I'm baaaaaaack.

Hoarding All the Glitter Since 2001.

31 July 2010

Tenure: I Have It.

Or: While I Admit the Persistently Problematic Issues Underlying Cat Macro Grammar, I Find Cat Macros Funny Enough to Borrow Their Structure; Alas, I Remain Unable to Utilize Their Non-Standard Grammar.

For all the alarmist rhetoric around tenure, one thing that's really really really really awesome about tenure (which I totally have...as you can see, I have not one whit of a problem with Valley Speak) is that it means I don't feel any particular need to keep my smart mouth shut.

Realistically, the number of Kindergarten teachers in SFUSD is not enormously large; the number of Kindergarten teachers in SFUSD at high-needs schools is even smaller.  It would not be that difficult to find out who I am, and it's not like I'm hiding my identity or the school at which I teach.  And why do I feel free to do that?  I have tenure!  La la la la la.

Teacher free speech rights are constrained within the classroom and without it as well.  Moreover, I have actually witnessed vindictive administrators moving against high-quality teachers because those teachers had the very bad idea to explain that Open Court had some issues.  (This did not happen in SFUSD.)

If you teach Open Court (California Edition) to the manual in Kindergarten, the kids get their last letter sound at the end of May.  This is utter insanity.  By the end of May, students will have finished off many of their End of Year assessments, and unless they picked up the last letter sounds on their own, they will have a lot of Open Court-caused misses on their assessments.

Additionally, Open Court's literature selections are...well.  Let's just say that an Open Court trainer told me once that the purpose of reading these selections was not that students would enjoy them; no, it was to practice reading strategies.  After all, we all have to do things we don't enjoy, right?

Dorothy Parker wrote a review of an A.A. Milne play wherein she claims to have shot herself in the head during a particularly twee scene.  This is where I wanted to do likewise.  I mean, this idea is wrong on so many levels I can't even begin to unpack it without instruments of self-harm near at hand.

And I'm not even getting into the Massive Flaw of Open Court: that it was written by Louisa Cook Moats, a woman who believes in the Language Deficit Hypothesis.  You know, a hypothesis absolutely destroyed by William Labov in the 1950s.  (Fun Fact: Vocabulary Deficits Don't Exist, Either...Unless You Don't Know the Difference Between 'Difference' and 'Deficit'.)

Okay anyway, so this teacher I knew questioned Open Court in front of an administrator.  Her comments were pretty mild and had teachers nodding all over the place.  When the administrator moved to shut her up, I also said some anti-Open Court things, and another teacher commented that the Louisa Cook Moats article we had just read had an underlying racist ideology of language.  (Teachers are smart.)

The administrator blew a gasket.  The kind where everybody in the  room gets a letter in the file and the principals of the offending teachers get a phone call.  (This administrator ended up working for SCOE and warned a trainer I had later about me and wanted to check my homework for that trainer.  This backfired astoundingly, but I digress yet again.)

So we have three naughty teachers.  Two of the naughty teachers have tenure and full credentials.  One of the naughty teachers does not.  That naughty teacher is laid off at the end of the year.  When it ends up that her position still exists and she is the most senior person laid off, she is not offered her job back because she was so naughty they fired her for cause (mouthing off to administrators).  Since we shared a room doing AM/PM Kindergarten, this means I teach two classes a day until they come up with someone to fill the position: a first year, uncredentialed newbie who is so low-functioning that she cannot bother coming to school before 10:30am.

Anyway, without tenure I sure wouldn't have a not-very-secret blog and I sure wouldn't be mouthing off to the BoE.  But I have it.  I suppose I should worry about anti-tenure forces and caches and all that, but honestly?  The Jeremy's new arrivals email looked promising and that's far more interesting than playing hide-the-opinion on the internet.

28 July 2010

Strapping on helmet.

Living three blocks from school and possessing a full set of keys, I don't really have a whole lot of excuses not to work over the summer (except burnout avoidance).  Throughout June and into July, I was caring for our late-blooming silkworms so I went in every couple of days.

