Adam, my co-blogger, always reminds me that good blogs should be a little more like sports cars, and less like a functional, fuel-efficient, minivan. I imagine that if our blog was a person, Adam would want it to be a more fit version of George Clooney, only it would be a Clooney that wears glistening leather pants and a glittery jacket. Adam speaks in parables about blogging, like he is a pale-skinned version of a tech Jesus, so it's possible that I’m missing his point here.
Our behind-the-scene conversation usually involves one of my elaborate drafts or pitches, and Adam reminding that my topic selection is far too boring and depressing for anyone to ever read. He’ll say something to redirect my focus and ask me if I hate our 12 loyal readers.
“The writing is really good, but reading it sort of made me feel like I had just ate that second Arby’s roast beef sandwich and then got on a greyhound bus for 5 hours.” Then, he worries that he has shaken my already fragile confidence so he embarks on a two-day text message bender that covers everything from Kendrick Lamar’s Reeboks to his deep disdain for people that drink a lot of Mountain Dew.
I’m not even going to pitch this idea to Adam, because I know how it would go. I would tell him that I’m writing about summer and data. Adam would tell me that’s a terrible idea, but by avoiding my question and discussing the marketing strategies for over-the-counter kombucha drinks. I would ignore his obvious side show and bring him back to data. He would tell me not to write about data, but to write a blog about parenting where you cuss a lot. He would tell me that people love that stuff.
So for Adam’s sake, I’m going to include some parenting here, but really it is just my way of talking about data and the very real temptation we all face to make terrible and thoughtless decisions.
My daughters have had this terrible habit of waking up with the sun for the last few weeks. First, it was the oldest one. She wakes up at 5:15 or 5:30, and starts yelling out that she needs some water or singing/screaming Moana songs. As if she were cued to torture our summer excitement, my youngest daughter has joined in with these ungodly wakeup calls. She’ll scream the extent of her vocab, which is basically just a series of long moans and cries.
And while the chorus of that awful duet burns through our second floor, my wife and I trade reasons why it isn’t our turn to take care of this. When I lose, I utter a bunch of swear words in my head and out loud, and stomp through their bedrooms to drag them downstairs.
For the last month, we have the same data: the kids are waking us up every morning, and this is a problem because it makes us hate our lives for the first few hours of each day.
And every morning, I do the same things. I get frustrated, pour them milk, and try to distract them with books, Netflix, cereal, toys, balls, or whatever else can give me just a second to stare blankly at the newsfeed on my iPad.
Then, the next day, it happens again. I have the same response, and just hope that by some minor miracle, this little shit show comes to an end. I’m 34 years old, with a brain and at least a little bit of problem-solving intelligence, but I’ve subconsciously decided to see if my 3 and 1 year old change this because of my floor-stomping frustration. In short, I keep doing the same things and hoping that something changes.
I’ve noticed though, that my wife handles this much differently. She takes the annoying wake up time, and immediately starts to plug and pull any or all parts of the daily routines to try and make it change. She starts skipping naps, playing outside more, eating at different times, reading cheesy parenting blogs, and pulling every string she can to get them to sleep later.
It makes sense. She sees a problem and tries to fix it, while I see the same problem and just start to complain. She is being a reasonable adult, while I am acting much like a 3 year old.
Fortunately, I’m a little better at applying my wife’s parenting strategies to teaching. For some reason, however, this profession is thick with people trying things and not reflecting on what happened. So many of us are stuck in our patterns and we rarely stop to question whether our methods and decisions actually work to help students get better.
The data is everywhere.
It seems like every month I have some version of this conversation: A teacher will start complaining about how terrible the behavior is in one of their classes. They will say they can’t even teach, that kids are throwing things across the room, and that it makes them want to quit. Then, in a tone as natural as a sigh, they say they have “tried everything.”
“What have you tried?” I ask, trying not to sound like a jerk.
Then, they recite a predictable list, which usually amounts to screaming at a rowdy group of 9th graders and calling home every night.
I usually respond with something simple.
“Stop yelling and calling home,” I suggest. “Those things are stressing you out and not working, so try something new.”
That “something new” is where the job of being an adult requires that we work to solve problems. Those teachers, in frustration and habit, are acting like I do each morning when my daughters wake up early. Our attempts to solve the problems we face in education often amount to doing the same things that we have been doing louder and more frequently. It is a great disservice to our students that some of data analysis in my profession never gets much beyond classroom management.
Intelligent use of data should go beyond that. For all of us, we began the year hoping to instruct our students toward some learning outcomes. We have methods, ideas, styles, and make thousands of decisions toward that end. Then, after a grueling 10 months, summer comes. The temptation is to relax and decide that we better gear up mentally for another 10 months. We should go on vacations, look at the water, drink a lot, and take time to enjoy the people we love. But if that's all we do we get stuck.
So the classroom management conversation above has some new terms, but the actions remain.
“My students don’t get fractions.”
“What have you tried?”
“I explained it again.”
“Did that work?”
“Not at all, they can’t get it.”
“Maybe you should try something new?”
Trying the same thing again almost never works, so the real work of summer is coming up with “something new.” We have to look at the data from the year, analyze the feedback that we have, and design strategies that will push our outcomes forward. For most of us, test results are starting to come back. That is a good place to start. Did our students get better? But it shouldn’t stop there. We have the papers we assigned, the progression of student work, the questions they asked, their growth as critical thinkers and readers, and whatever other data we have. One of the greatest and most important challenges of our work is closely examining success and failure. Then, enhancing or changing our strategies based on their effectiveness.
We do all this to avoid acting like me when my daughters wake up at 5 am. It is not the shiny leather pants part of teaching, but I would argue that not much of our work glitters. So join me in grabbing a cold drink, kicking your feet up on the front porch, and opening a spreadsheet.
Our students deserve that.