Sunday, March 20, 2011

To Train a Teacher: Another Long-Ass Post

Standards, College Education Courses, and You

            Thornton Wilder’s gorgeous play, The Skin of Our Teeth, (which I co-directed at what I'll call "Luxe" High School back in 1997) opens with a kind of “garden of Eden” house setting, and the entrance of Mr. Antrobus, who has just invented the wheel. Again. Apparently he reinvents the wheel every single day, and with the same wild enthusiasm, followed by despair.

            How I love, love, love Thornton Wilder. The man could teach. And he was also entertaining.

            Because this portion of the blog feels like a reinvention of a wheel, and yet a necessary one, at least to me, I invoke Wilder specifically now because we are taking a plunge into Teacher Education. It seems so obvious. I mean, we’ve all been to school. Right? How hard could this be?

            When I arrived to my first schoolteaching job, after five years of college (four years as a theater major and English minor, with another year after my BA in the College of Education for the student-teaching), I can say with absolute confidence that I didn’t know diddly about how to start.

            I was brilliant at decorating a room. I was excited, I was arrogant, I was energetic, and I was totally unprepared. Reinvent the wheel! Despair!

            Here’s a teacher-survival breakdown from 1987 at that school, my first gig: Of the four brand new teachers that year, one left after first semester, one after the first year, one (yours truly) left after three years, and one is still there after twenty--three years.  That’s not a really great ending, and also it’s the national average to this day: 50% left teaching for good after the first year; 25% stayed a while, took a break, and returned (that’s me; I’ll tell you why someday in the Memoir section); 25% stayed for the long haul.

            This mini-manifesto isn’t about blame. It’s an opportunity to assess failure and think about how we might change that. I’ve been out of teaching for over seven years as I type this, after fifteen years on the job, and it is still bothering me so much that I have to write about it. Especially the lack of preparation part.

            You might be thinking: “Lisa, why not tell us a little about your teaching life, so that those of us reading this will understand what those college education classes ought to have done to help you?”

            I reply, “I want you to be as ignorant as I was going in. Though I cannot stop you from skipping around all over the blog.”

            So: You are going to teach school. How do you prepare?

            The answer to this question, when I was a young student-teacher in college, was first a thing called, “Educational Theory,” and then another thing called, “Educational Methods.”


            Fuck “Methods.” Fuck “Theory.”

            You heard me. Because this is where I’m just going to let myself get fucking pissed. The Swearing Teacher. And I just started the post.

            If ever there was a useless fucking class in the whole of fucking useless education classes, it was the “Methods” class. But not as fucking stupid as the stupid “Theory” class. Classes.

            Let’s first talk about Methods. These “methods,” so-called, involved your professors bringing out their little bags of tricks they once used when they taught school, for, like, five years, twenty years ago, before they LEFT in order to go academic (also nursing a hope of becoming a Consultant to get paid a lot of money to “author” text books, and who doesn’t want that?). It was like each professor’s personal Hit Parade, to use a disturbingly dated reference: Board games! Portmanteau words! How to make a collage using scraps and can labels! How to make cool transparencies! (Translation: Power Point slides! (Translation: Interactive Whiteboard Lessons!))

            The “Theory” classes instead focused on the ideas of others, theorists such as Piaget, Bloom, Bakhtin, Maslow, and I don’t know. Seriously. No memory of any of it, except Bloom’s Taxonomy and this one Piaget tidbit about where sophomores are developmentally. But I took ’em, those classes. I may have even used stuff. Eventually. And look, I know that for the purposes of abiding by state and federal laws, student teachers need courses in educating kids with disabilities, English Language Learners, and other special needs groups of students. There is a great deal to know before entering a classroom.

            Whatev. I know I sound like an ungrateful asshole. But Jesus.

            Hear me out: First and foremost and above goddamn all: Teachers are held accountable for teaching STATE STANDARDS. I spent TWO YEARS, including summer school, in the College of Education, learning to be an English teacher, and I do not exaggerate: Though I was drilled in the importance of skills, over and over again, I did not learn what in the hell a language arts learning standard actually was, where one came from, or what it meant. Let alone how to teach to one.

