Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The world waits for teachers

It was 1986.

It was an ordinary Tuesday.

And then it wasn't.

I was student teaching in Lubbock, Texas, at Monterey High School. I was nervous. I had been in this classroom for exactly two weeks.

The day before, Monday, January 27th, I had been given the reins to the class. I was now responsible (more or less) for the education of 123 students.

I was 29 years old. I had come to teaching after working for the Texas Department of Human Resources as a social worker responsible for placing children in foster care. I had seen more than my fair share of dysfunctional families. I had seen parents unable and unwilling to care for their children. I had seen children who loved their parents even though those parents did not seem to love those children back.

Finally, I'd had enough. I decided I wanted to work with children on the front end of their problems, to help give them a fighting chance.

I returned to college to earn my teaching certification and now I was almost finished.

I spent hours planning lessons, thinking about how to engage my students, help them see that what we did in the classroom was relevant to their lives.

On my second day of being the teacher, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

In this Jan. 28, 1986 file photo, the space shuttle

A teacher - Christa McAuliffe - was on board. Watching her lift off was preparation for a writing assignment: What impact will a teacher have on the space program?

Suddenly, 27 faces looked at me.

What happened?


Will they be OK?

How could this happen?

Why do bad things happen?

My students needed me. Not necessarily as their teacher. Not necessarily as their friend.

My English class and my English curriculum suddenly were not very important. Instead, what was important was being there for the students in that classroom.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. Teachers do more than teach the curriculum. To make a difference teachers must serve as guides and mentors and as a steady voice. Teachers help students make sense of the world.

Making sense of the world means that I will give my students the tools they need to be successful. If I am supposed to help them learn English I have a responsibility to help them learn English.

But I can't teach them English and forget about the world that they live in. English, math, chemistry, history - every subject must find a connection to the world that my students experience beyond the walls of my classroom.

Sometimes that world explodes into the classroom - like it did on January 28, 1986. At those times the world is hard to ignore.

Most of the time though the world waits for teachers to make connections, to help our students understand why and how school matters.

And teachers do. Every single day!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dangerous myths and distortions: D's get degrees

When my oldest son went off to college a Senior in his fraternity, who was majoring in engineering, relayed this bit of wisdom: D's get degrees.

While technically true, I was not comforted by the thought of driving over a bridge or riding in an elevator or flying in a plane that had been designed, constructed, and built by an engineer who earned D's throughout her/his college career. I would rather trust my life to the engineer who really knew and understood the concepts.

A wise man (Doug Reeves) once said: A "D" is a coward's "F." The student failed but you didn't have enough guts to tell him/her.

Grades, while they seem so clear, really don't tell us very much. I could earn an "A" in biology and still have failed a section or a unit over the course of a semester. Was that section or unit important? The grade of "A" would suggest that it was not.

But what if it was?

Students need to know what they know and what they don't know. Traditional grades are averages. And averages distort. 

As educators we have an obligation to accurately report what our students know and don't know.

Traditional grades don't do that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On the importance of grades

Do grades reflect your actual ability or knowledge?

I earned a 2.4 grade in my Organic Chemistry class at the University of Washington. (The UW did not give letter grades while I was there - only numerical equivalents. Don't ask me why.) That, in truth, probably overstated my actual knowledge in the course.

Grades, of course, signify your ability and knowledge. In a manner of speaking, they represent how smart you are.

But do they?

I would humbly suggest that the grade I earned in Organic Chemistry in 1977 probably was a poor reflection of my actual knowledge.

A recent article in The Atlantic suggests grades reveal little about achievement. The article focuses on grade inflation and notes that while grades and GPAs have increased over time measures of actual achievement and knowledge have remained relatively static.

Which leads to the question of why we pursue grades with such vigor.

Next week students at Novi High School will have their midterm exams. Study sessions are and will be organized to prep students for these exams. Teachers will engage in class reviews. Students will gather at coffee shops and in the library to help each other prepare.

I am not here to suggest that these efforts are not important.

I am here to ask another question: Of what importance are grades?

We must be able to help students, and by extension parents, community members, colleges, employers, and others with an interest in knowing exactly how smart our students are, know where they stand. Do they know the material is a relatively important question.

But my question is: Do grades actually help us answer that question?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A letter to the students of Novi High School

You, my friends, are an awesome group of people.

You are funny, talented, thoughtful, and intelligent. You are, most of the time, friendly, polite, caring, and honest.

But you were not happy with me this morning.

A parent in the district received this message from her Novi High School daughter this morning:

(I assume the frozen fingers accounted for the spelling error - years instead of tears. But there certainly was no mistaking her earlier sentiment of how she felt about me this morning.)

Many of you, as evidenced by this text, were not happy with me this morning.

If you think this was an isolated occurrence you would be wrong.

Favorited by 46 people!

I chuckled at your comments, enjoyed the banter between us, and appreciated that you were paying attention.

But there are at least two lessons that are important to remember here.

First, each of us will be called to make difficult decisions in our life. Difficult decisions should be made with care. You should collect information, weigh potential outcomes, examine alternatives, and then make the best choice you can.

I did that today.

Did I make the right call on having school when there was a wind chill approaching -20 degrees?

I think I did.

Obviously some of you had a different opinion.

When others disagree with a decision that you make it is important to listen, reflect, and see what can be learned.

Which brings me to the second lesson that I remembered today.

In your life there will be people who make decisions that impact you with which you completely disagree. In the social media world that we live in it is easy and somewhat comfortable to take to Twitter or Facebook or Snapchat or whatever other application there is that I don't know about and vent.

It feels good. It makes people laugh.

But it could get you in trouble. Some bosses, colleagues, employees, or employers may not be as understanding as I am about comments that are vulgar, disparaging, or mean.

I would urge you to use caution and to think while you Tweet, post, and communicate via social media.

I was in your school today during "A" lunch. I visited tables saying hello, smiling and laughing with your classmates. It appeared that you were enjoying being in school. I hope that was true.

Novi High School is a good place to be - even on cold days like today.


Dr. Matthews

Monday, January 5, 2015

Baby it's cold outside!

When I arrived at work this morning the air temperature, as measured by my car, was 5 degrees.

As I walked from the parking lot to my office I said to myself, "It is very cold!"

As I fired up my computer I looked at a weather site on the Internet and saw that we had winds of 19 MPH. That produced a wind chill of -15 degrees.

Finally I pulled up the National Weather Service wind chill chart.

windchill chart

This chart serves as a guide. Wind chills can be dangerous. But we can moderate the effects of the wind in the winter by dressing appropriately.

The school district's unwritten policy is that we will not cancel school unless the wind chill is consistently below -25 degrees.

Living in Michigan we can expect there to be cold weather. We must take the appropriate precautions.

The safety of the students in our district is always on my mind. In the winter I take great care to monitor weather conditions. I will not put our students at risk.

However, we can expect there to be cold weather in Michigan. Being in school is important. Cancelling school disrupts the learning process.

Cancelling school because of the weather is not a decision that I take lightly. I gather as much information as I can. I look to weather experts to give us guidance.

And I always keep the safety of our students in mind.