Tuesday, September 28, 2010

8 Fire Drills by Christmas

 So far this year we've had three fire drills.  We haven't even been in school three weeks yet.  Why, you ask?  The law states that we have to have EIGHT fire drills before the end of the calendar year.   Yes, they're for safety.  In fact, our students are getting very good at evacuating the building, so I'm happy to report that they'll be better off than they would be if our building burned to the ground. Even still, getting in eight drills before Christmas, which really means eight in the first two months of school to avoid marching students around in really bad weather, is a bit excessive.

That said, when the thing went off last Friday for the third time this year, I was extremely exasperated.  Not only was it the second one of the week, I was in the middle of a demonstration involving a big bottle of hot sauce, a bottle of pancake syrup, $26 in wadded bills, and my trash can.  What is more, this was the rowdiest class in the entire eighth grade and they were on the edge of their seats wondering why in the world I would take money out of my wallet and through it into a sloppy, extremely pungent mess.

When the alarm went off, I took off my latex gloves, which in themselves grabbed my students' attention, lined the kids up and marched them out the door, down three flights of stairs, out of the building, down the block, around the corner, and off the main drag.  By the time we got back up, I had just enough time to finish the demonstration, but by then there was little time to discuss the economic concepts I was getting at (incentives, value, etc.) with the puddle and notes in my trashcan, let alone the time necessary to graph the results of the data we collected during the demonstration.  Coming back to it first thing on Monday left many stranded mentally as to what the heck the point was.

I may be mistaken, but when I was in high school I think we had one fire drill and one tornado drill per semester.  It isn't rocket science, after all.  In a city where holidays, conferences, testing days, and various legal distractions are pockmarks on the school calendar, so many fire drills seems pretty excessive.  You might say, however, "If there were a fire and someone was hurt, you'd be eating your words, Mr. James."  Well, each time we do one of these drills, it strikes me as pretty ironic that we march them around outside for the sake of safety when they are far safer inside our doors than outside on streets inhabited by junkies and less-than-savory characters.  If one of our students was hurt by a vehicle or someone on the street during one of these drills, what would happen?

Is it cynical that I think the teachers would somehow bear the brunt of that blame?

Friday, September 24, 2010

8th Grade 8th Graders

My students this year are different.  Two years ago my students were on average at least one year older, which meant most of them had been held back at least one grade before they got to me.  They were larger, more mature in some ways, less developed in many others, and far more aggressive. The current batch looks and acts much more like they are supposed to in the eighth grade, which has been a throw-back to teaching middle school outside of the city.

Yesterday in class, the high-tracked class had something of a melt-down.  Two sets of students nearly got into physical altercations.  One was started by a boy tapping the back of a girl's neck, which led to her smacking him pretty hard across the side of the head (deserved, but detention).  The second was between two boys, which led to one almost bawling in the middle of class and the other wanting to knock over desks and things.  The crying surprised me.  I've only seen one student actually cry in class since I arrived in the South Bronx and I haven't seen any boys come even close.  This has probably been due to the fact that they were older before, but probably also because those students had rougher home lives and simply did not display such emotions in front of their peers.  The current students are emotional, have some pudge, and their drama is really juvenile, as opposed to the dropkick, screaming, insane-human drama of the past two years.  While these new students aren't sheltered, they have fewer scars, seem better-fed, and still have characteristics such as curiosity and respect for adults (for the most part).

In terms of academic preparedness, these students bring to the table a far different arsenal than their predecessors from last year and two years ago.  This week our learning specialist provided me with some important academic data on these students.  She tested both the current eighth grade and the current ninth grade's reading levels with our English teachers.  On average, the current eighth graders read at a higher level than the current ninth graders.  That's nuts.  That statistic alone shows the incredible disparity between the two classes.   

