updates for 02.27.2012
Sometimes, I ache for my old school and my old district. Sure, it was a crazy place at times and we had more than our fair share of disasters. It's easy to look back, roll my eyes and laugh as I tell stories about the things that used to happen. But the big events worth sharing now were much less frequent than the good things that happened, day in and day out, and right now the nostalgia for all of those things is hitting me badly. I miss being in a district that wasn't so cocky as to believe it could start from scratch and do better than anyone else. I miss how our math curriculum person used her time to bring together existing resources, whether those resources were math questions or smart teachers, and improve things rather than re-create them. I miss how she would hear out anyone who came to her with anything from a small correction to the harshest feedback, look into it, and make immediate change when she pinpointed the issue. I miss the emphasis on problem solving and mathematical reasoning over drill-and-kill test-taking skills, which is difficult to teach and nothing short of courageous in a AYP-failing district. I miss teachers who took me under their wings and passed on all their tips and secrets without hesitation, because they had no reason to feel competition between us. I miss administrators who would close their office doors and just sit with teachers to hear how they were feeling. I miss having colleagues who had been in the neighborhood forever. I miss expectations being differentiated for different teachers. I miss my kids, terribly, every day. I know I'm one of the Bad Ones. I did my two years and fled my placement school. I know I did a terrible thing leaving, because they recently offered me my dream promotion, and put out a $3,000 bonus to the teacher that could convince me to come back. I'm part of the statistic that people use to attack TFA, saying that teachers just do their time and then leave. Some people forgive me a little for staying in teaching, and some give bonus points for staying in a high-need population, but others hate me double for ending up in a high-achieving charter school. I know it means nothing to anyone, but I would have loved to stay at my old school. I can't imagine there is another place that would better maximize both the kids needing me enormously and me getting what I needed professionally, which often seem to be mutually exclusive in education. But I hated Phoenix, and couldn't have stayed in a city where I made few worthwhile personal connections and rarely found an excuse to leave my house that didn't involve work. My social life, happiness, and mental health have all improved dramatically since I got out of there, and I won't sacrifice any of those to make TFA look better. Those improvements made me decisive in turning down the dream job, but don't think my heart didn't hurt when I did it. And now, instead of planning for tomorrow, I'm going through my old district's website and remembering how things used to be.
I could write all about how I feel on Sunday nights. Or, I could just post this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NXnxTNIWkc&ob=av2e
It’s been awhile, I know. Every now and again I thought about writing, but after slugging through the day, the last things I wanted to do was spend more time in my head thinking about school. Also, I’m trying to follow more of the “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all” motto. Which explains the 3-month absence. After Thanksgiving, I got a student moved into my classroom from a teammate. In what was ruled not a case of zero-tolerance, this student (let’s call him Jump) hit his teacher and moving classrooms was an intervention. While I guess it’s encouraging that my principal thought my classroom culture was healthy enough to sustain this new member, I was terrified at the prospect. In the first week, he got into a fight every single day. In the second week, he ended up being taken to juvenile for conduct. Each day came the critical decision: do I let him sleep and let the other students learn or do I wake him up and try to get him involved in the class culture? Talk about survival mode. Winter break could not come fast enough. I recharged some of my batteries and felt really inspired by a TFA alum who’d led a session on classroom turnaround at one of our Saturday Sessions. Still, I wasn’t sure what would happen. Initially, it went ok. I worked with one of the counselors to get him some basic supplies. That helped a little, but not enough. The long and short is that after going almost a week without major incidents, he escalated rapidly during math stations to hit 3 students. When I went to the phone to call for assistance, he began hitting me. Needless to say, school hasn’t been the same. The weeks immediately following were a blur. I got to school close to when it started and then was leaving right after for physical therapy for several weeks. I don’t know how well my students have gotten any of the gotten in the last few weeks, but we’ve worked our butts off to get our classroom feeling safe. My students haven’t physically threatened anyone in class since, although we’re still working on taking responsibility for verbal aggression. We’ve got 8 weeks to TCAP and 12 left in the year. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…
