Thursday, December 30, 2004

The table set for Christmas breakfast. Posted by Hello

Santa came... Posted by Hello

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Dear Santa,

If you should happen to look down from your sleigh this Christmas Eve and see my building in Alphabet City, you won't see a chimney. And I won't even be home. But if you decide to drop by anyway, there are some very nice people living in my building - and some of them have adorable kids - so I'm sure you'll find plenty to do and maybe even some cookies and milk.

I have a few wishes this year, Santa.

I'm trying to start a knitting club. I showed my students a knitting project that I'm working on, and a whole bunch of them expressed an interest in learning. The cold weather's coming, and if it's too cold or snowy, they can't go outside to play during lunchtime. And we don't have enough space in the gym for all those kids to run around. So I was thinking a lunchtime knitting club would be fun... But I don't have the money for 15 sets of needles and all that yarn! I wrote a grant, Santa, which will eventually be posted at Donors Choose, but if you find a few skeins of colorful yarn and a bouquet of knitting needles in the bottom of your sack, well, you know where to find me.

And Santa? I could use a few good books and the time to read them. Nothing strikes my literary fancy these days, but I'm eager to read more... maybe you've read something good during the off-season? Music and clothing are always appreciated, too! Especially music.

My students want video games for Christmas... the new X-Box or whatever. And hey, if you've got enough to go around, why not? But if you could drop a book or two their way while you're at it, I'd really appreciate that. And I know some of them could use a little peace and love in their homes, and others a little more attention, and a few are probably wishing, deep inside, for the disappearance of an abuser. They won't write that in their letters to you, Santa, but I hope you can read between the lines.

If you have any pull at the Department of Ed, get them all into good high schools for me, places where they'll be cared for and challenged and, in every way, educated. I don't know if Joel Klein celebrates Christmas, Santa, but he and I are both wishing there were more of that kind of high school out there. Think you can do anything?

And while we're on the topic of education, I wouldn't mind a raise - my contract's way past due, and New York's not getting any cheaper. I've been good - taking classes, reading up on good teaching, working hard - and I really think I deserve a little more money. I'd like to buy a place someday, I'd like to travel more, I'd like to give a bit more to WNYC and Doctors Without Borders and the Central Park Conservatory and all those other deserving organizations...

One more thing, Santa: a building of our own. This building is always too cold or too hot (today it was both!). There's never enough space for assemblies, phys ed, even indoor recess - not when we have to share with the other school. Plus, it looks like the worst kind of medieval dungeon - especially the cafeteria. And the acoustics are terrible! Find us a small building of our own, with shiny new science labs, a proper gym, a clean, well-lighted place for the kids to eat lunch, and maybe even a little yard with a garden - find it and put a big red bow on top of it, and I'll know you were thinking of me.

Santa, you may not be a US citizen, but I'm sure you followed our election this year. I'm afraid, Santa. I'm afraid that the decisions made now are going to pollute our air and water. I'm afraid that much of the progress women, gays, and people of color have made over the past few years will be rolled back. I'm afraid that the poor are going to keep getting poorer, and that the children coming to my classroom will be hungrier. I'm afraid for the people in Iraq - the soldiers from the US, and the citizens of Iraq. If you can help the elections go a little more smoothly there, if you can help our actions there turn into something good, please do that. I know that Muslims don't really believe in Santa, but they'd thank you anyway... My uncle may be going back to Iraq to fly MedEvac transports this summer, but I dearly hope that the country is safe and he is not needed (though I realize that would be an awfully quick turnaround). Maybe you prefer to stay out of politics, but if you get involved, I hope you take these fears and hopes into account.

I've tried to be good. I think I've done all right. I've certainly learned a lot about myself and the world this year. I know I'm asking for a lot, but hey, that's why we write to Santa come Christmas each year. I'd be grateful if you grant any of my wishes.

Happy flying to the man in the big red suit,
Ms. F.

Monday, December 20, 2004

A little taste of Denmark... Posted by Hello


The great thing about teaching - and the most frustrating, at times - is that what happens one day often has very little bearing on the following day. Last week I could have done without. Nothing good happened in Science class. I was grumpy and unhelpful. Vacation seemed like the only solution: a break to pull myself and my curriculum together. And yet vacation seemed just out of reach, still four school days away. I woke up today to snow flurries and -4 Fahrenheit air and no desire to go to school at all.

And today was fine!

The kids gave their PowerPoint presentations on owl pellets, it went smoothly, we have more to finish tomorrow. We gave a practice standardized test. And I talked to the sixth graders about the different types of fat and about heart disease, and they had a million questions, and I think they're going to go home and encourage their relatives to make healthy lifestyle choices. Everyone at school seemed relaxed. All day I just kept thinking, oh! this is so easy... why was last week such an uphill battle?

There is probably no answer for that - but it's so nice to feel back in the swing of things again - and without even leaving for a week!

Sunday, December 19, 2004


When I was in second grade, I was best friends with a girl named Melissa. My parents agreed once or twice to let me sleep over at her house, which basically meant that we stayed up really late watching movies and playing and talking. I would come home the next day grumpy, mean, and often tearful, so after a couple of these events, they said no more until middle school.

I'm not sure that much has changed, although it takes a bit more than one late night to make me tearful and grumpy - a weekend can do it.

This weekend was SO much fun, but I haven't had a second to myself since Friday night.

