Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Teacher cycles

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November is a tough month for me. 

Never mind that we had a death in the family, the school environment alone is enough to make November more than challenging.  To start, November is the beginning of basketball season.  This means that my days go from 6:30a.m. - 4 p.m., to 6:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m. (10:30 p.m. on game days).  That doesn't include the time I will spend at home taking care of prep and homework.  This makes the days very long and the time with my wife very short, which creates other strains that end up wearing and tearing on my psyche. 

But the thing that really gets at me is the doubt in my abilities by this point in the school year.  When you think about it, a teacher has been going non-stop for months and the only thing to show for success are grades, which are often fairly lousy.  Whether the general public believes it or not, this wears down on teachers, even really good ones.  The end of October is the end of the quarter, so teachers have a fairly good idea where the students stand in terms of academics.  Often, they don't stand on much because the low grades are very apparent.  After all the work, all the toiling, all the conferences and phone calls, some students are not getting "it".  The passion that was evident in the beginning starts to wane as the question enters the mind, "What am I doing wrong"?  Then the phone calls come from enraged parents that allow their kids to get away with murder, questioning your morality for giving too many quizzes, or insisting that the problem is the teacher because Johnny has "never had a problem with any other teacher".  Add to that the faculty meetings where administrators tell you to raise test scores for those borderline kids (that show up half the time), and to prepare for more cuts in education, and give other tidbits of cherry news that raise morale.  Top it with the usual social pressures from the media, government officials, and pundits couldn't teach a kid to tie shoes and the month of November brings a teacher to the point of "Why am I here"?

I still deal with this, although I'm past the point of the whole "Why..." thing.  I get stressed, eat, gain weight, and become a bit of a curmudgeon.  My temper becomes short and answer every phone call from a counselor with "What now", while dreading most parent conferences because I'm done with being blamed for the child's lack of ability to show up to class.  However the time this lasts is growing shorter and shorter, mostly because I look upon myself and ask "Am I really doing everything I can with the resources I have"?  In most aspects, the answer is yes.  I think my lessons are engaging, I'm teaching the information that is required, and I'm trying to make these kids prepared to be productive members of society.  Sure, things can get tweaked here and there to make it better, but what can I  and what can't I control?  That's why I have stopped losing sleep at night.  I have 14 kids on short term independent study, and I can't control that.  While it's going to look really bad when I have a substantial grouping of bad grades, that's not an issue that I can simply reach into the ether of the universe and change.  And no matter how hard I work, it won't matter.  So I focus on the things that matter, primarily in the classroom.  When the November doldrums hit, I ask myself:

1.  Am I really giving my best effort in the classroom?  Most of the time the answer is "yes", but basketball sometimes interferes with my energy in the classroom.  To change that I went to the theory of Diminishing Marginal Utility in terms of basketball.  I don't practice on weekends, I don't do two-a-days, and I make reasonable practice times for vacations.  In practice I focus much more on what we need to work on, making practice more efficient, not practice a lot, which makes me worn out.  In essence, I treat practice like the classroom, and have garnered better results from both the court and the classroom environments.

2.  Am I really prepared?  Classroom management, confident teaching, and quality of instruction all go up when teachers are prepped.  It becomes doubly important when doubt sinks in.  The flow will be better and the good knowledge will flow much better when preparation is evident.

3.  Is that homework really necessary?   In the end, you have to grade it, and often you will do more benefit to yourself if you go home and rest, not grade work.  Keep the class high intensity, but make the practice something that the kids can grade the next day, or have them study for a quiz.  Seriously, nothing makes you feel worse than the knowledge that the impending evening is nothing but grading.

4.  Is the classroom lesson really engaging?  Good student engagement gets me out of the rut pretty quickly.  Watching students get fully involved and buy into a lesson is a clear sign that education is going on, which in turn fulls up the teacher's tank to get through the day, or maybe even shake off the doldrums entirely.  In fact, I might take a little more risk during down times because the end reward is that much better.  If part of the lesson fails during 1st period, I'm excited for the next period and do my best to make adjustments so the mistakes don't happen again. 

5.  Am I forgetting what's really important?  Let's face it, if teachers were actually valued in society, would the pay we get really be that big of a deal?  I would like more money, but I would love some acknowledgement that teachers are not the only problem with education, and are more aligned with the solution.  Saying that, there is a point at which you might consider ignoring nay-sayers for awhile, even those you work with.  Stop listening to public complaining, stop listening to the media, ignoring the idiots in government, and hell, maybe you need to become a little bit of a hermit if the school atmosphere is too negative.  I omit certain blogs from my daily reading list when times get tough.  I'll pick on Joanne Jacobs in particular, whose blog was one of the first I started to read years ago, before it became outrageously popular.  Now it's an outrageously popular place to beat the shit out of public education, including teachers.  Like most media types that haven't a clue about what teaching is, Jacobs generalizes teachers as lazy, whiney, and not really out for the best interest of the kids.  Do you really need to read criticism from someone who doesn't know what you are going through?

So November comes and goes, and the month of December brings basketball tournaments, "Christmas cheer", and the statements "I'm going on vacation.  Can I make up the Final"?  My mood shifts to more from somber to more up beat as I realize that my teaching is actually quite good, and my focus to the classroom starts paying off for those that realize that I'm not going to change the way I do things to accommodate their social lives.  Reflection also starts to creep into my thoughts as I start to figure out ways to make things better for next semester as well. 

Just remember, moments of doubt are going to occur, but don't let them totally ruin the experience of good teaching.

Question for the masses

I came upon the following quote from a social networking group that was set up to honor a teacher.  It goes back to the issues behind "love of learning" vs. "fundamentals, fundamentals" that I wrote about previously. 

Mr./Ms. T brought a different brand of English to little ...... ...... High School. The class wasn't about writing essays and learning grammar, it was about bonding and expressing ideas. This group is for those that were lucky enough to experience his teaching.

Do you have a problem with this, or were the students lucky to have the teacher? 

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Finland, Finland, Finland..........

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For the last two years, education pundits have been trying to compare the education system of Finland with that of the United States.  With strong gains in Math and Science, the argument has come out that it should be impossible to have the lowly Finns be so much better in core subjects than the high and mighty Americans.  So waves of people have went to the Great Reindeer North to learn how to incorporate Finnish ed to the U.S. system. 

Obviously the situation is more complex than that, but the best summary of the situation can be found at the Quick and the Ed.   

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What I've learned since I last posted

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-That the President has pretty damn good reflexes and, regardless of what Michael Moore says, an ability to act quickly.  Not only does he evade the shoe, but check out how he calmly waves off the Secret Service and keeps are tense situation from becoming a circus.  If only he would have done that post-9/11.

-That I'm doing something right in the classroom.  I got an award from the students this month and it made me beam for quite a while.

-That I'm doing something wrong on the basketball court, because I wasn't around for one and a half games last week.

-That I miss teaching American Government terribly and while U.S. History is fine, the CA standards for the subject are full of shit.  The person that actually finds that the Second Vatican Council is necessary for a basic understanding of U.S. History is a loon. 

-That PLC's, while well intentioned, are leading to a point where everything is scripted and no real teaching will happen.  I watched a video where everything in a math PLC was common assessments, common pacing, and everything looked hunky dory.  Of course, no mention was made of ELL students, IEP's, excessive absences, family trips to Disneyland, or the simply fact that some students don't always work on the textbook pace.

-That the Spam Teacher mentioned in a previous post complained to students about that little e-mail asking him to stop.  Those students then told me that Mr. Spam complained to them that I sent a rude e-mail.  Uncool.

-I'm tired.  I need a recharge.  I need a vacation.  

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Sir Spam-a-lot

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A teacher at our school has been sending out various e-mails to everyone on the school server.  Some are complaints, some a "inspirational" stories, some are wisecracks, you get the idea.  They occur about once a week.  On a day that that had received an ridiculous amount of crap on my e-mail server, I received another "inspirational story" from the teacher.  I wrote back and asked that the teacher stop sending spam.  The response I got was this:

This is a story about four eMailers named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody all send SPAM.

