Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Thoughtful 8th Grader

My daughter, Tate, begins school next fall. What will her experience be as she navigates the dangers of growing up in an increasingly mean world?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Starting the Change Process

Last Sunday, the Hartford Courant ran a less than educational education article on Windham Public Schools titled "Windham Schools: Moving in the Wrong Directions." Clearly, the Courant felt it necessary to mislead its readers for the sake of selling papers or getting hits on the website. Though the article does express some of the realities of the school district, writer Grace Merritt chose to focus her readers on the visible effects of the many issues, but she failed to connect the dots between them. I've examined the article and found eight areas of foucs: Race, Poverty, Language, Parents, Teachers, Academics, Politics, and School Culture. Of the school culture, the Courant reports: "Teachers grumble that many students are disrespectful and roam the hallways during class... During a recent visit to both schools, some students were wandering in the hallways during class and had to be told by their principal to return to class. A couple of students yelled and cursed loudly as they passed in the hallway... During class, students often text or talk on their phones and sometimes swear at teachers." A school's culture will deteriorate when the norms of the school community are not shared by all. When student groups feel marginalized, or when students do not intereact outside of their group, a school's culture breaks down. Great schools recognize the basic need of human nature, which is to feel community. Windham's school climate issues are in line with many urban schools filled with students who have been marginalized for one reason or another. Certainly the effect, the "disrespectful" and "wandering" students, is visible and problematic. What is less visible, and less likely to get talked about are the causes. We cannot deny that the race, poverty, language, parents, teachers, and academic issues are not interrelated. To simply look at the effect and judge demonstrates a simple minded approach. But what can schools do to help alleviate the negative effects of these intermingling problems? In some ways, public schools should look to their competition for answeres; the charter school movement, and especially the successful ones, recognize that students must want to be at the school if they are to succeed at educating the student. Schools need to make a conscious effort to build their community by focusing on the norms and values they desire. Moreover, this conscious effort must be adopted by every school in the district. To expect a high school to recover the lost years in such a short amount of time demonstrates the type of simple mindedness that leads to state takeovers of schools. Here I offer three simple ways a school or district can begin changing the culture. There are many additional methods (like the Broken Window theory), but I write a blog, not a book.

1. College Attendance
Some don't believe that every student can make it to college, and that by promoting college readiness, we only set those students up for disappointment. While I recognize that not every student is Yale material, or even community college material, we must recognize that today's workforce needs more educated people. Trade schools and certification programs are now valid paths into a career. So, if we need to change the tag from "college ready" to "post-high school training" ready, then fine. Many of the successful charter schools begin promoting college from elementary school. Their hallways are named after universities, college posters hang on their walls. Teachers remind students regularly that the goal is college attendance, and then monitor student behavior always asking if a student's choice will get them into college. This year, I teach a fundamental level class. Almost all of the students read far below grade level, and many have a history of discipline and attendance issues. From the first day of school, they have heard that my job is to prepare them for college. At first many balked at the idea, claiming their track level as an indicator that they were not smart. Have I been successful keeping 100% of this sophomore class focused on learning? No. But, I have watched as even my earliest problems have morphed into more successful students. Will they pass the CAPT? No. But I predict they will have done much better on it than if I hadn't created the climate of success in my room.

2. Relationships
Just as students need to feel that we, the teachers, believe in their academic ability, and will not deviate from that belief, they also need to feel that we like them. Early in a student's career, the classroom teacher has a great ability to influence a young child. Regardless of the student's home-life, the teacher can create an environment where that child feels a sense of connection. Though the amount of time a high school teacher spends with a student is limited by the bell schedule, we still have a chance every day to make students feel accepted. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned over the course of my 8 year career is the art of complimenting. "I like those shoes" or "Hey you got a haircut" show that we notice them. Students who feel noticed, often feel connected. Students who feel connected, often feel successful. Students who feel successful, often are.

