As another summer ends and a new school year begins, I am optimistic.
Even as the pressures on schools and teachers mount, I begin yet another year with the belief that I can improve as a teacher and that my students can succeed.
Never mind the hullabaloo from education reformers who readily ignore the actual achievements of public schools with talk of charter schools, the Common Core, and the biggest evil of all: teacher tenure.
It’s the people on the front lines — classroom teachers — who understand this timeless reality: The best education reform takes place in the individual classroom.
So while I often use this space to question the current “educational reforms” sweeping the nation, I’ll begin the new school year by sharing practices that have had real, day-to-day effects on students in my own classroom. In short, my three-step recipe for education reform in the high school English class:
1. Professional Collaboration: Working with colleagues in my department and in my building is the best way to adapt to education’s expanding demands.
“It is becoming increasingly evident that conflict over reform in itself has been impeding educational progress — quantifiable progress that has been achieved in settings where educators have managed to move beyond unproductive battles,” writes Greg Anrig in his e-book, “Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools.”
How best to “move beyond unproductive battles”?
“Recent research examining efforts to enhance collaboration in districts and schools strongly indicates that purposefully building trust works,” adds Anrig. “The weight of accumulating evidence suggests that it is time to reverse course from the ineffective reliance on the coercive ‘sticks’ that have dominated education policymaking to a new set of approaches that would promote effective teamwork and intensively collaborative practices.”
In other words, teachers and administrators must work together to create a community of learning throughout a school, just as teachers and students must do the same in the classroom. Not surprisingly, student achievement improves in this environment.
2. Independent Reading: Encouraging kids to read is the best way to make them better learners.
I have traditionally offered time for periodic SSR (sustained silent reading) in my English classes, but last year I collaborated with a reading specialist to institute daily, independent reading sessions. And I wasn’t the only one, as teachers throughout my department regularly set aside class time for students to read books of their own choosing. The reason is simple.
“Children who read for pleasure are likely to do significantly better at school than their peers,” according to research from the Institute of Education (IOE). “The IOE study, which is believed to be the first to examine the effect of reading for pleasure on cognitive development over time, found that children who read for pleasure made more progress in math, vocabulary, and spelling between the ages of 10 and 16 than those who rarely read.”
Effective independent reading entails more than simply “letting kids read in class every day.” But the fact remains: Kids who read are better learners.
3. Connecting with Students: Kids are much more than “data points” on spreadsheets.
This idea should be obvious, but for the doubters, Texas A&M researcher Jan Hughes found that “when children have a supportive relationship with their teacher, one where they feel a sense of acceptance and security, they are more likely to work hard in school, follow rules and persist when they get stuck on problems. The children are also more likely to perceive themselves as more academically capable.”
Veteran teacher Rita Pierson makes the same point more emphatically in a rousing Ted Talk.
One way I make connections with students is to display an effusive passion for my subject, including a healthy dose of humor. But that’s just me. The key is for teachers to relate personally to the variety of individual human beings in the classroom.
So say all you want about charter schools and teacher tenure. A good deal of education reform is already occurring where it really matters — in the individual classrooms.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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