Friday, November 20, 2009

Cost of Living Raise or Pay Cut: The High Cost of Teaching!

Anyone reading the paper these days will know that the teachers in my district are being threatened with a 12% pay cut PLUS four furlough days to be taken during what is already our contracted spring break. Demoralizing? Yes. But even moreso when one contemplates how many district employees are moved around from bogus position to bogus position as empty reminders of empty district goals. What's worse is contemplating how much district money is spent on external contractors and other programs designed to make bad teachers better when that same money could be spent on rewarding smartly evaluated good teachers.

Just a week ago, prior to the Superintendant’s supremely callous Friday, 5pm, YOUR-PAY-WILL-BE-CUT letter,  we gave the first scheduled SPA (Secondary Periodic Assessment) of the year. This means that as a department chair, I have to follow administrative directives and rally the teachers to swap our classes’ 9th grade SPA essays so we can grade our students' work more objectively. Theoretically, this means that we have all set the same goals, have taught to those goals, and have seen whether and to what degree we have met those goals. But this test asks that students read mind-numbing essays, charts, stats and graphs about big bad video games; then they are asked to write a “persuasive” essay where they are to take and defend a position on the “issue.” And let us not forget their “position” had better be against those dangerous, evil video games, or else!

Here is the real rub, especially in the face of these horrendous pay-cut threats. The district contracts this “benchmark” test to Princeton Review, but only AFTER the students take the test--having read the information, the prompt, and the rubric--does the district's Secondary Literacy Department create what they call  “DECISION RULES.”  They describe these rules as follows:

“. . . established during the process of selecting the SCORE POINT REPRESENTATIVE PAPERS that help determine “proficiency.” These rules, which were developed through consensus among those selecting the training set papers, address questions and issues that might arise when teachers score their student work. Knowing these rules up front assists scorers and helps 'standardize' the scoring process.”

Irony? Let me count the ways:

1. Time and money have been spent not only on the Princeton Review’s silly and irrelevant test, but also on salaries earned by LAUSD "literacy experts" tasked with modifying the contractor’s sham test.

2. The LAUSD rightfully demands that teachers’ expectations be clear enough for students to understand what they need to do in order to achieve goals and grades, yet our Secondary Literacy Department (a name that can be read two ways, I know) creates grading rules AFTER THE FACT.

3. "Standardizing” what could be clever, original, intelligent writing (which these tests not only do NOT promote but work hard to prevent), the kind of writing that sometimes happens despite the idiocy of the test, is a ridiculous goal.

4. This benchmark proves nothing about students who are working hard in their classes to think and write intelligently and inventively about literature. But if they can read VCR instructions, they are on their way to the kind of proficiency that warrants a high-school degree.

5. The district has cut teacher pay, has ignored teacher contracts, and as these tests seem to indicate, maintains priorities that do anything but serve the community it's supposed to serve.

Cut away, Superintendent! I probably do not deserve the pay I receive if I see these ironies clearly but the effectiveness of these benchmarks, not at all!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Finger-lickin' OBNOXIOUS

The administration decided to host an assembly for seniors in an effort to inform them of important policies and requirements for graduation and other "fun" senior events, ranging from BBQs to prom to the graduation ceremony itself. Teachers were asked to escort their classes to our “state of the art” auditorium to ensure order, well, theoretically at least.  I scanned the room and saw about six hundred students, five teachers, and two or three administrators. Oh yeah, I knew this would be bad. Knowing my inability to cope with the boorish behavior of masses of students empowered by their anonymity, I dug into my seat, kept my nose in the papers I brought to grade, and the corner of my eye on my well-behaved class. 

No matter who stood up to speak to the assembly, the din never stopped. The man from Jostens, or whichever cap, gown, and ring company he represented, tried to impart information the kids would need should they make it to the finish line, but only a few listened to him. The poor man had to say,  “Listen up, people” as punctuation for almost every phrase he uttered. Remarkably, he never lost his patience. Then the phelgmatic student-body president mumbled a request for the students to purchase senior sweatshirts that they loudly considered too pricey, and an Assistant Principal spoke about what many considered the unreasonable senior attendance policy (7 absences max? Really, that’s unreasonable?). Soon the din became an uproar. I continued to mark comma splices and agreement problems and read and reread the sentences before me in an effort to tune out the noise. The last thing I wanted to do was confront misbehaving students whom I do not know by name. 

