Sunday, January 29, 2006

size matters

I'm starting student teaching at the charter school tomorrow! I'm so excited! I had another meeting with the Principal last week, and she is so great. She actually asked ME how the SCHOOL could help me get something good out of my experience! She said, "I don't want you to go out for a drink on Friday night with your friends and have to tell them how horrible your teaching placement is." I told her that it was 100% impossible that this school could be worse, or even in the same ballpark of horrible, as the one I taught at last semester. She just laughed.

This school is a K-8, and has about 30 kids per grade. In the "upper school," of grades 6-8, each individual class period has only 15 kids! Talk about a perfect place to do student teaching! The social studies teacher I'm working with has one class of 6th grade global history, two classes (7th and 8th) of American history, and a "literature" class. This last class is a group of kids at the same reading level who read books together and talk about them. The teachers are free to choose whatever kinds of books they want, as long as they are at the correct reading level. It sounds pretty fun. My teacher's class is currently reading Angels and Demons, which, while not exactly an intellectual force, is an enjoyable and decent book, and is certainly different from books they read in English class.

I haven't worked with middle school kids in awhile...if anyone has advice they'd like to give on teaching this age group, please post a comment or write me an email. Anything is appreciated :).

Another interesting thing from this week. I went to this "policy breakfast" at NYU held by the NYU education school, MetLife, and the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (I'm still a little unclear on what the latter organization is...their name is a little scary though). They had a panel discussion on the current state of teacher training. The title of the meeting was Teaching in a Flat World: Giving Teachers a Strong Start. Since we all know that I have some opinions (you know, one or two) on teacher training, I was excited to go.

The panel included some interesting people, including the CEO of human resources and the Deputy Chancellor for Teaching & Learning for the NYC Department of Ed. I thought that these two would be, at best, defensive about NYC's teacher training. And it's true that they did kind of pat themselves on the back for starting some mentorship program for new teachers within the NYC public schools, a program which I am fairly sure is pretty dysfunctional and ineffectual. But on the whole they had it right on about what teacher training needed to be. They talked about assigning the best teachers to be mentors, not just the ones who had been in the system the longest, about the need for honest, detailed, quality feedback for new teachers, and about the need for many different kinds of supportive relationships for new teachers within the school structure. The panel moderator said something that struck a chord with me: "We need to stop this hazing ritual that we put new teachers through year after year, and which drives the most talented people out of the professsion." I think the phrase "hazing ritual" is really apt. For me, someone who always wants to be prepared and competent at any task I undertake, this year has been really terrifying. Whenever I get up in front of a class, I feel under-prepared, nervous, and un-supported. There hasn't been enough feedback or support for me to really grow. Hopefully I'll get more of that this semester, but there's really no training or structure to help mentor teachers help their student teachers. Only a few people really know how to give good feedback. Since this is the primary pipeline (the other being the similarly problematic policy of just throwing smart but inexperienced people into the classroom right away) for new teachers, the whole thing really needs to be rethought. Would you send a medical student into the operating room with a pair of scissors, a pat on the back, and responsibility for not letting someone die? Would you put a college graduate straight into mid-level management in a publishing house? No. They all get entry-level positions and then are eased into positions of responsibility. There should be some adaptation for teaching, as most people consider the product of this profession pretty important.

At one point, the CEO for Human Resources at NYC Dept of Ed referred to the need for more practical training for teachers, that more of the training should be school-based, rather than university-based. One audience member quipped, "Are you suggesting breaking the monopoly of schools of education?" She responded, "You said it, not me." Everyone in the audience laughed. It was the kind of laugh that said "Everyone knows it has to be done, but it's politically terrifying and any attempt is going to take a marshaling of forces that do not currently exist." So in some ways it was comforting, in that the people in the room (most seemed to be former or current educators and people involved with education non-profits) knew that things needed to be changed and that the world of education training needed shaking up. On the other hand it was sad, because people seemed to acknowledge that even the leaders of the public school system were pretty powerless to make the necessary changes.

