updates for 08.29.2011
When I think about why I decided to join Teach For America, lots of cliches come to mind: I wanted to make a difference; I wanted to be the kind of teacher I had growing up; I wanted to pay it forward after being given so much by my adopted country and its education system. These general themes are reminders of why I am here, but teaching is not important in that it fulfills my wants - or any teacher's wants - but rather in that it is able to fulfill the wants of my students. Recently, a student of mine, A., wrote the following, in response to a prompt about his career and/or college goals:
I want to go to Texas or Duke. [My] brother had a football scholarship to go to Texas and he also had a... scholarship to go to Duke... You may have [seen] him on the news or read about his death in the paper. He just graduated... He was only seventeen years old but... he was shot [in a drive-by]... and he died. That really [hurt] me because [he] was my favorite brother... I was [going to] be at all of his college [games]... shouting his name and supporting him. But I can't do that anymore. His death really opened my eyes to the real world. I'm not [going to] live forever so I need to do everything I can, be the best person I can be. I want to be a doctor because I love helping people.It's hard to stomach this, that a kid who did the right things, made the most of his education, and had such a bright future ahead of him could have his life cut short so senselessly. It's hard to stomach that my students live among such violence. And yet, A. has used this tragedy to motivate himself even more toward his goals. My responsibility is to make sure he stays this driven and doesn't succumb to channeling his pain in negative ways. Teachers alone can't save the world, and we can't even save every student, clearly, from the dangers of circumstance. But we can try our damndest to give our students the best education and as much opportunity as possible so that they may change the course of their own lives. Not only do I hope that one day, A. will, through education and determination, be able to live in a neighborhood where he and his future family don't have to worry about drive-by shootings, but I also hope that one day, would-be shooters, through education and determination, never feel like their only option to get forward in life is to use a gun. Our collective responsibility is to make sure our students all drive toward their dreams and never succumb to the negativity that too often influences their lives.
Disclaimer: some people who read this blog will probably not want to follow the links provided, just fyi. If you don't like hip-hop, I'd leave it alone. Earlier today on facebook, I posted a status about listening to "Watch the Throne" while lesson planning... and how it makes me feel like a superhuman teacher who can literally achieve anything. Well, I think at least one of those tracks did the trick - somehow this weekend I've managed to be more prepared going into my week than any other time previous to this. Do I still have a ton to plan? Absolutely. But the best part about how much I have done is actually being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and not to feel overwhelmed at other stuff that's coming up this week. I'm so used to planning and preparing for hours and hours and feeling like I've achieved nothing, but this weekend was so much different and I'm so glad. I was able to get a lot done by taking one thing at a time and just working on what was more pressing first. I'm still going to school early tomorrow just because I've determined that I really like getting there with enough time to really look around and spot check any last minute issues that may arise. But overall, things are way different this Sunday than I can remember in pretty much every past Sunday since May. I'm not completely overwhelmed at the thought of a looming week. I've made lists of the things I need to do, and I accomplished enough over the weekend to feel that it's all very feasible. It's a good feeling to finally start a week for once without wishing you could go back to the weekend and do it over. So this week my motto is that I'm gonna go H.A.M.; and these kids better be ready for it. Hopefully positive things are borne out of my weekend determination to finally get ahead.
1. leave school by 5:30 pm every day 2. don't get to school before 7 am every day. I'm not very productive before school anyway. 3. go to the gym 3 times 4. avoid negative people and hang out with positive people 5. circulate when I teach 6. be stricter and more consistent with consequences 7. not talk to my Abraham Lincoln poster (out loud)
Nope. I'm not talking about the iPad that I will be getting on the 10th of September from Apple and their generous customers, but a real, legit, shiny, red apple. Last week I was surprised when one of my students brought me an apple. What? Is this real life? What is funnier you ask? She pulled me aside at the end of the school day and said, "Ms. Don't eat the apple. It was sitting in the fridge for a while and it might be rotten." Well, it is the thought that counts.
