Less than 1 Month of School Left

It’s insane, as I gear up for the end of the year.  It was so busy, and whereas I finally felt comfortable starting the year and liked how I asked questions and probed in terms of student management and culture and community-building, I never had so much difficulty dealing with adults!  Parents, teachers, school staff, admin, you name it.  What a learning experience!  But it was good! Let me explain.

Today I got a really sweet text from a friend: “Aww you know what [Husband’s Name] just said? He said that if he haws wealthy enough, he would have no hesitation funding a charter school for you!! :)”

Although the sentiment is indeed sweet, I don’t need a second to know that I don’t want a charter school.  I’d rather work as a teacher than run a school.  But I also know that it’s not just about one person having a vision or heart for the kids — you need a really good team.

It just becomes super clear how the teaching teams and what they value and spend time doing outside of simply imparting academic knowledge affect what students become.

Last week I spent 3 days helping chaperone a 6th grade camping trip while the other 6th grade teachers led. I also took my 8th graders to Cal.  Then I returned to both schools and just realized how it’s almost a farce of a school the other one is at this point.  Granted, they’ve had lots of turnover and their culture isn’t very strong… but that’s exactly my point.  Adults, a shared vision, cooperation, and a shared understanding of what is valued definitely affect what the students will value and in turn act.

Anyway, if I were to head up a school, I’d need a team of veteran teachers willing to leave their schools – and how easy is it to find that?  Hard.

 

CA Charters (+ regular public schools) Need Real Accountability

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I’ve seen this petition floating around on Facebook, and I was planning to sign it. After all, why not? I work at a charter school, 4 out of my 5 years teaching have been at charter schools, and I believe in the charter philosophy of giving teachers voice, families choice, and using a “free market” idea to effect such agency.  Yet when I saw this message that I would be sending to my state assembly members and senator, I couldn’t help but scrutinize it.  Interestingly, Diane Ravitch just published a blog on Bernie Sander’s comments on charter schools and she just neatly outlined some issue with charters.  Anyway, below is part of the message that I disagreed with.

…I believe that charter schools are an integral part of our public education system… Hopefully you are well aware of the incredible things that charters are doing for students in communities like mine. If not, I urge you to visit our campuses, talk to teachers, meet with parents and students, and observe the classroom instruction and extracurricular programs. You’ll find a level of caring, a belief in every child’s potential and strong academic results that will inspire you. I can’t imagine ever losing my charter school. I hope and expect that public officials like you will do whatever it takes to protect great public schools like mine.

I don’t think charter schools are necessarily an “integral” part of our public education system. I think it makes public schools think and scramble, it allows us to try things more quickly than we might in a district school, but at the same time, if our public education system were functioning well, we wouldn’t need charters.

I wonder what this petition exactly desires.  Do we want more “support” from our State senators and assembly members?  What does that exactly entail?  What I would like is actually more scrutiny on charter schools.  After working at an especially heinous one, why can’t there be more surprise visits, more deep probing questions of students and their families?  In CA, charter schools gets their charters renewed every 5 years.  At some charter schools (like more current one), they take the opportunity to revisit their vision, recalibrate with the whole community (teachers, admin, students, families), and figure out why and how to move in a specific direction.  In other charter schools, they make teachers sign something (without specifying what the teacher is signing, and the teacher doesn’t really have a choice), they pause distasteful practices during the walk-throughs and visits, and shmooze with local politicians… and voila, a couple visits + high test scores and it’s given the CA stamp of approval.

That sucks.  And if that’s the continued way that CA is going to keep “supporting” charter schools, then I think they should just stop.  They should shackle down our system and slow everything down if it means that all students can be somewhere safe.

Actually, I take that back. Because it would just be horrific to send my kids to some crazy, huge high school instead of a small charter high school.  Yet at the same time, there area really awful charters out there!  And the worse part is they have very LITTLE scrutiny because they’re a charter — district schools have way more hoops to jump through!  I mean, why can’t we just carefully provide more resources, continue the small-schools movement (a la Oakland), and maybe even go that hybrid-charter route (like ASCEND), and just.. grow?  Why can’t CA stop being lazy and giving lip service to kids and give an actual hoot about their wellbeing?

