Thursday, July 30, 2009

Beer Summit

Everyone knows about the Beer Summit President Obama presided over tonight. He's trying desperately to show the nation that he didn't act stupidly by making ignorant comments about the Professor Gates arrest. But, let's be honest; how many of our principals or superintendants have made similar statements as Barack Obama did when he led with "I don't know all of the facts...." Never mine. All of my prinicpals and superintendants have spoken carefully and judiciously.
But the Beer Summit got me thinking. We need more such gatherings. Some dad is angry that you took his daughter's cell phone--call a Beer Summit. Your administrator thinks your lesson plan was pathetic--call a Beer Summit. The local AFT leadership hates your guts because you believe they are an embarrassment to the profession--call a Beer Summit.
The way I look at it, the toughest challenge is choosing the beer. My buddy Stence would certainly go with Miller "Boggs" Lite. It goes down quick but a respected flavor. My buddy D-Rob would go with Sgt. Crowley's choice of Blue Moon; it might require fruit, but a phenomenal beer. The rising star buddy, Cory Ray, would go with Malibu and Coke--not a beer but don't judge. Mr. McNamar? I'm going with Red Hood ESB. It happens to be the first beer I ever drank, but more than that, it is well-crafted and full of delicious hops.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Change I Can Believe In

Back in November, the United States elected Barack Obama as President of the United States. He won my vote mainly because he promised reform in education--that was change I could believe in. Unfortuntely, it took President Obama until now to really begin to lay out his goal for education, and even still, he hasn't had a prime-time news conference to advocate for that change. Instead, he's talked about health care and given his uninformed opinion about the Cambridge Police Department.
Today, Obama is making news for trying to "strong arm" his agenda with the pledge of 4 Billion dollars in grant money to be divied up among those who seek reform. Count me in.
Why? you may ask. Why give up the coziness of job security? Why stop accepting a raise for years of service instead of achievement? Because my conscience ways heavily on me.
It's not that I believe every student needs to attend a charter school, or that every teacher with 20 years of service lacks competency. Plenty of schools are working well for their students. But plenty of schools are failing their students. Plenty of teachers are caring and competent. But plenty of teachers are disinterested and incompetent.
Innovation is needed. Alternatives must be offered. The status quo attitude within education has to end.
Again, money is not a fix. Charter schools are not a final solution. Yet, we cannot deny the success of many charter schools because of the failure of others. Just as we cannot paint public education as a complete failure because of those that get reported in the news.
So now I'm waiting. I'm waiting to find out whether or not my school will embrace change. I'm waiting to find out whether a new vision will be cast. And I'm waiting to find out whether President Obama will find time to address the nation about the greater shame of our nation, which is the unequal funding of local school districts, not the uninsured.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Priceless (Journal 3)

No matter the class level, nothing thrills a teacher more than when a student gets a tough question correct. To help my Steppingstone students, who are incoming 9th graders, interpret a text, I've been using AP questions for Cry, the Beloved Country.
For the most part, my students this summer are struggling with the idea that everything is a potential symbol. "All roads lead to Johannesburg," Paton writes. Why do we use roads? To drive on. What's another way to describe a road trip? Yes, a journey. So, what might the "road" mean for Kumalo? Um, no. Ahh, not really.
It has gone this way for the past week. I'll suggest a possible symbol or reference to the theme, and their blank faces will look at the table. A fun game, but at some point all of this modelling has to pay off. Two students combined to finally "get" a major symbol. Beautiful.
Pateon writes, "Jarvis watched the ploughing with a gloomy eye. The hot afternoon sun of October poured down on the fields, and there was no cloud in the sky. Rain, rain, there was no rain. The clods turned up hard and unbroken..."(162). The Do Now question asked them to use the adjectives to describe tone, and then to suggest a possible symbol.
One young scholar suggested that the tone felt hopeless. YES. The other scholar suggested that the rain represented hope because they really wanted it to rain. YES. A question from me: What about the drought--it can't just be a dry season? Jarvis feels dead, one asked. Close enough. Yes, Jarvis, like Kumalo, will go on a journey. In part, Jarvis's spirit is dead and he needs the rain, the hope.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Journal 2

