Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Why Johnny Isn't Learning a Damn Thing

Today is Wednesday of the fourth week of school. Out of 17 school days (subtracting for Labor Day), we have had the following disruptions:

1. 2 pep rallies
2. a forum for seniors, which meant I had four of 20 students in class at that time
3. an early dismissal for another pep rally outside
4. forums for each grade level, leaving roughly half the student in class, depending on the class

This Friday, every class will be spent having pictures taken.

And then, the kicker:

Tomorrow, there is an 'optional' assembly that I have been roped into attending with my students, despite NO connection to the curriculum. This assembly was not announced. The first I heard of it, I received an email saying administration was "desperate" for teachers to bring some kids. The speaker was "a writer." I emailed back, asking for his name. I received back an internet site that described him as a TV producer -- nothing about his having written anything. The shows he produced were mid-quality shows like "Eight is Enough," and none of them were anything the students would be familiar with. I decided not to take them.

After school, I got a phone call asking me if I was bringing my students. I tried to be polite, saying I would need to research him further to see if his talk would be relevant to the class. I was told I needed to make a decision right then. In the past I would have said, "Okay, then, no." However:

Last year there was a similar assembly that was supposedly "optional." (See "Principal's Memo: Stop All of That Ridiculous Teaching" on this web site.) It was right before AP testing, and teachers were very busy with test preparation and other activities, so (you guessed it) only the coaches showed up. The entire faculty then received an email detailing how very ungrateful and rude we were for not bringing our kids.

So I gave in. Maybe this cooperative attitude will buy me something later. That's what was in my mind. But I doubt it.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Sincerity of Sensitivity - One White Woman's Perspective

Teachers are getting ready for classes to begin soon, and as usual, we are required to spend some time in professional development. Recently, a speaker was booked to speak to our faculty about sensitivity. As is so often the case, the presenter badly needed a public speaking course. As is so often the case, she had a Power Point to present and didn't know how to work it (she announced proudly several times during the workshop that she had learned Power Point just for this occasion.) As is so often the case, she wasn't used to being challenged in her assumptions -- even though she told us at the beginning that we must be honest about what we really thought.

When you see a workshop topic like "sensitivity," race might be the first thing to come to mind. These days, religion would come up, too. Certainly gender. But most intelligent people realize there are lots of other issues about which we can be ignorant, insensitive, and perhaps overly sensitive, too. Teachers, more than most, are aware of all the different ways people can be offended, because we deal with so many people during our day; and especially because, at least in most public schools, we do come into contact with a variety of races, religions, and cultures. I once had a black child (in elementary school) apologize for calling me white. I explained that it really wasn't an insult, just a fact.

Have you ever talked "honestly" about race? I have. With one or two colleagues at a time (of various races), people I know well, and with whom I have built some trust. Even then, there have been misunderstandings between us. There is so much tension about this subject, for all colors of people, that even when I have walked away from a meaningful, satisfying, congenial conversation, I have sometimes had second thoughts and wondered if I gave a false impression, if the person I was talking to was just being polite, or humoring me.

So we're expected to talk "honestly," in a large group? Sure. I'm game.

At first, I thought it was going to go reasonably well. We were given a topic, asked to discuss at our table, then share. It seemed like an easy topic. Respect.

But as our table members talked, I remembered an incident with a parent last year. This father had asked for the meeting because he felt I had been rude to his son in class. The first words out of his mouth were, "Do you respect me?" I was taken aback by this, because to me, to respect someone means that you have seen them live and react in life, and you believe they have lived admirably. I respect people of integrity, kind people, people who take responsibility for their actions, and people who are honest. I didn't even know this guy. At some point I realized he must mean did I respect his right to be there, or his right to speak, or perhaps he was just asking if I intended to treat him with courtesy. But I felt that to give a "yes" or "no" answer would be to impair my own integrity. So I explained that I would have to know him better to answer that question. I think he probably took my answer as a form of, yes, disrespect. But I couldn't, in good conscience, answer any other way.

I told my table members about this incident, as an illustration of my suspicion that when we talk about "respect," we need to define our terms. That was my entire point: let's be sure we are talking about the same thing. When you say "respect," you may mean "courtesy." When I say "respect," I mean a kind of esteem that you earn. If we can understand that, we can understand one another better. Everyone at my table completely understood this. It just seemed so obvious.

