On the Road Learning

07/16/2013
Leaving the Delta

Leaving the Delta (Photo credit: joseph a)

I am writing this post from Birmingham, Alabama. I usually write from my home in the NYC suburbs. I’ve been on the road since July 1st, visiting the deep south, a part of the country I’ve never seen before. I’ve got five more days before I reintroduce myself to my wife, our son and our dog and sleep in my bed again.

The impetus for this trip was my acceptance into the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) workshop with the intriguing title “The Most Southern Place on Earth: Music, Culture and History in the Mississippi Delta. The workshop is held at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi (Mississippi has to be the most fun-to-type word in the English language!).

I have visited Charlottesville, VA, Asheville, NC, Memphis, TN, and now Birmingham. Next stop in Knoxville, TN, then Richmond, VA before heading home.

I am learning an incredible amount, so much so that I’m having a hard time processing it all. I’ve toured Monticello, Graceland and William Faulkner’s house. I saw thousands of acres of corn, soybeans and rice growing in the Mississippi Delta where cotton was king for decades. I’ve been to art museums in Asheville and Birmingham, the Cotton Museum and the Stax Records museums in Memphis, and Vulcan Park in Birmingham. I stood on the balcony in Memphis where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and looked out at that balcony from the window next to the one the shooter used. I visited Fannie Lou Hamer’s gravesite, a Chinese cemetery, a Black cemetery, what may or may not be where Robert Johnson is buried and the likely crossroads at which he is alleged to have sold his soul to the devil so he could be a great blues guitarist.

I visited Po Monkey’s, the last rural juke joint in America and met Monkey, the farm hand who owns it. I listened to two musical lectures about the blues, then went to Red’s Lounge, a neighborhood blues club in Clarksdale, MS to hear the real thing.

I’ve tasted  baked catfish, fried catfish, fried sauerkraut, fried okra, fried pickles, koolikles – pickles marinated in cherry Koolaid, and more styles of BBQ ribs than I knew existed.

I visited one of the last Jewish synagogues in the Delta and met the man struggling to keep it alive. I saw the 16th St. Baptist Church where a bombing in 1963 took the lives of four young girls and spent a couple of hours touring the Civil Rights Institute across the street.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

Fried pickles are better than Koolaid pickles, but Koolaid pickles are better than you might imagine they are.

The Mississippi Delta is not only the most southern place on earth, it is also the flattest.

People in the south are, at least on the surface, much more friendly than those in NY. They are warm, gracious and generous.

Mississippi has more Black elected officials than any other state, but there are still those who would like the segregation laws reinstated.

Many cities in the south put a lot of effort into making their downtowns beautiful with parks, plantings, sculpture and the like. Memphis is not one of them.

When it rains in the south, it REALLY rains. I’ve driven through downpours where I would have pulled off the road if there had been somewhere to pull off, and I’ve walked through downpours where I could not see where my next step would take me.

My PLN (PRofessional Learning Network) was, once again, a great resource. I’ve had people show me around, recommend activities, suggest dining options and otherwise guide my travels.

The blues did not originate in Chicago, Memphis or anywhere between those two points.

I learned what a diddley bow is and how to make one. I am going to make one for my school library. I have no talent to play it, though.

Farming is hard work. So is steelmaking.

Independent bookstores are hanging in there in Asheville and in Oxford, Mississippi.

Asheville is very dog-friendly. It is also very gay-friendly. If there is a connection, it is called love.

Downtown ballparks are more fun than those not downtown. Memphis’s AutoZone Park is beautiful. I’m also going to games in Knoxville and Richmond, but those stadiums are not downtown.

During an ill-advised five-mile drive down a gravel road cutting through private farmland we saw a lot of corn plots labeled “experimental.” I’m not sure what those experiments are, but they may have produced large aggressive bugs that flew at 15-mph next to my car for almost three miles.

If Mississippi is in need of a state bird, I nominate the dragonfly. Dragonflies are cool and the Delta is the dragonfly capitol of the world.

Apparent;y the Delta State University bookstore never thought of placing their school’s mascot on a cook’s apron even though that would seem to be the perfect place to show off the “fighting okra.”

The south apparently does not believe in vegetables. The most common side dish with BBQ seems to be white bread, with french fries running a close second.

Grits get tiring after a while, but biscuits are a great excuse for having peppery sausage gravy.

I am sure that over time these superficial learnings and impressions will be augmented or replaced by deeper understandings. This will happen because I will have the time to process and reflect upon my experiences. But as I sit here in my hotel, with my stomach growling for dinner, I feel like what I am sure many of my students feel. Overwhelmed, tired, hungry and thirsty.

