Monday, March 17, 2008

I can leap tall textbooks in a single bound!

I’m going to have a difficult time teaching this week.  My superhero cape and tights are at the cleaners.

It's almost staff development season again.  Our school district loves to pay these miracle-worker education consultants thousands of dollars to come and speak to our teachers.  They come armed with videos and graphic organizers, and they model their lessons.  Each consultant advertises a gimmick -- some bottled miracle that they can make happen in your classroom. The last few years, it's all about the achievement gap.

A few years ago, one of these educational consultants showed a documentary about Erin Gruwell, that energetic, "idealistic" young teacher who started the Freedom Writers project in her Long Beach School.

The gist of her story is that if you can find a way to connect to the kids in the classroom, any student can learn no matter the hardship.  In her first year of teaching, her given-up-on students transformed themselves into college-bound kids.  Gruwell wrote a book about her miracle year, then she was featured on Oprah and Rosie O’Donnell.  Now Hilary Swank is playing her in a movie.

I’m all for miracles and connections in the teaching and learning business.  I even believe that they’re possible.  Could be Jaime Escalante, Coach Carter or that Dangerous Minds woman.  I just don't think that they are sustainable.  And I resent when administrators and politicians expect miracles without putting the required resources into our schools.  For some reason, I resent it even more when some carpet-bagging consultant pockets thousands of dollars to tell us how to make the miracles happen.

Here’s the downside to Erin Gruwell’s story.  As a first-year teacher, she had to work a second job just to pay for all of her classroom expenses.  She had to work ridiculous hours, and didn't seem to have a life outside of school.  She made a noble commitment, and I applaud her dedication.  But real humans who want to make a career out of teaching have to recognize that superhero teachers burn out.   Erin Gruwell doesn’t teach anymore.  She quit.  She actually cashed in.  Now she is an education consultant.

Some Erin Gruwell character teaches in every school.  Usually more than one.  The principals love them.  “Join the equity team…  How would you like to coach volleyball? …  We really need your energy in the PTA…   Maybe you could do a staff briefing to show others what you're doing.”  For a couple of years, she is everywhere; but then something changes.  She becomes exhausted, overwhelmed, or simply disillusioned when the hard work doesn’t seem to get her anywhere.

Every teacher wants to make a difference.  Many of us have even bought into the superhero notion.  You can put all the superheroes together and make a committee.  The committee can be the driving force to ensure that the education consultant's plan is put in place.  What's the strategy?  Give teachers collaborative preparation time.  Be available to students one-on-one at lunch and after school for hours, and visit homes of students when it’s required.  These are the strategies that do work miracles.

But nobody can make those kinds of commitments to our classrooms year after year for a career.  If every teacher in the school is expected to work sixty-hour work weeks, then most of them will be out of the classroom within a couple of years.  These strategies have to be planned-for and funded, and scheduled into a regular human's life.  More prep time for teachers, smaller class sizes, or community liaisons.  

Without the funding, we’re simply hoping for superheroes who work for free.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Substitute Blogger: Starla Mason

Testing Craze

What is it about teachers that makes us believe we must follow the rules at any cost, even when we know those rules are not in the best interest of those we are entrusted to teach and protect while they are in our care? Today teachers throughout the state administered a state writing assessment to ALL 7th grade students. I mindlessly went into this bothersome exercise that was taking away time from my ability to actually teach my students. As the day began, the assessment was like a pesky fly that continues to buzz and land on you; frustrating but tolerable.

My first class to be subjected to this NCLB nonsense happened to be a class of English Language Learners. Fortunately, this group is nearly proficient in English, and was able to take the assessment with confidence. My frustration came as a result of students who took the test with my class. The teacher for our "newcomers" (students who, for the most part, have been in our country/speaking English for less than a year) needed a 7th grade English teacher to administer the test to her seven 7th grade students, and since I had the room to accommodate these students, I welcomed them into the fold of our community. I read, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, the scripted instructions for students; noting the blank stares of the newcomers as vocabulary to which they had not been exposed was read aloud. I did my best to explain the directions for completing the assessment in a comprehensible way before having the students begin the independent work of reading the prompt and writing a persuasive letter to the editor about "lengthening the school year." Reading the directions did not include reading the "prompt" which contained challenging and unfamiliar vocabulary, even some of my native English speakers asked the meaning or pronunciation of certain words throughout the day. 