3. Autonomy and Influence
I recently walked into a local high school for an event. As I walked in, three students of various genders and ethnicities greeted me at the door. They asked which part of the event I was attending and directed me to that location while also offering to get me a cup of coffee. Throughout the building, student leaders were directing adults and interacting with them professionally and personably. At the school I taught at before coming to Connecticut, student leaders created and implemented pep assemblies, informational assemblies, dances, and whatever else they could get their hands on. The students there bought into the school because the school invested in them. The message was clear: "We believe you can..." Schools with climate issues often don't share that attitude. Their message is "We don't believe you can..." As a result, events are not offered and students aren't taught how to act or behave in professional or personable ways. As the trend continues, a divide happens. The divide causes a distrust between students and faculty. A vibrant school community has a thriving student leadership program which gives autonomy and influence to the students. As students feel trusted, they tend to continue earning that trust. As important as creating autonomous opportunities, schools like Windham, with a high number of Spanish speaking students, should go out of their way to tap into the leaders of its diverse population. Again, so much more can be written about school climate. However, these are three areas that can change immediately if people are willing.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Solving the Problem (Setting the Stage)

Fixing a failing school district requires thoughtfulness and understanding much more than empty rhetoric and theorizing. So, I wonder what brings a journalist to only explore the world of education on a surface level. According to the Hartford Courant, Windham Public Schools are headed in the wrong direction. At first glance, there may be some truth:

"Connecticut Mastery Test scores have declined in many areas. The dropout rate is twice the state average. Only half the students are proficient in reading. And the school district has the largest academic achievement gap — the persistent disparity in academic performance between poor students and their more affluent classmates — in the state."

Today's political climate, with all of the teacher bashing, might suggest that such scores are simply an output problem. Teachers must care only about seniority and retirement packages; yet, the comprehensive study finds that:

"Despite the school district's challenges, observers say Windham schools have many strong teachers, and most are dedicated and genuinely care about their students."

So then they must simply be incompetent, right? Well, the same study found that "Teachers try to meet the needs, but they just don't have the resources..."

And, truth be told, those needs are daunting:

"In one barometer of poverty, 74 percent of students qualified for a free or reduced-price school lunch last year, a rate that shot up from 57 percent five years earlier."

Add to that, "A third of Windham students now come from homes where English is not the primary language," and a clearer picture begins to take shape. Not only does the district face economic and language challenges, but those very same issues affect the parents. The study also found "limited parental involvement in the schools."

For most districts with similar stories, the combination would be devastating unless the local municipality prioritized education and made serious efforts towards reform. But in addition to a lack of parental involvement and socio-economic challenges, Windham also faces the burden of a community that doesn't act much like a community:

"Despite the population shift, most decision-making power in town remains in the hands of white residents. The state's audits found the Hispanic population has little or no involvement in local politics and government."

The divide is compounded even further by financial differences within the community:

"Town residents have balked at education budgets and whittled them down. And alienation has worsened between town officials and the school district and between the community's urban and rural taxpayers."

Certainly the public has a right to know what is happening within the public schools. Yet, I wonder what the end result of such an article will be. Does it promote thoughtful discourse? If the comments are an indication, probably not. Does the article then promote more unintelligent bashing of teachers?
In the end, I'm not sure what the purpose of the article is. The writer clearly tries to cover a vast expanse of educational issues, leaving everything written at the surface level. What some writers use an entire book for, the Courant has tried to condense to only a few pages. The result is an inflammatory title and little analysis. If the Courant wants to dive into the realm of education reporting, it could at least try to imitate the New York Times or the Washington Post.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Timely Feedback

One of my long ago friends' father is the world's nicest man. He uses phrases like "oh my gunnysacks" and others I never fully understood. What I recall most fondly about him was his honest appreciation for his wife. On more than one occassion, I had the opportunity to dine with his family, and without fail, my friend's father, after finishing the meal, would declare "Cathy, this was the've ever made." No matter what the meal. Grilled cheese--the greatest. Peanut butter and jelly--the greatest.
It's too bad I'm not like that because my student teacher, who is already competent, and capable of becoming great, needs my regular affirmation. When I student taught, my cooperating teacher rarely praised a lesson, but I always knew he found my work acceptable. Once, after I asked him what he thought about a potential lesson, he only said, "I wouldn't do it that way, but you can try it." After I taught the lesson, he asked for a copy; but, he never said it was good.
The funny thing is, for as much as she wants to know if I approve of her teaching, I am wondering if I am providing her with the guidance and experience she needs.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


During our CAPT days, I've been working my way through John Merrow's The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership. Although the regular monitoring of students has slowed down my read, one chapter, "Serious Fun?" forced me to evaluate the methods of the two schools I've taught at.

The first school looks as follows:

There, a true partnership between students and faculty existed. Merrow discusses Ted Sizer's belief "that schools...should be democratically run, and that high school kids should be part of the leadership."

