How was my day? I spent at least 30 minutes thinking I'd lost my Palm with all my ECLAS (a reading assessment for grades K-3) data to start it off. The phone rang at least 3 times in the course of my first two lessons. I spent the afternoon scrambling to finish assessing my students on ECLAS (using the Palm I thankfully found!), during which a car alarm went off and didn't stop for a solid hour and 20 minutes. I finally left the building at 6:30, came home to finish entering all my ECLAS data and then lesson plan. Somehow without any major incidents the whole day managed to feel chaotic and exhausting. Sigh. Somehow though I managed to get what I needed to do done, so now it's off to a a hot bath, glass of scotch and early bedtime.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Of course when lacking inspiration I find myself returning to that old saw, test prep. I'm in my second week teaching in the after school program. Whereas in a different community or perhaps a different era altogether, after school programs were dedicated to extracurricular and enrichment activities, after school programs in the NCLB era mean one thing: test prep.
Many schools, including mine, use scripted, remedial programs. Some research supports scripted programs - they structure a lesson around best practices and provide a teacher with critical thinking questions. The problem with some of these programs, as I've experienced them, is that while they offer some suggestions for differentiation, they're still more or less one size fits all.
My students after school, most of whom are from my class, represent the lowest performers of the 3rd grade. That means they include non-readers and most of the students are English Language Learners. So this presents some challenges using a scripted program with a standardized test prep book. The passages are too difficult for my students, they can't read the test questions that follow either, and the critical thinking questions provided are in language that's inaccessible as well.
Is the program I'm using a good tool for getting kids ready? Probably. Is it the right tool for my students? Not at this point. The question is whether I can alter what I'm working with, or if I should try to start from scratch.
Posted by ruben_b at 10:08 PM
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
So I have to apologize for my prolonged absence. But I can explain, really. Why haven't I been writing?
First off, I have been busier than ever before. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays I'm teaching in the after school test prep program (thrilling tales in your future!). On top of that I've been staying later than ever planning, grading, charting, etc. It feels like I've gotten to a point where now that I have some energy left over at the end of the teaching day I'm determined to expend whatever's left before I leave my school.
Secondly, I've been somewhat lacking inspiration. Which in the case of my past writing is a very good thing. Management is no longer the daily struggle (to put it nicely) that inspired constant reflection and soul-searching. The other major source of inspiration - administrative shenanigans - also seems to be largely absent from my new school.
These are problems I'm obviously happy to have. I'm working harder than ever. I'm free from a lot of daily dysfunction and drama. So from here on out my inspiration will (knock on wood) have to come from elsewhere. Stay tuned.
Posted by ruben_b at 8:45 PM
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Two op-eds on teachers appeared in tandem today. One by NY Times columnist Nick Kristoff and the other by First Lady Michelle Obama. Both focus on the importance of teachers in fixing this country's education system. While I would have added a few points to either piece, it's difficult to address everything that goes into creating a more functional and more importantly, equitable education system.
Kristoff's column lays out the argument that education is the frontline of the war on poverty. It may seem like an obvious idea, but it's lost on many, and Kristoff rightly makes the connection between education and civil rights. Kristoff's central argument however points out the teachers' unions and the Democrats who acquiese to them as the major obstacles to necessary education reforms.
Kristoff's criticism of the teachers' unions is hardly original, and it's part of a broader movement, exemplified by a recent New Yorker article Kristoff references, that points the finger at the unions. This trend makes me a bit squeamish, because I know firsthand that principals can be vindictive and arbitrary administrators. Without the union I doubt I'd still be teaching.
That said, I'm willing to concede the unions are responsible for blocking several initiatives that could transform education for the better. Worse however, the unions undeniably protect many incompetent teachers who are currently teaching in high need classrooms.
Michelle Obama's column also focuses on the importance of teachers, but understandly avoids the issues created by the unions. Instead she focuses on the need for better salaries, better professional development opportunities, and a major recruitment effort to attract better quality teachers. Not much to quibble with there.
It's difficult for me to stomach union bashing that doesn't acknowledge the necessary protections they provide. And I don't love Kristoff's infatuation with charter schools (also a part of the larger education reform trend). Still, Kristoff and Obama both draw attention to the central fight of creating better schools: better teachers. I'm hoping this point isn't lost when the national conversation turns from healthcare to education.
Posted by ruben_b at 8:29 PM
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Do you remember that old reality show on MTV where people were subjected to Candid Camera style situations and rewarded money based on how long they could endure? I have a low threshold for obnoxious behavior, but I'm also pretty non-confrontational so I think most situations I'd be able to keep my cool. On the other hand, if MTV ever wanted to keep their money they could film me trying to teach a small group of 3rd graders how to tell time and find elapsed time.
A recurring theme of this school year has been the large gaps in fundamentals. Whether it's students who don't know the sounds of the alphabet or how to quickly solve single digit addition and subtraction problems, I've been constantly flummoxed mid-lesson. Today was no exception as I struggled through an Everyday Math lesson on elapsed time.