            When I say “learn,” I need to be clear: “hearing about” is not “learning”; reading an article is not the same as putting a concept into practice. Instead of applying real understanding of standards (then called “Scope and Sequence”—that is to say, which skill, how deeply you teach the skill, and at what grade level you teach it--more explanation to come) to lesson building, we student teachers were assigned to create a random lesson plan for, say, spelling, or writing, and whatever the hell, and put down the number of one of the standards. Then we did games. And we did a LOT of activities, projects, loads of stuff.  But it all seemed to come rapid-fire and decontextualized. I could never keep up, because I couldn’t follow any logical pattern. 

            If such a course had been a play, I’d say there was no thru-line, no spine. If it were a house, I’d say there was no foundation. If it were a metaphor, I’d say, Block that metaphor!

            Here is what I understand now: Figure out the FUNCTION of what you are teaching, and the METHOD, or materials and form of delivery of the teaching will follow. Figure out the FUNCTION of what you are teaching, and doubtless there will be really fine THEORIES to underpin and explain what you are doing. So where were the FUNCTIONS classes?


            Before I go on sounding like a bitter, raving, lunatic ex-teacher: Look, I know my education professors taught me stuff, and I remember liking several of them, and doing big projects like creating a “reader’s support kit” and “an activity archive” or whatever the hell. Sure, and I never used those projects again in my whole teaching life. I also read a bunch of books that kids might like to read, as young adult readers. Fine. They were very enjoyable reads, even though I never taught any of them.

            What I know is that I didn’t know shit about how to manage a classroom, or prepare a course's worth of lessons, or implement the instruction consistently once I got to my own actual classroom. What I did know, I realized, I had learned from Miss Dotson (first grade), Mr. Hart (fifth grade), Miss Covington (seventh grade), Mr. Edwards (junior year), and Mr. Corbin (senior year AP), and by being a student aide in the English Department when I was a senior in high school. (Kudos, Mrs. Combs and Mrs. Roché.) Seriously--that is what I drew upon most often. So what was missing?


            I knew about daily lesson plans. We had done a few of those in my college courses. What I didn’t know was that most schools expected to see general lesson plans before each of the nine- or (if you are so unlucky) six-weeks sessions. Some schools want plans by semester, in addition to the daily lesson plans.

            But here’s what I had to do:  My first school wanted to see a WHOLE YEAR’s plans, month by month and week to week, state standard by state standard, by the last week of September.

            Needless to say, I wept.

            Pardon me while I repeat a question I asked to myself when my principal told me, on the fly walking past my classroom, that I had to make a yearly plan: What the hell is a yearly plan?  No one in the College of Education had taught me how to plan beyond a one-off exercise, or a set of five lessons, maybe, and never on the scale of a full quarter, let alone an entire academic year. I finally got the hang of making yearly plans, but imagine doing surgery for four or five years before you really understood anatomy. It was like that. Only without the deaths and the malpractice lawsuits. That I know of.

            Anyone can write one hypothetical lesson plan for one hypothetical hour of one hypothetical class. And too many Colleges of Education will only ever ask teachers-in-training to do just that. (Bonus: They really emphasize “creativity”!) It’s not a pointless exercise, but unless it is connected to a whole, and it needs to be, all the single lessons in the world won’t be of any use in your classroom teaching. I speak from experience, and from the experiences of many of my teacher friends, including young ones who quit after three years and less, just recently (they work with me as editors now). What’s worse, for the purposes of a one-off exercise, most student teachers will just copy a great lesson they remember from a class they took in high school or in fourth grade. What does that even mean? I see a hand back there.

QUESTION: Why do you feel comfortable generalizing about the failings of Colleges of Education?

ANSWER: Because 50% of the nation’s brand new teachers quit after the first or second year. FIFTY PERCENT. I will repeat this number a lot. Look it up.

            What I’m going to talk about here is a new focus for undergraduate Colleges of Education. Because states have requirements for teacher certification that must be met by these colleges in the form of courses of study, clearly we have to have a much larger conversation to effect real change. That said, let’s focus on the main issue for good teaching.

            First and foremost, new teachers--whom I refer to as student teachers here--need to know how to construct and implement an effective instructional plan that teaches standards. (To see a full curriculum fleshed out by nine weeks, semester, and year, refer to later parts of this blog--where I lay out my entire Theater Production curriculum to demonstrate it. But I wouldn’t bother about that right now.)