Once, after I had moved, I had the opportunity to visit that school during what turned out to be a spirit day. The majority of the student body were participating by wearing school colors or class colors. When I taught there, I recall the nearly monthly assemblies or pep rallies, all of which were led by student leaders. They planned and oversaw each activity. That campus had a palpable heartbeat shared by so many of the faculty and students.

My current school looks as follows:

The difference in student commitment to this school could not be any more different than my previous school. Students are disinterested in their education, and indifferent or even disdainful toward school spirit. Now, it should be noted that there are a few who desperately want a great education and a great community, but they seem to be in the minority.

Here, students are not given the opportunity to come together or to lead each other. We have had one all-school pep assembly, which happened during our homecoming week. My sophomore class officers and cabinet helped me put together a pre-CAPT pep assembly that went as well as it could considering we were celebrating a test! We received great feedback from students and teachers.

If my current school stepped out and took the risk of truly engaging students in leadership roles, could we turn around the ever-growing negativity which permeates our hallways? And ultimately, what is getting in our way?

Do we fear that "these" students will not know how to behave? Do we fear giving up control to teenagers? Do we think the current building atmosphere is positive and empowering?

Students will act how we expect them to act. If we took the time to collectively teach, monitor, and enforce our expectations, our students will generally conform. Yes, some students will still make poor choices. That's when strong leadership deals with the student accordingly. We like control. I know I do. This is a constant struggle for me. But when I empower my student leaders, they find success. And no, I can't imagine we believe the current climate is anything but demoralizing.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


My sophomores took the Response to Literature test today, and too many didn't finish writing the fourth essay in the 70 minute time frame. But, they told me how they answered the first three, rife with quotations and explanation to fill up each page provided. They felt great about what they had written, but depressed that they hadn't finished in the time frame.
The test asks the students to read a short story, anywhere from 5-7 pages, and then answer four questions including initial thoughts and questions, character change, thematic connections, and successful literature. Connecticut gives them 70 minutes. Why not provide them with 90 minutes, or really, as much time as they need to demonstrate their learning. I felt sad for them because I know what they know, and it is enough to pass the exam.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


I gave in yesterday. The day before the state exam, and after two weeks of heavy test preparation, I allowed my students to relax. I gave them a few final reminders and then allowed them to have "free" time.
The fundamental level class amazed me. They started into the horseplay, the rough-housing. I had to make them sit down. When I asked them to just have a conversation with each other, they replied, "What should we talk about?"
The other classes know how to have conversation. They could talk about sports, the news, or pop-culture without engaging in physical interactions.
I'm confused.

Saturday, March 05, 2011


"Gentleman, start your engines," or in our case, "Students, start your brains." This week Connecticut's version of high-stakes testing begins its annual takeover of public education. Testing is important, don't get me wrong; I'm just not sure what we learn from them that we don't already know.
Philosophically, I don't believe in "teaching to the test" in the way that many envision it. I don't spend every class session practicing the CAPT, but I do embed the skills needed to succeed throughout the first half of the school year. Then, just prior to the exams, I provide my students with the knowledge of the test itself in an effort to show them what they must do to be successful.
For instance, when teaching the Response to Literature section, a short story and four essay questions, we examined the questions, the explanations of a strong response, the scoring rubric, and four different released essays scored across the rubric spectrum.
My students, even my fundamental level students who most wouldn't predict to pass, compared these released items and searched for defining factors. They noted that all of the passing essays included at least one quotation from the text, if not two. They recognized that all of the passing scores had essays which exceeded 150 words. They were aware of the essays which used the language of literature like theme, mood, imagery, syntax, and diction.
Then we did one more practice.
My fundamental level students worked hard. They attempted to include quotations, and the language of literature. Their responses were A level work for them. Their effort was A level as well.
But most still won't meet standard. The fact that the test is timed means that many of my below grade level readers will not finish the story with enough time to write enough in their essays. Or, they will not get into the story and grow bored by yet another high falutin story geared towards suburban students.
I am especially proud of these students who have been allowed to get so far behind that, by the time they've reached me, are three or more grade levels behind. So many in our community look down on these kids, and their attitudes reflect this lack of belief.
From the first day of school, I told them that I could get them ready for this test, that if they would buy into me, and buy into themselves, then together we would prove a whole bunch of naysayers wrong.
Unfortunately, I may have overstated my ability.