I'm baaaaaaack.

Hoarding All the Glitter Since 2001.

29 December 2011

Disrupting the System

I was reading this Tim Wise essay and thinking about the endless conflict between reform from the inside and pressure to reform from the outside.

There are all kinds of things about public education that aren't good, although they're not really the ones that education reformers are worried about.  It's a system set up by the dominant culture to serve itself; while it may not actively conspire against the oppressed, it is at best apathetic towards them.  Education assumes many white norms; we assess for things that aren't necessarily that important (and are sometimes contrary to civic wellness) in ways that prioritize and prize certain ways of learning and doing over others.

I know people who are involved with charter schools because they believe the system cannot be repaired; if all children are going to be educated, it will have to happen from outside pressures.  It's a radical view, I suppose.

Of course, on the ground it's remarkably less radical.  High STAR test scores don't correlate with healthy societies or even high-needs children going to college and getting white-collar jobs.  Nor is it really outside: few charter schools are upending the system to teach different material in different ways.  Moreover, it's a scorched-earth policy.  For those children who are in the public schools, the charters that may someday make everything better are currently making everything worse.  Charters conspire with the corrupt and oppressive systems in public education to make the situation worse for most.  Even if their goal is to eventually succeed with every child and to create a anti-racist education, a lot of learners will be sacrificed before that happens.  And those learners will not be knowingly, willingly sacrificed: education battles are in the end fought not only about our children, but on and by our children.

Generally I believe that reform from the inside is unsuccessful, and if I push myself I have to admit it's probably unsuccessful here, too.  Some of the things that make my classroom a good place for the children in it support a system that prevents systemic change.  For instance, at this point my classroom is almost entirely stocked by the goodwill and private dollars of strangers.  The materials available are good for my students; the acceptance that public financing is secondary isn't.

In some ways, teaching Kindergarten makes it easier to remove oneself from the system.  I don't give a standardized test.  Kindergarten isn't even a legal requirement for children in California; while there are standards I must teach, I have remarkable leeway in how I choose to do it.  And showing up to work each day and doing my job means that I can't look at my class and think about PreK to prison pipelines very much; hopelessness is real and not productive when you're in the thick of it.

So sometimes I feel like the battles we're having about education - about how to teach reading, about funding, about teachers and their unions, etc. - are sugarcoating helping us avoid the real argument about what school is and what we want it to be.

But I'm pretty sure that the outside pressure of charter schools aren't going to make that conversation happen.

28 December 2011

Working Over the Break Has Its Advantages

Specifically: you're likely to have the Children's Book Project to yourself, and SCRAP will be quiet too.

I got many excellent books for the classroom and for incentives, and a mess of supplies, crafty stuff and two terrariums at SCRAP.

...Then I went to the thrift store and spent money on a gothy jacket I don't need and a pair of shorts that were probably marketed at women in their early twenties.  I don't care, they're still cute even on me.

27 December 2011

Know Your Veterans

One of the more disappointing things about the deficit thinking Teach for America and other education reform projects is the disdain they inspire for veteran teachers.

I don't think it's intentional, but if you believe that schools are failing, and that unions protect the lazy, and all we need is some accountability and no tenure and some performance-based pay, it's hard to hold those failing, lazy, unaccountable teachers in any esteem.

It's unfortunate, because it leads to a lot of wheel-reinventing.  Chances are good that someone at your school's done a unit on ocean life before.  Another veteran knows how to get a bus for a field trip.  Someone down the hall had a student with similar needs to the child who's challenging you.  The veterans know families and circumstances at the school.  They know the secret trick to unjam the copier and what snacks the custodians prefer.  It's hard to share all this important information with people who believe you fail children every day.

