Monday, September 22, 2014

Big Fun Interviewing in Charter Schools

by special guest blogger Job Seeking Teacher

I interviewed at about three different charter schools this summer. All of the interviews took place in late late August or (in the last case) mid September. Lots of vacancies on their websites. It appears that teachers peace out of charter schools quickly.

The first school I interviewed at was recently in the news for calling ACS if the parents picked up their kids late. I don’t really care if they read this, as it seems like they interviewed so many people I doubt they remember who I am.

The second charter school I interviewed was in a small, dingy building that looked like it had become a garbage dump over the summer. Junk everywhere. Not books, just junk. Empty boxes, old computers, stuff piled on top of old stuff piled on top of older stuff. Forget about the lottery — I saw several parents walk in with their kids. The lady in the office gave them an application and voila! They were enrolled. The interviewers themselves were fairly professional — two assistant principals who said that the charter school was doing poorly in state tests and needed to improve. I didn’t get the position, but I saw a few weeks later on the website that two assistant principal positions were now open. The AP’s who interviewed me had peaced out at the end of the summer.

The third charter school was a place where I had put in for the job in July. Heard nothing back, assumed they weren’t interested. In mid-September I got a phone call. “Can you come in for a demo lesson?” I did a little research online and saw that the highly touted principal of that school had also suddenly peaced out at the end of the 2013/14 school year. The school is in one of the roughest neighborhoods of NYC — imagine a place where all the delis have bullet-proof windows and it’s 9:00 in the morning and people are wandering around the streets in some kind of drug/alcohol stupor. The building itself is very nice though, and built in the same style of the Harlem Children Zone building. Maybe they had the same architect?

The lady who interviewed me said that they ‘really needed ____ teachers’ as they hadn’t had teachers in my subject area in, well, a long time. I did my demo lesson, and then was led around a tour of the school. They showed me the “student lab,” except it looked like it had been converted into a janitor’s closet because no students had actually stepped foot inside the lab in forever. I really didn’t want the job so I asked the interviewer, “I saw on the website that all the teachers only have 10 month contracts. Does that mean they are let go at the end of the 10 months?” The interviewer paused, and said, “Well, it doesn’t necessarily need to happen that way …” She then mumbled something about teachers being “accountable” under that system because they knew their contracts wouldn’t be renewed otherwise. I didn’t say anything but I kind of thought that the opposite might happen: if teachers know that their contracts aren’t likely to be renewed at the end of 10 months, won’t they peace out?

Everyone talks about Success Academy and KIPP and the wonders they achieve. The charter schools I interviewed at were all small, rather depressing places in which student achievement was no better than the average public school and in some cases worse. Turnover is extremely high — you can probably walk into any one of them and find vacancies at any time in the school year. I actually can’t think of a single reason anyone would want to work in one of these places.

And that, in short, is my summer charter school tour.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Rolling With the Punches in an Age of Educational Deformity

For those teachers who think that there once was a golden past of teaching before the era education deformity, let me assure you, you are right.  I had the privilege to teach for a full ten years before the deformity struck.  While things still seemed good, we tightened our belts and I took five years off to raise some kids.  When I returned to work the landscape had turned barely recognizable.  My colleagues warned me, but they could not have prepared me.

The amazing thing about it all is that many of the people in the building were the same or similar to those whom I had left, students, teachers and administrators.  Good people.  

Yet, everything else was different.  Let me explain.

When I returned, I confronted Smart Boards and learned they had some advantages.  My students showed me how to use them.  They help visual learners and make learning multidimensional by adding pictures, films and audio clips.  Moreover, there's no nasty chalk dust to cough up. 

But, even the kids tell you the Boards are far from flawless.  The technology fails, projectors overheat and shut down, computers "glitch."   Students will also tell you that all too often the teacher talks while they copy board notes and so much is lost as the ears and eyes fall out of sync.  They neither hear well or understand the notes they write.  The best schools abroad seem to use minimal technology.

Another notable change I faced when I returned was a new obsession with data and "credit-recovery."  Faculty meetings turned into explanations of school report cards and the necessity of meeting guideposts, lest the school be closed.  In the Bloomberg era, graduation rates had to be made to climb, one way or another.  The fears were very real.  Academic discussions took a backseat to survival skills.  We were and still are confronted with the data generated and the very real sense that this data can make or break us.  Data is king, not teaching.

I also witnessed a tremendous decline in the amount of teacher-choice money.  Whereas now, we're supposed to be rocking with some more dollars in our wallets, we used to get two hundred.  I used to buy scholarly books, references, and read them, now my money goes toward board markers which are far more expensive than chalk, seemingly noxious to breathe, and in terribly short supply in our school.  

Then, there's the new testing craze.  We are asked to punctuate our teaching on a regular basis with uniform quizzes to ensure we're prepping at the same rate towards that Regents.  But, we don't all teach at the same pace or in the same topical order.  I feel no longer trusted as a professional to get my students to their destination by Regents day.  With so much emphasis on meeting the baseline of the Regents, we also hold back our highest-achieving students by only holding them accountable to the same uniform standard.  

