Banging My Head Against A Wall I Can’t See

09/30/2009
Blank Sheet of Paper
Image by mark78_xp via Flickr

I’m tired.

I’m sore.

I’m frustrated and drained.

I know that teaching is a physically demanding profession, but I expected to feel better after my first day back following two weeks of enforced rest due to an ailing knee.

Instead I feel like I don’t want to face going to work tomorrow, particularly since the 8th grade class is my first period.

It is so important to get off to a good start with a class. That didn’t happen with the 8th graders. I only had one session with them before I got hurt and apparently I did not establish myself enough to carry over for the two weeks I was out.

Where my 6th grade class wanted to talk about my knee more than they wanted to follow my lesson plan, at least they acknowledged that I was there.

The 8th graders barely noticed that I was in the room. The dozen or so I was able to reach for the first part of the class joined in the socializing of the other 26 before it was half over

All my apprehensions about having to teach a large class for the first time in my career are coming true. I so much want to go back to teaching special education classes of twelve.

I have no idea how to walk into this class two weeks into the school year and establish routines, especially when I can’t get them to stop talking long enough for me to say hello.

When the bell finally rang after 43 minutes of near chaos, I was stunned when about half the students crowded around me asking what the homework was.

As I was sitting in my car after school, waiting for the Triple-A garage to come deal with a flat tire (yeah, it was one of those days) I heard someone in a radio story on NPR say that teaching is a constant process of recovering and learning from lessons that failed.

Today should have been one hell of an education.

First period tomorrow I have to do something different than what I did today and different from what I did twe weeks ago.

Right now I have no idea what that something is.

I hate feeling inept.

And I have no idea how I’m going to figure it out.

I hate feeling this empty.

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I’m Not In The Game

09/16/2009
flip_front
Image by Terry Freedman via Flickr

I’m not teaching this week and I may miss a few days next week.

I’m not happy about it.

I tore something in my knee and can’t walk until its repaired, probably sometime early next week.

One of my associates on twitter says I’m getting grumpy because I’m hurting.

I told him to deal with it.

Grumpy, indeed.

Now I know how baseball players on the disabled list feel. At least they get to go watch the games.

Another member of my twitter crowd says my students will miss me.

My students don’t know me, and I don’t know them.

I taught three days before becoming disabled. I’m just some large old guy in their eyes.

They may not even remember my name. But I’ll know theirs because of an idea I picked up on twitter.

On my first session with each class I took my Flip Video camera and had each student say their name, one or two things about themselves, and their name again. I’m spending my time watching the videos and connecting names with faces and interests. I even know how to pronounce all the names.

I wish I could credit the person who gave me this tip, but I don’t recall who it was. I’ve learned so much from my twitter PLN that its almost impossible to recall who taught me what even though I’m sure they’re all very memorable teachers.

While its great that I’ll know my students’ names, I’ll have other fences to climb.

Right now my students are not learning the procedures I want them to follow, not taking the assessments I created to test their prior knowledge. They’re not tuned in to my plans for the year.

Neither am I. Even though I knew I’d be teaching general education students this year I did not plan well. If what I saw and heard in the discussions on the first day or two are indicative, I have seriously underestimated the thought processes and knowledge of my 6th grade class. I only had one session with my 8th grade class and we spent that doing the name video and a bit of paperwork, but I bet I made the same underestimation of them.

Teaching requires a constant series of evaluations of and adjustments to the needs and abilities of students.

Continuing my baseball analogy, teaching is like playing shortstop. You keep track of the game situation and generally plan what to do if the ball is his towards you. You plan for a ball on the ground and for one in the air (with tech and if the tech doesn’t work), but you still need to react to the specific speed, spin and placement of that hit that just left the bat.

Some teachers are as good as Derek Jeter and others are more like Heinie Sand, but we all have to deal with the balls hit to us or the students in front of us.

I’ll get back on my feet and back in the game. I’ll adjust, and my students might also.

So what if we start a few games behind.

It’s a long season.

We can still be champions.

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Hard Beginning, Harder Ending?

09/13/2009
Bloomberg giving a speech.
Image via Wikipedia

This has not been the best start to the school year and definitely not the beginning I Imagined.

First, the teacher whose room I was to move into, let’s call her Z, refused to move out.

Back in June I suggested that she box her stuff and I would come in and move it to her new room before we were due to report to work for the new term.

I arrived a week early on wheels. The wheels were on my hand truck and mover’s dolly. I was ready to work, but the room wasn’t.

Nothing was packed.

Meanwhile, the new teacher moving into my room from last year was also in the building ready to start fixing up the room for her students.

I had to take all my things out of the closets and move them to the front of the room where they sat for a week until all teachers had to report to work on Tuesday.

I was sure Z would start moving her stuff.  I was wrong.

At two PM, just three hours before the building would close on the day before students arrived she finally came to the room where I was doing my best to set-up around her stuff.

When she said, “I guess I should go find some boxes,” I just growled.

Needless to say, my room was not ready for students when they arrived on Wednesday. Or Thursday.  Finally on Friday I had students in my room.

