Thursday, October 28, 2004

Hall of Science

We took the eighth grade to the NY Hall of Science today, to see the Microbes and Molecules exhibits. I gave them a worksheet that required them to look through the museum's microscopes and draw two microbes of their choice, and then to pick a molecule and draw the structure of that molecule. Finally, they had to figure out which molecule the museum chose for a giant overhead model, and why they chose that molecule.

A funny and touching thing happened on the way home from the museum. The students on my bus began to sing. At first it was joking, a few kids singing campfire songs at the top of their lungs, shouted over by others. But eventually a few started singing popular dance and hip-hop songs, and soon the entire back of the bus joined in. It wasn't exactly melodious, and it's probably a good thing that I couldn't really understand most of the words to these songs, but I don't have it in me to stop children from singing together if that's what they want to do!

And then one boy said, "Let's sing Ms. Frizzle's song!" and they enthusiastically started singing the song about hydrogen that I wrote and performed for them last year. These were the cool kids in the eighth grade, sitting in the back of the bus a few seats from their teacher singing a geeky song she wrote a year ago to teach them about an element. And most of them remembered at least the chorus, and one girl remembered the whole song.

Meanwhile, a couple of kids sitting near me asked what music I listen to. I took my cd player out of my bag and let them listen to Northern State, a hip-hop group that I've been into lately. It's three white women from Long Island, kind of girl power in their message, very catchy... They were shocked and impressed that the cover had an explicit lyrics warning (yes, there are curses on the CD - but nothing they haven't heard before and the messages are positive - they'd just better not repeat any of the words!). I wasn't sure what the boys would think. After listening for a few minutes, one of them said, "This is funny rap!"

Ms. Frizzle: "Good funny or bad funny?"

Student: "Good funny!"

They listened to the CD for the rest of the bus ride, and I ended up promising to burn each of them a copy. So, if Northern State becomes the next big thing among a certain set of youth in the Bronx, don't forget to give me some credit! I even heard them muttering some of the lyrics after we got off the bus.

Winogradsky Columns

Wednesday, I discovered a possible limit to my tolerance of chaos-in-the-name-of-science: the Winogradsky column. To make a Winogradsky column, you mix pond mud, water, a raw egg, and shredded newspaper and pour them into a cylinder (spring water bottles, for example). Then you cap them, put them near a light, and observe over time as bacteria of different kinds and colors grow at different levels within the bottle. Easy enough, right?

I did not think through the process of getting the mud into the bottles, so I found myself feeling that things were perhaps just slightly out of control as my students proceeded to pour mud all over the desks in my classroom. Looking back, I must admit they tried. Funnels would be an obvious improvement for the future.

Yesterday and today, I got them started on their observations. We put one bottle in the dark, one in natural classroom light, and one in front of a bright light. Each day for the next two weeks, they are to draw and describe what they see in the bottles. So far, white clumps have formed within the bright and natural light bottles; we'll see what develops over the next few weeks! In theory, we'll be able to see layers of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, with more photosynthetic bacteria in the light conditions. I'll keep you up-to-date.

I will say this. I left school on Tuesday feeling a little disillusioned by the Winogradsky experiment; it seemed like too much work and mess to be worth it. But I am emphasizing careful observation with my students, and giving them plenty of time to make detailed drawings and take descriptive notes, and they are doing an excellent job. Their drawings are much, much better than any they've done before. So this may turn out to be a good way to teach observation skills.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Updates, Updates

On my CSA: A good disguise for greens - and a quick yet reasonably healthy meal - is to lightly steam or saute the greens, then make Annie's (or similar brand) mac & cheese, layer them in a casserole dish (or pie pan, in my case), sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs, and bake until the top is golden & crispy.

Applesauce is easy to make, comes out great, and uses lots of apples.

One can only eat so much pumpkin/squash soup in a month.

On the Fulbright: I mailed the last piece of my application - the administrative approval form - this weekend. It took me a long time to figure out just who was authorized to sign it. I was working with a woman from my union, a woman from central board, and my local instructional superintendent, and none of them had any idea who ought to sign it. In the end, my LIS signed the form, which approves a year-long paid leave of absence should I be accepted to the program. I met with him and with my principal on Friday to discuss the program. They are both concerned about the worst-case scenario, that the teacher coming from my exchange country may have serious trouble adjusting to the culture and language, or may come from a really different teaching background, or... I tried to reassure them that the person would be screened by the Fulbright program and would have to be someone motivated and intelligent! Of course, I understand their concerns -- if anything, because I face the same culture & language challenges in the country where I would be teaching!

My principal supported me because she says if she doesn't, I'll be unhappy, and if I'm unhappy, it will affect my working relationship with her. Fair enough, but I wish she were more enthusiastic about the Fulbright exchange itself. My LIS told us that he probably wouldn't support me if he were in her place; he also told me that if I were his daughter, he would be trying to talk me out of this because he doesn't believe Turkey is safe. I think he is genuine in his concern, but I have to admit being mildly annoyed because I just don't think he'd make that comment if I were 35 or male... *sigh*

Now it's out of my hands, at least until the interviews this winter. Cross your fingers for me!

On the Specialized High Schools Exam: The babies took the test on Saturday. One girl asked me what I'd be doing while they took the test. "Praying!" I said. She laughed & I laughed. "You're as ready as you can possibly be, and I'll be thinking of you." I think I was actually still asleep for most of the test, but I was definitely thinking of them when I woke up!

The kids came to school today feeling good about the test. In the words of another students, "Ms. Frizzle, you over-prepared us!" Of course, I'm pleased to hear that, but this is another one where all we can do is cross our fingers & wait.

On the Curse: The opera's not over 'til the fat lady sings, and the Red Sox have been known to lose the World Series in the last inning of Game 7. Nevertheless, I'm starting to wonder if I'll have to make good on my bet with my students and allow them to vote on a color for me to dye my hair. Thank goodness it's Halloween week. Somehow I also got conned into betting a batch of home-baked cookies... The sad thing is, I really haven't had time to watch any of the games. I saw some of the first game, although I was hanging out in a bar with a friend at the time and managed to miss seeing absolutely every run that scored. I am a terrible baseball fan!

And a discovery about eighth graders: When you ask whose parent might be willing to come with us on our field trip, 60 eyes slide to the left and right. It's no longer cool to have mom chaperone. I have been reduced to bribing my unemployed friends with promises of free museum admission.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Bacteria: A Web Adventure

You & your partner are going to investigate bacteria by visiting a series of web pages. After visiting each web page, answer the questions in your notebook. Work together, but take your own notes. Many of these web pages are written for adults, and may contain material that is difficult to understand. Ask your partner or teacher for help, but do not include anything in your notes until you understand it!

Begin by reading Rachel's description of bacteria.

This page includes a diagram of a bacteria cell & describes the parts of the cell.

In your notes:
1. What are the parts of a bacteria cell?
2. What is plasmid DNA?
3. Describe three important things that bacteria do.

Visit this page about bacteria to answer the questions below.

In your notes:
4. What are the three shapes that bacteria can have? What are the scientific names for these shapes? Draw each shape.
5. What is a flagellum (plural: flagella)? Draw a diagram of a bacterium with a flagellum.

Here are pictures of colonies of bacteria growing on a petri dish. Scroll farther down the page to see what the bacteria in each colony look like under a microscope.

