Another frustrating afternoon. Not to worry, I won't bore you with the details... Left the school wondering, "What is wrong with these kids?" Time to pause and think about that question. Then I think, "It's like no matter what I say they don't shut up!"
Perhaps in September I would've left it at that. Frustrated and exhausted I would dwell on the misbehavior, but wouldn't really get to the root of it. Sure, they served ice cream at lunch, so the sugar could be blamed in part. But, when I stop asking what's wrong with the kids and ask myself what's wrong with my teaching it's actually an easier question to answer.
My second thought is perhaps more tellng. "No matter what I say they don't shut up." In a book I was given when joining the Teaching Fellows program called The Reluctant Disciplinarian the author relays advice he got from another teacher who says you only get a certain number of words to use the whole year. Use them wisely, otherwise once you run out the kids will just tune out.
This idea, coupled with a lesson I saw modeled by a master math teacher who is part of a program called Aussie, crystallizes one of the central problems with my afternoon. When I talk (and talk, and talk) it won't get me anywhere. Sure the kids like to talk. They're kids. And the group seating is designed to facilitate discussion. So instead of talking I need to question? I need to probe. I need to harness the energy and discussion of the students and steer it towards math or science or whatever it is I'm working on.
I know I've come a long way since September. I also know I have a long ways to go, and one of my first steps is cutting myself out of the conversation and giving the students an opportunity to control it. If I do it right, then learning will take place.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Another frustrating afternoon. Not to worry, I won't bore you with the details... Left the school wondering, "What is wrong with these kids?" Time to pause and think about that question. Then I think, "It's like no matter what I say they don't shut up!"
Posted by ruben_b at 4:51 PM
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Thought I'd take a break from a personal and take a look at some words from the man who made this blog possible. Yesterday during President Bush's final State of the Union (is that Handel's Messiah I hear?) he briefly discussed education, one of the few "achievements" of his presidency. He talked about the success of No Child Left Behind and the necessity to strengthen the bill:
Six years ago, we came together to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, and today no one can deny its results. Last year, fourth and eighth graders achieved the highest math scores on record. Reading scores are on the rise. And African-American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs. Now we must work together to increase accountability, add flexibility for States and districts, reduce the number of high school dropouts, and provide extra help for struggling schools. Members of Congress: The No Child Left Behind Act is a bipartisan achievement. It is succeeding. And we owe it to America's children, their parents, and their teachers to strengthen this good law.
It's very easy and fashionable for teachers, especially those of us in failing schools, to bash NCLB. I mean we're in an extremely stressful and difficult job as it is and the added pressure from NCLB coupled with the myopic test-based approach to accountability isn't exactly helping. When Pres. Bush says test scores are on the rise it's hard not to be skeptical, considering numerous states simply lowered their standards so that they could demonstrate progress. I myself am a product of NCLB. My transitional certification is a response from the state of New York to the mandate that all classroom teachers be certified.
At the same time there have been positive effects from NCLB and those have largely been in the way the education debate has changed. Accountability - for teachers, schools and states - is essential to ensuring a proper education for the children of America. Furthermore, the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals have been centered around specific demographics such as low-income, special needs and English Language Learners who were previously overlooked. Differentiation isn't just a buzz word, it's now a crucial part of meeting expectations put forth by NCLB.
That said there are still tremendous problems with the bill, but you must give credit where credit is due in that legislators, administrators and teachers are talking about accountability and the specific needs of students in new ways. Now the goal is to move that accountability beyond standardized testing and towards meaningful assessment of learning.
In his SOTU President Bush also proposed a $300 million program called Pell Grants for Kids that would "help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools." It sounds like a wonderful program in theory, but let's think about it's actual impact. Assuming the average parochial school costs about $2000 a year for elementary school and the grants offered full tuition than this plan could benefit 150,000 poor students. This is no small feat, but still relatively minor considering NYC alone serves 1.1 million students.
Meanwhile, accessing this money takes parents who are involved in their child's education and proficient enough at working within the system. Surely the students of these parents could be very poor and could benefit from a private school education. But what that means is struggling public schools would be drained of their brighter students and engaged parents, leaving only the students without money or an advocate from home and only "liberating" a fortunate few from the community.
