Monthly Archives: March 2012

Teacher Interrupted

I was trained in the days when a teacher’s classroom was their castle. We were told that, no matter what the curriculum said, we could close the door and do whatever we thought was best. Nobody, except administrators, had a right to walk into your classroom without permission.

This is an idea that I still take very seriously. There are 30 teenagers in front of me 5 times a day. I am responsible for their safety and education. There is nobody else there: no principal, no security agent, no chancellor, no Bloomberg, no education reformer, nobody. It is just me and the kids, many of whom would rather be doing a million other things with their time.

It is a tricky thing to get 30 inner-city teenagers to care, or at least not tune out, a 50-minute lesson on the Ming Dynasty. Armed with nothing but chalk and charm, I have to help teenagers arrive at knowledge they might never hear or see again. Bringing students to the place where they are receptive takes work, patience and preparation.

And this is why I hate being interrupted.

We are in the middle of a lesson, maybe a student is asking a question or I am answering one, and then the phone rings. “Can so-and-so come to the office after the period is over?” So now, instead of just trying to deliver this lesson and keep the kids engaged, I have to remember to deliver this all-important message to Johnny that he should come to the office.

When do I do this? Do I slam down the phone and say in front of the class “Johnny, go to the office at the end of the period”? Do I try to keep on teaching, walk over to Johnny while 30 eyes are on me and whisper the message in Johnny’s ear? Do I wait until the end of the period and tell Johnny as the students are filing out of the room? Will I even remember to do this when the period is over?

After the 50th or so call from the “office” this year, I realized something: none of these calls are important. If there was one such call during the year, it would stick out as an emergency. I would say “oh wow, it must be important, they never call from the office.” But they always call from the office, every day. I am required to step out of my role as educator and into my role as gopher for people too lazy to leave the comfort of their own desk.

My new policy: you want to talk to a kid, go find him/her yourself.

But I suppose I have to be careful what I wish for. There are those other interruptions where visitors physically appear in my classroom. Sometimes it is a school aide who needs to drop off some bit of info for a certain student. Over the past few days, it has been my fellow teachers who have found reason to visit students in my class. Last week, a teacher stood at the threshold of my classroom door (which I keep almost always open) and stared in scanning the rows of students. The students started chuckling at this. A few days ago, a teacher came to my class to drop off some review sheets for his exam.

While I understand there might be those moments that you desperately need to see a few students, I try very hard never to disturb another teacher’s classroom. I believe I have done it once all year and felt terrible about it. What goes on in the classroom is the most important thing to happen inside of a school building. I treat it as a sacred thing. Disturbing class time to me is like handing out leaflets in church while the sermon is taking place.

It is not that I am insecure about my classroom management. It is that I know the type of work that is behind bringing students to a certain intellectual and emotional place. That place is very delicate. Any disturbance, any side comment, even a change in body language can throw off the entire balance. A ringing phone or an outside visitor dispels all of the mystique in one short moment. The class might not get out of control, but that delicate place certainly gets lost.

I was much more tolerant of this stuff at the start of my career. People would call or visit and I might even engage them in empty banter. We would go back to the lesson after the person left without missing much of a beat. After 12 years of visitors and disturbances, it gets tougher for me to be so accommodating.

Part of it is that most people, including teachers, think that students are going to be in groups or working independently when they call or visit. Having the teacher answer the phone or track down a student is not a big deal in these situations, since the teacher is not doing much direct teaching. However, I am a traditionalist. This means that I largely establish the rhythm of the class. Either I am asking a question, writing notes or listening to a student. At the same time, I am formulating where we should go from that point and how to make the next smooth transition. There are a million things happening inside of my brain. A ringing phone or a visiting teacher is very distracting.

I suppose this gets to the heart of the matter. After 33 years on the planet earth with ringing phones, outside obligations, orders barked and the general din of New York City, I value more and more the time that exists for quiet reflection. The classroom is probably one of the only places where kids get a chance to do some actual thinking in a relatively peaceful environment. For 50 minutes, we can seal ourselves off from the world, leave our problems behind and enter a place of abstraction and ideas that few children will rarely experience again.

These are the ramblings of an old man I suppose.  There is nothing I can do to stop these disturbances, but it gets tougher to make my peace with them.

Hats Off to the University of North Carolina Class of 2012

Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are organizing an Alternative Commencement Ceremony to celebrate the achievements of the class of 2012 without symbolically honoring New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who will speak at the official University commencement on May 13th.

