A nice four day weekend ahead, and boy do I need it. Except this year I don't need a break from the kids, just a break from
teaching to test, test prep, test sophistication. We've had five days of practice testing the past eight days of school and I'm exhausted. I can only imagine how the kids feel. I'm sure we're all thankful for a nice break from it all.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
A nice four day weekend ahead, and boy do I need it. Except this year I don't need a break from the kids, just a break from
Posted by ruben_b at 7:34 PM
Monday, November 24, 2008
There are now 24 days left until the NYS ELA exam. We had a practice test last week and we have three days of practice exams this week. It's a little hard not to feel the crunch, and it's even tougher to keep the kids from feeling it.
Last year I didn't feel the stress. I didn't know enough to realize how little time I had. And I was mostly focused on my own day to day survival. Meanwhile this year, I've set my sights much higher. My goal is for every student to pass the ELA with a 3 (proficient) or higher. The combination of greater self-awareness and higher expectations means I'm feeling the pressure.
I can deal with the stress. My main concern is to avoid projecting it too heavily onto the students. I can't control it when other teachers make statements like, "If you don't pay attention you're going to be sitting right here next year, because you won't pass the test!" However, I am doing my best to take the edge off the test and the dullness/tedium away from the endless stream of practice tests.
Today I asked the kids to try to find one interesting fact in the reading and after the practice test was over they all shared favorite parts they read in the stories, articles and poem. Will it work in the long term?
Posted by ruben_b at 8:32 PM
Sunday, November 23, 2008
The news came out Friday that the First Parents will be sending Malia and Sasha to Sidwell Friends School, the so-called Harvard of Washington D.C. private schools. It's not the least bit surprising that Michelle and President-elect Obama would choose to send their daughters to the best school money can buy, but it is a bit disappointing. Some small part of me hoped that Malia and Sasha would be attending one of D.C's public schools.
The power that such a vote of confidence would have is immeasurable. Politicians can talk all they want about the value of our public schools, but it would be refreshing to seem them back those statements up with meaningful action. Malia and Sasha's attendance at one of D.C.'s public schools would send a message that public schools are good enough for the country's best and brightest. It would also signal a show of support for Mayor Adrian Fenty, Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the thousands of educators and reformers in D.C. and across the country who are trying to shape a more perfect educational system for the next generation.
I've long admired Newark Mayor Cory Booker. From the outset when he took over the unenviable position of mayor of one of America's most crime-ridden, downtrodden cities he made a series of powerful gestures similar to the one President-elect Obama just avoided. Mayor Booker moved into one of the cities worst housing projects, and lived there without running water or heat until the building was finally condemned. When a police officer was complaining about no working computers at his precinct, Mayor Booker handed over his own personal computer.
These types of symbolic actions obviously did not erase the hardships of Newark's poor, or the lack of resources for the city's public servants. However, they nonetheless resonate powerfully with everyone who has a stake in making Newark a better city. The Obamas missed out on a profound opportunity to send a similar message to everyone with a stake in America's public schools.
Posted by ruben_b at 11:51 AM
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The NY Times reports Randi Weingarten expressed a willingness to talk about controversial issues today in a speech to education policymakers in Washington:
“In the spirit of this extraordinary [economic crisis], and as a pledge of shared responsibility, I’ll take the first step,” she said. “With the exception of vouchers, which siphon scarce resources from public schools, no issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair to teachers.”Now it's unclear whether Randi will actually follow through her talk with action. But meanwhile her willingness to discuss teacher tenure and merit pay could make some waves, especially amongst the shrillest anti-reform members of the old guard. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, happens next.
Posted by ruben_b at 9:11 PM
I'm not well. I've got a serious problem. I now eat, sleep and breathe teaching. It's all I think about and it's all I talk about.
On the one hand I guess it's a good sign that I'm thinking non-stop how to do better and reach all of my kids. I'm also a part of some awesome conversations (online and in person) with co-workers and peers. In some ways it's exciting. Even as I struggled and fought to succeed last year, I never expected to be consumed so wholly by this job. Last year, more often than not I didn't have enough energy left over to think at the end of the day.
But now I find myself thinking about it after school, on weekends and sometimes even fighting to fall asleep. It's getting tiring for me (and probably even more for my friends and family). I can only hope it pays off when the test scores come back and the students move on in June. In the mean time I'm doomed to continue this inhuman existence...
Posted by ruben_b at 7:20 PM
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Malcolm Gladwell had an interesting post that challenges the conventional wisdom that argues for smaller class sizes to improve student learning. Gladwell writes: "Time and time again studies fail to show any significant advantage to reducing the size of classes--except in the case of very poor children in the very earliest of grades."
I found this interesting and surprising, especially as someone who would prefer a smaller class. The prevailing wisdom within teaching circles is that smaller is better. Kids along the special needs continuum either receive small group instruction in the form of pull-out instruction or they are referred to smaller and smaller classes (interestingly enough deemed more "restrictive"). In the general ed environment, teachers are expected to incorporate small group instruction into literacy and math blocks. The benefits to this seem obvious enough.
