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updates for 10.23.2011

7 new posts today

New class, new kids, and new questions...

The teacher next door to me was deployed two weeks ago and so the kids I taught last year have no teacher this year. I'm glad for the perspective it's given me; as bad a teacher as I though I was last year, I was indeed better than a long-term sub.  She had known since June that she was going to be pulled into active duty, and had told our principal in July. She had even expressed a desire to have a teacher chosen at the beginning of the year, so they could co-teach and make it a smooth transition. And yet we still have yet to hire someone to fill her position. So my babies have no math teacher, a mere five months before they take the test that will determine whether they graduate. Nor do our school's 17 AP Calc kids--or they didn't, until I gained my surprise fourth prep last week.  The Calc kids are AMAZING. They are no different from my other kids, except they're so much more optimistic about the fact that they might be HEADED somewhere! They're so much more visionary about what next year will be like. The other difference of course, is the content they're learning. Although finding limits by using conjugates doesn't really make very much sense if you don't know how to "FOIL" binomials... It's ASTONISHING how the mistakes these kids make are almost identical to the mistakes my second-year freshman intervention kids made last year. If I do an example that has a radical in the denominator, they all freeze up if they encounter a problem with a radical in the numerator. The way they're patterned into procedures is almost worse here, because they're memorizing such elaborate procedures that it really WOULD be easier for them to just SEE what's going on! And they face such a wider variety of problems that they're going to blow a fuse if they try and memorize without problem-solving. And I feel a little less equipped each day to teach them to see math they need to see it. I want to teach a math class with no numbers, no calculators, and no pencils or paper.  I honestly could not be more excited. Except--this means my own seventh period is left with a sub! My own wonderful seventh period babies, the most beautifully hard-working, question-asking seniors who all somehow ended up in the same class... Now they feel abandoned. And they should! Because this is as clear a message anyo that they're not as important as the kids next door. Also, I'm not technically the AP Calc teacher, either. There are rumors that the other teacher may come back in December; if she does, we'd switch back. So I don't get access to their grades and I don't get to teach them in my classroom. And I doubt I get to go to any of the AP professional development stuff the college board offers.  However, AP Calc is going to be beautiful, because it comes with a very defined, ambitious, possibly transformational goal.  I can't say the same for my other classes at the moment. I started out with this amazing SAT goal in mind, but I just don't think that's going to make sense. I didn't realize that basically all college applications are due at the beginning of December, meaning the SAT scores that matter are from the tests taken in October or November. I also didn't realize that every student at my title 1 school gets two free waivers for the SAT, and that almost every senior took one in April of their Junior year and one on October 1st of this year and therefore have no waivers left. So suddenly, giving SAT benchmarks in February and March doesn't make as much sense.  I want to find an exciting goal that's really applicable to their first year of college. I don't know anything about the Accuplacer, but I want to get them out of remedial freshmen courses somehow. But I also want to do something that makes sense for those who haven't applied by December or who I haven't been able to convince to go to college by then.  They all have two waivers for the ACT as well, which most of them haven't used. Do ACT scores count after you've already been accepted into college? Is there such a thing as AP PREcalculus? What do you do with a bunch of amazing seniors after the application deadline?


