Friday, February 24, 2017

Six Hundred Seventeen Dollars (times 800)

That's how much UFT will pay to send people to the New York Hilton for the NYSUT Representative Assembly on April 7-8. This is an important event, because there will be an election that will determine whether NYS Unity or Stronger Together controls NYSUT. We all have an interest in that because as UFT members we all pay NYSUT dues.

Of course we all know that Unity votes Unity, and approximately exactly100% of them will be doing just that. So given that, why are we spending half a million dollars to send 800 New Yorkers to New York? In fact, I live in Long Island. I could take a train there from work on Friday, take the LIRR on Saturday, and maybe see the whole thing for thirty or forty bucks out of pocket.

I'm hoping to go as press and write about it, which is what Jonathan Halabi, Norm Scott and I did at the AFT Convention in Minneapolis last summer. If my constituents can't have a vote, at least they can know what happens. I've made a few inquiries. Alternatively, I guess I could go as the guest of another union. That would be fun to write about.

So here's the thing--I'm one of seven people elected by 20,000 high school teachers, and as such I'd deem it my business to know what goes on there, Still, I haven't got a vote in NYSUT, and consequently, neither have any of us. Unless the majority of high school teachers want to give a blank check to Unity to vote Any Damn Way They Are Told, this is not what I'd call an ideal form of democracy.

But let's not dwell on petty politics. Let's take a look at what sort of deal this can be if you're a loyalty oath signer. So you get $617 to go to the convention. You take the subway there and back a couple of times. That's what, $11.00? If you live outside of the city, you add a round trip LIRR fare, and you're out around 40 clams. You've got $566 left over. This could come in handy if you decide to buy $14 beer at the Hilton, but really you could eat on the cheap and pocket $500 easily. That's pretty good pay for sitting around a five star hotel and listening to a few speeches.

Alternatively, you could give $150 each, save hundreds of thousands of dollars, and use it on the organizing that hasn't been done in decades, so as to preserve the United Federation of Teachers as an entity when Friedrichs 2 comes down the pike next year. And if you really want to save money, you could send one representative to vote eighty thousand times. Now it may not be sufficiently dramatic watching Mulgrew sit by himself and do that. Also maybe you need someone who can speak, so you send LeRoy Barr. That's a few subway fares, and then you have to cover the Staten Island Ferry for Mulgrew. Let's say you budget $1000 for both of them, and let them eat any damn place they like. Let them take cabs if they want to.

For this particular convention, I'm not sure I covet a vote. I'd probably lean toward Mike Lillis over Andy Pallotta. I'd choose activist Bianca Tanis over just about anyone. I can't think of any earthly reason why anyone would choose Martin "Buy NYSUT Auto Insurance Even Though Allstate Is Half the Price" Messner for any job more challenging than lifeguard at the car wash. But that's just me. Of course I've got no vote, just the great honor of paying dues. Whichever side wins (because theoretically, at least, it is a contest), the 20,000 NYC high school teachers I represent get no representation whatsoever (and thanks a lot to both caucuses for that).

I could see spending a lot of money to go somewhere if they were going to deliberate about something important. I could see spending a lot of money if they were going to make decisions. But they aren't. They're gonna sit in some room, someone is gonna tell them how to vote, and they'll vote that way or no six hundred and seventeen bucks next time around.

A bunch of people go to the Hilton and pretend they're doing work. They go to meetings they're told to go to, vote how they're told to, and the preordained winners win. That's not a lot of bang for the buck, or more accurately for the 500,000 or so bucks. Given our share of paying for the common rooms, gala luncheons, and whatever the hell else goes on it will likely be more.

Perhaps leadership imagines this sort of thing will inspire all the Trump voters to pony up $1300 a year, as they'll be forever grateful we didn't mention his name when bemoaning his awful practices. On the other hand, maybe we could just buy them off and it would be a wash. But there are a whole lot of ways we could save hundreds of thousands of dollars that weekend, and a whole lot of better uses for that money.

Maybe, while we still have dues deducted from our paycheck, leadership should give some thought toward giving us a vote in organizations our dues support. I shall nonetheless sit while waiting for that to happen.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Teacher as Savior

Yesterday I spoke of a forum I attended in the Bronx. An interesting conversation ensued between audience and panel about recruitment for TFA and Moskowitz Academies. Evidently the pitch is that children of color must be saved and only you, the students, can get it done. Oh, and also we can give you a job after you graduate up to your neck in debt.

There are a number of striking points you could make about this particular argument. One is that there are plenty of public schools right there in the Bronx, and if you wish to branch out there are four more boroughs nearby with kids who could use your assistance. Another is that working in an NYC public school still beats the hell out of doing test prep for Eva and watching your hapless kids pee their pants rather than pause one moment from studying. She treats those kids a lot worse than I treat my dog (and in fact I love my dog, treat him well, and take him out whenever he asks).

