An Open Letter to Rupert Murdoch

06/13/2011
Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive O...

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Dear Mr. Murdoch,

Congratulations on getting a nice juicy contract for your corporation from the New York State Department of Education. A contract worth $27,000,000, is that right. A nice healthy piece of change, that is.

And do I understand it correctly that you got this contract without bidding on it?

How does that work? No, seriously, I want to know. Not because I begrudge you getting a $27,000,000 contract without having to bid on it; after all, that seems to be how things are getting done these days. Bidding just delays things and creates a needless level of bureaucracy, right.

No, I’m asking because I want to get in on the act.

Now I’m not looking for $27,000,000. It sounds great, but I have no idea how to handle that kind of money. You do. That’s why you’re a businessman and I’m a librarian.

That’s why I’m having the problem I’m having. You see, I want to buy a circulation desk for my middle school library and I have to get bids from three different vendors to do it, even though I know which circulation desk I’m going to buy. It is not really the one I want, but at $1,231, I know it is the one my school can afford.

Sure, I’d like to have a more efficient, better-built circulation desk, but I’d probably have to get a dozen bids. It doesn’t matter. My public middle school in the Bronx (that’s part of New York City just like Manhattan, but the way) doesn’t have that kind of money, not $2500, no sir.

Now you’re probably thinking this letter is looking for money from you. Perish the thought!

All I want is for you to teach me how to get money from the New York Education Department, the New York City Department of Education, or any other entity without having to get bids and without begging.

I know you’re a busy man and don’t have the time to teach me stuff yourself. But you do have employees who could do it. Maybe that fellow Klein who works for you now, the one who was NYC schools chancellor for a few years. I bet he knows how to work the system.

With the highest regard for your business acumen, I remain,

Deven Black

Librarian

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Strike Four! You’re In!

11/17/2010
humour: Tux freeing himself from ball and chain.
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Every year the NYC Department of Education issues a booklet delineating the school disciplinary code. Every student and teacher gets one.

In it, there are separate sections for K-5 and 6-8, each with four categories of offense and consequence ranging from mild disruption to bringing a gun to school. The former might earn a phone call home, the latter risks expulsion.

The idea of distributing the code is to show students that their actions have consequences. This works for kids who really don’t need to read the disciplinary code to understand that they need to behave responsibly.

It doesn’t apply to the rest of the school population, especially those students who are the most disruptive.

Take today.

In our 8th grade special education class there are two students who are increasingly problematic.

R is hyperactive and, on good days, just runs around the room refusing to do any work.

L is a very bright boy with a VERY large chip on his shoulder. He is angry, contemptuous, and also refuses to do any work.

These two boys are like this in every class. They’ve always been difficult to motivate, but this year is worse than ever.

R has started making loud, animal like vocalizations while L has become a major bully, threatening violence at the tiniest perceived slight.

The disciplinary code says that when a student is disruptive to the point of interfering with the safe and productive conduct of the class, the student can be removed for the remainder of that period at the teacher’s discretion.

Sounds reasonable, right? So far, so good.

But a student can only be removed four times in a school year.

For the vast majority of students that is more than sufficient. 98% or more of our students are never removed from class for disciplinary reasons.

Then there are kids like L and R.

We make a point of not removing L unless he actually hits someone. R also has to behave in an extreme manner to be removed.  Even so, both maxed-out their removals by the end of the first quarter.

Now, in order for them to be removed they have to be given a principal’s or superintendent’s suspension.  That means at least a week in our detention room or relocation to a ‘suspension school.’

So when L got up in the middle of his first period class today, opened a bag of cookies and started throwing them around the room, there was nothing the teacher could do about it.

And two periods later, when L and R were on the opposite sides of the room throwing wads of paper, pencils and, finally, textbooks at each other, there was nothing I could do.

Danger Placard
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In fact, R made a point of telling me he knew he couldn’t be removed unless he did something extremely dangerous (like a three-pound textbook flying across the room isn’t extremely dangerous).

“I can do anything I want and you can’t do anything about it,” R told me. “I’ve already been removed four times and you can’t get me out of here.”

Now somebody has to get pretty seriously hurt for any of L or R’s actions to have consequences.

They’ve learned they’ve gotten a license to disrupt the learning of every other student in their class as much as they want.

And that may be the only thing they learn at school this year.