pages 1 to 100 pages 101 to 200 pages 201 to 300 pages 301 to 350 pages 351 to 400 pages 401 to 437 This book is close to over though the story that it chronicles is far from over. For this reason I know that, depending on how Brill chooses to wrap this up, it could leave the general reader very unsatisfied. As of now the reformers clearly haven't 'won' the war, nor have they lost it either. Because of this, I know that this is going to be a book that lacks an Act III. Had he waited another two years to write the book, it might have a more definitive ending. When I read this book, from my perspective, it reminds me of a 'heist' story where the heroes of the story are actually the bad guys, yet we are supposed to root for them anyway since the good guys are presented as the obstacles. A heist story generally can end one of two ways: They can get away with it and the last scene has them on a beach enjoying their prize or they can get foiled and lose (Butch Cassady and The Sundance Kid or Dog Day Afternoon). Summarizing the book so far: A group of powerful or rich people attempt to hijack public education in the U.S.. Most know nothing about education (Obama, Duncan, Bloomberg, Klein, Gates, and Tilson and other DFERs). They devise a plan which dangles money in front of states, but only if they agree to follow their reform agenda, which has two pillars, 'choice' and 'accountability.' 'Choice' generally means there need to be charters. 'Accountability' means that ineffective teachers who have been getting positive evaluations by principals will now be exposed by tying their ratings to their student's performance on standardized tests. According to this book, this 'Value Added' process has finally become very accurate. Though the reforms are controversial, they are already supposedly working in several places like New York City, Washington D.C., Florida, and New Orleans. In the second to last section titled 'Punch, Counterpunch,' we learn that some anti-reformers are pushing back. Page 402: Rhode Island governor Chafee is "wary of charters 'undermining and cherry picking and skimming off the top of our public school system." In general, the people in the book who are anti-reform are presented as simple minded. Brill has already tried to prove earlier in the book (incorrectly) that charters don't do this. Page 403: We learn that the closing of the rubber rooms in New York City hasn't really accomplished much. Rather than be fired since they won their hearings, many of these teachers became part of what's called ATR or Absent Teacher Reserve where, according to Brill, "they were still paid to do nothing." Actually, they don't do 'nothing' but serve as substitute teachers when regular teachers are absent. Though they do get paid more than subs who are not ATR, it's not accurate to say they do 'nothing.' Page 405: L.A. mayor Villaraigosa is a reformer who says "it was the same old song. 'We need more money. You don't understand. These kids are poor. These kids are English-language learners.' Well, I did understand, because I was one of those kids." This is one of the oversimplifications of the position of the anti-reformers. Nobody is saying that it is impossible to beat the odds (demography is not destiny), but that without enough resources, it is unlikely to happen for a large percent of kids. I'm, of course, of this mind, but I think with an unrealistic amount of resources -- for example, having class sizes of no more than four students, it would be possible to overcome many effects of poverty. This, however, would be more costly than attacking the root cause. Page 406: The parent "Trigger law" is touted, which allows parents to make a petition to have their school turned into a charter school, but unions "dubbed it a 'lynch mob' law." Now, I like parents to be involved in the children's schooling, but when the parents are influenced to pull the 'trigger' by politicians and 'grass roots' organizations funded by Bill Gates, I get concerned. Do the parents know that many of these charters will exclude or kick out many of their children in order to beef up their own stats so they can take over more schools? Successful 'turnarounds' generally do more harm than good. Page 408: Moskowitz is opening a charter school in the Upper West Side of Manhattan "that would have standards and test results equivalent to those of the best private schools in Manhattan." But 1/3 of the teachers at the other school, mentioned earlier in the book, felt that the schools focused too much on test prep which is not what they do at the best private schools, like Dalton, in Manhattan. Page 410: Some of the reasons that Upper West Side Success is good: "In the regular schools, the teachers get one day to prepare for the school year, but here we take thirty days." While it is true that NYC teachers come back to school one day before the students do (two days this coming year), that does not mean that teachers don't begin preparing much sooner than that at home. And when she says they 'take' thirty days, does she mean that they get paid extra to do that? Also, "In a traditional school, if it's forty degrees or colder no one goes outside in the schoolyard, because it's too cold for the adults." Here's one of the most bizarre 'we do what's good for the children' arguments I've ever seen. What if it's under 20 degrees? What if it's raining very hard? Are kids immune to the things that make adults sick? And if they are, is it good for the kids when their teachers have to call out sick the next day? Page 410 to 411: LIFO is called "the least defensible of all the teacher's unions' job protections." This is Rhee's StudentsFirst key issue, and I think it is quite defensible. If a veteran teacher is fired through the built-in lengthy process, I'm OK with that. But when an teacher who isn't at the end of that process (or even started that process) is fired because the need for layoffs has forced principals to do a hasty evaluation of who the most ineffective teachers are, regardless of seniority, it seems too arbitrary and convenient. Layoffs are generally avoidable, anyway. The threat of them is always out