Thursday, March 31, 2011

Actual investment

The number one problem about standardized tests isn’t that there are too many of them, or that teachers have to “teach to the test”, nor is it that tests are expensive for the state to implement therefore taking money away from other forms of learning.

The number one problem is that they don’t matter to the student.  At all.

In this post by the Chanman at Buckhorn Road (check the blogroll), we are all reminded that accountability is so paramount to the education of our children that those same children have little or no consequences for not doing well on the standardized tests.  Colleges could care less about the test scores, so often higher end students will miss STAR testing after doing Advanced Placement testing.  Many students simply get their parents to sign out of the testing, convincing Mommy and Daddy that the evil school is making them sit for multiple hours and fill in bubbles on a scantron that is probably made by child laborers in Bangladesh.  Even those students that fail the Exit Exam over and over again will gain a certificate that essentially says that they passed high school, and many junior colleges are still allowing students to enroll with a Certificate of Completion (did not pass Exit Exam, but did everything else).  Even Special Education students with IEP’s and 504’s are no longer held accountable to the Exit Exam. 

But guess what happens when these students don’t take the exam.  That’s right.  The school get’s nailed.  In fact, a few years ago Ukiah High School actually passed  all the twenty-plus API/AYP requirements save one; student participation rate on the test.  It placed us in further program improvement; alienating teachers, cutting classes, destroying curriculum.  But it did nothing to those students who simply signed out of, or outright skipped, the tests.  In fact the school has been reduced to driving to student’s houses, begging them with ice cream and cash lotteries, and basically acting in a pathetic manner to get them to take a few tests that in the end mean absolutely nothing to their academic future.

As stated Buckhorn’s article, Del Norte High in Crescent City, California is attaching grade bumps to proficient or advanced ratings on the test.  While I could see this as a paperwork nightmare, I think it is a step in right direction to actually make these all-important test mean something to students.  Failure to do so simply means that we are all spinning our wheels and going nowhere.  

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Kansas City here I come


Great news on the professional development front!  I’m off to Kansas City to read Advanced Placement Comparative Government FRQ’s in June!  For those that don’t know, an FRQ stands for Free Response Question, basically the essay portion of the AP Comparative Government test. 

I know, I know.  What’s the big deal about reading essays?  Well, everything that everyone says about AP readings is very positive.  Not only do you grade the essays, the entire experience is one huge workshop on the subject matter you teach.  The amount of curriculum in the brains of the readers and professors is incalculable.  I’m bringing the netbook and a big fat thumb drive to hopefully gather same goodies to share with the future of Ukiah High.  I mean think of it; a collection of the subject matter’s best talent (not meaning to sound arrogant at all) collaborating on the best ways to bring knowledge to the little peeps we all teach.  Sounds like a hell of an opportunity.

Then there’s the wanderlust.  I’ve always had a strong sense of wanting to explore new places, try new things, and meet new people.  Kansas City has so much potential; a Royals game, BBQ, the Negro Leagues museum, the National World War One Museum.  I just won’t have the time to try it all out.  But just being somewhere different and new is exciting.  You know that one guy that would, if he could, just jump on a plane and go somewhere….just because.  Yeah, that would be me.

So my “time off” (a snarky dig at those fucks that think summer is three months of nothing) will include grading AP tests, the Annual AP Conference in San Francisco (where I will focus on AP U.S. History), and plenty of basketball tournaments.  Sounds like a plan!     

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Breaks


Instead of the National Anthem, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” came blaring through the second period loudspeakers.  I’m not being sarcastic when I say that it was the near perfect end to a rather rough week.  Lots of kids were here today and we all had a good laugh at expense of the viral phenomenon.

Three things happened this week that made it rough, but the real problem is that the three things hardly involved the majority of students. 

