The Question is Asked, the Conversation Begins

02/10/2013

It started with this question: Why aren’t our students making more progress?

One day late last week a third of the staff stayed more than two hours after school to discuss the possibility of our becoming a magnet school of sorts. The sort isn’t important, but the conversations about it are. horseshoe magnet

No one had asked that question before. We’d been told that we had to have our students make progress and we’ve been given a host of different programs to cause that to happen, but none of it was working.

In small groups we had serious conversations to answer that question. Among other ideas, each group mentioned a lack of student motivation as a major part of the problem. In response my principal said words that I never expected to come from his mouth, words I’d been saying and writing for a number of years. “The reason our students are not motivated is because school is not working for them.”

It’s not the students’ fault, he said, and not the teachers’ either.

“Students are not motivated because the way we do school, the structure of the day, the changing of classes at 42 minute intervals, isolation of subject areas from each other, none of it is working.”

For a moment it was silent. Then the conversations started. We talked about our own positive and negative experiences in school and why they occurred. We talked about how we’d change the structure of the day, the physical plant of the school, the curriculum.

Some were defensive, feeling that what they do and how they do it was under attack. We agreed that some kids thrive in the current mode of operation. Others were for change. There were even a couple who, like me, were ready to trash the system and start over.

We won’t get the opportunity to do that. And we may not win the $3,000,000 grant that would allow us to make a lot of changes and train ourselves on how to make them work. It’s not that the grant doesn’t matter, but one of the most important parts of the change has already occurred.

It happened when our principal asked that question and created an anything-goes safe zone in which we could explore answers.

Now that the conversation has started, it is up to us to keep it going.

We are the change that needs to happen.


I matter

09/18/2012

I used to be very shy. VERY shy. Then Angela Maiers showed me that I matter. 

It was three years ago at a major technology education conference in Washington, DC. I thought of it again this weekend because I was in DC with Angela for the first Bammy Awards for Excellence in Education.

The NECC was my first education conference and it is a huge one. Five days and tens of thousands of people. I had been on Twitter for a few months and had made some soft connections; I’d had some conversations with people and I knew a few names. At that time my handle was @spedteacher, being shy I used my job at the time instead of my name as a moniker. I was a very small presence despite my large size.

In many ways the NECC was a huge step for me. I had not yet met anyone I knew through Twitter face-to-face and I was in awe of the knowledge, the experience and expertise of the people I followed there. I was learning so much and wanted to learn more. I always want to learn more. Curiosity is my driving force. So I decided to go to NECC.

Attending NECC was an expensive proposition. Registration is a few hundred dollars; DC hotels were not cheep and were at a premium, especially those within walking distance of the convention center. When a teacher from upstate NY, who I didn’t even know through Twitter, contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to share my hotel room so we could both cut our expenses I only hesitated for a moment before agreeing. Fortunately, Ryan Wassink and I got along well.

One of the features of the NECC is what they call a Bloggers Cafe where people gather to write their blogs, chat with others and generally just process the huge amount of information being presented. In this instance the cafe was a collection of small tables and cushioned benches and couches of different heights. I would go there and sit off away from anyone else. I was VERY shy.

One afternoon I got to the cafe and it was fairly empty, I sat on a bench leaning my back against the side of the empty couch next to it. I did not yet have this blog so I was on Twitter looking at tweets about the sessions I was not able to attend. Some people came and the cafe began to fill up. There was an interesting conversation going on behind me and I was listening intently. At one point I turned around to see who these people were and as soon as I did this very pretty woman looked at me and said, “You’re spedteacher!”

That woman was Angela Maiers. Angela is an award-winning educator, speaker, consultant and professional trainer known for her work in literacy, leadership and global communications. She is a big deal. She recognized me. And she introduced me to everyone else in the conversation. Then Angela asked me what my take was on the topic.

I have no idea what the topic was, but I will never forget that Angela thought what I had to say mattered.

Angela has been telling people that they matter for a long time. She talks about it, she writes about it, and she lives it.

I’m writing this to tell you that you matter, and I’m writing this to tell Angela how she mattered to me. Angela recently started a group on Facebook called Choose2Matter. She, and it, have helped me change my teaching this year.

