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January 27, 2012
Classroom Management, With Pigeons
Classroom management is usually at the top of the new teacher's list of concerns. Excellent classroom management often takes years to master, and the only way to get there is through experience, largely because it's nuanced. The things that disrupt your instruction in one classroom aren't always the things that will disrupt it in another. Sometimes it's the students' attitudes; sometimes it's a poorly planned lesson; sometimes it's a fire drill; and sometimes it's a pigeon flying around your classroom, pooping on desks. It was a day in late March and I had planned a lesson to prepare my students for the Regents exam in USand Global History. The lesson involved a simple strategy for teaching students to find success on the document-based question (DBQ) essay. With pressure to prepare students for the exams increasing, I accepted teaching test-prep lessons, but my heart wasn't entirely in it. This would not be a "Stand and Deliver"-style lesson. I arrived to school sweaty and frustrated after having stood for over an hour on two trains and a bus to get to the school in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx from my apartment in Washington Heights. After passing students waiting in line to go through the metal detector, I turned the corner of the building and was blasted by a wave of hot air upon opening the door. I immediately took off my backpack, jacket, and hat. "Why do they keep running the heat when it's warm outside," I had once asked. "The budget for next year's heat is based on the amount of fuel used this year," another teacher had told me. Of course. After gathering attendance and making copies, I pushed through the heaviest door in the building to enter the first of four classrooms I would teach in that day.
January 26, 2012
On Small Schools And Teaching Critical Thinking
Critical thinking — “reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do” — is embraced by education reformers as key to fixing our schools. Having learned that simply graduating from high school does not ensure success, city officials now hope that by implementing the Common Core standards our students will gain this fundamental skill, and their college readiness will soar. I’m one of those New Yorkers lucky enough to send his kids to solid public schools with involved parents and committed teachers. A recent social studies test given at one of my kid’s schools shows how hard it is to teach critical thinking when we adults struggle to model it ourselves. Having studied early colonization in America for about two months, my middle school child came home with a "study sheet" for an upcoming test. The questions and the "right" answers, all bullet points, were listed. “All I have to do is memorize this,” my child explained.
January 24, 2012
At My “Persistently Low-Achieving” School
I work at one of the 33 schools Mayor Bloomberg has publicly stated that he wants to "turn around" — or close. As part of this plan, he is also seeking to replace up to 50 percent of the teachers at each of the schools, including mine. I have worked in the same school for the past nine years. I can dismiss the sensationalistic claim from Bloomberg that 50 percent of teachers are ineffective, because it is simply not true. Likewise, when I hear defenders of educators claim that all teachers do great work, I know this is not correct either. The answer lies somewhere in between — in the case of my school, much closer to the defenders of teachers. I want to describe the thankless service being done everyday by my colleagues and mentors. It is my hope that readers might share these personal profiles with friends, family, colleagues, and politicians to spread the word about the great work being done by educators in the schools the mayor has targeted. At my school — labeled "persistently low-achieving" and slated for possible closure — there are several teachers with doctoral degrees. They could have pursued careers at selective high schools or even at colleges but chose to work at our school. Most have dedicated 10+ years to the school and are respected as the academic authorities in our building by both students and staff. They are able to translate their advanced content knowledge and make it relevant and exciting for our students.
January 20, 2012
Letter from SeaTac: Something to Consider
My whole life I've known I wanted to be a teacher, and for most of it I've known I have a passion for working with students who face an uphill climb to success. Six years ago, I started my teaching career in Washington, D.C., and moved to New York shortly afterward. By the time I left New York in 2011 for the Seattle area, where I'm teaching now, my understanding of the teaching profession and of public schools had been turned on its head. In a series of posts, I will share some of my experiences. My goal is to inform people who have never worked in schools — including those who make decisions about how schools should work — and to give the public a glimpse into the challenges committed teachers face on a daily basis. The assistant principal’s office is crammed into the corner of the second floor of the nearly 90-year-old James Monroe Building in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx. Behind me is the door into the hallway, an opening into the dizzying array of students from different schools and languages from different countries. Before me sits the instructional coach our administration hired to help us make sense of outcomes-based teaching. I sit in tennis shoes, jeans, a flannel shirt, and keys hanging from my three-year-old caribiner attached to my right belt loop. My unshaven face pushes against my right hand pushes against my elbow pushes against the desk frustrated. Not frustrated because of my missed planning period, nor the student I chased down for stealing breakfast that morning. Not because stacks of papers loom over us on both sides of the desk we're working at like Manhattan skyscrapers, nor because boxes of books and newly ordered materials touch nearly every floor tile, making the movement from one corner of the office to another a journey four times longer than it would otherwise take. Frustrated for a different reason. Peggy and I stare at the plan I’ve created. “These outcomes are really nice, very impressive. I’m just worried you may be overestimating the students' ability levels. This looks like something you’d do in freshman-level college course.” How would you know if I’m overestimating their ability? They’re my students. ... is my thought, but only fleeting. A brief ego shield that quickly melts away under the heat of reality. It’s so easy to fantasize about teaching the really interesting things about history and social studies that require the background knowledge they don’t yet have to really engage in, to expose them to rigorous standards and high expectations that you know you don’t have time uphold.