My unfortunate colleague was chosen to share this insight with the room. The presenter seemed skeptical, but at least one other teacher openly agreed, using the example of the student who lies to you. You would no longer respect such a student; you would no longer esteem him or her. The presenter said this was wrong. Just flat said, "No, everyone deserves respect." I tried to explain better, since it was my point: I said, "For instance, I had a really difficult student last year. Some of you will know who I'm talking about." Many people in the room began laughing; some said, "Oh, yes, I know." Now, this was not just any disruptive student. He was the most amazingly bizarrely behaved student I have ever encountered. He was completely self-centered, and routinely treated everyone in the class horribly. When students walked in the first day, they would say, "Oh no!" when they saw him. This wasn't someone whom no one liked because they were nerdy. He was a football player, and some people actually still liked him, though even they would try to get him to settle down sometimes. He was just so RUDE. Anyway, the presenter interrupted me to deliver a lengthy lecture about how we should not demean students by talking about them in the teacher's lounge. I tried to explain that I had no intention of saying his name, but she would not listen. I decided not to talk again (I'm always deciding not to talk again, and then going back on it.) But when she finally finished her lecture, another teacher said, "No, I want to hear your story." So I explained that this student was quite difficult, disruptive, etc. And I had eventually lost respect for him.

Now we get to the good part. A coach spoke up. I had heard his name and seen him around, but I didn't know him at all. He asked me, "So now, when you see someone else who looks like this kid, don't you transfer that disrespect to that other kid?" I was confused. I pictured this disruptive student, and he didn't really look like anyone else. He had one of those "apple"-shaped physiques, which are unusual among young people, and I just couldn't right that second think of anyone who looked like him. I expressed confusion. The coach repeated the question, rephrasing it slightly. This time he asked me about seeing another student who "dressed like" the disruptive student. I gleaned he must be talking about pants that hang low. The coach had no way of knowing that I am adamantly against dress codes, and rarely even notice that a guy has dragging pants. I know this because at my old school, the security guard would pass by my room and point out dress code violations to me, and I almost never had even noticed the low pants, hats, or lowcut tops worn by various students. I just don't care. But I suddenly realized what he was getting at. Many white teachers (and some black) really HATE the dragging pants! And even though lots of white boys wear their pants that way, it's still sort of attached, in some people's minds, with black culture! The coach was African-American! He thought the disruptive student was black! He thought I was hating!

I announced to the room, "Just for the record, the student was white." The coach didn't say another word; just turned back around.

See how much misunderstanding was there, just in that few minutes, about that one innocent topic? That coach's mind was nowhere near the bland topic of respect. He went immediately to, black vs. white. And I don't completely blame him. The workshop was supposedly about sensitivity, but the presenter centered exclusively on race. There's nothing wrong with talking about that; in fact we need to. But the presenter was entirely insincere when she named her workshop, and when she asked us to discuss respect. She had a canned answer she wanted ("Everyone deserves respect."), and she wanted to discuss race, and nothing but race. She wanted us to be honest, but she was completely false to us.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Principals' Memo: Stop All of That Ridiculous Teaching

A few weeks ago, we received notice that there would be an optional assembly honoring some companies who have chosen to support our school. Let's call this the "Friends of Public Schools" program. Companies choose a school to support, and the employees give of their time and/or money to assist the school.

Optional assemblies are sometimes held to showcase the arts, and teachers sign up to bring their classes -- or not. Time passed, and we received a reminder a few days before the assembly, with a note that not very many teachers had signed up. The day of the assembly came. Right after the assembly ended, we received the following email from our principal:

"Thank you to the 12 teachers who took thirty minutes out of their schedule today to support the [Friends of Schools] program. We adopted ... new partners today and we had an extremely small audience to be receptive to the people who are willing to give of themselves for the betterment of [our school]. I was embarrassed by the lack of participation. We probably had no more than 150 students in the audience. I don’t want to receive a lot of emails or reasons why you could not attend. This has been announced and on the calendar for over a month. I just want people to understand that we must do our part to nurture these relationships. When we have our hand out for favors, it is important to understand how important it was to have a nice crowd at today’s assembly."