            It all starts with understanding core standards: How do you interpret state and national core standards and assess how well students have met them?


            Tal Birdsey was a grad school classmate of mine at the Bread Loaf School of English in the early1990s--an incredible school, changed my life, and I talk about it more later in this tome. Since then, while I played by the public school rules and subsequently bailed, Tal created his own accredited private school in Ripton, Vermont, a school that is revolutionary, cool, fun, and changing lives. Tal, you are doing the Lord’s work, while I’m just trying to get some regular, drowning teachers across the river. I wish I were as awesome. But I’m not, and I have to live with it.

We return to our regularly scheduled blog post, already in progress.


            I learned almost nothing about these in college, but they’re, like, kind of important. To states. So, hello, Colleges of Education? Is this on? STANDARDS IS WHERE ALL TEACHERS HAVE TO START. (To be fair: It was not until 1989 that states all decided to adopt standards, but Virginia was in the process in 1987, when I was student teaching.)

            So what are they?

            EDUCATIONAL STANDARDS: These are developed by teachers, university academics, and specialty scholars to help public schools know what to teach, and when, in order to help students learn skills and concepts they are developmentally ready for, and to avoid redundancy as they progress through school. It used to be called, as I mentioned, “Scope and Sequence.” To restate: The standards are a guide as to which skills and concepts you teach--how broadly or specifically you address them, and in what order you introduce them--each year, K–12. For each grade, per subject, you can expect to find anywhere from 20 to 50 separate standards, depending on the subject and the state. Generally, each standard is supposed to get three or so solid “hits” each year. That means the teacher instructs and assesses each standard “completely” three times during the academic year. Sounds simple.

            You are precious.

            Sadly, a lot of college education people seem to think the same thing, a sort of “you’ll figure it out” approach. But standards are not simple. Not at all.

A Specific Example: From LANGUAGE ARTS, with apologies to Math People

            In every state as well as in the recent Common Core national standards, there are basic Language Arts standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening. (Someone wrote a rousing thesis on the “components of a language arts class” around 1994, I guess, thus reinventing Thornton Wilder’s wheel, and making a fortune.) And you, the language arts teacher, have to hit all the various standards for these four aspects of language arts, for your grade level, during the year, as directed by your doctor. You have to plan for this. Language Arts, generally speaking (in capital letters), has two to four times as many standards as other subject areas. The Common Core contains around 50 standards per year for each year of Language Arts. (Foreshadowing alert: hold onto that fact for a discussion about teacher salaries . . . later.)

            For an example, let’s take Grammar as one component of the Writing section of a set of standards for Language Arts. Grammar, naturally, will appear in all grades, K–12. Excuse me, I see we have a question.

            QUESTION: At what grade level do you introduce Nouns?

            FOLLOW-UP: And when you introduce nouns, what information do you reveal about these nouns and at what grade level?

            ANSWER: In order to answer these questions, let’s analyze nouns:

            1. Definition: person, place, thing, idea
            2. Types: common and proper
                        i. with proper: capitalized, so you have to teach capitalization as a                                                           concept first
                        ii. (if there’s a one there should be a two, so that’s what this is)
            3. Forms: singular and plural
            4. Cases: nominative and objective

            . . . and this is when verbs, and subject-verb agreement, come in; followed by pronouns, which take the place of nouns; and then nominative and objective cases of pronouns, and somewhere in there direct objects, indirect objects, objects of prepositions, ergo The Great Who v. Whom Debate . . .

            So you see how this gets complicated. Do we teach all the parts of speech every single year? When do we officially move on and get to meaty writing?  Must we reinvent the entire grammar wheel every goddamned year? Figuring out how much kids need to know, developmentally, and when they need to know it, and to what degree we reteach and reinforce it, is the great huge maddening problem when one has to write standards.

            You know how kids ask, “Why?” Okay.

HOW WE TALK LANGUAGE: A play in one short scene

Characters: A parent and a child
Setting: A car; driving to the store

CHILD: That car goed fast!
PARENT: No, honey, that car went fast.
PARENT: There is no such word as “goed.” It’s went. The car went fast.
CHILD: The car went fast. Why went?
PARENT: This dates back to the beginnings of the development of the English language and the sources of word adoptions from various linguistic roots, such as Latin, Greek, Danish, Nordic, French, Spanish, and, primarily, Germanic languages. Along with each verb came a conjugational adoption, and some of these are archaic, but we still employ them partly out of habit and also because without maintaining the language history, we would lose our ability to read our ancient books and documents.
CHILD: I like cars.

