students to tell me about anything they had learned. One girl noticed that in the movie, the Grandma called Garfield "gatito" instead of "gato" and I explained to her that the "-ito" suffix implies an affectionate term. Instead of calling Garfield a "cat," the Grandma was calling him a "kitty." I was hoping that my classes picked up the food vocabulary from a video centered around Thanksgiving and perhaps they did, but I plan to introduce the topic of food more in depth in the coming weeks. All in all, Garfield was a success.

This week, my eighth grade students are on a week long retreat with other Catholic school students so I will be free to offer my services to the other Spanish teacher who teaches the K-6 students. I'm excited to split up the duties and teach different groups of students because I believe that two teachers can be better than one, especially when it comes to learning a foreign language. I've had a few encounters with the younger students and let's just say, I'll have to bring extra energy to keep up. I'm always ready for a challenge.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Class of One

I've been meaning to post for weeks now, but the confluence of launching Tutorpedia Southland (we now have tutors in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Orange County) and getting the Tutorpedia Foundation off the ground has put my blogging on the back-burner. Through all of this travel and work, in countless meetings, lunches, and coffees, I have continued to laud what makes Tutorpedia different, how our programs can have a disruptive force on education: By giving students a "Class of 1."

How do kids learn with 30 students in a class? Or 20? Even the small classes that benefit most private schools rarely get below 15. So you have two dozen students (or twice that in public schools) in a room, all learning at different paces, all learning in different styles, all learning with different levels of awareness, ability, and aptitude. How is a teacher - even the most skilled, trained, and patient - to reach every child? There is just no way. And that's why we need a Class of 1: Personalized tutoring brings a Class of 1 to every student.

How is this scalable, you may wonder, with 6 million students in California alone? Well, first of all, not every student needs his or her tutoring subsidized (ie. many parents can, and do, pay top-dollar for 1-1 tutoring). So let's say that 50% of parents can afford the roughly $100/hour that most competitive tutoring companies or individuals charge. That leaves us with 3 million students who can't pay out-of-pocket. If we then focus on the lowest-performing 10% say, that's 300,000 students whose personalized education could and should be paid for by outside resources. In our calculations (at just under $30/hour, including program and administrative costs), we can provide 35 hours of 1-1 tutoring to an underserved student for $1000/year. To bring a Class of 1 to the most underserved students in the state, that would cost about $300 million. True, this a lot of money, but considering that Arne Duncan's Race To The Top fund provides more than $4 billion to innovate initiatives in education, that's a drop in the bucket (less than 8%), and California schools are a great place to start.

Let's use these same calculations with the San Francisco Bay Area, home to about 1 million K-12 students. If 50% can afford tutoring, that's 500,000 students who can't, so providing for the lowest-performing 10%, that's 50,000 students who would benefit most from 1-1 tutoring. At $1000 per student per year, that's investing $50 million in our future. The numbers are roughly the same for Los Angeles Unified School District.

What's the alternative? Increased Achievement Gap, more high school drop-outs, more students without a college degree. That's more undereducated students on the streets, and statistics show more youth in jail and prison. The cost of our prison industrial complex will soon exceed that of our education system. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, "by the 2012-2013 fiscal year, $15.4 billion will be spent on incarcerating Californians, as compared with $15.3 billion spent on educating them."

So why all these numbers and dollar amounts? Because the answer to fixing our broken education system is not that complicated after all. Yes we need better pay, better training, and better professional development for teachers. Yes we need more computers and adaptive technology for our students. But what we need most of all is more personal attention. We need to build trust, confidence, and relationships. Research shows that academic tutoring improves social interactions, classroom attention, and positive teacher attention. In order to close the Achievement Gap, graduate more students from high school, and prepare them for college, a more personalized model is needed. Another research article shows that students engaging in 1-1 tutoring show significant gains versus those engaged in conventional (30-1) teaching models. And this study shows the improvement of academic performance and attitudes of students receiving tutoring. There are countless other studies and research done on 1-1 tutoring, and it all points in the same direction: improved academic and social performance.