Now, we are subject by law to repeated and often practically unnecessary observations, adding stress wasting the limited time of APs.  Their time could much better be spent in other pursuits, including helping teachers who need help and checking on any of those about whom revolve repeated complaints.  And what about more time to help students with questions?  Teachers are demoralized.  Since I have returned to work, perhaps, the biggest change I have witnessed is a sense that we must roll with the punches. It's a shame to be the punching bag of "reformers."  But I comfort myself with the thought that every action has an equal an opposite reaction.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Where Are We Gonna Put Those Kids?

Mayor de Blasio, to his credit, has stated he'd get rid of the trailers. I envision getting a bunch of lawn chairs, a barbecue, a large party, and blowing them up. But, you know, we'd do it the safe way, like they do with outdated casinos in Vegas. They sort of implode. That's kind of anti-climactic, but there's nothing that says you can't follow up with a fireworks show, or the Rockettes, or something festive.

I've been expelled from the trailers. It's odd to be in the building, to hear the bell ring, and not instinctively run like hell out of the building. I can now be just about anywhere, and make it to my classroom without too much of a struggle. Of course, after my decade of exile, I kind of feel like I no longer belong in the building. I haven't got a tattoo or anything, but I kind of feel like I deserve one.

Despite Mayor de Blasio's good thoughts, he still hasn't told our school, or any really, what the hell it is we're supposed to do after we blow up those trailers. I mean, sure we'll clean up after our barbecue, and whoever blows up the trailers can haul away the debris. Sure we'll salt the ground to make sure nothing ever grows there again, and it's my fond hope they name the site for me. Nonetheless, there will still be a problem.

The problem, of course, is those darn students. Where are we gonna put them once the trailers are gone? In our school, the trailers represent 8 classrooms. In Richmond Hill High School, they have an entire yard full of them. I've never counted, but it looks like an entire civilization out there. And all over the city there are trailers here, trailers there, trailers everywhere.

Will they build extensions on the buildings that host trailers? There aren't any plans to do so. Personally, I'm not persuaded the "Let's do whatever and hope for the best" line of thought is the most productive. And yet that appears to be the plan.

Unfortunately, that sort of thinking ought to be left with Mike Bloomberg, Joel Klein, and the other abominations we've suffered though over this last interminable decade.

Mayor de Blasio can and must do better.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

How About a UFT Cut-the-Strings, Free-the-Puppets Caucus?

Handmade puppets made in the traditional Old World way are the pride of Prague
I didn't start out criticizing our Union.  I started out with a sincere concern for the current state of affairs in education and the loss of respect among "reformers" for my profession.  This will always be my bottom line.  I thought my Union would always be with me, but I soon learned this was not the case.  I learned that my Union silences its own members who might differ in opinion.  I learned that something as simple as questioning the Core might be dangerous to one's career in Unity and it might even get you punched in the face and pushed in the dirt.  I learned Unity strikes deals and accepts grants that ultimately seem to put it at odds with so much that I hold dear.  And, I learned that a UFT Unity loyalty oath makes a mockery of the fact that teachers teach people to think.

The question naturally arises:  What kind of person gladly obeys a UFT Unity loyalty oath and unquestioningly votes as told?

1.  People who don't have time to think?
2.  People who don't trust their judgment?
3.  People who like to follow orders?
4.  People who just don't want to know?
5.  People with no time or desire to query constituents?
6.  People who believe Unity is infallible?
7.  People who believe this is the best we can do?
8.  People who primarily want to collect union paychecks and double pensions?
9.  People who want to hang with a prestigious in-crowd and attend conferences in spiffy settings via the union dues of the people they don't really represent?
10.  People who are afraid of being punched in the face and pushed in the dirt?

If there are any people who fit the bill for one to five above, I'm guessing they hope the fact is never publicized.

If there are those who believe that Unity is infallible, then they follow a dogma of blind obedience.  It must be awhile since they've looked around.  If Unity's ideas could stand on their own legs, there would be no need for a loyalty oath to assure triumph.

If there are people who believe that this is the best that we can do, then I suggest they step aside to make room for people who believe we can do better.

As to people who follow the Unity line for the pay, perks and double pensions, I'm betting they're not proud of the fact.  They're little more than company yes men.

If you watched any of the open debate at the AFT Convention last July, you probably noticed the "big hitters," Mulgrew, Casey and Barr, jumping to the front of the mic line.  I heard their places were held by Unity members, earning either brownie points or exercising their right to be lackeys.  Why didn't the placeholders dare speak?  Had they nothing to say?  Did they fear to say the wrong thing?  Did they feel in their gut it'd be a mistake?