In your notes:
6. The page above lists FOUR shapes of bacteria rather than three. What is the fourth shape? What is its scientific name? Draw that shape.

Now take a look at how bacteria colonies form. This web page describes how bacteria cells divide, rapidly creating huge colonies, and eventually use up the resources available and begin to die. Read the description and then watch the video. Also, click on the link to the CellAlive BioCam to see photographs of a bacteria colony forming.

You may also read this page for more information.
For right now, read only the parts that refer to bacteria (skip fungi, viruses, etc.).

In your notes:
7. How do colonies of bacteria form? Describe the process.
8. Why is the Earth not covered in bacteria? What are some factors that limit how many bacteria can exist?
9. What happens to a bacteria colony over time?
10. What is conjugation?

To see more pictures of bacteria and colonies of bacteria, visit this page and click on the links.

Most of these links were found at The Virtual Museum of Bacteria.

Sunday, a day of errands and preparation for the week ahead. S. and I went to Beacon's Closet, a thrift store in Williamsburg, in search of costume pieces for Halloween. She found a green ball gown a la Lucille Ball, and I found a fabulous dress, this one-of-a-kind purse, ... Posted by Hello

and here's the hat.... Posted by Hello

The day's final errand: mud. Lots and lots of fresh pond mud, collected from the pond in Central Park opposite the Plaza Hotel. To see what the mud is for, stay tuned! Posted by Hello

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Why is teaching like a gas?

It expands to fill its container.


I have really gotten grading under control this year by focusing on long term projects rather than lots of small homework assignments. But the extra time gets poured into planning better (and planning more, since I also have four health lesson plans to create each week). And so I find myself as busy as ever, if not more so.

My new project is to create a "Recycling Squad" - kids from each homeroom who will teach their peers why & how to recycle and make sure the classroom has a scrap paper box and the right set of color-coded wastebaskets and posters explaining how to sort your trash correctly.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Can YOU tell the difference?

"It has been said that the attributes that distinguish archaea from bacteria are not the sort that would quicken the pulse of anyone but a biologist. ... Archaeans are more different from bacteria than you or I are from a crab or spider."
-Bill Bryson

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Which Peanuts Character Are You?

Correct right up to the part about being perceived as a ditz... I don't think I've ever had that problem.

You are Sally!

Which Peanuts Character are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

I tried again with my second favorite answers...

You are Lucy!

Which Peanuts Character are You?
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Saturday, October 16, 2004

High School Admissions Rant

I spent today at the first NYC High Schools Fair of the year. Another teacher and I met a couple of our students who wanted to attend and traveled with them from the Bronx to Brooklyn Tech, where the fair took place. Now, if you were planning a high school fair for students from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, where would you hold the event so that it would be easiest for the most people to attend? I'd hold it somewhere around East 59th Street, a location that would be both central and close to public transit from Brooklyn and the Bronx. I'm sure there's a huge public high school somewhere in that area. But whoever planned the event decided to put it in Brooklyn, which meant a long trip by public transit for any student coming from the Bronx or upper Manhattan.

The fair was organized so that all the schools from the Bronx were on one floor, from Manhattan on another floor, and so on. We started out visiting the displays from Manhattan High Schools. That floor was packed with students, and dozens and dozens of high schools with elaborate displays and representatives from the staff, parents association, and students all eager to "sell" their schools. Then we moved downstairs to visit the Bronx schools. That floor was far emptier. Many schools simply did not show up! And there were far fewer students there.

We picked up copies of the enormous High Schools Directory. The process of getting into high school in NYC is byzantine. There are six specialized high schools, which depend on an exam. 25,000 students take the exam, competing for about 3000 spots in those high schools' freshman classes. The exam is next week. In the following weeks, students attend auditions for the performing arts schools (such as LaGuardia). In December, every student submits a ranked list of 12 high schools which they want to attend. In February, students who took the admissions test or auditioned for a performing arts school receive offers or rejections. In March, all students receive a match from the regular round of admissions. And there are additional rounds after students reply to their first matches.

But that's not all.

There are several different selection processes which the schools use to choose their students. Some select 50% of their students based on middle school performance and the other 50% by lottery; some are completely screened; some require a portfolio or audition; some are completely unscreened and are assigned students by lottery. In addition to these criteria, some schools have a geographic preference for students from their home district or borough or both.

That's the infuriating part.

I know of a few good schools in Manhattan that I would feel very comfortable sending my students to after middle school - Beacon High School and Environmental Studies are two - but many on my list give priority to students from Manhattan or their district. And they have only a few hundred spots in their incoming class, at most. Beacon High School gets thousands of applicants for a very small number of spots. I have not found information about how many of those spots are typically filled from their district - but I imagine, given the competition, that it is a high proportion. This priority system makes the competition even fiercer for students from outside Manhattan. It might be fair if the best high schools were evenly distributed among the five boroughs. I think the system is in place to try to create community-based schools, which is a reasonable goal.

Unfortunately, the reality is that the best schools are clustered in Manhattan. I have a book which describes New York's best public high schools. The chapter on the Bronx includes exactly two: Bronx Science (one of the most sought-after specialized high schools), and the Macy Program at DeWitt Clinton HS. Macy is by all accounts a good program, but it only accepts a hundred-odd kids a year. Most of the Bronx high schools give priority to students from the Bronx - but these are not places you want to send your child! The city's average four-year graduation rate is around 65%. There are only two or three schools in the Bronx section of the high schools directory with graduation rates that I would consider acceptable (>80%). Many have few or no AP classes. Their Regents pass rates are in the vicinity of 50%. And some are downright dangerous places to be!

In the past few years, the city has been breaking up large, dangerous, ineffective schools and creating dozens of small new schools. Several campuses in the Bronx were among the most dangerous schools in the whole city, and they have now been transformed into collections of mini-schools. I think it's a decent idea, but these schools are still unproven. The directory has no information on their Regents pass rates, their graduation rates, and so forth, because they are so new. Many have not yet graduated their charter classes. My students took a risk on us for middle school - our charter class is graduating from the eighth grade this year - but it still feels like a leap of faith to send them to a brand-new high school, especially if it's housed in a building which only two years ago was violent, unsafe, chaotic, and ruled by gangs.

In sum, my students get geographical preference to one or two good schools, several schools we know are bad, and several schools with no record. The incentives and pressures of the high school admissions process push them to apply to these schools, because their chances of getting into good schools in Manhattan are so slim. It feels terribly unfair and biased.

Given that they change the admissions process every few years, I don't understand why they've kept the geographical preferences in place for some schools while eliminating it for others. This "choice" system, which is supposed to find a best-fit school for each student, discriminates against students from the Bronx. I am frustrated and unsure of what strategy we should encourage our students to use when ranking their schools. I don't want them to apply exclusively to small, proven schools in Manhattan and then get no offers. I don't want them to apply to bad or unproven schools in the Bronx just to be safe, because then they might have to attend those schools!