The past two weeks have marked the beginning of a new trimester. They have also marked the end of one third of my commitment as a TFA CM. Time has passed so quickly and so slowly at the same time. Orientation seemed like a dream, Institute was a dream/nightmare, first couple weeks of school were a straight up nightmare. Yet as I have adjusted to the realities of life here, I still feel like Alice in the rabbit hole. It's still hard to believe that I'm here, doing this after where I was last year. I am so grateful to be here, but the last couple weeks of the winter trimester were really awful. I feel an enormous amount of guilt for my performance last trimester. I felt really poorly planned and distracted for the majority of the trimester. By the time I got myself back on track, it was too late: I had two weeks left to prepare them for an end of course that I knew I had not prepared my Spanish II kids well enough for. By some kind of miracle, one of the classes passed with over an 80% class average. This is also the class of students who had no kind of exposure to Spanish ever, so I don't know really how they did it. The other class, however, did not. I know exactly why this happened, and to be honest, I don't know if I've fully processed everything because it's painful. I know it's my fault. Glenn* is one of my favorite students- he is smart and hilarious. He also had a really difficult home life. After his parents' divorce, his father started doing and dealing drugs. I know that I lowered my expectations for him. I allowed him to continually sidetrack the class over and over again. Once I let the little things go, the little things snowballed as the trimester went on. When I finally cracked down, this student and I got into confrontations towards the end of the trimester that were absolutely terrible. This behavior was a complete 180 from the hard worker and joyful learner I had in my classroom in the fall. I know that there were other things going on. I know I should have leveraged his mother and my administrators, but I just felt like the whole thing was spinning completely out of control and I felt frozen. There are a hundred things I would go back and change if I could. But I can't, it's too late. The trimester is over, and I will never have him as a student again. To have had such a great relationship with a student completely unravel in such a short time, and to realize how much I lost in the process, is a slap in the face. It was completely my fault; not only did I lower my expectations, but I was not the assertive, confident instructional leader I needed to be in my classroom. I let my classroom get off track to sate my students. I know that shoulda woulda coulda is so easy in the past tense, but I know it was an important learning experience. I just hate that what I learned came at such a high cost. I need to let go and move forward. In order to level my kids with kids from Lexington, or Louisville, they need to be the best. And to be the best, every second of instructional time needs to be utilized. There is no time to waste. The daffodils are out in Kentucky - an early spring is coming. I'm ready for a new beginning. I'm ready to be the leader in my classroom I know that I can be.
Sometimes, I get tired of feeling like a TFApologist. I get tired of being called an elitist money-grubber who’s trying to pay off my student loans off the backs of poor children- c’mon now. At the same time, there are many teachers who may not fit my demographic but who are doing great things in the classroom. These characterizations I hear and read about are even more unfair to them. I recently read this blog post and while I agreed with many of the points, the following irritated me: “’Standing in line for #CPS BOE meeting, people behind me from #TFA& #KIPP. They look like money-starkly diff from other teachers/parents...’ I ended up talking to a few of them, and they spouted the usual talking points. (Someone actually said to me “I don’t believe poverty is destiny” and “I think all children can learn”.) And some of them did go up and speak at the board meeting and unsurprisingly were all for school closings and turnarounds. These types, these upper-middle class--and I will give them the benefit of the doubt—most likely well-meaning people were unequivocally on the side of the 1%. Their views, their dress, their worldview all aligned perfectly with the mayoral-appointed school board of millionaires and business elites. They were the voices of the moneyed powers that be.” When I look at my pay stub at the end of the month, I often wonder what it would be like to be part of the "moneyed powers that be." Yeah, pretty sure I'm going to need Bill Gates to spare a couple extra digits to join those ranks. My tax return won't quite get me there. Please don't get it twisted. Contrast: my school recently voted for teacher of the year candidates and three of those on the ballot were TFA corps members (we don’t know who won yet). I could go on and on about them all day. These women are not from Mississippi. Two of them don’t look like our students, but they are making a greater impact than most. For example, I’m inspired to do my best everyday because my students compare me to their favorite 7th grade science teachers. I know that my students have a high expectation for me, which is perfect, since I have high expectations for them. If it were not for TFA, my school WOULD NOT HAVE HALF A SCIENCE DEPARTMENT! This doesn’t even mention all the work they do outside of the classroom to provide enrichment opportunities for the children and to keep our school in compliance through endless paperwork. The math teacher next door to me works constantly with her kids to make up the ground they lost before they got to 8th grade. They need more of this personalized, thorough instruction. However, she would not be here without TFA though she’s far from a “TFA-diehard” who goes around droppin’ TFA knowledge and lingo. She keeps it real; she gets the job done, and then some. As the only third year corps member in my school, she inspires me. And it really is about paying it forward as she was influenced by my current MTLD, who is a major reason I’m still here. Regardless, we all have to work extra hard to compensate for other people not doing their