Friday, September 30, 2011

Swimming Along, In Spite of Gas

 A lot has happened since the beginning of year.  As with any teacher, September has been extremely busy and the main point of action has been to keep my head above water while putting in place the proper systems to make the day to day operation of the classroom secondary to instruction and working with the kids.   Over the past few years my team and I have learned how to run a fairly tight ship, which was reflected in the students' behavior these first two weeks.

Here are a few things that have happened:

The Stink Bomb
In the first full week of school, a stink bomb went off in my classroom just as a class was filing in.  I immediately pulled them back out and had them lined up in two columns against the wall in the hallway, only after identifying probable perps and having them pulled down to the assistant principal's office.  When the bomb had been removed to the trash can, I walked slowly to the front of the two lines, nearly shaking with rage, and calmly and quietly (so they'd have to lean forward to hear) told them that when we found out who had committed the offense, the person would be removed from my classroom for a week.  Then we sent them back into the stinking classroom for instruction.  My thoughts were, "How the hell did that just happen in my classroom.  It is my fourth  year and I thought (somewhat arrogantly, naively?) that my reputation had preceded me at least enough to avoid crap like that."
After class it was found out that the foul contraption had gone off accidentally in a young man's pocket and, in a panic, he's tossed it across the room to avoid smelling like he soiled himself all day.  Unluckily for the bystanders, it landed between three troublemakers who were seen as likely culprits.  After their quick, thorough interrogation, the responsible party was asked to step outside, where he reported immediately to the principal to turn himself in, explain himself, and ask for his punishment- surprising the principal entirely in the process, as he was a student who was suspended a ton in the past two years and has already been suspended three times in the first two weeks this year.
Afterward, I received the most sincere apology letter any student has ever written me.  It was even formatted correctly!  The student received just one day in-school suspension for having the device in the school, as opposed to the 3-5 he would have received, and was back in the rank and file the following day.

In spite of it turning out alright, whoever created the modern practical joke stink bomb is an asshole.


Homecoming
Based on the school culture work my eighth graders started last year, our school had the first homecoming in its history, complete with crowns and sashes.  While moderately successful, it was an important step toward building a normal, positive school culture that permeates schools in healthier communities.
I played basketball for the second time in New York during our student-staff basketball games, which took the place of the traditional homecoming football game- something that's difficult to pull down if you don't have an athletics budget, playing field, gymnasium, or even enough students to field a proper team.   The only other time I'd played ball was in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn against former D-2 players.  Someone should probably make a PSA to discourage scrawny white Kansans from doing that, but I did gain some cred with my students when I played this time.


The Germans
Still insane.  These students continue to challenge me on most levels, including the most difficult piece- my ability to keep a straight face.  While I'd intended to expand the elective, our new schedule wouldn't allow for it, so I've just cracked down and made sure their work period is better structured so some level of productivity can be had. 

Aside from the scheduling conflict, most people are apprehensive of German expansion, so we'll put it off for another year.

My 20 Elective Children
This year I inherited twenty fantastic children from my fiancee, who was their elective teacher last year.  She moved onto a pasture where there is more green and we decided to keep them in the family.  It struck me that the class of twenty is like a normal, well-balanced oasis of children in a system that has few small classes and fewer well-behaved classrooms.  The only management problem amongst these students is a seemingly perpetual running of the mouth- something found everywhere.  The amount of work required to teach this course is astronomically less than my others, as the only work it takes is planning lessons, delivering lessons, and grading the assignments of a small class.


It also struck me that this is the precise reason teachers flee the city for suburban districts.  The work load, while still very high and unreasonable there, is not crushing.

Fundraising
We're taking the eighth grade to D.C. again this year, which will be less work the second time around, as it is with anything.  The goal this year: have the students fundraise much more of the money.  This will be easier now that we know what the process entails and what we can expect of the trip.

In order to make the initial deposit, however, we already had an event at a local Public House on the Upper East Side.  Kids made posters for it, but were given minimal details, as Public Houses are generally not seen as great partners for K-12 education.
Perhaps we should reconsider that policy.

