Friday, April 30, 2010

Kinetic Hallucinations

Am I getting old?  Am I losing my mind?  These are thoughts I entertain on a fairly regular basis and I don't know why.  I mean, if I'm not getting old I must be dead, and I haven't read my name in the obituaries.  On the other hand, I don't actually read the obituaries, so how would I know?  As for losing my mind, of course, if that were happening I'd probably be in no condition to judge anyway. 

Nonetheless, here's what's happening.  I have a little cell phone that I leave on vibrate.  But sometimes I feel the vibrations when they aren't there!  I reach for the phone but it's not moving at all.   This has been happening for months, and seems sufficient cause to question my sanity.  Still, I'm not seeing pink elephants.  I don't hear voices asking me to perform brutal acts of violence, though I seem to hear announcements in my classroom at the same time each day. 

But yesterday I was with a group of students outside the trailer, waiting for the bell, and I thought to bring it up.  After all, who knows more about cell phones than kids?  They all have iPhones and Sidekicks while I have some 30-dollar plastic piece of junk.  Now this seems unfair to me because I have a job and they don't.   Nonetheless, I mentioned the vibrations.

"I know, right?" asked one girl.

"That happens to me all the time," said another.

And a few more kids began to discuss this odd phenomenon.  Why does this happen?  Are we all crazy?  Is it something in the air?

They can't figure it out, and in some ways I can't either.  But I know one thing--these kids are far too young to be senile.  So I have to consider this day a small victory.

But who knows what tomorrow may bring?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dispatch from the Trenches of the New York State ELA Exam, Day 2: The Hazards of Overpreparation

If there's one thing I know I can teach efficiently, effectively, and helpfully, it's essay writing. Essay writing is easy. People make it harder than it has to be. I can strip down an essay to its core like nobody's business, show my kids exactly how an essay works and how to put it back together. Being able to write an essay in one's sleep is a good skill to have by the end of middle school, I think.

So maybe it's my relentless teaching of essay-writing that helps my kids rock-n-roll the state exam. I guess it is, since I'm a skeptic a la Dan Willingham and others that "reading strategies" make any damn difference in middle school, so I spend very little time on them. It could also be that, in my experience, kids find essay writing to be the hard, intimidating part of the exam. Give them an easy way to deal with it and they will feel much calmer overall.

And as I watched my kids do Book 3 yesterday, which in eighth grade is two reading passages, three short response questions, and an essay, I knew that I'd done at least that much well yet again. I was "actively proctoring," of course, and I could see that they used their planning pages, they filled all the lines and then some, they had introductions and conclusions and body paragraphs and transitional devices and evidence from the text. Nice, children, nice. I was very happy when the time was up and I had to collect the exams.

Color me shocked when so many of my students thought they'd done terribly.

"Why?" I asked them after we'd handed in the tests. "I was watching you! You did great! You have nothing to worry about! What's the problem?"

"I didn't finish my conclusion," a few girls fretted.

"I should have written a separate body paragraph for that new topic," said a boy.

"I forgot a conclusion," even the valiant Drew admitted.

And then it hit me: I'd overprepared them.

You see, I've scored the ELA exam before. I've been alternately depressed and relieved by the minimal standards the test sets. I saw essays that I would have considered barely competent to pass, say, fifth grade English get marked well enough to get a 2 or even a 3 on the eighth grade exam. I want my eighth graders to be ready to write high-school level essays, which is not the same as getting them ready to write an essay for a state ELA exam.

I could save them, and myself, a lot of grief by telling them the truth: that putting in a bunch of details from the text to support one or two opinions, in some kind of logical sequence, will be enough to get them to pass the state exam. And then wouldn't my numbers look fabulous.

But they can do better. And so can I.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Crazy Is as Crazy Does

I'm not altogether upset when kids call me crazy.  In fact, I like it.  It's good if kids don't know precisely what to expect from you.  It keeps them on their toes, and keeps them from falling asleep more often than not.  It also makes them think twice before acting out in your class.

Sometimes, though, the kids make an accusation and back it up with evidence.  It's one thing when they just casually toss names about, but when they back them up, well, then it's harder to argue.

One kid, a former student of mine, was talking to my colleague and got into a lively discussion of who was the craziest teacher in the school.  Naturally, my colleague advocated for himself.  But the young woman was having none of it.

"Mr. Educator is the craziest teacher in the school," said she.

"Why?" asked my jealous colleague.

"Because he made all of us speak only English," she replied.  "And none of us knew how to speak English."

Game, set, and match.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dispatch from the Trenches of the New York State ELA Exam, Day 1: "I Was Bored in Five Minutes"

Every year I fantasize about leading my students in passive resistance to the state ELA exams. I imagine us all sitting in my room with the door closed and the lights off, our desks empty, placid but silent. "We respectfully decline," I hear us saying, perhaps in a calm but defiant unison, over and over. Perhaps we conduct an all-day charity readathon, or maybe we just go and hang out on the playground with some kindergarteners from the elementary school across the way later in the afternoon, but we don't take the test.