job at some level (for whatever reason) in the broader context of poverty. You can argue that for every rock star, there is a corps member that quits and you may be right, but we should encourage TFA to figure out what differentiates success, which they already do, but not recommend that they close up shop. It is possible to praise the hard work, results, and dedication of TFAers without degrading the merits of traditional teachers. We have many wonderful veterans as well. The problem is this, at the end of the day, we are ALL thrown under the bus because “test scores are not up” as a whole, so forth and what not. I have plenty of concerns with TFA as an organization but I’m not going to demonize all corps members! I have plenty of issues with some poor traditional teachers but I’m not going to demonize all traditional teachers! That’s not called being pro-union or pro-choice or even pro-student; this is called being a rational human being. Hello? Please, don’t get it twisted. Also, folks, please come off of the New York-centric mindset, for a moment, and recognize that there are areas of the country where TFA still fulfills its original mission. If one day, the biggest problem facing the Delta is that glossy-eyed TFAers are taking the jobs of “real teachers” then we’ll have made progress. I sympathize with the struggle for job security, but no one was fighting over poor minority children before the recession. NCLB was heavily flawed, but at least the focus is in the right place now. It’s what we do with it that counts. In the fight to humanize the ill effects of poverty, the reform movement has claimed the mantra that “poverty is not destiny.” If anything, this conviction paired with extensive data collection of sub-groups achievement has helped society personalize poverty by acknowledging that all “poor people” are not the same. So, why are we so quick to make sweeping generalizations about everything else? When we fight over poverty, poverty prospers. The movement for educational equality will not progress if we continue to have reformers on one side who view traditional teachers (and unions) as a monolithic group. By that same principle, however, we won’t get far if those same groups (Ravitch, NEA, etc.) consider Teach For America (and it’s corps members) and corporate “rheeformers” as a monolithic group. When grown folk become so preoccupied with character assassination and ad hominem attacks, we should know there is a problem. Why haven’t we learned this from watching C-SPAN and the GOP 2012 campaign? All traditional teachers aren’t preoccupied with their pensions and all reformers are not elitist TFA opportunists trying to mooch off the public. Can we move on to actual solutions please? Besides, what we need to worry about is the elites who ARE preoccupied with THEIR pensions. While we waste time debating silly stuff, we are losing sight of what matters and SOMEONE is benefitting. It’s a vicious cycle because we keep pointing fingers claiming the other side is said beneficiary. Again, we claim politicians are petty? It’s a people problem, not #MGM but #Universal… We’re not at a private school / we’re teaching in the trenches. You say we’re taking someone’s spot? / No bodies on the benches. Note, I said “no bodies” not “nobody’s.” We’re not all elitist do-gooders. Again, please don’t get it twisted.
Hey y'all, I have a student, Lazu (fake!), who needs some help. I'm going to let her do the talking because she wrote the following letter, but I'll add one bit of context: when we wrote essays last week about which 6th grade student should speak at promotion based on behavior, grades, kindness, and all-around excellent, every single class brought up her name and defended it. She has respect from all teachers and all students. She wrote this letter entirely by herself, to show parents and community members. I offered to share it here in hopes some readers might be able to help her out. Here it is:
Hi my name is Lazu. I am eleven years old, but I will turn twelve on March the twenty-seventh. I have three brothers and great parents. I have excellent behavior and outstanding grades. Because I have great behavior, grades, and a good character, my social studies teacher nominated me for the Jr. NYLC in Washington, DC. This is an amazing opportunity, but the only problem is the money. That’s where you come in. I will gratefully accept donations for this trip. I enjoy helping people, but this time I need people to help me. Like I said earlier, I will appreciate any donation and accept it gratefully. Thank you for your help.I'm sure if you want more details about Lazu, her trip, her life, or anything else she or I will be happy to share. She has raised about $400 independently so far, but needs $3,000. I'm willing to match donations up to $150, too! Thanks for your help! Please contact me directly if you can help Lazu learn life, academic, and social skills through this awesome program at email@example.com
Grading is a pain. Period. It just is. However I have one student who always leaves commentary on story problems after answering them. It cracks me up and makes grading a little less painful. Question 24 commentary: Dale has 12 red skittles and 8 yellow ones. But they red ones are better cuz the yellow ones just taste like lemon-scented soap or something like that. ew! Question 25 commentary: "Sally has 12 white and 21 purple marbles. I bet even they would taste better than the stupid yellow skittles that Dale had up there!" Question 30 commentary: "A car running on 25 gallons of gas can run for 225 miles. I want a VW cuz they're cute. I mean I know they're sorta ugly but... I don't know I sorta like them. None of this has to do with the problem so I really hope I got it right otherwise this will be really awkward later." And as for the extra credit....
