Friday, October 31, 2003

No One Told Me!

Apparently, my writing voice is male. That's according to the Gender Genie, which analyzes writing passages based on key words that are more often used by women or men. I put in three different passages from this blog, and all came out male! They were all shorter than the recommended passage length, but I don't think longer passages would have changed the results in this case.

I saw this on Gene Expression. Don't worry, I disagree with a lot of what they post there.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (and the Cute, and the Scary, and the Odd)


The Good: The kids had a blast at our party, and it was even reasonably fun for us adults. I went as a crayon: I wore blue sweats and t-shirt (our gym uniform), then got some blue poster paper and made a cone for my head and a sandwich board "wrapper" for myself. I drew the crayon symbols on it in black marker. This was a reprise of a costume I made back in early high school, so it was easy (except finding the right color poster board). We had genies, pirates, grim reapers, princesses, ghost brides, a zombie, Minnie Mouse, and a French maid. The kids looked cute, although compared to last year the costumes were not very creative. We had a Halloween parade, gave awards for best costumes, played "trick-or-toss" (just ask if you want the rules), played music and did Freeze Dance, and set up a haunted classroom that was so scary the kids ran back into the main party room, gasping for breath and shrieking!

The other good news (at least, I think it's good): Our district superintendent wants to expand our program not just from a program to a middle school, but from a program to a middle school and high school! We must be doing something right! Truthfully, though, that's a huge can of worms... I'm confident we can do it, but I love the middle school age group... the idea of a bunch of seventeen year-olds under my responsibility scares the bejeebers outta me! I mean, high school. Adolescence. Sex. Alcohol. Regents exams. College. eek! Granted, I would most likely stay at the middle school level, since I am a generalist, not a specialist... I love the flexibility of middle school, I love the enthusiasm the kids have for science... I love being the first to introduce them to new ideas in so many different fields of science. But still, it would be a small school - at least compared to average in NYC - and I would feel responsible, to some degree, for all the kids. One exciting thing would be that some of our current students would stay for the high school... I would love to see them grow up. Smallness is another thing. I like having a tiny school, a very small staff, knowing everyone, knowing that everyone knows me. Sure, it gets hairy from time to time, spending that much time doing important work with only a few other people, but I think it's good for all of us. The more grades we add, the farther we get from that tiny, tight-knit community. I'm not sure how big is still small, and I don't want to sign up to expand without thinking more about that question.

The Bad: One girl in my homeroom came in dressed as a boy - baggy pants, headband, oversized sweatshirt. As some in the Bronx put it: All thugged out. I thought the costume was kind of funny and pretty scary, and told her that, as did another teacher. A few minutes later, our principal came in, saw the costume, and flipped out! She made the girl call home and change into another outfit. Another girl was also made to change, although I did not notice her costume. None of the other teachers that I talked to had any problem with the "boy" costume! The girl was fully clothed, was not using Halloween as an excuse to dress as she normally would (at least, I'm pretty sure that's not her normal style!), and wasn't being disruptive or disrespectful. Yet our principal basically humiliated her. That made me very grouchy for quite a while. I haven't decided yet whether to bring it up next week or not... the rest of the day went pretty well, the girl got over it (at least outwardly), the principal got over it... I know she has stricter standards than I do, so maybe it's not worth bringing up. Still, she could have just taken the girl aside and spoken to her privately rather than calling her out in front of all the other kids.

The Ugly: At the very end of the day, after the party was over, I was taking about 40 kids downstairs to their homerooms to get their coats. We had stopped, briefly, on the staircase, and a little scuffle started - one boy claimed another boy had hit him. That boy vehemently denied it, and blamed another boy. I called them all to come stand next to me, planning to speak to them once we were safely in the classroom. Two boys came to my side, but the third went on denying that he had hit anyone. I said, I'm not punishing you yet, just come over here so I can speak to you. No response but more denial. Finally, I marched back up the stairs, explained the situation to the principal, and she gave the boy a letter to his mother. He was still arguing, yelling at us, even. Over and over we tried to explain that the cause of the letter was the arguing, not the hitting, but to no avail. An hour later, I got off the train to find a message from his mother on my phone, repeating the boy's story. *sigh*

Thursday, October 30, 2003


Busy getting ready for Halloween. I'm going as a crayon - IF I can find light blue poster paper tonight. We are having a party, complete with haunted classroom. More tomorrow!

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Broken Windows Theory for Teachers

The Broken Windows theory has become known as the way that NYC turned around its crime rate during the Giuliani era. Now, I only lived in NY for the last year or so of Giuliani's reign, but I've heard plenty of criticism of him and the tactics the police used while he was in office. That said, the Broken Windows theory is interesting and potentially useful for the classroom.

The theory is that crime rates correlate most with the number of broken windows in a neighborhood, not because broken windows cause crime, but because they are a sign that people don't care and aren't taking care of things in the neighborhood. Apparently, this gives others the impression that they can get away with things, and crime escalates from minor to major. So, cracking down on little stuff can help prevent larger problems, by communicating that this is a place where people pay attention and enforce a certain standard of behavior. Here's how the Atlantic Monthly describes the theory:

Second, at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)

Today, my principal mentioned that the District Superintendent told her (during last week's Principals Conference) that the minute you walk past one piece of paper on the floor, one staff member slacking off in the classroom, one student running in the hall, you have opened the door for major problems. I recognized the Broken Windows theory: show the students, their parents, and the staff that you have high standards, even for the little things, and they are more likely to meet those standards.

I think this is sensible and true. When students leave my classroom, I dismiss them one table at a time, and I glance across the room. I call students back in to pick up papers left on the floor near their chairs (whether or not they dropped the paper), to push in chairs left out, etc. The Broken Windows theory at work. We have a neat and clean classroom. Even small pieces of paper on the floor will not be tolerated. I have few or no problems with graffiti, gum, sunflower seeds, etc., partly as a result of this attention to detail. Similarly, everyone on our staff is strict about talking on line, walking appropriately in the halls, speaking respectfully to others, and so forth, and although we spend a lot of time dealing with line behavior problems, we simply do not deal with fighting, students cursing out teachers, and the other problems that plague schools. I will acknowledge that our students are a highly-motivated lot with attentive parents, but I can imagine what would happen to their behavior if we didn't sweat the small stuff: chaos.

Getting Along is Hard To Do, part 2.

Last week I wrote about some of my groups who were having problems working together. Well, after all the sixth graders finished their presentations, I took the last few minutes of class to make a list on chart paper of tips for PowerPoint presentations. The idea was to make a list of things they learned about using the program, giving a presentation, and working together while it is all still fresh in their minds, then post it the next time we do a similar project. One of the groups that had experienced the most problems working together volunteered lots of contrite statements about teamwork. I reinforced this point by suggesting that the groups that had trouble cooperating ended up running out of time. This particular group did not finish their slide show and was very disorganized presenting.

So, the group project is over, at least for the sixth graders, but I got one last comment from a student in that problem group. She approached me after class and said, "My group members say they learned how to work together, but really they didn't. I knew what to do and told them, but they wouldn't listen. They never listen. They didn't learn anything."

Now, 50% of the problems in this group arose from this girl's bossiness and insistence that she was always right and all the problems lay with her teammates! I suppressed the urge to laugh hysterically and say, "Honey, you didn't learn anything either!"

Another relevant fact: This same girl was responsible for changing the background of their slides multiple times and adding gorgeous clip art to several slides - before they finished typing all the slides, and over the protests of her teammates.

I was nice. I patted her on the shoulder and told her I would be keeping a close eye on each of the students in her group when they start the next project.

The lesson for me: I need to find ways to really teach the students how to cooperate, so that they learn from their mistakes and problems. I would love concrete suggestions from other teachers, 'cause this is a problem I have struggled with for my whole teaching career.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Day From Hell

Ugh. Woke up feeling lousy. Made it to school, did not get nearly enough work done during my free periods.

The 6th grade presentations were okay - not great, but definitely not terrible. After each group went, I had them sit down and asked the class for two positive comments and two suggestions for improvement. The groups listened attentively to their classmates' responses; maybe this immediate feedback will translate into better presentations the next time around. Anyway, we finish the presentations tomorrow.