It is good to be reminded that our students need to be fed, to have their thirsts slaked, to have their own PLN to show them love and support, and to have time to process all that their sponge-like brains soak up.


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?

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

03/22/2011
The principal's office of Union City High Scho...

Image via Wikipedia

I really like my principal. When his office door is open it is almost always okay to just walk in and talk to him. He’s smart, generally fair, willing to listen to ideas and different opinions. He gives useful, timely feedback on formal observations and more frequent informal ones. He talks to you in private. Most of all, he is consistent. Our school has very little teacher turnover. Our school rating has been rising steadily.

I’m not trying to butter him up; I just want to show how very different he is from the first principal I worked for.

It was impossible to just walk into that first principal’s office because it was behind a thick Plexiglas barrier and she had to buzz you in even to approach her. She was not open to ideas and had no interest in what parents or people on her staff thought or had to say. She regularly yelled at teachers in front of their students. She’d love you one day or year but hate you the next.

Barrier - PCA 93

Image by Donald Macleod via Flickr

Feedback was rarely constructive and hardly timely; I’m still waiting for the results of her 2006 observation of my lesson.

On more than one occasion she changed the rating of a lesson observed by one of the assistant principals from satisfactory to unsatisfactory even though she was not present at the observation.

She once said in public, “I like my new white teachers better than my old white teachers.” I was a second year white teacher and turnover was so high it wasn’t clear whether I was new or old.

The first year that teachers could transfer without prior principal approval more than 70% of that school’s teachers moved on to other schools, including all of the fifteen or so first and second year teachers. The same thing happened the following year. That school’s rating declined consistently and now it is being closed.

I bring this all up because right now a 50-person state of New York task force is in a big hurry to develop a new teacher rating program. They want it written before the end of June so the regents can approve it and regulations can be developed to implement it in September.

You’d think that they’d want to test the never-before-tried plan before they broadly apply it, but no. Apparently teacher livelihoods are not so important that you’d want to make sure the system was fair, workable and accurate before using it to make decisions affecting the continuation of their careers.

Under the plan, teacher ratings as highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective would be based 20% on student performance on state tests, 20% on school-district tests (that don’t now exist) or unspecified other measures, and 60% on classroom observations and other reviews. It is not at all clear what the basis for rating teachers in non-testing subjects — social studies, art, music, phys ed among others — or librarians would be.

Teachers rated as ineffective two years in a row will be subject to a hearing regarding the termination of their employment.

Governor Cuomo says, “We need a legitimate evaluation system to rely on.”

Absolutely, but this isn’t it.

The Journal News reports at least one educator on the panel creating the system, South Orangetown school superintendent Kenneth Mitchell, thinks the state is moving forward recklessly, “There’s a real potential for implosion…you need years to make these changes.”

One of the regents says he fears that forcing a new system on districts in such a short period of time could lead to unforeseen costs and worse.

“It’s gotten so far out of hand, but there’s nothing we can do at this point. If mistakes are made and the data is flawed, it would be terrible to make it public. People will say ‘I don’t want my kid in that person’s class.’”

Did you notice that not even the people worried about this program never mentioned the possible effect it could have on teacher livelihoods?

This is why teachers like me support unions.

United Federation of Teachers

Image via Wikipedia

Without my union standing up for people like me principals like my first one could ruin careers on a whim.

Without my union standing up for me I would be leery of disagreeing with my principal no matter how much I thought he might be on the wrong track.

Without my union standing up for me I would not be able to say my chancellor, a very capable woman in the publishing field, is completely inexperienced, unqualified and unsuited to run a school system of any size, not to mention the biggest one in the country, and that by appointing her our mayor insulted the students, their parents, and everyone who works in the NYCDOE, no matter how true it is.

Without my union no teacher would be entitled to a fair hearing on disciplinary matters.

Without my union no parent would have any voice in the operation of their children’s schools.

Without my union the billionaires like Bill Gates.would not have anyone standing up to them as they privatized public education. Would anyone listen to him about anything to do with eduction if he didn’t have all that money?

Without my union the special education students would get lost in the shuffle and not get their mandated services.

Without my union standing up for people like me I would not have received the quality education I got from the NYC public schools.

Without my union standing up for me I’d be afraid to write this blog post.

That’s why teachers like me support unions.


My One Great Lesson This Year

12/26/2010
The first 13 colonies...
Image by anna_bencze via Flickr

This has not been my most successful year as a teacher.

