Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Northwest Wine Trip, Day Three

Those of you that have wine tasted in California know that it can be an expensive and frustrating experience.  Winery employees can be snobby and pushy while asking for a $10 tasting fee for juice that you wouldn't feed your mother-in-law.  The farther away from Napa you get, the more reasonable the wine makers expectation regarding tasting.  We love the Anderson Valley because it still has some of the small town charm.  We had hoped that Walla Walla had that same charm. It entirely depended on the winery, some being Napa style snobby, while others being much more down to earth.  Unfortunately, the wines are priced more like Napa than Mendocino County, and that's not really a good thing.  Note, Walla Walla is waaaayyyyyyyy in Eastern Washington.  It is literally nowhere.  However, you can spend days here and not hit all the wineries.  There are that many.

So how does one taste at a lot of wineries on a budget?  Here are Coach Brown's tips.
1.  Do your research.  I read Wine Spectator not necessarily for the ratings, but the consistent tasting notes.  Good wines are good wines, and Wine Spectator does a nice job pointing out gems.  However, there are wine forums all over the Internet that supply even better info on good wine.  Here and there are articles about every wine region you can think of.  Use them and plot out a flexible plan for visits.
2.  Buy 90% of the wine at a grocery store.  We buy very little at the tasting room, and save a vast majority of our money for Safeway, Albertsons, Trader Joe's, and Raley's.  Six or more bottles get you 10% off, and in Oregon there is no sales tax.  Fresh Market in Richland, Washington had nearly every bottle we tasted, for a couple dollars less, and with discount for a bulk buy.
3.  Taste only those you like and share the taste.  We tasted primarily Cabernets, Cab Francs, Red Blends, and on occasion, Merlot, Riesling, and Sav Blanc.  We avoided White Blends, Syrahs, and a bunch of grapes that are usually used in blending that are now the rage to make as drinking wine.  Also, share the taste. A good tasting room server will give you a little more wine, it will keep both your palettes cleaner, and you can taste more wine.
4.  You never deserve bad service.  Walk away from wineries that act pretentious and pushy.  Pretty tasting rooms and high prices don't make for good wine.  And remember, tasting room employees are salesmen.  The pitch should be nice, never pushy.  The industry is currently in a phase where more and more people are looking for wine under $20.  They should be treating you with respect, not distain.
5.  Tasting does not always equal buying.  Some people get all bent out of shape when you taste wine and then don't buy.  That's bad form.  It's really ok to walk away.

Now for Day 3.  Oh, a note for Walla Walla wineries.  There are four primary regions.  Western wineries are on the way into town on the main highway (Highway 12).  Southern wineries are south of town and the scenery is much like that you would find in Sonoma and Napa.  Downtown tasting rooms are....downtown.  And region four is the airport. A bunch of wineries are in an industrial park at the airport, and yes, they are worth going to.

Columbia Gorge
Drive:  First thirty miles from Portland look like something out of Fellowship of the Ring, when the group is paddling up that tremendous river gorge.  It is really beautiful.
Go to:  Multnomah Falls (easy on and off freeway center meridan), and Hood River.  The falls are great and the town of Hood River is very quaint.   It's the home of Tofurkey, which will never find its way into my belly.
Don't go to:  The Dalles.  Why go?  It seemed sort of blah.
Tip:  Look somewhere near the north end of The Dalles for one of the largest Google server farms in the world.  Google plugs into the Dalles dam for all its power needs.

Columbia Crest Winery, Horse Heaven Hills, Washington.
Outside:  Drive up through the vineyards to a sprawling mansion estate overlooking the Columbia River.  Nice picnic area.
Inside:  Massive and ornate interior that looked and felt plush.  Tasting room itself was large and fairly standard, with the usual tourist trinkets. 
Service:  Retired ladies that were nice, but seemed to get on each others nerves.  It was interesting to watch their interactions.
Product:  Usual Columbia Crest wines and some reserve wines that many people don't know about.  The Walter Clore and reserve wines are quite good if you haven't had them, and the H3 Cab is some of our favorite.  But the product is very overpriced.  Go to the supermarket or (for reserves) Beverages and More.  Tasting fee for reserves.
Did we buy?  No.  Too expensive.