Finally, after questions no one heard and after an administrator was brushed off and left the stage for lack of stamina; after hoots, hollers, and whistles every time some well-meaning adult called them the Class of 2010; after rude call-outs and continuous inattention to the front of the room, the nightmare ended. Inches from a clean getaway, I rose to lead my students out of the auditorium.   

Then I saw them. Two girls in the seats right behind my class were sucking on fried chicken wings, fingers covered in grease. I was nothing short of aghast. Now, I have been known to hunker down over a little KFC myself, much to the dismay of my politically and dietarily savvy friends, but here in this sacrosanct auditorium designed for the top notch performers who attend this school, food is an absolute no-no. So I thought about it for a few seconds: do I say something and face inevitable resistance and hostility or do I just ignore this egregious defiance in front of all the students who know I have seen this display and count on me, as one of the adults in this barely controlled chaos, to maintain some form of order? 

“Are you REALLY eating in here? You have to put that away!” I registered my protest and insisted they modify their behavior. Very teacherly, but I knew I was in for it.

Blank stares. Lips wrapped around wings.

“Put the chicken away!” I remained firm.

“Where?” Finger licks, bone gnawing.

“Wherever your got it from!”


“Take out whatever the chicken came in and put it away. NOW!”

“Put it in what? What are you talking about?”

The conversation was so unprofitable, so impossible that I was getting angry at myself for starting it, for wasting my time, for feeling bad that I didn’t have a piece of chicken myself. But I am the adult here, or so they tell me. So why do I feel that sick feeling I always get when I know what the right behavior is and am made to feel the fool when I try to enforce it. 

I turned away from the offenders, cursed heartily under my breath, and stated that I was tired of the pigs at this school. One of the girls, who knew me, though I did not know her, says, “DID YOU JUST CALL ME A PIG?!”  Righteous indignation, of all the deflecting nerve!

Before I could say, Original Recipe, all the anger I had worked so hard to quell for that hour and a half of patent, room-wide disrespect rose up in me, and I just let it fly: “I said members of this student body act like a bunch of goddammed, disgusting pigs, and if you think you fit that description, then YES, I guess I called YOU a pig! Your behavior is a disgrace, an intolerable disgrace, and I am just sick to death of it!”  I turned on my heel and stormed out of the room, muttering to myself like the crazy person I suddenly felt like.

The question all this raises in me is why anyone would expect any adult to be at the mercy of disrespectful teenagers, who rarely face real consequences for their actions, and NOT get angry. One of my colleagues was recently called a bitch by one of her students, a curse to which she responded in equally colloquial and insulting language, and she was not only called out for her behavior by the administration, but she was told that a student’s calling a teacher a bitch is not an offense worthy of suspension. Really? Now if the same kid had called one of the administrators “Asshole” or dare I say something worse, would that have been an offense worthy of suspension? I also wonder whether it is just a coincidence that when I cannot get the team of boys who play a wild football game in front of my bungalow classroom (where they are forbidden to play) that this teacher, the one called BITCH, is the ONLY one who can get the kids to stop. Fire with fire, I say, unless of course, we suddenly turn this terrible tide and make civil student behavior priority one. Not likely, I fear.

Well, all this contemplation is making me hungry. I think I'll go out and get a little of the finger-licking good stuff and be done with it.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Time. . . Is On My Side. . .

I had a particularly good week. The dread I felt at the start of the term has evaporated, replaced by, dare I say it, happiness? My students are for the most part adorable and eager to learn. I am nice to them and they are nice back. 

Of course, I could still be reeling from the great lunch I had off campus a couple of weeks ago; or maybe it was the fact that I saw another couple of dear friends mid-week and got to hear terrific music in a beautiful hall, even though it was pissing rain outside and an otherwise grim day; or maybe it’s the fact that I am still working out at least three or four times a week, including mile walks in the woods on weekends; or maybe it’s the fact that a sudden Indian Summer allowed my husband and me one more excellent day in the boat on the lake. I am not sure, but my insistence on creating balance in my life this year seems to be paying off.

