Sunday, October 13, 2013

I appologize for complaining?

Sometime I feel as though this blog has become my safe-haven for complaining, because unlike people in other professions, I'm just not allowed to complain. My profession is just far too politically charged to make a public criticism of what is going on in my profession.

I'm not allowed to complain about my boss:
While I have amazing administrators who are teachers, teachers, they are not my "boss". They do not tell me what to do and how to do it. That would be my state appointed superintendent, the Governor, and the legislature. If I complain about my"boss", then I am in fact complaining about my state's political system. If I mention the horrible decisions they are making, it becomes some kind of political debate.

I can't complain about the money I make:
After all, I am "under-worked and over-paid", at least according to public opinion. Case in point, I bounced a check this summer. When I went into settle the debt with cash, I simply apologized for the over-sight saying, "Sorry, I'm not working this summer and things are a little tight." The debate ensued over how I "chose" to have Summers off, blah, blah, blah. I'm not allowed to mention that I only make 55k a year with a Master's degree after 12 years teaching, or that I get two weeks vacation, and one sick day a month like EVERYONE else. Or that even if you factor in my "Cadillac Benefits" it would add about 10k to my pay check. I pay for my pension. The state hasn't put in any money is almost 20 years, so YOU don't get to mention that. Those 10 weeks in summer don't count either because I NOT PAID FOR THEM. Believe me, I would love to work those weeks and be paid the extra 10-20K. But I can't say that. After-all, tax-payers pay my salary and they feel I am somehow personally responsible for their every growing tax burden or how the schools spend the money.

I can't complain about my work, the students, or their parents:
It's just not politically correct to call people out as crap parents who make my job 10 times harder because they want me and the school to raise their child while taking away our authority to do so. It's a very small population, but it does exist. I can't complain about students who have no desire to learn and do everything in their power to disrupt learning for everyone else. Again, a very small population, but they do exist. I especially can't complain about my work load or how it has tripled over the last 10 years because of mounds of bureaucratic paperwork that has nothing to do with what I'm actually teaching and everything to do with proving to someone else that I am teaching. You can never understand the burden of having to write down every thought that comes into your head or every one of the hundreds of decisions that you make just to prove you are doing your job.

I'm just not allowed to complain about anything, not to my family, my friends, even my husband. They just don't want to hear it. They all think we are some how living the good life.

So I am sorry if I complain too much. This seems to be the only forum where I can complain without it turning into a political debate over party lines, taxes, or school policy; as if I have influence over any of it. I'm just another cog in the wheel, another brick in the wall.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

To the exceptional people

How do you find time to be exceptional? No, really, I want to know because I find it absolutely exhausting just being ordinary me. When I say exceptional, I mean those amazing activists we always hear about. The "go getters", the people so outspoken that they are in the lime light, the award winners, the organizers, and the nominees for "People of the year."

I've made a life out of being as ordinary as possible. I've avoided standing out in any way, shape, or form. It comes from being bullied as a kid. I learned that if people didn't notice me, they couldn't make my life miserable. It's all well and good until you actually want to be noticed.  Then again, I haven't done anything for which to be noticed. Who has the time?

It's the struggle that every working parent faces- finding the time. It doesn't matter if you are a teacher, in the service industry, a small business worker or owner, in health-care, or a member of "Corporate America"; nobody has the time.

Here's my typical day:
5:30 wake up
6:30 on the road
7:30-8:00 arrive at work
8:00-4:00 WORK!!
4:00-5:30 on the road
5:45 HOME!!
6:00-8:00 Walk dog, do dishes, cook diner, check homework, read with kids, check email/facebook, tidy up, Do some more work for WORK.
8:00-9:00 Go to gym (I had to learn the very hard way to make my health a priority)
9:00-10:00 tuck kids in and get ready for tomorrow.
10:00-11:00 spend whatever time is left over with my husband and maybe watching TV or reading then fall on my face in bed and go to sleep.

That's right, I'm a teacher and I still work an 8 hour day. Clock in at 8, clock out at 4, and two days a week I work lunch duty, so no lunch break. Don't misunderstand, I am paid for my extended day program, but I can't make my budget without it, so it's not a choice for me, especially when health care costs go up and your pay is frozen. I know I don't have to get into how hard my job is. I'll leave that alone for now, because right now I'm just talking about time. By the end of any given day, I just want to sleep. As for the weekend? What weekend? They're full of anything that didn't get done during the week, and all the other household stuff (pay bills, do the laundry, do the shopping, clean house ect.) More WORK, lesson plans, grading etc.