I know this will get easier over the next few years, because we will make contacts with the people who make selection decisions at high schools, and high schools will recognize our name and that we send them well-prepared, motivated students, and we will have done it before and know what strategies work. But right now it feels scary and like the deck is stacked against us.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Voter Registration Fraud

I think this should at least get a mention in national news, but the first I heard of it on A View from the Classroom. An organization that has been registering voters outside of malls in Las Vegas and other cities has been accused by an employee of throwing out Democratic voters' registration forms and only filing the Republican forms. You know, I try really hard not to be paranoid, but then I find out that an organization committing this kind of fraud is funded largely by the Republican National Committee, and what do you want me to think?
The out-of-state firm has been in Las Vegas for the past few months, registering voters. It employed up to 300 part-time workers and collected hundreds of registrations per day, but former employees of the company say that Voters Outreach of America only wanted Republican registrations.

Two former workers say they personally witnessed company supervisors rip up and trash registration forms signed by Democrats.
Just imagine being a first-time voter. For whatever reason, you've got an opinion this time around strong enough to make you sign up to vote and head to the polls. But when you get there, you're told you're not registered. I can't begin to describe how angry - no, livid! - this story makes me. And for the record, I would be equally angry, not to mention ashamed, if the politics were reversed and a company funded by the Democratic National Committee were throwing out Republican voter registration forms.

My mom sent me a postcard of a photograph by Dorothea Lange: Kern County, California, 1937. It shows a rural air pump with a hand-lettered sign that reads, "This is your country dont let the big men take it away from you." On the back, she wrote, "One of these cards for each of you--the next generation of active and committed voters. This year's election is just one unending "Alice in Wonderland" experience. I look forward to and dread Nov. 2, 2004 as a "day of infamy" for democracy. Just vote! -Mom"

Fulbright Teacher Exchange Essay, take two

In a commencement address at Bryn Mawr, Ursula LeGuin said,

Thinking about what I should say to you made me think about what we learn in college; and what we unlearn in college; and then how we learn to unlearn what we learned in college and relearn what we unlearned in college, and so on.
LeGuin's words apply equally well to my experiences as a college student, as a new teacher in a large urban junior high school, and as one of the founding teachers of a new public school. I have repeatedly placed myself in challenging situations beyond my previous experience, and have unlearned, learned, and relearned whatever was required to thrive in those situations. I am applying to the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program because I am ready to step out of my comfort zone once again in order to expand my understanding of the world.

I graduated from high school with vaguely liberal politics, little real experience of the world beyond my hometown, confidence in my ability to learn and to do whatever interested me, and a desire to improve the world. I boarded a plane bound for Stanford University, never having seen the school or visited California. Stanford opened up a much wider world for me, and at first I struggled to find my place in it. My confidence in my writing ability was dashed by a freshman literature course, my academic preparation seemed poor compared to that of students from private schools and top-ranked public schools, my commitment to my liberal ideals was tested as I tried to practice those ideals as an adult. Over the next four years, I strengthened my thinking and writing skills, rebuilt my academic confidence, and began to focus my political energy on every child's right to an excellent education.

Inspired by two classes, "Children, Youth, and the Law," and "Children, Civil Rights, and Public Policy," I considered going to law school and pursuing a career as a child advocacy lawyer. As graduation neared, I realized I wasn't ready for law school; I wanted experience working directly with the children and families I hoped to one day represent in court. I felt that I needed to make my abstract conception of justice real by working in communities affected by poverty and educational inequity.

I joined Teach For America and began teaching in a junior high school in the Bronx. I taught science to 170 students in five different classrooms, with limited access to scientific equipment. When we did an experiment, I had to wheel my materials from classroom to classroom in a cart. I struggled with classroom management. Nevertheless, I loved the creative challenge that teaching presented. I loved designing science activities and projects that would capture my students' interest and allow them to connect new ideas to prior knowledge. I brought a lobster to school when we studied crustaceans, crickets when we studied insects, and a piece of bone from the butcher when we studied the skeleton.

During those first two years, I lost confidence that legal action was always the best strategy for resolving injustice. I saw illegal and harmful things go on in the schools - the segregation of special education students, "informal" suspensions that would not show up in school safety records - yet I also saw that the legal system missed the subtleties of these cases. Often, none of the parties involved were wholly right, and yet each had legitimate rights and interests. I was no longer sure whom I would defend if I became a lawyer!

Having decided to continue teaching, I enrolled at Teachers College to get my master's degree in Secondary Science Education. I was happy to learn about best practices in science education, yet dismayed to find that although Teachers College is an urban university, many people there know little of the day-to-day realities of the city schools. This realization strengthened my commitment to teaching in under-resourced schools and to providing a rigorous education for my students.

In the spring of 2001, a colleague called with an offer to help open a new school in the same neighborhood in the Bronx. I jumped at the opportunity and joined the close-knit team of teachers who founded *****, a math, science, and technology magnet school that opened in 2002. Helping start a school allowed me to wear many hats; I have recruited students, interviewed teaching candidates, taught in the after-school program, developed my school's Science curriculum, served as technology coordinator for the school's laptop program, and debated every aspect of school organization with my colleagues. I am currently chair of the Science Department and mentor to two new teachers. Each year, I organize a Science Expo, working with up to 60 different groups of students as they design and conduct original experiments. I have taught minor subjects such as Drama, Health, and Physical Education in addition to Science. Most importantly, I have honed my skills as a teacher.

When I am abroad, I will collaborate with the sixth grade social studies teacher - who teaches world cultures - to have the students research my exchange country and send me on long-distance field trips. They will create short itineraries for me to follow, including places to visit, artifacts they would like me to send them, and things they would like me to photograph. I will use a weblog to share stories and photographs of my explorations with the students. I did this type of activity with students when I worked with a program called Reach The World. My students communicated via the internet with a group of people who were sailing around the world. Before the crew reached the Galapagos Islands, my students researched the history, culture, wildlife, and scientific significance of the islands, and designed a one-day field trip which the crew followed. It would be exciting for the students in the US and my exchange country to do a similar project, sending their teachers to explore places they cannot yet visit for themselves.

In addition, I have always grounded my science curriculum in local, authentic experiences. Two years ago, my students investigated the reasons why the highest rates of childhood asthma in the United States are in Harlem and the Bronx. This year, they will learn to identify, classify, and assess the health of street trees in the Bronx. They will also study the area's ecosystems. In my exchange country, I will continue to combine hands-on science and a focus on local phenomena. My students in the US and in my exchange country can compare and contrast data from the two countries about native species, environmental issues, weather patterns, and other science topics.

My experiences with travel have been brief. I spent ten days in Italy with my high school Latin class. More recently, I traveled to Cuba with my roommate, whose mother worked for the US Interests Section. I also visited Puerto Rico for vacation and for insight into my students' background. In each case, I struggled to answer people's questions when I returned. "What is Cuba like?" people asked. How could I possibly answer that question after visiting for less than two weeks and as a tourist? After each of these trips, I imagined myself returning and staying for several months, shopping where the people shop, returning to my favorite places regularly, and contributing to the community through work. Only then might I begin to be able to answer questions about what the place is like.

I am drawn to countries that are in transition and that straddle cultural, political, and economic boundaries. Geographically and culturally, Turkey inhabits a space between Europe and the Middle East, between Christianity and Islam. Similarly, Estonia inhabits a borderland between the former Soviet Union and the rest of Europe. Like the people in Turkey and Estonia, my current students belong to more than one world. Many spend several months each year in the Dominican Republic; others are recent immigrants from Africa or Bangladesh. They live in the Bronx, mere miles from some of the richest blocks in the world, yet some rarely leave their neighborhood. As a teacher, I must seek opportunities to widen their experience of the world while affirming their cultural traditions.