Well…

There was some interesting SPAM to be sent. Everybody was sure Somebody would send it. Anybody could have sent it, but Nobody sent it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could send it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t send it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody sent what Anybody could have sent.

The moral of the story: Somebody sends email to other teachers and Anybody with a little training can send email. Everybody can send “non-spam” emails, but Nobody trains them and there is no faculty lounge to communicate with each other so Mr. Somebody gets an email that Nobody qualifies as SPAM except Mr. Somebody. Now Nobody would bring Mr. Somebody’s name into this logical story except Mr. Somebody sent SPAM to Everybody, explaining he does not have time for Anybody’s SPAM which is quite illogical; sending SPAM when Nobody, including Mr. Somebody, has no time for SPAM. Wow, imagine that!

Everybody and Anybody would stop sending SPAM if Mr. Somebody would show us how a positive, encouraging teacher letter is SPAM. Since Anybody can send emails and Nobody teaches the difference between SPAM and non-SPAM, I can promise nothing to Anybody, Everybody, Somebody, and Nobody (including Mr. Somebody).

Onward Everybody.

PS. I heard Mr. Somebody got a can of Spam wrapped as a present. Everybody who sent the present signed it. Nobody told me it was going to happen, and I am hurt because Anybody could have brought this present to my attention and let me sign it with Everybody… Oh well, Nobody to blame. (Smile Mr. Somebody. Anybody needs to lighten up a little especially when Everybody is working so hard, Nobody is taking time to smell the roses, and Somebody like our colleagues are watching/reading… Everybody needs to teach Mr. Somebody about the little "X" icon which translates into "delete.”)

If you haven't figured it out, I am "Mr. Somebody", and yes, a group of teachers gift wrapped a can of SPAM and gave it to me as a way of saying "chill out". 

This is an example of the technological divide that is evident in our school.  People that are new to e-mail don't realize that people that have been using it for 13 years can get irritated after going through meaningless correspondence over and over and over again.  I read three dozen teacher blogs a day, trust me, I know something about inspirational teaching.  I don't need e-mails of chain letters that I saw years ago about stories that are old news to inspire me.   

And for those techies that say "What about the e-mail filter"?  Can't filter in district e-mail (I believe)?  That means that while I get to smell the roses, I have to smell the crap too.

Finally, a little definition:

Spamming is the abuse of electronic messaging systems to indiscriminately send unsolicited bulk messages.

Where Michelle Rhee lost me

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I've made no bones about my respect for Washington D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee, the woman who unions might fear the most in this country.  I've enjoyed the passion that she has for teacher accountability, while at the same time making the idea of paying teachers their worth a reality.  It is a model that seems like the right direction for public education to take in building a good system. 

The problem is that in a recent interview with Time Magazine, Rhee seemed less concerned about educating kids and more concerned with managing a perception of what teaches do in the classroom.  While the good managing is fine, the need for making the kids the priority was lost when a statement (THE statement that has people talking all over the blogsphere) made it out of her mouth and onto the pages of the magazine.

  "The thing that kills me about education is that it's so touchy-feely," she tells me (the Time correspondent) one afternoon in her office. Then she raises her chin and does what I come to recognize as her standard imitation of people she doesn't respect. Sometimes she uses this voice to imitate teachers; other times, politicians or parents. Never students. "People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning,'" she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. "I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."

Michelle is correct, if kids can't read then teachers are not doing their job.  However, the idea that teachers should ignore the focus on "The Love of Learning" is pretty much dead wrong and equals bad teaching.  Rule number one of getting kids to comprehend and retain information; make the information relevant to the student and get them to buy in to the idea that learning the information has a purpose in there life.  Meaning get them into the frame of mind that learning is actually important and relevant to their lives.  Once you accomplish that, students will take the task of learning as a personal endeavor, not something that is resisted because useless knowledge (including learning to read) is rammed down their throats.  I would argue that without the idea of "The Love of Learning", what we are doing as teachers is pointless.  Without the want to read, the student isn't going to read, period.  Throwing two tests a year at the kid and drilling the teacher on State Standards isn't going to change that.

I also see that the name "The Love of Learning" is probably conjuring the wrong image to the American public, and Michelle Rhee is using it to her advantage to weed out teachers that ignore Standards and focus on "touchy-feely" education.  She does have a point that those teachers that ignore Standards have to either change or go, but she gives off the visual that every teacher that likes the idea of relevant information is some kind of pot-smoking hippy with a tie-dyed t-shirt.  Who finds the "Love of Learning" relevant, according to Rhee?  Well, it's probably a teacher who is some ex-1960's Haight Ashbury reject who couldn't get a job in the dog-eat-dog corporate society and decided to change the world by influencing little children.  The teacher probably doesn't lesson plan very well and gets all their ideas from Democracy Now and snippets from National Public Radio, both of which are listened to at the commune the teacher inhabits. 

While such teachers may exists, it is bad form to grossly generalize teachers in that context.  I don't think the issue is "be creative" or "teach to learn", the issue is getting the kids to learn using creative, relevant, and proven methods to create educated members of society.  I have yet to see Standardized Tests as a proven method to promote an educated populace, by the way.  So, in my opinion, Michelle Rhee did not come off looking like the Jack Welch I was hoping for in managing education.  I still like her ideas in terms of confronting the union and demanding that good teachers get the benefits from hard work and successful students, but her method of dealing with employees seems less like those of a motivating, respectful figurehead, and more like a Bob Nardelli clone; a condescending gas bag with little working knowledge of what needs to be done in the trenches for the overall goals of educating kids to be met.

Pity, I liked a lot of what she had to say.  I'm hoping that she reins in the hyper-aggressiveness and starts acting like a good manager, and a good educator.               

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The X's

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Besides the fact that we have a week off and it's the start of basketball season, Thanksgiving is fun for another reason.  The ex's.

No, not those ex's.  I'm speaking of those kids that vanished in August and have now returned to grace the high school with stories of wonder and glory of the outside world.  While my basketball team did not come out on the winning end of our game on Friday night, I was very pleased to see ex-ball players and students come out of the stands and say hello to the old coach/teacher, sometimes with a handshake, sometimes with a hug.  The stories are fun and I actually get a little jealous of the feeling they are experiencing.  Remember the time when the world seemed so open and "out there"?  I do, and sometimes I miss it, even though I experience more of the world now than I did when I was 19 years old.  Most students come back from the start of their four year experience with a mixture of pride and enthusiasm.  They are doing a successful job at the college thing while enjoying all the perks that come with leaving town for College U.  It's fun watching them and their reactions.  There are also those that return with the new realization that yes, college is harder than high school and they are now facing the specter of things like Academic Probation or worse, coming home.  These were the A students that breezed by the classes because they didn't want the challenge of an Honors level class their Senior year and that work ethic has returned to bit them in the ass.  I try to tell them to bare down and focus, but that often comes with the "yeah, high school didn't prepare me much" speech from the kid.  Yeah, if would've focused in high school, college might be easier buddy.

I keep up with quite a few students on Facebook, but looking at them in person and watching their smiles makes me happy knowing that they are safe and successful. 

Saturday, November 29, 2008

How do the testing gurus solve this?

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This is one of the many reasons why I don't agree with the idea that student performance should be the primary indicator of teacher or school accountability. 

I've found that over 60 students have filed for hundreds of hours of Short-Term Independent Study for the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I have a dozen students that have applied for STIS that last over a week in my classes, and all of them are a simple explanation, vacation.  It is interesting how badly the Thanksgiving or Winter breaks are abused by parents.  Cruises are one of the more popular exploits of a November or December weekday, along with trips to Mexico and Hawaii.  Some Seniors are taking time to actually go and visit colleges (something defiantly worthy of a few days), except that every single one of my STIS students are Juniors, and most of them are in no grade shape to be missing a week, or two, or a month.  This has created a frustrated atmosphere from everyone involved from the teachers who are sick of preparing a month of work for a student that won't do it on vacation, to the counselor who is taking heat from the parent about frustrated teachers and taking heat from the teacher about parents that make bad choices, to finally the administration who is in the bind that they can't do much about it anyway.  So in the end, who is really held accountable? 

Why the teachers, of course.

