Sunday, October 24, 2010


This time of year always turns into a blur. The relief and brief bits of green from the summer turn brown again. Life decays, what was once fresh and new is now old. The light begins to diminish, and once again you begin to live in a cave. Sun up on your way to work, sun down on the way back.

I always feel a strange pull this time of year. Even though I love teaching and love my job, I feel the strange need to escape, and get away from civilization. To cherish the last bits of non-frozen tundra. Perhaps it's because you know there is a long hard winter coming. The next time that you'll see green is the end of the school year.
Three animals enjoying the last weeks without snow.

Disregarding my presence.

Bring on the melancholy of winter.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Teach on TV

The recent rise of interest in "saving our schools" has spawned two TV reality shows, Teach: Tony Danza, and School Pride. I remember the exasperation when Teach was first revealed. I don't need another person to tell me how to do my job. There's enough assholes in America today pontificating on the subject, despite lacking credentials or teaching certification. The idea behind the show is that Tony Danza will teach in an inner city school, learn how the system operates, and somehow teach his students and viewers about the reality in public education today. Surprisingly, it's doing a decent job.

Like all first year teachers, Danza is terrible. Also like all first year teachers, he cares deeply about the students, and takes much of his failures to heart. Instead of being edited to show the dysfunction of the school system, the focus is on Danza. He stumbles his way through lessons, absorbs criticism from teachers and students, meets and angers parents, feels overwhelmed, and fears he is being ineffective. I enjoy this show because it reveals much of what first year teachers go through, and that teaching is a skill not learned by books and colleges, but through actually doing it. Danza himself quotes the study that shows 10,000 hours of doing anything can make you an expert. The principal tells Danza she wouldn't expect herself to dance or act after a short lesson on techniques, because they are difficult skills to learn. Danza should not expect the same of teaching for himself. Teach shows how Michelle Rhee, Davis Guggenheim, Barack Obama, or Arne Duncan would perform, how they criticize something they are unable to do. Teach shows how those leading "reform" would perform in reality. Education is not something a novice can stumble into and change. You need to know what you're doing first. You need your 10,000 hours.

My experience differs a bit from Danza's. What I found remarkable about Teach was that it appears as though Danza teaches only one class, and he has a teaching coach in the room every period. Most new teachers don't have it nearly as easy. The students seem well behaved, perhaps chosen as the TV class, assisting Danza with simple but important classroom management. He has already met dozens of parents. On back to school night I met the 3 parents of my 180 students. The "trouble students" seem like half my class. Nonetheless, I enjoy the show, and hope it continues to humanize the teaching profession, and show the reality of its difficulties.

School Pride is a new show, where outsiders come into an urban school with buckets of money, and fix up the school. The show gets corporate donors to sponsor classrooms. For example, the Microsoft Science Lab, Starter Sports Complex, and People Magazine Reading Room were shown prominently in the show, and called answers to our education problems. Corporate sponsorship is not the answer to school funding. Private advertising does not belong in public school. If your school doesn't have enough money, raise taxes or issue a bond or mill levy. We must invest in our future, not sell our kids short. No amount of paint will make up for slashed education budgets.

My fear is that people will watch these shows and believe themselves to be instant experts on the subject. The pattern of all the school "reform" talk these days continues to give voice to the novices, and none to the teachers. For any meaningful reform to happen, the pattern needs to be reversed.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Burning the holy book.

The idea that you can use one source to gain all of your information is illogical. In what is supposed to be a rigorous learning environment, textbooks rarely are reliable enough to be used alone. In college, you have multiple texts for each class, on top of supplemental articles and readings from the professors. Why is it that in secondary education, textbooks are viewed as something holy, necessary, and indisputable. After my school administration insisted I dumb down my text, I made the conscious decision to have the students assassinate the textbook to their face.

This year my administration decided to get involved in the nuts and bolts of teaching, despite having less teaching experience than me. That says a lot. The situation reminds me of the time before I landed my first full-time teaching job, where I served as a para educator under some terribly uninspiring teachers. My administrator noticed I was using the AP book American Pageant for my honors US History students, as opposed to The Americans. He argued that American Pageant was district approved for AP classes only, not honors MYP. I had used the textbook last year because IB teachers requested the students have more rigor in their text, so that they are ready for the IB program. I wasn't about to die for a textbook, after all, they are only one source, so I complied and asked my students to change their books. The only time the textbook is used, is for homework. It would be insulting to have the students read the textbook in class. So now the students read a textbook below their reading level, as opposed to above it. The one factor that was incontestable, and struck me as something administrators could not ignore, was the absurdity of my honors and sheltered students both using the same text. Not their problem apparently.

I have been focusing on the bias of sources, and and the value of understanding bias. So far we have assessed the bias of the History Channel and district tests. For my formal observation I created a lesson to compare the bias of the textbook with the reality shown in primary sources. I wanted to show administration that even the students could see the stupidity of the decision to switch texts. The topic I picked revolved around the Civil War, being our current unit of study. I could have chosen Columbus, unionization, progressive movements, WWI, immigration, or any time period or topic. The students examined the textbook, and another source I got from the Zinn Education Project. At the end I asked the students, what is the bias of the textbook, what is the bias of the other source? Which source do you find most valid, and give examples to support your reasoning? What is the value of knowing the bias of the textbook?

The students lit it up. "The textbook disencourages people taking action to make change. The textbook maintains the status-quo. The textbook is biased by minimizing the actions of common people. The textbook tells us to wait for those in power to help, instead of helping ourselves." They nailed the bias. Administration watched, dumbstruck. "We need to know the bias of the textbook because we shouldn't believe everything we read. We need to know the bias so we know what our school is trying to teach us. The value of knowing the bias is to help us understand power." Those are all real quotes. I was surprised. Perhaps I created a class of revolutionaries. They saw The Americans was hardly worth the paper it was printed on, and assassinated it. A valuable lesson in the teaching of history and its effects on how we see ourselves.

Afterward, my administration was in awe. They loved the lesson for obvious reasons. My reason for having them view the lesson was completely lost on them, it went right over their head. Dim people. I figured it wouldn't be smart to point that out the them, considering I'm still not tenured. That lesson helped win over the students completely. They are now fascinated with historiography, bias, and historical perspective. Students respect the textbook as much as I do, something we have in common against the continuous dumbing down of our curriculum, mandated from above.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Race to the Bottom

To add insult to injury, my state's bid for Race to the Top funding was denied, even after our state forced serious concessions from its teachers. Teachers in my state are no longer guaranteed tenure or non-probationary status. This was done in order to increase the probability of winning Race to the Top funds.

We continue to need three years of positive reviews in order to gain non-probationary status, but administration can now strip a teacher of that status after two years of unsatisfactory reviews. Essentially, administrators can no easily remove anybody they want.

Arne Duncan decided that stripping teachers of tenure protection wasn't enough. The unions had to kowtow, and capitulate in order to receive the money. Our unions refused to participate. As usual, those that don't teach think they know it all, and feel they can tell teachers how to do their job. So now we are vulnerable to the changing tides of administration, with no benefit whatsoever.