there, but without increasing class size, there can't be too many rounds of layoffs. First year teachers have not sufficiently proved themselves, and most of them are pretty ineffective as they spend 60% of their time struggling with classroom management issues. So when Rhee and others use ending LIFO as a way "to save great teachers" I don't agree. The day LIFO is changed will be the day that we suddenly can't avoid layoffs. It's makes it too easy for administrators to avoid the hard work of proving that an experienced teacher is ineffective. The main point I want to make is that I can be in full support of LIFO yet support veteran teachers getting fired though the process already in place, even when layoffs are not needed. Page 411: "LIFO really was like apartheid." No comment needed. Page 411: Since TFA has the teachers will will be most affected by LIFO, he's surprised that Wendy Kopp "did not come out swinging against it." but then quotes her as saying "It should be obvious how I feel" about it. So a TFAer who is planning to stay one more year should force out a veteran teacher who is planning to stay for 10 more years? Also, I should mention here that there are many cities that are having teacher layoffs, which should imply some kind of hiring freeze, yet still hiring brand new TFA teachers, because of some contract they have with TFA. Wendy is smart to stay clear of the LIFO discussion. Page 412: Duncan and his staff were "thrilled by what they had done in their first two years." Page 412: Race To The Top winners were not meeting their deadlines. How's that for accountability? Page 415: Explaining how accurate tying student test scores to teacher ratings is: "In other words, the test data -- often attacked by the unions as unfairly serendipitous -- seemed to match expert teachers' classroom evaluations." So why not just use those evaluations? Page 416: Jonah Edelman from 'Stand For Children' is introduced as a new reformer in Illinois. After this book went to print, Edelman made a speech at the Aspen Ideas festival which explained how he tricked the union into signing something. It caused a lot of controversy, and he was shamed into apologizing. You can read about it here. Page 418: RTTT cause 34 states to change their laws to qualify for the application. Page 419: Duncan got more money which he "planned to use the money to offer relief from some of the burdens of the old No Child Left Behind law in return for enacting specified reforms" According to NCLB, all students have to be proficient in math and English by 2014. When this law was passed in 2002, it seemed like 12 years was a reasonable amount of time to accomplish this. School districts had to make charts describing what percent they'd be at in what year to be considered 'Adequate Yearly Progress' or AYP. Take a city like Chicago, who had about 40% passing in 2002. The chart they made is this: In reality, their scores hardly changed in the past 11 years. This is why basically all the schools in Chicago are labeled 'failing' meaning by NCLB they can be shut down or taken over by a charter. Every district in the country had to make a crazy chart like this so that every year we get closer to 2014, the more failing schools we have, even though schools might be improving. So Duncan is going to free some districts from becoming labeled failures and being in jeopardy of being shut down -- but only if they agree to changing their laws. So RTTT bribed states into changing their laws into reform-friendly ones and NCLB wavers bullys states into doing the same. Even though changing these laws does no good (look at lack of 'growth' in New York City) and causes a lot of harm. Page 420: Curry, one of the founders of DFER, is excited about what progress they have made: "Curry meant that the old notion that charter schools could be small laboratories for reform should be discarded and replaced with a bigger idea. He believd that charters had to gain critical mass, as they had in New Orleans, Washington, D.C, and Harlem ... Only that would create the kind of truly visible demonstrations of schools that work and the accompanling critical mass of parents that would force the old system to be thrown out." It's amazing how these business people don't truly apply business thinking to this argument. Charters only work where there are enough 'sink' schools for them to dump their low performing kids into. So you've got New Orleans where there are 70% charters in their Recovery School District (RSD). Though they boast improvement, it is still the lowest performing district in Louisiana. And those non-charters are fighting for their lives, failing at an incredible rate as they deal with their disproportionate number of tougher-to-educate kids. It's like you have a chain of four stores and three are just about breaking even and one is suffering huge losses -- and you can't get rid of that fourth store. You could lie to your investors and say that the three stores are doing well, and now you've got to work on that fourth store. But if the three stores are doing well BECAUSE the fourth store exists, then your system is flawed. Page 420: Brill concludes this section, and here he is not quoting someone, but writing as fact: "The turnarounds in New Orleans, Washington, and Harlem were, indeed, extraordinary" but "there were enormous practical issues associated with 'scaling' a turnaround of public education." So it seems like he is admitting that there are some flaws here. Our small successes may not be scalable. But that is being way too kind since the 'turnarounds' in those cities are not extraordinary at all. Here's an excellent blog that analyses stats in D.C.. In NYC 8th grade reading is at a 6 year low. New Orleans is tough to crack since there is so much corruption and hiding of data since the RSD is run by the state, itself. But the D.C. blog gives you a great sense of how little progress has been made there, despite all the school closings and teacher firings. From 421 to 437 is the final section of the book 'A Marathon, Not a Sprint,' is one I have been looking forward to since I had read that Brill will admit that there