I'm baaaaaaack.

Hoarding All the Glitter Since 2001.

31 March 2013

What We Should Learn from Atlanta

I meant to read the "CORE" districts' waiver application this week, but I got distracted by the indictments coming out of Atlanta on Friday.  So I read the eight hundred page investigative report instead.

In the press, I am seeing a lot of disappointment in America's educators.  Recounts of Beverly Hall's tenure note the incredible pressures her regime put on schools; they also make sure to describe her work personality as unapproachable, removed, and aggressive - you know, not very womanly.

About sixty pages in, I was surprised to see a paper on Parks Middle School - lauding its remarkable (and false) achievement gains.  I was given this case study in success cheating to read at least twice back before the investigation was released (although not before Parks' results should have been worrying; by the time that fan note was released, the Atlanta Public Schools had already investigated - and found - cheating at Parks (also mistresses, misuse of public funds and public buildings, and sexual harrassment - but I digress).

I think the report should stand as a clear rebuke to education reformers.  Not only do the gains they want not come as easily as they claim, they refuse to take real evidence of cheating seriously.  The report includes two position papers by academics APS asked to take a look at the test results.  The statistician notes that the test scores are about as likely as an oviparous rabbit and that cheating is likely the reason.   This study was suppressed.

Douglas Reeves - noted in APS's internal records as an education reform proponent- spends three days visiting the twelve schools with the most suspicious records.  In his whirlwind tour that allows about half an hour at each school, he notes that all of his favorite reform strategies - high expectations, public knowledge of test scores, test prep, "strong leadership", etc. - are in place.  So he decides that the gains aren't suspicious at all, because obviously if you have high enough expectations and a strong enough leader, proficiency will skyrocket from 0% to 88% in a year.

Moreover, those favored strategies?  Favored some really nasty results.  The principal at Parks was lauded for removing teachers who wouldn't get with the program.  It ends up that these teachers weren't sad, lazy veterans but teachers who reported cheating.  His leadership skills were also honored through cash awards, performance pay, and secret gifts from education reformers when he made noises about leaving.  These cash incentives encouraged more cheating.

And since Georgia's teachers have few job safety measures - their own Professional Standards Commission admits that districts can easily retaliate against whistleblowers - and very limited tenure protections, teachers had the choice to cheat as required or be fired.

So what rank-and-yank, cash incentives, all that leadership, and high expectations got Atlanta public school children was test scores so gamed that the schools lost Title One  program improvement money, and children who needed special education services were disqualified from them because of their remarkable testing prowess.

When education reformers explain what they want, the word "Atlanta" should shut them up.

27 March 2013

Good Gifts for New Teachers

NB: I am not a new teacher.

For the last three years, I have had a almost full-time student teacher in my classroom.  They all purport to be very thankful for the learning experience, etc., but let's be honest: while hosting a student teacher is at times a lot of work, and while sharing one's classroom can be difficult, the student teacher is a boon.

All of my experience with student teachers has been at least good.  They do need support.  They need coaching.  They need feedback, and sometimes you have to set down limits and expectations (I hate this; managing adults is not my thing).  Sometimes they do things wrong and you have to fix them.  Your lesson plans need a new attention to detail so that student teachers can understand and apply them.  That's the work.

And then there comes the time when you watch your student teacher do a routine lesson or oversee a management situation and you think, "NO NO NO NO NO WRONG WRONG...oh, wait: not everything has to be just the way I do it."  And possibly you like the student teacher's method better.

And those moments when you hear one of your verbal tics come from the student teacher's mouth and think, "Gee, I need to quit using that expression so much."

Not to mention the time your student teacher asks you a question and you have to think about the answer, which requires some reflection.  Or you realize that you actually have no answer, that's just how you do it - and that really requires some reflection.

A student teacher means you can use the bathroom even on rainy days when you have no recess break.  Nor do you need to spend three hours portioning out paint, washing brushes, making copies, filing papers...your student teacher can help with some of these tasks.

Eventually come student teacher solo weeks, during which supervising teachers can cut, laminate, letter, copy, organize, pack, and clean to their hearts' content.