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Revising History

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

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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

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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 ...
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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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Doing the Right Thing Because It Is Right, Not Expedient

07/30/2010
Remembering 9/11/01
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I usually write about education but this post will not be about that.

It will be about courage, morality, fear and self-interest.

I was born in New York City.

For most of my life I have lived in New York City and I work there now.

No matter where I go or where I live, New York City is home.

I don’t know about people in the rest of the country or the rest of the world, but every single New Yorker knows precisely what he or she was doing when airplanes flew into the towers of the World Trade Center.

And every single New Yorker knows what he or she was doing when the towers fell.

And every single New Yorker is grateful beyond measure that there are people in this city who daily put their lives at risk protecting us.

Thousands were killed on September 11, 2001, but they were not the only victims.

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...
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Among the thousands of dead were fearless men and women of the fire department and police departments who we had relied on to protect us.

Despite the courage they showed, they could not protect us from those planes and the results of their criminal impact though they gave their lives trying to.

It was a horrible crime and watching the towers fall was a horrible and sickening sight.

WORLD TRADE CENTER ATTACK
Image by Coast Guard News via Flickr

Fear is a debilitating thing. More on that in a moment.

After the towers fell hundreds, perhaps thousands of men and women: police officers, fire fighters, ambulance workers, sanitation workers, and construction workers from the city and many elsewheres near and far worked long hours searching for possible survivors.

When it was clear that there were no survivors left they searched for remains so that they could later be identified and buried.

Raising A Truck: Early Stages of Clean Up at G...
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They moved tons of rubble, breathed tons of what turned out to be highly toxic dust that hung in the air for weeks.

These men and women showed courage, too. Disaster sites are dangerous in ways those of us who have not worked in them cannot fully grasp.

These men and women worked for weeks, breathing that toxic air daily.

Now, nearly ten years after that date that will echo for decades, these men and women are getting sick.

They are suffering unusual rates and forms of lung disease, heart disease and nerve damage that did not show up immediately.

There is little doubt that these diseases are the result of their work at what quickly became known as Ground Zero.

Survivors of those who died in the attack have received monetary compensation for their losses of income, companionship and parenting from those who died in the immediacy of the attack.

Those people who rushed in afterward to search for survivors, remains or relics of the lives that were have losses, too. They have lost their health. Many have been told their lives will be truncated by the diseases they now have.

Morality demands that the rest of us take care of those who take care of us.

That same morality demands that we take care of the health needs of those who searched through the destruction at Ground Zero.

This does not seem to be a difficult concept to understand yet Congress doesn’t seem to get it.

Morality demands that one do the right thing even when it is not convenient or easy.

ESPECIALLY when it is not convenient or easy.

NYC - Ground Zero Cross
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Congress has put politics ahead of morality, ahead of doing the right thing for those men and women who sacrificed so much so willingly.

Congress has refused to pass the bill that, if enacted, would pay the health care costs of those men and women.

We are not talking really big numbers here. The costs of this health care would not approach the billions of dollars given to banks or the billions of dollars given to automobile manufacturers.

But it should not matter if it would be that expensive. Taking care of these people is merely the right thing to do.

Congress should be ashamed but they are not.

Congress does not have morals. Congress members operate on the basis of self-interest and on their fears of not being re-elected.

If you are a teacher, teach your Congress member how to recognize moral obligation and what to do about it.

If you are not a teacher write a letter or make a phone call.

Write lots of letters.

Make lots of phone calls.

Get Congress to act now.

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I Like To Watch

05/07/2010
Magnifying glass and reflection
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The last time I got to watch another teacher teach was when I was a student teacher six years ago.

Back then I really didn’t know enough to observe what was happening and understand what I was seeing.

Today I finally got the chance to watch an excellent teacher teach a social studies lesson.

This was very useful to me because I now have the background and experience to really look at what was going on — and what was not happening —in front of me.

I wish this had happened a couple of years ago.

It is happening now because my principal says my one teaching weakness is my classroom management. He is being kind.

Very kind.

Classroom management is something I completely understand in theory and I even know the dance steps, but I can’t seem to keep from tripping over my two left feet.

I know I have to set up good procedures from the beginning and stick to them, but I never seem to have the right ones.

This year has been especially difficult because I was out the first month of school with my knee injury and the kids had lots of opportunity to develop bad habits. I also was teaching general education classes for the first time.