You can't blame them. When someone is responsible for training teachers for 1,000 schools, all of whom are supposed to run in much the same way, it's going to be incredibly difficult to change the status quo even a little. There are just so many people, so many institutions, and so many rules involved. I've heard it described as akin to trying to change the course of an enormous ocean liner going full speed ahead. That's why charter schools are so great. Their size allows them to make necessary changes lightning fast, with one decision and a manageable amount of observation and enforcement. If a charter school thinks its teachers need to have training in a certain aspect of literacy instruction or behavioral management, they can just hold that training right then and there. The institutional size is just so much more manageable. It's too much to expect any one group of reformers, even over decades, to make all the changes necessary to improve 1,000 schools with hundreds of thousands of employees. What we need to do is break down barriers to entry into teaching (while keeping the standards for teacher knowledge and intelligence high), eliminate unnecessary union regulations, allow alternative means of teacher training, and restructure schools to favor and reward the most competent and hard-working teachers (and administrators). If you have good people within your schools, then there doesn't have to be so much top-down regulation. You can let people experiment and come up with the best ways to train teachers and communicate with each other about it. Anyway, I'm just rambling, so I better stop. The point is that the size of the institution matters, and our urban school districts are just waaaaaaaaaaaaay too gargantuan to allow any significant reform over any reasonable amount of time.

Well this post has been somewhat meandering and not funny, so I apologize. In fact, this entire semester's blog might be a lot less amusing, since I anticipate this school, as well as my class instructors, will give me a lot less bullshit than the people last semester. Good for me, bad for sad, absurd story-reading. Well, at least I can keep you updated on my plans to avoid/circumvent/bastardize for my own purposes the "social justice action project" I have to do this semester. Ugh.

Monday, January 23, 2006


Good news for me! I know everyone out there is really riveted to all the ups and downs of my life, so I wanted to tell you all about the newest development in my quest to escape mediocrity and self-loathing.

Today I met with the principal of a charter school in Harlem. It's K-8. She told me, "when I started 2 and a half years ago, we were a failing school. Now we've come up to mediocre. But that's not good enough, I want to take us to excellence." Yay! Excellence! I have not heard that word uttered once this entire year in regard to education! I have heard "diversity" and "collaboration," but never "excellence"! She says, we're always trying to improve here. That's what I tell my teachers. And I tell them that if they can't give me improvement or excellence, they're going to have to teach somewhere else. She even had the book Good to Great (an organizational management book popular in the charter school movement) on her bookshelf! AND she excitedly took my suggestion to read the Thernstroms' No Excuses! She worked at the DOE here in NY for many years, but somehow still came out like this! The best news: I get to student-teach there instead of at that crappy high school I described a couple weeks ago!

My program is giving me a lot of shit for switching so last minute. They told me that if I thought backing out would "jeopardize the school's relationship with the cooperating teacher" that I should "choose to do the right thing." My program director actually seemed really pissy about it. Not that he was willing to give me help months ago when I asked for it!!!! Seriously, these people don't care about teacher education at all! The way they pick the mentor teacher is seemingly random. The mentor teachers seem to be evaluated on whether they are "nice" or not. I can't tell you how many times I've mentioned the other cooperating teacher's name and someone from my department says, "oh, he's a really nice guy." That's good, I mean, I like nice people, but doesn't it matter more that he's an effective teacher? If he's not, then he shouldn't even be teaching, much less teaching other teachers! But the cooperating teachers are never judged on that kind of criteria.

Well off to economics class. Maybe there won't be so many rants this semester--maybe there will even be satisfaction and happiness! Can I even hope?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Semester 2

My semester 2 classes began today. I had my student teaching seminar first. This was the one that ended up being so crazy last semester, with the whole "societal structures of oppression" theme every week. Our instructor this semester is a little more practical. He was, frankly, shocked that our seminar had not talked (at all) about 1) state teacher exams, 2) classroom management, 3) resumes, 4) job applications, 5) the certification process, or even 6) graduation requirements. Really the whole point of this seminar is to help us get all that extra crap out of the way. His comment was, "Well, what did you do last semester?" No one really knew how to respond. It was a sad moment for all of us.

I also had "Alternative Methods," which is being taught by a very nice lady who (ironically) seems a little more open to "traditional" teaching methods than my regular "methods" teacher. And one guy in my class had this really interesting idea of social science "labs," in which kids could apply the skills of document analysis/map reading/statistical analysis/visual image interpretation etc to come up with some conclusions about history. Not that there's really enough time for that in a regular classroom...

I would like to share with y'all something that is on the syllabi for all my classes. It is called the "Description of School of Education Conceptual Framework." I would just like to say that the phrase "conceptual framework" makes me want to curl up in the fetal position, with a teddy bear and a binky, for several months. Ok. The conceptual framework includes "three shared philosophical stances," another phrase for the ages (Note: you may want to throw salt over your left shoulder at this point. These phrases have dark power.). The first 2 are the "inquiry stance" and the "curricular stance," which inform the reader that graduates of this school "challenge...complacency" and "strive to meet the needs of diverse learners." Personally, I hate diverse learners. I think everybody does. So this thing about "striving" for them is pretty unique to this school. But I'm confused about it "challenging complacency" when you "perpetuate complacency"? Something to ponder.