            This scene illustrates another reason that teaching ANY subject is complicated: Dependencies. It’s why developing any curriculum is tough to do, why things get left out, why gaps appear. On the one hand, states may ask for the re-teaching of all the grammar skills each and every year, taking precious time away from actual writing, especially in the upper grades. On the other hand, states create real gaps at times, leaping from understand parts of speech to write a thesis, with little in between. The perceived need to “learn it ALL, and learn it NOW” can also cause state boards to create standards that reach, way, way, WAY too far, too fast, asking for too much, I’m choking here. As my younger brother told his wife when she yelled at him for trying to make their son stand up at six months, “Honey, I want our son to be advanced.” My brother winked, but your state board of education won’t, and you’ll sometimes have to implement crazy standards by the dozen.

            Colleges of Education must teach student teachers how to read and interpret state standards. Then they must teach how to write and implement lessons that meet those standards. Finally, they must teach teachers how to devise assessments that will in fact assess whether or not the student has mastered those standards. That colleges don’t already do this as a matter of course astounds me.

            Before I launch into my plan for restructuring Colleges of Education, I want to illustrate what it means to interpret state standards, thereby showing why this is something a young teacher will not just “get” without help. My best experience in reading, interpreting, and writing lessons to meet state standards comes not from my teaching career, but from my second career as an editor in educational publishing. And, boy, I’ve read some doozies.

            No state committee sets out to write shitty standards, but too often members of these state committees really, really do (hence the move to “nationalize” them). (NOTE: The standard itself IN NO WAY tells a teacher HOW to instruct in order to meet it. I will address that in another blog post on Instruction. Here we just want to find out what on earth a kid is supposed to know.) 

         To model what it means to read and interpret a state standard, I will discuss three examples of one type of standard. Because I understand language arts best (and an elective like Theater Production, which I will model later, doesn’t have standards, per se), I’ll use slightly paraphrased Fifth Grade Reading Standards on theme from three different (unnamed) states. NOTE: A “theme” here is an author’s message about how life is lived, as explored in a work of fiction. No theme can be stated in a word. (The sort of “theme” in a one-word sense refers to a kind of writing exercise, as in Write on the theme of “winter.”  That is not a literary theme.) A theme of a story might be, “In order to achieve success, you have to make good choices and work hard.”

            Another theme might be, “If a man with a gun wants a name, give the man with the gun the name, or don’t, it doesn’t matter, because he’s just going to shoot you anyway.” And with that in mind, what better way to aid our focus  in this section than to adapt the themes of Sergio Leone’s unforgettable spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for Standards. And like that film, we’ll start with Eli Wallach, whom actually I find hot.


            Here is a sample of what I would call an Ugly standard. This is an actual (if, again, slightly paraphrased) fifth grade reading standard from a state in the U.S.:

“Students will compare and contrast themes in literature across multiple cultures and genres.”

            Like that shot with Eli Wallach, Clint Eastwood, and Lee Van Cleef on the horses, facing off--body, body, body; holster, holster, holster; face, face, face; eyes, eyes, eyes; eye, eye, eye--in quick succession, I just feel I am about to explode with tension: What the hell is going to happen? Who will DIE?

            Because someone is going to. Why?

            Let’s parse this thing:  Look at the skills students have to demonstrate in one standard.

1. Students will compare and contrast . . .: To begin, students must know what it means to compare things, telling how things are alike; and contrast things, telling how things are different. They also need to understand that we compare and contrast in order to help us remember information. (For example, I know that turnips are like radishes, which I hate; only I also know that turnips are kind of like potatoes, which I love; so turnips have kick but taste okay; and because I remember all this, I’ll eat nourishing turnips, even if I only “like” them. See?) So that’s a good skill to know. Okay.

