Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Effective Schools

Researchers who have studied effective schools have found that such schools possess the following characteristics: (1) a clear sense of purpose, (2) core standards within a rigorous curriculum, (3) high expectations, (4) commitment to educate all students, (5) a safe and orderly learning environment, (6) strong partnerships with parents, and (7) a problem solving attitude (The Trouble with Black Boys, Noguera pg. 36).

For many educational leaders, from the superintendent to the principal, today's current challenges are much like navigating an enormous ship through the rough seas of the north Atlantic. Annual Yearly Progress and achievement gaps pose serious threats to the success of the journey. The first characteristic of successful schools is a clear sense of purpose, or in other words, a well planned course navigated by the leaders.
John Maxwell writes in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership ,"...but leaders who navigate do even more than control the direction in which they and their people travel. They see the whole trip in their minds before they leave the dock. They have vision for getting to their destination, they understand what it will take to get there, they know who they'll need on the team to be successful, and they recognize the obstacles long before they appear on the horizon" (38). The best businesses recognize that change begins with the leader. And that leader must provide a clear purpose and vision for the organization.
Many schools and districts rely on the universal goal of educating our students in a safe and positive environment. But, we have failed to differentiate this purpose to address the community specific obstacles which exist in those communities.
More specifically, districts which face greater challenges need leaders who can recognize all of the obstacles and not just the obvious ones. Here are two examples of obstacles that I don't believe my district leaders recognize:
1. This week, our students are required to complete a CAPT like test in each of their core classes as part of graduation requirements in our school. Multiple teachers have shared common experiences in trying to get this requirement accomplished. One teacher told of a student who informed her that he wasn't going to take "this fucking piece of shit test" because he didn't want to.
2. During a math class, another student refused to move seats when the teacher asked him to move because he was talking. He threw his papers on the floor and also went into a tirade full of expletives.
Both examples indicate the level of maturity and life skills many of our students lack. I can attest to all of the ways in which we as teachers need to improve, a point our administrators and central office readily make. I agree with them on most areas. What our adminstrators and central office don't readily point out is that too many of our high school students disrupt and distract from the good teaching that is happening throughout the building. Ultimately, we feel that the real obstacles are being minimalized.
The end result is that we don't buy into their vision or purpose. Because our voices, our realities are not being heard, we as a staff find it difficult to buy into the purpose of our district. And, to be honest, I couldn't articulate our focused purpose because it hasn't been a shared or repeated purpose.
Like any organization or community, schools will find success when members work together and recognize the importance of each part. Effective schools begin with a clearly defined purpose in which the various parts of the system recognize and want to participate in.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Be afraid, very afraid.

Jay Mathews from the Washington Post has an editorial on Chancellor Rhee, the love her or hate her leader of D.C.'s public schools.
It's difficult, and perhaps unfair, to truly analyze Chancellor Rhee's hard nosed and wildly imaginative approach. From the outside, I'll admit to a fascination with her approach. She's brash enough to take major risks, smart enough to make them happen, and crazy enough to believe she can outwit the system.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Right To Choose

I remember it from my childhood, the commercial for Tootsie Pops. The question has been answered here. Today, I am wondering, how many positive interactions does it take to convince a student to change his current course of action?
In chapter two of The Trouble with Black Boys, Pedro Noguera examines structural and cultural explanations of behavior. The structuralists believe that "individuals are...products of their environment, and changes in individual behavior are made possible by changes in the structure of opportunity" (24). This thought process means that "...holding an individual responsible for his or her behavior makes little sense since behavior is shaped by forces beyond the control of any particular individual" (24).
On the other hand, the culturalists explain behavior "as a product of beliefs, values, norms, and socialization. Cultural explanations of behavior focus on the moral codes that operate within particular families, communities, or groups" (25). As a result, the culturalist believe that unless we chance the "culture of poverty," any money or programs offered to schools of poverty will fail.
When I examine the behaviors of my school, these two philosphies battle for top dog. I recognize that without the societal structures--affordable housing, access to healthcare, or an honest venue to be heard--many of my students will continue to approach school with hopelessness. Why bother if the man is trying to hold them down? But while I recognize that structure affects my students, I see the need to affect the culture of poverty from which they come. Unless parents value education or students make better choices about how they live their life, success will continue to elude them.
And so the question becomes important. What does it take on all levels (halls of the school to halls of Congress) to address the structure and culture of poverty stricken schools? How many times do we have to demonstrate that we are truly concerned with them before our toughest students make the choice to improve their behavior?
And for me and you, the classroom teachers, to what extent can we influence our most disaffected students?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Something Bigger

