Diana’s Page — Reflections

True Brit

Diana and the Butterfly
Diana and the Butterfly

My name is Diana S. AuBuchon; I’m Charlie to my friends.

I am a National Board certified teacher of English and Reading. Currently retired, I taught Language Arts (and French, American History and supervised cheerleaders) to middle/junior high school students at Yorba and Portola in the Orange USD and at McFadden Intermediate in the Santa Ana USD for more than 30 years. I also substitute taught at both the junior high and high school levels.

Too Many Kids

All over California this month students are taking the Common Core Assessment. The one thing the school districts and administrators want is better performance. There is one simple thing the state of California can do to raise student scores and improve their learning. Reduce the class sizes.

We all know how much harder things are when the numbers rise. You only have to look at what happens with protest marches and demonstrations. The more people there are the more likely that something will happen to disrupt the demonstration. It was always harder for my parents to explain something to all four of us at once instead of telling us individually.    

In the same way, teaching a class of 40 or more middle school students is much harder. When you are teaching something new only about 10 students will understand, and that is on a good day. The next time you teach the same concept 10 more will understand. With an average class size of 40 this means that you must teach the same idea 4 times and then re-teach it to ensure it is not forgotten. When you move students into groups and assign a task it takes 10 minutes to get 40 kids sitting in groups of four. That’s because you have to make sure that you can get around the room to monitor their practice, repeat your instructions to the students who weren’t listening the first time, and the another 5 minutes to get them out of groups. That is a total of 15 minutes when nobody is learning and no teaching is going on. (It takes less time to get out of groups because students want to leave when the bell rings!) In a 50-minute period that means that the teacher has 30 minutes to take attendance, teach a concept and give student time to practice the concept. Even if the concept is new you have to spend time re-teaching for those kids who didn’t get it the first time. This may even be the third time providing a group task to provide more practice in the concept you taught last week! It is the numbers that are the problem not the kids, the teacher, or the curriculum. The fact is that the ratio for excellent learning and teaching is 18:1. Studies have shown that for every 5 kids over that best practice number of 18 the scores will drop.

When you test those same students more time is used. You have 40 kids and 49 laptops or iPads. First pass out the computers and show and tell everyone how to turn them on. (You might be thinking young people know all about tech, but these are not ‘phones.) Hand out to each student the card with his or her 10-digit number. Then explain how to find the website for the test. Walk around the room and make sure everyone has found the right site. Now tell every student the number of the test session, and walk around at least four more times to check they are all in the right place. Dash back to your computer and sign them into the test. Make sure they are taking the right test (not Math when they are supposed to be taking English and visa versa. Check on the students who raised their hand to ask you how to turn on the computer. Go back to your machine and register another ten kids. I think you can see what I mean about how much harder this is with 40 kids rather than 18.

I have said 40 kids, but this is the average number my district set, so that the ratio was expected to be 40:1. In fact I have had classes with as many as 48 students in a class, and my average was usually closer to 43. As you can imagine, with this many students in class management became a priority. I had to set permanent routines into place so that discipline became less of an issue. I was always so grateful for the hard socialization work elementary teachers had done with the students so that I could cope with these huge numbers. Yes, they talked, and yes, I had to teach concepts mire than once. I still remember that class of 48. There weren’t enough seats, so four of them had to sit at the computer tables until I took attendance. Then if someone was absent they could move to a desk. I had to work twice as hard on memorizing names that year. The thing that still amazes me when I look back is that some real learning went on in that room.

I know that other states have lower class sizes, and not simply because they are more rural. I New York the class size is supposed to be 30. I know this from articles in the newspapers and teaching papers, and because if you order teaching materials from companies base on the East Coast they only provide 30-36 of something per packet. If New York can reduce their class sizes and insist on an average of 30 why can’t California? Kids would learn more not only academically but socially. Test scores and other assessments would go up because reduction in class sizes would result in increased learning. Teachers could implement the Common Core strategies the standards demand, and waste less time convincing 48 people to listen.

Next time someone complains about low test scores ask them how many kids they think they could effectively “manage” at one time.

Reflections on Retirement

I am now retired. I wasn’t expecting to be severed from my life as a teacher this abruptly. It happened because I fell at work as a result of my disability. The principal said there was not any way someone could be spared to work in the classroom with me until the end of the year in June, and so I had to change the date on my retirement papers and that was that.

Because everything happened so abruptly, I am not yet fully appreciating retirement. All my friends who have retired say that I will soon, and the ones that aren’t retired don’t talk to me probably because they are too busy working. When I was working I often wondered what life would be like when I retired. It seemed so much a far-away thing that I didn’t really ever think about what it would mean. What it means to me now is a complete lack of routine and structure in my day. I want to be back in my classroom, answering a million questions and asking a million more. I want to be playing with the kids and their iPads exploring ways for them to use the technology they have been given. I want to be sharing the latest book I have read with them and choosing the next one that might be possible for the classroom library. Instead I am essentially doing nothing, sitting in my garden, watching my morning shows, reading books, and playing with my iPad. Not much of a routine!