It is becoming more and more tiring to hear speeches about helping that one extra kid, or about getting those "borderline" kids to pass the Exit Exams, or about making classrooms more engaging to students, when parents decide that Thanksgiving Break needs to be two weeks and Winter Break should be three.  It is also becoming tiring trying to prepare work for students that don't usually do it or parents that become resentful for assigning it during their precious vacation time.  So I stopped doing it.  Instead, I make Independent Study exactly that, time to study.  Packets are meaningless point inflators that impart no knowledge to the student and provide an idiotic amount of work for the teacher.  Hence the reason that I don't use packets.  I just assign textbook chapters and give the student the relevant state standard and say, "You will be responsible for all tests and quizzes on that information when you return".  Most do nothing and get clocked, and no it is not my fault and no I don't lose sleep over it.  I used to, until I realized that true education is a societal matter, not one that is relegated to a classroom that is supposed to take a family's vacation to Cabo into account when lesson planning.  The calendar is available for the next school year in the Spring.  If the vacation is important to book flights and hotels in advance, I'd check with your kids education as well.

The best, and most disgusting story that I've heard happened two weeks ago when a parent became so enraged that her kid was not given a decent amount of work for STIS that the parent demanded a meeting with the counselor and every teacher to get specific assignments.  A parent conference to take up more teacher time for the child's vacation?  Are you kidding? 

I've got kids to teach.      

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving Meme

Happy Turkey Day, from Leesepea at "But Wait...." (on the blogroll).

1. Which do you like better: Cooking at your house, or going elsewhere?

-I love cooking, and we've made it a tradition that people that want to have Thanksgiving with us better come to Ukiah, because we ain't going nowhere.  Actually, I have basketball games the night before and day after Thanksgiving, which limits travel.

2. Do you buy a fresh or frozen bird?

-Frozen, and I do one hell of a job on cooking it.  In fact, I've never made a bad bird and my wife said it actually gets better and better.

3. What kind of stuffing?

-Organic bread stuffing, or whatever it is.  It's pretty good.

4. Sweet potato or pumpkin pie?

-My wife makes fresh organic pumpkin pies that kick all kinds of ass.  They are also excellent for breakfast.

5. Do you believe that turkey leftovers are a curse, or the point of the whole thing?

-We bought two turkeys this year for four people.  You figure it out.

6. Which side dish would provoke a riot if it was left off the menu?

-My wife's mashed potatoes.  Red potatoes in chicken stock with a cube of butter, and then mashed with gravy.  Yum.

7. Do you save the carcass to make soup or stock?

-Yep.  Well seasoned soup will last weeks.

8. What do you wish you had that would make preparing Thanksgiving dinner easier?

-The cleanup afterward.

9. Do you get up at the crack of dawn to have dinner ready in the early afternoon, or do you eat at your normal dinner hour?

-We eat in the early afternoon, but who needs to really get up that early.  We start at around 9 a.m. and we are mellow the whole time.

10. If you go to somebody else’s house, what’s your favorite dish to bring?

-Pie

11. What do you wish one of your guests wouldn’t bring to your house?

-Veggies.  Thanksgiving is a meat and potatoes kinda thing.

12. Does your usual mix of guests result in drama, or is it a group you’re happy to see?

-Both.  But it gets more and more mellow as the years go by.

13. What’s your absolute favorite thing on the menu?

-Turkey and gravy.

14. What are you thankful for this year?

-That my wife is doing ok.  And that I'm starting to be confident enough to know what good teaching is, even if it goes against what is popular.

15. Share one family tradition.

-The Thanksgiving Gift.  Everyone gets to give one person a Thanksgiving Gift that they open pre-Christmas.  I gave my wife the original Russian ballot "The Nutcracker" and she bought me Wall-E. 

It's empty, and good.

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It's the Friday after Thanksgiving and I sit in my classroom doing the work necessary to prepare for the next three weeks.  I have to admit, I love the feeling of being alone in the classroom, researching and preparing for the coming days, being able to be at peace with my own thoughts in my own setting.  With my wife happily at home reading with the cat, I set out to my classroom in a shirt and tie at around Noon, and have been working to grade blogs (kids are blogging at silvabrown.blogspot.com) and prep power points for U.S. History.  It's now 3:30 and I'm about to head over to the gym for the beginning of our home basketball season.  We won on the road on Wednesday and I'm rather excited to see how our second tilt works out.

I actually can't overstate how much I love the silent atmosphere of the classroom when it is empty.  I like kids, I like them a lot.  However most teachers know that the song and dance in front of the kiddies comes with a serious amount of preparation, and the better the prep, the better the performance.  I never really understood the idea of bustling until I became a teacher.  Now I bustle around the classroom looking through files, writing on the white board, and making dashes to the Admin building to make copies.  I was lucky to gain the trust of my principal during my first year and I was rewarded with a key that gives me access to the photocopier.  During my first few years I made Sunday excursions to F-6 (my room) almost weekly.  Now I do the Sunday thing less and less, but I still come in during holidays and I almost always stay later than the secretary that locks the Admin building on regular school days.

So it's about time to head to the gym, where the peaceful feeling will be overcome by that other neat feeling, competition.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

My thoughts on the election

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Three years ago, as the contenders for the 2008 Presidential Election lined up, a student asked me "Mr. Brown, do you think that Barack Obama can win the election for president?".  I replied, "No.  I don't think that the country is mature enough yet to elect a black man president.  Maybe in 2012."

On election night, my Facebook profile was nailed with comments from students in that class that reminded me that I told them that Obama had no chance to win.  I didn't say that, I said that I didn't think the country was mature enough. 

I was wrong, and I'm happy that I was.

That's not to say that I'm giving away who I voted for, but let's be honest, the vote was historic.  One can only look at the last 125 years of U.S. history and see that the Declaration of Independence can rest easier now that the idea of "all men are created equal" has come true.  Now a black mother and father can truly look into the eyes of their kids and say, "You can do anything you want, even become President of the United States".  That's very, very good for this nation. 

I really didn't look at history when I voted, I looked at who I thought could run this nation the best.  I think that the two candidates might have been the best two choices in years.  Ronald Reagan was the best in modern history, and then the candidates start to slump, with the Bush/Gore election having two idiots running for the highest office in the land.  So I wasn't too concerned with my choice bringing about negative change for the country.  Thinks I considered:

-Obama had the single most liberal voting record of any member in Congress.  Most of the people had no idea about that because he hardly made a ruckus in the Senate.

-Obama also did little to make himself noticed in the Senate in terms of backing major legislative change (take Hillary and health care reform for example).  This means that he was preparing to run right after the 2004 Democratic Convention speech (maybe even before it) and fits the bill as a typical politician.  More typical than McCain actually.  John McCain often went across party lines.  Obama almost never did. 

-McCain let his handlers own him, and that hurt his campaign badly.

-The number one reason that McCain lost is George Bush.  He probably didn't have much of a chance with the current party in the White House.

-The number two reason that McCain lost was Sarah Palin, who is a dolt and was the single worst vice-presidential choice in history.

What next?

Well, the fervor is going to die down and the actual action of running the country is going to be interesting.  While kids lined up en masse to vote Mr. Obama into office, they will also find that the President can only do so much to change an economy, especially one that is globally connected.  And those that are waiting for Obama to move far left are going to have to wait longer, because he's already realized that both extremes will get him nowhere.  The President-Elect has already signed up economic advisors that are pro-free trade (Obama campaigned anti-NAFTA) and Commerce Secretary that will want to work immigration into the economy.  Robert Gates is going to be around for awhile longer as Secretary of Defense (a good move), and already Mr. Obama as mentioned that he's about to take the fight to Pakistan if that country doesn't get its act together.  Sounds like a move to the center for me.

So history was made and history awaits this man who the country overwhelmingly chose as President.  It is going to be interesting, to say the least.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

An Electoral Student

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I had the joy of coaching former Ukiah High graduate Ian Blue during his time on the basketball hardwood at the home of the Wildcats.  However his passion for  politics overtook the passion for hoops and now Ian finds himself in a very honorable position now that Barack Obama won the 2008 Presidential Election on November 4.  Ian will be one of the 55 electors going to Sacramento on December 15th to officially cast the California 1st Congressional District electoral vote.  Pretty cool. 

