Sunday, March 20, 2016

It's Time for OAS

I guess it is about time I shared my thoughts on the Oklahoma Academic Standards. I don’t know why—if legislators truly cared what actual educators thought, most of #oklaed’s blogs wouldn’t need to exist. We could all sit down to tea and intelligently discourse on educational issues. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

I’ll preface by saying I chose not to apply to work on the standards. I’ve spent enough time on English committees. I’ve witnessed heated fights over the minutia of comma placement and managed to alienate an entire department when I dared suggest teaching more YA in traditional classes. Therefore, while I know and esteem many of those on the committees, I steered clear, but I did read every draft (all grade levels), gave some feedback, and compared the standards to PASS and Common Core (because I’m a nerd). I have no vested interest in OAS—they aren’t my babies; I didn’t give birth to any of them or fight for any of them. However, I’m now joining the fray to support my English colleagues as we grapple for continuity for our students.

Let me backtrack a little and give everyone my credentials. It’s sad people can’t simply trust me as a professional, but I don’t mind sharing my resume before I share my opinions.

I finished my degree later in life and entered the teaching profession not as a doe-eyed, idealist, but as someone who had already spent much time reading, researching, reflecting, and pondering my role as a teacher (much of that done outside class). I student-taught with an 11th grade English teacher at Bartlesville, and spent a lot with PASS. Between college, student teaching and my 5-year stint at Bartlesville, I used PASS for about 6 ½ years for lessons and as we wrote (and rewrote and rewrote) benchmark tests and tightened vertical alignment. I saw first-hand how general PASS is, but I knew from the beginning that standards would be my minimum—that I would always aim beyond the standards. Why? Because English, especially high school English, is so much more than a standard, and there is so much more to teach, through English, than any standard or test could measure.

From Bartlesville, I took a job in Sperry. I started their pre-AP English program that year with 8th graders and taught traditional 10th graders, which was also the first year 10th graders HAD to pass their English II EOI (end of instruction) to graduate. Generally, the ones who didn’t pass were the ones who refused to even try in my class. I make it super difficult to fail my class because my class is about more than a grade. To the best of my ability, I want to prepare students for whatever path they choose in life. Again, standards and tests don’t mean much to me. I have a much bigger picture in mind for my students.

During my 5 years at Sperry, I worked with the Curriculum Director to expand their pre-AP English program to encompass 6th-10th grade. I recruited so I had about 25-33% of each grade enrolled in an AP class. Not because I think AP is the shizz, but because I genuinely saw students hungry for something different, something more than worksheets and the status quo. Something more than “learn figurative language” or “write a narrative essay.” I also served as Vertical Team Leader for the English department (covering 4th-12th grade) and Team Leader for 6th-12th pre-AP/AP English. I worked to help Sperry achieve vertical alignment and to transition to Common Core, which I also read on my own time (all grade levels, exemplars, and supplements). I built websites and worked with teachers to help them create lessons and make that move. To me, it was not a big deal. I was already teaching like CC endorsed. So, I gladly helped other teachers.

Additionally, I have been a school board member for Oklahoma Connections Academy (a public online school) and taught 6 semesters at Oklahoma Wesleyan University (Comp I & II, Intro to Lit, Secondary Methods, English Methods), I’ve done AP summer institutes, participated in 3 of the 4 sessions of the OKSDE Summer Convening, presented at conferences, taught PD sessions, and had Levels 1 and 2 Audit Training for Curriculum Managements Systems, Inc. And I’m only in my 11th year of full-time teaching.
Educating is what I do.

Which leads me to the Oklahoma Academic Standards…Standards are important to help give teachers a framework of goals. Standards also help unify teachers and aid in vertical/horizontal alignment. Standards support new teachers when they don’t know where to start or end up. Standards assist teachers in discussing the important questions about curriculum: Why are we doing this? Is this the best way to teach this standard? How do we get from point A to point B?

PASS did not provide this as much because they were too general. CC sought to do this, but it became politically incorrect to seek to unify students as Americans instead of by individual state. CC was also not perfect, and their standards for lower grades were not completely developmentally appropriate, but they were an improvement over PASS.

On a side note, I remember heading to the second year of OKSDE Convening a few days after the legislature screwed us by repealing and outlawing Common Core. I will never forget sitting in a room of passionate, dedicated educators and realizing all our hard work (from the past year of Convening and within our own districts) was now illegal. Seriously, it was that ludicrous. We sat silent and stunned for part of that first day. What we had done was work on curriculum and lesson plans, but much of that had to be scrapped lest it bear the “taint” of Common Core. Figurative language and punctuation are not copyrighted by Common Core, but our legislators were so freaked out, we almost didn’t dare use any of our original work. Asinine.