L'Ecole #41 Winery in Lowden, Washington
Outside:  Winery is in an old school house next to Highway 12.  It is very cute.
Inside:  A multi-level, quaint building that is small, but very comfortable.  The tasting room has a definite schoolhouse theme with rulers and pencils for sale, and a tasting bar that is made out of chalk board (yes, you can write on it).
Service:  Mellow, polite, easy to talk to, and knowledgeable.  It's how the tasting room is supposed to be.
Product:  The normal cabs (which are a bit pricey) are damn good.  In fact, we like them more than their reserves.  Standard red blend was fine, but too expensive to justify.  Overall, their cabs set the standard for most of the trip.  There was a tasting fee, but it was waived when we bought some bottles.
Did we buy?  Yes.  And we stopped by on the way out of town and bought more.

Waterbrook Winery in Walla Walla, Washington
Outside:  A huge desert style, modern building that has a fantastic outdoor lounge area.  It looks like something you might find at a high style desert resort.
Inside:  Modern and spacious.  Tasting room counter isn't the only place they will serve you.  Tables and a couple of couches are also there for your relaxation.
Service:  Depended on the person.  Both employees were college age girls.  One was very nice, had good info, and was pleasant to work with.  About 3/4 of the way into our tasting, she disappeared and was replaced by a girl who seemed extraordinary put out that we were there.  During our last taste, the original girl was back and all was better.  Tasting fee was waived with purchase.
Product:  Cheaper white and red blends were pretty good (called Melange).  Higher end stuff was ok.
Did we buy?  Yes.

Cougar Crest Winery in Walla Walla, Washington
Outside:  Nice looking patio with a moderate looking building.  Nice and simple feel.
Inside:  Large and spacious tasting room with an interesting "library" area that is sunken in with their higher rated wines.  Long tasting counter.  Weird smell upon entering.
Service:  Two gentlemen behind the counter.  Both were pleasant, although the guy that was working with us was bordering on pushy.  We skipped a couple of wines that they insisted that we try.  We obliged and they were enjoyable, but we also were a little annoyed.  Tasting regular wines was free and the reserves had a fee.  We only tasted one reserve, and the gentleman waived the fee.
Product:  Cougar Crest has had some major success with reds lately.  The cabs were actually pretty darn good, and some of the "Dedication" blends were also a success.  But again, the prices were not worth the purchase.  They ended up being $12-$20 more than we were really willing to pay for.  Good move too, because we found Dedication at grocery stores for sale prices.  But if you have some bucks, the vino is well worth it.  Nice that they also didn't charge us for a single reserve taste.
Did you buy?  No.

Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla, Washington
Outside:  Outside of the main downtown area of Walla Walla, in a simple brick building.  You can almost drive right by it. 
Inside: Small room that doesn't have much in it, and a small tasting counter.
Service:  One college age and one middle aged woman.  The middle aged woman served us.  She was fine.
Product:  We have heard all the raves about the quality of Seven Hills wine.  The one bottle we tried earlier on was fine, but not fantastic.  We were hoping for better tasting room results.  We were disappointed.  They didn't have many of the cabs to taste and the one they did have open was the same one we tried earlier in the week.  Because we didn't try most of the wines, they waived the tasting fee.
Did you buy?  No.

Whitman Winery in Walla Walla, Washington
Outside:  Mission style setup in town, actually away from the downtown.  Cute.
Inside:  Simple little room with a small tasting counter and not much else.  Some trinkets for sale.
Service:  Single woman who was a retired teacher and very pleasant to talk to.  Ended up staying longer than we would have because she was so pleasant. 
Product:  Wine was fine, but again, too expensive to justify interest.
Did you buy?  No.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Northwest Wine Trip, Intro and Day 1/2

For our ten year anniversary, my wife and I decided that it would be fitting to celebrate by doing what we did during our honeymoon.  Wine-taste.  The problem is that when you live in "wine-country", your options become limited in regards to new and exquisite tastes.  The answer was a road trip to new "wine country", the valleys of Eastern Washington, home to excellent Cabernet and Bordeaux blends.  The hope was that we could experience the joys of good wine on a budget, and still come home with a case or two at limited expense.  This is the trip review.

And if you are looking for an education related post, move along.

Overall Road Trip:
Day One- Ukiah - Ashland - Medford - Rice Hill - Portland
Day Two- Portland
Day Three- Portland - Columbia River Gorge - Horse Heaven Hills - Walla Walla
Day Four- Walla Walla - Tri Cities
Day Five- Tri Cities - Yakima Valley
Day Six- Tri Cities - Columbia River Gorge - Corvallis
Day Seven- Corvallis - Ashland - Ukiah

Day One:

Rogue Creamery in Medford, Oregon.
Outside:  Totally unassuming small building on the side of the road.
Inside:  A cheese lovers dream.  Samples are everywhere and the smells will drive you to buy.
Service: Excellent.  The people want you to sample and are super helpful.
Product:  Outstanding.  Love the garlic cheddar, the Oregon Blue, and the Rosemary cheddar.
Tip:  Sample as many cheeses as you want and buy those that you really like.  We bought some fantastic cheeses that ended up (with crackers) being lunches for a majority of the trip.