Regardless of the politics of it all, it is really a kick for me to watch students succeed.  Who knew that a lanky freshman in high school would someday stand upon the Capital steps with Congressman Mike Thompson, and then officially cast one of the most historic votes in history?  I'm proud.    

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Election night

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This is a picture of the Round Table pizza back room that I reserved for a little Election Return get-together during Election Night.  I had expected 30 people to show.

By night's end, around 200 students had come to witness a very historical event.  At 7 p.m., that room was so packed with people that students were outside looking through the window at the television coverage of the event.  It was pretty darn cool.  Notice my projector in the lower right hand corner of the picture.  I had the electoral map on the wall, allowing students to watch the change of the colors as the states fell into place.  The crowded started to fade with McCain's concession speech and only about 20 people were left to view Obama's victory statement.  The cool thing was that students were enthused before and talking about it after.  Always good to see the kids involved.

Back again

I always said that teaching is a priority over blogging, hence the reason that I haven't been on lately.

Basketball started and I've had a death in the family.

I'm on vacation, I'm catching up, and I'll start blogging soon.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Eliminate High School sports? (Updated and moved because it is gettting more looks)

Updated 11/12: I'm moving this up because it's getting some comments as of late. Sorry for not posting, but school and life is very busy. Teaching takes priority from blogging. I'm sure you understand.

Mr. McNamar at The Daily Grind has offered up an interesting post; why not eliminate high school sports? His reasons:
1) Budget cuts.
2) The climate is anti-coach.
3) No accountability by administration.
4) Entitlement.
5) Parents

Up until about 4 years ago, I would have thought that Mr. McNamar was nuts. I learned more about real life from my basketball team than I did in any classroom I was in. I've used basketball to acquire my love for work, my passion for competition, and my love for seeing kids succeed. It was an excellent thing for me.....many years ago.

Now I'm half-way (maybe more) towards Mr. McNamar's argument. Don't get me wrong, I totally believe that athletics should be a part of high school, just not in the current state at my school. Athletics should be Advanced Placement Physical Education, and it should be treated that way. However, it's not. Instead, sports are treated like a separate entity that lies within the property lines of the campus. Coaches are supposed to act like teachers, but aren't treated as such. Coaches work longer days, but aren't paid as much. Coaches are more one-on-one with parents, but aren't given the same support.

I disagree with the idea that the money isn't there. Make it "there". Physical education is monumentally important and I can think of plenty of things to cut that I feel are not nearly as important as the health of the body of a child. But McNamar's numbers 2 through 5 are pretty much dead on.

2. The climate is anti-coach: Every parent knows everything there is to know about the sport because they coached little league, or they coached their son for years. Therefore, the coach must know nothing. And since the coach actually does this for a living, the coach must be stupid and must be removed because Daddy is living through their child.

3. There is limited accountability: We wouldn't allow a parent to come into a classroom and cuss out a teacher. Why do we allow parents to do so at athletic events? There is a format to follow if you have a complaint against a teacher, but a coaching complaint goes right to the top, for some reason. And worse, the administration actually listens. I'm still waiting for someone to say, "Your son doesn't get playing time on the Varsity team because he's not as good as the 8 guys ahead of him. We have full faith in the coach. When the child earns it, he will play. Have a nice day." A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle explained that teachers in California were leaving in droves. Why? General support. Get this: Coaching is worse.

4. Entitlement: This is a problem everywhere in education, but it is magnified in athletics. One athlete once called every recommendation I gave him "criticism". When I asked him if he had been praised all his life he said, "Pretty much". Memo to all kids out there, nobody "owes" you anything.

5. Parents: They feel way too empowered, and are screwing up high school athletics.

Which leads me to the idea of going the European route. Drop high school athletics and let the parents get a club together, all the while letting them create this oh-so-impressive program that they feel they can whip out of the air. That way they get complete control and can hire and fire anyone they want at will. Sure, the real students that need the sports won't really get exposed to them since the club will cost a fee (what, you think the district is going to fund you? They won't be funding us this year!), and you will have to drop over half the programs because you really can't find qualified coaches (the high school can't keep coaches), but you'll find some way to figure it out. Don't forget Title IX type laws, ADA laws, or the fact that athletics isn't just about "The Big Three" (baseball, basketball, football). You need to offer those sports that don't make any money as well. You know, golf, diving, tennis, freshmen sports.

But sadly, I'd vote on something like this because coaches are not treated like teachers, yet are held to the same standard. Unfortunately, parents are less irate about Johnny failing Government, than Johnny not getting at least 5 minutes a game on the basketball court. Until schools take, and I mean take, back control of athletics, it just isn't worth it.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Prop 8- ELIMINATES RIGHT OF SAME–SEX COUPLES TO MARRY

I don't see how any civil libertarian can possibly agree with not letting gays get married. First of all, marriage shouldn't be a Constitutional issue at all. In fact, it shouldn't be a government issue except that the state makes it a government issue when they decide to attach government benefits and drawbacks from being married (including the need to get a license). In a rational world, same-sex couples could be married and a church that would not want them married would simply say "no", and that would be that. They would be married somewhere else, maybe by someone who is not religious. In reality, that's how it should be, but it's not. Government has decided to get into the business of legislating marriage and it has decided that a certain group of people should not get all those benefits and drawbacks of that legislation. No, "Domestic Partnerships" do not present the same exact benefits of marriage. Therefore, California was at one time practicing the art of segregation, very interesting coming from the progressive capital of the nation.

Then comes the term "activists judges". A truly idiotic statement. Arguing that the California State Supreme Court went against the correct mandate of the people (Prop 22 in 2000) in allowing gay marriage is like saying that the Earl Warren courts were going against the correct mandate of the people in the South, those that practiced the popular theory of segregation. Was that an infringement on the Constitution of the United States? Isn't it the job of the court system to interpret whether or not the government is affording equal protection to its people? It is, and if people don't like it then they should be demanding that the government get the hell out of marriage.

Then comes of the issue of the classroom, where the proponents of this measure think that gay marriage will create some kind of environment where teachers will make off- handed comments like "You really should consider being gay" or something like that. Seriously, this argument disturbs me. Proponents use the examples of bad teaching as the rallying cry for this argument. Two idiot teachers made a field trip for a group of elementary school kids to their wedding, and for some this means that all teachers will now sign up for gay wedding visits for student field trips. The question should be how those two teachers could tie it to curriculum (which you really can't at that age), not if they went to a gay wedding (which parents signed permission slips for). And that "state standard" that pro Prop 6 people are flashing around is an elective Health standard that says that Sexual Education issues will discuss "monogamous relationships and healthy marriages". Yeah? And? What, all of the sudden Health teachers around the state of California will be saying, "The only healthy marriage is a gay marriage"? What a bunch of crap. Truth is, if the question "Is a gay marriage a healthy marriage" were to come up in the classroom, the answer should be, "Are the couples doing the things we discussed that promote healthy marriage?" If the answer is yes, then what's the problem?

Is it that the people are gay? You mean gay = unhealthy relationships? Are you serious? Are you drunk? You're telling me that straight = healthy relationships? Are you really living in the real world? I've had thousands of students that would be prime examples of that theory going straight into the toilet. Ask any kid whose family got a divorce or a kid beaten by his parents or kids that are miserable because of unhealthy relationships. Being gay has nothing to do with good parenting.

In the end, Prop 8 is a 1980's "I'm scared of fags" style attack on a fundamental principle within our society, equal protection. I find it interesting that a group of people that so value the protections of the Constitution, all of the sudden run away from it when something in society shakes up the status quo, and then insist that government has no place in dictating the policy of the scared masses. It was those same masses that had no problem with slavery, no problem with Chinese exclusion, no problem with segregation, no problem Japanese Internment, and no problem with pointing gays away from Constitutional protections because of their sexual orientation. It's disgusting.