And then I drag my sorry ass into school and give the test.

The state is claiming that the tests are harder this year, but I don't really buy it. I didn't think this year's test was all that much more difficult than last year's. (But, in case you don't know, I cannot comment on test content until the makeup period is over.) Most of my kids finished Book 1 early with time to spare, and since regulations mandate that kids spend the extra time twiddling their thumbs or staring off into space, my darlings were pretty wiggly by the 54th minute. And, of course, as soon as time was called, they couldn't wait to be out of their seats and talking again. This is middle school, after all.

Since 8th grade tests in three separate sections over 2 days, Day 1 is our long day, and Book 2 also passed relatively uneventfully. I like to think of myself as a pretty thorough writing teacher, and sure enough, most of my kiddies were writing pretty much to the end. Many of them destroyed an eraser or two in the process. I think that shows that they care.

Later in the day, I met up with my students who'd been taken elsewhere for testing mods with pull-out teachers. I asked them how it had gone.

"Aw, it was easy," said a girl I'll call Alicia.

"I bet you were all bored after ten minutes," I teased. "You're too smart for this stuff."

"I was bored after FIVE minutes," countered my buddy Drew.

"I'm sure you nailed it," I said.

He nodded. "I think I did."

Well, that's always good news. Day 2 forthcoming later this week.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ignorance by Design

It's kind of incredible to see the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States ask what the difference is between email and pagers.  I mean, these are the people who are supposedly making the most important decisions in the country, and their chief is utterly out of touch with the way a large number of us communicate.  I wonder whether or not he knows telegrams are extinct.

On a local level, NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has this to say about the legislation to eliminate last-in, first-out for NYC teachers:

“Nobody I’ve talked to thinks seniority is a rational way to go,”
I take the Chancellor at his word.  But it's pretty clear he doesn't get out much.  He's in a bubble, just like Chief Justice Roberts.  But Klein is not simply resistant to newfangled trends like computers--he's the head of a school system, and holds such disdain for working teachers that he doesn't bother even talking to them.  It's certainly true there are some teachers who don't like the current system, as the article attests.  I've been in their position and I don't blame them.

Clearly Klein talks to whom he wishes, and ignores absolutely everyone else.  As a model, he trots out DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who fired hundreds of teachers due to budget cuts, and then--Oops!--found 34 million, lost it, and found 29 million.   Perhaps he finds that sort of creative mathematics inspirational.  On the other hand, to an objective observer, it appears more delusional.  And having our jobs at the mercy of someone as disingenuous as Rhee, or blatantly and deliberately out of touch as Klein is simply unacceptable.

Such attitudes are hardly what I'd demand from a role model or teacher, let alone a schools chancellor.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hizzoner Tackles S-Pan-Yole...

...and displays precisely the same finesse with which he runs the school system:

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Overkill? You Don't Know the Meaning of the Word!

A few weeks ago on these pages, we introduced the KFC Double Down, a concoction of bacon, cheese and orange stuff sandwiched between two pieces of fried chicken, a veritable revolt against good health sure to please the most discerning of diners.

Nonetheless, several intrepid souls out there determined this was not what it was cracked up to be, and decided there was still more work to be done.  So they added extra orange stuff,  took the whole goopy mess and squeezed it into a Krispy Kreme donut.

Bon apetit, America!

Friday, April 23, 2010

He Fell from the Sky

In our school, we get newbies every single day.  I teach a level 3 ESL class, but it makes no difference.  Though most of my kids have been here around a year, kids who just set foot in the USA are regularly dispatched to my classroom.

"What's your name?" I ask.  They look at me like I fell from the sky.

"Where are you from?"  Same response.

Yet the tests, devised by the geniuses at Tweed, place them in intermediate ESL.  Never mind that they can't converse on the most basic level.

But they really open up in their language class, according to their teacher, who spies for me part time.

"You have Mr. Educator?" they ask.


“Well, you’d better speak English.  He hates it when you don’t speak English.  He screams and goes crazy.”

“Yes, he’s crazy.”

“He screamed at me too,” said a quiet girl.

No one could believe it.  “Why?”

“I wasn’t speaking English,” she confessed, averting her eyes a little.

“Oh my gosh,” said the new guy, “I’d better get out of that class.”

“No,” said the quiet girl.  “You can learn a lot in his class.  And he’s very nice once you get past his being crazy.”

I’m flattered, I think.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Teacher Survey: To Take or Not to Take

For those of you who don't know (though how could you not know with your principal likely reminding you of the fact every seventeen seconds), the Learning Environment Surveys are due tomorrow. Well, "due" is perhaps not the right word; I guess they can't make you take it (yet). But they're supposed to be completed tomorrow.

I still haven't taken mine.