Hmmm. Snide tone. Lack of respect for our professional decisions. Casting aspersions widely. Confusion as to what "optional" means. Unwarranted assumption that the Friends give a shit who attends the assembly. Childlike, unnecessary embarrassment, when any sane adult would simply have said, "Our teachers are so busy today, but we did want to thank you." Failure to take blame for not, say, having a reception before or after school instead (bring food; teachers will come). Disavowal of rights of accused to speak in their own defense. Astonishing oversight of important facts; i.e., AP tests begin in two days. Petulant insistence that we "choose" to do something that she could easily have made mandatory.

Oh, and later that day we received word that she has signed us up for the Ropes course.

I polled the teachers in my department. One had been up until 3 that morning putting together a curriculum package for some high mucky-muck in the district, and had delivered said curriculum to the district office , on deadline, at 7:30 that morning. Another opted to attend the assembly, and informed us that attendees included her, and every coach in the building. She felt rather slimy after reading the memo, and wished she hadn't gone. I didn't go because that particular class of students is noisy, crowded, and behind the others. It wouldn't have been the end of the world to miss the time, but it would have been a very bad decision. Also, I reckon, if I had chosen to take time out of class for any other non-academic reason, she could rightly have reprimanded me.

And, let's be real. Even students eager to get out of class rolled their eyes at the topic of this assembly.

A new teacher looked at me this afternoon and said, "I'm getting the idea now. It doesn't matter if we teach or not. It's only what we are seen to be doing for PR reasons."


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Why Teachers Don't Want to Talk to You

As a parent, I go crazy when my child's teachers won't give us information. What is her average? How do you grade? Why did she get such a low grade on the video? Somehow, the teachers seem unable to impart this information.

Recently, I transferred to the high school my child attends. I have gone out of my way to post grades (with i.d. numbers) on the internet, print progress reports, email parents, meet with parents, keep the learning disability teacher, counselors, and coaches apprised as to students' progress.

You know what I get in return? Accusations, trickery, bullshit.

Case in Point: Bob, a football player, is in one of my classes. Before school started, one of the administrators pulled me aside and told me that Bob is a really great kid, had a bad year last year, but is really trying. She said Bob just needs more confidence, but late last year he was really starting to turn things around.

Very soon after school started, we had an IEP meeting (this is a meeting for students who have learning disabilities). Everyone -- football fans to a man, I'd say -- agreed that Bob was doing just wonderfully in all of his classes. Except, he was failing mine. He hadn't turned in work, and his grade was low. The teachers in this meeting asserted that Bob had "no problems" in their classes (though one did admit she had to get his homework out of his backpack for him). The IEP plan said that everyone should make every effort to help Bob be "eligible" to play football (to be eligible, players must not have two Fs two weeks in a row). I thought this was curious. Shouldn't an IEP be about how to help him learn? Hmmm.

So anyway, I get to know Bob a little better, and he's a personable kid. However, it becomes painfully clear that he is completely playing everyone. He DOES NOT TURN IN HIS WORK. He will sit in class and I can see him doing the work, and still he WILL NOT TURN IT IN. He has two friends in this class who are good students, and they spend considerable time helping him with his work, and urging him to turn it in. He lies. He says he does turn it in, but he doesn't. Many times, he will turn it in a week or two later, when everyone on earth has asked him, and he will pull it out of his backpack. The coach and the L.D. teacher spend time every week "making sure Bob does his work." I have come to see that actually, they are doing the work for him. But, see, they're not in my class, so they don't always do it correctly. At one point, the coach tells me he is sure Bob will receive full credit for a paper because his handwriting is so neat. Many times, Bob tells the coach and L.D. teacher he has turned in papers, or he is right that minute headed to my room to turn in papers, but he doesn't. He tells his mother that he turned in the papers and I just didn't "find" them yet.

During all of this, I am getting emails from the coach (several on the day before eligibility reports are due) as well as emails from the L.D. teacher. Both maintain that Bob "doesn't understand" the material. I'll grant that he may not fully understand everything we are doing. However, I break all of our skills down into small, doable, exercises, which I usually grade with a completion score. This means all he has to do is follow the instructions an turn the paper in. But he doesn't. These are not the only scores that go toward the grade, but they are a significant portion of it. At one point the coach tells me that another coach he knows told him that Bob was "playing" everybody. Huh -- I had the same thought (though I don't say so). But Coach says, "But he's NOT!"