Prompt: Your school is giving an "Outstanding Teacher" award. Your principal has asked you to write an essay in which you choose a teacher who deserves the award and give reasons why.
An outstanding teacher is a teacher thats not only nice to other teachers, but also to students. I think there are quite a few teachers like that, but one is the best. She is a sixth grade teacher, and her name is Ms. L. I think she really deserves the outstanding teacher award, because she is nice, and she teaches us not only language and writing, but how to behave. She is there when you need her, and she's a excellent role model. She allows us to do special activities. She is the reason we're doing the talent show. She is an outstanding teacher. There are many qualities I can go ahead and name about Ms. L, but I don't have enough time. She is the reason why I do so well in language class, because if she didn't teach me, I wouldn't know half of the things I know now. She even teaches us how to show others with respect. This is her motto, "I want to learn! I want you to learn! I want to be respectful and respected! So I... work hard and get smart!" I have it memorized. I know it's awesome, but not as awesome as she is. She is the best teacher ever. I absolutely hate school. When I wake up in the morning, i want to stay in bed, but when I get to fourth period I am awake, and excited to see Ms. L. She makes my day extraordinary. "School is the worse place ever." That's what I say from first to third period, and even fifth. Ms. L makes school cool. Mrs. B is an understanding principal. I really, really do think Mrs. B should choose Ms. L to be the outstanding teacher, and I have tons of reasons to back it up. I even have classmates. I also have other teachers to prove it, so she should. I will get down on my knees and beg Mrs. B to choose Ms. L. That's how much I love her. She loves me too. That's why I think Ms. L should win the award.Except:
Mrs. L should really get the "Outstanding Teacher" award for several reasons. Her brain never shuts down, she's always thinking of something wise. If something special is being planned, she'll think of something out of this world, which is truly awesome. Receiving that award would look up to her, like she a hero. Mrs. L is a young teacher but she takes work really seriously. If there's a test and people are trying to concentrate, and someones talking, warning zone. My wonderful teacher can you pleaase give that award to Caroline L?On her last essay, this girl (following) write three sentences with a horrified look on her face, erased everything, then started over and got one paragraph done.
Ms. L is the most extraordinary teacher. She deserves the award. Ms. L is respectful and respected. She shows us how. She helps us find how it works. She's a fun best friend. She always helps us up when we are down. Ms. L deserves the award. Ms. L is very thoughtful. When we feel bad, she cheers us up. She makes me laugh. Ms. L keeps us happy. When she jokes around, she loves to hear us laugh. She loves our ideas. She turns our imagination into ideas. She deserves the award for being thoughtful. Ms. L deserves the award. Because she loves kids, and she loves to teach. She loves us with all her heart. She teaches her heart out. She loves to teach language arts. She treats us like family. We love her like family. She deserves the award than all the other teachers.