Peggy's Restaurant in Rice Hill, Oregon.
Outside:  Huge "Peggy's" on a small building off the freeway.
Inside:  Looks like a small diner.
Service:  Nice.  We were the only ones in there with a sweet waitress and what seemed to be a grumpy cook.  The waitress was a real sweetheart though.
Product:  Great pies and delicious Umpqua ice cream
Tip:  There's a walk-up ice cream counter outside. Warning, an ice cream cone is a huge serving.

Dragonwell Asian Bistro in Portland, Oregon.
Outside:  Downtown corner restaurant with outside seating.
Inside:  Modern Asian flair.  Clean, simple, with a nice looking bar.  Very cold.
Service:  Fine.  Food served on interesting plates and the plum sauce for the mushu pork was set on fire for a nice presentation.
Product:  Lousy. The drink was lousy, the food was average to poor, and that bad Asian flavor followed me into the next day.  Worst chow mein ever.
Tip:  Go somewhere else.

Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon.
Outside:  Huge city block building with a parking garage.
Inside:  The largest bookstore known to mankind.  Seriously, three floors, a block long, and you get a map for it at the door.  Not tough to navigate though.
Service:  Ok.  Some of the help desk people seemed bored.
Product:  New and used books at reasonable prices.  Picked up some good reading.
Tip:  Two blocks down the street is another Powell's that carries all the non-fiction "technology" related books.  It's big too.

Porcelli's in south Portland, Oregon.
Outside:  A small bistro in a residential neighborhood.
Inside:  Spaced out seating and a little chilly.  Kitchen is very open.
Service:  Slowwwww.   Waitress was young and took her time.  One cook and the place was basically empty.
Product:  Quite good.  Pizza with the works was great, and the mac-n-cheese was surprisingly fantastic.  Great tiramisu too.
Tip:  The bottles of wine in the case are pretty good for the price.

International Test Garden in Washington Park, Portland, Oregon.
Outside:  Beautiful park just west of downtown Portland.
Inside:  Roses of every imaginable variety in bloom.  It was mellow, stunning, and totally different.  The views of Mount Hood are cool too.
Service:  Lots of polite people are willing to answer questions.
Product:  Roses.  Duh.
Tip:  Park somewhere else and walk to the Garden.  The park is big, but the walk will be beautiful.

Residence Inn, Cascade Station, Portland Oregon.
Outside:  Standard Residence Inn
Inside Room:  Huge, and for the price, really damn good. Full kitchen, suite, huge television.  Right at the airport, but we never heard the planes.
Bathroom:  Not bad at all.
Service:  Nice and attentive.
Tip:  The MAX rail station is right at the hotel.  The ride is 30 minutes to downtown, but it is almost a push with the risk of Portland traffic, which is a nightmare!


Friday, July 23, 2010

Require the RSS?

Dangerously Irrelevant posted an interesting question a couple of weeks back that goes to that overreaching idea that school districts make better teachers.  The question was simple.  Should school districts require that employees have loaded RSS readers that they are required to read as part of their professional development?

What’s interesting here is not the concept of RSS.  I’ve been reading responses that seem to focus on the idea that you can’t force teachers to become technologically more literate, and that being forced to reading online material is like teaching an old dog new tricks, which is the same lame excuse you can use for anything new in the world. The real topic here is professional development and the confidence that teachers have that school districts are requiring something worthwhile.  I’ve been to a variety of professional development workshops/trainings in the last ten years, focusing on everything from technology to curriculum to state standards integration.  Ninety percent of my professional development is done voluntarily, meaning I do it because I want to, not because my school asks me to.  Here’s what I’ve found about my experience with professional development.

-I’ve learned more regarding the art and science of teaching from blogs.  The best professional development, without a doubt, is collaboration.  What better way to collaborate than with hundreds, if not thousands of other educators. 

-I like good professional development, and I’ll gladly pay for it.  My wife and I are paying for two nights in San Francisco to attend an Economics conference that we’ve attended twice previously, in 2002 and 2005.  Yes, it is that good.

-I detest bad professional development.  It is a monumental waste of my human capital.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember a good use of professional development within my own district.  I don’t think that’s the districts fault all the time.  We are talking about different levels and different subjects in teaching.