People in all three countries must struggle with questions of identity: when and how to embrace the West, when and how to resist globalization. I want to know more about how these changing societies educate the next generation. What do they see as the purpose of education? Who designs the curriculum, and what choices have they made about which topics to include and in what form? I wonder, also, how my colleagues, my students, and my students' families will perceive a teacher from the United States. Answering these questions requires that we learn and unlearn and relearn our own cultural traditions and those of another culture. What I desire for myself, my students, and their families, here and abroad, is to begin this learning process.

What do you all think? Thanks so much to everyone who made suggestions in the comments - I hope you will see evidence in my final draft that I took your feedback seriously.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

I showed my 8th graders my absolute favorite science documentary: Death by Design. It's about programmed cell death in particular and cells in general, and it's beautiful, funny, and informative all at once. It weaves together visual metaphors from dance and day-to-day human experience, amazing imagery of cells, interviews with scientists, and hilarious scenes from old black-and-white movies. If you are a science geek or a film geek - or just interested in the world - you should absolutely rent this movie if it's available, or see if your library has it. Unlike many science documentaries, it isn't overloaded with complicated explanations of things - the scientists describe cell processes in simple, everyday terms. I wasn't sure how my students would react to it, as it is very different from the tv and movies they are used to seeing, but most of them loved it. They had tons of questions about what they were seeing and how the film was made. They got the humor. Tonight they are writing one-page responses to the film, which I am eager to read.

After school drama class met for the first time today. I have two classes, each very small, which is so nice. We did a little warm up stretching and some concentration games - trying to count to 20 as a group, clapping in rhythm, etc. - then talked about pantomime. I used activities from the drama class that I am taking, and they worked pretty well. I had them pass an imaginary diamond bracelet from person to person around the circle, then we discussed how it felt real and how it could be improved, and then we passed the bracelet around the circle again. They definitely improved! Then we did the same with an imaginary kitten, which was really hard. Finally, I had pairs and groups of three present short pantomimes of everyday activities like waiting for a bus, holding your new baby sister for the first time, playing ball, etc. They did a good job, and I saw them putting into action the advice they got from me and from their classmates. They remembered to put imaginary props away after using them (you don't want cups of coffee, bracelets, or babies to just drop to the floor at the end of the scene!), and they got better at turning their scenes so they could face the audience as much as possible. It was fun and I still had energy left at the end of the day, which is unusual for an after school day... maybe it was because I showed a film, so I didn't have to talk much during my regular classes.

Health class is an adventure. I'm doing conflict resolution with the sixth graders, and although they talk the talk during class, I don't see them putting it into practice outside of class. We're learning to use "I statements" and how to listen effectively... I have them keep a conflict journal, try out the techniques we talk about in class and report on the results in their journals. Of course, I can't tell if their journals are truth or fiction, but they do tell me the strategies get good results. Hmmm.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Fulbright Teacher Exchange

I am applying to the Fulbright Teacher Exchange. If I am accepted, I will exchange teaching positions with an educator from another country next year. My first choices are Turkey and Estonia. Here is my personal essay - please provide feedback! Does it answer the questions they ask? Is it well-written? How could I improve it? I know the introduction & conclusion are weak, and I would value suggestions.

Personal Essay

On no more than two additional pages, please write one essay addressing both A and B below:

A. Provide a narrative picture of yourself. The essay should deal with your personal history, focusing on influences on your intellectual development, the educational and cultural opportunities (or lack of them) to which you have been exposed, and the ways in which these experiences have affected you. Also include your special interests and abilities.

B. Describe your future career goals and plans, especially ways you plan to use your experience abroad in your professional work in this country and to enhance international education in your school/college and community.

In the small Massachusetts town where I grew up, my parents and teachers valued the arts, good writing, and science, and passed on those values to me and my classmates. I graduated from high school with vaguely liberal politics, little real experience of the world beyond my hometown, confidence in my ability to learn and to do whatever interested me, and a desire to improve the world.

The next September, I got on a plane for Stanford University, never having seen the school or even visited California. Stanford opened up a much wider world for me, and at first I struggled to find my place in it. My confidence in my own writing ability was dashed by a freshman literature course, my academic preparation seemed poor compared to that of students from private schools and nationally-ranked public schools, my commitment to my liberal ideals was tested as I tried to practice those ideals as an adult. The next four years can best be described in words Ursula LeGuin said in a commencement address at Bryn Mawr, "Thinking about what I should say to you made me think about what we learn in college; and what we unlearn in college; and then how we learn to unlearn what we learned in college and relearn what we unlearned in college, and so on."

I became interested in educational equity and took several classes in education and civil rights history. Inspired by two classes, Children, Youth, and the Law, and Children, Civil Rights, and Public Policy, I decided to go to law school and pursue a career as a child advocacy lawyer. As graduation neared, I realized I wasn't ready for law school; I wanted more experience working directly with the children and families I hoped to one day represent in court. I knew that I needed to make my abstract conception of justice real by working in communities affected by poverty and educational inequity.

With these goals, I joined Teach For America and began teaching in a junior high school in the Bronx, New York. My first two years as a teacher were extremely hard. I taught science to 170 students in five different classrooms, with very limited access to scientific equipment. Whenever we did an experiment, I had to wheel my materials from classroom to classroom in a cart. I struggled with classroom management. Yet, I loved the creative challenge that teaching presented. I loved designing science activities and projects that would capture my students' interest and allow them to connect new ideas to prior knowledge. When vacations came, I missed my students and the daily routines of the school and classroom.

During those first two years, I lost confidence that legal action was always the best strategy for resolving injustice. I saw many things go on in schools that were illegal and harmful to students, teachers, or families, yet I also saw that the legal system - searching for a single objective "truth" - missed the subtleties of these cases. Often, none of the parties involved were wholly right, and yet each had legitimate rights and interests. I was no longer sure who I would defend if I became a lawyer!

At the time, Teach For America had a partnership with Teachers College and the New York City Department of Education which allowed me to get my master's degree in Secondary Science Education. I was happy to learn more about best practices in science education, yet dismayed to realize that although Teachers College is an urban school of education, many professors and students there have little conception of what the city's public schools are really like. This realization strengthened my commitment to teaching in under-resourced schools and to providing a rigorous education for my students.

I was planning to teach for another year or two, then investigate other career opportunities, when I received an offer to help open a new school in the same neighborhood. I jumped at the opportunity, and became part of the close-knit team of teachers who founded *****, a math, science, and technology magnet school that opened in 2002. Helping start a school allowed me to wear many hats; I have recruited students, interviewed teaching candidates, organized the school Science Expo, taught in the after-school program, developed my school's Science curriculum, served as technology coordinator for the school's laptop program, and debated every aspect of school organization with my colleagues. I am currently chair of the Science Department and mentor to two new teachers. As we are such a small school, I have taught minor subjects such as Drama, Health, and Physical Education in addition to Science. Most importantly, I have honed my skills as a teacher.

Our war in Iraq and terrorist attacks in New York City and elsewhere have made me feel that my knowledge of other cultures and of world politics is inadequate. I want to experience life from the perspective of another culture, to the extent that is possible. I have many questions about when it is right for one country to intervene in another's affairs, about how Americans are perceived abroad, about how to make the world more peaceful and just. I feel the need to know more, to educate myself. I hope to unlearn and learn again as I did when I moved from high school in Massachusetts to college in California, from college in California to teaching in New York.