We all grew up with The 3 R's: Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmatic. Now we need to focus on the New 3 R's: We need to make education more Real, Relevant, and Rigorous. And all of these foci need to be built on personal Relationships. The best relationships are formed in a Class of 1.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Breakthrough

This first trimester is finally over. I had my first successful grading period as I managed to collect all missing assignments and deal with the first round of grade discussions with students. I'm fairly sure that once the actual report cards are distributed, many of these discussions will continue. After what has seemed like an eternity, our students had their first full week of class. Since it was the end of the trimester and I had other things going on, I decided to take it easy on my students and only introduce a few new concepts while having them complete worksheets in class. At the end of the week, I found this method of having them complete their assignment in class and then correct it could pay dividends.

Some of the new concepts I introduced were stem-changing verbs. Most of my eighth graders knew the correct verb conjugation patterns of the different types of Spanish verbs but had not learned many verbs that change when conjugated. For the sake of saving space and not going into an entire grammar lesson, let me just say that we went over a few of the essential verbs to know such as "dormir," "empezar" and "volver." I had my students copy every verb chart that I drew on the board into their notes so they could refer to it later. One of the things I'm trying to teach them is to take good notes so they'll be able to study them later.

My other method was to test their recall of the material by having them work together to complete worksheets where they would apply the verbs and vocabulary we had learned. One of my classes got a little farther than the other, but then again, both classes still have a lot to review when we go back for the short two days before Thanksgiving. While my students were working, I walked around to each group that had formed to make sure they were understanding the material. That's when the "A-ha!" moment came. As I went over to him, one of my students who always pays attention but has had a hard time in the past looked up and said the three words every teacher loves to hear: "Mr. Erickson, I get it!" I could've hugged him. Due to his good note-taking, he was able to comprehend which verb to use in which worksheet.

I firmly believe that if I'm only able to inspire one person to take Spanish seriously and continue learning the language as their education progresses, I've done my job as a teacher. This is most likely true for any teacher of any subject, but it's important to me because as a first year teacher I don't often know if I'm making any impact on my students. When I heard my student tell me that, I felt like jumping for joy. I let him know how much it meant to me and then went about helping the other students. Satisfaction is something that we all strive for in everything that we do and now that I've had a taste in the teaching world, its provided me with more motivation to continue.

In this student's case, learning came with simple note-taking and memorization. For other students, learning comes with visual aids. For still others it helps them to hear the language before they understand it. Little by little, they're settling into a learning rhythm just as I find my footing as a teacher and it's staring to feel worth it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Educating With Music

All teachers want their students to listen to them. The whole enterprise of teaching really doesn't work unless students are listening to their teachers, and teachers have developed varied methods of capturing students' attention. It's no easy task; there is a lot of competition for a young person's attention these days. In my years of teaching, I found myself competing with my students' peers, students in the hall, magazines stuck inside the covers of their books, students' cell phones covertly hidden in folds of clothing, and so on. But of all the things that I competed with for students' attention, nothing was more difficult to overcome than students' iPods.

I could be upset with America's youth for putting on a set of earphones and tuning out the universe. During my tenure in the classroom I fought against Kanye, Beyonce, and 50 for my students' attention and often lost, despite a no iPod policy at school, but I can't help but reflect that I do similarly. It goes without saying that there is an appropriate time and place for listening to music privately - and a classroom is most definitely not that appropriate place - but it still is worth noting that music has captured the attention of humanity, for better or worse. Were things any different when students' attention was held by Nirvana and A Tribe Called Quest? Talking Heads and Bruce Springsteen? Led Zeppelin and Parliament Funkadelic? John, Paul, George, and Ringo? Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong? Each of these musicians was popular with the student-aged demographic and frowned-upon by the teacher-aged demographic during their heyday. And furthermore, it has only been when those teenagers aged to the point of adulthood that the music they loved carried a bit more social currency.

Here, then, is a radical proposition: instead of competing with the things that capture our students' attention, why don't we figure out how to use those things to teach them? Instead of telling students repeatedly to turn off their music, why don't we use music to educate?

We can all point to music that has influenced our lives and the times in which we live. Songs such as the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love", Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On", or Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a'Changin'" are said to have defined an era or a movement. Even though their music is probably different (and even though some of us might not like it as much), the principle remains with the younger generation. The message might be diluted or convoluted in today's music, but the messengers are still just as effective. So instead of resisting the medium of transmission that has captured so many us outside the classroom, we should try to embrace it, and use it to carry our message inside the classroom.