Then I make the near-fatal mistake. After frantically grading for ten hours one weekend, I post grades on the website because I told the kids I would. Well, my grading software goes haywire. I don't notice until that Monday, when one student asks me about her grade and I realize it can't be right. I check all other classes -- no problems. I use my backup disk and restore the proper grades, then print out separate progress reports for every student so they can make sure all of their grades are correct.

Well, wouldn't you know that the mother and the coach log on and see that Bob's grade has risen magically from an F to a C. Well, I personally would question such a rise in only one week. But, of course, they think he turned in a lot of work. However, they scream and gnash their teeth at poor Bob's "excitement" at his high grade and his huge disappointment at having an F after all, and accuse me of all kinds of nefarious intentions when I explain why the C grade was incorrect. But you know what?

Bob KNEW he didn't have a higher grade. He KNEW he hadn't turned in those papers. But they can't see the simple logic that he is, once again, letting the adults do all the work.

If I hadn't posted the grades to begin with -- if I hadn't taken late work -- if I had not discussed or tried to help with Bob's problems -- I wouldn't have had the flack and accusations. Guess what? I not going out of my way again.

By the way, this is not the only incident I've suffered because of trying to give people information. Countless times, anything you say is brought back and used against you later. I've had it. No more.

(And, oh yeah, it's ALWAYS the bad students' parents. That's why you're saying to yourself, "Why, I've never done that!")

Saturday, April 02, 2005

No Urchin Left Behind

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act has been with us for a couple of years now. This law is meant to engender greater effort on the part of school administrators and teachers to ensure that "every" child is successful. Apparently its supporters believe that teachers are sending the lowest achievers out into the hall while we teach everyone else. Or maybe they think we refuse to call on them when they raise their hands (kids who aren't achieving aren't raising their hands -- I promise). Or perhaps they picture us using too many big words (...nah). Maybe they buy into the myth that middle class white teachers can't possibly understand how to reach urban black males and the other subgroups who make low scores on tests. Perhaps they even believe that standardized tests still ask questions about china patterns and polo, so that the typical inner city kid can't possibly make good scores. Not sure.

I am notorious for giving more Ds and Fs than most teachers at my school. But you know what? Every single D and F student has missing work. I even put in writing that if a student turns in all of their work (and follows directions), they CAN'T make lower than a C. I even take late work for half credit at ANY TIME before the quarter ends. I'll admit I'm not willing to go to a student's house, hand them a pen, and stand over them while they do their homework. I'm not sure what else I can do besides remind them continually, alert the parents, and hope. How is the school or the teacher at fault when students fail under these circumstances?

As you can imagine, what is really happening with NCLB is that schools are scrambling to "fix" their lower scores in any haphazard way they can, just so they won't be put on the Bad List. I'm sure there are exceptions. But here is one example:

The state tests are to be given in mid-April. On March 22, two days before a week-long spring break, teachers on my team were asked to come up with a strategy for preparing our lowest math and reading students for the tests. We kept to ourselves the thoughts that you might be thinking too: "Didn't we know the tests were coming up before this?" "I've been preparing them in every way I know how already. I do that all year." "Cramming for tests is not only ineffective, but a horrible example for students, especially those who are already having trouble." We struggled to come up with something our principal would be happy with. We made several suggestions but there was no definite decision at the end of the meeting. We had parent conferences that week, which means we were busier than usual updating grades and printing progress reports, as well as working late to meet with parents.

When we arrived back at school on March 28, we had email outlining a new schedule with an extra class for test prep, and plans that the math teachers had pulled together for math prep. [We learned later that the math teachers had been pulled into a last-minute meeting to plan. Interestingly, the science teachers were, too, but not the English teachers.] There were no instructions for what everyone else would do during that time, so we scurried to plan something reasonable. I pulled out some old test prep books; a colleague found a set of social studies magazines and planned to have students read and discuss some articles. Meanwhile, the students had no idea where to go that morning. We had to stand in the hall and call out, "Go to your first elective!" over and over again. Students would ask, "Why?" and we would have to say, "We'll explain later."