Then, as one of the panelists pointed out, it's not exactly within our means to change everything. You know, there's poverty, there are learning disabilities, there is environment, and there are newcomers who speak no English. And make no mistake, Eva talks a big ballgame, but she doesn't take the same kids we do. 100% of the students I teach are beginners. They are most definitely not ready for intensive bathroom-free test prep, and that's not to suggest that anyone else is. If Eva takes ELLs, they are certainly on a higher level. Special education runs the gamut as well. Just because someone has an IEP doesn't mean she's alternate assessment, like a group of kids at my school. Alternate assessment kids are not expected to graduate. We take them to worksites and train them for jobs, and their stats count against us at year's end. And, of course, self-purported savior Moskowitz has a reputation for dumping kids that don't help her test-score-based bottom line.

As for TFA, sure you can have them pack you off to anyplace in the country. Sure you can help poor students whether or not you've got training sufficient to work in a public school. Maybe you've seen movies like Freedom Writers, where the actress what's her name (who, in fairness, has been in some good stuff too) singlehandedly inspires kids and saves them from their otherwise miserable destinies. Then there was the movie with Michelle Pfeiffer, where I think she shot a gun off in class, or jumped out a window or something, and didn't get fired.

One really cool thing about these movie teachers is they invariably have only one class. That's convenient, because you can focus on the handful of kids being saved. Most teachers I know have 170 students, and are pretty busy with things like, oh, grading tests and lesson planning. In my school, located on this astral plane, we now have grading policies so ponderous that teachers can barely find time for anything else. And don't get me started on gym teachers who have different classes every other day and are expected to perform this nonsense for 500 kids. I don't know how they even learn student names.

Of course teachers are a positive influence. Of course teachers, next to parents, are often the very best role models for children. And of course sometimes teachers can do incredible things, and there are extraordinary teachers. I know real stories about real teachers who reach out and change lives. I even know one who did this for years, who was threatened with an ineffective rating from a supervisor who appreciated this not at all, and who died alone one weekend only months before his planned retirement. I don't suppose that would make a movie script, as the protagonists tend to be gorgeous young white women.

The really cool thing about the teacher as savior model is it takes almost everyone off the hook for just about everything. Problems with your kids? The teachers suck. Failing the class? The teachers suck. Not graduating on time? The teachers suck. Teacher calling your house? He should handle it himself, that's his job, and he sucks. Why can't he be more like Michelle Pfeiffer or what's-her-name from Freedom Writers?

Not only parents are off the hook, but so are politicians. Arne Duncan, or John King, or Barack Obama, or Michael Bloomberg, or Joel Klein, or Andrew Cuomo (all of whom send their kids to private schools), can get up and tell some story about how a great teacher can change a life. That takes them off the hook for crumbling infrastructure, lack of a living wage or affordable health care, and allowing both parents to work 200 hours a week each to make ends meet. The implication is that a good teacher can change absolutely everything, and politicians are suddenly responsible for nothing, It's a WIN-WIN!

Thus you devise ways to fire teachers, like value-added, you devise ways to vilify teachers, like attacking their unions, and you devise ways to blame them for every ill of society. You even try to make a few films that drop the whole savior routines and stereotype public school, making charters the hero. You gloss over the whole pants-peeing thing because it doesn't make for increased popcorn sales.

Here's the thing--we do the best we can, each and every day, under incredibly challenging circumstances. We choose to go out and work with America's children each and every day, no matter who they are or how they come to us. We're not asking to be portrayed as super-heroes, but we don't deserve super-villain status either.

I want to support kids and help them to be happy, but I can't do everything. Politicians need to do their part too, instead of simply taking money from rich people, making their comfortable lives even more so, and ignoring those of us who actually work for a living. And we need to hold their feet to the fire.

The best idea would be to make folks who run schools patronize them. If the schools you run aren't good enough for your children, they likely aren't good enough for mine either. If Bloomberg or Klein had to send their own kids to public school, they'd eye very different reforms than the ones they ended up enforcing. You wouldn't have kids sitting in trailers, eating lunch before 9 AM, herded like prisoners, running around outside because there is no gym, or going years without glasses because even an eye check is unaffordable.

With Donald Trump as President, with demagogues like Betsy DeVos and Eva Moskowitz pretending to care about all children but giving in to the backward moves of this administration, our jobs become even more difficult.

Maybe we have to be super-heroes after all. Maybe we can. But our super-hero status will have to bring us outside the classroom and into communities, where we will be truth-tellers. Truth-tellers are in very short supply here in 2017.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fordham U and Me

Last night I was honored to be included in a panel at Fordham University discussing mostly the welfare of our students. There was great discussion from both the panelists and the audience. In retrospect, it probably would've been smarter to write about this before it happened so more people would know about it. But better late than never.

I had an interesting experience in listening to a Leadership Academy Principal who seemed passionate and sensible. He started to talk about how the system was designed for adults rather than children. I was thinking about disagreeing when he gave examples that kind of turned my head around. He said his teachers had a lot of trouble parking and it affected their jobs because they had to focus on nonsense rather than what they needed to do. It was the first time I heard that line used with explanations that actually supported working teachers.

A man in the audience complained that teachers used to call him when necessary, but now they called him all the time for no reason at all. Several of us on the panel were able to explain that teachers were now required to do parental contact, and that it was entirely possible they were sitting around on Tuesday Teacher Torture forced to make calls whether they were needed or not.