1.  It rained this week; a whole lot.  In fact, it hasn’t rained this much since the nasty surprise I came home to in December 2005.  While my house is just fine, my classroom (the one that is two years old) has a leak.  No, not a small leak, a serious leak that required the removal of tiles and created a nice steady flow of water towards four trash cans that surrounded the puddles on the floor of my classroom.  The students took it all in good stride and I declined moving across campus due to the technology available in my classroom.  Hell, we would have been twice as week moving anyway.  So as I’m about to leave for break I have a whole in my ceiling and water marks on four other ceiling tiles.  Sue the roofers.

2.  Report cards came out and along with it came minor meltdowns from students that realized that they missed weeks of instruction and don’t know shit.  I’m not totally loving when students ask for extra credit, especially when information has always been available for their consumption.  These are students with expectations of handouts, and I’m not in the business of giving anyone anything except the means for them to achieve their own success.  Having a student go livid on you right before class is not fun, and the attitude adjustment one has to make before the next 35 come in is essential for that next class to flow.  I pulled it off.

3.  More students than ever have now transferred to Independent Study, even this late in the year.  I’ve investigated all the reasons and some might even be considered legitimate.  But we need to ask ourselves if students, and I’m talking 18 year old students, are being taught the right lesson that if adversity hits one part of their life, everything else should be dropped for months.  This year has seen it’s fair share of physical and emotional trauma outside of the classroom, and I don’t assume to be able to judge the scale of people’s feelings, but life does demand that you persevere and grow from adversity.  College and the real world doesn’t mind giving you an occasional moment when things get real rough, but this idea that you can simply drop out of reality for months on end is an entitled attitude that does not fit in the scope of reality.

My energy for the week has been on these issues, which probably only constitutes 15% of the total population of my classes, and one classroom ceiling.  That is a clear sign that I need a week to clear my head and prep my focus for those that are ready for the home stretch.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions #edusolidarity


Those of you that know me know that I’m not a huge supporter of the practices of labor unions.  They act like any political interest group would act, nearly entirely in the best interest of themselves even when the greater good threatens to collapse under the weight of bad decision-making.  I’ve watched local union leaders manipulate and state union leaders force politics on membership.  Money is forced out of my pocket, and my benefits and wages are determined by a system I have very little faith in.

And after all that, I still support the concept of a labor union, especially a teacher’s union.

I could easily justify the concept of a labor union by simply going back and looking at history.  Labor unions helped build the middle class from the steel mills of Homestead in the late 1800’s, to the textile factories that ignored the value of human labor (Triangle Shirtwaist), to the United Flight Attendants of the late 1960’s who were fired for of all things, getting married.  We could talk about how the labor unions allowed Americans to gain some of the fruits of their own work in the 1950’s, and how ever since the beginning of the decline of organized labor in the 1970’s, income inequality has started to increase at a substantial pace.  We look at all of that and we can safely say that when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says he’s “saving the Middle Class” by slamming unions; he’s lying.

But this isn’t about history, it’s about teaching.  Being a part of a labor union allows me to take risks in the classroom while not worrying about angry parents, inept district decision making, and constant government bureaucracy.  I can make mistakes and actually have the ability to correct it without the worry about whether or not I’ll have a job tomorrow.  When I go into a meeting with an enraged parent, I can have real discussions because the contract I have with my district protects me from small town politics.  I can ignore a parent screaming about how she will have the school board fire me, and go on teaching at the same passionate level because I know that I have a procedure for due process, thanks to a union contract.  In it’s essence, the union allows me to do a better job because I’m allowed to teach regardless of crap that I can’t control trying to prevent me from educating my students.

Realize that I almost never need these protections.  I’m confident in my work ethic, my passion for education, my care for my students, and the management of my craft.  Out of the three administrations I’ve been through at my school, I would have given up my tenure for two of them because they were, and are, damn good administrators.  But it only took working under one unsupportive administrator to make me realize that school boards, superintendents, and parents don’t always make the best decision-makers, even when it comes to children.  An ineffective administrator can take good teachers and have them looking over their shoulder - constantly wondering what will end their ability to teach effectively, whether it be a lack of proper support or funding. 