Even so, I had one great lesson.

My 7th grade social studies class was learning about the British and Dutch colonies that eventually became the first thirteen American states.

To begin my lesson I made a grid of nine possible tasks my student could do in the next two weeks.

I assigned each task a separate spot in the classroom and asked students to stand in the spot of the task that most appealed to them.

I immediately noticed that my group of six girls who always wanted to work together did not all choose the same task. Interesting.

I looked around the room and noticed that three of the tasks did not have a single student interested in it.  They all seemed like good tasks to me, but it has been a long time since I’ve been a 12-year-old.

What would have happened had I assigned one of those unpopular choices as the assignment for everyone? Or if, thinking I was offering differentiation, I had given my class a choice of those three unpopulated tasks

I shudder at the thought, especially since I’ve been guilty of both approaches more often than not.

Here are the six tasks students chose:

Create a 3-dimensional map of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam;

Write and enact a conversation between as many colonists as are in the group;

Write and produce a newscast as if television news covered the colonies;

Make broadsides or brochures aimed at convincing people to relocate to the colonies;

Create a map of one or more of the colonies showing some aspect of the colonies not usually seen on maps of them;

Write a letter or deliver an oral report to King George III about life, development and events in one or more of the colonies.

Gezicht op Nieuw Amsterdam by Johannes Vingboo...
Image via Wikipedia

Each group was about evenly divided between boys and girls and each had students from different levels of prior performance. The students had self-selected more heterogeneous groups than I could have created.

I told the students to get to work and they did.

Each group immediately sat down and started to plan the execution of their task. As I wandered the room I heard the students discuss approaches, talk about what kind of map they should make, divide their tasks into parts, discuss which students were better suited for different parts of the task.

I asked each group if they had any questions but none did.

They didn’t need me.

Their excitement was palpable.

When the bell rang to end the period they kept on talking. I had to throw them out of the room.

Every day for the next two weeks, as soon as the students arrived in class they went to work in their groups. I’d walk around observing and being available for questions or instructions.

They didn’t need me.

At the end of the first week I asked each group to give me a brief oral report on their progress. All were making strong progress.

The map group was making a resource map. The persuasive writing group had decided to make a broadside AND a modern-style real estate brochure.
Scripts were being written and revised. Rehearsals were starting.

They didn’t need me.

In the second week I saw the 3-D model group folding brown packing paper as if they were doing origami. I wandered over and in response to my quizzical look one girl explained they were creating the ships for the harbor.  Then a boy asked me if I knew that Wall Street was called Wall Street because the Dutch had built a wall on that location as the boundary between the settlement and the natives. I smiled broadly as I walked to the next equally busy group.

They didn’t need me.

Midway through the second week four of the groups presented me with a joint letter explaining why they needed one more week to prepare their projects and presentations.

Granted.

Throughout the three weeks there were a variety of visitors to the room. All of them saw me wandering around fairly aimlessly watching and listening as the groups worked. Worked hard. Worked almost constantly.

They didn’t need me.

In the fourth week the students used Flip cameras to make videos of the newscast, the conversation, the oral report to King George III, and of the groups explaining their map, brochures and 3-D map.

They knew I had the Flips so they decided on their own how to do their presentations.

All the projects showed tremendous effort even if some of them showed less than tremendous execution.

The students clearly demonstrated they had learned a lot about the colonies and, in reflections they wrote afterwards they said they had learned about cooperation, about process, about how when they realized one approach was not working they were able to switch their work to a new one because they had discussed various approaches at the beginning.

They deeply appreciated that I had not steered them, that I let them choose their own assignments and decide on their own what they should include and how to accomplish them.

They didn’t need me.

Some of the projects proved to be more difficult than expected, usually because the students over-reached and weren’t totally up to the task.

These kids are very high achievers who are not used to failing. Some of them were a little dejected by their less-than-perfect work until one very sharp boy said that he was thrilled with his project no matter how bad it was because he finally felt challenged by a school assignment.

I was going to say something like that but, again, they didn’t need me.

I needed them, though.

I needed them so I could learn to let go, to get out of the way and to trust my students to work on their own.

I needed them to show me that students know how they learn best even if they can’t put it into words-

I needed them so I could realize that even an old teacher can learn new tricks.

I needed them to help me discover that if you just point kids in the right direction you might be surprised at how far they travel on their own.

Most of all, I needed them to let me have one great lesson this year.

I needed that most of all.

