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!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The First First Day

When I first entered the hallowed halls of public school, I had a sense of what was in store. In the 50s my mother had been a teacher at a pretty rough New York high school for about six months until she married and was rescued, but that has never prevented her from telling me about the rigidly inadequate system, the indolent teachers, and the angry students that she was so happy to leave behind. Being the detritus of the feminist generation, I knew I would not be twirling in my apron while making roast beef and apple pie for a husband anytime soon, so I took the first steady job offered to me, heeded my mother’s warnings, but hoped that things would be at least a little different so many years later.

I started mid-year but had spent the first two weeks of the semester at the district offices getting the paperwork and the signatures straight. This meant I got to hear the substitute who covered for me say, “I know you are going to miss me, kids, but I am hoping that Ms. __, will do as good a job as me.” Of course, the kids immediately booed me, and, of course, I noticed her grammar.

The first year is always legendary for leaving the new teacher shell-shocked and mine was no different. I was asked to teach all my classes in different rooms, several of them at the adjacent community college because our school was too packed. Now this would have been okay had there been an office with a desk and a little storage, but the college model does not play in public school, so schlepp I did.

As a first-year teacher, I had to attend meetings with the “mentor” I had been assigned, where we would role play parent phone calls and clichéd teaching situations. She was an English teacher with a high-pitched voice that bordered on whiny, and she punctuated most of what she said with a laugh that sounded more as if she were gasping for air, as if she were emphasizing the irony of what she had just said for an audience larger than just me. The fact is she was always earnest, never ironic, the laugh, irritatingly confusing. “You got the new text book from the book room? (laugh)” or “ You teach in five different classrooms, several of them at the college? (laugh).” When she came in to observe my class, she documented every minute I spent. Her biggest warning? That I not use my sense of humor. No laugh that time. In fairness, she did advocate that I teach in only one room the next term.

Clearly she and I were not a match, but fortunately, as a new teacher I made the time to observe other teachers that year and was able to fine-tune my thoughts on what worked in the classroom. I saw teachers whose classes were regimented to the last second and teachers who allowed a free-for-all in their classrooms while claiming they liked the noise. I saw teachers who lectured without room for discussion or who allowed endless and unfocused discussion. I saw teachers who would shrug and roll their eyes at their students after they ran out of things to say, and I saw teachers who always had clever questions in mind to keep the conversation growing. I saw teachers whose rooms were covered in entertaining and instructive images, but whose classroom was tortuously tedious, and I saw teachers whose rooms were a mess, but the kids were in line and on point.

It wasn’t until I walked into a classroom filled with kids, many with shaved heads and oversized white t-shirts, who were listening so intently to their teacher, that I realized I might have actually found a mentor. The teacher repeated the question, “Synecdoche?” One of the t-shirted fellows nearly jumped out of his seat to raise his hand and the teacher responded, “Ok, Mr. ______, you think you have the answer now?”

“Yes, Mr. __!”

“Okay, then. . .”

“When you use the part as a metaphor for the whole; you know, like get your butt over here or what you said, ‘All hands on deck.’ Right?” It was hard not to smile at the neighborhood-specific singsong in the kid’s voice.

“Very good, Mr. ________,” said his teacher. With that, the teacher and the class cracked up at his examples, and the student, Mr. ________,  reveled in being right and in amusing his teacher. The teacher continued with other literary terms and the examples that made the terms understandable and useful. They all wanted to get the right answer and to think of examples on their own. This was my mentor, that was how I was going to teach.

I learned most of what I know from Mr. ___, and if it weren’t for him, I might not have gone back for my MA in English. He reinforced my instincts about the idiocy of education classes and relying on the ever inadequate “Teacher Editions” of text books. After all, doctors don’t take doctor classes; they study medicine; lawyers, the law. Following that rule, English teachers, should study--ENGLISH! So I did, and it wasn’t long before I found ways to dash entirely the increasingly pictorial text books from my curriculum, except for grammar and other mechanics exercises,  naturally. Instead, I just went for actual texts or anthologies of texts in order to get the kids to read and write smartly, rather than look at pictures and answer questions correctly. Not that all these endeavors are diametrically opposed, but the latter does not always lead to the former, that is for sure.