I am however jubilant because either way, the Constitution will win the day. If this Proposition passes, I will enjoy the trail this measure takes to the steps of the Supreme Court building in Washington D.C., the same place where similar people told little Linda Brown that segregation wasn't a Constitutional issue, and that she already had her own institution to which she could attend. The result will be the same. Segregation will be shot down, the Constitution will win the day, and the nation will be better for it.

VOTE NO.

How I'm voting

Take it for what it's worth.

Prop 1A- SAFE, RELIABLE HIGH-SPEED PASSENGER TRAIN BOND ACT.
-In the end, all the bond issues on this ballot are regarding the appropriate use of government funds. Yes, the California Budget is in an absolute shambles. Yes, this project is going to cost $19 billion over 30 years. Is it an appropriate use of funds in these times of economic turmoil? Of course it is. It is an absolute travesty that the state jumps into the this century with little or no idea of how to create a "next gen" urban planning transportation solution. Current plans emphasize widening freeways, creating toll roads, and building more airports, things that reflect a late 20th Century approach. California needs high speed rail, just like the North Coast needs the SMART train, the Bay Area needs BART to loop the Bay, and San Francisco needs a real subway. These projects drive the state into the next generation of transportation, urban planning, and job development. If you have a problem with government oversight, then fine, make it happen. There are plenty of examples of California transportation projects being done on the fly with good results, a good Governor could make it work. VOTE YES.

Prop 2-STANDARDS FOR CONFINING FARM ANIMALS.
-The market is already impacting the sale of all kinds of free range meats and eggs, and I think that these standards are already starting to be imposed as market driven conditions. The EU has banned pork crates (confining pigs) by 2012 and the largest pork producer in the U.S. has already agreed to phase out the same practice. While I don't agree with the treatment of CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) meats, I don't see the backbone of the needing to be impacted by more government regulation that will be gone soon enough. In the meantime, eat free range meat (it tastes better) and by eggs locally (ours are from a farm for less than grocery store prices). VOTE NO.

Prop 3-CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL BOND ACT
-While I'm sure the idea of helping children is attractive, let's remember that some money will be going to for-profit corporations to build on an already screwed up medical infrastructure. Radical change in the health care system is needed and providing government funding to a broken wheel (that keeps coming back) is not the solution. VOTE NO.

Prop 4- WAITING PERIOD AND PARENTAL NOTIFICATION BEFORE TERMINATION OF MINOR’S PREGNANCY.
-I've been in a serious argument today where a colleague insisted that if you agreed with this proposition that you must be either religious or against abortion. I'm neither. I don't see why abortion must be such an black and white topic when reasonable people can see the necessity of certain regulations on a medical procedure. Hell, a minor isn't supposed to get a tattoo without parent permission, why make a sudden exception for an abortion? Incest/Parental sexual involvement is extremely minimal in abortion cases, so you can toss that out right now. The only thing I can really find against this is the idea that people that promote this law want to end abortion, which I disagree with. Sorry, I think parents should have the right to be involved in their kids lives. VOTE YES.

Prop 5- NONVIOLENT DRUG OFFENSES. SENTENCING, PAROLE AND REHABILITATION
-A jive ass way to legalize marijuana and allow society to ignore the problems that drugs present to the community. Take it from a person that lives in a town seeped in a drug culture, rehab is an excuse, not a solution. And while I agree that we need to figure out a way to get non-violent offenders out of jail, I don't think the method is allowing addicts to take run of the community. From someone that lives in a region where this kind of thing is promoted, VOTE NO.

Prop 6- POLICE AND LAW ENFORCEMENT FUNDING. CRIMINAL PENALTIES AND LAWS.
-If this law were carved up into other propositions, I would have voted for some and rejected others. I agree that stronger laws for victim intimidation and meth possession are needed, but the funding aspect concerns me. Why the specifics targeting the anti-gang aspect? Sounds like a lot of prison money to me. VOTE NO.

Prop 7- RENEWABLE ENERGY GENERATION
-This initiative is so murky and unenforceable that it is scary. First of all, we need to realize that there is no way that major utilities will be able to produce 20% of their energy by 2010, especially in a state where environmental impact studies alone won't allow them to build anything for at least two years. Also remember that Californians love to enact the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard)argument and will fight against any project that potentially kills property value. So the companies will be penalized. And while the law states that the penalty can not be shifted to consumers, I say "Good Luck" to that. It is near impossible to prove that a price increase, especially in something that is in so high of demand, is a direct result of a fine. This has disaster written all over it. VOTE NO.

Prop 8- Get's its own post

Prop 9- CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM. VICTIMS’ RIGHTS. PAROLE.
-California is actually pretty up to date and pretty strict on parolees. I think that his avoids the real problem regarding crime (how do we deal with repeat offenders) while potentially increasing costs in our criminal justice system. I wouldn't mind if the victim has more say in certain parole hearings, but this is an example of trying to pass a series of laws on a population that really doesn't understand what its voting for. VOTE NO

Prop 10- ALTERNATIVE FUEL VEHICLES AND RENEWABLE ENERGY.
-Another example of how some of it works well for me, while the rest doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I wouldn't have a problem with the state spending bond money to become the next-gen capital of alternative energy. Hell, the possible economic returns for California could be enormous. But to offer millions for rebates on cars? Feed a subsidy to consumers who are already changing their driving habits (ask Ford or GM) is idiotic and a waste of money. Plus, why give people money to buy automobiles when we want them to figure out a different method of transportation? Doesn't make sense. VOTE NO.

Prop 11- REDISTRICTING.
-With all due respect, pretty much any other form of drawing districts would be better than the gerrymandered methods currently in place. The only reason that you might be against this is because of the idea that elections have consequences, and that the ability to draw congressional districts is one of those consequences. I would agree except that I think the districts should be a much more accurate representation of the region, not some manipulated geographic entity that benefits the winner. Drawing districts should not be difficult. 650,000 in an area, period. Plus, the current state legislature can't find its own ass anyway, so taking responsibility from them is a good thing. VOTE YES.

Prop 12- VETERANS’ BOND ACT OF 2008
-This is a pretty small sum of money that is actually only used if the California Veterans program can't pay to help veterans for the purchase of homes and farms. Note, the California Veterans program has totally paid for itself in the past with no direct impact on taxpayers. I see no problem with getting veterans some support (they more than deserve it), helping the economy in the process, and having a little cushion if a program that has worked in the past falls a little short. VOTE YES.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Blessed are those that witness a classic under the Friday Night Lights

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I was lucky enough to witness the single greatest high school football ever on this very night. 

It was between the Rancho Cotate Cougars and the Ukiah Wildcats, and it was an instant classic.  There was highlight after highlight, with elements of sportsmanship, athletic ability, and a monster work ethic sported by both teams. 

While we didn't come out of this one victorious, I felt honored just being able to stand on the sidelines and witness these kids in the healthy spirit of competition on this Friday night. 

Thanks guys!

Dude, where's my refund?

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Three weeks ago I filed for my $20 refund from the California Teacher's Association.  My wife filed within five minutes of me.  Yesterday my wife received her refund check from the CTA. 

I have yet to receive mine. 

Hmmmmm.............

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Conundrum

I haven't written for a week for two reasons.

One, I've been really busy. Imagine that from a teacher.

Reason number two has to due with the primary subject of this post. Around last Friday I experienced the scratchy throat. It was followed by the minor cough that became congestion by the middle of last week. By Wednesday the congestion had drifted into my chest and I was in a full blown coughing fit. Now a week has passed and I still have a deep chest cough, but the energy is better and I can function.

Every year teachers are exposed to the little nasty bugs that kids bring in with them from out in the nether-world. Teachers must have some of the greatest immune systems on the planet because we go through any number of virus and bacteria infections. Every year I run through two series of colds, one in October and one in the spring (which might be more allergy driven). I've been seriously sick a few times. My first year was a two day nasty flu bug, and my second year was a flu that turned into walking pneumonia. I was out for a week. Since then I get a 24 hour bug here and there, but I don't usually get too out of it. Which brings us to the conundrum.

When should the teacher not show for school due to illness?

