Monthly Archives: April 2014

On the Stark Contrast Between Developmentally Appropriate Practices and an Era of Standardized Testing

Unfortunately, midterms are starting up again, so this reflection post will be brief.

This evening I attended a workshop held by the Neighborhood Schools Program called “Positive Environments: Engaging Activities + Stimulating Materials = A Great Learning Experience.” The talk (along with some fun interactive activities) was presented by Annette Kelly, a CPS consultant who also runs a non-profit organization that engages students in quality programming both in the classroom and in after-school programs. Basically, the workshop focused on – well, you guessed it – positive environments, engaging activities, and stimulating materials to make a great learning experience.

More specifically, the workshop focused on Developmentally Appropriate Practices and how educators approach children’s individual developmental needs and backgrounds. Most of the workshop participants (myself included) are currently undergraduates who work with kids in the community, though many of us (again, myself included) aren’t necessarily interested in teaching as a long-term profession. Many of us work and volunteer in low-income and underserved classrooms in the area surrounding the community, and thus could certainly relate to the discussion about environmental influence on child development. We spoke about the environments of family, neighborhood, and community, and how all of these settings distinctly influence every student’s cognitive, linguistic, physical and socio-emotional behavior.

When discussing these different influences and learning styles, I couldn’t help but think about how little schools can do nowadays to individualize learning for students based on these different influences and learning styles. For me, this is largely due to the ever-heightened importance of standardized testing. I remember reading an NYT article a while back about questions in New York State standardized tests about counting stalks of corn. In order to prepare students for these questions, schools in New York City were holding field trips to farms in order to show city kids what a stalk of corn looked like. This is just one example of how tests do not take into account students’ environments. Students may spend hours of class time learning to answer questions about an environment that is wholly unrelated to their own.

In the workshop, we also learned a bit about different types of learning styles (we focused on visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic, though there are arguably many more). One thing that all of these learning styles have in common, it seems to me, is that none of them is best suited by standardized testing. There is not a learning style named “bubble-graphic” in which students learn best by coloring in small circles for hours at a time. However, there are learning styles that are starkly go against this practice. In particular, we spoke about kinesthetic learning, and I couldn’t help but think how much of a negative impact the rote memorization and silence method of “schooling” must have on students with this learning style. Even students who are auditory learners, which is pretty common, must go nuts sitting silently hours on end in order to complete practice tests, what schools are being forced to call “learning.” The sad thing is that some of these kids must actually grow up thinking that this is learning. How is any kid supposed to develop a love of learning in such an environment? Honestly, I don’t know.

In the end, this workshop gave me food for thought, though not necessarily a lot of optimistic thought. It’s comforting to know that there are professionals out there who understand the developmental needs of students and create quality programming based on this knowledge. But it is quite discomforting to know that these professionals have very little say in the metrics that control our classrooms and dictate how students are being forced to spend their time.

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The Art of Teaching: Reflecting on a Trip to Golden Apple

Hello again!

I just now returned from a UCIEP trek to Golden Apple, a foundation that focuses on the importance of teachers in Illinois classrooms and offers a collective initiatives aimed at teacher appreciation, professional development, and scholarship opportunities. We had the opportunity to meet with a large number of staff at the foundation, almost all of whom told their own narratives of past and present experience as teachers in K-12 classrooms. I very much enjoyed introductions by Dom (Dominic Belmonte, President & CEO of the foundation), a very charismatic leader who describes himself as a South Side Italian who relied on his moxy to succeed, both in life and as a teacher. When talking about teaching, Dom said:

“It’s an artisan’s kind of work. We’re artists.”

This statement is very simple, relaying a sentiment that is often articulated by the best of teachers, and yet it got me thinking. How do teachers find teaching as a profession? Golden Apple offers aspiring teachers scholarship opportunities, and those who become fellows are offered an array of professional development opportunities in order to achieve their goal of becoming teachers, and furthermore, to become good teachers. For those who already teach, Golden Apple offers awards that recognize outstanding, committed teachers, and provides them with further professional development, as well as the opportunity to teach classes to others in the teaching profession. But all of these opportunities come to those teachers who already are or know they want to be teachers. So, the question remains: how do people discover their desire to be teachers?

