Sunday, December 6, 2009


Someone once gave me false hope by explaining that after 2 or 3 years, a teacher's immune system adjusted and the person wouldn't get sick as often.

I don't remember who that person was, but he or she is a big fat liar and should be damned to the part of hell where kids sneeze in your face, let you know that they had swine flu AFTER they've been coughing in your classroom for three weeks, and pick their noses just before they turn in essays.

After conquering a bout of the flu, with the assistance of self-harm-inducing Tamiflu, I had a week or two of peace before my darling husband, whose job requires him to meet with teachers all over the area, brought home a precious little sniffle.

I was hoping to stay late on Friday to help my students with a project. Didn't happen. I had to resort to "I shall stay until the Kleenex runs out." Not as poetic as Poppins, but hey, she's practically perfect in every way.

I was hoping to spend the weekend brainstorming new and amazing lesson plans for the new and amazing grading period, attending church for the first time in weeks (It's St. Nicholas day, and our church is named for St. Nick, so it's a pretty good day to go), and picking out a Christmas tree. Instead, I spent it in bed reading mediocre but loveable novels. Made it through a Temperance Brennan and 1-1/2 Twilight volumes. I crawled out of my room this afternoon to throw together examples for tomorrows lesson, and now I'm ready to crawl back.

Tomorrow, I'm hoping just to make it through the school day. Let's see what happens.

Good night, and good health.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Your, um, daughter?

I took a group of my 8th grade girls to visit a Catholic college-prep girls' only school. Most people come with their daughters, but my girls' parents were unable to attend because of work.
After sending the girls to the gym for their student presentation, I made my way to the library for the parent information session.

Here's the problem: I'm 27. I was 14 when most of my girls were born. I look my age.

Every time a presenter mentioned something about "your daughters," I got funny looks. Their thoughts were almost audible: "Is she really a parent of an 8th grade girl?" "Does she just look really young? How does she do that?" I was ready to market my own line of wrinkle-reducing potions when the other leader of my group, an alumnus of the school, stood up and introduced herself.

She mentioned that she and another teacher had brought a group of students. I was sitting across the room from her, and made no move to identify myself, but there was an instant sigh of relief as heads whipped around, frantic eyes zeroing in on me, tentative smiles begging for confirmation that I was, in fact, that other teacher and not a parent.

Prejudice? No, not here! Never!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Inequity Sux

Field Trip! I took a group of girls to the local college-prep catholic girls' high school for the 8th grade day, and came back feeling 2 extreme emotions: excitement and anger.

I'm excited because this is an amazing opportunity. Twenty-two girls went today, and I wouldn't be surprised if most of them were accepted to the school. The teachers are phenomenal, the resources are out of this world, and the academic program, with its Social Justice focus, is everything I could want for my girls.

Here's where the anger comes in.

Why should only a few of my girls (and the guys who are accepted to the all-boys school) get these opportunities? The students at my school are no less deserving than those whose parents can shell out $13,500 every year.

I don't begrudge the school or its students the resources they have, especially because they seem to make good use of their location and don't buy or build things they don't need. Their library isn't impressive, but they're just down the street from the amazing 8-floor City/University library.

They should have the lab equipment and darkrooms and art studio.

So should every kid.

They should have the amazing teachers who benefit from worthwhile professional development.

So should every kid.

They should have the interactive curriculum enhanced by local and global trips.

So should every kid.

When I arrived back at school, I discovered a visitor. One of our students who graduated a few years ago was back to say hello, and she described her high school experience. "Some of the teachers are really good, but if they stick you with a bad teacher, it's terrible." This bright, intelligent young adult went on to describe schedule problems, missed opportunities, and trouble that she never would have faced at a private college prep school.

Our free public schools should be well-equipped to prepare our kids to compete. The problem isn't just that we don't have enough money; the problem is misused funding, an inappropriate focus on standardized testing, and a lack of quality teacher training.

And our kids suffer for it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What a surprise: Teacher Talk Strains Voices, Especially For Women

ScienceDaily published an article this week entitled Teacher Talk Strains Voices, Especially For Women. A study by the National Center for Voice and Speech (NCVS) concluded that female teachers use their voices 10% more than their male counterparts while teaching, and 7% more at home. The deputy director of the NCVS alluded to a higher number of voice problems in females, although the article failed to enumerate the type and severity of those problems. So, I'll have to fill in my own details:

I probably do talk more than my male colleagues, although I doubt that I speak louder. Perhaps my "teaching" voice is louder as compared to my everyday voice, though - I've always been one of those weaker speakers, despite my best strengthening efforts. You'd think that constant talking since the start of my career would help, but it hasn't, really.

I do have a number of voice problems. I'm recovering from the flu, which hit me like a bus last week, and my first symptom was a sore throat and a strained voice. Yes, strained like the peas meant to be fed with a small rubber-coated spoon. Mushy and kinda gross.

This is my 6th year of teaching, but it's the first in which I haven't lost my voice the second week of school. Also the first when my calves aren't killing me at the end of the day, but that's due in part to my decision that it really is okay to wear sneakers to school.

My singing voice has gotten worse. It was already pretty bad to begin with, but now it's absolutely horrible. I may also be losing my hearing.

When will OSHA recognize this as a safety hazard and require school districts to purchase those cool teacher microphones that hang around your neck?

Sweet Success

A gigantic environmentally-friendly lightbulb flashed on in my class yesterday. One student, whom I'll call Emily because that's totally not her name (and I'm sad about the lack of a new Bones episode this week) finally figured out how to write! I'm not quite sure what happened. I had already given detailed instructions, and this is my third year as her Language Arts teacher so I KNOW that she's been taught this stuff before, but she's just never really done well with writing.

During the after-school homework center yesterday, Emily was a little distracted by her friends (completely engrossed in a conversation), so I separated the group. Not an uncommon occurence. Instead of sitting and pouting like some of them tend to do, she started working on the book report. She needed more guidance, so I gave her the same step-by-step instructions I've been teaching her class since 2007. This was the time! It worked! She had already read her book carefully, which may have been the missing ingredient before. She took the instructions, worked on them, brought her writing to me to check, revised, checked it again, revised it again, and ended up with a composition that rivals the top students in the class!

Emily was completely shocked with herself, and I think I am too. Honestly, if I hadn't watched her write it, I would have doubted her honesty.

What in incredible boost this is for both of us! Emily is a good kid, and if she doesn't always work as hard as she could, she has shown the desire to do well. Algebra has been a pain for her, and I've seen her self-confidence take a blow, but now she knows, like I already knew, that she's capable.

Lesson learned for me, too. Even though I've been with them for a really long time, a number of my students might need just one more explanation, just a little bit more help, so they can get it.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Promethean Training San Francisco

The alarm went off waaaaay too early for a Saturday morning, and I found myself blinded by the rising sun in my rear view mirror as I headed up to The City (that's San Francisco for you non-Bay Area friends) to O'Connell High School for a Promethean training conference.

I arrived in time to check in, pick up my pre-printed name tag and stylish Promethean-orange gym bag full of goodies, and select my breakout sessions. Well, that took slightly longer than it should have. This interesting lady must have had an earlier morning than mine. Based on the glazed look on her face, I don't think she was being pushy, I suspect that in her altered mindset she just didn't see me 2 steps away from the table. She stood in front of the sign in sheet I wanted for several minutes, gazing as if analyzing the effect of the black ink and white paper on the orange tablecloth, writing nothing, then turned around, gave me a Luna Lovegood-esque smile, and wandered along to get in someone else's path.

The bag full of goodies was nice, but mean. A USB drive (4G, baby!) with all of the day's presentations, a cheap-looking pen that writes really well, a folder with maps and schedules and such, a lanyard to hold our ActivPens (remember my earlier post about the, and (drumroll please), an ActivExpression device. What? Really? They're GIVING us one of these? Wait, why are they only giving us one? Are we supposed to use it today and then give it back? As these thoughts of wonderment raced through my head, my greedy paws reached down, rummaging through to get a firm fingers grasped the device...

...and sank about 1/8th of an inch into the soft rubber foam.

My heart sank, and I'm sure someone with a hidden camera was laughing at my look of dismay as I discovered that no, Promethean was not struck by a sudden sense of generosity (that would come later), but rather had given us stress-ball-like things in the SHAPE of the ActivExpression devices (seriously, if you haven't clicked the link yet, check it out. These things are amazing!).