Were the pro-Common-Core words spoken by Unity leadership at the AFT Convention golden?  Far from it.  We heard physical threats of violence (which I can't take seriously), praise for the possibility of classrooms across America marching in lockstep and charges that "anti-Corites" must be Tea-Party conspirators.  If this is the best that leadership can muster, please bring on an average Joe or Josey.

Jonathan Halabi of New Action painted a similar picture for me of the September UFT Executive Board meeting.  In his notes, one can very clearly sense his frustration with Unity Board members who "sit and listen.  Some never speak.  Most rarely speak."  Are Unity members men, women or mice?  Is there not something which seems at least mildly pathetic in all this?

The same picture was once painted for me of the Delegate Meetings.  When a Unity member speaks, other members may eye him with concern over his potential loss of patronage.  Texts may even shoot back and forth to that effect.  If you put your foot in your mouth, you may get the boot.

How could any living, breathing Unity member who is not brain dead accept this sorry state of affairs with equanimity?  Scariest of all, the elite Unity leadership uses its patronage-machine-driven band of zombie rubber stampers to control NYSUT and the AFT.  The fate of Unionism in the America is controlled by a band of mindless puppets.

I have a novel idea.  What if democracy in the U.S. applied to our UFT?  What if the puppets and their allies press for a real voice, the freedom to vote their views or those of their constituency?  What if the puppets rise up en masse in rebellion and demand the dignity of exercising their rational power of thought?  Educators teach people to think, not blindly obey.  History teaches us the same.  Do I dream big?  Free the puppets!  Form a Cut-the-Strings Caucus.  Let the world know.  Liberate minds!  Liberate our union!  Let teachers think for themselves!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Teacher Torture

That's what a Queens chapter leader called the 80 minutes of PD most city teachers are subject to every Monday for the foreseeable future. Of course UFT leadership deems it a great victory, since there is now a committee that will sit around and figure out how to inflict plan this. The idea, of course, is that with teacher input everything will be much better. Of course, I've been to teacher-planned PD sessions for years, and I can't see a whole lot revolutionary about it.

Mulgrew asked the city chapter leaders last week whether it was PD or faculty meetings, and there was a moan that very much suggested the latter. After sitting through decades of meetings planned by administrators, almost all of which I'd have done just as well without, it's kind of tough for me to understand just why Carmen Fariña determined it would all be different this year. Did she think that because her PD was perfect in every way that it would be magically replicated citywide? Did she think that administrators everywhere would finally discover the secret sauce and motivate all the teachers who'd reluctantly sat through years of tedious and unnecessary meetings? Did she think that teachers, who supposedly never had any voice in PD before, would all wake up experts in administering it?

Of course this innovation was a great victory for the UFT, just as the small group instruction was a great victory for the UFT. Of course, when this great victory was over, it was just as great a victory to get rid of it. It must be fabulous to run the UFT, go to gala luncheons, and declare victory all the time no matter what happens. We achieved a great victory. Now we dumped it and that is yet another great victory.

One teacher told me they spend their extra time writing curriculum, you know, the one that was supposed to be in place this year so we could have Common Core and Mulgrew wouldn't punch you in the face. Another told me she sat through 80 minutes of lectures about Danielson and wanted nothing more than to slit her throat.

And that's not to mention Tuesdays, with 35 minutes of parent contact, because the only time parents ever need to be contacted is on Tuesdays, and if anything happens on Wednesday they can just sit and wait six days to hear about it. Then there is another 35 minutes for OPW, other professional work, which I've heard referred to as OFS. (We'll call it Other Frigging Stuff for the purposes of this column.)

One of the great things about teaching is you're never tired after a full day, so what's better than sitting for another 80 minutes on Monday? And surely all principals are ethical, and none would ever have teachers do extra work for which they should be paid. Nor would they ever give a dull, wasteful meeting. Doubtless teachers are jumping up and down for chances to discuss the new educational programs the geniuses who dream up such things have concocted. And next year, when the same geniuses discard those programs for new ones of equally dubious value, teachers will be equally excited to discuss them too.

It's a great thing we're using the time like this, rather than frittering it away by adding to class time. How horrible and wasteful it would be if we were actually teaching instead of going to meetings.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The First Test

Yesterday I wrote a test to give my beginners on Thursday. It's mostly easy, I think. I'd like them to do well. But you never know. Today a kid walked in who appeared to know absolutely zero English. If he blows the test I won't count it. The thing is, kids walk in every single day. He's missed maybe two weeks. He can catch up, though.

But he's far from the last. I will get new kids in month two, three and four. I'll get new kids in May and June. And while they talk about differentiating instruction, you can only go so far. You can't, for example, go back to day one a hundred times. Differentiating, to me, is a function of treating students as individuals. You can't just address them as though they are a room of potted plants, though I wouldn't be surprised if the Gates Foundation funded a study investigating that possibility. After all, Bill thinks teachers should be replaced with DVDs.