And yet, in Gladwell's own words, the data "defies common sense." The question this begs is why? Gladwell hypothesizes that perhaps:
One answer might be that large classes are a disadvantage with advantages: that in coping with the difficulty of competing for teacher attention, kids learn something more important--namely self-reliance.
My class size isn't changing any time soon (at least not getting any smaller). Still interesting food for thought.
Posted by ruben_b at 9:25 PM
Spot on commentary from Nick Kristoff. In case you're not the op-ed type here's a few key points:
The United States is the only country in the industrialized world where children are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were, according to a new study by the Education Trust, an advocacy group based in Washington...Professors [Claudia] Goldin and [Lawrence]Katz crunch the data and conclude that America’s edge in mass education was the crucial competitive advantage that allowed the United States to build wealth while reducing income inequality...A study by the Hamilton Project, a public policy group at the Brookings Institution, outlines several steps to boost weak schools: end rigid requirements for teacher certification that impede hiring, make tenure more difficult to get so that ineffective teachers can be weeded out after three years on the job and award hefty bonuses to good teachers willing to teach in low-income areas. If we want outstanding, inspiring teachers in difficult classrooms, we’re going to have to pay much more — and it would be a bargain...
Long story, short: schools need to be a priority for President-elect Obama. A strong public school system is truly the foundation of our society - economically, civically, and morally speaking.
Posted by ruben_b at 4:04 PM
Chancellor of D.C. schools Michelle Rhee is so hot right now. She's the subject of a lengthy profile in November's The Atlantic a month after they featured an interview with her. She's been name dropped by the likes of Joel Klein and President-elect (I can't say it enough) Obama. And today she was a primary focus in a NY Times article about her fight to take on teacher tenure in Washington, D.C.
Politicians love her because she's "scrappy" and willing to fight "special interests" to fix education in the nation's worst school district. That's all well and good when you're talking in obtuse language about education reform. However, when you look at it from where I'm standing, it's harder to see the "special interests" as so villainous when you know they're talking about the teachers unions.
Now, I'm a new teacher and I don't foresee this being a lifelong career. With that in mind I have less stake in the status quo. Furthermore, my interest in seeing a broken system fixed (not just in D.C. or the Bronx, but across the country) aligns me more closely with Rhee, Klein and other reformers than most veteran teachers. I have seen and heard firsthand the systemic problems in public education. I do believe that the system needs a fundamental overhaul and that innovative programs like Bloomberg's incentivization of test scores for parents, students and educators, while not a guaranteed fix, are worth trying.
That said, I cringed while reading the aforementioned articles, because I saw a very dangerous line being drawn between educators and superintendents. There is a confrontational "You're either with us, or agin'st us" undertone to Rhee's rhetoric and tactics. More often than not I felt teachers were under attack and were placed unfairly on the wrong side of the debate about education reform.
The most recent controversy about teacher tenure is a perfect example. Rhee paints the argument as a black and white issue in which teachers are refusing to give up tenure, because of an aversion to change. Worse yet, they're trying to protect bad teachers' jobs and they don't care if the kids suffer!
To convince veteran teachers to opt out of tenure Rhee is using a giant carrot in the form of a potential raise that would increase "star teachers' salaries to $130,000 by 2010." If the five anonymous corporations don't back out of their offer to fund this initiative this seems like an ideal solution. Unfortunately however, instead of using the tenure debate as an opportunity for substantive discussion about education reform, Rhee is using it as a negative talking point against teacher unions.
Are bad teachers part of the problem? Hell yes. Are they the only problem? Hell no. Bad schools often have bad leaders. The most dangerous result of dissolving tenure would be the end of a safety net for teachers who are unfairly or arbitrarily fired. With tenure such a scenario is virtually impossible. Without tenure there are administrators who can and will enforce a patronage system of sorts where loyalty and obedience are prized over dedication to the students and the craft of teaching. Rhee would do teachers and the discussion about reform in general a service to acknowledge these facts.
Ultimately it's likely that Rhee will get her way. It seems like she always does. However, she would benefit herself and her goals to tread more carefully on the feelings of teachers and the unions. There are plenty of enemies of reform as it is. She doesn't need to create more by alienating those who might otherwise be allies to her cause.
Posted by ruben_b at 3:22 PM
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Today two boxes of books arrived from home. I continue to feel so grateful to have a network of support that stretches all the way back to California. I can always count on books, a little extra money and lots of advice whenever I need it. When I called my mom to ask about some mythology books I used to love I knew I could expect a literacy care package coming my way. And as excited as I was to pick up the books from the main office, I couldn't wait to see the kids reactions.
I picked four boys to help me carry the books upstairs, label them and sort them. One of them is an underachieving know-it-all (henceforth UKIA) who I happen to know digs mythology big time (hence my request to my mom). The kids were excited to see all of the books as we unpacked them. There was an awesome mix - Ramona the Pest, Dear Mr. Henshaw, Fly Away Home, Where's Waldo, several Eyewitness Encyclopedias - and they were all in pristine condition.