That first year was the first of several first years, all equivalently challenging despite my growing experience, but I took from them the lessons that have made me the teacher I am today, and I hope to share them with you here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Retiree's Vision

Since weekends and summer are meant to be time well spent, away from the cares of school, it is odd that much of the time I have spent has been with teachers--current and former colleagues, dance teachers, writing teachers, deans, retirees. I guess the job really is in my blood. How embarrassing!

That said, this past weekend I got to spend the day with a woman who taught English with me at my first public school roost and has long been retired. She has had a house up at our lake since she was a child and reminisced about spending summers working at the small local post office or at one of the lakeside estates answering phones and planning her sabbatical. What a concept--a sabbatical. I have never had an opportunity to even consider the possibility of a sabbatical in my 23-year employment as a teacher.

As we tooled around the lake, we caught up on all the gossip. My friend is part of a group of retired teachers who attend a luncheon the first day of school each semester to celebrate the fact that they no longer suffer the tyranny of bells, papers, tedium. She had no trouble remembering that as an English teacher, particularly one who ran an outstanding newspaper, she was working all the time. She remembered the feeling that the paper work would never end, but it was clear that the nearly unendurable paper load she described had become a fading memory for her, which was a hopeful sign for me.

We reminded ourselves of the interminable “inservices” we withstood at after-school meetings, and I told her of the new ones we still face year after year--all with magical names given a district-wide importance designed to support their theory that just willing something makes it true. Boy, did we have a good laugh.

She remembered the inservice where a “Language Acquisition” expert came in to tell us how to “effectively incorporate vocabulary into our daily lesson plans.” This particular inservice trend led to ill-conceived vocabulary relay races and other equally insulting endeavors antithetical to the design of a rigorous classroom (but then again “Rigor” had not become the trend yet). As the “expert” spoke, the faculty sat in silence, some surreptitiously and some not so surreptitiously grading papers, doing crosswords, reading books, knitting, and I sat roiling in my naivete. The presenter began by suggesting we use the word “contesserate”(a word I had never heard before or since, for that matter) and then offered her suggestions for teaching such a complex word: “Have the children "air write" the new word on their palms and feel how the word sounds on their lips; then have them write all the things they think the word means and go over why they think it means these things.”


Despite the warning hands of my friends, pressed firmly into my shoulders to keep me seated and quiet (they knew me), I arose, “DO YOU THINK WE HAVE ALL DAY TO TEACH ONE WORD? AND DO YOU THINK WE ARE IDIOTS?”

At this memory, my friend laughed and laughed. She did not remember a word of the inservice itself, but she did remember this outburst of mine, “DO YOU THINK WE ARE IDIOTS?” and then laughed and laughed at how obtuse I must have been not to realize that that was exactly what the “experts” think of teachers. She knew that such a misuse of our time was to be expected and not taking it in stride was a waste of valuable personal energy. Meanwhile, I still fume at the notion that these “experts” have opted out of classrooms to spread the gospel of excellent teaching tactics to those of us doltish enough to continue the struggle, yet most of them show no evidence of actual and substantial reading, and some mangle the English language themselves. In one instance, after a series of budget twists, our own “literacy expert” was cut and in my sympathy for her--she was one who cared deeply and had the smarts to make her effective--I worked hard to get her a job I knew of at a local private school. Though she said she would take the job when it was offered, she waited most of the summer before realizing that she should not take the job because actually getting back into teaching, prepping, grading, classroom managing felt like just too much for her. Hmm, what does that tell you?

