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From the Archives 7

A note to those who evaluated the worth of my work when I taught in the teacher education program at the University of Nevada, Reno.I just had a student in my office, Richard, who received a grade of “C” on his final project for my course, the project that would become an artifact in his portfolio. Richard told me that he had done the work in my class with great difficulty because the comments on his work throughout the semester had been so in depth and valid that the criticism hurt. He had never been evaluated in such a way and he had never had to work so hard to rethink the work but, when he did, new understandings of the concepts taught across the spectrum of his education had begun to develop; he now was working to make sense of things rather than taking things in for the sake of repeating what he had heard to pass a course.Richard had bouts of anger along the way because he did not know how he could satisfy me. When he stopped trying to satisfy me and, instead, think through the problem before him and its relevance to the work he would do as a teacher, he had an epiphany that led him to rethink the way he goes about learning, a set of realizations that will, he said, change the way he thinks about teaching others.I wish that the conversation that I have just had with Richard or the communications I have had with several students like Richard were somehow recorded so that I could prove to those who evaluate me that I do know what I am doing, that I am not, as has been charged, disorganized or unclear in my expectations. I do change the plan, on occasion, but this should not be taken to be about my being disorganized or unclear as to my expectations for students. I change things in response to what I gauge my students to be thinking and where that thinking is in regard to where the course needs to take them if the course is to teach what it is intended to teach.I am not interested in students learning terms and content unless the terms and content are attached to meaningful concepts that can be applied to the problem of teaching in such a way as to help students grow knowledge wise and as thinkers who can discover knowledge when it is needed, distinguish knowledge from information and translate information too knowledge while considering how that knowledge is to be applied to making sense and decisions regarding the nature of the world in which they live.For years I have been penalized, punished, and harshly critiqued by students and, as a result of their criticisms, by those who evaluate my work, by those who, in reality know nothing of my work because they have no idea as to what I do. Over the past 26 years, visits to my classes by those who evaluate me number no more than three. The number of times I have been asked to explain the rationale for what I do in my courses is zero, even when I have written long explanations as to why it would be worthwhile for those who care to understand my work and its value to those I teach and those they will teach, those explanations offered in hope of meaningful discussion about why I do what I do as a teacher.In recent years I have submitted copious amounts of material relevant to my teaching and the results of my teaching and never been helped to understand if or how that material figured into the evaluations I received. Last year I submitted hundreds of pages of student work to show how I worked with students to help them grow by the evaluation of their work over the course of a semester. I received no response that would cause me to believe that the material had been read, let alone considered for the purpose of fair and meaningful evaluation. I have spent a career trying to offer my students the education they deserve, one that comes of instructor involvement with their thought processes, instruction that is based in my deep reading of their understanding by requiring them to engage with assignments that offer them the opportunity to apply what they have learned so that the concepts taught are understood to be relevant to the kind of work they will do when they enter the field as teachers, the kind of work they would do if the were to excel in their chosen profession. I have watched others rewarded for their mediocrity, teaching courses in which little is asked of students and little is really done to gauge that growth of students, in regard to the kind of thinking that is necessary for truly successful teaching. I have read hundreds of graded assignments required in other courses, several of which are part of the sequence that leads to the senior levels courses I usually teach and I have found many of these assignment to be wanting for thoughtfulness on the part of the instructor and the student. I have read too many an assignment made so easy for the student to complete that it is impossible to see how the work produced reflects any kind of important learning. There are few assignments that I have seen from colleagues that require meaningful engagement in the thought processes that allow a professional teacher to distinguish between meaningful means of instruction and those that simply fill the hours that have to be filled in the school schedule.Many of these courses, the instructors who teach them, receive decent evaluations from students because the work does not take up much of their time. Whether or not they really learn things of value is only rarely a concern for students and I know this from comments my students make when we talk about topics of meaningful work that leads to learning. Good numbers of my students have told me that they cannot take the time to do what they are asked because they find themselves pressed for time because they did not take into consideration the workload that the course they were taking from me placed upon them. In recent years I have asked that my work be evaluated against a stated criteria for the quality of the work. I have drafted a number of documents that offer means for what I understand to be fair and reasonable evaluation, none of which have received fair consideration. I have been highly critical of the very program in which I teach because I do not see it providing students with the kind of education they need to become even good teachers, in good part, because the program does not demand that they understand what it means to be truly engaged as students, something rarely required across the scope of their educational experiences. Indeed, I am saying that I have been correct in my assessment and others have been wrong and I am not saying this out of arrogance, not at all, but out of a legitimate assessment of what students do, what they understand they need to do, to receive diplomas and licensure