I'm all for authentic learning, but this is where I draw the line.
Some of my students began reading the first part of "MAUS" today. I asked them to respond to the question: "What two animals appear in the first part of this book, and what groups of people do they represent?"
One student wrote, "The mouse are Jewish and the pigs are Polished."
The Pigs got off easy.
Klein and Co. have been in the news a lot recently, holding a big bouquet of flowers out to the public but I've always wondered what's in that hand he keeps behind his back. So, I took a stab at writing another op-ed for the NY Times last week. They passed on it, so I'm "publishing" it here. Reading it today, I have to say that I'm not terribly surprised they passed. Which is not to say that I have second thoughts about anything I wrote here. I think the tone might be a bit too harsh, not tempered with enough humor or irony. The original version was three times as long as much meaner and bitterer, I'll keep that version to myself.
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In September the Regional Superintendents’ offices will be closed and I can say, without reservation, that I won’t miss them. I can’t imagine that I will even notice that they are gone. I have taught in the city’s public schools since 1999, and cannot recall ever receiving help, aid, assistance, mentorship or advice from anyone from the regional office. The Queens office that gave me my first full-time job couldn’t even tell me which subway went to Far Rockaway.
A few years ago I was working in a small school in the Bronx that had recently been created out of the ashes of a SURR school, a school which didn’t adequately improve its students scores on standardized math and reading tests, and was therefore “closed” and “re-organized,” meaning the staff were re-interviewed, re-hired, and sent back to work in a school with a new name. Among other interventions, the region hired a consultant to try to bring our test scores up, in order to keep us from returning to the SURR list. One morning I overheard her speaking to someone in the teacher’s lounge.
“Tell me how the new Impact Math program is working out,” she said.
“Well, the truth is that the word problems in the Impact program are way outside of my student’s reading ability, so now I’ve been working on some basic math skills in order to work back up to the Impact program.”
“Okay, but the region had mandated the Impact Program, so I’ll ask you again, ‘How is the Impact math program working out?’”
You wouldn’t want to hear your doctors talking this way, or your mechanics, but this was typical of the relationship between teachers and the region. On the rare occasions that they spoke, they spoke different languages. The common wisdom was that as long as every kid was sitting at a desk, with a book open, you were okay.
Maybe because I has figured out the seated kids with books trick, the suits in the regional office never affected what or how I taught. So it’s hard for me to see their disappearance as an improvement. It’s like giving me the cure to a disease that I would never catch- hoof and mouth disease or something. According to Klein’s reorganization plan, next year schools will be cut free from meddlesome overseers, free to either work as they please or form partnerships with not-for-profit learning organizations. IBM has been contracted to provide a 80 million dollar new “Accountability and Innovation System” to track individual student achievement on standardized tests, and share information on teaching methodologies that positively impact tests scores.
How they mean to record and transmit a teachers' lessons remains unclear, but what is certain is that this will open the door to both school empowerment and school privatization. The current administration has made no secret of their enthusiasm for for-profit charter schools. Bloomberg has threatened to target any legislator who doesn’t support more charter schools. Klein declared, “I am an unalloyed supporter of charter schools.” The former president of Edison Schools is now a deputy chancellor in the Department of Education.
Ultimately, a school, whether public, private, charter, partnered with not-for-profit or for-profit organizations, in order to remain in business, has to help its students pass their state-mandated standardized tests. Last month, despite the intervention of numerous organizations including Columbia University, Teach for America, and Klein’s own Leadership Academy my old school was put back on the SURR school list. I don’t see any guarantee that empowerment, partnership, or anything else on the menu will turn around a failing school since none of these innovations address the complaints that teachers have long made regarding the difficulties of teaching in high-poverty, high-need schools: high turnover and disruptive student behavior. In 2004, when the city council passed the “Dignity for All Students Act,” an attempt to identify and track the students who contribute to the hostile environment that cripples so many of the city’s classrooms, it was vetoed by the Mayor.
Demolishing the Regional Offices is like blowing the dust off an old pick-up. If the common sense and wisdom of all the teachers in New York continues to be ignored, I don’t care who looks under the hood- the old thing will never run again.
We've all struggled with classroom management. Outside of getting your grade sheets in on time and finding a parking place, it is the greatest obstacle teachers face. Today, in the Guardian, a representative of Powerwatch (a UK pressure group, not a TV show about robot lifeguards) has got me wondering if we shouldn't blame it all on. . . WI-FI? (Scroll to the second to last paragraph.)
