Saturday, January 31, 2009

Seth Godin on Education

Author Seth Godin has a few purposes for school:

1. Become an informed citizen
2. Be able to read for pleasure
3. Be trained in the rudimentary skills necessary for employment
4. Do well on standardized tests
5. Homogenize society, at least a bit
6. Pasteurize out the dangerous ideas
7. Give kids something to do while parents work
8. Teach future citizens how to conform
9. Teach future consumers how to desire
10. Build a social fabric
11. Create leaders who help us compete on a world stage
12. Generate future scientists who will advance medicine and technology
13. Learn for the sake of learning
14. Help people become interesting and productive
15. Defang the proletariat
16. Establish a floor below which a typical person is unlikely to fall
17. Find and celebrate prodigies, geniuses and the gifted
18. Make sure kids learn to exercise, eat right and avoid common health problems
19. Teach future citizens to obey authority
20. Teach future employees to do the same
21. Increase appreciation for art and culture
22. Teach creativity and problem solving
23. Minimize public spelling mistakes
24. Increase emotional intelligence
25. Decrease crime by teaching civics and ethics
26. Increase understanding of a life well lived
27. Make sure the sports teams have enough players

What do you think?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

College Prep

With all of the demoralizing reports detailing the nearly 30% of high school graduates in need of remedial classes during their freshman year of college, maybe our high schools have lost touch with what matters most--skill development. I'm tempted to return to questioning the content we use in the typical English curriculum, but that topic will only distract from the more important issue. I will only add that I believe the content of our courses is important to our college preparatation track.
In Sweating the Small Stuff, David Whitman includes, Require a rigorous, college-prep curriculum, in his list of 20 habits of effective schools. To accomplish such a demanding curriculum, schools narrow their overall curriculum choices to focus on the core academics: math, science, history, english. Additionally, Whitman observes that these schools do not track and avoid offering bilingual or "formal multicultural instruction."
Of course, such simplification demands critical thought and ultimately a few questions.

1. How can a school avoid tracking when the academic levels are disparate? As an example, before the restructuring of my reading classes, I had, in one class, two students reading at the ninth grade level, three students reading below the third grade level, and five students spread between the fourth and eigth grade level.

2. How can a school overcome the tide of pressure from the public to offer a liberal arts curriculum? As and example, we at my school still offer "life skill" classes like cooking and sewing. We also offer Jewelry and Exploring the Internet. In addition to those, we have electives like Creative Writing and Journalism.

3. If a school is high school, and the students arrive highly deficient, can that school honestly implement a college-prep curriculum? As an example, of the approximately 200 incoming 9th graders this year, nearly 100 were placed into supplemental reading classes. Fifty percent in need of "catch-up" classes indicates a failure throughout the system to ensure a properly educated student.

The third question is the most baffling for me. I've taught tracked and heterogeneous courses withouth feeling too stressed about my ability to differentiate (although I think that term is a crock when it demands individual education plans for every student), and I am all for expelling the non-essential courses until a school's academic record is stellar; but I don't know how to implement--with integrity--a college-prep curriculum when so many incoming students are three or more years behind in the four academic areas.
And that lack of knowledge causes me to digress from seeking a solution because I so often read articles about failing schools--almost always high schools. The public seems to believe that students arrive at high school with all of the skills and motivation necessary to succeed; then our high schools ruin their motivation with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Algebra I, Global Studies, and Physical Science. The only saving grace of their day is P.E. and Photography.
This reality doesn't excuse low-performing high schools from holding high standards, but we have to be honest about where each school begins the process. College-prep for all is an ideal; the realities "on the ground" may dictate something else.
And yet that reality bothers me. I don't really want to teach middle school material, especially to a high school student. I shouldn't have to. And such is the struggle of the public school teacher at a low performing school.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