And here’s the crux of the matter.  I’m a professional educator that already uses RSS feeds to keep up with anything and everything.  If I want Classroom 2.0 help I nail CoolCatTeacher.  Updated Comparative Government help?  Thank you oh great Ken Wedding.  Teacher links to everything known to mankind?  Hello Larry Ferlazzo!  And that is three subscriptions out of the some 150 that I check every day.  Most I skim.  But I’m constantly on the quest to remain up-to-date and relevant.  With the subjects that I teach, I need to remain on top of everything.  I think I know better of what I need to know to maintain good teaching skills.  I don’t expect my employer to constantly spoon feed me professional development because they really don’t know much about what I need to be successful.  Seriously, does the Super, any Board members, or 99% of the  district office personnel know anything about the Iranian Twitter Uprising, Pigou Taxes, Cloture Votes, the primary figures of Transcendentalism, or how to incorporate authenticated RSS feeds from a social network to Twitter and Facebook?  The answer is no, and I shouldn’t expect them to. 

Dumping the RSS expectation, here’s what I would expect from my district, and what I would gander the district expects from me.

-I don’t expect Professional Development from the district.  And I want to reach over and slap those teachers who complain that the district doesn’t offer enough professional development because those are the same teachers who will complain that the professional development sucks.

-I do expect the district to pay me, on occasion, when I find professional development that is justifiably excellent.  That has happened twice, both Advanced Placement Conferences, one in Seattle and one in Denver.  The one in Seattle was fully paid for, and the one in Denver had the registration paid for.  I paid for the plane, the lodging, and the food.  I was lucky to even get that.  Both conferences were excellent and necessary, and I shouldn’t really have to pay a dime for them because they will end up benefitting the district.  I stay at cheap hotels, eat cheap food, and find cheap airfare.  At the same time, those that abuse conference stipends should be fired.  Period.

-I do expect the district to find me responsible enough to know my craft, and to constantly be finding the best way to present that craft.  And no, I don’t think you have to go to Denver every summer to do it.  Every year a teacher should be changing and updating, finding what works and manipulating the less efficient ways of doing things.  That doesn’t mean every teacher needs to read RSS feeds every day.   It can be collaboration, books, magazines, all kinds of methods can be used.  RSS feeds are just simpler method of getting information from a variety of sources to a single entity.

Forcing RSS feeds on teachers is not the best idea.  The amount of information present in the blogosphere is immense and ever-changing.  Even if the district were to recommend ten blogs per subject, we are talking about a significant amount of extra time involved in reading those blogs, and most will then try to hunt for others.  This creates an RSS Reader with hundreds of subscriptions that need to be filtered, organized, and eventually analyzed.  That’s a whole lot of time.  Let the teacher be responsible for maintaining professional and updated standards, but forcing the vehicle is a little over the top.    

AP scores, a story of extremes

It’s really hard to sound like you aren’t making excuses when talking about the results of tests.  In this post, I may sound like I’m trying to cover my ass in report my scores.  I’m really not.  I’m trying to analyze them in the proper context while fully admitting that I could probably do some things better for student success.  However, I’ll still reflect on what every Advanced Placement workshop instructor has told me over the last 4 years.

“In the end, it’s the student who needs to own the test.”

First the good news.  16 out of 18 students passed my AP U.S. History test.  That’s an 89% passing average on a test that has historically been at around the national average for awhile.  I was thrilled!  Those students that received a 5 on the test (the highest possible score) were definitely able to score the maximum  and it was nice to see the follow through.  Mind you, I made plenty of mistakes on pacing and didn’t get enough DBQ practice in, but I’m not sure that it would have made a whole lot of difference on the test.  Pacing?  Yes.  DBQ practice?  Probably not.  That bodes well for next year when I can polish things up and focus on sticking with the game plan (a necessity for AP classes), barring the usual distractions (assemblies, Homecoming, blah, blah).

Now the bad news.  My days of having 80% plus passing the Comparative Government exam ended this year.  Only 49% (27 out of 55) passed the test, a few points below the national average.  Of course I poured over the scores for a good long while and tried to look at the common traits of the people that didn’t pass and I found a few.  Here’s a little early analysis.

-Of the 28 that didn’t pass, six surprised me.  That means that before the test I could have pointed to the other 22 students that said that they did not have a strong chance at passing the test.  The six that didn’t pass concern me because they should have at least passed the exam with a 3, and probably much better. 