I know if I'm debating the points of a speech by Bush I'm practically debating a straw man, but still I was interested by what he had to say on education. Bush and NCLB deserve some credit for bringing up issues of America's achievement gap and the need to fight the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Still, I wanted to take a look at what Bush's policies really mean for students like mine and the millions of others throughout this country who in spite of NCLB, are in fact being left behind.
Posted by ruben_b at 5:47 PM
Monday, January 28, 2008
So today one of my black students said I don't like black people. As someone who was thinking, "Right on!" when Kanye made a similar proclamation not so long ago I was pretty taken aback. I guess considering the racial dynamics (i.e. white teacher all non-white class) I shouldn't be surprised that this kind of conversation might arise. Then again, the accusation that I don't call on black students seems utterly ridiculous. Especially considering I try to use popsicle sticks with the students' names to be as equitable as possible in class discussions the student's argument doesn't really hold up to reason.
Still, with a statement like that does it matter? I was so frustrated that I just said something stupid sounding (but nonetheless true) like, "That's ridiculous and disgusting. I hate racism and there is no racism in this classroom." If the student really feels I'm being racist towards the black students in the class is there anything I can say that will refute that? More likely this student (a constant headache) was just trying to get under my skin because she knows she can. And one of the easiest ways to do so is the play the race card.
So what can I really do? Ignore it like any one of the other inappropriate comments made in my class towards me? Or, at the risk of making an issue where there isn't one, do I use it as a jumping off point for a serious discussion about race in our classroom? Either way, I know I won't let this student frame the debate when she seems unlikely to engage in any serious conversation about something I take very seriously.
Posted by ruben_b at 6:20 PM
Friday, January 25, 2008
Everyone dreams of being a superhero when they're a kid. Maybe it's the same innate fantasy that drove me to become a teacher. I hoped that I would use my intelligence, idealism and deep-seated passion to "save" the kids I taught from their lives of poverty. Maybe it's the result of too much Hollywood, but many of us have the idea that we can walk into the classroom, play some Mozart for the poor kids and all of the sudden they're college-bound.
Then you learn about the guided reading groups. And the DRA's. And the acuity tests. And the assessment binders. And the portfolios. And the "test sophistication". And the School Quality Review. And you get the point.
This isn't to say I've become jaded or lost my idealism or the passion for what I'm doing. But there is an awful lot of paper work and testing and required curriculum and when it's all said and done there's not much room left for Mozart or anything else. Meanwhile, I find myself almost five months into teaching and still struggling primarily with classroom management while trying to master all of the above components of teaching.
Maybe it's time to forget the superhero fantasies. For now I would just settle for competence. A meeting with my mentor after school today reminded me how far I've come and yet how much I have yet to do. It feels overwhelming, but at the same time I'm convinced it's what I have to do to succeed. Saving the children with straight up passion makes for a nice story. The reality is much more tedious, but that doesn't make it any less worth fighting for.
Posted by ruben_b at 6:35 PM
Thursday, January 24, 2008
I have to admit that one of my biggest weaknesses as a first year teacher is in collecting and analyzing data. This is an especially big problem since there is a city-wide initiative centered around this skill. Data is the new focus of instruction.
What this means is that all teachers need to be constantly assessing their students and recording the progress. This may be in the form of running records and DRA's or more formal math tests. Regardless of what form these assessments take, there is tremendous pressure to keep track of all of them and use them to inform instruction. And yet, here I am, four months into the year with virtually no paper trail to vouch for my teaching or my students.
Without sounding like too much of an apologist for my own shortcomings, I have to ask what is the true measure of progress for these students? It's a question that I was discussing in class Wednesday with the other fellows from my cohort. According to the city my success as a teacher will be measured by how many levels my students increase in reading and whether they meet certain performance indicators in math, science, writing and social studies.
Meanwhile, I'm just thrilled that Gary Coleman Jr. stays in his seat for prolonged periods of time and doesn't go around emptying other students' pencil shavings onto their desks. There is such a deficit in the area of behavior and socialization that the pressure of these tests and data assessments feels a bit like a cruel joke. Adding to that stress comes an article in Monday's NY Times reported that city is now measuring teachers based on test scores and is hoping to create individual grades for teachers based on these scores.
