Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Third Day

Tomorrow is the first day of my third year of blogging!


It is possible to spend an entire hour teaching sixth graders

  • how to take the laptops out of the cart
  • how to turn them on
  • how to use the little dot in the middle of the keyboard that works kind of like a mouse
  • how to turn them off
  • how to put them back in the cart, neatly

I borrowed a page from Mz. Smlph's blog and rather dramatically informed the students that if the laptop cart were to become a mess, I would have to stay at school to fix it, instead of going home and cooking dinner and feeding my cat - and that my cat and I would be very hungry and I might even cry. The sixth graders just looked at me, not sure whether this was a joke or not.... a few nervous giggles. Over the next year, they will come to understand my sense of humor, which they will most likely come to disdain by the end of 8th grade. C'est la vie.

The children are smart and charming. I can't say it often enough. The other teachers, who introduced them to our school's "core values," reported that they ate up the activity, which was to create short skits to illustrate right & wrong according to the core values. Some groups were begging to do not one, but two or even three of the core values!

I should have stayed at school to organize my files and decorate my room and find permanent homes for all the science supplies... but it was just too sticky. Also, I only got to drink half my coffee this morning, and apparently, I need the whole cup to fully enter the world of the living.

We are in a kind of limbo regarding the hiring of a new science teacher. The details are boring but limbo is a little disconcerting given that school starts in a week. Either I'm teaching 5 periods a week of physical science to three classes, plus health, or I'm teaching 4 periods a week of physical science to three classes, plus 4 periods of earth science a week to 1 1/2 classes, no health. I'm not particularly stressed out about it - it's out of my control - but I am finding myself having trouble starting anything with such a large loose end looming.

I resolve that today I am going to move all the files from my old computer to my new one, a task I dread so much that I put it off for two whole months. That is, if I don't get distracted by this week's Carnival of Education.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Second Day

My post last night did not do justice to the first day. I was so tired - and had so much more to do last night - that I left random sentences hanging at the end of paragraphs, focused on a few negative things in what was a really good day overall, etc. For those who are wondering, my school is a public school in NYC, but we have a week of orientation before the regular school year starts. The kids come in from 8-11:30 am, and we get them used to how things work in our school. We start teaching content on September 8th. We're getting paid per session rate this week. It isn't mandatory, yet all our teachers are here. It's one of the things that makes our school run smoothly. Technically, we can't require that the children attend, but we push hard, and the vast majority do show up.

Today, my principal and AP were back from their meeting. It was nice to just worry about the sixth grade, not the whole school. The children who came in inappropriate clothing were issued temporary uniforms and had their parents contacted. This week is all about setting the tone. The boy who argued with me about his earring did not show up, nor did his mother. I don't know what that means, but I think we are all secretly hoping they find him a different school. He doesn't really want to be at our school, and he shows that in every way he possibly can. It's not PC, but it's the truth.

The sixth graders continue to inspire hope and excitement among their teachers. They are beautiful, smart, eager... and scared, LOL! I'm not trying to scare them, mind you, they arrived scared. One of the other teachers on the team commented that he could see a real difference in the caliber of student between last year's sixth graders and this year's sixth graders. While they are a different group of children, and may in fact be better students or more cooperative, I tend to think that the very different tone between the two classes has much more to do with the teachers than with the students. Last year's sixth graders first experiences with our school were with four brand new teachers, who were inexperienced and fairly lenient. This year's sixth graders have already experienced so much more structure and boundary-setting. I just said to him, "Yes, it's up to us now," and left it at that.

I taught two lessons. The first is one we've been doing in some form or another since our first year. We introduce our children to the idea of mission and vision statements, and then talk about the school's mission and vision. Then we have them write their own vision of their lives in 5 years and mission statements for this year. The kids did such a nice job on this. They want to be scientists, they want to be teachers, they want to do good in the community. They plan to attend competitive high schools and treat their families better. Beautiful!

The second lesson was an introduction to the (remaining) laptops. This didn't go quite as smoothly - the laptops need a good clean-up to get them all back to standard settings; right now it's hard to give instructions that will make sense to everyone. Also, most of the students had never used that little dot before - instead of a mouse - and it has a pretty steep learning curve. And we had a LOT to talk about. So, we didn't get a lot done. A former student, and the son of our new parent coordinator, came in and helped out, which was great. He modeled the right and wrong ways to hold the laptops, and he helped supervise as the kids took them out of the cart and put them back in. I wish I had a teaching assistant all the time!

Everything is pretty much ready for tomorrow, so I get to spend this afternoon dealing with my own life... cleaning up the apartment, yoga, etc. All of which are sorely needed.


and disturbingly realistic. Try reading it out loud.

The eye and brain together...

do so many fascinating things to our perception. As my friend says, the eye is almost the perfect refutation of Intelligent Design!

Monday, August 29, 2005

The First Day

Everyone arrived early this morning. I thought I was super-early, but I was one of the last to arrive! The copier breaks down in the heat, and it was hot.

We have a parent coordinator this year, and she was on-hand to refer parents to for questions about the uniform and school supplies, so that was nice. I lined up the seventh and eighth graders on one side of the door, and the sixth graders on another, and we brought them inside. Some of the older kids, who know all about our uniform, had nevertheless chosen to show up in full-on hip-hop gear: baggy pants, multiple chains, enormous shirts, sparklingly-clean baseball caps, diamond studs and name-earrings. I greeted one student and asked him to take off his hat and warned him that the earrings would have to go, and he started an argument with me! So it wasn't even 8 am on the first day of school, and already I had a parent to call, because he was so disrespectful, and because he has been an on-going problem for two years now and seems ready to start the third on an even worse note. So much for the first phone call being positive! And what kind of parent lets their child out the door dressed like that - on the first day of school? At a school like ours???

We seated the kids in the auditorium and called out the names for each class. Again, I wasn't impressed by the behavior of the older children, but the sixth graders were perfect. Quiet, patient, friendly. I praised them like crazy.

First period was all about coaxing the copier to produce 84 student handbooks, shepherding latecomers to their classrooms, answering random parent questions, and talking to the police who came to get a report on the laptops. Second period, I went over the handbook with one class. They were very well-behaved, asked good questions, behaved perfectly in the halls. Third period I took another class on a tour, and again, I could not have asked for a better start to the year. This class was eager to know what we'd be studying in Science: Would we do chemistry? What about dissections? What chemistry, exactly? Maybe dissections aren't for children with weak stomachs, suggested a girl who has already dissected a frog in a special prep program... A few corrections, taken well by the students, but overall, excellent behavior. More praise. They are sucking up the praise like their favorite flavor of soda.

I am so excited: we have good clay. Now it's all on us to do the molding.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Getting Ready 4

Teachers aren't the only ones preparing to go back to school. But we may be more enthusiastic than the average twelve-year-old. And Wockerjabby discovered that this is "school sucks weekend," at least according to popular radio.
the SCHOOL SUCKS announcement was followed by a series of commercials about how ohhhhh, you have to go back to "that... place..." but at least you get to have a new wardrobe. and you get a trip to the mall to buy some fun stuff along with "the stuff your parents and the school say you have to get." one last fling with consumerism before you have to back to "that thing that happens in september!"

watch out, teenagers of the world. I am THAT THING and I am going to HAPPEN TO YOU! september is only a week away!

I had one last fling with consumerism myself today, despite my current need to not spend any money. I'm having one of those months when every time I look in my closet, I see that yet another item of clothing is looking really old and worn out, and probably should be replaced. Why is it that all my clothes reach that point at the same time, even though I buy them at different times? Anyway, I got a corduroy skirt to wear back to school which can also be dressed up for going out, a long-sleeve Western-style shirt with embroidery around the collar that is going to be my favorite shirt ever when the weather cools down, and a pair of jeans that were $25 off at Esprit and will allow me to retire my old pair of going-out jeans.

And then I went to Staples and got 5 bottles of glue ($0.09 each! but the limit was 5 per person), 6 boxes of markers, a package of nametags for use during orientation, a package of manila folders to use to collect absent students' work, and a package of hanging file folders to help me stay organized. And I wondered once again why I have never actually received a teacher rewards check from Staples, despite having and using my card regularly... maybe there's something about the card that I don't understand?

I'm going to the Howl Festival Bluegrass Ball - cross your fingers that I win the banjo they are raffling off! - but when I come home, I have to:
  • iron a week's worth of clothes
  • buy/bake a cake for a colleague's birthday tomorrow
  • type & print out some extra information for the sixth grade team to use with the kids tomorrow
  • set up classes on our eChalk system
  • make lunch for tomorrow
  • decide whether to have the kids make their own nametags or print them on the computer
  • several other things that I'm forgetting right now

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Not for the squeamish!