Beyond that, veterans are closer to retirement than you are, and cannot maintain storage spaces forever.  Over the break, I have been given the following by retirees:

  • A huge set of science posters, including one that has eggs on it, and when you shine a light on an egg you can see the type of developing chick inside.
  • A photo-heavy book on life cycles.
  • A set of magnetic picture frames for completing a class gift to families.
  • Over two thousand stickers.
  • Several cute die-cut notepads.
  • Labels.
That's in just two weeks.  I've been given a literal car full of high-quality teaching materials, including thirty bins (great for material passout, crayons, etc.), the giant scissors that are part of the standard treatment regimen at the Crazy Doctor Hospital*, a paper cutter, a copy-paper box full to the brim with stickers, a class set of mirrors, over one hundred pure beeswax crayons...need I continue?

New teachers should appreciate veterans because they're doing a hard job well, and because they're all part of the school community.  But when they fail to do so, they miss out on the tangible goodies, too.


*Now providing both amputation and a cutting-edge treatment called "ticklectomy".

24 December 2011

Vacation Thoughts

I think it's important to take part in the little rituals that make our holidays special, so yesterday I went to San Jose and wandered through a giant mall with a dear friend from high school.  (Come to think, maybe it's more high school nostalgia than anything, but hey: Santa was there and stuff.)  At some point we decided to get makeovers.  I must say, if I got up early enough to do a smoky eye/dark lip combination, I would be the most popular teacher ever.  I hardly ever wear makeup, and at least fifteen random students comment appreciatively when I do.  I have no idea why this is.

(Reinforcing my decision to sleep in rather than make up was the following trip to the gym, where scrubbing off the smoky eye left me looking like a raccoon with a strange predilection for kettle bells.)

Since I've been on vacation, I've had time to hunt down little classroom goodies.  For instance, I went to my favorite craft store and bought some ultra-fine glitter and other critical kindergarten supplies.  I've also spent time on the internet, hunting down books I want for my room.  I now have in my possession Richard Egielski's retelling of The Gingerbread Boy, which has awesome, vaguely Art Deco illustrations and an urban setting.  I also ordered a copy of "Stand Back!" Said the Elephant, "I'm Going to Sneeze!".  I do currently have a copy of this one, but I found it in a free bin and it was used for doodle paper and has unidentified spills on it.  I have not been able to unearth a copy of No Kiss for Mother at a price I am willing to pay (and hardcover), but someday I will.

20 December 2011

Ahem.

I know people involved with the Rocketship schools, and I don't doubt their good intentions.

I doubt their understanding of children.

Any schooling that requires a nine-hour day - which Rocketship does - will be successful on standardized testing.  I have no idea why this is a question, really.  Anything that gets drilled enough will get memorized and regurgitated at the appropriate time and location.

I just don't consider that learning.  I don't consider it child-centric, or a good test of whether technology in the classroom works or if teachers should just work twelve hour days by contract.

If your goal is high test scores, it's a working model.  If your goal is high-achieving students who write well, are confident, read with ease and discuss it with depth, it's not.

Neither is our current public education system, really - not because it's not a long enough day or technologically advanced enough, but because it is not intended to be so (and is certainly not funded to be so).

Ultimately, I think it comes down to the fact that too many of the people running charter schools don't think much of their fellow man, especially the poor, and aren't really interested in an active, informed citizenry.

YAY!

I went into the important December Give to My Kindergarten Please season with my full allotment of eight Donors Choose requests.

So far so good: six projects completed!  One just funded in two days, yay yay yay.

I still have two projects left, both of which have received donations but both of which are also big (one is nearly one thousand dollars).  But even without those, my class is getting new math games, new art supplies, stuff for the listening center, literacy activities, take home stuff, and supplies with a sensory edge.

Yay yay yay!

In other news, I spent four hours at school Sunday, which was enough time to:
  1. Decide where to put the listening center;
  2. Clean and move furniture for its installation;
  3. Set up the listening center;
  4. Child-proof the listening center (color code buttons, make a key, set up work files/turn in files, etc.);
  5. Make homework and photocopies for the first week back;
  6. Discover that the failure of the heat had killed the isopods (boo), meaning I did not need to either set them up in a permanent terrarium or euthanize them*;
  7. Get rid of any leftover food that could spoil.
However, it was not enough time to clean the room (indeed, the furniture is in a bigger mess than it was before) or get out January supplies and materials.  While I am not remodeling the classroom library until I get book boxes from a Donors Choose grant (yay!), I do have other stuff to do over break.  So I'll probably go in New Year's Day or the 2nd.  Which is to say: I have to go in, I just don't know which day.