My comment on this issue at GothamSchools has me in the "Chalk it Up" box on the front page (yippee!) and I still mean what I said there: I'm sure that my principal will be able to figure out who said what. And, to be fair, I would have a lot of positive things to say about my school: I love the kids I teach, most of my colleagues are very nice and supportive, and my principal has done some things that I think will be good for the school. I wouldn't fill it out with a bunch of negative stuff just to be mean-spirited.

But it ain't all sunshine and rainbows, and so I'm procrastinating on filling mine out. I suppose I have until midnight to make up my mind. Most of my colleagues have taken the "just fill in nice stuff so it doesn't come back to haunt us" approach, though one or two have told me that they doused that particular bridge with gasoline before throwing the match. I remain undecided.

So leave your comments before midnight and tell me whether or not I should take my survey, whether or not you took yours, what you said, etc. Kind of like bitching about the government the night before taxes are due, let's take down (or lift up) the Learning Environment Survey for the rest of the day.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Two Smart Fellas

It's interesting to see that one of the two geniuses who proposed the death of last-in first-out for teachers , and for teachers only (not for firefighters, police, or anyone else), and for NYC teachers (not for Long Island or Westchester teachers), is downplaying his expectations of success.  I mean, I didn't actually want it to succeed, so there won't be any tears here.  But did he actually expect it to succeed at first?

Perhaps he did.  We're in an economic downturn, and the shock doctrine suggests that demagogues can use such things to their advantage.  Certainly Hurricane Katrina allowed Bush and company to privatize New Orleans schools, doubtless putting a nice piece of change into the pockets of some of their good buds.  And Arne Duncan, personally appointed by President Merit Pay, thought that was swell too, the best thing that ever happened.  After all, the kids who perished were probably poor and bringing down the test grades anyway.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the fact that neither Bing nor Diaz, his fellow great thinker, knew what the law they needed to replace so desperately actually entailed:

He and Diaz also flubbed a description of the law their proposed legislation would alter, claiming incorrectly that current rules would lay off teachers without regard to the subject areas they teach.

I mean, there they are,  passionately demanding only the most qualified people be employed, and they don't even know what the hell they're talking about.

Are these the guys who want to choose who stays and who goes?  I certainly hope local residents send these guys packing ASAP.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Set up to Fail: The Thrilling Sequel

A while back, I wrote a post here called Set Up to Fail that was partially inspired by the now-in-doubt closings of Jamaica High School et al. In this post, I wrote that many school "reforms" are, benignly or malignly so, actually setting more teachers (and students) up to fail than their proponents realize. Because "reform" sometimes ends up sweeping away that which was effective as well as that which was ineffective, demoralization, confusion, and loss of self-efficacy are likely among teachers, which undoubtedly is passed on to the students.

Fast forward to late April. I have a colleague who is up for tenure this year and I suspect that my principal may be looking for a reason to discontinue her. She had a preobservation with my principal today that revealed some expectations that I had to admit sounded unreasonable; they would be difficult at best for a teacher that had had a long time to practice what she was being asked to do, and well nigh impossible for someone newish at this like my colleague is. She has already been U-rated once this year, and, without tenure, I don't guess my principal needs too many more reasons. Don't ask me to sort out my personal opinion about this teacher--if nothing else, it's irrelevant--but I can say for sure that I have my suspicions about what my principal, and I imagine many others, might try to do to take aim at other teachers they don't want:

1.) Set expectations that are unreasonably high;
2.) Offer documentation that the individual had assistance in reaching the expectations (e.g. a preobservation);
3.) Document the failure to reach that observation;
4.) U-rate teacher.

This is a different kind of "set up to fail," but the result is the same: a teacher who might, under some circumstances, look competent or even excellent is made to look incompetent under others. It's particularly pernicious when a teacher is asked to do something outside the scope of his or her licensure and certification. That's why I don't trust the so-called higher-ups to redesign teacher evaluation systems, and why, failing a teacher-driven movement to do so, the system we have now ought to stay in place.

Maybe I'm being paranoid. Maybe my principal is just trying to set the bar high. Can't fault that.

But I wonder.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Let the Sun Shine...

The Florida veto of the anti-teacher, anti-union, anti middle-class is one of the first pieces of unequivocal good news we've seen since President Obama revealed himself as a might-as-well-be Republican.   It's heartening to see the Florida governor flooded with messages from teachers.  There are an awful lot of us, and it behooves us to make ourselves heard.

That's not precisely status quo, unfortunately.  There have been relatively few organized campaigns from teachers of late, and newspapers, no fans of unions, tend to color their coverage against us, leading the public to believe we're a bunch of parasites feeding at the public trough, producing nothing.  The fact that we teach their children is meaningless.

I'm a parent, and I'd say teachers are second only to doctors in their importance to my kid.  Of course, I know all the editorials in the tabloids are total crap written at the behest of their publishers--who for all I know are playing tennis with Mayor Bloomberg at this very moment.

