Sunday, May 13, 2012

Good, Bad and Ugly of this Spring

While plowing through this spring I jotted down some ideas about which I intended to write, but either I never allocated the time to do it or I cooled off about them. As they've piled up, I thought I'd share the lot of them, for better or worse.

The Good
Post Grad Research
I've given several presentations about the research my team has done about student collaboration using online platforms, all of which have gone fairly well. This included the NCHE conference in Kansas City in March and the EdCamp NYC conference last weekend in Queens. My students participated in live discussions with two hundred other students and a handful of leaders in the field of education, analyzing the situation in Syria with the discussion skills and content they'd developed throughout the year. As part of the work, another member of the team and I are headed to England for several weeks this summer to explore the expansion of the effort, taking on the Imperial War Museum as partners. Should be interesting to see where it goes.

The Students
The students who are coming regularly seem, for the most part, to be developing skills nicely. We have some data to report, but I also have a gut feeling about this. Perhaps this claim deserves more consideration and probably more specific examples, but to be quite honest as I continue grading and contemplating a major shift in assessment methods for my classroom and others in the school, I'm fairly tired of spewing old data about assessments that are not only outdated, but should never have been used, especially as we move toward the use of entirely different assessments and data to track student progress. Instead, I'll leave it at "they're developing skills nicely" and report back sometime next year on this one.

The Student Teachers
It's difficult to say who learned more: my two student teachers or me. The second is finishing up in two weeks and helping them evaluate their lessons and management has made me look at my own teaching in myriad ways. At first I was very reluctant to take on student teachers, as I'm only in my fourth year myself. I'm of the opinion that student teachers should only be paired with master teachers (something I still aspire to be), but was convinced that these two could either walk into a known by staying at our school or gamble with finding another placement- a veritable crap shoot. Both did a placement at our school earlier in the year, so they had an idea of what to expect. At any rate, the experience confirmed that I want to learn more about teaching teachers.

The History Team
While still not the Partridge Family, our social studies teacher team has been more focused lately and seems to be headed in a good direction. I'm excited to see what it takes on and how it affects change throughout the school. The work we've taken on is also simply more interesting than the work we've done in the past.

The Bad
Eighth Grade Boys
There is a large group of our eighth grade male population that is very truant and failing miserably in the eighth grade. As a classroom teacher, this is a fairly overwhelming challenge. More and more I'm starting to believe that, in an age of accountability for the school system, attendance has to be counted as the parents' responsibility. Ultimately what the student does inside our building is the staff and faculty's responsibility, but it simply cannot be our job to physically bring the children to the building. On that note, I'd meant to link to a story about school attendance in Detroit earlier this spring. 

Given the Chancellor's Regulation about retaining students who do not pass their classes in the eighth grade (hopefully you're thinking, "Only in the eighth grade?")- basically impossible to pass if you do not attend- as well as teacher and school report card grades dependent on pass rates, we once again find ourselves between a rock and a hard place politically. Of course, that's not as tough as watching more than ten percent of our students floundering miserably.

Weak Cohort
This lack of attendance and low academic achievement is caused in part by the fact that this group of eighth graders is the economically poorest we've had in a while, which is saying a lot, given we're one of, if not the, poorest Congressional district(s) in the country. Knowing full and well that I very actively chose to teach in this setting, I grow frustrated with the looming fact that academic achievement in schools is so tied up in economic status. And it's not about whether or not a kid is heading Harvard or not- it's more along the lines of whether he is attending school or not (see above). Sometimes I find myself wondering if fifty or a hundred years from now Americans will look back and see clearly the trend that as the middle class disappeared and more people began living in poverty, real academic achievement was diminished as well. Perhaps though they'll just continue to blame it on something else.

The Ugly
There have been a number of them in the neighborhood this spring. Some of our students have witnessed them or worse (luckily no one has been killed). It has all left many of the students and other community members unsettled, to say the least. I can also say that's directly affected the academic achievement of a number of our eighth and ninth graders.

Attack Mom
Literally. I actually wrote a ranting open letter to this mother and posted it by accident, which solicited a "whew" from one of my three readers. One of my student's mothers came to school and attacked another student in the school. I believe it's legal to write about here, because it certainly is not the first time this has happened in the Bronx, nor is it the most bizarre circumstance like this. Regardless of the details, the bigger problem is that this woman's daughter is out of her mind and has not one iota of respect for authority or adults in general. And it's too bad, as she's a smart kid. I stopped calling the attack mom around Christmas time, as those calls actually only made things worse- not because the student would be punished, but because the mother would tell her daughter she was infallible. You can imagine what effect that had on her behavior in school.

Our Tax $$
A final ugly thought I've had this spring is related to a young lady and her mother who continually try to sue the school district for not providing the proper services for the daughter. They've won at least one large settlement in fact, and then used the money to go on extended vacations during the school year- leading directly to her truancy. Other dollars were spent on iPods and iPads and the like, but not on the support services one would assume they were intended for, given the court ruled that she was not getting much needed services. To be honest, I had a fairly good relationship with this student at the beginning of the year, but I find it very difficult to be warm with her now. A fairly callous economic mantra I've spouted throughout the year is "suing is for the weak", as what has become an American institution- passing the buck and suing in hopes of getting rich quick- has worn me down. 

The irony of the statement is not lost on me.

That clears a majority of my Trying Teaching to-do list, but of course there is much more. I told my principal that come June I'll have time to avoid being double-booked with afternoon meetings and so can start in on other work that's lining up. We'll see what happens as a result of that...