But I had no desk and no bookcases.

Eventually desks and chairs arrived, but still no bookcases.

The school was out of bookcases.

Imagine, a reading program with no bookcases.

Also on Friday the room’s computer arrived, but without a keyboard or mouse.

The school was out of them, too.

In addition to teaching reading to special education students I teach social studies to general education 6th and 8th grade students in a different room.

The sixth graders fit into the room. There are 28 desks and chairs and there are 28 sixth graders in the classroom.

There are 35 eighth graders and when they came into the room they were sitting on the bookcases (yes, that room has them), on the windowsills (not allowed, but what could I say, the only alternative was the floor), and leaning against a wall.

There are 35 desks in their homeroom just down the hall, but that room’s teacher was giving the seventh grade students ELA instruction. There were seven empty desks because there are only 28 of them, but it is too difficult to move desks and chairs from room to room every period change.

It is especially difficult because in the process of moving the dozens of boxes of books from my old room to my bookcase-less new one, I pulled muscles in my groin and abdomen, which set off back spasms.

Like I said, not the best of starts.

Now I’m not a complainer, but I was frustrated and posted about it to Twitter. My Personal Learning Network responded. My PLN includes classroom teachers, tech specialists, principals, librarians and university professors from around the world, and they have taught me more in my year on Twitter than all my years of college and grad school did combined.

Ironically, my first responder was former NYC policeman Ira Socol, now a doctoral student at Michigan State University

tweetdeck 5

Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of NYC, insisted that if he got control of the schools they would run better and he’s been loudly and consistently claiming success ever since.

Ira doesn’t vote in NYC anymore, so he set his sights a little higher in trying to get me what I need.

ira #1

This was quickly followed by…

courosa

Retweets spread news and ideas like ripples around a stone dropped in a pond. Each retweet is a new stone.

tweetdeck #3tweetdeck #2tweetdeck #1

A little time passed, then a second wave began…

secondwave #1

And so on.

I haven’t heard from the White House yet, but I understand the President’s been busy trying to get health care straightened out.

Maybe when he gets done with that I’ll get some bookcases, a keyboard and a mouse.

Don’t hold your breath.

Unless you have really good health insurance, that is.

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First Day Observations: Pulling Back the Curtain To See the Wizards

09/10/2009
William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficul...
Image via Wikipedia

School started for real today.

I like the way my school does opening day. When the weather is nice, the homeroom teachers stand in the schoolyard with picket-like signs bearing class numbers and wait for their students to arrive.

Administrators, counselors, and non-homeroom teachers like myself roam the schoolyard with lists of all the students and their assigned classes so we can direct new students and those who’ve forgotten their assignments to the right place.

Everyone is very excited and the whole scene takes on the atmosphere of a reunion. It is fun to see students returning and to meet those arriving for the first time. The former are confident, smiling and effusive while the latter group is less sure of themselves and somewhat wary.

Parents of returning students greet teachers warmly (for the most part) while those we meet for the first time seek reassurance and answers to questions about uniforms, supplies and dismissal times. I linger in the yard with a box of tissues to disperse to happy or overwrought parents for drying their tears.

We all feel good about school for a while, and it is always interesting to see how long that good feeling lasts. I rarely get up to the third floor of our building, but on our second floor that good feeling made it all the way through the day.

I taught my first general education class this afternoon and found out that sixth graders can be polite and coherent and that some know way more about Mayan civilization than I do. That last bit is actually no big accomplishment, but I came away impressed and much more relaxed about having 34 students in the class instead of the 12 I got used to teaching special ed.

I roamed from class to class in our academy of five classes, one general education class for each of our three grades (6,7,8) and a self-contained special education class in the two lower grades. I’ll be teaching social studies to the 6th and 8th grade general education classes and reading to the two special education classes as well as another from a different academy.

All the teachers in our academy conveyed the same information about uniforms, procedures, trips, activities, and more, and it was interesting for me to wander from class to class and see the differences in delivery

I’m starting my sixth year teaching and today was the first time since student teaching that I could watch another teacher conduct a class.  I don’t know what the students learned today, but I got great insight into the teaching personalities of my colleagues.

This is not how it should be.

Teachers need to be able to see each other teach. We need to see what works and what doesn’t. We need to hear how a lesson is delivered, or observe how technology is used.

Almost all the proposals for making schools better have some language about spreading best practices. The more extreme ideas include taping a skilled teacher delivering a lesson and showing that lesson to students around the country.

That suggestion ignores the fact that one of the prime predictors of student achievement is the quality of the relationship between student and teacher.

Putting the silly proposals aside, there are still powerful reasons for having teachers watch each other.

But despite the almost universal approval of interclass and interschool observation it almost never happens because if I’m going to watch you teach someone else has to cover my class since I won’t be in it.

Coverages are expensive in dollars and student learning. No one wants to bear either cost.

That’s the funny thing about this whole discussion of improving education. It goes on and on and on despite no one having any intention of making any real changes.

You see, real change is expensive and, as I said in my last post, if it works they pull the money rug out from under you.

