I’m a librarian. Use me!

02/14/2013
Narsarsuaq Airport, Greenland. Terminal, Nanoq...

Narsarsuaq Airport, Greenland. Terminal, Nanoq Duty Free shop. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today sent my principal an email telling him I am underutilized.

I have seven assigned teaching periods a week, slightly more than 1 per school day. Our day is eight periods long. I have open access two lunch periods every day. The rest of the time I am allegedly doing “library administration.” As far as I can tell after two years of doing the job, library administration takes about 10-20 minutes a day which I spend re-shelving books. When I still have money to spend, I might take another 30 minutes a day reading book reviews to select my purchases.

That still leaves me four more periods a day plus my contract-mandated duty-free lunch period (which I hardly ever take – I read trade magazines and answer work emails while I eat).

I reminded him that I did a lot of different things before becoming a teacher and I carry a diverse set of skills he could take advantage of and gave him suggestions on how I might be more useful to him and the school.

I could write grants. I write and win a couple or three for the library each year. My record is seven applied for, six won. When an assistant principal needed an essay for a grant proposal she was submitting that day, I wrote what she called a great one in twenty minutes. I could write more.

I could plan and do PD. We used to get a lot of PD on differentiating lessons but none of it was differentiated. When I pointed that out to my principal he said there wasn’t enough time to plan differentiating it. I managed to hold my tongue and not point out that teachers, too, are under time pressure, what with all the paperwork they have to do. I could plan differentiated PD – more differentiated than he might imagine (unconference model; Educon conversation model, EdCamp model, etc.). I could create PD on Project-Based Learning, on interdisciplinary unit design, on becoming a connected educator, and more.

I could create, or facilitate students creating a webpage for the school. Right now we have the dull, cookie-cutter NYCDOE school webpage and it doesn’t give a clue about who we are, what we do, how we do it, or any of the great things happening in our school. I’m currently working with three sixth grade classes to develop a website for our library – right now they’re deciding what will be on the site and the more artistic students are investigating other school and library sites to get design ideas (and a list of things not to do!).

I could produce an online school magazine.

I could, I could, I could.

I’ll let you know how he responds.


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.


Assessing Teachers: Almost Impossible

01/08/2013
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening ...

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mayor of New York City, an incredibly wealthy man named Michael Bloomberg, compared my union, the United Federation of Teachers to the National Rifle Association because we will not agree to a deeply flawed, poorly thought out system of rating teachers.

The mayor thinks what he wants and expresses himself in whatever way he chooses. No one need comment on his incredible statement because it speaks very loudly on its own about what kind of man is running New York City and the New York City schools.

But the mayor is right about one thing. My union is refusing to cave into his and the state’s demand that we accept a teacher-rating system that is largely based on student performance on standardized tests.

The NY Post reports that teachers who rate poorly on the current system are offered satisfactory final ratings if they resign. Teacher evaluations have always been political — one intent of all this testing is to eliminate subjective rating, but it just moves it into sleazier territory. What the City is saying, in essence, is we think you’re a bad teacher but we’ll tell some other district that you apply to that you’re an okay teacher and let them take their chances. Doubly dishonest, and this is what we model for our students.

The problem is, there is absolutely no way to rate the effectiveness teachers because the result of what we do or don’t do in the classroom is not readily apparent in any meaningful way for several years at best and by then it is impossible to tell what influence any one or collection of teachers had, as if it were ever possible.

In my life, all the really influential teachers retired or died before the fruits of their influence developed enough to become apparent to me, much less anyone else.

The problem is we’re educating for the long run and the powers that be keep trying to assess us on the short run.

It is like judging the health of a business based on its performance in one or two quarters. By that standard, Enron looked fantastic, just like all the slick no-credit-check mega-mortgages and the derivatives based on them. We all know how that turned out

If they really want us to teach for short-term student gains we all can do it, we know how, but that is not what our students need and most definitely is not what our society needs.

Just like in business, taking the long view might not work out as well for the current investors, but is often advantageous for the society as a whole.


Once More Into the Breech-loader

01/07/2013
English: New York City Police officers being d...

English: New York City Police officers being debriefed by their lieutenant (in the white shirt) in Times Square, May 29, 2010. Photo by Luigi Novi.

I didn’t plan to write about it again. I’d said my piece and I was going to let it go at that. Then I saw this slide show of politicians eager to arm teachers on the Huffington Post website and it made me think of these headlines.