-Of the 28 that didn’t pass, nearly half missed at least ten percent of the class for one reason or another.  Attendance reared its ugly head for me this year with my Seniors and my test scores (much like my grades) paid for it. 

-None of my Second Language students passed.  Zero. 

I get a full grasp of the test until I get the question breakdown back sometime in August.  That way I can see where students excelled and where students where stupefied on examination questions.

I’ll own up to the passing rate because I accepted the choice to open up the class.  I went with the statistics that show that students even attempting to take Advanced Placement classes and the test do better in college.  Well, I’m done with that train of thought at this moment because I spent way too much time on average students taking an AP class, but not wanting to really become AP students.  After going around and around about the scores for the last week, and going back and looking at my schedule and how I altered it, I think I slowed down for students and ended up not doing a thorough enough job.  By the time April came along, I actually had to worry about students passing and graduating, and the AP test became a lower priority, thus robbing many of a better chance of getting full information.  And what’s more frustrating is that the number of students that asked for help could be counted on ONE HAND!  Online didn’t help, after school didn’t help, lunch didn’t help.  The one review session that met before the test killed the damn thing.  And they were texting me questions that I was gladly answering while driving down to a Giants game!

Oh well, nothing like mediocrity to motivate me to get my scores up to that 80% level for both classes.  AP Comp Gov was overbooked for next year and I had to turn away people.  APUSH has a full class, but the same problem remains that there are students that don’t belong in that class.  And I can hear the argument now, “everyone should have the opportunity to take an advanced class”.  You’re telling me that students that fail English and World History should get into an advanced class?  Yeah, we might want to focus on keeping the class at a high level by bringing in students that really want to achieve, not pump up grade point averages and then distract the instructor by panicking when graduation rolls around.           

Monday, July 19, 2010

This didn’t have to happen (Updated 7/19)

I didn’t know whether or not to bring this up.  I knew about it at the beginning of this last school year, but it’s a very dicey issue and I chose to avoid it.  Well, it’s news now, not only locally but around the state as well, and I’d figure to throw it out there to show the massive immaturity of members within our district.
Our negotiating team, lead by Mr. Dennis Boaz, released a report out to the membership near the beginning of the school year.  In the report it was stated that “the tenor of the negotiation tactics of the (district office) has become increasingly negative and niggardly”.  As you might imagine, there was a problem with the wording of the statement, especially due to the fact that the Superintendent of Ukiah Unified is black.  It caused quite the firestorm.  The District AND the County Office of Education wrote a letter to our union condemning the language and stating, "This memo is formal notice to UTA that Mr. Boaz's communication is insulting and unacceptable ... (and) racism or suggested racism has absolutely no place in this district.”  Mr. Boez in turn sued the District for damage to his reputation, and physical and emotional stress.
Two things to start.  No, I don’t think that Mr. Boez is a racist.  And yes, I think the small claims case is a joke and should be thrown out.  If you read Boez’s own comments in the article you can see that he’s trying to elicit a reaction from the District, something he was strongly discouraged from doing by members of the Union.  He did it anyway and the District told him off in strong terms, to which he claims a variety of damages.  Look, I don’t know about his home life, but having been to plenty of union meetings, I would gather that he relished the attention a hell of a lot more than he was damaged from it.  And members of the union had be asking for his removal from the Bargaining Team during the previous year. 
The whole incident pretty much typifies our current leadership’s negotiating style.  They allowed this report to come out, accepted no responsibility for it, and then cried foul when called out.  It ended up taking up the time that should have gone towards working on the Districts fiscal situation.  One wonders how anyone on the other side of the table respects us at all. 
Note to new teachers, unions are entirely political, yet necessary for the current climate that teachers are working in.  In my district, very few new teachers (working 8 years or less) have come forward to make their thoughts known.  I understand the probationary teachers, they have no protection.  But tenured teachers are often given a bad name because they are associated, by force, with groups of people that don’t always think about the good of the group.  And don’t say “Agency Fee Payer” either, the Union still negotiates my wages, working conditions, health care, and benefits.  So, get involved.  And if the structure seems nasty and corrupt, work on tearing it down and starting anew.  Remember, even Tammany Hall came to an end. 
Oh, and with that $7,500 Mr Boaz is looking for, I could fund the basketball program (three boys’ teams) for about two years.

Updated July 2, 2010

Mr. Boaz didn't get his cash and the judge ruled in favor of the District.  Good, move on. 