Still, the USB drive and the pen and the bag were pretty cool, and I was glad to see that they printed out as few things as possible. Smart people.

After a super-healthy carb-and-sugar breakfast of my favorite type of donut (maple-glazed old-fashioned), my favorite bagel (blueberry with strawberry jam), and some decent decaf coffee with real milk (bless these people!), I made my way into the general session and sat in the back with some other people from my district.

It's a good thing we were sitting in the back, because...well...I'll let my twitter posts tell you.

Wow. They just started the mood music. Please let this be a joke!about 11 hours ago from txt
#promethean it doesn't sound like a joke...about 11 hours ago from txt
#promethean the mood music is still going! I wonder if this guy brings the pianist to classroom...about 11 hours ago from txt
#promethean this should have ended 2O minutes ago. At least. Is he this self-aggrandizing in his classroom?about 11 hours ago from txt
#promethean this guy has no problem complimenting himself. Okay, you made a difference. Great. Now teach us something!about 11 hours ago from txt
#promethean this music makes me feel like i'm on hold...about 11 hours ago from txt
#promethean he's done! The whole message was "you touch lives. Don't give up." thanks, i didn't know that!about 11 hours ago from txt

Now, that's not the whole story (check my twitter feed for that), but it is the reason why it's a REALLY good thing we were sitting in the back. It was hard to keep from giggling! I did enjoy seeing the multimedia magazine his class produced, and the presentation gave me some ideas of things I could do with my own students.

When the keynote speaker was done with his Hallmark card, we went to our breakout sessions. Having suffered through two years of BTSA, I appreciated the simplicity of this conference: we went to a total of two breakout sessions, 2 hours each, and learned enough information to be useful but not so much that we were completely overwhelmed. No stupid activities, no patronizing or time-wasting presenters, just information and guided practice. In my first session, I learned how to use three of the slightly-more-complicated features of the software. The second session focused on the design of our classroom presentations (like a PowerPoint slideshow, only WAY better). It was led by the keynote speaker, and I was a little dubious after his silliness that morning, but it turned out to be informative and helpful. The first hour saw instruction and examples, and the second hour was help creating our own flipcharts. I learned that I can make 3-D slideshows. How cool is that?

The final session was a demonstration of super-cool features and devices followed by the afore-mentioned generosity. They raffled off technology stuff, including a class set of ActivExpression devices, which one of the Tech people from my district won! I was sitting right beside her, so I'm first on the list to borrow it :D

The conference was a lot of fun! They used the Giants - A's rivalry (this is the 20th anniversary of when the two teams played each other in the World Series) and had us each select a team to support. Most of us came dressed in our team colors, which eliminated the need for stupid ice-breakers. Of course, the balance was tipped toward the Giants, considering that the Promethean color is orange (and the Giants are a better team!). I learned some new skills, got the seeds of new ideas, and am ready to go improve my own instruction.

Yay for the Promethean!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Drama, advocacy, and oops...

This may come as a shock to you all, so please be sure you're sitting down.

Sometimes 8th grade students don't react in the way you intended.

Are you okay? Breathing? Should I get you some oxygen? Because I know that's a shock to your system!

Here's the story.

No, here's the background.

Our school has an Advisory class. Students in this class stay together for each subject instead of splitting up and going their separate ways. They have different teachers and go to different rooms, but we work to achieve truly tight-knit teams.

Sometimes that backfires.

Now here's the story.

On Friday, I checked homework for one of the classes, whose Advisory teacher happens to be fairly new to the school and is having a hard time being consistent with all-school practices. The Language Arts class usually ends with a reflection, and I started the time with a conversation about the homework that I had just checked. I explained that based on the quality of this work compared to what they have created in the past, I could tell that they were not using their homework and Advisory time well. After a brief discussion of what they could do and where they needed help, they started writing. The question for the written reflection had two parts: "Are you doing your best in Advisory?" and "What do you need to do to make your class better?"

Now, I expected that a few students might realize that their Advisory class could be a LOT better if they controlled themselves, rather than relying on the teacher to control them. They're not little children, after all. I hoped that they would step up and lead the class.

However, it slipped my mind that we've also been emphasizing the skill of self-advocacy. These students will be leaving our little cocoon next year and jumping into large high schools, and we've been talking a lot about how important is to speak up for what you need.

So, this class took the written reflection, and apparently combined it with the self-advocacy lessons...and had a class meeting during lunch. Based on the random conversations I heard after school, they drew up a list of everything that was wrong with their class, especially the Advisory teacher, and presented it to him after lunch. They chose to "make their Advisory better" by telling the teacher what was wrong with him!

I don't know much more than that, and I don't know how much to worry.

Are the kids truly working to improve their class, or have I given them silent permission to be rebellious? Is this going to deal a blow to the school culture, or will it be the crisis that turns us all toward a better path?

Am I going to be seen as an instigator? This other teacher and I don't always see eye-to-eye and, although I try to be professional, the kids have surely noticed by now, especially since he has made a habit of criticizing me in front of them while I'm in the room. I didn't actively want to cause trouble in this class, but trouble has been brewing since the first week of school. Am I an instigator? Is this my silent revenge?

How do I handle this?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Shameless Plug

Yes, it's my first blog post in a while, and I'm out begging. Please check out my request on! People who donate, even small donations like $10 or $25, get thank you cards and super-cute pictures of the kids using their new dictionaries!


That link looks weird. If it doesn't work, post a comment and I'll fix it.

Thank you thank you thank you!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Creepy Stalker Tech Guy

As promised, I'm finally sitting down, practically at the scene of the crime, to let you laugh and cry with me over the antics of our own local Creepy Stalker Tech Guy.

I hope you appreciate the risks I'm taking in telling this story. No, I probably won't be kidnapped or tortured, but getting on the wrong side of the computer tech people in any business can sink you like a lead balloon, and I wouldn't be surprised if CreepyStalkerTechGuy has installed a keystroke-logger on my machine.

Scary, you say? Yeah. It is.

It all began at the start of the last school year. In years past, work orders for computer-related problems could take forever to process, so we were all happy when the district hired a few more IT people and assigned one of them to our school site, which is shared by two schools. I needed some software updates, so the new guy came in after school.

I quickly discovered that he talks better than he works.

Within 30 minutes, he had poured out his entire life story, moaning and groaning about how he kept losing jobs because he had to go to court over a custody battle from his nasty divorce, but he was ready to start dating again, get back into a relationship...

...and suddenly I recognized the warning signs I haven't seen since high school. This guy was about to ask me out! There were students still on campus, people wandering in and out of the room, and he was planning the unthinkable!

So, quick as I could, I "accidentally" dropped a pencil on the desk in front of him and, of course, picked it up with my LEFT hand. He saw the diamond and caught the hint, or so I thought.

"So, are you engaged or married?"

"I'm married."

"Oh..." He thought for a moment.

And then came the icing on the cake.

"Are you...HAPPILY married?"

I didn't think my eyebrows could travel any further up my forehead, but apparently my bugging eyes weren't the "SHUT UP" signal to him that they are to my students. A terse "yes" ended the conversation, but not forever.

On subsequent trips to our school, which happened way more often that I would have liked, he continued his creepy flirting with myself and other teachers, made comments to a male teacher about how much he likes working at our site because of all the attractive females, talked the ears off our overworked administrative assistant and, worst of all, tried to start a conversation with me about "all these people who don't speak English." Not a good plan - our school is 87% Hispanic. Just because we're the only two caucasian redheads within 20 miles does NOT mean we're MFEO!

By now, everyone at the school was having fun laughing about how much attention our whole site was getting, thanks to me, but it was becoming really creepy. Then, my friend put in a computer work order to have some new software installed, and it was software that I had been wanting. When I saw CreepyStalkerTechGuy in the office the next day, I asked, half-joking, if he was there to install the upgrade. Imagine my surprise when he started following me to my classroom. As I told him, I didn't even remember if I had put the work order in yet.

