Sunday, February 27, 2011

Open Letter to Our Borough President

February 27, 2011

Hon. Ruben Diaz, Jr.
Bronx Borough President
851 Grand Concourse, Ste. 301
Bronx, NY 10451

Dear Mr. Diaz,

I am writing in support of an idea submitted to your office about a Capital Project for the 2012 Fiscal Year. The gym proposed in that letter would greatly improve our school community, increase student achievement, and make our neighborhood in the South Bronx a healthier place in which to live.  

This year is my third in my current position as eighth grade social studies teacher at P.S. ***.  In the time I have taught at the school, a single issue has unified the teachers and students more than any other: the lack of an adequate space to hold physical education, sporting events, and whole-school assemblies and meetings.  Our multi-purpose room, while bright, clean and well kept, is simply too small for many of the activities that take place in it.  These range from cramming large gym classes into a small space to holding dance classes with flooring that is unsafe for many of the requirements of the class.  Providing space in which students could engage in more prolonged, healthy physical activity would help promote healthier lifestyles amongst our student body and boost achievement in turn.

Providing a way to support organized sports would also serve as a great motivator for our students.  Due to great efforts on the part of many of our staff members, we do have a number of informal sports teams, but these teams have to scavenge gym time at other schools in order to hold practice and have games, both of which are irregular and difficult to schedule.  Having regular access to a gym would allow more students to participate and would help to invigorate the staff and student body that would support those teams.

From a larger perspective, this project would also greatly benefit the community.  The park directly adjacent to the school is currently only used by criminals to engage in illegal sex acts and to do illegal drugs.  It is not at all healthy for this kind of activity to be happening in our community.  Constructing a gym on that very space would allow for a safe, healthy environment that the community could use rather than a space where so much harm is done to individuals making poor choices.

Enclosed are (recently sent to your office were) many more letters from staff members and students explaining why each believes a gym would benefit our students.  I hope you will consider them when making your final budget decisions for the 2012 Fiscal Year.

Very Sincerely,

Nicholas James
8th Grade Social Studies
Bronx Public School ***

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Teacher's Blog Attacked! Entitlement Isn't?

Last week I received in my inbox a link to an article about a teacher who went off about her students on her blog.  Basically, she called them a bunch of lazy jerks and used some profanity from time to time (something an extremely large number of teachers do behind closed doors from time to time).  She even crosses what we all assume to be a line when talking about comments she wished she had left on students' report cards such as "Don't you know how to raise kids?" and "I hear the trash company is hiring."

Here's the story.
Here's the video interview.

Since then the Yahoo News page has seen almost eighteen thousand comments (as I write this) attacking and defending the teacher.

As you might expect, the comments addressed numerous sides of the issue, ranging from extreme points of view to more sane, thoughtful ideas.  Something that struck me as I was going through them was the fact that very, very few comments actually disagreed with her general message about students.  Most agreed that she was very unprofessional, some even calling for her job, while others write ranting messages of support.  In a morass of ideas and line and after line of thoughts, the eighteen thousand comments do seem to send the message that people think students are lazy and entitled these days.

Let's assume that this is true.  It may very well be the result of the fact that our country has been the richest superpower on the planet for nearly a century.  It may have to do with the fact that the current generation of students and their parents did little to establish our superpower, the latter having merely maintained it through the Cold War (well done there) and the former simply reaping the benefits.  While some of the current generation of students and young adults have certainly struggled individually, they have not really struggled as a generation when compared to the generations alive before and during our assumption to superpower status.

That said, this idea of entitlement may run far deeper than parents and school policy and if it makes it into our American history books 100 years from now, entitlement and the economic element will probably be part of the explanation as to why Americans fell from dominance in the twenty-first century (if we do).  While I don't agree with a comment about this teacher's blog that suggested America must become a third-world nation to shake the sense of entitlement, I'm left to wonder if a large economic shift- which will most likely go hand in hand with social upheaval- will be the reason Americans get back on track....

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sick and Teaching on Broadway

Imagine being the lead role in a Broadway show that has to be performed several times a day.  Now imagine that you feel like death, your voice doesn't work very well and you have to bombard the pathogens coursing through your veins with everything you've got simply to keep from passing out on stage.  Add to this the pressure that if you are not there, the safety level for the people in the audience decreases and their academic achievement levels dip, as there is basically no way they'll pay attention if your understudy is on stage.  Even if they do, the understudy is really just there to make sure they don't hurt each other and so does not deliver any kind of meaningful performance.

