Saturday, January 26, 2013

Back in stride

Slumps. We all hit them. Football kickers, baseball pitchers, salesmen, presidents, and teachers too. I've been in an 18 month slump. So much so that I haven't felt like blogging for the past 6 months. Writing down my thoughts was bothersome. I stopped looking at myself as an effective teacher, and began to see myself as average.

Looking back, it's easy to see how this happened. The epic brawl on my way our of my previous employer started it all. That year I was cruising, feeling more effective then ever. Then, the trauma of that event left me cautious, quiet, and nervous. My first year at my current job was the toughest year I've faced. New school, new students, new curriculum, and high expectations combined with still licking my wounds left me rather ineffective (even though we still got high growth). I felt nowhere near where I was before.

This year started with a bang, or a thump, with broken bones and a handicap making regular life and mundane tasks more difficult. Teacher on the IR was difficult, along with being mentally and physically exhausting. It is hard to grow when you're exhausted from stagnation.

Over winter break I made it my goal to do nothing. Wasting days of my life playing Madden Football and cheering for the Broncos. Much like in Office Space when Peter wakes up the day after being hypnotized. He came back a different man.

I came back refreshed. Reflected on what the students needed and how I can best support them and move them to the next level. I realized how bogged down I was in content, and was unable to teach real skills, like citing evidence, thesis, critical thinking and questioning, debate, and analytical reading. During some random professional developments I had an epiphany and began to work on creating new curriculum and ways to help students be reflective and grow rapidly in necessary skills. The results have been dramatic.

Since break, my students have gone from writing vague generalities to citing specific facts, using and citing quotes to support an opinion, discussion using academic language, interpreting analogy in political cartoons and designing their own, and challenging each others opinions.

I have already been observed twice through our district evaluation system. The first one was by my principal, who is insanely hard, and my average score was about a 5/7, which is fabulous. District teachers average around 3-4/7. My co-teacher was observed and earned about a 2. The scale is not meeting (0-2), approaching (2-3), meeting (4-6), and distinguished (7). You are assessed in 12 different areas and nobody gets distinguished. It's that hard. In my old district I was always in the top of the evaluation, but that left me nowhere to grow. On this system, my principal was able to share with me very concrete ways I could continue to improve, and those suggestions were small tweaks to my existing instruction. My evaluation at the beginning of the year put me 3-4, a 5 is huge growth.

On Thursday I was observed again by the district peer evaluator. I earned two 7s, and the remainder were 6s. My evaluator told me those were the highest scores they ever recorded, and wanted to record my instruction to help model and norm good teaching.

I think I'm back!

Saturday, December 15, 2012


I'll always remember being woken up on a Friday morning in July. My wife called, saying she wanted to be the one to let me know before everyone else started calling. We didn't know yet if any of my former students were involved, but the news was reporting dozens of wounded, and unknown dead. Some psychopath went into a movie theater with a ballistic vest and helmet, and sprayed bullets into a defenseless crowd. I spent the next few hours contacting people and checking to see if anyone was hurt. Thankfully for my students, the bullets missed them, or,  they were off work that night and were not there. Somehow, you can buy military gear designed for Falluja, to hunt dear I assume. The peace vigil with my students the following day was as close as I'll ever come to religion.

The tragedy in Connecticut left me speechless. I was teaching 4th period, the last before finals week. My students were working on their silhouette projects, researching on their phones. I had read initial reports of a shooting over lunch, but I was shocked when I began to hear of the carnage. Some psychopath walked into an elementary school spraying bullets into defenseless classrooms. It was a powerful moment for me as I thought about how just the previous day we had a lock down drill for these kinds of situations. All I could think was "For fuck's sake... elementary kids..." As I looked around the room, I couldn't help but pause and think about my school and my students.

What a strange country we live in where we have to live in a state of continual preparation for gun wielding maniacs coming into our schools and gunning down children and teachers. It's something you think about from time to time. After running into an altercation or disciplinary situation with a student, you think about it. I've thought about my odds, what I'd do in a situation, how to escape, how to protect the kids. Our school is so wide open to the community, any wingnut can come in at any time. Thinking about such things however, is a waste of mental energy.