that allow them to teach. For once, look at the work.When ever I point to the fact that our work does not do much to affect the quality of education students in our state’s schools, every kind of reason is given for how it is not at all our fault, that we teach but a small fraction of those who have teaching positions in schools in the states, that our work, somehow needs not be judged against the kind of schools that exist in the state or our region of the state or in the school district that surrounds us. I am consistently told that we do excellent work, we, not me, and we reward our faculty for the things they do, even though there is no evidence to show that the work done has much positive effect on the lives of those who attend the schools in which our graduates teach. The state in which we work is consistently rated, by almost every measure of quality of education a state delivers, to be the worst or among the worst. Articles such as the one below and report after report pointing to the irrelevance of colleges such as ours appear with great regularity and, for the most part, are ignored by colleges of education, ours touting the value of research and willing at every turn to ignore the research that reflects negatively on our endeavors. [http://www.washingtonpost.com/…/a-warning-to-college…/This is not to say that I can in any way prove that my work has done anything to better the situation. I can say that my work has been dedicated to doing exactly this, mostly through trying to help my students understand what it is like to engage a process of education that provokes thoughtfulness and produces meaningful discussion amongst people concerned with making the world a better place to live. To this end, for many, many years, understanding that my students would not be ready for a truly rigorous course, I allowed them to resubmit work that I would read and grade again, this producing a workload for myself that did prevent me from doing other things that might have helped me move up in rank and up the pay scale.Again, I wish to stress the reality of the world in which I work, a world that, as a result of innovations that I have resisted, to my own determent rank-wise and pay-wise, has made my job considerably more difficult because students’ sense of their obligation as students, and their sense of what teachers should do for them, has, to say the least, caused them to become terribly irresponsible and they have learned that to do what they are told is enough to get them through. The push toward a standard answer on a standardized test, the common thrust of most classrooms, the many still operating on the bad principles that underpin No Child Left Behind compliance, has left students without any sound sense of their own role in the learning process. When students complain about my being disorganized or my not properly explaining course requirement, what they are asking for is a map to a high grade that doesn’t require them to understand much or do much of what is necessary to get to the learning outcome. I have asked, and I will ask again, that those evaluating my materials look closely at what my syllabi contain and that, in the future, they monitor my courses so that they can understand the help I provide students in regard to their understanding what is expected of them. Evaluators might even want to query about what they heard said in one of my courses and compare it to what actually was said, my prediction being that too many did not hear much of what I’d offered on any particular instructional occasion. Since this will not happen in this evaluation cycle, nor will any kind of classroom observation reports be available, I ask that evaluators do consider carefully the information provided in the syllabus and the comments I have made on student work, taking the time to look at some of the student work to see how, for instance, students are provided abundant information on how to proceed with subsequent work in the comments they receive on work submitted earlier.I will challenge any evaluation of my teaching that is lower than an excellent. I also demand that the amount of work I have to do in my courses to help students receive the education they have not received, that they should have received through participations in our programs, be considered in light the lack of abundance of the kind of work that is normally considered for evaluation of one’s research. On the evaluation of my research, I ask that it be treated in relation to potential effect and its efficacy rather than on the basis of whether or not it was published in the traditional places for academic work. As everyone in the College must know by now, I write regularly to inform my colleagues of my thinking on issues of all kinds that are relevant to the state of the College, its relationship to the other institutions and individuals who are our “stake-holders,” this to include the students who are being taught by those who graduate from our programs.I ask that the copious amounts of writing I publish through e-mail postings to the College chat room be considered as well as the hundreds of pages of writing that I publish on my blog site as www.lafered.com. These electronic postings are peer reviewed, but not in an official manner which, I contend, makes them no less valuable than those receiving approval of those who run the journals that few ever read, that do not really play a role in informing those who make decisions affecting schools or the public that pays and sends their children to schools. Look at my contribution to various Linkedin conversations, the ones sponsored by AERA, for example and on the conversation boards of the National Council of Teachers of English, particularly the one title “Twentieth Century Literacies” and look at the quality of thought as well as the quality of the writing. I ask that my evaluators goto the blog site that Diane Ravitch [http://dianeravitch.net] operates and examine the many posts I have made to that site as well as my older postings on other blog sites such as firesidelearning.ning.com/profile/StephenLafer that are accessible by web search on Google. I ask that consideration be given to the quality and value of the thinking behind my writing and the quality of the writing rather than where the writing was published. I write to inform and persuade and not to appease those who only care about the academic game, a game that, even when well played, has won the field of education little respect while, at the same time, done little to improve the quality of education and forced educators to spend far too much time away from activities that may contribute something truly meaningful to the world and its people.

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