Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I hope the title doesn't get me put on the "No-Fly" list, but that is exactly what happened to me today during the first two periods. During first period, I had to call security to help me reingage two students who refused to stop talking, move seats when directed, or even acknowledge my existence in the room. It was completely surreal. It took a great deal of emotional energy to try and engage the two students and just as much to call security--I don't need help is my thought and my track record tends to bear that out.
By second period, I was worn out, deflated. So when the entire group refused to come along down the happy path of learning, I let them. Maybe it's my fault that they didn't want to learn today. Maybe the reading selections about positivity and how they are the ones who can change the school's atmosphere, which desperately needs changing. But my students weren't interested in either the content or the skill set (Evaluation).
Here's the part the kills me: The outside "suits" will put this failure all on me. I suppose that I should accept such responsibility without argument. But at least give me a nice compensation package like the guy from WAMU.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Raise and Reduce

In an effort to raise test scores, East Hartford, Connecticut's school district is investing nearly a million dollars (largely from outside sources) into " teacher training, consultants, books, curriculum and materials" according to the Hartford Courant. Tucked into the agreement is the aim to reduce the number of suspensions of "black, Hispanic and special education students."
I wonder what the plan includes for reducing the number of susupensions, and I also wonder why they don't want to reduce the number of suspension of white and Asian students?
The district's student population is approximately 1/3 black, 1/3 Hispanic, and 1/3 white and Asian.
The inference is that the black and Hispanic students are the ones getting into trouble, or at least are the ones getting reported. I suppose the problem is a mixture of the two, which begs the question: How does a school reduce the suspension rates for 2/3 of the student population?

More to the point, if the inequity of suspensions is a result of teachers and administrators "missing" poor behavior by white and Asian students, then the suspension rates overall should go up. But if the white and Asian students are making better choices than the black and Hispanic students, what can reasonably be done to influence those students to make better choices?
Because I teach at a school with a similar ratio of black and Hispanic to white and Asian, I can attest to the existence of students who feel "targeted" by adminstrators and teachers. I cannot attest to the veracity of those feelings.
Let me pretend that we teach at a school with a similar ratio of 67% black and Hispanic to 33% white and Asian. There are 100 student suspensions during first semester. Of those 100 suspensions, 67 of them are of black or Hispanic students and 33 of them are of white or Asian students. From a strictly numbers perspective, there are twice as many suspensions of black and Hispanic; from an outsiders view, inequality exists. From a reality standpoint, the numbers are even because of the percentage. In this situation, I don't see the need to directly target suspension reduction for one or two of the groups. I might see a need for reducing the overall number from 100 to 75.
Now, if we take the same scenario, changing the numbers to 85 black and Hispanic suspension to 15 white and Asian, then I see the need to target suspension reduction for the black and Hispanic students.
But the question remains, How? How does a school reduce suspensions, while maintaining high behavioral standards, for two specific racial groups?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

I have a blog crush...

Joanne Jacobs introduced us via her post, and now I have a blog crush on Mimi.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tenure, Unions, and Free Agency

We sat around the lunch table in the English department office today discussing our upcoming Professional Development day. I am hoping to be a part of that experience, presenting about Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition. Moving from the topic of that PD, we wondered the reason for all of the PD opportunities this year--we have far more PD scheduled than last year.
I believe that our administrators, from the building level up to the Central Office, are planning to make significant changes among our tenured staff. The truth is that we as a school have not been successful and we need to get better. The administration needs to ensure that we have been given the opportunity to improve our instruction; if we do not, they will then have cause to non-renew. Tenured teachers are of course as nervous as the non-tenured, like me.
As an aside, I am not worried. Not because I think I am the greatest teacher in the world, but because I am confident that my students will succeed in part because of my skill. I am not all that interested in tenure.
This disinterest in tenure seems to bother my union leadership. In the last week alone, I'v been asked twice to join the union. Both times, I have avoided a direct answer. It isn't that I don't value union membership in theory. My previous union had fabulous leadership and effective bargaining skills. Yet, even while they were committed to improving the lives of its membership, I never felt that they sacrificed the students for our desires. I am not as convinced about my current union. Therefore, I don't see myself joining the union.
In the end, I feel a little like a baseball player in a contract year. Meaning, I will be a Free Agent when the summer rolls around. The district will be free to renew my contract or let me walk. It is completely up to them. At the same time, I feel free to entertain other offers, especially the more lucrative ones.
In the final analysis, I hope my performance is deemed worthy. I am willing to take all of the risks that come with avoiding tenure and union membership in hopes that it makes me always strive to earn my next contract.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Identifying Similarities and Differences