I haven't been to school for three weeks.  The administrative staff is back in today, and so am I.  Something nifty is happening, so there will be a lot of people there, but it is still a little jarring.

22 July 2010

On Starting Out

Earlier this month, I spoke on a panel with some other teachers for an audience of education reformers.  The topic was SFUSD, with a focus on the current strategic plan ("Beyond the Talk: Two Years In and We're Still Just Talking").  Needless to say, I had quite a lot of opinions on the issue and I aired these at some length to an audience that seemed receptive.  At least they gasped at all the right parts, like where I ran down the school demographics and statistics, noted our #1 (in layoffs) status and then stated that these factors left me leery of the will behind the strategic plan.

Anyway, one of the other things I said was that I thought SFUSD would be a very difficult district in which to start one's teaching career.  I didn't, for the record.  When I got to SFUSD, I had a credential, done teacher training, had student teachers, done education research, all that noise.  I knew what I was doing.  So while I had to deal with the eccentricities of a new district, the vagaries of a mammoth district and the specific drama that is SFUSD I could go into my classroom and do my job.

Even better, I could do my job with none of the unpleasant nonsense of Reading First mandates, scripted math curricula (they even give you lines for the wrong answers they predict students will give!) and whatnot.  If my students had mastered rhyming, I didn't have to teach it for seventy four more days.  If the unit on wood went so well that we needed to stop and do a little carpentry art for a week, we could.  We could even TAKE FIELD TRIPS (providing they were within city limits and free, but all the same!  FIELD TRIPS).

On the other hand, there are some flaws in this model even for the veteran.  Finding teachers with whom to collaborate could be a bit difficult - it took me a year to get a good buddy system going.  Since I no longer used the purchased language arts program and there is no district language arts assessment, I had to come up with my own (or not assess at all, I suppose, but life is easier when you know what the kids know and don't know.  They're not bored or lost, so their engagement is higher and the management is smooth).

But imagine this system as a first year teacher: worse, as a first year, uncredentialed teacher.  A credential may give you very little in practical technique, but you will have at least a student teaching experience upon which you can draw.  I can't imagine what this would be like.  Of course, some schools probably have more cohesive programs (but not many) and at my school the grade levels are tight team projects so that even the greenest newbie can get some assistance (this I know is far less true at most SFUSD schools and generally not that true at Kindergarten, although I have no idea why).

The lack of support system is brutal for the newbie - and these teachers invariably start at high-needs schools, where there are fewer supports and higher concentrations of early-career teachers.  And high-needs teaching is never easy: I have ten years in doing it, and I'm really good, but my job is not easy.  Fun, yes.  Exciting, yes.  An intellectual challenge, oh yes.  But it is not easy.

So you have the neediest teachers at the hardest schools having exceptionally hard times - the kind of experience that means burn out even if you do survive a layoff cycle.  There just isn't a safety net in SFUSD.

Based on what the reformers told me later, SFUSD seems to know that there is a lot of site-based freedom.  However, they seem less interested in building a safety net than building a boot camp - or maybe they just can't see a middle ground.  I do suspect this will be the big tension of the whole "re-design" this year.

21 July 2010

For the record.

The purpose of this blog is largely to keep my endless teacher blathering off my facebook page.

That said, dang.  Open Court is watching you.

Guide to School Personnel: Team Kindergarten

I know there are bright young Kindergarten teachers out there, just starting their careers...but I don't know any.  Kindergarten teachers always seem to be in their late twenties or older.  I think this is because Kindergarten really is different.  It's not like teaching any other elementary grade, and you either like it or loathe it.  The people who like it will never leave, and those who don't will flee as soon as possible.

I think Kindergarten used to get more than its fair share of burnt-out teachers, too.  Old-school Kindergarten is just alphabet, singing and playtime, right?  And those things aren't HARD, are they?  (Note world-weary, dripping sarcasm.)  So if you have a veteran who really needs a career change or a couple years in the book room, put that person at Kindergarten if you're too lazy to deal with the paperwork of evaluations and documentations and all that stuff.