I am slowly getting over my depression at being yanked away from the job I loved. I am beginning to realize that I am as free now as I was as a young child. This time there is no parent hovering around telling me what to do, it is my choice. Such freedom is hard to remember, but it is coming back to me. I do not have to go anywhere, and I do not have to do anything. Such power makes me tremble with excitement, and happiness. I have asked to volunteer at the community college’s tutoring service for Reading and Writing, and tomorrow pick up an application to do so. More excitement. I am learning about Facebook and actually have a page now! I have a few blogs about education and things to say about the state it was in when I left, and how I felt about it. (A follow-up from last summer’s blog concerning advice I never got.) More freedom!

The future looks very bright, and as I sit in the garden and listen to the morning doves call I remember my childhood self running through the long grass of the orchard, utterly free.

Advice I Didn’t Get

As always during the summer, I am reading teaching books. I fondly imagine that they will make me a better teacher, and sometimes they do. I get lots of good ideas and deeper understandings of old ones, and apply them to my teaching. Most of the time I learn and apply what I read, making changes to accommodate my personal teaching situation. But, and it is a big BUT, there is one thing I am continually frustrated over, No one seems to address the difficulty of conferring with large numbers of middle school students. They talk about high school and elementary school, but their books seem to concern themselves with numbers below 40 and ages twelve to fourteen.

I teach in a school district in California with an average of 40 students per class. In my Honors classes it has been up to 48. How do you confer with that many students during Independent reading time, or writing, time effectively? Everybody stops reading or writing to listen, and looks shocked when they get asked a different question. If it’s the same question the answers immediately lose their individuality. To say nothing of the time it takes to confer with that many students over a week, or two, or three! Yes, I have read Atwell, Steineke, Daniels, Burke, and may others, The book that has prompted this blog is called Not This But That: No more Independent Reading TIme WIthout Support. On page 34 of the book the writer states, “You’ll learn how to confer with larger number of students in Section 3.” I turned to Section 3 (page 59) with excitement only to find absolutely no reference at all to conferring with large numbers of students. I was furious! Partly because before referring me to Section 3 the writer had shared how they had tried conferring with middle school students in a thirty minute Independent reading period on a fifty minute class period. This is exactly  my situation except that I have 42 students compared to the writer’s thirty-five. The writer found it “impossible” to meet with more than two students in that time, a situation I completely understand from my own experience. I will keep trying, and looking for more advice from authors such as Penny Kittle and writers on the internet. I do not mean to suggest that this is the only book I have read that has bothered me this way. I just have not found an answer to the question as yet, although I keep looking and experimenting.

By all means share your experience and advice with me. I am always willing to learn, even if it is learning that others have had my same failures. I plan to continue to find ways to confer with my students, and have even had some successes talking to them as they come into the room, while they settle down to read, and while I walk around monitoring. If this is conferring I am doing okay, but I can’t help feeling there is more to it. Maybe it is up to me and the kids I teach, the responses they give me,  and what I do with those responses.

So, back to my reading and learning. The next book on my list is The Writing Thief an appropriate title as my teaching is full of stolen ideas!

Training for the Common Core

I am getting ready to go back to school, and although I have been teaching for 28 years I am almost as excited as I was in the first five years of my career. I’m lucky because I am one of those people for whom teaching and learning is a passion, and I lasted through the five years it took to become reasonably confident in what I do. The first two days of my new school year are set aside for Staff Development, and I am assuming that this means there will be time set aside for training in the Common Core. I’m not sure what that training will be but I am sure that it will have something to do with making small group work part of our teaching.

The Orange County Register has issued two days of information and opinion about the Common Core and the start of the new school year. I am most interested in their article about teacher training.  I am cautiously excited to see what there will be for me to learn in our two days of Staff Development. I say “cautiously” because it is hard to stay excited after many years of disappointment. My district will roll out a “new” program, and then not follow through on the training. One day of training is not enough, and that is the most we get. Here’s hoping that in this “new era” things will be different. Yes, the County Department of Education has offered opportunities for teachers to attend training session on the Common Core, but have left it “up to teachers to attend.” That’s all very well, but it says nothing about continued training. At least my district has made an effort to provide us with an introduction to the elements of the Common Core that took place throughout the last school year. I am hoping that they continue to do so.

I spent the summer reading books about teaching kids to work together and feel renewed hope that I will do a better job this year. In the past I have been guilty of making assumptions about their abilities and just throwing them together to work. Now I know that I need to deliberately and explicitly teach the social skills my kids need to help them be successful. Helping students to work purposefully in pairs, small groups and as a class is an integral part of the Common Core, and I look forward to learning as much as my students do. At least now I have a better understanding of how to structure conversations so that kids can learn from their talk.