The best thing about watching another teacher work is that I am able to compare what I saw to my own practice, and I am man enough to admit that compared to Mrs. A, I have absolutely dreadful class management skills.

Realizing that is the first step to improving.

Mrs. A was masterful in the way she not only managed a class with several difficult students but actually got those 8th graders to think independently in the process.

I came away with lots of management techniques and a new process for analyzing photographs, posters, and other documents.

I also came away with a strong desire to watch other teachers teach.

There is a current movement to greatly increase the amount of time teachers-in-training spend student teaching and I am all in favor of that.

But I also think that a few years after being certified all teachers should be required to observe one or more colleagues for a few days.

I know I’m ready to sacrifice some prep periods to do that.

Are you?

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Never Let Go, Never Give Up

04/30/2010
Clinging Vines
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“Once I am your teacher I never let go.”

That is one of the first things I tell my students at the beginning of the school year.

I started saying that in my third year of teaching when I finally got my own class. They were twelve sixth-grade special education students and they didn’t believe me.

Those kids are freshmen in high school now. I still have the phone

A gang sign of the Bloods

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numbers of their parents or guardians in my cell phone’s directory.

Every now and then I call one of them to see how the boy or girl I taught is doing.

Some are thriving, some having a harder time.

One has dropped out and joined a gang.

I ran into him the other day after school.

He was wearing his colors so I didn’t have to ask him what was going on in his life.

We made small talk for a while before I asked him what happened, why had he given up on school.

He is a smart boy who has raging hormones and is easily distracted. He is also a very good basketball player.

He told me that his school doesn’t let freshmen play on the varsity and that students must maintain passing grades to be on a team.

He is capable of it, but he didn’t have to work too hard in middle school because, as a special education student, he had modified requirements for passing from grade to grade.

Those modifications disappear in high school

In high school all students are required to meet the same standard.

We warn them, but it still comes as a shock when it happens.

This boy realized around midterm, right around the time this HS basketball season ended, that he would not become a tenth grade student. He would not be on the varsity next year.

He has always had problems at home and those problems had worsened.

That’s why the gang is so attractive. It is a new family.

They don’t let go easily either.

This is where the corollary to I Never Let Go comes in.

I also never give up on a kid.

I reminded the boy of what I had told him four years ago and he laughed.

“I didn’t believe you then, but you tracked me in 7th and 8th grade and always checked in with me and my teachers.”

“I thought that was over when I graduated.”

I smiled.

“I never let go, and I never give up on a kid,” I told him.

“And the best thing about never is that never never comes.”

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My Four Word Education Plan!

04/21/2010
Banksy
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I was feeling very burnt out today.

The reasons why have been accumulating since I hurt my knee in the first week of school and was out for a month.

Then this morning my lesson on the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire failed and I found out that a boy who choked a classmate then used a marker to pretend to masturbate would not even get a one-day suspension.

I just love it how we teach our students that their actions have no consequences then wonder why they don’t learn to behave better.

When my last class ended I just sat down to gather the energy to go home.

That’s when two of my 6th grade students came in to get some more information prior to a class debate between advocates for the Athenian and Spartan lifestyles.

One of the girls is a bubbly, athletic and enthusiastic ball of energy, the other was S, who I have written about before.

After a half-hour the first girl left.

S and I continued to talk.

We talked about ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and also about modern family life. We chatted about predictions that the world wound end in 2012 and agreed that there probably would be a 2013 and more.

I taught her about the butterfly effect and the random but thoroughly interconnected series of events that we are all part of and affected by.

We discussed global warming, the Ice Age, the water cycle and the first law of thermodynamics (though that’s not what I called it).

Just when I needed it most, I remembered the joy I get from teaching.

In our third hour of chatting I told her about the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I helped her understand how to find the area of an isosceles trapezoid.

To outside eyes each of us was taking a huge risk.

I was breaking the most basic rule of being a male teacher; sitting in a classroom alone with a just-turned 12-year-old girl. And she was sitting with me.

We could do this because we trust each other. We feel safe with each other.

The distillation of my philosophy came to me as I was telling S how I realized she was different from almost every student I’ve taught.

Whenever I ask a question requiring a higher-order thinking skill and the rest of her class stares at me as if I were speaking Klingon, she will raise her hand slowly and say, “I’m not sure, but…”

That’s it!