Reading material: Parasite Rex. The more I learn about the various ways that living things have adapted to niches I did not even know existed, the more in awe I am of life and diversity. Tapeworms keep themselves from being pushed out of the intestines by floating along with their food for a while, then swimming back upstream. Peristalsis may vary in its intensity in different parts of the intestines, and the tapeworms deal with this by making some segments of their body swim faster while other swim more slowly. Advanced stages of sleeping sickness, an illness caused by a single-celled organism called a trypanosome, are treated with a chemical so nasty it can melt normal IV tubes. But this is the only hope once the parasite has entered the brain. Hookworms digest the walls of the intestines, releasing tissue and blood. The body protects itself by staring a series of chemical reactions which could cause the blood in the hookworm's mouth to clot, starving it:
The parasite responds with a sophistication biotechnologists can only ape. It releases molecules of its own that are precisely shaped to combine with different factors in the clotting cascade. By neutralizing them, the hookworm keeps the platelets from clumping and allows the blood to keep flowing into its mouth. Once a hookworm finishes feeding at once place, the vessels can recover and clot while the parasite moves on to a fresh bit of intestines. If the hookworm were to use some crude blood-thinner that flooded the intestines, it would turn its hosts into hemophiliacs who would quickly bleed to death and take away the hookworm's meal. A biotechnology company has isolated these molecules and is now trying to turn them into anti-clotting drugs."

Disgusting. Fascinating.

And Darwin wrote (as quoted in Parasite Rex),
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficient and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [one group of parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.

Unlovable, yet beautiful in their diversity and complexity.

Carl Zimmer speculates that the guinea worm, which break through the flesh and come crawling out over the course of a few days, might have been the Israelites' plague of serpents described in the Bible:
They certainly plagued much of Asia and Africa. They couldn't be yanked out at one go, since they would snap in two and the remnant inside the body would die and cause a fatal infection. The universal cure for guinea worm was to rest for a week, slowly winding the worm turn by turn onto a stick to keep it alive until it had crawled free. Someone figured out this cure, someone forgotten now for perhaps thousands of years. But it may be that that person's invention was remembered in the symbol of medicine, known as the caduceus: two serpents wound around a staff.

Here's more on the origins of the staff and the serpent.

If I were teaching life science this year, I'd assign segments of this book. It's gross, which middle school kids love (actually, most people love, we just learn to hide our enthusiasm in order to seem proper and polite). If handled right, it promotes respect for these organisms - and all organisms - as wonders of nature. Too often, we stick to the "charismatic megafauna," but this is shortsighted because ALL living things play important ecological roles. The next generation needs a healthy respect for the complex interactions of species, in order to make informed decisions about medicine, environmental management, and agriculture. I'm only on chapter 2, but I believe the book explores issues of medicine and how colonization and corruption have allowed parasites to flourish even today, even when we know enough to keep outbreaks rare.

Getting Ready 3

Anticipation. I have the preliminary class lists for the sixth grade. The names are baroque: Joizy, Leandeline, Fatima, Marendi, Danuellys, Odalis. What will these names mean to me in a few months?

We might have a science teacher - we interviewed someone today who seems to both know the science and have teaching experience. There might be a problem with his certification, but we're looking into it.

My classroom is ready-ish. Some things have been organized, others shoved into closets to be dealt with during the afternoons next week. The bulletin board is covered in cheerful orange paper, bordered with stars on a blue background. My desk already has several piles of papers on it, but hopefully they will go away when I file things next week. As always, I make resolutions about neatness and organization.

I'm in charge on Monday, and I have the keys (several pounds worth) to prove it. Both our principal and AP are required to attend a principal's conference - remember that most schools don't open until Sept. 8th. Somehow, I became the go-to person. I think it's because my classroom is next door to the principal's office, and I kept offering to help with things this week. The other likely candidate hid in her room down the hall...

Thursday, August 25, 2005

A Blow to My Faith in Humanity

It was only 8 am, and already I'd almost been hit by a car (while crossing the street, in a crosswalk, with the walk signal) and had been called 10 times in less than 15 minutes by a candidate for a teaching position (turns out she was lost, but I couldn't take her call because it was loud on the bus, and she just kept calling and calling and calling...). I thought the day could only get better.

Ha ha ha.

Thirty laptops were stolen from a cart in one of our classrooms this summer. The classroom teacher was organizing his room and realized that the keys to the laptop cart were missing... and then took a look in the cart - empty.

That's something like $50,000 in computer equipment.

And almost certainly an inside job.

We were gone from mid-July to mid-August, and during this time, pretty much only the custodians were in the building. They were cleaning our floors and had to move stuff around in our classrooms to do so. Innocent until proven guilty, but it seems really likely that one or more members of the custodial staff stole the computers. It was really stupid of the teacher to have left the keys in his classroom with the cart - he should have locked them up in a filing cabinet, taken them home, or given them to our principal, but they should not have been in that room where anyone could come across them. But we all make mistakes, and we just have to learn from this one. Blaming him doesn't bring back the computers.

We are filing a police report, but it is unlikely that we will get the computers back. If we're lucky, the dept. of education may have an insurance policy to help replace them.

It kills me to know that someone in the building is being all nicey-nicey to our faces, and laughing at us behind our backs, and bragging to their friends, and spending all the money they got from stealing from a public school.

But hey, no one's dead; laptops are just stuff. It sucks, but we'll deal, like we deal with everything else.

The Good Things

1. These guys. Oh, very good. And the swing dancers who come around midnight.

2. The yellow arrows filling my neighborhood, pointing to places and things that you might walk by without seeing, or might have seen and wondered about every day. I heard an interview with the artist who created the wood & toy sculpture in the Sixth St. & Ave. B Community Garden; some people love it, some people hate it, but he keeps adding to it, and city agencies have declared it safe. I think it looks like a junkyard version of the big tower inside FAO Schwartz - maybe the people's version...

3. Fontina & hot pepper pizza, and white russians, and salad, and slices of heirloom tomatoes with salt and pepper...

4. Coming home to find all the dishes done.

5. Getting a phone call from a former student, who just wants to chat about his summer and his upcoming entrance into high school. He said he has to read 4 out of 5 books to prepare for a Humanities class: Night, 1984, Roots, To Kill a Mockingbird, Hiroshima. I said those are all great books, and smiled inwardly because it sounds like his high school will be rigorous. He said that another student from our school had skipped high school orientation and wasn't going to read the books and didn't care about losing points. I said to tell him that his old teachers said to read the books. He said that he had to write an essay about the setting of the books, and whether the setting was necessary to the story, or whether the plot could have taken place elsewhere. He said he thought it was easy for Night, because it really happened during the Holocaust, so obviously the setting was important. I asked whether he thought similar types of things had ever happened anywhere else, at any other time, and could they happen today. He said, "Oh," and I knew we'd just had a moment. I asked about his science teacher; he said, "She's tall and thin and young, you know, kind of science-teacher-looking."

6. Having finished all my coursework for Confratute & gifted ed certification.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Getting Ready 2

Yesterday, my sixth grade team sketched out a plan for orientation week. Today, we had to start writing lesson plans. Meanwhile, Ms. Principal and Ms. Dean (now Ms. AP) needed the team leaders to meet to refine certain policies for the staff handbook. So, I met with my team for only a few minutes and left them with the task of dividing up the lessons and writing up lesson plans. They got so much done, it was awesome! I think we are going to do a great job with the sixth graders this year. I was happy to leave them working, because it allowed me to step back so that other voices on the team can get stronger. It also allowed our brand-new art teacher to spend some time planning lessons with more experienced teachers, a great way for her to get both practice and feedback.

In our grade leaders' meeting, we discussed a schoolwide notebook policy. We are supplying the students' basic supplies this year, a binder with dividers, folders, portfolio folders, etc. They pay us back for the supplies. It reduces student choice but it ensures that everyone has what they need and it helps us help them keep their things organized.

For those unfamiliar with the idea of a notebook policy, it is basically a system of checking or supervising notebooks so that the students take all the notes, keep them in order, put papers where they belong, etc. Some teachers/schools give notebook grades. I have never done this. My approach is to be very, very clear about what materials should be on each student's desk, and to keep things like backpacks and extra books off the desks. This allows me to scan the room easily and see which students are and are not taking notes. Then I can walk over and redirect the attention of those who are not taking notes. This works well for >90% of the students and mostly works for the others. I don't have to grade the notes because I keep on top of notetaking every day. Every so often, usually at the end of a unit, I give the students class time to organize their notebooks. I list on the board which materials they need to keep, which go into their portfolios, and which they can throw away. They always have the choice of keeping worksheets or articles that were particularly interesting to them, but they can ditch old worksheets that are not their best work and that we have moved past in our lessons. We go on to the next unit with a fairly clean slate.

This works for me. It doesn't work for everyone. I don't want to give a notebook grade; it's extra work for me and does not, in and of itself, help students develop good work habits; you still have to have good classroom routines to teach organization!

In the end, we decided that one day a week, during homeroom (which we are extending to be 30 minutes long this year as a kind of quasi-advisory), the students will be given time to organize their binders. Most students just need a little prodding and some time in order to keep their things in order, and the homeroom teachers can focus on helping the students who are real organizational disasters. The subject area teachers will be responsible for setting clear expectations about what belongs in that subject's section of the binder, and how they want it organized.