are serious problems in scaling the 'successes.' What I found is that he does seem to come around for 5 pages of this section before going BACK to his union bashing again for the last 11 pages of the book. Page 421: Dave Levin, founder of KIPP, who earlier in the book got this whole snowball rolling when he told Whitney Tilson that the problem was the Democrats and the unions now seems to have a moment of humility. He says about KIPP "I'm still failing 60 percent of the time." This is what bothers me about KIPP. Even while admitting their shortcomings they inflate their success. He says 60%, because the book says that only 40% of KIPP students have graduated college on target. If you take the recent report, it says that only 33% do. So Levin could have rounded to saying he is failing 70% of the time. But that's still not accurate since that only counts the kids who finished 8th grade at KIPP. He also failed the kids who started 5th grade, but left for various reasons, including being counseled out. His original class was at least 55 students of which 37 finished 8th grade. So if 33% of those 38 graduated, which is 13 kids, then 42 out of 55 not graduating college is not failing 60% but 76% of the time, which I'll round to 80%. Page 422: Levin "delivered a dose of reality: 'If you tore up every union contract in the country ... that would just give you the freedom to try. It's a prerequisite, but that's all." Since you have to train 3 million teachers to be extraordinary rather than the 80,000 amazing (supposedly) ones that are in charters now. This is ironic since it was Levin back on page 112 who got this whole thing going when "Levin explained [to Tilson] how the teachers' unions had a stranglehold on local Democrats." Page 422: Brill writes that this long term plan to improve average teachers is hard for politicians, who like to fight for "tangible short term payoffs." Yet the great majority of this book implies otherwise. If this was the point he wanted to make, he should have weaved it into the entire book, rather than this 'island' of truth. Remember, he will resume his union bashing in 3 pages. Page 423: Duncan says "You can't fire your way to the top." So why is he trying? Page 423: Levin, on scaling, you can't expect 3 million teachers to be as good as KIPP teachers -- this is more KIPP propaganda. The 3 million teachers would look a lot better if they could pick their students and kick out the undesirables did get in. This is why you have some failing KIPPs. It is also why KIPP failed in it's one attempt to 'take over' a failing school in Denver, Cole Middle school a few years ago. And I'm sure their teachers work hard, like most teachers do. They might be, on average, harder working than other teachers, but it's not clear how much harder working or better they are, and how much of their success is derived from other aspects of KIPP like the demanding of parent involvement or the strict discipline code. Page 423: A Harlem Success teacher admits, "This model just cannot scale." Page 424: Moskowitz says that their teachers work hard, but they get extra benefits like they get to take car services home when they work late and they get massages every other month or so. Page 424: Superhero Jessica Reid who teaches and is an administrator at Harlem Success resigns in January. "This wasn't a sustainable life, in terms of my helath and my marriage." Page 425: Brill concludes the five page reality check. "But they [superstars like Levin, Kopp and Reid] will lead us to the right place only if we can figure out a realistic way to motivate and enable the less than extraordinary in the rank and file to respond to this emergency. We can't do that by requiring them to either to sprint or stand aside." So unions must be enlisted to help, he says. Some reviewers have been too kind to Brill. By taking these 5 pages out of context, it does seem that Brill is conceding that the reformers are going to struggle to complete what they have started. Had Brill ended the book here, I would agree. But when you put these 5 pages into context as the first 5 pages of the last 16 pages of the book, you can see it a different way. Though these five pages seem to say that we cannot scale the work of a few super heroes and their charter school, when you put them together with the next and final eleven pages, you see that he is not making his big point with these five pages -- he is setting up a different point. The last 11 pages show that the different point is not that we can't scale the (supposedly) successful charters, but that we can't scale the charters UNTIL we get the unions to agree to give up tenure, LIFO, pay by seniority, and job security, and the other evils he describes throughout the first 420 pages of this book. It would have been a good book if this admission came out about 2/3 of the way through and then the rest of the book could have been about the 'realistic' ways to improve teachers that Darling-Hammond and Ravitch know. Instead, Brill makes some suggestions of how this can be done, and in these last 11 pages shows how little he learned in writing this book. Page 425: Thinks that if Bloomberg made Weingarten schools chancellor (why not make Ravitch Secretary of Ed?), because she will then have to admit what she KNOWS: that the reformers are right now that she is being held accountable. This is crazy. Weingarten is not lying when she says that these reforms are destructive. It's not that she secretly believes they are good, but lies because they are bad for her union members. Even Tilson thinks this idea is crazy. Page 426: Continuing with his Bloomberg / Weingarten utopia. "I an see her ... declaring that times have changed ... that we have to move ahead with tough teacher evaluation systems even if tests and other aspects of the evaluation process can't be perfect." Uh, Earth to Brill ... Page 427: But we have to look at the charters to see what works. "Assuming that half the 4,900 charter schools" are doing a great job. Why 'assume' that HALF are succeeding when the research shows that only 16% are (and even that is mentioned in Waiting For Superman).? Page 427: He reminds us that "In a world where career changes are the norm and seve to reenergize every workplace may not mean they [teachers] stay for twenty or thirty years, but it should mean they are there for at least five or ten." And what do these teachers do after burning out after ten years, start from scratch in a new profession at the bottom of the ranks? Getting 3 million temps is not a great solution. Page 428: This is what he learned from "two years trying to figure out public education, its not JUST (emphases added by me) that the teachers who are hanging on for twenty or thirty years caring only about their pensions and tenure protection are toxic." How about listening to people who have spent 20, 30, or 40 years trying to figure out public education instead of 2 years? Page 430: "eliminating the unions is not likely to improve schools." But instead he wants them to still be unions, but just ones that give in to all the reformers untested theories about what will help kids. Page 430: He brings up again how principals in New York can't force teachers to use a certain format of lesson plan by saying teachers can write lessons on toilet paper. No teacher actually writes a lesson on toilet paper, and if they did and it was a great lesson that they can follow, then I'd have no problem with that. Page 430: Finally, he quotes Schnur in a more nuanced way as opposed to the caricature he gives on page 2. From 423 to 435 Brill explains five ways that the union contracts could be changed to make politicians want to change them less: 1) Less costly pensions. 2) Merit pay for harder to staff jobs, like science. 3) Eliminate LIFO. 4) No 'merit' pay for teachers who get advanced degrees. This, along with other cost saving measures, would enable us to pay teachers between $65,000 and $165,000 a year. 5) Getting rid of 'lockstep' seniority pay in favor of salaries based on 'performance.' On this last point, which he says is the most important change unions need to make, he quotes a teacher on page 435 who says: "You'd be hard-pressed to find any good teacher here who believes in seniority compensation and wouldn't like to be paid for performance, assuming the testing and evaluation were fair." Well, she doesn't have to look far since I like to think I'm a good teacher who does believe in seniority compensation, and let me explain why: It is very hard for the corporate reformers to understand that teachers, who join this profession knowing that they are not going to make a lot of money, do not want to jump through hoops and compete cut-throat with our co-workers for extra money. When I was a new teacher 20 years ago, my salary was $22,000 and my performance was so bad I probably should have given it all back. When I won teacher of the year in my fourth year, I guess I was making $25,000. Going into my 14th year next week, I'm making $76,000. My average salary over all my years of teaching is, at most, $50,000. I don't get jealous or angry that veteran teachers might be making over $100,000 in NYC. Eventually, if I stick with it, I'll be one of them. In every profession, people get raises throughout their careers. New lawyers start on the bottom of the payscale and parters make more. Maybe in some place like the NBA, there are rookies who make more than veterans, but since everyone is so rich anyway, what's the difference. How would this pay by merit work? Would a 2nd year teacher work for 100 hours a week to test prep his students to death and then get $165,000 the next year? And then a few years later that teacher gets married and doesn't have the time to work those crazy hours to get meaningless test improvements, and now they get demoted to $65,000? What would this system do to the dynamic of a school? Would any veteran teacher help a struggling rookie out, the way veteran teachers tried to help me? It would create a toxic environment which would ultimately be bad for kids too. I like that I can see the salary chart and plan my future based on it. I can see that in two years I'm going to get a $4,000 raise so I can get that mortgage after all. If my salary was subject to the whims of standardized testing, I don't think I'd enjoy that pressure. I do my best each day for rewards other than money. By doing a good job I have job satisfaction when I walk through the halls of my school and former students are so happy to greet me. Also, I get satisfaction when my A.P. or principal ask me to run training sessions for the other staff members. I also have secured a great closet in my school because I asked for it and when you're known as a good teacher, the administration likes to keep you happy. These are benefits that someone like Brill may not be able to understand, but as someone who would most definitely be in the top salary range, I'd prefer to keep things the way they are since it's better for the school and the kids this way. Even lazy teachers, believe it or not, will be the best teachers they can because when a teacher is doing a poor job the students will torture the teacher so much that it is actually easier for the teacher to plan the good lessons than have to deal with the fallout when he / she doesn't. In this way, there's a built in quality control mechanism which rewards good teachers in subtle ways. It's like my decision to produce a fifty page review of a four hundred page book. I didn't do it for money. I did it because it was the right thing to do. I do it for encouraging 'comments' which I hope you make. I do it for Twitter 'retweets' and 'followers.' I suppose I could mention that I wrote two books, neither of them great bestseller, but I'm very proud of both 'Reluctant Disciplinarian' and 'Beyond Survival' both available on amazon.com. In conclusion, 'Class Warfare' is a frightening books. It's a 'heist' story where public education is nearly hijacked by well-meaning people who assume that schools can be driven by the same things that drive business. The good news, though, is that the heist has not yet been completed. And this book actually jeopardizes the heist since the robbers are still in the vault. Brill tells us exactly how they got into the vault, exactly where they currently are, and exactly where they are planning to go next. This makes it even easier for the 'bad' guys to catch them. My hope is that just as Waiting For Superman actually hurt the reform movement by awakening the opposition, this book will do this even more. If my multi-part analysis helps people get the full picture so they can then make their own decisions about what the truth is, then it will be worth all the hours I put into writing them. Thanks for reading. Gary pages 1 to 100 pages 101 to 200 pages 201 to 300 pages 301 to 350 pages 351 to 400 pages 401 to 437