The old adage tells us that boys will be boys. But let’s be honest, it really should read kids will be kids. Sometimes I forget that. In a program like ours, teeming with brilliance and confidence, the students create an environment that causes us to momentarily forget their youthfulness. I suppose I should be more clear. These scholars, like all students, mess up.
Their failings, as with the failings of any student—but particularly urban students, challenge the urban educator’s core beliefs. For me, I’ve crested a hill to discover a raging philosophical battle. I believe all students deserve the best opportunity to become educated. The plight of urban schools in general weighs heavily on my conscience. Urban students are as worthy of high standards as suburban schools, yet often our city schools cave to the latent prejudices.
So here at Steppingstone, in which we are committed to fostering excellence, what do we do when a scholar fails to live up the community’s standards. This experience is not a right, it is a privilege. And with privilege comes great responsibility. Failure to adhere to the community’s mores means removal from the program. And yet….
A scholar spends 13 months pressing towards their goal but stumbles with a month to go, and then again with three weeks remaining, and again with two weeks remaining. Here’s the philosophical battle: Paternalism (as defined by KIPP schools and others) vs. Bleeding Heartism. On the one hand, we can’t be taken seriously as a program if we do not hold to the standard, if we lower our expectations. That precisely what is wrong with urban education in general. But what of compassion? What of the belief in second chances, or third, or fourth? To ship a scholar out into the unstructured and unsupported academic world from which he arrived could be devastating emotionally and academically. If we do that, are we too authoritarian, too cold-hearted, and thus missing the heart of the program?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Steppingstone Journal

I thought I would share an entry from Steppingstone Journal:

Entry #1
We were examining John Howard Griffin’s groundbreaking memoir, Black Like Me, when I became momentarily distracted by my skin. The Steppingstone students, nearly all Black or Latino, were telling me what they presumed I wanted to hear. I think Griffin’s story does a good job of telling the Black experience in the south. One young Black woman, clearly with the cynical gene common of all races, mumbled her disagreement with the speaker. I prodded her to elucidate—making sure to use that particular word because it was one from the vocabulary list.
“I don’t think he can tell us the Black experience in the south. He isn’t Black. He only looks Black.” She spoke timidly, and I think my over-the-top response shocked them all. Of course Griffin couldn’t really tell us the Black experience. He could tell us what happened to him; he could tell us how he felt about those experiences; but, he couldn’t tell us what a lifetime of Blackness could make one feel or see in the world. I went on to validate his attempt, a white man trying to help the cause of Civil Rights. The great white hope, I thought. And that’s when the irony of the whole thing hit me.
Here I am, a white teacher who grew up in the white suburbs and went to a white college, encouraging these Black and Latino students to distrust the motives of John Griffin, because after all, he did want to sell books. As it turns out, I didn’t convince many of them that Griffin had devious intentions. It speaks to the humanity and naivety of my students. They have yet to grow jaded.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dirty Little Secret

High school coaches, if you were to catch them in a candid moment at your local tavern, say some pretty nasty things about the parents. It is isn't often they say it in public. But I give the recently resigned soccer coach in Snohomish, Washington credit for admitting to the newspapers what so many coaches today believe: parents are too involved.
Many coaches who resign would leave it at wanting to spend more time with their family, which Coach Kesim does want to do. However, Kesim also stated clearly, "The parents' involvement was more than I wished." Which is a nice way of saying, "I hated the parents."
High school coaches faces a great deal of pressure in the high stakes world of varsity athletics. AAU and club-team coaches are promising scholarships and telling the parents only how great their child is on the field. If a coach actually begins to speak the truth, or worse yet, demand a structured and disciplened environment, parents flip out. For the varsity coach, this reality actually runs them out of coaching in order to "spend more time with family."
So thank you, Coach Kesim for telling the truth, for putting some of the culpability on the privileged parents.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Teaching Writing

Writing instruction continues to be a weakness in my skill set. I have great confidence that I can take a student who writes well, and guide them towards truly effective writing--or what I call refinement.
Taking a student whose skills are still in the development stage and moving them towards a higher level of communication, that's where I struggle.
I can point out a student's weakness, but I don't know where to begin the instruction. Here's an example from student work as it appeared:

I am an Insider... very popular and known throughout the school. But, I feel differen because they always are talking about others and I don't want to be the blame. The feeling of picking on others makes me feel different. When, you want to be that nerd's freind or that girl/boy who's very quiet and stay's to himself but you are afraid about what the Insiders would say about youthen and you'll no longer be Them.