That's teaching under the weather.

Flashback to last Sunday.  I woke up surprised by a very rude tickle in my throat and knew that something big was coming.  I went to the gym to try to sweat it out, ate a healthy breakfast, and tried not to overdo it the rest of the day, but I was doomed.  By Sunday evening things were headed downhill quickly and so I turned in quickly.

Monday morning I woke up inside some kind of tube inside of a crater, blasted practically to pieces by the unseen foe.  I took a hot shower and got ready for school, drinking Emergen-C (a vitamin supplement drink with about 1,000,000,000% of your daily dose of vitamin C) and slugging Dayquil.  The illness prevented me from touching coffee, which sent me reeling into another dimension of reality as the blood flowing to the capillaries in my brain grew dangerously viscous.  In that dimension I conked out on the subway under the watchful eyes of two colleagues, waking up in the South Bronx- another dimension still.

On Mondays there is a single period during which my room is not being used- my lunchbreak.  I ate what I could and then put my head down to sleep on a desk for thirty minutes before reporting to my weekly in-school suspension duty.  Then, taking a shot of Dayquil,  I headed back for my afternoon class.  This semester I teach for nearly three and a half hours straight in the afternoons.  Our school doesn't even have passing periods.  Monday's classes were a bit foggy to say the least, but I'd planned something very student-based and so made it through without having to stand and deliver much.  

After school I headed home and crashed for a couple hours, barely making into my living/bedroom to do so.  Unfortunately I had to drag myself out of bed to plan for Tuesday, which took three times longer than normal due to the bacteria that seemed to permeate even my skin at that point and the fact that we began a new unit on Tuesday.  As soon as that was done, I took a couple shots of Nyquil and turned in.  Tuesday was not much different.  Between intermittent gulps of cold medicine and a couple ten-minute naps taken throughout the day, I made it through and back home for the same routine as Monday evening.

On Wednesday I woke up thoroughly annoyed at my inability to shake my cold.  I'd yet to leave the caffeine-starved quasi-reality I'd entered Monday morning and couldn't help but notice a feeling that my head had become physically denser than normal.  With the shift in schedules this semester and my rowdier classes now all in the afternoon, I'd regained enough energy to be extraordinarily crabby in class, though lacked the energy to stop myself from yelling a lot.  It must have been a rough week for the students in those classes.

Thursday I was still sleeping on the way to work, but able to compose myself a bit more while there.  I forgot to take my midday gulp of Dayquil and so developed a nasty headache by midafternoon. 

Friday I decided to quit my quickly developing addiction to cold medicine and made it through the day alright, going through a stack of brown paper towels, while at the same time basically ripping my nose off my face and using an entire bottle of hand sanitizer.  Due to a whole-school project my classes and I had undertaken this month, I stayed late to compile a large stack of letters written to our borough president, copying them and preparing them to be sent out next week.  Afterwards I headed home to pack for a trip back to the Midwest over our Mid-Winter Break.

Thus, the curtain closed.  My students were safe and sound.  I'd venture a guess that they learned nearly as much as they would have had I been healthy- and far more than if I'd taken sick days.  Even still, teaching kids while ill might be one of the least pleasant things one can experience.  In an age when teaching time is at a premium and our jobs are very much on the line, putting in the extra effort to show that I'm very serious about my job seems advisable.  Unfortunately I'm left to wonder, however, if I'm on the chopping block simply because I'm not tenured.  Depending on what the city and union decide to do this spring, even a herculean effort in the classroom with extraordinary results and a dramatic increase in student achievement might not be enough to keep someone like me off that block.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Screaming Conferences: Student Initiative

Our parent conferences this week went off fairly well.  There were two conferences that stood out, however, during which various adults ripped into students.  It's left to be determined how productive those meetings will be in the long run, but to me it will of course depend largely on the students themselves.   

Conference #1
The first conference happened near the end of the night on Thursday.  The student- one of our worst behavior problems right now- had been grilled three times already by the rest of our team and by his mother and two cousins.  I was his last conference and his mother reached her breaking point.  Before the conference began, he had tried to joke around with me in the hallway to lighten the mood, but I refused to give in and instead made sure the tone was serious from the beginning.  