My previous experiences with travel have been brief. I spent two weeks in Italy with my high school Latin class. We lived with Italian students who later visited us in the United States. More recently, I traveled to Cuba with my roommate, whose mother worked for the US Interests Section. I also visited Puerto Rico for vacation and insight into my students' background. In each case, although I learned certain things about the culture and enjoyed the experience, I struggled to answer people's questions when I returned. "What is Cuba like?" people asked. How could I possibly answer that question after visiting for less than two weeks and as a tourist? After each of these trips, I imagined myself returning, renting a house, finding a job, and living there for several months. Then I might begin to be able to answer questions about what it is like!

I am applying to the Fulbright Teacher Exchange so that I can live and work in another country and understand the people and culture by being a part of a community, by shopping where the people there shop, working with other teachers, getting to know my students and their families. By working in a foreign school, I hope to enrich my ideas about pedagogy and the purpose of education, and to add another facet to my picture of excellent education. When I am abroad, if I have computer access, I will keep a weblog of my experiences so that I can share them with my students in the United States and other students around the world who are interested in life in other countries. I also plan to set up a penpals program between my students in the United States and my students in my exchange school. I think that having a teacher from another country will enrich my students' education, and when I return, I hope to continue my relationship with my Fulbright school. My students here in the US look up to me, and I hope that by living in another country, I can model for them the value of actively seeking opportunities to increase one's knowledge and of opening oneself up to new experiences.

In front of the Hall of Science. Posted by Hello


Oh. I like being by myself, sometimes.

That can be hard to remember.

I got over feeling disappointed that I did not get to go to Boston this weekend. I got over feeling bored. And best of all, I got over most of the head cold that kept me here in New York and on my couch Friday and Saturday.

So I spent a day by myself and had small adventures. I forgot for a few weeks that I am learning to live with myself, to calm down all the anxiety and restlessness and realize that being and working and doing things on my own gives me good time to think and can be fun.

I went to Astor Place for a haircut. I've tried the expensive salon haircut, and it was lovely, they really pampered me. But I got more or less the same haircut that I always do. So this time I went the other extreme, paid $25 and got the same haircut that I always do, no pampering, quick and dirty, so to speak. No one is going to notice, anyway!

Then, to improve my science teacher credentials, I went to the NY Hall of Science for the first time. It's a lot like the Exploratorium and even has many exhibits that I believe were made to order by the Exploratorium. But they also have a large exhibit on atoms and molecules that I have never seen before -- with a giant model of a glucose molecule suspended above the exhibit floor -- and a terrific exhibit on microbes which I am planning to bring my students to see.

The museum itself was pretty quiet for a weekend afternoon, except for one absolutely adorable birthday party. The kids were beside me in an exhibit where you looked at the shadows cast by spinning objects and then covered one eye with a filter, and the shadows would appear to pop out at you and change the direction they were spinning. The explainer told the kids what to do and they went absolutely wild. They jumped up and down. "It's popping out, it's popping out!"

From there, I explored Corona, Queens a bit before getting back on the train to Manhattan. I don't know much about that neighborhood, but I liked the feel of it. Lots of people were out, relaxed, doing their weekend errands. It was very diverse, but I was pretty much the only white person. I got a Coke and a pastry from a Dominican (?) bakery.

I had an errand to do at Whole Foods, so I continued up to the new shopping center at Columbus Circle. It's posh. It has a Benetton for kids. Shopping in New York is seductive. I spent some time looking in all the fancy stores. Part of the seduction, I think, and also good marketing strategy for all concerned, is the inclusion of stores like J. Crew--the most upscale J. Crew I've ever seen, mind you--along with the more expensive stores. You think, oh, J. Crew, I can shop there. And the next thing you know you're looking at cashmere overalls for your four year old. Or something. The Borders Books & Music cafe is Dean & Deluca. I love it. I hate it.

And then I got back on the train to my neighborhood. The day had become cloudy and cold. Someone stopped me on East 8th Street to ask where he could buy a wool cap, so I pointed him a few blocks farther west to St. Mark's, and decided to go there myself to visit the sock store and to see if I could find any cheap, glittery jewelry because glittery jewelry seems to be the thing but who has the money for vintage brooches, anyway? And pretty soon I was near Urban Outfitters, and I said before that shopping in NY is seductive, and it is, and I wasn't ready to go home yet, so I went in. One t-shirt, one sweater, both cute, and a free CD to sample the music they play.

Fall. It's still warm enough for a light jacket. It's cold enough for my favorite boots and jeans. Night is coming earlier and blue-gray, and when the lights come on the insides of apartments and stores look welcoming, sheltering. The clouds and buildings make the city feel small, the edges close.

At home, I made soup from potatoes, onions, and greens, and watched All About Eve, which is by far the best movie I've seen in a while. The writing is so smart. It makes me want to watch more old movies. I talked to my roommate about how something will not interest you for years and years, and suddenly something changes and you are ready for that thing, ready to learn more, and it's all you want to do. I am in a documentary phase of life and I may be about to enter an old movie phase. I am also entering a travel phase, but that's another post! The people behind the free school movement are right when they say that people learn most and best when they pursue the things that interest them at that moment; I have been watching myself move from one interest to another, exploring each with different levels of passion and depth.

From the platform at 103rd St., Queens. Posted by Hello

Whose giant feet are these? Posted by Hello

They belong to See No Evil, by Tom Otterness, who has an exhibit of sculptures like this one at various points along Broadway. Posted by Hello

Yeah, I really like these guys. Posted by Hello

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Hearts & Minds

I have watched several documentaries about the Vietnam War recently. I guess it helps me to think about our actions in the world today, or maybe it's just easier than thinking about our actions in the world today. It's easier to see things clearly once you are a few decades beyond them. Today I saw the documentary "Hearts and Minds." Parts of it made me feel desperate and depressed. Parts of it were shocking -- both the violence and the things people, our country's leaders, spoke about what was happening there.

I have no doubt that what we did in Vietnam was wrong, that it was done for wrong and misleading or simply untruthful reasons. It's harder for me to look at the war we're involved in now and know with any clarity what is really happening there and how we should respond to that. It seems clear to me that some of the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein were brutalized and/or oppressed. It seems clear to me that we were not told the truth about why we should invade. It seems clear to me that we cannot leave now until we straighten things out in some way, and I'm really glad I am not the one in power who has to figure out how to do that, because it seems like a huge mess that is now our responsibility. It's very hard for me to listen to our president make unequivocal statements about the value of unborn human life when I know that he has sent so many soldiers to Iraq to die and to kill. It's also hard for me to listen to him glorify our "volunteer army" when I know that it is so often children like my students who "volunteer" to work for the military partly out of patriotism but more often because we aren't truly committed in this country to closing the gap in education and income that makes the military the best option for so many poor and under-educated young people.

If you've seen another provocative documentary, "Control Room," then you've seen the interview with a US prisoner of war who looks scared, confused, and heartbreakingly young as he tries to explain what he is doing there. I don't think that he imagined himself fighting and being captured when he enlisted; I think it was just a decent job (and yet!).