Case in point: the slightly kooky band They Might Be Giants has released a series of educational albums, the latest titled "Here Comes Science." All the songs on the album highlight certain scientific principles, ranging from Speed and Velocity to The Periodic Table of Elements. Their content is accurate, and probably much more memorable than most things classroom teachers could whip up. The science teacher in me couldn't be happier, and the music lover in me is also left quite pleased. This represents a highly innovative way to find and capture students' attention, and to teach something of academic substance.

The principle is not limited to music, of course. Anything that effectively captures a young person's attention can be used as an academic tool. Social networks on the internet can be potent educational tools. Magazine style writing might be a more effective way to compose textbooks than more traditional ways. Computer-based learning is part of this movement. And we can even look to the success of Sesame Street for an example of how to reach young minds through channels they're already investigating. Thought about in this light, one has to wonder why teachers are working so hard in order to earn students' attention with dated media and methods. So instead of telling kids to turn off their music, let's try to find ways to make the music they're listening to more educational.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Marking the Grade

I've written before about the tedious task of grading and as the first trimester comes to an end, I wish the whole process could just magically complete itself. Sadly, that is not the case so I have been spending the past few weeks just trying to get everything in order so that I can actually enter the grades into the online program. It's especially difficult for a specialty teacher like me to organize assignments of more than 140 students from four different classes, grade their performances and then submit the reports to their homeroom teachers on time before the trimester ends this Friday. However, I knew it would be difficult when I signed up so I keep charging ahead.

For the last two weeks I've decided to keep the homework light in my four classes so that I have ample time to accept any late work and then grade it on time. This has worked in some cases but in others, it's proven somewhat troublesome. For example, both of my eighth grade classes had finished their Spanish Family Tree projects and only had to turn in one more homework assignment before the end of the trimester. I had them create a mock Family Tree of celebrities, musicians and athletes, write sentences about each of their "family members" in Spanish and then present the finished product to the class. I was impressed and amazed by their creativity and even felt a little old myself at the amount of pop stars I don't seem to recognize. All of them managed to turn the projects in on time and most have turned in the last homework assignment.

Seventh grade is a slightly different story. Since I only see those students twice a week, it's understandable that sometimes they may forget to turn in the assignments that are due. However, I'm trying to teach them that that's no excuse for not turning in assignments. This is especially true after I've given them more in-class time to finish their homework for an opportunity to get full credit. We still have a few more days to sort everything out and I pray that they all turn their work in on time. I keep stressing that as long as they do their work, check it at least twice and turn it in on time, they will likely get an "A" in the class.

I'm still getting used to my duties at school. Between teaching, helping out at carpool and playing a key role as a facilitator in the inaugural year of our intramural program, there doesn't seem to be a lot of time to grade. However, I have been meticulously collecting and entering homework and test scores into our program as I receive it. I even figured out how to enter scores from home, as I do not yet have adequate wi-fi access for my laptop.

This week will test my students in something non-Spanish related. Instead of conjugating verbs or using new vocabulary, they will be expected to know to turn in their assignments and in turn receive a good grade. Repetition works well when learning anything, especially a foreign language. It will also work well for when I remind my students when grades are due.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Curriculum Development

Last Friday was the second of three curriculum development meetings among teachers at Catholic Schools in the Oakland Diocese. Our first meeting had been in late September. The meetings were divided by grade level, so as a junior high Spanish teacher, I attended the gathering of 6-8 teachers at St. Patrick's School in Rodeo, CA. The last meeting saw a group of very confused foreign language teachers sitting around a table discussing a non-existent Diocesan curriculum. Oh sure, there were national and state standards for foreign language curriculum but our schools had never taken the time to create our own. So while language arts and math teachers were running over their standards with a fine-tooth comb to see which ones were "essential," "important" and "worthy," us foreign language teachers were wishing we had any sort of standards.

On Friday, thankfully, that changed. All of the foreign language teachers (most of us teach Spanish) met in the Kindergarten room of St. Patrick's where our mission was to start writing our own curriculum. We broke into groups based on grade level where our assignment was to either write what we wanted to teach students about Spanish or what we expect them to have mastered by the time they graduate eighth grade.

I joined the junior high group and we got to work. We were able to divide our standards into different vocabulary and grammar that we expect our students to know by the time eighth grade is over. Part of this process was realizing that we are tasked to do the best we can with what little we have. For example, one of the teachers in my group told us that his students don't learn a word of Spanish before the sixth grade, so he only has three years to try and teach them what they would learn in a regular Spanish 1 class in high school. Many of us were in similar boats. When we talked about teaching culture and prayer, we were careful to assume that not every one of our students would be attending a Catholic high school in the future and thus would not need to learn prayer. We finally settled on traditions and celebrations standards.