After I explained to the mother that her son, who does not have any kind of behavioral disorder, acts like a little child in my class (blurting non-sensical noises, out of his seat constantly, rubbing his nipples in front of the class to get a reaction, etc.), she quickly flipped.  She stopped the conference, yanked him out of his seat, said she was done with his shit attitude and that he'd be shipped to military school if he didn't clean up his act, leaving the room with him in tow.  His two older cousins and I stayed put, partially in shock, where they told me I should just keep calling every day, which I found to be unhelpful, as to date it's not solved any problems in any classroom with him.  Eventually, to my surprise, the student and mother came back in for another round of yelling and him shutting down and getting upset, which I expected.  At the point when it became apparent that he could not be sent through the ringer any farther, I set an appointment for Monday to sit down with him and discuss an action plan that will prevent his being held back at the end of the year- if he follows it.  

This could go either way, but it will depend almost entirely on whether he cuts the crap in class and uses his moderately high intelligence to get to work and develop much needed academic skills before entering high school in the fall (skills he does not have because he screws around all day, most days).

Conference #2
The second conference I hadn't even expected to happen.  It was with the lone survivor of my original class of Germans: Alberto- a young man who was my best history student two years ago, was part of the after-school program on which my thesis was based, who helped me pilot the German class last spring and has been my independent study German 1.5 student this year.  He and his dad walked in with ten minutes left in parent conferences yesterday afternoon, more as an afterthought than anything.  In fact, he probably wanted to come by to get some praise before leaving.

Things did not go that way.  We began the conference with an explanation of why Alberto got an 85% instead of an A in German this semester (which, admittedly, was both his fault and my fault).  After that explanation, however, we began talking about his report card in general, which caught him off guard.

Alberto is caught between a rock and a hard place.  He's extremely bright and attending a school in South Bronx that is just now developing the courses that will adequately push the high achievers (we've added a number of AP courses this year and will continue to offer more varied academic electives, in spite of a very small staff).  Unfortunately for him, his academic career has progressed just ahead of these changes.  Put simply, he's bored as hell sitting in the classes we can offer him, as they are too easy.

Because of this, he's become rather lazy and so has an 86% average for the semester.  When this was brought to light, he shrugged his shoulders as if he wasn't too concerned.  

Now, I had been prepared for the first conference and so kept my composure, but this one set off the temper I have that generally only manifests in the form of crankiness. I saw red.  His father, who speaks no English, could easily see the tone switch as I slowly wound up to rip into his son.  I was nearly stuttering as Alberto wavered back and forth between his growing apathy for school and believing what I was saying about his needed improvement in academic performance.  My voice slowly increased in decibel level until I had the full attention of our math teacher, who was sitting at the back end of the room, (happily) surprised to see me  getting on a student for having anything less than an A, especially after listening to me encouraging students all day to simply strive for an A in my class.  

I left him with three clear messages:
  • "Anything less than a 95% average is a failure."
  • "You will NOT be going to a CUNY (regular city) school."
  • "This lazy attitude bullshit is stopping IMMEDIATELY."

And so, we're moving forward with a plan.  Our weekly one-on-one German meeting time is going to be split between German and college preparedness from this point forward.  We may just discuss in German how to get into college.  At any rate, he was demanding this change by the time he left, which was heartening.  

Wrapping Up
These meetings are all well and good and can send a powerful message, but the follow-through has to be there for the parents, teachers, and the students.  Oftentimes one of these three people fail in making sure what is said is acted upon, and then the emotion that is brought to the table is all but wasted.

We'll wait and see with these two young men.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Germans' Slow March Forward

The first semester of German this year was a gong show.  We started the year lacking the supplies I ordered (which, incidentally, have yet to arrive, in spite of waiting eight months and writing a dozen follow-up emails).  Additionally, I'd requested access to an online learning platform, which was not ready until a month and a half into school.  When we switched to that curriculum and realized it was terrible, we had to switch back to the textbook, which the students greatly preferred.  The transition back and forth confused and frustrated every single student.  Between that and my assumption that they could hold themselves together simply because they're our best freshmen, management was a mess and they understandably learned very little.  Approaching the end of the semester, many were ready to throw in the towel and take gym, which they knew would not negatively affect their GPAs.

Knowing their enrollment for this semester was tenuous, I almost had a breakdown in class on the last day of first semester.  Eight of the ten Germans said they'd been made to switch their elective, which was true; it was simply true for their other elective period.  I was stunned and had trouble keeping composure in class- not because they were switching, but because they'd accepted the fact so easily and without question, which to me meant they wanted the change.  Shocked at first, it took an active decision on my part not to dismiss the class at once and run to the guidance counselor to see what was happening/seek counseling for having failed the group students I'd wanted to work with so badly. 