You never know what to expect when you're teaching beginners. Kids are very different. The number one predictor of success, or lack thereof, is generally whether or not the kid wants to be here. Imagine you were 15 years old and your parents dragged you to China. Imagine you didn't want to go there. How would you feel, with all these people speaking some strange language, eating weird food, while all your friends and loved ones were on the other side of the world?

Kids who don't want to be here tend to flock to people from their own country. They're terribly annoyed by crazy teachers like me who insist they use nothing but English in my classroom. What a wasted opportunity, with dozens of people who speak their perfectly good language sitting right in the room with them. Why can't this crazy teacher just shut up and leave me alone?

I can't do that because the only way to learn a language is to use it. In their homes, with their friends, and quite frequently even in bilingual classes they speak their first language. Who is going to be nasty enough to drag them kicking and screaming, if need be, into the United States of A.? Me, that's who.

I predict the overwhelming majority of my kids will do well. Only a small handful will fail. Those will be the kids who haven't been paying attention when we've reviewed this stuff, and possibly the kids who walk in this week.

But anyone who tries can learn English. And I'll be in the faces of each and every kid who doesn't, until they not only pass tests, but also begin speaking with me and others. A great thing about teaching this is I can assure all the kids that I'm teaching them skills they will use each and every day of their lives.

I should know, because I use them each and every day of mine too.

Monday, September 15, 2014

On Astorino--Seeing the Forest for the Trees

There's not a whole lot of controversy over the fact that our esteemed Governor, Andrew Cuomo, is pretty much a loathsome reptile. After all, he's maintained a Gap Elimination Adjustment over public schools while concurrently imposing a tax cap that's made it almost impossible to compensate for lost funds. He's called himself a student lobbyist, but supports giving no votes to school budgets more weight than yes votes. And he circumvented NYC mayoral control when it appeared the mayor was no longer going to kowtow to Eva Moskowitz.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that on Twitter I see a few working teachers flocking to Cuomo's GOP opponent, Rob Astorino, because they think he's an improvement. Granted, Astorino opposes Common Core. I watched him speak to a group in Comsewogue about that. But Tea Party stalwarts, like Scott Walker, also oppose it. So if you're going to support Astorino, you have to look a little more deeply before you assume he's supportive of public schools. I mean, if that were the case, why would teacher union public enemy number one (or at least close, as there are so many nowadays) Scott Walker be raising money for him?

For one thing, Astorino opposes the Triborough Amendment. This is very important to NYC teachers, who just went 6 years without a contract, not to mention Buffalo teachers, who are still without one after a decade. The Triborough Amendment mandates that existing contracts remain in force until and unless they are renegotiated. In Astorino's NY Post op-ed, he suggests this gives us no motivation to negotiate. Its repeal or "reform" would certainly cripple our ability to bargain collectively, and this places Astorino sqaurely in Scott Walker territory. And for those who complain the Post piece is from 2012, here's Astorino challenging Triborough in April 2014. He also supports changing work rules and reducing pension benefits, according to that piece. Could he be alluding to eliminating collective bargaining, like his BFF Scott Walker did in Wisconsin?

It's pretty well-known that Astorino supports charters. I haven't heard quite as much about his support for vouchers and tax incentives for contributions to private schools. This is clearly a man who supports privatization rather than public schools. I'm seeing a right-wing GOP Tea Party guy here. And as for Cuomo's tax cap, Astorino not only supports it, but in fact does not think it goes far enough. And he's "cautiously supportive" of anti-tenure lawsuits.

Several people have commented to me both here and on Twitter that Astorino's wife is a teacher. They say he's a great guy. I watched the documentary Journeys with George and went away persuaded that GW Bush was a great guy too. I'm afraid that did not mitigate his positions. There are teachers who support Astorino, and I don't doubt that his wife is one of them. But Astorino as governor will hurt most of us, as well as those we teach. As far as I'm concerned, this real Republican not only represents no improvement over faux-Democrat Andrew Cuomo, but is potentially much, much worse.

I'm seeing November's election as largely a lose-lose. I don't vote for anti-public ed. candidates anymore. Cuomo was the first Democrat for whom I declined to vote, and this November I'll likely support Green Candidate Howie Hawkins once again.

It's a disgrace that neither major party offers a candidate who supports public education or working people.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Will We Opt for Test Readiness or Readiness for College and Life?

Imagine the future.  You're applying to colleges.  Your test scores are out of this world.  Perhaps your transcript says Success Academy upon it.  Everything looks bright, eh?

So, will you be a success in college?  Will you be a success in life?  It seems Success Academy, and many like it, train students for one set of tests.  The scope is narrow.  Of the twenty-seven Success Academy students who attempted to pass the NYC entrance exams for the elite high schools, not a single child experienced Success.  Their skills do not seem to carry over from one test to the next, let alone college or life.

Mastering a review book will not help students much in college.  Professors often ask students to read more than a hundred pages a week.  Students may need to think creatively and call upon skills that were left by the wayside in the mad rush to prep for state tests.