Now I feel as though I’m experiencing some bad déjà vu. Once again, our legislators are playing around with education: by threatening the standards—standards written by Oklahomans for Oklahomans, using Oklahoma values (whatever the hell that means) because Oklahoma legislators like to play god whenever they can.

Enough! Stop swinging your private parts around and pissing on things to prove what big, bad lawmakers you are. This is not about you. This is not about me. This is about creating continuity and stability for our students. This is about unifying all of our children under a common set of standards to prepare them to take their places as working, productive, and VOTING members of Oklahoma’s community.

Please do not tell me that is who you are thinking about, and you’re protesting because you want “what’s best” for Oklahoma students. This ceased being about our kids when you let outside forces and your political party dictate adopting CC then reject CC.

You want standards because you don’t trust me as a professional to aim for the highest I can with my students. Well, I want you to stop wielding your power like a homicidal maniac in a bad horror movie and listen to your consciences. No, don’t listen to your political party that has insidiously wormed its way into your mind and is passing as your conscience. Don’t listen to the power and ambition blinding you to common sense and the voices of people who know better—we, the educators. Stop letting ALEC and ACHIEVE seduce you like sirens. Remember what happened to those who answered the Sirens’ calls. Stop punishing our children with ROPE’s agenda. They have given up on public schools and public education. They would b*tch no matter what as they tried to hang us with their ROPE.

I know you have bad feelings since we, as educators, fought viciously over ESA’s. We are incredibly passionate when it comes to our students and our work as professionals. We get incredibly angry when anyone threatens those students. But, please, do not let your hard feelings blind you from doing something so easy and so obviously right: approve the standards.

I won’t speculate on what outsiders have promised you: ALEC or the Waltons. I won’t foray into conspiracy theories about alleged goals of privatization of education. I know you would never sell your fellow Okies and their children for 30 pieces of silver. I will not deign to imagine you have political aspirations outside of the state you say you love—and are hoping to impress future contributors and supporters. I know you wouldn’t grease your pockets using Oklahoma students and educators. I know these must be the musings of my cynical side.

Many educators have written about and recorded videos about OAS. Letters of support have been written. I am simply adding my voice to those in a show of support. If you want lessons and exemplars, approve the standards, and I can promise you both. Exemplars will take some time as teachers have obviously not yet utilized the standards with their students, but we can and will do it. If parts need to be modified/revised, that can also be done. But it’s much easier (and faster) to fix mistakes or edit existing work than to start fresh.

It is time to stop fooling around with public education. It is time to approve the standards so teachers can spend the summer writing lessons and working with their districts to implement them. It is time to help education rather than hinder it. A “YES!” to the standards wouldn’t cost you any money, but it would boost morale and help unify our state in a time when we are dispirited and splintered.

For once, be an advocate for the students and educators in your state. You say you care about us, but your words are cheaply given and easily taken back. If you want your constituents to ever trust you again, now is the time to hear the majority and approve the Oklahoma Academic Standards. To do otherwise simply shows us more of your true colors—those of lawmakers bent on dismantling public education and profiting off the destruction. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Needing a Connection

I constantly look for ways to make my lessons more applicable or more understandable for my students, especially my AP students. (Honestly, right now, I’m just trying to get my 10th graders to write more than 5 sentences in a paragraph—we spend a lot of time discussing why they could/would possibly need more than the bare minimum. Sigh. I’m not going to tell them they might also need less than that “magic” 5.)

I adore teaching literature, but I’ll save it for another post; rather, I want to discuss my evolution from a teacher who teaches writing to a writer who encourages (and attempts to teach and make time for) a deeper, more meaningful connection to the process.

I recently began thinking more deeply about why we write and how we communicate as humans. Why do we make movies and write books and design buildings and sculpt and SnapChat and tweet and write songs and tell stories? What is the purpose of all this? To torture students by making them analyze and write essays? Well, that’s only part of the fun.

The entire purpose of everything we do is to communicate and make connections with others. A popular textbook claims, “Everything’s an Argument.” I don’t think that’s true. Just because you can argue anything does not make everything an argument. Rather, everything is an attempt to connect with other humans in the hope someone, somewhere understands and lets you know you are not alone.

All our movies and essays and novels and tweets and pictures and art and architecture and fashion and experiments are simply, sometimes, clumsy attempts at connecting to the human race. We desperately want others to look us in the eyes (not always literally), touch our hand or shoulder, and assert, “I hear you. Yes, I get it. No, you’re not a freak. I feel/think/say that too.” Those three words, “I hear you,” seem to be the most important. We need to be heard—not listened to, but actively, truly, deeply heard. To connect minds and emotions.

