Things I don't have to worry about for a while:
-Setting my alarm
-Anything related to the education of children
All together now...take a deep breath in, and...aaahhhhh. Life is good.
Friday, June 26, 2009
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Disbelief is literally the only emotion I'm feeling right now. Three hours of teaching left and then two months to
relax job search. I don't know what's more surprising to me at this point: that I'm actually finishing my second year of teaching (the end of my commitment to Teaching Fellows) or that I'm actually going to fight to teach for a third year. When I think about the amazing year I've had, one which I would honestly call the best of my life (more on that later), it's not so surprising at all.
Posted by ruben_b at 8:23 PM
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
That's approximately how much time I have left with my students this year. I'm trying to wrap my head around it, but I can't. In the classroom I'm trying to get portfolios as finalized as possible, pack up everything I've accumulated in two short years (a staggering amount!) and deal with a room full of students who have the focus of epileptic puppies. All the while my classroom climate resembles a sauna.
All told though, today was positive. I passed out books for summer reading, report cards, and certificates to each and every student for being, "All-Star of the Fourth Grade and Making a Difference." I meant to say a little something about how each student had made an impact on my year, but we had to make time for the final publishing party as well. It's been an incredible year. It's hard to believe it's almost over.
Posted by ruben_b at 9:51 PM
Monday, June 22, 2009
At this point in the year, we're all just pulling any tricks we can to keep the kids excited. Like I said last week, I'm still amazed by how much teaching I'm attempting this late in the year, compared to where I was last year. Still, while I might not be in full end-of-year mode, i.e. spending the day having the kids take down all the posters, pack up the books, etc., I'm still digging deep to find some innovative ways to engage the kids.
Today I relied on a successful lesson from last year, updating it slightly to make it more challenging. The kids were given graham crackers and chocolate, and in order to earn their marshmallow they had to find several equivalent fractions and decimals based on the ingredients they were given. Once they'd done that, I used a borrowed microwave to make s'mores.
Last year when we made s'mores a kid said it was the best day of his life. No such hyperbole today, but it was definitely a success. The kids were amazed and delighted (as anyone should be) by the gooey, miracle that is the s'more. It's hard to imagine a classroom full of kids who had never experienced a s'more before. Happily I can that's not true for my students anymore.
Posted by ruben_b at 7:15 PM
Friday, June 19, 2009
Maybe it's the stress of end of the year classroom cleaning. Or the stress of the reorganization sheet and the threat of impending excesses. Or maybe it's acting as the top of a boiling pot of energy that is children a week away from summer vacation. Whatever the reason, people around school seem to be going a bit crazy.
I've already mentioned that the general attitude around the school sucks lately. But it seems to have reached a breaking point. People are snapping at one another. Tears are being shed. It's just ugly all over, and it's a shame to see it at a time that could or should be so overwhelming positive.
Sometimes I think elementary schools are a lot like summer camps. Not just for the kids, but for the adults too. Every year as the end of the summer approached, drama would explode the second to last week. Everyone was at each other's throats, and it seemed to be a subconscious reaction to too much time spent together combined with the anxiety of the impending separation. In a way you fought to make the end of summer easier. Don't know if that's what's happening at my school, but it would be nice to think that at the root of all this drama we were all just trying to cope with the year coming to an end.
Posted by ruben_b at 7:42 AM
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
The Maverick has been banished for the rest of the week and The Biter has been banished for good. In return I've received one "problem student" who I happen to have a good rapport with and shouldn't cause too many problems over the next 7 days. This leaves me with a fair amount of freedom to teach (in June!?) as much as I can. I look back on the last two years and it strikes me that even in the past few days (and in the next 7) I'm probably doing more teaching than I was able to do at any point last year. That's progress, and it feels damn good.
Posted by ruben_b at 4:53 PM
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Don't worry, I know how to spell successful. But I saw it misspelled recently in the phrase above, and for some reason it seems to sum up the slightly off kilter tone of the end of the school year.