Students decided to organize the ceremony in light of Bloomberg’s support for what became a violent eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park, and the NYPD’s repression of credentialed journalists who attempted to enter the park during the eviction process. The students also take issue with Bloomberg’s handling of New York City public schools, for which he has received harsh criticism from teachers, parents, and community members. Organizers are further concerned by the recently exposed NYPD blanket surveillance of Muslim student groups and community centers across the northeast, and most recently by Bloomberg’s public support for the financial giant Goldman Sachs, which has been implicated in manipulative and fraudulent banking practices which contributed to the financial collapse of 2007.

link

This is what we need as Bloomberg starts thinking about national office. He is banking on the fact that being an Independent in an age of odious partisanship will propel his career in federal government.

As teachers in New York City, we want to fight the day-to-day battles against Mayoral control, school closings and charters by taking to the streets. This is necessary work, the type that seems to be getting more popular every day.

We need to use this inspiring work to tarnish Bloomberg’s name on the national stage. He has met with Obama and signaled his willingness to work with a president from either major party. Combine this with his comments about the NYPD being his own army, his desire to fire 50% of NYC teachers and his crusades against smoking and trans-fats and you get a clear picture of an out-of-touch megalomaniac.

It is easy for Bloomberg to be bipartisan, because he is a corporatist with the means to fund his own political career. He does not need to latch on to any major party to run a political campaign.

This helps explain his fear of Occupy. Occupy is bipartisan in its own way, more accurately post-partisan, and the last thing he wants is a grassroots movement to steal his thunder. He wants to represent the next stage of politics where party does not matter. Yet, it is just a stage and is designed to maintain the corporate status quo.

Occupy is more than a stage. It represents a new era aimed at dismantling corporatism. It, like Bloomberg, keeps its distance from both major parties. They are Bloomberg’s direct competitor.

Hopefully, the coming American Spring will end up destroying Bloomberg’s national reputation. As we can see from the University of North Carolina, that process has already started.

Teachers Disgruntled

The end of March always seems to wreck the nerves of teachers. We have been without a day off for almost a month, which is a long time in the world of education. Sometimes the stress has a tendency to pile up by  this time of year, leading to an increased amount of teacher venting.

A colleague of mine today explained that he could not keep up working in a system that does appreciate it workers.

A few days ago, another colleague of mine wrote this message via Facebook (come get me, Walcott). I thought it warranted its own post, since it nicely expresses things that many others are surely feeling:

The funny thing is that in the “real” world we would never ask a cardiologist to perform brain surgery. It would be a recipe for disaster, but in the educational world high school teachers are asked to get kids with 3rd grade reading levels through a high school level regents class. Math teachers are asked to teach literacy to their students. Why? How did a freshman in high school with a third grade reading level reach a regents level science class?
Twenty years ago there were fewer administrators, fewer superintendents thus more money was spent in the classroom. Now educational budgets are getting chopped but yet more 6 figure – out of the classroom positions – exist than ever before. So let’s evaluate how well a cardiologist performs brain surgery shall we. I wonder how that will turn out? Hmmm It doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to see this end badly.
And for what? To justify the salaries of these glorified positions? To justify a policy that has been in placed almost a decade now and is obviously failing? What if for every school that closes a superintendent loses their job? Aren’t these schools failing under their watch?
If the quality of Bloomberg’s high school diploma is so high why are colleges increasing the number of remedial courses for incoming freshman?
The mayor, the superintendent have completely lost sight at the problem. 13 years ago when I taught and a student failed my class that student was in the principal’s office with their parent explaining why they failed and how they will fix it. Now a student fails and the teacher is in the office trying to explain why they fail. Did they fail b/c there was no rubric on the wall? Or b/c the teacher did not have a strong Do Now? Or maybe they failed because the teacher did not implement the proper use of Cornell notes. To that I say, you know what they do not do at Cornell? Yup cornell notes.
Thirteen years ago administrators and teachers were not this divided, they worked together and at the end of the day despite their differences it was understood they had each others back.
The system is so focused on meaningless numbers they have lost sight of the people behind the numbers, the students. I recently told my students (a group of juniors with freshman credits) that they treat their grade like the D.O.E. treats them. “You kids want your 65 but have forgotten what it means to earn a 65, or an 85 and dare I say a 55. Just like the D.O.E. wants it’s data but has completely lost sight of the person behind the data”. They have completely devalued education. What it means to educate. In order for true growth to occur a person must learn responsibility and most experience failure, thus learning from their mistakes. How is a student going to learn responsibility when the teacher is responsible for that student’s irresponsibility. How is a system going to grow when they don’t see passed their ego’s to admit their mistakes.
Education has lost it’s integrity, it’s unity. It will never succeed unless we stop dividing the roles and come back to a united front putting the kids first and the numbers second.