Updated July 19, 2010

Looks like Mr. Boaz has extended his fifteen minutes of fame thanks to the Ukiah Daily Journal.  Surprise, he's writing a book that looks to include the current situation.  Remember when you read the article that this man lead our negotiating team.  

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

What worked, what didn’t

So the 2009-2010 year is history.  How about a little review of what worked and what didn’t in terms my teaching year.

1)  Engage students by using cell phones in the classroom while maintaining a consistent policy.   They can simply turn it off if it rings, but it’s mine for a day if they text.  Did it work?

Not really.   The use of cell phones was second on my list of classroom management issues (the first being attendance) and it really didn’t get better, even with Seniors.  I used cell phones on occasion to start conversations using Polleverywhere.com by asking questions and not fearing the phone.  The conversations were good for the most part.  But the problem of texting in the classroom remained an issue.  Three times during the year  I had students (we are talking Seniors in high school) throw complete tantrums over their phone being confiscated for 24 hours.  One cried her eyes out, called Dad, and Dad told me to give it back to her.  I obliged of course, I didn’t have much choice.  I think about kicking students out of class for texting, but that defeats the purpose of keeping them here. 

2)  Attendance policy.  Ignore tardies if totally irregular (once a month is not a big deal).  Give attendance contracts and enforce them if there is a trend.  Did it work?

No, and it was partly my fault for trying to treat high school kids with the same responsibility as adults.  By the end of the year the tardy issue was a nightmare and I became furious at the lack of simple common sense, like the over half-dozen students showing up late for a Final.  The problem was that I wasn’t as consistent as I should have been.  I also didn’t keep good book records because the computer attendance was available.  This lead to inconstant policies and enforcement, and in the end, abuse of my attendance policy.  On the occasions that it was followed, parents would come flying down to the high school crying because the mean teacher put their perfect kid on an attendance contract.  Here’s an interesting bit; I had more trouble with my AP classes and attendance than my college prep classes.  Go figure.  Next year everything is in writing and records have to be consistent.  That will take away from class time, but in the end the issues won’t come up later.

3)  Open enrollment Advanced Placement, two full classes.  Did it work? 

Sort of.  By the end of the year I had 68 Advanced Placement Government students.  The two that dropped out during the year went on Independent Study.  More people took the AP exam (55) than ever.  However, there were not 68 AP students in my classes.  How many were really AP students?  Maybe 50….maybe.  I know that sounds mean, but with Seniors in high it becomes a lot more touchy when college entrance, scholarships, and maybe even graduation rests on passing AP Gov.  Students that weren’t used to an AP English or History class were shocked at the amount of reading, angered by the lack of busy work, and constantly complaining that their grade deserved to be higher because they were trying hard.  Students left for a week of vacation in January and February with explicit instructions regarding what they needed to know for tests and quizzes.  One student nearly missed a month in Mexico.  All of them came back and totally bombed on the assessment.  That is a clear difference between an AP caliber kid and a college prep kid.  College prep kids go on cruises in February and don’t do a thing and get slaughtered on tests.  AP kids go to look at colleges in March for a week and come back having read the required material, and do fine.  I also noticed a huge grade drop after college acceptance letters came in.  Then came the pressure to get a “C” or better in the class when they sluffed off for two months, and with that came counselor and parent calls.  “Should this kid not get into college simply because they got a “D” in your class” was a question that was asked a lot in the final two weeks of school.  A whole lot.  In the end I acquiesced and inflated grades on some students, mainly because I consider it my mistake that I opened up enrollment to kids that really can’t handle it.  When I told a counselor that I was going to tighten the requirements for next year, I was told that it wasn’t fair to close off the class to a certain population of kids.  Well, you can’t have it both fucking ways.  If a student shows no comprehension and no willingness to learn, they might fail.  If they start their vacation in April, they might not get into Cal.  Don’t want that risk?  Don’t take the class.  Anyway, I’m tightening the requirements for the course for next year.  It’s unfair for the students that I have to slow down (for academic and class management reasons) and it’s unfair to me that I have to spend weeks fielding calls from irate parents over lazy kids.

4)  Technology goes online; Aeries attendance and grade book, blog, calendar, social networking. Did it work?