Unarmed man shot dead by police in NYC

Police bullets hit 9 bystanders hurt near NYC landmark

Police: All Empire State shooting victims were wounded by officers

Former New York Police Captain Mistakenly Shoots, Kills Son

If trained policemen, who have almost unlimited opportunity to practice shooting can’t manage to use their guns safely, what on earth makes these politicians and all the other people advocating arming teachers or otherwise putting guns in school think that it will turn out well.

The NRA and other gun advocates often accuse people trying to limit the amount of fire power accessible by the average citizen of having knee-jerk over-reactions to instances of gun violence.

Perhaps, but that door swings both ways.

It is time to put our knees back in place and start reacting with our brains instead. Everyone has too much to lose if we can’t figure out how to let sport shooters and hunters have guns, even let the average citizen have a shotgun or six-shooter while also denying anyone but the military access to automatic weapons AND keep most of us safe from gun violence most of the time.


Keeping My Students Safe Isn’t Easy.

12/18/2012
Gun Library

Gun Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to keep my students safe, I really do, but it really is impossible.

When it comes to student and staff safety, there are so many things wrong with the way my school is built and run that I don’t know where to begin.

Our principal reminded the staff again this week that only the front door should be used for entrance and exit, so let’s start there.

It is unlocked. Anyone can walk up the three steps, open the door, and be in the building. Anyone. Delivery people, parents, job applicants, former students. Anyone. Why not a shooter?

Up three more steps and our shooter is in the lobby facing our security desk. Most of the time we have an unarmed but uniformed school security officer sitting there. Sometimes it is just a school aide. Guard or aide, he or she is the first victim.

sfAssuming someone hears those shots, the PA system will announce a lockdown. The speakers in the library aren’t so loud and if it is noisy (I don’t run one of those silent libraries) I may not hear the announcement. I usually have my door open and he library is the first room down the hallway you face while shooting the security guard.

At the start of a lockdown every teacher is supposed to lock our door(s), then herd our students away from the door and keep them quiet. To lock our doors we have to go out into the hallway, put a key in and turn it so the door locks, then go inside and move away from the door to where the students are. That’s right, there is no way to lock any classroom door from the inside.

Out in the hall, I will be the second person our shooter sees. It has been nice knowing you.

To protect my students and myself, some people are suggesting I, and other school staffers, should be armed. I’d need to get trained, and there are bullets that break into tiny harmless pieces if they don’t hit their target. How the bullets know that the kid or adult I actually shoot in error while trying to shoot the shooter isn’t my target and should remain harmless is beyond me, but science and technology have come so far so fast I might have missed that development.

The idea that teachers or administrators, aides or APs could shoot a shooter is a Rambo fantasy that pops up every time a school shooting occurs.

There’s fantasy; then there’s the more likely reality. The shooter enters the building and pops Sgt. Perez. He’s lost some weight lately but he’s still a pretty big target. If I have a gun, I rush out of the library, take aim, and fire. I hit the garbage bin in the lobby, or maybe the nurse rushing out of her office.

If two of us have guns, let’s say our most athletic assistant principal and I, we would shoot each other (accidentally, I’m sure) before we hit the rapidly moving shooter.

Guns in school are not the answer. We’re not going to shoot our way to safety.

None of us are Rambo.

John Rambo in Rambo.

No one is Rambo.

Rambo is fiction.

Lets start, instead, with keeping the front door locked, with everyone who wants to enter having to be checked via video before being allowed to enter. Let’s retrofit every door in the building so they can be locked from the inside.

Will that keep us safe?

Safer, perhaps.

It’s a start.


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.


The Next Step

08/22/2012

Tomorrow I’ll be driving my child to college for the start of what I still call his freshman year. His college calls him a ‘first year,’ very Harry Potter-ish.
An event like this causes me to look back over the high and low notes of his schooling and I realize that his experience encompasses some of the he best and some of the worst in American education.

His public school life started in an unusually public way. His class was the class filmed for the HBO serial documentary Kindergarten. It can still be seen,12 years later, mornings on the HBO Family channel. He’s the really tall, very articulate kid, but if you watch the show, pay attention to the teacher. Ms. Johnson, now a middle school English teacher, was the first of a string of incredible teachers Jonas had through elementary school.

His first grade teacher, Ms. Pakaln, made home visits. When we had her over for dinner she remained focused on her student despite parental efforts to engage her in adult conversation. That waited until the boy went to bed.

Mrs. Schwartz, his second grade teacher, really got him. Jonas was much taller, far more verbal, and almost totally uninterested in sports, Pokemon or any of the other things the boys favored and, as a result, he had very few friends. He would regularly get teased by the 4th and 5th graders in the playground who thought he was their age and in 2nd grade because he was a slow learner. Mrs. Schwartz engaged Jonas in conversations and assured us that his social life would blossom in high school when he found others like himself. She was absolutely right.

