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.
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