I fear that nothing will change from this tragedy. Whether it be access to mental health care or gun control. The opposite is also terrifying, that our schools will have airport like security. Something needs to change. Any country that breeds killers who massacre helpless victims in schools, theaters, college campuses, and foreign cities is ill, and needs to face fundamental change. Otherwise, we'll live in a world of worrying about whether we're going to die in an airplane, school, city street, or skyscraper.

Strangely enough, Jon Stewart tackled this topic on Monday.  You can watch it here.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Teaching on the I.R.

All the school's a stage, said not William Shakespeare. When on stage, teachers are expected to produce the show of their career. Not only from themselves and administration, but especially from the students. When working with the kind of at risk population at my school, it doesn't take long to become a student's rock and stable adult. You are not allowed emotion. You must always be consistent, happy, supportive role models.

The appearance of stability has become far more difficult this year. On a staff retreat the weekend before reporting back I managed to take nasty fall which resulted in a broken knee cap, arm, wrist, and 10 stitches. It was embarrassing to say the least, especially when it was my boss who drove me to the ER.

So far I have struggled to keep my emotions in check. The frustration of doing the smallest daily rituals builds and explodes, at targets like copy machines.

Hobbling, pegging, or rolling around school with a crutch and an arm sling gets a lot of questions. I started lying to people the first day because I was already fed up with the questions. My standard go to was that I got into a fight with a bear. I move on immediately to avoid follow up interrogation. This worked so well that when school started, that's what other teachers told their students. Most believed it.

Unfortunately, teaching with two limbs is exceedingly challenging. The energy needed to do anything is higher, making exhaustion and grumpiness all the more common. Taking attendance by walking over to the clipboard, holding the clipboard in a broken arm, then writing and submitting on the computer should not be hard. So far, despite what is going on inside, I think my game face has been on.

In a weird way though, my gimpyness has become an asset for classroom management. Each period starts the day by rising to their feet when I come in, I say "Good morning/afternoon scholars, please grab a seat finish your 'Do Now'" all with a smile and in a non-domineering manner. It is a positive start to the period, and gets the students immediately on task. Last year there were always one or two students who didn't pay attention, or had to be chided for sitting until they stood. This year, none. They know that if the guy with the broken knee is standing and wishing them a good day, they better be standing in return. Discipline problems are also now nonexistent.

The year thus far seems successful for two reasons. One, students are intuitive and know that when someone is hard up, now is not the time to slack off or be disruptive. The other reason is that I'm not new anymore.  The kids know me, or know another student who will vouch for me. On Thursday one of my difficult students from last year gave me a public compliment. I looped with my students from last year who have been excited to see me. I am one of only two sophomore teachers they know, causing me to quickly become more students' rock. Already I have formed great bonds with students I didn't have had last year.

Because of this, I don't need to be a Daniel Day Lewis, only a Keanu Reeves. This year feels more like a give and take. I make their day, they make mine. Both sides are happy to be here and are willing to show it. Happy students, happy teachers, happy growth scores. It's going to be a good year. Just keep smiling.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Numbers

The state results are out. Here is how our school did:
9th Grade Reading: grew from 33% to 40% proficient and advanced
9th Grade Writing: stayed the same 19%. Maybe that's because there were two new teachers? Also, with the new test, almost all schools declined. Not us!
10th Grade Reading:  grew from 31% to 48% proficient and advanced
10th Grade Writing: grew from 9% to 29% proficient and advanced

The charter school trying to share our building shrank in every indicator but one: 8th grade writing. Hopefully this tells district to keep them out.

The charter school that is trying to take us over also has some interesting numbers. Their students start at 6th grade 53/61 proficient in reading/writing. No wonder their scores are higher overall. However, we have better growth.

Our growth scores:
53% growth in reading, 30% are catching up and 85% are staying proficient.
63% growth in writing (huge!), 20% are catching up, and 61% are staying proficient.