If the "reformers" really wanted students to prep for college, they would spend less time mandating high-stakes tests that can only lead to excessive prepping.  They would spend more time encouraging teachers to trade review books for the writing in more worthy texts.  They would encourage classroom discussion and dialogue revolving around these more worthy texts, instead of "bubble" tests.

And, for anyone who truly thinks the Common Core tests prepare students for life, when was the last time you were asked to take a test?  Did your fiance give you a test before a ring?  Were you asked to take a test in anticipation of your first child?  Did you advance in your career by excelling on tests?  And, will the gates to the great beyond be barred by a battery of tests?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Beseiged at Every Angle

It's pretty fun to watch Mona Davids and Campbell Brown bicker over who is best to curtail the right of working teachers to due process. Who wins the prize for hating working teachers more? I read that Mona was passing out fake money with Campbell Brown's face on it. After all, how dare Campbell Brown be more famous, have more money, and get more attention than Mona? Who the hell does she think she is?

It's amusing to see someone like Mona fighting money and influence. After all, causes she espouses would not even exist without it. There is no teacher crisis. There is no need for insane and incomprehensible rating systems to fire teachers. And the fact is, even if the handful of examples Campbell Brown walks around reciting like a studious fourth-grader were true the remedy would not be curtailing the rights and academic freedom of all.

In fact, it's a pretty well-established practice in bigotry to use examples of the few to tar the many. Let's not even focus on an ethnic or religious group and rather look at actual criminals. It's a fact that they exist. Were we to extrapolate the Davids-Brown philosophy, we'd eliminate the court system altogether because the guilty are sometimes acquitted. Let's stop coddling the accused with trials and lawyers. If some cop says you're guilty, that's good enough for us. That's pretty much what the teacher-bashers advocate when they say you should be left at the tender mercies of a tool like Dennis Walcott. And the more I see of Carmen Farina the more I wonder whether she's much of a step up.

If you really hate teachers, isn't it enough that you make them sit through 80 minutes of faculty meetings every Monday? If there's a hell, Mona and Campbell will sit through them for all eternity. But that's little practical consolation as they drag us through the press in their quest to make us chattel.

At a recent chapter leader meeting Mulgrew asked whether the PD was like a faculty meeting, and the CLs agreed it was. He stated it ought not to be that way, and spoke of committees, and asserting what's written in the contract. But here's the thing--he can spin the 80 minutes of teacher torture as a victory. When it crashes and burns and they find some other way to waste the extra time they inserted into the day, he'll spin that as a victory too. After all, it was a victory when every aspect of Danielson was included in evaluation, and another victory when it was cut down.

It's so tiring to wonder whether or not the people we pay to represent us will be standing with us or those who'd destroy us. I know that Mulgrew wants to punch me in the face because I oppose Common Core. For now, he's defending our due process. But he seriously weakened it when he helped write the APPR law that can place the burden of proof on us rather than administration.

I sometimes think Cuomo is a better governor than Astorino would be because he has to at least pretend to be a Democrat sometimes. On that basis, I'll have to grant that Mulgrew is a better union president than Campbell Brown would be.

This notwithstanding, I see room for improvement.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In the Beginning...

I'm continually frustrated the first few weeks of school. Here I am in a classroom, but it's not really my class yet. I'm struggling to learn names, my kids come from all over the world and it turns out in many parts of the world they use names that are wholly unfamiliar to me. No matter how many years I teach, that doesn't seem to get any easier. My only consolation is many of my kids have just as much trouble with English names.

Worse than the name issue is that I can't really see who the kids are yet. Many of them are accustomed to sitting quietly in classrooms, and that practice can be pretty deeply engrained. That's no way to learn language, if you ask me. Even if they don't have some cultural compulsion to stay quiet, they are checking me out just as I'm checking them out. I see them coming out of themselves in dribs and drabs, and some are bolder than others, but they're unsure of me.

Who knows what a new teacher will do? Likely not the kids facing him. Teachers get kids in trouble, and maybe if they answer me I'll get them in trouble. Who likes trouble?

The first few weeks I always feel like I'm walking on eggshells. Usually, as kids become more comfortable, one or two will speak up, and the others follow. As it turns out, we're at the one or two phase. I'll be a lot happier and more comfortable when there are more. I'm pretty sure the kids will too.

Now I could do things like ask them to turn and talk. But I've wiped out a great deal of what they'd say by making it clear that they may talk only in English. In fact, the first day I walked into the hall and explained that the hallway was a free country. In the hallway they can speak Spanish, Chinese, Korean, or whatever languages they liked. In my room, unfortunately, it's a dictatorship where only English is permitted.

So I'm in the odd position of encouraging conversation when I've ruled the overwhelming majority of their conversation unacceptable.

But year after year I've managed to drag these kids, kicking and screaming though they may be, into speaking English. It's my fond hope this year won't be any different.

As Tom Petty said, the waiting is the hardest part. For me it's not merely the shock of moving from summer into fall (and work). It's that I can't wait for the kids to wake up and see they can do this. But I'm moving as fast as I can!