Friday I went to see Rachel Yamagata play at Housing Works Used Bookstore & Cafe. The bookstore & cafe raise money for homeless people with HIV/AIDS, and they have a monthly concert series for the same cause. Since most of the people who work there are volunteers, pretty much every cent you spend there goes to the charity work they do. I had never been to the bookstore before, but it is beautiful, has a great selection of books, and everyone is very friendly; I may volunteer there in the summer, depending on what happens with Turkey and other plans.

Rachel Yamagata has a voice and style somewhat similar to Norah Jones, but I personally liked Yamagata better - she's more believable. It was an odd show, however. Yamagata apparently went through (or is still going through, really) a very traumatic break-up. Every single song had something to do with this guy who broke, and keeps on breaking, her heart. But the crazy thing is, she cried or at least sniffled throughout the entire set! And I don't think it was an act; I totally believe that she is absolutely miserable. It would have been bad, except that she also is a great performer and has a sense of humor, so she was funny even while she was crying... this is hard to describe. And the music was good.

I came home on the early side and should have gone to bed, but instead I attempted to fix my CD-RW drive. On Wednesday night I tried to burn a CD, the process froze, I did "end task" - and now my computer does not recognize the existence of a CD-RW drive AT ALL. I've restarted. I've jiggled the computer gently to try to nudge whatever wire is loose back into place. I've run all the diagnostics. I've called the service line, but my computer is five years old and the warranty is long-expired, and they couldn't promise they could fix the problem, so I decided not to pay $40 for the privilege of staying up even later to have them try. I even took the case off the frame and poked around a bit to see if anything was obviously out of place. Nothing. Maybe Santa will bring me a laptop... or at least a new drive and a personal computer technician to come in and help me everytime something like this happens?

Saturday I got up, did laundry, and then went Christmas shopping. SoHo and Chinatown Saturday afternoon a week before Christmas. That ALONE is enough stimulation for about a month. Luckily the Christmas shopping was fairly successful and I can finish the rest after school over the next couple of days.

Saturday night I went to a friend's wassail - Scottish rum-spiked cider - party, then P's friends' party, then to see the Pixies! The show started at midnight and the opening band (50 Foot Wave) sucked, so it was off to a bad start, but the Pixies were a lot of fun and everyone there was very enthusiastic, bouncing around, etc. The layers of cotton that surrounded my head for hours following the show wore off this morning, fortunately! I'd give a more complete review, but there were hundreds of other people there who can probably do better (and I'm sure some of them will blog it).

No sooner did I wake up then it was off to a bakery to pick up a chocolate cake, and then onto the train for the long ride to my friend E's house in Inwood - his neighborhood is beautiful - and a "traditional Danish lunch." This involves two kinds of pickled herring (which I love, and make an exception to my vegetarianism to eat), fruit, cheese, Acquavit, Danish beer, rich desserts, and strong coffee. It also involves really fun, geeky company, the best there is!

Five hours later, I came home feeling stuffed, a bit tipsy, and completely and utterly exhausted, craving nothing more than a couple of hours alone with the cat, computer, and some music. But the weekend wasn't over yet - it was my friend J's birthday. She and another friend and I hung out, cooked & ate homemade pizza, worked on our various knitting projects, and watched Sex and the City on DVD. That was pretty chill, thank goodness!

I cannot wait - cannot WAIT - for a day alone in my apartment when the holidays are over. I am going to veg and veg and VEG.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Deborah Meier

Okay, so every time I write "more later" on this blog, later never happens. But my morning with Debbie Meier was awesome, so here goes. I have to write quickly; it's almost time to take my laundry out of the dryer!

My principal happened to have a ticket to an "Assistant Principal's Seminar" with Debbie Meier. Ms. Dean was too busy to go, so she sent me instead, knowing how much I admire Meier's work. It was partly to make sure the ticket (which was expensive) got used, and partly to reward my hard work in a way that would be particularly meaningful to me. That's one of the signs of a good organization: leaders find little incentives and surprises for their employees. It helps keep morale up and promotes an environment of constant learning.

The seminar was at the Ethical Culture Society, in a beautiful wood-paneled room. Meier began speaking and it was instantly clear that she is a firebrand. She founded the Central Park East Schools in East Harlem, demonstrating dramatically that innovative, progressive methods of education could work well for kids from minority backgrounds and low-income families. Since leaving the CPE schools, she has gone on to do many other things, including starting the Mission Hill school in Boston and working on the editorial board of the Nation and several other important magazines. She very recently retired from Mission Hill.

The main idea of her talk on Thursday was that the purpose of public education is to prepare students to become participants in our democratic society, citizens who are critical and questioning, who can see things from multiple viewpoints, who can distinguish things that matter from those that do not, who practice the "habits of mind" that were central to everything they did at Central Park East and since.

1. Evidence: How do we know what's true and false? What evidence counts? How sure can we be? What makes it credible to us?

2. Viewpoint: How else might this look if we stepped into other shoes? If we were looking at it from a different direction? If we had a different history or expectations?

3. Connections/Cause and Effect: Is there a pattern? Have we seen something like this before? What are the possible consequences?

4. Conjecture: Could it have been otherwise? Supposing that? What if?

5. Relevance: Does it matter? Who cares?

She talked about the ways that education policy today demands that students, teachers, and administrators be compliant, unquestioning, undemocratic. She asked us to think about when to resist, when to compromise, and when to agree or go along with the changes in education. And thus started a lively and emotional discussion, with far more questions asked than answers given.