I have a confession: I love basketball; I also like women’s basketball. Swoopes, there it is- I said it. Growing up without a father figure in the home, I’ve grown to admire and to appreciate strong women from my mom to Michelle Obama to Shakira all the way to Sheryl Swoopes. “Who is that?” you ask. Well, Sheryl Swoopes is arguably the best women’s basketball player of all-time with 3 Olympic Gold medals, 4 WNBA Championships, 3 MVPs, 3 Defensive Player of the Year awards, and the list continues. She experienced years of triumph from 1997-2006 playing for the Houston Comets, then saw her career decline rapidly due to injuries and personal issues. When she decided to return to the WNBA this summer and go play where she was needed, I was skeptical given her physical health at the age of 40. “Why is she going to come back to play there?” Fast-forward three months and her team, the Tulsa Shock, were in the midst of a 20-game losing streak. WTH!? In 1998, the Houston Comets went 27-3. In fact, Swoopes lost as many games in a row in 2011 than she lost in her first four seasons combined! I, along with the press, often wondered how she must feel playing on the worst team in WNBA history when she’s already in the record books as playing on the best teams of all-time in college, in the Olympics, and in the WNBA’s early years. She’s a big-time winner, what’s she doing on a team that went 6-28 last year? "To be able to say I was part of turning this organization around, I would love to be able to do that." -S. Swoopes What’s she doing there? She’s being an inspiration. She’s persevering in the face of unprecedented challenges and showing her young teammates that they have the potential to make it through these tough times in the trenches and develop their skills so they can one day play for a successful franchise- in Tulsa. Friday night, she did just that by converting a vintage Swoopes jumper with two seconds remaining to lead her team to victory, breaking the abysmal losing streak. She’s still got that cool J, please, “don’t call it a comeback.” Where others lost confidence or left town, Swoopes remained calm and remained confident; she knows she’s a winner and that’s the aura she projects. Truly successful people remain confident in the face of unfamiliar challenges; clearly, I need to get on her level. All along, I’ve been inspired to see that she continued to mentor her young teammates regardless of what she was going through. She knows she’s good, and she's been there; she represents a strength that very few people have. At the age of 40, she recognizes her role is to contribute as a leader both on and off the floor, not to put up MVP-type numbers (though she’s had to at times). For me, it took a month of reading, relaxation, and reflection in Maine to help me regain my self-confidence. It’s absurd that I ended my first year feeling defeated, incompetent, and worthless. I had to sit myself down and say: “look, Anthony, you are a competent, caring person, don’t let this get you down. You’re better than that, c’mon!” And you know what? I was right. I didn’t drink some magical Kool-Aid to acquire new strategies, nor did TFA equip me with some revolutionary technology (I WANT AN iPAD!); I simply regained my confidence. Of course, there are times where I experience uncertainty, but now I embrace it and run with it. Last year, when I asked my principal what she felt was the greatest area I needed to work on, she said my “tone.” I’m not a mean person, and I thought that’s what she meant but I've come to realize she was saying I needed to project greater confidence, even in the face of extreme doubt, especially in the face of extreme doubt. Lord knows we experience a whole lot of that! Further still, having confidence in myself is important not only for my own benefit, but also for the first-years at my school. I’ve been called out for not being as much of a mentor as I perhaps should be. This is primarily due to a feeling that I’m not qualified to advise anyone about teaching. Sure, things are getting better for me now, but I’m still waiting for the wheels to come off the proverbial bus, so I’m not completely convinced I should be helping anyone else, especially if I can’t help myself. However, I am learning quickly this logic is flawed because while I’m far from perfect, there are things I can share with new teachers that might actually help them make gains with their students. ;-P In difficult circumstances, people need to see their leaders and fellow soldiers succeeding, or at least appearing to, so they have a sense of hope for what could be possible. Last year, I was often walked by an 8th Grade English teacher’s classroom during my planning period and felt inspired but what I saw: engagement, learning, and order. This was a sight for literally sore eyes and made me feel like student achievement was a possibility; I needed to see that. Likewise, Swoopes’ teammates needed to see her continue to work hard and believe in her team, despite all evidence to the contrary. If they saw the female Michael Jordan give up hope, then why would they think they had a chance? We need to persevere because sometimes a morale boost is all that’s required to get the ball rolling for our students. Last year, I joked about the Demotivator® poster that said: “when the going gets tough, the tough get going. The smart left a long time ago.” Well, maybe that’s true in the Mississippi Delta, but I’ve never claimed not to be a little crazy. I guess I’m going to keep it going 'cuz "Mama Said Knock You Out!"