I then told my friend about one of the inservices I attended my first year back in public school after years in private schools where those in charge treated us teachers with something called respect. This time the magical term was “Backwards Planning.” After she and I finished roaring at the name of this ingenious strategy, I told her what I thought it meant: Focus and clarify your teaching goal first, then carefully plan accordingly all the steps you need to get there. She broke up again, and said, “Isn’t that just PLANNING?” Ah, once again the obvious stated obviously.

After our day on the lake and a leisurely dinner, I asked her how she survived such a lengthy career in this school district. She said, “I remember only the good times.” I looked at her puzzled, and she continued “Well, the time with friends, of course, but really the time in class with the kids.” That’s the right answer.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Instead of being redundant, I would like to provide you with these links to my previously published thoughts on public school

Here are links to articles you should find useful:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Quality of Life?

I ended this past weekend at a party in Santa Monica, and as the sun cast its late afternoon glow on the fluttering blue table cloths, an autumnal chill hinted at the fast approaching end of summer. I was with friends and former colleagues from a liberal arts-oriented, forward-thinking Santa Monica private school (one of my past teaching incarnations) and could not help but be reminded that school was to start again soon.

I perched myself near a dear friend who has worked at that school for probably more than 25 years, and when he told me he was already back at school, even though there are two weeks remaining in August, I playfully teased him. Then when he asked me when I go back to school, I nearly burst into tears. He saw my sudden distress, took my hand as if to call a truce, and simply said, “It’s a quality of life thing, as you know.” Right, quality of life. I got it immediately.

I had left that sunny private school because I was offered more money at another private school, and since I had left my original post at a public school and taken a large pay cut for the opportunity to teach at the Santa Monica school in the first place, I could not see refusing what amounted to $8000 more per year and a shorter commute. I was again at the crossroads between quality of life and quality of pay, the two fundamental aspects of working life that rarely coincide in the teaching profession, if they do anywhere. After several years teaching in private school, I had returned to public school because I believed union protections and a stable salary, benefit, and retirement package were important, but now that school is about to start again, I think it is time to think about my friend’s searing reminder, “It’s a quality of life thing,” once again.

When I go back to school in a couple of weeks, I will face five classes, that is presuming the powers that be have fulfilled their threat and taken away my auxiliary class, which is an extra class I have taught every year, partially because I need the money, but most of all so I would not have to cover another teacher’s class and manage their behavior problems (I’d have been a sub if I thought I could gracefully handle what other teachers tolerate in their rooms). I will face an average of 34 students in each class, and these will be English students who learn and practice and gain expertise by writing extensively. Most weekends I will face, as I have in the past even with smaller classes, a one or two- foot high stack of paper to read and correct. I also teach two classes in a local private religious school a couple of afternoons a week, and I tutor a couple of kids privately because I have turned my life into the Gordian knot faced by many worker bees: my lifestyle ameliorates the effects of hard work, but I need the hard work to afford the lifestyle. Let me just say that I am working all the time from September to June and the summer thrill of having a real life, of reconnecting with my friends and family for nights at the Hollywood Bowl, for morning dance classes and coffees at The Farmer’s Market, for afternoon strolls along Venice beach, and for scenic drives to Santa Barbara--I could go on--simply and sadly evaporates with the opening bell.

This is not to say that I did not work hard at that sunny private school. In fact I might have worked harder there than I do now, but there is that persnickety “quality of life” question again. Motivation and hard work were not an issue with either the kids or my colleagues; I taught five classes with 18 kids in each class, if that; and I was given time in the day to grade work, answer and make phone calls, and prepare for class. There was even time to talk meaningfully to other teachers with whom I shared an office between classes.