Contrary to those idiots that seem to think teachers live to be out of school, absence of any kind is much harder work. Consider that I need to prepare a sub for three different preps, hope that I get a sub that has some semblance of ability to follow directions (most don't), and then clean up the damage when I get back. I've had one, maybe two subs that are worth anything since I've been at the high school. One still subs on occasion and the other became a full time teacher. Both managed to get things done, one doing over an entire week with Seniors......in May! However, there are times when the benefit of being at home outweighs the cost of educating the little tykes. When will I stay home? Simply, when I don't see myself as able to do my job effectively.

That means if I'm throwing up, I'm not going to school. I made the attempt during my second year that I was going to ignore my up-chucking ways and fight through it, only to end up puking my guts out 20 minutes before class with my colleague making fun of me to no end (good fun). I ended up going home anyway, worse for wear. But that's because I'm pretty much unable to perform my duties as teacher, almost anything else still qualifies me to go into classroom and give it a run.

Where do "mental health days" fit into that? Well, I don't really take mental health days because they end up not being relaxing at all. First you have to prepare for the day that you are gone and then fix all the garbage that occurs when you return. In all, the day becomes a bigger pain in the ass than it had intended to be. Add to that that by the time you have a few years under your belt, the need for mental health days should go away. You become more organized, use your prep more wisely, and become to understand that real teacher hours aren't necessarily contract hours. And that's ok.

So go away sickness go away, even though it will help build that immune system for another day.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Lost Kids of Willows

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I have a small piece of my history that resides in Willows, some of it good and some of it not so good.  It isn't that connection that makes me feel so sad about what has happened to that town over the last three years.  It isn't the fact that I'm a teacher that makes me feel like my heart drops through my stomach every time I hear about the tragedies that have befallen Willows, California.  It's just simple humanity that drives me to near tears when I think about the course of events that has impacted this little town about two hours east of Ukiah.

Those of us in Northern California have probably heard about the deaths of Stephen Furtado, and Jenny and Billy Carrigan.  Stephen and Jenny were murdered, and Billy was killed in a car accident while trying to drive back to the town of Chester, California upon hearing about the murders.  Stephen Furtado was a student at Willows High School.  What many don't know is that Willows has had a very tough few years with student deaths, tough enough to make even the strongest hearted break down and ask, "Why?".  

ESPN got a hold of the story and Michael Weinreb wrote an excellent article about trials of Willows High School during recent memory.  I recommend the article for two reasons.  First, it is an extremely well written article by the national media about a local town. 

Second, it makes you want to hug a kid and tell them that you care.

The Lost Kids of Willows

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Annual Homecoming Rant

Well, I just watched the final parade floats roll down Low Gap Road in the yearly ritual that is the last day of Homecoming. While I'm happy that the kids on the floats are happy, and it's nice to see the community come out in support of the high school, my thoughts are not in a place of tranquility and splendor. I'm more frustrated than ever.

This culminating event of Homecoming occurred on the same day that the Ukiah School Facts Sheet was put in our boxes. You know, the one that says that our school has only 34% of the graduates meet the UC/CSU course requirements (the county average is 67%). The one that says that only 13 out of every 100 Juniors and Seniors passed Advanced Placement exams last year (state average is 26 out of 100).

This culminating event of Homecoming occurred two days after Department meetings about pacing, trying to keep up with all the information required by STAR Testing. This while students completely lost all academic thought for the entire week to focus on Homecoming.

This culminating event of Homecoming occurred six weeks after we were notified about our academic performance results, and how we pretty much under-performed in most areas.

Yes, it was kind of tough to get excited about a weeks worth of distraction when the numbers show that you are not getting it done.

For those that are not familiar, Homecoming at Ukiah High School is one of the biggest events in the entire community. For an entire week, the different classes pull together and try to out do each other in a variety of categories. Included are a school skit, a float, a parade, a backdrop for the gym, a mural for the quad kiosk, a variety of rallies, students dressing in school/class colors, and overall spirit and participation. Each event is judged using Spirit Points, with the class gaining the most Spirit Points winning the coveted Spirit Bell. It is pretty much all encompassing. Here are the stages of Homecoming:

Stage One: Planning and Set up
-About a month before Homecoming week, a theme is announced for all the classes to follow. This year it is "musicals". Classes get together and choose a class color and musical that they will pattern Homecoming week after. In this case Seniors=Grease, Juniors=Wizard of Oz, Sophomores=Willy Wonka, and Freshman=Lion King. They also choose colors. In this case Seniors=Black, Juniors=Orange, Sophomores=White, Freshman=Yellow.
-For about two weeks before Homecoming week, students argue about ideas and some start showing up ragged to the first or second period of class. Making of the floats and prep for skits has already started. Some start missing first period all together during the week before, and others miss after-school extra-curriculars to help with Homecoming stuff. Teachers watch this happen and hold their breath while hoping for the best.

Stage Two: The Week
-Monday: The craziness actually starts around 5 a.m. when groups of students show up and cover the campus in posters and banners that represent their theme. By First Period, everyone shows up in class colors, immediately criticizing anyone not wearing same color. I wear khakis and a white dress shirt every day, which means that I'm supporting the Sophomores, I guess. The energy in the morning is totally unfocused as students discuss the weeks events. A lunch there is a rally, and student attendance drops after lunch like a rock. Another thing that you notice is that any students involved in student government or rally issues will miss half of the classes for the week. All are excused. Students end the evening by putting up backdrops in the gym until 10 p.m.
-Tuesday: Student show up around 5 a.m. again, this time to put up the mural on the kiosk. Students are ragged because they have been working on the float, skit, and mural during the evenings. During Second Period, there is a rally for the football game and to enhance school spirit (actually, it is pit the classes against one another to see whose louder). After the rally, the students crash and it is difficult at best keep them engaged in anything.
-Wednesday: No school day activities, but now the news reports come in that classes have started going after each other. One class toilet papers another's float. In response, the second class eggs the first classes float, which happens to hit parents working on the float and that's not good. Skit practice occurs tonight in the gym until 10 p.m.
-Thursday: Class colors again, but now we start seeing groups of students going from class to class yelling out class slogans. Seniors will park outside of Junior classes and chant "Seniors!", and in response the Juniors might make a conga line through a Senior classroom. There is another lunch time rally and again the post-lunch attendance goes South. You also have students getting irritated with teachers that are getting frustrated with the lack of attention in class, and discipline rises.
-Friday: Final day has class colors. Students that are running for Homecoming bring candy and treats to school to woo voters and classrooms become garbage dumps. Another rally during Second Period where the classes present their skits to an overflowing gym. Post rally students are completely gone. All the energy is out of them and many others skip class to prepare the float for the parade, hang with friends that have post skit rush, and prepare hair and make-up for the Homecoming Parade. Post-Lunch attendance is 40%, as most student go to the parking lot and line up to get on the floats. The parade takes off at 3:30, the game is at 8, and teachers are tired as hell.

Stage Three: The Aftermath
-Students will now miss a number of days next week from their immune system taking hits after staying up late and eating crap for the last two weeks.

I know, I sound like a complete killjoy. I'm really not. I like that the students have fun. I like that the community comes around the school and supports it. And I like that aspect of opportunity for student involvement. I think Homecoming is a cool idea, but it should not encompass weeks of school time, and totally distract an entire week of teaching. While the school should be the symbol of academic excellence in the community, it is instead a symbol of social interaction that comes with Homecoming. Homecoming, while touchy-feely and goal oriented, actually promotes the wrong message to students at this time in their academic careers; academics takes a back seat to the social priorities. What's worse, the community supports this (while then bashing the school when the academic numbers come out). While the support is great, the better support should be this energy going into STAR testing week, or into after-school programs for disadvantaged youth, or into making the school/community a better academic atmosphere.

Here are some amendments to Homecoming Week that I'd like to see:

1. Eliminate the skit altogether. It is time consuming, it interrupts all of Friday, and it involves a small element of the student population. It short, it serves no purpose at all.

2. Eliminate either the back drop or the kiosk mural. Both are totally redundant and simply take up time.

3. Eliminate class colors. These do nothing but pit kids against each other. Instead, have one day for each classes theme to dress up, with Friday being Purple and Gold Day. No animosity, serious creativity. Have costume contests be included in the Spirit Points.