I'd heard that Apple was encouraging people to donate their first generation iPads to Teach For America, but it barely registered on my radar. As a second year corps member, I figured any goodies would be given to the newbies. But lo and behold, look what landed in my inbox this week from our TFA*Nashville Operations Director: "What could an iPad do for your classroom and your students? Well, we're asking you to help us answer this question. Because of an extraordinarily generous initiative from Apple, you'll soon be receiving a first generation iPad for your classroom. Apple and its customers have donated iPads through a campaign that has featured Teach For America and our corps members in Apple stores across the country." To recap: When Apple announced the iPad was coming while I was in college, I'm pretty sure I remember laughing out loud at how ridiculous it was. I had no idea how or why anyone would use this product or want to. When my college roommates dad had one that he brought out on a visit, I tried my darndest not ogle the strange contraption. So here's my dilemma. While not a complete luddite, my knowledge of what the iPad could do in my classroom is limited. Having cultivated a number of tech-savvy friends over the years and my own proclivity for falling for enginerds, I know I know people who can give me ideas on how to best utilize this technology. If you've got one, shoot me an e-mail or leave a comment.
One of the lessons I learned this year, that I did not realize before becoming a teacher, is that trust is paramount to the functioning of an effective school and school system. I teach at a school, for example, that does not give teacher tenure and that does not use last-in, first-out, to determine who is laid off in the event of a budget cut. Yet, because our school functions on a culture of trust and not compliance, we were not concerned about being let go for political, and not performance, issues. Our trust was well-founded. While schools across the Houston Independent School District were cutting teaching positions, my district, KIPP Houston, cut as much as possible from all other areas, funding for out-of-state field lessons and professional development, for example, and redundant office responsibilities, in order to avoid cutting staff. This coming year, not a single teacher at my school was cut, and that includes the teachers for our arts and physical education programs. I also teach at a school that values us as professionals, trusting us to make instructional decisions that are the best for our students. I am completely revamping my curriculum for next year, and far from getting push-back, my principal and dean have actually jumped through hoops to get me into a professional development opportunity where I spend a whole week learning about project based learning in order to support my growth in curriculum design. However, the majority of my friends in the Teach for America corps have at least one story to tell about how they were forced to teach certain content or in a certain way. One ended up resorting to teaching the students how to pretend to be working out of a test prep book that was too easy for them when they see an administrator walk in through the door because the administration at her school insisted on using that book. As soon as the administrator walked back out, the book went back under the students' desks and my friend’s class got back to the business of learning. Finally, my school values accountability and using data to drive instruction, but data is simply a tool, not the end all and be all of instruction. We think hard about what data tells us, using MAP data growth as our metric instead of simple passing rates on end of the year state tests which do a terrible job of assessing students at the very top and students at the very bottom in terms of student achievement, as well as using grades for feedback, not for judgment. But, most importantly, we all know as educators that we are developing whole people, with character and habits of mind that will make them successful 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, even 50 years down the line, and because my school trusts us as educators, we are able to use our time and energy to build culture through academics, instead of leaving culture by the wayside in a misguided attempt to increase student achievement. As I look at the educational landscape today, I can't help but think that trust is the necessary first ingredient that is missing from many whole school and whole district reforms. In HISD, for example, teachers at "failing" schools should be trusted, and empowered, after all, the teachers were hired not to be plug and play widgets* but agents of change who problem-solve on the ground. Instead, while the highest performing schools are innovating, experimenting, and collaborating, teachers at the lowest performing schools are often forced to follow a prescribed scope and sequence, curriculum, and check-list of classroom and management requirements like being on a certain objective on a certain day, no exceptions, and cannot push back on policies that are not working in their classroom. The things that work at KIPP Academy… at will contracts, data-driven instruction, whole school behavioral expectations and management systems, only work because we all trust the teachers, administrators, and staff in the school building. The things that work in KIPP Houston… experimentation, innovation, culture, only work because we trust that everyone in the district is acting in the best interests of our KIPP Team & Family, even when we disagree on the particulars. And finally, if we truly want to reform education, we need to trust our students. We need to trust that they WANT to learn, that they want to learn HOW to learn, and that we are learners with them. We need to give up the model of the teacher as the giver of information and the students as receivers, and instead, work with them to create knowledge together. The question now, of course, is how do we build this trust? I can't say that I have all the answers, but I do wonder the following: What would happen if ALL schools had the power to hire teachers that were a right fit, and then trusted them as educators to make instructional decisions that may be off the beaten path? We may then have schools were every educator is excited to an agent of change. What would happen if school districts didn't give mandates, but rather brought teachers together collaboratively to work towards a shared vision and mission of student achievement and character? We may be surprised by the solutions. What would happen if trustworthiness and teambuilding skills were celebrated and promoted, instead of singular ambition? We may have exemplary teams instead of simply exemplary individuals. What would happen if at the beginning of the year, we asked the students what kind of classroom and school they wanted? We may then have the investment to build that classroom and school together. --- *See The Widget Effect by The New Teacher Project. ** For more discussion on trust as a necessary ingredient, see "Trust is the one thing that makes collaboration work" and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Originally posted on Science Never Sucks, a Wordpress.com blog.