We were supposed to begin the Corrective Reading program yesterday; that didn't happen. In fact, not all of the students had been placed, and I hadn't received the student books.
I'm read to begin the program because I couldn't care less how prescriptive it is; if students learn to read, then let's make it happen. Though that is a bit disingenuous. I want our students to learn from the Corrective Reading, I just don't want to read the script to them.
Ultimately though, I'd like to restart this process and have it work much better. The district decided to use Corrective Reading but didn't make that choice in time to allow this year's schedule to accomodate the program. As a result, we are trying to fit the program into a schedule that isn't designed for mid-year program changes. I would have waited until next year to implement the program allowing for a seamless transition from the status quo.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Can One Teacher Sweat the Small Stuff Alone?

With only fifty pages remaining in Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism, author David Whitman has me stirring, pacing, and now typing. Now that he's reported his findings about the schools, he is discussing the twenty habits of highly effective schools. The first one, Tell students exactly how to behave and tolerate no disorder (260), has me asking one question: how do I do that?
He writes that urban schools suffer from disorder. I agree. I see it every day. He commands, "Stop the visible signs of disorder...graffiti on toilet stalls, rowdy hallways, dirty cafeteria..." (260). And I agree. There are gang signs all over our bathroom walls--and on Friday I stood at a urinal with the letters R.G.K., which I don't think stand for this RGK Foundation. I enjoyed using the bathroom that day because I couldn't stop laughing at the irony of where these young geniuses placed their proud insignia.
Okay, so how do I stop the disorder? I can only control my actions and hope to influence other teacher, but I have to teach a class, I can't stand in the hall after the bell rings and chide students who haven't made it to their rooms yet.
Plus, the loving without logic state of Connecticut wants to hinder our ability to not tolerate such behaviors. What are we to do when our own state wants to limit the discipline choices we have at our disposal? And more specifically, what am I to do when our administration tracks how many referrals I write, and make it more difficult to remove a disruptive student from class? So what can I do?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Boo Radley

My friend and colleague, John Foley, has struck a nerve with the traditionalists and stubborn gatekeepers of high society by daring to challenge our traditional high school English curriculum. Heck, even Joanne Jacobs posted about it, which is a sign that you've written something worthy. Anytime a post of mine appears on her site, I light a victory cigar a la Red Auerbach.
First, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was ninth on my list of favorite novels--a year ago. Somehow, To Kill a Mockingbird wasn't on my radar that day, but it should have been.
But Foley's challenge of our current English curriculums has validity, even if the stuffy elitists don't want to entertain the notion that these "classics" can't be replaced.
The first question we must ask is this: What is the purpose of an English class? Almost four years ago, John Foley asked us the same question, which prompted a blog post here at The Daily Grind. Ultimately, we must answer this question if we are to satisfactorily address the challeneges before us.
We must acknowledge that today's students have far more to distract them than in 1992 when I started high school. Our students today have instant access to a phenomenal amount of information with only a few keystrokes. With so many distractions, we teachers must adapt to our target audience. We must capture their attention.
But it all goes back to the first question. What is the purpose of an English class? If you believe that our primary purpose is to expose our students to the wealth of literary greatness that Twain and Shakespeare offer, then yes, we must continue to teach our students these classics, if only to expose them to the culture of literary greatness.
Yet, if you answer that first question differently, by putting a priority on skill development over content, then it will not matter to you whether a student reads Twain or the appallingly simple Bluford Series. Maybe the skill development approach is symbolized through Boo Radley. Boo just wanted to be kind to people; he held no malice. On the other hand, maybe the traditionalists are the territorial bluejays, the Bob Ewells of the modern English classroom.
In the final analysis, we must consider the climate of our educational system. One that continues to emphasize skill. Yet, we must also look beyond the test to our higher education systems which still expect a classic understanding of core knowledge. Ultimately, I would prefer to engage students and focus on skills. If that means dropping the classics in favor of modern texts, then we must adapt.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Ever since my childhood, those who have helped to shape my future have stressed the importance of patience. Before we had a microwave, I wanted instant results--and not because I don't want to work hard. I am a New Englander with a Puritan work ethic permeating my blood cells. So when I hear those lofty and patient proverbs directing us to fight the good fight because sometime, somewhere our effort will pay off, I want to puke. Heck, if I'm going to exert all of this effort, the least I can get out of it is the satisfaction of seeing the end result--and the sooner the better.
Yesterday, one of my students reminded me of the impatience which I inherited from my grandfather. Maria has issues. She's a little to confident in the way that insecure people project themselves to the outside world. She's smart enough academically and brilliant enough on the streets. I wouldn't mess with her if I didn't know her.
She likes to hold court by telling stories of various people she's knocked out, various teachers she's shredded, various students she's threatened. Her stories entertain my class far more than our latest practice in summarizing a text.
More than once she's derailed my class with her shrill silliness, and yet I just can't hate her. Oh, lest I be struck dead for lying, I want to divest myself of any interest in her success: It's too much effort.
Maria reads well enough. Her placement in my reading class is more likely a result of avoidance than actual reading difficulty. How is someone going to get an actual reading ability when Maria decides she's not going to try? It won't happen.
And yet....
There are moments when Maria is angelic, dare I say. Seriously. Yesterday as she focused intently on her mid-term, I thought: Wow. That is the most beautiful sight I've seen all day. It was truly a moment of beauty, and it caught me off guard--mostly because Jose and Sarah were acting obnoxious and making me want to just walk out and never come back.
Then, Maria had a moment of impatience, much like me:
Maria: Aahhh, this shit takes too long.
Me: You are doing a fantastic job; keep working hard.
Maria: I hate these tests; they never end.
Me: That's true, they can take a while. But that's a good thing. The longer the passages get, the higher your reading level is going to be, so stay focused.