Given all this, I like to get my student teachers presents regularly: at the winter break, when they finish a solo day or week, when they finish one of their major credentialing projects, and so on.  Here are some I believe were well-received; I am running low on ideas and would love more should you have any.

  1. Gifts for the person: accessories keyed to the student teacher's taste, items for the home, massage/spa certificates.
  2. Gift certificates to Lakeshore.  Lakeshore materials are pricey and hard to justify unless you have a gift certificate, but they come finished and perfect for the new teacher.
  3. Gift certificates to Donors Choose, combined with help the next year getting those first projects up.
  4. A bunch of the readalouds you love and the student teacher has heard over and over and over.  Buy these in hardcover; if you can find good quality used copies you can buy a lot of them for very little money.
  5. Solo Kits - your student teacher will likely be the only adult in his or her classroom next year.  Get things that the kids can do while the student teacher tests or pulls small groups: fuse bead kits (don't forget an iron!), learning games, flash cards, etc.  Homemade is fine, too: you will be saving the student teacher time next year.
  6. Better quality and/or esoteric supplies: real fadeless paper for the walls, actual Crayola crayons, Sharpie chart markers, chart paper pads, post-it glue, scented markers.
  7. Science stuff: a terrarium, a set of magnifiers or prisms, etc.
  8. Art stuff: like science stuff, this isn't always provided.  Paint, beads, etc.
  9. Pillows and carpet squares.
  10. Storage containers: you the demonstration teacher may have been saving glass jars for ten years and select your yogurt based on the usefulness of the plastic tubs in which it comes, but the student teacher has yet to be inducted into the fine arts of material management.

24 March 2013

Arts matter.

During the Amazing Cape Interlude of 2013, a significant percentage of my class started to use long vowel spelling patterns  - specifically, silent e - in their writing.

I was not teaching this; in fact, I don't teach it.

(Why?  Silent e is hard conceptually and not enormously useful; I find that kids tend to learn it implicitly for reading by using context clues to read silent e words.  Then they start extrapolating it a little in reading; I tend not to see it in writing.  Other spelling patterns - r-controlled vowels, ee, and y says e - have been more successful for teaching and learning in my classroom.  Open Court teaches silent e; my experience was that about half of the class at best would really get it and start using it.  Now that I don't teach Open Court, I have chosen phonics topics that everyone can master - and come to think silent e is not necessarily developmentally appropriate.)

(That said, the Tom Lehrer song "Silent E" is fun.)

So why silent e all of a sudden?

The only place silent e was making an appearance was on capes, because everyone wanted to write SUPER in glitter paint.

Draw your own conclusions, but I know what mine is.

20 March 2013

Mental Lanscapes, Miniature Teachers

The writing unit we are working on presently is information writing, and the framing is that you are writing to teach somebody about something.  Here are some of the amazing, self-selected topics children have chosen to write about:

  • snakes
  • kinds of fire trucks
  • poisonous things
  • healthy foods
  • what you can do with a flower
  • igloos
  • all the children in 2nd grade
  • color blending
  • exercises
  • cheese
  • leprechauns
  • babies
 Which all reminds me on a daily basis that the mental lives of children are fantastic, alluring, and strange.  It's also rather inspiring; I currently have a nine-page demo book for the next series of minilessons on ant queens.


18 March 2013

And the Letters Go Out.

I am rereading Tested, which always reminds me how very little rigorous testing has done for rigorous learning.  (It also makes me really happy I don't teach Open Court or Saxon Math anymore, and that the Reading Wars have quieted a bit.)

Now that enrollment letters are being received, test scores are being used as a bludgeon against some schools.  Having bad test scores does not mean that a school has bad teachers, bad kids, bad families, bad buildings, and bad administration.  Loose badness is not floating about the halls, a horrible miasma of black failure, ready to attach itself parasitically to all comers.