Brax, well. Brax zipped through the multiple choice section of the test, closed it, and sat with his pencil in his lap. I watched him glance around and watch the rest of the class write their essays. I watched him break his mechanical pencil into pieces. I watched him for five minutes, then crouched low and looked at him. "Brax, is this hard, or do you not feel like doing it?" "I don't know what to write." "How are you doing today?" (shrug.) "How's your mom?" "She in Florida." "No, not your aunt. [The aunt that takes care of him has been out of town all week.] How's your mom. I talked to your aunt last night, she said your mom was going to have the baby. Did she have it?" "Yeah." He turned his head to hide his grin in his shoulder "Really?! A girl or a boy?" "A boy." Still not making eye contact, but his whole face was smiling. "Ohmigosh, are you excited? Have you seen him yet?" "No, that's why I'm-- I'm not going to be in school on Monday so I can see him in Little Rock." "Are you nervous?" "Nah." "Do you have other brothers and sisters?" I knew he had two besides the baby at his mom's house, but did not expect him to launch into an explanation of brothers and sisters across Arkansas and into Chicago, Kentucky. If I had been keeping track, I think there would have been more than ten. Including one about which he said, "My daddy couldn't keep him, so he got adopted by some white folk." From there I said, "Okay, Brax, you still have 20 minutes left. I think you can write this." "I'm just going to get a F." I stood up, walked over to our writing trackers, where I keep their old tests and their bar graphs of improvement. I pulled out his diagnostic, 1st and 2nd TLIs. His scores: 5/20, 0/20, 12/20. I put them on his desk. "Brax, look. You have a choice. This test, when you wrote nothing, got a zero. You did make an F that day. But then you did the work here. You only wrote a paragraph, but you still improved by 12 points. I know you can write. You already showed me. So if you decide to get an F you will, but if you decide to work you won't." Then I took the essays and walked away. Brax sat with his pencil in his lap. He shuffled his papers to look at the blank lines for his essay. Other students were completing their first, second, third paragraphs. I walked by again. "Do you need anything to get started?" "A pencil. Mine broke." I gave him one and walked away again, but watched him lean close to his paper, write in his perfect neat writing. Then he sat straight, stacked his papers neatly, looked around. Walking by, his paper said
I think one of these teachers should get this award. The teacher want it.I asked him what he meant, and he said he thought the teacher that wanted the award should get it. It's amazing, what Brax can do. How he can walk circles around what you want him to do. He can come up with 15 opposite solutions to the problem you give him. He does something that takes infinitely more thought and skill and comprehension of the problem, but he still adamantly refuses to tackle what's in front of him... because he fears failure. (?) He fears failure, so he throws himself head-first in it. He puts himself in a situation where he knows he will fail, so there are no surprises. No excuses because he knows he didn't try at all. If he doesn't try, he don't risk anything. He's safe. I talked to him a few more times, but his test remained with two sentences. I still don't know what to do. I did talk to his aunt Wednesday, and he wasn't in school Friday. Last year I had a student flip out when he had a new baby sister coming. When the baby came he relaxed a little, got back into more regular behavior. Maybe Brax will be like this. Maybe the baby will level him. Maybe this constant contact with his aunt will help him. Maybe he will leave my classroom with no change, no written essays, no confidence. I don't know, but I'm going to keep trying.
And just like that, February break is over. Apparently, only Rhode Island has a week of vacation in the middle of February, which probably contributes to our relatively late ending date, but I'm not complaining—by the end of school last Friday, I barely had the energy and mental wherewithal to wish my kids (and secretly, myself) a fun and relaxing break. But a fun and relaxing break this has definitely been. Between taking a quick visit to Boston for a delicious lunch last Saturday, road tripping down to Philadelphia and DC with a friend for the first half of break, and playing host to my parents for the past three days, I'm beginning to remember what it feels like to be a human being again. The flip-side, of course, is that the first day of school on Monday will feel that much more like stepping back into a fiery, soul-sucking pit of doom, but I think I can honestly say that I've rested up enough to survive until the end of the semester—which, fortunately, won't be necessary, since we also get a spring break in April. Hey, this teaching thing isn't so bad after all. (Also, it's only been one week but I already miss my kids. Even—maybe especially—the crazy ones. I must be losing it. Stand by to find out if they missed me in return.) I'm done lesson planning for the night, but before I scoot off to dreamland (where students always follow instructions and never use their cell phones in class), I do have one final question for all you TeachForUs readers. Did you (/do you) teach more than one prep in your first year, and if so, is there any way to make the workload more manageable? I've tried every possible way to rationalize why I shouldn't mind having two preps this year, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't often envy my fellow CMs at school who only have one prep (with about 75% as many students, total) and are usually done planning/grading at a reasonable hour of the night. Any thoughts, insight, and advice would be much appreciated. Thanks in advance!