I need to continue conveying this to my students. We discuss author’s/creator’s purpose and how authors/creators then make conscious choices to convey a message and achieve that purpose. Authors/creators pick one word over another, they decide on setting and characters, they use imagery and symbols, they create sentences and paragraphs and dialogue—all to convey a message and create a connection between the audience and the medium. I call this the “Hows, Whys, and So whats or Who cares.” How does the author use language? Why does the author use the device? So what or who cares if this was used? How does it help convey the message to the audience? How does it help the audience connect to the work?

I drill this into my students until they begin asking these questions themselves. However, to take our thoughts and work deeper, I need to paint the picture of one human trying to communicate thoughts and emotions to another human.
Let’s focus again on written communication. “Know your audience” continues to be the #1 rule of writing. Once you know your audience, you can tailor your communication for them. Sometimes the simple word is best; sometimes the slang or curse word is the right word; sometimes passive voice is acceptable. Sometimes you can use a fragment. This year, I began explaining the burden of written communication falls on the communicator. The communicator needs to make the message as clear as possible with setting, characters, figurative language, necessary punctuation, diction, etc.

Do not expect your audience to read your mind.

This is when miscommunication happens: we get slothful and sloppily toss out words and images, expecting the audience to chase after and gather up the haphazard fragments and piece together an imperfect and incomplete picture. Then we get angry when our audience can’t interpret our lazy style and misconstrues our incoherent message. We complain about being “misunderstood,” but did we work to make ourselves understood? Probably not, it’s much easier to place blame than to accept responsibility.

Writing and speaking are gifts. Other animals communicate in various ways, but humans have the capacity to create words, give them meaning and nuance, to attach inflection and punctuation, to utilize body language and facial expressions—we have so much at our fingertips; however, we must and should be good stewards with our gifts. The world is chaotic, but words, especially written words, can bring order to that chaos. An essay or novel or tweet is NOT creating something from nothing; they are attempts to bring structure and infuse meaning into the disorder.

I want my students to learn the rules of format and Standard English so they can more effectively communicate with others. Then, I want them to learn how and when to break those rules. I did not truly understand this until I sat down and worked on honing my own skills, which is a never-ending process.

In the beginning of my career, I focused so much on simply getting students to write a “proper” essay, with a thesis and the other requisite pieces. I still must do this because of the restrictions of standardized testing, the AP test, and college expectations; however, in the last 4-5 years (years in which my own writing blossomed and flourished in the form of poetry and example “essays” for students), I found myself entering into discourse of the hows and whys of effective writing. Why do we do what we do? Yes, we need commas, but when and why? Dashes are so lovely—here’s why. Using more than one exclamation point at the end of a sentence doesn’t make your words more exciting; those extraneous marks just make your words louder. How do we make this more interesting, without relying on 20 exclamation points? When should you start a new paragraph? Generally when you start a new topic, but sometimes your reader needs a break…that’s when you can start a new paragraph. Traditionally, teachers/professors like the thesis to be the last sentence of your intro, so when you are writing for them, do that. Now, let’s look at where some other authors placed their thesis statements.

Increasingly more, I quickly review/teach the rules, then I eagerly anticipate conversations with those students ready to spread their wings and try breaking the rules. (This is yet another reason I wish my classes were no larger than about 20-25 students. Sigh….) I even sit in desks next to students or force myself onto the floor beside them so we can discourse on a more equal plane (see those non-verbal cues?) and so I am less of the “expert.”

My next step is maybe for my students to actually watch me struggle through a prompt or a blog post. I’ve done this before with various levels of success. Right now, many of them simply want a formula for how to get an “A.” My dream is to throw out grades for any and all writing assignments. Rather, I would love the time to have conferences with my students and help them wrestle with and fine-tune their work. Unfortunately, I have restrictions to which I must conform…as do my students.

In the mean time, I will try to balance the “bad” writing they must do for the AP and end-of-instruction tests with lessons in revising and editing. I will do my damnedest to help students understand that while writing is a much needed and desired skill, it is also an art form. Writing takes lifeless words, cautiously examines them, then reaches in and chooses that special word. Writing pairs that particular word with other carefully selected gems and strings them together to form sentences, which then form paragraphs. Eventually, when we take the time to judiciously craft our words, we just might reach out and touch someone, thus creating that most beautiful of connections: humans in understanding and harmony.