Worth It

Though I haven't updated in quite a while, I am still here... and still struggling. I'm working on my management. Some days go much more smoothly than others.  The frustrating part is not seeing continuous improvement. One day I have an awesome class, and the next kids are threatening to fight each other or completely not paying attention. Some of my girls are becoming increasingly defiant and there are days when I know my kids aren't learning anything. I cried in front on my MTLD a couple weeks ago... luckily I haven't done so in front of my kids, just about 5 seconds after one class left.   I informed him that when I'm stressed and frustrated I have a bad habit of crying, then I'm over it in 30 seconds. Teaching is mentally and physically exhausting. I feel like these first weeks have consisted of nothing but work.  I get up, get ready, drive 45 minutes to school, work most days with no planning period (I normally get 2 per week... but haven't had any planning periods in the past couple weeks because of state testing), leave work around 530, drive home, eat a quick dinner, and lesson plan until I am so exhausted I have to crawl into bed and sleep. I'm struggling to keep up with my 3 classes, TFA work, and certification requirements.  I have heard stories of other members quitting or getting fired. I'm not at the point where I want to quit, and I am in a better place than I was a couple weeks ago.  But I have difficulties turning off 'teacher mode' and not constantly worrying about my students and my classroom.  I have to remind my self of the moments that truly make it worth it and remind me why I'm here: *My hugger is a sweet 9th grade boy. He does really well in my class and makes sure that he turns in every assignment. A few weeks into the year, he started giving me occasional hugs as he left class.  I noticed the pattern in them... he was sure to say bye and give me a hug on the days when the class was especially talkative or inattentive.  It probably isn't a good thing if he can tell that I'm stressed or frustrated, but it was a funny and sweet gesture of trying to show support when he knew the class wasn't going as smoothly as we both wanted it to go. * Thursday I was observed for my certification course.  It was during my 9th grade boys class (and I was nervous after two not-so-awesome observations in other classes).  My boys were silent for much of the period. They tried so hard to be on task and engaged in the lesson.  It was hard since my room was really hot and was helping the post-lunch sugar-crash induced sleepiness.  After that class they went next door to another TFA teacher's room and excitedly asked her if she had heard how quiet they were! I saw two of the boys the next morning, and said "Wow gentlemen, you were all extra quiet in class yesterday!" The quick reply from one of them was, "Well, that lady was there... you see Mama, we knew she was someone important, and we don't want to make you look bad!" =) *I want all my students to succeed, but I will call one student my project.  I built a good relationship with him early in the year.  He is in what started as my most challenging period, and I noticed him as a leader who was really trying to focus and work hard despite the craziness in my classroom.  He's doing ok in my class (we're working on improving that!) but is failing in some other classes with TFA teachers.  I tell him that he's too smart for that and make him think through the steps that he needs to take to improve his grades.  I talk with him about how well he behaves in my class and how I know there is no excuse for him to be sent out of other classes. He was suspended the other day for fighting.  I told him we were going to talk about it, and gave him options of when he could come to discuss it-- lunch or homework help time. He chose lunch.  I asked him what happened and he began with "Mama, it really wasn't my fault..." then continued to talk about how he didn't start the fight, just swung at someone.  I explained how "I swung" is his decision and if someone pushes you, you have to keep walking away.  He said, "Mama, they said I could have gone to juvey if he hadn't moved out of the way." I try to keep my poker face, but the thought of this actually happening to him or any other student breaks my heart. I say, "That doesn't sound good... did I tell you where I worked before I became a teacher? I worked with parolees..." I focus on college, "Where do you want to go?"... "Well my grandma says I should stay in Michigan"  "Ok, where do you want to go?" "I want to go to LSU... I hear there are a lot of good athletes that come out of there." He wants to play football, but said his uncle told him he needed to get an academic scholarship because an athletic scholarship won't pay for his school if he doesn't stay on the football team.  I think it's a great idea. "Ok, what do we need to get an academic scholarship?" "I think like a 3.5 Mama."  Yeah, I think that's a good start.  We need to get ready for that quickly, high school starts next year. My kids have dreams, I worry about them, I worry about becoming more effective more quickly, but it makes this struggle worth it.


In which I play with my words

I am a verbose human being. I always have been, just ask my parents, just ask my grade school teachers.  I don't think I've ever really been at a loss for words. They made me an English teacher.  And if that doesn't indicate that I have the German-Jewish equivalent of the "Gift of Gab" stamped on my forehead, I don't know what would. Lately, I find it hard to put things in to words.  October has well and truly set in and it seems to have left me unable to speak.  Figuratively.  Maybe it's because I see-saw back and forth between knowing I can do this job for two more years and knowing that I can't do it for two more hours.  Maybe it's because I seem to have an unending list of questions and no beginning to a list of answers.  Maybe it's because I seem to be assigning myself value based on the opinions of eleven-year-olds of whom I knew nothing two months ago.  Maybe it's because I walk a perpetual tight rope between "driving my development" and projecting an invulnerable front. As usual, there is also a lot that I want to say and I lot that I can't say and a lot that I won't say.   So what do I really think of my school, of Teach for America, of my life as I'm living it? I'm not allowed to put that in to words.  I won't allow myself, the circumstances won't allow me. By Thursday, the endless existential debate in my head had boiled over and made a mess on the stove burners of my brain.  And so I finally started to see that my sixth graders are occasionally hilarious, ridiculous, absolutely silly (bearing in mind that they are primarily maddening, ridiculous, and absolutely insane). Note the incredibly intentional repetition of "ridiculous." For example, my fifth hour class - including the Most Precious Little Angel - is highly convinced that I "go with" the other team's science teacher.  Unless I go with our math teacher.  Or both of them. "I do?"  I asked them, with a questioning lilt to my voice, playing with the words as if every syllable out of my mouth didn't carry the weight of a bomb. "Ms. B say she do!  Ms. B say she go with them!" "I do?" "She do!"  "Ms B, you go with them?" "Apparently?" And so on.   This is high comedy to me.  The extent to which this entire exchange cracks me up probably accounts for about 50% of the fact that I am still gainfully employed by my school district and am still a CM in good standing. Nothing is sunshine and roses about life right now.  And I know, it's not just me.  I know, "it gets better" (maybe).  I know, I know, I know. I know that I'll cry/yell/scream/kvetch more than I'll laugh.  I know that  kids will tell me that they hate me, that they're switching to the other sixth grade Comm. Arts teacher, and that I'm terrible at what I do more often than they'll tell me that they love me. And because of all of this stuff that I know, I really don't know what will happen next.   And so in spite of the 553 words that you just read, I have no voice and no pen and nothing to say.