Last week the same class that melted down today did provide me with a reality check on where they come from.  While I've been sitting on cloud nine, eating up the glowing reports from their former teachers, and delighting in the work they've already done this year, they reminded that their own lives are no cake walk when, during an activity on timelines, I gave them the prompt, "Name an event in your life that has changed the way you think or act every day."  The regulars volunteered their answers to the prompt and each one gave me the same response:  the death of a sibling or parent is what has changed their lives the most. Initially, I was caught off guard by this, as the topic has never come up in class before (at least not part of the class's conversation).  In the past I may have heard one student telling another that such an unfortunate thing happened, but it never made it's way into academic conversation.  This might be for a variety of reasons, but I believe the students of two years ago and many last year faced tragedy more consistently in their lives- death in the family, being removed and moved around by the state, excessive drug use at home, etc.- while for this class of students, such things may not be as much an everyday reality.  Still, the discussion demonstrated in part that while I have the highest flying kids I've ever had in my current position, my job's location certainly hasn't changed.

I have no doubt these students will do well this year.  They can read better than their ninth grade peers- students at least a year older than them, but they still perform below grade level on average.  Of the students I've taught thus far, they have been failed fewest times by adults and are considered by all adults who have worked with them the most "normal" group of middle schoolers that have walked our halls.   While none of these students are already EX-gang members and I expect (knock on wood) that none of them will be shot in the leg while hanging out with ridiculous people in even more ridiculous situations, they still do no have the safe, secure lives of the middle-class military brats I taught two and a half years ago.  In spite of the academic skills and ability to stay out of sticky situations,the most important factor is that they still have it in their heads that they are students, not just young people showing up to school.  This will make all the difference.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Surveying Schedules


Over the summer I was speaking to an esteemed colleague of mine who had once sought a job after being a classroom teacher.  While meeting with someone at a temp agency, the person reviewing her application told her, "not to expect an 8-3 job like teaching."  I imagine that when she said that I sprayed a large amount of what I was drinking all over the room, but I don't think that actually happened.  Instead, I became semi-irrationally irritated just hearing the story.  Having calmed down at this point, here's a bit about how classroom teachers spend their time.

Last year I posted on On the Front Line with Wine something comparing the number of hours teachers work to the average hours of family doctors, who, it was discovered by a New York Times reporter, work more hours than people expect.  I'd like to try something similar here, but hope to promote a bit more conversation amongst teachers.  Below is my general daily schedule this year, which will probably change dramatically, but I expect will not become any less work.  By posting it I don't mean to show that I'm overworked, underworked or otherwise; I'd simply like to add to the conversation about what some teachers in public schools do with their time.  From what I can tell, most people don't think teachers work only from 8-3, but are also not sure what goes on behind the scenes at schools and after school hours.  Additionally, the media seems to paint most public school teachers as stereotypical union workers- always on a break.  For the teachers I work with at least, that is simply not true.

Workday Schedule
  • 5:30 AM Wake up, check headlines, create to-do list for the day and run through lesson plans
  • 6:45 AM Depart for school, taking the train from Manhattan to the Bronx
  • 7:20 AM Arrive at school, make copies, prepare classroom for arrival of students, make coffee, pull together supplies for the day, etc.
  • 8:10 AM Students arrive for home room, where we read silently, check up on their grades, practice math skills, and do team-building exercises
  • 8:45-11:15 AM Teaching two modified-block 8th Grade U.S. History sections
  • 11:15 AM-12:00 PM  "Lunch," which I use to plan, grade, do housekeeping chores, and meet with students about behavior, progress, and to give extra help (except for Thursdays, when I run detention for the period)
  • 12:00-12:45 PM Meetings with my grade-level team or content team (except Mondays, when I cover the in-school suspension room)
  • 12:45-2:00 PM Another modified-block section of 8th Grade U.S. History
  • 2:00-3:10 PM Planning period*, used to do research for my curriculum, additional planning, procure supplies, meet with the tech guys or learning specialist, call parents, make copies, do administrative paperwork, etc.
  • 3:10-4:00 PM A period of my foreign language elective
  • 4:00-4:30 PM Put away any supplies of the day, clean up classroom
  • 4:30-5:15 PM Train back to Manhattan
*Planning periods, lunch, etc. are generally reduced by five to ten minutes to help clear the hallways

Evenings Sunday-Thursday
  • 5:15-7:30 PM Dinner, down time
  • 7:30 PM- 12:00AM Parent outreach, grading, left-over planning, writing, and research

Friday evenings we generally go out with folks from the staff, which isn't work of course, though nearly all conversation revolves around work and discussion of our field.  Sundays I'm setting aside this year to try to get my planning done for the week, which took nine hours this past Sunday.  I imagine I'll use Saturdays for spill-over grading (especially for the weekly quiz given on Fridays) and writing, as well as doing things like visiting potential destinations for field trips throughout the year.

