Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Two Deep Breaths

My daughter, now toddlerTate, has begun to exert her will through minor tantrums and crocodile tears. In those moments, we remind her to take two deep breaths to help calm herself down.
Tonight, Mr. McNamar needs to take two deep breaths to help calm himself down. I need to refocus on what I can control--which is my performance in the classroom. If you don't mind, though, let me tell you the reason:
I spent my summer reading about leadership and influence. Last year was hell--the entire year felt like a failure on so many levels. I was drained physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I even flirted with leaving after only my first year in that sweaty, humid building. But I decided to stay, for the kids.
I returned to the building last week to begin thinking about the year ahead. No one else was around. I knew my schedule would entail five reading classes--actually supplemental reading classes.
Apparently my previous experiences teaching READ 180 (even though I wasn't a certified reading teacher then, either) helped them to choose me. Okay, fine. What curriculum will I be using?
--We don't have one.
What books are available for the classroom library?
--Talk to so and so; she may have some for you.
Deep breath number one. I'm not prepared to teach a reading class without curriculum. The READ 180 program succeeded in spite of me.

Monday began with our convocation for the entire distrtict. It took up the first half of the morning for recognizing important teachers and casting some type of vision, of which I am still not sure. I couldn't help but think about my lack of curriculum which I could start to create upon returning to my building.
Not so fast. Instead, we were ushered into some professional development that succeeded only at developing my anxiety. That took up the second half of the day. I was so mad, I refused to work past my contracted hours--that has never been me.
Move to today. Like the day before, our every contracted hour was filled with professional devlopment or other business. No time in the classroom. Zero.
Deep breath number two. So, I head into the first half week of school with zero long term planning done. I'm in survival mode for now. But next week won't be better. I have two days during each week when I go the entire day without a prep period. Really. I can't make this stuff up.
So much for being positive.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Do things Differently

It's Thursday morning, quarter after eight. I am flipping between CNN, FoxNews, and ESPN, simulatneously browsing the nytimes.com and boston.com (Boston Globe), while I try to convince my daughter not to hit my brother's puppy, our contribution to his vacation plans.
One of the articles in the Boston Globe chronicles the growing importance of my state Senator, Joe Lieberman. The article mentions a website intended to discredit and dismantle Lieberman's power: www.liebermanmustgo.com.
The website has this to say:
We CANNOT tolerate a leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus who supports George Bush and McCain's War in Iraq. We CANNOT tolerate a Democratic chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee who endorses and stumps for McCain. We call on the Senate Democratic Steering Committee to strip Joe Lieberman of his chairmanship and his leadership role.
The mission statement, "We CANNOT tolerate...", demonstrates all that is wrong with our culture today. Whether we are talking about politics or education, any individual or organization who refuses to think independently or critically on the individual issues, does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Do You See What I See?

My favorite author, Frederick Buechner, advises us to listen to our lives. This post is in response to what I've been hearing. In my last post, I wrote about our responsibility to our students beyond the nine months of classroom time--we have a responsibility to them, and society, for life.
Gloria Ladson-Billings in the essay "Yes, But How do We do It?," writes:

Culturally relevant teachers envision their students as being filled with possibilities. They imagine that somewhere in the classroom is the nexe Nobel laureate (a Toni Morrison), the next neurosurgeon (a Benjamin Carson), or the next pioneer for social justice (a Fannie Lou Hamer).

When I read this excerpt, I underlined it as any good active reader would do. Then this morning while at church, one of the lay preachers reminded us that an authentic Christian community doesn't simply see people for what they currently are, but instead has vision to see what they can become. Two days, one message.
In this blog, I have often referred to my students as what they are: minorities, Hispanics, low S.E.S., and perhaps a few emotionally charged names. It isn't that I don't see the potential in my students. I am reminded of the young lady I taught in Seattle who e-mailed me not too long ago. In my response I reminded her, "I still believe in you," a common refrain during that particular school year.
But this message, from two very different sources, caused me to evaluate how I approach my students. Will I continue to see them as low SES minorities, or will I see them as the first Hispanic president, the next Sandra Cisneros or Pedro Noguera?
If I fail to honestly and completely make this adjustment, I can't imagine a truly successful career at this school.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Gear Up

I'd like to say that my absence from blogging related to some adventurous vacation, but I can't. Instead, I just haven't had much to say about education. But today, as I started serious preparations for the upcoming year, I read a few thought provoking essays in City Kids, City Schools.
I am not one of those loony liberals who believe the system is keeping city kids down; although, it would be irresponsible to ignore the obvious disparities between urban education and suburban education. Some essays in the book make me want to vomit, but most at least offer a gem or two to encourage the urban educator--and to help improve instruction.
In Gloria Ladson-Billings' essay, "Yes, But How do We do It?: Practicing Culturally Relevant Pedagogy," I came across this important reminder:

Our responsibility to students is not merely for the nine months from September to June. It is a long-term commitment, not just to the students but also to society.