“Paying off” is a funny choice of words for one in this profession, since my pay has not moved in  the nine years I have been back in public school. In fact, I lost about 10, 000 bones, as a pal would say, because I lost the extra class I have taught every year prior to this one. My finances are, well, what’s the use of talking. We all know teachers are supposed to live on love and respect and asking for money makes us seem crass and unprofessional. Yet do we consider our doctors and lawyers and chiropractors, trainers, masseurs, hairdressers, electricians crass and unprofessional when they ask for their fees, fees to which our meagre per-hour rate cannot compare?

What’s funny is most people take teaching jobs because of the time it supposedly affords. But like many teachers I know, I had somehow managed to swamp myself and lose any semblance of free time. I took on the extra class at school and I took on an extra class or two at another school a couple of days a week and I took on a few private students and I give enough work to my students to keep me grading papers for hours on end each week. Yup, I took it all on. 

I still have most of this work, but that free period I get two out of the three-day class rotation has made all the difference. Breathing room, moments of silence, clearing the air--all these elements of civility are now part of my routine. So despite the embarrassing pay, the oppressive conditions, I come back to the importance of TIME, and I must say I feel a little richer for it indeed.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mud Time

For some reason, the title "Two Tramps in Mud Time" popped into my mind recently and stuck. I suppose the phenomenon is not unlike when a song suddenly pops into your head. I find that when that happens, as if often does, if I pay close attention to the lyrics of the song, I cannot help but notice that the lyrics are usually completely appropriate to the situation at hand. The song has popped into my consciousness for a reason, just as a crossword answer pops up after hours of spending attention elsewhere, just as the solution to a math problem reveals itself once the problem is ignored. Introspection is an important endeavor, but it seems to me that the mind introspects involuntarily and can emit insights even when you are not looking for them.

The bouncy lyric, "I get knocked down, but I get up again" has popped into my head while teaching a difficult class, and I don't own or even particularly like the song. Apt, though, yes. "Who let the dogs out?" pops up when one too many people interrupt a class to summon a student. A favorite? No. Apt? Yes. Many more toe-tapping or hum-along tunes haunt me, but this Frost poem, its suddenly unavoidable presence in my mind is really quite a step up for my subconscious.

After reading the poem again, I was stunned by the last eight lines:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

Despite the obstructionist district in which I work, the work itself--inspiring students to open their minds and their hearts, while reveling in truth and beauty all day--is for me where "love and need are one / And the work is play for mortal stakes." The alliterative frankness of the title "Two Tramps in Mudtime" beckoned me to have another close look at this poem, only to find that these last eight lines completely encapsulate what I feel about my chosen career. And to think, this poem, like those silly songs, just popped into my head for no apparent reason.  

Saturday, October 3, 2009

La Dolce Vita

As I have mentioned, I am a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and this year the budget cuts cost me dearly. I lost the auxiliary class I have taught for the last nine years, and though this class added the stress of an extra preparation and the attendant papers, it also padded my wallet, which made it a little easier for me to inure myself to teaching four one-and-a-half-hour classes each day with only two brief breaks (20 and 30 minutes respectively). Gates and locks define the boundaries of the campus and these gates and locks are not to be opened until the school day ends, so this means that for the last nine years, I have been almost literally chained to my desk. 

Not once in nine years have I ever “met a friend for lunch” or gone off campus to “grab a bite.” Since there is really no time to do anything but teach my classes, answer student questions, and make small talk in the bathroom line, I practically live in my little isolated realm. I have packed my little island with the essential modern conveniences like a fridge stocked with berries, Greek yogurt, organic peanut butter, whole grain bread, cheese, water, juice; a kettle to boil water for my coffee and oatmeal; and my iPhone so I can enjoy the promise of at least some contact with the outside world during those two luxurious breaks I get. A colleague of mine once asked whether I was hiding a Murphy bed in my book closet. 

This week, on my way back to class during the morning break, I got a call from a dear friend, who asked what I was doing for lunch. The question, alive with the thrill of leisure and adulthood, could have crushed my spirits, but I paused for a second and remembered that this year, because I lost my auxiliary class, I am actually free for a significant chunk of two out of three afternoons a week and this was going to be one of those afternoons. So at 1:15 PM, during the lunch period, I did the previously unimaginable . . . I walked out of school “to meet a friend for lunch,” to “grab a bite.” Fortunately for me, Dolce Isola had opened its doors just up the street. 