We also talked about portfolios. Our long-term goal is to have a schoolwide portfolio system where the students select and reflect on their best work, and then use their portfolios as the basis for student-led conferences with parents and teachers at conference time. Our short-term goal is for all teachers to get into the routine of having students select and reflect on their best work, while we do some research and PD on student-led conferences.

I am passing the Health baton to one of our new teachers. She took it in stride: "Wait, am I going to have to teach them about, like, their periods?" and a minute later, "Ohmygosh, I'm not going to have to demonstrate how to use a condom, am I?" ('Fraid so!) I assured her that it would be fine, that she and I would sit down and plan together and she might even end up enjoying the subject. She has a great attitude and will do well.

Our other new teacher, the art teacher, is a bit of a wildcard. She is very sweet and creative and well-intentioned... but she drew a drawing of the Virgin Mary on her chalkboard today, and apparently spent quite a bit of the commute to school trying to convert the teacher who is carpooling with her. She also had a very heated discussion about evolution versus creationism with one of our math teachers today. Hmmm. We have other teachers who are quite serious Christians, but it hasn't come up in quite this way before. As long as she skips the evangelism during the school day, it'll all be okay.

Decorated more bulletin boards. Sorted the science trade books and distributed them among the three science classrooms (we are using a different classroom for seventh grade science so that we can set up labs in there and not have to break them down for the other teacher to take them to his room or so that we can do a different lab with our other grade level). Moved some materials around. Put chairs around all the tables. Finished my Confratute homework. Couldn't find the professors' email addresses in order to submit it.

I am SO ready to meet the new sixth graders. Not ready to teach them, just curious about the people I will be spending so much time with over the next few years.


And let me just point out that teaching in Turkey would have counted as something happening. ;-)

Great Teachers

Chris talked about what makes a great teacher two years ago, and quite eloquently.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Getting Ready

My grade-team - I am the sixth grade team leader - had a very productive meeting where we set goals for student orientation, brainstormed lesson ideas, and began putting together a schedule. I think I am starting to get a feel for the tone to set when running meetings... not too bossy yet still keeping things moving. At the end of the meeting, everyone was in good spirits and one teacher commented on how much we accomplished. Yay!

Then we met with a man from DreamYard, an arts program we are going to work with this year. We decided that the social studies teacher and art teacher here will work with a DreamYard teaching artist for two hours a week in each sixth grade class. The projects they do are designed by the teaching artist and our teachers in order to carefully integrate the standards and goals of the curriculum. It's really exciting - we are hoping to work with a theater/drama artist, perhaps even make puppets. In this day and age, it's nice to work in a school where we still prioritize the arts.

I sat down with our two brand new teachers and talked about some of our school routines and policies, and a few basics about planning units/lessons... they seemed to appreciate the opportunity to ask questions and get a sense of how we work.

And then I spent the afternoon cleaning and decorating my classroom, a project that will take another few hours. I'm going with orange bulletin boards this year - you wouldn't think it would be a good color, but it's a festive orange, and I need a change from my usual green and purple color scheme.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The end of denial...

The blog feels directionless right now, the writing pedantic, inelegant. That thought led to the next: so does life. Does it? New friends, the beginning of the school year, social plans in the making, the bookstore, the seaport...

it dawned on me:

Hidden deep inside me, under all the layers of down-to-earth and sensible, lives a drama queen.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with my life right now, except that I want something interesting to happen! I want it every day. I want it to the point where I think all the time about calling people whom I should not call... that is, I should not call unless I'm seeking drama...

Come to think of it, scratch "hidden deep inside me;" she's just under the surface.

And while we're on the topic, here are other things I am no longer in denial about:

1. I do want to have children some day. I am not on the yellow brick road to marriage and babies, hell no. But it's time to stop those late-twenties conversations that go like this, "I don't know, I barely have time for all the things that I want to do, how would I fit in a child?" I have no idea how people do it, but I do know that I want to find out, someday.

2. Having coffee in the evening keeps me awake. It is time to investigate the possibilities of decaf. And decaf with just a small amount of regular mixed in.

And now we will abandon confessional and return to our regularly-scheduled education ramblings...

(How fitting, the drama queen uses the royal we!)

Right on the money...

(Well, except the small SUV... I would never drive an SUV, no matter how small!)

Apparently this quiz is part of a promotion for "Cooking to Hook Up: The Bachelor's Date-Night Cookbook." I have to admit - and this might just be a symptom of my current boy-craziness - I am all for it! And I am DYING to know what the book recommends for dinner with a progressive girl such as myself (apparently it also recommends music to play and how to decorate the table...).

Job security...

is not an issue for science teachers....

It's a long story, but my school is short one science teacher. And you just don't find good - any! - science teachers in August. The position has been posted for two weeks now, but we haven't found anyone. On to Plan B, which I don't like but am learning to live with:

First, we will reduce the number of periods of science per week to 4 for each class. That sucks, but it's all we can do at this point.

I will teach 6th grade science, Mr. Richter will teach 8th grade science, and we will split seventh grade. That's going to be interesting; we will each have one seventh grade class, but what to do with the third? Neither one of us can just take the last class altogether, because we wouldn't have enough prep periods. If we split that class between us, each teaching them twice a week, we'd have exactly the right number of teaching periods, but is that really good for the kids (or for us?). Another teacher suggested a compromise: I will take that class for a few weeks for the first unit, losing some preps while Mr. Richter has extra. At the end of that unit, Mr. Richter will take them for the next few weeks, so I will get my lost preps back while he loses some. And we will continue to alternate for the rest of the year. At least this way that class will have continuity for the duration of each unit. It could work.

It's not the extra classes that bother me - I would be teaching health those periods otherwise - it's cutting science classes and the lack of continuity for the kids and the necessity of planning together, which is much harder than planning on one's own. Someone will be sure to point out the silver lining of having two heads planning lessons and units instead of just one, and it's true, but I'd still rather have a third science teacher who could make seventh grade science his or her own!

Of course, we are going to keep looking for a teacher, but we have to begin planning as though we don't have one, because we don't.

The (new) high school upstairs doesn't have a science teacher, either, and my former student-teacher told me her school has science vacancies as well.

It's a tough job market: go into science teaching!


I neglected to mention that teachers at my school are working from 8-12 this week.

Thanks to the lack of a science teacher, I feel more stressed out than inspired. This summer, although I've done many cool things, has felt a little jumbled and full of work - I worked for two weeks in July, then Confratute, and two weeks of studying and roommate-hunting when I came back from California. Ok, ok, I'm spoiled. I know that, but I still don't feel ready.

We are spending the week getting our classrooms ready and planning student orientation, which is half-days next week.

A high school based our same model is starting on the floor above us - the building will now have an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school. The principal is new and many of the teachers are brand new to teaching. We were a little wary of sharing space with them; if the high school is well-run, it will be a terrific collaborative opportunity, but if it's poorly run, we will have to deal with the side effects of sharing a building with rowdy older kids. And they have to use the bathrooms located on our floor.

When I arrived at school today, I visited their floor. It's beautiful! Everything freshly painted, artwork hung, bulletin boards covered. You can't judge a school by it's fadeless paper, but if you could, you'd think this was a good school. So that's a promising sign.

We had lunch with their staff today, which was great. I feel like lines of communication are open and I appreciate their energy and high expectations. Another promising sign.

The real test happens tomorrow, though - they have a few days of student orientation this week.

Sunday, August 21, 2005


You liked "Spellbound" and "Winged Migration" and "March of the Penguins," and "Mad Hot Ballroom," right?

Then you've got to see "Murderball."

It's a film about quadriplegic rugby, aka murderball. It's also a film about how people grow and develop as human beings, the things that happen that make them re-evaluate what's important - and we're not necessary talking about the accidents that put these guys in wheelchairs, by the way! The characters are funny and likable, the film is fast-paced and has a good sense of narrative. And it answers all your burning questions about quadriplegics...

While we're on the topic of documentaries, skip "Word Wars," a documentary (out on video now) about competitive Scrabble players. "Spellbound" did a nice job portraying quirky kids who spend a lot of time learning to spell words that they probably can't use in a sentence, and it said a few things about the American Dream at the same time. Quirky adults who spend all their time learning to spell words that they can't use in a sentence are not so charming or sympathetic, and the movie isn't really about anything.

Observable Characteristics of Good Teachers

I asked, the other day, how you know whether a teacher is good or not, since everyone acknowledges that some teachers are better than others. I got a number of answers, all thoughtful. I was asking for observable characteristics of good teachers. If one were going to design a system of pay that would reward better teachers, one would need to operationalize (make measurable/observable) the qualities of good teaching. What are the signs that can be picked up on relatively quickly by another teacher, administrator, or parent (or child, for that matter)? I realize that I sound like a jerk when I ask, "How can you tell that a teacher is caring/passionate/reflective?" and that it's possible to come up with a scientific definition of these things and lose sight of the big picture... bear with me, it's an exercise, a way to think about how one can fairly evaluate good teaching. As Suspension of Ego asks, "how do you measure those things on a consistent scale for something like merit pay? "

N's comment is a good example:
I don't know what makes a good teacher but I can tell when a teacher is good by how the kids react to the teacher. There's always that one teacher who gets her kids to turn out fabulous work, whose kids like going to her class, who seek her out after school, and usually can find her then because she puts in a ton of time in the building.