Dom’s statement about teaching as an art form referred to the practical ingenuity and creativity that are crucial skills for teachers to have, particularly in the neediest schools. But I think there’s another practical dimension to this statement as well. Like artists, teachers must have passion. The work must be fulfilling to the individual on a deeper, emotional level (because, as we all know, most people in both professions are unlikely to ever achieve great material wealth). This passion doesn’t just allow people to take the risk of pursuing an insecure profession with difficult work and low pay. This passion doesn’t just make teachers–it makes good teachers. As all of the teachers and former teachers of Golden Apple articulated, it is the passion of a teacher that allows him or her to connect with children, make children believe that they give a damn about what happens to their students in and outside of the classroom setting.

The policy reforms that try to “fix” inner-city schools through the use of complex quantitative data and strict numerical metrics fail because they continue to miss the point. The point is that kids with high risk factors in dangerous environments require teachers who are not robots. They need teachers who are not scientifically proven efficient, and who are not chosen on the basis of their ability to follow a curriculum that is completely unrelated to the issues that impoverished children face in their everyday lives. These kids need teachers with passion. In short, these kids need artists.

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Reflecting on Workshop with Dr. Charles Payne: The Historical Context of Universality Rhetoric in American Education

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This evening, I attended a workshop with Dr. Charles Payne, hosted by UChicago Careers in the Education Professions. I attended an event with Charles Payne last quarter as well, hosted by Block 58. I have to say, having the opportunity to hear him speak frequently is very much a perk of attending this university.

One of the great things about events featuring Charles Payne is that there are only two certainties. The first is that you never have any idea what the topic will be. As one of my professors put it, he speaks about whatever happens to be on his mind that day. It can range from neighborhood development to national policy, employing any and all types of logic from theoretical sociology to real-world policy debate. The second certainty, luckily, is that whatever Charles Payne chooses to speak about, it will never be boring.

This evening’s talk was a short presentation followed by a Q&A discussion with Dr. Payne. The presentation commenced with a question: “Why do kids who look like they’re from very similar backgrounds have very dissimilar outcomes?” I’ve heard Dr. Payne speak to this interest of his before, though always with a slight twist that makes each asking of it differ from the last . After all, so much about education boils down to variability, and so does much of the political rhetoric. In the classroom, teachers must work with variability in an incredible way, somehow managing a classroom with (sometimes up to 35) students who come from different cultures, socioeconomic levels, and home climates, and that’s before even broaching the topic of differences in academic abilities and motivation levels. The issue of variability travels all the way up to the international level, with our top officials asking how our students compare to those of different nations.

Of particular interest to me is the management of variability in urban school districts, both in terms of neighborhood composition and policy rhetoric. Fortunately, Dr. Payne spoke to this tonight. He explained his most recent research interest, which concerns the successes and failures of various urban school districts in the United States. One story in particular I found really intriguing, namely, his story of an urban district superintendent who tried to directly combat “white privilege.” There are many ways of circumventing this crucial issue in urban education, and it is always refreshing to hear someone use the term in the context of honest inquiry, rather than with apology or hostility.

The most important policy lesson that Dr. Payne saw in the superintendent’s success, he explained, was universality. In short, improving educational opportunities for less-privileged children in urban districts is only politically achievable when improvement can be shown for more-privileged children as well. This is something I spent a lot of last quarter thinking about, while I was writing a term paper about the history of universality in education reform rhetoric and putting the universal pre-k movement into that historical context. After hearing Dr. Payne speak, I believe even more fervently in the sheer power that universality rhetoric can have in the field of educational reform. I am not saying I have an opinion in whether this power is ultimately a positive or negative force for society (though perhaps this question will go on my list of potential topics for my Sociology BA Thesis). Regardless of connotation, the rhetoric of universality has proven important historically in a country that prides itself on–though it rarely knows how to promote–its own diversity.

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