She kept going. She finished. I felt like more needed to be said. She listened with the embarrassed look of self-doubt. I told her how much fun it was to watch her succeed, how she can do so well when she wants to. I told her that I am proud of her success this semester, and how, for as much as she drives me up the wall sometimes, I want her in my class again next semester. She smiled at that. Didn't say anything, just smiled.
As the bell rang, I heard her say, "I'm gunna fuckin' say somethin' to that bitch."

Damn. No Hollywood ending today.


Before returning to education themed posting, I want to counter the disgraceful people in yesterday's post with the classy letter to Sasha and Malia Obama written by Jenna and Barabara Bush.
The twins finish the letter with the following:

And finally, although it's an honor and full of so many extraordinary opportunities, it isn't always easy being a member of the club you are about to join. Our dad, like yours, is a man of great integrity and love; a man who always put us first. We still see him now as we did when we were seven: as our loving daddy. Our Dad, who read to us nightly, taught us how to score tedious baseball games. He is our father, not the sketch in a paper or part of a skit on TV. Many people will think they know him, but they have no idea how he felt the day you were born, the pride he felt on your first day of school, or how much you both love being his daughters. So here is our most important piece of advice: remember who your dad really is.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Judge not, lest ye be judged.

I am proud to have voted for Obama. I am thrilled to have him as my President. I have no regrets about voting for Bush. I am grateful to have had him as my President. And though I know I should not judge, the people in the included video are losers who lack class and respect. They represent all that is wrong with this country and all that I hope President Obama can reduce to nothing more than a laughable din.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Yes, We Can

In his second inaugural address, Licoln said:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

So many will wax poetic on this historic day, and I suppose such an event can only be spoken of in the mysterious language of poetry. And there are none more poetic than Martin Luther King Jr., and none more correct when he says:

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

Each year, we retell the cutting story of Dr. King to our students who are increasingly growing up in a world which seems so different from that of Dr. King's. My daughter at two and half will live in a world in which a Black president is not such an historic existence. It will simply be. A fact to learn. A reality.