I've listed other answers below. What else can we add? How can we operationalize or make observable some of these that are a little more abstract?

  • good knowledge of subject area - how is this demonstrated?
  • constantly learning - evidence is that curriculum changes year by year based on the students' needs & teacher's on-going development
  • energy - again, how is this demonstrated?
  • collaboration with other teachers & school mission
  • knowledge of child development - how is this shown?
  • respectful of children & parents while still authoritative
  • balance between direct teaching and "personal-global-creative" approach
  • humor
  • wants to teach; sees teaching as a lifestyle, not a job - how can you tell if a given teacher has this view?
  • caring - "if you don't care about what happens to those kids once they leave, its going to show" - how will it show? what do you actually see that tells you, this teacher cares?
  • passion - again, what are the visible signs of a passionate teacher?
  • effort to differentiate the curriculum to challenge every student
  • seeks outside resources & integrates them into the curriculum
  • high standards for self and students - "does not send home the 2nd grade spelling list with multiple misspelled words"
  • students are engaged
  • gets students excited about learning
  • eyes light up when teaching (and the teacher can kindle this passion even when tired/burned out)
  • voice is not shrill or mumbling
  • students name them as one of the best teachers

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The test is over...

thank goodness!

The essay was very easy, thanks to another on-line study guide which my friend showed me. That guide included a sample essay question and standard-setting answer. The example answer was not all that impressive, and the real question on the test was very similar in format to the example question, so I had an easy time of it. The multiple choice was a little tricky; there were a lot of questions where I narrowed it down to two possible answers but then felt like one could make good arguments for either or both answers...

I got out of there early, which is nice, but I am exhausted (didn't sleep well last night, got up really early today) and sad that I missed this week's training sail. I was planning to go to the beach this afternoon, but the weather's not that great. Oh well.

Friday, August 19, 2005


It's "mudra month" at Laughing Lotus, where I practice yoga. Mudras are hand gestures that are supposed to help bring about certain states of mind.

With <24 hours to go before the gifted ed test, I feel like I've done everything I can to get ready... but I'm not above a little help from ancient Indian traditions! LOL

I asked Ivy, one of my favorite yoga teachers, if we could work on anxiety and mental focus. She laughed, as she'd already selected the jupiter mudra for our class today. Basically, clasp your fingers, cross one thumb over the other, and then point your index fingers (touching each other). The benefits? "With the the two index fingers together, the power of Jupiter, or good luck and expansion is activated. Together they focus your energy to break through barriers."

The other one I'll be doing on the subway tomorrow on my way to Queens is guyan mudra: "The tip of the thumb touches the tip of the index finger, stimulating knowledge and ability. The index finger is symbolized by Jupiter, and the thumb represents the ego. Guyan Mudra imparts receptivity & calm."

For pictures, see the link above!

How do you know a teacher is good?

EdWonk asked about parents who request a certain teacher for their child, and got quite a number of interesting responses. It's a commons problem - in each individual's best interest to try to get the best possible teacher, but the result of everyone doing it isn't sustainable...

Anyway, among the answers it became very clear that parents consider some teachers better than others. And we teachers also recognize those among us who are stronger teachers. And kids know it, too.

My question of the day is, what tips you off? There is so much debate out there over merit pay, whether/how it could be done fairly, and lots of concern about fairly identifying good teachers, yet everyone claims they "know it when they see it," so to speak. How do you know? What do you see?

Please answer in the comments and tell whether you are speaking as a teacher, parent, student, administrator, etc. Note the subtle difference between what makes a good teacher and how you get the sense that someone is a good teacher. And keep your answers polite, please - phrase things in a positive tone ("good knowledge of subject area") rather than the negative ("not stupid").

Thursday, August 18, 2005

An education blog, of sorts...

Learning to sail through the eyes of "swabs" aboard the Coast Guard's Eagle.
I was able to climb up to the royal, which is the highest sail, 140-feet in the air, for sail stations. While climbing up, I got a little nervous when my foot got stuck while I was trying to contort myself around the lines onto the Jacob’s ladder. The view was gorgeous and the sun shining on the horizon made it one of the prettiest days of my life. I would look ahead and see the bright blue ocean that only met sky and nothing else. Last night we watched Moby Dick on the waist, under the stars, which put all the swabs in such a “salty” mood. After dinner, I attempted to work out; however, trying to ride a stationary bicycle while rocking back and forth on a sailing vessel, does not really work out too well.

On Saturday, I got to climb up in the shrouds of the Pioneer. It was unbearably hot, really calm weather, and one of the crew was practicing dropping anchor, so we weren't moving. We did a man-overboard drill with an actual person in the water - wearing a life jacket! - and after that a few other people got to go swimming (er, test the life raft), again, wearing life jackets. Those of us who did not go swimming got to climb up in the shrouds, for most of us, our first time. You wear a climbing harness, but you don't clip in to anything until you reach the top or wherever you are going to be working (assuming you climbed up for something other than sheer experience!). Basically, you are climbing a ladder with rungs made of rope - the sides are fixed and are what you hold onto - and the ladder gets narrower and narrower and closer to the mast the higher you climb. Everyone stresses the importance of having each foot on a different rope, just in case one should break or slip - unlikely, but better to be safe. If you fell, it would be fifty feet - or more, I'm a terrible estimator - to the water or the deck. Don't fall. I was really excited and confident at first, but about halfway up, I looked down instead of out at the view, and felt the precariousness of the climb. I didn't want to go farther than I felt comfortable, but I didn't want to chicken out, either! I leaned in against the shrouds so I felt more secure, took some deep breaths, and after a minute or two, kept climbing. I had to take it really slow for the rest of the climb, but I made it to the top. The last few feet, the steps are so narrow I could barely fit one foot on each, and the rungs are closer together vertically, as well. My knees are bruised and a bit scraped up from hitting these. Once up there, you clip in and then climb sort of out and over this little frame that sticks out up there, and then you can sit or stand on it. I watched another woman do this on the other side of the mast before I was able to get my head around the maneuver - but I did it! Sitting I-don't-know-how-many feet up, the others on the boat miniscule below, the city and the ocean in every direction... it was breathtaking. Someday I will do something useful up there... but for now, just arriving is enough.

And then we unclipped and climbed back down.

This picture from the Eagle is a lot higher than I went, but it will give you an idea.

A bit about teaching from the Eagle's training officer:
It is imperative that, if the swabs are taught one thing on board, it must be safety at all times. Being the training officer for 2009 also allows me to have an open communication between crew, my classmates as cadre, and the officers. We all work together until evolution is completed, and it is rewarding to watch the swabs start to apply the proper seamanship throughout the ship. They learn extremely quickly. Throughout these past few weeks, I have learned how to be more flexible. I wanted to stick too much to my personal schedule and not bend for anything new. However, flexibility has become one of my strengths, where I have different plans and can adapt to any situation that I face. I have learned about myself and about leadership throughout these past few weeks, and I look forward to my next leadership position.

I'll leave you with another quote from a swab:
Today was especially tiring because I had to wake up early for midwatch. But, it is okay because it was simply amazing to haul up the sails, to heave on the lines, and as Captain Shaw said, “to some day have the best sea stories at the nursing home.”

Every school should have one of these...

Centrally Empowered Recognition System

Does yours?

Stolen blatantly from Dave Shearon, who also links to an interesting philosophy known as "invitational theory."

Footloose and contract-free!

Virtually the whole time I've worked as a teacher in NYC, it's been without a contract (that is, working under an expired contract).

The month that I started five years ago, the contract expired. After a year (or two? I'm a little fuzzy on the chronology), we got a new contract and a nice back-pay check. However, so much time had passed that the new contract expired soon after it was agreed to. That was tricky, because the city was in financial trouble and it seemed like we had just received a raise and were asking - greedily - for another, when the truth was that the raise was retroactive. So, it might be a silver lining that we are entering our third year without a new contract, because the public can no longer think, "oh they just got a raise." But c'mon, people, I need that retroactive pay! Not to mention that if and when we DO get a new contract, it will promptly expire, as I believe they are usually 3-year contracts.

Oh, and by the way: under the Taylor Law, we would lose two days pay for every one day missed, if it should get to the point of a strike.

No public employee or employee organization shall engage in a strike, and no public employee or employee organization shall cause, instigate, encourage, or condone a strike.
Not earlier than thirty nor later than ninety days following the date of such determination, the chief fiscal officer of the government involved shall deduct from the compensation of each such public employee an amount equal to twice his daily rate of pay for each day or part thereof that it was determined that he had violated this subdivision...