There were several questions about what we could do to change the system. Moderator Mark Naison made a plea for being crazy, and actually asked the students who the craziest teacher they knew was. I was struck by this, because I always pride myself on being the craziest teacher my students know. But I also believed that being crazy was a great motivating factor. It's what's helped me to help my school in a number of ways. You also have to be crazy to run for chapter leader. You have to be crazy to oppose the Unity Caucus. You have to be crazy to love your job no matter what the geniuses in Tweed, Albany, and DC toss at you.

There was also a lot of talk about overcoming fear and perhaps placing your job at risk. I don't know exactly when I stopped being afraid. When I first started this blog it was anonymous. I later started writing elsewhere under my real name. At some point I realized it didn't really make any difference. Maybe it was the day my principal walked up to me and asked, "Hey, what did you mean when you wrote this thing on your blog?" But it's liberating to lose the fear. If more teachers would find their way here we'd certainly be better off. 

I was recruited by my friend Aixa Rodriguez, an ESL teacher who shares my issues with Part 154 and how it hinders the instruction of the newcomers we serve. (You can see us on Telemundo talking about it right here.) I prepared some remarks, but as we went around the table I realized I was the only one who'd done that, so I spoke without them. I hate to write things and not use them, so I'll share my prepared remarks here. Hopefully I said the same thing off the top of my head, but somehow I doubt it.

My job is teaching newcomers English. It became more difficult last year because of a massive revision of Chancellor’s Regulation Part 154.

Evidently what I do is not effective at making students pass tests. It takes time to master a new language, and with every moment wasted doing that, there is content knowledge that students don’t grasp. Consequently, the whole test thing looks bad. It turns out that students who don’t know English tend to pass tests at a lower rate than students who do. Go figure.

One solution would be to send out people like me and teach newcomers English. But we’ve tried that, it takes time, and it doesn’t look good when it takes newcomers longer to graduate. Generally what’s done in cases like this is that everyone says the teachers suck and that’s why kids fail the tests. If Michelle Rhee were teaching my class, she’d take her magic broomstick and insert it in the exact place that would make them all learn perfect English instantly. But since she’s using her incredible gift to sell fertilizer these days, they decided to go another way.

NY State has determined this whole language teaching thing is overrated. So they’ve cut direct language instruction by 33-100% in favor of a new model. You see, what they do is take someone like me and place me in an academic class. While the social studies teacher goes over the Civil War, I magically make every student understand it. No more time wasted with “How are you,” and “My name is.” We’re going straight to the Battle of Gettysburg, which is important because it’s on a test somewhere..

So in the same 40 minutes an American student is supposed to understand the battle, my newcomers are supposed to do that and learn English. How is this achieved? No one knows, actually. We are just supposed to figure it out. We pair up with content teachers and hope for the best. In my school, we’ve paired up with English teachers so instead of the Civil War, our newcomers study
To Kill a Mockingbird or Hamlet. 

It’s pretty well known that language acquisition ability declines precipitously beginning at puberty. Young children are pretty much designed to learn language, and they soak it up like sponges. But high school students have it a little tougher. Taking time away from them to learn does them a great disservice.

Research shows the way to make students learn language is via high-interest and accessible subject matter. Giving newcomers three-inch thick biology books the day they set foot in the country is exactly the wrong thing to do. It’s really better to give them things just a little above their level, and no academic content-area textbook I’ve ever seen matches that criterion.

There are also other ridiculous regulations. I’m in the largest school in Queens, and we have only two classes of beginners. I know because I teach them. The regulations say that students must not be more than one grade level apart. I have no idea why. Thus 9th graders cannot be in the same room with eleventh graders. The smart thing, in a high school, is to group students by language level rather than age. But the geniuses who wrote Part 154 have other ideas. Where they come from is a mystery to me. I could understand not wanting to place an 18-year-old with an 8-year-old but this is overkill.

Were we to follow the grade regulations, I’d likely have one section of 65 and another of 8. In small schools the situation is worse. As Aixa can attest, no one knows what to do, and the ESL teachers run around like headless chickens trying to teach everything, and accomplishing little if anything.

This law reduces most ESL teachers into co-teachers. These are people who’ve devoted their lives to helping newcomers. I have young, smart and capable colleagues who are considering resignation because they want to teach English, not stand around in a classroom where their job entails supporting another teacher making all decisions about curriculum.

Worst, though, is the assumption that we don’t actually have a subject matter, and that the only way to teach English is via coupling it with academic content. Of course direct English instruction supports academic achievement. But there’s actually more to life than taking tests. We help kids figure out how to buy a pizza, meet a girlfriend, or take their grandmother to the doctor.

I’ve tried very hard to get this message out. Aixa and I were on Telemundo talking about it. I pushed the UFT to write and pass a resolution against it. But it hasn’t really caught on. I had reporters promise to write about it and never get around to doing so. And while UFT has passed the resolution, we’ve thus far taken no action whatsoever to back it up. I haven’t given up but it’s an uphill battle getting people to care about our kids.