Anyway, the third philosophical stance (throwing salt now) is my favorite. Here it is, in its entirety:

"Social justice stance: Our graduates choose to collaborate across differences in and beyond their school communities to demonstrate a commitment to social justice and to serving the world while imagining its perspectives." (saltsaltsaltsalt)

Yes, I have no bananas, if by bananas you mean any idea about what that means in any way. First off, who are we collaborating with? People in our schools, or with other graduates? Second, would someone please please please tell me what "social justice" really means? Because I had to write 2 papers on it last semester, and I have a "social justice action project" that I have to do this semester, and I have no idea what's going on. To me, providing quality education in urban communities is, in itself, social justice. Thus, if you learn to teach well and then do it and are effective, there is no need to get all flowery about social justice because you already have achieved it! The sad fact is that professors in and graduates of this school who teach in/work with/work for crappy urban public schools with no qualms about the lack of quality are actually working against social justice! Even while they write papers and conduct projects extolling its virtues! Aaaaaaaaaaaah!

Let's also talk about "serving the world while imagining its perspectives." So, basically, wait, I should....envision an Indian guy sitting at his desk at a call center in Madras and try to figure out what he's thinking? And then serve him? Or what?

The conceptual framework ends with this statement:

"These stances are the three dimensions of the educational space that we continuously create. [You know you're in trouble when someone uses the word "space" and it is not followed by the phrase "the final frontier."] By using critical inquiry as a tool in approaching the complexity of students and their learning, of ourselves and our teaching, our subject matter, and the contexts in which these operate, we and our students and graduates build effective curricula which benefit students' learning and ultimately serve the larger purpose of moral growth in the individual and society."

I like that the curricula only "benefit students' learning." It's like "our curricula are lukewarmly positive and pretty much fine." So apparently this school is not about education but about "moral growth." I might as well have joined the priesthood. Maybe they could tell me what it takes to be a good teacher! Hmm...maybe not. Priesthood+children=recent controversies. But then again, teachers+children often=no learning. Recent controversies+no learning=kids lose. Every time.

Semester 2, folks. And so it begins.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Classes loom. My first is on Thursday. Alternative Methods. No one seems to know what that means, really. We already seem to have had Alternative Methods. It was called Methods. So I'm not sure where that leaves us.

Before the new semester starts, a short recap on my fall classes:
1. Methods.
A class on designing social studies lessons. We learned about fishbowl discussion groups, panel discussions, WebQuests (don't even ask--they're horrifying), simulations/acting out of historical events, diversity, and...I'm not sure what else. I gained some good tips on the details of lesson planning, but the rest was not very helpful for actually teaching in an actual school, or at least, an urban school. Lecturing was very frowned upon, so we didn't even discuss the most effective ways to lecture if we had to do it (overhead? discussion w/notes? powerpoint?). I would venture to guess that most high school teachers, particularly social studies teachers, are pushed by standardized tests and lack of time to lecture almost every single day. So a little help in that area would have been nice. In addition, we didn't talk at all about how to use social studies to teach key literacy skills--decoding, reading comprehension, reading for deeper analysis, writing, etc. These are the skills that kids will need their whole lives. Basically, I'm going to have to come up with how to do these things myself. Based on the fact that I have spent most of this evening watching 24 and eating cheese crackers, and the fact that I have 1.5 years of experience in an actual school, that is somewhat of a scary prospect.

In fact, terrifying. I suppose the entire point of writing this blog is to express the fact that I'm absolutely terrified of what I'm getting myself into: a chaotic, mediocre, unpleasant public school system with no sense of accountability, excellence, ethical duty, or responsibility towards children. I'm sure individuals within the system are different, but the system itself is
terribly, terribly broken. And who am I to think I can make any difference, when generations of earnest, smart, enthusiastic educators really haven't? (I'm talking about the stagnation of school performance in the U.S. over the last 30 years, especially among minorities). What can I possibly contribute? Couldn't I have a more productive, happy life in some other field, a field in which good work is rewarded, rather than punished? One with a more tangible sense of accomplishment? These are the questions I have to ask myself every day. I keep re-committing myself only because I know that things can be different. I have seen them be different. And it's great.