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I’ve Failed, and I’m Almost Glad I Did

12/06/2010
A black and white icon of a teacher in front o...
Image via Wikipedia

Today was my last as a classroom teacher

My classes are being taken away from me.

My principal has lost confidence in my teaching ability.

So have I.

Oh, I do okay with my high-flying 7th grade class and they were distraught when I told them that I would not be their social studies teacher anymore. There were tears, some of them theirs.

I did not do so okay with my low-level 8th grade class.

I completely failed as their teacher.

I can make all kinds of excuses: there are 35 of them; all their other teachers struggle with them; they were a ‘bad’ class last year and more difficult students were added this year; and more, but the fact is, I did not reach them in any way.

Oh, there are one or two students in the class who I connected with, but not the other 33. My lessons were flat, my class management totally ineffective. A good day was one where the books flying around the classroom was the biggest behavior problem.

I had a double period with them today and they were oddly well behaved. Some of them even worked, but only three had the draft of their exit project written report due today. They did not know it was our last together.

They are not learning and I was getting more and more frustrated.
Tomorrow they will have a different social studies teacher. So will my other classes.

I have long championed the value of failure as part of the learning experience and I already know one of the ways this failure will benefit me (more on that in a moment), but it still does not feel very good to fail and I’d much rather have been a better teacher for those 8th graders and my three other classes.

Then again, had I not failed I would not have the exciting new opportunity presented to me.

Tomorrow I start my new job as the school’s media specialist.

I will be taking over the library and trying to drag it into the latter stages of the 20th Century.

I’d rather drag it into the 21st C. but the budget and some Department of Education regulations won’t allow it.

Even so, the late 20th C. is a big step forward from what we have now.

Now I know nothing about being a librarian.

TL09 View of School Libraries
Image by vanhookc via Flickr

Nothing.

No worries; I’m fortunate to have some of the best school librarians in the country offering to help me out.

Through Twitter I have ‘met’ Shannon Miller from the Van Meter, Iowa schools, DM Cordell, a retired school librarian from upstate NY, Beth Friese from Georgia, Melissa Techman from Virginia, and Susan Myers from South Carolina. I am sure they will get me off on the right track.

What one does as a media specialist is undefined and seems almost unlimited, but I think it will have a lot to do with helping students make connections that will be as important to their learning as those librarians will be to mine.

Today one door slammed shut.

Tomorrow a different one swings open.

I will go through it smiling.

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Revising History

10/06/2010
Studio portrait of the surviving Six Nations w...
Image via Wikipedia

I keep waiting for someone to tell me why an 11-year-old should be interested in the economic system of ancient Rome.

Or why a 13-year-old should care about the War of 1812.

How much do you know about the War of 1812?

Has that held you back at all?

Me neither, and I’m a history teacher.

We teach history in the wrong direction. We start with the past and work forward.

We need to turn around.

We start off teaching social studies well.

In kindergarten we teach about the thing immediately around the child, the family and the classroom.

This is one of the kindergarten rooms on the f...

Image via Wikipedia

In first grade kids learn about the neighborhood and in second the larger community.

In third grade kids learn about the various countries in the modern world.

Then it stops making sense.

In 4th grade NY students learn all about NY, from the earliest Iroquois days forward. Fifth grade that expands to the early explorers of Canada, Mexico and the rest of the North American land mass.

Sixth grade starts with studies of three countries in the eastern hemisphere, usually only Asian countries are included because the next unit is on ancient Egypt and the rest of the year is spent in ancient Rome, Mesopotamia and more, ending up somewhere around the Renaissance.

The seventh and 8th grade curriculum, my current assignment, is American history.

In 7th we start with the native civilizations before Europeans arrive and are supposed to get through the Civil War.

American Civil War

Image via Wikipedia

Eighth grade is supposed to start with Reconstruction and end somewhere around 1976.

Here’s one idea. 7thgrade American history should start in 2010 and work backwards to try to unravel how we got into our current miasma. By the end of 8th grade we should have worked our way back to Columbus’ “discovery.”

But even that isn’t optimal. I object to teaching history as a linear series of events whichever way we run through time.

History is not about time or events; it is about ideas and how people deal with conflicting ones.

Ideas excite people, even 8th grade inner-city students. Ideas have meaning to them that dates, names and events do not.

Opening (inverted) and closing question marks ...
Image via Wikipedia

I don’t want to follow a curriculum map.

I want to explore with my students as they discover the themes and ideas that make their life what it is and try to figure out how those patterns can be changed so their lives improve.

I want to help them make their world make sense.

Maybe then I’ll understand mine.

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