These days, that doesn't really work anymore.  Kindergarten has some serious academic standards, and in SFUSD it's full day.  You are going to spend a lot of time crawling on the floor.  You will teach reading and also nose-blowing technique.  Shoes will be tied until you develop carpal tunnel.  It is not a job for the weak.

However, Kindergarten teacher fashion still branches down just two paths: Pooh Bear and Anti Pooh Bear.

Pooh Bear Kindergarten fashion is the home of your fabric painted sweatshirts, your wooden jewelry, your Disneyland memorabilia.  Denim is popular, and relaxed-fit is assumed no matter what the body type of the wearer.  These Kindergarten teachers have special clothing for at least seventy three holidays, some of which are extremely esoteric and known only to other Kindergarten teachers.  These teachers tend to make extremely cute parent presents.

Anti Pooh Bear teachers buy each other sweatshirts with cats on them as gag gifts.  This can lead to acrimony.  They know when the next Target and/or H&M designer collaboration is coming out and they have an opinion on it.  They tend to be really excellent shoppers and scroungers, which leads to very interesting and well-equipped classrooms and projects.   They have a favorite designer and are eagerly awaiting Sarah Burton's first collection as creative director at Alexander McQueen.

Needless to say, I am absolutely of the latter group.

18 July 2010

Let's be bold. REALLY BOLD.

I have been an avid reader of SFUSD BoE agendas for years.  I consider this part of being an informed educator.  If I want to advocate for my students, it's good to have the facts.  Board resolutions also help identify key buzzwords; if you want someone to take what you're saying seriously, it helps to align it to their priorities and their language.

Not to mention, it knocks Deputy Superintendent Leigh off his "This money stuff is too complicated for your little teacher brain to understand" game when you can ask some esoteric question about funding streams.

This year I also became an avid public commenter and organizer of public comments at Board meetings.  My role was to make sure we'd get an early speaking slot (we were often first because I called ahead) and to organize our key themes so that we got as many across in a pooled-time comment as possible.  I helped write public comments and add key facts and figures that supported our arguments and made sure we would have large banners and big turnouts.

GOOD TIMES.

Despite the fact that we were not ever that successful in our comments and the remarkable rudeness of our Board and Superintendent (many of whom really need to stop texting when teachers are talking, and talking audibly and laughing when a teacher is crying at the podium is poor form), we did win some big points.

For instance, it was fun having principals and other District staff call the school or email on the down low to let us know that they loved us and encouraged us to keep up the pressure.  I was not the only person who noticed Superintendent Garcia saying "That's not true!" when one of our teachers quoted from his own strategic plan.  I heard that Gentle Blythe was not too enthusiastic about the "SFUSD saves teachers' jobs" story in the Chronicle being illustrated by...a big picture of protesting teachers from my school.  And we all got rehired in the end - with some comments being made to various individuals that we'd been so noisy that big layoffs at our school were politically unwise (also legally unwise, but I digress).

Another outcome was that I got to mouth off to Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller.  But he had it coming.

What I learned from Tony Miller was that the administration apparently feels it needs to "be bold" in transforming failing schools.  Apparently, "boldness" is defined as the transformation-closure-charter-turnaround models proposed for persistently low-achieving schools.

So boldness, in essence, is reconstitution.  Boldness is getting rid of the teachers and administration.  Boldness is charter schooling.

Boldness is bunk.

Those aren't bold solutions!  Those are same old, same old.  Reconstitution doesn't work.  Charters aren't more successful than non-charters.  And administrator shifting, teacher transfer - it's been done.  It doesn't work.