After spending two hours - yes, TWO HOURS!!! - in my classroom, he was running through the work orders to see if he could come up with any other reason to stay. "Um, do you need Shockwave?" As I checked off the work order, I realized something. Something that was going to get me into hot (scalding, boiling, pressure-cooker) water with my friend. This wasn't my work order, it was hers! She had already left for the day, so I asked him to come back at 11 the next day, when she would just be dismissing her summer school class.

He came at 10. He very rudely informed her that he had a lot of work to do, and that if she couldn't give him the computer right then - in the middle of her class - that she'd just have to wait until he could come back.

Um, CreepyStalkerTechGuy? You do know that we only have, like, 10 people on our staff, right? And we all are pretty good friends? And we talk, like, all the time? So everyone is quite aware that you spent 2 hours at my computer, ignoring everyone else at my school and the other 40 people on this site who ALL have computer needs the week before school starts, including the guys who ended up not having the Internet the second day of school when ALL OF OUR ATTENDANCE AND GRADES ARE KEPT ONLINE??? YOU DON'T KNOW THIS???

This has gone way beyond funny, "oh, he's got a crush on Manda, put her name on your work orders and trade computers with her so that the work will get done quickly." No, this has gone to the point where I have HR's extension on a post-it by my phone, and if he pulls this crap one more time, he'll probably lose his job.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

But it's HARD!

The first assignments are due on Tuesday, and the after school homework centers have been ringing with the proclamation: it's HARD!

Yes, dear, it's supposed to be hard. You're in 8th grade. It's Algebra. What, you think it should be easy?
Most of my students are tackling their most difficult assignments first; they are ferocious in their desire to conquer the Algebra and Physical Science, to prove that they can do it, to exercise their atrophied brains, but how long will the honeymoon last? Soon they'll start dropping off, deciding that it's not worth doing because it's just too hard.

Some of my favorite writers have described the writing process, and something seems to be missing: how easy it all is. Stephen Fry just posted a mini-blog about a looming deadline, and he, along with his gazillions of commenters, seems to be constantly surprised by how difficult it is to finish a novel. He quotes his friend Douglas Adams (oh, to have such friends!), saying "'It is almost impossibly hard, [...] It is supposed to be. But once you truly understand how difficult it is,' he added, with signature paradoxicality, 'it all becomes a lot easier.' " The "Why We Write" series over at Wordpress lists writer after writer who, like Fry, find their work as difficult and sometimes dreary as the most burnt-out Algebra student.

This is a long weekend, ironically named "Labor Day." On Tuesday, we'll all get back to the hard work of teaching students to work hard.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Dell's Demise

I love technology. If I could find a computer that would brush my teeth for me, it would be mine as soon as possible.

I love technology in my classroom. Every yearly plan since I started teaching has included awesome variety of lesson plans using software, blogs, typing programs, movie making, and a list of websites that almost rivals Larry Ferlazzo's. Just kidding. Nobody rivals Ferlazzo.

Here's the problem: my computer is about to crash. It's SOOOOO slow that it took me 30 minutes to print 3 seating charts from Excel today. No, not to MAKE the seating charts. Those were already done. To. PRINT. them. You know, select the cells, go to the page setup, fit to 1x1, print, OK? Yeah. 30 minutes. Seriously, I'm already making funeral arrangements - do you think white carnations are too passe?

I'm preparing for the inevitable by saving EVERYTHING on a flash drive AND uploading it to Google Docs in order to make it as non-panic-inducing as possible, but when THE CRASH happens, I'll be stuck. I probably won't get another computer, even though there are a bazillion new computers sitting in the district warehouse, because the school budget can't cover it. It really doesn't help that more than half our staff has suffered the loss of their computers in the last year. (All of these machines are 5 or 6 year old Dells. Surprised?).

When teachers lose the use of their computers, we have to spend the rest of the year (and possibly the year after) using machines from the laptop carts that were SUPPOSED to be for student use. Of course, these laptops were bought at the same as the teacher computers, so they're no better than what we have. This practice leads to days like today, when I was planning on using 18 machines from a cart...and I ended up with 6 kinda-sorta working computers. So much for teaching students how to use technology. How much can they learn when 6 kids are crowded around one ridiculously slow machine?

I won't even start on Dell chargers, except to say that I will NEVER EVER EVER buy another Dell because of how terrible their chargers and power supplies are.

I'm tempted to go get myself a netbook (can't afford anything more), but will it run the Promethean software for my board? Can I even GET that software? Of course, the district won't allow me anywhere NEAR the wireless internet with my own machine, which means I'll have to haul out my Big Ol' CAT 5 cord (I'm already asking for a 50' CAT 6 for Christmas). Besides, I was promised a teacher laptop when I signed my contract, and golly-gee-willikers, I think I should have one that works!

Which brings me to another point: The district won't let us do FREAKING ANYTHING to our computers. I can't install or uninstall software, even programs that are horribly outdated behemoths I never use. Not a chance!!! I can't even change basic options, like Power Management configurations. All of those awesome videos and free software resources? Not a chance! You might download naughty things and show them to all the poor innocent young children!!! They've locked down the machines "for our protection," but what good does that do when I've STILL managed to get the DownandUp virus? In order to get anything fixed on my compuer, I have to put in a work order and hope that CreepyStalkerGuy comes to fix it. By the way, CreepyStalkerGuy knows less about computers than I do, and I took the majority of my computer classes before 2000.

So, sorry Scott McLeod. You have awesome ideas to go with your strong opinions but, unfortunately, neither does me any good. I had the best-laid plans for my students to collaborate online, communicate, learn and grow and become part of the global community. Instead, thanks to the idiocy of our setup, the only thing my students know about technology is how frustrated their teachers are.

Photo Credit Kevin on Flickr Creative Commons

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Photo credit Delicious Monster on Flickr Creative Commons.

The Baltimore Sun published an article today about looping, that ridiculously underused and highly successful strategy in which a teacher stays with the same students for more than one year. The article highlights just a few of the advantages of looping, and someday I'll write more about my own observations.

But today, I write about one of the difficulties of looping. You see, unlike a circle or a super-cool infinity sign, a loop eventually ends. Like a roller coaster, it has it's highs and lows, and sometimes your hair stands on end, but eventually everyone gets out and goes onto the next ride.

My students are entering 8th grade this year. In 180 school days, they'll be entering high school. They look more like adults and think more like rational human beings. The little mug shots I took in 6th grade to try to learn their names aren't even useful anymore, because they've changed so much. They've finally learned my name and no longer tap my back and call me "teacher" any more (not that I miss that!).

Have I taught them enough? Will they make it in high school? Will they get a spot in the ever-shrinking freshman class? Will they get the scholarships they need? Will they be good enough people to make it through life doing good instead of making dumb, harmful mistakes?

Will I ever forget them?

Photo credit Steve_C on Flickr Creative Commons.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cockroaches, Workbooks, and Plans. Oh My!

Although I told my loving and tolerant husband that I would stay home today to do housework, I spent the entire day working in my classroom. The darling man forgave me, and even came to the school on his lunch break to eat with me. And to help me move a bookshelf (but he didn't know that part until he got there).

Even better, he moved a stack of boxes for me when I discovered a play group of fat little roaches underneath them. I'm not a wimp, but hey, I was wearing sandals!

I used to stomp on cockroaches. When I moved into my classroom, I discovered that the teacher before me had oh-so-kindly left her centuries-old Special Ed materials in my classroom. ALL of them. Now, this classroom has amazing storage space - the entire back wall is lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves that are at least two feet deep - but her junk, I mean, precious irreplacable resources, took up most of the space! I threw out what I could, but come on, I had just moved 2,000 miles and started a new job. By the time I was exhausted with cleaning, her stuff only inhabited 1/4 of my shelf space.

I lived with it for way too long, but toward the end of that first year, I decided that we'd have a Class Cleanup Day during Advisory. Each of my thirty 8th grade students had a job to do, and those wonderful angels hauled the rest of that **** to the dumpster for me.

And uncovered a NEST of cockroaches in the closet beside the shelves.

Did you know that roaches build nests? Neither did I. There had to be at least 100 roaches, all in a swarm, some dead, some alive, some mutating into a super-cockroach species that would have taken over the earth if my kids hadn't stomped on them. And stomp they did! On of the girls, a kickboxer, jumped into the fray with reckless abandon, stomping with such fury that the other kids backed off for fear that she might mistake them for her prey. When the battle was won, she calmly wiped the sweat from her forehead and went back to her seat, leaving her classmates to scoop many dustpansful of aftermath into the trash can.