I don't discount the importance of measuring improvement in the content areas or creating a system of accountability for teachers. But in the process it feels like we're losing our ability to give credit for a teacher who helps a student find a new focus, helps another build much needed self-esteem or simply inspires a student to dream. How will that progress be measured?
Posted by ruben_b at 11:33 PM
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
I walked into the auditorium this morning to pick up my students when my mentor asked me, "Did you hear? Somebody burnt down the playground." I felt a mix of confusion and shock. The brand new structure, dedicated in October, was mostly metal, but whatever was plastic was completely torched. Still, I put it in the back of my mind as the obligations of the day took over.
Leaving the school though I stopped to survey the damage with my mom (visiting from California!) and my friend who goes to school down the road. Something about the caution tape wrapped around the charred remains of the playground hit me hard. I felt a knot in my throat and just sighed deeply. "They can't have anything nice," I said out loud.
As it was there wasn't enough room in the yard for more than one grade to use it at a time, so grades would alternate weeks going outside. Now even that has been taken from them. How is a child supposed to take pride in their school or their community when this is the kind of bull**** going on? They have so little to begin with, and then when we try to provide just a little extra, even that gets destroyed. I know my kids have long since learned that life's not fair. Still, I can't get over the unfairness and senselessness of the weekend's vandalism.
Posted by ruben_b at 8:25 PM
Friday, January 18, 2008
There's a classic joke in Jewish circles about a Jew, rescued after many years stranded on a deserted island. As he's showing his rescuers around the island they are surprised to find not one but two synagogues. He explains: “This one is my shul. The other is the one where I would never set foot.”
In a lot of ways I think teachers feel similarly about pedagogy as the Jew in the joke. In order for there to be a right way, there must be a wrong way. For a first year teacher this can be confusing at times, because when you're hearing advice from all angles you're not sure which is the right way, and which the wrong.
I was on the subway leaving work after a particularly rough day and I struck up a conversation with a cluster teacher who's been at my school for 13 years now and in the profession for even longer. Throughout our conversation she implicitly and explicitly drew distinctions between the good teachers and bad at our school. The fact that I have certain reservations of my own about her methods just complicates the whole thing more. She even made comments about one teacher I'm closer with saying, "She will stab you in the back no matter if she's your friend." It was all very reminiscent of the infamous Snakes and Rats speech from Survivor, just substitute a thick Midwest accent for that of an aging Upper East Sider Jewish woman.
Besides coming into my classroom with a complete blank slate, I'm coming into the school with no prior knowledge of its history. Many of these schools, just like certain synagogues I know, have loyalties and feuds that date back as far as a decade. It can make it hard as a newcomer, trying not to be drawn into alliances or associated with the wrong crowd. Teaching is hard enough without having to worry about the teachers as well as your students.
Posted by ruben_b at 6:36 PM
Thursday, January 17, 2008
It's hard to say if things got better today or not. After rearranging students so that they would be less inclined to talk it seemed like things were somewhat improved. The problem remains in the hallways. Well, and in the classroom. Talking, talking, talking and I'm just not sure I have the patience to wait and do the "I like the way so and so is sitting quietly" until the whole class shuts up. It's exasperating and feels like a complete waste of time.
Towards the end of the day I took a piece of a wooden chair that had been broken by a student earlier in the day and I used it as a gavel. The loud banging turned the class silent. So, it worked. For today. But think of the absurdity of resorting to banging a big piece of wood on a desk to get the class's attention. I know in retrospect that can only be a short term or one-time solution. Today I banged on the table once. Tomorrow it will be two or three times. If I keep it up it won't matter how long or hard I'm hammering on the table, I won't be getting any quiet out of the class.
Posted by ruben_b at 5:29 PM
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
His name showed up on my class roster the Thursday we came back from break. 13 days later he finally showed up. He moved here from San Diego. Imagine that? From San Diego to the Bronx in the dead center of winter?
On top of that, he came into my class on a day I might euphemistically call "not good". I made the poor choice of allowing the students to choose one or two classmates to sit with at new teams. I thought that they were working pretty well lately and that this would finally put an end to the pettiness and bickering that has been happening. As it turns out this was actually a horrible idea and led to the closest thing I've felt to chaos since the days of ALP.