I’m telling my students that they matter. It started the first time I saw them and played them this message (make sure your sound is on, then click the play button!)

There are geniuses here!

I asked them to tell me about the kind of genius they are. Engagement was instantaneous. They all wanted to make a Voki and tell their message about the kind of genius they are and how they matter.Everyone got right to work, thinking, writing planning.

All except one small girl who just sat there staring at her paper. I went to her, knelt to her level and asked if she was okay. She nodded yes. I asked if she was having difficulty writing. She nodded yes. I said, “you’re very shy, aren’t you?” She nodded yes. I told her to whisper in my ear the problem she was having.

She leaned over, cupped her hands around my ear and softly said, “I don’t know what kind of genius I am.”

I whispered back, “I don’t know you yet so I don’t know and can’t tell you what kind of genius you are, but my first job this year is to help you discover it for yourself and learn how to show it to the world.”

She smiled.

I mattered.

Thank you, Angela.


Education Ideas, cheap!

07/24/2012
English: Looking northeast across Lex and 91st...

English: Looking northeast across Lex and 91st at 92nd Street Y. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes you get more than you pay for.

That is certainly the case with the #140edu conference next week at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan where, if you are a teacher or student, $1.40 buys you two days of ideas, inspiration, conversation and connection with some of the more thoughtful, challenging, and engaging educators who have used social media in their classrooms or individual learning.

I should warn you, these are long days. Both of them, July 31 and August 1, start at 8:30AM and run until 5:45PM, with only 45 minutes for lunch, but don’t worry. You don’t have to sit and listen to it all. You can get up, walk out, go to the networking room or step outside, then go back for more. Trust me, you will need to do this because your head will explode if you don’t.

Just plan to be back in the hall by 11:50AM on the first day. That’s when I’ll be talking about How to Make Dropping Out of School Work for You. I don’t want to go into my whole talk here, but the thesis is that one can get an equivalent or better education using social media as one can by attending high school. I have no idea how I got included with the otherwise distinguished list of educators presenting here, but I did. Please come and disagree with me. Educators can register here for just $1.40 for the two days (you can disagree with a lot of people and make the conference even more cost effective if you like).

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...

English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you do go, and I hope you will, please come and say hello. I’ll be the one with the exploded head.


Through the Education Standards Looking Glass

05/20/2012

Detail of Lewis Carroll memorial window This i...

Detail of Lewis Carroll memorial window This is the bottom central pane of the memorial window – see [284591] (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I shouldn’t be surprised. I know I should be used to it by now.
But it still gets to me when I see how duplicitous, disingenuous, distrustful and distant our government and education leaders are.

So much so that they are dangerous.

Education in the state of New York is under the control of a Board of Regents. They run the Department of Education and oversee every school district in the state. They set the rules for graduation and all the other rules governing how schooling is done in the state.

They also license barbers. They should stick to that and give up all the rest. Here’s why.

As early as 1995, the New York Board of Regents called for higher standards of education and stricter requirements for graduation from high school. Then they raised the standards.

This is from a report of the Public Policy Institute, a business group:

“In April of 1996, the state Board of Regents acted unanimously to set new standards that will require students in New York State to pass Regents exams in order to receive a high-school diploma. These exams, which formerly were required only of students going for the optional Regents Diploma, are the centerpiece of New York’s effort to upgrade educational outcomes.”

Regents Exams are content specific tests unique to New York. They were not new when I was alternately attending and dropping out of high schools in the late 1960s.

Then in 2011, the Regents announced they were raising standards again, making the tests more rigorous to show how important education is in NY and to show how well prepared NY students are for college and unstable career paths

All well and good, you say. High expectations and high standards are important. I agree.

The NY Regents are about to take another vote on setting high standards for NY students, only this time they’re likely to vote to get rid of the Global History Regents Exam because, get ready for this, because too few students pass it.

They want to make the test optional, perhaps replace it with an extra math or science test.

Here is the August, 2010 Global History Regents. Do you think students should know the answers to most of these questions?

Do the Regents try to figure out why students don’t pass the test? Do the Regents try  improving social studies education so that students are better prepared for the test? Do they try developing resources to help students understand the importance of having a grasp of history?

No, the Regents go about the process of raising standards by lowering them.

