kitchen table math, the sequel: guerilla instructivism, part 2

Sunday, August 2, 2009

guerilla instructivism, part 2

[A parent] wouldn't know of "guerrilla instructivists" because if they WERE known, they would be disciplined, transferred, or fired (or all of the above). I doubt if a single parent of the hundreds of students I've taught in the last 10 years would regard me as a guerrilla instructivist, nor do any of them, in all likelihood, know that I am using DI and other non-approved practices and curricula. I use the same lingo as everyone else, reporting on "shared reading," "making meaning" and whatnot, but I mean different things by those terms and use empirically-validated materials and methods to achieve the goals.

If I were to "come out," I would certainly be disciplined, probably moved to a position where I couldn't do any of the things I am doing.

....The fact is that methods, materials, instructional practices and use of teaching time is often prescribed at the district level, with no teacher input, even down to the last minute, and classrooms are searched for materials that are deemed inappropriate. Teachers have very little say in what and how to teach. They certainly can't do things like, junk Guided Reading and do DI (pdf file) instead. Teachers must follow the established protocols. They are lower-level employees, not independent contractors.

....Small districts tend to be more responsive to their clientele.* The real edu-nazis are in large urban districts, where they have a population that they can manipulate, ignore or work around, and who rarely are politically active and almost never in an effective manner. The administration runs the show. Teachers, like me, who strongly disagree with what is being done have to fly under the radar. Kind of like being in the Underground in WW2. You need a good "cover," and you must under no circumstances let on what you are actually doing.

Of course many who want to teach effectively throw in the towel and go to the private sector. I have given this serious consideration from time to time, but am stopped by the realization that in the private sector I will not be able to serve the population I do now. Every year I rescue a few off the Titanic, in spite of administration, curriculum and other impediments. Their parents don't know, the admin doesn't know (everyone can chalk it up to sudden "development.")

But I know.

So I am still here. But if you were a parent in my school, you would not know that I was a guerilla instructivist. You wouldn't know who the others are, either.

This reminds me of my days writing for New Woman Magazine. I used to lace my articles with all manner of rupturous, pro-male sentiments, but I'd cloak my heresies in proper language and tone and I'd usually get away with it.

* not in my experience, but I haven't been able to discover whether my district is unusual


ChemProf said...

There is some movement among teachers toward better math instruction, at least in my area, but the reasoning behind it is interesting. I was talking with my mother, who teaches K-2, and she was singing the praises of Saxon math. Why? Because it has a good structure, building in small steps? Yes, but the big thing is that new teachers can use it effectively. The other curriculum they'd used had too many options and required too many decisions of young teachers. Of course, Mom is totally opposed to scripted curriculum (even though she'll admit many elementary teachers are math phobic), but I was pleased to see a step in the right direction, anyway.

Catherine Johnson said...

Yes, but the big thing is that new teachers can use it effectively.


This is PRECISELY the reason homeschoolers use it (one of the reasons).

When I realized I was going to have to re-teach fractions to C., I ordered Saxon & Singapore. I was intrigued by Singapore, & had a feeling it was the better curriculum of the two. But I didn't trust myself to use it so I ordered Saxon Math.

I can attest to the fact that a rookie teacher can use Saxon Math successfully. Saxon Math gives TREMENDOUS support to the teacher.

Exo said...

I second what Palisadesk and Catherine... Yes, we cover up. I taught in NY, middle school. Workshop model prescribed, word walls, bulletin boards, not more than 20% of premade or teacher-made posters, the rest -students work... No seats in rows! No teacher talking longer than 10 minutes! Teach the whole child, not the subject.. etc, etc, etc. I was shushed by my more experienced and well-meaning fellow teachers from even saying "direct instruction" aloud. So when talking to my principal about what I do, and writing up the course descriptions I used "problem-solving", "case study method", guided discovery" to cover for my very direct teaching. Well, since my results in regents passing were good, the principal seleted to ignore my classroom when walking around the building, but I was warned beforehand about any external visitors so I could move the desks from rows into groups, and do a lab...

Redkudu said...

Not only does guerilla teaching live, but I'm required to have my lesson plans in a binder on the desk for any passing visitations by admin.

And, due to past experience, I now have a system of code in which my lesson plans look one way (constructivist), but the lesson goes another. Never yet had anyone complain because, I think, they truly don't know what they're looking at.

Allison said...

But the analogy to WW2 doesn't hold at all. There, the Underground had allies. The Allies, in fact. They had support from the Allies: materiel, contacts, money, plans, and of course, hope. The Underground had leaders, a cel structured hierarchy and a plan to undermine the system they were in.

Your individual positions sound a lot more like 1984.

palisadesk said...

If you mean the formal "Underground," you are correct. But there were many individual decent folk in WW2 with no connection to the formal Underground who nevertheless did similar things, on their own -- helped Allied soldiers escape, hid Jews in their homes, took individual actions to subvert the occupying Germans.

A stellar example of the individual resistance that occurs to me was the action of the King of Denmark who appeared in public wearing a Star of David when this was imposed on Denmark's Jewish population. Yes, there was definitely an organized Underground, but there were many who were not connected to it (except in spirit) who did what they could to protect the innocent and undermine the enemy.

John Taylor Gatto gives some examples in his writing about the corruption and malfeasance in the NYC Board of Education, and how honest and dedicated staff undermined it; he predicts that the system will someday implode on its own, because the decent employees who are there for the right reasons will not be loyal to their masters when the day of reckoning comes.

Where any analogy to WW2 breaks down of course is that the stakes were much higher, and there is no comparison between risking your professional well-being by secretly defying district instructional policy for the good of students, and risking your life by aiding those targeted for persecution by the political state.

