Thursday, November 30, 2006

Twenty Year Old Football Player

The Seattle Times has an article about a 20 year old high school football player. I just can't imagine that the judge made the right decision. I'm all for helping students academically. But, putting others in danger, in many ways, is just wrong.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The A.D.D. Teacher

When I was in elementary school, my report cards often mentioned that I needed to improve my self-control. I wasn't a disruptive, mean, or obnoxious kid, but I did have trouble staying focused on a task. I needed boundaries. I needed to be given the perameters that I could operate under. Ms. Stack, my first grade teacher, was excellent at keeping me in line.
Throughout my school career, I often struggled with the ability to focus in class. No one ever tested me for A.D.D., a byproduct of my generation. Had I been born, ten years later, I would have spent my childhood hopped up on prescription medicine.
But today, my self-diagnosed A.D.D. plays out in the classroom still. At the beginning of the school day, I tend to focus on the lesson at hand. By sixth period, I can become distracted by just about anything. My seniors enjoy this very much. Of all the students to have during the last period of the day, the senior could possibly be the worst. But I love 'em.
I love that they feel comfortable enough to draw me off task. Many students either don't care enough or are too worried to. I've never had a class so interested in my every day life--from what I choose to wear to what my daughter was for Halloween. Now, if I could just keep myself from always going down the bunny trail!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Snowball Effect

Last night I went to bed while six inches of snow softened the starkness of late autumn. Prior to heading in for the night, I talked with a neighbor, also a teacher, about the impending school closure. We were both excited about it. Six inches of snow, and even the threat of more, is enough to close down school here in the Pacific Northwest.
My day off hasn't amounted to what I had envisioned. The private school my wife teaches at is located in an area that didn't receive much more than a trace of snow. That meant that I would be staying home alone with Tate, our 7 1/2 month old. I figured we would go outside, take the dog with us, and get some great pictures. She's had another idea. She has either slept or been cranky--and I mean cranky.
But, the nap times have allowed me to catch up on reading the blogs and the news. This article from the, reaffirms my belief that accountability in education coupled with poor planning, amounts to little more than another edu-fad.
Before you run off saying that Mr. McNamar doesn't believe in accountability, let me be clear; please hold students accountable for their education. Additionally, please hold parents, teachers, schools, districts, states, and the federal government accountable for properly administering public education.
We are at the crux of the accountability movement. The basic albatross is that poor planning has resulted in a great deal of backtracking. Had the State of Washington prepared for the 2008 start date for making the WASL a graduation requirement, they would have better understood the demographics of the education climate.
The legislature and educrats who do not spend time in the classroom believed that when the WASL became a graduation requirement, suddenly the students would begin to care about it. They thought that previous low scores were merely a matter of student disinterest in a previously non-threatening test. Now that 50% of the state's students failed the Math section, the state wants to change the rules. We hadn't properly prepared the students, so how can we hold them accountable?
Okay, fair enough. But what about the nearly 20% of students who did not pass the Reading section? Or the almost 20% of students who did not pass the Writing section? Do we push the graduation requirement back for them? One could argue that those students were not properly prepared either.
And if the students aren't properly prepared, who, precisely, is accountable? In today's climate of accountability, it certainly doesn't mean the student is held accountable for his or her study habits. It also does not mean that the parents are accountable for their failure to keep track of their student's progress. No, the onus falls to the teachers and the schools.
The Federal government won't put themselves on the AYP list for improvement. The Federal government won't stop funding itself or allow parents to move Congressional districts on the government's dime.
You see, the issue starts small--let's hold students accountable for learning. But it has quickly snowballed into the Abominable Snowman, elusive, malodorous, and big.

Update: The Seattle Times has this article that offers the potential solution.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Evaluating My Late Work Policy