2. Student teaching seminar.
Ostensibly about discussing our student teaching experiences. Actually about our instructor preaching to us that schools are useless in the face of poverty, crime, racism, drug abuse, health problems, and broken families. When we did our oral evaluations of the class, most kids thought maybe it would have been better to talk more about student teaching.

In this class, I asked my instructor what he thought about the charter systems like KIPP and Achievement First that are resoundingly not useless in the face of all these problems. He said that those schools make kids spend too much time in school. It really makes you want to weep, doesn't it?

3. World History
Quality content course. Learned lots of new info on global history. Taught by a real history professor, not a professor of "the teaching of social studies." And much better than any classes with the latter types. Coincidence? You decide.

4. Educational Psychology
Interesting course, but basically could be summed up with: in almost every educational issue, there is data to support both opposing sides. And there is not enough research. Ever. We should have co-ed classrooms because the research suggests that it's better, and we should have single-sex classrooms because the research suggests that it's better. Pick one and run with it.

5. Special Education
No real techniques given for how to deal with a child in your particular classroom. No special attention given to the higher incidence disabilities, like language processing disorders (ie dyslexia) and emotional/behavioral disorders. Some nice speakers, but no actual special ed or general ed teachers to talk about their experiences. Have no idea what to do with children with disabilities, except what I have gleaned on my own and from last year at MATCH. Seems to me that, in many/most cases, they just need more help and time to learn things. Usually not given to them.

That's the breakdown. I won't go back into my student teaching experience because it was a train wreck in which most of my dignity and faith in our educational system died horrible deaths. Looking forward to fewer classes this semester. Only have Economics, Alternative Methods (discussed above), and student teaching seminar (new instructor, less crazy, more bald).

Friday, January 13, 2006

Organ donation

This is an email I sent out to friends. I thought I'd post it here as well, even if it doesn't have to do with education. It's just a good thing, and so easy to do.

Hi friends and family and other people whose email addresses I have,

I happen to be one of those people who believes that once you're dead, you're dead. So you might as well give other people your stuff. And by stuff, I mean money (listen up mom and dad! just kidding), but I also mean your organs. Because what are you going to do with them? Nothing, because you'll be dead. So you might as well save someone else's life. And someone else might as well save yours too.

I thought I'd do a good deed by sending along some information on how to be an organ donor. Most of my friends (ha ha, I mean casual acquaintances and enemies) live in Massachusetts, New York state, and Minnesota, so I have compiled info below on becoming organ donors in those states. It's pretty easy, and it's a really good thing to do. And what other good things have you done lately? That's right, none. So to ease your guilt, become an organ donor. Also because I say so, and I know what's good for you.

Please forward this email to anyone and everyone. No one should have to die to let someone else's life-saving organs rot in the ground.

PS If someone you know doesn't want to donate, but has no good reason for it, the next time you see him/her, read the articles below out loud to them. For dramatic effect, you could start crying too. Also effective would be to start making consistent subtle references about how he/she is a bad person, preferably in front of his/her boss. A less ethical idea would be to disguise yourself as a doctor and tell him/her that he/she desperately needs a new __________ (fill in name of organ here...a funny one would be "butt.")


1. Go to this website and print out an organ donor card. Fill it out and carry it in your wallet.

2. Make sure to tell your family and friends that you wish to be an organ donor. They may have to approve the decision if you are incapacitated.

3. If you need to apply for or renew your license, go to this website to find out how. Make sure to check the organ donation box when filling out the registration forms.

New York State

1. Go to this website and click on "Online Organ and Tissue Donor Registration." This will take you to a form that will put you on the NY state organ donor database.

2. Go to this website and print out an organ donor card. Fill it out and carry it in your wallet.

3. Make sure to tell your family and friends that you wish to be an organ donor. They may have to approve the decision if you are incapacitated.

4. If you are going to apply for or renew your driver's license, go to the website below. Make sure to check the organ donation box.


1. Go to this website and print out an organ donor card. Fill it out and carry it in your wallet.

2. Make sure to tell your family and friends that you wish to be an organ donor. They may have to approve the decision if you are incapacitated.

3. If you are going to apply for or renew your license, go to this website to find out how. Make sure to check the organ donation box when filling out the registration forms.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A new day?

I suppose there aren't as many people reading this, since I have been writing only sporadically. It's probably for the best. Fewer people who are reminded daily what a smartass jerk I am.