By afternoon, I had the beginning of a headache (which has been following me around for a week now). It was my last period class of 7th graders that pushed the day over the edge of the great abyss. If I had been feeling good, it wouldn't have been a big deal, but today I was just not equipped to deal with it. Here's a summary:

First, they do not quiet down during their warm-up. Every goof-off is at his or her most goofy (except one, who greatly deserves some praise and will get it tomorrow). Then, one of our vocabulary sentences is "Some people like to keep a reserve of Halloween candy to eat later." I start to tell them briefly about my sister's Halloween candy hoarding tendencies (she still had candy at Easter one year!), but they all start shouting out. So I stop myself mid-sentence and tell them that I can't include little personal stories in my lessons if they're going to respond so poorly. Everyone looks around accusingly at their neighbors. Muttering. As we go over the homework, I stop constantly to regain the attention of one or two students who have obviously found other things to think about. Then, we get the laptops out so they can finish working. As they get their laptops, someone reports that a boy is crying. This boy has a history of depression - both personal and in his family - and has been really out of it lately. I take him aside to talk, but he won't say anything, so I send him to the bathroom to wash his face. Still, I'm worried about him, so I try to call the office to see if the principal can intersect him and address the situation one-on-one. No one answers, and when I hang up the phone, two boys are grappling with each other like wrestlers, and the noise level in the room rivals a heavy-metal concert. I call the two boys to my desk, ask them what on Earth they are doing, and then make them sit out for the rest of the period. I ask the class to quiet down... they do, for ten seconds. Another teacher stops by, accompanied by the boy who had been crying. Apparently the boy was not willing to talk to him, either. I think I'll call my principal tonight and tell her how worried about this boy I am... he was always an odd kid, and this year, he's really out of it, even compared to last year. I finish talking to the other teacher, look up, and see a boy lifting a chair at full-height above his head, walking across the room. At this point, my head pounding, I lose my cool. "Have you lost your mind???" I call him up to my desk, ask him if he understands why I'm angry - because of the possible injury to himself, another student, or damage to a laptop - and then make him sit out for the rest of the period. A few minutes later, it is time to clean up. They are not really ready for their presentations tomorrow, but that's just how it has to be. More than enough is more than enough. We spend the next FIFTEEN MINUTES packing up, putting chairs up, and quieting down (most of the time is spent quieting down). My homeroom class is waiting outside to get their coats, so after I realize the seventh graders are just going to keep talking unless I get loud, I decide to teach them a lesson. I let the sixth graders get their coats and just wait. Several minutes later, they are all quiet, and I point out that they are the last class getting dismissed, they still need to go to their lockers, and already five minutes have passed since they were supposed to get out of school. Waiting a class out is a questionable teaching strategy; definitely better than yelling, but something to use very, very rarely.

I get a ride home with a colleague. She pointed out that this class has a homeroom teacher who provides very little structure (okay, none), and that classes often take on the personality of their homeroom teacher. This class has been getting more and more difficult since the beginning of the year (still easier than classes in my previous school, but difficult compared to other classes in my new school). She gets them after this other teacher several times a week, and reports that they are much harder to handle when they come from his class than from any other class. Interesting. What to do about it?

Still, today would have gone better if I had just had more energy and patience; I'm not trying to blame someone else.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Poll: Best Teaching Strategies Book

Please respond in the comments: What book (or books) would you recommend to teachers in your subject area who are looking for teaching strategies? (If you have time, include a 2-3 sentence review).

My answer: Teaching Children Science: A Project-Based Approach, by Krajcik, Czerniak, & Berger. This book walks you through the philosophy behind project-based science, and how to create a unit, from developing essential questions to creating a calendar for the project. It's awesome.

Teacher Blogs As A Form of Collegiality?

Joanne Jacobs recently linked here and to a number of other teacher blogs (thanks for the referrals, Joanne!). She suggests that teacher blogs may become a way for teachers to share ideas with colleagues. I honestly hadn't thought of that when I started blogging; my intention was to give an insider's view of the public school system in NYC, since everyone has an opinion on education, but only some of us still go to school every day! Nevertheless, teacher blogs seem like a great resource for other teachers. I have seen several examples of idea-sharing as a result of blogging. Most recently, Math Teacher refers to my earlier post about teaching students to use textbooks effectively, an idea which he is planning to try out in his math classes.

I still consider myself a new teacher, though I am starting my fourth year. I love passing around resources and ideas. So, teachers & future teachers, take a look and respond to my next post, a poll.

Foster Care Neglect

Oh my god, ohmygod, ohmygod.

Presentations Tomorrow!

No one was ready to present today, so I gave them one more working period. Actually, I'm giving the seventh graders 15 more minutes tomorrow to practice, because I've lost several periods with them over the last two weeks due to Monday holidays and field trips. The sixth graders are not remotely ready, but there comes a time when you just have to say, Enough! Sink or swim! I spent the period suggesting to each group that maybe they should make some notecards, or stand up and practice what they are going to say, and getting very little response... so, we'll see. The PowerPoint looks great, but I'm worried they will crash and burn when they get up in front of their classmates. I guess the worst that can happen is they do badly and develop a sense of urgency on the next project, and the best that can happen is they do a great job and prove me wrong! No, let me take that back: the worst that can happen is they crash and burn and DON'T learn anything from the experience!

Quote for Today

"One man with courage makes a majority."

--Andrew Jackson

(I got this quote from the ASCD SmartBrief, a great source of ed news and many terrific quotes).

Saving Daylight?

So, we turned the clocks back. Mornings are easier; evenings are harder. I guess it's better that way, as it's one thing to want to stay inside and cozy at 7 pm, but if you feel that way at 6 am you're likely to be late to work. Too bad we don't really save any daylight during the summer. Wouldn't that be nice? "I'd like to cash in my daylight today, please." "I saved so much daylight during my career, I'm retiring in Florida!"

Saturday, October 25, 2003


Since my students are pretty much beyond dolls, I had no idea about Bratz (and other similar dolls). I'm of two minds: On the one hand, as the article points out, they are much more ethnically diverse than most dolls out there, and no more anatomically unrealistic than Barbie. Plus, they're only toys - kids will out grow them with little permanent damage, especially if parents take a few minutes to talk frankly with their daughters about the dolls and body image. And, any girl who wants a doll like this has most likely already been exposed to the styles and sexiness that they embody - the rapid maturing of girls these days is hardly caused by toys like Bratz. On the other hand, oh my GOD! Take a look at these dolls! Where is their clothing?! How could take the risk that your under-17 daughter think this is appropriate or attractive???


I have started working on my grades. Our marking period ends on Halloween, which is still a week away, and after that, we have a week or so to get our grades ready for the report cards. Nevertheless, I've started entering them into my computer so that I have less work when crunch time arrives... I use a program called ClassMate Grading Tool. It is basically a glorified Excel program, but the features have been modified to be especially helpful for teachers. For example, you can "waive" a particular assignment for a student, which is good when someone just could not be expected to complete a particular assignment (e.g., absent on the day of a guest speaker). It calculates the student's average without this assignment, rather than with a zero for the assignment. In Excel, I used to have to do that by hand. It can also generate reports of various kinds that are useful for teachers.

There are many interesting facets to calculating grades, both statistical and philosophical. However, I've been on the computer so much lately (due to blogging & grading) that I've started getting wicked headaches... so, I need to keep my posts shorter. It's nice that our bodies remind us from time to time that there's a whole world out there beyond the monitor!

Friday, October 24, 2003

NYC High School Admissions

The New York Times covers the controversy over changes in the NYC high school admissions process, without including many details about how the process will actually work this year. The process has always been complicated; I remember telling my 8th graders how important high grades were, only to find out in the spring that grades are only somewhat important for most students, since the process is partly a lottery to ensure that high schools get a mix of students. What's interesting to me in this article is that although the process is very complicated and stressful for all students, the article takes the perspective of the best and brightest who are concerned about the best way to play the game to win a spot at a top high school. I'm sympathetic to those stuents, I really am; I remember college admissions and I can imagine what this is like. Nevertheless, there are thousands of other kids in New York whose decision-making process in choosing a high school is also complicated and risky, but who are not considering the exam schools. What's it like for them? How do the changes in the process affect their choices? How do they find out about strategies to follow to get into the high school they want?

Teachers Talk

Bob Herbert talked with some dedicated NYC school teachers and wrote about their perspectives on teaching and education in the city in his New York Times column. The comments these teachers make are spot on, particularly the parts about the blame being shared by teachers, administrators, parents, and students. The good teachers that I know are very hard on other teachers; deadbeats make us all look bad, make our jobs more difficult, and hurt our kids!