This should be a time for celebration, congratulations and reflection. In many ways it's exactly that. Classes are cramming in last minute field trips. There are award ceremonies for every grade, as well as a moving up ceremony for kindergarten and a graduation ceremony for the 5th grade. And yet, there's something rotten in Denmark.
With the arrival of the dreaded reorganization sheet, gossip has run amok. Trust seems to be at an all-time low. Who's pleased and who's angry? Who's in with the principal and who's out? Who's staying and who's going? Adding to the tension is the stress of cleaning out classrooms and filing all sorts of paperwork for next year's classes. This is a process that requires patience, flexibility and cooperation between different grade level teachers. Due to recent events, that seems to be on short supply.
So, here we are as a school, just days from completing a tough, yet successful year. As these final eight days wind down, it would be nice to experience them like a slow, peaceful exhalation. Unfortunately, it feels like everyone's holding their breath.
Posted by ruben_b at 8:17 PM
Monday, June 15, 2009
It's that time of year when reorganization sheets are circulating NYC schools. With many principals playing politics and patronage with classroom assignments it's always bound to get ugly. With budgets getting slashed all over the place things were bound to get even uglier. Having heard my position was eliminated last Monday, I actually felt like I was lucky. No surprises for me. My colleagues on the other hand...not so much. Few silences have ever been as uncomfortable as the silence in our auditorium as people absorbed the information on the dreaded reorganization sheet.
As I said, I was free from this gut-wrenching experience today, and for that I'm thankful. Still, I was reminded of what a bizarre system I'm working within. There is a book full of rules and regulations that DOE staff must follow in all situations, including the reorganization of classes. Yet, each year in countless schools around the city, teachers are left stunned when they see that they're moving from 4th grade to Kindergarten or some other such shock.
What's most insane about this process is that with all the avenues of recourse teachers have via the Union, the only real recourse is none. Teachers are allowed to file grievances for numerous reasons related to class assignments. However, with principals looking to slash costs, who among the staff (especially amongst the newbies) is going to stick their neck out? In reality, there only two possible outcomes. File a grievance, get a placement that follows protocol and have your principal despise you for the malcontent you are. Or, suck it up and hope for the best. Isn't it great NYC teachers have one of the biggest, strongest unions watching our back?
Once again, I can't say how lucky I feel to be free from this experience this year. Last year I was placed in a kindergarten class for which I was not licensed to nor interested in teaching. The last two weeks of school felt like the wind had gotten knocked out of me. In a way it had, because I had big plans for my next year. Luckily, I chose option two, and things worked out when a teacher left and I ended up back teaching 4th grade. But, relying on luck is never really a good option.
Posted by ruben_b at 6:39 PM
Thursday, June 11, 2009
I had to take a break from the PowerPoint presentation I'm creating for my school's data share on Monday to ask myself, "Why the hell am I doing this?" I will not be at my school next year. The six other teachers on my grade level will be. Added to the irony of the excessed teacher working on this project is the fact we were given a total of 35 minutes this morning to prepare a presentation that's supposed to summarize our successes and next steps along with some pretty pictures.
So, about an hour into this little exercise in martyrdom and masochism I'm asking myself, "Why the hell am I doing this?" First off, I've gotten little to no input from my peers. Secondly, and more importantly, I'm enabling the slackers on my grade (that's some, not all) as well as my administration who thought it appropriate to assign us a task without any time to complete it. Thirdly, and most importantly, I'm using the data to support conclusions I don't remotely believe in.
For example, remarkable gains (okay, noticeable gains) were made in both English Language Arts. Our scores improved compared to our 4th graders last year as well compared to our students' 3rd grade scores. Awesome! Pats on the back and tips of the cap all around. And yet, I know the reality of my classroom. I know that today while playing a math game called Beat the Teacher I asked the question, "8 + 2?" and heard, "9!" "10!" and "12!" Now I'd never suggest that such anecdotal data disproves the state's assessment that 78% of my school's 4th graders are at or above grade level, but, well, actually, I think it does.