The kids couldn't believe I had read these books when I was their age and they were still in such good condition (teachable moment!). The most priceless reaction of all was from UKIA when we saw the mythology books. He was on the verge of hyperventilating: "Oh! My! God!" And the whole time I kept thinking of this SNL skit where Josh Brolin announces he's going to pop the question to his girlfriend. It's moments like that which shatter the quiet, subtle racism that says these kids come from families that don't value reading or education or some other nonsense variation of that theme. These kids love to read and learn, it's sometimes only a matter of giving them a chance to realize it.
Posted by ruben_b at 7:37 PM
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Black and white. Day and night. War and Peace. My first year of teaching and my second.
With control and competence comes a feeling of euphoric invincibility. I have a feeling that anything is possible. I feel that my kids can accomplish anything. Not a bad feeling, right?
Now, even before the school year started I set a goal to help every student pass the state ELA with a 3. Once the school year started I felt even more passionate about this aim. This would mean every single student would be at grade level (at least according to a flawed standardized test). For context, three of my 27 students last year scored a 3. Of my 25 students this year 5 scored a 3.
This leads me to question myself. Am I heading for a major letdown? I know success is impossible without high expectations, but what if my expectations are impossibly high? I don't know the answer for sure, but I know that I'm going to keep working as if this goal were possible, which still means I will be working very, very hard. What's the worst that could happen?
Posted by ruben_b at 4:12 PM
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
What a day. I can't believe I got to be a part of history. For a long time I would complain that my generation was deprived of a true transformational hero. Kennedy, King, et al rose to prominence and were murdered before we had a chance to know them and be affected by their profound inspirational abilities. Last night I realized that our generation's hero had finally arrived, and so had a time for us to create the change we wanted to see in the world.
I couldn't wait to share this passion and excitement with the students today. We re-read a biography of Barack that we read at the beginning of our genre study. Today I asked them to think about their own biography. I told them that one day someone will be writing their biography. I asked them what would they achieve to deserve their own biography.
Once upon a time this might have been an idle task, an attempt to inspire and motivate students that was somewhat hollow. Ten, twenty, thirty years ago, could I honestly ask these students to put themselves in Barack's shoes? Today I didn't feel my question was remotely fradulent, because today the myth of America was transformed into a reality.
Two students told me that they want to be President to help the poor people. Maverick told me he wants to be a math teacher. Verbal told me he wants to be a war hero and President.
At the end of the day we watched Barack's victory speech, and as the crowd chanted, the students chanted with them, "Yes, we can." As if that wasn't enough I played for them Will.I.Am's "Yes We Can" video. In a darkened classroom twenty-five poor kids from the Bronx sat enthralled by the words and music and as it ended we were all chanting, "Yes, we can. Yes, we can."
Is all of this incredibly cheesy? Perhaps. Do I care? Not today. Cynicism has a day off and I'm going to enjoy every minute of it.
Posted by ruben_b at 3:58 PM
Monday, November 3, 2008
Some of my friends have commented on this year's slow trickle of blogging compared to last year's daily deluge of digital despair. My response has usually been," I guess I just don't have as many stories to tell." Although I find myself continually excited and amazed by what's taking place in my class this year, this statement is essentially true. Whereas last year the blog provided a necessary release, this year I think my blogs would take on too much of a repetitive self-congratulatory tone, because my days have been relatively uneventful and easy. Except for today.
Sigh. I haven't felt this exhausted in a long, long time. The cause of this exhaustion is the third (see here to meet Verbal, and here to meet Maverick) of my 25 students, Lil Miss Meltdown. I've discussed Lil Miss Meltdown in an earlier post. Since then however, I felt I was making strides with her. Everyone had commented how much her behavior had improved this year and I myself was surprised that I hadn't had more issues with her based on her reputation.
As so happens with "problem" kids, today we were back to square one. And it was so inexplicable. Whereas I pinpointed the cause of her first meltdown as a confrontational tone I took with her. It clearly didn't work and she just shut down completely. This time I tried to kill her with kindness and did everything I could to present her with choices and express positive reinforcement and compassion.
In return, she did everything she could to push my buttons. It was clear she was looking for an outburst from me and it took everything in my power not to indulge her. It was definitely tempting to just give in and yell, even if I knew it wouldn't help things. Nothing else was working, so at least I could make myself feel better by yelling, right?
I guess I could chalk up my restraint as a small victory. Another lesson learned from last year, successfully applied to this one. But in the end I still felt just as exhausted as any of my worst confrontations or struggles from last year's class. So it's hard to feel to excited about this so-called progress. Hopefully Wednesday (students are off for Election Day), Lil Miss Meltdown will come back with a new attitude. Otherwise I'll have to come up with something new myself.
Posted by ruben_b at 5:33 PM