Aeries was the program for attendance and the grade book.  For attendance the program works nicely.  It’s simple to use, takes two seconds to mark, and allows for ease of access and looking up past records.  The grade book is a different story. First, it was buggy.  Three students suddenly had about a half dozen assignments come up zeros out of nowhere.  That wasn’t fun to deal with.  Compared to Making the Grade (the old grade book program), Aeries was clunky, inflexible, and took way too much time to switch classes, transfer students, and change grades.  It was seriously blah.  As for the class blog, the calendar, and social networking (using Facebook and Twitter), the outcome was very predictable.  Those students that want to succeed used the materials available.  Serious students checked grades, the homework calendar, and signed up for Twitter to have updates sent to them by text message.  That meant that out of 150 kids, only about twenty of them took advantage of the online material.  The middle of the road student, the ELL student, the struggling student…..nope.  Almost no one checked grades online, somewhat because the process was too complicated for them (I couldn’t explain it), but mostly because technology isn’t going to all of the sudden make them care more.  For a majority of the Seniors, the grades don’t matter until three weeks are left in school.  Otherwise, the online work I do is fairly pointless except for those students that really want to excel.  Note to those thinking of going online, it also makes the “I want everything right now” syndrome ten-times worse.  Kids expect everything available online, at the drop of a hat, and with the ease of a Google search.  Anything less leads to complaining and more time trying to wean kids off of being enabled.  This doesn’t mean that I’m not going to use the online stuff any more, it just means that I’m going to connect more of the class to the online Interverse and demand that kids use it.  I set up a private social networking site already, have all the feeds linked to Twitter, and already I have ten soon-to-be students getting updates. 

5)  “Basketball doesn’t need real big men anymore.  The game is quicker, drive-and-kick, not slamming it in the post.”  Did it work?

Ugh, I’ve decided that I must be a basketball traditionalist because I don’t like that brand of basketball.  Undersized and full of shooters, I chose to take a different approach this year; attack-and-kick, and out score.  While we did go 15-11, it wasn’t the style I liked, was used to, or could really even tolerate.  Defense suffered as we worked so much in practice on shooting the ball and learning cuts.  Most of my practice used to be defense and moving without the ball.  I come from the old school of thought; slam it into the post and that gets your perimeter open, and when the shots start going your inside opens up for the 1-1 post play.  Sure you can run up and down the floor, but you better damn well be able to stop somebody and when the game becomes a slugging match, be prepared to duke it out in the half-court.  I’ll be going back to what I’m comfortable with next year, especially with some dandy bigs coming in.

6)  Teaching.  Still love it?

Without a doubt.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Facebook or Zynga? Where is the teen leaning?

Roiworld, a website designer of virtual fashion, helped commission a study recently that took a relatively small sample size of teenagers and polled them to try and get a grasp on the relationship between teens and social networking sites.  Unless you’ve been in some far-away land that has no working Internet, you probably already know that teenagers and social networking have become quite interconnected.  However, what most people don’t know is that interest in Facebook is starting to kick, and Facebook as a serious plan to keep membership going.

The study didn’t find a whole lot that was surprising about Facebooks fading trend as a fad entity.  About 20% of kids stated that they don’t check their site as much as a they did a year ago, and that the main reason was boredom.  Other major reasons were interest in other websites, and too much activity (meaning too much to keep up with).  This is not terribly shocking.  As Facebook has become more and more mainstream, it becomes less and less cool with teenagers.  Heard that before?  Twitter isn’t even going to become a serious trend with teenagers because it became mainstream almost instantly. 

What parents should be aware of is the push by companies to get kids to stay online longer while spending a dollar here and there on, well, nothing.  Over the last year magazines like Forbes, Business Week, and the Economist have dedicated many pages about Social Networking’s push on changing the rules of the Internet’s sensation from communication to gaming.  The Roiworld study showed that an astonishing 80% of social network users actually play games on the network, and that during their time on the network more than half is dedicated to game play.  A vast majority of the business articles I read are focused on Zynga, a San Francisco based company with 760 employees that bring popular games like Cafe World, Mafia Wars, Live Poker (which I partake in on occasion), and the ever famous Farmville.  More and more students are getting into the games and many use real money to buy virtual items within the virtual reality.  It is making some serious money for Zynga and is becoming more popular with teens by the day.  In fact, one needs to wonder if Facebook is simply the car that Zynga is now driving. 

What does it mean for kids?  Well, it means that just because your kids aren’t on the Wii or the Xbox doesn’t mean they aren’t gaming.  They are very likely on the computer trying to build another stable for Farmville.  It is also another distraction for those trying to get homework done.  Checking your Facebook every five minutes while doing homework is now an honored tradition.  You can now add a half-hour Texas Hold-em break as well, and some time thrown in there to make sure the guns are loaded for Mafia Wars. 

Oh, and parents need to make sure and check the Visa card on occasion too.  You never know when your kid needs that virtual calf-rope for the Farmville Rodeo.   