There are so many other things I want to do: I WANT to be at every rally, I want to make a 100 phone calls a day, I want to be active in my union, I want to spend hours online and reading to prefect my craft as an educator, I want to be an active member of my and my sons' PTA, I want to work a second job, but it takes everything I have just to survive from one day to the next. I'm exhausted! My priorities are family, my job, my health, then everything else can take a number. I'm not making excuses, or maybe I am. I discovered through learning how to take care of myself, that people find time for what they want to find time for.

So I will continue to be ordinary, with the occasional bad-ass moment.  Just another teacher in the field who just wants to do the job, and another mom trying to raise her kids.

 To the exceptional people: Dr. Ravich, Nancy Carlson Paige, Rita Solnet, Leonie Haimson, Jazzman, Jesse "Walking Man" Turner, Anthony Cody, Mark Naison, and countless others to numerous to name, thank you! Thank you for taking the steps and doing what so many of us wish we could do.

Oops, gotta go, the dog needs to go out.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

At least it's not Marzano

I have read countless articles this past week. Articles about teacher evaluation systems. Articles about charter schools, fraud in charter schools, articles about teaching and learning, articles about the rally in Texas, and the latest trends in technology and pedagogy. I like to think I'm a good teacher and that's what good teachers do in their spare time, if they have any.

We had our workshop this week about the new evaluation system. The best thing I can say about it that it's not Marzano. My best friend teaches in a district that is using Marzano. They have 9 domains with 40 some odd sub domains and well over a hundred indicators. For laymen, indicators are the actual goals in a standardized system. When we write our objectives and address "standards", the indicators are what the students will actually do. So in our system, the indicators are what we will actually do. Our system, based on Charlotte Danielson's framework for teaching, has about 100 indicators. The "Framework" was also on my reading list this week. (Is it any wonder I've spent my Saturday reading some poor excuse for a young adult novel, just to relax my brain.)

Their new favorite word is "outcomes", which basically means how everything we do will effect student learning and/or test scores. They didn't even mention the other half of the evaluation. They didn't want to draw our attention to the fact that even if we are God's gift to teaching, and perform as "distinguished" members of the teaching profession, it won't matter because 50% of our "grade" is based on "student growth" i.e. test scores, that of our class and that of the school overall. Not too bad if you are in a "good" school like mine, but if you are in a "focus" or "priority" school where test scores are fairly low, you're basically screwed. Not because you're a bad teacher, just because of the student population.

I can't complain about the "framework" for teaching too much. Frankly, I think it does outline what some could consider "great teaching". However, it will require REAMS of paper to notate everything we do to PROVE we are doing the job. Everything teachers keep in their heads, from the kids interests, their aptitudes, learning styles, their strengths and weakness, their progress, now has to be written down on paper for someone to believe we are doing what needs to be done as a form of accountability. Then to hear a parent actually say to me, "Well I think you should be accountable for their test scores." I wanted to throw up. I'm accountable everyday to my students. If the students and I do everything we are supposed to do, test score SHOULD take care of themselves. Sadly, that is not the case. There is far too much bias in these test and they are staked against children are poor, English Language learners, and special needs. You know what I am accountable for? Making sure the kids learn something regardless of what the TEST says.

So I sit here like a stereotypical woman binging on chocolate, balancing my check book with yet another zero balance wondering why I do it. Why do I torture myself like this? Then I get to read another article, two in fact, about the demoralization of teachers. Uh, yeah, I'm pretty demoralized. However, my kids still make me smile. I guess I'll be doing this a little longer after all.

(More to come on the framework later, like when I'm done reading all 100 pages of it.)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Testing IS NOT Teaching

My classroom has been taken over.

Three periods a week support is now pushing into my room. On Monday she does a whole group test prep writing period. Fine by me. I don't want to teach that crap. The other two days a week she pulls a group of "target students". Not the neediest students. The students most like to pass the state test with some help. Are they getting help meeting curriculum standards? NO! They are getting more Writing test prep.