I feel bad for the teachers, the kids, and the families at these schools.  I hope they never see these threads (and I need to stop reading before my bad school comes up for its whacks).  I feel bad for the Tyler Heights teachers Linda Perlstein followed, forced by testing and rigorous curriculum to narrow their teaching until it squeezes out high-testing automatons.

Low test scores suggest a poor school.  Poverty is the strongest single correlation to test scores.  The student population is probably quite mobile, and many students are learning English.  I could go on and recount all the other sad realities of poverty that occur at most low-scoring schools.

I recognize that an assignment to such a school may not make for much happiness.  But it is unfair and mean to announce that the school is bad, with its bad teachers, bad location, bad children, bad families, bad test scores, and free-range bad just badding its way around, lurking in corners stealing lunch money.

The teachers at these schools are real people.  Their students are actual children.  I can tell you - as one of those bad teachers at a bad school - that my Kster's creativity, intelligence, and all-round cuteness compares favorably to any other Kindergarten bunch.  I work with some fabulous professionals, many of whom are in their first few years in the classroom (but a few old workhorses like me do haunt bad schools, too). My children come from loving families that want the best for them - just like we all do.

It is true that we are dealing with years of segregation, inequity, institutional racism, and lousy school funding.  It is true that these realities have had a huge and negative impact on those bad, bad, bad schools (so has testing hysteria, but I digress).  But when you call the school, its teachers, its children, and its families bad, you are blaming the victim.

Be kind.  It is possible to be angry about the school to which your child is assigned with out maligning the very real people there.

17 March 2013

The District's K, 6th, and 9th placement letters were to be mailed out on Friday, which would mean that they would start showing up in mailboxes Saturday.  I am not by nature a conspiracy theorist and I feel confident that the letters got mailed on Friday, but apparently none were received yesterday.

(I hope that this inspires action on behalf of the United States Postal Service; between the hiring freeze, the concerted effort to destroy USPS and public worker pensions in one go, and the enormous budget cuts, it is no wonder that our local postal workers couldn't sort and deliver 14,000 extra letters in less than twenty four hours.)

This will actually make my Monday easier, since the Monday after Enrollment Letter Saturday often brings a number of unscheduled tours to my Kindergarten.  Invariably, I forget about this and schedule some extraordinarily messy project and end up answering parent questions while begrimed.

(Which reminds me: families, never tour schools during the last week in May.  This seems to be popular at several southeast side schools.  Last year, some families came by just as the chicks were moving out of the classroom - leaving a messy and suspiciously empty brooder behind them - and shortly before we embarked on our abstract expressionist painting project, an experience so messy that I bagged the kids' shoes before we started last year.)

That said, I am reminded again that while teachers have strict timelines, no one else does.  Classroom teachers have to be ready the first day of school; out of classroom teachers - who are paid for the same in-service days teachers are - do not need to worry about this, since they can set up their rooms after the start of school and begin student services after a couple of weeks.  I do not think it is too much to ask EPC to get their data report out on March 15.  I recognize that they are very busy and could probably use more staff; I am also very busy and could use additional support.  But I still must get all my assessments finished and uploaded by the deadline.

I also find it interesting that SFUSD is embarking on a project to upgrade its technology and infrastructure.  I certainly hope this will include a change of policy in school budgeting.  Presently, all technology must be purchased out of school site budgets; there is no central funding.  Given that technology is required in the Common Core standards, this has to become a centrally-budgeted item.  Central budgeting would be helpful anyway because it would mean a simpler infrastructure to maintain.  (I believe that schools must purchase certain types of computers, but everyone I know gets their technology by grant or pocketbook, and that means lots of different operating systems.)

13 March 2013

Why Kindergarten is Awesome.

This week alone, we have

  • capes (the world's gaudiest, featuring both glitter paint and fake jewels)
  • insta-snow
  • sprouting seeds
  • tadpoles
  • egg-laying hen
  • noisy rooster
  • There's a Party at Mona's Tonight
  • Short e elephants with magical expanding trunks
  • TERC addition games
  • Making tints, tones, and shades
I mean,  so much cooler than your average profession or Scantron-heavy, test prepping third grade classroom.