Anyway, given that I am going to spend at least eight vacation hours at work, I encourage you to take the latest right-wing media story - the one about teachers being the highest-paid workers based on hourly salary - with a grain of salt.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics only counted contractually-required hours.  Similar to the way teachers are not contractually obligated to grade papers at home, spend an entire weekend setting up their classrooms, stay until 6:00PM to tutor students or show up much before the bell, I am (amazingly enough) not contractually obligated to go in on my vacation.

In further other news, the End of the Year party went well.  Among the things the kids identified learning in Kindergarten:

  1. How to write about a book (no, really!)
  2. How to play with playfoam
  3. How to race isopods
  4. How to use binoculars
  5. How to count to 100
  6. How to read
  7. How to sing "Christmas in Hollis"
  8. How to "do a play"
Also, the lunch - grilled ham and cheese - is one of the least popular cafeteria selections.  Generally this would be a bad thing, but I went against my long-standing "ten minute party" rule and gave them forty-five minutes.  (The longer party is more for parents, really.)  Anyway, they actually ate for twenty minutes before dancing for twenty minutes.  So the bad lunch was a party plus.

The kids took home their wreaths and some photos in frames.  It was a sartorially exciting day because I wore pants twice this week, and the pants I wore Friday had beads and sequins and ribbons on them.  Despite needing to teach an impromptu lesson ("I Don't Care How Exciting My Pants Are, Don't Touch My Bottom") on them, these pants were a huge hit.

...Hopefully they will feel similarly disposed toward the old Thierry Mugler jacket I bought myself yesterday.


*No, they can't be released.  They're not locals.  And while I could probably collect adequate pillbugs for a lesson, given three mornings in the garden, I couldn't collect enough sowbugs.  I don't actually think I had ever seen a sowbug before I got them in a FOSS Kit shipment, and they're obviously different than pillbugs.  (It's not like I just didn't notice.)  I do collect snails rather than having them shipped, release creatures that can be released, and find homes for chickens.  Heck - despite my lifelong disinclination towards chickens above ten days old, I'm keeping chickens this summer so they can live at school.  Also, I no longer do the FOSS module on earthworms with a classroom terrarium since I find it very difficult to keep the worms healthy - we do it at a local garden with their worm bins.  In conclusion, among the things I'm not beating myself up about is freezing isopods.  Which is totally why I just wrote a paragraph justifying myself.

16 December 2011

Shocking Events!

For the first time in five years, I had a class get on the stage in front of the rest of the school and perhaps eighty parents and actually perform their song.

Not even one child stood on stage covering his or her ears.  Nor did anyone hide behind his or her third grade buddy.

A bunch of kids actually strategically positioned themselves near the microphones for maximum volume.


They were the eleventh act to perform and had had three stage practices, which I think helped a lot.  But still: the Kindergartners were actually audible while rapping AND danced in front of an audience.


Wonders never cease, seriously.

13 December 2011

In better news...

I got two Donors Choose projects fully funded yesterday, which brings me up to three for the Friends and Family Challenge.  I have another one that needs less than one hundred dollars to complete.

This makes me more hopeful I will get backpacks for my students to take home at the end of the year and possibly even a full set of recess equipment for the Kindergarten yard.

Four Days!

In the next four days, I must:

  1. Mail one set of Donors Choose thank yous.
  2. Wrap all work presents.
  3. Take and print photos of all students for the frames they made.
  4. Find where I stuck the packing peanuts for making wreaths.
  5. Chase down remaining three addresses for sending holiday cards.
  6. Decide if I am making winter work packets and make them if so.
  7. Complete all assessment.
  8. Complete report cards (Data Director is down all break).
  9. Finish teaching the second verse of "Christmas in Hollis".
  10. Practice same with buddy class.
  11. Complete Resident evaluation.

