Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Diane Ravitch's book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, is fantastic. It puts very bluntly and without fanfare many of the problems our teachers, students, parents, and communities are facing as they try to educate America's children. After seeing Ravitch speak in D.C., it did not disappoint.

In my (biased) opinion as an educator, she gives a rather unbiased portrayal of the effects of standardized exams on our kids. While many people call her a flip-flopper (a term that bothers me considerably), she points out that her one eighty on school policy from pro-testing and NCLB to the opposite was not based on her desire to remain popular, but on her real observations of our school system and the people in it.

I'll not take up a bunch of time summarizing it, but the following were take-aways for me:
  1. Community schools are the best option for communities. They provide continuity, permanence, and a place to practice democracy.
  2. Consolidating to one person the power to control an entire school system is extremely undemocratic.
  3. Charter schools do not perform better than regular public schools.
  4. Test scores have decreased as the occurrence of 2-parent households decreased and the average hours kids are plugged in has increased.
  5. There is no evidence tying unions to poor performance of public schools.
  6. Legislators are not competent in making decisions affecting entire public education systems.

I highly recommend people read it- especially non-educators.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Happy New Year!!!

Hello Everyone,

It's a been a long couple of months. As I move forward with my career in teaching, I've found that there is just as much work to do, if not more, than my first couple of years. While this isn't surprising, it has left my blog somewhat neglected! Over a month into the calendar year, I thought I'd update my small readership on the goings on in my classroom and out.

Since the NCSS conference, I've done a number of things. The first was to take another group of students to Ellis Island. This one started off with a subway attendant telling me and 70 kids standing behind me that we could not get on the train in time to catch the boat at Bowling Green and finished just after two of my students got in a fist fight on Ellis Island. I'm not sure I've been more embarrassed as a teacher. At the time I was strolling along a memorial on the grounds of the museum with a student from my first year. He'd tagged along with the eighth grade because he was creating a walking tour centered on immigration to New York for another class. When I had him he'd been a complete mess of a human, but over the summer of 2010 he'd had a miraculous, and still unexplained, transformation into a stellar student. To say the least his curiosity about immigrants to the U.S. and the conversation we were having were glorious, though abruptly ended.

This is something that happens in the classroom with students that are difficult to manage- great teachers and even mediocre teachers get going with students who are curious and engaged and then have to put out a fire caused by a student who usually doesn't have an issue with the class, but something outside of it (generally a symptom of poverty).

In terms of professional development, the new year has brought with it ample opportunities. At the NCSS conference a woman from the Imperial War Museum who'd attended our presentation approached my colleagues and me about visiting England for a few weeks this summer. Initially I didn't write about it here because it may have been one of those pie in the sky things that don't pan out, but now I know they will be flying me over and putting me up in Duxford, England for three weeks this summer. We'll be working to develop curriculum and instructional materials with British teachers, curators, and WWII historians. In addition to that, I applied for a grant called the Fund for Teachers, which, if I'm awarded it, will give me funds to travel in England for an extra week to explore more WWII history as well as the economic relationship between Great Britain and the United States over the past 300 years. 
My students and I will continue to explore the best methods to collaborate online this spring, while new support at the college level in the form of a doctoral student will help my colleagues and I crunch more data on their progress. We'll be submitting conference proposals and articles about the work to various publications and organizations throughout the calendar year. In the same vein, I'm happy to report that the professor I've studied under and worked with and I published a chapter in an education technology textbook this January and our entire research team has an article set to publish in a leading social studies journal (Social Education) this spring.

The work I engaged in with a research group of technologists and teachers will also continue this spring. We meet almost once a week and are developing new technologies to implement in the classroom that actually enhance teaching rather than simply replace it with a plug-and-go style of pedagogy that leaves students uneducated and worse off. On that topic, a fairly interesting article was written in the New York Times, which I'd meant to write about earlier, but didn't get to.

A student teacher from Columbia's Teacher College started with me two weeks ago and will be working with me and my students for the first part of the spring, slowly transitioning out just in time for a second student teacher from USC to join me for the back half of the semester. This is my first go at mentoring student teachers, but I'm excited by the prospect.

On a personal note, one of the reasons my posts to Trying Teaching have been few and far between is that a major life change for me will be happening in less than two weeks. I'm getting married! In my four years on the job I've never been so distracted at work, nor have I wanted to pass the time more quickly. That said, my personal life is taking more of a priority in the future than it has in the past. My second priority, of course, will be my students (including my student teachers), and the other research pieces will come after that, which leaves a bit less time for writing.

And so for Trying Teaching I'm planning to amend my approach to its upkeep. Lately I've been very disenchanted with the media's ability to portray anything in the field of education accurately, which has left me at times with the notion that my efforts to write about my own experiences for a wider audience so grossly misinformed by the media are futile. Given a lack of time to write and changing priorities, I simply let this fall by the wayside, rather than posting anything at all.
When a friend of mine outside of the field noticed this was the case, he told me that the cause of my diminished motivation should be the very reason I write more; that educators need to write about their experiences or the media will not only have the upper hand, but the only hand. Of course I agree with and appreciated the wake up call, so I intend to post more often this spring. The normal commentary I leave with articles, oftentimes unnecessary, as they speak for themselves, will be curtailed. That said, by posting more often the perspective of one classroom teacher will hopefully show a different story about the classroom than what the news media is choosing to write and report about right now.

I hope the first weeks of 2012 have gone well for you all! I'm looking forward to reflecting on the work my students and I are doing this year.