Transit Museum Field Trip

I went to the New York City Transit Museum today, along with two other teachers, our school aide, one parent, and about 50 seventh-graders. The museum is in Brooklyn, and we're way up in the Bronx, so we got to experience about 2 hours of transit use (and a couple miles of walking) on our way there and back. Nothin' like the real thing!

Anyway, I highly recommend visiting this museum. It is full of neat artifacts, like old tokens, turnstiles, and working trains; a bus that you can sit in and "drive"; photographs and models showing how the el and underground train systems were built and evolved over time. I didn't get to see half of what I wanted to see, since we had a fairly slow tour. I find it so fascinating to imagine my favorite neighborhoods of New York as they must have been 100 or 150 years ago, with elevated train lines, electric trolleys, and the transit system fragmented into the BRT (Brooklyn Rapid Transit) and other independent lines. Thank goodness it was all consolidated!

The students also enjoyed the trip, and were very well behaved - we got compliments from the museum staff - though they also wanted more time in the museum. The take-home message of the trip was definitely "Do not surf the top of the train" given the recent death of a teenager who tried doing just that in Manhattan. They talked to us a lot about the third rail, which carries 600 volts and will kill you if you touch it. I think the talk made an impression, as the kids kept saying how stupid it was to climb up on the train like that.

From the point of view of a teacher, the trip was like a mini-experiment. I was only added as a chaperone a few days ago, and had no role in organizing the trip. The two seventh-grade homeroom teachers took very different approaches to preparing their students: One teacher gave each student a number and a partner to walk next to on the way to and from the subway. Her students could line up quickly, count off, and generally stayed in orderly lines throughout the trip. The other teacher did not set up any kind of system with his class, and we had much more trouble getting them organized and keeping them behaving in an orderly fashion as we walked and on the train.

Tips for Leading a Field Trip:

*Make sure you prep the students for the trip. Go over what you will be doing, what they need to bring, and your behavioral expectations.

*Give the students an assignment, the more engaging, the better. Go over what the assignment is before the trip, and build on it after the trip.

*Have a system prepared for how the students will travel, both on the way to your destination, and once you arrive. For example, will they walk in lines? Will they have "buddies" for the trip? Will they break up into groups once you get there? Which adult will take each group?

*I like to prepare a memo for the other chaperones, who usually have not participated in planning the trip, but need to be able to respond when issues arise. It helps if you give them a written schedule, directions, phone numbers, etc.

*And, obviously, preview the trip yourself a few days beforehand!

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Teaching's Not Difficult?

Kimberly Swygert from Number 2 Pencil sent me to read a post on Gene Expression, where the blogger attempts to rank different disciplines by difficulty. He believes that the more math is involved, the more difficult the discipline, at least roughly. He doesn't include careers, just academic disciplines, but in the comments section, various readers start discussing how various careers would rank. The author replies that he would rank teaching #99! Obviously, this guy has never spent time in a classroom with 32 12-year-olds!

He is obviously a scientist & mathematician who believes he has a difficult job (which he does) and has found a justification for ranking his job Very Difficult. As a teacher who believes I have a difficult job, let me challenge his rankings.

First of all, I don't think it does anyone any good to perpetuate the "math is harder than other subjects" myth. Believe it or not, math comes easily to some people! It did for me, at least until Calculus. Other people I know found math hard up until they tried Calculus, at which point they found it easy! Learning a language comes easily to some people, but not others. Analyzing literature and writing well comes easily to some people, but not others. Understanding complex ecosystem dynamics comes easily to some, but not others. Composing a visual image comes easily to my photographer roommate, but not to me. So, to begin with, "hard" is a relative term which varies by individual.

Complicating matters, math and science tend to be taught in a more elitist, alienating way (partly because of the "math is hard" myth). Before you jump down my throat, note the word TEND. Not always, just often. I found my math and science classes at college to be large, anonymous lecture classes, where the professors practically TRIED to scare people away by giving sink-or-swim exams. My humanities classes were generally more supportive (though not necessarily EASIER or less-demanding intellectually). So some people who might be capable of doing well in these subjects if supported and encouraged end up in other fields instead. Personally, I think that better teaching of math and science would make these fields seem less difficult and more accessible to all students.

Godless Capitalist suggests that people can't switch disciplines very easily going upwards in his ranking, but can generally switch in the downwards direction. It seems to me that to switch fields, you need to know something about the new field. I think it would be difficult for a physicist to write a professional-quality, publishable literary analysis, without taking some courses in the field. I think it would be difficult for a literature professor to do physics, without taking some additional coursework in the field. Both these people are at the top of their field, which requires specialized knowledge and skills. I would think each would need to acquire new knowledge and sharpen certain skills before taking on the other's career.

There's more to say on that, but I'm getting a headache.

Now, about teaching. Naturally, it would be easy for a physicist or mathematician to walk into a classroom of 32 students; establish rapport and authority; organize routines for handling the little details like collecting/distributing homework, taking attendance, etc.; monitor the behavior and achievement of 32 individuals more-or-less simultaneously; deliver a lesson that will help each individual develop thinking skills and gain knowledge in a specific subject area while progressing towards standards that are set equally high for everyone despite unequal prior knowledge; assess the students' learning accurately; etc., etc., etc. Heck, Godless Capitalist would probably be an excellent teacher the very first period, given how high his career ranks in comparison to teaching, #99! I could recommend him to a few schools in the Bronx...


Teachers may not require as many years of education as academics. Some of us may not being doing a great job, or may seem less intelligent or less competent than you mathematicians, and that's unfortunate. But our job requires us to monitor and respond to dozens of things all at once, ranging from subject-specific to emotional and social. Our subjects, clients, and patients are individual human beings who have extremely diverse needs but must gain a certain core of knowledge and skills. We see each of them for only an hour (at most) per day, and not even one at a time, but 30 or more simultaneously. We require excellent verbal skills, and those of us who teach math or science have also proven ourselves capable of earning an undergraduate degree in a mathematical or scientific field. No, we don't need to be on the cutting edge of our subject area like an academic does, but, then again, an academic doesn't need intimate knowledge of dozens - or hundreds - of changing, growing, individual minds (bodies, personalities).

You're welcome to visit my classroom anytime, Godless Capitalist.

Getting Along Is Hard to Do

One of my sixth grade classes has been having a really hard time with the group projects. Two groups, in particular, have major personality conflicts, which have resulted in someone crying each of the past three days. In each group, the problem stems from putting together 2 (or more) very bossy children. They just don't seem to know how to make suggestions without yelling or using a nasty tone. Of course, they also don't listen to each other very carefully, so sometimes one child has pointed out a problem four or five times and still not been heard, and justifiably feels annoyed when the problem results in more work for the group. Then they say things like, "See??? Isn't that what I said????"

I end up spending a lot of time with these groups, giving each child a chance to air his or her grievances, making suggestions for listening better and speaking more pleasantly, and just generally smoothing things out and refocusing their attention on their work. One group did much better today, after major meltdowns the past two days, but the other group did much worse, with one girl refusing to talk to the other members of her group and crying hysterically. I patted her on the shoulder, reassured her, listened to her complaints, and spoke with the whole group about getting along and not insulting each other (she had done just as much insulting as being insulted, it turned out), but she continued crying and still would not work with the other kids. At that point I turned firm, gave her a tissue, and sent her to the bathroom to wash her face and calm down. She protested, wanting to continue the scene, but I said the conversation was over. When she came back she sat with her group but did not participate, but I let it go since the period was nearly over. Hopefully she will come back tomorrow and give it another try.

I know that I am "supposed" to have roles when we do group work, such as timekeeper, encourager, etc., but when I've tried it in the past I haven't found it particularly helpful, and the students generally work together well at my school. Perhaps I will try again during my next project - one of our new teachers uses roles, so she may have suggestions.

Anyway, I can't wait to finish this project and break up those groups. This side of the students' personalities had not shown up during September, which is how I ended up with such awful combinations of kids. I hope that November's seating chart works out better, although breaking up one problematic group often just leads to creating new, unexpected conflicts... I like to change the seats every month, though, to give kids a chance to work with everyone at some point during the year, and to break up the monotony and provide relief for those who are unhappy in their current groups. I will keep a close eye on the kids having the most problems and see how they do with other students; that will help me identify who needs the most work on cooperation skills. Some kids just have conflicts with one or two specific people, while others have problems no matter who they are working with.

Considering Cats...