Aixa and I told Betty Rosa to her face that this regulation was awful and why. She replied that there were good intentions behind it. We’ve all heard the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Somehow we’re going to have to show the NY State Education department that making up rules out of whole cloth is bad policy. We’re going to have to show them that we need research and practice based methodology rather than just good intentions and wishful thinking.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Where's the Beef?

There was an interesting piece on NBC News, which seems to have originated from Telemundo, with which they are affiliated. I'm a Long Island resident, and what caught my attention was that 25 employees had been fired for taking part in the Day Without Immigrants. The piece has since been corrected:

Telemundo 47 initially reported that at Ben's Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers in Long Island, New York, 25 workers were fired Friday when they returned to work.

The restaurant disputed the report, saying in a statement, "In anticipation of 'A Day Without Immigrants,' Ben's Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers, posted a formal statement to its Greenvale employees on Wednesday, February 15, expressing support for their human rights and requesting that they fill their shift as scheduled on Thursday, February 16."

The statement continued, "While some employees opted to participate in the walkout, several others chose to work and, as a result, the leaders of the protest put pressure on the others to walk out, even threatening physical harm to colleagues choosing to work their shifts."

As a result, the company owner "found this to be a cause for immediate dismissal of the employees who made the threats. All other employees involved with the walkout were, and still are, invited to return to their positions with the company."

On social media, representatives of Ben's now say there was only one employee who made threats and was terminated. They've fought back in the press getting favorable coverage in both Long Island Business News and Newsday. On my Facebook feed there's a pretty interesting discussion, and it's tough to come to a definite conclusion. It was a lot easier when it said 25 were fired.

It's more complicated now. I'm not sure, though, how you express support for human rights and tell people not to participate in exercising them. Also, Ben's has now revised its story about immediately dismissing "the employees who made the threats" and now says it was just one employee. A lot of this sounds very familiar to me. It sounds a lot like what people say when attempts are made to unionize.

We don't really know the full story here, and it's safe to suppose we never will. But I've heard lot of very similar stories about unions intimidating workers. In fact, I've even been accused of it. When I see supervisors breaking the contract by demanding teachers do things they have no right to demand, I've been told that teachers were afraid to do their jobs. It's odd, because the most I cause trouble for working teachers is never. I'm at my job an hour or more before I need to be almost every day. It's often the only time I can work uninterrupted. But just because I'm crazy doesn't mean anyone else has to be.

I guess it's a fair assumption that these workers are not unionized. Under NY State law they are therefore "at-will" employees who can be fired for pretty much anything under the sun. Or they can be fired for no reason at all. Health benefits? Not necessary under NY State law.

I've got an issue or two with union leadership, and I may mention it on this page from time to time. But no one I represent will be fired for taking one day off. No one I represent needs to fight about it, or intimidate anyone toward any political point of view. Unionization is an uphill battle in an environment like this, where you can lose your job for taking one day off, and that's true whether Ben's fired one person or 25.

Ben's has argued that their PR person is an immigrant. That's fine, but it's an appeal to authority rather than addressing the issue. They've argued that their leader is politically progressive. That's another appeal to authority. Where's the truth?

It's probably somewhere in the middle. One of my students approached me and told me she would not be in on that day. I respected that and excused her. Of course, you could argue that this didn't affect my bottom line. Of course, my bottom line is way closer to the bottom than that of a man who owns seven restaurants from here to Florida, and I can't imagine closing one day would move his anywhere near mine.

I'm prejudiced toward working people, and also toward immigrants, who I serve every day of my working life. I'm also becoming increasingly prejudiced toward food I prepare myself at home. I'll have to give a lot of thought before I go back to Ben's.

What do you think?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Something's Fishy in the USA

How does Fox News hook people and keep them hooked? And why can't anyone on the left manage to do anything remotely close? These are tough questions. I've read entire books that try to answer them and come away still shaking my head. What worthwhile endeavor on earth can working people expect from Donald Trump?  Sure, he'll stand there and say he cares about you, but he doesn't precisely put his money where his mouth is. In fact, it looks more like he puts his money where his money is.

How do coal miners watch him spend millions of federal dollar weekending at his 200K per head Florida resort and think, "This guy is gonna make my life better"? Well, here's a guy who keeps a life-sized cardboard cutout of Donald Trump and wishes him well each and every day. I wonder if he drives with him in the HOV lane.

Anytime you have fanatical ideologues you will hear things that amaze and disturb you. Their religion is the best. If you don't join, you're going to hell. Their ideology is the only one that's right, and it doesn't matter if their leaders are wrong. So what if they live in a golden penthouse while you live in a shack? That's just a temporary thing, and any day you'll be living in a penthouse too. That's why it's wise to keep taxes low for the rich. Sure, it's inconvenient now, but you never know.

What was really stupid was getting rid of the Fairness Doctrine, which eventually enabled Fox News. Now people can sit in front of it and tell themselves how smart and cool they are. Oddly, when I was in East Berlin in the 80s, they sold Pravda on every corner and no one bought it. If the folks running Fox ran Pravda the wall would never have come down.

I can't watch Fox for any length of time without hurling things at the television, a practice my wife very much frowns upon. Also, I have more than enough things to go crazy about in my real life, and I don't really much need any more. One of them is Donald Trump. I literally wake up in the middle of the night, think that he's President, and can't get back to sleep.