January 18, 2012
The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Planning Ahead
It’s cold out now, but my thoughts have lately taken me to last summer, when I lounged in Madison Square Park with my class’s first-trimester novel and thought big about the upcoming year. Summer-Hilary organized with Grassroots Education Movement and the New Teacher Underground to remind herself of the political reasons she’s in education. She slept and ate well. She spent plenty of time with the family and friends who keep her well-fed emotionally. Fueled by all that self-care, I was able to imagine the highest possible expectations for my students and use those expectations as my only compass and my only ceiling. The unit plan I made last summer was far from perfect, but it was a beautiful reflection of the perceptions of Kurt Hahn students—subtle and profound — that I have assimilated over the last two years, of what I’ve come to love about them as individuals and as a collective. It’s a reflection, too, of my best self: the teacher I dream myself to be when I am fully energized and fully focused on my students’ literary and literacy progress. When I return to it now — halfway through the school year — that airy summer musing already feels light-years away. I have had to adjust the pace and the sheer multitude of work I assign, not because of my students’ capacity but because of my own. The rigorous assignments I came up with require twice the rigor from me: I have to complete models and rubrics of each so that I can demonstrate to students what I’m looking for. I have to be ready to grade and hand back drafts at a rapid pace. Meanwhile, I have to keep up with the not-technically-contractual-but-crucial-for-everything-else-to-work responsibilities of my small school: an 11th-grade advisory who are starting to think about what they’ll need to graduate on time, collaboration with a first-year global studies teacher, the small writing workshop I launched to help students meet the Common Core standards. I could do all of this if I were, you know, one of those teachers: the kind I always envision making the cut for Teach for America or one of the leading charters, who can pull full days of teaching and full nights of work, who don’t need much sleep or can function without it until a free weekend comes along. I can give maybe one-week of high intensity, dawn-to-dusk work, and then I crash.
January 6, 2012
A New Year’s Note From The Bottom Twenty Percent
2011 was a wild year for New York City teachers. Cathie Black’s brief reign, the mayor’s aggressive layoff threats, attacks on tenure and seniority, and the the continued push to shut down public schools often left us stressed, confused, and paranoid. Given all this, as 2011 moved towards its conclusion, I felt like I’d grown a pretty thick skin. There was nothing anybody could say about teachers that would upset me. In late November, however, Mayor Bloomberg proved me wrong. Speaking at a conference at MIT, Bloomberg said that if he could, he would get rid of half of New York City’s teachers. Why? For starters, we are apparently not that bright. Bloomberg explained, “We don’t hire the people who are at the top of their class anymore. … In America, [teachers] come from the bottom 20 percent and not of the best schools.” I know this quote is old news, but the “bottom 20 percent” claim really stuck with me. I’m used to being attacked for my exorbitant salary, cushy benefits, and lavish lifestyle. I’m not used to being ridiculed because of my poor academic skills or below-average intelligence. Like a lot of teachers, I’ve got a bit of a chip on my shoulder. When I heard Bloomberg’s comment, I got defensive. How dare he attack my credentials? What does he know about where I went to school, or what kind of grades I got? What does he know about anything? Then I calmed down; I thought about what it would mean to be a part of this “bottom 20 percent.” I’m a special education teacher. Many of my students are in the bottom 20 percent of their high school classes. This isn’t a criticism; it’s an observation about how these students perform academically.