Had to vent
Had to vent

Dennis Walcott, Ruthless Puritan

There is something a little too neat about Dennis Walcott.

The City of New York has learned a great deal about Dennis Walcott over the past few weeks. We learned that Walcott wants to ban teachers from friending students on Facebook, and probably wants to ban teachers from using Facebook altogether. Now, we learn that Walcott’s Department of Education wants test makers to avoid 50 topics that might cause students mental duress.

Dinosaurs made the list, since they imply evolution and cause an existential crisis with creationists. Halloween might cause students to worship statues. Junk food might make students think they are unhealthy. Homelessness and poverty might remind students that they might be homeless and poor, especially if they are homeless and poor.

To say most of the topics on this list are absurd would be an understatement. It reminds me of Diane Ravitch’s book The Language Police, where she describes how textbook and testing companies bend over backwards to mollify every special interest group that might have the clout to sue them.

Banning these topics from standardized exams has far-reaching implications.

Teachers in New York know that a good part of their evaluations will rely upon standardized exam scores. This means that a great deal of class time will be spent on test prep. That means that a great deal of class time will not be spent covering any of these topics. While banning these words do not directly impact the curriculum, it is obvious that they will impact it nonetheless.

The most unfortunate, yet not surprising, proscription is the one against poverty. So many NYC public school students are poor that banning any mention of poverty is tantamount to educational malpractice. If education does not help a student take stock of the world in which they live, as well as their place in that world, then it is worse than useless. There can be no better way to discount a child’s feelings than to make completely invisible the conditions that shape their life.

 As I have said before, if students are not encouraged to think and take stock of their conditions, then they surely will not have the ability to overturn them.

Although this list of banned topics was probably not the sole product of Dennis Walcott, he has defended them nonetheless. Coming on the heels of his stance on teachers on Facebook, it paints a picture of Walcott’s character.

Dennis Walcott has the values of a Puritanical schoolmarm straight out of the Victorian Era. He has constantly exhorted teachers to hold themselves to an impossible moral standard. His words are spoken with tightened lips and his proscriptions are as severe as Oliver Cromwell himself. The Panel of Educational Policy meetings over which he regularly presides considers no dissenting viewpoints. If teachers, parents and students conduct a people’s mic check, he merely stands there stone-faced with folded arms. If the people are too loud, he merely moves the meeting to a private room or adjourns until a time when most people are asleep.

Walcott is a man thoroughly convinced of his own righteousness. He is the worst type of human being: the type that has ascended the ranks of power with a clear conscience. He takes his position as proof of the righteousness of his cause.

Someone with this type of rigid, crusading mentality is not the type of person you want running an education system, let alone the largest education system in the country. While he is not as slimy as Joel Klein or as embarrassing as Cathie Black, he is every bit as repressive as either of them. While true learning is a vast messy field of contradiction, Walcott’s world is one of small, neat dogmas. He suffers no debate, entertains no doubts and presses forward as inexorable and unreflective as Torquemada during the Inquisition.

This is exactly the type of person the corporate reformers want running school systems. He has thoroughly tyrannized himself into following a neat authoritarian mindset. He sets the example, as well as the policies, that promise to tyrannize the generations of tomorrow.

The cold wind that blows through the soul of Dennis Walcott is the cold wind of a bleak future for all of us.

Bloomberg’s Corporate Schools

The New York City Teaching Fellows program is similar to Teach for America. Fellows are usually drawn from other professions with offers of a subsidized master’s degree and mentoring in their first year of teaching. They are usually sent to the toughest schools. It was a program conceived in an era of teacher shortage, an era that no longer exists.

Now, the Department of Education is talking of overhauling the program. Among other things, their plan calls for starting Fellows off in the classrooms earlier, so as to give them more supervised experience.

This is a solution that does not get at the issues raised by the teachers quoted in the article. Their problem lies more with the fact that they are not supported by their administrators in their all-important first year. They may get mentors from the Fellows program, but those mentors are not doing the job.

Unfortunately, what the Fellows quoted in this article face is the norm for all first-year teachers, no matter what type of program they are a part of. The Bloomberg system revolves around the idea that school administrators are nothing more than middle-management. That is to say, they are paper pushers and bureaucrats who are expected to enforce all the written and unwritten policies coming down from Tweed.

This means that administrators are not expected to be educators.