Uh Oh, no cash flow

When one talks about education funding in California, all the usual excuses are bandied about regarding why so many schools seem so underfunded.  The money isn’t there.  The money is misspent.  The teachers are greedy.  The district is greedy.  Suck it up.  All the usual complaints regarding government spending manage to make their way to schools too.  From a teacher’s prospective, I think it is all valid and all bullshit at the same time.

Putting it simply, I’m a grunt.  I’m a guy that’s fighting the good fight against ignorance in the trenches of education against an enemy that is relentless.  However, like many grunts that fought during the opening years of the Iraq War, I’m being told to fight with the army I have, not the army I want, as the former idiotic Secretary of Defense once said.  Only this time it’s columnists like Dan Walters who insist that school districts suck it up.  The problem is that most public schools are beyond “sucking it up”.  Greedy teachers?  I haven’t had a raise in going on five years.  In fact, health care costs have taken my income downhill.  We’ve increased class sizes, cut budgets, eliminated sports, fired counselors, stopped modernization, taken furlough days, laid off teachers, cut back on administrators….what’s left?  By the end of the year our department had to beg our local Education Foundation for scan-trons and a new machine.  We ran out of the paper and the machine was toast, but the budget was zero.  Know what our department spent all the money on?  Copy costs.  Know what percentage our budget had been cut?  Some 70%.  I cut my copy costs in half.  It wasn’t enough.  Begging for supplies?  Are you kidding?  Next year I’m going to be begging for a lot of things, and it is embarrassing.

And it will get worse.  This week the State released the "List of Negative and Qualified Certifications for Local Educational Agencies”.  Basically, it announces whether or not school districts can meet their budget now and three years out.  If you can’t meet it now, you get a negative rating.  If you can’t meet it three years out, you become qualified.  In one year the list has grown six-fold.  On that qualified list:

#66   Mendocino County   Ukiah Unified    53.55 million total budget

Yeah, we are there, along with 174 other schools that are in a financial bind.  In talking with other administrators and even District Superintendents, that number is going to skyrocket next year.  Ukiah, after all the cuts made this year, still needs to make $2 million more next year, then $4.5 million more in the two years after that.  If not, the district goes bankrupt.  Hell, due to the constant budget deferrals of payments by the state government, the district has hardly any money to make payroll.

While some mismanagement occurs in districts (Oakland is a classic example), it is much more about politics, even though Dan Walters wants to deny it.  Here are some classic examples of politics and economics playing with school budgets.

1.  State Government cuts funding to education.  That is pretty political.

2.  California’s per pupil spending is 28th in the United States.  For the seventh largest economy in the world, that is embarrassing.  That is political.

3.  The State Government defers payments to school districts, basically eliminating a payment they should have had during one month.  The schools never get that money back, and continue to incur interest charges on debt they needed to get because the State deferred payments.  See, when the Governor insists that he is only deferring payments and not cutting them, he’s basically playing a shell game.  Again, political.

4.    Average Daily Attendance (ADA) is the formula on which the schools funding is based.  Families have been moving out of state and our funding drops.  It is a truly idiotic method of funding, but it happens.  Again, political.

5.  While the State enjoys the argument over the legalization of marijuana, the school districts suffer.  More students were expelled from the high school this year due to drug related incidents than any time in recent memory.  Since expelled students are now gone, their ADA goes with them, and hundreds-of-thousands of dollars evaporates.  Political.

6.  Transportation funding for our school district is massive.  Consider that this school serves students that often have a 90 minute bus ride one way.  There is little to make up for that type of cost.  The government seems to think that an urban school and a rural school have the same issues.  They don’t.  Political and economics (gas prices).

7.  Ukiah’s population includes a mammoth population of Special Education students.  Some teachers have quoted that Mendocino County has four times the state average of Special Education students, and the law requires that their needs be met.  The funding for those needs doesn’t come close to the cost and always encroaches on General Funds.  Political.

8.  Districts should hire a Chief Financial Officer.  The problem is (much like tech staff) money.  Why would a good CFO take a massive pay cut to work for the State?  Plus, unions often get furious when high priced professionals are hired by the district, even if they are hired to figure out a way to successfully get teachers potential raises.  Political and economic. 

I’d love to say that these cash flow issues don’t impact the classroom in a learning capacity, but it does.  Stress over materials is in the back of the mind while the overall morale of the institution makes you want to hang out in your classroom and put your head down.  I also makes being with the students even more of a joy because they are the one group of people who don’t talk budget.