If I had to write college recommendations, I got a day off. When grades were due, we all got a day off to write and proofread narrative reports. We enjoyed trips and school holidays and school-wide forums and other thoughtful and inspiring breaks from what in many schools is deadening routine. I would often spend evenings and weekends at school, but the work was always a pleasure because despite the physical limitations of the school plant--the school did not enjoy the embarrassment of riches the public school district tends to squander--the atmosphere was open and inviting, the technology current. I had to meet more frequently with parents, other teachers, administrators, but most were articulate and intelligent, and the unabashed idealism of some of my colleagues was supported by the school as a matter of course. Conversations were usually engaging, even when frustrating, and my growth as a teacher was as important as the students’ growth. I guess this is the heart of the “quality of life” issue, working in a place that values what you value.

At the public school, at the end of a semester we are to give finals and then are expected to grade them and calculate all the students’ grades over night--hence why many teachers opt to show movies instead of give finals. We write hundreds of college recommendations, but on our own time, and usually over the Thanksgiving break. We have to turn in grades every four and a half weeks, even though students don't get these grades until a few weeks after they are submitted to the office. We are asked to meet with parents who are sometimes hostile towards teachers, and we are expected to deal with students who have no use for school and whose parents don’t seem to care a whit about what happens at school either.

Most important, because public school teachers can be neither praised nor punished and administrators often do not have the time or inclination to perform meaningful and stimulating teacher evaluations, teachers are seen essentially as all the same but for our seniority: interchangeable cogs in a machine. Because of logistical constraints, administrators often think nothing of moving teachers and students around from room to room or class to class, sometimes at the last minute just before the start of a semester; and they expect teachers to adjust to what can feel like seismic shifts without complaint. Sometimes the entire balance of a class is destroyed with the transfer of students from other classes and sometimes teachers have no time to properly prepare for the new classes they have been handed the day before school starts. The only assumption one can make is that no one really expects teachers to do the job they were hired to do; instead the only skill teachers need is the ability to graciously handle what’s dealt them by an often callous and always unwieldy system.

Administrators have been known to treat teachers as if we are ill-intentioned (hence the meeting rule that all participants are to "Presume positive intentions"-- clearly this presumption does NOT come naturally!), and sometimes they treat teachers as if they have no right to be around the very children they are left alone with from the minute they set foot on the job. They don’t like teacher entitlement or cults of personality; instead it often seems as if it is more important that teachers put in the time than work hard to improve the quality of the time they put in.

People often refer to public- school teachers as the "fighters on the front lines” in this daily education “battle,” and the metaphors are not funny or coincidental, especially since budget cuts have shown that teaching positions are not considered as sacrosanct as bureaucratic sinecures in other parts of the District. In addition to the hammering we teachers take for test scores and student performance, the subtle and not so subtle messages about how we are valued throw into question why we do what we do, especially when the structure in which we work seems so contradictory to the task.

Yes, the improved quality of their writing shows that the kids learn in my classroom and they all thank me for working hard for them and "fighting the good fight." They also return to school to report the joy of their having been excellently prepared for college and life in general. And, yes, all that is "rewarding," the word we use as the ultimate consolation prize for all we put up with, to say nothing of our not having had a raise in eight years.

But clearly what lies at the heart of "quality of life thing" my friend mentioned is the shared values of everyone involved in the enterprise of educating kids. Unfortunately, as long as a public school system promotes and punishes its workers and its students uniformly; and approaches innovation, if you can call it that, from the negative point of view; or uses NO! more than YES!; or expects the worst or at least demands the mediocre; and in all its endeavors is usually downright obstructionist, public school teachers will continue to inure themselves to the demoralization in order to keep the comfort of job security. They will continue to live on those intangible "rewards" that other professionals who do equally "rewarding" things usually get paid very well for. And maybe most important. they will work towards a comfortable retirement that is often short lived because "quality of life" was just not an important enough consideration.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

CLAD or unCLAD? That is the Question

Three years ago, as a means of earning No Child Left Behind money, the district and the union, once again in bed together and with only money and efficiency in mind decided that all teachers needed a CLAD credential. I would love to let you in on what this particular acronym stands for, but I myself have no idea. I do know it has something to do with teaching students for whom English is not a first (or even second or third?) language. Though I had already been teaching for 20 years, though I had student-taught and then actually taught ESL (English as a Second Language) for several years--including night school--and my ESL students had been known to read and act out scenes from KING LEAR and weep at the end of Kurosawa's RAN, apparently, I was not actually qualified to be teaching the students I had been teaching and seemed to be teaching effectively.

