Thursday, August 25, 2011

Recuperate and Relflect

At the end of the school year I pounded out a few notes about what I should think about this summer.  While the summer has effectively come to a close, there has been enough time to relax, reset, and reflect. 

Here are a few things that were rolling around upstairs in May, that I'm rehashing now as we head into the new year:

A Progression from Day 1 Until Today
  • Year 1, Day 1- Teaching broke me back down.  I was an arrogant college graduate with some experience in rural America and with blue-collar military brats when I started teaching.  Controlling my own classroom (or not controlling it) was like the reality bus plowing me into the asphalt that year.
  • 1st year- The term "fetal position" comes to mind.  There tends to be a lot of crying by first year teachers who have been rocked completely from their foundation.  I was more of a stare-blankly-at-the-wall-for-hours type.  Complete humility is a main ingredient.
  • 2nd year- Learning to walk, maybe?  Teachers start to get a grasp on the classroom, but still aren't very concerned with what's going on outside of their classroom.  I tried to strong arm a few meetings early that year in the name of fresh leadership, causing come sour relationships and professional setbacks.  As it turns out, being a leader takes more than just a desire to be one. 
  • 3rd year (last year)- The ability to think critically kicks in and you reach the beginnings of a maturity level as a teacher.  I felt as though I was yelling and screaming like an adolescent at times, however.  That said, I could finally start telling people that I really like my job, in spite of the challenges, without my mind turning to all of the negative, bullshit experiences that go along with teaching. 
My Goals for Year 4
  • Knock it off with the screaming and yelling.  While immediately effective coming from someone with half-ways decent management skills, it is not effective in the long-term.
  • Tighten management in general.  More structure, more routine, fewer lost minutes every day.
  • Focus on curriculum writing with the implementation of a blended technology model.
  • Support newer teachers where I can.  As it turns out, at year four I've been on the staff as long or longer than at least half of the teachers on staff.  There's NYC turnover for you.
  • Re-forge relationships with my AVID class.  I had these students all of last year and they were among my favorite.  This year I begin a four-year looped elective with them and it's my goal to help get every last one of them into a solid, four-year university.  This year will be about setting up that four-year plan on my end and on theirs.
Various Thoughts on the Use of Summer
This summer I gave myself about a month off from scheduled work days and going into school.  This is what I recommend for teachers across the country and my fiancee was good enough to make sure I practice what I preach.  Personally, I think teachers should get three to four weeks and then be required to put in more professional development and planning time before school starts (the absence of children being extremely important in this case).  I also think that teachers should get paid about $10,000 more for this extra work and other efforts over the course of the school year, but considering all of the states are going bankrupt, it might be difficult to cough up another $72 billion for the 7.2 million teachers in the U.S. in addition to funding the pensions they've been promised.

Getting Back to It
Other than the vacation time, which was, admittedly, spent doing a lot of work and planning outside of the building, I attended two conferences, graded state exit exams administered this August, and spent a good deal of time at school this month setting up my classroom, organizing materials for the year, and meeting with other staff members.

Next week is when most teachers I know will start back full time or nearly full time.  It's important to point out is that this is seven work days before the contract requires it.  For some reason the union and the Department of Education don't see enough value in getting teachers to come back to work more than a day before the kids to require it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bureaucracy at Its Finest

Something really awesome happened this past week.  The resulting mess was not started by the Department of Education, but was certainly made worse by it.

On Tuesday I was informed by my local/extremely large national bank that my checking account had been accessed illegally.  While nothing was done further (no unapproved withdrawals or, unfortunately, unapproved deposits), they told me to shut down the account, the online access ID and set up new ones.  This took one hour to complete- and then only because it was busy at the bank.

From there I had to go online and change all of the accounts that drew from my old checking account: my sweet, sweet student loans, my savings and retirement accounts at other financial institutions, etc.  This took approximately 36 hours, as the standard procedure these days requires a micro-deposit to be verified on the financial institution's website.

Then I came to the direct deposit- my financial pulse.  I logged on to the DOE's website and it told me that it was impossible to switch the account over until SEPTEMBER- over two weeks away.  "[The people in charge of that] are out of the office until September" was the reason I was given over the phone.  Not only that, but my month end paycheck was going to bounce back from the closed account, after which I'd have to wait three business days before I could file a claim form to have the check reissued two to three weeks later.

My reaction was preceded by a "I know this is not your fault, but..." and then things were said to the man on the other end that are probably not entirely professional.  It included the sentiments that I was absolutely floored by this; that any financial institution could verify my new account in 36 hours and that because of the ineptitude of the DOE that I was going to be receiving my paycheck a month late.  A MONTH late.  While I'll spare the details, it created a considerable financial headache, as whatever I do save is transferred pre-tax to retirement accounts, generally speaking.

Now, I know that it is not the DOE's fault that my account was accessed illegally.  I also know that bureaucracy everywhere causes things to be slow and miserable.  Thus, when I related this story to my principal in a meeting last week (yes, teachers and principals do meet over summer, contrary to popular belief) and she asked, "And you're surprised by this?" I said, "No, not at all."