As the testing began, I moved around my classroom to encourage and motivate students. When they asked about a word, I reminded them to break it into smaller parts they could understand or to use the context of words and phrases in the passage to better figure out the meanings of these unfamiliar words and phrases. Most of the seven visiting students worked quietly and independently to complete the writing task to the best of their ability. Early in the testing period, however, I noticed one boy whose personal information had been filled in manually by the teacher rather than preprinted, telling me he had been in our school community for less than an academic quarter.

This boy sat and stared at the blank lines of his test booklet for the entire testing period. I realized that he was the student who had come from China two months earlier; a true "newcomer" in our country. Yet there he sat taking the same assessment as every other 7th grade student throughout the state. Will the person who looks at his blank booklet realize that this boy did not stubbornly refuse to participate? Will they understand that he did not understand what he was supposed to be doing? Will the damn lawmakers that continue to reauthorize this flawed legislation called "No Child Left Behind" ever see beyond their ivory towers and look into a real classroom and see real students that suffer the consequences of their thoughtless testing rules? And most importantly, will we, the teachers of these young human beings, ever stand up and say, "enough is enough!"

As I watched this boy silently stare at the empty lines of his test booklet, my rage and resolve grew. I contemplated teaching him to write "FUCK YOU." Fortunately I regained my composure and resolved instead to speak out against the craziness of these test mandates. It is time that we teachers, the people on the front lines, stop playing nice and doing what we are expected to do. It is time for us to: stand up, speak the truth, refuse to subject our students to harmful legislation. If we don't speak for the students who can't speak for themselves, who will? It is time to pull our heads out of the sand, to stop feeling powerless and to start acting on behalf of our students. As the testing frenzy of spring approaches, we need to be prepared to do what is best and right for the students we know and work with each day. If they do not speak English, why should they be expected to take a test that is incomprehensible to them? The lawmakers are not going to change their minds, but if we stand united against this inhumane treatment of our students, perhaps we can make a loud enough noise to be heard or at least noticed.  The conversation about test mandates must include the voices of all stakeholders, and we, the teachers of these "newcomers," must help those who can't speak for themselves to be heard.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Teachers on Steroids!

I'm a little jealous of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds.  Cameras follow these guys wherever they go.  Government agencies want to hear from them.  Congress holds hearings.  But teachers can't even get local school boards to listen.

I keep wondering what it's going to take.  This week, 250 teachers (more than half) in my school district showed up at a board meeting - asking for a little attention.  It seems as though they were all fed up about the same things... low pay, low morale, low respect.  The crowd cheered support for speaker after speaker.

Official Board Response... A couple of smirks. 

Clemens has been the recipient of moral outrage and righteous indignation.  Congresspeople were tripping over each other trying to ask the next question.  The media is having a field day.   Don't get me wrong here, but Clemens is just a baseball player.  It's not like the future of our children is depending on anything that might have happened in those hearings.  Why aren't people all up in arms about the state of education?

Desperate times deserve desperate measures.  So, it's time for me to make some startling revelations about what goes on in our schools.

Teachers are using performance-enhancing drugs.  That's right, after numerous interviews from multiple sources, it's time to leak this story -- Teachers are on steroids.

A veteran teacher, who only spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, "The pressure is too high.  We face impossible test score expectations.  They're threatening to shut our school down."

Said another, "Those No-Child-Left-Behind expectations - every student above average - this isn't Lake Wobegon!"  

Yet another teacher who was interviewed for my story talked about the pressure of paying bills.  "I have to work two jobs just to pay the mortgage and health care.  I turned to steroids because I have no time to sleep."

These revelations bring every AYP and API ranking in the entire country under scrutiny.  It's unclear who is supplying our schools with steroids, though one teacher speculated that educational consultants who wander from school district to school district with their power-point staff-training presentations might be the source.  It's unclear the role that superintendents are playing in this, but it seems as though they have been knowingly looking the other way, hoping that those test scores would get the boost.

To do the important research for this story, I had to guarantee my sources that I would never release their names.  Subpoena me if you feel you must, but I will remain true to my word.  
Anyway, Bring on the cameras.  Schedule the hearings.  Call up the talk radio people.

Maybe our school board will pay attention to us now.