For the next year or so, I tasked my students with stomping on the buggers and disposing of their carcasses, but then I realized how smushy and gross they really are, so I reached and agreement with the little nasties.

Before I get a piece of chart paper, move a box, or in any other way subject a cockroach to sudden light exposure, I'll make some noise and rattle things. In return, they'll run the other way, doing their best to keep their presence hidden from myself and any other humans in the room. It works for us.

So today, when my loving husband shifted the box and heard the scrabble of a bug fulfilling its end of the bargain, he looked at me in panic. I could just hear his thoughts. "She's not really going to ask me to squish those things with my wingtips, is she? Please?" Imagine the look of relief on his face when I related to him the terms of my agreement with the roaches! He didn't have to go through his afternoon appointments worrying about bug guts on his cuffs!

Tomorrow, I get to find a home for the hundred million extra workbooks that my dear principal keeps bringing to my room. Note: this principal actually lifts and carries things himself, rather than calling and shouting through the speakerphone that I need to come to the office and get them as quickly as possible.

After the workbooks have been placed in loving family situations (or shoved into the amazingly spacious shelves), I need to continue with the Planning of the Lessons. I've just discovered that my wonderfully high-tech classroom blog, that I was going to use for everything from literature circles to grammar review to classroom connections with other students, is BLOCKED by our ridiculous "Websense" program, so I have to find another solution. I could put in a request to have the website unblocked, but that would require interaction with Creepy Stalker Tech Guy, and it's just not worth it.

Sorry friends, but Creepy Stalker Tech Guy is another story for another day.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The time it takes to do simple tasks

30 new sixth grade students.

40 minutes.

1 timeline assignment.

Create a timeline.

Place 5 events from this list on the timeline.

Think we finished it?

Think again.

Why does it take so long to accomplish simple tasks? Even my least-needy class, the ones who could fold a piece of paper in half without asking me to check and make sure they did it right, was agonizingly slow in gluing the three pieces of paper together to make a long strip.

My instructions were clear and carefully sequenced. My supplies were ready. My tools were adequate, with the exception of a couple of rulers made by idiots who didn't think to make the quarter-inch lines slightly longer than the eighth-inch lines.

And yet, in 40 minutes, the class just barely managed to read the directions, glue-stick the paper, draw their lines, and label century increments.

So, tomorrow, I'll spend another hour showing them how to place 5 events on the timeline, create sketches to accompany 2 of those events, and write 3-6 sentence descriptions of two events.

Will they finish in an hour? Probably not. But we're going to try!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The world is right again

Some yearn for the pitter-patter of little feet, but I look forward to the rustling of paper, the tapping of pencils, and the chattering of kids trying to find a solution.

New student orientation began today, and suddenly my classroom seems more familiar. Even with the awkward silences (oh, we're supposed to do that now?), the kids who can't fold paper into thirds (no, that's not a basic skill!), and the general sleepiness from those who haven't seen 8am for several months, the day went amazingly well.

Some of the kids were really funny. The first one I noticed was obviously a little sister of one of my former students; they're almost identical! Of course, big sister didn't have the best attitude (she actively tried to make my life miserable!), so I had to silently tell myself all day "she's Little Sister, not Big Sister. Let her be her own person. Assume the best. Lather, rinse, repeat." We'll see how that goes.

There's also Super-Student and her sidekick, Super-Planner. When I told them that they'd need to bring notebooks to class tomorrow, she looked around the room, raised her hand, and asked, "where will we keep them? Our desks don't open like the ones in elementary school." Super-Planner also approached me during the break to ask if they had to pay for lunch during the school year. Why can't all kids plan ahead like this?

Super-Student distinguished herself during the Scavenger Hunt, one of those annoying icebreaker activities. Kids had to find classmates who had broken a bone, travelled to another state, you know, the usual. Some of the questions asked who could explain content they should have learned in 5th grade. Well, Super-Student was the only one who could add decimals and name the Vice President of the USA. She might meet her match, though, when All-Around-Good-Guy gets a little less nervous!

Of course, we also have a My-Mom-Is-Forcing-Me-To-Come-To-This-School, an I'm-Too-Cool-For-This, and several of the Is-It-Morning-Already? genre. Who am I going to meet tomorrow?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Tamales, Julia Child, and the Obligatory Education Connection

Yes, it's 11:30 Friday night. Please make whatever comments you will about my social life, and then continue reading.

Beside me is the latest Time magazine, open to a review of Julie & Julia. On the TV, Alton Brown uses an ice cream scooper and a dinner plate to assemble tamales. In the kitchen, my husband is cooking up a late dinner. I don't know what it is, but I smell onions. I love onions.

I can't help thinking about the process of cooking and the process of education. I haven't seen Julie & Julia, but both title characters seem to show that cooking is about more than just providing nutrition. The first photograph of Meryl Streep/Julia Child tenderly frosting a cake, as well as a later shot of Amy Adams staring down a lobster, both depict a distinctly human ritual.

On Good Eats, Alton Brown consistently demystifies the creation of classic foods. He never fails to present foods in a way that makes me say "oh, I can do that!" Brown's episodes on pasta have forever changed the way I see (and eat!) spaghetti, and I've learned to take more risks and make dishes that I always considered too complicated for my limited cooking skills.

Here's where I get anxious. Tonight's rerun shows how absolutely simple it is to make tamales.

Simple? Not according to my friends and students, who have described with exaggerated gestures and eye rolls, the rite of passage that is tamale-making. Adults laugh about their grandmothers who didn't entrust them with filling the tamales until their quinceaneras, kids describe the clatter and organized chaos as they watch over the enormous pots, and everyone develops a glazed, far away look when describing Thanksgiving dinner.

Even our simple cooking-for-two has become an important ritual. My husband and I have developed our own favorite recipes, especially our sweet pasta sauce with slow-roasted tomatoes, that is unlike anything you can find in a jar. For us, dinner is a gift from one to the other, and we find joy in making each other's favorite dinner. Someday we'll teach our own kids exactly how to sift the fresh-ground pepper with the powdered sugar, when to add the garlic, and a million other little tricks we've discovered.

But what happens in this world where I can click to Youtube and find step-by-step instructions for making amazing paella? Does watching a 30-minute segment of Good Eats replace abuelita'scareful instruction? Are we missing something with our online recipes and Food Network specials?

How does this translate to education? The fast-paced world of standardized testing and intense pacing guides seems to prevent real learning. Teaching is a balancing act in a whirlwind; Alton Brown at best, but fast food at its worst.

What would Julia Child education look like? Are we missing a vital ritual?

But I'm out of time. My wonderful spouse has just brought me a plate of farfalle mixed with his own special sauce, which appears to include carrots, mushrooms, celery, and parmesan. He must love me!

The Once and Future Teacher

Summer, glorious summer, that Avalon of the teaching profession, that sinking out of sight of the rest of the world, doing who-knows-what until who-knows-when...

Except that we do know when. Monday.

I can already feel myself rising out of the mists, gathering my knights and sword (also known as my books and USB drive), throwing open the doors of my classroom for every lover of truth and justice.

My plans aren't finished, I haven't accustomed myself to rolling out of bed at 5:30 in the morning, and my wardrobe is in sad shape, but time marches on. This year should be exciting and wonderful, but...what kind of difficulties should I be anticipating? Will my revised homework plans be effective? Have the kids retained as much from last year as I expect?

I feel like I'm coming around the corner, walking down the hall, hearing the sounds of my classroom but unable to distinguish the "happy learning hubbub" from the chaos. Soon I'll be peeking through the window, then opening the door. What will I find?

To all the teachers, administrators, support staff, and other school-type people out there, I wish you the best of luck as we begin the 2009-2010 school year!

May you have the hindsight to know where you've been
the foresight to know where you're going
and the insight to know when you're going too far.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Get a Hobby!

I wrote recently about the interview process and wondered (without sarcasm or criticism, of course) why people never prepare to be asked about their greatest weaknesses.

After that, I spent an entire day focusing on one 40-minute lesson plan. Except you can't really call it focusing, not with my 1-hr break to watch Scrubs reruns followed by a marathon facebook updating session. Oh, yeah, and lunch and snack breaks.