At the end of the day, the junior high teachers had come up with a pretty impressive list of our goals. Among the vocabulary we expected our students to have mastered were:
1. Days and seasons
2. Food/Clothing
3. Family/House
4. Greetings and many more

Among the grammar standards were:
1. Stem changing verbs
2. Preterite tense
3. Present tense of regular verbs
4. Some irregular verbs, etc.

I can't wait until we finally have all of these standards written up so we can submit them to the Diocese. The best part of the day for me was sitting down with actual Spanish teachers and comparing styles, textbooks and notes. In some cases, we commiserated over our lack of time in the school schedule, but after this process we just might be able to see our students more.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Answer Isn't That Difficult

School reformers are very wrapped up in some important questions: how do we close the achievement gap? How do we foster the academic success of underperforming students? How do we realize each student's potential? These are indeed important questions.

School reformers at all levels have generated answers to these questions, and their answers tend towards to the highly complex. Granted, there are a lot of ins and outs to these problems, and many facets to the broken education system that need attention. School reformers analyze the situation from various levels: some think that the key lies in legislation and appropriation of money, others throw everything behind teacher professional development, while others are more concerned with standards and assessment. There is no argument that each of thees things are important, but they are enormous detours on the road to solving the central problem that schools face.

The problem, succinctly stated, is how to best increase student achievement, especially for low-performing students. Framed as such, the problem seems fairly straightforward. And as such, we at Tutorpedia would like to propose an equally straightforward answer:

Personalized Attention.

The What of the solution is not the hard part. The How, however, is. It's unrealistic to expect teachers to be able to give enough personal attention to all their students given their current workload, and it's equally unfeasible to assume that simply holding an objective measuring stick up to underperforming students will spur them to academic greatness. The right combination of rigor, standards, and the personal attention to support a student's push towards those goals, is the answer. It is our hope that the newly incorporated Tutorpedia Foundation can start to answer the How. We'd like to find a tutor for every student that wants one, regardless of their ability to afford it. With that sort of personalized attention, we really do believe that all our society's educational goals are achieveable.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mission Statements

Tomorrow the Tutorpedia Foundation, our new nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, hosts its inaugural Board Meeting in downtown San Francisco. Among many things to be discussed, the Board will officially approve our mission statement.

Nancy Lublin, CEO of Do Something, wrote a great article in this month's Fast Company about how to write a mission statement. Here's an exerpt:

Here are four mission statements. Two are from real organizations. Two were created by Dilbert's Automatic Mission Statement Generator. Can you guess which ones are genuine?

1. It is our job to continually foster world-class infrastructures as well as to quickly create principle-centered sources to meet our customer's needs.

2. Our challenge is to assertively network economically sound methods of empowerment so that we may continually negotiate performance-based infrastructures.

3. To improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities.

4. Respect, integrity, communication, and excellence.

She goes on: "Mission statements are like corporate Hallmark cards. Often written in a bland cursive font and plastered conspicuously at headquarters, these aspiring epigrams are pretty words in Air Supply -- like rhythm." Why? Well, for one, mission statements are meant to inspire. But more than inspire, they should be a call to action. James Collins and Jerry Porras, in their 1994 book Built to Last, first proposed that a mission statement should be a "big hairy audacious goal" (BHAG). They say a BHAG is "clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort, often creating immense team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal .... A BHAG should not be a sure bet ... but the organization must believe 'we can do it anyway.' "

Lublin concludes with some very specific advice:

Write a mission statement with a goal that's an action, not a sentiment; that is quantifiable, not nebulous. If you're trying to sell a product, how and how many? If you're trying to change lives, how and whose? Take your wonky mission statement and rip it to shreds. Then ponder your ambitions, and write and rewrite the thing until it reflects -- in real, printable words and figures -- the difference that you want to make.

So here's the Tutorpedia Foundation's initial mission statement: To provide tutoring and other education services to low-income students. But now I'm considering making this a real BHAG: To provide every K-12 student in California with a tutor. This will surely close the achievement gap, graduate more students from high school, and prepare more students for college and beyond. Who knows, maybe the Foundation eventually brings tutoring to all 50 states, and then to countries and cities whose students didn't even know what a tutor was. That's big, hairy, and audacious.