4. End all 2nd Period rallies. Having pep rallies during classroom instruction time is beyond me. If you are going to have rallies, make them at the end of the day or after school. I understand the desire for inclusion, but those that don't want to go end up not going to the 2nd period rallies and feel more left out because it should be school time. Rallies should never be mandatory and never be during instruction.

5. Extend the attendance Spirit Point category for a full month before Homecoming. Make it worth more.

6. Add a Community Service category to Homecoming. Have judges, administration, and student leadership sit down and figure out a list of project that can be done to benefit the community, and then the classes can chose and complete a community service task. Points can be awarded for originality, importance to community, efficient usage of community resources, creating connections between the community and the high school, and next-gen enhancement of Ukiah ('Green Projects', technology use, application of global awareness). The potential is enormous. And no, money is not a limitation. I've seen the dollars spent on the current Homecoming situations, and the money is there.

In the end, it's the standard hypocrisy that I see in society that is being reflected in the current incarnation of Homecoming, and that is the general frustration. I love seeing the kids happy and excited, but the message is wrong and in the end, teachers will be the one's taking the brunt end of test results and media throw-downs. I would love to explore merit pay, but I have serious reservations with my performance being judged if the atmosphere is not working to be more conducive to academics.

So for next year, how about we ditch the idea of a "better" Homecoming, and look towards a more "productive" one.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Surprise. KIPP suffers from the same problems as everyone else.

I've been interested in the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) model of schools for a few years now, actually since reading Joanne Jacobs (link right) book Our School, which has a philosophy much like KIPP schools.  I liked the book overall, although I had problems with the image it generalized with regards to public school teachers.  KIPP has long been the darling of various media outlets and charter advocates because it manages to get students with low socio-economic status to score very well on standardized tests at the primary grade levels, and the program helps motivate kids towards a college prep environment.  What those same advocates don't like to admit is that the KIPP program suffers from the same problems as public schools; secondary school student achievement, discipline, and teacher retention.  A study was released recently that evaluated the KIPP program and came up with some very interesting results.

1.  5th and 6th grade KIPP kids are doing much better than public schools on the tests.  In fact, statistics show that up to 40% higher scores were received at KIPP, proof that this is a serious improvement that should be looked at by other institutions.

2.  Student attrition before the end of 8th grade is an incredible 60%.  This answers quite a few questions regarding whether the mighty KIPP can all of the sudden hold sway over the elephant that is the Great American Teenager.  It also explains some of the secondary test results, which may be inflated because some of the lower level students are gone by high school.

3.  Teachers are usually from high end colleges.  Personally, I find little difference from a teacher that has a degree from Stanford versus someone that has a degree from Sacramento State.  Subject matter competency only goes so far when dealing with high school students and learning the in's and out's of a classroom isn't something that any college will prepare you for.

4.  Teachers are leaving KIPP.  Up to 50% of all teachers leave KIPP for some other function.  Teachers also report an average 65 hour work week.  Welcome to the profession.  I spend about 45 hours a week actually in my classroom, and that doesn't include basketball, Model UN, or grading papers evenings and weekends.  I would agree with 65 being the regular hours.  During basketball season, I pull way more than 65. 

5.  KIPP schools are struggling to operate at current funding levels.  That's interesting because when public schools state that they are struggling, it's called whining.

6.  KIPP students go to school 9.5 hours a day.  Public school students aren't forced to attend classes above the required credits, and parents often don't want them to.  Students, especially high school level, are encouraged to get a job when they are of age.  Most Seniors don't attend school more than 4 hours at Ukiah because they don't feel that they need to when they are finished with credits.

The teacher retention piece is what is fascinating to me because when you read the report, you find that the young teachers who are quitting are simply saying that the workload is much too demanding to take on year after year.   

The time is really challenging. I am coming up against a wall of how much I can give. It is getting
to be too much. This is not a place I plan to leave anytime soon. I just need to find a way to
balance my life. I definitely plan to see it through as far as possible. It is dear to me. I just need to
figure out how to make it work.

That comment comes from a teacher in the report.  It is not something that is unfamiliar to me.  I've heard this from young teachers everywhere that feel like they are giving up their lives to a profession that won't allow them to live otherwise.  And while I think higher pay is part of the answer (simple economic reasoning), the real issue is more along the lines of "is MORE teaching actually EFFECTIVE teaching".  The study showed that teachers at both KIPP and public schools spend the same amount of time in classroom instruction, but that KIPP teachers end up doing more outside of that instruction environment.  Yes, test scores for some grade levels is up.  But is it really working?  Teachers and students are leaving in substantial numbers.  Is that necessarily success?

Hopefully society wakes up sometime and realizes that it needs to work on the whole system of education, not just create a "different" model that does some things better, yet fails in other areas and disregards some of the essential issues within the problem.  Why not work on making education better for everyone?  Simply shifting valuable education funds to something else is definitely not working.  You know what does work?  Good academic institutions that have good leadership from the top down, regardless of whether or not they are charter or public.  I've been watching Michelle Rhee's reorganization of the Washington D.C. schools with interest, and I see it as a prime example of someone who is coming in, making the tough decisions and actually working towards creating a fine academic institution.  When the teacher's union comes in-between the implementation of progress, she ends up making them a professional offer that any good teacher couldn't refuse and puts the pressure on the union to concede, or decides that accountability is necessary and starts to clean house.  Oh look, a competent administrator who wants to pay teachers a lot of money, kick out teachers that suck, and expects that with that money comes actual education.  Looks real nice to me. 

And it isn't even a charter school.              

Calm down already

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It is sad that around Campaign season, the American people all of the sudden go into partisan brain-dead mode. 

While we are in the midst of a very important election, one that will determine which direction the country will choose going into the meat of the 21st Century, people are using the time to make idiot observations and insane innuendos that really have nothing to do with leading the strongest nation on the planet.  I see less and less real discussion on how to attack the issues that matter (real economics, the war, national security, education, health care), and more focus on moronic hyperbole that makes the world image of the American voter drive all other global citizens straight into the arms of their local dictator, socialist dreamer, or any other scheming politician. 

Is Obama too black?  Is McCain too old?  Is Obama a Muslim?  Is McCain a Christian fundamentalist?  Is Biden a degenerate mob-corrupt lackey?  Is Palin plain stupid?  Can Obama say "Change" one more time so my ears bleed?  Can Palin see anything other than Russia from her house?  Does Obama know anything about foreign policy?  Does McCain know anything about Economics?  Will Barack Obama create a socialist police state bent on ending our Constitutional freedoms?  Will John McCain create a fascist police state bent on ending our Constitutional freedoms?

Christ, do we really sound this stupid?    Unfortunately yes.  And worse, we haven't become educated enough to know when both sides spur it on.  Yes, Obama can handle major foreign policy decisions.  Not only will he be well informed, he's going to have some very good military minds to help him out.  Same with McCain.  The senior Senator from Arizona knows plenty about Economics, both in experience (head of the Commerce Committee many times) and in people that will be advising him. 

We are more partisan now than in any time in our nation's history.  Do our established democracy a favor and don't play into the partisanship.  Regardless of what you might think, the world will not end if either McCain or Obama becomes president.  Both put a good face on the office of the Leader of the Free World, and both would do a better job than the current occupant.  Don't be a prejudicial fool by calling McCain voters ignorant religious zealots that care only about pulling the country downward.  And don't be paranoid moron by watching kids sing about Obama and thinking that the children will the next SS in the Obama Socialist Army.  Use your brain and help the country.

And you can start by reading about the Biden-Palin debate

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

God, I Hate Formal Lesson Planning

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I'm sitting here right now making a formal lesson plan for the Teaching American History Project, and I'm being reminded why I hate making these damn things.  The actual lesson plan asks for so much hoop jumping crap that a teacher that is excited by an idea eventually becomes totally exhausted by writing down pages of information that is just not necessary.  Good teaching is good teaching.  Writing down every single English Language Learner instruction model is not necessary.  It provides nothing to making the lesson plan actually work.  Neither does writing down every single Social Studies Standard, Language Arts Standard, or any other government mandated crap that does no good to teaching the lesson. 