But the real encouraging news is if we can get the word out, if we can get off our butts, we can bring about real change.  Now the problem is only how to wake up that sleeping giant.  Three terms of autocratic union-busters at Tweed have left an atmosphere so toxic many teachers are afraid of their own shadows.  Ironically, it's their own fear that condemns them to the mistreatment and vilification of the media/ Tweed partnership.

And the only cure is to get up, stand up, just like Bob Marley used to sing.  Have we got any teachers who can sing like Bob?  We could use one or two just about now.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

I Cannot Tell a Lie

George Washington's library fine is up to 300K.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Those Wacky Insurance Companies

They're hedging their bets by investing in fast-food companies.  They know the more crap you eat, the more business you'll eventually throw their way.  And if President Merit Pay's plan actually manages to cover more people, this could be a bonanza.  No mention on how their previous investments in tobacco companies worked out, though.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Fire First, Ask Questions Later

Personally, I got into teaching strictly for the money.  That 13K I made the first year changed everything.  Having that financial cushion freed me up to spend my time with strictly fun activities, like teaching summer school.  I also got to spend Tuesday and Thursday nights and all day Saturdays teaching college, and Friday and Saturday nights playing fiddle in Pennsylvania and Darkest New Jersey.   I know teachers who dispatch taxis, run kennels, and do all sorts of diverting things with their spare time.   Why should they have all the fun?  That’s why we need this bill to fire all the senior teachers and lay off teachers based on something more than mere seniority.

After all, anyone who reads the New York Post editorial page knows that most teachers get into the business for strictly selfish reasons.  What we do, you see, is cleverly go to four years of college and pretend to be interested in education.  After that, we go another year or three for our master’s degrees.  Most of us spend a year working as student teachers, for no pay, but it’s all worth it if we can weasel our way into this teaching thing.

The idea is this—after four years undergrad, a year or two for the master’s, and the year of student teaching, we spend precisely three years being ideal, letter-perfect teachers.  Then, the moment we get tenure, we drop the pretense and sit at ancient wooden desks, patiently reading the New York Times for another quarter-century or so.  Finally, we retire and die, preferably in Boca.  The allure and attraction of such a fulfilling and romantic life is undeniable.  Anyone can do it, and experience, along with wisdom, is of no value whatsoever.  What sort of crackpot wants such qualities in teachers anyway?

In any case, there are certainly better ways than seniority to determine who stays and who goes.  For example, what about the teacher who spends Wednesday afternoons at the Comfort Inn with an administrator?  That’s a valuable member of the team who not only improves the administrator’s morale, but also, in a classic win-win, helps the administrator to spread good morale through an entire department, if not the entire building.  So what if this teacher’s only been on the job for eighteen weeks? 

Or what about teachers who support the end of seniority-based layoffs, along with all the other reforms and innovations Tweed has introduced?  Sure, it’s possible they’re bucking for supervisory positions, or sainthood, but they’re a vital part of any school team.  After all, if this measure goes through, who will support indispensable follow-up reforms like more work for less pay?   Doubtless that distinction will go to these valuable members of the education community. 

As always, there are Gloomy Guses who will whine, “Gee, what about the senior teachers who’ve hung around through thick and thin?  Don’t most teachers disappear within five years because they can’t handle the job?”  To them, I say stuff and nonsense.  Anyone can be replaced, except Mayor Bloomberg

That we went through decades of teacher shortages means nothing.  That we advertised on buses, subways, that we ran job fairs, that we recruited from foreign countries and alternate universes is also of absolutely no significance.  Good times are never coming back, the recession will be here forever, and it’s smart planning to treat teachers as replaceable widgets.  Who cares if no one wanted the job when it was readily available?  Doubtless we won’t need a single one of them again, ever.

There are those sad sacks who complain, “Gee, are there really as many bad teachers as the tabloids say?  If the people who hired them couldn’t figure out how bad they were, and gave them tenure, how the heck will they know whether or not they’re firing good teachers?”

And what can you say to those people?  In all seriousness, I say this—I’d most certainly have been fired many years ago, not for the quality of my teaching, but rather for talking to the press--if it weren’t for tenure and seniority rights.  It’s our sad duty as educators to speak up.  We are not making widgets, we do more than produce test scores, and we have a duty to protect this profession from arbitrary and capricious demagogues, who care about nothing more than getting two teachers for the price of one, and will use any means necessary to have bargain-basement teachers forever.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

And the (Teacher) Survey Says...

I can't say that I frequent the FoxNY website; GothamSchools' nightcap today pointed me in that direction. (You really need to read GothamSchools a couple of times a day, by the way. They update all day, and their "Rise and Shine" and "Nightcap" posts in the mornings and evenings consistently serve as concise and user-friendly roundups of what's happening not only in education news, but in the classrooms of many well-known teacher bloggers--sometimes including NYC Educator and myself. But I digress.) They had video of an interview with Dan Weisberg from TNTP (the New Teacher Project), so I checked it out. Among Weisberg's remarks was a comment that a survey of teachers found that a majority of teachers did not believe seniority should be the overriding consideration in choosing teachers to be laid off.

