Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sign of the Times?

The possibilities raised by the Internet just go on and on. I just looked up one of the students I taught in my fifth grade class - nearly 10 years ago - on facebook. What a trip.

Monday, January 19, 2009

My War Stories

So all the trash talking about the KIPP AMP unionizing on has got me thinking that it's time for me to start sharing some war stories from my five years teaching in one of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City.

These "war stories" are not about children, or about families; they are about the adults I shared breathing space with. Some of these were heroes - 30 years+ in the classroom, dealing with constant change, and providing structure, order and inspiration for their young charges. Everything I needed to learn, I learned from Mr. G's kindergarten! (And from Mrs. C-R's second grade.)

But there was the Other Kind. Those who played the Morlocks to the Eloi I admired were the embittered folks who had long given up on (or who never believed in, as some were very young like me) the notion that our students, our school, could achieve at high levels like the kids in Scarsdale.

Here are the three war stories that I posted on this week:

1) In my first three years, I taught science in a large elementary school. The professional development expert sent by the district provided me with the only preservice orientation I received by handing me a copy of Stella Luna and saying, “This is a good story about bats. It’s science. The kids will like it,” and, “Just make sure that no one gets hurt, the kids are ready for their teacher when she comes back at the end of your lesson, and if you can weave a little science in there once in a while, that’s great.”

2) One of the teachers with whom I shared an office with that year spent the year waiting to hear back from a suburban school district on whether she yet had enough experience to transfer to that higher-paying, “easier” job. She asked me, “Where do you want to teach?” When I answered, still incredulous, “Here,” she laughed and said, “You’ll learn.”

3) In my second year, when I taught third grade, the Academic Intervention Support teacher gave me a piece of unsolicited advice. “The way you teach, you should be in Long Island. The kids there can learn! They just can’t learn here.” Mind you, this is the woman who had been sent by the principal/Targeted Assistance Plan Consolidated Application to my classroom at the start of the year to ask for the five students who were struggling the most in reading so she could help them move up. She spent the year yelling at them for forty-five minutes a day. Why not? 'They can’t learn anyway,' I’m sure she reasoned.

There's a lot more I have to say about this AIS teacher, who, by the way, once committed the indiscretion of driving over a parent's foot in the school parking lot on her way out - three minutes before dismissal.

Is anyone else getting the picture that this person should have been fired long before I even got there? Does anyone else agree that the UFT, for all the good it has done for teachers over the years, probably played some role in continuing the pumping of federal dollars toward this detestable practice?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cheating on the state tests?

On the eve of the NYS ELA tests, I'm thinking about Freakonomics and the chapter about using algorithms to find out cheating educators.

Not only are some people unscrupulous enough to cheat on these tests, some of those are stupid enough to cheat by changing correct answers to incorrect ones.

But in my view, as long as high stakes tests are here to stay, they must be done right. And state officials should be doing everything they can to ensure that there is no cheating going on. Everything.

As for the merit of high stakes tests themselves, here's my view: while schools and people are both multilayered organisms that are far too complex to be boiled down to a single number, high-stakes tests are with us for at least the next ten years. It will take a crisis of morality - something a degree of magnitude higher than the Columbine shootings - to adjust the national opinion. But they will always be a useful snapshot of how kids/schools are faring, and while I would decry "teaching to the test" with anyone, I also think that a school with a rigorous instructional program that is meeting its mission will also successfully prepare kids for these tests.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Educators Can Learn From Sports

So the Yankees are at it again this offseason. Spending obscene amounts of money for the best available free agent players to stock their team. If the objective is to win the World Series, it's doomed to fail unless these players happen to have the character and hunger to win that ultimately makes the difference over a long, 162-game season and three rounds of playoffs.

It's an old adage but true as ever, "The best team wins." And the best team doesn't necessarily have the best players. The evidence is clear: year in and year out, with little exception, Frankenstein fantasy teams with high payrolls flop while the team with a solid core, often home-grown, takes the crown.

It's no different in publilc schools, where the grind is even longer (180 to 200 days in New York City, depending on your school). If the school leader can put together a strong team, hungry for success, and with all partners defining success in the same way, that's a winning combination. Stocking a team with egos and me-firsts is not going to produce the coherence needed to accomplish the gargantuan task before today's educators.