The "coursework" for this "credential" (and, boy, do I use both terms loosely) was dauntingly mind-numbing and time-consuming, so I pushed to have someone come to our school to teach us veterans, who in the eyes of the district and union now needed this credential in order to be considered "qualified" enough to be in a classroom. Because I had left the district to prove my mettle in other schools and did not have a certain number of consecutive years in public school, and although I had pushed for this "convenient" CLAD class, it turned out that I was ineligible for it. So sadly, I got to watch my colleagues take this once-a-week FREE class on their way to CLAD proficiency, while I had to make other, more expensive arrangements after all.

I was relegated to an online course of study because none of the local universities offered CLAD courses separate from their credential programs. And I would have to pay $2500 of unreimbursed money for the pleasure. There were just no other options and the bureaucrats made it clear that they could use one's lack of a CLAD to move us around like chess pieces. So I fell in, signed up, bought the $80 book and began.

I wish I could remember the names of the four REDUNDANT and equally mind-numbing courses I took and their objectives, but I cannot. What the work amounted to was my recounting and describing everything I already do and have been doing in my classes--yes, I taught ESL with the same rigor I use in my regular classes, where the work comprises class reading, related outside reading, book journals that ask students to respond to specific elements of a text, reader responses designed to help them flesh out and organize their analytical responses to the literature, and culminating analytical essays. The good news is that unlike education classes I have taken in person, where I have to force myself not to snipe and bitch and roll my eyes at the cynical professors and simply students, I got to sit at a computer and. . . dare I say it, I got to act the part of the simpy teacher.

Oh, what an enthusiastic "sharer" I became. Often the first to post, restating the obvious with such faux élan I almost believed it myself, I would wait eagerly for my fellow classmates to join the discussion threads. As was required, I would respond to their posts with boundless enthusiasm about their skill and creativity and not make a single comment about their glaring subject/verb or pronoun/antecedent agreement mistakes (one instructor could barely negotiate the English language himself!). I would grin while wincing at their feeble sentence structure as I created the persona of the do-gooder in this profession, the teacher ready, willing and most of all able to make whipped cream out of horse manure. I would agree that BLESS ME, ULTIMA was the "absolute best book I had ever, ever read." But I would not go as far as to agree that Shakespeare's plays in their unabridged, NOT made simple entirety are not accessible to ALL students, especially if they are played aloud on a tape and discussed as the students read along; nor would I say that there are other writers besides Sandra Cisneros who are equally engaging for our ESL students. Those arguments I was not ready or willing to have.

Occasionally, I would sense the presence of a compatriot, whose contempt for all the patronizing self-satisfied posts was barely concealed beneath the "Wonderful, ideas, Robyn, but perhaps you should focus a bit on the actual reading of the literature instead of just on the videos and the acting." Or "Gee, I wish I had thought of that, Eugene. It's heartening to see someone so driven by the personal problems of all your students that you provide so many formerly downtrodden guest speakers for them to learn both life lessons and English. But what work are the students actually doing in your classes?"