In chapter two of Classroom Instruction that Works, education theorist Robert Marzano discusses the importance of addressing similarities and differences when presenting new concepts and ideas.
Marzano suggests that the ability to recognize patterns via similarities will further comprehension by students. Through both teacher directed and student directed activities, similarities and differences ought to be attended to.
From simple Venn Diagrams to complicated analogies, students are engaged in this important and basic human skill. Marzano concludes that this skill "might be the 'core' of all learning" (14).
After finishing the chapter, I was pleased to recognize that I already do utilize many of the techniques that Marzano encourages, albeit not as explicitly as he directs. But I was struck by the difficulty of creating analogies and metaphors for students who lack general world knowledge. If the students you teach lack that common knowledge, they won't get your analogies and metaphors. And if you don't know their knowledge base, you won't be able to create comparisons relevant to their lives.
And then, lastly, I continue to feel slightly peeved at theorists who themselves don't put into practice what they preach. It isn't that I believe this technique of comparison lacks merit, but the extent to which Marzano and his fellow researchers imply we should implement it seems a bit much.
Marzano, who of course is trying to sell books, rarely tempers his theories with realities. Here's my reality: My administrator performed a walk-through in my classroom late in the day. My students were engaged with writing three sentence summaries, a problematic task for most. When he handed me the non-evaluative checklist, I reviewed his observations. Under the category ETS (Effective Teaching Strategies) two boxes existed. One was "Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition," chapter four from the book. The second was "Identifying Similarities and Differences." The first was marked, sweet. The second, unmarked. I had no idea I was being judged on whether or not, at the moment the administrator chose to visit or the five minute duration of his stay, I was "Identifying Similarities and Differences" by making an analogy between Summarizing and...

In the end, we teachers need to be much more concerned with our methodology and performance. Yet, we cannot get so caught up in trying to be all things to all people, that we lose the substance of what works for the students sitting in our classrooms. When we hop on fads at the expense of our students, that is when we will fail.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Positivity and my need for it

A student today told me that I should mind my 'effin business and worry about myself, not that he was in the hallway walking aimlessly with his buddy. When I informed him that my contract requires me to concern myself with such trivial matters, he added, "I don't give a shit."
And that's when Joanne Jacobs' post on worst school name ever sprinted back to me. I came up with a truly non-positive thinking name for my school: Who Gives a Shit High?
I know, this should be beneath me, but it isn't. Not today. The year started with such a positive tone, and I have certainly tried to convey that positivity to my students. But it's difficult to put on a show that Rihanna might sing a song about. One that would garner "a round of applause."

It's not every student at the school; it just seems that way because the ones who test my patience are so loud and absurd. Their flippancy degrades the building attitude, and teacher positivity, to such an extent that the ones who deserve the best opportunity to learn don't recieve it.
Here are a few examples from today while I walked through the halls during my prep--not because I want you to look down on WGASH, but because, today, I need to vent:
--Three security guards slowly walking a student out of a classroom as he cusses them out for every room he passes to hear.
--A student bursts out of the principal's office, darts across the hall and lands three or four quick body shots to the wall of lockers.
--I stop a second group of boys in the hall. One response to why they aren't in class: "I only come to school for the p***y."

I'd like to be positive this year, but if my days are going to be filled with this garbage, maybe I need to start a charter school where the Wizard of Ed can take me out of my Kansas.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Daydreaming about Education

On my way to church this morning, with toddlerTate singing "Sweet Caroline" in the backseat, my mind wandered to Monday morning when I return to the education world. We meander our way through northern Hartford, a city like many others struggling to educate its students.
How I happened upon the following thoughts, I cannot say. But, here's what my mind wondered:
Suppose I had the chance to buy a tenament building in the city. I would offer rental agreements to families whose students attend the local public school. Then, as part of my marketing strategy, I would discount rent even further for those familes based upon their children's grades.
In my daydream, it was a non-profit organization focused on grassroots influencing. Anyway, that was my daydream. Now, I just need the money.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Corrective Reading

Be careful what you wish for is the appropriate cliche for today. At the start of this school year, I wrote about the lack of a reading curriculum for the reading support class they have me teaching. Today, I was told what that curriculum will be: Corrective Reading.
It isn't that I believe the Direct Instruction model does not have value, and it isn't that I don't believe my students need an intervention type program. I am just not convinced that the Direct Instruction model is appropriate for the high school intervention. Based singularly on my observation of the material and the script, I am having difficult imagining it will work for my students.
Also, it doesn't fit my personality. I have had great success with students using the Read 180 model because the program still allows for my strengths as a teacher to come out. The reality that often gets ignored is that today's high school students need engaging presentation. It will be interesting to watch the student, who today upon returning from the bathroom kicked and pushed her planner across the floor until sitting down, try to sit still and follow my hand and word prompts.
So, as I have in the past, I will ask the edusphere for words of advice. I do not want to hear from DI researchers giving me data about its success--that has been documented, at least at the elementary school level. I am interested in how to approach the "sell" to students who will not be interested in the presentation.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Regular readers of this blog know that I teach in an underperforming school in the typically well respected state of Connecticut. My interests in teaching are moving slightly towards an even greater interest in change we can believe in for the student population.
In my last post, I wondered what needs to change in order to change the negativity, both from students and faculty, to positivity. Today, I am wondering what needs to change in order for both students and faculty to perform better.
CNN's profile of Chancellor Rhee, the District of Columbia's latest head honcho, raises many important questions about a system that is failing. And before someone reports me to the defender of public education, Dennis Fermoyle at From the Trenches, let me make it clear that I believe public education still works for the strong majority of today's students.