It's working. We are turning around a failed school. Fuck you, charter. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Education Nation: serfdom never felt so fancy

This year NBC's Education Nation made its rounds around the nation, with the stated goal of creating an "open conversation" about results-oriented teaching reforms. I was invited to attend one of the "Teacher Town Halls" which I at first thought to be quite the honor. Little did I know what I had in store.

The event was hosted at a swanky downtown location, where Italian sparkling water bottles, and waiters carried around hors d'oeuvres with white gloves were served. I was appropriately dressed in my tie and slacks, but noticed I was not adequately technologically tethered to an iphone. Jazz music played imperceptibly in the background, just as Miles, Louis, and Bird would have wanted. After mingling and more inspection I noticed, oh my god, these people are my age! What the hell is going on? Half of the people I was introduced to asked me
"Oh, you're at ________ school! Are you TFA (Teach For America)too?"
"(nervous laugh)No, no, I went to school"
End of conversation. Whoops!

As a percentage young, urban, well dressed teachers are more likely to be involved in charters, Teach For America, or be reform minded, than their middle aged and older companions. There is definitely a generational gap between teachers, and I was worried that this crowd had been vetted carefully chosen with an agenda in mind. I was asked to go with my principal. Does that mean I'm one of them, a TFA at heart, an anti-union, data-driven bot? For the time, I preferred to live in the fantasy that I was there on my laurels, and was chosen for my quiet quality and confidence.

We were then led to the lecture hall town hall area where we were arranged in nice rows. I sat next to one of my TFA co-workers with whom I often clash on education policy, but on a personal level have a fine relationship. He was next to his obnoxiously GQ TFA co-worker that oozed dislike for me. I don't quite understand why.

Looking around the room, I noticed the sponsors:
American Airlines 
Members Project American Express (what teacher has AmEx?)
Raytheon (they build bombs!)
University of Phoenix (Really?)
W.K. Kellog Foundation

Huh? What do most of these have to do with education. Then I noticed:
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation 

I wrote a post about a year ago on the Gates and Broad foundations, and their love of corporate modeled test taking as reform for schools. The Gates foundation alone has sunk billions into educational research to define what makes a good teacher. They are meddlers who have never taught a day in their life, but have the money to take a front seat in the discussion.

Unfortunately, millionaires and billionaires have been able to take advantage of the public school system through the tax code. The New Markets Tax Credit allows:
businesses and real estate projects located in low-income communities. The NMTC Program attracts investment capital to low-income communities by permitting individual and corporate investors to receive a tax credit against their Federal income tax return in exchange for making equity investments in specialized financial institutions called Community Development Entities (CDEs). The credit totals 39 percent of the original investment amount and is claimed over a period of seven years. Cite
Low income communities? Read: Poor, minority-majority, working class struggling schools where you can invest in a charter to spur competition and innovation! Competition works for the banking industry, of course it can do the same for education! In 2011, $573 million was invested in education facilities. Read about it here and here. Public schools have to go through a public bond process to get funding to purchase new science classrooms, whereas a tax evading philanthropist and bequeath it to a charter. Many of those philanthropists believe in fair competition, but the competition is never fair when one side gets to pick their team.

So, this event is sponsored by what Dianna Ravitch calls the "Billionaire Boys Club" I was still hoping for the best. As the talks started, it became very clear that those that were up on stage were carefully chosen, and unrepresentative of those who have a stake in education.

The first group of speakers who were interviewed on stage had a first (or second?) year charter school TFA teacher from our neighborhood competition, who spoke very idiotically about nothing. Every answer he gave was off topic and had no depth. My co-worker that sat next to me said he went through the program with the TFA on stage, and that the speaker was utterly unremarkable in every way. I later crossed path with the TFA again at a community town hall where the debate was about, and is still brewing, putting the newly confirmed HS charter in our building. The TFA had yelled and first pumped from the back of the room, yelling "we don't have time," responding to our school's concerns that more time was needed to study ours, and other possible locations for their charter. What a great, experienced role model to help drive education policy discussion...

