Thursday, September 30, 2010

You Can't Handle The Truth

So, um, Oprah has really started her final year off with a bang. The queen of talk dared to present producer David Guggenheim's Waiting For Superman documentary to the masses. What the documentary intends to do is simpy present the story of five children hoping to escape their local public school in favor of their local charter school. How dare Oprah suggest that all children should have the same opportunity to escape undeperforming schools?
As the American Federation of Teachers, the union I reluctantly belong to (and only because they will take out my dues money anyway), ramps up their level of vitriol, I cannot help but wonder whether the unions have taken over as the "party of 'no.'" The AFT is about the financial success of its membership, as are all unions. That isn't to say that unions are completely evil. We must recognize that some good comes from a union's ability to collectively bargain for its members, and we must recognize that sometimes good teachers require protection from vindictive, incompetent administrators. Yet we cannot discount the reality of the union's failure to honorably advocate for the dismissal of failing teachers, and we cannot discount the reality of the union's failure to encourage success through merit pay in place of years of service.
If failing public schools are to find success, we must follow the business world's lead and innovate. Charter schools, like those displayed in Waiting For Superman and written about in Sweating the Small Stuff by David Whitman have found success. Sure, some innovation fails. Not all charter schools succeed. But that should not stop the AFT from supporting the creation of such schools in the models that have found success. Instead, the AFT would prefer to campaign against these schools using hurt feelings as the mask for its ultimate purpose--maintaining the status quo.
We teachers are a sensitive bunch, and for good reason. We are regularly told by politicians that we are the backbone of our contry's future only to be treated as general incompetents. We take the shots when a school fails. Though President Obama is quick to remind us that he regularly preaches the importance of parental involvement, as he did with Matt Lauer, he has yet to push for legislation which holds parents accountable for poor student behavior. And as the suits create feel-good legislation to limit the discipline available to schools, we are left to manage classrooms teeming with indifference and insolence. In the end, it will be our fault when that ill-raised fool skips class, because in minds of the suits, we should have been more engaging.
I had a student not long ago who, in a College Prep English class, demanded to know why we were doing so much reading. "This is English class mister, not reading class," she scolded me. With such ignorance having been allowed to make it to 10th grade, I wonder what the AFT would have to say?
Ultimately, I will continue to support charter schools. I am proud to have been a writer for the newly opened New York City charter school, Inwood Academy for Leadership. I believe that charter schools can have success. But I also will continue to support public schools. I am proud to be teaching the quasi-urban students in my classroom. We can have success.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Since day one, my fundamental level students have heard me repeat the question, "What have you done today to get yourself into college?" I happen to believe, because I've read about successful charter schools, that my low-income Hispanic students can achieve and ultimately go to college. Because we track students, and I'm not entirely against this as you will see, some of our low-track students come to believe that they are stupid and not as intelligent as the honors students.
My goal this year has been to convince these students that they will go to college, and that, if they learn the material I teach them, they will be successful in school. The intial assessments bore out the obvious fact that a real divide exists between my fundamental and honor students. But to this point, I have been able to provide all of my students the same opportunity to interact with challenging short stories like "Hills Like White Elephants" and "A&P." I have taught the same skill sets, like identifying tone (a typically challenging skill). All of my students received the same brief formative assessment following the lesson and subsequent practice. The honor students averaged an 83%. The fundamental students averaged and 82%.
So then what is the difference? Behavior. Honor students know how to behave and will generally comply quickly when asked. Fundamental students do not. Which leads to a larger question for me. Because I am working twice as hard to teach the fundamental students (in terms of classroom management), how am going to sustain myself? When I have to break up near fights over which desk a sophomore in high school is going to sit in, and when I have to remind a student five separate times that calling another student a "faggot" is unacceptable, and when on any given day only 2/3 of the students arrive to class, will I have the energy come, say, November, to keep these scores even?
Keeping order in a school is absolutely essential, but how does that happen? I read about charter schools, of which I am a proponent, and I wonder how to transfer that order to a building in which a growing sense of chaos exists. When students receive a "conference" as a consequence for storming out of the classroom and cussing the class out, to what extent can I expect a strong academic environment capable of keeping the fundamental level students focused on college admittance? Each period I am with them, they are keenly aware of the hallway din, the students wandering with their music blaring. Eventually, that could become more luring than my lessons on literary analysis. I fear that.
There would be nothing more satisfying to me than my group of students, who so many for so long have doubted, passing the state exam, graduating, and going off to college. But what will it cost me? My sanity? My family?

Friday, September 17, 2010

You win some, you lose some.