Then two days a week I have more support pushing in for not one but two 90 minute blocks for "small group instruction", i.e. comprehension skills for test prep. How do I even facilitate that? I teach an after school program for the kids. I keep my class for an extra period a day. Not so I can help them master the skills they are lacking, but for TEST Prep. I have numerous students who really don't need to stay and I need to figure out a way to differentiate the instruction so that I'm not wasting their time. I'm new to the grade level, I can only assume that this is how it's been done upstairs, massive amounts of teaching to the test.

Here's the kicker. The state went and changed the test. In preparation for the change over to the PARCC exam for the Common Core, New Jersey is transitioning it's state test to be more like what the PARCC will be like. The CCCS definitely requires more higher order thinking skills. It also requires more informational reading and writing since that is what the students will encounter more as adults in their lives and careers.  It makes sense. Literature and creative writing isn't completely gone, it's just less emphasized. So here are our students, who haven't actually been taught concrete skills or even how to think. They have learned a system of strategies for scoring as many points as possible on the current version of the test. All other things have been put aside to focus on the test prep. I know for a fact that only the G&T teachers are teaching Social Studies and Science. The rest of us have to make sure our kids can pass the reading, writing, and math. So the rest of the kids can't think, reason, or use common sense. They don't even have the content knowledge that could help them understand the things that they read.

Wait it gets worse. To get around the fact that our kids have zero content knowledge, they usually make personal connections to the information presented. That will no longer be allowed. Now students can only make text-to-text and text-to world connections. Also, in their written arguments and explanations, the student has to cite where they learned something or how they came to know the information (supporting their theories and opinions with facts.) Man, our kids are screwed. Due to the fact that these children have learned nothing but how to take a test the last three or more years, they have neither the skills nor knowledge to do well on the new test. Teaching to the test may garner higher scores temporarily, but only until they change the test. I could laugh if it weren't so sad. Don't blame me. I was teaching primary for the last 8 years. It was my job to make sure every child who left my classroom had the basic skills required to learn. Not my fault they never learned how to think or learned anything of value because their previous teachers were too busy teaching to the damn test.

Guess what? Now we are being told to teach as much social studies, science, and current events as possible to cram their little heads with as much content as possible. Had we been doing that all long, had we been using good teaching practices, and our focus had been on functional thinking and reasoning (teaching the kids how to think, not what to think) we would not be in this predicament now when our livli-hoods and kids' futures depend on it so much.

Please tell me you understand now why high-stakes testing is just plain wrong?

I am embracing this change. I'm looking forward to it. This may mean a return to good teaching practices and content learning. I even like most of the new evaluation, as it is written. Of course the district will come up with stupid ways for us to "prove" we are doing our jobs. More bullshit paper work is bound to be the prevailing force of my job. I know the schools where the state is sticking in their big noses are inundated with massive amounts of paper work, data collection and statistics. None of it helps the kids. It's just everybody making us kill ourselves to prove we are doing our jobs because nobody trusts teachers any more. I say bring it on, but I know the teachers who have only taught in the city, the ones who have had to march lock step with other teachers without ever thinking for themselves, are also screwed.

Fun times, fun times. Well I have no time for fun or to even spend time with my own children this weekend because I have bullshit paperwork calling my name. Have a great Sunday all.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"T" is for Testing

I'm back. What brings me back? Task avoidance. I'm avoiding grading yet another set of practice tests. I don't want to do it. I'm dragging my feet, procrastinating, finding anything else to do than spend my Sunday grading these practice tests. They don't help my kids. I don't need them to inform my instruction. I am very aware of what my kids need. Just like our children and students, I am avoiding an unpleasant task.  A task I truly believe I shouldn't have to do.  I

It's been about a year since I've posted here. A good question would be why? Maybe I was too busy, or too happy, I felt I didn't have anything to offer the conversation. The other groups and bloggers do such an exceptional job keeping the conversation rolling. Nope, I was happy. I was in a insulated bubble where the world was a good place and all the nastiness wasn't touching me, so I took a time out to enjoy my good fortune. How stupid I was.