Okay fine. Support our charter schools. But maybe also have some sort of hotline that we can call for when schools are heinous.  And then drop by randomly and watch it all unfold.  And ban schools that pride itself in giving students 1 hour of homework per subject and promote teachers to principals in 2 years.  Oh wait, our whole nation’s doing that? And we think it’s promoting bright innovation into school leadership?

Just great.

 

PS: I realized these past few years, as I continue to keep up with my students that part of the reason why few parents and students ever complain at these  really awful charter schools is because they have nothing else to compare it to.  To them, it’s normal for them to not have any say in the school’s decision to not observe MLK day, or have Spring Break school, or make kids wash the floor with toothbrushes, or take shoes off of kids, or not let parents talk to the teacher.  And coincidentally, most of the teachers at such schools are really new to the state or to teaching… so they don’t realize what’s up until they leave too.  I’m looking at you, Amethod Public Schools and American Indian Public Charter Schools. Seriously. Makes my blood curdle.

“Every child needs a caring, thoughtful, purposeful adult in their lives.”

After 4 years, I’m returning to Boston during my Spring Break!  I thought it might be nice to see if I could meet up with some of my old professors, and while emailing Kay Merseth, I came across this video that she had linked to her signature.


Around the 2:00 mark, she states, “Every child needs a caring, thoughtful, purposeful adult in their lives.”  It got me thinking, and I ended up writing this huge email that definitely ran too long.  Rather than sending it to her, I’m posting it here.

Dear reader, do you have any ideas?

If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to check out Teach To One  (TTO) from New Classrooms (http://www.newclassrooms.org/reimagine.html) because although it allows students to learn within their ZPD and get daily feedback on their learning goals, that whole piece of teacher-student relationships is not there.  The founder of TTO has been super receptive to our issues (especially since we’re piloting its first pilot in California), but I also realized this year that a lot of the structures that make this program hard weren’t necessarily TTO-mandated but were choices made by our administration.

I wonder if in urban schools, I should just get used to the idea that my position as “teacher” is changing into that of “coach” and “manager”.  I like that we can use technology to differentiate in ways that students weren’t able to go in before, and I like that as a school, we train students to take charge of their learning, but at the same time, the reason why I became a middle school teacher in particular wasn’t because of my love of for the subject, but because I wanted to work with kids at this prickly age.  I didn’t want to simply teach them academics; I wanted to teach them self-regulation, build in them intrinsic motivation, and work on helping them pose questions to each other.  Our kids are making fantastic progress on the MAP tests — is it wrong of me not to care that much about it?

At the end of the day, I’ve never felt so small — and my school is huge on teacher voice and leadership.  I understand that the nature of a pilot means that things are going to be very uncomfortable for a while, but I’m having a hard time seeing this direction as “best” for my students.  Some days, I get it.  I’m wowed. But there are just so many days, where life is hard simply because this structure is really hard.  Even if I get materials provided for me, I still need to take time to edit them.  Even if kids are learning at their ZPD, it doesn’t help that I don’t have much of a relationship with them so that some kids come in and refuse to even try because they don’t like me.  It’s also hard because I’ve never been a teacher that was hated just for being unfamiliar — I’m used to power struggles within the classroom that never exists outside of the classroom just because we have relationships.  With 300 kids, it just doesn’t work.  Will it work when I just have 150?

Is it just that at the end of the day, for urban schools, because we can’t always ensure that there will be quality math teachers year to year, we need to control for that by replacing teachers with a program where students will make satisfactory growth?  Is that why in Fruitvale Oakland, we’re piloting this  effective but joyless program while across the bridge in Palo Alto, kids aren’t taught by computers but by people?

 

lunch.

so, it’s raining outside. it’s lovely.  i have takeout chinese food sizzling on the pan in the kitchen… it was leftovers. it was supposed to be my lunch.

lunch. I spent that time talking with my principal who wanted me to do a conflict resolution conversation with a student, with whom, I was just fed up.

fed up. i’m fed up with this sad excuse of a “social-emotional/wellness/all-in” outside program that we use to intervene with our kids. they work set hours, while we work into the night. they make huge promises and deliver very little.  i don’t understand how in writing, they could email out a plan, and the very next day, not follow through.  (it’s in writing with stakeholders cc’d!).  they give students voice while taking away ours. it’s disempowering.

and disempowered is how i felt after 3 days of constant confrontation.  and with my principal, I felt defensive. and uncooperative. and discouraged. and unpleasant.  and i said a silent prayer of repentance to glorify my God and then returned to the conversation that was taking place as my lunch minutes ticked away.