Thanks to The School of Blog for knowing about my life before I do, and read NYC Educator for more commentary.


I am nerdier than 70% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

I suspect my ability to recognize these guys probably helped my score a lot.

Thanks, N!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Not really a surprise, but...

improving children's social and emotional skills helps their achievement. The researchers believe that the mechanism is that classroom disruptions are minimized, kids like school more, and their are fewer suspensions. The achievement difference is non-trivial:
The review shows, for example, that an average student enrolled in a social and emotional learning program ranks at least 10 percentile points higher on achievement tests than students who do not participate in such programs.

Two laws of stress

Rimm's Law: Children feel more tension when they are worrying about their work than when they are doing that work.

Yerkes-Dodson Law: Efficiency peaks at an intermediate level of stress, which varies by person and task. Two little or too much stress are associated with low efficiency.

What I did this summer...

I've gone to two Fringe Festival shows this summer.

First, I saw "Swimming Upstream," a musical comedy about students in a high school sex ed class. It was cute; not ground-breaking, but the story held together and the music was good, and it was pretty funny.

Last night, I saw "Edna St. Vincent Millay Speaks to the Committee on Immortality," which was an excellent one-woman show, and one of the best Fringe shows I've ever seen. It got a little long in places, but I'd say one more edit and it would be a truly fantastic piece. I had no idea that Edna St. Vincent Millay lived such an interesting life!

And I've been enjoying Holly GoLightly's growling blues-rock, though unfortunately I won't be able to see her when she plays the Mercury Lounge on Thursday.

Just trying to convince myself that I have a life outside the Gifted Ed textbook...

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Surely you're kidding me...

Education of the Gifted and Talented includes this suggestion from Baldwin (1991, 1993) under the category of helping minority children maintain ethnic identity:
Help students experience what it feels like to be different. Students can use masks and become members of another ethnic group; they should stay "in character" for at least 48 hours. A journal and discussion of emotion can be used.

Oh yeah, I can just imagine the reaction of parents, other teachers, and the media if I asked my students to spend 2 days in blackface, whiteface, or similar. And furthermore, do you REALLY think that kids are going to get treated as though they were members of another ethnic group as a result of wearing a mask? Sure, they'll get treated differently, but more along the lines of, "Why the heck are you walking around in a mask?" And then they'll get jumped.

Maybe it would make more sense if I read the original source...?

Testing Teaching

Here are some example questions from the Gifted Education CST (Content Specialty Test), that is, from the study guide for it. They might illustrate some of the challenges of writing good questions to test teaching ability.

Question 3
When considering gifted and talented programming options, which of the following is NOT one of the four main components of a gifted education program?
A. School board and teacher support
B. Evaluation and modification
C. Definition and identification
D. Program philosophy and goals

Ok, this is an easy question if you've read the recommended textbook - the correct answer is A. The study guide justifies this answer, "School board and teacher support is the only option that was not listed as one of the requirements of gifted program development. The school board does not play a role in designing instructional programs and teachers are required to implement programming recommended by administrators." But in real life, you DO need the support of your school board and teachers in order to successfully implement a program. You might not need every teacher's support, and no, the school board doesn't design instructional programs, but it's still a good idea to have them in your corner. A good planner knows that philosophy and goals, definition and identification, and evaluation and modification are important in implementing ANY program; is it truly helpful to have memorized a list of four main components of a gifted ed. program?


Question 4
Which of the following lists the steps used by Renzulli for Talent Pool Identification?
A. Test score nominations, teacher nominations, alternative pathways, action information nominations.
B. Test score nominations, teacher nominations, parent nominations, special nominations.
C. Test score nominations, creativity test score nominations, teacher nominations, parent nominations, peer nominations.
D. Test score nominations, teacher nominations, alternate pathways, special nominations, action information nominations.

Question 18
What is the first step in Renzulli's Talent Pool Identification plan?
A. Test score nomination
B. Product evaluation
C. Teacher nomination
D. Self nomination

If a school is going to implement Renzulli's Schoolwide Enrichment Model, they almost certainly have several books available to help them implement this fairly complex program. I think that it's important to know that Renzulli's model includes several levels of identification designed to include as many students as possible (15-20% of the school population); I don't think a teacher will implement the program better if he or she has memorized the order of identification levels. That's what books are for. Of course, in preparing to implement a program, the teachers involved will quickly memorize details like this because they will be working with them every day.


Question 5
Mr. Doe is teaching a unit on the Civil War to his fifth grade class. He uses Bloom's Taxonomy to differentiate the level of questioning for the students in his class. He asks one group of students to "Outline the events that led to the start of the Civil War." Which level of Bloom's Taxonomy was used by Mr. Doe to design this question?
A. Application
B. Knowledge
C. Analysis
D. Synthesis

Bloom's Taxonomy is a really helpful way to think about creating more challenging and meaningful assignments and questions. One of the tricky things about it, in my opinion, is that the same assignment might be at different levels depending on the type of preparation done with the students. For example, if the students had just read an article or watched a film describing the events leading up to the Civil War, then I would argue that this question would be application level. If the students had to do independent research about the events leading up to the Civil War and develop arguments for which events led to the war, then the same question would be analysis. The correct answer, by the way, is C because, "At the Analysis level, students are asked to break down information into their component parts and identify causes leading up to an event."


Question 10
Joey, Katie, Michael, and Sarah plan to complete a Type III group project. Their plan is to create a video documentary on the little known historical facts of their town. They are currently engaged in Type II activities. Which of the following skills would be considered a METHODOLOGICAL skill?
A. Library research skills
B. Personal interview skills
C. Video editing
D. How to develop an outline of their project

Does knowing which of these skills falls into which fairly arbitrary category say anything about the teacher's ability to teach that skill? The correct answer is C because, "Video editing is a skill that would be specific to their Type III project. The other skills are general skills that would be taught to all students."


Question 20
Matthew is a highly gifted 15-year-old student whose multidisciplinary assessment indicates outstanding achievement in all academic areas. However, observations by several of his teachers as well as his scores on a personality test battery indicate that Matthew has difficulties in several affective areas. He tends to be shy, he is excessively concerned with perfection, and he strongly prefers working by himself to engaging in group projects. Program recommendations for Matthew would most likely include:
A. Encourage self-initiated learning.
B. Develop skills in making judgments using standards and criteria.
C. Encourage participation in academic group problem-solving competitions.
D. Develop the habit of reading for pure enjoyment.

Wouldn't you want to do both A and C? A would capitalize on Matthew's strengths and preferences, while C would help him develop in an area of weakness. Both would require support from the teacher. The correct answer is C because, "Although Matthew excels in academic achievement, his shyness and his strong preference for solitary work indicate some weaknesses in his social interaction skills. By encouraging him to participate in academic group problem-solving competitions, he has an opportunity to utilize his strengths (i.e., his knowledge and intelligence) to build up one of his weaker areas (i.e., his difficulty with peer interaction)."


Question 22
Which of the following teaching approaches is most likely to enhance the creativity of gifted students?
A. Emphasize concrete, real-life applications of topics rather than abstract concepts.
B. Structure assignments in ways that encourage divergent thinking.
C. Accelerate coverage of required content to allow time for creative activities.
D. Encourage students to choose their own educational goals and to seek out their own resources.

Although it's relatively easy to figure out that the answer they are looking for is B, in real life a teacher might also do C and D. Multiple choice questions don't seem well-suited to testing teaching ability, because they look for the "best" answer when multiple answers might be reasonable or when more than one answer in combination might be even better than the single best strategy.


What do you think?

Monday, August 15, 2005

And speaking of gossip...

what was UP with the middle-aged ladies book club who came HousingWorks tonight, bought no books, brought in their own coffee rather than buying from our cafe, and argued, griped, and even cursed at a volunteer when asked to check their bags?

Well, that's a relief!

Gossip is good for society!

Gossip has long been dismissed by researchers as little more than background noise, blather with no useful function. But some investigators now say that gossip should be central to any study of group interaction.

People find it irresistible for good reason: Gossip not only helps clarify and enforce the rules that keep people working well together, studies suggest, but it circulates crucial information about the behavior of others that cannot be published in an office manual. As often as it sullies reputations, psychologists say, gossip offers a foothold for newcomers in a group and a safety net for group members who feel in danger of falling out.

Toy Challenge

Toy Challenge looks pretty cool - it might be the first big project in the after-school program I hope to teach, "Pasta Challenge." The name comes from a workshop at a camp that I used to work at, where the kids built bridges and towers and stuff out of pasta; I taught this in afterschool a few years ago and we ended up using plastic straws, not pasta, but the name is just too good to scrap.

Finding a Roommate

I am mired in the process of finding a roommate for September 1st, when my friend S. will be leaving (she got a job at South Street Seaport and will be working and living on boats for the next year!).