At the end of the day, I had my lesson plan, but that was about it. The entire day was gone, consumed mostly by unimportant things, because there was just one job to do and that was it. This may surprise you (are you sitting down?), but I was tired, grumpy, and not feeling very attractive. These symptoms don't hint at a major weakness, do they?

Technology in general had lost its appeal, so I put away the computer, hid the remote, and stepped out onto my balcony. Look! The sky! Look! Living things! Look, my root-bound plants that still haven't been repotted! This sounds like a job for...Super Gardener!

Unfortunately, Super Gardener has not made an appearance since I killed my last plants (I think the mythical goddess is holding a grudge), so I'll had to step in and do the job.

After 45 minutes of mixing potting soil, clipping kalanchoes, and shooing my cat away from the lavender, I had one large pot of lavender and sweet basil, another of cactus/succulent type plants, and a third small container of "cat grass," a seed blend that's supposed to lure the felines away from houseplants.

She's waiting for her cat grass to grow...

And I felt awesome! For the first time all day, I had energy!

If everything goes well, I won't be interviewing for another position for a long, long time, but if I'm ever back on that not-so-sunny side of the interview table, I'll be able to answer the questions. My greatest weakness is not disorganization or a lack of focus, it's that I don't allow myself enough breaks to get outside, enjoy the sun, and dig in the dirt a little bit. What I need is to get back to my roots - not culture or ethnicity or heritage, but literal roots.

Without a hobby, I can quickly become as rootbound as that poor basil plant.

Is anyone hungry for pesto?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

How Proud I Am!

Earlier this year, I set some professional development goals for the summer. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am pleased to announce a status update.

I've made progress.

Yes, my friends, I can now use "actions" to make my McActiveFlipcharts more student-friendly. This skill will allow me to create documents that students can use without me hovering over their shoulders in case they get lost, making me more inclined to actually let THEM use the board instead of making it a great big wireless mouse.

I'm so proud. Do I hear applause?

Please don't ask about the whole reading thing.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Sunny Side of the Table

Even though interviews can be boring and tedious, it's MUCH more fun being on the interview panel! I was foolish enough to move just two years after landing my first job, and I can't tell you how frustrated I was trying to represent myself accurately while telling the interrogators interviewers what they wanted to hear.

We had 9 interviewers today, beginning at 8:30. They were scheduled 30 minutes apart, but it would have been easy to work in a 15-minute window, considering HR only allowed us 8 dull questions.

Now, I've only done this once, so I'm not any kind of expert, but here's what I learned:

  • The people who are interviewing you may or may not be your immediate supervisors. We were all from the same school, but were interviewing for positions at 3 different locations.
  • The people who are interviewing you may not have ever done this before. They could be pretty nervous, too, especially if it's early in the day.
  • Like any competition, it's not best to go first.
  • Come early. Your HR department might allow a huge window between interviews but, especially if it's after lunch, the interview panel will appreciate being able to move things along.
  • Answer the question.
  • Answer only the question. If you're going to volunteer random information, be sure to connect it back and show how it answers the question.
  • Answer the whole question.
  • Prepare a solid answer for the ubiquitous "what is your greatest strength? What is your greatest weakness?"
  • Be prepared to answer the weakness question. It is ALWAYS asked. Always. People who seem surprised look foolish.
  • Don't try to "forget" the weakness question.
  • Does it seem like I'm harping on the weakness thing? I am! My students know that when I repeat something over and over and over and over and over it means that it's important.
  • Don't go overboard with your clothing. Seriously. If you're applying for a job where you won't have to wear business formal, don't go buy a new suit. You'll look uncomfortable, and we'll be able to tell that you don't wear that sort of clothing in your current job.
  • Whatever outfits are expected at your job, wear them enough so that you're comfortable. Wash or dry-clean them once or twice before the interview. Break in your shoes so you don't fall over in the hallway on the way to the interview room. Don't wear an outfit you don't like.
  • Wear one interesting or unique piece of clothing or jewelry. Not anything crazy or punk, but a pretty necklace or slightly brighter tie. After 9 interviews, everyone kinda blends together, and we're not allowed to discuss candidates until the end. I'm not a fashionista by any means, but I did say things like "remember the one in the green shirt? She said that...."
  • Everyone says this, but I'll repeat it: LEARN AS MUCH AS YOU CAN ABOUT THE JOB BEFORE THE INTERVIEW. Ask people you know, use any contacts you have, even if you haven't talked to them in 20 years, and go online and talk to people, especially those in your local area. It's hard to picture you in a job if you're sitting there asking what you'll have to do.
  • In many school districts, interviewers have a list of questions, and they are instructed to record comments. When you finish answering a question, STOP TALKING. We may not say anything, but that's not 'cause we're waiting for a more complete answer, it's because we're making notes on what you already said. Rambling makes you look silly.
Teacher interviews are next week! It should be fun to help select my newest colleague.


Photo Credit: Rickydavid on Flickr

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Went to my classroom today!

Neighbor teacher texted to say she was working in her classroom, so I decided to unload the bazillion boxes of donated USB drives that have been overwhelming my miniscule dining room.

It smells funny.

Not the dining room, or the neighbor teacher. No, my classroom smells funny. My nose was itching within a few minutes of pretend-work-but-really-gossipping, and the trip into my closets to find the elusive but completely worthless grammar teacher's edition made me almost die.

Next time, remind me to go in early, open the windows wide, turn on the fan, and go revisit the In'n'Out that I've missed so much this summer. While I'm at it, I should recruit some kids to come and move desks for me...

As we pretended that we were going to do some real work, neighbor teacher and I discussed the following:
  • Summer school.
  • How happy we were to be rid of our principal.
  • How the former principal darkened our souls.
  • How low our test scores were going to be this year because teaching quality went down and nobody really did any extra interventions because we so hated former principal.
  • Our readiness to move on from the horribleness that was the former principal.
  • Ideas for staff collaboration which is guaranteed to be incredibly amazing because everyone loves each other like the kids on Barney.
  • My need for help in figuring out how to improve class, learning, and life for my English Learners.
  • My need for help standing up to my teaching team. Wonderful people, but they don't always listen.
  • Our frustration with the new 7th grade students' general misbehavior and how it's all the former principal's fault (wait, we weren't going to talk about her again).
  • Classroom configurations.
  • Sleeping in 4 hours later than normal.
  • Summer plans.
  • Summer reading.
  • Books that have been turned into movies.
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and how cool it was when the memories kinda dropped like water into ink in the pensieve.
  • and other random frivolity.

Seem like a long conversation? That's what happens when you take two people who are accustomed to talking all day, every day, and give them 3 months without students! Really, I should get a job as a telemarketer or something.

Meanwhile, my classroom looks exactly as it did before my arrival, with the addition of several boxes of USB drives and the removal of the remains of the potting soil that we used for an experiment at the end of the year before last and that I now need to repot my basil plants.

Guess I'll have to go back next week. I wonder if neighbor teacher will be there...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Earlier this summer, I not-so-subtly let the principal know that I'd like to be on the teacher interview panel. We have a few slots to fill, and I've only had one chance to be on the "other" side of the table.

Yeah. That was a mistake.

As a warm-up to the teacher interviews, I get to sit on the interview panel for...a part-time health aide. Fun fun.

For a teacher, I would be looking for a million characteristics and qualifications. Do you believe in our mission? Do you respect our students? Do you teach well? Will you fit in with our team? Of course, HR probably won't let me ask any of those questions, but at least I'd have an idea before the school year starts!

For a health aide, with whom I generally interact only by writing notes about student symptoms, I have just two questions:
  1. Are you qualified?

  2. Do you like kids?

If the person can sincerely answer both questions in the affirmative, he or she is fine by me.

Our previous aide couldn't answer number 2 correctly; she was so mean to our kids! My students, contrary to normal adolescent behavior, actually stayed in class when they were horribly sick rather than endure her sighs, rolled eyes, and sharp comments about how they were making her job too difficult.

Her job, in my observation, seemed to include the following: taking temperatures, holding prescription medication, and organizing the scoliosis, hearing, and vision tests.

Let's hope these interviews go well. It scares me that some well-meaning person hired that last person!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Back to Business? Mmmmm, not yet!