The Vindication Of P.S. 84 Part I

I was inspired to get to the bottom of the New York City school progress report grades after reading this story from the New York Times Schoolbook website about P.S. 84 which was one of the thirty F rated schools this year despite seeming to be a very good school. To understand and analyze the accuracy of the 26 calculations that go into the final score, from 0 to 100, which then gets translated into a letter grade of A, B, C, D, or F, requires a math major, which, fortunately, I was. I've learned, and will attempt to fully explain in this and future posts, three major flaws in the system that make the progress score completely invalid. Two things I hope to accomplish with this are 1) To make the staff, students, and parents of students at P.S. 84 feel better and have some clear explanations so they know how this happened and how they might (or might not) be able to stop it from happening again, and 2) To let the media know about this invalid metric which has been, and continues to be, used to shut down 'failing' schools to make room for charter schools. As I've made a name for myself in debunking 'miracle' schools by showing they are not as great as they claim to be, this is an unusual role for me in debunking a 'failing' school. (Is this 'bunking' or 'rebunking'?) Still, I use the same tools, in this case, the actual report cards and also the database which is available at the DOE website. Flaw #1: Assuming that 'two standard deviations below the mean' is a lot worse than 'average' The school report card is based on thirteen categories which have a maximum total of 100 points. Then, the bottom 3% of schools, regardless of how high their final scores are, are assigned Fs. This 3% is determined before the calculations are done. There will be about 30 Fs. For 2010-2011, the bottom 3% all got under 18 points out of 100. These numbers are so low, that no school could argue that they were cheated. I mean, an 18 out of 100? They should be ashamed of themselves, right?