2. . . . themes in literature . . .: Students must understand what a theme is and how to find one in a work of literary fiction (theme is for fiction only in this case). Authors have a message, and that’s good to know. So how do readers get that message? To find a theme, students begin by thinking about how characters behave, what happens to the characters, where and when the story is set, the society that is presented, and ultimately how a protagonist changes as a result of all the events. That’s a lot to unpack, but depending on the story and level of difficulty, any child can learn this: It’s the difference between the message in “The Three Little Pigs” and the great sweeping themes of War and Peace that affects how you teach it.

3. . . . across multiple cultures. . .: What is meant by “multiple cultures”? It could be that students need to recognize that the world is full of a variety of cultures and that each culture has various characteristics often revealed in literature of those cultures. Is that what this standard means?  Do we get into racial identity, ethnicity, religious affiliations, and the like? How do I choose aspects of cultures? Cultural examples include rich, poor, white, black, male, female, young, old, Asian, Asian-American, Indian, European, Catholic, Jewish, parents, children, teens, gay, straight, urban, rural, Yankee, Confederate. Do I discuss the characteristics of cultures? Or possibly the “cultures” need merely be present through authors and titles, and unremarked on. Fair enough to include, on some level, but the standard is not remotely clear as to how.

4. . . . and [across multiple] genres.: Here, students have to understand what genre means and what the characteristics of various genres are. Fair enough. So what genres are there? Genres include, broadly, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Under poetry, you have your sonnet (Elizabethan and Italian, e.g.), lyric, limerick, epic, narrative, villanelle, haiku, tanka, cinquain, haibun, and free verse, just for starters. Okay, next is fiction, under which category we find, for example, the sketch, the short story, the novella, the novel, the graphic novel, the play or drama; and within those: realistic, mystery, science fiction, romance, horror, and fantasy--again, just for starters. Under nonfiction, we have history, biography, autobiography, essay, criticism, opinion, menus, recipes, technical manuals, etc. So. Genre. I guess we can do some of that. Now . . .which?

Why This Standard Sucks

            The first problem: NOWHERE in the remaining document for fifth grade, I discovered, were there specific standards to teach compare and contrast, theme, culture, multicultural literature, or genre. So teaching ONLY ONE of those skills or elements would not “count” as a “hit” for the teacher who is responsible for teaching that standard. ONLY IN TOTAL COMBINATION could the standard be considered “hit,” and I can tell you that in any grade, that is tough going.

            SO: Suppose I use, say, a futuristic novel by the American female writer Lois Lowry, ca. 1970; a naturalistic short story by the Asian-American male writer Laurence Yep, ca. 1990, and a humorous poem by Jewish-American male writer Shel Silverstein, ca. 1980.  I find that all the selections have in common a young boy who is trying to find something he lost. By finding it, he learns more about himself. Sort of. It’s kind of watery. But it’s a female, and two males, and even if they are all American, they are writing in different eras, in different genres, and one is white, one Asian, one Jewish. Am I covered? Who in the hell would know? And finally, what does any of this have to do with making sure kids can comprehend, recall, and enjoy what they are reading? Isn’t that what teaching reading should be about?

            So the teacher will have to “fake it,” possibly cheating the kids of anything like a sensible lesson in the rush to pack it all in. A good teacher will teach each skill, and throw in a little mish-mash each unit to call it a “hit” for the administration, and be gentle so as not to confuse the children. But why should she have to play at gymnastics to meet a “standard” like this? And since any teacher who must teach it will be stuck with a standard like this for something like ten years, someone has to train a teacher in the best way to approach it.

            The second problem, and here is what makes the standard truly UGLY: This was written to be used in fifth grade. Ten-year-olds are supposed to do this. As my teacher friend Jen said, “And what do they do when they are seniors?” And my friend Rina, a Ph.D. candidate in political science, added, “Oh my God, I couldn’t do that NOW.”

            Do you see why a good College of Education instructor would need to help a young teacher work her way through this? Like it or not, she may have to teach to this standard. And it took me over a page of writing just to TALK about it. And it’s only ONE standard. And I’m good at this already.

Now on to Lee Van Cleef . . . still in fifth grade (there’s an image), in another state [cue theme music]:


            “Students will use facts and relevant details to support an understanding of themes in a work of literature.”

            Where to start? (This is like the scene where Lee Van Cleef says to that guy that, you know, he just wants to know which name “Ugly” Eli Wallach is going by now. But you sort of know it’s scarier than that.)