In his wildly successful book, Rick Warren reminds us that "It' not about me." He tells us that we were meant for a bigger purpose than self-service. Today while reading Pedro Noguera's book, I flipped the book closed and pushed it away in frustration.
Chapter 11 discusses holding schools accountable. Not a problem with me. I'm all for ensuring that we perform at the highest level. What infuriated me was Noguera's discussion about local funding and social capital. He reminded me how the obvious disparities in public school funding continue to hamper the most economically depressed districts.
This is not a commentary on how money solves every problem facing schools like mine. Instead, it is an attack on the polarized views of the two mindsets. Those who believe money infused into these failing schools are wrong. And those who believe labeling and closing failing schools because of test results are equally wrong.
Noguera writes, the " children receive is directly related to the ability of parents to generate social capital" (199). The parents of students attending low performing schools are often lacking the confidence or know-how to demand changes.
One of the glaring differences between succeeding schools and failing schools is the voice of the parents as expressed at Board of Education meetings and election days. Who is responsible for educating the parents, for providing them with the social capital to influence their local school?

At the moment, I want to take a leave of absence from the classroom and become a community organizer.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

When it rains...

What do you tell an intern after a her learning activity deteriorates into random choas peppered with Carlos Mencia racial humor? And then, how do you answer her question of "How do you do that?" after observing me teach the "dancing class" at a frantic pace in which the young freshmen argued like third graders and answered all questions at a volume appropriate for a DMX concert?
I wish I had the answers. Instead, I went to therapy with my assistant principal. "This effort is not sustainable," I told him. "How do you handle all of this," I continued.
I'll leave it at that. My promise: The next post will not be about my classroom experiences.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

If a teacher talks in a classroom and no one listens...

There are many more important topics this blog should focus on today, but I have to share a story instead.
Today in my reading class, we focused our learning objectives on identify cause and effect relationships as well as identifying problems and solutions. As with many students in underperforming schools, and for that matter, performing schools, complain about their schools. My students are no different. I regularly am reminded that school sucks or that teachers suck or that reading sucks. So, I figured we'd discuss this topic in relationship to our learning objectives.
I put the following on the board:

Problem: WGASH is ineffective (not good) at teaching its students.

Then, I asked them to think about and write down as many causes for our school's ineffectiveness. After a few minutes, I asked them to share their thoughts.

Of my nine students in the room, only three participated actively. Three sat indifferently. Three chose to talk and then practice their dance moves.
So there I was, torn between what approach to take in regaining engagement. I didn't want to lose the three who were participating, but the three talking and dancing were not responding to my directive statements. As I tried to keep the discussion going and attempt proximity with the three non-participants, the three engaged students began to falter. They were distracted. When I verbally tried to redirect the three dancers, they ignored me. And when I say they ignored me, I mean that they did not even acknowledge I had spoken to them. I then attempted planned ignoring, but by that time, there was no chance of having a discussion.

On the way home, I told the story to my wife. I heard myself saying that I must suck as a teacher. But that would contradict the anectdotal evidence from throughout the day when many at risk students stopped by my room to check in and give a fist bump. How can I have a positive impact on some of the most challenging students in our school and then walk into my classroom only to get ignored?
My wife said, "Well, it just shows that when you try to teach them, get them to learn something, you are the bad guy. But in the hallway, you can just be you."
I wonder how much truth there is in that. What extent of my trouble engaging some students in my classes is simply because I am trying to teach them reading skills?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Climate Change