Much of this time is not demanded by my contract, but as a teacher who's still relatively new to the field, it seems necessary to do the best job possible.  Of course, if others aspects of life- such as having children- were also part of this mix, the schedule would look dramatically different, but that's a different conversation about what should and can be realistically expected from teachers in the long-term. 

If you're a teacher, feel free to leave a comment with a rundown of your own schedule.  I'm interested to see what schedules from other schools and states look like.  Our 70-minute blocks are pretty irregular.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"A Call to Action for Public Schools"- A TIME Article

 As part of their Annual National Service Issue, TIME published an article by Amanda Ripley last week about a film titled Waiting for "Superman" coming out this month.  The film has already outraged my union-friendly colleagues who point out the funding for the movie was raised by the same people who fund charter schools (generally seen as union sink holes).  At the same time it’s being heralded as an emotional, gut-wrenching documentary on how many American kids get a raw deal with their education.

I can really only speak to what I’ve seen in New York, which is such a monster of a system that it’s difficult to compare to any other school system.  Our students have the option of attending any school in the city, though some require admission exams.  Even still, there are schools ranging from the best to the worst that students can attend if they so choose- especially for high school.   A big difference between here and places that lack public transportation is that low-income students who are zoned to go to bad schools are stuck, save for perhaps the opening of a charter school, which gives them choice.  That choice represents the largest hope many parents have for getting their students into schools that cannot pull together great staffs.  Ripley points out the statistic, however, that only 1/6 charter schools perform significantly better than their traditional public school counterparts, while a full third do worse, making the move to a charter school pretty hit or miss in most areas.

As the film follows five families that are trying to get into charter schools, I hope it addresses the fact that the very involvement of those parents reflects a healthier home life than students have who are being left behind by the traditional public schools.  An issue is brought up a lot amongst my colleagues and I that charter schools have an edge simply because parents have to care enough to put their kids on a list.  Supporters of charter schools will generally say there is a lottery, claiming that anyone can get in, but the bottom ten percent of performers do not make it onto that list.  Why? No one signs them up, leaving them in the failing schools Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about.

In general, the article seems to bring together known problems with the system: the teachers union impeding change, bad teachers lingering in the system, and, of course, there are teachers out there who give up on kids.  She’s gracious enough to acknowledge the unions are changing their tune at least a bit by trying to promote real accountability, but also seems to be she’s riding the media craze over test scores that only paint part of the picture.  Pointing out teachers who say terrible things to students like, “It doesn’t matter if you learn.  Your future is determined,” while her best shot at describing good teachers are those who work longer days and years and who give out their cell number to parents and students gives the writing a negative taste, leaning toward very critical of teachers in general.

Ripley and I both want to see teachers held accountable in a meaningful way, but it seems that the momentum she’s hoping will come from the film will "fix" teacher accountability with little more than the data even she refers to as imperfect.  What she wants is to get rid of bad teachers, which would be delightful, but getting rid of a large chunk of the country’s teachers does not automatically replace them with the great ones we dream of.  Articles such as this one aren’t exactly helping the recruitment cause by painting the profession as riddled with incompetent, mean-spirited folks sitting around waiting for their pensions to kick in.  That said, I'm looking forward to seeing the film in its own right, which I hope will be as honest and free of bias as the director claims it is.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Day One: The Union and the DOE Trip and Fall

The scheduling of the first day of school this year is a prime example of what teachers and students on the ground deal with everyday in New York City.  Because of the Rosh Hashanah holiday schedule, students in the five boroughs attended their first day yesterday (a Wednesday) and now have a four-day weekend.  The city, of course, blames the union and the union, of course, blames the city- and neither budged the entire summer after the issue arose in June.  This sort of thing is becoming more and more commonplace, where the union and the chancellor's office cannot play nice and then teachers are left in the lurch and students react predictably poorly to poor planning.