One AP from the School of the Future stood up and very emotionally described her school's graduation requirements, which are based on those created at Central Park East. The students present work to a panel of teachers, students, parents, etc., attempting to demonstrate that they have mastered the content and kinds of thinking important to that field. These presentations can be a very rigorous requirement; Meier said that at times at CPE, 50% of the students have not passed and have had to go back and do more work and try presenting again. For several years, the School of the Future had been exempt from some of the Regents requirements because this alternative assessment was accepted in its place (if I understand the AP's comments correctly). Her students had voluntarily boycotted many exams that they were not exempt from - this was an individual or family decision, not something the school forced on the students. Now, however, her students are required to take and pass all the Regents exams in order to graduate with a Regents diploma - key for college admissions, etc. - and her teachers feel increased pressure to spend time prepping them for the Regents rather than helping them prepare their portfolio work. She said that fifty of her students and their parents and teachers were in Albany that day, protesting the exams; they believe that they have an alternative system in place that should be honored as rigorous and as promoting creative and critical thinking rather than the memorization of facts. Her question was, where is the line in the sand? How does a high school student decide whether to put his or her future on the line by boycotting a test, or take the test which they don't believe accurately assesses their knowledge and skills and, in fact, takes time away from the education they wish to receive?

Well... I'm going to leave you with that story. I've been working on this post all weekend and must go to bed soon! (The laundry mentioned in the first paragraph was finished Saturday morning...).

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Power of Their Ideas

I met one of my heroes today.

Her name is Deborah Meier.

On my flight to Houston for TFA Summer Institute, I read her book, The Power of Their Ideas. It was the a confirmation of why I wanted to teach, it provided a promise of what schools could be - for any children, anywhere, and it has remained an inspiration and a standard against which I measure my own work.

More on today after I make progress on grading!

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Attention, First Year Teachers!

I have good news for you: What you're feeling right now is normal. If you are like most, you are aching - physically aching - for Christmas vacation. It is 7 days away and time

has slowed






The more experienced teachers around you are also talking about how eager they are for the time off, but in your heart-of-hearts, you know that they don't need it like you need it.

That's normal.

I even have scientific verification: According to the Santa Cruz New Teacher Project, in December of the first year of teaching, the new teacher's energy and attitude hits rock bottom. They call this Disillusionment. You began the year, back in August (remember August?) in the happy state of Anticipation. Before you knew it, you were dog-paddling through October: Survival.

During the survival phase, most new teachers struggle to keep their heads above water. They become very focused and consumed with the day-to-day routine of teaching. There is little time to stop and reflect on their experiences. It is not uncommon for new teachers to spend up to seventy hours a week on schoolwork.

From there it was a steady downward slide, and now you're at the bottom. The days are short. You leave your house in the dark and you come home in the dark. Popcorn and french fries are the only foods you can imagine eating, and you're beginning to wonder if four cups of coffee a day might not be quite enough (I was a four-cup drinker mere months into my teaching career; I'm back to two-ish now; it does get easier!).

But have faith. Ahead, just around the corner in January, lies Rejuvenation!

The rejuvenation phase is characterized by a slow rise in the new teacher's attitude toward teaching. It generally begins in January. Having a winter break makes a tremendous difference for new teachers. It allows them to resume a more normal lifestyle, with plenty of rest, food, exercise, and time for family and friends. This vacation is the first opportunity that new teachers have for organizing materials and planning curriculum. It is a time for them to sort through materials that have accumulated and prepare new ones. This breath of fresh air gives novice teachers a broader perspective with renewed hope.

I love the intimation that you new teachers are not eating, not sleeping, not exercising, and not spending time with their family or friends. I love it because we all know it's TRUE, and because to anyone who isn't a new teacher or close to a new teacher, it might sound utterly ridiculous.

This is what I ate my first year: cereal, coffee, cheap and oily pizza, canned soup, Nilla wafers, melted chocolate chips. Dear god.

So you're rejuvenated by a whole week off. You'd better be. You've still got months to go. But teaching gets easier with experience, and you'll be feeling much more confident come spring. By the time school ends, you're ready for Reflection - and the next thing you know, it's August again, you did NOT quit teaching for a desk job, and you've got that glittering sense of Anticipation.

I'm going tell you a secret: Experienced teachers go through this cycle, too, but the lows aren't quite as low, and the highs aren't quite as high. If you start teaching in a difficult setting, you might go through this cycle pretty sharply for a few years as you get the hang of things. If you teach a new subject for the first time, you might find yourself with a stronger sense of Disillusionment than usual, come winter (I certainly did last year when I was teaching Physical Science). Even now, in my fifth year of teaching, I'm feeling a bit of disillusionment, although it is far less this year than it ever was in the past. I know that the break will be a chance to reflect and get ahead in my planning, so I'm really looking forward to it. And I'm looking forward to the rise in spirits that will infect the whole school when we all return, rested, fed, familied and friended.

Hang in there; it's all (well, mostly) uphill from here!

And for some really, really good writing - and from a NYC science teacher, too - check out Wockerjabby. Thanks, Nancy, for the link; I've found a new favorite!

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Keeping People in the Dark

In the NY Times, Frank Rich writes that Channel 13, New York's public broadcasting channel, refused to air a spot promoting the movie "Kinsey," a bio-pic about the sex researcher from the 1950s. Rich goes on to argue that our culture today is all-too-similar to the repressive culture of that era: "'Kinsey' is an almost uncannily helpful guide to how these old cultural fault lines have re-emerged from their tomb, virtually unchanged."