The bright red building with its red and white striped awning and little ice-cream tables and chairs out front stands out like an oasis on an otherwise gray section of south Robertson Boulevard. Their pastry case does not contain wilted tuna sandwiches on soggy wheat bread or Brillo pad coffee cake. Nope, this case is full of delectable treats like Mitzi’s Earthquake chocolate cookies, red velvet cupcakes topped with cream cheese icing, lemon squares, chocolate croissants, tea scones, chocolate truffle torts, and I hear the tart tartin is the best anywhere. Just looking at the display gave me a sense of well being. 

For lunch my friend and I first shared the homemade guacamole filled with large chunks of avocado and fresh homemade tortillas--hot and satisfying. My friend opted for the Dolce Club Sandwich, and I picked the Ivy Buffet: Normandy chicken salad, fresh tuna salad, pasta a la checca, and lo scogglio potato salad. Every bite delicious, particularly the potato salad, which, to my great joy, was true Mediterranean comfort food, doused in olive oil. 

What is perhaps most exciting about Dolce Isola is the fact that it is the bakery for The Ivy restaurant. That means not only had I been sprung from my work confinement for the first time in nine years, and not only had I the chance to spend time with my dear friend, but I also had been enjoying a meal that was being similarly enjoyed in the far tonier reaches of the same boulevard. I had briefly traded my work island for the Dolce Isola and enjoyed every second of it--except I forgot to get dessert! Well, next time.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Summon(S)ed by a Higher Power?

This year, I have to say that my classes are excellent. Of course, some of my colleagues might say it's not because of what I do, but because the test scores walk in. Nonetheless, even in the classes where the kids aren’t as overtly clever or prepared, they all seem to want to learn. 

I know I will need to remind myself of this post at some point later in the term because I know I will soon be battling the underachieving highly gifted types. I will have to all but ignore their “potential” and instead focus on their "product," which means they will start to resist the work and beg to continue their laurel resting. I might have to get rough, and it will all be tiring. But for now it’s all good. The kids in my classes seem to want to be there and that is always a good thing.  

We are starting the fourth week of school and students are STILL changing their classes and adjusting their schedules because there are five weeks built into the start of every term for them and their counselors to get it right (Um, what does that say about what’s being taught in the first quarter of the term and how far behind will the system allow these children to fall? Not my bailiwick, so I’m not saying anything). 

This continual shifting means I have not YET had a correct roll sheet or grade entry sheet. It means kids can run from me when they see the work load or hear the course expectations. It means I will hear snide comments from administrators who don’t like “tiny” classes of 26-30-- though I have a few with at least 35--when the directives demand 40-45 per room. 

I say if there were no "color in pictures of Hamlet and get an A" classes for the kids to run to, the inequities would stop. Instead an administrator intimated that I must be a terrible teacher if I cannot hold onto kids.This is the same bureaucrat who calls teachers "good teachers" without having observed even a second of these "good teachers" at work. She judges them based on whether they help her meet her 40-45 in a room directives. She certainly has never set foot into my classroom during any class of mine. Institutional logic at work again. 

In addition to the moving and switching from class to class, there have been many classroom interruptions, where student "teacher assistants" bring around these little papers called SUMMONSES where kids are sent to various offices around the campus. The kids are not SUMMONED to these offices; nope, they are SUMMONSED, a non-word that seems to connote something more important than just being called to the office for reasons far more important than learning in a classroom.

Perhaps that is why my Shakespeare class erupted into laughter when a seventh knock at the door was a TA bearing a  SUMMONS for one of my charges that demanded he go to the office in order to receive his locker number. We were reviewing the first scene of HAMLET, discussing the meaning and function of the first words “Who’s there?”; and exploring the various uses and meanings of ghosts; and learning about Renaissance Humanists--but wait, John had to get his locker number, far more pressing business! 

Out he went, far across the campus to the office, and then back he came. The fifteen minutes or more out of class were the least of it. When he returned, I asked whether he had solved his locker problem and he had this to tell us: “Uh, no. . .this was a summons for them to tell me that they were going to summons me later for my locker number because they did not have one available now.”

Fortunately it's early enough in the semester for me to summon up my sense of humor.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Evaluating the Evaluators

Once again, there is much buzz about evaluating teachers based on test scores. The people who advocate this approach believe that teaching is a skill that can be judged objectively with the right objective tool. However, anyone who is actually in a classroom knows this is institutional speak and not the best approach. Tests can be one measure, but certainly not the only measure. Perhaps even more important, this test-accountability issue underscores the small-minded approach to evaluation that prevails in public schools.