I am waiting for my fingers to warm up sufficiently to type. I spent about 40 minutes outside in front of a small garden on my block, feeding a few of the stray cats that live there. Another woman usually feeds them, but I am thinking about adopting two of them and figured I should start bringing them food so they get used to me. There are about 6 or more strays that live in this garden, but the two that I like most are a pair of beautiful brothers, one all grey, the other all black. They have a third brother, another black cat, but there's no way I could take in three cats. The only reason I am considering two is because several people have told me that if they can play with each other while I'm out for the day, they'll wreak less havoc on my furniture and other belongings.

The thing is, my last experience with a cat was negative - he was a very sweet shelter cat but could not be cured of peeing on soft things, like the sofa or bed, despite a year of trying everything. In the end, I had to give him back to the shelter because I had already thrown out one sofa and couldn't deal with the urine problems anymore. (Yes, I took him to the vet. Yes, I tried everything else you can suggest.) So, I'm a little nervous about adopting two cats straight from the wild.

My roommate is fine (even somewhat enthusiastic) with the idea, but she will most likely leave the country next year, so they have to be MY cats. I'm also not sure where we will fit a litterbox in our little apartment... all the convenient out-of-the-way nooks and crannies are taken by other stuff. Also, I've read that to litter train a new cat, you should keep the cat in the bathroom with the litterbox for a few days until you're sure it's trained to the box, but our bathroom is soooo small... it doesn't seem like a good idea. The kitchen is a little bigger, but has no door.

I've been thinking about it for over a month, though, and as the weather gets colder, it kills me to think of those poor cats shivering in the garden. They are looking much less healthy than they did this summer, when they first appeared on my block. I am very sensitive to cold weather, so I feel for anyone left outside.

Well, that had nothing to do with teaching, but it's on my mind, so I thought I'd share it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Poll: Riverdance

I wore a green skirt (NOT plaid) with beige tights and a beige sweater to school today. One of my students told me I looked like Riverdance. Since a teacher confirmed it (she said the final straw was my hair in a braid), I have to believe it. My question is, is it a good thing or a bad thing to look like Riverdance? Your answers in the comments, please!

NY State Math Scores Increase

The New York Times reports that math scores on the New York State exams (given in fourth and eighth grade) increased dramatically this year, and that scores in the city, and in the Bronx, increased more than in other areas. That's terrific, if it's true and continues; after all, in some schools only 10-20% of students passed the test in previous years. Whatever you might think of standardized tests, it's not a terrible thing if kids demonstrate improvement in math knowledge and ability. My experience teaching in the Bronx has been that the kids are extremely weak - and years behind their suburban counterparts - in Math and are not always getting the best instruction in that subject (although some teachers are excellent).

Incidentally, the numbers in the eighth grade, while improved, are still pretty scary: barely more than 1/3 of city students passed the 8th grade math test.

The article wisely points out that the rise in scores could be due to an unusually easy test, although teachers and experts reviewing the test found it to be reliable and comparable in difficulty to previous years. It would seem odd to me that BOTH the 4th and 8th grade exams would be unreliable in the same year, although NY State had plenty of problems with Regents' exams this year, so you never know.

At a news conference yesterday, Mr. Mills said the schools that had improved the most this year had taken basic measures to bolster their math programs, like teaching math every day and holding after-school sessions. "It's not mysterious in any way," he said.

The gains, he added, may reflect several years of work that finally paid off.

This part leaves me slightly confused. Math was NOT being taught every day in some schools??? Schools were NOT offering after-school help in Math? The schools where I have taught and my friends have taught teach Math not just once a day, but two or three periods a day to many students! And they offer tons of after-school programs to prepare for the test. It's hard for me to believe that these changes only happened recently in some schools.

Then again, if the test was first given in 1999, that means that this year's fourth graders would have been getting extra help and attention in Math for their entire academic careers, which might mean a cumulative effect that only just showed up.

Anyway, let's hope the scores stay high and go higher!

And let's hope not too much art, music, imaginative play, science, social studies - indeed, not too much childhood - was sacrificed to get these scores.

ps. The elementary school which shares a building with us showed a large increase, but was still among the lowest-performing in the district. The middle school where I used to teach showed a small increase and was average for our district. About 1/4 of the students passed, and about 1/3 were "far below the standard." My current school did not have any 4th or 8th grade students last year, so we have no scores. Here's the 4th grade data. Here's the 8th grade data.

Searching for Some Expiration...

Student question for the crew of the Makulu: "What place have you visited that expired you the most?"

Tuesday, October 21, 2003


Since our principal was out today, I helped out with lunch duty so there would still be three teachers. It turned out to be a nice day outside, and I basically just sat and chatted with one of our new seventh graders, Jillian. We have a handful of students who just joined us this year in the seventh grade, and all are having trouble adjusting to the level of work expected of them. The rest of the seventh grade has a double advantage: not only did they have last year to adjust to our standards, they are also ahead in each subject area because we covered much more material in sixth grade than the new seventh graders covered at their schools last year.

Anyway, Jillian is a really nice girl, had the highest average in the sixth grade at her old school, and is clearly an intelligent and hard-working student. Nevertheless, her quiz grades have been very low and she is really stressed out by the transition to our school. She is improving, but not fast enough to earn good grades for the first marking period. So, I sat with her on the playground and we talked a little about strategies she can use to get her grades up in the next two weeks before the marking period ends. I know that I am willing to be a little flexible with her average if she shows marked improvement on the next quiz, and I suspect her other teachers would be, as well.

I felt like it was a really helpful conversation. I think I communicated to her that her teachers care and want to help and understand that she's a good student who is in slightly over her head right now. I also have a sneaking suspicion that she really looks up to me in particular among her teachers; she said she understands things when I explain them but has trouble understanding explanations from some of the other teachers. She didn't want to end the conversation and play with the other kids, but chose to stay and chat for nearly the whole lunch period. Oh yeah, and this is the girl who bought glasses similar to mine! So, today I realized the importance of checking in with Jillian from time to time and advocating for her among the staff, since she has chosen me as a teacher to trust with her worries.

It's nice to have conversations with students when they're not in trouble!

Monday, October 20, 2003


I used the laptops for the first time today. We have 60 laptops but we only recently received them and have been busy configuring them to get internet access and stuff like that. Now that we're passed the first really crazy weeks of school, and the laptops are ready to go, we have been slowly starting to integrate them into our lessons. Here's what I did with them today:

Last week, my students designed experiments to find out what variables affect the strength of an electromagnet (i.e., length/thickness of wire, thickness of bolt, number of batteries, etc.). They carried out their experiments and recorded their results. Today and tomorrow, they are writing up their projects as PowerPoint presentations which they will give later in the week. I see this as an alternative to having each individual student turn in a written lab report, though the information is similar; it is also good practice in speaking before a group and using the computer to present information.

Using the laptops - even only 6 at a time (one per group) - adds new management challenges to the classroom. For example, I have a shelf in the back of the room set up with power cords for the laptops to quietly charge when the students are not using them. Each laptop is set up with a folder for them to save in and a system for naming the documents which prevents one group from accidently saving over another group's work (a likely scenario when they are all doing similar projects). Basically, they name their documents "electromagnet [class] [table #]". I have to keep my eyes open for inappropriate laptop use (like grabbing it away from another student).

The kids really like using the laptops, though, and the work they produce is very professional.

What Lies Ahead

My principal was told today that she has to attend a three-day principal's conference starting tomorrow. She protested that our school is very small and she has way too much to do to miss three days of school - particularly on one day's notice! Nevertheless, our instructional superintendent told her she has no choice. Interestingly enough, he also wants one of our math teachers to go to a professional development conference on Wednesday. We are putting our foot down (feet down?) on that one: unless he plans on covering her classes, it's just not do-able. So, with our principal gone for three days, we will all teach our normal course load, and keep the school running smoothly, and conduct afterschool. The worst of it is that the conference is about Reader's & Writer's Workshop, which both of our Communication Arts teachers are already implementing so well that our Literacy Consultant says she barely even needs to check on us. One of my colleagues could practically LEAD that conference! And, unlike larger schools, our principal has a pretty good idea what goes on in our classrooms and speaks with us directly about how we are implementing the new curriculum; unlike larger schools, the principal's absence directly affects all of us, as we have no assistant principals.

Then, on Friday, the seventh graders are going on a field trip to the Transit Museum. My principal will be going with them, for slightly complicated reasons relating to which classes would need to be covered if anyone else went.