It is so dangerous to allow children to be exposed, everywhere, all the time, to media messages glorifying sex - and then to deny them basic education regarding how to exercise their sexuality in a healthy, safe manner. Here's more from Rich:

No matter what the censors may accomplish elsewhere, the pop culture revolution since Kinsey's era is in little jeopardy: in a nation of "Desperate Housewives," "Too Darn Hot" has become the national anthem. A movie like "Kinsey" will do just fine; the more protests, the more publicity and the larger the box office. But if Hollywood will always survive, off-screen Americans are being damaged by the cultural war over sex that is being played out in real life. You see that when struggling kids are denied the same information about sexuality that was kept from their antecedents in the pre-Kinsey era; you see that when pharmacists in more and more states enforce their own "moral values" by refusing to fill women's contraceptive prescriptions and do so with the tacit or official approval of local officials; you see it when basic information that might prevent the spread of lethal diseases is suppressed by the government because it favors political pandering over scientific fact.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

A couple of (new-ish) teacher blogs....

I found Mr. Babylon through a comment he left on my website. He tells stories of things that happen in his ESL class at a large Bronx high school - I'm pretty sure it's fairly close to my school. His school made the list of most violent & dangerous schools in the city. He's looking for more teacher blogs that aren't as "wick wick" as mine... I suspect it makes me even more wick wick that I don't really know what that means. So I'm not going to take it personally, LOL!

And then there's Education at the Brink, written by a teacher in Texas, focused on ed policy, mostly. He writes well. I would describe it in more detail, but honestly, I haven't been reading too many blogs lately because there just isn't time, so I'm not sure I could give a fair review of this one.

There are other blogs out there that I need to add to my links. Maybe during Christmas break.

Fulbright Update

I think the Fulbright interview went well. I was nervous as heck on the inside, but outside I think I was pretty calm and together, although I may have babbled a bit. The questions were more-or-less what I expected. They wanted to know why I chose the countries that I chose, and how well I will be able to handle the challenges that I am likely to face in a very different culture from my own, such as anti-Americanism, a school environment that is more strict than is typical in the US, and so forth.

We also talked about whether or not I would be able to help my exchange partner find housing here in New York if s/he is not interested in a direct housing exchange (which is likely, given that I have a roommate). Apparently, it is the responsibility of each exchange partner to find initial housing for their counterpart; if the person wants to move, that's their own responsibility, but you have to set them up initially. Of course, if that's expected of me, then I will do it, but finding affordable and comfortable housing for someone else during the summer in New York City will present an enormous challenge! Good heavens, I don't even like doing that for myself.

It seems that some years, no one from a given country will apply for the exchange. Turkey and Estonia are two countries where they do not always do exchanges, because sometimes no one applies, or the people who apply aren't good candidates. And once someone applies, they go through a matching process to try to place the candidates in fairly similar educational settings. That means I would likely get placed in an urban setting, which I think is good, but it may work against me because my school is unique in so many ways. Also, I could be placed in a high school setting, or teaching ESL. I can deal with either of those situations, but it surprises me, given the emphasis they place on "matching" the exchange partners.

I mentioned my blog in my application, not really expecting anyone to follow the link - I doubt the people screening applicants have tons of time to surf around people's blogs. Of course, I knew it was a possibility that they'd read it, and I certainly stand behind everything that I write here. Nevertheless, I was surprised and a bit dismayed when one member of my interview panel said he'd read my blog yesterday. He said, "Do you really have more than 100 readers every day?" I wonder what he thought - my posts recently have been a bit more personal and less teaching related...

All I can do now is cross my fingers and wait!

Rat Fur & Condoms

If you had looked in my trash can on Wednesday afternoon, you would have found a heap of rat fur (and some bones) and six unwrapped (but unused, obviously) condoms. Yes, Wednesday was one of those days when I realize how much I love what I do, and how completely weird it can be at the same time. In Science, we began our owl pellet dissection. This activity is transcendent. The kids start out completly grossed-out by the whole idea of touching an owl pellet (even with the little wooden probes and other dissection tools). Five minutes after you hand out the pellets, they're digging in happily and all you can hear are squeals, "I found a skull!!!!" At that point, a few kids still want nothing to do with the owl pellets, and are just watching their partner dissect. That's when I get nervous about some of my girls who are at risk of allowing the pressures of middle school and being a girl keep them from engaging with science, math, and the world in general. Not to worry; these girls are usually happily involved a few minutes later, when they realize the other students are all digging in, so it must be okay. A few need a little nudge. After ten minutes, you know who the real primadonnas are, and they are usually boys, often the "tough" boys. One boy suddenly freaked out when a bone got too close to him, and upset the whole dissection tray. I just sighed and told him that his squeamishness had backfired; now he'd have to crawl around on the floor picking up the scattered bones! He was okay after that.

Note to teachers: The other awesome thing about the owl pellet dissection is that Carolina Biological Supply sells class sets, which come with a teacher's guide, enough pellets for all your kids to work in pairs, wooden probes for each pair of kids, and all the worksheets you need already photocopied! And the prices are completely reasonable.

So much for the rat fur.

In Health class, it was abstinence and birth control day, which meant that I brought in examples of some of the more common forms of birth control and passed them around. So much better to have touched a condom once in a non-sexual setting than to have your first condom encounter be at the crucial moment...