It has come to my attention that the previous posting has, due to recent events, changed from darkly humorously to "in questionably taste." I believe that if I leave it up long enough that, like a clock that is right twice a day, it will again change to simply darkly humorous. I hope.
In that spirit, and looking forward to the possibility that the urge to blog might not strike again soon, I've decided to write a sort of generic blog entry.
This morning I was a few minutes late leaving the apartment, so I missed the early train. Lots of unfamiliar faces on the late train. I still managed to make it to my classroom before most of the other teachers and students. My classes were not as hard to manage as I had imagined them to be last night when I awoke at 2 am wondering what I would be teaching. I was shocked by some of what my students said, and what they didn't seem to know, or hadn't seemed to ever think about, but I was happy to have this new knowledge, and to be involved in a job that allowed me to learn these things, and try to do something about them. Following my last class of the day I felt very fatigued and began fantasizing about going home, lying on the couch and ordering chinese delivery, and then come to the realization that I can't do this three nights in a row. As the end of the day arrives, I look over the work my students have done that day and feel a sense of frustration and futility, but discover some small word or phrase of independent thought or honest learning that makes me think it might be worth it to return to work the next day. I wave goodbye to the security guards and begin my walk to the subway.
I figure I could just leave that up until June.
Actually this was written not by one of my students, but a girl whose name I don't even know. I think she's in the sixth grade. All I know is that every day she points at me and tells me that I'm going to die. I think these kids watch too many horror movies.
I am impressed that there isn't a single misspelling in her message, and that she demonstrates an ability to self-monitor (I have to think of a plan). This is just the type of work my school encourages. Perhaps she should try to use more than one syllable words.
One of my High School students demonstrated the problems one encounters when trying to use multisyllabic words today. She began an essay on some famous figure from history by saying, "Even though you want to do what you want you have to follow the rules. Everyone wants to own the University but they can't."
I just got an email from a guy I worked with years ago, who has re-appeared in my current school. It turns out that the op-ed I wrote in January has been reprinted in the new issue of American Educator, the AFT magazine, which is cool, I guess. My subscription has lapsed so I haven't read it in a while but I remember being occasionally surprised at the quality of the articles. Much better than that newspaper whose name I can't remember now that seems to exists only in one box on 96th Street and Broadway, and whose existence can only be explained as an excuse for old ladies to go on junkets to Cancun under the guise of "journalism." I miss my subscription to NT Teacher, as well, I loved the pull-out sections reprinting every word of the new contracts, and all the photos of meeting of the "Italian-American Teachers Association Retirement Dinner" and the "New Teacher Luncheon." Maybe I should fill out a change of address form with the Union.
About six years ago I worked at a school that I'll call IS 210. I was hired at a job fair for "Schools Under Registration Review" or SURR schools. You might ask, Why would anyone go to a job fair for failing schools? Isn't that like sending your resume to Enron? Well, I wasn't planning on going to this job fair, I was sitting in the waiting room of the Queens Borough High School District when I, and the other job hunters in the room, that if we were certified teachers we had to leave and go to the Brooklyn Marriott. The Board of Ed. had forbidden schools from hiring certified teachers until all the SURR schools were staffed.
That's how I ended up in the South Bronx, where I teach still. A school can remain on the SURR school list for only a few years before it gets "closed" and that is just what happened in my second year at IS 210. In our case, the "closing" consisted of everyone re-interviewing for their jobs and getting re-hired. Or not fired. I'm really not sure what happened, but I know that one day I answered some questions from a man I never saw before or after in the library on the second floor, and then the next year the school was still open, and everyone was still there, but they had put a piece of plywood over the old INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL 210 marquee,written in tall aluminum sans serif, now it read "MS 310" in painted two by fours.
In January of this year I moved to a High School about seven blocks north of 310. I still get off at the same subway stop, and sometimes, with no small amount of shame, I walk down to the old bodega near 310- I haven't gotten the feel of the new neighborhood yet. This week I learned that 310 has been put on the SURR list. (The complete list can be seen here, you won't see MS 310 since it is a very clever pseudo-numeral) A nearby school which had suffered the same renumbering fate at the same time, formerly IS 35 now MS 311 (they're not very creative with the numbers down at Tweed) is also on the list, as well as a school that shares the building with my current High School.