And if you're further interested in the beginning, here's what actually happened:

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Name Game

On day one I had mixed results with a young woman who didn't belong in my class. On Friday my supervisor caught up with her and a few others, and had them placed in more appropriate classes. But I'm gonna miss her. One of the big challenges I face as an ESL teacher is learning names. These days, our largest group is from China, and despite years of experience it takes me some time to learn all the names.

Some kids do me the service of adopting American names, which is a mercy to me, but I wouldn't presume to ask anyone to change a name, so it takes me a while to catch up with the rest. On Friday, as I was struggling to remember some name, and horribly mangling it in the process, my young displaced student said, "Why don't you play the name game?" "What's that?" I asked.

Apparently, it's when one student stands up, speaks his or her name, the next student speaks two names, the next three, until you reach the end of the class when the teacher has to try and name everyone. It's very simple, but it never crossed my mind in 30 years. I mentioned it to my young nephew, who told me all of his teachers did it for years. And what's worse is I actually use a similar process to discuss grammar points, as in, "I like ice cream, Suzie likes plotting revenge, and Johny likes robbing banks." Or whatever.

But now that I know what it is, I'm gonna use it with every new class I get. I wonder how many ideas I will miss now that I've lost this student to a more appropriate placement. In fact, she was rapidly becoming more at ease as she realized she would get 100% on every test. I don't suppose my supervisor will give her back to me, though. There's that irritating concept that students are supposed to learn from the teacher, and there's no leeway for teachers who want to learn from students.

I'll steal ideas from anyone. I'm not proud. I'm sure my student stole this simple idea from some teacher. But how many kids see a good idea and share it with their other teachers?

I'm always hopeful, though. Meanwhile, I'll leave you with this. My daughter and I are very fond of American Horror Story, and here's an unusually bright moment from an exceptionally bleak storyline.


Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Stay Out of the Teacher Lounge, New Teachers


by special guest blogger Michael Fiorillo

Last month I gave a short presentation about unionism and the UFT to a group of teachers, many of whom were incoming Teaching Fellows. At one point during the question and answer portion of the event, the topic of divisions (real, imagined and provoked) between veteran and new teachers came up. There was wry acknowledgement of the false stereotypes and caricatures that are used to divide us: veteran teachers are jaded, lazy burn-outs who don’t believe in kids and are responsible for their failure, while newer/younger teachers are arrogant, know-it-all drinkers of ed reform Kool Aid, and crypto strikebreakers (as if  a teacher strike is on anyone’s radar for the next political eon).

In other words, it was the usual nonsense people say, and something that we could shake our heads over and laugh about.

But it was upsetting to hear them say that, in a speech to them and other incoming Fellows (and, according to the  “At the Chalkface” blog, in other venues, as well) at a June welcoming event, the Chancellor told them to stay away from their senior colleagues and “Stay out of the teacher’s lounge.”

For years now, teachers, especially experienced and senior teachers, have been blamed for the “failed status quo” responsible for the frequent dysfunction of the public schools and the problems of their students. Classroom experience, once seen as highly desirable, almost overnight became a liability, and veteran teachers have become rhetorical and literal targets. Under Joel Klein, the school budget process was changed to penalize schools that might be so foolish as to hire veteran teachers, and created incentives for hiring inexperienced  one’s, who are cheaper, more vulnerable and presumably more compliant.

Meanwhile, newer/younger teachers, while glorified in the media and by management, in practice are beaten down at least as badly as their senior colleagues. Achieving tenure now resembles a desert passage, as the DOE pressures Principals and Superintendents to postpone granting it, and it can be a five year ordeal. Newer teachers are also stuck in new pension tiers that discriminate against them, relative to their senior colleagues. The entire system is being purposefully re-configured so that fewer and fewer people receive tenure, let alone a pension.

The election of Bill De Blasio and naming of Carmen Fariña as Chancellor was supposed to at least change the way DOE management looked upon and interacted with teachers. The open contempt that Michael Bloomberg habitually expressed toward us was to be a thing of the past. After all, Ms. Farina was a real educator, and promised to bring “joy” – a buzzword that even Arne Duncan has recently picked up – back to the classroom. (That she also promised to “sell” the Common Core to teachers and parents was not given the same prominence).

But now we know that the Chancellor is going around telling new teachers that only “whiners” are in the teacher’s lounge. We know that she is telling the Daily News (8/31) that ATRs will disappear “… as principals are taught best practices for writing up teachers and beginning the arduous termination process” (which for ATRs is not arduous at all - MF).

I always thought “best practices” were successful teaching and classroom management strategies, not paper trails and DOE lawyer hit squads. Does that make me a whiner?

Suddenly, the widely reported fact that PS 6 had eighty percent staff turnover when Farina was principal doesn’t look quite so benign, if it ever did. Oh, and she was Deputy Chancellor under the Lord of Darkness himself, wasn’t she?