As the night wore on, I accepted that I was wallpaper, and prop in larger production, in which I had no voice. The list of speakers:
•    Maria Bartiromo: Anchor of CNBC's "Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo" and Anchor and Managing Editor of "Wall Street Journal Report with Maria Bartiromo"
•    Michael Bloomberg: Mayor, City of New York
•    Cory Booker: Mayor, City of Newark, New Jersey
•    Phil Bredesen: Governor, State of Tennessee
•    Steven Brill: co-founder of Journalism Online, CourtTV and American Lawyer magazine and author of "The Rubber Room" In The New Yorker
•    Tom Brokaw: NBC News Special Correspondent
•    Geoffrey Canada: CEO & President of Harlem Children's Zone Project
•    David Coleman: Founder & CEO, Student Achievement Partners; Contributing Author of the Common Core Standards
•    Ann Curry: News Anchor, "Today" and Anchor, "Dateline NBC"
•    Arne Duncan: US Secretary of Education
•    Byron Garrett: CEO of the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA)
•    Allan Golston, President, US Program, The Gates Foundation
•    Jennifer M. Granholm: Governor, State of Michigan
•    David Gregory: Moderator, "Meet the Press"
•    Reed Hastings: Founder & CEO of Netflix
•    Lester Holt: Anchor, "NBC Nightly News," Weekend Edition and Co-Host, "Today"  Weekend Edition
•    Walter Isaacson: President & CEO of the Aspen Institute
•    Joel Klein: Chancellor of New York City Schools
•    Wendy Kopp: CEO and Founder of Teach for America
•    John Legend: Musician; Founder of the Show Me Campaign
•    Jack Markell: Governor, State of Delaware
•    Gregory McGinity: Managing Director of Policy, The Broad Education Foundation
•    Andrea Mitchell: NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent and Host, "Andrea Mitchell Reports"
•    Janet Murguia: President & CEO of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR)
•    Michael Nutter: Mayor, City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
•    Bill Pepicello, Ph.D.: President of University of Phoenix
•    Sally Ride: First Female Astronaut; Vice-chair of Change the Equation
•    Michelle Rhee: Chancellor, District of Columbia Public School System of Washington,D.C.
•    Edward Rust: Chairman & CEO of State Farm Insurance Companies
•    Gwen Samuel, CT delegate to Mom Congress
•    Barry Schuler: Former CEO of AOL
•    Sterling Speirn: CEO, Kellogg Foundation
•    Margaret Spellings: Former US Secretary of Education
•    Antonio Villaraigosa: Mayor, City of Los Angeles, California
•    Randi Weingarten: President of American Federation of Teachers (AFT-CLO)
•    Brian Williams: Anchor and Managing Editor "NBC Nightly News"

What do you notice? I see politicians, corporate executives, philanthropist, media, and education policy organizations. Those people are there to advance whatever agenda they have. What don't you see? Teachers. Not even state or national Teacher of the Year. Two parent groups, but no local groups. One of the two large, but smaller of the two, teacher unions.  Where were the people who have a stake in this? Where were the teachers? In the audience, listening participating.

The questions posed to the audience were carefully written to elicit certain reposes. Questions were written based on "their (Gates) facts that we're going to be referring to often to help along our conversation." This immediately placed any of the teachers responding into starting at a defense, and having to disprove the "facts" before giving any of their own "facts." Other ways in which we participated were lame and simple, eliciting jeers, groans, and giggles from the audience. We were given clickers to vote on one multiple choice question. For example "Is technology improving your discussion?" Hmm, guess how we voted? After the vote, the moderator would turn the discussion over to the panel on stage. I participated with my thumb!

The times that real teachers were brought on stage, it was usually half TFA teachers (.2% of all teachers). The questions posed were simplistic, not in depth, and gave no greater understanding of topics impacting teachers. It was news to NBC that teachers wanted more collaboration time.

All of this ridiculousness begs the question, who was this event for? Education Nation states its mission is
 NBC News' initiative to engage the country in a solutions-focused conversation about the state of education in America.
Obviously, it was not for teachers. Such low level guided discussion is below our pay grade. The "leaders" on stage talked with each other, and with the cameras, which were broadcasting to a tiny audience. It was a giant rah rah parade for those looking to change education, in ways I believe are for the worse. I walked out of the event feeling that Education Nation is a dangerous propaganda disseminator, and I was used.