The first day of the semester I gave the members of my department a teacher self-evaluation form. I tend to think that when one examines one’s practice closely, instead of perfunctorily, our students will be in better or at least more conscious hands (that said, I am willing to bet that the self-evaluation forms I distributed ended up in the trash). Using the approach outlined in the excellent 20 Principles for Teaching Excellence by M. Walker Buckalew, here is a version of the evaluation I distributed:

Please rate each of the 12 teaching characteristics listed below on a scale of 1-9 (9 being the highest level of importance). Then rate your current approach to each characteristic and your three-year goal with respect to each characteristic. In addition, you are to rate your colleagues: assess how they would rate themselves in these areas and assess their range of approaches to each characteristic.
1. Knowledge and expertise which is readily perceived by students  _____
Your current approach _____ 
Your three-year goal _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “average ratings” _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “range of approaches” _____

2. A drive to stay “current” in relevant fields   _____
Your current approach _____ 
Your three-year goal _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “average ratings” _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “range of approaches” _____

3. Repeatedly articulated (to students) high standards and expectations for performance and conduct                 _____
Your current approach _____ 
Your three-year goal _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “average ratings” _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “range of approaches” _____

4. A “results” orientation (overt teaching in planned progression throughout the school year, emphasis on active not passive learning and rigor)                            ______
Your current approach _____ 
Your three-year goal _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “average ratings” _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “range of approaches” _____

5. A “vision” of the process and the end product (and the ability and willingness to describe that vision to students often and well)                                         _______
Your current approach _____ 
Your three-year goal _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “average ratings” _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “range of approaches” _____

6. A facility for infusing routine activities with meaning     _______
Your current approach _____ 
Your three-year goal _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “average ratings” _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “range of approaches” _____

7. A passion for preparation                                                  _______
Your current approach _____ 
Your three-year goal _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “average ratings” _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “range of approaches” _____

8.Flexibility, especially in design and evaluation              _________
Your current approach _____ 
Your three-year goal _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “average ratings” _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “range of approaches” _____

9. Humaneness, as perceived by students  (“individual equity” as distinct from “justice and fairness”)                                                                         _________
Your current approach _____ 
Your three-year goal _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “average ratings” _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “range of approaches” _____

10. A knack for confronting-without-demeaning  (emphasis on “community building”)   _______
Your current approach _____ 
Your three-year goal _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “average ratings” _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “range of approaches” _____

11. The ability to teach (not merely assign) “responsibility”            _______
Your current approach _____ 
Your three-year goal _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “average ratings” _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “range of approaches” _____

12. Constant attention to reinforcement principles (feedback)           ______
Your current approach _____ 
Your three-year goal _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “average ratings” _____
Your estimate of our faculty’s “range of approaches” _____

What I am hoping stands out in this evaluation is the picture of excellent teaching provided by these characteristics, but just in case forms are not your forte, here is another way to see what is being asked of teachers here:

• Is a teacher knowledgeable and can the students see evidence of the teacher’s expertise in his or her field? 
• Is the teacher still taking courses relevant in some way to his or her subject--is the teacher a learner too? 
• Does the teacher teach a rigorous course that demands critical thinking (and in many instances critical reading and writing too)? 
• Does the teacher take the students through logical relevant steps to achieve class objectives?
• Does the teacher provide and see the results of rigorous teaching in the student’s culminating work? 
• Does the teacher provide meaningful work and assessments rather than busy work? 
• Is the teacher able to adjust his or her methods and plans to meet the students’ needs and to more helpfully provide feedback? 
• Can the teacher see his or her students as individuals with individual needs in order to teach everyone in the class? 
• Does the teacher give meaningful, helpful, constructive feedback often and in a timely manner? • Is the classroom a safe place for students to succeed and to fail? 
• Does the teacher inspire student accountability?