I posted my apartment on Craigslist and got 75 responses in 24 hours. Of those, I am meeting about 15 people in 4 days. It's like running auditions. I have the power - these people need apartments - but it's so artificial. We take the 1 minute tour of my apartment, then chit-chat about habits, pet peeves, financial matters, interests, etc. I'm lucky - I already have several very reasonable possible roommates - but I'm not sure how to make the final decision. I guess this is one for Malcolm Gladwell's "blink" ideas...

Adding irony or contrast is the fact the we have NOT ONE applicant for a science teacher position that opened up rather suddenly at my school. And we need to fill the position ASAP.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

It's official...

the weather here has reached the point where I would actually prefer 10 degrees and windy.

It's 90-something and so humid sweat flies off your face and trickles down your arms and legs and back, and that's when you're standing still. I thought my misery was due to the transition from humidity-free California, but those who have been in NY all summer assure me that it really is this bad.

On the bright side, I learned how to change my AC filter. And it only took me three years! (In my defense, my original NY roommate bought the AC and took the manual with her).

Saturday, August 13, 2005

And it doesn't even mention the science tests...

For independent confirmation of my complaint about test scores coming back months and months after the tests were given, read this NY Times article.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Teacher education, part III

Nicked from a schoolyard blog, an article envisioning ideal teacher education, by Linda Darling-Hammond.

I like Darling-Hammond's ideas for using technology to allow teachers to "observe" students and classrooms over time without actually being in those classrooms or interacting with those students. This seems like a good way to get would-be teachers to apply what they are learning to real life teaching situations on a large scale and regular basis without overloading good schools and classrooms with observers.

I also like her ideas for follow-up study groups and mentorships during the first year of teaching and beyond. And note her comments about the culture of the school where her fictional beginning teacher works. My school is almost like that, except that we are always so busy and tired...


Kevin suggests that would-be teachers should have to get a high score on a rigorous national exam before entering Ed School. He brings up the USMLE as a model, the United States Medical Licensing Exam. This is actually given after students complete med school (each step happens at a different point throughout med school and at the end of study) but let's take a look at it.

USMLE has three parts. The first is a multiple choice exam which tests "whether you understand and can apply important concepts of the sciences basic to the practice of medicine, with special emphasis on principles and mechanisms underlying health, disease, and modes of therapy." The second multiple choice section assesses "whether you can apply medical knowledge, skills, and understanding of clinical science essential for the provision of patient care under supervision and includes emphasis on health promotion and disease prevention." Finally, the third section is a combination of multiple choice questions and 9 cases presented by a computer. I'm not absolutely certain, but it looks like the test-taker is given some basics about a patient and then, using the computer, gathers a history, orders particular tests, and recommends a course of treatment based on test results.

I'm really impressed by the USMLE website; each section of the test is described clearly and succinctly - no surprises here - and sample test questions are provided along with lots of other materials. Each section of the test has a clear rationale, and the test was created by practitioners and professors of medicine. The multiple choice sections are scored by computer, and the cases are scored as follows: "The CCS scoring process compares your patient management strategy with policies obtained from experts. Actions resembling a range of optimal strategies will produce a higher score. You must balance thoroughness, efficiency, avoidance of risk, and timeliness in responding to the clinical situation. Dangerous and unnecessary actions will detract from your score."

Could something like this be designed for teachers? Would it be a good idea?

I wondered whether there was any controversy about the USMLE. Is it perceived as fair? Is it seen as targeting the appropriate knowledge and skills? I found this bulletin, which suggests that the medical profession is asking some of the same questions as the education community. Some are concerned about residents' apparent weakness in clinical skills, and a performance test (Clinical Skills Evaluation) has been created to test these skills. The CSE is a bunch of stations requiring the med students to apply their clinical knowledge, and supposedly simulates a physician's day (it's a LONG test). However, the CSE costs the student $950! You can imagine the outcry if teachers had to spend almost $1000 of their own money to take a test, and it's not so different for med students who may be $100,000 in debt. Furthermore, the AMA questions the fairness of the test and whether it is necessary and calls for its administration to be suspended pending "evidence demonstrating the validity and reliability of and necessity for the exam, additional scientific analysis published in peer-reviewed journals and more testing centers."

I really respect the AMA for questioning the test and calling for scientific study rather than making the process political and demanding the abolition of the test altogether.

What do teachers need to know? What do we need to be able to do? How could one design a rigorous assessment that would ensure this knowledge and these skills, not just on paper, but in practice? How could an assessment of this sort be created so that it would be perceived as valid and fair by teachers, administrators, policy-makers, the public?

I don't know anything about the Praxis. In NY, I had to take the LAST (Language Arts & Sciences Test) which tested basic knowledge in all fields. It's pretty basic, and personally, I would not want my own child learning from a teacher who had trouble passing the LAST. I think there should be a cut-off number of attempts to pass it, maybe 3 or 5. This is to accommodate those who might be incredibly knowledgeable about math but weak in writing skills, or for whom English is not the first language, etc. Given that the union provides free tutoring, study guides are available, etc., I think three to five tries should be enough. Furthermore, if you want to be a teacher, you ought to be able to teach yourself enough to pass this test! The more elitist part of me thinks two tries should be more than enough, but I've met teachers who work really well with the kids who took a few tries to pass this test. Anyway, I would ditch the LAST altogether if teachers were required to have an undergraduate degree in their field (not education).

We also have to take the CST, the content specialty test, in our subject area(s). These are significantly harder than the LAST, though with a little brush-up, should be no problem to pass. I've passed both Earth Science and Biology and am going for the Gifted Ed test pretty soon. Something like the CST makes sense as a prerequisite for entering a master's program in education, especially for middle and high school teachers. Maybe elementary teachers could take something like the LAST instead of a CST, since they would be teaching all subject areas.

Then there is the ATS (assessment of teaching skills), which comes in two parts. First, a multiple choice and essay test about teaching; second, a submission of a 20-minute video of oneself teaching. I believe the video is being phased out.

The ATS-W (written) is not, in my opinion, a good test. Here's the preparation guide, so you can take a look for yourself. I like the questions that ask the teacher to choose the best teaching strategy for a given situation. I dislike the questions that ask the teacher to recognize the thinking behind an assignment or strategy described in the test. I also find that many of the questions test subtleties in reading the question and answers and guessing the thinking of the test-writer. I don't know whether there have been any studies of how scores on the ATS-W correlate with success as a teacher, but I hypothesize that the correlation would be LOW. While knowing this stuff is a good place to start, it is no guarantee that one can practice it in the classroom.

The essay is a little more valuable, asking teachers to design a strategy for meeting an objective, and then justify it (sample is on p. 60 of the preparation guide). I think a lot of teachers' approach to the ATS-W is to give them what they want, regardless of what one would actually do. Now, I don't disagree with most of the strategies and philosophies favored by the creators of the ATS-W, so this didn't pose a conflict for me, but it doesn't make for a great test of real teaching ability if teachers feel they have to fit a mold.

I like what the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards requires, which is videos of oneself teaching along with critical reflection and justification of what one actually did in the classroom. I also like Darling-Hammond's idea, in the article described (far) above, about a performance exam at the end of graduate school; it's too bad she didn't describe how this would work in more detail.

I will also note that everyone, even those graduating top in their classes, studies intensely for weeks and weeks before taking the bar exam or the medical licensing exam. I don't see that happening with teacher exams.

This is a long post without much of a real conclusion. I have to read/skim 60 pages per day in the Gifted Ed textbook in order to complete my independent study in time to spend a few days processing all of it before the CST. Whoo-hoo.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

My Favorite Email Ever

hello Ms Frizzle,
how are you this summer? my brother and i are working(hard) now i understand why teachers get aggravated after a long day of work! i work with 8, 9 and 10 year olds and they're all boys, imagine the trouble. while my brother gets the cute and innocent(not sure if i spelled that correctly, but that's just me!) 7 and 8 year olds (co- ed)


read this good news bad news list of my summer
Good news: i have a job
bad: sometimes the kids don't litsen
good: I'm still friends with the usual crew
bad: [friend] moved to new jersey(not to far from the city he could take a path train to the city) and [friend] is in Georgia for i dont know how long.
good: i have the new harry potter book
bad: my brother finished it, but wont let me read it untill i finish the fifth.(im almost done with the fourth lol) did you get the book yet? email me back please.

And one more thing!

I might be the only one, or exceptionally sensitive, but I find it extremely annoying that in mid-August I have still not received scores for the 8th grade science exams which were administered in early June, almost entirely hand-graded at my school in mid-June, and turned in to the Region for scanning and scaling in mid-June. I mean, for heaven's sake, put the darn things into the machine already!

And they want more tests....

(This little rant was triggered by my observation, at the DOE webpage, that next year's assessment calendar is available... but NOT this year's scores).

The Box

Jenny's colleague is right, in her comment that my plan is still "inside the box." I realized that after I finished writing the first post. It doesn't look so different from a lot of ed school programs. The second post does not, perhaps, step far out of the box but begins angling at what would need to be different to create an excellent program: extremely rigorous classes, lots of time in the classroom closely connected to what one is studying, tighter feedback circles in terms of the observations, assignments, and teaching that students do.