I know that one of my two days of training will be in “academic conversations” (yes, there is a book of the same title), and I know I will be learning something new and helpful in that session. My criteria for a successful workshop is that I will learn something I can use tomorrow in my classroom. I approach training with the attitude that I will learn something, and I usually do. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Is Adoption of Common Core a Mistake?

I have so much to say about the Common Core Standards it is hard to know where to start! There is certainly a “ruckus” being caused by this latest swing of the pendulum, which I find amusing. Having been a teacher for 27 years I have seen the pendulum swing before and it always causes an upset.

The Common Core standards have both positive and negative aspects, but on the whole they have to be better than the multiple-choice tests from No Child Left Behind. After all, there are no multiple-choice tests in real life. On the down side, the Common Core Standards have gaps. Looking at the specific standards from grade to grade, there are gaps and a lack of continuity. For example, the use of repetition in poetry is introduced in 7th grade, and never mentioned again. Is one to assume that teachers will automatically teach it again, or that it has not been introduced in earlier grades? Confusing to say the least. On the positive side, the Listening and Speaking standards are much clearer and more delineated than before, so that I have a good idea of what my kids will need to help them be successful.

The thing I like the most about the standards document is its emphasis on the ability and knowledge of the teacher. As this example from the Initiative for the Common Core State Standards says,

“Fact: The best understanding of what works in the classroom comes from the teachers who are in them. That’s why these standards will establish what students need to learn, but they will not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards.”

It is a positive message that gives teachers credit for knowing what they are doing, and having strategies that will help their kids succeed. Now if only the administration of the various districts would believe it! It does not help me as a teacher to be given a lesson to teach without training in the strategies I might use to teach the curriculum. Although I am an experienced teacher, I will be working hard this summer to re-learn and apply strategies to help students work collaboratively. Instead of giving me pre-packaged lessons I should be given planning time with colleagues, and instruction in strategies I might not know that can help me in the classroom. I know that some districts are allowing teachers at the same grade level to work together to create curriculum for the standards and this is what I think would be most meaningful.

I like the emphasis the standards places on analytical thinking and writing. Notice the use of word “analytical” as opposed to “critical” thinking. I recently heard or read (although I cannot remember from where), that the use of critical thinking emphasis in teaching essentially made no difference to final assessment of students. The common core standards is based on the old paradigm of reading where the text is key, contrary to later thinking about reading where understanding results from an interaction between the reader and the text. I understand that there was some thinking among those who wrote the standards that teachers were moving too far away from the text when allowing students to “make connections” between the text and their lives. I can understand the concern, but to say that reading is nothing more than what is in the text is an unacceptable dismissal of all we have learned about reading. As a reading specialist myself, I will continue to make sure that my students have a meaningful interactive understanding of text I use. Certainly I will make sure that “text-dependent” questioning does not mean only asking for literal level thinking.

Something else I like about the Common Core Standards is their focus on writing in terms of using short answer responses, because it includes a number of different skills and purposes. In teaching kids this kind of writing I can ask for differing grammatical structures, the use of formal academic writing, complete and polished sentences, appropriate vocabulary, and a number of other skills. The hardest aspect of writing for students is that it is not speaking. Although we talk about “voice” this does not mean the kind of language you would use in conversation with a friend. Academic writing requires the use of specialized vocabulary and sentence structures, and this is what is hard to teach to 8th graders! Still, I like the emphasis on short answer responses as it can do a number of things for me the teacher. When I have a student write about what they are learning it is easier to see what they actually understand and where I need to fill in gaps. Of course, this is easier said than done with the numbers I deal with every day. Reading 200 exit slips every day is not really feasible. Finding a way to read all the writing that will be generated by students is yet another thing to ponder over the summer break.

In an editorial in the Los Angeles Times (June 17, 2013 – Was adopting Common Core a mistake?), the writer says, “…there are valid concerns about mandates to reduce the amount of fiction read in English classes.” The Common Core does require more reading of nonfiction but this reading is supposed to be spread among the differing subject areas, for example reading of primary documents in Social Studies. As a literature teacher I can see how to use nonfiction to support my reading of literature, using it to connect to theme, subject, events. This does not mean I will reduce my literature content, as this is the actual content of English classes. Literature is the content of English classes because Literature provides both mirrors and windows for our students, allowing them to learn how to live and grow. I will use more nonfiction in my classroom with the common core, but not at the expense of literature.

I hope that the Common Core will benefit my students. It will take time, training and hard work, but as I am committed to improving the learning of my students I will do my best to use the Common Core in the best ways I can for their benefit.