In fact, a number of these schools are in the Bronx. Will anyone downtown or in Albany look at all the correlations between schools that fail and the conditions in their neighborhoods? If they do will anything be done to address the obstacles to education that the teachers and our students face? Or will they continue to penalize these schools, putting them on lists, categorizing them as "in need of improvement" "failing" "reorganizing," etc? If a school is in need of improvement, why doesn't it get improved? I was there when 210 was on the list, was in need of improvement, and other than some extra money, which was squandered on reams of 8 x 14 paper and boring after school reading programs that the kids stopped attending after two weeks, what improvements were offered? And what is being done now, that the same school with a new principal and mostly a new staff, is again "in need of improvement?" Is it wise to just sit back, make that observation, and then, a few years later, wonder why nothing has changed?
The past week has been relatively uneventful. My thoughts have been preoccupied with things far from the classroom; I feel like I only touch ground when I am actually teaching.
There's a girl in my class who wants to switch to the other Humanities teacher. She feels that my class is going to fast for her. I know that in this very blog I've discussed the pros and cons of project based learning- whether it really is better to sacrifice breadth for depth, and whether it is even possible. I've tried to find some balance by analyzing the regents and focusing on a small group of key events, concepts, individuals. We ignoring huge sections of the test. All I want is to feel that we've covered enough so that they can pass. But it's still too fast for this student.
I met with her today to discuss the move. She told me that she needs to slow down in order to really learn something. The other teacher, her ninth grade humanities teacher, does mostly long term projects that are often student initiated. To give you a sense of his pace, I'm finishing up the French Revolution today, his students are working on the middle ages. He goes for depth. I go for balance. I don't know if either of us are getting breadth.
She'll probably change classes. She's not a bad kid, a little bit lazy. She has an IEP, therefore she's been diagnosed as a slower or atypical learner. I've tried to structure my class so that there's a lot of projects, I revisit a lot of information from multiple perspectives, take into account all the learning styles and multiple intelligences in the classroom, but still it's not enough for her. According to her. She admits that she's learned a lot in the class.
One of my professors from the university where I'm doing my masters visited my school today. We talked about teaching historical concepts like "agency" and "change over time" and how I had assumed that these were common-sensical concepts for everyone. But now I'm learning that they aren't. Not all students have a sense of how events form a narrative of causes and effects, and not all students understand how people can initiate change. My professor told me, "If they can learn just one thing from history that would help them in their personal lives, it would be the idea of agency- what it means to be an agent of change."
But many students feel that they can't change, and that history is something that just happens, not something that is made. Is it the their age or the age they live in?
I was told that the best middle school is still worse than the worst High School, and I still think that this is true. However . . . I've been going through the pains of adjusting to teaching in a High School environment. More specifically, the High School environment that my student-centered, teaching one child at a time, work-in-progress school allows to exist. And more specifically, the class that was created for one of the assistant principals, who has a special education background, and embodies the philosophy of the school. She is the type of person who kids go to for hugs. I'm not. I didn't know that her class had such a disproportionate (compared to other classes) number of kids with I.E.P.s (that means they have diagnosed learning disabilities). It was hinted to me that this was a "special" class, but no one gave me the stats. I still don't have them.
So today there was the second total student meltdown of the month. And this one wasn't my fault at all. The first was partially my fault- I did let out a lot of frustration with the absolute absurdity of a kid who is failing the class, never arrives on time and comes to class about half of the time, has lasted an entire period only once, and then sits loudly (I mean like theatrically projecting) describing the pot he's been smoking, on this student. I shouldn't have let this get to me. I certainly shouldn't have asked him if he was planning on "passing my class or being a drug addict." I shouldn't have said that. He should have them said that he was going to "cut me" and he later admitted as much, but this was one of those lose-lose situations that teachers find themselves in too frequently.
This morning was different. I had nothing to so with the young lady screaming her head off about how she wasn't learning anything in the class, and she didn't understand how what we were talking about the last time in the class (Atlantic Slave Trade) had to do with what we were talking about today (the Enlightenment), and even through she acknowledged that she was absent yesterday, she didn't see what that has to do with it, et al. I don't see myself very much at fault in that situation. And unfortunately her tirade didn't allow me to bring up what I was reading this morning- the favorite of feminist historians of France, Olympe de Gouge, who wrote "The Rights of Women" in reaction to the "Rights of Man" that everyone reads during the French Revolution unit, also wrote about "Les Noirs," and how enlightenment ideas of equality shouldn't be limited by color of skin. I couldn't get that in, and after ten minutes of her yelling, me waiting, and the other students rolling their eyes in frustration, she left. And the class moved on.