December 22, 2011
In Defense Of The City’s Sex Education Mandate
In 2012, Mayor Bloomberg’s mandate to provide comprehensive sex education is scheduled to take effect in New York City’s public middle and high schools. As the executive director of Inwood House, which specializes in teen pregnancy prevention and supportive services for pregnant and parenting teens, and as one of the mayor's appointees to the Panel for Educational Policy, I support this addition to our youth’s education. I also understand that while the majority of parents welcome sex education for their child, others are apprehensive. I would like to address the concerns and critiques that have surfaced since the mandate’s announcement. One major concern is that teaching sex education in schools undermines values that parents teach at home. Critics of the mandate point to the “risk cards” used by the Reducing the Risk curriculum which compare the relative risks of sexual practices. They also cite homework assignments that require students to locate sexual health resources in their neighborhoods. It’s important to keep in mind that nearly half the DOE-recommended curriculum lessons for high school students are devoted to abstinence, refusal techniques, delaying tactics, and ways to avoid high-risk situations. These teach our teens how to think critically about making healthy decisions. The risk cards and sexual health resource assignments arm them with medically accurate information that informs those decisions. It is well documented that having information about and access to contraception does not advance sexual activity. Knowing where to go for sexual health resources is a skill and safety measure that will protect them throughout their lives.
December 20, 2011
Curriculum, Part V: How To Go Open-Source
In my last post, I made the case for why educators should collaboratively develop and share curriculum materials. Now I'll offer some ideas about just how that can be done in a world that seems set up to keep teachers working in isolation. The opportunity presented by the widespread adoption of the Common Core Standards can be harnessed by a collaborative design model that has proven extremely effective in the field of software development. This model is known as “open source.” When you hear that term, you most likely think of “free software,” and much of the open source movement has been oriented around concepts of equity in access that lends itself to that conception. But what has been most revolutionary in the open source approach is not simply that the products created are sometimes free, but rather that the process of production is entirely transparent and accessible to anyone based on a GNU-style license of software code. This license turns the traditional notion of property on its head by basing ownership upon the right of distribution, rather than exclusion (for more about this concept and the success of the open source model, read Steven Weber's provocative and insightful book). If we agree that public education is indeed “public,” and therefore part of the commons, then it is no great stretch to suggest that the content we teach to our students should also be purveyed with transparent and accountable public access. The fact that most of our curriculum — when it is even acknowledged — is developed under proprietary license speaks to the fundamentally flawed priorities of our society. Do we consider it more important to protect the rights of corporations than that of children? In the field of education, unfortunately, this question is far more than rhetorical. I strongly believe that the curriculum we design and implement, as in open-source software, should be produced and distributed under a non-proprietary license, such as the now well established Creative Commons license. This will open access to curriculum to anyone who finds it useful and applicable, whether a home-schooler, a private school, charter school, or public school teacher. It allows anyone to take that content and modify it as they see necessary, so long as they give credit to the makers of the content they used. And when they modify it, they can then present their modifications back to the community, to be embraced and modified yet further.
December 19, 2011
Curriculum, Part IV: The Open-Source Imperative
In my last post on the necessity for a coherent, ground-level consensus on the content that we deliver to our nation's children, I concluded with a reference to the disturbing reality of teachers planning lessons alone. Picture a teacher sitting alone at his desk, planning lessons for his students. It’s after a long day of teaching. That teacher may not be a content expert in the subject he is planning, given that teachers are generally managed as public employee widgets (described well in The New Teacher Project's 2009 policy paper, “The Widget Effect”) and thrown into different grades and different subject areas each year, nor trained specifically in a given content area. Why is this proverbial teacher alone? Why doesn't he have the guidance of other experts in that content area to guide his task analysis, aside from some glossy multi-colored binders of biblical proportions with large fonts and tons of sidebars (“teacher-friendly”) that came along with his district's purchased curriculum? Why isn't this teacher sitting with other educators during a scheduled, paid time of his day? Herein, I believe, lies the rotten core of our educational woes: Teachers working in isolation from each other and from content experts, with only the curriculum purchased by their district — and manufactured by a major corporation or educational institution — to reference their work. Some may think that a well developed textbook and resources (we'll pretend for a moment it's “well developed”) should be reference enough for a teacher, but that material tends to be distant from the actual needs of the students that a teacher has before them. Most teachers — especially teachers of children with exceptional learning needs, English language learners, and/or students living in poverty — must adapt, jerryrig, recreate, or otherwise MacGuyver whatsoever material that can be scrounged on-line, bought on their own dime, or obtained from other teachers. This necessary process of drastically modifying curriculum is what is known as “differentiation” (and thus is generally reviled by practitioners). But teachers shouldn't have to desperately reinvent authentic, meaningful, and cognitively challenging (better than “rigorous,” ain't it?) lessons out of blood, sweat, and duct tape.