Real boldness would mean real change.  It would mean dealing with infrastructure and equity issues that lead some schools down the road to failure.  Over a quarter of California's schools have endemic vermin infestation, for instance.  About the same number have failing physical plants.  My school has mice and ants.  We can't hang things on many walls in my classroom because of encapsulated asbestos.  Two of the windows have been broken for years, and paint is peeling everywhere.  There are holes in some walls.  I had no heat in my classroom for over a week this winter.  I run the sink and fountain in my room every day for two minutes to clear the lead pipes.  And my school is in good condition compared to those on the SIG list.

You know what would be bold?  A school rebuilding campaign.

Eighty percent of my students live in poverty.  Many have persistent food insecurity.  There is no grocery store in my community.  Many of my students have health problems associated with poor nutrition: anemia, vision problems, insulin resistance.

You know what would be bold?  A major increase to the Federal School Lunch Program and a community garden initiative.

California state funding per pupil has dropped nearly two thousand dollars over the past two years.  At my school, we ran out of yellow construction paper in February and sentence strips in December.  By March, we were on the last bits of copy paper and the laminator was out of commission.  Field trips were out of the question.  I spent several thousand dollars of my own money on my classroom and wrote twenty grants on my own time.

You know what would be bold?  A radically equitable funding system that provided additional money to high-needs schools.

15 July 2010

My Summer Vacation is UPDATED.

is not over yet, but the back to school sales have sure picked up.  Anyway, I have:

  1. Had threeFOUR fairly large grants funded on Donors' Choose.  I have a nice new set of art supplies, fourteen language arts games and kits, a workbench and tools, and a puppet theatre and all kinds of extras being delivered next year.
  2. Met with someone who's running for school board.
  3. Spoke on a panel for some education reformers.  Deformed reform.
  4. Met with some Teach for America people about My Issues with Their Programming.
  5. Discussed My Issues on the phone with some national office Teach for America people.
  6. Made several hundred math counters out of Sculpey.
  7. Made dollhouse food out of Sculpey.
  8. Made beads out of Sculpey.
  9. Watched a lot of footy.
  10. Received not one but two Bafana Bafana jerseys as gifts.
  11. Used lack of television to justify watching footy at the houses of friends and relatives.
  12. Trolled their closets for classroom donations.
  13. Friends and relatives felt unable to stop me because I thoughtfully carried a vuvuzela.
  14. And I know how to use it.
  15. Came up with a dollhouse.
  16. Used all saved-up World Cup vacation money purchasing salvage couture clothing.
  17. Justified same as supporting fair trade labor, DIY ethic, etc.
  18. Purchased a large wooden kitchen for classroom.
  19. Justified same by not purchasing fabulous sale silk cape.
  20. Managed not to justify further clothing purchases by noting that I did not purchase said cape.
  21. Had all the doctors appointments I neglected over the year.
  22. Made a brand-new set of alphabet discrimination materials for students who need extra support in visual processing.
  23. Scheduled HAD necessary surgery (also neglected).
  24. Volunteered at two local organizations.

Shoes for the First Day of School.

I really should write a post on teacher fashion.  I am eminently qualified to do this.

12 July 2010

Oh please, none of these.

SFUSD laid off eleven of fifteen teachers at my site this year, all of whom were eventually offered their jobs back. Of course, if you wait until the beginning of July to offer everyone's job back, some people leave: they actually need to be employed. So they find new jobs.

I think we can take it as a given that SFUSD will place elementary education TFAers in classrooms. I floated my TFA proposal (that they should be assigned to high-performing west side schools while veterans take the southeast side) by a prospective Board member last week and she seemed to dig it, but no dice for this year.

I have a huge issue with this, because in essence what TFA is doing is saving SFUSD's ass from a Williams complaint. If TFA refused SFUSD elementary education candidates, more credentialed teachers would get their jobs back sooner or not be laid off at all. TFA is Plan B for when teachers leave.

Given the latest studies on TFA (academic results: bad, retention: worse - and worse than other new teachers' retention rates) it's not really a point of pride to have them. Moreover, it's unfair to our students. They get to be someone's training class, and TFAers don't stay and build relationships with families - the kind that take more than a year and make a big difference. Nor is it fair to me: when you have uncredentialed newbies, site professional development must prioritize their needs. That makes sense, but those of us who have been teaching for years also need to grow, and our PD needs are different. They don't get met, so we either a. stagnate b. redesign the wheel testing "new" stuff or c. spend a healthy proportion of our salary that would be much better spent purchasing fantastic clothing on professional development.