Question One: How Can we Spend Education Money Better?
Rhee closed 23 schools in her first year as the head of the District of Columbia's public schools, fired 36 principals and cut 15 percent -- about 121 jobs -- from the central office staff. And she's making no apologies.
Great leaders in organizations that exist to make a profit understand the need for systems that don't slow the company's growth to a crawl. Often, districts that underperform lack the system wide structure to reach peak performance. With so many Directors and Assistant Directors, information and vision is not streamlined. I liken it to the convuluted nature of information sharing between government agencies like the CIA, FBI, and local police.
By reducing the central office staff and eliminating empty schools, Rhee is striving for a more fluid organization. Yes, it comes at the expense of people's jobs, but if we are really about the kids, it means we might lose our job for their success.

Question Two: How Can We Create Buy-in From the Teachers?
The plan focuses on top-down accountability, quantitative results like standardized test scores...
Here's where Rhee may be off mark as a leader--that is if I am reading her plan correctly: top-down accountability is rarely effective, as demonstrated by a teacher's comments: "I think the people who view her aggressive actions as a positive thing, I think they are missing the boat because if it results in more chaos and more dysfunction, it's not the solution that we need," said Kerry Sylvia, a teacher at Cardozo Senior High School in her ninth year.
Yet, Ms. Sylvia is also off the mark by taking aim at Rhee's style. Both are quoted in the piece as caring for the students. For both sides to create assumptions in their heads about what the other side is doing or motivated by, reeks of immaturity and insecurity. Rhee's immaturity and insecurity demonstrated in her top-down model, Sylvia's immaturity and insecurity visible in her baseless assumption the Rhee will fail.

Question Three: How Can We React Better to the Urgent Nature of Failure?

One of the ways which failing schools react to their own failure is to turn inward. Embarrassed by our own failure, we try to protect our interests and people. A second reaction to failure is to turn outward. Weakened by our own failure, we willingly give control to an outside force. This prevents hostile takevoers, thus preserving our salary.
In both cases, failure is perpetuated. By turning inward, we lose sight of the vision necessary for success. We miss the chance to partner with the outside world for the sake of our students. Sometimes, the task is overwhelming. In so many underperforming schools, the failure is a result of school systems, student attitude, parent inabilities, and social injustice. In trying to cope with and fix all of these issues, we fail to adequately control what is in our control--our own skill level.
By turning outward and giving control away, we lose the ability to create vision based on our understanding of the community. Outside sources lack the intimate understanding of the community and prescribe a one size fits all system. It isn't to say that those systems lack any value, but they don't take into consideration the existing skills of a faculty. Instead, it assumes that every faculty member is a failure and therefore must follow the same lock-step approach.

Question Four: When will We Get Over Ourselves?
"She's pitting adults against children. She couches things in terms of 'I'm not here to keep jobs for adults. I'm not here to keep people's paychecks. I am here for the children,' " Sylvia said. "Well, guess what? I'm here for the children too."--Ms. Sylvia
I would love to work for someone who pits me and my colleagues against the children. The truth is that we teachers are soft and can't handle competition--as demonstrated by our insistence that all competitive games on the playground disappear.
Unions are necessary, but they currently serve to overprotect and reward those who should not be protected or rewarded. The latter, which means salary, is one area we need to examine and change. I will take my chances; and if I fail, maybe the high pressure world of education is not for me.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Positivity and its role in education

When people ask me whether I see the glass as half empty or half full, I am prone to believe that either way, I'll need a refill. In my reading skills class, we are using Tom Rath's How Full is Your Bucket? for our reading selections. The first topic was "Studying Positivity," or the introduction to why he wrote the book. The basic premise of the book revolves around the Theory of the Dipper and the Bucket:

Each of us also has an invisible dipper. When we use that dipper to fill other people's buckets -- by saying or doing things to increase their positive emotions -- we also fill our own bucket. But when we use that dipper to dip from others' buckets -- by saying or doing things that decrease their positive emotions -- we diminish ourselves.

For me, the question I am wrestling with the most is How can a school's attitude change?