Harvest my demesne serf! Once you're done you may attend to your furlong.

Afterwards, my principal decided to take me out for some late night tacos and beer. That made me feel better.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Buddy, your bucket has got a hole in it

The news today of the Affordable Care Act being affirmed by the Supreme Court found me sitting in front of my computer for an inappropriate amount of time digesting the news. Being that it is the end of the month and I still had a few of the 10 free page views allowed from the New York Times, I decided to geek out on their blog roll.

One of the continuous sections was Voices, a lame attempt to get the common person's "word on the street." In it I found a rather irritating reaction from Frank Trecroci, the principal of a private school in Kenosha and Racine, Wisconsin. On their website, it states that:
In August of 2000 the school was awarded a 1.2 million dollar grant from the state of Wisconsin to create a “model early childhood center of excellence” for children and families within the community. 
In August 2009 The Renaissance School established a relationship with Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Zion, IL.  Childcare is provided on an as needed basis to the children of families attending the treatment center. 
The Renaissance school also has themselves embroiled in a school voucher debate in Kenosha and Racine. According to the Racine paper The Journal Times, Frank wants to expand the voucher program to lure more students out of public schools, and into his private program.

Obviously private schools have a built in advantage of choice and parent engagement. Of course they will receive better scores than public schools which serve every child. But, at the voucher meeting where teacher layoffs were to be discussed, Frank had the balls to say "And we would love the opportunity to hire any Racine Unified teachers that have been laid off." 

The coup de grĂ¢ce, Frank doesn't provide his staff with health care, he makes them purchase their own. He poaches students from the public system, depriving them of money. When cuts must be made, he "welcomes" laid off teachers into his private program, for less money, and no health care. How does this help the families and children of those teachers?

When asked for his reaction by the NYT to Obama's victory at the Supreme Court, he said "I'm horrified." Frank described how many of his students families were going bankrupt due to medical bills. He was "horrified" that his students had no coverage, but provides none for his staff. Frank went on to describe how this will cause an extra $10,000 in health expenses to be spent on every teacher, causing cutbacks and perhaps layoffs.

First, who pays $10,000 for health insurance? Now that you are asked to be responsible like EVERY schools district and support their staff with health benefits, your first reaction is to be "horrified." I'm horrified at your leach like behavior.

Frank's comments exemplify everything that is wrong with the privatization of education. Private/charter schools will get young teachers to come in for low pay, no benefits, low budget, and take engaged students, get results, and then point at the public school and ask "what's their problem?" I believe that if private/charter schools want to be able to exist, they must mirror the services for students and staff of their public counterparts. They cannot "counsel out" troubled, ELL, and SPED students, or expel them to the public schools. They also cannot deprive their underpaid and overworked staff of a moderate standard of living.

Until we hold people like Frank to the same level as public servants, the privatization train will continue to roll through every district until we have thoroughly re segregated our society.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Hope for my undocumented students

The news from the Obama administration today is very hopeful. As one of my undocumented students said, "it is an awesome start." Today, Obama has done something right for education. He has offered work visas to good students, age 16-30, who have been law abiding citizens of this country, and who are more American in culture than Latin. I think ICE will be overwhelmed with the number of young talented Latin students who apply for the work visa amnesty.

I have written about my undocumented student before, and my opinion now is no different. These students are our country's future, and they must be embraced and brought out of the shadows. Many of them are more deserving than American born students. The last step that needs to occur is providing undocumented students the rights to in-state tuition for college, so they have the same opportunities as their peers. Currently 12 states, including California and Texas allow undocumented students to attain in-state rates. Wisconsin has revoked their law (what the hell is going on WI?). Most recently, Colorado, a state with a growing Latino population, and an important battleground state in the upcoming election, has followed Texas and California by granting students an adjusted in-state rate.

These students have earned and deserve the right to be law abiding citizens like everyone else. Obama talks of bending the arc of history, of changing the course of history and doing something new. Finally, he is living up to, in at least one way, his rhetoric.