I'm not sure what exactly you need to believe to be a Trump supporter. It's hard for me to understand xenophobia, as I work with kids from every corner of the earth and it's one of the greatest joys of my life. But we're afraid of what we don't understand. When I see, "Make America Great Again," it looks very much like, "Make America White Again." I don't like to assume that people are racist or bigoted, but it's tough for me to imagine they aren't.

What the hell is it that this man does well? He can't open his mouth without jamming his foot into it. He watches crap about Sweden on Fox and all of a sudden the whole country is on fire. Politifact has him at 50% false. I don't know about you, but I don't find that remotely inspiring in a leader. And his famous thin skin, which causes him to criticize the press when it dares to tell the truth, is particularly disturbing.

The very worst thing about Donald Trump, though, is that his need for adulation could easily provoke him to war. That's the best way for him to rationalize doing what he wants to do, and making it unpatriotic to criticize him. I don't actually think he'll select China, as he and Ivanka make money producing their cheap crap over there. But you never know--he could decide he needs the press to shut up, and may think martial law is worth producing Donald Trump ties in Bangladesh, or even (perish forbid) Mexico.

Americans have already died in the service of Donald Trump, and I see no evidence that he wouldn't send thousands of our young people to the same fate in order to comfort his sensitive ego. Hopefully even the GOP will see what a bad bargain it's made and remove this dangerous evil clown from office sooner rather than later.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Best Catch There Is

I'm a big fan of Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. I don't know how many times I've read it, but it really sticks with me. Catch 22 says that you have to be crazy to fly army missions when people are shooting at you. You can't fly when you're crazy, of course, but no one knows you're crazy until you report it. But once you go and report that you're crazy, you're showing reasonable concern for your life, and you therefore can't be crazy. So you have to fly.

I see absurdity in a lot of places no one else does, and it's sometimes problematic for me. I might start laughing out loud in a meeting where no one else sees anything funny. It can be embarrassing. Heller, I think, saw what I see, and he saw it in everything. He presented his view in the setting of WWII, but human behavior is consistent in many settings, including NYC schools.

A memorable character was Colonel Cathcart. I see this character in a lot of people. He was obsessed with his image, and reduced pretty much everything to "black eyes" and "feathers in my cap." What made him look good or bad to his superiors? There were simply no other considerations for Colonel Cathcart. To me, he's a metaphor for the NYC DOE, forever focusing on how it can look good. (Ironically, just like Colonel Cathcart, it usually doesn't.)

In September, the DOE sent out a grading manifesto, stating that grades had to be largely mastery-based, and that participation grades had to be more closely regulated. In fact, my practice of giving a participation grade based on my memory each semester was specifically prohibited (though in retrospect, I gave one every marking period, which was not). Also, my practice of giving full credit for completion of homework was out. I felt they balanced one another out. A student could easily earn credit for completion of homework, but said student needed to actually do something in class to do well in participation.

But hey, the DOE, in its infinite wisdom, thinks it will look better if I drop these nefarious practices, so I did. My department now gives a higher percentage for graded homework than for homework that requires completion. Actually I'd already been doing that by assigning more weight to homework I sat and graded, but rules are rules so I'm doing it the other way.

An issue in my school, though, has been with participation. We've been instructed to come up with rubrics that clarify what participation is. I guess that's fair. I can't just say I'm giving you a zero in participation because you stink. I'm a language teacher, and whether or not you stink is not necessarily the best indication of how well you use the language. So I made a pretty simple list of what is positive and what is negative, and that's what I use.

Not everyone I know did that. Some people have really complex rubrics. Now here's the thing with a rubric--it's a measurement tool, but if you ever want to get anything done you can't specifically refer to each and every factor. For example, when I graded essays for the Regents, I tended to be in sync with most of my colleagues. But I recall one former colleague who used to agonize over every step. When I was completing my second stack of papers, she'd be looking at paper number two or three, meticulously matching each category to each paper, and doing ponderous calculations to reach her conclusions. She'd also criticize my grading every step of the way. Now maybe she was a better grader than me, but since she never actually finished grading a class we'll never know.

I spoke to a young teacher who'd just spent 90 minutes inputting his participation grades for the day. I told him he'd set an impossible standard for himself. He just shrugged, and said he'd consider revising his rubric. Several departments in my school are demanding weekly participation grades. I suppose parents could call and complain about participation grades or their frequency if they wished, though it's never happened to me once. I also suppose this whole process is the brainchild of some bureaucrat obsessed with black eyes and feathers in his cap.

Another thing Colonel Cathcart liked to do was raise the number of dangerous flying missions. Every time his men reached 20 and were ready to stop, he'd raise it to 30. When they hit 30, he'd raise it to 40. I feel like that's what's being done to teachers. Now that you've done this thing, do this other thing. Follow the Danielson rubric. Go to a teacher team meeting, without which Western Civilization will grind to a halt. Take PD, but not this kind, that kind, and by the way, screw you because we're not offering it. Go to some school to grade Regents exams that aren't yours, and stand outside in 20 degree weather until we're good and ready to let you in. And no, you can't drink water while you grade, and you need permission to go to the bathroom. Sorry, the pass is out.