The inmates are running the asylum this week! (just kidding, we're very responsible)

Sunday, October 19, 2003

As if we needed proof...

From ESPN, a list of the worst losses in baseball history. Which team lost not one, not two, but THREE of the ten games listed? I'll give you a hint: one of those losses happened on Thursday.


Yesterday, we took some of the students on a special sailing trip, sponsored by Reach The World and the Manhattan Sailing School. About a decade ago, in our district, a student drowned in a swimming pool on a school trip; as a result, the district doesn't even want to hear about trips involving water - boating, swimming, even walking near water. Never mind that the chaperones on that trip must have been complete idiots (not only did they not notice that the student had drowned, but they managed to get all the way back to the Bronx without the boy!). Thus, this trip was completely optional, held on a Saturday, each child had to bring a parent, and they had to pay for their own transportation, all of which cut down on attendance significantly. I took the train up to the Bronx in the morning, met the group, and we traveled down to Battery Park City to the marina. We had about 16 children total.

The Manhattan Sailing School has a classroom in a flat, wide, stable motor boat moored in the marina. The kids thought that was the boat! Imagine their surprise when I pointed out the little 24-foot sailboats we were going out in! "I'm not going on that!"

Heather Halstead, the director of RTW, gave a brief lesson on sailing safety: One hand for you, one for the boat. Listen to the Captain. Then we split up into groups of 5 kids, a captain, and an adult crewmember, put on bright yellow lifejackets, and boarded the boats. We had two boats, with two captains, and Heather (an experienced sailor), and then the most experienced sailor was.... me! So I was crew for the second boat. Note that "most experienced" in my case meant, I've been on sailboats 3 times before.

For the first trip, I went out with Captain Zach and 5 seventh graders. My first task was to untie the ropes holding the boat to the docks. Then, as we left the marina, I stood by the mast and kept lookout for other boat traffic. When we approached the breakwater, I gave a long toot on a plastic horn to announce our presence to any boats nearby. A little ways out, we cut the motor and I helped raise the sail. Ropes are called "sheets" on a sailboat. One student let out the sheet holding the main sail, while I fed the edge of the sail into a groove on the mast. This went rather badly, as I misfed the sail, and when we tried to lower it a few inches to fix the problem, the captain forgot to tell me that the sheet was prevented from slipping by a little cleat on the side of the mast. He had to come to the mast and fix the problem, though it wasn't my fault - I was pulling down on the sail as hard as I could, but without taking the sheet out of the cleat, I'd have to be Hercules to get it down.

From there, things went better. We raised the jib sail and sailed back and forth across the Hudson a few times. The day was cold but sunny, and we had a beautiful view of the Statue of Liberty, lower Manhattan, and other boats out for the day. He let the students try steering the boat, giving them a building on the shore to aim for, learning to use the tiller. The kids loved it! They also loved dipping their hands into the water, and the thrill when the boat tipped so that one side nearly touched the water! I took lots of pictures, which I can't wait to develop.

Finally, we lowered the sails, motored back into the marina, and then I had to tie the boat up again, and help the kids leave the boat: "Request permission to exit the boat, Captain Zach!" "Permission granted!"

The second trip was much like the first, though I was better at my job and more confident. The kids eagerly used their new sailing vocabulary and pointed out nearby boats based on their position relative to our boat, as though it were a clock. "Ferry at 5 o'clock, Captain Zach!" At the end of the trip, many kids wanted to go back out, and so we're going to get them some information about a summer sailing program the Manhattan Sailing School does for city kids. I picked up some information for myself about taking lessons, though at $540 for a basic sailing course, I'll have to start saving now to take lessons in the spring.

Fun, fun, fun, though today my shoulders and knees are sore and my hands a little roughed-up from all the work with sails and sheets.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Merit Pay?

It's contract time again, and it seems like Klein is going to push the issue of merit pay for teachers, or at least, a pay scale that rewards teachers who fill high-need positions (such as Math, Science, and positions in failing schools).

Alfred S. Posamentier, dean of the School of Education at City College, said he agreed with some of Mr. Klein's critiques, in particular the notion that teachers should be paid in accordance with the demands in their field.

"Teachers want to be treated as professionals; they have to behave like professionals," he said. "If a person is in a field of high need, then you should pay them more."

Note that they are not even talking about real merit pay, paying teachers more if they can prove they are successful.

Personally, I think one of the keys to improving education in this country is increasing the respect for teachers as professionals, among ourselves and in society at large. Way back in an undergrad course in education, I read an article (don't remember the author or title) proposing that instead of unions, teachers should belong to professional organizations like the legal bar or the medical associations. These organizations protect the rights of their members, but they also require a certain standard of education and accomplishment of their members. I like this idea. When people think about teachers, I want them to think of well-paid, intelligent, knowledgeable, committed, responsible professionals. I don't like the current image of teachers as lazy people who can't make it in any real career ("if you can't do, teach"). Of course, every individual I meet thinks it's great that I'm a teacher and that teachers are important - but society as a whole has a negative image of the profession, which politicians play on all the time.

Currently, a starting teacher in NYC can make about $40,000... but after getting a master's (even a Ph.D.) and teaching for 25 years, that teacher might have just barely doubled his or her salary! That's ridiculous! What's the incentive to stay in the profession? Why enroll in a serious, challenging degree program when you could opt for the cheapest, fastest, least-challenging master's degree - after all, you're only going to make a few thousand dollars more! I am willing to give up some job security for greater respect and the chance to make more money, but the rewards need to be significant, not piddling! Furthermore, I think teachers ought to demand other professional courtesies, like cleaner buildings, more preparatory periods, access to adequate office supplies, and more control over the materials and textbooks purchased by the school. In exchange, we should act like professionals, by collaborating with our colleagues, constantly working to improve our teaching, and being open to fair evaluation by colleagues and administrators.

Brian Crosby wrote a book called The $100,000 Teacher which outlines ways that a fair merit-pay system and other changes could turn the teaching profession around 180 degrees. I liked it and thought he made some good suggestions (one thumb up); my colleague thought he was a blowhard (one thumb down).

More on fair evaluation of teaching in another post.

Say what you mean, mean what you say.

We share a school building with an elementary school. The kids are pretty wild, very loud in the halls, very disruptive. I frequently see teachers walking classes down the halls with the kids shouting, pushing and shoving, and not listening to anything the teacher says. In this school, as in most NYC schools, the children are expected to walk in quiet (silent) double lines down the halls. You can debate the reasonableness of this, but it is the culture of the schools here, something every NYC teacher deals with daily. So, it is alarming to see children acting crazy in the hallways - today I even had to ask a group to quiet down since my children were taking a quiz. The teacher with that class wasn't doing anything, just walking along behind them! I don't like correcting the students from the other school, particularly when they're with a teacher, but in this case the noise really was disturbing my students.

I understand and sympathize when a teacher has a really difficult class and is having trouble with the kids. I've been through it all myself, at the school where I used to teach. But the key is not to give up. I never, never stopped expecting the students to behave and telling them that! You have to try - and these children are little ones, 7, 8 years old. I see these classes out of control in the hallways, and I think to myself: all you have to do is walk them back to where they came from and start over, and do that consistently until they understand that you mean what you say. The kids are so young, I imagine it wouldn't take more than a few times practicing walking quietly before they'd get the picture. Sure, it's no fun for the teacher, and it stinks for those kids who've been doing it right all along, but the bottom line is that in the long run, it's to the teacher's benefit and the benefit of ALL the children to have a safe and orderly school and respect for adults' authority.

"You change what students do by changing what students know." - Grace Yohannan


Stayed up late, watched the whole thing, the joy, the hope, the tragedy... Wondered for a while (when still ahead) what it would do to a Red Sox fan's identity to actually win. And of course, in the end, Sox fans continue to live under the curse. Guess I can keep my hair color, after all.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Sox Still Alive & Kickin'

Off to watch the game. I told the kids that if the Red Sox get into and WIN the World Series, I would dye my hair. I originally said pink, but I think green or purple are more my colors. And I will do it, too, if the Sox win. I figure beating the Yankees is much harder than beating the Marlins, so this game makes all the difference...