This is a link to the study Weisberg references. I have to admit that I find it credible, if only because the rankings surprised me. (Teacher attendance the #2 concern? Not that it's not a legitimate concern, but apparently Indianapolis teachers have collectively done one too many coverages, if you know what I mean.) And as far as I can tell, this is a representative sampling of teachers--not just youngsters who are likely to be favorable to TNTP, that is.

I'm a youngster myself, as most of you know, and I'm all for revamping the teacher evaluation process. I'm not even opposed to possibly reforming Last In First Out. But the DOE reforming evaluations now, and "reforming" Last In First Out now, just doesn't sit easy with me. I just don't think I can trust the Mayor and the Chancellor to do that kind of reforming in responsible ways. You'll have to forgive me if I'm not ready to drink that particular brand of Kool-Aid.

And experience does matter. I loved this piece by Diana Senechal at GothamSchools too because she makes that case persuasively. I'm not ready to ditch Last In First Out entirely for her reasons; it's going to be way too easy to somehow justify the laying-off of wonderful (and expensive) older teachers.

So where does that leave us? Well, ideally it would leave us with some budget reworking that would stave off layoffs. Failing that, maybe it would leave us with a solution that was multi-tiered, that would include some generous early retirement or furlough packages so the city could look for volunteers first. That might save some jobs. Then perhaps we might look to layoffs based on a variety of factors, including seniority but perhaps not limited to it. Experience should still count for something. I've made the argument on my own blog that many elements should be taken into consideration when evaluating teacher quality. Maybe this creates an opportunity.

But teachers have to step up and propose something. I keep thinking the union is going to do it, but it doesn't look like they will. Is it going to take a group like Educators 4 Excellence to make the rest of us so annoyed that we propose a solution, any solution? Or are we going to sit back and simply complain; meanwhile, we look like a bunch of moaners while our "friends" in Albany push something through? And, if we do something, what's the best way to get the word out about it?

I think we need to be proactive on the evaluation issue; otherwise, we can kiss any consideration of seniority goodbye, and put ourselves at the mercy of either test scores or our administrators' good graces. And we all know how well that's going to work out.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Another Swig of the Bad Idea Kool-Aid

These are the proverbial interesting times we've always heard about.  Those of you who keep up know that a NY State Senator is sponsoring a bill to remove the last-in, first-out law that regulates layoffs.

It's no coincidence that this is happening now, in the era of Bloomberg, Rhee, and Obama.  One of Obama's promises to the NEA was, "I'll do it with ya, not to ya."  Those words, however, have proven to be as empty as those of "change" and "hope."

For those of us who've been around the block once or twice, the "change" will be having no more job.  And the "hope" will be that we're not overqualified for that gig at Taco Bell.

This is a time for us to stand tall, because we cannot tolerate this.  The middle class is under attack, and the very best place in which to stick a knife is to teachers, the last bastion of vibrant unionism in this country.

Call your state senator, and call your assembly person.  Tell them that you believe teachers are important.  Tell them you don't want to rely on the good graces of Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein to keep your jobs.  You don't have to tell them you've seen no evidence of good graces from Tweed, but if you think that will punch up your message, tell them that too.

This is national idiocy.  People all over have tough times, and think if they screw things up for teachers, they will somehow be better off.  If Americans were smart, they'd march to Albany with torches and pitchforks, demanding they, too, have unions and job protections--just like the teachers do.

That's what Americans need.  Let's not allow Wal-Mart to dictate how we run education, or how we compensate our working people.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Your Mom's a Giant Squid

The new Clash of the Titans movie and the Percy Jackson series (The Lightning Thief et al.) of books have been wonderful for kindling an interest in ancient mythology in my middle schoolers. We were working with Greek myths recently and had been retelling them with modern language, then acting them out. My buddy Drew was so inspired during his skit today that he cried, "Release the Kraken!"

Now I didn't know, until today, what a Kraken was, so I (foolishly) asked.

"It's from Clash of the Titans," he explains. "The Kraken is, like, this monster thing."

"It's a giant squid," Drew's friend Pablo added, probably thinking he was being helpful.

"You're mom's a giant squid," Drew retorted.

Something tells me that that may be the first time such a sentence was ever uttered. At least towards a human. People probably tell baby squid that all the time.

As I like to remind my audience from time to time, you can't make this stuff up.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Save a School for the Deaf

Sign this petition.  The petition company will then ask for a donation (not for the school, but for the petition company itself), but don't be fooled--you don't have to give them anything.

Bloomberg and Klein will stop at nothing to promote their anti-union, anti-teacher, anti-family corporate agenda.  Tell them what you think about it.

They just blew their chance to up the charter cap because they refused to give parents a say in whether or not charters could invade schools their kids attend.  Let me tell you something--no parent wants an extra school to take space away from their kids, and I don't blame them at all.

Let this school thrive, let all schools thrive, and let's tell them that extra space should be used for enrichment and lowering class sizes--not for places to dump their pet projects, or Eva Moskowitz' latest foray into separate and unequal.