By the end of the day we had had our talk, she apologized, she demonstrated that despite her complaints she actually had learned a lot in my class. What was it all about? Maybe it was the two kids who have been moved into the class to "bring up the tone" a little. They've been doing a great job these past two days of keeping their classmates on task. Maybe she feels a little threatened? Whatever it is, I'm glad we're moving on, but it doesn't do a thing for my headache.
And the kid who was talking about rolling and smoking joints? He's back in class, too. And we're cool.
Teaching High School, in general, is better than teaching middle school for the same reason that is harder. Everything is much more real is High School. Teaching middle school is a lot like how I remember middle school- confusing, chaotic, one day might bear little relation to the next, friendships are brittle, emotions are both vague and extreme. A kid might be screaming one minute and laughing the next. It's both easier to hurt someone feelings but more unlikely that they'll remain hurt, or even remember what it was they were hurt about. Emotions transfer from one thing to another, disappear and re-appear so quickly it's hard to tell sometimes what you're upset about, or if you meant to laugh or cry, and for what?
In High School, the kids know they're angry, and they know why.
This morning there two girls in my classroom who shouldn't have been there. They weren't starting fights or causing any particular trouble. One of them was putting on the uniform standard dark pants over her jeans (many kids here do this- some don't bother to zip up the fly so they look like they are walking around half-dressed, which, I guess, is more the point than to comply with the dress-code) and chatting with a friend. Unexpected visitors are frequent at the beginning of periods at this school, so I went forward with my lesson- reminded the students to open their notebooks and begin the morning free-write.
As the class, most of them at least, began freely writing, the girl who was putting on her second pair of pants commented, "Whoa, you're like a real teacher! You say something all serious and then you don't talk for a while!"
The class laughed. I hope they were agreeing. I told her to be like a real student and go to class.
After the class completed ten minutes of free-writing we moved on to what I had hope would be a quick review of some major Renaissance personalities, some dates. It took about ten minutes longer than I expected, which left only twenty minutes for a group work activity that I had been planning.
I handed out a copy of Hans Holbein's 1526 map of the world and had the students make observations about this map itself and the differfnece between it and the current map of thwe world. The lesson met with mixed success, mostly because it took about ten minutes for them to adjust their eyes. One girl called out, "I'm not gonna strain my eyes just to do this!" As with everything, it's all in the timing, and I think my timing was off this morning, which is not surprising considering that I am still trying to shed the jet lag incurred during last week's trip abroad.
The other day I was on my way to the fourth floor when I came upon a group of people gathered in the hallway, blocking my passage. They were three school security officers, including the supervisor, one of the my school's Deans, and a girl, probably a ninth grader. I didn't recognize her. I could tell from their posture that they had surrounded the girl, and she was extremely tense. Otherwise I didn't know what was going on. The girl said, "I don't know who the fuck he is! Who is he? Who are you! Who the fuck are you?"
The supervisor, in a uniform bluer than the others, said, "You need to calm down or you are going out of here in cuffs. You understand?"
"Get the fuck outta here, I'm not going anywhere!" She tried ot push past them, but was pushed back into the hallway, where she struggled briefly with the officers before being dropped to the ground and handcuffed. At that point I moved into the High School's hallway to hold back the crowds of students who had poured out of their classrooms and wanted to see what was happening.
The girl was brought into a small room where the other kids couldn't see her. When the crowd dispersed I noticed that I had a dusty footprint from her sneaker on my pant leg. I swatted it clean and went back to my classroom. I had been looking for the principal, but she was in the little room with the officers, the Dean, and the girl.
The next day there was a long note, almost an entire page in ten point type, placed in everyone's box. I have to say that, although I hadn't seen anything like this arrest in this school, I've seen scores of kids younger and more violent than this girl arrested and handcuffed. If it wasn't for the note tha the principal wrote, I probably wouldn't have thought about her again.
"I felt helpless; I couldn't do anything to save our student from being manhandled. . . When we were in the (little room) the student was emotional and continued to curse at the officer, (the Dean) and myself. What disturbed me most was when one of the agents cursed back at the student. Of course, I said something to the agent and later during the day I had a meeting with the Staff Sergeant. . . When I called the mother, she asked, "Why are you trying to help mu daughter even though she continues to disrespect you and the officers?"