By the end of that period I'd convinced myself that there was a miscommunication, but I was still a wreck. The odd thing was that the students could sense it.  In spite of it being the last day of the marking period, they all got quiet and completed the very regular textbook assignment that I'd given them.  Afterward the guidance counselor laughed and said that there had definitely not been any change to their enrollment in my class.

This week we began class as normal with everyone in attendance, which was a great relief.  There have also been several transitions helped to set us straight going into this semester:
  • The freshman's potential future valedictorian is no longer failing my class.  If he can't pass, what's the point in trying, right?  Now that he's focused and working, our small German universe is much more normal.  
  • The students wanted a PowerPoint, so I'm giving it to them.  In their other classes and in my class all of last year, they have viewed a PowerPoint every day.  I'd not done that last semester, so I'm dedicated to using one this semester. 
  • A number of them have FINALLY retained enough German to use what they know from previous assignments to complete current assignments.  It's convinced them that they know a thing or two and therefore can pass and even do well if they simply do their jobs.

And so, with the future valedictorian back near the top, a PowerPoint projecting their favorite structure, and a single, solid, textbook curriculum, we will march forward into the spring.  The Germans will still have their rough days, but they're asking questions about the work, learning the material, and starting to enjoy it.  And by the end of the year I may actually have a clue about how to teach a foreign language. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse and National Nostalgia

This book was recommended to me by an old academic working in our school.  Most of our staff sees him as a bit odd and eccentric, as he tends to spew shocking and sometimes revolting facts about history (the kind that grab students' attention handily).  Each morning I look forward to conversing with him over the mugs of espresso we make, as he always has some new historical tidbit to discuss or book to recommend.

"Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" by Jonathan Zimmerman was one of the books he lent me.  My interest was immediately piqued by the reviews on the back, one of which came from an old professor of mine who had the single largest understanding of American Education history that I have ever come up against.  Between the espresso and the recommendations in writing and in person, I was sold.

The book describes the history of the one-room schoolhouse and our varying perceptions of it.  In the book's conclusion, the author points to the fact that people from end to end on the political spectrum are extremely nostalgic about the old "red" school houses that were the predominant structure of our nation's education system until the World Wars.  Over time, conservatives have heralded them for the strict discipline they represented and liberals have felt strong about the full-inclusion and small-school setting they offered; both have supported the model from time to time.

Unfortunately for the vast majority, their unchecked consumption of nostalgia has left them inebriated on their perception of the past.  As the book points out, " The romantic notion of a trouble-free past is as old as the legend of the Garden of Eden before the fall"  (p.181-2).  Humans tend to remember things the way they want to or wish they had been, rather than the way they actually were.  In the case of both liberals and conservatives alike, they remember (and more often simply imagine) the aspects of the little red school house that they prefer and tend to ignore most of history.

Simply put, the one-room schools were neither bastions of liberal inclusion, nor ironclad examples of strict discipline.  They were, however, the beginning of a system established to provide all American children with an equal shot at success through an education.  A couple thoughts struck me as I flipped from page to page:

1. Disconnect Between Nostalgia and Reality 
Many people look back on their own education as the "way things should be".  They either forget or were never aware of the problems that pervaded the system in their day.  This inaccurate perception of what education once was leads to a distorted view of what it should be.  People oftentimes bring these inaccurate ideas to the attention of classroom teachers or drag them into the classroom themselves as they become teachers (as I did).   Veteran teachers, on the other hand, are dealing with the reality of the classroom, which creates quite a disconnect.

2. Vastly Different People Can Want the Same Thing
People from all walks of life who adhere to varying political agendas can certainly want the same thing.  Unfortunately politics oftentimes get in the way of these goals being realized, as each group wants the achievement of a goal to be contributed to solely their thinking rather than recognize that the people they generally disagree with (i.e. the other party) may want the same end as they do.  

In the closing point of the book, the author states that the little red school house represents an idea binding Americans together more than they know: that education is extraordinarily important.  No group, however, seems willing to recognize the other side might want very much the same thing they do.  In spite of this, the little red school house is packed with meaning and nostalgia for most Americans.  It is our icon for education.  The struggle to find the perfect model for education and varying perspectives' reliance on one emblem makes me think that there is a chance at bi-partisan support for the future of our students- and perhaps even supra-partisan support.