If Bloomberg and Klein want more schools, they can build them.  Clearly they don't give a good goshdarn about all the overcrowded public schools they've left unattended.  Let them help those schools out before they find space for new ones by destroying existing schools for the most vulnerable and needy among us.

Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon...

A few days ago we were reviewing past tense in my class.  I told the kids, "Every week, I draw in my art class.  Last night, I drew a beautiful woman in my class."

Then I got them to say it.  Someone has to make them use these verbs, and for some reason, they keep paying me money to do it.

"What did I draw last night?"

"You drew a beautiful girl," said a kid.

"No," objected another, "he said he drew a woman."

Which brings us to a fine point of language.

"How old," I asked, "does a girl have to be before you call her a woman?"

"18," announced one student.

"21," opined another.

A quiet kid opened her mouth.  "89," she said.

I thought this was a mistake.  "89?"


"89," agreed another.  And they all started nodding their heads.  The consensus was reached, the decision was made, and that was it.

 So, if you happen to be a girl under that age, you need not feel old just yet.  I guess we men are on our own.  It's all so unfair.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Silver Lining?

Iceland faces economic woes, loses both McDonald's and 2 of three Pizza Huts.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Oh, No!

1980 video games have taken over Manhattan!  Can leisure suits and disco music be far behind?

Friday, April 09, 2010

Good Luck to Michael Mulgrew

I'd like to publicly congratulate Michael Mulgrew on his election to UFT President.  The rank and file has spoken, and spoken decisively.

It's clear Mr. Mulgrew has his work cut out for him.  These are the most challenging times I've seen in my 25 years as a teacher.  We are under attack from all sides.  Not only are the usual suspects after us, but there's now a Democratic President who thinks firing the entire staff of a high school is perfectly acceptable, a step in the right direction.  

There are all sorts of people drinking the "reform" Kool-Aid, and few if any of them have the remotest notion what it means to be a teacher.  In fact, there are teachers who've bought into the Klein-Bloomberg myth, and they're too shortsighted to know what they're headed for.   We need someone to lead us through these times, and I sincerely hope Mulgrew is up to the task.

The lawsuit that stopped the school closings was an encouraging sign.  I hope we follow up, and it's imperative we not allow Klein and Bloomberg to paint a happy face on the whole thing and start from scratch.  I hope we will protect our most vulnerable members, the ATRs, the denizens of the rubber room, and new teachers facing a very uncertain future.  We need to keep this job a good one for our members, our children, and for their children as well. 

I also hope we will endeavor mightily to get the truth out to everyone.  I hope we can find effective ways to counter the nonsense that passes for commentary in the local papers.   We need to be resourceful, tenacious, and tireless.  Turning teachers into the latest incarnation of Willie Horton benefits no one, including schoolchildren.  We need to fight back.

I'm willing to take a fresh and hopeful look at our new President.   I wish him the very best of luck, and I'm sure I need not remind him that in these times, we all need all the luck we can get.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a (High School) Match

It was a pretty nice first day back after spring break for Miss Eyre, especially when you consider that (a) it was over 90 degrees today; (b) the Powers That Be in their infinite wisdom have a policy that bases air-conditioning turn-on upon a CALENDAR DATE rather than a TEMPERATURE THRESHOLD; and (c) my kids were absolutely zooey because they wanted to do nothing except talk about getting their high school results. Rather than fight this too hard, I encouraged it, a little, because I was as curious as anyone and it didn't seem worth it to ride them too hard.

Most of the news was good. Quite a few of my kiddies got into their first-choice schools, so they were happy. I personally feel reasonably confident that most of them will be content and successful where they're going, so all's well that ends well.

But it was a rough day for one of my girls. Just one. Because she didn't get matched to a school.

This happened last year, too, and the girl to whom it happened last year was a very good student who was DEVASTATED when she got no match. So if anyone DOE higher-ups or even just longer-thans who read this blog want to explain to me how it happens, I would be super-grateful, because I don't understand how a kid DOESN'T GET MATCHED TO A SCHOOL. Like, AT ALL.
I've tried to have the guidance counselor at my school explain it to me, but really, I don't understand how a kid can put TWELVE choices for a school and not get matched to ANY of them. Especially not when the kid has an 85-plus average and is all 3s and 4s on state exams. Who came up with the system?

My poor unmatched gal this year took it a lot better, or at least she held it together until the end of the day--I guess I don't know for sure. But this system seems to kind of suck in a lot of ways. I've always worried about the pressure on some kids, and what a mess it is for the kids who don't get a match in the main round. So am I missing something here? Can someone tell me why I shouldn't be totally confused and outraged?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

It's "Children First" Time Again

There's quite a bit of talk in the tabloids about those evil teachers who don't want to get fired.  What will happen if there are budget cuts?  Who will get the ax?  Well, according to the contract, it's last in, first out.  That's the way it's been in union jobs for some time now.

