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.
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