Yes, the teacher’s union protects bad teachers.  It is the one thing that unions are most often blamed for.  The blame is justified and the problem is totally correctable.  In my earlier years as a site representative for the union I once offered a suggestion during an issue at a Rep Council meeting.  I asked why the union couldn’t make it’s own committee to look over those that were considered “substandard” teachers to provide support and motivation.  The answer:  “That’s not what we do.  That’s not the job of a union”.  Why not change that?  Why not change the tone of the discussion and start policing our own?  Wouldn’t it be a hoot to be able to come to the bargaining table with the ability to say “Hey, we are really working with you to bring forth the best teachers possible”?  Maybe the answer isn’t eliminating unions, maybe it’s redefining what a union actually does.     

Solving the problems in education are actually fairly simple.  All you need is a dedicated society, knowledgeable  politicians, superior leadership from a district, and relentless pursuit of excellence from all teachers.  See?  Isn’t that easy?  No?  Then I guess we’re going to need unions to make sure teachers can do their job without the distractions of other people’s bad decisions.    

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A sense of accomplishment

It’s the small things that keep me going. 

At this point in the year I’m watching many of my Seniors start to lose focus; some checking out of their last year early, others getting accepted to their university of choice and already planning their move to the next level.  The only problem is that we aren’t finished yet, and a sudden realization has started to hit some that their lack of complete commitment might have a severe cost.  It ends up creating classroom dynamics that could be challenging if it wasn’t for my insistence that I won’t talk grades until after class or during lunch.  Surprise, 90% won’t bother after class.

After ten years I still get a shred of doubt in my teaching.  It’s not prominent, but it hovers around the back of my mind, lingering like some dark threat to my own confidence.  The year, especially in AP’s, is starting to grind, and I question whether or not I’m actually getting to people.  Well, this week I was given multiple signs that many students are not only getting the information, but also enjoying the class.  A little comment here and there.  A note from a parent.  A message from another teacher about student comments.  All these little things slammed the door shut on doubt and renewed by energy for the stretch run.  This week I’ve heard this comment many times:

“I go home and we (my family) talk about this class all the time”

Yep.  Good knowledge is happening here!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reflection and Awards


For me, basketball season is officially over. 

It was a very good season.  Due to other circumstances, four out of the five incoming Sophomores from last years Frosh starting line-up did not play, and that created an interesting void that was filled by four freshmen that I pulled up to the JV’s.  Those four started most of the season and learned a whole lot.  Our final record was 15-11, and I’m actually fairly content with that standing.  We got better and better, popped a few teams that were better than us, and lost to a couple that we probably should have beat.  If we were a varsity team, we would have made play-offs, and probably could have beat almost anyone we played.  It was a team were I would have wanted to go to play-offs because they were hungry for more games.

We had one buzzer beater win.  It was the first game of the season.  For the last game of the season we came back from a 17 point deficit against a team that had a six game winning streak and nearly hit a shot at the buzzer to win it.  One of my players was four points away from breaking the single game JV boy’s scoring record.  He had 34.  Another player had seven rebounds in a five minute span.  I had a freshman who pinned a block against the backboard in his first game, and ended up averaging nearly four blocks a game.  As it usually goes, coaching a young and fairly inexperienced team had moments of frustration.  Our team had a knack of getting down early and losing by a couple after a furious comeback.  When we jumped out early on teams, we were usually successful.

For some reason I was complemented a lot this year about my coaching.  I don’t know if I did anything different than usual except that I let the freshmen play a whole lot.  My rule is that if they come up, they play.  We ran man-to-man 90% of the season, and almost always pressed man full court.  Zones bothered us early but we worked on zone offense movement and eventually that was fine.  Our main issue was simple turnovers, and the only way to combat those is practice and experience.  I hardly ever ran our standard Wheel based offense.  About 65% of the time we ran a simple Passing Game, with the remaining 35% running a Princeton style pass-and-cut.  Next year, more Princeton.  I got one technical this year… the last game of the season.  I told the ref that he needed to protect my shooters from getting hit after the shot.  He ran by my bench and T’d me up.  Since the varsity coach and the vice-principal were standing right behind me, and were just as exasperated at the call, I think I’m ok. 