If you listen to the chancellor, it's an evil union plot designed to rain on his "reforms."  Never mind that he actually negotiated and signed the contract.  Never mind that he's already considerably weakened seniority and pretty much single-handedly created the ATR pool he regularly vilifies.  And never mind that he has the power to put these people to work in a New York minute.

The chancellor now demands the right to fire ATR teachers, as well as those in the rubber room.  He says this is necessary to offset budget cuts.   Anyone who's followed this administration knows this is just an opportunistic power grab, and that he's been demanding precisely these same things for years.  But that doesn't matter--he thinks we're largely morons who haven't noticed.

Not only that, but Klein says he needs to fire teachers any goshdarn way he feels like.  New teachers are brilliant and necessary, and the fact that their salaries are half those of veteran teachers means nothing whatsoever.  Nor does the fact that veteran teachers already put in their time working those bottom salaries.   Experience means nothing, and age does not actually equate to wisdom or any desirable qualities whatsoever.

In Gotham Schools, Diana Senechal says otherwise.

Besides teaching the actual subject (which is much richer than the stuff on the tests), a teacher offers insight, knowledge, experience, and wisdom, whether directly or indirectly. Over time, a teacher comes to see the education field and his or her subject in perspective. Newer teachers may be excited about new discoveries, but teachers with more experience can distinguish valuable ideas from passing fads. There are exceptions, of course, on both ends. But experience can bring humility, good judgment, and an ability to see and hear the larger story.

One would hope so.  Otherwise, really, what would be the point of going to school?   If experience has no value, we might as well toss our kids out onto the streets as soon as they can walk and tell them to call when they find work.  That's pretty much what the "reformers" have in mind--a revolving door workforce that teaches for a few years and then moves onto whatever other opportunities this crap economy has to offer.

Actually, if Klein and Bloomberg honestly gave a golly goshdarn about education, they'd find a way to avoid education cuts, even if it meant raising the taxes of billionaires.  But there are some lines they just won't cross.  It's "Children First" in NYC, and as usual, they're the first to get cut.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

If You Believe the Hype, You Gotta Believe the Tripe

If you've read my writings regularly here, one thing you'll know is that I advise teachers to have a life outside school. It's very, very important to care for your body and soul beyond the classroom, as teaching takes a toll on both. One way to force yourself to do it is to make a financial commitment to a hobby, sport, or similar, which I did recently as I re-upped with my yoga studio.

Following my renewed commitment to oming a couple of times a week, I took a class with one of my favorite teachers, who is very relaxed and funny and doesn't take herself too seriously. As we concluded our practice, she said, "Now you may feel tempted to judge yourself here. You may feel like, wow, I did this awesome session. Or you may be berating yourself for not being able to reach certain poses the way you think you should. Resist those urges. Remember, if you believe the hype, you gotta believe the tripe."

And I thought that that was a wonderful little piece of wisdom, and very relatable to our work as teachers. It made me think of this excellent piece at GothamSchools today, which deals a great deal with hype and tripe. At our very best as teachers, we still need to be tentative and somewhat humble, remembering the practice that works like gangbusters today in our individual classrooms may not work tomorrow in someone else's, or next year with completely different students. We have to be responsive.

And, at the same time, when things don't go so well, it's not so bad to develop a tiny little shrug about it. This isn't like not caring about our practice or about our students. It's really just the flip side of the tentativeness and humility I mentioned before; it's being patient and kind enough with ourselves and with the children to just try again tomorrow.

And if you're worried that one trying lesson, or day, or whole week is going to ruin a child forever, well, may I be bold enough to suggest that children are more forgiving, or maybe just more forgetful, than adults tend to give them credit for? I'll never call my master's program totally useless, if only for the fact that I picked up this little gem from one of my professors: "They learn," she said. "Sometimes because of us and sometimes in spite of us, they learn."

I'm feeling philosophical as spring break wraps up, I guess. So, as you go back to work on Wednesday, don't believe the hype. Or the tripe.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Only in New York

Pizza guy stops robber, and delivers pizzas before reporting robbery.  And before they got cold, too.

The $550 Chair

That's what NY State demanded in its Race to the Top application.  It turns out that these chairs are made by prisoners.  It's kind of ironic.  You read about how Walmart buys all this cheap stuff made by slave labor in Chinese prisons.  How else can you get that Hannah Montana beach towel for 99 cents?  Someone's gotta handle all those dangerous poisons and dyes, and cover everything with toxic lead paint.

Yet here in NY, we have class.  Our slave labor is made by only the cream of the crop, the most elite and carefully selected prisoners.  They must be vetted, re-vetted, their applications must be checked carefully by outside vendors with important no-bid contracts, and their family history must be examined by a consulting firm that goes back five generations.

In NY, it costs 550 bucks for a prison-constructed chair.  It almost makes you want to send the geniuses who make the grant applications go to Walmart, where they could doubtless pick up something to house their important posteriors for something in the $3.99 range.  Or at least we could send them to Staples, where they could find something with the look of real leather for less than 99 bucks.  But these people need "executive" chairs.  Otherwise, how could they do all the Very Important Stuff we pay them for?