`That’s the reason they’re called lessons,’ the Gryphon remarked: `because they lessen from day to day.’

– Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, Chapter IX  (that’s nine, NY Regents).


NY Clarifies Assessment Plans for Teachers and Librarians

05/04/2012
Teachers

Teachers (Photo credit: iwannt)

The NY State Education Department has issued GUIDANCE ON NEW YORK STATE’S ANNUAL PROFESSIONAL PERFORMANCE REVIEW FOR TEACHERS AND PRINCIPALS TO IMPLEMENT EDUCATION LAW §3012-c AND THE COMMISSIONER’S REGULATIONS.

This is the detailed explanation of how Race to the Top bribes have caused the state to assess teachers based on, among a very few other things, student performance on standardized tests. Most of it talks about ELA and Math teachers in grades 4-8 because those subject are the ones for which there are currently standardized exams, as faulty as they are (I’m sure you’ve heard of the pineapple problem; the multiple choice math questions, one with two right answers and the other with none).

Teachers will also be assessed by their principal as to whether they have met Student Learning Objectives. All teachers, except pre-K teachers are included, whether or not they teach subjects covered by standardized exams.

There’s a complex explanation of how the percentages of the influence on student learning any one teacher has will be computed. Examples of the math involved in that are not likely to show up on state tests because I doubt whether most mathematicians would understand it.

The document makes very clear that “School librarians and career and technical teachers are teachers in the classroom teaching service and are, therefore, subject to the new law beginning in the 2012-2013 school year.” (page 17)

How are SLOs for Library/Media Specialists established if these teachers do not 
have regular classes scheduled and only schedule on-demand/teacher-requested 
basis for specific topics and projects? (page 41)
Districts/BOCES will need to determine their specific rules around which courses must have SLOs when contact time varies following the State’s rules and the general principle of including the courses with the most students first and making practical judgments about how to consider different course meeting schedules like those in this example.
Huh?

Our National Story is Ruining Our Nation

04/22/2012
American westward expansion is idealized in Em...

American westward expansion is idealized in Emanuel Leutze's famous painting Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way (1861). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has always been paradox to me that teachers face demands to teach differentially to address learning individualities but only standardized assessment seems to count.

Perhaps there is some confusion. Some people, even some education officials and legislators, seem to think ‘standardized’ refers to holding students to standards, possibly even high ones.

That is not the case.

Standardized just means everyone takes the same test, not for the benefit of students, individually or collectively, but to make it easier for politicians and the media to rank states and districts competitively and mislead parents to think that there is some educational validity to those rankings.

There is not.

Our education system is broken. Taxpayers want to buy an Aston Martin but at Dodge Dart prices. Politicians want to brag or criticize without understanding what they are talking about.

Everyone admires Finland and Singapore but no one wants to make the same investment they make in teacher preparation, ongoing training and providing time for collaboration and reflection. No one seems to care that despite all the wonderful schooling students in Singapore and Finland get, and despite the fact that all those students and their families have adequate housing and healthcare, immigrants still come here, not there, for opportunities for better lives.

That, my friends, is our greatest national asset and its a pity that so few of our leaders are either able to recognize that or willing to acknowledge it.

CATTLE DRIVE - NARA - 543787

CATTLE DRIVE - NARA - 543787 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We suffer from a failure of leadership. It is not a Democrat problem. It is not a Republican problem. It is a national problem, a continuing and deepening of the long-running fantasy narration of rugged individualism in which we tell ourselves that it is the poor’s fault that they are poor, it is the teacher’s fault that education policies don’t work, and, at those times when crime is high, it is the policeman’s fault for eating donuts instead of battling crooks.

Perhaps someday each of us will take responsibility for the direction our nation is heading, take responsibility for our communities, our neighbors and ourselves. I’ll know when that happens because 90% of the eligible voters will cast ballots and show the politicians and policy makers that we really care. Perhaps then we can start addressing problems, trying to fix problems instead of cynically casting blame for them.

Perhaps then.

Perhaps.


What Would Gandhi Do?

04/17/2012
Deutsch: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), polit...