I have a lot of questions about war (so does Nicole). I wonder when war is the right answer - if ever. Sometimes I think there are situations when war probably is the best possible solution, though not a good one, but I am close to people who think war is never okay. When I see images from the war in Vietnam--of houses destroyed and people wailing and soldiers kicking Vietnamese men and arresting elderly people and of children with napalm burns and children today with birth defects--then I doubt that war is ever a solution. I wonder when it is appropriate for the US to intervene in another country's affairs--and whether there are times when it is not just appropriate, but a moral obligation. I wonder how you know, as a leader, that this time military action is called for, but that time it is not. Some people say you know because you have a world consensus backing you, and that sounds right, but then I wonder if there are times when the world might be wrong. After all, we tell children that they should be ready to stand up for their beliefs even if everyone disagrees with them.

I know for sure that the costs of war are barely fathomable to me: the people who die, the physical and emotional trauma to people who survive, both civilians and soldiers, the rapes that go hand-in-hand with war, the torture of prisoners, the destruction of homes and irreplaceable artifacts and the environment (the environmental damage caused by war is immense and lasts for generations), the hatreds and grudges that are passed on for generations. A country may lose most of a generation of young people. Humans are remarkably resilient, but I can hardly understand how a country and a culture recovers from war in their own land.

One of the people interviewed in the documentary is Daniel Ellsberg, best known for giving the Pentagon Papers to the press:
Truman lied from 1950 on on the nature and purpose of the French involvement in
the colonial reconquest of Vietnam that we were financing and encouraging.
Eisenhower lied about the reasons for and the nature of our involvement with Diem and the fact that he was in power essentially because of American support and American money and for no other reason.
Kennedy lied about the type of involvement we were doing there, our own combat involvement, and about the recommendations that were being made to him for greater involvement. President Kennedy lied about the degree of our participation in the overthrow of Diem.
Johnson, of course, lied and lied and lied about our provocations against the North Vietnamese prior to and after the Tonkin Gulf incident, about the plans for bombing North Vietnam, and the nature of the build-up of American troops in Vietnam.
Nixon, as we now know, misled and lied to the American public for the first months of his office in terms of our bombing of Cambodia and Laos, ground operations in Laos, the reasons for our invasions of Cambodia and Laos, and the prospects for the mining of Haiphong which finally came about in 1972 but was envisioned as early as 1969. The American public was lied to month by month by each of these five administrations.
As I say, it's a tribute to the American public that their leaders perceived that they had to be lied to. It's no tribute to us that it was so easy to fool the public.

Friday, October 08, 2004

6:05 am, my head

C'mon, get out of bed. You're running out of time to get ready.

But I don't feel good!

Enough whining. Get moving!

All I need is another five hours of sleep and I could totally kick this cold. Let me stay home, just this once.

Go to school. You always regret staying home. You'll wake up in a few hours and feel silly and left out of things and you'll miss the other teachers and the kids.

Yeah, but for once my lesson is something another teacher could do, not an experiment. I could stay home and rest and the kids wouldn't fall behind...

If your lesson is easy for someone else to do, it will be easy for you to do. And it's Friday; you have all weekend to rest. Sit up... put your legs over the side of the bed... stand up.

Oh, all right...

And I went to school. And it was totally manageable, but I'm still not feeling well.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Progress? Progress.

So, I'm helping Mr. Kelvin teach his sixth graders how to write a lab report. They did a lab with marbles - to see how momentum gets transfered - which we did last year. He is still not the greatest at taking them through things step-by-step, so some parts of the lab did not set them up particularly well for writing the lab reports, but it will be okay. I came in and did a model lesson with his first period class today. I used the overhead projector and walked them through the process of writing a lab report. They finished about half of their first draft in class and are to do the rest at home.

I think the lesson went fairly well, although this is not exactly how I would have done it if it were my classroom. Partly, I didn't prepare as creatively as I should have because I'm not feeling so hot, and partly it is different because I would have had a long-term plan for teaching them about lab reports, and the first one would have been done as a PowerPoint presentation with a partner. Then I would have had them do individual lab reports with most of the work done in class, and later I would have had them do individual lab reports with most of the work done at home. We call this scaffolding. You provide a lot of support at the start and slowly leave them more on their own.

I talked about this with Mr. Kelvin but it seems like he needs to learn a lot of it by experience. When we discuss things I do not always see him act upon them in his teaching. Learning to teach takes time, and I am okay with him finding his own ways of doing things. At the same time, it's frustrating to discuss a particular unit and the problems students tend to have and the solutions I've found for those problems, and then watch him make those exact same mistakes and encounter those exact same problems. It is especially frustrating since it affects our students' education! Then again, I've certainly taught any number of topics badly, and the kids turn out okay in the end - you're not damaging anyone irreparably if you screw up how you teach force and motion! (Thank goodness).

Taking the sixth graders through their very first lab report during the same week as I am proofreading the eighth graders first lab report of the year made me realize just how far my eighth graders have come. Their first drafts are really, really good! I told them today how proud I am of their work. I'm having that experience again of seeing that a few students made a conceptual leap more or less on their own - between last June and this October, they figured out what kind of thinking I want to see when they write a Conclusions section. It's a combination of lots of practice and work and the gradual maturing of their brains. Also gratifying is that very, very few students are making serious formatting errors or leaving sections out. They know what's expected of them, and it's all fine-tuning from here.

In counterpoint to this academic growth, the eighth graders are in some kind of phase where it's like their teachers are speaking a foreign language: they don't seem to hear, comprehend, or follow directions. All day long I am answering questions that I just answered. I tell them where to put things away and they put them someplace else two minutes later. I give my signal for quiet and attention, and I have to remind them more than I do the new sixth graders! And this is not just one or two kids, it's nearly all of them. All the teachers on the eighth grade team noted this same trend, so we agreed to make a special effort to praise and reward good following of directions and to penalize poor following of directions. It helped a little during last period today. My colleague's theory is that eighth graders get into this hormonal phase where they just do not take in certain kinds of information very well; she remembers coming home each day in middle school remembering every social thing that happened but not one thing from any class, though she wasn't trying to ignore her teachers. Hmmm. I was a pretty focused kid. I'm not that patient with kids who need me to say the same thing eleven times before they hear it.

History of Voting in the US

Here's a slide show which might be useful with students and was a good review for me, too. Thanks, Ani DiFranco.


Our school was vandalized last night. Someone scrawled on the walls in marker, wrote all over our students' portraits (we have a portrait wall), tore apart several bulletin boards, tossed water on my students' work on my bulletin boards, and trashed the hallways with dirt and sand from some science kits they found in a storage closet. Needless to say, it was a disheartening scene to find when we arrived at school this morning.

Both our school and the other school in the building had afterschool programs and parent meetings last night, so it is hard to know who did it. Our kids seemed as surprised as we were and there was no gossip among the students about any of them knowing who the culprit might be, so we suspect that it was students from the other school's afterschool program or children who were with their parents for that school's parent meeting.

The rest of the building was not vandalized, only our hallways and bulletin boards.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Tempting Fate

Never, never make statements like, "It's amazing how much less I get sick now that I've been teaching for a few years." That is practically begging the gods of immunity to look down upon you and laugh as they smite you with a sore throat and body ache.

I am trying to finish proofreading the "Naked Egg" lab reports so that I can hand them back on Friday and then head to Boston for the long weekend.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Renaissance Teacher?

