Monday, June 20, 2005

Inexpensive Overcrowding Remedy

Mayor Bloomberg loves to take decrepit, overcrowded high
school buildings and magically turn them into small schools. Here's his recipe:

Take one school building created for 1800 kids,
currently housing 4200. Add five layers of administration.
Give each a worthy sounding name, like NY Academy of Art, for
example. Devote several classrooms to the additional administration, and dump the displaced kids in some trailers out back.

Then, add a few hundred more kids and voila! You have a decrepit,overcrowded high school building containing five impressively named academies!

Friday, June 17, 2005

"Teaching to the Test"

It sounds stark and tedious. But there are more and more tests, and more and more mandates from more and more levels of government, and someone's got to help kids faced with taking them.

At my school, we've spent a great deal of time and energy devising a formulaic approach for ESL students to pass the English Regents, and we've been very successful at that--our ESL students are passing at about the same rate as native students. For them it's a high stakes test--they can't graduate without it.

I don't much like what we're teaching them--four paragraph canned "essays" with prescribed references to a handful of so-called "literary terms." I'm almost certain that the skills we give them are useful only for passing the test. Were I teaching writing, I'd find these compositions artificial, tedious, uninteresting and unsatisfactory.

I also strongly feel that their time would be better spent improving their English language skills, oral, written and otherwise. Works of literature are chosen for their brevity rather than quality, in order to give them as large an inventory as possible with which to respond to the literature question.

It would be nice to give Governor Pataki or Education Commisioner Richard Mills six months to pass the same test in Korean, and see how they fare. But my druthers are little help for my students, few of whom wish to reach middle age while still in high school.

My daughter has been taking standardized tests since kindergarten in the form of something called the "Terra Nova." At first, I was amazed at her scores--though she couldn't read at all, she scored very high in reading. Yet she had a very low score in English. Her teacher later told me the same discrepancy applied to most of her classmates--the reading portion came first, and English last. Most of the 5-year-old test takers were too bored to pay attention by then.

Now in third grade, she was struggling this year, so I sent her to "Score," a chain run by Kaplan. She spends two hours a week working on computer programs based on standardized tests. Her Terra Nova scores improved tremendously after four or five months there. I have to recommend this place (Full disclosure--unfortunately, I'm not a paid spokesperson.) to any fellow parents freaking out over their children's test scores.

Does the "Terra Nova" test really measure important things? Frankly, I have no idea. But she takes it anyway, and fourth grade is largely geared toward taking a major test here in New York, so what choice do we have? And what choice do my students have?

If your students have a high-stakes test, you pretty much have to help them do as well as possible. And if your own kids have one, you have to do the same. If that means "teaching to the test," what viable alternative is there?

(I wrote much of this as a response to something Instructivist posted.)

Monday, June 13, 2005

Thought for the Day:

I'd like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private individuals.
-Joseph Heller

Well, why not? It makes more sense than school vouchers.

Summer's coming. I know, you're teaching summer school, going to Tibet, saving the world...but if you haven't yet read Heller's Catch 22, you ought to do so as soon as possible. There's nothing like it.

PS--This applies doubly if you happen to work for the NYC Department of Education.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

I Wish Someone Had Told Me…

Practical suggestions were few and far between when I started out. I was an English teacher, with an AP who spent hours describing the difference between an “aim” and an “instructional objective.” To this day, I haven’t the slightest notion what she was talking about. She also spent a good deal of time describing the trials and tribulations of making meatballs for her parents, and other vital information.

Neither she, nor any teacher of education ever advised me on classroom control. The standing platitude was “A good lesson plan is the best way to control a class,” but I no longer believe that. I think a good lesson plan is the best thing to have after you control the class.

I also think a good lesson plan need not be written at all, as long as you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, neither the lesson plan nor the aim will be much help.

The best trick, and it’s not much of a trick at all, is frequent home contact. It’s true that not all parents will be helpful, but I’ve found most of them to be. When kids know reports of their classroom behavior will reach their homes, they tend to save the acting out for your lazier colleagues—the ones who find it too inconvenient to call. You are not being "mean" or petty--you're doing your job, and probably helping the kid. If you want to really make a point, make a dozen calls after the first day of class. Or do it the day before a week-long vacation.