Which brings me back to the question, "Why the hell am I doing this?" It's not my job to do this. It's not fair to expect anyone on my grade to complete this by Monday, and I don't believe in the task itself or at least the biased conclusions I need to promote.
Unfortunately, I believe the answer is cowardice. I'm afraid to speak up and shout clearly that the emperor (or should I say principal? Chancellor? Mayor?) has no clothes. These test scores, for lack of a better word, are bullshit. Do I want to feel validated by the gains my kids made? Yes. Do I think that the 3's of my class are at grade level? Sadly, no.
It's this same cowardice that has held me back from speaking up in numerous grade level meetings and conversations with my administrators. Ironically, I've still managed to get into plenty of trouble while holding back. I can only imagine how much worse my standing with my administration would be then. The truth is, I tried asking questions or sometimes providing answers, that contradicted that current conventional wisdom that says Data is God. At other times I tried stretching the boundaries of what my job description entailed. Whether that involved publishing a school newspaper, planning summer vacation field trips or bringing in guest speakers, I wasn't satisfied with just boosting my kids test scores.
Each time however, that I started to push the limits (even in the most miniscule of ways) I found myself cowering back when I was faced with opposition or sometimes even just a harsh tone of voice. Some innate need for approval required me to go back to what I was doing, and forget I'd ever asked to try something different. It's disappointing that I came into this profession out of a deep sense of social justice and passion for change, and I haven't yet risen to the occasion when it was time to fight for it. In an interview with Campus Progress, Jonathan Kozol said, "The ones I pity are the ones who never stick out their neck for something they believe, never know the taste of moral struggle, and never have the thrill of victory." I would like to think that just by teaching in a high need school I am somehow sticking my neck out, but when I think of the battles, small as they've been, that I've surrendered without really fighting, I feel a bit yeller.
In a minute I'll go back to the PowerPoint and maybe add some cool transitions or even music. I'll likely stand up in front of my school and present each slide as if it was truth. At this point, I can justify my cowardice as realism, accepting that some things aren't worth fighting about, or that some things aren't likely to change. Hopefully the , I'll recognize the big battle when I see it, and I won't back down when it really counts.
Posted by ruben_b at 6:40 PM
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Today's publishing party went almost two and a half periods long. Since it's likely our last publishing party (in spite of my administration insisting we finish another unit of study in the next week) I let every student share their realistic fiction pieces. Everyone shared (except for Maverick who naturally refused and The Biter who was otherwise engaged), and even though it was a lengthy celebration, it was definitely worth it.
Afterward, I gave the students a choice between a math lesson we were meant to have or a social studies lesson I'd planned. In spite of expectations, the majority voted for social studies. I'm glad they did, because I spent a while planning the lesson last night, and it ended up sparking some great conversations.
I want my students to write letters to the editor or our senators arguing for or against the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor. Today's lesson was designed to review some background on the Supreme Court and give a brief biography of Sotomayor. As I went through my Powerpoint (what will I do if/when I land in a classroom without a SmartBoard next year?) I was constantly pausing to answer three and four questions a slide. I had to curb my frustration by realizing the kids were interested! We talked about Nixon, Gideon v. Wainwright, the 19th amendment and more in the span of 45 minutes. Not bad for a fourth grade classroom in June!
Posted by ruben_b at 6:20 PM
Monday, June 8, 2009
/n. ɪkˈsɛs, ˈɛksɛs; adj., v. ˈɛksɛs, ɪkˈsɛs/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [n. ik-ses, ek-ses; adj., v. ek-ses, ik-ses] Show IPA
1. the fact of exceeding something else in amount or degree: His strength is in excess of yours.
2. the amount or degree by which one thing exceeds another: The bill showed an excess of several hundred dollars over the estimate.
3. an extreme or excessive amount or degree; superabundance: to have an excess of energy.
4. a going beyond what is regarded as customary or proper: to talk to excess.
5. immoderate indulgence; intemperance in eating, drinking, etc.
6. more than or above what is necessary, usual, or specified; extra: a charge for excess baggage; excess profits.