Since I began teaching, my syllabus has always included an overarching course objective: To Prepare Studens to Actively Participate in Society as Global Citizens.

Sometimes as educators, it is easy to forget that we have a larger purpose than passing a test--even our own vocabulary quizzes. We must prepare students for active participation in society. For the urban students, many of whom have experienced the disparities that economics and strong family units create, this preparation is often overlooked.
At my urban (though not located in a major city) school last year, one of my students questioned one of my assignments. It consisted of studying the Cambridge Audit report done at our school and write and editorial about its findings. He didn't see the purpose of reading the report.
By the end of the discussions and writing, the student thanked me for giving him the opportunity to evaluate his teachers and school without being labeled a trouble-maker.
My goal this year, in the bigger sense, is to create opportunities for students to analyze the world around them.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Five Ideas for Education Policy Makers

There a some edu-bloggers who mostly rant about the many problems facing education, and then there are some who, like The Science Goddess, add to the ongoing dialogue. The Science Goddess recently memed me, if that's how you say it, asking me to discuss the five important educational understandings that education policy makers should know.
She references my most recent year of teaching, which came at a low SES, high minority (mainly Hispanic), school in Connecticut.

1. Fair and Balanced funding should be of the highest priority. The current mix of property taxes, state funding, and federal funding creates a serious gap between the wealthier school districts and the less fortunate school districts. In my current district, it took three budget proposals before the town finally approved one. If the Federal government is going to require that every student be taught to the same standard, then the Federal government ought to ensure that every student receives the same financial backing, the same safe environment, and the same quality of teachers. At the very least, this would be balanced.
However, I want it to be fair. And the reality is that low performing schools do need additional resources, all of which do not directly relate to what happens in the classroom. For instance, the school I teach at, one where fights happen often and students come to school with little guidance or direction, does not have a resource officer--there's no room in the budget. These types of resources can have an indirect impact on the classroom environment. But while wealthier towns, with far fewer instances of violence, truancy, and failure, enjoy the benefit of additional resources, many low SES schools do not.
As it stands, those districts with a higher SES, tend to do better than those districts with a lower SES. Now, there are many other factors in poor performing schools, but first let's start with the money factor.
2. Merit pay can work. I don't know how, but it can. This notion that protecting the tenured teachers and paying them well because of that tenure actually benefits the students is laughable at best. Teachers need to feel a little competition; we've become complacent, resulting in poor pedagogy and indifference--especially in low performing schools. Teachers in the district that I live in (not the one I teach in) certainly work diligently at creating lesson plans, holding students to high standards, and more; but they do not have to work as diligently at keeping their sanity because they don't have students sprinting the halls to evade security, or better still, calling security on themselves before sprinting out of their classroom singing, "You can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man."
3. Leadership matters to a school. So when a school isn't succeeding, come on in and clean house. Fortune 500 companies tend to seek out and develop great leaders. When a leader doesn't move the company forward, he gets a hefty buyout! Education leadership lacks a significant and serious voice. There is plenty of anectdotal evidence of principals carrying bats, but nothing that provides young and talented leaders with the opportunity to explore. Instead, we have to add a Master's Degree in Education Leadership, or some other title, in order to be considered for such a leadership position.
4. The traditional college isn't for everyone. We seem to think that the only way to have a successful country is if all of our students attend the local state school or better. Not so. We need to reevaluate our goals for students when they enter school. We need trade schools. We need schools that teach the skills that students need to learn.
I'm sorry, I still don't see the point of teaching a literature class to students who are not interested and won't use the skills I teach. The purists of English teachers will scowl at me and claim that everyone deserves to experience Macbeth and The Canterbury Tales--in middle English. Not true.
5. Spend some time in real classrooms. Why not? Are you afraid? I don't mean, drop in for a photo opportunity. I mean invest at least as much time in observing your local schools as you do pandering to Moveon.org, Focus on the Family, or shady land purchases.