When we finally got our students that morning, I stopped to explain why we were having this special test prep class. Guess what the students said. They wondered why we had waited until the last minute. They said we had been learning all year; wasn't that preparing for the tests? And anyway, wasn't that a bad way to learn, to cram?

If only we tested them on logic.

My colleagues really rose to the occasion. We did the best we could do under ridiculous circumstances, and I hope the students gained something from the various activities.

This spectacle, of course, was the administration's fault, and does not in itself negate the value of NCLB. But consider this: standardized tests are multiple choice and CANNOT test students on higher-order thinking skills. Standardized tests can require that students comprehend and recall information, and even in some cases deduce outcomes. But it can't test whether or not a student can express him- or herself articulately, use facts to build a logical argument, or analyze literature. So, NCLB has schools scrambling, as in the above fashion, to raise test scores, when what students need (in humanities classes, anyway) is more practice in reading, analyzing, writing, and research. (We were actually told, in so many words, not to worry about teaching research skills, because the English test template calls for only one or two questions on research.)

Meanwhile, our top students are suffering through these test prep classes for two weeks, bored out of their minds. When they say No Child Left Behind, they refer only to low-achieving kids. What about the ones who are eager to learn, participate, and contribute? They get slapped in the face.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Bad Brandon

Brandon frequently acts like a jackass. He refuses to do any work, espouses the ethic that paying for grades "wouldn't hurt anyone", and stubbornly insists that he has low grades because the white teachers don't like him. The other day, a colleague of mine was attempting to teach Algebra when Brandon, as usual, arrived to class 5 minutes late. If he had sat down quietly, she would have ignored the interruption, because she (and we) have tried and tried to get administration support in reducing tardies to class, but have found that the administration will not do anything about the problem. But Brandon did not enter quietly and sit down. He was disruptive and loud. So my colleague turned to him and said, "Brandon, stop acting like a jackass." Now, you have to know that this particular colleague is the most professional, most dignified, and least likely to curse of all of the teachers in our building. She even apologized to Brandon, despite the rightness of her remark. But that wasn't good enough for him. No, he insisted on seeing the principal. My colleague wrote him a pass and the next thing you know she is in the principal's office being asked what she can do to rectify the situation. She says, "Well, I already apologized, so I don' t know what else I can do." She is told that there will be a conference the next morning to discuss the issue. She is also told that Brandon can't stand to be in her class anymore because of her obvious contempt for him. She she and the rest of Brandon's teachers mull over how he can be moved to the other math class. This is difficult because of the various levels of math and science being taught. It can't be done. The option of moving him to the other "family" -- the other set of core teachers -- is raised. Seems like a good solution for everyone. The next morning, she is sent to Brandon's class to retrieve him for the meeting. Brandon expresses complete surprise. No one has told him there is a conference. She and Brandon go to the meeting, and strangely, Brandon's mother is not present. My colleague points out that Brandon is late for class every single day, and not just a minute late, but a full five minutes every day. Brandon responds that he doesn't have any idea when class starts. He has gone to this school for two and a half years, there are clocks in the hall, and, oh yeah, the halls are empty when class starts, because pretty much everyone else does know when class starts. But this doesn't faze Ms. Tipover, the principal. She hands Brandon a copy of the schedule. No consequences for his obvious lie, or for being tardy so many times. So then, my colleague mentions the idea of moving Brandon to the other set of teachers, but Brandon says, oh, no, he has no desire to leave her class. He doesn't know what she is talking about. You might think that he would be moved anyway, because clearly, he has a problem with my colleague. But you would be wrong. No, Brandon gets his way in all matters.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

It's All the Teacher's Fault - Episode 1

A colleague sent a boy to the office because he was not only out of his seat, but running in circles around the room. There is paperwork that goes with sending kids to the office, and the form has a box that is about 3 inches by 2 inches, where you are supposed to explain the incident. It is TOO SMALL. Many times, the administration seems to think that the incident described there is the only thing that happened, rather than the culminating behavior in a series of misbehaviors, the one that caused the teacher to think, finally, "Okay, this kid just isn't going to settle down." So, my colleague is called to the office after school, where he is told that it is his fault that the boy was running around the room, because -- get ready -- he didn't have any rules posted saying that it wasn't okay. By this logic, every bank would need to post a sign saying, "No Robberies Allowed." Wouldn't it?