It's just that somewhere there's a line. Not everyone is as crazy as I am, and sometimes leaders go over it. In fact, it happens often, which is why we lose so many teachers. In my school, I've filed an excessive paperwork complaint about the participation requirements. I think teachers are the best judges of when grades need to be issued and why. I do not believe this barrage of regulations and requirements is improving education for anyone.

I don't want to be Colonel Cathcart, and I don't want my kids to have leaders like him. I understand such leaders are around, and I also understand that people with this mentality might be drawn to administration. But those of us who love kids and wish to support them, especially when they become working people, need to leave them a better world. To do that, we're gonna have to work to keep nonsense to a minimum.

That is one tough job.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Stronger Together Minus Jia Lee=Neither Stronger nor Together

Stronger Together is a caucus of NYSUT that began when former President Richard Iannuzzi was unceremoniously overthrown by Mulgrew three years ago. A lot of locals didn't much like being told by UFT leadership who could and could not run NYSUT. The officers being overthrown ran against the Mulgrew-selected ticket, and PJSTA President Beth Dimino recruited MORE to represent UFT in the run against NY State Unity.

I thought it was kind of cool that Hillary used their name in her campaign. It was pretty cool to see Stronger Together written in big letters on her campaign jet. Back when she was a sure thing, I thought maybe they'd follow in their footsteps. Now that I know exactly what she was a sure thing for, I'm afraid I was right.

As of now, Stronger Together is running a new ticket, once again with only four candidates. My caucus, MORE, was affiliated with Stronger Together for the last few years. The MORE rep for ST reports being treated very poorly by them, being told that they were union presidents and he wasn't, and was somehow not on par with them. I have a little experience with union presidents acting superior to mere members, so I don't find that too hard to believe.

When I realized that Stronger Together was running four people against five, I saw an instant solution to my problem, which is that they have no UFT representation whatsoever. They could run Jia Lee, who bravely faced an uphill battle against Michael Mulgrew last year. They could run James Eterno, who got the majority of high school votes for High School Vice President, but who isn't VP because UFT Unity rigged elections precisely so he couldn't win. They could have run a hundred different UFT members. But they didn't ask any of us.

That's because their election process entailed sending an email, putting a post on Facebook, and then having 12 people decide who would run. I discussed it with Eterno a month later, but we evidently made the assumption that someone would contact us. We were wrong. So then the question becomes this--Why didn't Stronger Together solicit a UFT candidate for their ticket?

The answer could be they assumed there was no interest, which is what they told me. However, I know Michael Lillis, the Presidential candidate, to be very smart. I don't believe for a New York minute that it didn't cross his mind to call Jia, or James, or me, or anyone at all in UFT. What I believe is that his caucus thought being affiliated with us would hurt their chances of the fusion ticket they so much wanted to create with Unity. I have no idea why Unity would not have noticed our previous affiliation, or indeed why the hell they'd be motivated to do any sort of fusion ticket. Of course they did not.

Once that happened, Stronger Together decided to run their four-person ticket. They could have easily added a fifth, but chose not to. So in the virtually unimaginable scenario that they win, it will be four of them and one of Mulgrew's. Of course it wouldn't be Andy Pallotta, who seems to be the only UFT member running. Now that would be kind of cool, as UFT leadership would be frozen out of NYSUT in at least some small way. Their enormous voting bloc would mean nothing whatsoever, and they'd actually have to listen to someone for a change. In the era of Brexit, and Donald Trump, you'd think such a miracle could take place.  Now I often love miracles, but the ones taking place lately have not been the sort that I get excited about. So I'm not precisely holding my breath for this one.

So the question remains why ST didn't reach out for UFT representation.  Could their negative relationship with a single MORE member have led them to stereotype us? I don't think so. Lillis is smarter than that. Could it be that it did not occur to Michael Lillis to pick up a telephone and look for UFT representation? I doubt it. Could it have been that they were so giddy over the possibility of getting a few cool gigs via that fusion thing with Unity? Maybe.

But whatever it was, the egregious error of ignoring the largest teacher local in the country, with 28% of the total members of NYSUT was a very bad idea. It shows a fatal lack of forethought and consideration and fails to sufficiently differentiate them from the machine they're facing. Maybe they'll come to their senses after they lose, and maybe they won't, but their lack of vision right now is nothing short of appalling.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The New Student

In our school, we've looked at the new Commandment from the DOE directing us to work out a grading policy. This has been problematic for a lot of us. Some departments are saying students must get a participation grade every week, and are demanding rubrics for how we do it. This is because, as we all know, the pigs that built their homes of straw and twigs had their homes blown down by a big bad wolf, but the one whose home was built out of rubrics managed to save his bacon.

I've walked around the building, and I've looked at a lot of rubrics. I've actually seen a lot of teachers who have systems in which they are grading students each and every day to decide on a weekly grade. To me, that is excessive paperwork. And furthermore, it's idiotic to judge each and every student in the same way. For example, my new student did not say a word all period, but meticulously researched the questions I'd asked online. I tried to get him to participate, but he wasn't having it.