President Obama connects two worlds, that of my father and that of my daughter. My father knows of Montgomery and Birmingham and Brown because that was the news of the day. My Tate will know something new, something we are yet to experience.

"Yes, We can," is how President Obama said it. And, for the sake of my daughter, I hope it's true. For our sake, I hope that President Obama can be transcendent, because God knows we need it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New Look

I don't know why I just ditched the old layout, but I did. In fact, I didn't even worry about my blog roll (many links were outdated anyway).
So, I'm looking for new blogging friends to put in my links. If you are a regular or irregular reader, please drop a note in the comments section answering this question:

What do you want to read from an active teacher?

Over time, I'll start adding to my blog roll again. Be patient with me.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Oh, the Change theme...

First, let me thank all of you who read The Daily Grind. I hope that this year will offer you thought provoking, humorous, and honest reflections from this English teacher.
This morning I sauntered over to John Foley's website because I hadn't stopped by in a few weeks. Mr. Foley and I taught together during my Seattle days, and I wish he were still a physical colleague instead of a virtual one. He was an underrated teacher at the school, not gaining the same press as some of our more notorious counterparts. His list of published books appears on this page of his website. I envy his publications.
Recently, he wrote as a guest columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer advocating for the removal of long-suffering texts like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from modern English curriculums. Some of the commentor believed it be satire, which wouldn't surprise me, and others called for Foley's firing.
Whether satire or honesty, the idea isn't void of merit. When it comes to the High School English Class Canon, there isn't any divine guidance. However, the following are the basic and standard texts throughout high school:
9th--Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men
10th--Julius Caesar, To Kill a Mockingbird
11th--The Great Gatsby
12th--Macbeth, Hamlet, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales

Foley raises the simple question, why? Why do we insist that students read these texts as part of our classroom curriculum? Why can't such classics be part of the additional reading that our college bound students often must choose from? Why shouldn't we find more modern, accessible texts with similar themes for our students today?
And let's take it a step farther: do our Math, History, and Science classes need updating as well?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Gritty Teaching

Most of my regular readers (the two of you), know that I've become obsessed with following D.C. Public Schools. Their academic tribulations mirror on a grander scale the difficulties of the school I teach at.
Columnist Marc Fisher has another examination of one of D.C.'s schools. As with almost every article written about D.C. schools, the discussion centers on which reform method will work. Consequently, Chancellor Rhee's hard line tactics are called into question. Fisher's final statement, "At Truesdell, in part because of the chancellor's confrontational ways and in part in spite of them, it feels like a revolution is brewing," sums up the challenges with any reform model.
Acknowleding those challenges, I want to focus this morning on a two words from Fisher's title: Teacher's Grit. Of course grit brings to mind earthy features like sand and rock connoting determination and indefatigableness. It is a quality that often gets overlooked when evaluating a teacher's effectiveness. And this is where any conversation about teacher effectiveness must take into account the setting. We must be honest about the differences between a school with only 72 of 1438 students on free or reduced lunch and a school with 498 of 2153 students on free and reduced lunch. Two schools, separated by 6 miles, face different challenges and therefore should not be evaluated equally.
As a baseball fan, I recognize the importance of differentiating pure talent from pure grit. Some players make in the majors because they were gifted with extreme talent--they can hit a 95 mph fastball 465 feet; they can slap a 90 mph slider to the opposite field for a double; they can throw that 95 mph fastball and 90 mph slider 100 times a game with accuracy. Other players make it in baseball because they are gritty--determined to make up for their perceived lack of talent (comparatively speaking) by mastering the intangibles, the not-so-flashy aspect of the game. You won't see too many of those gritty players on the highest paid list, but you wouldn't want to try and win without them.
In some ways teaching success is like that. To succeed in a low SES school requires a certain amount of grit, pure determination to overcome the obstacles presented by situations out of your control. Success at these schools is difficult, but not impossible. This isn't to suggest that teaching at a high SES school is easy, though when you are handed talent, success should come easily to you--much like success came easy to Ken Griffey Jr. He still had to practice, work hard, and focus, but he had less distance to travel along the success continuum.
And the truth of the matter is that public education, in the all inclusive sense, needs both types of teachers. We need teachers who might not have a Master's in History, but can grit out the daily grind of a difficult school environment as much as we need the teacher with a Mater's in History to refine the skills of the already advantaged.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Timed Tests