Now, there are still some principals in the system who are true educators. My first principal was a charismatic man who hired a mentor to work with me for the first two years of my career. That experience made me the educator I am today. I will be forever grateful to that principal for dedicating scarce school resources to ensure that his younger teachers got the most out of their careers and their students.

Sadly, this principal was forced out of the system. I did not know it at the time, but the times were changing. Bloomberg had just taken office and he was determined to be the “education mayor”. Administrators who actually took an interest in quality instruction, visited classrooms and provided needed resources to their teachers were not longed for the Department of Education.

What we have now, thanks to the small schools movement, is a proliferation of administrators. The number of principals has greatly expanded while the pool of talent from which they are drawn is greatly diminished. Thanks to the revolving door that the teaching profession has become, there are very few veteran educators available to become principals. Instead, what we have is a generation of new teachers who have not been properly trained, never been properly mentored and never had true fulfillment or success in the classroom. They see administration as their way out, not to mention up, and they throw themselves solely into being good Tweedies.

This is, of course, a generalization. There are still principals around like the one that stabilized my career, but they are few and far between. The best principals shield their teachers from the most destructive dictates that come from Tweed. The vast majority of them, however, ensure that their staffs get the full brunt of what Tweed hands down. After all, this might be their ticket to even greater power and authority. They might become a superintendent or a consultant for their good works.

These are the connections that the Daily News needs to make in this article. Bloomberg has been a neutron bomb for public schools in New York City. He has killed anything of life inside of them and replaced it with a mechanical, corporate-driven atmosphere. The focus is not on education at all, but on self-preservation. Administrators largely are out to secure their jobs or get better ones. The erosion of tenure has made teachers less likely to take risks by speaking out against injustices. Everyone is atomized into their own individual spaces, afraid of rocking the boat or thinking for themselves.

That is the atmosphere that the Teaching Fellows are describing. They are thrown into a classroom and told to fend for themselves. Those that actually do not delude themselves understand that they are not able to provide a quality education to their students in such circumstances. Those that care about nothing other than preserving their jobs will live with the sub-par educations they provide and hitch their wagons to their principal’s star. These will turn out to be the Tweedies of tomorrow.

This is the true meaning of mayoral control. It is why education in New York City has become a yoke, even more so than it was before, for both teachers and students.

I would venture a guess that this is why Bloomberg loves charter schools. They are a pure form of his corporate philosophy that dominates the DOE. Teachers have no rights, students are subjected to corporal punishment and principals see themselves as nothing more than data pushers and money-managers.

No matter what overhaul the DOE has in mind for the Teaching Fellows, nothing will change until the little man at the top goes away.

The Secularist’s Rise

Atheists gathered this past Saturday in Washington, D.C. for what they called the “Reason Rally”. The purpose, according to a quote in this article, was to show America that “we are here and we will never be silenced again.”

An estimated 30,000 people of diverse backgrounds showed up. It was a heartening turnout for what is becoming a necessary cause in the United States of America.

Since the end of the 1960s, a Christian fundamentalist movement has been afoot. There were wide swaths of the population who were disoriented by the changes of that era. Technology, morals, politics and everything else were undergoing rapid change. Religion provided solid answers and stability amidst these changes.

The simplicity of fundamentalism made it a great vehicle for political organization. We started seeing signs of this with the election of Jimmy Carter, who wore his religion on his sleeve and even in his policies. Through televangelism, Jesus camps and church organization, southern-style Christianity became a form of political activism. The Culture Wars of the early 1990s provided the fertile ground needed to turn the Democrats out of Congress and elect a crop of very Christian Republicans. This bore fruit later with Clinton’s impeachment and the election of George W. Bush.

Since this time, we have seen attacks on women’s reproductive rights, homosexuals and Muslims. We have taken to seriously debating the merits between creation and evolution, as if they occupy the same intellectual plane. We have become a country where policies inspired by a small but organized group of Christian fundamentalists impact the lives of everyone around the world.

Around this trend is the rise of a counter narrative of American history that portrays the Founding Fathers as intolerant Christians. Although the Founders talked a lot about God, it was the God of Enlightenment Deism that ruled their day. It was a mechanical God, a “watchmaker” as Isaac Newton would say, under which they lived. It was a God that had created the universe and then walked away, allowing humans to use their brains to divine the underlying laws of nature.

So, it is necessary that the secularists gathered in the nation’s capital over the weekend. Unbelievers need to show that they can be a political force as well. Leaders need to see that there is a base of very organized, very vocal Americans who feel attacked by religious fundamentalism.