As I see it, this evaluation seems to base all other characteristics on the teacher’s knowledge of his or her subject because without that knowledge the rest of these characteristics are impossible.  One cannot adjust methods; respond to and provide for differing levels of ability; establish rigorous goals and clear, meaningful steps to reach those goals; or give meaningful feedback if one does not really have a comprehensive grasp of the subject.
Yet most public school evaluations usually ask perfunctory questions like these: 
1. Are the students “on task” ?
2. Are the students aware of the specific standards they are being taught? Has the teacher posted  that standard on the board or indicated it in another way? (It it is presumed by those in charge that if a student knows the standard, then the student will learn that standard. This notion clearly ignores the fact that several standards are often interwoven into class activities and assignments, and knowing the standard does not mean students’ gain mastery as much as it adds to their experiencing tedium!)
3. Does the teacher perform bureaucratic duties (grading, attending meetings, taking video tests on child abuse and blood pathogens, to name a few) in a timely fashion?
4. Does the teacher sign in (which seems to be the only method for determining whether we show up to school on time)?
5. Is the teacher collegial? 
6. Does the teacher show evidence of teaching strategies like “scaffolding” and “backwards planning” and “vertical teaming” ? (How’s that for institutional thinking?)

In the Sunday, September 20th, 2009, LATIMES, a journalist quotes a local high-school principal (and let us not forget administrators are people who opted out of the classroom), who says his school has “made gains” despite what most of us still in the classroom would call untenable class sizes (40 or more students to one teacher), a problem he ignores:  

“ [Mr. __] said [his school] has made gains by focusing on what he described as fundamentals, including training teachers more about the ‘how’ of teaching than the ‘what’ of course content. He said he has also introduced ideas about how the brain works and how students learn.” 

This principal (think about that word, which means PRINCIPAL teacher) seems to believe the “how” and the “what” are separate and distinct elements of teaching, and to add insult to injury, he believes the "HOW" is MORE important.  He must have earned all A’s in his education classes!  Naturally, the writer of the article did not ask a single teacher at that school what he or she thought about this principal's "philosophy." 

No wonder the powers that be include teacher meeting participation and attendance as a key part of the teacher evaluation. Any competent teacher, struggling to impart information to students while engaging them in the rigors of a lively, thinking classroom, would immediately see Mr.___’s confident boast of making gains by focusing on training teachers more in the HOW of teaching as shortsighted nonsense, to say nothing of how low it sets the bar! 

Let’s not forget the people who have risen to the top of the institution, in most cases because they have successfully internalized this kind of institutional thinking (I know that there are always some exceptions to this rule), are the people who evaluate teachers. 

Does anyone else see a problem here?

Friday, September 11, 2009

One Down--Thirty-Nine to Go. . . .

The first week,  brief as it was, is over and the dust seems to be settling. I have an AP class problem that has become more clear to me: these students write fairly clear sentences with relatively few errors; and that mechanical edge, in addition to the fact that they are well-behaved, may be what earned them the B's in class, despite their fails on last year's AP test. These are the kids who are the welcome break from the kids who swing across the room, Tarzan yelling all the way, and the kids who text incessantly and the kids who backtalk and roll eyes and  generally protest every product of  a teacher's good intentions. That said, these kids' resistance to reading compels them to invent meaning instead of read carefully; and they settle for translation instead of analysis, repetitive reporting instead of the conscious shaping of an argument. An ed-biz professional would say that these second-rate "habits of mind" seem to have been rewarded. Fortunately, critical thinking is a teachable skill and experience dictates that once their eyes open to the workings of figurative language, the rest should follow.
Naturally, I warn all my students of the rigors ahead, and naturally, upon hearing my warnings and after my showing them what works and what doesn’t, several run to their counselors bubbling and blathering that they need a "better" teacher or a lower-level class. When the counselors tell me not to scare the students away, I have to shake my head. My goal is to have the kids read and write analytically, and I don’t think that settling for the bad habits they seem to have acquired is doing them a service. If my pushing hard is anathema to them, then I cannot promise I will not scare students. Learning is scary in the same way that the truth hurts: both demand action that we may or may not be ready to take. If they choose not to face the challenge, I cannot change that. 

I remember calling a parent last year after a girl left my honors class for a basic class so she could be with her friends (let’s just say they were girls with more social than academic interests). This girl was academically up to the challenge and should not have switched, but her mother said, “She needs a social life too.” Okay, I guess I can see that. . .
. . . Now that my classes are settling down and the kids’ needs have clarified my goals. I myself need to figure out how to keep my life more social (a daily Scrabble move in the endless tournament I am playing with my high-school pal might not cut it). I also need to figure out how to cut my workload but still give kids enough practice to move them ahead. Having 39 or 40 students in an English class (no longer the case in AP, but my 10th graders, Shakespeare, and Creative Writing students are sitting on the floor) is simply untenable. 