I've written before about school climate and the effect that we as teachers can have on influencing that climate. As I continue to read Pedro Noguera's book, The Trouble with Black Boys, I continue to believe, and am encouraged to believe, that we have an ability to change the atmosphere in our buildings.
Most schools, I believe, have a positive atmosphere in which students feel safe, involved, and respected to the extent that a teenager can understand respect. Yet, at too many of our urban schools, students and teachers struggle to find common feelings of safety, involvement, and respect.
One of my reading classes fiished their test much earlier than expected, though grades turned out to be poor. Curious about how my students feel about our school, I chose to spend the additional time reading from Noguera's book and allowing my students to freely talk about our school. I structured the discussion to fit the reading skills we had just been tested on: Cause and Effect. I provided the effect: WGASH has been ineffective. They were to provide the causes.
Initially my students were unwilling to speak. They told me I talked too much (meaning I read to them for too long), and they gave obvious and vague answers like "School sucks."
When pressed with further questions, and identifying that I really wanted to hear from them--I closed the door to the hall--they finally began to speak. Here were the four causes they provided:

1. Too many native Spanish speakers don't know enough English to get by in classes. [One girl told a story about a friend in one of her classes who is struggling because she never understands the teacher due to the language barrier]

2. Teachers don't speak Spanish. [I asked us all to consider what it would look like if during instruction our teachers spoke English, but in the other times we spoke Spanish]

3. The building is dirty. Things are broken. The heat is either too much or not enough.

4. Teachers are lazy. [They had trouble explaining what they meant.]

The first three are very true. I believe that we need more funds to effectively teach English to our Puerto Rican students who arrive without the English proficiency to succeed. I believe that our professional development time shouldn't be focused on DDDM. Instead, we should be learning how to speak Spanish, something that over 50% of our student do. I believe that our building is dirty, broken, and not set up to make students feel like we care. All three of these are within our control and accurate assessments.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Latent Cynic

Let me confess. Despite regularly searching out new books and new thoughts about education, I always approach "research based" theories with one cynical question at the forefront of my mind: Good ideas, but how does it really look in our schools? It isn't that the many ideas are irrelevant or even ridiculous in nature; instead, the ideas make perfect sense, but authors tend to forget the reality of everyday survival in most underperforming schools. Let me see the author put all of the thoughts into action, and then I will not be so cynical.
My latest endeavor into education fixes comes from Pedro Noguera's The Trouble with Black Boys...And other reflections on race, equity, and the future of public education. As any of my regular readers know, I teach at an oddly urban school tucked into the hills of farm country. And although the majority of my students are Puerto Rican, the book's focus on race and equity are applicable to where I teach.
Though I've only read the first 33 pages, I've found Noguera's thought process to be logical and generally void of the usual invective tone used by education reform writers. He is one of the first reform writers who admits to the dichotmous nature of any reform efforts:

Rather than serving as a source of hope and opportunity, schools are sites where Black males are marginalized and stigmatized. Consistently, schools that serve Black males fail to nurture, support, or protect them. In school, Black males are more likely to be labeled as behavior problems and less intelligent even while they are still very young. Black males are also more likely to be punished with severity, even for minor offenses, for violating school rules, often without regard for their welfare. They are more likely to be excluded from rigorous classes and prevented from accessing educational opportunities that might otherwise support and encourage them (22).

At this pointb my blood pressure is rising. What about the student? The parents? The community as a whole? You really can't believe that all schools are targeting Black males? But Noguera continues:

However, changing academic outcomes and countering the risks experienced by Black males is not simply a matter of developing programs to provide support or bringing an end to unfair educational policies and practices. Black males often adopt behaviors that make them complicit in their own failure. It is not just that they are more likely to be punished or placed in remedial classes, it is also that they are more likely to act out in the classroom and to avoid challenging themselves academically (22).