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

NYC Students Not Signing Up For Tutoring

It doesn't really surprise me that students eligible for tutoring (under NCLB) aren't signing up in droves: It is quite a process for a document to get from the Dept. of Ed. to a parent - and back. First, the principal has to receive it, understand it's importance, arrange for translation, and get it to the APs. The assistant principals (typically) make copies for each class, choose a student monitor, and deliver a set to each class, often without any advance warning to the teachers. The teacher will take the class set and either hand it out right then, or at the end of the period, or leave it on the desk by mistake. If the teacher is in a hurry or annoyed at being interrupted, he or she may not notice that it is an important document and therefore will not go over how to fill it out with the students. If the teacher does not stress the importance of the form to the children, many of them will throw it out or leave it behind in the classroom. Even if the teacher DOES stress its importance, it may get lost or ignored. If the child brings it home, he or she must accurately convey to a parent how important it is and by what date it must be returned. Some children's parents are at work when they get home and see the paper only if it is left on the kitchen table. Many parents (for a dozen reasons) may have trouble understanding or reading the document, let alone filling it out correctly. If understood, filled out correctly, and given back to the child, that form still has to make it back into the teacher's hand (and from there to the office) in a timely fashion in order to result in tutoring for the child.

The first year of NCLB transfers, a transfer-document was handed out 24 hours before the deadline, by exactly the method described above. I noticed that it was important, and went over it with my kids, but there was no possible way for a parent to collect the necessary information that evening and return it the next day. Why did we not receive it earlier? Accident, incompetence, conspiracy? A little of each?

Textbooks in My Classroom

Over at From Behind the Teacher's Desk, Miss Fielding wonders how teachers use textbooks in their classrooms. I left her a comment saying I'd post a bit on that here.

First of all, science textbooks are a difficult read. Each paragraph is packed with new information, lengthy, hard-to-pronounce words, and subtleties of sentence-structure than can drastically change the meaning of the paragraph if misunderstood. For children reading on-grade-level, the textbook is tough; for kids reading below grade-level, it's dang near impossible. Personally, I don't want a kid to fail science because of a reading problem! At the same time, I want to do everything I can to help my students improve their reading skills and get used to comprehending textbook-style prose.

Here's what I do. Since I was in charge of spending our science budget, I decided that it was more important to me to have materials for labs and experiments than to have one textbook per kid. So, I ordered a "class set" of 30 books plus teacher's editions. The books are used as a reference. When I started using them, I did a couple of lessons with the kids where we read through a section together, taking notes one paragraph at a time. I explicitly taught the children how to use their textbook: what the different kinds of headings are for, how to refer to a diagram and read the caption, what the sidebars are for, where the glossary is located.

After two days on that section, I sent home photocopies of the same section plus a little more, plus questions. Since then, I have photocopied 1-2 page sections of the book that related to our classwork, and sent them home with questions attached. I always make up my own questions, which focus on the main points that I want them to learn, and also reinforce the "how to use the textbook" lessons from the beginning of the year. The questions included in the book tend to be too vague and cover too much material in too few questions. The next day, we go over the questions and I collect the homework and grade it.

The NYC curriculum is big on "accountable talk" this year (under the Klein/Bloomberg reforms) and I find these lessons a good opportunity to practice accountable talk: I often ask the students to justify their answers by pointing out the evidence in the text. This also helps students who did not get the right answer figure out what they missed.

I also use children's trade books for special projects: I go to the NY Public Library and take out all the kids books on a certain science topic, for example, reptiles and amphibians. Many of the books which look "babyish" for middle school actually contain a great deal of information, in language that the kids can understand, and written in an engaging style. They also love the pictures. My favorite author is Seymour Simon, who has dozens of books for kids on animals, the solar system, and other topics. I provide these for the children to use for research purposes. This year will be even easier, since I spent school money to purchase many of my favorite science children's books for our school library.

Hope these suggestions are useful for other teachers out there!

The Deficit

President Bush and I are running neck-and-neck in the size of the deficit we have to deal with. His deficit? The U.S. budget. My deficit? Papers to be graded.

Last night (despite being locked out - or perhaps because I was forced to spend several hours in a cafe) was the first night in two or three weeks that I actually graded more papers than I had collected that day. Let's hope tonight's another, because my backpack contains more than 300 pieces of paper which require my glance, my comments, my judgment.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003


Locked myself out. Finally got back in. D'oh!

Monday, October 13, 2003


This bill would probably help at least one of my students - the violinist that I mentioned in one of my first posts - who has been in the U.S. illegally for about 6 years. His story is not that different from that of Yuliana Huicochea, the girl featured in the article. I'm sure other students that I have taught would also be affected.

And speaking of news articles, Mayor Bloomberg matches his socks to the colors of a flag?!

Maybe the Region will lease part of an office building for my school. We could use space of our own!

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Dying Young

The NY Times Magazine published an article this weekend on the unusually high rates of diseases like heart disease or diabetes among relatively young people who live in poor urban neighborhoods. I haven't read the whole thing yet (it's a long article), but thought I'd share it anyway.

Teaching Dream

I had a dream about teaching last night. It was the first day of "SkyHigh," my afterschool HS Prep program. First, I was planning to give a practice test as an assessment, but I didn't have any copies made. Then, for some bizarre reason, a whole bunch of other teachers decided to attend the class, ostensibly because they found the content interesting and had never really learned how to find the perimeter of a circle. Of course, I welcomed them since they were all trusted colleagues. That was a big mistake. They hijacked the course! The kids could barely get a word in edgewise, the teachers were talking so much, asking so many questions, and discussing my pedagogical decisions constantly. I was about to start the kids working on a problem where you have to organize five sentences into a paragraph. Another teacher jumped in and took over the teaching, doing the activity in a way that I would never have done it! When I complained, they all ganged up and told me it wasn't that interesting anyway.... and that's the last thing I remember from my dream. My next dream had something to do with me quitting a job writing instructional manuals for boomboxes.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Which Dr. Seuss Character Are You?

This is your spinnerets on drugs...

I thought these pictures were interesting. They show spiderwebs spun by spiders fed different kinds of recreational drugs. Perhaps I should re-think my coffee habit...!

Jeans Day

The kids who have been behaving well lately got coupons to wear jeans to school today, rather than the khaki pants required by our uniform. It was so much fun to see a different side of the kids. Even though they were still wearing their uniform shirts, they were so excited to show off their favorite jeans, the ones with embroidered flowers or fancy rivets or flared legs. One girl chose to stay in uniform; she said she didn't have any jeans that aren't too tight to wear to school! The only sad thing was that my only school-appropriate jeans were in the hamper. Darn.

I never would have done this my first year teaching, but...

I threw caution to the wind last night, went out to a bar, had a couple of beers, and watched five innings of the Red Sox-Yankees game! And it was a school night! Don't worry, I was in by 10:30 pm.

The students gave me a hard time about my Red Sox allegiance today, since I gave them a hard time about their Yankees allegiance yesterday. I had posted the series on the corner of the board: Red Sox 1 - Yankees 0. Then I had a student wash the board this morning, and forgot to put the series back up. Of course, the kids thought I hadn't written it on the board because my team lost. I told them I was a good sport, and put it back up. I know in my heart of hearts that it's the Red Sox' year, whatever these Yankees fans might think.

It's Those Little Moments...

1. As she was leaving today, the same little girl who called me last night, looked at me with a big grin and said, "Okay, so I'll call you tonight!"

2. A few minutes later, Miguel, a pixie-like boy with a devilish grin, told me that he could float. We were standing on the school steps. Sure enough, he turned sideways, lifted one foot slightly off the ground, and raised most of the other foot, and he really did look like he was levitating!

3. While we were still on the school steps, another boy, Jesus, was hopping around on one foot, making all kinds of crazy noises and grimaces, flinging his arms here and there. Suddenly, he stopped, turned to me, and said, "I'm going to be a zoologist!"

4. One of my seventh-graders stopped me on the way out of school and asked where I bought my glasses. She wants a pair like mine! I'm so flattered! They are square, reddish-brown, thick-plastic frames, and I got them because they were both trendy and on-sale two years ago at some chain like LensCrafters. When I was actually IN seventh grade, none of the other kids wanted to dress like me....

Logical Reasoning?

New York City has decided to give three assessments at different points throughout the year in Math and Reading to find out how the children are progressing towards passing the CTB-Math and CTB-Reading tests that they take in the spring. Okay, fine. If we're going to have all these standardized tests, we might as well check-in from time-to-time to see if our teaching is getting the kids any closer to passing. I can deal with that. Also, unlike previous years, they've actually let us know in which months these assessments will take place (notice I did not say in which week or day). However, the kids took the first Math assessment today, and it was un-timed. Now, I have nothing against un-timed standardized tests, and in fact, I think they're more fair, but here's the rub: the CTB is timed! That's one of the biggest problems for the kids: they run out of time. Will someone please tell me how much we are going to learn from an un-timed assessment about how well our students will do on a timed assessment??? I throw up my hands in disbelief!

