Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Trickle-down pressure

I've been feeling really disconnected lately -- from my students, my job and from teaching in general. I feel like I'm starting to take out on my students all the inner resentment I have for the BS I'm asked to deal with, and I hate feeling that way because we do still have some lovely moments of clarity together that are unfortunately overshadowed by all the other nonsense. There is definitely a system of trickle-down pressure at work in my school -- teachers who are under pressure from administration then put that pressure on their students -- and I can't shake the feeling that I know I shouldn't be blaming my students or expecting more from them than they are capable of just because my administration has completely unrealistic expectations...but somehow I can't help it.

This month, for instance, we are working on a non-fiction science unit in which the kids will be researching a topic (say, plants) in reading and then writing about it during writing. The first problem with this unit is that there are multiple grades doing it at the same time, and there just aren't enough books to go around. Some of my teachers were gracious enough to make sure they had enough books for my group as well as their own and we just intermixed our kids, but others assumed I would be bringing my own books for my own kids...where am I supposed to unearth these mythical books from, you ask? Yesterday I made a trip to the public library to check out mounds of books, and today I made a return trip, and I ended up with the maximum number of books allowed. I even pleadingly asked if they could make an exception for schoolteachers, but no such luck. Now I have to impress upon my students that under threat of death they will take exceedingly good care of those library books.

The second problem with this unit is that, like everything else my school does, it is over-ambitious and rushed. Today, for instance, our readers were supposed to browse the books in their topic and ask themselves, "What smaller topics inside my big topic do I want to gather information on?" -- basically, they were supposed to choose six sub-topics to research. We talked about examples of good sub-topics, like, "What They Eat," "Where They Live," "What They Look Like" (the "They" being dependent on one's actual topic, of course), and some of them did an admirable job. But realistically, can you expect a seven-year-old to decide on six good sub-topics in fifteen minutes of non-fiction reading when this is only the second day they've ever seen the books at all? I feel like that's a concept that some high schoolers and college students would still struggle with. And these are the topics we're expecting them to stick with and research all month! I felt like I was telling them, "In other words, if you do a half-assed job today, you're screwed." One of my colleagues suggested that we ask permission to carry the lesson over to tomorrow as well, and I thought: Why should we need to ask permission to make a judgment call on a lesson that we didn't think went as well as it could have?

So when my usual troublemakers were stirring up trouble, I was more short-tempered than usual with them -- trickle-down pressure. There were the kids who had been daydreaming during the mini lesson and missed the point of it completely, who went off to their science reading and began to complain, "I don't know what to do." Then one of my lower readers, in an attempt to follow my suggestion that he use the table of contents to help him choose his topics, chose "Index" as one of his sub-topics.

I just see the whole month going this way -- one disaster after another, because the workshop model is not going to help them learn how to research a topic when we model it once and then just charge ahead and expect them to do it. Oh, and let's not forget about the parade of interruptions from running records and NYSESLAT testing. If I had my way, we would focus on fewer things, give them more time and attention, and I would meet with students individually and in small groups to help them with their research instead of pulling them for these ridiculous "goal" strategy lessons.

But of course, I don't have my way.


mcaitlin said...

hehehe, index as a subtopic... sadly, 13 years later they're not doing much better. my college students DEFINITELY struggle with research papers. i'm mostly disappointed every semester. they struggle so much, that instead of assigning a research paper for my summer class, i'm going to assign 1-2 page writing assignments that focus on a skill needed for writing a research paper (e.g. summarizing a journal article).

as disastrous as having 7 year olds doing research might be (both in implementation and general age appropriateness...), i hope some of it sinks in, then in 13 years when i have them, i'll know they were your students :)

M said...

My school seems to have spent the first four months of the year operating under trickle down pressure - last year's first national test results were not good in my state, and the pressure has started from the Premier down. It got so bad I had to actively seek out something to 'destress' me so I wouldn't be so stressed in the classroom all the time!

The sad thing is how it's so easy for us to get caught up in sometimes really unreasonable pressures, and pushing ourselves and our students to a completely ridiculous place.

