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Driven by Competition...Compelled by the Heart

Note: Patricia Dickenson, a former elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, is guest posting this week. Dr. Dickenson is a member of ASCD's Emerging Leaders Program.

It seems as of late, blogs and news clippings in reference to education focus upon how our students perform juxtaposed to our international peers. Such a concentration on performance will only serve to fuel the influx of new tests, a standardized approach to teaching, and heighten the push toward a value-added approach for teacher evaluation.

In my final post I would like to shift gears from a quantitative approach to a qualitative one. I would like to preface this by stating that the stories I share are my experiences as a classroom teacher of Latino English language learners. By sharing my experiences as a teacher, coach, and university professor, I hope this will shift the way we view education and discuss our most precious commodity, our students.

Good Teaching Matters

This past week I had the opportunity to discuss with my university students what makes a good teacher. As I listened to students share their stories from elementary school to college, the personal connection they had with their teacher was consistently referenced. Teachers need the opportunity to give students the most precious gift, their time. In a standards-driven system where pacing plans and mandated curriculum keep teachers accountable, there is little room to deviate from the textbook and make a personal connection, but you must.

When gang violence was at an all time high at our school and a considerable amount of class time was spent on "lock down," student behavior was elevated and engagement was low. I asked my students to put their chairs in a circle and I took out a book of poems by Tupac Shakur and began to read. Students sat in silence, some began to take notes, and others tried to hide the sudden emotion that overwhelmed them. A book of poems written by a man whose life was swept away by violence, and read by a teacher who never walked a mile in their shoes but knew how they felt. This experience shifted our classroom dynamic and sparked a connection that ten years later my students still remind me of.

Teachers, remember: beyond the district mandates, scripted curriculum, and push for fidelity, your first commitment is to your students and we should always be responsive to their needs.

Context Embedded & Cognitively Demanding

The first time I crossed paths with the fifth grade lesson for surface area I thought to myself, "How can I teach this so it is meaningful and they remember?" After combing through the textbook, I knew beyond the two examples and profusion of related word problems I needed to step "outside the box." The next day I asked my students to bring in a container they could use to explore geometric formulas from another perspective. I provided scissors, rulers, graph paper, colored pencil, and partners for students to work collectively. We began an exploration of volume and surface area using items such as tissue and cereal boxes, soda cans, and milk containers. Once the students grasped the concept we analyzed the formulas and wrote our own word problems based on our class set of homemade manipulatives. The lesson was context embedded, because students had access to visual cues that would support understanding, and cognitively demanding, as students were analyzing algorithms, devising word problems, and deciphering surface area in a meaningful way. The lesson did take longer than dictated on my district guide but my students understood the concept, and I did not have to re-teach, or ask my colleagues "why do my students forget what I just taught?"

All students, but especially our English language learners, need to be given an opportunity to learn by doing. Teachers can work collaboratively to design lessons that build student understanding and challenge their thinking. Schools should utilize professional development to capitalize on their best assets, their teachers. I am always amazed at the wealth of knowledge teachers share with me when I visit their school sites, but sorely disappointed to learn this knowledge is not utilized properly.

The Places You Will Go

The first time I substituted in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles I was amazed at the vast differences from my school in South LA. The school was only about 10 miles from my home school, but it had everything our school had lacked. With a background in technology, I was a strong proponent of integrating these tools for my students--more so, because I knew my students did not have access at home. That summer I took the time to contact local business and placed ads on sites where you could request donations. I was amazed at the outpouring of equipment I received from laptops and PCs to scanners and printers. In fact, I received so much supplies that I gave quite a few away. My point is not to brag about these accomplishments, but to encourage teachers to reach out to local communities and connect with the resources that are available to you. By doing so you are not only changing the lives of your students but modeling problem solving and critical thinking skills that are essential for our students to see in action.

Back to Basics...

Good teaching is not something that can be calculated through a statistical analysis of students' results on a standardized test. What would be much more meaningful would be to determine teachers' effectiveness by the data we collect from our students and parents. We should ask our clients how they would rate teacher planning, pedagogy, effectiveness, and content knowledge. Good teaching begins with good intentions, and is coupled with a love of knowledge, a passion for pedagogy, and most importantly a belief that all children regardless of their home language or zip code can achieve.

--Patricia Dickenson

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