My Fulbright Interview...

is in two hours. I am only now starting to get nervous. They sent me a list of questions that are typically asked; it seems that they want evidence that you are reflective about your teaching, able to adapt to a situation different from what you are used to, and emotionally tough and resilient. I can handle that. I OVER-think my teaching. I moved to New York to teach in the Bronx and stuck it out through that first miserable year and a second, less miserable but still rough year, and here I am, five years later. The city was all about culture shock, but now I love it. I have worked in two different school situations that each posed a completely different set of challenges, and I have managed to work with a wide range of personalities and educational philosophies. My attitude towards these things is always that of confidence: I'm going to walk in there, answer their questions honestly, be friendly and smart, keep things positive, and with any luck, they'll see me as a good candidate. I haven't figured out how to be anyone but myself. Wish me luck. Okay, now I'm getting really nervous. I have to iron something to wear.

Mid-December Storms

A lot of people at school are really stressed out.

I was, too, for a while: I had to write the final report for the huge grant that bought us our laptops. Then I realized that the final report itself was very easy to write, and the reason I was so miserable and anxious about it is that we have not fulfilled several of our goals for the grant, and in general, there are a bunch of technology problems that are not getting resolved, and I am the one people come to with tech problems even though I have a full-time teaching position that does not include ANY periods dedicated to technology; so, whenever I am forced to deal with something like this grant, I feel like a failure. It was so liberating to realize the true source of my anxiety, and then to remember that I can't be expected to do any more than I am already doing. If we haven't fulfilled all the stuff we said we'd do, that's not MY failure, and anyway, the most important parts of the grant are definitely happening: teachers are using the laptops in their classrooms as a part of regular instruction.

The other reasons people are stressed out:

Ms. Dean burst into tears yesterday afternoon when I asked her how she was doing and if I could help in anyway. She has an infant, is in school full-time, and has tons of responsibility at our school. Another teacher threw a temper tantrum and dumped a bunch of his duties on her shoulders - test coordinator, etc. On Thursday, she overheard our school aide talking about her to another staff member. And yesterday, that same school aide yelled at her over a stupid misunderstanding. The two are currently at war, bad and unprofessional, and even worse because they share office space.

A lot of people are stressed out because it is pretty clear that one of our teachers is not going to make it - although everyone is trying to help him, he has absolutely no control, the classroom is chaos, his lessons are disorganized, parents are starting to complain, and he is sucking up time & energy from our administration as they try to help him. He listens to the advice they give him, but shows NO signs of improvement. Apparently, when I was at the science test training last week, there was a fumbled attempt to remove him from classroom duties and give him some of the (many) support jobs that need to be done. I don't know why this was handled so poorly, but he threatened to go to the union, and so he ended up keeping his classroom position. Now he's under a lot of stress, Ms. Principal and Ms. Dean are trying to back up and go through the proper sequence of steps to fire him, and everyone else is trying to figure out exactly how we are going to absorb the extra work that will fall on our shoulders if he is fired - or how we are going to find a really good teacher to replace him in the middle of the year. And we are all worried about the effect his poor teaching and the instability of the situation are having on the kids.

Although all of this is wearing on me, I feel lucky to not be in the middle of any of it. I offer help and support to people, and I definitely worry and try to come up with solutions if I can think of any, but if I start feeling overwhelmed, I can step back from it all. That's a nice position to be in!

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


I showed the kids Winged Migration today. I thought I would just show part of it and then allow the students who wanted to see more to come watch at lunchtime, but then Ms. Pascal - who also really likes the movie - offered to allow the entire eighth grade to watch the movie together, during the periods when one class has math and the other has science. At the end of the first hour, the kids were really excited about the film, and they definitely liked it overall, but I think two hours was too much. They were very restless during the second hour.

Winged Migration is one of my all-time favorite movies. The filming of the birds in flight is spectacular; the landscapes and music are gorgeous. So, in anticipation of showing the film year-after-year to my classes - and because I've already seen it three times myself - I went out and bought the DVD yesterday. I only own a handful of movies, so it's a big deal when I buy one.

Last night, I watched the "Making of..." special feature. Although I still love Winged Migration, I am slightly disillusioned now that I know exactly how they got all that amazing footage. They actually raised the birds from chicks and allowed them to imprint on the people who would be involved in flying the special ultralight vehicles and shooting the film. Then, when migration season came, they packed up the birds into crates and flew them to the far corners of the Earth, where they released them at very particular times and in very particular ways and then filmed them against lush landscapes.

I had always had the impression that the filmmakers "followed" wild birds on their migration. The back of the DVD even uses that word, but in truth, the birds followed the filmmakers, not the other way around!

Does it matter?

I believe that the filmmakers did their research and that the scenes they created were realistic, if not exactly real. They picked locations where each species of bird really does migrate. The birds were not entirely predictable in their behavior, so spontaneous moments did occur during filming. And they would not have been able to film the birds' behavior from so close if the birds had not first become comfortable around their human "mothers" and "fathers." So perhaps the elements that make the film less real make it, at the same time, more realistic: the birds are behaving more naturally than they would if humans in strange, threatening vehicles buzzed across their flight paths and into their roosting grounds.