My previous post was my rationale for a faculty t-shirt slogan--Weapons of Mass Instruction. Yes, I am aware it is edgy; but frankly, the constant political correctness and lack of entertainment in the field of education grows tedious by the day. In the end, despite a strong support from many staff members, the slogan had to be changed. The result: Instruments of Mass Instruction. Loss.
But, as of today, our staff t-shirt has been pre-ordered by over 100 of our teachers, secretaries, custodians, paraprofessionals, and kitchen staff. Win.
If you've read my blog for the past three years, you will know that the school I teach at has some issues to overcome. At times, the atmosphere can get down right demoralizing. Today, I asked a student to remove his hat. On the third, or was it fourth time, he informed me that I was a "p---- a-- n-----" and that I should go "suck a fat f---- c---". Loss. But then this evening, a parent (in front of the principal) thanked me for helping his son have his greatest academic year in English last year. Win.
Our staff is tired. That's the best way to put it. We keep losing staff and supplies, but the number of students in our classrooms keeps growing. We need to regain our mojo, our passion, our sanity. Whatever it is, it isn't there. So, we threw a tailgate party with a chili cook-off tonight before the varsity football game. Seven faculty members participated as chefs, three faculty members were judges. The number of faculty in attendance: 11. Loss. Despite such low numbers, just under 10%, we raised over $100 for the newly established Faculty Scholarship Fund. Win.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Weapons of Mass Instruction

Weapon: anything that serves to outwit or get the better of an opponent.
Mass: a considerable assemblage
Instruction: the process of imparting knowledge

Urban school settings provide a healthy dose of opposition. There are those in the community that don't believe low-income students deserve the best education possible. There exists a pervasive negativity and distrust of the school system as a whole. Teachers are, in many ways, weapons opposing those forces.
We are attempting to outwit all of that negativity; we are searching for ways to break-down the resistance towards what we know can set these students free--an education.
Our class sizes are increasing as our funding decreases. So, in many ways, the students assembling in our classrooms each day can best be defined by the word mass--as in, "the mass of people." We don't get to choose our students, and they don't get to choose us.
Instruction, or education if you prefer that term, is our goal. We are weapons of mass instruction.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Somewhat problematic

The field of education often presents somewhat problematic dilemnas--like how to spell that word. Is it dilemma or dilemna? Anyway, what makes our profession profoundly unique is the vast array of problems facing our "market." Very few parents, and fewer still of our "customers," have the the faintest idea about what will satisfy them. Even greater still are the array of solutions to our unique problems. So much so that now education theorists would like each individual student to have a uniquely customized education.
Here's my dilemna (yes, that spelling is my preferred version): two young ladies came to me following class asking which period I taught my Honors English 10 course. As all of my students from previous years know, I do not teach different material for Honors, College Prep, and Fundamental level courses. I believe that all students deserve the best chance to attend college; therefore, I give them all the same material--a college prep curriculum. However, there are serious differences between the style of teaching. More importantly, there are serious differences between the students' approach to each level.
Many of my fundamental level students do not know how to behave in the classroom. They talk out of turn, get up out of their seats, use profanity, and generally don't give a flying...well, you know. I spend entirely too much effort on getting students to "buy in." In the end, I suppose we will find some success if I can manage to get more moments of "buy in" than not.
My college prep students don't have the slightest idea of what they need to accomplish in order to attend college, but somewhere along the way a teacher or parent convinced them of the need for a college education. They generally know how to behave appropriately and generally use more appropriate language. A few are intellectually beyond themselves if true tracking were taking place. But they are not problems and so end up in a College Prep course with other students who are average to above average in ability.
The Honors, those generally rich white kids, know how to behave appropriately, know how to study, and know how to play the game. I wouldn't say their intellectual capacity on the whole is something to pull a Tom Cruise and jump on Oprah's couch about, but they are smart enough.
Anyway these two young ladies belong in a run-of-the-mill College Prep class if it were tracked appropriately and not just about the "well-behaved." But they are sensing that too many of their classmates are intellectually inferior. They are slightly bothered by the amount of time I do have to spend on classroom management.
But if I am being honest, I want them to stay in the College Prep track because, well, that is really where they belong, but more honestly, I need their influence in the College Prep class. They will get buried in an honors course with intellectually superior students. They will disappear. Yet, how can I deny that they might have a better go of it in an honors course where they are rising to the level above them?

Sunday, September 05, 2010

School has Started

Last week marked the start of the 2010-2011 school year. The thick hot air caused by the high temperatures and humidy made the start a bit of a challenge--well, I hope that is the cause of the low pre-assessment scores.
We began our string of pre-assessments with the CAPT's Reading for Information section. In my 10th Grade (Pre-College) classes, the scoring breakdown went as follows:

[Below Basic]--11

My intial response was one of despair. But the reality is that we haven't done a great job of teaching non-fiction reading skills during freshmen year. We spend a good amount of time the Response to Literature section, and so I expect those scores to reflect those efforts. Additionally, the CAPT is 10th grade test, so expecting my studetns to already earn proficiency at high rates might be a bit over-zealous!
The greatest issue, on first glance, is that our students have yet to understand the importance of using textual evidence in their constructed responses. They made broad statements, which were accurate, but failed to demonstrate their full understanding. For the 11"basic" students, had they provided textual evidence, they would have easily moved into profiency or goal.
Now I have to figure out the best way to balance my instruction between the fiction and non-fiction in a way that shows how closely connected the two genres can be.