Name Total Points Possible
ELA Progress 15
ELA Progress bottom 1/3 15
Math Progress 15
Math Progress bottom 1/3 15
ELA Percent Proficient 6.25
ELA Average Score 6.25
Math Percent Proficient 6.25
Math Average Score 6.25
Academic Expectations 2.5
Communication 2.5
Engagement 2.5
Safety and Respect 2.5
Attendance Rate 5
Total 100
Five of the 100 points are based on attendance. When I looked at the progress report for P.S. 84, I saw that they had 92.8% Not bad. But when that score got converted to a number between 0 and 5, I was shocked. 92.8% attendance translated to 18.4% of the total, which was a .92 (that's point nine two) out of 5. So they got an 'F' in attendance. The reason this score is so low has to do with the fact that the system does not care if the school got some kind of acceptable number or not. The goal is to locate and punish the bottom 3% of schools no matter how good they are so the metric serves to exaggerate percentages that are below average. So a 92.8% attendance becomes an 18.4% score when they are through with it. Here's how the score was calculated: First they calculated the average attendance rate for the entire district and also for the 40 'peer' schools related to P.S. 84. 'Peer' schools are the ones that supposedly have similar demographics so schools are judged against other schools with similar kids and also against all schools. For all schools, the average was 93.6% while for the 40 'peer' schools, the average was 94.5%. So the 92.8% is a bit below the average school, and a bit more below the average of their peers. So how does this turn into an 18.4% out of 100% for attendance? Well, there's a statistic in math called the 'standard deviation.' This is a measure of how close the numbers in a data set are. The closer the numbers are, the smaller the standard deviation. If I have a class and everyone gets a 90 on a test, the average is a 90 while the standard deviation is 0. If there are a lot of 100s and a lot of 80s, the average can still be a 90, but the standard deviation will be higher, maybe a number like 5. So in the second scenario with the standard deviation of 5, what can we say about a score like 85? Well since it is 5 points below the mean of 90, we say that it is 'one standard deviation' below the mean while 80, since it is 10 points or 2*5 points below, we say that it is 'two standard deviations below the mean.' The phrase 'two standard deviations below the mean' sounds like something that is always bad, but really it is just relative to how big the standard deviation is. If it is a small number, like 1, then it is just the same thing as 2 below the mean, and isn't all that different from the mean or even from the exalted 'two standard deviations' above the mean. In the attendance example, the standard deviation for the peer schools was 1.1 while the standard deviation for all schools was 1.9. So for the peer schools, the 92.8% was nearly two standard deviations below the mean while it was nearly one standard deviation below the mean for all schools. Big deal, right? Well, actually, for the conversion to the five point scale it is. You see, when you are 2 standard deviations below the mean, you get scaled to 0%. 1 standard deviation below the mean is scaled to 25%. At the mean is scaled to 50%, 1 standard deviation above the mean is scaled to 75%. 2 standard deviations above the mean is scaled to 100%. For the peer groups, this made the 92.8% become 11.4% and for all schools it became 39.5%. Then the peer percent is multiplied by 3 and added to the other percent and then divided by 4 (the peer comparison is 75% of the score and the other is 25%) to get 18.4%, which is then multiplied by 5 points to get .92.  (Click on the graphic to enlarge) So what this type of calculation does is turn anything below average, even if it is just a little below average into something that seems like it is way below average.  It then makes it a lot easier to justify the F in attendance.  18.4% sounds a lot worse than 92.8%. This, believe it or not, is what's done with all thirteen calculations.  None are based on some kind of absolute score that signals that a school met some kind of target.  Everything is compared to the average and the schools that are two standard deviations below, with no consideration to how small those standard deviations might be, are slammed with failing grades in that category. Another extreme example for P.S. 84 is 'Academic Expectations' where the tiny standard deviation of .5 caused them to get just .36 points out of 2.5 possible because the peer average and total school averages were 7.9 and 8.1 respectively, while P.S. 84 had gotten a 7.1.  So even though they were very close to the average (and the high scores) on this ambiguous metric based on voluntary parent and teacher surveys, they lost valuable points that could have prevented them from getting that F. Only half the parents responded to the survey. It was one of those 5 point scale surveys and nearly all the parents said they either agreed, or strongly agreed that the school had high academic expectations. Punishing schools that are ever so slightly below average by turning their raw scores that are so obviously close to the mean into scores in single digits, making them feel like complete failures is an awful thing to do and also terrible for morale.  Imagine if I, as a teacher, scaled my tests this way.  A kid who got a 93% gets it turned into 1n 18% just because everyone did pretty well and the scores were so close together.  This is crazy, and, believe it or not, this is only the first and most benign reason that the progress scores are mathematically invalid. I will examine two other ways in my next two posts coming soon.