When all is said and done, I must say that I marvel at those few teachers, whose classes must also be overloaded in this the current climate, who leave school everyday at 3 pm sharp with only a cell-phone in their hands.  . . . Maybe I should talk strategies with them?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

DAY 1: 09/09/09

The new school year’s hit most of us hard. Some new teachers are digging out from under the dusty remnants of the 30-year careers of retired teachers. Others are grappling with a gross lack of technical support--no copiers, no internet, no keys. Still others are overwhelmed and disheartened by the enormous class sizes. Teaching positions have evaporated, but the students have not, and we who remain now take up the slack--more students packing fewer classes; more work for teachers, less pay. 

For me it was no surprise to see I am facing the continuing decline of standards, no matter how many “standards” we write on the board when evaluators come into our rooms, and no matter how well the students can report which standards they are learning. I have an AP Literature class full of students who read not a page, not a line this summer even though there was assigned summer reading. Their essays are devoid of shape, thinking, purpose, and many took AP Language last year only to fail the AP test. Yet I would bet those who failed the test earned A’s, B’s, maybe C’s, in their AP classes. This institutionally sanctioned disconnect--AP access for everyone despite their basic skills and mild work ethic--makes the job very difficult, especially since other than the AP test graders, I seem to be the first to tell these students that they are not even close to ready for a truly advanced class. Getting them to trust me after they have known mostly false praise is a struggle I am not eager to face. Then there are the couple of students who actually are ready for AP, so here is the quandary: do I turn the class into the basic class most of the students seem to need or do I leave the majority in the dust and focus on the few true AP students? 

In all, the chaotic first day--an ironically orderly date, 9/9/09-- was particularly bad for me mostly because I wore closed shoes for the first time in two months and had to run around the campus hunting for paper and working copiers. Experience tells me that the chaos will subside, only to be supplanted by the routine, signified by the ringing of bells. As in Hamlet it's not the action, but the thought between the actions that matters; in my room, it's not the bells that matter, but the learning that happens between the bells. 

Monday, August 31, 2009

Separation Anxiety?

A friend of mine has decided to resign from the LAUSD.  In addition to being an excellent science teacher, she is a licensed personal trainer and fitness expert who recently realized that working part-time in her field would pay more than what she would earn as a teacher. She had initially aimed to go part time, but when she looked at her incoming student rosters and realized that in the current budget situation she would have more students than she did when she taught full time--for much less pay--she decided to call it quits.  Wellness Spa, soothing fountains, and soft voices, here she comes.

My friend mentioned that she thinks of the job the way one thinks about relationships. Would she stay with a man who exploited her? Uh, no. So why stay in a job that demands she work hard and suffer certain indignities for pay that would barely cover living expenses. Teachers work for those we serve and ignore what’s best for us, but the District often creates policies that make our ability to serve impossible. After all, it is almost a sin to suggest that what is good for the teacher would probably be good for students.

The funniest and saddest part of my friend’s resignation is her having to fill out the Confidential Separation Questionnaire, where one is asked to check the reasons for the decision to “separate.”  Here are some of the best:

paperwork/record keeping
too many duties in general
take home work
too many non-teaching related duties
many meetings
unmotivated students
unsupportive parents
student discipline policy
personal safety concerns at school site
lack of support from administrator in general. . .
communication flow at school. . .
salary. . . .
District’s policies and/or goals
Lack of input into school policies
Lack of input into curriculum. . .

And my favorite. . .SIMPLY TIRED OF WORKING!

Why are these common District working conditions examined only when one is ready to quit? Does it seem strange that the LAUSD, test purveyors extraordinaire, cannot seem to get this one essential last test right, given that the BEST answer is not CIRCLE THE MOST IMPORTANT REASON but ALL OF THE ABOVE! Perhaps if the concern about these conditions, so obvious and pervasive that they are printed on this form, came way before someone was actually moved to fill out this form, the District would not lose many of their good young teachers.

AMEN and best wishes to my friend, I say!