One of the books my students' used for their research on mammals was about the "batman" whose research on and outreach about bats led to greater understanding and less fear of these animals among the public. After he began studying bats, he learned enough photography to be able to take his own pictures of bats for publication. It turns out that many of his photos are of bats that he raised in captivity, in his laboratory, and photographed in settings he created to look like nature. Other photographers - who took pictures of bats in the wild - would just grab the nearest bat and snap a photograph, then let the bat go. This led to dozens of pictures of scared - and scary-looking - bats, snarling at the camera. Since the batman's bats were relaxed and accustomed to his presence, his photographs, while not taken in the wild, present a more realistic view of the everyday existence and habits of bats.

This real/realistic split is interesting. More on it later. Now I have to prepare for my students' owl pellet dissection.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Conversations with Myself

Sitting on the floor, staring at a cookbook.

Go on, get up and go to the store. Do it now. You'll be so much happier if you cook something good.

There's no point. I don't really feel like eating. And cooking is so much work.

Don't think that way! You like to cook. Get up now, or you'll let so much time go by that you'll be starving and end up eating lukewarm spaghetti.

You're right. But I can't move. I'm just going to sit here a little longer.

I'm telling you, you'll regret every moment that you sit here, but you won't regret making a real dinner. And no, it's not THAT cold out, so don't even start.

Fine, fine. Fine.


I'm boring.

You're not boring. You're just very busy and tired.

No, I'm boring. I have nothing to say to anyone. I can't even remember what I did this morning.

You were at school. You like school. Interesting things happen there. It's your passion.

No one wants to hear me rant and rave about school. It's boring. Face it, all I do is sleep, eat, and teach. I'm not an interesting person.

Don't believe what he said about not wanting to hear you talk about school. He didn't mean it, and even if he did, it's not worth paying any attention to.

No, no, I think it is true. I should have more ideas, more thoughts on things. I'm not very observant. People think I'm well-informed and smart, but really I'm a fraud.

You are not a fraud. Don't even start with that line of thinking. Or everyone is a fraud. It's not useful, who cares?

Someday they're going to realize that I don't know anything about anything.


All I really want to do is lie on the floor and listen to music and cut things out of magazines for collages.

You could do that.

I miss summer. I woke up in the afternoon on Saturday and evening shadows were already falling across the buildings. The floors are cold.

Yeah, winter's not your thing. You've gotten through it before and you're stronger now.

I should be working on planning for the week - or grading lab reports.

So, open those files and get started. Or stop obsessing about it. You'll be fine either way.

I want to be in a rock band! I don't even play an instrument.

Um, whatever.

Friday, December 03, 2004

A Study of Sex Ed Programs

Rep. Henry Waxman - chair of the committee on government reform - has released a report concluding that many government-funded abstinence-only sex ed programs mislead students and may have harmful health outcomes as a result. Here's a quote from the press release:

Unlike comprehensive sex education, abstinence-only programs have not been shown to reduce rates of teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. In fact, a recent study showed that youth who pledge abstinence are significantly less likely to make informed choices about precautions when they do have sex. The serious and pervasive misinformation in abstinence-only curricula may help explain these findings.

The report and press release are currently linked at the top of the Committee's webpage.

Quiet in the Hawls...

After more than four years here, it's happened: I'm getting a New York accent.

I think I may have reached the tipping point on my a's. More than fifty percent of the time, I say "hawl" and "cawl" and "awl" when I used to say "hahl" and "cahl" and "ahl."

I don't even spend that much time around people with real NYC accents, so how this happened to me is a mystery. But one thing is clear: if I stay here long enough, I'll be tawking like a New Yorker awl the time.

An Inside Look at Standardized Tests...

I was released from teaching today to attend a training session on how to administer the performance section of the state's intermediate level science exam. This section - which counts for 15% of the total score - includes three 15-minute stations. Each requires the students to use scientific instruments, like the microscope and triple beam balance, along with math and reasoning skills, to answer a series of questions. I will be test coordinator for my school, and this is the first year we have to give the test, since it is our first year with an eighth grade class.

The training started out well but got a little slow by the end of the day. We practiced setting up the three stations and then actually took the test. Then we broke for lunch, and when we returned we practiced scoring the exam.

I like this part of the ILS exam. I think the questions are reasonable and encourage schools to include real science instruction in their curricula. Yet again, hearing other teachers talk about the ways their principals disregard science instruction, I realized how lucky I am to be in a school that values and prioritizes science, and how appalling it is that we need to be "activist" about promoting our discipline. Good science instruction should be a given, not something we have to fight for!

Scoring the exam was a real eye-opener. On the one hand, it reconfirmed my opinion that the exam is fairly sensible and grade-appropriate, not the standardized-test monster we often hear about... On the other hand, some aspects of it are not at all sensible or reasonable!

The scoring guide allows for a fair amount of error on the part of students, which is both good and bad. Building in room for measurement, rounding, and estimation error seems sensible to me. The way the exam works is that the test coordinator sets up a room with 5 of each of the three stations. Fifteen students test at one time. They rotate through the three lab stations. Since they are measuring organisms, finding the mass of objects, etc., it is important that the test coordinator do the lab at each station, because the correct answers will not be consistent from station to station due to small differences in the specimens, objects, and instruments. So it is clearly fair to allow for some variation between the student's answer and the answer measured by the test coordinator.

On the other hand, some questions build in so much room for error that it seems like the standards are absurdly low, or have built in room for error when it seems that students should simply get marked right or wrong, given that they are doing basic arithmetic. Perhaps a small amount of room could be allowed for differences in rounding off of the answer, but the exam scoring guide allows for much more than that.