Those rookie teachers that start from the Day One need to know that in the beginning, having all your own instructions for the lesson (the actual application of the lesson) is the most important thing.  It helps give you a point of reference and a sense of direction when you begin to teach your class.  The rest is "standards and practices" telling you that they need evidence that you know what you are teaching.  For now, start with details for the content part of your lesson.  Eventually you will find that you don't need it and everything will flow.  For instance, I haven't had a formal lesson plan in about 6 years, but I still plan my ass off for the semester because it makes my teaching better.  However, writing down every standard known to man does nothing for my teaching except make me wish I wasn't doing it.   Seriously, if teachers had to make daily formal lesson plans, I probably wouldn't be here.  There comes a time when the cost of making them outweighs any benefit they give.  Credential program instructors should know that. 

Ok, back to it.  Let me read through those Language Arts standards...........

Sunday, September 28, 2008

CTA goes for your wallet, and you need to ask them not to

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Last year I watched in horror as the site reps in my local union voted to raise the union dues on our membership without taking it out to a vote.  Furious, I let them know in my own diplomatic way that I thought they were doing a strong injustice to hard working teachers by basically stealing from them.  They response I got was, "It's in the bylaws". 

Last week I received a message from our union about a little money grab that the CTA is now a party to, one that fills the coffers of the organization while slyly making it necessary for you to ask to be removed from this "voluntary donation".  The CTA is "voluntarily" collecting a $20 "donation" from CTA members that don't opt out of the contribution by a paper form that your union should have or by going to the CTA web site.  Be warned, you need to sign up for the CTA site with your CTA card number and go through a variety of confirmation process before you click "Refund" under the voluntary donation link on the web site. 

Anyone else see a major problem with an organization whose expressed message is to protect you, but instead uses manipulation to take money from its membership?  I don't know about you, but I didn't receive any message at all, including a ballot, that stated that a dues increase was going to be taken from me. 

Go sign in to the CTA and get your money back. 

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The T-Shirt

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You can count on a student to push the boundaries of the First Amendment every so often, and here is the latest example of the argument between the golden amendment and the right's of the public good.

Apparently Daxx Dalton, a fifth grader at a school in Colorado, wore the above shirt to school (the one on top), got into scuffles with kids, was asked to turn it inside out, refused, and was suspended. The father then called the school officials a bunch of "liberal loons" and is going to sue the school. The edublogosphere is going nuts over the topic, which I caught at Joanne Jacobs (see blogroll). I can't really post a response there because some of those commentators are so out of touch with reality that it is scary. Let's analyze the issue a little more objectively, shall we?

The issue would fall under the court decision Tinker vs. Des Moines, which basically says that a school district can't infringe on a student's freedom of political expression unless it threatens the learning process at the school. What does that mean exactly? Well, it isn't something that can be nailed down. However,the precedent is there that would defend the right's of the student to wear the shirt. In 2003, Bretton Barber wore the above shirt (the one on the bottom) to school and had a similar situation occur (although without scuffles) in which the kid was suspended for refusing to get rid of the shirt. Barber won his case in federal court. In fact, most of the these cases are going towards the student's right to political expression. So the issue of whether or not the shirt is legal is pretty simple.

The main difference, and the real issue of the shirt, is whether or not it disrupts the learning environment, something that can be interpreted in a very broad spectrum. Obviously it created a problem, but there actually has to be intent to cause a disturbance and a history of that image/symbol/shirt causing a problem on campus. This comes from a myriad of court cases regarding the Confederate flag, which is allowed in some schools and banned in others based on the intent and history stated above. While you could probably easily could prove intent, the history part is much more foggy and will be difficult to justify. In this case, the kid still has the right to have the shirt.

I would argue that neither the kid nor the school district is the real problem here. The problem is Tracy Barber (mom of Brett), and Dann Dalton (dad of Daxx). Both have managed to show that parents can be complete jackasses when it comes to the simple idea of common sense. Fine, the shirts are legal, but neither shirt has a real place at school and neither were worn for any reason except to create a commotion that distracts from learning. Bretton Barber's shirt is not anti-war, it's a little kid who is trying to stir up controversy because he hasn't learned how express himself in an academic setting. Daxx Dalton's shirt is much worse. It's a father taking advantage of his 5th grade son to promote a political agenda because the father doesn't have the testicles to to protest for himself in a public forum. That shirt isn't more disturbing because of the message or that it's Obama, it's disturbing because the kid is a tool of an absolute moron.

Look, you're not going to get a bigger supporter of First Amendment rights than myself, especially in the classroom. But along with those rights comes something that I try to impress on kids, responsibility. While both shirts are acceptable under the law, the parents failed to act in a manner that promotes the responsible protection of the First Amendment. Instead, both made a mockery of it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Yes, it's teaching

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During the first week of my teaching credential program, I walked up to one of my college professors to ask that I leave orientation about 30 minutes early because I was going to coach my Bidwell Junior High School team in our own tournament. She made the comment, "Now might be the time you need to choose whether you want be a coach or a teacher." I hung my head, missed the game, and sat through orientation.

About a year and a half later, I teacher at Ukiah High School came up to me and said, "You need to focus on your reputation as a teacher, not a coach. If you get the reputation as a coach, you'll never be well respected." I nodded in quick agreement and made a half-hearted effort to keep the two separated, which could explain why I wasn't a very good coach for a few years.


Both these people were dead wrong and fed into the stereotype that coaches can't be effective in the classroom because they are too busy trying to get jocks to win useless athletic games. Very rarely is it taken into account that a vast majority of school populations participate in athletics, or that athletics themselves actually increase a student's academic performance. I would go beyond both facts and present to you this thesis; coaching is more about good teaching than classroom teaching is.


Yep, you heard me right. Think about something like basketball and let's look at the what the end result, or the (buzzword) OBJECTIVE, is. It isn't winning, and any good coach will tell you that winning is not the end all of athletics. If the coach preaches that philosophy, then the coach isn't a good teacher. That's something that isn't just in athletics. Examples of bad teaching are in plenty of classrooms so get off that high horse right now. The objective is preparing students for the challenges of society on an academic, mental, physical, and emotional level that is higher than standard physical education classes. Consider it Advanced Placement Physical Education, only the students put more time and dedication into these classes than the students in the classroom.
Now let's look at the planning, something that is vital to good teaching. My outline is set every day, created with a goal in mind and the flexibility to adjust with situations that might require some creativity. Those plans require that I understand student needs, facilitate learning to multiple modalities, evaluate student progress based on multiple assessments, and finally give a culminating assignment. The wonderful part of coaching is that you are doing this lesson every day, with assessment going on constantly, and culminating assignments occurring every time a game happens. Instead of waiting for idiotic, and quite frankly inaccurate, test scores that measure student progress, a teacher gets to watch the progress build in front of his/her eyes, and then compare to other students during game day. It is the most fulfilling assessment there is!


Then you add on all the external benefits of athletics; sportsmanship, character building, team building, perseverance, image......all those things that parents sometimes miss when raising kids, and you have coaches being the ultimate teachers. And again, I get that there are coaches that are the model of John Goodman in Revenge of the Nerds. Those people are bad teachers, just like those other bad teachers that don't happen to coach.

I bring this up because I was back on the court last week and dead tired, yet the kids seemed to give me that burst of energy and that flow that only comes from the knowledge that you know that the kids are "getting it". Then I watched the group of kids that I coached get out there and play some mighty fine defense (something I love to watch my teams do) and it was like I was on a high, back to the good old stomping grounds of the basketball court. Classrooms don't need desks, white boards, and STAR testing questions to be good teaching environments. When schools, and coaches, realize that coaching is simply teaching magnified, then athletics will get a better reputation than it's current state. Classroom teachers need to also see the value in athletics as something beyond the development of physical strength, especially since the student is more likely to do well academically if he/she is in a sport. Finally, community members need to realize that coaching is teaching, and that we get paid even less to put up with much more pressure from parents. While winning in competitive situations is a part of the curriculum of student athletics, the benefit is moot if the teacher isn't allowed to put it in its proper perspective.

Just like in the classroom, we are professionals.