09 March 2013

Giving Thanks and Whatnot.

I must hand it to the District: this year's preliminary budget allocations are presented in an easy to read, clear format with tables that clearly outlines all funding sources and projections.  Also, it appears that the budgets were created using actual student numbers as opposed to maximum capacity figures, which should be helpful for small schools with fluctuating enrollment (since just a few children less than expected can mean a school finds itself losing already-spent funds at the ten-day count).

If you are feeling thankful, perhaps you would like to nominate a teacher for the Mayor's Teacher of the Year program.  The Teacher of the Month program at 826 Valencia is also accepting nominations for teachers who have inspired fabulous creativity in writing.

06 March 2013

The One Where I Am Missing Something

Yesterday I had benchmark reports for each child in my class, comparing their performance to some benchmarks set by persons unknown for the Fountas and Pinnell literacy assessments.  These are meant to be sent home.

Findings:

  1. I hope the plan for the future is to have these by conference week, so I can explain them.
  2. I really wish we had an entry record, because you can see the growth from the first to second trimester, but if the district is really collecting data to drive instruction, you need to know where kids are when they start the year.
  3. By "data to drive instruction", I would like to mean "data to inform equity in funding".  Based on the Brigance, which was an entry assessment and had percentiles for the district and the school, in general my students start less ready than their District-wide peers.  (Many of my students don't attend preschool and my classes generally have more English Language Learners than average, I believe.  This impacts their entry assessment.)
  4. Who is setting these benchmarks?   The second trimester for letter recognition is 30 out of 52.  By November, I want all of my class  to be done with the alphabet, and typically everyone is.
  5. Similarly, the benchmark is 15 of 25 sight words, 8 of 10 on concepts about print, etc.  Overall, these benchmarks seem awfully low.
  6. That said, I am not assessing segmenting yet and I didn't assess it at the end of the first trimester.  After nine weeks, I haven't taught enough to make assessment useful, and after eighteen it is a lot of testing for something that will not drive instruction.
  7. So some of this is probably difference in curricula (Treasures doesn't teach that many sight words and probably does a lot of phonemic awareness), but not all of it.

03 March 2013

Philadelphia Public Schools Superintendent William Hite  wants you to know how much he values the hard work and professionalism of his teacher employees, despite his unwillingness to provide them with basic classroom supplies like textbooks.
Many of our teachers work beyond eight hours — they work on weekends, they work nights, and they work on holidays.  We value that.
Yes, because nothing says "we value you" by mandating unpaid work beyond the (lengthened, pay-reduced) work day.

What Hite is doing here is equating "professional" with "non-union".  What bothers him is the contract; by delineating what teachers can and cannot be forced to do, the contract keeps him from fully embracing the skewed work-life priorities of salaried labor in the United States.

It's not that Hite values the extra hours Philadelphia teachers put in.  It's that he wants the right to demand that they show their gratefulness for their (reduced, frozen) salaries by working extra unpaid hours every day.  By purchasing their own textbooks, by accepting fifty students in a class they've never taught before.

Woe betide the teacher who would like an evening with his or her family, or to leave work on his or her lunch break to pick up prescription refills, or to spend a few daylight minutes not at work.  Superintendent Hite knows that there are plenty of unemployed educators - or at least minimally-trained recent college graduates - to temporarily fill his schools' teaching staffs.  Why accept a teacher who wants a sixty-hour work week when you can get one who will do eighty for less money?

This isn't about learning outcomes, and Hite's claim that teachers don't need contract protection to get drinking water and textbooks for students is belied by...well, at least by the entire state of California.  Very little of education reform is "for the kids" - or at least whatever kids are purported to need boils down to recreating Gilded Age labor conditions for their benefit.

Down in the Sticky Details, Far Away from Rhetoric

My students are really into two things right now:

  1. This book;
  2. Love.
It is kind of a weird combination but pretty fun.

What I Learned From Our Superintendent at the SSC Summit

ETA: I am trying to go all BEST INTENTIONS on this.  I mean,  we DO need to be real about the opportunity gap.  And we DO have a pretty obvious problem with student results.  AND assessment is important.  Besides, I love professional development; every good teacher is a growing, learning teacher.