Mrs. Ris suggests a residency in teaching. I will confess I haven't had a chance to follow the link she provided, but it sounds promising.

The magic could come in a carefully constructed sequence of courses aligned with structured observations and student-teaching. Maybe the first semester is all observation. The future teachers could be assigned to one classroom to do regular observation (every day or every other day) in addition to special visits to observe teachers with specific strengths or students with special needs. Classes could include Child/Adol. Development, Philosophy of Education, Classroom Management 1 (yes, I think this should be a separate course, as well as a thread woven through the program), an introductory methods class. Second semester could be similar to current student-teaching, maybe continuing in the same classroom observed during semester 1. Over the course of the semester, the student-teacher would take over more and more classroom duties, with mentorship from the regular teacher. Classes could include another methods class, Learning & the Brain, the literacy class, the special education class. During the second year, the teacher might have his or her own classroom for 2 periods per day, with mentors observing but not all the time. The teacher would have to begin reflecting on his or her own practice in order to improve. Assignments would be, as often as possible, useful for the classroom or designed to foster reflection on events in the classroom. It would be a hard year - a lot of work and long days - but possible (many of us have taught full time while taking 2+ classes at night...). If the program extends to a third year, it could be more or less full-time teaching coupled with just one or two classes and a final project. I wonder if the final project could be akin to the portfolio, reflections, and videos required by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards...?

I don't know if that's out of the box... I think probably not.

I have an entire textbook on education of the gifted to read and understand and learn by August 20th, when I am taking a test for a gifted-education add-on to my license. Why I am doing this is another whole post.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

An American in Ecuador

My friend EJ has taken a teaching position at a school in Ecuador. He's started a blog about it. Promises to be interesting!

Teacher education, part II

Lots of thoughtful comments.

Chris asks how these courses ought to be taught. In some ways, that's a more important question than which courses should be taught. Many ed programs do include these classes, but poorly taught, so what's the point?

Others point out that the degree should be split into separate programs by grade level and/or subject area. I absolutely agree; my master's degree is in secondary science ed. I wasn't initially trying to design a whole school of education, just one program, but some of the problems with my program could be fixed if I focused more narrowly. So, I'm going to shift my focus to what I think a middle school science teacher should do to prepare.

And I left out teachers of the arts, physical education, etc. completely, again an issue of a really broad focus.

Coach Brown is absolutely right that you'd be hard-pressed to find people willing to go through this whole degree process to make $35,000. Then again, in NY, that's pretty much what you have to do. A master's degree plus a subject test, a general-knowledge test, and a teaching-test are necessary for permanent certification. Starting salaries in NYC are in the $40,000 range (keep in mind the cost of living before you decide to move to NYC!). We are caught in a vicious cycle: low salaries and the need for more and more coursework in order to make more money create an incentive to take classes cheaply, and since, to some extent, you get what you pay for, these classes tend to be low-quality, morale-killing experiences, which perpetuates the perception of teachers as lazy/unintelligent and our knowledge and preparation as touchy-feely, lacking in rigor, and is not really needed anyway... and if that's how you perceive teachers, why would you pay them more? I don't know how to break this cycle, I really don't.

Getting back to the HOW.

For the CONTEXT courses, I envision these being taught as appropriate to the discipline. For example, the history of ed course would be taught as a good history course is taught, the law class in the format of a good law class, and so on. I will give an example of how this might work in law (see below). I don't have as much experience with the other disciplines but I know there must be best practices in terms of how historians learn to be historians, how policy analysts learn to analyze policy, etc. Regardless, the would-be teachers should write their little tails off, but the writing assignments should feel useful to them - they should be asked to consider a range of positions and clarify their own ideas about how education fits into the social, political, legal, and historical contexts.

One of my best classes at Stanford was entitled Children, Youth, and the Law. We read decisions, we read newspaper articles about decisions, we read background about the social and political setting at the time of the decisions, we read about the structure of the courts, the internal workings of the Supreme Court (fascinating!), and about some of the foundational laws (14th Amendment, etc.) used in these cases. In class, we briefly reviewed the facts and discussed the reasoning behind the decisions. We debated whether test cases lead to good law. It was hard work, it was incredibly interesting, and it required disciplined thinking and writing. We researched specific areas of law and wrote a final paper, and we took a test where we read a hypothetical case and identified the rights and interests and possibly applicable laws and precedents. At the end of this class, I had decided to become a child advocacy lawyer and eventually a Supreme Court justice.

In a program preparing teachers, I would expect a lot of the hypothetical cases to be focused on issues likely to arise in the year-to-year life of a teacher, such as abuse and neglect, special ed law, etc.

I was also thinking since last night that perhaps the Comparative Education class should be an option like the others on the list.

As for the PSYCH/DEV/COG classes, these should be tightly coupled with students observing real children. Whenever possible, teachers should observe the same topic in more than one setting, to get a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches. When it comes to issues like autism, giftedness, learning disabilities, etc., the important things for a teacher are to understand at least the basics of what is known about causes and symptoms, be able to recognize it in a child (fairly and consistently), and know what steps to take to modify instruction or the classroom environment appropriately to help each child learn. Time spent observing should be followed up with specific prompts for reflection and discussion. Future teachers could also review available materials and develop (and workshop) their own.

The Child & Adolescent Development class should also include observations and reflection on what was observed, and, I think, a focus on developmentally appropriate activities. One assignment might be to look through the state standards for one's subject area and critique them in terms of what is known about children's thinking skills at different ages; I find some of the standards included for middle school to be awfully abstract given that many children of this age are still pretty concrete. Accompany the critique could be a challenge to take the standards, for better or for worse, and translate them into learning objectives and activities that are developmentally appropriate.

Learning & the Brain 1 can use a combination of textbook materials from cognitive science and actual scientific papers. Obviously, the stats/understanding research course would be prerequisite to this if needed by the student. I also envision students critically analyzing (and perhaps revising) teaching materials (created by themselves or others) based on their knowledge of how people learn.

On to the METHODS courses. As I said in yesterday's post, every teacher ought to have a grounding in literacy and math instruction. We can complain and complain about the demands placed on us to teach reading or measurement or whatever, and whine about how under-prepared students are, or we can come in knowing that it is our job - whatever we teach - to reinforce and extend these basic skills. Period.

As for writing... I hope that at least some work on writing happens in the required literacy course. And I absolutely agree that teaching writing is everyone's job. I thought about requiring it, but I was trying not to make everything required! This is one of those weaknesses of my rough draft that might be fixed by breaking it out into different courses required for different levels/subject areas. The teaching of writing would be a required course for English teachers and all elementary teachers, and subject area teachers should have a course focused on teaching writing in their subject area.

I might not have included enough methods courses. For science, I think topics to include would be scope & sequence, generally from K-12 and in more detail for the level the teachers are planning to teach; common misconceptions and how to overturn them so that learning sticks; inquiry-based science and how to design inquiry activities; lab safety and procedures; choosing a science textbook and using it well; and so on. I'm not sure how much actual science content should be included. Having majored in science as an undergraduate ought to make content review unnecessary, except that one does not always end up teaching the same area of science as one majored in. One solution would be to have teachers practice the process of getting up-to-speed on an area that one hasn't studied recently; teachers could pick an area a bit outside their expertise, then brush up on it, identify the most important things for students to learn, and design a unit to teach that material. This is what real teachers have to do all the time, and by doing it a few times as a student and getting feedback, the would-be-teacher would be given the tools to do it as often as necessary. This seems more practical than trying to review all topics in science just in case one ever finds oneself teaching it. Give a man a fish, teach a man to fish, etc.

Interdisciplinary Curriculum Design would include observing interdisciplinary units being taught in real schools, maybe watching video tapes or sitting in on teachers planning such projects, and designing a couple of units for practice.

Obviously, the Classroom Management courses would be linked to student teaching and observation and a huge amount of reflection.

I think you get the idea by now - a good course, in my opinion, involves reading the foundational literature of a discipline, reflecting on it, and grappling with it in one's teaching context. In order to not waste would-be-teacher's time, they need to be in classrooms a LOT, so that the units they design get tested at least once per term. However valuable the comments of one's classmates or professors, no one can give you feedback on a lesson design or classroom management strategy quite like your students can!

More questions & comments?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

What should a teacher education program include?

From all over, cries of pain about professional development workshops, required coursework for certification/pay increases, and coursework in teacher ed programs.

Here's what I think, a rough, off-the-cuff attempt at outlining what I am glad to have learned and what I wish I had learned. I welcome your ideas. Please note that none of this matters if it's not rigorous. And yes, I know that this is way more classes than a typical master's degree includes. Perhaps an education degree should be a separate thing, like a law degree or a medical degree. Also, I think that would-be teachers should be observing in classrooms and/or student teaching from day one of their degree program. Nothing helps you learn like knowing what you need to know!