As one of my colleagues responded, it makes no sense to punish schools for doing better.

Nope. No sense at all.

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Good News! And Maybe The Opposite.

09/09/2009
no original description
Image via Wikipedia

We got good news today.

It was leaked to us late last week, but today we were officially told.

Our school had met Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals in all categories and subgroups for the second year in a row. We were now officially a school in good standing under NCLB (No Child Left Behind).

Four years ago we were on the verge of being closed because of our history of failure.

Our then newly minted principal started changing the school’s atmosphere, expectations and attitude. Staff started to meet, reflect and change the way they taught.

Extra money was allocated to pay for extra professional development, new materials and Supplementary Education Services (SES).

The turnaround was not easy and not without turmoil, tears and other tribulations, but it was complete.

Going from failure to success was quite an accomplishment by our students, and our staff.

We could not have done it without the help of the Supplementary Education Services, mostly after-school tutoring and enrichment programs, we were able to bring in.

It was a complex and rich recipe that worked.

It worked.

It worked well. And quickly.

So you might think that the things that worked so well would continue.

Not even for a second.

Today we also got some potentially bad news.

As soon as we made AYP for the second year running all the extra money was removed from our budget.

Goodbye extra training.

Goodbye new materials.

Supplementary services were withdrawn. Completely. Cold turkey.

Does this make sense to you?

Not to us either.

We think the extra supports should have been withdrawn gradually, perhaps over two years in order to give us a chance to lock-in our gains.

Students arrive tomorrow.

By the end of this year we’ll find out how we will do without our crutches, without even a cane.

One more reason this will be an interesting year.

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Stand Up For America and Intelligence!

09/05/2009
Ida May Fuller, the first recipient
Image via Wikipedia

People expect a lot from teachers.

We are expected to teach children to read, write, do math, understand science, appreciate history and think clearly.

We try hard.  We do our best and we try to be open to the best practices available for use. We buy supplies, we take work home, we come to school early and stay late

It has taken a while, but schools seem to be getting on the right track for reading, math and science.

Reading scores seem to be going up. Math scores seem to be rising. Science is getting more attention lately. Much more needs to be done, but what we’ve done so far is starting to work.

History and thinking seem to be areas where teachers struggle.

Some say it’s a matter of not enough time devoted and others say it’s a lack of resources.

Others say poor teaching is why students don’t appreciate history and can’t think clearly.

All the above is true, at least to some extent.

History and logic get short shrift in schools obsessed with raising reading and math test scores. Time and resources that might be devoted to history and reasoning are deployed elsewhere. For the most part, teachers are not encouraged to learn more about history and how to teach it.

That’s why we need your help.

We need newspaper editors, reporters and columnists, television commentators, political pundits, radio phone-in hosts and their readers, viewers or listeners to do something.

STOP!

Stop exaggerating.

Stop misleading.

Stop blaming.

Stop making doomsday projections.

Stop name-calling.

Stop seeing a socialist around every corner while still planning to benefit from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Stop seeing a McCarthyite reactionary or Marxist revolutionary every time someone opposes something you support.

Stop treating Americans like morons, especially when they seem to want to be treated that way.

Stop treating Americans like morons, especially when they, in your humble opinion, act like morons.

Stop dumbing down your nation.

Every teacher knows that modeling is a powerful teaching tool.

Think about what you model as you go through your day.

Think about how what you say, and how you say it, teaches the next generation about what this country believes in and how it should conduct itself.

So stand up for what you believe, but also …

Be true to your values.

Understand that a dumb nation is a dangerous nation.

Understand that a dumb nation is a nation in danger.

Accept that the world is changing and the US is not exempt from that process.

Disagree all you want, but do it with intelligence, reason, style and respect.

Disagree, but do it with information, not obfuscation.

Remember history, not deny it.

Enlighten, not mislead.

Reveal, not revile.

Rejoice that we live in a nation that allows dissent.

Show the world how we make that freedom work for everyone’s benefit.

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Outside My Comfort Zone? Way Out.

09/01/2009
Table set for the Passover Seder
Photo by Gila Brand, via Wikipedia

I am a creature of habit.

I read the Sunday New York Times Magazine on Saturday.

I always put on my right shoe first.

At Passover a song is sung that talks about all the good things God did for the Jews. If He only brought us out of slavery, Dayenu, it would have been enough.

My principal decided to push me out of my comfort zone this year.  He says I will become a better teacher as a result

Dayenu.

I’ve already written about how, for the first time in my career, I’ll be teaching general education students.

Dayenu.

I’ll be teaching a grade I’ve never taught.

Dayenu.

I’m going to teach differently by integrating technology into my teaching.

Dayenu.

I’m not going to have my own classroom.

Dayenu.

I’m sharing a room with three other teachers.

Dayenu, dayenu, dayenu.

There’s stepping outside one’s comfort zone and then there’s what I’m looking at as I look forward to the arrival of students next week.

I know its about those students, not about me, but I wonder how much more effective a teacher they would have if I were more comfortable at work.

I’ll let you know as the year goes on.

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