Today I visited the school I will be student-teaching at this semester. It's a pretty large school, about 1600 kids, mostly Hispanic. The school is selective for kids living outside the district--you have to read at grade level (sadly, a rare commodity) and have certain grades in math and science to get in. This means that the kids care more and work harder than the average public school kid, which makes a huge difference. It is so easy to teach someone who wants to learn. Well, not so easy, not like eating Easy Cheese straight from the can (Or is it spray bottle? Squirter? You know what I'm talking about?). But I guess that's why they call it Easy Cheese. The point is, it helps to have students who are eager, or at least willing, to learn. The Coalition of the Willing, you might say. You just have to hope that yours is more than like 2 guys from Uzbekistan whose government is trying to get more favorable trade relations or something.

It's reassuring that despite the selectivity, the school is still mostly Hispanic and black. Other selective schools in the city are almost entirely white kids, like a whale's underbelly, except pimplier. But one wrinkle is that 20% of the kids have to be from the surrounding district. To get the designated quota, the school cannot be as picky about these students. And, sadly, as you might guess, these students (regular kids) typically are low performers. I'm not saying the quota system is bad, it's just depressing that you can't find enough kids to go to a school whose entrance requirements are reading at grade level and getting B's in math and science! The district is a fairly poor immigrant community, almost entirely Hispanic, and its public schools are terrible. There are people doing some great work with charter schools in the area, which is really promising. But that's sort of too small and too recent to have had much impact yet.

So anyway, I'll be teaching seniors. The school has three levels, it seems, for social studies--AP, Honors, and regular. As luck would have it, I got the regulars.

Again, as you might guess, the regular kids are more difficult to handle and have far lower achievement levels. I'm sure they are also disproportionately neighborhood kids. Now, I don't think it's necessarily bad to have a tracking system based on skill levels. Sometimes it's necessary. And it's really not bad at all to have the kids with lower skill levels. They still have a lot of potential and are pretty bright. They just happen to be behind, have a learning disability, or have some kind of emotional/behavioral problem (acting out in class, low self-esteem, chaotic family life) that has prevented them from succeeding. These things can be dealt with.

But it's not easy. It can be hell for the teacher sometimes, since the kids who don't like school or don't do well are the ones who make trouble. And sometimes their varying needs (language skills, help with a disability, family problems) can seem overwhelming. For these reasons, I think that the school has to have a firm internal structure set up to help these low performers, and all students for that matter. This structure should include, but not be limited to, their primary teachers. I'm talking about tutoring, after-school help with teachers, a strong discipline code rigorously enforced (detention!), counseling support, contact with parents, and maybe just a little love. I mean, we all need a little love, right? Not me, I'm a heartless robot with a soul of steel. Which is one reason I don't have a problem failing students. If a student is so behind that he/she can't catch up during the year, it is in that student's best interest to repeat and acquire the necessary skills. Likewise, a student who never does his/her work should learn that the consequence to that is failure. In the workplace, not doing work gets you fired. Schools can be more humane. Not doing work means you have to do the work anyway. Failing a grade can turn someone's life around. Even if the student hates it (or you) at the time, it might be the best thing that ever happened to him/her.

With high-performing students, you may not need all these tools. Their desire to do well in school means they are usually better behaved and do their homework on their own. But low performers need more. And if they need more, we should give them more. I've been at the school one day, and I don't think these kids are getting more.

It's better than the last school for sure; the kids have to call the teachers "Mr" or "Ms" and can't
have electronics or hats on. I even saw my teacher kick a kid out of class today for being out of control.

Still, the teacher allows a lot of ridiculous behavior, like yelling and swearing, and there is hardly ever a time during class when all the students are silent. One gets the impression that they are running the show. It's going to be difficult to be strict since I have nothing backing me up. What will I do if a kid breaks a rule, scold him? I could make him come in after school I suppose, but if he doesn't do it, my only recourse is to call the parent. If they aren't cooperative, I'm screwed. The kid then knows I have no leverage. Still, I'll have to try. Really, I can't stand yelling or swearing in class (I do a fair amount outside of class myself; sometimes, in a hilarious bit of irony, I swear about the kids swearing). And I hate any kind of disrespect. These things just make me ill. School and learning are so important to me. And I know how important they will be in the kids' futures. When they trash their education, and their teachers allow them to, I just feel so bad. I can't describe it any other way than that.

It will be an interesting semester. I'll keep you posted.