And then there are questions where the detail expected in the answer is much greater than on any other question on the test, but for no apparent reason. I can't go into more detail here without divulging specific questions, unfortunately.

The scoring is going to take a long time, since if the student gets the first part of a question wrong, you have to score the rest of the questions for that station based on the student's answer, so that one mistake doesn't cost them the entire value of the station. My school is small, so it will probably take three of us only a couple of hours to score the exams, but heaven help people in large schools! Schools have the option of paying teachers to do the scoring after school. I am going to push for this in my school, since it seems extremely unfair for the state to mandate a test, then expect it to get marked during teachers' prep periods. Really, the state should be paying us to score them, but the money is supposed to come out of the school's existing budget. Inevitably, some schools will skimp and demand that teachers do the scoring during their free time during the school day. Other schools release teachers for several days to score exams while their students have subs.... It is this sort of thing that infuriates educators when different levels of government mandate more tests; too often, they do not take into account the enormous amounts of work that go into setting up, administering, and then scoring the exams.

Someone in the room who gave the test last year mentioned that he still had not received his results for the written portion of the test. That part of the test is given in June; note that it is now December! The woman running the training told him that his school's general test coordinator should be able to access the results. Poor communication of this sort is all-too-common. Conscientious teachers want to look at and analyze our students' test results, but the results become mired in bureaucracy and never reach us, or reach us halfway into the following school year, when we have already lost precious months of preparation time. Turns out that for the ILS exam, the state does not provide item analysis. That means that a science teacher or department chair has no way of knowing whether the students are doing better on some types of questions than others, or in some fields of science than others. Clearly, this makes it hard to use the exams as feedback for improving our instruction!

I write all of this hoping that it will give people a slightly more nuanced view of how standardized testing actually works in the schools, at least in a large system like New York. Standardized tests are not always a bad thing, but there are many details that need to be done right to make testing a good thing!

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Black Nail Polish

My principal yelled at an eighth grade girl yesterday for wearing black nail polish, and told her to take it off and not wear it to school again. Naturally, Lindy - who is very conscientious and thoughtful and a good student, if that makes a difference - got upset and complained to the other students, who were also upset. "This time she's gone too far!" But Lindy replied, "Yeah, you're right, but I think this is one of those battles that's just not worth fighting. So I think this student may have been more mature than my principal...

There is a major disagreement brewing among the staff about our standards of dress and behavior; the black nail polish is just the latest example. Basically, the administration wants to be much, much stricter than the rest of the staff about how the kids travel in the halls, when they are expected to be quiet and when they can talk a little, and what they can and cannot wear. And it's not like any of us want chaos or fail to address behavior problems when we see them. Lately it just seems like Ms. Dean and Ms. Principal see problems where no one else does! And their method of dealing with it seems to be to ask us to discuss how we are going to deal with behavior, and then get very defensive when we come up with anything except their own standard. Over the last few years, I have participated in any number of meetings where Ms. Principal made the rest of us feel like "if you're not with me, you're against me and have no standards and are fine with the kids being awful."

Now, I do my best to enforce whatever standard we agree upon as a staff, even if it is somewhat different from my own ideas; that's what makes a school work, a shared standard of behavior. But at this point, I would say that the consensus among adults in the school is that some talking in the halls is okay, lines are unnecessary when the kids are in our part of the building, and that we will deal with individual transgressions as they happen. I think most of us would agree that black nail polish is not a problem. Yet I am fairly sure that even after our next "discussion," we are going to find ourselves enforcing a standard that only two or three people really believe in. And that is a recipe, in the long term, for our organization to fall apart, especially if we feel intimidated into going along with the stricter standard.

The black nail polish incident got me thinking about my own standards, though. Many of my friends were goths in high school, and I knew them to be some of the nicest, smartest, most creative kids in the school - and top students - so a little black nail polish doesn't bother me. I see it as a pretty average way of testing different identities, which is a huge part of normal development in this age group. Since our kids wear uniforms, they have to be a little creative in finding ways to express their individuality, and I see it as both harmful and pointless to try to suppress every single one of those forms of expression.

It occurred to me, however, that although I'm fine with black nail polish, I'm not at all okay with twelve-year-olds coming to school with inch-long nails painted like peacock feathers. Is that really different from black nail polish? If I would ban one and not the other, I'd better be able to justify the distinction. Otherwise, it would seem to be cultural bias. Ditto for large chains and rosaries, which the boys have been wearing and I have been asking them to put under their shirts. In the end, I realized that the long, flamboyant manicures represent growing up too fast to me, while black nail polish represents experimenting with identity. And I do think it's reasonable to be against the first and for the second. I'm on the fence about the chains and beads.

My final realization was that Ms. Principal may have some perfectly legitimate reason to ban blak nail polish, and if so, she should go right ahead. But she needs to do it in a way that doesn't alienate our students. Yelling at Lindy only whipped up a whole group of fundamentally good kids. Lindy is smart and reasonable, and if Ms. Principal had discussed the nail polish issue with her, she probably would have grumbled a bit but agreed to take it off.

This may seem like a small thing, but it's been circling around and around in my mind for a couple of days. It's so important for schools to be able to justify the standards we set, make sure they are fair and reasonable, and then enforce them in a way that helps the students see the reasoning behind them rather than just seeing one more rule imposed by adults.