Any teacher in the classroom will tell you how important the first days of school are.  Routines are established, expectations made known and structures put into place that will serve students for the remainder of the year.  These things are especially important for newer teachers who have more difficulty rebounding after a bad first day or two...or three or four.  To me the fact that the city and the union could not resolve this issue shows the utter disregard for and disconnect both can have from teachers in this city.

How did it go?  Our expectations on the eighth grade team were that we'd have most of our students show up.  This assumption was based on what we knew about the students and their age level.  Unfortunately, a full third did not come to school with reports from students in attendance that those absent thought the schedule was absurd- that a day of introductions before a four day weekend was not worth their time.  This means that everything I did in class yesterday- review of expectations and rules, etc.- must be gone over again on Monday with a full third of my students.  You can imagine how those who came will be frustrated and restless, while those that did not show up will be frustrated and restless because most of them are like that on a regular basis.

As for how the day went, this year's first day went better than it did last year or the year before.  While in part because class sizes were artificially low (imagine that- discipline issues eradicated by smaller class sizes), I'd like to think it was also because I've gotten better at my job. Our math teacher (who taught our students last year) and I are sharing a homeroom in the morning.  At lunch, the report was that I'd sufficiently terrified that class, which is also my fifth period class, as well as my first period class.  While it might sound like a bad thing to folks outside the classroom, it's terribly important to flex a bit of muscle on the first day of school.  Your chances of running a tight ship for the following ten months decreases dramatically if there are behavior problems on that day.

Unfortunately, running a tight ship also requires being strict for the first bit of school, not just the first day.  Because of the long weekend and a third of my students showing up for their first day on Monday, it's going to be more difficult for all of us.  Of course, when discipline issues arise because of it, test scores are affected, etc., the media isn't going to remember the first day of school or the fact that both the union and the city screwed up royally.  That will all be on the teachers.

On a side note, I feel lucky that I don't teach eighth grade in Staten Island (NYC's fifth borough, commonly mistaken to be part of New Jersey).  The city canceled yellow bus service for seventh and eighth graders to save 1.5 million bucks, leaving several thousand middle school students and their parents high and dry in the part of the city with the worst public transportation. So, in addition to a ridiculous start day, those parents and students had to deal with absurd traffic jams just to drop off and pick up their student.  There are also a large number of streets on Staten Island that have no sidewalks, which puts in danger the middle school students having to walk.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see what the DOE and the Union's next collaborative effort yields.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Teachers' Summer Vacation

Teachers get a lot of time off every year.  In most entry-level jobs in the U.S. you might get a few vacation days and of course a couple sick days.  On the other hand, teachers get summers off, some national holidays, winter break, spring break, etc.  In NYC, we even get Jewish holidays off- something that blew my mind the first year I moved here.  Because of all that, we also get a lot of eye-rolling, foot stomping, and sometimes bitter accusations of laziness by our peers on our days off, and especially during summer.  When it comes to summer vacation, I seem to have a foot in a couple of camps- teachers need time off to lower the burnout rate (which is tremendous), and the time off should be used to make our schools more productive places.

In my last post, Summer Slide,  I wrote about the possible restructuring of summer vacation for students.  Students who walk into my classroom fall victim to summer vacation like students who are in their age range, but in different socio-economic circumstances, do not.  What students do during the summer dictates how far behind or ahead of other students they will be in September.  While teachers don't lose a considerable amount of their content knowledge or skill base during the summer, I do feel that the time is wasted to a certain extent.  If summers are to stay so lengthy, teachers should be using a large portion of the time to hone their craft and working to make their schools stronger communities.

This depletion of vacation days is not a popular idea amongst teachers, as you might imagine.  Many of them go into the profession in part because of the long summer.  Whether the motivation is to raise kids, keep up the family lawn mowing business, or to maintain a healthy travel schedule, a solid multi-month block of time off from work is an undeniable perk of teaching that very few other professions (aside from that of professional student) are allowed.  Unfortunately, because there are those who become educators in part because of this time off, the identity crisis teachers are experiencing in this country is exacerbated,  lending support to the idea that teachers have it easy because they have so much time away from students.  What follows is fewer high-quality workers who want to join the ranks of teachers because our image has been slightly tainted and prestige of the position in turn diminished.