In another way, however, the situations are parallel: we instructivisits do have allies -- organizations such as the International Dyslexia Association (a great promoter of evidence-based teaching), NYC Hold, The Association for Behavior Analysis, parent groups (these tend to be local -- I can't think of any national ones), the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, the Florida Center for Reading Research, the Core Knowledge Foundation, and plenty more -- organizers of charter schools, private foundations, small charities and not-for-profit groups that promote empirically-validated instructional practices, and support teachers with information, research, and sometimes with grants or materials.

I won't say too much about what assistance I've had from individuals and organizations, but I definitely have had some, and so have others I know of in a similar position. Those of us in the "guerrilla" situation have to do most of this networking sub rosa, but in some circumstances, such as charter schools with a commitment to an "instructivist" framework, teachers can be public about what they do and can actively recruit financing, materials and so on, and receive coaching or professional training openly.

It's far from an ideal situation, but if it were hopeless I would have bailed out a long time ago. The starfish story certainly applies here.

Catherine Johnson said...

he predicts that the system will someday implode on its own

John Gatto Taylor does??

That's interesting.

I often wonder whether the system will implode -- I keep thinking about the Soviet Union, which seemed massive and all-powerful and then collapsed.

Catherine Johnson said...

Your individual positions sound a lot more like 1984.


I love it!

Catherine Johnson said...

Putting on my I-went-to-almost-every-board-meeting-this-year hat, LISTENING to administrators talk about Writing Workshop etc. is a fantastically stressful experience, partly because their words are so utterly unrelated to any species of real world experience you've ever had or could ever imagine having.

The night when the K-3 principal told us that Kindergarten children collaborate to "make meaning" was the worst.

Well, that and the testimonial letter the 4-5 principal read from a little girl saying she used to hate spelling but now she loves it because they do it the New Way.

You listen to these people speak - and they are very confident people indeed - and you wonder if they have any actual flesh-and-blood children attending their schools.

Catherine Johnson said...

How many guerrilla teachers are there out there?

palisadesk said...

How many guerrilla teachers are there out there?
There won't be data on this, but a reasonable hypothesis can be generated from the data we have. Guerrilla instructivists would of necessity be the sort that seek professional learning on their own, are highly self-directed and willing to invest a lot of personal time (and usually money) to acquire the skills and resources needed.

I've seen several sources (one was Harry Wong) that puts the number of teachers who vigorously pursue professional knowledge on their own at around 5%. The majority of elementary teachers are kid-focused but they are not generally readers or scholars, even when, as in our district, the majority are very well educated, were in the top quarter of their college classes, and earned degrees in recognized disciplines, not in "education."

Surveys find that fewer than 10% read a book every year. When a well-known author came to speak to us on a professional development day, it was at a major convention center and about 4000-5000 elementary teachers were there. The speaker asked those who had read a book (n.b. not in the workplace -- so reading a book to the kids doesn't count)in the last year to stand up. I expected to see everyone stand up but only a minority of people did. 5 books? 10 books? with every increase in the number more people sat down. He finally threw out -- maybe as a joke -- 100 books? I was not the only one left standing, but the others were so far away I couldn't see who they were. At school I trade books with the two secretaries and a teaching assistant. I don't have any colleagues that I know of who are avid readers. You don't need to be an avid reader to be an instructional guerrilla, but I don't know how you could be one without independent research skills.

You need to be able to read a lot and efficiently to amass a whole set of instructional information in your off-hours. Gladwell's 10 000 hours sounds right to me. After about 15 years of relentless pursuit of teaching skill knowledge, including many conferences, resources and consultations all paid for out of my after-tax income, I felt I really had a grip on the basics.
What percent of the self-motivated 5% would go in the "instructivist" direction? After all, many teachers pursue more learning of the discovery-oriented type. Can't blame them -- it's all they know, and if they haven't seen something work better, or known people who expose them to the ideas behind explicit instruction, why should they pursue it? They wouldn't even know where to look.

A skilled teacher can get good results even with constructivist- type teaching and mediocre curricula. It's those of us who can't rely on charisma and natural talent, I suspect, who go looking for answers. Also, it depends on what influences you had. I had a very instructivist-oriented "no excuses" graduate program, and an early EUREKA! experience with DISTAR reading with a 13-year-old nonreader (he caught up to grade level in just under an academic year -- not reading "fat cat sat" in October, reading Lord of the Rings in June). That made me sit up and take notice and go looking for more, because I knew the methodology and curricula were key elements and figured there must be similarly effectibe ways to approach a whole panoply of teaching/learning situations.

In my experience, which is limited, other teachers have come around to the "guerrilla instructivism" position in a similar manner. They were already people who were self-starters and sought out information on their own, but they were blown away by one or more powerful examples of the effects of good curricula and teaching practice -- synthetic phonics, precision teaching component/composite skill mastery, DI, Headsprout, or something similar. Once they see this they don't look back. I have three colleagues like that in my current school, and others who have moved on to infiltrate different schools.

So I would put the percentage of "guerrilla instructivists" at under half of the 5% -- somewhere around 2% overall.

MichelleM said...

Hi there. I love this blog, I've been reading for a few months.

I'm a mom of a very bright kindergartner, he starts this week. The good news is his school uses Saxon Math curriculum.

I'm wondering if the wise posters of Kitchen Table Math have tips for the moms of kids just starting their elementary schooling adventure.

Thanks so much.

Allison said...

hi michelle,

i don't want your comment to be lost, so i'm putting it up front!