December 13, 2011
“Where did you go?” The Problem Of Teacher Turnover
Nearly every morning after I groggily grope for the kitchen light to grab my pre-packed lunch, I notice the drawings made by my fiancée’s former students still hanging on the fridge. Stick figures grin and hearts frame students’ last messages to a teacher that had positively affected them: “Where did you go?” “When are you coming back? I want to learn more about dinosaurs.” “Ms. D I love you. What happened? Where do you live now?” My fiancée worked at Harlem Success Academy 3, which lost more than a third of its staff over this summer alone. This figure did not count those who were fired or who left of their own volition during the school year. Ms. D is just one of the many dedicated young educators who were incompatible with the school’s structure and model for teachers and students. One popular defense of high turnover rates is that teacher firings are always done for the good of the students. Yet the refrigerator art in our apartment stands as just one compelling example that hasty dismissals can have a profoundly negative effect on students. At non-union schools, top-tier administrators can now dispose of any teacher at any time, with or without cause. In my fiancée’s case, just a few months into her first year teaching she was given 10 days to get "98 percent compliance" in all her classes, whatever that means, or be terminated. She had no choice in the matter and was ordered not to tell any of her 150 students that she would not be back the next day. This explains the students’ questions (“What happened?” “When are you coming back?”) included in personal notes written after they realized she was gone. None of this was a surprise to me. I had seen similar scenarios play out three years earlier, when I worked as an after-school tutor at Promise Academy charter school. A teacher would be working on grades and conferencing with students one day, and then all but disappear the next. No staff member spoke his or her name, acting as if that teacher had never been there. But the students could not forget so easily. I remember kids expressing to me that they felt like the entire year was starting over in March. Not a good time to completely turn the page, but that was the students’ problem. Though Hyde Leadership Charter School, where I work, retains teachers well, we have had faculty members resign for one reason or another (they were moving or going to graduate school). I have seen how the loss of a trusted adult has set some students back emotionally, if not academically.
December 5, 2011
Sunday Schools: After “Household of Faith v. Board”
By refusing the church’s latest appeal in Bronx Household of Faith v. New York City Board of Education, 11-386, the United States Supreme Court today gave a final judicial green light to the Department of Education’s controversial ban on renting schools for religious services. While only persuasive nationally, the now-final Second Circuit ruling settles matters for multiple states within this judicial circuit (New York, Vermont, and Connecticut) but only affects those districts that want to start prohibiting services (probably few, but includes New York City). Haven’t we been here before? In 1998, the high court declined review of a similar Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. And, despite these decisions and others along the way, since 2002 Bronx Household of Faith has been holding services in P.S. 15 in the Bronx. The DOE estimates that dozens of churches now rent space for Sunday services, despite courts approving Chancellor’s Regulation D-180, Section 1(Q), prohibiting the practice. Can this really be the end? The DOE says so, releasing a statement from a senior city lawyer within hours of today’s decision that declares “Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012, is the last day that churches and other groups can use the schools for worship.” I am taking that with a grain of salt. This controversy has raged for over a decade and most legal observers thought Bronx Household of Faith had a good chance of winning this latest round. Since the Supreme Court upheld the federal Equal Access Act in Good News Club v. Milford, 533 U.S. 98 (2001), public schools have had to treat secular and religious groups similarly in renting their facilities. As an extracurricular organization, the Good News Club was clearly conducting worship, much as a chess club would pursue its core activity, theorized the court, and, under the First Amendment, schools could not discriminate on the basis of this content. The Second Circuit, which had sided with the district in Good News Club, clearly again fought against the tide in Bronx Household of Faith, arguing that the DOE could still decide against a church’s regular conduct of services on Sundays. Not that the DOE was required to bar the church, but it could if, in its judgment, the arrangement blurred the distinction between church and state:
December 1, 2011
If I Forget You … Keeping the Classroom at the Center
Last week, during a break from my graduate school education policy classes, I had the opportunity to visit my old school and spend some time with my students from the last two years of my teaching. It was a great day. The excitement and joy of the kids were truly overwhelming. At the end of the day one of my students, a heartbreakingly adorable girl whose thick Spanish accent is slowly lightening up, told me that one of her former classmates is "mean now." We talked briefly about this before we had to go our separate ways. Although it was a small moment in the course of the day, it sticks out in my mind now as a reminder of the profoundly multifaceted world of children. It stands out now in stark contrast to the relatively simple, safe environment of my college classrooms. This week in my class on teacher quality we simulated a panel on teacher pay structure for the Rochester City School District. We grappled with the intricacies of teacher pay and the concerns of different stakeholders as we weighed different benefits and costs. And yet the exercise felt incredibly uncomplicated compared to the ecosystem I used to share with 25-30 children. This disconnect is one I am constantly aware of and working to bridge as I prepare for my transition from the theory of education reform to its practice.