In NYC, we get two solid months off from students if we are not teaching summer school.  What I believe would be the best use of that time is an optional month off from school-related activity and a full month when the entire staff is in the school building thinking about what went well the previous year and what did not, reviewing larger school policies and procedures, setting up for the coming year, and revamping curricula to meet the needs of students.  It might also be a time when solid school-to-home relationships might be established- something that is nearly impossible for most teachers during the school year because of the workload.  As it stands, teachers in our fair city are required to show up the day before school starts, which leads to teachers walking into their classrooms with little thought about what they will do to improve their teaching that year, not to mention the fact that they are still in summer-mode.

Extending the work year for teachers is not a revolutionary concept, but as far as I know it hasn't been implemented on a system-wide basis.  The TEP Charter School here in New York City pays its teachers $125,000 a year and requires teachers to attend six summer weeks of professional development at the school level, which is in addition to the extended day program every teacher supports during the regular school year.   Recognizing the extraordinary commitment of time given by teachers, the school actually requires a year-long sabbatical every fifth or sixth year to prevent teacher burnout. 

Lengthening the work year for teachers strikes me as a good idea in theory, but I doubt those in charge of the academic calendar, teacher salaries, etc. are likely to jump on the bandwagon.  At the mention of an extended work year the teachers' union will plug its ears and start babbling loudly, while the Department of Ed will likely do the same and/or bury its head in the sand at the mention of increased salaries.  The former will point to the fact that teacher burnout will increase even further if the work year is increased substantially and the latter will simply write down the year's tremendous budget shortfall, perhaps bringing up the fact that some districts across the country actually closed school doors a week or two early this year to save money.  On top of that, many of the teachers on the ground may have an aneurysm if you tell them summer would be chopped in half.  That, in turn, would reduce the teaching force further and cause teaching shortages.

So, what's the solution in this?  Is extending the teachers' work year really something that will help fix an ailing system?  Or would it be seen as just another policy that people grumble about until it goes away?  One policy is certainly no panacea, but taken with a general restructuring of the system, could help to improve it.

Regardless of what the union, the city, and many teachers on the ground think, it seems we should take the advice oftentimes given to students: take time to reflect on what went well and what didn't; create a plan to improve what it is you're doing; and implement the plan.  Without a solid block of planning  time with no students in the building, a staff as a whole is unlikely to do those things.  Improving the school community is thus difficult to do under current system requirements, which has led to the shutting down of schools that don't meet Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals, and the opening of new schools- new schools which, ironically, generally take a lot of time before each of their first couple academic years to sit down as a staff and talk about how they want the school to work.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Summer Slide

This summer I was able to get in a bit of light reading, which included keeping up to date on a new subscription to TIME magazine.  TIME was my top choice because you can detach the covers, laminate them, and put them up on a bulletin board in the classroom.  Hopefully presenting a new cover every week will get me talking about current events more often with my students. Our eighth grade will also be receiving a classroom set of TIME for Kids, so I'd like to keep up to date on the stories this magazine is following so we can utilize that resource.

An article in the August 2nd edition caught my attention most this summer.  In "The Case Against Summer Vacation," David Von Drehle suggests that a very large portion of the achievement gap we've been fighting for decades in education (up to two thirds by the ninth grade) can be contributed solely to summer vacation.  Families with the means to keep their children engaged and stimulated in summer programs do just that, and the families that do not have the means do not or cannot.  Summers that lack solid programming mean many children of the low-income households sit idle most of the summer, not learning anything and certainly not maintaining what they learned during the academic year.  While as a kid I complained to my mom nearly every day about being bored during the summer, the report I gave to my teacher at the beginning of the school year was a far cry from, "I sat in front of my air-conditioner and napped for two months," as an alarming number of my students do.  How the"summer slide" affects our students is also discussed in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, wherein he discusses how success and achievement can oftentimes be contributed to the things we don't consider connected to that success.