A way my principal has supported me is through her patience and pushing back at my negativity.  In our conversation, I realize that I’ve been burned in these “conflict resolutions” not by her but by this outside program.  She sat there giving me ideas for how to approach the impending restorative conversation.  I took out a post-it and wrote as she dictated, because at the moment, I had no headspace to think of how I could help this child.

“What are classroom expectations? What part of this is difficult? How can I redirect you? How can I help you?”  Tears stream down my face as I begin to write these down verbatim. Humbled. doubtful. broken. Kids are slated to come back in 3 minutes and I keep breathing in and out but I can’t seem to stop sobbing.  I thankfully get to take a break, but there is still no privacy.  I stand in the playground, my back to the school, and tried to get the red out of my eyes.  Four minutes. and I’m back in the classroom.

In my classroom, there’s a slight respite.  Yesterday, a student asked me if I was angry, and I apologized, and exhaled, and smiled – it’s not their fault.  Today another asked me how I was doing.  I said that I didn’t want to be here, but it’s not because of them.

They are sweet. I saw a bunch of them after school scrambling for cover or running into the rain. it was lovely. i think my chinese food is done reheating. i’m going to go eat my lunch.

When You Try Your Best but the ship still sinks

I had a smaller group today of about 8 7th grade boys.
After they finished making fun of at my saying “dude”, we talked about which classes they felt “grounded” in and which classes worried them, and then talked about why they felt each way, and then about what they could adopt from the “good class” to the “bad class.”

They love humanities (because it’s fun, they ask questions, they try their best, and complete their work).  From a teacher perspective, I also see that there is a real community and within the structure and expectations, students know what to do to succeed. They feel successful!

The class that the boys were most “worried” about was (surprise, surprise), TTO, our math pilot.  They brought up things like…
– not wanting to be laughed at
– teachers not able to answer their question right away and then their session is done during the “independent zone” time
– teachers not explaining why but just how (CM was referring to our recent project, and all I could do was nod sympathetically, because it’s true!)

And I’m just nodding.. because I *totally* get it. And yet, what can I say? I’m the teacher in this program. I can’t honestly bash it with a clear conscience because we are still working at fixing it.  They did ask me why I was teaching TTO, and I did honestly respond that I didn’t have much of a choice.  I told them I didn’t want to teach humanities and that I wanted to teach math, and this was the choice of our school.

My question is… why do we want to keep tweaking and fixing it? What does it offer that we so desire?

  • Honestly, were our students pretty behind when they started? yes.
  • (Are we setting the curve in Oakland flats schools? yes).
  • Are kids learning math? yes.
  • Are kids learning more math? sure! possibly!

But what about considering these other questions:

  • Are they happy? maybe that’s a nonissue.
  • Are they getting opportunities to work deeply with math through inquiry, pauses, wonderings, and struggle? no. And maybe that’s our fault. we’re “just not leveraging the tasks and small group collaborations to their full potential.”
  • Do they understand expectations? Maybe.. but again, that’s our fault too, because we could have better management.

With TTO, our students might be learning more math.  But is it at the rate that it’s worth the opportunity cost of happiness and … just.. kiddo noises?  I think I’m actually fine with them slowing down if it means we can have a better relationship, and they don’t leave thinking math is boring and online programs suck (because if used in moderation, it wouldn’t be bad).  During the short transition period between schools, I like to visit other classrooms.  These past 2 weeks, this is what I’ve seen:

  • 1 humanities class pausing before starting the day because kids have been working so hard, they did 10 minutes of theater games before getting started
  • science class finishing up their lab reports, color-coding their drafts, and listening to music and staying focused and walking around to get the supplies they needed.
  • another humanities class doing a jeopardy review game before a test
  • another humanities class spending earned time outside on a Friday
  • classes starting to gear up for their expeditions

Basically, the more I’m with this pilot, the more I realize that I came to teach middle school so that we could get excited and learn to be fine with struggle and pause and reflect (for real — I mean if you do reflections like every 3 weeks, how do you even measure growth?  how do you grow in 3 weeks???) and stop being motivated by external factors so that the kids could become super pre-adults who have creativity, assurance, and communication skills………. I didn’t come to teach middle school so that my kids could become testing automatons a la Korea and Singapore. Been there. Done that. Left that. Leaving this.