New Hire

Our math teacher was hired on as an AP in Brooklyn three days before the year began.  This is not uncommon in New York and it's one of the reason the schools struggle.  The massive reshuffling of staff in the waning days of summer throws the most important aspect of the school (other than the students) halfway into the air so that the veterans of the staff have to both prepare for their year and help pull on board, train and socialize new staff members.  We hired a new math teacher on a trial basis the night before school started and then decided after her first two days to keep her on for the year.  Having subbed on Long Island- where the kids tend to listen to adults the majority of the time- it's been quite a shock for her and like anyone who did a good job in another setting, she thinks she's failing miserably.  I empathize entirely, as I came from a similar situation when I first started teaching in the Bronx.

She's not failing.  The kids are safe in her room and she is in control of instruction, which is moving forward, however much her boat's rocking.  At least it's not capsizing, being struck by lightning and then being smashed by an oil tanker or two or three.

Or is it? (the DOE? the UFT?)



Academic Work

Two major pieces this year.  One is continuing the work I've done since I started teaching- working with a homegrown network of teacher to explore how to teach collaborative skills in an online space while cultivating good citizens.  The second will be working with programmers and "technologists" to create a new learning platform, game, or app that is highly usable and desirable for teachers.

Last and Not Least

My dear, dear history classes.  Stay tuned for new hats, buttons, and shenanigans as I joined up with a CTT teacher for one period, am teaching all of United States history (these kiddos didn't have history last year), and refocus my instruction on literacy.  More and more I'm convinced that the most important thing we can do for the students we teach is two thing: teach them to read and teach them to think.  To be honest, I care very little if they know a lot of content, but I do care if they leave the grade having not advanced at least one year in their reading and thinking skills.


And that's enough for now.

This weekend is a four-day break thanks to the large population of Jewish folks in the city.  The good teachers are using it to catch up, stop treading water and move forward with their battle plan.   With my students listening (mostly), following the rules, and completing the work when they're in school, I've had a fine start.  Now if the families of the students who have already missed more than a week of school could just make sure the kids come every day, we'd really be in business.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What Teachers Really Want to Tell Parents: CNN Article

This past week a colleague forwarded the article "What Teachers Really Want to Tell Parents" by Ron Clark.  In order avoid putting my foot in my mouth, I've been fairly reserved when writing about parents- something this article addresses as teachers "walking on eggshells".  It  does a great job of explaining how most teachers feel about the parent-teacher relationship in the U.S.  

Some Quotes from the Article:
  • "New teachers remain in our profession an average of just 4.5 years, and many of them list 'issues with parents' as one of their reasons for throwing in the towel."
  • "What do teachers really need parents to understand? For starters, we are educators, not nannies. We are educated professionals who work with kids every day and often see your child in a different light than you do."
  • "...if you really want to help your children be successful, stop making excuses for them."
  • "...principals all across the country are telling me that more and more lawyers are accompanying parents for school meetings dealing with their children."
  • "My mom just told me a child at a local school wrote on his face with a permanent marker. The teacher tried to get it off with a wash cloth, and it left a red mark on the side of his face. The parent called the media, and the teacher lost her job. My mom, my very own mother, said, 'Can you believe that woman did that?'"
  • "We know you love your children. We love them, too. We just ask -- and beg of you -- to trust us, support us and work with the system, not against it. We need you to have our backs, and we need you to give us the respect we deserve."

I've done my best to stay skeptical about Ron Clark, the phenomenal man who founded the Ron Clark Academy.  That skepticism is based on the facts that his model is not as replicable as most assume or would like.  Things like selective admissions and the requirement for highly involved parents have a dramatic effect on a school even before the doors open.  To be honest, the skepticism is accompanied by envy about his work.

As it turns out, it seems that whenever I read something Ron Clark writes, I agree with him.  He knows his stuff.  And the more I work in the largest public education system in the United States, the less I begrudge him for starting his own school outside of a public system.  My own plan is to stay in public schools and help reform them in substantive way that will reach the vast majority of students rather than a selective bunch, but listening to master teachers like him can certainly help teachers and parents alike to strengthen and reform our schools.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Easiest Way to Torpedo a School?

 In light of the fact that my last post was about turnover, I felt the conversation my fiancee and I had at the bagel shop this evening was a particularly appropriate follow-up.

To celebrate the final "kidless" night of the next ten months, she and I went to pick up our weekly bagel sandwiches when we caught the attention of the only other patron in the corner shop.  As he overheard our conversation about school, he chimed in with his own pre-school story.

After finding our schools are not too far apart, my fiancee told him she'd left our school over the summer to take a position downtown.  He then fired back with his own story that his principal AND assistant principal had left today at noon...because they were fired.