–verb (used with object)
7. to dismiss, demote, transfer, or furlough (an employee), esp. as part of a mass layoff.
Posted by ruben_b at 5:33 PM
Saturday, June 6, 2009
The charter school I blogged about last year will be opening it's doors this September and the NY Times has the scoop on the $125,000 Dream Team. It will definitely be interesting to see the results of this ambitious experiment. In the mean time, the comments section of this article reveals some chilling attitudes about the state of education in our country:
How come middle class, good students are denied opportunities like this? I bet if the students at this school do well they will be showered with opportunities other kids who are already working hard will never be offered. One again, the middle class taxes pay for benefits the middle class never receives. Sorry, but I'm sick of this.Yes, JG, who will fight for the poor, underprivileged middle class "good kids"? Your implication being that because the charter school is reaching out to students from the Washington Heights community who are low performing (a nice change from the M.O. of most charter schools who skim off the top, these students must therefore be bad. Surely, someone will find a way to prop up those middle class kids who are being denied so many opportunities. You're sick of this? The undercurrent of disdain for the students struggling in America's failing schools is too much for me to stomach.
Posted by ruben_b at 8:06 PM
Thursday, June 4, 2009
Since reflecting on the environment of my classroom and how joyful a learning experience I create for my students, I've continued to think about my school (and schools like it). It's no major news flash to say that the schools we're sending our nation's poorest children into are often bleak, joyless places. This isn't to say there aren't countless teachers out there who struggle to create brightly colored and joyous havens of learning within communities deeply afflicted by poverty. Nonetheless, many schools in the Bronx, throughout NYC, and across the country are dilapidated structures, incapable of providing the same sort of wondrous experience that brand new multi-million dollar green building might. And the structures are only one part of it.
A discussion with a couple of co-workers about California's prison-industrial complex segued into a conversation about the sometimes prison-like nature of our schools. "What are we really preparing our students for?" my colleague asked, thinking about the way the students are ordered (by bull horn!) to line up in the school yard, barked at to be silent the auditorium and generally expected to be seen, but not heard. The comparison became all too eery as I was watching an episode of Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days in which he enters jail for 30 days. As he was going through intake, the camera settled on this sign:The sign immediately reminded me of a sign I created for my own classroom, a sign which I have to admit I was pretty proud of when I first printed and laminated it:
It wasn't a comparison that I felt good about. Nor was it a comparison I was realizing for the first time. In fact, when I first began my teaching, I was struck by the contrast by the almost magical quality of learning taking place in the classrooms and the sometimes cruel tone taken toward students in the hallways, auditorium and playground. While the need for quiet in the hallways to respect other classes that are in session is plenty reasonable, it's always seemed somewhat unrealistic to expect children of 5 or even 10, to walk from one destination to another in utter silence.
For my own part, I realized a few months ago that the 3 S's were no longer appropriate, and instead I instituted a game in it's place, which the kids actually love. The game's called "Rule of the Jungle." We pretend that we're walking through a jungle and if we're not totally quiet, we risk being attacked by wild animals. It gets the same result as the 3's, but the kids are actually having fun. Maybe it's still warped, but I feel like it's a step in the right direction.
I doubt many people working in urban schools around the country would appreciate this comparison between schools and prisons. I certainly don't think the similarity is intentional. Nonetheless, I wonder if in our endless pursuit of control and calm, we risk crushing some of the innate and most wonderful aspects of children's personalities.
Posted by ruben_b at 7:11 PM
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
So in response to Thursday's debacle and in preparation for a mini-unit on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights I made a Powerpoint presentation reviewing everything we've learned. I followed it up with a game of social studies jeopardy to review what I had just gone over with them. Everyone was quiet during the slide show. There were good questions asked, and a few kids begged me at points not to move on until they'd written down everything on the slide. Following that, jeopardy was, well, jeopardy. Kids will never complain about a game. So, I guess I can feel reassured that I do know how to teach social studies without making life miserable for the kids. That doesn't mean they won't complain about social studies (or anything for that matter) when given the opportunity.
Posted by ruben_b at 4:40 PM