Update on "What do we do now?" conference planning

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have a vision for a conference for liberal-minded people in NYC to gather and make some plans about how to get/stay involved in local & state politics, and how we can work to mitigate the effects of Republican environmental, reproductive rights, and other policies. At the time that I first posted about that, I had put in a burst of work and was psyched about organizing the conference and confident that I could do it.

Then, for the next couple of weeks, I experienced a form of "buyer's regret," fearing that I had bitten off way more than I could chew, wishing that I could just do my own little thing from time-to-time and be apathetic the rest of the time. I'm still feeling that way, kind of.

Tonight I attended a meeting of people who are organizing "counter-inaugural" actions and events, both here and in DC. I haven't been to an activist meeting in years, so it was an interesting experience. When I was in college, I was a member of many activist groups, although I found many kinds of action to be not really my thing. I did organize an event called Herstory during my senior year at Stanford, and I realized that I like organizing events and providing a forum for people who are doing great work to reach out to others, educate people, and take action. I also lived in a co-op house (a VEGAN co-op house, just in case you need further evidence of my hippie past) which was run by consensus. Anyway, I felt immediately comfortable at the meeting tonight, because it was run in the exact same way that meetings of activist groups in college were run: there was an agenda, two facilitators, a "stack" of people waiting to speak, wiggling of fingers to show agreement, a timekeeper, a notetaker, a vibes-watcher, etc. Everyone seemed friendly, they represented a fairly diverse range of ages but were mostly white, and there were clearly a range of left-leaning political perspectives among the people attending the meeting. As is often the case when I'm around my political activist friends, I felt like I was probably one of the more conservative people in the room. At work and in many other settings, I often feel radical in my politics and assumptions about the world. *sigh*

It took a long time to get to the part of the agenda that interested me: local actions. I went to the meeting sincerely hoping to find another group that was already planning an event similar to what I envision, so that I could just offer my ideas and support. When the floor was opened for discussion of local action, few hands went up, and I realized fairly quickly that I would just have to dive in. So, I stood and briefly described my idea and let everyone know about the organizing meeting that is taking place this Sunday (email me at nyc_resists AT for more info!). A few people seemed really interested, so perhaps some will show up. And no one jumped in to let me know that my work is redundant. So the conference seems to be my baby. Beyond that, plans for local events are few and vague at this point.

I discovered a new group that I think is awesome: Radical Reference. These librarians provide "answers for those who question authority." Awesome.

Overall, I'm really glad that I went to the meeting, and I'm looking forward to getting back into organizing of some sort....

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

All in the same day...

The day began with an eighth grader stripping down to his undershirt in the coat closet of Ms. Pascal's homeroom. I was covering the homeroom, as Ms. P. was running late, and looked up to see this student with his arms stuck in his shirt sleeves above his head and nothing covering his chest but an undershirt. I couldn't very well holler at him from across the room, or every kid in the room would have turned to look, so I just stared like a deer in the headlights. All of a sudden, he realized what he'd done, and still holding his shirt above his head, he started saying, "No, no, Ms. Frizzle!" That got everyone's attention. Now he was having his own frozen-in-the-headlights moment. "Put. Your. Shirt. Back. On."

The kids love the mammals posters they are working on. It's amazing how well they respond when you give them a choice, even a fairly superficial one like a list of 20 mammals to choose among. Several have asked to do mammals that are not on the list, which is fine with me as long as they realize that they're on their own as far as research is concerned. I gave them one class period today to work on their research, using the internet and books that I brought in from the library (the New York Public Library allows you to borrow up to 30 items at one time; I currently have 26 books on mammals checked out under my name, roughly 80% of the mammals section of my branch library). I'm feeling a little guilty because the project is straight research - no real analysis or anything - but at the same time, I think it is giving them the opportunity to consolidate a lot of skills and feel really confident. If I did it again, I'd probably ask them to research an endangered mammal and explain why it is endangered and what people are doing to protect it. Or perhaps to research a "misunderstood" mammal - like bats or wolves - and explain why the mammal has a bad rep and what the truth is. Those would still be mostly research, but perhaps a slightly higher level of critical thinking. Regardless, the kids love this project and are eagerly sharing what they've learned with each other and with me.

I learned something today: the duck-billed platypus has poisonous spurs on its limbs. Hopefully tomorrow one of my eighth-grade platypus experts will tell me what they use the spurs for...

At the end of the school day, I was rushing downstairs to grab a soda before afterschool, when a group of 4 or 5 of our eighth grade boys shouted, "Ms. Frizzle!" I stopped, and they caught up to me. "Where are you going?" I asked. "We're taking a ballet class!" they said enthusiastically. If you asked me to pick out the five eighth graders most likely to audition for the free ballet classes being offered at a nearby school, these boys would be down at the bottom of the list. One is the school bully, another is football-obsessed and (there's no other way to put this) ROUND. They saw my puzzled look and became even giddier. "Ms. Pascal told us that most football players take ballet to get stronger and more flexible!" I chuckled and told them she's absolutely right, and in fact, a lot of ballet dancers could take any one of them in a fair fight - they're STRONG. I am encouraging this newfound interest in ballet. I'm philosophically behind it 100%, I think it would help some of our boys get in better shape, and if these boys perform the Nutcracker, you'd better believe I want to see it!

I wrote a long post yesterday about how "amniotic sac" was the word of the day, but the computer ate it as I tried to post. So you'll just have to wait until later this week...