Yes, the DOE fired a principal and assistant principal twenty hours before the start of a school year.  Why it took until that time to figure out the two should be fired (if they should have been at all), I'm sure few know.  What I do know is that if you want to derail an entire staff and student body the day before school starts, you should fire the principal.

Once that was out we gave him our sincere regrets, we all wished one another good luck, and the two of us walked back to the apartment for chicken salad and a bottle of Cabernet.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Leave it On the Field, In Spite of Turnovers

Beginning of Another Year
This year will be my fourth in the classroom.  What I can say is that I've never been so excited to teach children in my classroom, while at the same time, for a variety of reasons, I've never been so frustrated with a school system.  While my banking issues with the DOE leave me as a teacher entirely without a paycheck, I've dug in over the past few weeks to prepare for the following groups of students:
  • The AVID students: 30 of the greatest students in our school, these kids give us hope for the children coming out of our community.  They're bright, good-humored, and they support one another with a deft sense of community I've  never seen in an group of students- including those in the Midwest and in a military community abroad.  I couldn't be luckier to have taken this group onto my schedule.
  • The 8th Grade History Students:  A supposed motley crew, the few I know are from the in-school suspension room, are the children of members of our faculty, or are siblings of my former students (freshmen, sophomores, and juniors by now).  They have been reported to be the worst group of kids in the school, "little angels", "entirely manageable", and "oh, dear god help us".  So it goes with class after class of our kids.  Luckily our team provides a lot of structure for them, so many of them will find a way to control themselves amid the chaos.
  • The Germans: Hysterical and unmanageable, I'm trying again to restart with this crowd.  This will be their third year under my tutelage and I expect they will be as hysterical and witty as ever, while hoping that they commit to academics more than last year and at least as much as they did with me in the eighth grade.  The promise that their German course would be placed within the regular school day was kept, though their class is only forty minutes.  I have no idea how it will go, but I can guarantee I'll enjoy it. 

My Dear 8-Team
My immediate team consists of the English, Math, and Science teachers, me, our Learning Specialist (Special Education teacher) for the eighth/ninth grades, and our guidance counselor.  There are other influential figures, such as our parent coordinator, assistant principal and principal, but that initial core of individuals is what I see as my team on a daily basis.

New York Turnover
Our team, is one of the most effective in our school and, from what I can tell, one of the more effective in the area.  That said, we've experienced a great deal of turnover in what will soon be four school years I've been on it.  Consider the following positions:
  • Learning Specialist- This will be our third in four years.  Our Learning Specialist from last year moved on to a position within the Department of Education's upper structure, implementing online learning for under-accredited, over-aged students via an online learning platform.  She's an incredible teacher, but wanted out of the K-12 classroom and found a way to affect more students with her new job while be rewarded more accordingly.  The Learning Specialist from my first year became a principal and took over a failing school.
  • English- We're now on number five in four years.  In the first year I taught we went through three.  Our English teacher from last year and the year before, a very solid one, moved to our 9-Team (ninth grade), where there is no high-stakes test and she can do what she's always dreamed of doing- teach English.
  • Math-  Tomorrow, the day before school, we'll be interviewing a candidate to fill this position.  The man we finished with last spring was our fifth math teacher in three years, so we'll start year four with our sixth.  We lost him this morning to an assistant principalship in Brooklyn.  Two year ago we had two math teachers due to maternity leave and last year our first math teacher around Christmas chased a dream of teaching in Hawaii.
  • Science- A cornerstone of our team, our science teacher and I started teaching together three years ago and have developed a rather healthy, collaborative relationship in spite of our team's apparent revolving door policy.  We serve effectively as two heads of the same team that produces fairly decent results considering we're just now entering our fourth year in the classroom.
  • History- That's me.  This year I hope to solidify the curriculum for our eighth grade social studies course and effectively instruct the groups listed above.
The Forecast
Couple this large teacher turnover and lack of stability with students' low reading levels and a community that is not largely vested in the school system and you can imagine the outlook for us this year.

Basically, we, the students and teachers, are going to kick ass and get our asses kicked all around.  Our team has developed the reputation for leaving it all out on the field and, the new hire pending, we intend to for another ten months this year.  The students won't know what hit them and neither will we until next July.

And that goes for the AVID kids and the Germans as well.