She then told me this story:

Several years ago my principal, Deb, had needed a DOE ID card, and so went down to one of the central offices in Brooklyn to acquire one.  Upon arriving at the office, she was told that she would need a letter from her principal stating that she worked where she did.  A bit confused, Deb tried to explain to the ID woman that she was the principal and therefore should not require a letter from herself stating that she worked at her school.  The woman in charge of the ID machine disagreed (though to her credit, she agreed that is was an incredibly stupid policy) and Deb then had to call our secretary and get a letter on our school letterhead faxed to the central office, which she then signed and handed to the ID woman.

Now, perhaps I need some perspective.  Thirty years ago this account switch-over might have taken several months to complete.  And again, the DOE was not the initial cause of my frustration, as it was the d-bag who accessed my account without asking me if he could.  Even still, the fact that teachers grapple with an absurd bureaucracy does detract from what they do in the classroom.  And the bigger the school system, the bigger the bureaucracy.  As it turns out, New York City public schools make up the largest school system on the planet.  Also, it would be nice if the union could deal with some of these problems.  I do pay them about $100/month.

Something(s) to think about.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Disrupting the Classroom- Book Review

The central idea Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen is that in order to fix public education there has to be a disruptive change to the system.  What the author means by disruptive change is that there has to be an entirely different approach than what is currently in place.    He outlines is how in most industries that have undergone substantial change, it is a disruptive change, not just a reform of the old system, that leads to that substantial change.  In education then, pouring resources into schools and demanding change is most times "the equivalent of rebuilding an airplane mid-flight- something almost no private enterprise has been able to do" as basically all reforms are trying to change the same old system.

Some quotes and ideas that struck me particularly are:
  • "The system was designed at a time when standardization was seen as a virtue."  This of course is referring to industrialization and the move to factories and mass production.  In turn, teachers naturally teach to their strengths.  Students also learn with their strengths.  The factory model ensures this and creates a disconnect between the teacher and the learner because of it.
  • Of the various forms of intelligence (linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, interpersonal, naturalistic), people really only excel in 2-3 and "…even a heroic effort by a teacher to pay attention to multiple intelligence patterns is, because of the way the system is arranged around monolithic architecture, almost guaranteed to fail."

Problems with Disruption, According to the Author
Disruption is not necessarily a good thing.  No Child Left Behind was seen as a disruptive measure, but has led to the lasting, significant, negative effects in the school system.

What is more, disruptive innovation generally works because nonconsumers are targeted.  This means that in industries that experienced disruptive innovation, the new product or change targeted consumers who did not buy the old product, but were enticed to buy the new one.  Every child in the U.S. is already a consumer of education (most of public education).  Because of this it is very difficult to create a truly disruptive education measure.  Cramming disruptive innovation into old markets/models simply does not work.

Parents and Performance
"80 percent of the variation in public school performance results from family effects,…not school effects."  This is the idea a whole chapter opens up with and ends with, effectively.  This is also an idea that teachers have been talking about for decades, but with little acceptance by the general public.  The brevity of the chapter on the impact of a student's home life struck me as odd given the fact that the book itself admits this is the most important factor contributing to a child's overall success.  Perhaps it's so simple and glaringly obvious that it doesn't really need that many pages to explain.  

The Main Take-Aways as Outlined by the Author
  • Few reforms have addressed the root cause of students' inabilities to learn.
  • School reformers have tried to "bash the system" and confront it head on, which fails every time.
  • We need a modular system- one in which there are specific schools designed to serve the needs of students with particular learning styles and from particular backgrounds.
  • The tools of power and separation need to be used.  This is much more top-down than teachers prefer, as school leaders have to create a new school with a truly different model.
Recommendations Outline by the Author
  • For Elected Officials and Administrators: Don't just try to fix the current system.  Help grow online coursework that gives students choice, but don't assume a total online model is different or will fix the system.
  • For Philanthropies and Foundations: Fund the innovations. Fund research still necessary that will help us determine how students learn.
  • For Entrepreneurs: Work to create platforms students can use to learn and teach one another and allow teachers and parents to create tools for learning for the kids.
  • For Teacher Training Colleges: Stop educating new teachers for the past.
  • For Graduate Schools:  Study the outliers in education rather than the trends.  They provide more insight. 
  • For Students, Parents, Teachers: Demand access to online courses if there is no access at the school.  Create new tools when possible.

In a Subsequent Interview, the Author said:
The idea is to use computers to do what they do well (individualize instruction) in order to free up teachers to do what they do well (relate to students on human level).

Closing Thoughts on Trying Teaching
Our school is very much wrapped up in the movement to push learning online and into blended models.  My own concern is that when test scores go up on crappy standardized exams, people will think that computers have fixed the problem and the tests will spread even more.  When computers can deliver certain kinds of instruction well, I fear we'll move to a computer lab model with very little human interaction because it will be cheaper.  Politicians will then point to the budget and "student achievement" on the exams for which the computer programs are great at prepping students and claim success, while students' ability to interact with other humans, think creatively and think critically will diminish.

That said, I do agree with the author that the best thing we can do is move certain kinds of instruction online in order to allow teachers to get back to teaching.