That said, I feel like the District's leaders are localizing OUR problem in teachers and at schools.  That's fair to a point.  But I need to see that the District is willing to ask itself the same hard questions they want me to ask myself.

In my years in the District, I have worked hard to be the best educator I can be for ALL my students.  On the rare instances I have asked for help from the District, they haven't even suggested professional development: the answer is silence.

It's kind of like the inclusion push: I strongly believe in inclusion.  I hear the District saying that they do, too.  I see inclusion students.  What I don't see is the District providing the support to make inclusion real.  It is not just an issue of better professional development.

I want to see the District holding themselves accountable for students the way teachers do.  Maybe the Superintendent's new evaluation is the start of doing so.  But I think veteran high-needs teachers - who have been surviving in a system whose inequities are at times the fault of the District - have the right to expect more.
  1. Our teachers are not broken, but they sure need a lot of professional development to fix support their practice.
  2. Societal inequality has an enormous impact on student achievement, but teacher professional development will fix that, too.
  3. We are interested in a child's growth over time, not fixed measures.  This is why we collected great entry assessment data for our Kindergarten students this year.  Oh wait, scratch that.  We knew we forgot something.
  4. Testing is so overrated, which is why we are buying the Smarter Balanced assessments, and schools will be piloting them whether or not they have the technology to support them.
  5. Our move to inclusion has nothing to do with cost savings, state audits, or any of that.  It is all about equity.  The fact that our teachers don't believe us has nothing to do with their lived experience of 120 school days of inclusion.  It is because they are broken need support.
  6. We barely have two nickels to rub together, but seven cents is going to professional development that we are choosing because our teachers are broken need support.
  7. Teachers whining that they need support in the form of adequate copy paper for the year, the technology necessary for the Common Core standards and Smarter Balanced assessments, buildings with adequate heating systems, and social-emotional support for students are broken need to be professionally developed until they are too tired to whine.
Maybe I am just too old and jaded these days, but the Superintendent's claimed vision was so different from my reality that I felt more frustrated than fired up.  It's nice to hear that you are not broken, that the fact that some students come to school hungry matters, and that we believe in equity in outcomes.  But when the District's actions are so removed from its rhetoric, it is hard to believe your ears.

I spent a significant (more than a thousand dollars) amount of money on the kind of professional development that the District wants to standardize (and that's after getting a scholarship, by the way).  So I suppose I am happy that the District is going to start eating some of those costs.  But honestly, I am tired of hearing how the support I need is more professional development.

I am already doing that.  I spent two weeks of my summer and countless work year weekends pursuing professional development.  I read books and articles on my profession.  I seek out opportunities to be observed and get feedback, and to observe other teachers.  Many teachers are already doing this.  Our reward is apparently that we should do more of it, because we are doing it wrong or something.  Even if the development we are pursuing is the same stuff the District wants to demand.

The District seems unwilling to recognize what its teachers are already doing and what they are actually experiencing in their classrooms.  If our leadership truly believes we are not broken, they should start talking to us about what we need.  They should come and see what we are already doing (it would save me the bother of hearing I'm going to pilot an assessment that requires computers without computers, too - the tadpoles grow at a remarkable rate and are of high interest, but they do not run Smarter Balanced programs.  Of course, the ancient relic of a computer they replaced didn't either).

Oh, and also?  The District's teachers can read.  So the big reveal had been spoiled already.  And while I'm all in favor of ending the tutoring programs (listening to tutors holler at kids is not that fun, nor does it lead to increased performance), the waiver application is not quite as revolutionary as sold.  After all, like all waivers, it will require tying test scores to teacher evaluations.

Again, it's not that the waiver application is enough to demand a move to Australia.  It's that its presentation at the summit was not entirely correct, and I dislike it when my leaders ignore the sticky details in favor of soaring rhetoric.  My entire workday is down in the sticky details (metaphorically and not), and when the District erases them they erase their actual business of educating kids, too.