Now here's the thing. There are a lot of ways to rate participation.  I love when students jump up and
down to answer questions. But not everyone does this. My new student, for example, was pretty much glued to the computer. Now I did try and talk to him. I explained that every week or two I was going to give a participation grade, and that he couldn't just sit around waiting. He didn't really respond, but he looked a little sad about it. I hope I didn't traumatize him.

Aside from him, there are a lot of other issues. Now you can certainly ask teachers to judge each and every one of their 170 students each and every day. And perhaps because there's a rubric, some people may believe that makes things fair somehow. I don't. One reason is because I see things differently than some of my colleagues. I do not believe for one moment that I would give the same grade they would, even using the same rubric. People do not look at the same thing and see it exactly the same way. Otherwise we wouldn't need elections, for example.

If they really want students to get identical grades for identical behavior, they should realize Bill Gates' wet dream and assign computers to teach classes. There are several tangible benefits to that, other than Gates potentially dying from a massive-orgasm-based coronary and thereby instantly improving American education.

Once we have actual computers teaching classes, no one will be able to blame them when affluent students excel on tests and less affluent students do not. We'll finally have absolute proof that test scores demonstrate zip code more than anything else. Maybe when boredom becomes as pervasive as it can be people will even begin to appreciate teachers.

Meanwhile, though, there is that bunch of teachers are dealing with the odd requirements by rating performance absolutely each and every day. I have no idea how you do that and teach. For example, I try not to rate more than one thing a day. If I give a homework assignment I have to grade, I don't give a quiz, and vice-versa. On days I give tests, I don't give homework. It's going to be very, very hard to do this job if we have to grade participation each and every day and then do everything else we have to do.

Sometimes I think they wait until we're just on the edge, and then they dream up some new thing for us to do. I wonder how teachers not as crazy as I am will survive, and indeed a whole lot of them disappear rapidly, even in a relatively good school like mine. Personally, I think my new student could plan equally well as some of the great minds at Tweed.

Of course they don't actually do this job, so this stuff is all fine and dandy with them.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

They're Reading the Blog

After I posted this, UFT put up this tweet, pretending that Mulgrew does social media. That's progress!

What's in an Aim? (Revisited)

I've heard from various and sundry administrators that there must be an aim for each and every lesson. I do write one, as supervisors are always fiitting in, out, and about, but I've never agreed that it was necessary. For one thing, I don't like to brag, but I'm a high school graduate. The fact is I never saw a single one when I was in school. When I taught college, where such things are not mandated, I never gave a second thought to bothering with one.

I've written before that an aim, if I didn't know what I was doing, would not clear it up for me. And if I do know what I'm doing, reducing it to an aim is unlikely to make it any clearer. I now have a co-teacher, and we have dueling approaches to what constitutes an aim. I'd say that neither of us is wrong, but of course, being me, I tend to favor my approach. I suppose I wouldn't have been using it otherwise.

I actually have multiple goals when I design a lesson. One goal, to be quite honest, is to trick the students into achieving said goal without having them realize what they're doing. That sounds a little complicated, but it really isn't. I'm a language teacher, and if you observe the best language learners, they happen to be babies and small children. They don't have any aim written on any board. They just soak up language like sponges, and they do it automatically without any prodding whatsoever.

I can't mirror that exactly, of course, and my students are teenagers. They haven't got the language learning capacity of small children, but they're still a lot closer to it than we plodding, miserable adults. I can speak Spanish fluently, having spent a few summers in Mexico, among other things, but I learned almost nothing in high school Spanish. I remember an entire year memorizing the preterite, and being completely unaware that it was past tense. The teacher never saw fit to mention that. Who says preterite for past tense?

I try to teach via usage. I ask questions. I make students question one another. I write and steal little stories. I have a picture story that teaches past progressive, e.g. I was driving to work yesterday. There's a story about a student who was thinking about difficult final exams and got into an accident because he wasn't focusing. So the aim I came up with was, "What were you doing?" As a DO NOW, another requirement for which I see little need, I ask, "This morning at 6 AM, I was driving to work. What about you?" This forces my students to use the structure, and also relates it to their lives.

My co-teacher, on the other hand, writes the aim, "How do we analyze a story?" Her argument is that this is the sort of language they might need to use in college. I suppose you might see things like these in Common Core Standards, tantamount to the Ten Commandments. You see, in the unit plans, another exercise without which I could teach just as well, you have to reference standards. Using her aim, we could reference high school standards. Using my actual goal, which happens to be correct language usage, we have to go all the way back to second grade standards.

There are a number of factors that make us think differently. I can see the validity in both arguments, but I also very much favor simplicity whenever it's possible. Just because my professional life is mucked up with frivolous and redundant complications, that's no reason to pass them down to my students. When rules are tossed in front of me, it's my inclination to find ways I can work with them, and that's what I do. I can freak out and jump up and down about some things, but not all of them.

I do not believe in concepts like rigor. I believe in joy, and finding what makes you happy. I have nothing against hard work, and I do plenty of it. But making things complicated or difficult for the sake of making things complicated or difficult, well, that's just stupid. As a rule, I oppose stupid. I don't think it's my job to prepare kids for lives of tedium and drudgery. I think it's my job to help them learn English, of course, make them love English, and also to try and awaken some spark that makes them love being who they are. I want them to do something that they love. What makes me a good role model, in my estimation, is that I've found something I love to do and so can they.