Politics, Politics

School politics, that is.

Here's a little more background on my school. We are a very small, public magnet school, founded only last year. We have only 120-odd students and 8 staff members (including principal & school aide). We share a building with a much larger elementary school, and technically we are only a "program," not really our own school. All of us on staff are smart, driven, and very hard-working, committed to educational equity for low-income and minority children, and interested in providing an excellent education to our students. Needless to say, we have strong personalities and opinions, and all in the interest of the kids! So, as we try to run our school collectively, we inevitably bump into conflicts, lots and lots of conflicts, and the school is too small for anyone to just hide out and avoid getting involved (which is a good thing).

This week was one of those weeks, when many issues came up between staff members. The details are complicated and not that interesting to those who aren't involved, but here's an overview.

Sometimes the principal doesn't take time to find out what's really going on before interrupting or stating her opinion; today, she barged into a teacher's classroom and asked if a fight was going on, since the room was pretty loud. The teacher maintains that the kids were just very actively engaged in a content-related game, and that her tone was inappropriate. Other teachers have similar issues with our principal about interruptions of their lessons for silly things that could easily wait.

Then, she gave the entire school lunch detention for not lining up properly at the end of recess; for two days, the kids have to come upstairs after lunch and read quietly in their homerooms. This raised a lot of problems: Do ALL the children really deserve this punishment? Should we lose our (working!) lunch periods to deal with a detention that someone else gave the kids (that one got resolved - the teachers who already have lunch duty oversaw the detentions)? And whenever the kids get lunch detention, they are grumpy and resistant during their afternoon classes - surely there's another solution?

I usually manage to project an air of professionalism, and I always try to act in the way that I expect others to act, so most of the nasty stuff isn't aimed at me. Plus, I have an invisible layer of foam around me that absorbs a lot of crap and filters out negative tones-of-voice, leaving only what the person really wants to say... Not that I can absorb everything - I've certainly been drawn into conflicts at our school - but I just seem able to discuss what needs to be discussed, ignore what ought to be ignored, and accept things that are just plain how it's gonna be. Other teachers are more sensitive or have hotter tempers or longer memories, and they end up more deeply embroiled in these conflicts. At least two teachers left school today really angry... several of us discussed the issues in the school parking lot for ten minutes, but it isn't clear to me how we are going to bring up the legitimate issues with my principal without putting her on the defensive, since most of the issues do relate to her. *sigh*

Thursday, October 09, 2003


One of my students called me a few minutes ago. That, in itself, is not strange, since we gave our phone numbers to all of our students. I get a few calls per week, usually children asking for help with homework or their parents asking about quiz results or other issues.

Sixth graders don't have the greatest phone skills, as a demographic, so I frequently find myself prompting a caller, "To whom am I speaking...?" That's how this conversation started. Then she said, "Actually I don't need any help, I just called to say hi, and I've never called a teacher before." We chatted for a few minutes, about the afterschool program she was in last year, and how hard she's studying for her Social Studies test, and the TV, which was on loudly in the background. Then she put her one-year-old cousin on the phone... At that point I told her that I needed to go, but that I would see her tomorrow.

Dial-A-Teacher, incidentally, is a real phone service that NY provides for kids. The number is (212) 777-3380, for any kids or parents in NY that need homework help!


Thanks to Nancy for suggesting "SkyHigh" as a name for my high school admissions test prep class! And, take a look at her web page, Up the Down Staircase, which I have linked to in the sidebar.

Another new teacher blog to take a look at is assigned seat. This is the story of a first year teacher in a tough school - not for the faint-of-heart. I can sympathize; many of the stories he or she tells happened to me at the school where I used to teach. This is the gritty, grimy reality of life in many city schools (and I don't even know for sure that he or she teaches in NYC). I just hope that the author survives the first year and doesn't become embittered or start blaming the students, and eventually ends up enjoying teaching more.

Keep the comments coming!

whisper extravagant forklift caramel zoom cloudy honest

First afterschool Literary Magazine activity: Creating a Word Jar. I gave the kids prompts, like "words that describe sounds" and "words that describe a place you really don't like." They filled pages with words, then cut them out and put them in a jar (except that I'm a science teacher, so it's really a 1000 ml Word Beaker). We then chose 8 words. The assignment: write something that includes 7 of the 8 words. I was concerned about whether the kids would have trouble with it, since the list was pretty tough. I sat and thought for quite a while before I could find anything to write. The kids had no trouble, however, and all their stories and poems turned out to be very different from each other and very original! Next week, we are going to use paintings as prompts for our writing, since my school has many art posters on the walls.

Teaching Science is always interesting, but this week it feels like a day job: I have an exciting new gig teaching creative writing!

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Turn back the clock to 1950...

Totally off-topic, but I have to say it. It's killing me not to. I just can't believe that California elected Arnold Schwarzenneger. My objection has nothing to do with his politics or movie-star background. I am shocked and appalled that after all the stories about him harrassing women - in front of friends and other witnesses - they have still chosen him for governor. He has grossly misused his power, money, and strength to harrass and humiliate women in the movie industry, yet you're giving him more power? I find it insulting and a giant step backward that anyone would vote for this creep!

And, come to think of it, this is not off-topic: When my students asked me this morning what I thought about the election, I told them more-or-less exactly what I just wrote.

(I also mentioned that despite working within a mile of Yankee Stadium, I'm rooting for the Red Sox...)

Another NYC teacher blog...

I just discovered Up The Down Staircase today; it is written by another teacher working in inner-city NY. This is the inside-view of life as an English teacher here in the city. She also has a link to Room 315, a page for her students. I like this: "Many of you are complaining that the book is boring but I cannot take you seriously when you complain because you have not even tried to read the book! If you think it is boring, you need to back it up with evidence from the text before I can take you seriously."

After School Starts...

Today was the first day of our after school program. One of the things I find slightly odd about teaching in the city is that instead of this club or that team, everything is just called "afterschool," as in, "Do we have afterschool today?" or "What class are you teaching in afterschool?"

We have afterschool on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons from 2:30-4:30. A snack is provided (for the kids, at least...). We identified students who are at risk of failing either the math or reading exams this spring and made extra-help in the specific subject area mandatory for them. Kids who are there for enrichment get to choose from Chess, NFTE (an entrepreneurship program), Yoga, Literary Magazine, HS Admissions Prep, Photography, and Drama.

I am teaching the HS Admissions Prep on Wednesdays, and Literary Magazine on Thursdays. The HS Admissions Prep (which desperately needs a better name... any ideas?) is targeted at 7th graders who anticipate taking the Specialized High School's Admissions Test next year, to get into schools like Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, or Stuyvesant. It's a tough test, and the material is ahead of their current classes. We'll have to learn some basic geometry and algebra, along with higher-level vocabulary, more complex sentence structure, and test-taking strategies. I bought a couple of test-prep guides at Barnes & Noble, and will go over the different types of questions before next Wednesday. Then I have to find engaging ways to present the material!

Then, on Thursdays, I am leading Literary Magazine. I'm going to do lots of fun activities around creative writing, such as using a "word jar" to choose a few words that they must include in a poem; writing from nature, music, or art; or playing around with different rhyme schemes. Eventually, they will solicit submissions from other students and put the best work together in a magazine. I'm really psyched about this program, since I did a lot of work on the literary magazines back when I was in middle and high school.

Unfortunately, Pasta Challenge is gone this year. That was an engineering after school program that I did last year, with the kids building bridges and towers and such out of pasta, with challenges to hold a certain number of pennies. We all loved Pasta Challenge, but it was exhausting and I'm ready for a change! Also, I think it's important for the kids to see many sides of their teachers; they know about my techie side, but do they know that I'm also a creative writer?

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Other Teachers Blogging...

I've added a few new links to other education-related blogs. Take a look; they're in the right-hand column.

Climate Control

Today was officially the first day of winter at my school. Today I wore a wool sweater - technically a jacket - over my long-sleeve shirt while my blue, shivering fingers stripped plastic off the ends of 50 pieces of #22 Hook-Up Wire. Ah, winter.... sometimes I wonder why they even bothered putting a roof on our building.