And these are the people who make the big decisions that must be kept out of the hands of teachers.  What the hell do teachers know?  If they had any brains they'd be sitting in $550 chairs.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Rules? We Don't Need No Stinking Rules

Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson are sorely disappointed at NY State's failure to win "Race to the Top" funds.   They could've used the money to plug the state's budget gap.  Only the rules specifically say the money cannot be used to plug budget gaps.  It can only be used for "innovation," like finding new and more creative ways to fire teachers, break contracts, and open charters for Eva Moskowitz.  You'd think they'd salivate at such a prospect.  Instead, they wallow in misery for not having raised the charter cap--something they'll undoubtedly revisit.

Unfortunately for Mike and Dave, the legislature insisted on giving parents a say in whether or not charters invaded the schools their children attended.  As few parents want their kids to have less space, fewer libraries, classes in cafeterias, or separate and unequal learning conditions, that did not bode well for the pro-charter crowd.  Thus, Mike and Dave needed to shove charters down the throats of unwilling parents, and failed to raise the charter cap.

Certainly they will try to raise or eliminate the cap again in their quest for more money.  It's kind of remarkable that Mayor Mike needs any more money.  Didn't he defy the voters' term limits law specifically because he was the only individual on God's green earth who could steer us through the budget crisis?  I don't recall his stating that the only way to do so was by trampling the will of public school parents.  Perhaps that was not the catchiest of campaign slogans.

Once again, rules are for the little people, and neither the mayor nor the governor feels they should be constrained by them.  The hell with the rules, the hell with the parents, we're in charge and we can do what the hell we like.

Now that's leadership.

Friday, April 02, 2010

If You Just Can't Wait for that Heart Attack...

KFC is introducing its newest food item--bacon and cheese sandwiched between two pieces of fried chicken.    MacDonald's had been selling a breakfast sandwich which used syrup-filled pancakes as bread, but I think KFC's offering takes the cake, or brings home the bacon, or whatever such sandwiches do.

Looks great, doesn't it?  The yellow stuff on the bottom layer appears to be cheese, so I can't tell you precisely what the orange stuff is on the upper layer could be.  But I think people will flock from everywhere to try it anyway.  You can't go wrong with orange stuff.

It'll be just ten days, and then you can get your greasy hands on one of those things.  If your hands aren't greasy, fear not.  Placing them around those two pieces of fried chicken will fix that in no time.

Local Talent

We're in London Ontario on this Good Friday, and everything is closed here except this blog.  You can't go anywhere, and you can't do anything.  It's downright unrecognizable to New Yorkers like us.  There is an upside, though.

Yesterday, we took a 40-minute ride to a farming community, and stopped at an Amish farm where you could buy maple syrup and all kinds of dairy products.  The woman had just finished making cheesecakes, and asked us whether we wanted them covered with blueberries or cherries.  We opted for half and half, and it cost us 5.50 Canadian (about 5.50 American, for those of you who haven't brought your calculators).

She also had cheese and fresh cream, and now we do too.  It's pretty decadent putting fresh cream in your coffee on Good Friday, so I hope the word doesn't get out.  Now here's the thing--where I live, you can't really just drive to a farm and buy food.  Sure, in the summer you can drive two hours into Long Island and buy fresh vegetables, but by the time you get them back to your house they're probably spoiled already.

There's something really special about being able to buy farm-fresh ingredients, something that Zabar's does not really compensate for.  If I lived here, I'd travel to places like that to buy food all the time.

Maybe we're not as smart as we think we are.  Please don't share that thought with the mayor or chancellor, though.  Doubtless they'd find a way to use it against schoolteachers.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

"It's about Time the Schools Were Put on a Starvation Diet"

So say the "fine" "journalists" of the New York Post (via GothamSchools), mostly, it seems, because New York State's Race to the Top application included what anyone would have to admit was absurd amounts of money for office furniture. Put aside, for the moment, the fact that some students and teachers lack real desks and chairs--whoever makes these decisions up in Albany decided that 200K (yes) was a good number for office furniture.

Idiocy. No one would argue that.

But then the Edward R. Murrows over at the Post took that opportunity to state, "It's about time the schools were put on a starvation diet." So let's ask, for a minute, who loses when that happens.

Students lose afterschool and arts programs, new books, technology, possibly even some of the personnel they know and trust.

Teachers lose benefits, supplies, professional development, possibly even some of their colleagues.

Yet life seems to go on for the fat cats who don't see the insides of classrooms for months or years at a time.

So, Post, it's not the schools that need to be on a starvation diet. It seems that what the New York taxpayer gets for his or her money is not so much schools that you've deemed mediocre, but, perhaps, schools that could be much better if teachers made more of these decisions.

Because I don't think anyone reading this would have asked for 200 grand for office furniture.