PREREQUISITE: an undergraduate major in something other than education. An education degree ought to be a master's. Why? Every teacher should know one field well, both the content and the thinking skills and methods used by practitioners in that field. Ideally, choosing a major will help the future teacher identify a field about which they feel passionate; passion for one's subject is invaluable in preventing burnout and in motivating students to care. I don't care if you're going to teach third graders arithmetic, the 50 states, the solar system, and some reading skills, you're a more interesting person and a better role model if you are really excited by something academic.

Those lacking appropriate preparation in statistics and reading and understanding science and social science studies should be required to take a course in these topics during their first semester, in order to get the most out of the rest of their classes.

CONTEXT/HISTORY: (15 credits)

  • History of education in the US: It's helpful to have some perspective on how schools got the way they are
  • Philosophy of education: At least one course providing an overview of different philosophies of education, with students examining their own ideas about the purpose of schooling for the individual and society
  • Comparative education: Compare the US system to those of other countries including the UK, Japan, and others
  • At least two of the following:

    • Ethical Issues in Education
    • Education/Children & the Law
    • Introduction to School Administration
    • Economics & Education
    • Politics & Education
    • Alternative Models of Education: This could examine everything from IB programs to free schools to homeschooling to Waldorf/Steiner schools


  • Learning & the Brain 1: A foundations course in cognitive science with a strong focus on studies of how people learn
  • Child & Adolescent Development: Physical, psychological, intellectual, & spiritual development from birth to 20-something
  • Special Education 1 & 2: I imagine that the first course would address the types of students one might encounter who have special needs in the classroom, and how to best teach them, and the second would address the larger context of special education, including evaluation of students for special education services, legal issues, the IEP, etc.
  • At least one of the following:

    • Abnormal Psychology of Children & Adolescents
    • Learning & the Brain 2: In this course the students would actually design & conduct a study of learning!
    • A selection of courses focusing on educating children with specific types of "exceptionalities," including learning disabilities, severe behavioral disorders, giftedness, autism, etc. Each teacher would have a solid grounding in how to modify instruction for students with at least one type of exceptionality.

METHODS: (55 units + optional additional classroom management stuff)

  • Teaching & Learning Literacy: It's an art & a science, and teachers need to know both. I nearly put this with the psych/dev/cog section because my vision is that it would be heavily research-based while providing an overview of the most significant programs and methods developed over the last 30 years or so.
  • Teaching & Learning Mathematics: See above! Please note that these courses are for everyone, regardless of chosen subject area. Some will disagree with me, but I feel that we are all responsible for all kids reading and writing well and thinking mathematically. It might be helpful to offer slightly different versions depending on the grade levels teachers are planning to teach.
  • At least three courses in subject-specific teaching methods. The first could be for everyone (it's helpful for me as a middle school teacher to know what the elementary and high school science teachers are doing!), and the second and third focused on the grade levels the teacher is planning to teach. These courses should strike a balance between general methods and specific activities. New teachers love workshops where they are given ready-to-use or easily-adaptable activities, and there is a value in this, but they should also be taught how to create their own activities, where to look to find activities created by others, how to use a textbook and other commercial materials, etc.
  • Differentiating Instruction: Practical strategies for making sure the teacher addresses the wide range of prior knowledge, experience, skill, and interest likely to be encountered in the classroom.
  • At least one (but two might be better) course in assessment. I imagine one course that looks at macro-level assessment, standardized tests, report cards, intelligence testing, etc., and a second course that looks at micro-level assessment, such as informal assessment through questioning and looking at student work, how to create rubrics and design projects and tests, etc.
  • Classroom Management 1: An overview of classroom management styles and methods.
  • At least two of the following:

    • Writing in the Content Areas
    • ESL & Bilingual Education
    • Interdisciplinary Curriculum Design
    • Advanced Curriculum Design (to add on to the three subject-specific methods courses)
    • Teaching with Technology (I'd like to require this one, to tell the truth...)


  • A selection of 1-credit workshops on specific classroom management strategies.
  • A selection of 1-credit workshops on specific curriculum programs that are in use/vogue today, such as Core Learning, Success For All, etc.
  • Additional workshops on specific aspects of technology use in the classroom, such as webquests.
  • Integrating the arts into core subjects
  • Classroom recordkeeping and other organizational and procedural stuff
  • Child abuse prevention/reporting
  • Surviving school politics
  • Interacting with Parents
  • A selection of workshops on diversity issues, such as race/ethnicity, language, immigration, sexuality, etc.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 06, 2005


Mt. Shasta

Back - in San Francisco, in civilization - from geology class followed by six days of camping in the Mendocino area. I feel like I've seen every kind of terrain and climate in the last two weeks: sticky New York City, chilly San Francisco, the misty northern California coast, the cool, fragrant redwoods, miles and miles of drought-adapted grasslands and oak forests.

This was a true vacation, lying on our backs on warm rocks beside a stream, reading and watching hawks fly overhead... swimming in an amazingly warm, still, clear lake in the Mendocino State Forest. We should have stayed in the campsites there, but we drove on, hoping to find a waterfall hidden deeper in the forest down miles of gravelly, winding roads. Then we got directions from someone who made the whole place feel creepy, and we left the forest for a rather domestic - though perfectly pleasant - campsite on the shore of Clear Lake. A final afternoon swimming and floating on a raft in the Russian River, and then we drove home this morning. We ate well - practically a whole avocado every day, which was one of my goals for the trip - strong coffee cooked over a campfire - blueberry pancakes - marshmallows burnt on the outside and near-liquid inside. I think I got fat camping! I definitely got sunshine - I am tanner than I have been in years, I really don't remember the last time I was this tan.

I read the new Harry Potter book (fabulous, though it broke my heart to have it end and to know that I'd have to wait at least a year or two for the next, and last, and to have to step back out of the world of magic and simple good and evil). I am now reading Possession, by A. S. Byatt, borrowed from my friend, a bookish novel about two modern-day English literature post-docs on the trail of a previously-unknown illicit affair between two Victorian poets... a little slow to get into but now I am caught up in it. It makes me want to write poetry and have an illicit affair, preferably in Yorkshire. *sigh*

Here are pictures from the class at Mt. Shasta. I forgot to take any on the rest of the trip. I can't get the pictures and text to line up too well, so if the caption says "here" and describes something completely different from the picture beside it, bear with me.
Our first stop in the field was this lava tube - just what it sounds like, the lava flows along, the outside cools and hardens, the molten lava inside continues flowing and leaves behind a cave-like structure. One member of our group fell entering the tube and shattered his wrist. He was taken to the hospital by two members of the group and the rest of us continued on. He was so calm throughout the whole thing that it was hard to believe the severity of his injury - I would have been screaming, or at least crying.

The foot is for scale; here you can clearly see the flow of the rock when it was still molten.
Sometimes a second flow will pass through an original tube, leaving behind a tube-inside-a-tube, creating false ceilings and balconies like this one. We climbed up onto the balcony and looked down from it.
Below is another place we stopped, the cut-away interior of a volcanic vent. What's cool about it are the clear layers, more visible in the second picture than the first.

One of the coolest places we visited was a series of "spatter cones" on the flank of the Medicine Lake Volcano, a big, old, shield volcano. The first picture is a bit of a close-up; the second is from farther away and, if you look closely, you can see the moon. Spatter cones are kind of like drip towers that kids make on the beach, except that instead of wet sand dripping onto a cone, these little vents burp globs of lava up and over their edges, forming the cones. We scrambled up two or three out of a much longer series. Near the top of one we found a fulgurite, a nickel-size patch of rock melted glassy and greenish by lightning. Apparently there are many of these near the summit of Mt. Shasta.
Next is my "life persists" picture. The trip was kind of hot and rocky; I came to appreciate green things.
We visited a series of fissures like this one, deep enough to have snow in patches at the bottom. These were so much fun to climb around in.
Big Glass Mountain - the picture doesn't do it justice. This is a huge pile of basalt, which glints and glimmers. You've seen little science class or natural history museum pieces of black, shiny basalt, volcanic glass; this mountain is made of boulders of basalt! I collected a few samples which I will photograph and post when I get home, as they are really quite amazing. If all rocks were this beautiful, we'd all be geologists.
Next is a view of a large lava flow - it's amazing to be able to SEE the way rock moved, the lobes it formed as it spread across the valley. And you get a sense of the size... I took this picture from the top of Little Mount Hoffman, which used to have a fire lookout but now has a bungalow which can be rented. Our professor had looked into the rights and determined that even when it is rented, we can still go up there and look around. We were very polite and respectful, but at least one of the women who had rented it that day wanted us GONE. I understand her feeling that we were intruders, but we just wanted to have a fifteen-minute geology lesson and then leave. In the end, that's what we did, but the dispute left a bad taste.

I'm off to find a coffee shop where I can finish my novel... I will try to post a little more about what I learned about the Cascades and everything else, probably not until I get back to NYC on Tuesday.