Sunday, January 23, 2011

Idolizing One Man

We're getting ready to read the Young Reader's Edition of Three Cups of Tea. I first read the adult version last summer, and was inspired and excited to read it with my students.

I teach at a school that emphasizes social justice; as we discussed in class last week, the school itself was founded as an act of social justice. We work every day to bring a high-quality education to a traditionally under-served population.

But our school wasn't started by a bunch of people from the outside coming in and "saving" the community, it was started by a group of parents, teachers, and community members who wanted something better for their children.

We're reading this book in part to bring a better understanding of and appreciation for the work being done in our community, and to help our kids see what it takes to change the world.

So it bugs me when I see the awe and reverence with which people regard Greg Mortenson. His work and accomplishments are undeniable, but when I heard him speak last October, he made it clear that it's really not just "one man's mission," as the book's tagline states. My school wouldn't have been started without a group of passionate, dedicated people, and students in northern Pakistan would still be scratching in the dirt without parents and community leaders who were sacrificed and took risks and carried heavy supplies up steep, muddy hills.

I'm worried about how my students will interpret the idolatry they will find when they start looking around the Internet for information. Will they be able to filter out the hero worship?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What's Working

Thanks, @paulawhite, for the suggestion: "we should all go write a "What's working" blog after this is over and tweet them out with the hashtag#educationnation."

So, here's what's working at my school:
  • Families choose to come to our school. Yes, they're chosen by lottery that parents have to enter, which weeds out the parents who don't pay any attention to their kids education. It would be better if every school in our district were a school of choice. What would happen if everyone chose their school? Would that give a psychological bump?
  • Every family is involved. 100% of parents attend conferences, because the teachers relentlessly track those who don't show. It's not easy. Some parents, even though they signed up for this school, can't or won't take 15 minutes twice a year to meet with their kid's teacher.
  • We have autonomy of curriculum and staffing. We don't have to teach a script, or even use the district-approved textbooks, as long as we teach the standards. Teachers and principals are no longer placed at our school, and teachers have a strong voice in the interview process for new colleagues.
  • We have an open-door policy. Anyone is welcome to visit any time without scheduling it beforehand (of course, visitors have to sign in and everything for safety, but people walk into the classroom without warning). This includes parents, community members, other teachers at our school, visitors from other schools, college students working on teaching credentials, and anyone else.
  • We work hard. We handle the details through email, which frees up staff meeting time for real collaboration. We haven't jumped on the formal PLC bandwagon, but we work in teams by grade level, subject area, or ad-hoc interest groups. We analyze data, but don't obsess over it.
  • We work hard, but we try not to burn anyone out. When someone is starting to get too stressed out, the rest of us step in to alleviate the pressure
  • We work hard, and we get to focus on teaching. Social events and some of the field trips are handled by the PTSA. If the parents don't step up and organize social events, they don't happen, and that's okay.
  • The principal is a leader, not a glory hound. We defer to him when necessary, but we take responsibility, step up, and don't wait to be told what to do.

There's more, but I'd like to watch the interview thats on MSNBC's Education Nation right now, so I'll probably do a part II later.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Teacher Voice

I've started videotaping some of my classes. It's less scary than it sounds!

Everyone I know who has gotten their National Board Certification has touted the benefits of watching yourself teach, so I set up 2 cameras on opposite end of my classroom.

The first thing I notice is that my saddlebags are a bit larger than I thought. That shirt and those shorts need to separate and never see each other again. And my room is bland. Granted, the camera is facing the area that's most difficult to decorate, but poor kids who have to face that way!

After I get over my body issues and classroom aesthetics, I start to notice the kids. Most of them truly are hanging on my every word, but when I'm teaching, the only ones I notice are the ones who goof around. On the whole, the kids deserve more credit, and their teacher needs to chill out a bit.

The surprise at the kids' real behavior wanes quickly when my voice breaks through the rustle of papers. Okay, and I realize that my computer volume is almost zero. I seem to have two distinct voices: a "whole class" voice and a "real" voice. The whole class voice is obnoxious, piercing, makes me want to claw my eyes out. It's all fake and careful and kindergartenish. If a teacher talked to me that way when I was 10, I would have laughed in her face. Oh, wait, I did...only time I ever got in trouble in class.

Redemption comes when I start talking to the small groups and switch back to a normal voice.

Why do I have these two voices? I've noticed that some kids don't seem to hear me when I'm giving instructions. Whether it's the result of laziness or being an English learner, the blank stares I receive when I give instructions in a normal voice make me wonder if I'm declaiming in mermish.

How do I temper this ridiculous "whole class" voice while still making instructions clear to my English learners?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Warm Fuzzies

The kids are here!

Summer Orientation started on Wednesday! About 60 of our 96 new 6th graders are learning the mysteries of switching classes, completing homework, and (gulp) changing in the locker rooms.