Anonymous said...

I read this last night and then had to come back this morning. Why are we doing this to the kids? Our students should be learning to LOVE books at this age. We should introduce them to books about frogs, salamanders, tigers but forcing a 'research' unit on them...finding six sub-topics on their own?????? They are 7/8 yr. olds! I have started saying no. period. Those at the top, who come up with these crazy "big ideas", have no concept of child development. We're squishing the children before they have a chance to grow. We're making them 'hate' learning when we do things like this. To mccaitlin above...pushing research at such a young age, with so little time, is the reason why kids come to you with such low skill level. And this same bullshit is repeated year after year after year. Our curriculum is a mile wide and an inch thick. The research project miss brave describes could easily take a quarter of the school year to do right. But we're not in the business of doing things right. Teachers need to revolt for the sake of our students. It's gotten out of control. What ever happened to childhood? There's the slow food movement. I've read about the slow money movement. I think education needs to slow down. Children need TIME to question, read, think, practice, and most important of all...WONDER. Teachers unite. Let's take our classrooms back. Our students need us now more than ever.

Anonymous said...

Hi. It's 'anon' from above again. One more thing...thank you Miss Brave for writing about your struggles. I teach third grade in Wisconsin and am experiencing the same absurdity here. It's hard to keep it together when so much of our time is spent trying to meet unrealistic demands. The bar keeps raising, but who benefits? As far as I can tell, it's those who are trying to discredit public education. When the developmentally inappropriate demands start to affect my relationship with my students, I, like you, begin to question the status quo. Keep on keepin' on for your kids. THEY are the only ones who matter in all of this. THEY are the reason I get up and come to work every morning. Close your door, and teach to THEM when you can. We are all trying to keep our heads above water, gathering 'junk data' and filling out pacing charts. All the while, our kids are never really building a foundation, a deeper understanding of how to learn. We're forced to push them along and then we're told they/we are failing. It's a bunch of hogwash and those of us in the classroom know it. Thanks again for keeping it real and spreading the word over the blogosphere. It helps to know I'm not alone.

Anonymous said...

nothing to say other than it's nice to have a new missbrave post to read-- many thanks.

Independent Educator said...

We must be doing the exact same unit - in 6th grade. It certainly is a struggle trying to get them interested in a topic that was really thrust upon them. They are seeing it in Science as well, which in one way is nice, but they are getting fed up with it quickly. Fortunately we manage to include time for independent reading which, after a spell of "research", they JUMP at.
Hang in there, you're definitely not alone. Just look at the faces walking into the classroom everyday and try to remember the reason you became a teacher.

allirab said...

One of my greatest frustrations when I was teaching in NYC was being forced to follow the rigid Susan-Radley-version-of-Lucy-Calkins curriculum with K-2 beginner ELLs. They couldn't understand even the scripted "Today, writers, I want you to notice how good writers do whatever mini-lesson topic we're covering that day". [I've probably got the details wrong, but I've tried to block it out!] The workshop method was rather ridiculous for my kids - a mini-lesson, a wee bit of guided practice, and then the bulk of the lesson on their own? How can we expect writing output from true beginners in a 2nd language when they've had so little input? Many of my kids were still in their silent period or early production, so asking them to choose 6 non-fiction subtopics in fifteen minutes was beyond pointless. Never mind how inappropriate it might already be for that age group, it was just not possible in terms of language. My intermediate level 8th grade ELLs are having trouble with similar research tasks right now!

Of course, as a pull-out ESL teacher I was never really properly trained in either Accelerated Literacy or the workshop model, so it's possible I completely misunderstood the procedure - but many of my colleagues were frustrated by the rigidity even teaching native speakers.

If we'd been given some flexibility, perhaps I could have developed something that would have served my kids and taught as much as possible of the curriculum as given. Maybe a group-produced research project on a single topic, with each student contributing according to their level of English proficiency? I could have exposed them to key vocabulary, perhaps taught them some important language structures, and maybe they'd have learned something about non-fiction science books at the same time? Most importantly, they might have enjoyed the process as well.