What do we do when a student is failing? True, this is a vague question. We want more information in order to evaluate what should be done.
Before school started this year, our staff discussed ways that we can help reduce the growing number of students who are failing classwork. The one corner of the discussion that received a great deal of attention was the idea of whether to accept late work. The rationale behind allowing late work was that it allows us to grade what the students actually know, and not their work ethic. In theory, I agree.
So, I reworked my late work policy to allow students to turn in late work, but at a price. I used the credit card like system where the more assignments turned in late, the more interest the student paid--with the maximum I'd take away set at around 50%.
After a quarter of the year, I've finshed evaluating this concept. It sucks. It has turned out to be a terrible idea for two reasons. The first is that I've created a management nightmare for myself. Perhaps a teacher whose annual goal isn't to become better at organization could pull this off, but for me, it isn't working. And yet, I can't use that alone as the reason to toss out the idea. That would be selfish. Remember, we need to be about the best interest of the students, and tossing that idea out would be to merely make my life easier.
But the second reason borders between both selfish and in the best interest of the students. Next year, when my Pre-College Senior venture off to whatever university or college they choose, many professors will scoff at the belief that essays can be turned in on the student's time table. The result of my new method is a rise in students who turn work in late. Again, this creates a management nightmare for me.
It means that I have to e-mail parents more often. It means that I have to remind students to get work done. It means that weeks after I've finished grading the assignment, I have to return to it. Believe me, that is not always an enjoyable time.
So, now I wonder what has been gained by accepting late work to satisfy my administration and to hold to an ideal. Is my policy really benefiting the students?
To the extent that they may still receive credit, sure, it helps. But as I turned in grades for the first quarter, and still had about the same number of students failing as I have in the past, I couldn't help but wonder if it's worth the hassle.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Government Take Over

The Seattle schoold district appears to be in absolute disarray. Without getting into the heart of the issue, whether or not to close certain schools because of low enrollment, I wonder if the vaguely referenced "education experts" really believe that giving control of the district to the Mayor is the best option.
Perhaps I should adjust my thinking and accept that so long as education remains in the political realm, it will be used as a bargaining chip for power--always by pompous suit wearing megalomaniacs. One just needs to observe to see that Seattle schools has had its devastating issues. They have effectively wiped the brilliance of John Stanford from minds of the city. Though he did not come from the world of education, Stanford used common sense approaches to bettering the district.
Since his death, it seems that Seattle Public Schools has faced a lack of true leadership and vision. It has struggled to find success. However, I can't believe the answer is to put it into the hands of a local government that is equally inept. Anybody want to ride a monorail?
Politics has to stay out of education.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Final Jeopardy With Margaret Spellings

I am such a jerk. Ms. Spellings, our Secretary of Education, appeared on Celebrity Jeopordy this evening. I watch Jeopardy every night I can, and I was surprised to see her as a guest. I wish I could say that I wanted her to do well, but that would be a lie.
She started off slowly, mistaking the "henge" in Stonehenge for something other than circle. That one seemed pretty obvious; afterall, it is Celebrity Jeopardy. At the first break she hadn't answered a question correctly. When Trebek did the customary question and answer session with the guests, he posed a question regarding the state of American education. Ms. Spellings replied that we are losing the race against other contries.
I wanted her to fail even more. In that situation, I would expect Ms. Spellings to affirm the great things that American education does, while perhaps mentioning that we can always improve. Maybe I get this from watching professional sports coaches give such answers after each game.
By the end of round one, she'd recovered with an answer about bananas, a clue that had the typically obvious clue within. The clue mentioned "bunches" in a category about food. Hmm. Tough one. She nailed a second question, one about Chicago temperatures and why the thermometer would read one temp, but it would feel much colder. A science question. She answered correctly that it would be the wind chill.
In the second round, Spellings picked up the pace. She answered one quickly. A question about a long river in South America. The Nile, maybe? No, seriously the Amazon. Good job, Spellings; you are brilliant.
She stumbled on a question from the Movie Quote category, but only because she didn't listen to the category. She gave the name of the person quoting instead of the movie title. Trebek had made it abundantly clear what he was looking for. Minus points for not following directions.
Then she didn't miss again when she buzzed in. She got a question about a rhyming Spanish phrase that means "Thank you." Was able to translate the Russian word for Vodka--she is from Bush's cabinet. She got a tough one about the number of pedals on some type of organ. She got both Daily Doubles, and the stock symbol for, of all things, Exxon Mobile. She would have been fired if she had missed that one.
She ended the Double Jeopardy round in second place. The Final Jeopardy category: Books turned into Movies.

"Among the many movies that have premiered here at Radio City Music Hall was the 1962 film based on a novel by Harper Lee."
What is....To Kill a Mockingbird. Yeah Ms. Spellings!