You may recall that I was transfered to a new building at the start of the 2011-2012 school year. A better building where there is a positive atmosphere, where I'm not micromanaged, where the threat of being closed down or fired isn't an issue. I did a good job my first year at this new building. Maybe I did too good a job. My new principal kept me in my comfort zone, I presume to see what I was made of. I stayed in second grade inclusion. Even though I was the general education teacher this time, I was still doing the work that I was accustomed to doing, and I had a great co-teacher who loved my approach. We did a great job together. My new principal took notice.

It felt absolutely wonderful to be told I was good at my job. I felt so unappreciated at my last building where I spent six years working with the absolute most difficult students, and the job before that my contract wasn't renewed. I was starting to wonder if I really was a good teacher. My students said I was. Most of their parents said I was. My friends said I was. However, it is nice to hear your boss tell you. I was willing to go the extra mile for that praise. Again, my principal took notice.

To hurry up and get to the point, I was told one week before the new school year that I was moving to fourth grade, THE TESTING GRADE!! I was told via conference call with my building administration, that I was "an exceptional teacher", and they needed "my talents upstairs." I was expected to be a "team player" and come in and do the job. Needless to say, my heart stopped. I went into panic mode. I hadn't taught fourth grade in ten years, and to be frank, I wasn't very good at it. (My contract wasn't renewed.) Yes, almost all of my students passed the inaugural year of NJASK, with the exception of three basic skills students who still managed to score between 180-199. I still say they passed despite of me, not because of me. I really didn't want to do the job. I especially didn't want to do the job with a "canned curriculum" in a "test obsessed" environment. I knew they were teaching to the test upstairs, and I really wanted no part of it. Now teaching to the test is MY job.

I wondered if I could do this without teaching to the test. I didn't last time. Why should I this time? I so strongly believe that our kids can be successful without all the focus on the test. They can pass because they've been taught to think and reason. They have mastered the skills they need. I so strongly believe that. What I wouldn't give to have the opportunity to prove it. Alas, I must follow the protocol set up my building administration. Right now we have the best scores in the district, and we have since this particular principal took over. No way he is going to let that change and no way is he going to move away from a winning formula: weekly writing prompts, month practice tests, test prep classes after school, and every meeting we have, every third word is test (I've actually tracked it once, how sad am I?)

However, I love my students. I really do. I fell in love with this class the very first day. I didn't expect that. I've been working in the primary grades for so long, I forgot what it was like to speak to a student and actually be able to have an interesting conversation. They are really GOOD kids. I just adore them. I don't have any real behavior problems. One young lady is a bit of a "mean girl" or bully, but administration is on top of it, and she behaves herself in class mostly. (I must say though that I did not expect this level of drama from nine-year-olds though.) If someone else has to cover my class for whatever reason, they even say how wonderful my class is. Although my students are struggling learners, they are not special needs, but they need special attention.  My grade level is basically tracked. My class is the class just above the inclusion class, where all the hard to teach children and children with behavioral problems are shoved. I am expected to work the same miracles alone that I used to perform with the help of another full-time teacher in the room.

So I am torn. I love the kids, I like the material I am teaching, I HATE TESTING MANIA!!! I was forced into a situation where I must conduct myself in a way that does not correspond with my personal teaching philosophy. It is abhorrent to me to force myself and my students to endure "teaching to the test." I am drowning in a sea of paperwork.  My workload is effecting my home-life as well. For the last three weekends I have sacrificed my family time and household duties to do this God-for-saking paperwork that has very little baring on my students learning, my ability to teach them, or effect the people my students will one day become. All it is is proving to somebody else that I am doing my job, when in reality to takes time away from me being able to do my job effectively. I have no time to plan effective lessons, or evaluate how those lessons are going. I have to sacrifice instructional time almost daily so that I can have my kids complete test practice. I spend more time "assessing", if you want to call it that, than I do teaching. When do I get to teach new material. They want us to teach, assess, reteach, reassess. When do they learn something new, or have the opportunity to practice and master the skill? When do they get to get down to the deeper levels of meaning or explore a topic that is interesting to them? When do I get to teach, and see the glory of understanding on my students' faces?

So here I sit still avoiding the task I must do because my scores are do ASAP so we can track the "data". I think I'll go grocery shopping.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Merit Pay

Another anecdote (I like them because I think they help people connect.) My husband works in a retail sporting goods establishment. His boss, a retiree from Corporate America and self-made millionaire, has a merit pay program based on revenue generated for the company. You work hard to make more money for the store, you make more money in the form of a bonus. (We'll disregard the fact that my husband hasn't seen a real raise in three years, but hey "it's the economy").