Philosophy & Poetry
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

That is my education philosophy distilled to its most essential point.

“I’m not sure, but…”

I want all my students – all students – to feel safe enough, secure enough, challenged enough and supported enough to take the risk that S takes.

No, I don’t mean spending almost three hours alone with a teacher.

I want them all to be able to say…

“I’m not sure, but…”

If we can get our students to that point I guarantee they will learn.

So how do we get them there?

I’m not sure.

But…

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Using the Wrong Camera Creates a Bad Picture

04/14/2010
Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September...
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It’s not like teaching doesn’t have enough frustrations.

After all, teachers go to work every day ready to inspire, challenge, guide and enjoy the children for whom we have been given responsibility.

We take this responsibility seriously.

We learn as much as we can about whatever it is we are assigned to teach.

We come in early or leave late. Some hardy souls do both.

We take work home most nights and we bring the work back in the morning.

We take work home most weekends.

We bring the work back on Monday.

We teach our curriculum, but we do more.

We model behavior.

We resolve disputes.

kleenex anti-viral commuter freebie
Image by fsse8info via Flickr

We listen.

We provide shoulders to cry on and tissues to dry the tears with.

We buy the supplies that the taxpayers don’t provide but that our students need.

We buy snacks and lunches for the kids.

We feed mouths as well as minds.

We feed spirits as well as bodies.

We help build our nation.

We help build all our tomorrows.

Okay, so maybe not all of us.

I know there are teachers who have given up but still show up and collect a paycheck.

I know there are some teachers who should not be in a classroom.

There are even some who should not be allowed near kids.

How many? I don’t know. No one knows.

That’s not really true. Other teachers know.

We know because we are in the building with them.

We know because we see them teach, or not teach.

We know because we know what a good teacher looks like, how a good teacher works, the things a good teacher does.

I don’t want to work with bad teachers, with teachers who have given up, or with teachers who never should have been given the job.

No good teacher wants to work with those people. They just make our job harder.

We’re the ones who have to clean up their messes, help their students succeed in spite of the teaching they got last year.

Should incompetent teachers be fired? ABSOLUTELY!!

I’m a strong union supporter, a proud (at least most of the time) member of the United Federation of Teachers, but I still say bad teachers need to be fired.

I also know that almost no one not in a school on a day-to-day basis can spot a bad teacher if one should fall from the sky and hit them on the head.

You see, there is no real external measure of good or bad teaching.

Some of my students made great progress last year. That doesn’t make me a great teacher and more than that some of the students in the same classes didn’t make any progress makes me a bad teacher.

Things just happen that way sometimes.

I’ve seen teachers seem to work wonders one year and not be able to motivate any students the following one.

The only things that changed were the students. One year you get a self-directed driven group and the next you get a class that makes slackers look hyper-motivated.

You take a snapshot of the first class via a one-shot standardized test and that teacher looks great. Take the same shot the next year and that same teacher seems incompetent.

The problem isn’t the teacher. The problem isn’t even the students.

The problem is the camera.

Old Camera...yuk
Image by MaestroBen via Flickr

Teaching isn’t the kind of thing you can capture in a snapshot.

That applies to bad teaching as much if not more than it applies to good teaching.

Judging the quality of teaching from a one-shot snapshot standardized test is like reviewing a movie director’s career based on one frame from one movie.

Yes, there are bad teachers, but there are many more good ones.

The problem is that most people aren’t using the right lens, the right camera to get the contrast right.

What’s worse is that most people are happy to use that standardized test still camera.

Making a movie is just too hard, too much work, I guess.

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What Would I Invent?

04/08/2010
United States Patent Cover from a real patent ...
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The Question: If you had unlimited resources, what product would you invent to help or aid your special education or learning disabled students?

I am the grandson of an inventor, so when Classroom Insiders assigned this topic I thought it would be easy to come up with something I’d want to invent.

Apparently I got passed the wrong set of genes for this.

Part of the problem is imagining having unlimited resources.

The idea of having unlimited resources is one I have a hard time wrapping my mind around.

I teach in what has been identified as the poorest Congressional district in the nation.

Despite the astounding rate of asthma among my students I still have to use chalk because I don’t have a dry-erase board.

And I have to buy the chalk.

By the end of this week, all the classrooms in my school will have SmartBoards, so I guess that will help, but my blackboard is a lot bigger and much easier to use because someone bumping into it doesn’t require time-consuming realignment with a projector.