Nevertheless, we had fun building electromagnets and watching them do crazy things to compass needles.

I'm begging you...

Please, please, California: Don't elect Schwarzenneger!

Friday, October 03, 2003

Traveling again...

Off to Montreal for a long weekend... I definitely appreciate having the Jewish holidays off from work!

Thursday, October 02, 2003

On Anonymity

Over at Teaching High School, teachers and bloggers have been discussing the benefits and costs of remaining anonymous as a blogger. I will weigh in on the issue: I think anonymity is essential for me to be able to keep a blog about my teaching experiences. First, while I do not intend to say anything mean or offensive about anyone, you never know for sure what a person will think if they suddenly realize you have been writing about them in a public forum for weeks or months. This is also why I choose to use pseudonyms for other people mentioned in my blog. If someone did stumble across my blog who knows me or my school, they could probably figure out that it's our school and who each character is, but I think they'd appreciate knowing that the rest of the world would not recognize them. Second, this anonymity allows me to tell more interesting and truthful stories. I want my students and colleagues to become real people to my readers, but in a way that is respectful of their privacy. The things kids do and say are what make life as a teacher interesting, and it's the little details that tell the stories. I can't provide both truthful details and real names. Similarly, this allows me to be more honest in expressing my opinions about education, politics, and NYC schools. Third, a few years ago a teacher wrote to the New York Post or Daily News (I don't remember which), complaining about violence in his school. The newspaper covered the story, all right: they photographed the letter and identified its author. Thing is, the letter was embarrassingly frank and full of spelling and grammar errors. It must have been horrifying to have been that teacher. Now, I would never have put my name on such a poorly-written document, but I still took a lesson from the incident: when you write something for the public, you never really know where it will end up, or how it will be received. Thus, although it is probably possible for a good researcher to figure out where I teach, I don't broadcast my personal information to the world.

Over & out.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Back to School in Iraq

I've been following the overhaul of Iraq's schools: Iraqi Schools Expelling 'Beloved Saddam'. Fascinating to think of the turmoil, both external and internal. Imagine being a seven-year-old asked to read - in every lesson - about Saddam Hussein. Then imagine only a year later, after your country gets bombed and occupied, being asked to rip those very references to Saddam out of your books. I am so thankful to have grown up in a country as stable and prosperous as the United States.

I got a link!

Check it out: Teacher Humor linked to me in their list of Teacher Blogs. And I haven't written anything remotely funny in weeks!

Response to "Why the Bloomberg/Klein Educational Reforms Will Not Work" (cont'd)

On Sunday, Sept. 28, I published an article by Professor Alan Singer, of Hofstra University. I started to respond to his ideas on Mon., Sept. 29, and I will continue today. I don't completely disagree with Professor Singer, nor do I completely agree with him. I would love to know what others think!

Singer writes:
The heart of the Bloomberg/Klein plan is a business organization model that is autocratic and has little relevance for the education of people. It has not worked for the delivery of electricity, health care or gasoline, and it will not work for schools.

It treats education as a commodity to be produced efficiently and delivered for the lowest possible price. In this model, children are raw material to be manipulated and if resistant, discarded. Teachers become little more than cogs in a machine, part of a delivery process. Parents are seen as consumers who should be instructed on how to purchase the best pair of jeans, sneakers, or schools- assuming such schools are actually available to them. School-based administrations become middle managers instead of educational leaders. Their job is the unquestioning enforcement of arbitrary directives. If you want to see how this model works in practice, look at the beginning o f Charlie Chaplin's classic movie, Modern Times. In factory-like schools run on a business model, no one gets treated like a human being.

Probably true, but again, not new under these reforms. As I understand the history of American education, universal schooling started as a response to pressure from unions to end child labor, and as a way of getting thousands of immigrant children off the streets and Americanized. This happened back around the end of the 19th century. Over the next few decades, the push for efficiency and standardization led to the creation of huge, factory-like schools, the 45 minute period system, the Carnegie Unit, bells marking the beginning and end of classes, etc. Now, I'm not defending these huge, factory-like schools: having taught in one, I think they are dehumanizing for both teacher and student. Nevertheless, I don't think it's fair to blame their existence on the Bloomberg/Klein reforms! While many small, humanistic schools exist in the city, I have yet to hear of a good alternative to the "factory model" that could be implemented for the millions of schoolchildren in New York City. I'm not saying there is no alternative; I just haven't heard of one yet. Whatever it is has to be both individualized and flexible, and scalable. This seems to put any city-level reformer in a Catch-22.

Singer continues...
The better educated and more savvy parents will never accept this kind of education for their children. Would Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein or Caroline Kennedy? To keep these families in the public school system, their children will attend specialized academic schools or new "designer" programs in the experimental, and well-funded, mini-schools. To maintain an air of equity, high achieving minority youngsters, or those with the most pushy parents, will also be channeled into these programs. While they are being presented as models for the future, they are little more than oases in an educational desert. Most youngsters will remain in overcrowded, under-funded, mediocre remediation centers.

Yes, the movement to break up some of the factory-style schools into smaller schools and programs-within-schools will probably "skim" many of the more advantaged students out of the regular school system: that's true of the school where I teach, in fact. Our students had to apply to our school; we selected them on the basis of report cards, test scores, teacher recommendations, and interviews. These kids are more likely to have parents who desperately want something better for their children and are willing to work hard to get it. Their children would have been in top classes in the large public junior high schools, and top classes get so many extra privileges and enrichment activities that they might as well be their own programs. Many of them would have sought out private or parochial school scholarships if we did not exist. Nevertheless, the schools that lose these kids are (understandably) bitter. We got start-up money for furniture and such, plus a regular budget figured on the basis of the number of children attending our school - we are only slightly better-funded than the average school, if at all. There's a lot to be said for allowing teachers to decide how money could best be spent... we probably seem better-funded, but really we just spend the money carefully.

That said, I still have not seen an alternative proposal. It is easy to say something won't work, but what WOULD work? Since we agree that the huge schools are not the answer, why not break up as many of them as possible? Each kid who gets the opportunity to attend a small, high-quality school is another child whose life is better for it. A movement towards more small schools seems reasonable to me, especially if careful attention is paid to those kids who are left behind in the large schools.

Singer continues...
Genuine school reform means recognizing that there are no quick fixes for the schools and that it will take money and probably greater attention to social inequality in American society. Numerous studies have shown that the surest way to improve the educational performance of students is to raise the socio-economic status of families. In the meantime, some proposals make more sense than others.

I absolutely agree that the best way to improve school performance is to deal with poverty. That would also improve a host of other social problems, by the way! When was the last time you heard a presidential candidate really discuss poverty in a debate??? I think this topic deserves a post of its own, sometime in the future.

Singer goes on to say...
Our schools must treat children, teachers and parents as human beings. They must acknowledge and respect individual differences, not try to pound square pegs into round holes. This means focusing on teaching children, not learning packages. It means convincing students of the value of learning, not forcing them to complete what appear to them as meaningless tasks. This approach to reform means involving teachers in planning and decision-making, not just giving them directives to implement. It means treating parents as partners in the education of children, not obstacles and the subject of blame. It means providing parents with support through parenting and literacy classes and instruction on how to help children learn, instead of using them to deliver corporal punishment when teachers cannot engage their children.

Very true, but what should the city-level reformer do to ensure that these things happen? Few of the ideas in this paragraph are policies, exactly. If anything, creating smaller schools whenever possible could allow teachers to network as teams. Teachers need fewer students and more common planning time to create really good small schools - yes, that will take money. The new parent advocates could be called upon to arrange parenting, literacy, and computer classes, if funding is provided.

We already know what can work. The best private and suburban public schools augment student achievement through enrichment programs and by building teams of teachers, administrators, counselors, support personnel, and parents that coordinate instruction and address the needs of individuals. Even in the most troubled inner-city schools, informal teams of teachers have always figured out ways of working together to improve education for their students.

Creating smaller schools offers teachers, parents, and other school people more opportunities to do these things, particularly if they are also given the time, money, and professional development to do them right.

The Bloomberg/Klein reform plan cannot work because it ignores the reality of the life of young people and their families, what we know about how adults work and children learn, and broader social inequality. It is a prescription for disaster.

I honestly don't think the Bloomberg/Klein plan will make things worse, and I think it stands a chance of improving things. I agree with Professor Singer that it will most likely not "fix" education in NYC all by itself. My next post on this topic will explain why I am hopeful, and explore some of the alternatives that might be available.