 What I have noticed is that those who Always work hard Always make their bonus. Those who don't like to work hard, never make their bonus, and it's ALWAYS the same people. The rankings have not changed in three years. People may fluctuate within one step, but nobody from the bottom every goes to the top, or vice versa. It really doesn't matter how big the bonus is. People rarely deviate from their set patterns. Hard-workers are born, and they can't be bribed. However, those who don't normally work hard will put forth more effort when the overall bonus to be shared by ALL employees is close at hand. They won't work for themselves, but they'll work for the good of the group, or the group will hurt them LOL. 

Now I posed him a problem. I said, "You are paid based on how hard you work. What if you were paid according to how hard others work. (I've had managers argue this point with me because their bonuses are based on their DEPARTMENT productivity, the work of others)  What if you weren't given bonuses by revenue, but by the achievements of your customers. I say customers because a manger can make changes and even fire people who don't do their job. Nobody is going to fire their customers (except maybe charter schools.)

So I ask, "What if you only got bonuses based on how many races your customers won?" That's what teachers face. We are not being offered bonuses based on our work but that of our students, who are our customers. Basically I get to see in action every quarter motivation at work. Here is the animated version of Dan Pink's speech about motivation. I love this video, and I think business owners could really learn something from it. It has been proven time and time again that for more complicated skills and jobs, money will actually make people LESS productive. It's counter-intuitive, but true.

Teachers know this, why doesn't everyone else. Money IS NOT our motivator. We WANT autonomy. We WANT to become better at our craft. We WANT to focus on our purpose of helping kids learn. We lost our autonomy in the test driven culture. Canned, scripted curricula strips us of our autonomy, along with pacing guides and principals who use the word test every 2 sentences. We are now being told that advanced education doesn't matter and we will no longer receive any assistance or extra pay for striving toward more knowledge. There goes our mastery. We are also now being told that our purpose is no longer helping kids learn, but to help them pass a test. There is a very big difference. I can teach a kid to pass a test without actually teaching them anything, especially how to think.

So why exactly do people think merit pay will help improve education? Oh wait, they don't actually THINK that. They just say it to get others to go along with their ideas. There's a whole lot motivating the "school reform" crowd that has nothing to do with "racial equality", "improving schools" or "educating our way to a better economy." I think Brian Jones has some accurate ideas about what's motivating them. That's a conversation for another time.

The True Motivation Behind Today's School Reform: Separate the Classess, Separate the Races

I just finished watching "Separate but Still Unequal" with Brian Jones. If you remember, Brian Jones was the amazing NYC school teacher who sat on the "Waiting for Superman" panel at the first Education Nation Summit. He is also one of the driving forces behind the answering documentary, "The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman", another video I will eventually be posting here. You see Brian made his video to get the TRUTH out there, NOT to make money, so he likes it when we share is work. I'm not ready to write my comments about the video, just know that my husband and children looked at me funny when I was clapping, yelling and giving it a standing ovation in my living (While listening with my earbuds).
Brian Jones Video

#1 I've often said that NJ is far more segregated than the small town where I lived in GA 20 years ago. I never imagined the cause, and I think I may need to do some research to substantiate it. Jones alludes to the idea that the middle class neighborhoods built after WWII were intentionally segregated. I believe him because you only have to look to see the truth. Both of my grandparents left Jersey City for one of those neighborhoods in Middlesex County. I work in Jersey City and grew up in my grandparents' neighborhood. I see/saw first hand every day how segregated those areas are. In fact I had more childhood friends of varying elasticities while living in GA, you know the deep south where the Jim Crow laws were in effect, than I ever did in NJ.  People wonder why I don't move from my current neighborhood. I say it's because I like living in a REAL melting pot. However, even towns are divided by neighborhoods. I went to HS in a town literally divided by the railroad tracks; black on one side, white on the other

He hits every major point. Watch and discuss. "Instead of approaching as a citizen with rights, you are coming as a customer, and they have the right to refuse you service."

Our kids "not hitching their wagons to stars but to a mule." Still applies today.