Possibly worst of all, and suggesting that De Blasio either is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome or that he promised something he wasn’t willing to fight for with his campaign rhetoric about charters, is finding out that the Chancellor sits on the Board of the New York City Charter School Center.

The NYC Charter School Center says that its mission is to “… help new charter schools get started…” and that their work involves “Foster(ing) a favorable public policy environment.” In less delicate terms, the Chancellor’s name and reputation are being used to lobby for ever-more money for charter schools, and eventually a raising or elimination of the charter cap.  That would further undermine the UFT contract, and negatively affect all future teachers, some of whom might now be students  now in those very same charter schools.

Additionally, as we all know, charter schools are famous for the enviable  working conditions their teachers enjoy,  as well as the “joy” their students feel as they  march silently down their hallways , on their way to becoming “little test taking machines.” Then there’s all the additional funds charters bring to neighborhood public schools.

Some of the Chancellor’s  fellow Board members  at the Center include such friends of public education as Geoffrey Canada, he of the expelled classes and half-million dollar a year salary. Also on the Board is Spencer Robertson, a Wall Street scion whose family foundation promotes charters and who sits on the Board of charter schools that have aggressively coveted and taken over public school facilities.

So-called reformers will keep repeating, and the Chancellor will perhaps be obliged to affirm, that charters are public schools, but the reality is that they are not: they are private entities, privately controlled and managed, that receive public money. They undergo minimal public oversight, and do not serve the same populations as the public schools they siphon money from.

Chancellor Farina has said and done some good things. Changing Chancellor’s Regulation C-30, so that non-educator’s can no longer be made principals and APs is an important rollback of one of the many terrible things Bloomberg did (assuming it’s not undermined by the  waivers it provides for).

So, then, what is the Chancellor doing on the Board of the New York City Charter School Center? Why is she boasting of “best practices” to harass and fire ATRs, rather than re-integrate them back into the schools? Why is she telling new teachers to stay away from their colleagues?

Maybe I’m just a whiner, but I’m not feelin’ the joy.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Think Twice and Vote Once

For Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu. Here's why.


A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven

I was pretty surprised to read a story in the NY Post with a picture of a few dozen white teachers wearing NYPD shirts. Apparently they'd triumphed over the insidious UFT, which had somehow advised them against wearing said apparel. There was talk of appropriate apparel, and vague threatened consequences for wearing things deemed inappropriate. I guess UFT was trying to be tactful.

I respect NYPD. My daughter aspires to be NYPD. I don't wear an NYPD t-shirt because I haven't got one, but I might if I did.

Still, I wouldn't have gotten together with 20 of my colleagues and worn one to make a statement the first day of school. Why not?

I'm gonna suppose that most of my readers are teachers. So imagine this. A teacher gets caught selling cigarettes on the street one day. One single policeman decides to stop this. The teacher decides to resist arrest and said policeman kills this teacher.

On the first day of school, after your colleague is killed on the street, you walk in to your place of work. You're greeted by the principal, and by all the APs, and they're all wearing NYPD shirts. They want to show support for NYPD on this particular day. How do you feel?

Imagine this, instead. You are not an adult. You are a student, a minority student. (In fact, that's an odd term, because minority students form the majority of NYC students.) You've heard stories about how one of your own was killed on the street by a policeman. When you meet your teacher, your teacher is wearing an NYPD shirt, to show her support for the police. All the other teachers are wearing the same shirts.

Why are they celebrating the police right after a police has choked one of your people to death? What can your young mind conclude?

And then, there was the Staten Island march, protesting this act. A lot of people took this as disrespect for the NYPD, but I don't see it that way at all. In fact, it was an occasion to deplore an act that was plainly deplorable. I have never suggested that the policeman who did this act should not receive due process, nor has anyone from UFT. I have no idea what that entails, and I'm not qualified to decide how this should be dealt with. However, I don't think people who sell cigarettes should end up being killed on the street. So I stood with all the people who felt the same.

There was a UFT Facebook post about that. I was horrified by some of the comments on it. I was glad when that post was taken down. Some comments seemed borderline racist, and others seemed to go right over the line. Reading those comments made me decide to go to Staten Island and stand against racism, against violence, against needless death. Had the police killed a machine-gun wielding Scarface wannabe, I'd surely have felt differently. But that was not the case here.

And then there was that "tactful" UFT message. I was pretty surprised at how it was worded. Why didn't the UFT simply say, "If you wear an NYPD shirt right after a black man is killed on the street by a police officer, your students of color may perceive your choice of wardrobe to be an expression of approval for that act." And why would that not cross the minds of any thinking person who chose to dress like that, particularly if they chose to do so as a group?

There's also been quite a bit of talk about Al Sharpton. I'm not a fan, particularly since he teamed up with Gingrich and Duncan to spread reforminess throughout the land.  Then there's talk of UFT President Mike Mulgrew, and how he needs to resign for asking UFT members to participate. Regular readers of this blog know Mike Mulgrew would like nothing more than to punch me in the face, and Mulgrew's theme at the rally, that it was "time to teach," rang quite hollow after all that punchiness.