Then there is the other side of the problem for me; the notion that there could be one product that would help or aid all my special education students.

This notion of there being one solution to every problem seems endemic in education.

Even our President has that fantasy.

I don’t.

I know that among my 100 or so students there are a wide variety of needs.

Trying to come up with a single product to help all of them is like inventing Lipitor and using it to treat cataracts and cancer as well as cholesterol.

It can’t be done.

Or can it?

After giving the problem a lot of thought…

and conducting extensive research…

after considering and rejecting many alternatives…

and after hours of emptying my mind and meditating through the power of computer solitaire, I have finally come up with what I think is a workable idea.

Were that Bill and Melinda Gates would take all the money they give Edutopia and turn it over to me.

Were that I would have access to the best engineers, the best materials chemists, the best labs and the most advanced manufacturing facilities the world has to offer.

Would that all the conditions be perfect, the stars in optimum alignment, I now know what I would invent and manufacture.

That silver bullet everyone dreams of…

a magic wand.

Magic wands
Image by Tyla’75 via Flickr

_____________

This blog is the second in a series of three I’m writing as part of the Classroom Insiders panel at We Are Teachers. Please visit to meet the two other special  education bloggers  on the panel and read their posts on this same topic. The final posts in this series will appear May 6th.

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U Made the Difference

03/24/2010
John Quincy Adams
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“The success of this academy,” my principal said the other day “depends on what happens in room 250.”

Room 250 is the largest room in my academy, which is one of seven small learning communities within the school.

It is a very busy classroom.

It is the homeroom, math, social studies and science classroom for our very challenging 7th grade class.

This 7th grade class is even more demanding than my 8th grade social studies class that also uses the room. I’ve written about my struggles with this class a couple of times.

I also teach my 6th grade social studies class in room 250.

A teacher from outside our academy also uses the same room to teach the blended non-Regents Exam-taking 8th grade science class.

In case you haven’t been following along in your scorecard, the score is four teachers teaching three subjects to four different classes, all in the same room.

My principal was not kidding. Control room 250 and you control the academy.

Room control has been an elusive target this year. Even with more orderly classes, sharing a room four ways requires more compromises than we often feel capable of making.

One big problem has been the layout of the room.

Early in the year I was told to have assigned seating. That lasted exactly one day because the next day when we came into the room the desks were arranged completely differently.

It seemed like every time I went into the room some aspect of the layout was different.

Moving around the room was difficult because some desks always seemed to be in the way.

Using our interactive white board was frustrating because someone moving his chair a little would hit the wire along the floor connecting the projector to the computer and throw off the alignment, making the interactive part inoperable.

Even the most experienced teacher among us was ready to give up because nothing he tried helped him keep the class on task.

Our school has a contract with the Center for Social and Emotional Education to work with us on improving the school’s climate for learning.

Our consultant from CSEE met with Mrs. E, a teacher in our academy who told of our difficulties.

“You is the solution to the problem,” the consultant said.

“No, you ARE the solution, not you is,” corrected Mrs. E,

“Not you, U, as in a U-shaped arrangement of the desks.”

She then drew a picture.

Classroom
Image by James F Clay via Flickr
Classroom
Image by James F Clay via Flickr

Mrs. E showed the rest of us the picture later and we all agreed that U was worth trying.

That was Friday. Monday we arranged the room just as shown in the drawing.

What a difference a day makes.

In the U everyone can see everyone else.

In the U the center of the classroom is open and it’s easy to see who is working or not, easy to move from student to student.

And no one trips over the wires.

My 8th graders have been far more attentive, far more cooperative.

Has it worked for all students? No, but its shifted the climate enough that not working or misbehaving is an aberration instead of the norm.

All the other teachers are having the same experience with all the other classes.

Here’s what I’ve learned from this experience:

John Quincy Adams was right when he said, “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”

When what you’ve tried isn’t working, try something else even if you’ve already tried a lot of something elses.

Having a lot of experience doesn’t mean you know all the right answers, and having the right prior knowledge is better than having the most.

Even the smartest person in the room can learn something new.

But my number one take-away from all this is that while it is great if students are attentive and engaged, it is our responsibility to create the circumstances that make their being that way easy.

Maybe U is your answer, too; maybe not.

But an answer is out there and it’s our job to find it.

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