Today while monitoring a study hall, I examined the two released components for the CAPT's reading test. I read the story, eight pages. The test booklet recommends thirty minutes to read the story before recommending forty minutes to answer the four essay prompts (a passing score would a solid page of written material).
I then thought about my students, many of whom began the year reading at the fourth to fifth grade level. Most of my students balk at more than two pages of reading in one session.
Then, I recalled the Lexile test that takes upwards of forty minutes for some of my readers. I don't limit the time because I want them to do their best. They respond to the "lengthy" Lexile test by taking a quick break when they begin to lose focus and then continue testing. The results have demonstrated decent progress from the start of the year.
But what will happen when these students who could achieve at a higher level on the CAPT given more than 70 minutes have to rush through the reading before writing four essay prompts?
If the State of Connecticut is interested in assessing learning (standards) then the amount of time it takes to demonstrate that learning shouldn't matter. Should it?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Back to School Adventures

Our first day after break culminated with a wandering hallway student breaking the showcase window outside my room. It had been replaced four days before break--a five day life span. I'm shattered.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Cabin Fever

Yesterday I said to my wife, "I don't really want to go back tomorrow." It stems from lacking interest in the scripted reading program I'll have to teach in a few weeks. Many of my students angrily balked at the program when I tried to demonstrate for them what class will look like when we implement the program.

But after gearing myself up for the return, and expecting a 90 minute delay, school was cancelled.

Now, I want to go back. It must be something about wanting what I can't have. Childish.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

21st Century Skills

The Washington Post, whose education section I read every day, has an article examining the buzz-phrase in my title. As with anything of importance, there seems to be a great deal of differentiated thinking. So, The Daily Grind will attempt to synthesize all the current research on these skills and narrow them down to the ever effective Big Three.

1. Don't Be an Idiot. Rod Blagojevich serves as our model for why being an idiot is counterproductive. Sure, the man has cajones, but actual intelligence, not so much.

2. Read the Fine Print. The subprime lending debacle has cost me a pretty penny. We bought a house above our means and didn't sell soon enough. As a result, we live in Connecticut with a home in Seattle-metro that we can't sell because the house is no longer worth what it was two months before we put it on the market. Oh wait, that makes me an idiot. Damn! You can send all donations to...

3. Don't Join a Political Party. Seriously. One has to be an idiot to sell oneself out completely to a political organization. Think for yourself. Think for yourself. Think for yourself. If you rely on someone else to determine your politics you deserve the consequences.

So I guess 21st Century Skills can be narrowed to one: Don't Be an Idiot.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Evaluations that Matter