Deutsch: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), politischer und spiritueller Führer von Indien. Ort unbekannt English: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), political and spiritual leader of India. Location unknown. Français : Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), Guide politique et spirituel de l'Inde. Lieu inconnu. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In its infinite wisdom, the New York State Education Department has increased the length of the state ELA and math tests by 50% this year. Now three days each instead of two.

They say that the increase is due to a need to field test questions for future exams based on the Common Core standards.

In other words, they are using our students, our children, as guinea pigs.

Any other field of science requires informed consent before experimenting on human subjects. I’ve never been asked if I consent to the state experimenting on my son. The state is either arrogantly flouting standard scientific procedure or they’re saying my son, and all the other students attending public schools in the state are not human.

Either way, they’re wrong.

I suspect that if asked, they’ll say that sending our children to public schools implies consent.

That’s nonsense.

It is the same as saying that by taking our children to doctors we’re implying consent for them to be used in chemotherapy studies.

I’ve spent part of the past week, and part of a week in February, working in the library of the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan as part of the state-required internship for the MLS degree I am almost done with.

The students at the Ethical Culture School don’t take state tests. Their parents spend $38,000 a year to buy out of them. Yes, somehow, their children get educated and everyone connected with their education knows precisely what each child is learning.

Not many of us can afford to spend $38,000 a year per child for an education that exempts them from state testing that has nothing to do with improving student learning and that also conducts experiments on those students. We have to find a different way to get our sons and daughters out of the grip of the edu-business of standardized exams.

I propose education civil disobedience. We should just keep our children home on testing days. Or if we must send them to school so we can work, teach them to refuse to take the exams.

Yes, it can have a disastrous effect on a school’s AYP if not enough students take the exam. If it happens in one school no one will notice.

If it happens in all the schools in a district people will begin to notice.

And if it happens in a lot of districts our educational leaders will have a decision to make.

They can try to enforce the laws and punish parents, students and schools for the boycott.

Or they can take their ball of data and go away.

At least for a while.


Meeting a Different Student Need

03/18/2012
English: A painting of a teardrop I did.

Image via Wikipedia

Something had happened but I had no idea what.

An announcement told students and teachers not to move to their 7th period assignment when the bell rang ending sixth period, it was being extended…indefinitely.

I had the high-level 8th grade class, the ones I taught social studies to when they were in the 6th and 7th grades. I’ve written about them before

. We’re comfortable with each other and used the extended time to talk about the high schools they’d be going to in September.

The halls were strangely quiet as we’d been told not to give any passes for any reason during this time.

Like many, if not all schools these days, we have procedures to lock down classes if an unauthorized person gets past security, or if anyone has a gun, but those codes had not been given. It wasn’t even a drill.

We waited.

Finally, after about a fifteen minute delay, everyone moved to their 7th period assignment. I still had no idea why we’d been detained.

That is when the four 8th grade girls came into the library sobbing, wailing, and shaking. I feared the worst, that someone had died, perhaps even a student. The girls were so distraught they couldn’t talk. Finally one calmed down enough to tell me that the boyfriend of one of these girls had gotten so upset about something that girl said to him that he had punched his hand through the wall of the cafeteria. In doing that he had sliced the back of his hand open and was bleeding profusely.

An ambulance arrived to take the boy to the hospital. Only after that, permission to move to 7th period came.

The girls were deeply upset. All four had witnessed the punch. One of the girls, a hold over, older than the other by a year or two, said she’d never seen a boy cry before but the puncher was crying while the nurse and an assistant removed his hand from the wall.

The girls worried that the boy would bleed to death. I said it was highly unlikely, but they told me of pools of blood in the cafeteria. Again, I reassured them, telling them that the body has a lot of blood, can afford to lose a pint or two. I also knew from my frequent blood donations that a pint of blood looks like a really large amount.

Middle school is a difficult time for most students. Bodies are changing, emotions are expanding, interest in members of the opposite gender grows, accompanied by worry about one’s own attractiveness. At the same time, there is little time in their school day to ease up, to reflect, to react to trauma.

Not one of those four girls is a reader. They’ve never checked out a single book in the 12 school months I’ve been the librarian. I don’t have a strong relationship with any of them. Still, they came to the library when they needed a place to react, to emote, to be comforted and reassured.

They came to the library when they needed to feel safe.