My family is currently visiting the Seattle area for my wife's cousin's wedding. Today we took some time to visit with the school I taught at before moving to Connecticut. Walking onto campus immediately brought positive vibes. The campus was clean even while students mingled outside during their lunch period. Snappy posters, probably created and painted by the leadership class, directed students and visitors. The students were interacting appropriately and pleasantly--a far different atmosphere than my current school in Connecticut.
I don't know how different the lives of my students in Connecticut are from my former students in Washington. In both places I have had to be concerned for students whose home lives were nothing but hell. So what is the difference maker?
Are my current students simply people who see the glass as half empty? Or maybe it has something to do with us, the teachers. It is hard to enjoy teaching in a building that is run down and lacking resources. It is hard to enjoy teaching in a building where students get away with treating you with disdain. I'll give an example:
As I walked through the hallway the bell rings to signal the start of class. I'm on my prep and wanting to stop into the library. A group of students continued to mingle by the steps so I give them a friendly, "Okay guys, let's head to your classes. Do you all know where you need to be?" The question is pertinent because we still have many schedules that are not correct. One young lady tells me to "Chill, Mister."
"I'm pretty relaxed; but we have too many kids in the hall, so let's get moving." I happen to be walking in the direction she takes off in.
"Why you followin' me? That's fucked up. You better back off me." She takes off ahead of me; I'm not interested in chasing her through the halls.
So where did it go wrong? I took the positive approach from the beginning, not yelling at them to get to class, just asking them to find one. She flips out.
I have to believe that much of it comes from a preconceived idea that we the teachers are negative, that our main goal is to make their life hell. And truthfully, I have seen many of my colleagues escalate situations by reacting far harsher than was necessary or prudent.
Which brings me back to my question: how can a school's attitude change?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Corpus delicti

When your students don't do well on state exams, people in suits get to tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and more importantly, how to write your lesson plans.
The template shown is based on what the Connecticut Accountability for Learning Initiative would find acceptable for lesson plans.
Our district requires that we write our lesson plans out and, until today, were planning on making us use this template for every lesson, for every class.
The purpose behind these lesson plans is both sinister and righteous. The sinister purpose is that the district needs to prove that teachers aren't teaching using all of the reasearch proven methods like Think-Alouds, K-W-L's, or other useful initiation activities. Now, they can't come out and say this, but it has to be at least part of the truth.
The other truth is, we need to teach better at our school. Too many of our students are not finding success, and that needs to change. But does filling out a template like this, completely and fully, mean better teaching? Also, will the end result of filling out this template justify the cost in teacher time?
For instance, some of my colleagues who teach three or more preps, spent 4-6 hours writing in this template four times for each prep.
This isn't meant simply to pout about all of the added work, though a little pouting is in order. This post is simply to wonder if the means justify the end. Will our students succeed more if we fill out this form? I can't imagine that a teacher who lacks classroom management, student connections, or any sense of desire to be the best, will suddenly improve student learing by filling this out. He still has to perform. And one doesn't have to fill out this form in order to perform.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Tenure? No thanks.

Via Joanne Jacobs, a blog post (which I couldn't get to open properly) discusses the generation gap split when discussing tenure vs. merit pay. I'm young, and I want merit pay.

I will use the ever shaky business comparison to show why I would prefer merit pay.

At my school, only 63% of Sophomores were at or above Proficient on our state's exam for reading across the disicplines. 78% of my students were at or above proficient. I taught our middle of the pack students, not honors, not fundamental. I feel good, not great about these scores. But if in comparison, and I don't have those numbers, my students outperformed students in the same class level with a different teacher, I want to be paid more than them.

In the world of sales, it would hold true that performance matters more than tenure. In education where we are judged by our performance in the form of evaluations, we should have our ability to teach students as part of the equation.

I don't read, mister...

After a week and a half of easing my students into their reading support class, this week will finally offer the chance to teach skill sets. My students filled out many reading surveys that offered me insight into their views on reading. Mostly, they just don't read. It isn't interesting, nor is it relevant.
With no district provided curriculum, at least not yet, I've chosen to follow the model I used while teaching north of Seattle: Scholastic's Read 180.
The first set of skills we will focus on are reading for detail, identifying main idea, summarizing, and the more abstract skill of evaluating.
For the first nine skill lessons, we will use reading selections from the book How Full is Your Bucket? My goal is to offer the students content that they will not find in any other class, and is based on leadership and life skills. I hope that they will find it interesting.
Trying to convince students who are yet to find value in literature, fiction or non, has to be the toughest task in public education.
Not only am I scared I won't succeed at the overall purpose of generating enthusiasm for reading, I am scared I won't be able to properly teach the skills. It is unfortunate that I am the best choice to teach a reading support class, especially when my skill set is geared towards college prep literature and writing.