But I didn't go for Gingrich, and I didn't go for Mulgrew. I went because I'm a teacher. I went because I'm part of a community. I went because people who are not harming other people ought not to be killed on the street.

I'm sure the overwhelming majority of NYPD members don't do any such thing, and I would never suggest we need to deprive even the one who did of whatever due process entails.

It's ironic, because stereotyping teachers is almost our national pastime. Where's the outrage when our tenure is under attack for no good reason? Where's the outrage when Campbell Brown takes a few outrageous or contrived examples and smears us all? I don't recall cops or anyone, anywhere wearing UFT shirts to show solidarity when not one, but all teachers are under ridiculous scrutiny. And, lest it isn't obvious, we haven't killed anyone.

We do more than help kids pass tests. We help guide them. We help teach them right from wrong. We set an example. And when we see outrage perpetrated on the street, we should stand up and say so. Shall we wait until our family members are killed? Shall we wait until people with the same skin color, religion, sexual preference, or whatever are killed? Or should we say it's time for the killing to stop, and now?

There's a bigger purpose in what we do. Sure we should ask for more money. I've got no problem with that. When we get more money, it means those who follow us will be better off.  Sure we should improve working conditions. Sure we should keep this job a route to middle class for our minority students, for all students, and for any and all who aspire to do this vital job we've chosen.

But before we do any of that, we need to ensure that our kids can walk the streets without fear. And if that takes action above and beyond negotiating the next contract, so be it. If we want to be role models, we need to act against injustice.

And if you are a teacher, no matter what the bullshit city ratings say, it behooves you to be a role model. I don't care what John King concludes--you are not effective if you think it's okay for family members of your students to be killed in the street.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Opting for the Joys of Childhood

Think for a moment of your best elementary-school memories.  Do they involve tests or prepping for tests?  Or, were they the kind of moments that are being pushed aside to make room for the Core?

Think for another moment:   How many academic failures did you experience in elementary school?  Surely, we all must have failed at some things.  But was your academic existence framed by failure?  Did 2/3 of your class ever fail the year?  If it had, what do you think parents might have said about the teacher?  And, how many calls do you think the principal might have received to keep kids out of that class?

Common Core now teaches all our children.  You can call the principal, but there's no way out of the class unless you can afford tuition at an elite institution like those to which many "reformers" choose to send their own children.  Instead of easing students into higher standards, the Common Core academically slaughters.  Students are the carnage.  The good news is you can OPT OUT of State tests.

Academic success today is purposefully put out of reach of the vast majority.  Childhood is circumscribed by Common-Core aligned failure.  What will be the long-term psychological and emotional costs?  Will anyone accept responsibility if and when more and more children grow to hate school for the suffering it has caused?

So what will be the best memories of school children today?  Will it be the day they first realized that they were being aligned to the Common Core?  Will it be the day they realized someone loved them enough to make them college and career ready, as if only the Common Core could do so?  Will it be the day and and day out that they sit and prep for tests?  What kind of world have we created for children?  And how much longer will we allow a generation of children to taste nothing but failure before we see the insanity of it all?

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Best Thing That Happened Yesterday

Yesterday was the first day of class. I was nervous, the kids were nervous, but we all did the best we could. First day programming is always problematic. I teach beginning ESL and several of my kids turned out to have been born here.

In my afternoon class, one girl got pretty upset about this. She asked me to send her to the dean. "Do you know the deans?" I asked. She said, "No. I'm just always friendly with the deans." "But I have no reason to send you there," I said. She said, "Just tell them I made a lot of trouble." "I don't do that,"  I told her.  I told her I would get her out, that it could take a few days, and that she didn't have to do the homework if she didn't want to.

I tried calling some people who weren't there, and I even tried sending her down to the overwhelmed guidance department, but no one could help her yesterday. In my class we were doing interviews after I drilled them in the questions they would need. The girl was bored out of her mind as we modeled the questions. She tried to sit in the back and I dragged her back up front. She put her head down for a moment to see if I'd scream at her to pick it up.

But a while later, another girl came in, a girl who could barely squeak out a word of English. By then I was introducing the interviews. I asked if she could help the shy new girl and my sullen student smiled and said, "What a great way to make friends."

She helped the newcomer, who got through the assignment. She asked if I would give her a good grade if she did it too.  I said sure I would. Then she asked if that grade would follow her to a new class. I told her I was sorry but I didn't think so. Then she asked me why I couldn't just lie to her. I told her I could, but that it wouldn't change anything.

Then kids started writing a paragraph about their partners, I walked around correcting things,  and I gave them the unspeakable assignment of rewriting the paragraph.

But the best thing that happened to me yesterday was seeing that girl come to life. I hope to see a lot of that this year.