My brain is too addled to put together any coherent description of the last three days, but I have to say this:
  1. A few months ago, I was devastated when my students left. Now, so many of their little brothers, sisters, and cousins are in my class that I feel like they never really left. Besides, about 10 of last year's 8th graders showed up this morning to help with the 6th grade classes!
  2. The new kids are great. Some of them have more self-confidence than they should, but that's okay. We can work with that. Structure. Discipline. Guidance.
  3. The parents this year seem to be more intense. I have to learn to be more outgoing. I love and respect parents, but sometimes I don't show it as well as I should.
Now I'm going to eat.

Friday, July 30, 2010


Out of curiosity, I threw my blog URL into If you've never used this time-consuming site, take a look! It creates tag clouds in which the most frequently-used words are larger.

The result irritated me, because one of the largest words turned out to be "just," hereafter referred to as ______.

I hate that word. Do I really use it that often? Yuck!

It's one of the Evangelical Protestant catch-phrases (I love the E-Ps I grew up with, but their insipid vocabulary drives me nutso!). "I _____ Wanna Be Where You Are," "We ____ Worship You," "You're ____ So Goooooood," "I'm ______ So Blessed," on and on and on. In this context, the word has no meaning. It's a filler word that contributes to the watering down of religion's mysteries.

I often refer to myself sarcastically as "_____ a teacher," so perhaps I could just pull back on the dry humor. Problem: That less-than-witty usage wasn't the most common in my "find on this page" search.

No, I'm using it as a filler word, and it's not the only one. Is there any benefit to these banal vocabulary choices? Does the rhythm they contribute outweigh the fluff that detracts from the post? Do I express myself this way? Do people consider me uneducated, head full of fluff, unable to compose an original creative thought? Instead of encouraging my students to expand their vocabularies, have I dumbed mine down so I sound like a teenager? Like, OMG, dat would be hella bad!

Are my thoughts as vapid as my vocabulary?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I've been spoiled rotten this summer.

2 weeks of class.

Content was worthwhile and presented in ways that enabled real learning, even though it was probably frustrating for the presenters/facilitators/teachers because we were typing and texting and playing with our video cameras.

Yeah, you heard me, our video cameras. We each got one. And learned tons of ways to use them. When we went to iFly, the leader laughed and took a picture of all of us filming the wind tunnel demo.

We went to iFly to learn how to use the wind tunnel in our science classes. And then we all got to fly in it. Twice. I learned a lot about learning, about pushing myself (the slightly re-dislocated shoulder was SO worth it!), and about using the resources in our area even though they're incredibly expensive.

Presenters (I'm calling them "presenters " and "participants" because we're all teachers and students) didn't take themselves too seriously. People just stood up and talked about what they knew. Yes, I'm sure they prepared, but it wasn't about them imparting knowledge, it was about putting information out there for all of us. Participants were asked to present on areas of expertise so that everyone could learn even more.

We get college credits for this (that will push me to the next salary step!). We get paid for this!

And, according to an email I received today, they're giving us tickets to the celebrity forum! I, with a guest, will be hobnobbing and rubbing elbows and whatever else you call it as we go to listen to such interesting and inspiring people as Resa Azlan, Yo Yo Ma, Captain "Sully," Tony Blair, and a couple other people whose names I don't remember right now.

All this makes me feel like somebody actually cares about my profession. The fancy schmancy businessy-type folks don't look down on me because I'm "just" a teacher, they support me so that I can become a better teacher. They don't see my clearance-sale clothes and the hair I cut myself, they see a hard-working professional with good ideas and an important job.

In a few short weeks, I'll be back at school, battling the IT director and being snubbed by middle-management types at the District Office. I'll be packing students into my run-down classroom with the nasty carpet and broken closet doors, fighting off the cockroaches, taping together books, and hoping against hope that there will be both toilet paper and paper towel in the restroom.

I spent two weeks in an environment where I was treated like something special, and it's not hyperbole when I say that I'll never be the same.

How do I provide the same experience for my students?

Thievery and Plagiarism

It's tempting to delete this post right now, because it proves just how lazy I am.

Yesterday, when I was linking to one of my blog posts, I didn't want to go through the two or three steps to type in my blog address and search for the post. Instead, I googled a unique phrase so that I could go directly to the page.

Most of the search results were variations on my blog page: cached versions, the blog index, etc. However, there was one other page that included the same statistically improbable phrase. I looked at the preview.

And looked again.

That was my blog post.

I clicked the link and found someone else's blog. They had copied and pasted my entire post, and now it was just sitting there next to some...less-than-quality pictures. Oh, and the entire rest of the page was in Chinese. Thanks, Google Translate. It looks like the rest of the blog is just copy-paste of other posts - news articles, commentaries, and other blogs, without giving any credit to the original author.

So, what do you think? What's the deal with pages like this?