11 December 2011

Adult Management

I have had a number of student teachers, and the last two years I've had a Resident Teacher - an almost full-time, full-year student teacher.  Generally I find student teachers easy to manage.  Beyond the fact that I'm pretty easy-going, having a student teacher is a shared endeavor and I'm honest about that.  The student teacher needs to have the best possible learning experience and it's my responsibility to provide what that person needs.  Also, I encourage my student teachers to tell me what they need, to feel free to question my decisions and to bring their ideas forward.  As far as I can tell, they seem to learn a lot and enjoy the experience (I mean, last year's Resident is teaching at my school).

Presently I am in a situation where I am working with a paraeducator, who I do not supervise but for whom  I am responsible for providing lesson plans, activities and whatnot.  I am finding this extraordinarily difficult.  It's hard, because the paraeducator is not experienced in the current position, so I have to give a lot of very basic directions.  This is weird for me because my student teachers are generally as inexperienced but don't need these directions.  (Presumably they get them in their classes.)

The bigger problem is that even with explicit directions, the paraeducator does not always do as I request.  This is frustrating for me since I am ultimately responsible for our shared endeavor.  Also, the refusal is not because the paraeducator has a different, possibly effective way to do things that we could try instead.  This makes me feel that the paraeducator does not respect my experience.  For instance, I am a big believer in positive reinforcement.  The paraeducator is not.  Friday, I finally laid out explicitly that I expect the behavior plan I had provided to be used.  (Previously, I had tried modeling it, writing out a description of it, explaining why I wanted to use it, pointing out how it had already been successful, etc.)

It's still not really in use.

Also, the paraeducator has been getting involved in issues that are my responsibility and that I prefer to be handled by me or my Resident, since we have collaboratively agreed on the procedures and the rationale for them.  I appreciate the willingness to jump in.  I don't appreciate having my students disciplined for things that I allow them to do.  I also don't like having to argue about why I do something (for instance, why I don't teach penmanship right now in favor of teaching students to write).  I do things the way I do them.  If you want to know why, ask.  Perhaps it's just the tone, but I get the feeling that the paraeducator assumes I do things not with a rationale, but because I don't know any better.

To be fair, most of the time when I state specifically that I do not want the paraeducator to do something, or I remind the paraeducator to leave general classroom management to me, the paraeducator does as I demand.  But the same problem happens again an hour later, over the same issue.  Or the paraeducator says something that suggests I have no idea what I'm doing in the classroom.  Hey, I'm all for critique, but seriously?  Sarcastic asides from someone who is not willing to hear my reasoning isn't useful critique.

It's also frustrating because I hate managing adults.  I generally like people - or at least try to be sympathetic (the paraeducator's job is not easy, and the supports necessary are not there).  It's hard for me to be sympathetic to someone and also need to offer corrective feedback, and my response is to hide out and hope the problem self-corrects.  Also, I know the paraeducator wants to be useful and feels badly for me since it is kind of noticeable I've been having health problems.  Knowing that the intention is good makes it hard for me to critique the bad outcome.

Recognizing this, I've been exceptionally explicit in my directions, and I am even trying to note when they are not being followed and bring it up immediately.  And when they are followed, I try to notice that too.  I also asked some of our student support personnel (the LSP, the behavior coach, etc.) to provide observation, feedback and training to the paraeducator.  I am hopeful this will make the situation more manageable for the paraeducator - after all, I can't provide that and teach my class at the same time.

In other news, there is one week of school before the break.  I need to decide if I want to provide winter packets, and pick the day over the break I am coming in to move furniture (so that I can set up the listening center near outlets) and organize the library into book baskets.