The last 11 days have been a wonderful chance to be a tourist in my own town. My high school best friend / college roommate / maid of honor / probable godmother of my future children came to visit, so I got to play tour guide.

Of course, when she asked questions I couldn't answer, I took the challenge to make up the most interesting answer possible, just like a real tour guide (or, dare I say it? Just like a real teacher!). After a day or two I told her the truth, and we spent the rest of the trip competing to make up the best fake stories. The best ones came on the way back from wine tasting - I spit, but she didn't, and she became rather creative after our 3rd winery! Did you know that a random office building in Richmond is haunted? Neither did I!

During her visit, I learned a couple of things about touring the SF Bay area:

  • Don't feel obligated to always accompany out-of-town guests. I dropped her off at a few tourist attractions like the Winchester Mystery House. She had a great time, and I got the chance to do some laundry and take a nap. Same thing in San Francisco; while she went to Alcatraz, I explored the ferry building, the financial district, and several other places tourists don't usually want to go. Cut yourself some slack - your guests just might need a break from you, too!
  • At Great America, the Six-Flags-style theme park, don't eat the food. It's just not good, and soft drinks alone are $3.86 or something crazy like that. Instead, pay the $15 and spring for preferred parking, and leave an ice chest in the car. The park allows you to exit and re-enter with a hand stamp. If you really need "theme park food," eat your main meal from the car and get a churro as a snack.
  • Great America requires you to leave your bags, hats, and glasses (including prescription specs) in little cubbies on most of the rides. Don't get on a roller coaster if you're unwilling to part with your stuff. If you argue, the people in line behind you will either get mad or laugh. We guffawed with great relish at the idiot who made an goon of himself on the Psycho Mouse.

  • Do the same thing in San Francisco. Park at the Pier 39 garage, a fairly central location that accepts validation, and leave snacks and water in the car. Some lots don't accept validation, so they end up being much more expensive.

  • Get the $11 all-day MUNI pass. You can buy it from the cable car conductor or...somewhere else...check the website. This little slip of paper will become your best friend! It works on the cable cars, the F train, and (I think) the busses. Cable cars are normally $5 a pop one-way, and the F train is $2. The pass saves a little bit of money, and you can't beat the convenience. Also, at the end of the day, that F train, sardine can though it is, is a godsend. It stops frequently along the waterfront and down Market street.

  • Don't try to board the cable cars at Ghirardelli Square. You'll wait in line for a really long time. Instead, take the F train way east to the first stop after it turns onto Market and board the cable car there. You'll be able to stop at the coolest entrance to Chinatown, and the conductors are really good about clearly announcing the stop where you have to transfer to the Powell-Hyde line to get back to Gh Square.
  • Don't use the bathrooms at Gh Square. Yes, you'll need them after a long cable car ride and ice cream at the chocolate shop! Instead, walk down to Beach street (at the bottom of the square), hang a left, and head to the big white aquatic park building on the north side of the intersection of Beach and Polk (the northwest corner of Ghirardelli Square). It's a museum that's being renovated, but they've opened the lobby, veranda, and restrooms. Temporary exhibits are supposed to come starting in August 2009. The lobby has a fun 1920's mural depicting Atlantis, while the veranda is a nice quiet place to get away from the crowds and enjoy the view of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, the ships in the marina, and the crazy people swimming in the frigid waters. The bathroom is a thing of beauty! It's huge, clean, and (so far) undiscovered. Friday, just after lunchtime, I was the ONLY PERSON THERE! Nobody pushing open a door that barely latches, no little brats peeking through cracks, no nasty TP on the floor, no pregnant women glaring maliciously at you for taking so long...really, you come to appreciate these things! They also have free city maps that are the best I've seen anywhere.

  • View from the Veranda

  • If you see a guy spray-painting cardstock, stop and watch. The finished products aren't really my style, but he has the most off-the-wall technique (no pun know...spray paint...on walls...okay, not as funny as I originally thought).

  • Don't cuss out the bush guy. If you see him, you'll know what I'm talking about, but I don't want to ruin your experience. Just realize that it's all good fun. Funny story: someone cussed him out, he started returning the barrage - and my little sister, a teenager at the time, stepped in and started chewing him out for using such language when so many families were around. That's my baby sister :) To his credit, he was very polite and apologetic to her.

  • Fishermans' Wharf shopping progresses from cheap (west) to nice (east). If you need tokens for random family members or little kids, hit the places just down from Ghirardelli Square. If you want nicer gifts and don't mind paying the price, see Pier 39. If you want the classiest stuff you'll get within 30 yards of the water, see the Ferry Building.

at Pier 39

Ferry Building - they have a Farmers' Market on Thursdays.
  • If you want to drive down Lombard street, don't be stupid like me and take a right onto Lombard from northbound Van Ness. Even my 3-year-old car smelled a bit like burnt rubber after trying to make it up the 45-degree hill. Okay, my party-pooper husband says it's only about 15 degrees, but try telling that to my car! Still, you should use your map or GPS and come at Lombard from northbound Hyde street. You'll still have to contend with some hills and with the cable cars, but it's better than wearing out your e-brake!

Oh, yeah, don't let the California stereotype fool you. Yesterday, you know, in late July, the San Fran high was all of 66 degrees, foggy, and windy. There's a reason why the gift shops are stuffed to the gills with overpriced sweatshirts!

What are your best tourist tips for your city? Is anyone in New Orleans? I'm hoping to go to the CES Fall Forum in November and would love your advice!

Next week, it's back to business as usual. I haven't checked my google reader in a while, and I have several tasks to finish before the rest of my teaching team returns from their various sojourns next week. Wish me luck!

Monday, July 13, 2009

I Quit!

Yes, I quit. Not my job, not my life, not even my endless (unpaid, did I mention that?) hours of planning.

I quit this whole Year in Review thing. If you've read the first few posts, you probably think I'm a witchy monster who hates life.

Last year was so negative and hateful and hurtful, at least outside the classroom, and my memory just isn't good enough to translate all the awesome things my kids did into readable posts.

So, I quit. I'm not going to finish the year in review.

You're probably incredibly disappointed, so I'll make a promise: this year, I'll blog about the good things. I'll tell the funny little stories about the kids, brag about the amazing insights they express, and post pictures of their exhibitions, field days, and artwork.

No more of this raincloud stuff. I quit!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Hope Springs Eternal

New Superintendent who appears to support small schools.

New Board majority who support small schools.
Minority will be termed out soon.

New Principal,
one of our own,
a founder of the school who respects
and has the support of
teachers, parents, and students.

Instead of fighting for survival,
we'll be able to concentrate on
teaching and learning.
What a novelty!
What potential for progress!
What a wonderful world!

Photo Credit Matt McGee on

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Accountability? But it's too hard!

Ah, accountability. That catch-phrase hurled at and by teachers everywhere, that multi-tasking noun, that excellent idea so often used to insult and patronize. While "accountability" is slowly being displaced by "transparency," it still makes the rounds as one of the most misunderstood words in education.

It's a cliche worthy of a commencement speaker to define your terminology in a dramatic way, but here it is: Accountability means that you're responsible to somebody or for something, and that your actions are capable of being explained (my paraphrase of Encarta Dictionary).

At the most basic level, this isn't a problem for teachers. We hold our students accountable to the point of being ridiculous: "Why didn't you do your homework?" "Why were you late for school?" "How bad do you really have to go to the bathroom?"

The average teacher would want accountability to sound more reasonable: "What are you going to learn?" "How are you going to learn it?" "How will you know when you have learned it?" This type of classroom accountability should encourage students to learn and inquire and grow.

If you mention accountability for teachers and schools, well, you're asking for a fight. The images that come to my mind are angry union members yelling across tables, people with clipboards and high heels and silk blouses standing in my classroom as far away from the students as possible, and students' sickened expressions as they enter the classroom on testing days.

Accountability in education is too much like the first example. Instead of "Why didn't you do your homework?" it's "Why didn't your English Learners make more progress?" Teachers and schools are judged solely on a set of numbers, and attempts to evaluate in more logical ways become just as foolish.

One of the recent "innovations" was the introduction of the Classroom Walk-Through, or CWT because jargon makes us feel important. The idea is that district personnel, school administration, and other teachers will step into your classroom for 4 minutes, fill out a checklist, and move on to the next room. This should be done often, providing hundreds of classroom "snapshots" throughout the year in order to create a composite picture of what a school is really doing.