I would never reveal myself. Only once, when the "professor" seemed to grade us completely arbitrarily in order to submit some bell curve at the end of the term to establish her own credibility since she never responded to our work and never clearly explained what she was asking of us, did I tip my hand a little. Though I almost threatened to out her as the fraud she was and was ready to give up on the entire sham in the process--now, get ready, here come the ed biz terms-- I reminded her of the ever important notion of "clear expectations" and asked her how we were to learn to explain our expectations clearly if she did not "model" this for us, her humble students. Oh yeah, she took the bait and spelled things out after that. Would that I had kept my mouth shut and settled for the lesser grade. Now the directions were so explicit, you couldn't help but see how stupid the work was: "Write a lesson plan where you get your students to talk about how important it is that multiple cultures coexist in your school, and use the format on page 72 of your book for this lesson plan. Then use this lesson plan in your own classroom and record its effectiveness." Uh. . . . nope. But I did go to my computer and talk about how "valuable" such a lesson was and how "clear expectations," "scaffolding," "noticing," and "prior knowledge" played into the students' success, yadda yadda yadda.

The nadir of this experience came when my dad took ill with terminal cancer, and I had to sit at the computer in his room, as he lay in the bed nearby, dwindling. I had to take time away from him to respond to all the meaningless drivel. Nonsense for nonsense while life and death were happening right next to me. It was excruciating, to say the least.

The good news, if there is a silver lining in such a grim tale, is that taking these abysmal classes marched me up the pay-scale. I had been a slow goer on that climb because over my career I have only taken real classes taught in real universities--"American Poetry: 1945 to the Present" kind of classes-- which take more time and energy than the "THE WHOLE WORLD DANCES--LET'S LEARN ABOUT CULTURES (Note: Bring comfortable shoes and be ready to dance!)" inservices offered by the District. Sure, I know there is a need for what they call salary-point classes, but not for me. Despite the salary scale bounce, the CLAD courses did teach me something: I will never get back the boat load of money I spent for this dehumanizing experience, and more important, I will never get back the time or the bits of my soul that I had to use to conjure up a self I hope NEVER to become.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Selecting AP Teachers--Who Decides and How?

Last semester, department chairs, AP teachers, and administrators stayed late one evening to codify the requirements for selection of AP teachers. Since having one's syllabus approved by the College Board was a given, we then came up with several other criteria. The first four received the majority of the votes:
1. Percentage of students who take the AP test at the end of the term
2. Formal training with the College Board
3. Teaching experience (in particular, teaching AP)
4. Higher degrees like an MA or PhD

The following criteria were suggested but did not receive the highest votes:
5. Pass Rate on the AP exam
6. College teaching experience
7. Student evaluations

The final criterion, though suggested, did not receive any votes:
8. Rotating AP classes among several teachers

When I asked my students--our clientele!-- to vote on these same criteria, needless to say their values fell in with mine. Here are there first four picks:
1. AP teaching experience
2. College teaching experience
3. Higher degrees
4. Student Evaluations

They felt pass rates were important but not as important as the first four, and what they rated dead last were the percentage of students who take the test and rotation among teachers. They felt rotating the course among several teachers was inconsistent with the AP teaching experience requirement, and they felt it should be a foregone conclusion that students who take the time to take an AP class would take the AP test at the end of the year.

Administrators aim to fill AP classes with students at varying levels of ability, and one of the problems with this "philosophy" is that when students understand they are in over their heads, they don't want to pay for or give up the time to take an expensive exam they know they won't pass. This is why the administrators place a premium on the percentage of students who take the test at the end of the term. It's all about the numbers. For administrators it is more important for students to take the class and the test than it is for them to pass the class and the test because the administrators "believe it is more important that everyone have access to the experience of AP." Well, what experience is that exactly if the teacher cannot teach to the level such courses signify or if the teacher teaches to the right level and in the process leaves all the students in the dust? But let's not retread that ground just yet.

The issues surrounding the AP teacher selection process are in keeping with the problems of teacher accountability in general: WHO DECIDES? and HOW? Despite this lengthy meeting, the administration selected an AP teacher who is not particularly collegial, but very well versed in union protections and the privileges of seniority (another criterion we did not even mention, though it might be implied by teaching experience). They made a unilateral decision to avoid the teacher's angry protests by stating that they felt rotation among teachers was the most important criterion--this, even though everyone who voted on the selection criteria had all but dismissed it!