When I was in high school, I ran track. My high school was very small, so everyone on the team did multiple events. By the time I had graduated, I had competed at least once in every single track and field activity except the 100 m high hurdles and the throwing events. I didn't do all those events well, but I'd done all the jumping and running events at some point.

Teaching is starting to feel like a track meet.

Starting next week, I will need to plan:
  • 5 science lessons
  • 2 conflict resolution (6th grade health) lessons
  • 2 drug/alcohol (7th grade health) lessons
  • 2 sixth grade art lessons
  • 2 eighth grade art lessons
  • 1 afterschool high school prep lesson
  • 1 afterschool "pasta challenge" (engineering) lesson
  • 1 afterschool drama lesson

every single week!

I love it. Don't get me wrong. I am excited about each and every one of these things.

But it is still a lot of plates to keep spinning.

Monday, October 04, 2004

On the left, a "naked egg" after soaking for 72ish hours in water. On the right, a "naked egg" after soaking for 72ish hours in corn syrup. It's even better in real life. Posted by Hello

Just Another Manic Monday

The "Naked Egg" experiment worked brilliantly. The egg in corn syrup shrivelled up, and most of the other eggs swelled dramatically. We put eggs in water and various concentrations of salt. I sort of wish that we had done this experiment in two stages, the first the most dramatic - corn syrup and plain water - followed by a more nuanced experiment where the students would have designed an experiment to vary the concentration of salt or sugar and perhaps even measured the circumference of the egg before and after putting it in the solution. Regardless, the kids loved it, I loved it, and we'll see from their lab reports - due Wednesday - whether they understood what I taught them about osmosis well enough to explain their results. Tomorrow we are going to try to see osmosis at work in cells under the microscope.

PE was a minefield today. In one hour, I sent four kids to the nurse's office. Two fell and bruised their knees, one had a bad headache, and another - sent to escort another student to the nurse - decided she had a fever and stayed at the nurse's office! We were practicing dribbling and passing out in the (paved) schoolyard, and it was hard to keep the ball under control, and kids were dropping like flies. I would blow my whistle and tell them not to go faster than they could handle, but even trying to stay under control, they were tripping over the ball. I deeply wish we had a grassy field to play on.

After school we had our second 100-minute Professional Development session. Our Math Aussie led it; he asked us to consider our beliefs about intelligence, learning, and teaching, and think about the implications of our beliefs on our style of teaching. It's a worthy point, but I'm pretty sure I've sat through this exact same presentation before. I think all of us in the room already shared the Region's assumptions about intelligence and learning, and were ready to hear concrete suggestions for changing our classrooms and teaching to reflect these beliefs. We didn't get to that until the very end, unfortunately.

The Region wants us to focus on three things in our teaching. They come from a longer list of Principles of Learning, and they are the same three things we focused on last year. I was sort of hoping to move on to some of the others - to build on the work we did last year. Of course, it is completely possible to work on all the Principles on your own, but it would be nice to see the Region taking this to the next level. I have this sinking feeling that we will stick to the same three Principles until a new mayor is elected, at which point the whole thing will be thrown out and a new set of consultants hired. In any case, the Principles are pretty good, and the three we are working on are:
  • Academic Rigor in a Thinking Curriculum
  • Accountable Talk
  • Clear Expectations

We talked as a staff about what these mean.

I think our school does a pretty good job of establishing clear expectations, but I think this is an area where our new teachers still have a lot of room to grow. That is, I'm sure we all have room to grow, but especially our new teachers. We talked about developing rubrics for student projects, handing out assignment sheets, and providing examples of work that meets and exceeds the standards.

Just today, I told the eighth graders that some of them would be surprised by their grades on their Microscope Instruction Manuals, because even though they'd done fabulous work on the projects, they'd left out one or more sections listed in the assignment sheet. I told them I don't make assignment sheets for my own entertainment, and that this year I am really going to hold them to fulfilling the expectations outlined on the assignment sheet. Then I said that students who were unhappy with their grades could do the project again - this would be a third draft - for a higher grade. We'll see who takes me up on the offer. I tend to let kids keep trying on projects until they succeed or have had enough, and I think that hits on one of the other Principles of Learning, Organizing for Effort. Anyway, I handed out the assignment sheet for their lab report and gave them time to read it and ask questions, so hopefully this time they will use it as they write.

Accountable Talk is a bit harder to explain. It can be having kids discuss materials in small groups and stay on task. It can be having kids learn to respond to each other in a whole class discussion: "I agree with this part of what you said, but I disagree with this part because..." It can be having kids point to evidence in a text for their answer to a question. It can be expecting students to know & use the vocabulary of the discipline. And so on.

Academic Rigor is perhaps the most often discussed yet hardest to define of the three. To me, rigor means having a clear idea of what you want the students to learn and targeting instruction to that objective. It means including complexity and nuance in the curriculum. Too often, I hear frustrated teachers - especially beginning teachers, especially those in under-resourced schools - say that to get the kids to learn, they have to make everything really simple. I've always felt that removing the detail makes the material less interesting and decreases the opportunities for a student to connect new knowledge to prior knowledge. Rigor means challenging students to think, apply their knowledge, create something new, ask good questions, answer them....

After the PD session, we met briefly in subject teams. I had intended the Science Dept. to look at student work and talk about how we know that students are learning, and how the work they produce reflects the type of assignments we are giving. Mr. Richter and Mr. Kelvin have been giving the students large, unstructured assignments, like "Write a story about the lifecycle of a rock." It's a great idea, but the kids need more guidance than that! Mr. Richter found, in fact, that the stories fell into a few categories. Some kids wrote imaginative stories, but included no science. Others were very scientific, but not very creative. A few managed to be both creative and scientific. We talked briefly about how to get more of the kids to write stories that show that they understand the content while being creative in their writing.

Then we talked about a recent assignment Mr. Kelvin gave, where he asked the students to research Isaac Newton's Three Laws of Motion and write a 2-3 page essay about them. He had expected them to write a basic five paragraph essay, but few or none of the sixth graders knew how to do that, and he hadn't communicated his expectations to them very clearly. I told him about how our Social Studies teacher had walked the sixth graders through the process of writing a research paper two years ago, when they were in sixth grade. For the first paper, she gave them all the source material they needed, had them use a notetaking format in class, then write one paragraph each night for homework. Then she taught them about introductions, and had them write that at home, and the same thing for conclusions. Finally, they combined their work into one paper, and did yet another revision. Mr. Kelvin was mindboggled!

I remember that feeling, as a new teacher, that the number of steps required to get the kids from A to B was overwhelming -- but I know for sure that the only way that I get the quality of work that I want is by teaching them how to do it, one piece at a time, letting them try it, providing feedback, and then letting them revise their work. And then I assign something similar on a different topic, and go through the same process, each time leaving a bit more of the process up to the students, until they get to the point where they can do it on their own.

I'm in a much better mood. I'm still exhausted, but I got a little more sleep this weekend and caught up on laundry, work, etc., and cleaned my apartment, and relaxed and hung out with people I care about -- and the sun came out! -- and I'm no longer on such shaky ground. It's good to know your triggers and work on them. I am so much stronger now than I was four years ago.

PS. Speaking of shaky ground - check out Mount St. Helens on the Johnston Ridge Observatory Volcano Cam!