She did better than I hoped, and it has ruined my night.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Audacity of Hope

I work with a man who has taught U.S. History for many years. His classroom is cluttered with books, photographs, and memorabilia that tells the history of our great country. Every so often, particularly when a Republican fails to meet his expectations, he asks me when I am going to become a Democrat. And while the truth is that I tend to vote Republican, I don't consider myself very far from center in the political world. But this does not stop me from engaging Big Poppa--my colleague--in strictly partisan debate. It amuses me.
Fortunately for him, the horizon looks Democratic. This is not a result of current Republican leadership. Instead, it is about a man who I hope will rise above the your are either this or that mentality that has this country stuck. I am hoping that Senator Barack Obama runs for President.
I've read three chapters from his book The Audacity of Hope; he had me at the title. I love words, especially when they are put near words one wouldn't normally associate with the other. Think about it; the audacity, the brazeness, of hope.
There is much more about him that I must discover, specifically his views on education. But if the following quote is any indication, then we are on the same page:

Sometimes we need both cultural transformation and government action--a change in values and a change in policy--to promote the kind of society we want. The state of our inner-city schools is a case in point. All the money in the world won't boost student achievement if parents make no effort to instill in their children the value of hard work and delayed gratification. But when we as a society pretend that poor children will fulfill their potential in dilapidated, unsafe schools with outdated equipment and teachers who aren't trained in the subjects they teach, we are perpetrating a lie on these children, and on ourselves. We are betraying our values (63).

Friday, November 17, 2006

Growing up

As both a coach and a teacher, I regularly get to watch as students take strides to advance through their adolescent years relatively unscathed. Some students fascinate me with their ability to be simultaneously a child and an adult. Those students whose maturity masks their youthfulness have taken great pride in growing up. They know how to hold conversation with an adult without feeling awkward or intimidated. They know when acting youthful is encouraged and accepted and when acting all grown up is the path to choose.
I overheard another teacher compliment a young lady on her politeness. The student had made a phone call to her mother regarding some paperwork that she needed delivered to the school with a signature. The student did not sigh or become impatient with her mother, even though the time frame didn't fit what she wanted.
Upon receiving the compliment, the young lady said, "Thank you; that is how I was raised; it's no big deal." How wrong she was. Today, polite students--at least polite in the way the previous generations know--are often hard to come by. It's not that this generation as a whole is rude, but maybe a bit too casual at times.
I'm okay with the, "Hey Mr. Mac," or the "Hey Mac," but sometimes I wonder what it would be like to always be Mr. McNamar.
I am also amazed at how some students can take ultimate responsibility for their actions while others will look for any reason to shun accountability. I don't know if it is a grown up thing to do or not, for surely many grown ups also shun responsibility, but it sure is impressive when it comes from a teenager.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

My Space or Our Space?

A discussion about free speech blossomed in class today after a post on my class's weblog dealt with the issue in relation to Students are finally realizing that administrators across the country are accessing to check the activities of students. However, I believe that most only do so when they have been tipped off about something.
But my students, almost all of them, felt that, one, it is wrong for administrators to do such a thing, and two, if an administrator contacted to have a site removed because of harrassing statements or vicious untruths, it was a violation of free speech.
I don't know that my students fully understood that, along with our freedom of speech is the responsibility to be stewards of that speech. That, just because you can say it, doesn't mean you should. And sometimes, when you utilize your free speech, you might hear something back in return that you aren't all that interested in hearing.
Ultimately, I struggled to convey to my students that, while the site is called, it really isn't theirs. Because once they publish it to the world wide web, it really is public space. So, yes, if an adminstrator, college admissions officer, or anyone else interested wanted to view their site, it really is within that individuals right to read public material. They just don't get that concept.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

For the Love of Language

I like big words...and I cannot other teachers can't deny...! Okay, I got carried away, sorry. Two years ago, as I began my first year of teaching Pre-College English, I realized that many of my future college students lacked the word choice necessary to convey ideas through any other words than the vernacular. And because I had sat through countless sessions of the Bergen Evans Vocabulary Series (Bergie Words) in high schools, I figured it wouldn't hurt my students to improve their own vocabulary ken.
Despite my undertaking having roots in what I recall as pleasant times, my students found the sessions trite after only a few weeks. I was cognizant of this potential pitfall, yet believed the exercise to have value. I acquiesced to the grousing of my students and scrapped the idea.
This year, after avoiding the issue last year, I ardently returned to my goal of improving student language.
I believe my Power Point presentations are improved. But ultimately, what made this year different, was my initial overture to determine the purpose of the assignment. We discussed how an undeveloped vocabulary can often obfuscate what is intended, both in writing and speech. Additionally, I admitted to the lugubrious and arduos nature of developing one's personal lexicon.
The sessions began auspiciously, and have continued facilely. And when different students from different periods inform me that they recognized words from my Words You Should Know series, it causes me to become twitterpated about this wonderful language we speak. As the author Frederick Buechner, in remembering his days at Lawrenceville, says "...words not only convey something, but are something; that words have color, depth, texture, of their own, and the power to evoke vastly more than they mean; that words can be used not merely to make things clear, make things vivid, make things interesting and wahtever else, but to make things happen inside the one who reas them or hears them" (The Sacred Journey).