Welcome back to classes to all of you who must returned to your classes today. We do not return until Wednesday in honor of Three Kings Day. After asking twenty questions in my previous post, I continued to dwel on what matters most in evaluations; which is another way to ask "what exactly should evaluators evaluate?"
If we are going to receive the best feedback possible, evaluations ought to be created to address the varying tasks of each content area. The best science classes should not look the same as the best english classes. The two subjects are too different to receive the same treatment.
Whenever I get to teach an English class again, instead of being banished to the monotony of the Corrective Reading classes, I want to be evaluated, especially in a formative assessment way, in three areas. Though I am not a strong supporter of students choosing what they want to learn, I do support teachers, professionals, having the chance to receive specific feedback in the areas of greatest concern to them.
Never in my six years of teaching has an administrator or department leader examined the way in which I assess an essay. When I taught Pre-College English at my previous school, my greatest fear was that I was not preparing my students for college level writing. Perhaps my feedback was not focused on the areas that mattered most. Perhaps my critiques lacked depth. Now, more than ever, written feedback needs evaluation.
Because many observation protocols focus on lesson sequence, objectives, and other subtly important criteria, many teachers avoid teaching lessons which have even a hint of meandering.
I have always taught that understanding literature is a selfish task. What matters most is not how someone fifty years interpreted the characters but how the individual creates meaning from the story. Therefore discussions are essential to my classroom. I intend these discussions to provoke thought, to encourage dialogue, and to generate more questions. Yet, to this day, I have no understanding of my success in these areas.
True, I should have had the courage in the previous years to risk such a lesson plan during an observation. And it is a risk. Anyone who has tried to lead a discussion with a class has experienced the devastating silence because no one read the selection. You've listened to students say the most absurd remarks because they confused characters or events. It is a risk, but one that we need to take. Questioning that provokes great class discussions should be evaluated.
Thirdly, I feel like I lack effective long-term planning. As last year concluded, and before I knew I would only be reading a script, I began to focus on my long-term planning on two levels. The first is sequencing an entire semester's worth of curriculum. Back in the Pacific Northwest, I finally felt comfortable with my year's sequence after the third year. Should it take that long? The second is the unit plan. I felt I needed to improve at coordinating each lesson to build towards the next so that, at the end of the unit, students could clearly articulate the "Big Ideas" or "Essential Questions."
The 50 minute observation with strict protocol does not allow for these areas to be fully observed. Of course, this makes merit pay even more difficult than ever.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Teacher Evaluations (20 Questions)

Earlier this year after a meeting with the district's literacy coordinator, I was asked to join the Teacher Evaluation Committee. Because I have a desire to move in the direction of administration, and because I love learning, I gladly accepted. To prepare for the first meeting, I read four Teacher Evaluation Handbooks from schools that vary in demographics. As an enhancer, I began reading Teacher Evaluation To Enhance Professional Practice by Charlotte Danielson and Thomas L. McGreal.
Having never previously explored the issue, I have found a wonderful accessory to the other book I am currently reading, Sweating the Small Stuff by David Whitman.
While I am exploring the issue of teacher evaluations, I am finding more questions than answers.
While I continue to read, I will leave some questions here for my colleagues and education enthusiasts or antagonists to answer:
1. What is the purpose of a teacher evaluation for a non-tenured teacher?
2. What is the purpose of a teacher evaluation for a tenured teacher?
3. What does good teaching look like?
4. Does good teaching look the same at different grade levels? In different content areas? At different schools?
5. Should teacher evaluations be more focused on student outcomes than teacher behaviors?
6. What teacher behviors should be evaluated?
7. To what extent should self-reflection or self-assessment be considered in an evaluation?
8. To what extent can formative assessments be used in teacher evaluations?
9. How much differentiation should exist in teacher evaluations? (Most districts have three tiers--novice, experienced, needing assistance)
10. If evlautions are based on a standard, then is it fair to treat non-tenured teachers differently simply because of years of service? Meaning, can't a first or second year teacher outperform a tenured teacher who typically has a less intensive evaluation process?
11. How formulaic should the evaluation criteria be?
12. Who should evaluate teachers?
13. Are student surveys (much like a university would use) worthwhile in teacher evaluations?
14. Is peer review a worthwhile activity in teacher evaluations?
15. Should new teachers be given a lesser teaching load?
16. Should the formal evaluation process extend to tenured teachers on an every year basis?
17. What types of alternative evaluations would be beneficial to teachers? Independent projects? Collaborative projects?
18. Should teacher evaluations include journals?
19. Do unannounced visits provide a more accurate depiction of the classroom?
20. How much would artifact gathering (lesson or unit plans, assignment guides, rubrics, etc.) help in evaluating a teacher?