During the year Jonas was in second grade I started substitute teaching in his district to see if I really wanted to become a teacher. I loved substituting for Mrs. Schwartz even though it embarrassed Jonas, but I especially enjoyed subbing in the second grade inclusion class in one of the other district schools. The next year, when those special ed students moved to Jonas’ school my wife and I arranged for Jonas to be in the inclusion class.

It was inclusion done the way it should be done; two of the best teachers in the school, Mrs. King and Mrs. Greenwald, both certified in general and special education, teaching all the students. When one was teaching the other was at a big table in the back where any student could go for extra help, and both general ed and special ed students took advantage of the assistance. Jonas befriended most of the special ed students, explaining that they were as different as he was, only in a different way. Smart kid.

In fourth grade Jonas had his first male teacher, Joe Galantich, a magnificent teacher, especially of social studies which became Jonas’ favorite subject. Joe also got Jonas who, by this time, was reading at the high school level. They would discuss books, especially the Legend of Sleepy Hollow which seemed to obsess Jonas.

Fifth grade was the first disappointment. His second male teacher was a rookie and much more of a jock. I strongly suspected that Jonas had already read more books than his teacher had.

Middle school was even more of a disappointment via the 7th grade social studies teacher who taught the most exciting period in American history, the Revolution and founding of the nation, through textbook readings and worksheets. That was offset by the wise-cracking Mr. Wisner, the 8th grade history teacher (“I teach history, [bleeping] social studies is for [bleep, bleep] wimps”) who somehow never bought his teacher lounge profanity into the classroom but still made the kids feel like they were being let in on some adult-world secrets.

Ms. McGillicuty, the exceptionally skilled 6th grade math teacher, helped Jonas overcome his prior struggles so he could earn his first A in the subject. It would also be his last as the following year he returned to his more usual low Bs and high Cs in math.

Our district is known for its very strong arts program and the middle school art teacher stood out as one the best of those three years. Ms. Mahan’s streaked hair, feathered earrings and tattoos taught him and us that great teachers come in all kinds of packages.

It’s funny how I remember the names of all of Jonas’ elementary school teachers but only the names of the few good ones from his middle school experience.

High school proved 2nd grade Mrs. Schwartz right, Jonas’ social life blossomed. He had too many good teachers to name them all but two or three stand out.

It took a school trip to France for Madame Pence to get Jonas who, at one point, exasperated us even more than his low grade had by proclaiming, “of course I don’t do well in French, I don’t speak the language.” pointing to his excellent English marks as proof of his contention. On that trip, Mrs. Pence and Jonas were equally astounded that he emerged as the main translator for his classmates as they wandered independently in Paris. His functional French was far better than what he was able to show in the class quizzes and exams. His confidence rose so much that he has chosen to continue studying French as part of his college program.

Jonas’ high school English experience started off with a teacher who gave his honors class the following homework assignment: “Make a list of all the characters in Hamlet.” That’s it. A list. No thinking required. To his credit, Jonas refused to do the assignment, pointing out to his teacher, probably more politely than I would have at his age, that Hamlet, like every other play, had a cast list at the beginning. The rest of the year did not get much better.

Fortunately, that was the worst of it. His other English teachers stoked the intellectual fire somehow still burning in him.

Simona Moldovan was Jonas’ 11th grade English teacher as well as staff advisor to the drama club in which Jonas became very active. She engaged him in high-level conversations that thrilled him but frequently left the rest of the class far behind. She is particularly responsible for my son’s professional ambition; in a parent-teacher meeting she told my wife and I that his becoming an English teacher “would be the greatest repayment I could make to my profession.”

The other especially positive English teacher was the one he had this past year. Thomas Burns, arranged to have Jonas teach all the 12th grade sections a lesson his and Jonas jointly prepared. When the hoped-for discussion failed to materialize as anticipated during its first iteration, Mr. Burns said “welcome to your first first-period class, Jonas. If you want to be a teacher you’ll need to get used to this.” Mr. Burns also helped steer Jonas to his alma mater, SUNY New Paltz.

SUNY New Paltz

Jonas starts there tomorrow and I haven’t seen him as jazzed about school since the first day of kindergarten.

A big thank you to all of Jonas’ teachers. Whether remarkably good or remarkably mediocre, you helped him become the confident, articulate, socially conscious and well-rounded person he is.

I can let him go tomorrow knowing he’ll make some mistakes, screw up at times, and be better for the experience because despite occasional struggles and the few inept teachers, his love of learning is intact and he will soak up knowledge everywhere and from everyone.

A chip off the old block, he is.


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