I am also happy for break because staff morale is low right now.  People are feeling unappreciated and overworked, and our administrative staff and IRFs are not helping.  Two weeks will give everyone a nice break, and with any luck that will make it easier to assume best intentions.  That said, I think there will have to be a formal clearing of the air in January and I dread it.

07 December 2011

SPARK!

This is a wonderful week to make a donation at donorschoose.org.

Select a project you like, and add SPARK as your promotional code/match code.  This provides a dollar-for-dollar match courtesy the Donors Choose board.

My school is already at critical alert status for some supplies: glue sticks, markers - and we have one hundred days to go.  I haven't seen a Sharpie I didn't buy myself in four years.  Other schools are in similar straits.  If you can, lend a hand - donate, and demand California fully funds its schools.

04 December 2011

My Problem with Teach for America, in One Ancedote.

A couple of years ago, I had a letter published in the New York Times.  In responding to an article, I decried the false dichotomy between academic and play-based early childhood education.  Play is academic, and academics should be embedded in play.  The trick of teaching is to create the framework that enables children to integrate their learning and use it across disciplines.

The letter following mine was authored by a Teach for American.  She was solidly anti-play; her students did not deserve play because they did not know the alphabet when they entered Kindergarten.  Nor had their parents taught them to count.

(Neither do many of mine, which is why they deserve play.  Some of mine do, though - that's why they also deserve play.)

And that's my issue with Teach for America.  If your worldview holds that the schools are broken, all of your assumptions will be negative.  The children aren't ready for school.  Their parents don't know how to parent.  The teachers aren't very good.  The neighborhood is crummy.  When you start with the bad, you will never get anywhere good.  You can't see the many things your students can do, so you can't find somewhere to start.  You don't acknowledge that norms of parenting may differ from your own: there's good and bad, not different.  Teaching is not a craft that you hone through experience, and your fellow teachers are not humans - they're lazy, bad people destroying children.  You will never walk comfortably or be a valued part of a community you disdain.

TFA is the sum of starting with the negatives.  Nothing good comes from deficit thinking.

03 December 2011

Unsent Letters

Dear Mikey One Percent,

Frankly?  I doubt you attended Kindergarten with forty three of your peers.  And I know - I know, with absolute certainty - that when it comes to academic performance, that Kindergarten class didn't get the results that my students meet by the end of August.  (Things have changed since you went to Kindergarten, dude, and it's not just the terrible union teachers and their tiny little classes.  The standards are years higher, too.)

But as always, I have to tell you that if you intend to double my students and my pay, I want to see you do it first.  Mikey, it might sound like a generous offer, but compare it to your income, and think hard about this offer.  (It's worth remembering that while, say, $125,000 may sound like an awesome amount of money for a teacher, the people proposing it make more than ten times as much.  And their pensions, insurance and so on are better than teachers', too.)

Given my typical class load, the forty four students you'll have will present some serious classroom issues, Mike.  At least six will have IEPs upon Kindergarten entry.  Eighteen to twenty will be on the young side - late October and November birthdays.  Thirty will not speak English, so start planning those ELD lessons now.

Four children will be in foster care; at least six more will be in kinship placements.  Two will be homeless; almost all of the rest will live in decrepit, violent and under-resourced public housing.  Eighteen will have witnessed or been personally involved in serious violence.  Twelve will have chronic asthma or other major health problems.

Forty three of them will qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and half will face food insecurity at home.  Twenty five will live in homes where no adult is able to find work.  Start stocking up on the snacks and school supplies, Mike: you'll need to use that excellent salary to supplement what your school and your families can't afford.

Based on your breezy comments, despite the challenges, you'll have no trouble ensuring all forty four read fluently by the end of the year.  They'll whip through their fifty sight words spelling test in five minutes before finishing twenty addition and subtraction problems.  Then they'll write a five sentence story before making a map of their neighborhood and creating a Venn diagram to compare insects and isopods.

And then you'll have the credibility you need to lecture me about school success, ineffective teachers and the good old days of fifty kids to a room.

Until then: shut up.

Not So Cordially,

E. Rat