A small victory took place when I realized that more than half of the class was nowhere close to ready for the independent task. I sent eight students to work in pairs and set to work on a "back to basics" lesson on time. The burst of enthusiasm that came from this decision hit a brick wall when I seemed to be making no progress.
"It's 9:04 now. What time will it be in 1 hour?"
"Let's take a look at this again. Which number is the hour? Good. Which number is the minutes? Good. So what time will it be in 1 hour?"
I attacked the math from every direction I could think of. I backtracked and tried to make connections to basic math the kids already knew - place value, counting by 1's - but nothing seemed to work. Time ran out, and there were no signs of progress.
Worst of all was my visible frustration. Key to helping any student learn is creating a "risk-free environment." Sighs of exasperation and barely contained, "Are you kidding me"-s don't exactly cultivate that kind of atmosphere.
I guess there will always be lessons like this. Best laid plans and good intentions aren't always enough for success. As I get to know my kids more completely and understand their strengths and weaknesses I expect this will happen less frequently. For now it's time for a new game plan, one that addresses the basic skills my kids need, but are missing.
Posted by ruben_b at 5:46 PM
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Today I was struck for the first time in a while by the absurdity of me doing what I do. My 3rd graders were walking quietly, spaced evenly in straight lines down the stairs on their way to lunch. "You guys look amazing!" I gushed. "I'm going to have a tough time deciding which line deserves a star!" I said as a smile broke across my face. And then I couldn't help but laugh out loud.
Here I was shepherding 19 seven and eight year olds to lunch, enforcing the so, so serious rule of walking silently. Kids of this age are just a little funny looking to begin with, still chubby and small, but adding to the situation my surprise to find myself in this position, the experience felt both surreal and hilarious. With that in mind, a brief list of...
Questions and Statements I Never Thought I'd Utter:
- Am I using too much blue marker on my charts?
- I'm only going to give a star to the line that's trying their best!
- Is that how we ask to go to the bathroom?
- I LOVE the way Student X is showing me he/she is listening.
- If you do your best and stay focused you'll get a ticket.
- Stop playing with your pencil and show me you're listening.
Posted by ruben_b at 7:02 PM
Thursday, October 1, 2009
What makes a good teacher? It's a question at the center of the debate of how to fix this country's schools. Bill and Melinda Gates are investing millions in a study in cooperation with the UFT to answer this question. Meanwhile Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein have made rewarding good teachers and removing bad teachers a major plank of their platform for reform in NYC. President Obama and Secretary Gates seem inclined to follow a similar path. And yet, the question is more difficult to answer than you might think.
Of course there's the textbook answer, one used by teaching colleges and alternative certification programs like NYCTF and TFA to guide newcomers to the profession. A good teacher according to these guidelines is someone who differentiates instruction to reach all learners, regularly assesses and collects data in order to inform instruction, regularly reflects on best practices in order refine instruction, collaborates with members of their learning community to create a network of support for all learners, and creates a safe and inviting environment for learning to take place in. I'm sure I'm forgetting something here... but all in all, I think we can say I've been taught well.
The question is, what does a good teacher actually look like? More to the point, how does a teacher decide that he or she is a good teacher. It is one thing to understand a set of criteria or a "continuum of teacher development," but it's another thing entirely to internalize those standards and decide, "Yes, I am succeeding," or "No, I am failing." I say this, because it's a decision I'm struggling to make right now.
Nobody says you're supposed to be a perfect teacher by Year 3. Conventional wisdom places the learning curve for teaching at around 3-5 years. However, for someone who 1) doesn't necessarily foresee a lifetime career in teaching ahead of him, and 2) sees his job as a teacher in a high need community as practically life or death, 3-5 years doesn't exactly cut it. I want to be a good teacher now. I need to be a good teacher now.
Last year, I have to say I let myself feel pretty good about my teaching abilities. Observations and evaluations by people in my school, a Kaplan consultant and my Fordham mentor all supported this arrogance. Comments like, "I can't believe you're a 2nd year teacher," and "Can I have another student of mine visit your classroom?" lead me to believe to a certain extent that I had mastered much of what I needed to know. I never gave up on reflecting on what was working or improving what I was doing. But did I think I was a good teacher? Yes.
In my third year, I'm reevaluating this. And while it's scary to face this reality, reality is much preferable to a delusion. I've realized much of what impressed visitors and myself last year was management. When I get to the core of my instruction and ask myself did it reach all the kids and help them grow, I realize there were many flaws. Looking at reading specifically, many of my students didn't show the progress I hoped to see when June came around.
Now in a new school, needing to prove myself all over again, the question of whether I'm a good teacher feels all the more pressing and personal. I know how to appear to be a good teacher by staying on top of paperwork and creating a pleasant looking classroom environment. I also know that sometimes admitting your weaknesses in a NYC public school doesn't always get you the help you need, but rather a mix of condescension and antagonism. For the sake of the kids, I'm obviously willing to risk it.
Am I a good teacher? I care intensely about the kids I teach (is that on the continuum of development?) and I am trying very hard to do my best everyday. My classroom is a safe place for kids and ideas. These are the things I am sure of right now. For everything else "good" will have to be a work in progress.
Posted by ruben_b at 7:51 PM