During lunch I pulled six students out of line and marched them back upstairs to chew them out. I began as calmly as I could and explained, "I do not want to yell. I do not like to yell. I want to explain this as calmly as I can..." Within a minute or so after three of students kept making comments I couldn't control my voice from reaching a full explosion. I was in an all out shouting match with one of my students! In retrospect it's absurd and shameful. At the time I just felt completely broken down for the first time in a long, long time.
I really don't like to yell, but I have to admit I grew used to using it selectively, because I thought it was effective. What I realized today is that yelling can symbolize a complete lack of control, just as bad or worse, as the mellow, semi-pushover attitude of my early days. The yelling I resorted to today can never be effective because it still represents vulnerability. I let the kids push me to that, instead of keeping the conversation on my terms. I won't let that happen again.
Posted by ruben_b at 8:03 PM
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Today presented an exciting opportunity for me to talk about something I deeply care about. I've grown to love teaching (maybe in part because I love the sound of my own voice?), but until now I don't often get a chance to talk about something I feel passionate about. Talking about Dr. King and reading the book Martin's Big Words was nice both as a former political science and history major and as an idealist.
For once it felt like I was talking about something real, something important. And I hoped that the students would get into it as well. It's hard to say for sure if it happened for them. If I was able to flip that switch in that brains that gets them to care. But at the very least it was a nice change of pace for me.
At the same time, it felt almost hollow to be having this conversation centered on race relations with a class of students all of whom are Black or Hispanic. The conventional narrative is that, as my kids put it "Blacks and whites didn't want to be friends," until finally Dr. King came along and everything was fine because they took down the Whites Only signs. And yet we live in a country of very unequal opportunities and my school and the thousands of "high-need" schools like it are the most ugly reminders of that fact. But can I really have that conversation with my kids? Perhaps it's better to emphasize hope and stick to the fairy tale.
Posted by ruben_b at 9:36 PM
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Four months of prep, and like that it's over. The last day of testing, the extended response, is done and I have to say the whole thing was a tad anticlimactic. I mean I don't know what I exactly expected - balloons and a ticker tape parade? Still, it's too bad we don't even know how we did (yes it feels like my students and I were being tested) for a few months. Tomorrow, if the students stay on task we'll have a mini-celebration. That's really the most closure I can offer for now, but it will have to do. Next: math in March and science in April.
Posted by ruben_b at 9:59 PM
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Today was a nice counterbalance to yesterday's frustration. I was nervous before reading the passage for the listening section. Every time we practiced before there would be a chorus of "You're going too fast!" and "Can you read that again!" I didn't want to be a stumbling block before my own students. As I was reading though I felt like I was in the zone, remembering to slow myself and pause to give my students time to take notes. Walking around the room I saw them writing correct, cogent responses that drew on details from the story. It was a big feeling of relief and pride, a sort of anecdote to yesterday's multiple-choice. Now I can only hope that tomorrow's extended response feels more like today than yesterday.
Posted by ruben_b at 6:21 PM
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Today was the first day of the state English Language Arts exam, known as the ELA for short. This test, along with state math and science exams, will determine whether my students pass the fourth grade. The fourth grade scores are also the ones examined by the state to determine whether my school gets certain funding. In other word: no pressure.
Four months have been spent preparing for this three-day test. Unfortunately half of that time was spent on me getting my bearings in the classroom. So, right as I was grasping the basic concepts of teaching I started to realize how important this test was, and how little time I had to get my students ready. With that in mind, it was hard not to feel frustration at myself and the situation.
I also felt another surprising emotion as I proctored the exam and watched one of my particularly low-performing students as he pored over his exam. He's a small boy, one who has cried on a few occasions when teased, only making him more of a pariah in a tough neighborhood where he's already expected to "be a man". This is all to say, I already feel a protective instinct towards him.
He was using the strategies I taught him. He underlined clue words in the questions. He went back to look for the answer in the story. And he was getting every answer I checked wrong. I wanted to jump in and help him. I wanted to do something. But, there was nothing I could do but watch helpless as he bubbled in each bubble carefully, naive to his own failure.