Now you could certainly send that ill-mannered kid to the dean, to your AP, to the guidance counselor, or any number of places. But when you do that, you’re sending a clear message that you cannot deal with that kid—he or she is just too much for you. You’ve already lost.

And what is that dean going to do anyway? Lecture the child? Call the home? Why not do it yourself?

You need to be positive when you call. Politely introduce yourself and say this:

“I’m very concerned about _______________. ___________ is a very bright kid. That’s why I’m shocked at these grades, 50, 14, 0, 12, and 43 (or whatever). I’d really like __________ to pass the class, and I know you would too.”

I’ve yet to encounter the parent who says no, my kids are stupid, and I don’t want them to pass.

“Also, I’ve noticed that ___________ is a leader. For example, every time ___________ (describe objectionable behavior here) or says (quote exact words here—always immediately write objectionable statements) many other students want to do/say that too.”

"I'm also concerned because ________ was absent on (insert dates here) and late (insert dates and lengths here).

I certainly hope you will give _________ some good advice so ___________ can pass the class.”

If the kid’s parents speak a foreign language you don’t know, find someone else who also speaks it, and write down what you want that person to tell the parent.

If you’re lucky enough to have a phone in your room, next time you have a test, get on the phone in front of your class and call the homes of the kids who aren’t there. Express concern and ask where they are. If the kid is cutting, it will be a while before that happens again. If the kid is sick, thank the parent and wish for a speedy recovery.

The kids in your class will think twice about giving you a hard time.

Kids test you all the time. It’s hard not to lose your temper, but it’s a terrible loss for you if you do. When kids know you will call their homes, they will be far less likely to disrupt your class. The minutes you spend making calls are a very minor inconvenience compared to having a disruptive class.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a reasonable and supportive AP, God bless you. If not, like many teachers, you’ll just have to learn to take care of yourself. If you really like kids, if you really know your subject, and if you really want to teach, you’ll get the hang of it.

But make those phone calls. The longer you do it, the more kids will know it, and the fewer calls you’ll have to make.

Your AP, whether good, bad, or indifferent, will certainly appreciate having fewer discipline problems from you. More importantly, you might spend less time dealing with discipline problems, and more helping all those kids in your room.

Friday, June 03, 2005

It's the Amazing Super Mayors!!

Flash—Crime is down in New York City!! How could this be? It’s due to the hard work and amazing ability of Mayor Mike, and his predecessor Sir Rudolph!! How do they find the time to confound all the criminals who threaten our fair city? It’s a miracle!

Flash—Scores are up in New York City Schools!! Unbelievable! It’s Mayor Mike again, along with his faithful sidekick Kleinie Boy. How do Mayor Mike and Kleinie Boy do it? No one knows. They’ve managed to raise the scores of 1.1 million schoolchildren without even breaking a sweat!

Flash—fire is no longer any danger to New Yorkers!! Mayor Mike will gladly brave certain death to save you and yours, just as Sir Rudolph did when he single-handedly rescued thousands from the World Trade Center!

That’s what happened, isn’t it? Otherwise, why would Sir Rudolph be raking in millions while the firefighters are without a contract since July 2002?

And why would Mayor Mike be sitting on a 3.3 billion dollar surplus while NYPD officers, without a contract since July 2002, max out at 50 K a year?

And why would the heroic Kleinie Boy be paying 20,000 bucks a month for personal PR when the teachers have been without a contract for two years now?

There’s only one conclusion—the Amazing Super Mayors are the only ones who deserve credit for any progress. The police, firefighters and teachers have no role in this whatsoever.

Rewards are better left for truly needy folks—like billionaire Jets owner Woody Johnson, who selflessly offered to purchase prime NYC waterfront property for 25% of its value. Not only that, but he’s willing to pay a fraction of the cost of a brand new stadium for his football team.

When, oh when, are those cops, firefighters, and teachers gonna quit whining and show some productivity?