Ah, sweet relief. The latent cynic in me was nearly brought above the surface until Noguera speaks the truth. As a reader of education reform books, and as a classroom practioner, I want to better serve the struggling students in my room and in my halls. But many good messages get lost because the author fails to recognize that ultimately, the students must take action. Yes, there are ways we need to improve our schools; we need to understand our students better, and we need to pay attention to what the research is saying. Yet, we cannot ever forget the role of the student in any successful reform theory.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Moment of Grace

One of the two great English professors I had in college taught me to love Flannery O'Conner's strange world of grace. Professor Young loved to help us understand that in life we are often offered such strange moments of grace which we can accept or deny.
In a post I wrote about leading a professional development session, I came under intense scrutiny for the self-righteousness of that post and a post about the 10 Most Annoying Staff Members. In the ensuing comments, Ms. Ungerle challenged my purpose for teaching. She pointed out that many of my recent posts boil with disdain for the building I teach in and fester with a lack of belief in my current lot of students. Her observations are not without merit.
The post before this one admits that I am floundering in a funk of epic proportion. I am tired. Spent. I find myself regularly wondering if this career is worth my effort. Teaching in a diseased, and that really is the word to describe the environment, school has caused me to question my ability, my dedication, and my purpose. Coach Brown and Ms. V offered their support, which is part of why I blog--to remember that I am fallible and that I need encouragement as much as my students.
So it came as a moment of grace when I opened Nathan Miller's Teaching in Circles. I am profoundly jealous of his memoir because he was able to put into a book what I've been ruminating for the last month. But more importantly, his story was exactly what I needed at the moment. Has it navigated me out of the doldrums, probably not. Yet, it brought me comfort.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Funk

During the first five years of my teaching career, I have enjoyed the daily grind of teaching in the classroom. Everything from unit planning to classroom management has captured my attention. For someone who tends towards the big picture, I have been more detailed oriented in the classroom than in any other part of my life. When the inevitable slumps happened, I recovered quickly and enthusiastically. Never did I come off a break or day off saying I don't want to teach today.
This morning I said it. Last Thursday morning following a teacher in-service day, I said it.
By nature I am restless. I like to move from one adventure to another which makes me somewhat nervous about this current funk. Perhaps I've sailed into the doldrums of my career. At times this year has been more chaotic than ever, with the halls rumbling rough with violence and anger. There have been moments where I've sailed quickly towards a professional goal only to stall out into listlessness.
There is a part of me that feels ready to move on to the next challenge--administration. But the timing doesn't seem right. I live in Connecticut, but have yet to sell the house in Seattle. I have a two and a half year old, and we would like another. Now doesn't seem to be the time to add into that equation a series of classes full of stimulating and complex ideas.
The five classes that I teach are the most challenging behavioral studies yet. Additionally, I am set to receive the new Corrective Reading curriculum, but the district isn't set to give it to me yet. When will this happen? No one at the building level seems to know.
So, this afternoon sitting at Starbucks, waiting for my wife to finish her staff meeting, Mr. McNamar of the Daily Grind is in the teaching doldrums. And yes, I did just refer to myself in the third person, which will make an anonymous commenter from a previous post even more sure that I am self-centered.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Superintendent

As I continue to read about leadership, my latest excursion is The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary, the question from yesterday's post about atmosphere remains unanswered. Additionally, I am trying to compare educational roles to the business roles. The Superintendent would seem to be the CEO.
The CEO is responsible for casting the vision, defining the mission, building the executive team, and creating the culture of the organization. In a similar vein, the Superintendent provides the vision and the mission while bringing senior leadership--including the principals--together. Ultimately, it is the Superintendent who must create a culture of success within the system. When a school's culture grows restless or downright negative, it is the Superintendent who is responsible for changing the atmosphere.
Joseph Michelli, author of The Starbucks Experience, writes: When...disconnect exists, it is usually because senior management has failed to demonstrate to staff members the contructive impact they have on those they serve (20).
The current climate within the building I teach is bordering on downright negative. Teachers are being forced to attend more meetings and professional development but have yet to see how that impacts our students. Poorly organized meetings focused on Data Driven Decision Making have failed to produce the effect intended. This isn't to say that this new focus on student achievement is without merit, and it is easy for senior leadership to assume that test scores went up last year because of these teams. Unfortunately, the gap between our intended target of these data teams and our already succeeding students grew by a ridiculous amount.
Secondly, teachers who were placed on grade level teams and asked to meet regularly to plan lessons and discuss methods for helping students have been given the same amount of duties as the other teachers in the building who do not have the same responsibilities as the team teachers.
Thirdly, the pay level in the district does not allow young single teachers, a growing demographic, to live comfortably in this high cost state of Connecticut. As a result they are having to pick up jobs with tutoring services, after-school programs, and package stores in order to suppor their habit of teaching. This is not what is in the best interest of students.
In the final analysis, such conditions are obviously negative and ultimately the responsibility of the Superintendent. While it remains true that many underperforming districts need to address the instructional weaknesses which exist, it also remains equally true that those weaknesses will never be addressed correctly if the staff is not engaged in the process. The demanding leader, ones like Chancellor Rhee in Washington DC, might opt for the hard nosed approach which means staff gets fired. I'm in favor of firing poorly performing teachers. However, the building atmosphere and culture must be a positive one if such leaders wish to fill those newly empty classrooms with professionals capable of creating classroom success.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