Posted by ruben_b at 6:12 PM
Friday, January 4, 2008
I don't want to jinx myself like I usually do with these triumphal posts, but damn, today was a good day. And considering the tone of this blog has been known to be a bit, ahem, bleak, I figured I owed to anyone reading to share the good news. Besides, when the truly good days are this rare, why not revel in them?
The best part of my week happened today when a student remarked, "Do you have eyes in the back of your head?" as I was writing on the board and directed a student to pick up a piece of paper they had thrown. I thought to myself, "Finally! I did it! I have eyes in the back of my head!" I'm not saying I catch everything. Believe me I don't, but this felt like a big moment for me as a first year teacher.
This morning I was buying tea from a parent for the Parent Association's fundraiser. "What happened to you in California Mr. B?" the parent asked. To be honest, besides a nice new buzz cut, I don't know. But a few parents and a colleague of mine have commented since I've been back that something seems different and I feel the same way.
Maybe it's just the ten days of rest and relaxation. But I'd like to think (really, I'm praying) that it's something more. I'm trying to be more authoritative without being authoritarian. Yesterday and today I had to give my whole class a serious talk right after lunch, because they were talking, talking, talking in the halls and therefore wasting our time as I waited for them to settle down and be quiet. Sure it was frustrating, but at the same time, the class was silent while I talked. I finished talking today by saying, "You owe me an apology," and there was a chorus of "Sorry, Mr. B." I'm probably speaking too soon. But for now I'm gonna call that progress.
Posted by ruben_b at 4:52 PM
Thursday, January 3, 2008
Since we came back I've started playing music on the speakers I bought for the Christmas party. I wasn't sure what to play at first. I knew it had to be something mellow, but I thought the kids might find Jack Johnson and Ben Harper cheesy. I decided on Miles Davis, but I still didn't know how it would play. Turns out I didn't have to worry. It was awesome how the kids got into it and I'm not sure if it was about the music or just because they saw it as a peek into my world (It's funny how excited the kids get to hear anything about my life outside school). Even better, I was able to use the music as a tool for keeping the noise level under control. Music is a big part of my life and I'm happy that I've found a way to bring it into my classroom.
Posted by ruben_b at 10:15 PM
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Today I was thinking about all the compliments and praise I got from friends and family while I was home. What struck me was how much it says a lot more about teaching, especially in high-need areas, than about me as a teacher. Nobody at home in California, even those reading my often dismal blog, really understands how much I'm struggling as a teacher.
When I discuss my shortcomings and challenges the response is usually some variation of, "I'm sure that's not true!" or, "You're doing great just by being there!" Is that how low the bar has been set for the educators of our youth? Or is it just that low for students living in areas like the Bronx, East St. Louis or South Chicago? These kids deserve the same quality of teacher as any other students in this country. These kids need teachers at least as qualified as those in Scarsdale and Mamaroneck.
It's not that I don't appreciate the support of everyone at home and my friends here in NYC. I don't think I would be able to get through this year without them. I just get frustrated with my own incompetence at times, and I wish that everyone else shared that frustration. Because I know I'm doing the best I can, and I know I genuninely care about the kids. But in a game as high-stakes as education under No Child Left Behind, is that really enough?
I'm not so discouraged with my own teaching as I may sound. Today was a relatively good day, and the winter break gives us teachers almost a second chance to reinforce rules, routines and procedures. Kids and teachers alike had something resembling a clean slate when we came back to school today. I did my best to take advantage of that, and hopefully it will pay dividends and allow me to get more actual teaching done than I did in the previous three months.
I also noticed today that I've improved at "calling audibles" as a teacher, instead of sticking stubbornly to my lesson plan. For example I had planned to teach a writing lesson this morning based on writing a response to literature. When I thought about how hyped up the kids would probably be, eager to talk about vacation and Christmas, I decided to channel that energy into a writing assignment about their Christmas day. I know I'm not winning any Teacher of the Year awards, but thinking back to my panicked confusion of September 4 it feels like a decent accomplishment. Not a bad start for the new year.
Posted by ruben_b at 7:24 PM