Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Ways to Balance Between District Mandates & Student Needs

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 10, 2013 12 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on this topic.)

Last week, Juan Cortes asked:

Many times teacher are told by our districts to follow specific programs, but many times those programs do not differentiate or do not address specific needs of my students.

How can I balance following what my district tells me vs what I feel the students need?

I’ll be responding to Juan’s excellent question in two parts -- watch for another post later this week that will include more guest responses and comments from readers.

Today’s post features what I’m sure most readers will agree is an exceptional guest response from well-known educator/author Rick Wormeli. He offers a wealth of insightful suggestions, and I don’t feel a need to repeat them. Instead, I’ll focus a few beginning comments on strategies to handle what most of us have to face -- the district-mandated textbook. Though my comments are modified from my book, The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide (co-authored by Katie Hull Sypnieski), they can be applied to textbooks in any grade or subject.

Textbooks can be a two-edged sword -- they can be efficient, provide order, and save teacher’s time, they can provide good models, and they can provide a guide for effective learning. There can be a danger, however, in teachers (and administrators and school districts) viewing them as being written in stone and insisting they be followed precisely.

I’d suggest that it’s better to see textbooks as a sort of cookbook where teachers can pick the right dishes for the appropriate occasions. The Latin root of the word “cook” means “turn over in the mind.” Teachers using their experience, judgment and skills to constantly “turn over their mind” is one of the main job requirements of effective educators.

The level of textbook flexibility provided to teachers varies, however. If you are obligated to follow the textbook closely, try and use it as a “framework” for your class. In other words, first examine what the leaning goals are for each chapter and identify the places where you can most easily include more engaging teaching strategies. As Jason Renshaw, a longtime teacher puts it, “to innovate within concrete, start with the cracks.”

* Converting textbook passages or dialogues into inductive learning text data sets where students read, annotate, categorize and expand chunks of informational text (you can read more about the research behind it and practical issues at one of my recent monthly posts in The New York Times); clozes (also know as “gap-fills”) or sequencing activities to be completed by students.

* If there are a long number of questions to answer in a textbook assignment, turn them into a Jigsaw exercise with each partner having a few questions to answer and being prepared to support their answer with reasons when they report back to the entire class.

* Turn textbook passages into Read Alouds and Think Alouds.

* Many textbook publishers offer student companion websites with reinforcing interactive exercises. In our experience, often the online activities are superior to what’s actually in the print version! If that’s the case, by all means, bring students to the computer lab or use some of the activities on a computer projector for the entire class.

* As Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach will suggest in the next post, don’t feel like you have to do all this on your own. You’d be surprised at the huge number of teachers from around the world who are facing similar challenges. By easily connecting with them through the many ways Sheryl will suggest, teachers can share useful materials with others.

You can read more ideas at The Best Resources For Adapting Your Textbook So It Doesn’t Bore Students To Death.

Response From Rick Wormeli

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and writer living in Herndon, VA. He can be reached at rwormeli@cox.net. His newly released book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching is now available from Association for Middle Level Education. Three paragraphs from this article are from Rick’s forthcoming article on politics and teaching available in the April issue of AMLE’s Middle Ground magazine:

Ambrose Redmoon was a rock band manager in the 1960’s. He was also a quadriplegic. He said that, “Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s the judgment that something else is more important than that fear.” In our classrooms, what do we think is more important than our fear of colleague/administrator admonishment or being less than perfect in front of our students? Alternatively, what goes unlearned in our students because we were playing it politically safe?

Teacher conformity is one route to program fidelity, but it’s also breeds complacency and excuses. If students fail to thrive with a mandated program, it’s easy to blame the student for his demise because the program was proven successful by its promoters: The student must have made some bad decisions, or the teacher didn’t follow directions when implementing the program, otherwise, it would have worked. In truth, this sometimes happens: Students make bad decisions, and teachers don’t follow directions for something that would have been effective.

Sometimes students’ circumstances don’t allow for school-friendly responses, however, such as when our student is living with a single parent who’s working three jobs late into the evening hours while our student maintains the house - meals, laundry, baths, discipline, homework help -- for three younger siblings. A program may require extensive reading but our student reads at a grade level three years behind his chronological placement. Attempting the assignment means providing proof of his incompetence to all those around him, and why would he want to do that --day after day after day?

Sometimes mandated programs are slowly paced so that everyone, no matter their background, learning challenges, or proclivities can keep up, but our advanced students strip mental gears trying to cope with the inane course assigned. Curiosity and hope die out, initiative sputters, and we’ve killed another subject for another child, assuring them that school is about seat-time, not meaningful learning.

It’s arrogant for any one, step-by-step program to make claims for effectiveness for every single student and class reality that teachers face. It’s reckless for a school or district to call the program sovereign over all, mandating strict adherence to its sequence. Just as soon as we mandate one math program, for example, we find an exception in one unit where it doesn’t work as well as a classroom teacher’s last minute innovation. A sole diet of pure phonics instruction for a reading program doesn’t work, just as a reading program devoid of phonics doesn’t work. We are education professionals; we are capable of complex, wise decisions that result in strong student achievement.