The New York Times, yesterday, released the value-added data on 18,000 New York City teachers collected between 2007 and 2010. Though teachers are irate and various newspapers, The New York Post, in particular, are gleeful, I have mixed feelings. For sure the 'reformers' have won a battle and have unfairly humiliated thousands of teachers who got inaccurate poor ratings. But I am optimistic that this will be be looked at as one of the turning points in this fight. Up until now, independent researchers like me were unable to support all our claims about how crude a tool value-added metrics still are, though they have been around for nearly 20 years. But with the release of the data, I have been able to test many of my suspicions about value-added. Now I have definitive and indisputable proof which I plan to write about for at least my next five blog posts. The tricky part about determining the accuracy of these value-added calculations is that there is nothing to compare them to. So a teacher gets an 80 out of 100 on her value added -- what does this mean? Does it mean that the teacher would rank 80 out of 100 on some metric that took into account everything that teacher did? As there is no way, at present, to do this, we can't really determine if the 80 was the 'right' score. All we can say is that according to this formula, this teacher got an 80 out of 100. So what we need to 'check' how good of a measure these statistics are some 'objective' truths about teachers -- I will describe three which we will see if the value-added measures support. On The New York Times website they chose to post a limited amount of data. They have the 2010 rating for the teacher and also the career rating for the teacher. These two pieces of data fail to demonstrate the year-to-year variability of these value-added ratings. I analyzed the data to see if they would agree with three things I think every person would agree upon: 1) A teacher's quality does not change by a huge amount in one year. Maybe they get better or maybe they get worse, but they don't change by that much each year. 2) Teachers generally improve each year. As we tweak our lessons and learn from our mistakes, we improve. Perhaps we slow down when we are very close to retirement, but, in general, we should get better each year. 3) A teacher in her second year is way better than that teacher was in her first year. Anyone who taught will admit that they managed to teach way more in their second year. Without expending so much time and energy on classroom management, and also by not having to make all lesson plans from scratch, second year teachers are significantly better than they were in their first year. Maybe you disagree with my #2. You may even disagree with #1, but you would have to be crazy to disagree with my #3. Though the Times only showed the data from the 2009-2010 school year, there were actually three files released, 2009-2010, 2008-2009, and 2007-2008. So what I did was 'merge' the 2010 and 2009 files. Of the 18,000 teachers in the 2009-2010 data I found that about 13,000 of them also had ratings from 2008-2009. Looking over the data, I found that 50% of the teachers had a 21 point 'swing' one way or the other. There were even teachers who had gone up or down as much as 80 points. The average change was 25 points. I also noticed that 49% of the teachers got lower value-added in 2010 than they did in 2009, contrary to my experience that most teachers improve from year to year. I made a scatter plot with each of these 13,000 teacher's 2008-2009 score on the x-axis and their 2009-2010 score on the y-axis. If the data was consistent, one would expect some kind of correlation with points clustered on an upward sloping line. Instead, I got: With a correlation coefficient of .35 (and even that is inflated, for reasons I won't get into right now), the scatter plot shows that teachers are not consistent from year to year, contrary to my #1, nor do a good number of them go up, contrary to my #2. (You might argue that 51% go up, which is technically 'most,' but I'd say you'd get about 50% with a random number generator -- which is basically what this is.) But this may not sway you since you do think a teacher's ability can change drastically in one year and also think that teachers get stale with age so you are not surprised that about half went down. Then I ran the data again. This time, though I used only the 707 teachers who were first year teachers in 2008-2009 and who stayed for a second year in 2009-2010. Just looking at the numbers, I saw that they were similar to the numbers for the whole group. The median amount of change (one way or the other) was still 21 points. The average change was still 25 points. But the amazing thing which definitely proves how inaccurate these measures are, the percent of first year teachers who 'improved' on this metric in their second year was just 52%, contrary to what every teacher in the world knows -- that nearly every second year teacher is better in her first year. The scatter plot for teachers who were new teachers in 2008-2009 has the same characteristics of the scatter plot for all 13,000 teachers. Just like the graph above, the x-axis is the value-added score for the first year teacher in 2008-2009 while the y-axis is the value-added score for the same teacher in her second year during 2009-2010. Reformers beware. I'm just getting started. Continued in part 2 ...
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