Now I'm sure I'd have no place in a Moskowitz Academy, where they test prep until they pee their pants. But hey, until Charlotte Danielson's insane rubric and the crazy tests on which I'm rated get me bounced from this job, I'm gonna keep doing it the best I can. I hope I help some kids along the way, because whatever we end up writing on the board, that's my real aim.

Monday, February 13, 2017

UFT Message in Times of Right to Work--Do As I Say, Not As I Do

I was struck at last Wednesday's DA by Michael Mulgrew's multiple references to the AFT Executive Board. Evidently this is an important meeting for some reason. Maybe it's because so few of us are privy to it and we need to know Mulgrew is. Or maybe it's because, as he says, Michael Mulgrew manages to make contact with various local union presidents, and is thus able to share the Union Loud and Proud, or Public School Proud and Loud, or whatever he's calling the most recent iteration of his feel good about union campaign.

Why do I find this interesting? Well, I've been on the UFT Executive Board for a little over five months, and I can't help but notice how relatively unimportant his own union business is. Unlike Mulgrew, I've actually attended every meeting. And unlike Mulgrew, I try to come in the beginning and leave at the end. I have been late a few times, but not by design. On the other hand, Michael Mulgrew shows up when he feels like it, if he feels like it, with no regard whatsoever for the agenda. He interrupts whatever is happening, no concern of his, gives a short talk, and then walks out. He participates and interacts with the board not at all.

Why should the President of the United Federation of Teachers concern himself when members have issues? Why should he worry when we are under attack? Clearly he has more important things to do. Why should he have to listen to opposition voices democratically elected by the high school teachers? That's not a priority of his, and that's why he's never emailed us, spoken to us, or perish forbid, met with us. The high schools didn't support his caucus so screw them, he's taking his ball and going up to the 14th floor, where they do whatever it is they do up there, and that should be good enough for anyone.

It's odd that the Executive Board meetings are run by the Secretary. The equivalent meetings in my school, with our consultation committee, are run by yours truly. Can you imagine a chapter leader calling meetings, saying a few words, and then being so disinterested he just walks out and leaves it to the members to work out whatever it is they're there to work out? Can you imagine a teacher coming into a classroom, saying a few words to the kids, and then walking out to do whatever? Can you imagine the consequences of such behavior? I see rubber room.

Of course, you and I are lowly teachers. We are not union presidents. But if we were, in any union but the UFT, we'd have to run our own Executive Board meetings. Members would not put up with our saying we're too important to participate. But in the notoriously top-down UFT model, no one even knew what the hell went on at Executive Board meetings until upstart bloggers went and got elected. Now we write about it, and if I recall correctly, Michael Mulgrew has not spent more than thirteen minutes at any particular meeting. That won't change, because UFT leadership already does everything right and their being wrong is not within the realm of possibility, even when they contradict themselves. I don't know about you, but that reminds me of Donald Trump. 

Let's pivot for a moment and discuss social media. Mulgrew loves to talk about social media and how fabulous we are at it. He loves to point to what's-his-name, whoever it is who runs it for the UFT. He loves to tell us about the power of hashtags, and how we should use this one or that. In fact, I sometimes get email notices to please tweet this or that, and I usually comply. On several occasions the tweets suggested went beyond 140 characters and I had to edit them to make them fit. Of course, that wasn't leadership's fault, because nothing ever is. It certainly wasn't Michael Mulgrew's fault. How do I know this?

I know this because Michael Mulgrew has no presence whatsoever on social media. I'm on Twitter and Facebook, but he isn't. Don't we lead by example? Isn't that fundamental? Not in the United Federation of Teachers. Of course, just like I can't read the tweets or posts of Michael Mulgrew, I can't read his mind. But I certainly know that he doesn't wish to interact with lowly members like me. If he did, he'd be on social media. If he did, he'd answer my email. This he does not do, and that's why, on the extremely rare occasions I email him in my capacity as chapter leader of the largest school in Queens, I copy them here. That way, I know someone reads them.

The Mount Olympus style of running the UFT is problematic. It is certain to become much more so when dues become voluntary, an inevitablity that Mulgrew acknowledged at last week's DA. It's disgraceful that the President of the United Federation of Teachers sleepwalks through his fundamental responsibilities, conveying the unmistakable message that he's too important for us. That's something he could easily change.

But you know what? Micheal Mulgrew is never wrong, UFT leadership is never wrong, and they will thus hang tough. Too bad, because that never works, not for him, not for them, and not for us either. And let's not forget what directly brought us to this point--the blind and unquestioning support of a candidate who couldn't be bothered to do more than pay lip service to the needs of working teachers and working Americans. Hillary was too cool for school, Mulgrew is too cool for school, and for those of us in schools every day of our lives, teachers and students alike, that model is an abject failure.

If you're not learning you're dying, and I've seen precisely zero evidence of learning on the part of ever-autocratic UFT leadership.