            First: “Literature” is a huge category, but for this standard, the state (as with the previous standard) may be referring to “fiction,” but as taught in language arts classes, theme can also go with poetry. The state standard isn't clear. (In nonfiction, which is also literature, we generally stick to Main Idea rather than Theme with young readers. For further discussion, see below.) So how about the word “facts” ? “Facts” are not part of fiction or poetry, though a fictional or poetric work may draw on facts. Perhaps the state committee meant, “evidence from the story or poem.” But then I’m interpreting. And look how complicated we are getting. These kids are ten.

            Now to “relevant details”: First, the word “details” with fiction, in terms of standards language, would seem not to be confusing. Fiction is full of images, dialogue, figurative language, all in service to the story being told. I suppose you can call them “details,” (it’s a handy term, and I use it myself sometimes) but I prefer to think of the variety of techniques and elements that authors use as more nuanced than a “detail.” Often, a whole scene or a cumulative understanding of a character’s actions is what a reader would use for support of a theme. Also, this requirement involves nuance of a troubling kind in terms of fiction: How to judge what is relevant? If a kid reads, starts to sense a theme, points to lines or scenes in the text that support his or her thinking, those “details” are relevant. A “passing comment” may reveal a whole world. (In the novel Of Mice and Men, for example, the ranch hand Candy says to George, “I ought to of shot that dog myself.” In this line, the whole novel comes clear, when one reflects on it.)

            Finally, to return to skills used with fiction vs. nonfiction as seen in standards documents, an aside: Just as states may ask for both “facts” and “details” when discussing fiction, states often use “theme” and “main idea” interchangeably, and this is confusing. When it comes to nonfiction, it’s clearer for young readers if you stick to “main idea.”  With main idea, you ask students to gather important factual details from the text to find the main idea of a paragraph (or passage, or longer work) based on what the details have in common. Literary nonfiction, such as a biography, may contain themes, but that requires a sophisticated understanding of theme. These kids are ten years old. Theme is for fiction (and poetry—but really that is another discussion) and Main Idea is for nonfiction: we are building understanding, block by block.

            So while a teacher could teach theme with this standard, and have kids use evidence to support the theme or themes they see, it’s a messy standard. But some poor teacher will have to teach to it, and someone, Dr. College of Education, needs to show her how.

And, finally, blessedly [cue theme music], Clint Eastwood.


            “Students will recognize the theme or message in a work of literature.”

            You know why this is good? You can do it with every group of kids, at any age, and just up the levels of sophistication through choice of literature, as appropriate for your group. It’s tangible.

            However, in order to recognize a theme, students would have to point to words, images, characters’ actions, and events in the story to support their recognition. So the standard is not quite finished. (This standard is like the scene where it takes Clint Eastwood two shots to break Eli Wallach’s noose.) A teacher can teach to this, but with a good instructor in her College of Education, she might be guided as to how to not only teach it, but improve on it.

            So let’s make the standard BETTER:


            “Students will use text evidence to demonstrate an understanding of theme in a work of literature.”

            See? With one clean shot, we break the noose.

            And THEN we can blow off some hats: To build sophistication, a standard at a later grade (in high school, for example) might say: “Students will apply their understanding of theme to compare themes across works of literature of various cultures and genres.”

            In this way we build a scope and sequence, increasing the sophistication without over-stuffing each standard so that we unrealistically try to LEARN EVERYTHING EVER TODAY! At least, this is my dream. Back to reality.


            Let’s apply this understanding of standards to COURSE OFFERINGS in a College of Education at a University.

            Whereof I Speak: When I became an editor of text books here in New York, I and my colleagues had to analyze literally hundreds, possibly thousands, of state standards across grades from all over the United States. Quite often, we had to call state boards of education and ask, “What do you mean by this standard?” and very often, uh, even after we talked to, uh, the fourth person, they kind of, uh, didn’t know. It was beyond disheartening. I say this not only as a textbook editor, or even as a former teacher, but as a citizen.

            I never had to do this kind of standards analysis as a student teacher. Or if I did, it was for a couple of decontextualized class sessions only, because I know I was CLUELESS about how to deal with standards when I started teaching. Back then, standards were just beginning to take hold in governors’ meetings; back then, as I said, what you taught was called a skills “Scope and Sequence.” Whatever the name, it amounts to the same thing: I never learned how these skills/standards came about. And now I know, from experience, a part of how standards are developed, and it would really help student teachers to understand this. Otherwise, these “standards” appear as “Commandments” delivered from on high. How, then, can a mere teacher ever hope to understand them, let alone how to instruct to them?