At the same time, secularists need to take care of not falling into the trap of the fundamentalists. It is very easy to be dogmatic. My own views on religion are complex. I am more agnostic than anything. There is a danger of falling into dogma whether you are a believer or unbeliever. What the secularists are fighting against is the intolerance, the demagoguery, the arrogance of Christian fundamentalism. We should be careful not to replace religious dogmatism with secular dogmatism.

What we should be fighting for is a free and open society. There are atheists who are just as demeaning as fundamentalists. Faith in science can be just as severe and unyielding as faith in God. Our aim should not to be severe, but to be free.

First Marking Period Blues

True learning

I put in the grades for the first marking period today. Our school year is divided into two semesters, each with three marking periods. The marking periods last for roughly 6 weeks. Once the grades are in, parents will come down this coming Thursday and Friday for parent-teacher conferences. This is one of my least favorite times of the school year.

There is no way to put a number on teaching and learning. Trying to do it six weeks into a semester is an exercise in futility. One can say that the grades should only be based on the work a student has done up until that point. That is theoretically the purpose, but I do not see things so simply.

There are students who have been trying, but struggling through the material. They may not have earned a passing grade based purely on the work they have done up until this point. How can I fail a kid who has been trying but just not getting it? This is a potentially devastating proposition. They will think that all of their work is in vain, stop trying and then there is little hope that I will ever get that student back.

Since my school is annualized, I have been with the same students since September. There are some who are not doing so well, yet they are doing way better than the end of the previous semester. Again, giving these students a failing grade is potential disaster than can have long-term consequences.

On the flipside, there are students who are doing very well. Some are the bright students that do well with all material, in all subjects with all teachers. Others are doing well because they like the particular subject matter we have covered, or find the work at this stage particularly easy or have buckled down and promised to turn over a new leaf. For these students, too high of a grade would give them a false sense of success. Yes, they have been successful up until this point, but it might just be a stage. What happens when they start to struggle with the harder stuff a few weeks down the line? They will get the next marking period grade, see that it has gone down and that puts them in the same demoralized boat as any other student who has been trying but failing.

I am sure most teachers can sympathize with these things. Parents, on the other hand, are much less sympathetic. There are generally two types of parents who come to parent-teacher night: the ones who accept everything I say about their children and the ones who act as their children’s advocate. The latter parents assume that I am short-changing their child’s grades and will harp on every little detail in my grade book. It is understandable that they want what is best for child’s future. For me, it is a fine line to travel between sympathizing with their concerns and dismissing them as much ado about nothing.

The first thing I tell parents, as well as my students, is that these first marking period grades mean nothing. They do not appear on any permanent record and they are not used to determine any grades for future marking periods. The only grades that “matter” are the grades for the end of the semester. Some parents understand and some plain do not buy it. They think I am blowing a bunch of hot air.

What I really want to say is that the concept of attaching a number to the way a student learns is ridiculous. I want to tell them that their children need less television, less designer clothing, less internet access, more reading, more quiet time and more guidance. I really want to tell them that the best service they could provide is to be a guide for their children. Going for my jugular because they perceive that their child deserves an extra 5 points on a silly piece of paper does nothing but send the message that the learning process is all on me. How can I reach a kid whose brain is so pickled in pop culture that as soon as they hear the term “Hundred Years’ War” or “Mongol Empire”, they tune right out? How do you reach a kid who is thinking of the latest Justin Bieber chorus all of the time while sitting in my class?

There are ways to reach them, for sure, but my job is much tougher because I have to dig through layers of corporate brainwashing to get anywhere. I see these parents, many coming in their work clothes, looking exhausted and exasperated, and cannot find it in my heart to excoriate them for helping turn their children’s minds into mush. Many of them work well over 8 hours a day and have other responsibilities as well. Many are single mothers barely holding things together. Now, this middle class jerk is sitting there in his tie, telling me that my kid should read more? Who does he think he is?

This is another argument in favor of unions, worker rights and an increased standard of living for all. How can parents raise their children when they have to work around the clock to put food on the table?

So, I keep my mouth shut about these things, patiently hoping that they will see that school is not about grades. Every parent-teacher conference reminds me why I have so many students obsessed with their grades. Their parents are hoping beyond hope that this school is a ticket to a better life for their children. They want their kids to get those grades, get that diploma and go off into life with the tools they need to succeed.

Unfortunately, high school diplomas and college degrees are a dime a dozen, although they do not cost that little. What is rare are people who are active and engaged citizens. What is rare are people who can think about the world around them and figure out that not everything is the neat, clean and just system that it pretends to be.

Just once, I would like to get a parent angry about something other than a low grade.