The last 84 days of my life are a blur. Once upon a time in early June, I arrived in my new home state, Louisiana, to embark on the most transformational journey of my young life. I spent the second week of June living at the beautiful Crowne Plaza hotel in Baton Rouge--a city I've come to adore. The other 70-odd corps members (other Teach for America teachers) and I went through session after session learning more about the program to which we had just sold our souls, and gaining a better understanding of the Achievement Gap, the issue plaguing our country that we pledged to fix. We all bonded over the immense uncertainty that were our new lives and at the end of the week we packed up our cars and headed north to the Mississippi Delta.
The next five weeks of June and July were the most challenging, educational, and rewarding I've yet to experience. I slept an average of four and a half hours a night. We were always up late working on lesson plans, collaborating with our co-teachers (we were placed in groups of 3-4 teachers per class), or for many of us banging our head on a desk wondering what we had just done with our lives. We woke each morning at ten minutes to 5 a.m. and the four of us in my suite were at breakfast by 5.30 a.m. We boarded our respective buses by 6 a.m. having already collected our lunches and read the morning news sheets which were energetically handed out by Teach for America interns each morning.
We talked or slept or listened to music during the 45 minute ride from Cleveland to Indianola, Mississippi--the hometown of BB King. When we loaded off the bus we were greeted each morning, without fail, by our school team inevitably dancing, cheering, and waving welcoming us back into our school. We spent the first 25 minutes or so preparing our classroom for the day ahead and then one group member went to the cafeteria to meet the kids at breakfast. By 8 a.m. sharp they were in our rooms broken into small groups by level for math and reading enrichment time. After that first hour it was time for their daily reading lesson. While one teacher taught reading the other two went to sessions on everything about teaching from classroom management and organization to diversity to parent interaction, etc. Then we switched and the reading teacher went to a session while the math teachers did their two lessons. The kids were out of school by 1 p.m. and the teachers spent the rest of the day in more workshops, sessions, and one-on-one mentor time. We headed back to our home at the Delta State University campus for more sessions, meetings, small group time, an abbreviated dinner, and more work. It was a rigorous schedule but I have to admit those five weeks flew by and in retrospect (which is of course 20/20) that experience was so rich in learning and growing that I would not trade it for anything.
At the end of Summer Institute, as our five week training program was so affectionately called, we all headed back to our respective regions. We were at Institute with teachers who were placed in Indianapolis, Charlotte, Eastern North Carolina, Nashville, Alabama, Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and of course South Louisiana. We re-packed our cars (a process that had become uncannily familiar) and my friends and I headed back to Baton Rouge, our summer home-base. We had two days off to rest and then it was back into full-swing prepping for the year ahead. We had orientation sessions all week and then at the end of July Teach for America released us into the world. Soon after my roommate and I packed our cars yet again, but this time we also had a rental truck to fill, and we headed the 130 miles northwest up to our new town, Alexandria, Louisiana. She and I are placed about 30 miles southeast of Alexandria in a small town called Marksville in Avoyelles Parish (counties here are referred to as parishes). We are living at a wonderful apartment community in the Lake District called Magnolia Trace (http://www.liveatmagnoliatrace.com/). We have a three bedroom apartment and I'm living with one girl from Michigan who graduated from U of M and is teaching high school science at Marksville High with me and another girl from Indiana who graduated form Purdue and is teaching special-education Pre-K at an elementary school in Avoyelles Parish.
Three years ago the middle school and the high school in Marksville merged into one building, Marksville High School, ((http://marksville.la.ash.schoolinsites.com/) which is located on Bontemps St.--literal translation from French is "good times." The second week of school just concluded and I am happy to report that these were great times! I absolutely love it so far. The experience is exceeding expectations and although I feel that I have an incredible amount of work to do to improve my lessons and ensure that my students reach our class goal of 90% scoring Mastery on their state-administered exam, I am thrilled with what we've accomplished so far.
This year I'm teaching and this year I am teaching two sections of accelerated 7th grade math, one section of accelerated 8th grade math, and two sections of Algebra I (one to 8th graders who are one year ahead and one to 9th graders).For the most part, my students are extremely well behaved and respectful. I've started reaching out to parents who are incredibly supportive and impressed that I took time to call and not only tell them about their student but pledge my help with anything to ensure their student's success. The faculty and staff at the school is another integral part of the support network. Since the first day we met them each and every teacher and administrator welcomed us with open arms and they are more than willing to give us recipes, help with students, and provide a better understanding of how the school operates. On a side note, the demographic breakdown of Marksville the town and the high school are quite similar: the population is a bit over 50% white and a bit under 50% black, very similar to the breakdown of my students.
Each day I wake up so excited to get back to school and be in the classroom learning with my students. The days fly by and I know that I'll blink and it will be Thanksgiving! We went to the first home football game on Friday night which was great fun but way too hot so I am looking forward to November and cooler weather. I am also looking so forward to spending the next two years in this community and growing as a teacher and a person. The learning curve over the past 84 days was extremely steep and I know that it will only get steeper as the days go by. Here's to a fantastic year in Marksville! Geaux Tigers!
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