Her thoughts turn out to be excellent as she describes her desire to move out of the "insider" group in order to be kinder and more compassionate. But the thought gets lost in the writing mistakes. I started to mark up the essay by eliminating the elipse and deleting what followed in order for the first two sentences to read as follows:

I am an Insider. People know me.

But then I thought, I can't mark up every error and provide an alternative, can I? That's where I struggle. What type of feedback on an essay is appropriate and more importantly, helpful.
Another student's essay had already developed sentence structure and grammar proficiency, so my comments were more stylistic in nature. Here's her work as it appeared:

In the car, I began to feel nauseous. I didn't know what to expect, going to a new school with new people and new teachers. However, I knew for sure that the car ride was going by way too fast and I began to feel butterflies in my stomach. I opened my backpack to check and see if I had everything...pencils that were already sharpened, 3 new notebooks, a few folders, and extra paper. I began to squirm in my seat as we got closer and closer to the school. I didn't want step foot through the door of the massive building that I would now call my school.

Not bad at all. So my advice was to make a few stylistic changes by reducing sentence three's word total and turning sentence four into shorter, quicker sentence fragments to add to the tone and speed of the car ride itself:

However, I knew for sure that the car ride was going by too fast. I felt my stomach flutter. I opened my backpack. Sharpened pencils. Three new noteboooks. A few folders. I began to squirm in my seat as we neared the school.

By the way, I feel like I am baring my soul to my readers by telling you all how I would provide feeback on essays--there is something personal to it. However, I truly feel as if I am on a Feedback Island. I have never had a conversation with a colleague about how to give formative feedback on student writing.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Making Progress

There are two great aspects to my summer school experience with Steppingstones Academy.

1. The students and their desire to achieve--The students here concern themselves with learning. We don't give "grades," instead giving written feedback. Yet, each one of my students accepts that feedback and grows from it. Sure, they are still emerging ninth graders (in the fall) and have the universal characteristics. But I have not been cussed at; I have not heard a cuss word; I have not been disrespected. I have seen them frustrated to not get it; I have seen them ask questions in order to get it.

2. I am learning a great deal about how to run a "system." A great weakness of mine has been my ability to keep a day completely organized. I'm using a "Do Now" activity every class period, something I have never been able to maintain for very long. I've also made it my professional goal this summer to incorporate more formative assessments for each lesson. In the past, I simply taught a sequence of lessons with the summative assessment in mind. For the most part, my students have learned the material. But now, I will be able to address any errors in thought or process much sooner. Again, this is a work in progress, but I like it.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Presence of Greatness

Those of you who have read my blog frequently, or infrequently for that matter, know I have a confidence problem--meaning I have more confidence than any one man should be allowed to have. Today I will admit to a chink in my armor of confidence.
I took a rather odd path to the teaching profession. As a result of not initially pursuing a teaching career, I don't hold a Bachelor's or a Master's in either education or English. Yet, because of two great professors during my collegiate career, I have great confidence in both my literary knowledge and ability to identify excellent writing. And as a result of at least one terrific Education professor, I possess even greater confidence in my ability to communicate my knowledge with a student. However, in great honesty I ought to admit that I am also self-conscious especially about my lack of an English degree (a mere 36 credits is all I have).
This afternoon I met a teacher from one of the prestigious private high schools one of our summer scholars will be attending. Though we spoke only briefly, I could feel my own inferiority. He didn't demean me, or even treat me as less, but I knew. I've often wondered what the average boarding school teacher sounds like. If he was the average, I couldn't even come close to being allowed on their campus.
So, there it is, the chink in Mr. McNamar's confidence. Tomorrow, I will write about my totally awesome lesson plan and that one kid that told me I am great teacher--all just to feel better about myself.