In the past I've ruminated about the importance of atmosphere in the success of educating our students. Such questions inevitably receive answers encouraging us to focus on what we can control--lesson plans, assessment, and classroom management skills.
These responses, while absolutely true in their own right, miss an essential component to influencing individuals. Human nature relies heavily on our emotional responses when confronted with any situation. This truth is evident in our schools across the country. That isn't to say we need to drop millions on remodelling, but we must at least admit that environment is important.
Control what you can control. The reality of public education is that we don't make a profit, and therefore we cannot save up funds to enhance the school atmosphere. However, we can create interactions which severely influence how our students view their time with us.
In the past two weeks, the atmosphere in my building has ranged from controlled chaos to nearly riotous. I get the sense that something has to give.
What does it take to address the toxicity in a school's atmosphere?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Other Side

Two weeks ago, I met with my observing adminstrator to discuss my goals as a teacher. I'm sure he expected to hear about lesson planning or classroom management. Instead, I told him there was nothing as a teacher I could improve on, then adding that it is hard to improve as a teacher when I will be reading the Corrective Reading script to my students. I wanted to gain experience with administrative concerns. And he went for it.
Today, as part of our day long professional development, I taught three 50 minute sessions on Marzano's Effective Teaching Strategies. I focused on Reinforicing Effort and Providing Recognition.
The experience still fascinates me. I was reminded of the 10 Most Annoying Staff Members as I stood before my peers, attempting to not waste their time as so many PD's do.
In the end, I enjoyed teaching my peers; I felt successful, and I received positive feedback. But I learned that it isn't easy, this skill of training teachers. We are a negative bunch, a bit too paranoid, and often unwilling to examine our practice. We need to change this.

Monday, October 06, 2008

New Class Offerings

Here at WGASH, I am proposing four new electives to be offered.

Wandering 101:
Students will be trained in simple navigation techniques to bolster their love of hallway sight-seeing. Techniques will include, but are not limited to, pack wandering, planner out wandering, and bathroom wandering. No compass is necessary for this class because we encourage the randomness that wandering offers.

Avoidance 201:
Students will be trained in research based techniques to assist in avoiding potential threats to wandering like security, phantom administrators, and the occasional teacher who pops out of their classroom. Each session will include feet-on training in both speed and agility. A strong emphasis will be placed on prepartion and planning, as those are the difference between the untrained wandering and the advanced Avoidance skills (Prerequisite: Wandering 101).

Pleading 301:
Students will learn that, while avoidance is purposeful, we will eventually be confronted by someone. At this point, students must have the skills necessary to plead their case with the confronting party. Phrases like, "I'm going to the nurse," or "My class is right around the corner," will have a great impact on a student's ability to plead for leniency. Students will also learn to feign culpability in an effort to escape the punishment for class skipping. (Prerequisite: Avoiding 201)

Defiance 401:
When all else fails, students must have the skills necessary to cope with the few times they might actually be called out on their skipping. Outright defiance skills include cussing in two or more langugaes, put-downs, and sprinting. This is a lab course and will take the place of any lab science course the student may have skipped already. (Prerequisite: Pleading 301)