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Interview: Alan Berger, founder of the Brooklyn Free School

Way back in August, I posted about a documentary that I saw about the Albany Free School. At that screening, I found out about the Brooklyn Free School, a new school opening this fall in Brooklyn. I arranged to interview the founder, Alan Berger, by email. He is on leave from the NYC Department of Education. Here (at long last) is the text of our interview. Thanks for corresponding with me, Alan!

Can you tell me a little about how you became interested in free schools?
I read an article in the NY Times about Sudbury Valley 3 years ago.

What has been the response of your colleagues in the public school system to this new project?
Most have been fairly supportive. I don't generally associate with those that would be diametrically opposed to something like this.

Will your own children attend BFS?
I have a 13 yr-old son who wants to attend, but his mom does not want him to, and he also would like to finish up at the middle school he's currently at because he wants to spend his last year (before everyone gets split up for HS) with the friends he's been going to school with for the last 8 years or more. My partner has a daughter who is 8 and wants to go, but her dad is not in favor. We're still working on him.

What was your own educational experience like, as a child?
Traditional, although I grew up in a fairly progressive town on LI, Great Neck, attended Ethical Culture "Sunday School" and a sleepaway summer camp in MA for seven summers that was a big influence on my education. The summer camp model, at least the one I experienced, is closer to my ideas of what education should be like.

What is your vision for a typical day at BFS? Will there be any structure to the day? Will any kinds of activities bediscouraged/banned - for example, video games, tv, etc.? How will teachers handle misbehavior, arguing, bullying, etc.? Will there be any age divisions?
A morning all-hands meeting (not mandatory) to talk about planned or desired activities, workshops, classes, trips, etc. suggested by any student, staff member or parent, followed by a period in the morning for group activities, lunch, and an afternoon group activities period. Once a week a democratic school meeting will be held to make the decisions necessary to run the school. School meetings can also be called by any member of the school on short notice on any day to resolve a conflict or bring up an important issue. The only banned activities will be those that are determined to be detrimental to the safety and health of the students and staff. The current conflict resolution process is as follows: students will first attempt to work out conflicts on their own; then can ask a staff member or other student to help them resolve it, and finally, if these steps fail, bring it to a school meeting. There will be no set age divisions. We will have a separate space set aside for the youngest children (4-7).

Can you tell me more about the structure of the democratic decision-making processes you are planning to implement? Will it besimilar to the Council Meetings held at the Albany Free School?

How will you introduce/teach this process to incoming students?
We have already started to do this through holding student/staff meetings at our regular general meetings and at the last few meetings we've held at the school site. We will probably supplement this experience with some handouts and videos of meetings from other schools. We may role play some meetings for the youngest children.

What kinds of families have been attracted to the BFS so far?
Families that are interested in an education that is more flexible and individually based. We started with a diverse group of parents from the Park Slope Food Coop and branched out from there. Our ethnic and socio-economic mix is very diverse. Our current population is roughly 50% people of color and all income levels are represented. About 1/3 of our families have home schooled their children at one point or other. Others have experienced Montessori and Waldorf, or some other private school, and the rest have been to public schools. We have families now from all five boroughs.

How do you envision schools like the Brooklyn Free School fitting into society as a whole? Should they be an experiment for just a few students? One option among many? A model of how all schooling should be?
One option among many. We hope that what we are doing will have an effect on traditional education, moving it in a more truly democratic and child-centered way.

One person I spoke to at the Bluestockings event (film about theAlbany Free School) said that he and his wife provide a lot of academic education to their daughter at home, since she is not getting it at the Albany Free School. He was comfortable with this. Some children will come to your school from homes where they get lots of stimulation, lots of academic support, perhaps even supplemental teaching. Others will not, and often this correlates with socioeconomic status. If you succeed in enrolling a group of students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, how will you ensure that all the kids leave your school with the knowledge and skills they need tosucceed in college or the working world?
We don't profess to know what each individual person will need to "succeed" in college or the working world. Our primary goal is the social and emotional growth of each child and for each child to develop within themselves their own responsibility for and love of learning (it doesn't matter what it is that they want to learn about and we reject the paradigm that society has set up for any set curriculum of knowledge and skills). Students who have graduated from democratic schools typically have the self confidence and have learned how to learn and be their own best teacher, so that they are ready to meet any challenge that stands in their way to fulfill their own individual dreams and aspirations.

We don't equate the amount of stimulation at home, academic support, or supplemental teaching with being a happy and successful person. Nor is the goal to be striving for a higher level of socioeconomic status. The goal is to be with others in a cooperative and not competitive learning community where children and adults are free to live and learn as they wish without impinging on others' right to do the same. The goal is to give everyone the time and space and freedom to become self-actualized.

Will kids who can't get as much supplemental academics at home be "left behind," so to speak?

I read your description of what you consider "success" in the FAQs. Do you plan to collect any kind of qualitative/quantitative data onyour students' experiences during their time in your school or after leaving?

Who are your teachers? What is drawing them to teach at BFS? What kind of planning processes, professional development, etc. will teachers have amongst themselves?
They have sought us out and are interested in working in a democratic learning community. They are not traditional teachers, but are interested in the different ways that people learn and interact. One has taught at a rock and roll camp for girls, plays the drums, and loves to teach literature, another is has traveled with a math and science circus and teaches Capoeria, another is a cheese afficionado, tennis pro, and will be teaching comedy!

We plan to visit other democratic schools in the area (there are three), read and discuss some of the literature, view videos together, and have many discussions with the parents and students.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Solar Energy

Walking out of school on a Friday afternoon to brilliant sunshine and the first truly warm afternoon all week: priceless.

The debate last night made me slightly more hopeful about the outcome of the election. Consensus in my apartment was that Bush started out stronger - Kerry was a bit stiff at the start and wasn't making enough clear, quotable statements - but that Kerry relaxed and hit hard in the end, while Bush fell apart. So we put Kerry slightly ahead as far as "winning" the debate. It was gratifying to hear many of the commentators agree with us, and even more gratifying to see that polls of swing voters showed the debate improved their opinion of Kerry more than it improved their opinion of Bush. Then again, CBS put a guy on who warned us that whatever we might think about who won the debate now, remember that the media "spin" could lead to a shift in opinion a few days from now. Why - WHY? - don't people trust their own analysis? Why would you watch the debate, have an opinion, and then change it because someone on the news tells you they think differently? Or is the shift in opinion due to all the people who don't watch the debate for themselves, but form an opinion about it a few days later? Totally ridiculous.

Setting up the "naked egg" experiment was fun. We put three eggs in water, one in vinegar, one in each of three different salt solutions, one in corn syrup, and one in water with food coloring. Now they're in the fridge for the weekend. I'm really excited to see the results on Monday!

Started soccer skills in gym today. Six (seven?) years of soccer teams and camps when I was in elementary school finally comes in handy. Now if only we had a grassy field instead of the paved schoolyard.

One of my students offered to buy me a venus flytrap if they have any at Home Depot. We've been talking about these plants because the kids wanted to know if they were autotrophs (produce their own food) or heterotrophs (have to eat). It's a fantastic questions, and it turns out that they are both, they are photosynthetic but get nutrients from the insects they trap. Now this girl has been bringing in color photos from the internet and might buy me a plant! I like the idea, but I'm not sure I want to keep a supply of flies around to feed the plant...

Now the question is: do I lie on my couch and watch movies and chill, or do I attempt to be social and go out? My roommate just got back from Africa. I think the odds are in favor of staying home tonight.