I'd link to it, but I really don't want to be associated with those pics!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Being a Student

I spent the last 2 weeks in some fairly intense classes. Aside from content, here's what I liked about them:
  • Grades weren't a big deal.
  • No homework. Well, there were assignments and presentations, but it didn't feel like homework.
  • We were allowed, even encouraged to multi-task. Laptops and cell phones weren't forbidden, and they set up chat boards and forums for us to use.
  • The entire building was designed for learning and collaboration. One classroom had rows just for the old-school people, but the rest of the rooms were set up with various configurations of chairs, tables, and pods.
  • "Students" who were experts in the teachers' weaker areas were given class time to present on their specialty. I got 30 minutes to teach a session on Interactive White Boards :)
So, how much of this was possible simply because we are adults? What could I transfer to my 6th grade classroom?

Friday, June 11, 2010


The last day of school always sees a few tears, but the last two years leaned more toward "See you in August, and have a great summer! Don't forget to do your homework!"

Now, it's goodbye. My kids, who have been mine for three years, are gone. I'm excited for them, because most of them are going to great high schools, and the ones who are going to the worse schools have had long talks with me about how they're going to succeed and make it through college.

You wouldn't believe the progress these kids made. Students like MQ, whose language barrier and learning disability combined to make school miserable. I could barely understand what she read or wrote when she first came, but we worked together and she surrounded herself with a core group of friends who tutored her on every homework assignment. MQ stayed after school, asked questions during lunch, and studiously listened and took notes during every lecture. She wasn't the one chatting through collaborative assignments; instead, she was asking me and her friends for help. The result? Her last exhibition research project, on Rube-Goldberg machines, was interesting and informative. This kid, who had so much working against her, partnered with a friend who would help her without doing the work for her, asked questions, stayed on track with her research even when it got difficult, and when I asked her to memorize the types of machines and show them in the Rube-Goldberg contraptions, she did it, even though that sort of memorization is so difficult for her. MQ has her work cut out for her in high school, but I'm completely confident that she'll make it.

Another success story is Eva. (Have I used that alias before? This is a different student.) When she came in, Eva was one of the top students, but she did everything by the book and froze up when we asked her to think for herself. In her 7th grade year, we finally had it out when she turned in another insipid essay, this time a research report about Japan. I gave it back to her with a rather pointed note about not wanting an encyclopedia entry, and she rose to the occasion. Eva took that paper, poured her heart on it, and brought back a revision that showed how much she loved and admired the civilization. Early this year, as part of the group that visited the super-dooper private high school, Eva had to stand up and give an impromptu speech to a group of strangers. This shy little mouse did it, and realized how much worth and potential she had. Throughout the year, she spoke up more and more, and, with her best friend (whom I also love dearly), gave an inspiring, tear-inducing valedictorian speech at last night's promotion ceremony. Eva always had the brains, the motivation, the desire for excellence, and now she has found her voice. Watch out for this one!

They're going on to bigger and better things, but it's the end of an era for me. The staff has come to a consensus that this is the best class we've ever had. The kids are nice, caring, and even the ones who have their issues with school are still pleasant. I had the pleasure of working with a consistent, capable team, and 2 of the 3 years saw fantastic principals.

Watching this year end is tearing my heart out just a little. No, a lot. Before I came to this school, I was ready to quit teaching. The first two years at soul-sucking bigschool almost killed me, and even the first year here left me a little dubious. The last three years have been anything but easy, but I've wrapped my entire life around these kids, and now they're gone. Will I grow to love the next class as much? Will it seem just a little less shiny? This hurts. I'm grieving. Can I put myself through this again?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Well, somebody taketh away!

One of the great ironies of the Education profession: We are (sorta) entrusted with 30 or more students at a time, and yet we can't seem to be trusted with anything else!

I recently met some people (McActivPeople, to be exact) who wanted to plan a conference in my area. Great! My school would love to host it! After getting approval of both principals on the shared campus, talking to my District Office contact about how to get approval, sitting down with the McActivRepresentative (who is a wonderful person, by the way), and sketching out a plan, I got an email.

From my district office contact. I'm pretty sure it was written by her boss.

"Please give us the contact information of your McActivRepresentative. These things are usually planned through our office."

Yes, you read that correctly. Not, "Oh, great! Thanks for starting this process! How can we offer our support and make this the best conference ever, bringing rare good publicity to our district and encouraging our teachers with real professional development rather than bashing them down with the mediocre shit we usually offer?"

Not, "I'm glad that you're excited and taking initiative. Let's talk so that we can make sure we're following proper protocols."

Nope. Basically, they're saying "there's no was a measly little teacher could plan a conference worthy of our district's untarnished reputation. Now that you've made the contact, hand over your work so that we can transform it into another poorly-planned, cheaply run, narrow-minded district love fest where everyone sits around getting talked at all day and our department gets to stand up and welcome everyone and feel all important."

I have to wonder how much of this comes from the recent furlough days we agreed to if the parcel tax doesn't pass. They know we, the teachers, want to see cuts at the bloated, croneyistic district office, and they see that their jobs could be on the chopping block if they don't prove their worth. What better way than by making work for themselves?

Isn't there something better they could be doing?