It's So Hard To Find Good Help These Days

It’s often said that: “it’s so hard to find good help these days.” But is that really true? Well, it depends on where you look. This past week, I’ve been incredibly frustrated by the lack of competent assistance readily available. In fact, the most helpful folks around have been my students. Let me tell you why: This year, I had one student in my homeroom earn all A’s on his report card. That never happened last year! I also had a boy earn a 100 in my class. Out of 130 students last year, the highest grade I gave out was a 97. In fact, I had to subtract points from his grade to bring it under a 100 as he had earned the highest average out of 120 students on every test during the first quarter, even earning a 105 once. I was even more proud of him when he earned the highest grade on the district exam, beating out every student in the advanced classes on the other 8th grade hall! As I have told his mom, I’m grateful to teach him because he probably should be in the advanced class, but I do my best to challenge him. I want and believe that all students can achieve, but I’m really here for students like him; he’s one of a few students I think would have kicked my butt as an 8th grader academically. I’ll be honest, one of my biggest TFA pet peeves is when corps members “brag” on a student’s intelligence to other corps members as if he’s wunderkind-Einstein, when really the student just did something on grade level, if that. “OMG, Antonio is sooooo smart. He ended every sentence with a period AND crossed his t’s.” Or, “wow, Tony’s a genius. He answered four out of five questions right on our quiz” followed by some bogus excuse of why he didn’t get the other one. The best: “these kids are smarter than I am, I just wish he could read at more than a 5th grade reading level!” Now, this is not to say that these students are not bright. Quite the contrary, and it brings tears to my eyes thinking how a few would put my past classmates to shame had they been given half a chance in life. But don’t fool yourself by marveling at black children completing simple assignments as if it’s the next miracle on 34th Street. That is NOT having high expectations. Don't insult their intelligence like that. She’s great, but Wendy Kopp struck a nerve with me when she claimed TFA had been successful because it spent 20 years proving that poor, black children could learn. I’m sure (hoping…) that she meant something else by that, but a society that needs 20 years and millions of dollars to believe these children can learn has another thing coming to it. Yes, indeed. Anyhow, I digressed a lot. I bring up those two students because I went to McDonald’s four times this week both for myself and to get rewards for three students for grades and basketball accomplishments. They managed to mess up my order each time in a different way but I’m not going to call them out like that. Just like I won’t call out Popeye’s for making me 20 minutes later to Pro Sat than I already was because I shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. I will call out Verizon though, for selling me an incompetent smartphone. McDonald’s doesn’t get $80 from me every month; well, let’s hope not… On the bright side, my students have been a great help to me this week. My 5th period had the roughest day of the semester on Thursday, which resulted in a lot of yelling and a lot of hurt feelings. I think they realized that I went “H.A.M.” not because I wanted to be mean, but because I had extremely high expectations for them. They had won the class point competition hands-down for the first 10 weeks, but were struggling in last place to start the second quarter. When two of my MVP’s (former students of the week) saw that I was trying to patrol the hall (due to 6th graders) and teach simultaneously, they asked me if they could teach the class. I somewhat reluctantly agreed and was certainly glad I let it happen. They say imitation is the finest form of flattery and it was an amusingly pleasure to see the students take themselves so seriously as they went through the review presentation for a few minutes. One of my ball players did exceedingly well. He mastered checks for understanding quicker than many corps members do! I’m happy to see that my kids are starting to internalize the need to back up answers with evidence by explaining why as opposed to simply checking A, B, C, or D. I want my students to get in the habit of asking good, scientific questions; and I’m not talking about: “would you like fries with that?” [disclaimer: no disrespect meant towards fast food service workers. Whatever your job, just do it well]



That's what I've written on all my lesson plans for the past two weeks. It's been an uphill climb in every way. It is a rough realization, recognizing that you're not being the best that you can be. It feels like a slap in the face, a crippling disappointment, a brick wall too high. I haven't written in a while because so much of my life seems so hard to put into words on a blog post. Now that the first quarter has passed, we have begun to settle into our school's culture, which is very much... not good. Our school has a violent incident on a daily basis - usually in the middle school, many times in the elementary as well - and the police have become a regular presence on our campus. On Thursday morning they arrested three students (three unrelated allegations) prior to the first bell. There was a brawl on the yard in the middle of the day and an incident with a parent of one of my students that was, frankly, traumatizing to witness. But there are good things. I am closer to some of my coworkers than I could've ever imagined. I am starting to build a life in New Orleans, and although it is very slow-going, I am beginning to feel like I live here instead of just occupy a classroom more hours than I care to admit. There are so many things I'm not doing well, or well enough, when it comes to teaching. There are so many ways in which I allowed myself to get comfortable with less, which means that I am lowering my expectations of my teaching skills and thereby letting down my students. I am trying to take a strong accounting of my own failings and prevent them from sinking another quarter. It's imperative that my students get a better teacher from me than I have been delivering. To end on a positive note: the absolute best part of my day yesterday was offering my students 2 Wildcat Bucks (incentive tickets at our school) to the person who could do the best Cat Daddy (video has explicit lyrics). Seeing 22 eight year old children break into simultaneous, ridiculous dance moves in the middle of the hallway was absolutely hysterical. BEST. EVER.


Slap in the Face.

Student: Mama! Me: Umm, you mean Ms. S? Student: Oops. I still wish you were my Mama. Me: No, you do not. I would not be a good Mom. Student: No, you would be the best Mom. My Mom is a bad Mom. Umm.. I titled this Slap in the Face because every time a student tells me they love me or think I'm "the bestest" I think, oh snap, I wish I was a better human being. SN: Tuesday. Was. The. Worst. Day. I. Have. Ever. Had. I'm talking, picked up my cellphone, called my MTDL in front of my math students and proclaimed I was in hell and she needs to get me, as tears streamed down my face. Yep, my students saw me cry.


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