The school where I know work has a particularly humanistic philosophy. The teachers are asked to make a personal connection with each student. But at the same time, the school is suffering from massive absenteeism, lateness, extreme intellectual torpor in the classes. The Principal's note made me wonder how we should treat our students when they act in an absolutely inappropriate. A lot of misbehavior is tolerated in this school, by many teachers. I do my best to correct student's language and behavior, but I know that many teachers do not. For me, when I hear a student curse or speak aggressively or crudely, I can't help but say something. My skin crawls. Apparently not everyone has this reaction. But when does the personal connection get taken advantage of? When does the humanistic approach become permissive to the point of abrogation of responsibility?
"When we were waiting for the police to arrive, I wiped the student's tears from her eyes, while she was handcuffed. I tied her shoelaces when they searched her for weapons. (They found a steak knife and a sock filled with lock cylinders. However when they searched her bag, the student told me that she had weapons in her book bag. Her explanation for carrying weapons was that she was being harasses by a 19 year old . . . her mom was aware and allowed her to have these weapons.) Although the student behaved in a disrespectful manner and tried to fight with the officers, cursed at me and (the Dean), I realized that this was just a child."
What is a child? I know this sounds like a stupid question, but I think it's something that we assume we know the answer to, but don't. What does it mean to say that this High School student who brings a knife and a homemade blackjack to school and then curses out the school's Dean and security guards (none of whom were the 19 year old harassing her) is a "child?" Does it mean that she is blameless for whatever decisions she makes? In that case, the school must make all the decisions for her, since her ability if suspect at best. Does it mean that she must be allowed to safely explore all behavioral possibilities? Maybe we should return the lock-cylinder filled sock to her, and the knife. Let her explore.
It has always been my opinion that personal safety should be the fundamental concern of the school. Before you have meeting about Understanding By Design, before you talk about rubric for bulletin boards- you must have a school that is safe. By safe I mean that students do not feel that they are threatened by each other or anyone. Safe means that when students do things, like fight, act aggressive, bring weapons to school, etc, they are punished effectively. It takes kids a long time to pick on details, like dates, names, and even longer to pick up concepts, but kids are great at figuring out structures, rules, limits, hierarchies. We owe it to them, whether we think they are "just children" or "students" or "kids" or "young adults" or "learners" to give them the environment they need to learn.
I won't be going out on a limb to say that teaching is 90% learning. Today, I'd bump that up to 100%. The day began well, my tenth graders trickled in over the course of the first period (8-9 am). At 8 there were a handful, by 9 maybe two handfuls. We had a short discussion about the Regents exam and college. I told them that student loans are terrible but necessary, and that there are loads of scholarships available. One kid declared, "You get money for being black!"
Then we transitioned into a current events activity. I have yet to find a better newspaper for use in schools than the free daily METRO handed out at most subway stations in Manhattan and many in the boroughs. (Few, in the Bronx, by the way.) The students looked for articles that related back to some of the themes they will be asked to work with on the Regents exam, themes like "Movement," (a girl found a photo of a 6 year old Afghan refugee with a cigarette dangling from his lip) "Conflict" (easy- Iraq, etc.) "Economy," etc. They got it, they did it, almost all had a completed paper and a clipped article to hand me at the end of the period.
I saw this same class two hours later, and they had somehow transformed. After a brief review of the period we are now studying, Middle Ages in Europe, I handed out Pope Urban II's speech, the famous, "God Wills It!" speech. I predicted that they would have some trouble with this text, so I provided some very specific questions, and gave them an introduction to the text. Half of the class refused to read it. "This is too difficult! It hurts my head!" cried one kid, who had yet to turn the first page. "I can't understand any of this!" As the kikds gave up, they began conversing, and that led to other kids complaining that they couldn't read. Eventually the loudest girl in the class began arguing with the boy sitting next to her, and by the end of the class those students who had attempted to answer the questions had still not comprehended the speech. I'll make another pass at it tomorrow, but I may have to chalk it up to a readiness to give up withour trying (preemptive failure) on their part and a failure to judge the difficulty of the text on my part. So, in the end I learned more than they did.
What is there to say about this photo? It's a house in Lawrenceville, the Pittsburgh nabe where my friend Ben lives. I imagine that at one time there were two porches attached to the front of this house, although there is little evidence, especially on the second story. It seems like that door on the second floor used to be a window. And the third story is a later addition. Why did they choose to build that third door? And then just imagine being inside this house, the constant temptation. . .
This house also reminded me of something I saw in Hyderababd, Pakistan recently- cheap additions, like bad taste, is indeed, universal.