As much as I love snapshot collages, I can't pretend that they accurately represent what my students are learning. John Spencer on Television and Teaching recently compared such snapshots to a nature show in which the photographer stands back from a ritual, taking pictures and making judgements, but never gaining a true understanding of the culture by actually participating and getting to know the people. The CWT (love the lingo) may be better than a one-shot evaluation, but it still allows a wall of separation between reality and the clipboard.

So, what about teacher accountability? Don't all business sectors use some sort of performance pay? Not really, according to Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute. In an excerpt from his book Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right, Rothstein explains that "private sector pay is almost never based primarily on quantitative performance measures." Based on his conclusions, our foolish method of grading schools based on Math and Reading scores is detrimental to real education, because everyone always focuses primarily on the areas of their profession that are evaluated. We all know what happens when we focus on Math and Reading: we say goodbye to Science, Social Studies, Music, Art, Electives, Sports, and anything else that enables a well-rounded education.

When we look at common teaching practices, this focus shouldn't be a surprise. When I start a project with my students, I give them background information, instructions, examples...and a rubric that shows exactly what will be graded and how many points are available in each category. My students know to use that rubric as a checklist and to focus on those categories.

True evaluation requires a change in mindset. Accountability means that we are responsible for our work, but for whom are we working? To whom are we responsible? Who are the stakeholders in our school? We have many:
  • The Federal, State, and Local governments direct money toward our programs. They're controlling partners...who really have all of the control.
  • The community pays taxes that provide that money. They should have more control, because they elect many of the government officials. They also have an inherent interest because the community's future depends on raising up their children to be future leaders.
  • The parents of our students, regardless of their taxpayer status, because, well, they're the parents of our students.
  • Our students. These kids are required by law to sit their behinds in our classrooms for almost 6 hours a day, and then go home and do homework. They don't get paid, and they often don't have a voice in the decision-making.

In order to truly evaluate a school, we have to base our assessments on the goals of every stakeholder group, which means that our rubrics must include students' goals as well as federal mandates. Reasonable accountability requires resources: time, money, and an incredible amount of effort that I've already outlined in another post. Such resources are in short supply, but any type of evaluation that doesn't focus on the goals of all stakeholders is as ridiculous as a teacher focusing on bathroom usage instead of academic progress.

Monday, July 6, 2009

So Long, Schoolhouse!

It's finally gone! That ridiculously cheery but ominous symbol of No Child Left Behind has departed forever!

By coincidence, I had driven by the eyesore the previous day on a tour bus full of students. If we had known that the "Little Red Schoolhouse" that has stood in front of the Department of Education for so long was being torn down while we were only a few blocks away, we certainly would have made a side trip to stand across the street and cheer!

If you're not a teacher, you're probably confused right now. Well, take a look at the late facade of the Department of Education in Washington DC.

Photo credit dchousegrooves on

Allow me to indulge in a brief analysis of this symbol of American Public Education.

When viewing the schoolhouse, one's eye is immediately drawn by the garish McDonald's Clown-Nose Red that is slathered across the front like toothpaste on an inquisitive toddler. It's not the proud, worn, dark red of a prairie schoolhouse. Instead, we see a marketing ploy intended to draw the eye away from the looming bureaucracy in the nondescript edifice that is the real Department of Education.

The large, open doors evoke the image not of a schoolhouse, but of a Fischer-Price barn that I owned as a child. Those who enter are not encouraged to be individuals, but rather cattle headed for the feed lot, the milking stand, and, eventually, the slaughterhouse.

Surrounding the schoolhouse is a white picket fence, reminding us of the American Dream (or Wisteria Lane), where daddy has a job, a wife, 2.5 kids, and a house with a yard in the suburbs. Of course, everyone is happy, because their futures have already been determined by the shape of their genitalia and the size of their daddy's wallets. This honorable ideal is more than appropriate for today's Department of Education.

This white picket fence (or a simple chain at the Tulsa Public Schools office) also prevents curmudgeons and realists from accessing the main doors by any other path. Every person who wants to achieve their goals, be they entering the building, getting a job, or going to college, must jump through the hoops walk through the door of whatever current legislation is preventing real education. Alternative education? Charter Schools?? Homeschooling??? May it never be! If it doesn't fit the current administration's narrow goals, it has no place in America!

The sign, resembling a blackboard emblazoned with a childish scrawl, proclaims No Child Left Behind, that overly-hopeful name that leads people to believe that local schools are at fault for all of the nations woes. Like the schoolhouse, this legislation serves as a hopeful facade that hides bureaucracy, red tape, and the most amazing waste of money since the invention of souvenir shops.

If only they had used a wrecking ball...

Friday, July 3, 2009

Using, not banning, digital devices

I've just read yet another post explaining why teachers should embrace cell phones, iPods, and other digital devices in the classroom.

Awesome. She's absolutely right. I can think of several ways off the top of my head to use this technology.

Here are the weaknesses in this plan:
  • Not every kid has a cell phone.
  • Not every kid who has a cell phone has the same technological capabilities.
  • Cell phones can be distracting as status symbols.

Our school has uniforms so that clothing is less of a distraction. If someone can't afford the uniform, or school supplies, the school helps them to obtain what they can't purchase. If we applied the same policy to cell phones, we'd be using a HUGE part of our limited budget on droppable, breakable, out-date-able technology. Of course, if someone donated a whole bunch of cell phones, minutes, and texts, I'd gladly take them!

I've spent hours just teaching my kids to use basic office software. Would I have to spend the same amount of time teaching them to text and post to the web from their phones? Maybe, maybe not.

Some of my kids come from less-healthy home situations. If I gave them a donated cell phone, would it be "borrowed" by parents who can't afford phones...or, even worse, by older family members in gangs? How could I avoid making this a problem?

How do I address safety and cyberbullying? Am I more liable if I provide the phone?

Has anyone out there successfully used cell phones in the classroom? What do you do?

Teacher Stereotypes

My brother hates teachers. Not me, just teachers. He says we talk down to everyone else, don't do our jobs, and are responsible for many problems in the world.

But he's the only person in the world who thinks like that, right? Or do I need to prove that a negative teacher stereotype exists? If you need proof, google "bad teacher."

In the Teacher Magazine article, "Upending the Negative Teacher Stereotype," John Norton discusses responses to a June 6, 2009 Newsweek article by Jonathan Alter. (In order to confuse you further, Alter decided to incite the wrath of teachers everywhere by opening with a controversial quote from Jacques Barzun's Teacher in America.)

While good blog etiquette suggests that I should summarize and write about each response individually, that's simply not going to happen. The number of posts related to this story make such a task impossible. Unless, of course, you'd like to see my head explode magnificently.

Therefore, I'm going to invite you to read the article and comments, and then return to this page to see if I have anything worthwhile to offer. I know, that's a risky proposal; you're all too likely to follow the links, get lost in the discussion, and forget to come back here and comment. I suggest opening the links in a new tab or window :)

Norton's article, along with its pleasantly insightful comments, offers endless topics for discussion, but two major obstacles jump out that permit negative stereotypes to endure:

  • People in general seem to differentiate between "MY school / MY teacher" and "teachers and schools in the USA."

  • Teachers, politicians, and the general American public all seem to maintain differing views regarding teacher effectiveness.

Norton mentions the common "American-schools-are-bad-but-my-kid's-school-is-OK" stereotype. We see examples of this view everywhere. Jay Leno harangues teachers night after night, and it's become an old not-so-funny gag that every joke that starts with a teacher will end with statutory rape, but he praised his own teachers when he returned to Andover for a hometown event. On The West Wing, the smartest TV show in way too long, Jimmy Smits' character makes education a huge part of his election campaign. In one episode, Santos (the character) is explaining his education plan to potential fundraisers, and they show irritation when he gives that old line about getting rid of bad teachers. "My sister is a teacher." His response? "And I'm sure she's a great teacher, but..." This idea is pervasive, even ubiquitous, but it's still just...silly.

When we separate our own schools and teachers from the general population, we allow ourselves to retain our simplistic views on the state of education. If my teacher is the only one who works hard, then the rest of the teachers are just "out there." If none of the teachers "out there" are worthwhile, then we can justify the view that American Education just needs to be turned on its head. Then we leave ourselves with naive solutions that don't work.