Fortunately, the excellent teachers with whom I have worked do not need to teach an AP course to know they are excellent teachers. They teach every course with the same curiosity, intelligence, enthusiasm, and rigor. Teachers who believe the AP label implies their effectiveness are in keeping with the administrative philosophy that "everyone should have access to AP." Again, let's not forget that this access does not an AP student--or AP teacher--necessarily make.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

What is "access" anyway?

Fall semester a year ago I hand out Anthony Lane's New Yorker essay about the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony and ask the same question that I am certain all AP English Language teachers are asking their students, albeit about different texts: "What is the tone of this piece?" Of course, Lane, typically astute and ready to debunk, warns us of being so enamored of the aesthetics of fascism, which seemed to govern the elaborate show, down to the young singer replaced because she was not pretty enough; but many of the students, programmed to believe the TV hype and who are uncomfortable reading for anything other than decoding, did not get it.

The class was full of students who had taken a class over the past summer specifically designed to ready them for AP, or as it is hyped, a college-level English course. Instead of reading the EB White essays I had assigned as AP summer reading, which might have readied them for Lane's piece, their summer-school teacher read them Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby word by word and gave them many AP timed essays as practice, among other assignments, I am assuming. I am not sure how these students did in this summer class, but when I handed them the Lane essay and asked the dreaded TONE question, they blanched.

Then when I asked the students whether they knew what a thesis was or how to write an essay using effective grammar and sentence structure and an acceptable college manuscript format--all important, if basic, aspects of college preparation, which should have been taught either in previous classes or at least in the summer class--they blanched again, but, this time they ran to their counselors to switch out of the class.

What I considered basic questions were daunting, and that exodus left me with nine students in the class. I am proud to report they all passed the test, and three of them received the highest scores: of the 11 5's our school-wide 149 test takers received, 5 of them were my students. But even though the class was a joy for all the students who remained and for me as a teacher, given that I am no longer teaching AP Language and everyone seems fine with that, the experience pissed off the bureaucrats who demand that such small classes never happen again.

Back to the exodus. . . I am aware that there are lots of reasons students are not prepared for college-level work. But I will let you fill in those blanks since I spend most of my time in my classroom and know not first-hand what happens in other rooms, except on the rare occasions I get to observe others. The issue at the heart of this situation is this question of "access."

In every public school in which I have had the pleasure and horror of teaching, the philosophy is the same, and I am sad to say runs counter to mine. When I point out that my students do well on the AP tests because I have high expectations and because we all work really hard at reading and writing analytically, administrators tell me that they would rather see high numbers of students enrolled in AP classes than high test scores. They believe everyone should have access to AP classes no matter what and that the test scores essentially do not matter nearly as much as how many kids enroll and take the test.

Now in theory, this sounds lovely, doesn't it? It's the stuff they make all those feel good school movies about: thugs without any interest in school, who would rather taunt the teacher and one another than learn anything, suddenly learn the same dance steps, break out into rousing song and get the best scores in history on their culminating exams. Who wouldn't be heartened by seeing such accomplishment driven by a no-nonsense, petite blonde or elderly hispanic or handsome black, strong Asian (I could go on. . .) compassionate teacher? Who wouldn't be motivated to join Teach for America so that they too could be part of the feel good, change the world mentality--for a year or two, that is.

I did not have thugs in the class I described. I had motivated students, but their reading-levels were low and their critical thinking and writing skills very weak. Essentially, they had been, to my way of thinking, untried. Of course, I can teach these kids, but should they be in an AP class? Giving access to ill-prepared students is like giving access to the deep end of a swimming pool to non-swimmers. Would I take AP Calculus if I tremble at simple math? Why, then, would students take AP English if they don't read regularly and intelligently?