Monday, August 1, 2011

CAUTION: Everything is So Dangerous

A couple weeks ago my fiancee and I were enjoying one of the few days of our summer break where we were ACTUALLY not working- some respite before I left town for a wedding followed by a trip to the other coast for a conference followed by another wedding back on this coast.  On our "day off", we got some great hummus and pita at a place on the Upper East Side, followed by some prosecco and then a stroll down to Carl Schurtz Park, which is along the East River and home to Gracie Mansion.

With the heat index well over a hundred, we decided to cool off a bit in the sprinklers on the public playground there.   After a sufficient spritzing, we wandered to the far end of the playground, discovering a large sign that stated:

CAUTION: Surfaces May Get Hot.

I was floored by this, almost literally, but I'd known when I stepped outside earlier that the concrete and asphalt were probably too hot to lay down on, so I pulled it together before touching what was very obviously hot pavement.  Perhaps I shouldn't have been both stupefied and enraged, but I couldn't believe that the city had spent the money on and then posted a sign warning people that concrete and asphalt gets hot in the summer sun.  What started as a snarky comment about some rich Manhattanite who'd sued the city because her kid had been uncomfortable and therefore psychologically damaged on the public playground turned into long rant about "kids these days".  Luckily for me, my fiancee is used to such ranting, so she humored me as I made what might have been a scene if more people had been around.  Luckily the asphalt was extremely dangerous that day, so people had avoided the park. 

After spouting off a few more ideas for signs the city could hang up in the park, some less appropriate than others, the conversation played out and we headed back toward our safe, carpeted, air-conditioned apartment, both of us putting on protective helmets in case of meteors falling from the sky.  

Part of the reason this whole thing came to a head was a couple of articles that address a similar concern, which caught my attention just before our little stroll.  The first, "Can a Playground be Too Safe?", was in the New York Times last month.  In it, John Tierney discusses a study about safety-first playgrounds, basically stating that the lame playgrounds we see today don't do a lot to help kids grow emotionally or psychologically.  Basically the idea is that kids need real, physical challenges to conquer and the ability to conquer fears at a young age, or they will be far less likely to try to conquer their fears later on.  The switch to safety-first playgrounds in the last couple decades has meant stunting many of our children's abilities to take on difficult situations.

This shift seems to have happened while I was growing up.  When I was young the parks had very tall, very scalding metal slides that would allow kids to nearly break the sound barrier as they plummeted toward what was either a graceful dismount or an incredible explosion at the bottom.  Either way, it was a damn good time, even if you left with scraped elbows.  There were also things called teeter-totters (designed to launch children to the stratosphere) and merry-go-rounds (the small ones that made every single person who ever played on one nauseous to the point where eating ever again was out of the question).   I have a distinct memory of my brother nearly crushing his ankles on a teeter-totter as a kid, but instead just cutting them very badly.  I can assure you that he's a better man because of that incident, and to boot knows to keep his feet out from the underside of things that could crush them.

By the time I was a teenager these phenomenal pieces of equipment had slowly disappeared, replaced with plastic playground things with the average height of six inches.  In the park near my parents' house there was a fairly tall look-out towerish structure still in place, but all the rest of equipment was very low to the ground and plastic.  Instead of using the slide, I remember climbing onto the pitched wooden roof of the tower, which was difficult because it was designed to discourage such dangerous play.  From the top you could very easily look down on your kingdom of less-than-entertaining playground equipment, probably loving the fact that if you were careless and suffered a fall from the new safety-fide playground, you could actually break your neck.

Seeing the warning sign about the hot asphalt got my blood boiling because I see the generation coming after me as extremely soft, as I'm sure the generation before me saw my own.  While many of the parents of my generation certainly did hold their kids' hands way too long (mine was the generation during which the number of calls placed by parents to college professors began to increase dramatically), the problem has only gotten worse.  I recognize this is a generalization, but whenever the subject is brought up amongst older company, most adults I know seem to agree that the generalization is fairly accurate.

Adding to this opinion were thoughts in a second article that caught my eye a while back on, called "Which Traits Predict Success? (The Importance of Grit)".  In the article, Jonah Lehrer speaks to a number of studies, summing them up by saying that talent isn't nearly as important as parents like and hope to think.  The article points to the fact that "grit" is the more important part of being successful.  That means putting in the work is what gets you to where you want to be.  In most cases that means 10,000 hours of practice or experience to become an expert or really good at something.  

There seems to be a lot of validity to this argument.  According to most parents, when it comes to talent the playing field is pretty level in this country because every kid is so damn talented in every single way- on top of being a genius of course.  The only logical conclusion then is that kids have to distinguish themselves through hard work and grit.

It is going to take a shift in the way we raise our kids in this country.  There have always been major difficulties raising little humans and it seems we've reached a point in our history when it is becoming more difficult, rather than easier.  From what I can tell more kids need to be given the chance to break bones and common sense should be allowed to prevail, which unfortunately will mean a loss of revenue for lawyers and human leeches, and parents and teachers are going to need to recognize the importance of grit.