Anyway, this is from the New York Times' latest Best-and-Brightest Piece.

Lilianna Nguyen, a recent Stanford graduate, dressed formally in high heels, was trying to teach a sixth-grade math class about negative numbers. She’d prepared definitions to be copied down, but the projector was broken.

This is not a productive method of teaching. Copying definitions does not teach anything. Also, does this classroom lack blackboards? Could she not photocopy her notes, group the students and have them jigsaw definitions - or rephrase them in their own words to teach the class? Newbies don't have pockets filled with Plan Bs. This makes it difficult for them, and they're out of their element. Things tend to go badly and end with management issues because the flow is poor.

...Copying definitions, though? Management will ALWAYS be bad with that kind of nonsense.

She’d also created a fun math game, giving every student an index card with a number. They were supposed to silently line themselves up from lowest negative to highest positive,

Dude.

Don't lie.

That is not a fun game. It is a boring game...unless someone manages to start a fight. That'd be cool.

It is also a discipline nightmare: that many students? In one line? Interacting? I predict pushing, with a side of shoving. Also probably some running.

You can get away with this kind of thing, mind you, but your ground expectations need to be tight. They need to include things like "When I say integer, stand up and tuck in your chair...don't forget your personal space bubble. If you pop someone's bubble, you are out and must sit down until I give you a signal..."

Also, this game is not very...well, learning. Everyone only gets one try. It's easy to help someone else out. A more interesting variant might require that some kids can't show their numbers but can only say "greater" or "less than" or something. Real world data might be interesting here, too: temperatures of planets in our solar system, I dunno.

(True story: I taught the scientific method to 6th graders by standing in front of the room claiming with a straight face that ketchup was made from blood, up to and including an exchange where a kid offered to go to the cafeteria to get some ketchup to prove it wasn't blood and I said to also bring a knife to prove that it was. Oh, don't worry: I didn't actually give him a hall pass. Anyway, best lesson ever? No, of course not. Did they get the difference between a hypothesis and some crazy shit you just thought up? Yes. Also, I can get away with this kind of stuff because I am harmless and sixth graders are generally not sure if I am schizo or just ADHD.)

but one boy kept disrupting the class, blurting out, twirling his pen, complaining he wanted to play a fun game, not a math game.

I am so with this kid.
Check how bad the management is, though: he's doing this IN FRONT OF A REPORTER. Either the kid is incredibly fearless or things in this classroom have degenerated to open warfare.

“Why is there talking?” Ms. Nguyen said. “There should be no talking.”

Yeah, that'll stop the talking. Oh, and raise your hand if you can hear the voice she used in your head. I totally could. Moreover, if the kid is clowning around IN FRONT OF A REPORTER, he needs a different plan than whatever you've got going on, and probably that needs to be a personal conference.

Oh, and no talking EVER? Did you tell them they had to do the game with no talking, or did you forget that and assume that they would give it to you for free?

“Do I have to play?” asked the boy.

That suggests she could still get somewhere with this kid. This isn't total rebellion: he's not refusing to play. He's just whining.

“Do you want to pass summer school?” Ms. Nguyen answered.

This could be a light and funny rhetorical question between a teacher and a pupil with a good relationship, or it could be an outright threat. A simple "Yes." would have been much better. After all, some kids will freely answer such a question with "No." And honestly, nothing in this exchange suggests a good relationship between Ms. Nguyen and Bad Boy X.

The boy asked if it was O.K. to push people to get them in the right order.

I will assume this was said in a smarmy way, but honestly: fair question! It also suggests that he knows (or thinks he knows) how to order integers by size. Kids who are above whatever you are teaching have far too much time to think up ways to bug you, like calling your boring game boring.