Earlier that same day one of the veteran teachers, and not one who has been particularly friendly to me, came in to use copier, looked around, and thanked me “for making the library look and function like a library again.”

New books, organized shelves, new decoration on the walls, automated checkout and an online catalog have made the library a more active, more dynamic, and a more attractive place. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish in little time and with almost no budget.

But what pleases me most is one of those things that will never show up on any evaluation of how I do my job. There’s no standardized test for it and it is not on any principal’s observation form.

I’ve made a safe place for students.

Nothing is more important than that.


Teacher Ratings: We Blew It!

02/27/2012

We blew it.

By ‘we,’ I mean the entire NYC education community. 

Teachers, administrators, chancellor Walcott, we all blew it.

We were handed a very teachable moment on a silver platter. And we blew it. Big time.

We knew it was coming: we should have been prepared.

We had the opportunity to nail it, but we blew it.

I’m talking about what everyone involved in teaching in NYC is talking about: the release of teacher ratings based on standardized tests given over the past few years. The ratings release my union, the UFT, spent lots of time and money trying to prevent when we should have embraced it, embraced it because it offered the teachable moment to end teachable moments.

Here we were given everyone’s attention, a focused and huge student body, and we didn’t take advantage of it.

We should have done what we claim to do best: teach.

We should have taught the lesson on what statistical validity means, or the lesson on how a large margin of error renders data useless.

We could have taught the lesson about how one test on one day does not necessarily – okay, doesn’t at all – show what any one student or any large group of students know, don’t know and are or are not capable of doing.

Or the one about how the findings of a test designed for one purpose, even if it does that purpose really well, are not capable of determining the causality of those initial results. That’s an easy one: a thermometer can measure how hot it is (what a student knows) but doesn’t tell you anything about the efficiency of the sun (what the teacher does).

We could have done so much to make our community smarter, more capable of determining when something they are being spoon fed is BS, more able to know what is and isn’t true.

But we didn’t.

We blew it.

Maybe we really are bad teachers.

All of us.

Even the chancellor.


Please, son, be anything else. Anything.

02/20/2012
English: teacher

Image via Wikipedia

I love my son.

He is a high school senior about to decide what college to attend. One of his criteria is which school to which he’s been accepted has the best program to prepare him for his chosen professional goal.

I very much want my son to be happy in his work because if he is it will not seem like work.

He wants to be a high school English teacher.

I am trying very hard to talk him out of it.

My son loves to read and read at a high school level in fifth grade.

His current English teacher has him co-teaching a couple of lessons in the class. No other student is doing that.

Another of his HS English teachers told my wife and me “the greatest gift I could give my profession would be for your son to become an English teacher.”

Heady stuff, indeed.

My son could possibly be a very good English teacher. That is why I am trying to talk him out of it.

These days, very good is not good enough.

That’s the illogic of the new teacher assessment deal that NY Governor Cuomo pushed for and that the spineless NYSUT (NY State United Teachers) agreed to. Under this plan a teacher rated excellent by his principal and by other local teacher assessments would be rated as ineffective if his students did not show growth on the one day state tests are administered, even though those tests are only supposed to be 40% of the teacher’s rating.

How are we supposed to teach math when our governor and the state teacher union agree that 40% of X is larger than 60% of X?

No matter what else the teacher does, no matter how good he is on the other 179 days of the school year, he cannot be rated as anything other than ineffective if the test scores don’t go up enough. If that happens two years in a row he can be fired, even if he has tenure.

Indicted murderers are presumed innocent until judged guilty by a jury of their peers.
Tenured teachers are presumed ineffective, despite acquittal by their administrators.

How can I let my son become a teacher under a system that is as illogical and as unfair as the one his father will be working under starting next year?

Oh, wait. I’m a librarian. I don’t have students whose test scores can be compared year-to-year. No matter. The school’s total overall test scores will affect my job rating, whether or not most or any of the students come into the library and whether or not I have any influence on their performance on those one day exams.

More logic. Impressive.

Kid, I love you.

Become a mortician, a lawyer, a barber, or an accountant.

Pick rags for a living.

English: Jewish rag picker, Bloor Street West,...

Just don’t become a teacher.

It just isn’t a good job anymore.


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