The key is to provide a highly effective schematic with proven strategies, but to include clear mechanisms for teacher expertise to be used as warranted by circumstance or student needs to alter or augment any given approach. Of course, this means teachers must do their homework so they are knowledgeable and skillful enough to be trusted with such important decisions, and not be whimsical about it. They should also vet their decisions to deviate from the plan with respected colleagues. Most programs have useful strategies worth applying in the classroom, but the most successful students have teachers who maintain autonomy to deviate from programs as necessary.

By the way, if teachers retain autonomy to make lesson changes they find effective, they take responsibility for the outcomes. They commit to a lesson’s success more personally, analyzing their actions and revising thoughtfully. These are positives for all stake-holders. Wise school districts provide ample professional development for teachers in their disciplines.

There are eleven actions a teacher who doubts a school’s mandated program can take in order to sleep better at night and successfully teach his or her students:

1. Realize that every administrator want students to be successful. If you find a better way to achieve student success, don’t be bashful. Present it to your administrator, posing both the evidence you have that the current program’s approach won’t work, and the arguments that your approach will. 90% of administrators will ask you to use the more effective strategy and let them know how it goes - they are that conscientious.

Problems by themselves come across as one more burden to carry, and already stressed administrators are reluctant to add more to the pile. Problems with potential solutions, however, are more easily considered, and administrators listen deeply. We come across as thoughtful collaborators, and we’re more likely to receive permission, or later, forgiveness, for our deviations from a program, when we present solutions to problems presented.

2. Remember that everyone wants to save face. We have to honor what others bring to the table, otherwise they will shut down to our ideas. So, look thoughtful and not impulsive: Point out the positives of the required program and the administrator’s decisions whenever suggesting temporary deviations.

3. Really analyze your evidence to make sure you’ve got something here. Sometimes, we just don’t like losing our favored activities, but they were blinding us to what was more effective. The required program might be the catalyst we need to shed a fond, but less effective strategy, and step our game. Change is hard, but it often leads to something better.

4. Consider deviating from the program here and there as necessary for students’ success, but translating what you do into the language of the program so you can keep your job. If it says to not let students re-do a piece of work, for example, and you do let them re-do it after some re-learning experiences, and they students learn the material, no one is going to complain. If a student can’t read non-fiction well, and you replace esoteric lessons on transitive and intransitive verbs with ones on how to determine main idea and supportive details in expository text, you will be treated as a dedicated teacher, not a deviant. Speak with colleagues in grade levels above you so you know what concepts/skills are the greater, more leveraging concepts/skills you teach students this year.

5. When presenting evidence of a need to deviate, always include empirical evidence (data) with the emotional, ethics side of the problem. This creates not just intellectual, but also moral imperative that makes people consider your ideas carefully.

6. Tell those questioning your deviation from the establish program that you’re doing a “pilot.” People get panicked by permanence. Tell them that you’ll be glad to report the results of the pilot later in the year, but right now, you’re exploring some ways to supplement the program for the students still struggling.

7. Exercise and get solid sleep. Perspective widens, solutions reveal themselves when brains have oxygen, muscles and bones are relaxed, endorphins are released, and the mind is rested. Solving this concern may be as simple as getting sleep and exercise.

8. If it’s just too much to continue to do something you find so unethical, report the concern to the School Board or someone in authority over your supervisor. They may not know how the program is hurting students or that there are alternatives that would work better. We may need to educate them about classroom reality and teacher problem-solving.

9. If everyone at all levels denies your request to deviate from the program as necessary, yet you still believe your course is the better course, consider taking it public - to the parents and business leaders, to make your case. Speak up at sports practices, in Postal Service lines, in the grocery store or at the church/synagogue/mosque picnic. Constituents have impact on those in power.

10. Choose your battles. This may not be one you want to fight right now compared to one you know you will want to fight down the road. Remember to ask yourself, however, whether or not giving up on this battle is actually settling for lesser learning in your current students. Is giving up this conflict worth the sacrifice to our students?

11. Hook-up with someone else whom your respect and trust. Sharing your reasoning with him or her will strengthen your arguments and fortitude to do the right thing. By the way, this could be someone from another state or country that you know from an on-line community, not just someone in your local community. You may want to call or Skype with this person, however, as anything in print tends to leave a footprint and can be used out of context by many parties.

Finally, think about the hypocrisy: We want our students to think deeply, question, and imagine unspoken possibilities, then share them. How ironic and lifeless would it be to keep teachers from doing the same! An effective school has teachers that create, question, revise, and toss the governing policies of its program from time to time. We can stand firm in education principles, yet collaborative in our response to problems.

The best teachers of my own children have been the ones who respect the school’s system, but parted from it as necessary in order to teach my child. We all hope to be worthy of such effective teaching. Best of luck in these choices, and know that many of us are struggling with the same issues and making the same decisions. You are not alone.

Thanks to Rick for contributing his response.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be including readers’ thoughts in the next post.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.