“This is your third warning,” Ms. Nguyen said. “Do not speak out in my class.”

So is the rule no talking? Because she answered him when he asked if he had to play. Or is it "No speaking out"? Also, what happens after three warnings?

Okay, I'm being very nit-picky, but honestly? America's best and brightest need to stop avoiding the job market in America's neediest classrooms. I have my own class, and I don't have enough time to teach them how to teach every day.

04 July 2010

California Educator Arrives!

Last issue, I learned about QEIA schools. I like the QEIA program - more money and smaller classes are always good - but the school they picked to highlight as a QEIA success was Miraloma Elementary.

Miraloma sure is successful, but I think its overwhelming demographic shift - about 20% of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which is way below district averages - may be the determing factor there. The school used to draw heavily from Hunters' Point; it now is hugely oversubscribed so doesn't really pull from its B Zone (that program is over now anyway under the new assignment system).

Worst of all, the article did get into the lower performance at the upper grades...without mentioning that they have the majority of poor children of color (next year, Miraloma will largely be a white school as the last heavily B Zone class has gone on to middle school).

I find that intellectually dishonest.

This month, I was not surprised to find that the CTA doesn't support Steinberg's tenure tweak. That's fine; seniority is an important union tenet. I think it's perhaps not the brightest thing politically: Barr's proposal is poison and I suspect the RTTT districts will not play nice with regards to test performance and pay/tenure. Still, I hold all kinds of unlikely positions and generally shake my fist at political expedience. I find it irksome. And the critical problem is indeed school funding. You can't starve a system into layoffs. We need to layoff no teachers. It really is that simple.

That said, teacher layoffs are an equity issue. We went a big 11 for 15 this year: eleven out of fifteen teachers laid off. Needless to say, when your cuts inequitably hit the hard to staff schools - you know, the ones where the teachers get extra money because you can't find teachers who are willing to work there - you are making your own problem worse. I got into it with my Mighty Union Semi-Progressive Caucus at a Board Meeting because I stated mildly that I strongly feel the union has no coherent racial and class analysis guiding how we work. (The response of our unions VP: "I'm not going to let you race bait me! And the VP for Paras isn't white!" ...yeah, really. That's what she said. Do you think she has black friends? Because I totally do.)

What is killing me on this one, though, is that the CTA is now claiming that the Ed Code allows for tenure skipping for equal protection/equity reasons. This is the current thinking in the UCLA case, but it's generally been the stated non-opinion of the union and the School District (in fact, due to the ongoing advocacy by our staff, SFUSD Legal ended up having to come up with an opinion on that. They found there was no equal opportunity skip allowed, or if there was the class was too big for them to bother, or something. If anyone wanted more information, they'd have to get some consultants off the General Fund as usual. This led to a member of the School Board walking awfully close to calling me a liar, but that's cool. I won in the end, didn't I?).

Also, they're arguing this is a teacher blame thing, and honestly? It's not. We have a system that guarantees constant turnover at high-needs schools. They get fewer resources and less-senior teachers, and the churn is unending. TFA exacerbates this locally, too.

It's not the CTA's position but its framing that's bothering me. After all, I have not yet forgiven the CTA for:

1. Uni-Serv Director to Site Rep Council/Exec Board, ARUSD: "We've decided that while our official position on the recall is NO, it's just not a popular stance so we won't be doing any door-to-door or get out the vote on it."
2. Agreeing to the Groper's "I steal your money with your consent and I promise to pay it back on...oh, let me see here...on the 12th of Never. But I'll totally give you interest when I do!"

However, framing this as an issue of simple tenure is, again, intellectually dishonest. It also has the effect of positioning the union against high-need schools' stability. That does not support union/community relations - and those are important. We're spending far too much energy in Sacramento or capitulating to our own Districts (hi, terrible new contract!) that we could spend working with parents: the working class and the employing class have nothing in common, after all, and to me that means I need to have more allegiance to my school community than to supporting the current system in any way.