Usually students line up for AP because they have done well in their previous classes, and they behaved well enough to prove their motivation. That behavior should certainly be rewarded, but not at the expense of changing the high-level courses to courses designed to accommodate low skills. Why, then, is there a test at the end of the course if it doesn't matter? And why, then, do these ill-prepared students, who find their way into other AP classes, do so poorly on this test? And, most important and goes without saying, why doesn't their failure on the AP test matter?

Of the ill-prepared students who stuck with me last year, they told me they had read maybe one or two books in their honors 10th grade classes the year before and wrote mostly journals and book reports, while my honors 10th graders, sharing this AP class, had read about five books each semester and had written extensive, analytical reader responses and essays about each text. Had that class been dominated by ill-prepared students, I would have had to turn the class into something that was not AP at all And let me just say that calling a class AP does not make it AP! Could that be the goal of the administration, to water down AP, just so they can say they have a high number of students in AP classes, taking AP tests? Uh, yup. Standards-driven education, you say?

As a department chair, I do believe everyone should have access to AP and all high-level classes, but that access begins WAY before one gets to the upper grades, where these classes are usually taught. Access begins in elementary and middle school, and at the very least in 9th grade. If students are asked to do AP-level work well before they actually enroll into an AP course--if they are taught to swim BEFORE they get into the pool--then the dream of high enrollment can be achieved, and dare I say it, high enrollment and high test scores wouldn't be an either/or choice anymore either!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Reentry. . .OR Scores Walk in. . .

It's now early August, the Sunday of the year for us school teachers (and probably everyone else who has never quite shaken off the tyranny of school schedules). I am girding up for reentry, and though I am looking forward to seeing the kids who have eagerly signed up for my classes, despite my reputation as a "challenging" teacher, the bureaucracy will do its best to depress me, I am sure.

I teach AP English Language and was pleased to see that of the 24 kids I taught, all took the AP test, and all but two passed (that is a 91% pass rate). Of the 149 total number of students at my school who took the test this year, 65% passed (which is a marked improvement as well), and that makes me doubly proud of my students. Here is the rub, however: I will come back to school, proud of all our accomplishments only to be told my "test scores walk into my room."

Yes, that's right, in the land of test-score accountability, when a teacher generates excellent scores and motivates students to be perhaps a little more excellent than they naturally are, the bureaucrats see the success has having NOTHING to do with the teacher and everything to do with the student, and they all but ignore what in other instances is the all important "test data."

When the department examines benchmark scores, a similar thing happens. Because I attract motivated students who manipulate their schedules to make sure they are in a class they consider rigorous, they do very well on these tests. Again, the bureaucratic position is as follows: my "test scores walked into my room." Again, the kids' success has nothing to do with anything that happens in my classroom.

Now, when I have a class that is more challenging (and there have been many, believe me), a class of often disruptive, rude, indolent, generally anti-school students, who don't want to make the effort to learn because more compelling things--cell phones, sex, dice, movies, music, gangs, computers, peer acceptance--take up their time, guess whose fault it is when their test scores are below average? Don't those test scores walk in as well? The fact is, most of my students improve their test scores, but in rooms like the one I describe here, I have to do more than teach; I have to change the culture and instill basic values into children who do not understand or have any use for the kind of success I value: a rich life governed by curiosity and a strong, unflappable work ethic, a life where one is never bored and is always growing.

All that said, the message here is as follows: The smart kids walked in smart; therefore, no teacher has any real impact on them. Since your 91% pass rate is matter of course, given that you have motivated students, don't you dare pat yourself on the back. But students who walk into high school with 5th-grade reading levels and no interest in academics, who sleep during class and during standardized tests, who curse out teachers who demand something of them, and who see success only in concrete financial terms usually unrelated to what they are studying (hence their contempt for us "underpaid losers")--their tests scores are all your fault, so take that cat-o-nine-tails and start swinging!

The double-standard is all part of the feel-good, encouraging environment we call public school. Can't wait for September.