November 28, 2011
“A teacher in struggle is also teaching.” Lately, this phrase has been on my mind. On Nov. 17, I marched with the Wall Street occupiers and thousands of other New Yorkers. We were protesting the occupation’s eviction from Zuccoti Park and proclaiming that the movement was as alive as ever. I cannot claim any deep involvement with the occupation movement, but it has inspired me. Marching the streets of New York with tens of thousands of students, teachers, nurses, janitors, and other occupiers inspired me even more. Like many teachers, I often get pessimistic. Budget cuts, attacks from the media, and an ever-growing pile of ungraded assignments make the idea of progress seem like a fantasy. Watching the Occupy Wall Street forces build a movement over the past couple of months has reminded that cynicism is not only unproductive, but it is always rooted in illusion. Day after day, we teachers grade our papers, teach our lessons, create predictable routines for our students, and so it’s natural that the world would start to look stale and stagnant. Yet all teachers know that stagnation is an illusion. Month after month and year after year, we see new life emerge from these repetitive routines. Behind their tired eyes, our students learn until one day, seemingly out of the blue, those tired, distracted children have become writers, scientists, and actors. It’s why we chose this occupation. Growth is real; movement is real. As teachers, we are responsible for directing that growth in small, but significant ways. A student who three months ago claimed to hate reading is now frustrated because we’re reading The Odyssey too slowly. Two other students are gossiping in terrible, ninth-grade Spanish. Small moments, but the Occupy movement has shown us that small moments can turn into big things.
November 16, 2011
A Portrait Of A School Whose Aides Were Laid Off
As a special education teacher at a Washington Heights elementary school for the last three years, I've made a number of professional connections that have aided me in getting adjusted to the school and to the contours of my job. One of those connections was the family worker. She assisted me with my questions about my students’ services and how to best work with SESIS, the Department of Education's unwieldy special education data system. Her remarkable memory supplied me with essential details about every one of my students, their parents, and their Individualized Education Plans. Frankly, she was my biggest support in the special education department. Last month, she worked her last day at my school. On Oct. 7, three school aides and the family worker worked their last day at my school, cutting the number of aides at my school from six to three and leaving us without a family worker entirely. Losing our school aides unfortunately was just another cut our school of 700+ students and 50+ staff members has had to endure over last three years of budget cuts, which have also shrunk our teaching staff and caused us to lose intervention teachers. But my colleagues and I have been feeling the loss of our school aides every day since the layoffs. The aides at my school served many functions throughout the school day. The most visible area where the school aides were the greatest help was in the cafeteria. With four periods of lunch with students ranging from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, the aides were watchful eyes and the go-to people if there were troubles at any of the tables. The school aides also helped make copies for over 50 teachers, phone calls to parents to assist the parent coordinator, and plans for parent workshops and special events. In addition, the family worker worked to make sure CAP (another special education database system) and SESIS were up-to-date and compliant to state and city requirements. She was also the first welcoming face any new student coming to our school after a placement change would see and interact with, and she provided as smooth of a first day as she could. With over 70 students with IEPs and constant new student influx, this was no small undertaking.
November 8, 2011
NYC Students Pay The Price For Cuomo’s Ambition
Gov. Cuomo says he has made up his mind about the millionaires tax – he’s against it. Saying that continued taxation would push New Yorkers to leave the state, he recently said nothing could make him support extending the millionaires tax. Think about that for a minute. Do you really believe that residents and businesses are likely to leave the state because a tax that has been in place for two years is going to be continued? Have you noticed real-estate prices in lower Manhattan dropping precipitously as all the millionaires have fled since 2009, when the tax was first enacted? Of course not. But a recent poll found that 72 percent of registered voters in New York support continuing the tax, so it's clear the governor is indeed taking a stand that carries some political risk. Why would he do that? Why would he say, as he did, “The fact that everybody wants it, that doesn’t mean all that much”? The answer has to be that he is counting on the support of the super-rich, and he's not going to push any policies that make them nervous. Support for what? Let's just say that Cuomo is ambitious. So, what does this have to do with education? Well, of course, without more than $4 billion in revenue in the next year from the millionaires tax, schools across the state, but especially in the city, are looking at huge cuts to education. I'm a public school teacher and have seen the effects of budget cuts firsthand. But it is as a parent that I am most outraged.
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