Both articles reported that all students' achievements levels improve at the same rate during the school year, but as the students get older, the disparity between their skills and what happens to those skills during the summer increases alarmingly.  By the end of grade school, "students from disadvantaged backgrounds...score what their more advantaged classmates did almost two years earlier."  You can imagine that when those students arrive in the seventh grade already two years behind, things don't magically improve, no matter how good their teachers are.  It certainly helps to explain (at least in part) why my eighth graders read three grade levels behind when they get to me.


If one were to act on the information presented in these pieces of writing, there appear to be a couple of obvious options to change the way we do things.  One pushed by the article and many education systems around the country is to enroll more students in summer programs.  While most of the teachers on our staff encourage students to enroll in summer programs to a certain degree, the urgency present (or lack thereof) does not reflect the fact that the summer is really where we're losing the progress we've made in closing the achievement gap over the course of the academic year.  Had the TIME article been published in May and had the staff read it, more staff members may have ensured that students were enrolled in solid, challenging summer programming.  A question left unanswered though is whether teachers should shoulder yet another responsiblity to ensure students achieve at a higher level.  In short, should we also be responsible for what the students do during the summer?  It seems pretty impossible and way beyond the expectations of the role of classroom teachers.

Another option that rolls around schools of education and the back of many educators minds across the country is year-round schooling.  Changing the schedule wouldn't necessarily increase the amount of time students spend in school (something Von Drehle advises against), but might help to prevent the larger slides by the students of low socio-economic status.  To be honest, I haven't heard too many strong arguments against year-round schooling, save for the effect it would have on summer industries that depend on the dollars vacationing students and their parents spend between May and September (take Virginia's Kings Dominion Law, for example).  Even still, the schedule is not something the classroom teachers have a lot of control over, so the effectiveness of changing it becomes speculation for those on the ground in our classrooms.

While on one hand the information presented in these pieces of writing helps to explain why my job is so difficult, it also makes me think that my hands are more tightly bound than ever.  Over the past couple years it's begun to strike me how important all of the stakeholders in students' lives really are.  This has been a departure from the “one teacher can conquer all” mentality I had back in the school of ed (a mentality reinforced by the standards movement).  On this issue in particular, teachers are not the ones who can take the reigns.  Those in charge of the academic calendar (policy makers and those in the Department of Education) and stakeholders in charge of students' summer enrollment (mostly parents, it seems) need to act if the issue of "summer slide" is to be resolved.  Finally, if two thirds of the achievement gap really can be explained away by summer break, perhaps it should top the list of our priorities.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

One Teacher's Perspective

Teaching is one profession that has fallen under tremendous scrutiny by the media, the public, and the political machines that run our country.  Voices that seem to have been left out of the conversation about what teaching should be are those of individual teachers. Where I teach, the public hears all about its schools from the perspective of the teachers’ union, from school system officials, from media outlets looking for sensational stories, from our mayor and from many other members of the public. What the conversation/bantering seems to lack is a voice from individual teachers in classrooms, who many times have strong opinions that differ widely from most of the opinions voiced in our media.  That said, I’m not an expert in the field who has some dramatic insight that the union, the Department of Education or many members of the public at large may not have, but instead as a teacher who is doing everything in his power to fulfill his duties as prescribed by the federal government, the state government, the city government, the community, parents in the community, and the students who walk through my door each day.

As you can imagine, the demands put on teachers by these groups are not always the same, or even nearly the same.  They are based on opinions of what is right for our students and most of them have the students’ best interest at heart.  What I’d like to do here is attempt to sort out what teaching is, what it should be, and what it should not be.  My last blog, On the Front Line with Wine, was meant to share the experiences of a second year teacher trying to figure out how to move beyond what those in the classroom refer to as the "survival stage" of our profession and into the next phase, wherein teachers can start to improve and hone their craft.  It was also an attempt to give advice to first year teachers from someone who had just been through what most current and former teachers agree is the most grueling year of a person's professional life.  My posts on Trying Teaching will continue in that vein to a certain extent, but will also try to look at the profession more holistically. Hopefully a few people will weigh in with their own opinions, as my own sometimes-maniacal bantering alone isn't going to help me to figure this stuff out. 

Finally, I'd like to extend my thanks and gratitude to any readers who followed me from On the Front Line with Wine and welcome everyone who's willing to endure the rants of a public school teacher in the Bronx.