            They ain’t from no “on high,” first of all. Oh, no, they ain’t. It’s by Committee, baby: A wild assemblage of consultants, teachers, and administrators, many of whom drew short straws in their districts and had to go to the big meetings alongside concerned citizens (read: evangelicals). So that’s part of the story.

            Whenever you read a standards document, you’ll find at least one whack-job standard. You say, “WTF?” and show it to a colleague. As a teacher who sat in on state standards committee sessions, I can tell you at least one way standards like these get placed in final documents: There is one woman, and it’s always a woman, and she has taught for 30 years with no other view than to save the world, one red x at a time. And she has a bee in her bonnet.

Let’s Write Standards! An absurdity in one scene

SCENE:  A stale, hot committee room (high school library) in My County, Your State
CHARACTERS: The Associate Superintendent (or, A.S.); Some Anonymous Suits Sitting with A.S., (or, Suits, or A.S.S.); Teachers Coerced into Being Here Against Their Will (TCIBATW); Lisa O’ (member of this group); Teachers Whose Sole Purpose in Life Is to Attend Meetings Like This (blah, blah); Bee Bonnet Woman (member of that group).

[AT RISE: Noises of chairs shifting, rumbling voices, a hand is raised. A.S. calls on BEE BONNET WOMAN.]

BEE BONNET WOMAN: I want you to put dangling modifiers in Grade 4 Language Arts standards! I have always taught dangling modifiers with fourth graders, participles, all of it, and I want that in the standards!!! IT NEEDS TO BE THERE!
LISA O’: Um, I’m sorry, at what grade do we introduce adjectives and adverbs? I don’t see it.
ASSOCIATE SUPERINTENDENT: The document is more general.
BEE BONNET WOMAN: Give me dangling modifiers, or give me death!
A.S.: Oh, screw it, put it in. [A.S.S. record the request.]
LISA O’: I thought we were trying to make a relevant document, build a workable scope and sequence of skills from grades K through 12, you know, build cohesion...

            This is a reality of developing standards documents. We’ve all (I hope) heard the controversy over the Texas Board of Education’s altering of American historical facts for their social studies standards in 2010. These standards won’t be revisited for another 10 years, and close to five million American kids came close to never learning about Thomas Jefferson’s role in the Enlightenment in their whole public school careers. Why? Because one chairman, ONE, apparently has the connections to bust the kneecaps of all the citizens and board members of Texas. Or at least a direct line to keep them from getting into heaven.

            Is it any wonder, when faced with interpreting and implementing standards like the ones above, along with other stresses, that over 50% of new teachers leave within two years?


            I am, in this section, a Bee Bonnet Woman, at the risk of seeming only slightly less absurd.

            In the face of the standards challenges, Colleges of Education need a full COURSE in reading, interpreting, and implementing state or national or core (or whatever the hell they’re called as of the writing) STANDARDS. This must be followed by a full semester in LESSON PLANNING, two in INSTRUCTIONAL DELIVERY, two in CHILD DEVELOPMENT, another in ASSESSMENT, and two in CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT.

            First, STANDARDS: I don’t know if there are such courses anywhere, but if there are I have never met a single teacher who has heard of one. That there should be such a course is such a “whoa-duh” that I can’t believe this is new: One entire course over a full semester should truly be devoted to this and this alone--STANDARDS--and for every content area.

            To the Professor of Education: I know. You don’t think this is fun. Well, work on that. A lot of kids don’t like math or English, but there it is. Teachers NEED this. It’s the FIRST THING a new teacher will be asked to do on the job. It informs her or his entire teaching life. (If she or he hates it, she or he needs to find another major.) I hope my demonstration above helped you understand the need for such a course, as I examined only one standard among 50 or so in one document, for one subject area, for one grade level, in one state at a time.

            Once you understand the need for such a course, you then have to ask, How do I guide young student teachers to learn how to build a curriculum to teach standards?  How do I measure their understanding of these standards? And away we go.

Next up: The Course Proposals, Outlined

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