Lights, camera, action! It’s award time!

09/19/2013

This weekend educators will be recognized with a red carpet, black-tie event in Washington, DC.

No, not a state dinner, not even a White House reception, it is something better. It is the 2nd annual Bammy Awards for Educational Excellence. I know, you’ve never heard of them.

The Bammy Award

The Bammy Award

It is a sad state of affairs when the ceremony aimed at recognizing the good work of education workers also suffers from a lack of recognition. But we have an opportunity to change that.

This year the Bammy Awards are being broadcast live on the web. You will see us arrive in our limousines and step out onto a red carpet. There will be people interviewing us. Then you will get to see handsome statuettes distributed an impressive award ceremony that is surprisingly fast paced because award winner speeches are limited to two sentences. Really. Wittiness is encouraged.

I can tell you from experience that it is extremely difficult to write a good two-sentence acceptance speech, I have tried.  I am one of the five finalists in the school librarian category, just added this year, so I had to do it . There should be no chance I will win since I am up against four of the top school librarians in the country and I am barely qualified to do shelving for them. Even so, I have to have a two-sentence acceptance speech ready.

I know you have a life and better things to do on a Saturday night than watch an awards show, but you can tune in and be snarky just like you are watching the stars and wanna-be actors arrive for the Academy Awards. Pay particular attention to the women’s shoes, there has been a lot of posting on Facebook about their finds. 99% of the men, including me, will be wearing rented tuxedos, you can tell because they won’t have chalk on them.

And if you miss the live stream of the event, it will be archived and available for viewing any time.

So please, give some recognition to the ceremony recognizing school people. It will trickle down to us eventually.


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.


I’ve been nominated for a Bammy Award

04/07/2013

Teachers have been under attack lately and reports say teacher morale is at an all-time low.

Bam Education Radio created the Bammy Awards for Education Excellence last year to help spread the word about the good, talented, hard-working child-centered people who work in education including janitors, superintendents, teachers, principals, school nurses, education professors, education commentators, education reporters and more.

The Bammy Award

The Bammy Award

The Bammy Awards are presented at a black-tie event in Washington, D.C. I was privileged to attend last year’s ceremony as one of a group of 25 bloggers representing the 100 selected for Educator Voice recognition. It was fun to see friends and colleagues all dressed up even if I never felt fully comfortable with the idea of the ceremony.

Educators are generally very hesitant, even loathe, to toot our own horns. We even tend to shy away from recognition by others. This has to change. We have to tell our own stories because no one else is going to do it for us.

I am nominated for a Bammy Award in the school librarian category. I’m honored and humbled, especially when I see the others nominated in the category. I hope you will take some time to read the nominations and cast votes in some of the categories.

Please help spread the word that there are some great educators out there who need some recognition and support.

Thank you.


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.


What if?

09/17/2012

Saturday evening I sat in a darkened theater, wearing a tuxedo for the first time in almost 40 years, for the first presentations of what might be annual awards for excellence in education. The Bammy Award for Excellence in Education

I am sitting among a group of education bloggers who will be called up on stage and recognized for our work.We’re being treated like movie stars, photographed and video interviewed on the red carpet on our way into the Arena Stage in Washington, DC.

As much fun as it is to see people I have come to know, respect and learn with all dressed up, the men handsome and the women beautiful in our finery, this feels weird, bizarre and more than a little uncomfortable.

That this feels so strange is precisely what is wrong with the Bammy Awards for Excellence in Education —  that it is so outlandish for educators to get red carpet treatment, hear kind words and receive weighty trophies. We have become far more used to being blamed, attacked, criticized, sniped-at and otherwise vilified.

The Bammy Awards are a calculated response to the cynical, damaging and dangerous negative images of teachers and other educators being presented to the public.

In the process of recognizing exceptional teachers, administrators, school maintenance managers, education reporters and school nurses the Bammy Awards ask a challenging and important question: What would happen if we treated teachers with the same high regard we give to entertainers, sport stars and other celebrities?

What would happen, how would things change, if we showed teachers appreciation, respect, perhaps even admiration for their work, their experience and their dedication instead of treating them with contempt.

What would happen if we built educators up instead of tearing them down; what if we helped teachers feel good bout themselves instead of causing them to question their choice to teach in the first place.

What would change if we recognized the professionalism of teachers the way they do in Finland and Singapore?

What indeed?


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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