Oh, and by the way, the mission statements above? Nos. 1 and 2 are Dilbert's. No. 3 is the mission statement of the United Way, and no. 4 belonged to Enron.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tutorpedia Roundtable Question #2

This month's Tutorpedia Roundtable Question was:

What is the most important thing that a student needs to learn?

After waiting a while for some responses from past and present teachers, here's what we all came up with:

"At the end of the day, regardless of the learning setting and goals, I feel it is essential that a student learn how to ask their own questions, have the tools to seek their answers, and then be able to evaluate the reliability of their findings based on the quality of their evidence. In short,students need to learn how to be critical thinkers, who are actively engaging in their world. This is especially crucial in our information age where knowledge is readily available and needs analysis."

-Raul Betancourt, chemistry teacher, who is presently at The Bay School, in SF, and has previously taught at the public charters; City Arts and Tech HS in SF and East Palo Alto Academy in EPA, as well as at Georgiana Bruce Kirby and Merritt Academy in Santa Cruz.

"I think the most important thing a student needs to learn is how to set appropriate learning goals, and then to take the necessary steps to meet them. An active learner is one who connects what he or she learns to everyday life, and subsequently extends that knowledge towards more abstract concepts. "

-Matt Honigman, 2nd grade teacher in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

"Recipe for learning:
Take group of students, combine with safety and security (see: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs) add some focus till calm. Gently fold in (previously planned) empowering and expressive activity. Whisk with sparks of interest and intrigue. Drop in pinch of intrigue to taste! Bake on high with Big Picture debrief. Serves 30."

-Nicole LaCount
High School Sciences Teacher

"Depends on the grade level and student. There is no answer that fits both a first grader and a twelfth grader. But, since you want one answer: students always need to learn how to read better. That is, they ALWAYS need to improve as readers and they must know that they should always be improving."

-David Stein

There seems to be a common thread among our teachers that students need to learn about learning. I couldn't agree more. I especially like the active learning ideas as well as students learning how to ask questions. I see this daily in my Spanish classes when my students don't understand the material. Most are perceptive enough to ask questions when they need help but sometimes I worry when there aren't enough questions asked because the students may think they know all of the material. I also think that having engaging and empowering activities are key for any education.

A Work in Progress

Last week I began teaching Chapter 5 in the Spanish textbook to my eighth graders. I hadn't had any time to give them a test on Chapter 4 so I just decided to go ahead with the next chapter because the first trimester is ending a couple of weeks. I took my own advice from last week's post by creating a one page outline of Chapter 5 detailing all of the vocabulary and grammar lessons that we would learn during the course of instruction. As we went over the outline in class, I could sense my students understanding more of what was going on. Since they now knew what to expect and on what page, they seemed to be more in touch with the material. It really helps to be organized.

I was also fortunate enough to be observed during one of my classes. Our principal came in and watched during one of my lessons to an eighth grade class. I noticed her standing in the back while I was lecturing the students on Chile, which is our country of study for this chapter, but instead of becoming nervous, I was happy she was there. I saw her later in the hallway and she told me that my classroom management needed a lot of work. She then told me that it was clear that I knew the material and suggested I do some observing of my own. One of my disadvantages of not having a credential is that I haven't been required to observe other classes. I couldn't be happier that she came and observed me because I'm a firm believer in constructive criticism and the fact that she cared enough about me to come and watch.

In my seventh grade classes, I finally handed back their Chapter 1 tests and also gave them a Chapter 2 outline with vocab and grammar notes, similar to the one I gave my eighth graders. We were barely able to review the tests in one of classes due to all of my students coming in late and talking, but we got through it. I was happy to see all of my seventh graders engaged in going over all of the test answers. I even heard from some of my students who hadn't talked in class all year. This was like a dream come true for me because one, I now know their names, and two, I know they care enough to try and improve their grade.

One of my homework assignments last week for all four of my classes was for my students to go the textbook website to look around and try out some of the exercises. I did this mainly to get their feedback on what they found. Many of them thought that the website was a good resource, some thought it would have more games, and some probably didn't go on at all. In the future, I'll have to learn how I can incorporate more games and resources in the classroom with the little time that I have, but for now, it's a work in progress.