How To Be a Good Teacher

This week, I’ve seen a bit extra in the “this is good teaching” or “this is a model teacher” news realm.  It ranges.  Here’s this super exuberant principal who uses his infectious enthusiasm and awesome dance rooms in the classroom, and then there is this new kind of instruction (no ‘please’; only high expectations).

Both seem sort of ridiculous.  For instance, it’s not fair to expect the kind of teaching as shown by that principal since not all personalities work like that.  (Plus, there isn’t evidence that this is “deep” so much as algorithmic learning).  Then the latter, with the crazy “live” coaching in a scripted manner .. I snorted. Who would actually want that for THEIR own child?

I always think it would do society good if everyone took one year to teach.  Their teaching would in no way enhance the lives of their students or help out schools in any way, shape, or form.  It would just be a civic duty of society to allow freshly graduated non-students to finally understand a smidgen of what teachers go through on a daily basis.  THEN, they can humbly go on with their lives and learn to be more generous with their wallets (as taxpaying voters) and lighten up on the criticism (as parents).

In my opinion, two things are in the making of a good teacher: coaching and experience.  I think experience is ultimately how you get to be a good teacher. I don’t even think I realized I wasn’t a good teacher (in fact, that I was a rather POOR teacher) until my 4th year in. (I think most people mistake intelligence, creativity, and score results as “effective teaching” when in reality that’s achievable by most.  We can talk about what true “teaching” is later). Most people quit before then OR (yikes), in some charter worlds, take on higher roles.  What a sad-looking future!  Yet you NEED the experience by starting to accustom yourself to how students act, how to negotiate tactfully, how to balance your work and your life, and how to TEACH…  and those years zoom by before you can return to anything as a teacher!

But experience is nothing without a good coach to shape your experience and help you reflect.  (I think this is hard because I don’t think every coach knows how to coach, either.  COACHES need to be coached.)  But last year, I finally figured out how the teacher-coach dynamic should work in a way that benefits me (the teacher), AND this year, I have an amazing coach.  (Actually I have 3 very adept coaches, but you know how it is, over-coaching can sometimes suck too… BUT I’m lucky that I just get to really delve into different facets of my teaching with 3 different views).  Anyway, my math coach is awesome.  We meet weekly.  I feel like I get stuff done.  I feel like I go in bite-sized steps to plan what to next.  I feel like I’m becoming a better educator and I don’t want to go back to what I used to do.  AND I appreciate my coaching sessions instead of dreading to go to them because I get real feedback and we brainstorm and she’s actually had experience with the same demographics and material.  It’s good.

No expectations to create a sing and dance show.  No requirement to go by a script.  Rather, we come up with what *is* best for kids to help them to become critical thinkers and dynamic self-directed learners… and we just keep trying to coax them in that direction.  THANKS WENDY BATY!

 

Adolescents.. sigh

Today I left school early, tired, sick.  The last reason being the official reason for why I could go.  It was a pretty dumpy week, not just for me, but for other teachers.

Yesterday, I read the NY Times article, “How to Help Kids in Poverty Adjust to the Stability of School after Break.”  It was sad because I realized I messed up personally by being aloof instead of warm.

and today I ran into this old gem of a friend… (Bukowski’s poem)

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
you.
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
he’s
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
works?
you want to blow my book sales in
Europe?
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
sad.
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
die
and we sleep together like
that
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do
you?

 

And I cried on the bus because on one hand, I’m imagining myself reading this poem to my kids and them scoffing or choosing not to “get it”.  On the other hand, I’m imagining myself handing this poem to a few students and maybe they’ll read it and get it.  On the third hand, I’m just wondering why and how it came to be so bleak for them.

Even though this week was a mess-up week for me, next week can be a fresh start.  “[His mercies] are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23b).