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Elephant in the Room

The Hartford Courant has yet another article pointing out the inequality between the wealthy school districts and those that lack money. They offer four findings from the recent study.

1. The state's wealthiest school districts were more likely than poorer districts to hire teachers with master's degrees and at least one year of experience.
I know that President Bush and Ms. Spellings believe that a Master's Degree makes one a better teacher, but from my experience, there are just as many non-Master's Degree teachers, with fewer years of service, who have the ability to not only convey information, but to connect with the students. Yes, a high level of expertise in one's content area is important. But considering that most state exams, the tools used to discover if any children are being left behind, are a minimum competency test, maybe it is more important to have student "buy in."

2. Schools in high-poverty school districts generally had more difficulty filling jobs and lost more teachers to transfers than they gained.
I teach at a school that is experiencing an economic shift. As the economics of our school has changed, so have the extra-curricular problems. When teachers, especially those who crave the opportunity to make a difference, observe apathetic students from apathetic parents, they becom discouraged. High poverty schools tend to present demoralizing issues that hinder the classroom experience. Though, wealthy schools tend to present confounding issues as well; but those seem more bearable because parents tend to at least feign interest.

3. The heavy volume of paperwork in recruiting teachers, especially in large school districts, often slowed down the hiring process.
I've complained here before about some of the large districts I've dealt with. My own district has lost a number of potentially great teachers because of the many layers a candidate must navigate.

4. Some schools had poor support and mentoring systems for new teachers. About one-third of newly hired teachers in the 11 districts in the survey said they intended to leave their current school or district.
I can't speak for those that would choose to leave because of poor mentoring. The availability for support and mentoring doesn't have to be formal. I've learned a great deal simply by interacting with my peers, both tenured and non-tenured. But the lack of support certainly could dissuade an individual from returning.

Okay, so we've been given the task of educating our students. We've been shown that wealthy students tend to outperform the poor. We've been told that the reason for this is the teacher. But could it also be the student? Could the parents be a part of the problem? Instead of pointing to how unequipped the teachers are because they don't have a Master's Degree, perhaps we should be thankful that someone wants to go into the toughest schools. Because seriously, how many Master's Degree educated teachers want to take on the toughest students?

I'm all for holding teachers accountable, but I really think it is time we hold a few others accountable as well.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


I have been working through The Canterbury Tales with my Pre-College classes for the last few weeks. We had done all of the reading in class together. But on Tuesday, we came two pages short of the final tale we would read. So, I assigned those last two pages for homework. Of the nearly thirty students in my first class, three or four had done the reading.
Okay, it was Halloween; but completing two pages of reading could happen in the five minutes before class starts. Some students reminded me that they were "super busy" with extra-curricular activities like sports, ASB, or leadership. All great activities. I shared my perception with them. They weren't near ready for the next level if they could not complete two pages of reading for homework, even with five other classes and extra-curricular activities (as if my class is less important than Government). Apparently, many students were offended by these remarks.
But I still felt that I hadn't made my point. So, here was my lesson plan for today.

7:30--Bell rings for class to start.
7:35--I walk in. (I usually have four or five students arrive well past the bell--another point I needed to make.)
7:35-7:40--Sit at my desk and check e-mail, work on lesson plans for second period, etc. By this time, a couple of students have asked what we're doing today. Just hold on I tell them.
7:40--The principal walks in to observe (I've asked him to be there, and he is aware of the lesson)
7:40-7:45--The principal walks the room, asking students what they are working on. I hear one student say, "We're waiting for Mr. Mac to instruct us." Perfect!
7:45--The principal asks me what we are doing today. "I don't have a lesson plan," is my just loud enough response. He asks why not. "Too busy; basketball open gym, district volleyball game, crying baby at home. Just didn't have time." He tells me that I have a responsibility to teach, and I better get to it.
7:48--Class discussion about how much homework is too much, why it is important to learn balance of activities, what the college life will really be like.

I don't know if my students all understood that this was a set-up, but more frightening, I don't know if they understood the point that was being made. My principal did a great job of adding to the discussion, showing that he too cares about their future.
I suppose we'll find out tomorrow whether the students got the point. I hope they did.