Instead, we need to examine what we have. A superb educational consultant in Northern California recently commented on the "pockets of excellence" in an underperforming district. We could extend that appellation across the country. What's working in American schools? WHO is working? What are they doing? What best practices could be adapted to other learning communities?

Which brings us to the second point: How do we define success? Politicians (and yes, I'm using the term loosely) have spewed nonsense about accountability, trying to run the public education system like a business. However, one significant difference separates public education from businesses, charter schools, and private schools: public schools admit all students. Even small schools of choice admit students randomly, not based on grades or behavior. We can't "counsel out" students, as KIPP is rumored to do, or expel kids for any but the most severe infractions. (For more about our admission policy, read this post). The problem comes when teachers try to explain why we sound so excited about achievements that sound terrible to those outside the profession. When we list the reasons why a 40% proficiency rate or 85% homework turn-in rates are wonderful, we sound like whiners. We sound like we're just making excuses, and the world mocks us for it. While you're thinking about success, and commenting on your ideas, open this article in a new window.

Teachers need to work tirelessly on several fronts to assuage the negative teacher stereotypes. We need to be willing to adopt the best practices from other teachers, schools, and states; or, as Harry Wong says, "Steal, steal, steal!" We need to define success in terms that people in other professions can appreciate.

Oh, yeah, and we all need to work freaking hard to follow Abraham Lincoln's advice: "Whatever you are, be a good one."

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Doing Someone Else's Job

This post could also be called "How Much I Dislike My Curriculum" or "Why I Really Should Teach Social Studies."

Some people hate textbooks. Some people rely too heavily on textbooks.

I don't fall into either of those categories, which seems to make planning more difficult.

If I hated textbooks in general, then creating my own hodge-podge curriculum would be the unquestionably normal thing to do. If I relied heavily on the district-chosen curriculum, I wouldn't really have to plan anything, because I could just put little post-its on the resources I wanted to use and start photocopying away.

Oh, no, either of those would be too straightfoward. Instead, being somewhere in the middle, I'm scouring the district curriculum (which is really neither worthwhile nor appropriate for our demographics) for useful items and ideas, searching the web and my endless teacher-type books for the rest, and trying to sequence it and make it all fit together so that my kids will learn what they need without wasting time.

Right now, I'm working on the grammar component. It doesn't help that the district-chosen grammar book is a great waste of trees and ink!

For example, the state standard says, "Use subordination, coordination, apposition, and other devices to indicate clearly the relationship between ideas" (ELA Content Standards page 53). So, I break out the little handbooks, look up the handy index, and what do I find? Half a page of complicated explanation, basically saying that subordination is creating a subordinate clause out of the less important idea.

Thanks for that.

My kids already understand subordinate clauses, but they couldn't begin to comprehend your wordy, incoherent ramblings! Okay, so where do kids practice this device? Oh, what, they don't? This non-explanation is everything you're giving me? Jolly! That means that I get to use my (unpaid) summer planning sessions to create practice opportunities for them. Don't forget, that's just one of many standards.

That's okay, I don't mind volunteering 8 weeks every year to create curriculum, even though you've already paid the textbook company for these worthless space-wasters we call handbooks.

So what's in the rest of the book? Five hundred pages of mostly useless exercises, trivial grammar rules, and unreadable explanations. I'll end up using 3 or 4 of the 19 chapters. As for the rest...well, I now understand why most of this 8-year-old book looks so new!

Now, I'm not reinventing the wheel here. If this job were already done (as it is in the most-fabulous TCi Social Studies program), I'd happily take a Kathy Reichs book down to the pool without feeling any guilt.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Okay, so, she doesn't have a cell phone

With almost sincere apologies to Relient K and the bloggers who insist that you must have a good post title.

I have only a few minutes left before embarking on the adventure that is making a vegetarian dinner when what I really want is a cheeseburger, so I thought I'd discuss a lighter topic that has been driving me crazy.

Yes, it's cell phones.

Now, I love my cell phone. It goes everywhere with me. It's not a fancy-schmancy smart phone, but it does play music and have some email capabilities. I love being able to text my husband without worrying about interrupting him in a meeting. I love being able to text the P.E. teacher across the field and allow them to get the information in a quick glance, saving me a hike. I love being able to apologize to my sister when she's not talking to me. What I don't love is having to tell kids to put their phones away in the Library of Congress.

In case you didn't know, and I wasn't really aware of this until a few days ago, the LoC is one of the most amazing buildings in the world. The ornamentation and architecture are breathtaking (especially when you've travelled the hospitalesque underground corridor from the Capitol), the exhibits are fascinating, and the sheer volume of knowledge contained in that one building left me unable to breathe and unwilling to leave.

And the kids were texting.

Before you insist that they were texting about how amazing the sights were, please let me stop you. No. They weren't. Trust me.

Toward the end of the last school year, when a parent retrieved a confiscated cell phone from a teacher, she made the comment that "oh, yeah, the phone bill shows that [my kid] texts all the time during class!"

Here's my question: WHY DOES THE KID HAVE A CELL PHONE??? He's students performing way below his potential, and yet he's allowed to text in class? My students are in middle school, and it's highly unlikely that he's earning his own money to pay for the phone. Of course, he's not the only student who allows cell phones to distract from learning.

True, it's good for kids to have cell phones to arrange rides and in case of emergency. However, texting is easy to turn off, and it's not hard to change the settings so that the kid can only call Mom, Dad, Grandma, and 911.

Why do parents allow their underachieving kids to have these privileges? Wouldn't it be easy to set up a reasonable system allow the kid to earn texting and free phone use?
You could argue that if the lessons were interesting enough, the kids wouldn't be texting during class. If that's your position, please scroll up and take one more look at the pictures, then come back and explain how that's even plausible.

Gotta go, I just got a text from my husband. Maybe I'll ask him to bring home cheeseburgers.

Small Schools: David vs. Goliath?

I attempted to post a comment directly on The Quick and the Ed, but alas, the software hates me. When Google Help waves its magic wand, I'll be back there commenting!

Chad Aldeman at The Quick and the Ed posted an intriguing article this morning entitled "The Truth about New York City's High Schools." In his post, Aldeman discusses a recent report on the impact that New York City small high schools are having on the larger schools, and he argues that the report is being misused and misinterpreted.

This blog entry caught my eye because the criticisms against NYC small schools are so similar to the rants our small schools have endured from other district teachers and administrators, as well as from uninformed members of our school board.

Like the NYC small schools, we've been told that our high achievement comes as a result of creaming students, and other administrators have gotten almost personally angry when their best students finally receive a coveted spot in a small school (although they're strangely silent about the wealth of underperforming students who choose our school). Our admission system is not nearly as complicated as that in New York, but it does require families to be involved enough that they can complete and return the 1-page application (basic information - grades and behavior aren't counted) before the lottery deadline; because of that simple requirement, we're unlikely to get families who refuse to involve themselves in education. That's the only distinction between accepted students and those who are placed on the wait list.

John Thompson, who posts on ScholasticAdministrators' This Week in Education, commented on Alderman's post. He suggests that "creaming" is not the best term, saying "can't we agree that choice inherently results in creaming?" If this is true, than the obvious response is to make every school an excellent choice, so that students can choose the programs that best fit their interests and needs.

Before you start yelling, please notice that I said obvious, not simple. Smaller schools have more flexibility and are better able to fit students' needs...but isn't that the point? Thompson argues that the "default" schools face tougher challenges, "require additional resources, and aren't necessarily amenable to the methods of the charters/small school/magnets[....]" But if these "default" schools are facing all these problems, shouldn't we work on reforming them, rather than tearing down the small schools? Let's continue the conversation about how to make those large schools an excellent choice for students who excel in that environment, and how to provide more non-traditional choices so that every student fits somewhere.

In truth, small schools aren't David to the large schools' Goliath. We have no desire to topple them and cut off their heads with their own swords; the very idea of "us" and "them" is counterproductive to our common goal, which must be to provide an excellent education to every student. School choice should allow students and their families to choose from a variety of options, unrestricted by paperwork, language, economic status, location, or any other prejudicial barrier to success.