Awards handed out:

-Most Valuable Player:  In my mind, this is the guy that has contributed most to the team in greatest combination of ways.  Being most talented is only part of the equation.  I’ve denied this award to talented guys who don’t work hard, or treat their teammates like shit.  Mental toughness is just as important as physical toughness.  MVP’s have plenty of both.  I rarely give a dual MVP.  But I will if two guys matter that much.

-Coach’s Award:  Given to one or more players that gave an above and beyond contribution to the team.  Hard to give out since I have so many guys. 

-Most Improved:  Almost always given to two guys that show mental or physical improvements.  These are guys that I want around for the future because their potential is very vast.

-Captain’s Award:  Simply given to the two team captains.

-Most Inspirational:  Every member of the team, including myself, gets one vote.  The winner is most inspirational. 

I hardly ever have negative commentary about who gets what award.  It’s one of the perks of being a JV coach.

I didn’t have my official coaching review yet as the Winter Season only just officially ended.  I did see my player evaluations and they were quite good.  Parent complaints to the administration were zero.  Parent complaints to me were very minimal.  All-in-all, a good sign to prep for another season.

-Coaches Award:  These go to the person or people that

Attendance Matters: Better Things to Do


Believe it or not, I have less problem with lower level students than with Gifted Students in regards to attendance.  Part of the reason for that is that most students that have had attendance issues have been transferred to the local continuation high school for credit recovery.  This means that most students, Seniors in particular, realize that the end is near and start to focus on getting out of dodge.  Still, there is always a group (larger this year) that feels that they have better things to do than class, even with the reasoned lessons on opportunity class, and marginal benefit versus marginal cost.

Currently, out of about 90 College Prep students, I have 21 F’s.  Out of those 21 students, ten percent are due to issues not revolving around attendance.  These are students that are slogging it out in a tough class, some with low reading levels, others with second language issues.  But they are there daily, usually contributing, trying really hard to push through the Dismal Science.  They will pass, they will succeed, and the work will make them really feel as if they accomplished something.  The other ninety percent show a major correlation between attendance and their failing grade.  These are the students that miss a day or two a week, usually never make up quizzes or tests, and are most often shocked to find an ugly mark next to their grade.  These are the students that are now in major panic mode as the quarter starts.

Numerous students have had small scale melt downs this week after class, coming to a sudden realization that they might not graduate high school if they continue their current course.  The frustration they express often has to do their desire to join in to off-campus Senior activities that their peers engage in while I’m teaching class, and their frustration of being behind in knowing the material.  The textbook does a lousy job at explaining Economics to a low level student, so being in class is essential.  Miss two days a week and you are flat lost.  After a venting session, I make two things very clear to the student:

1.  If they continue on the current course, they will fail my class and not graduate high school.

2.  If they show up every day, without fail, then we can fix this problem and get them back on course.

A vast majority of the students will stick it out and be fine.  A small group will need regular reinforcement and ass-chewings to remind them that the year is not over.  A smaller amount will, to put it simply, choose unwisely.  Is there something that we could do for this group that decides to bow out in the last two minutes of the game?   Well, I can keep counselors and parents as informed as I can, but we are not longer dealing with little kids here.  We are dealing with young adults who need to realize that choices have consequences, and my energies need to be focused on those that show up.  As much as I hope all these kids make it, they need to want it more. 

Unlike gifted kids, who will try and make every excuse in the world for their behavior, lower level kids will come out and often admit that they simply don’t see the value of their attendance.  This actually makes them easier convince.  A twelve year journey needs a good ending, and students that are loaded with the relevant information are more likely to see that the cost of hanging in there is nothing compared to the benefit.  For some, not graduating might cost them a spot at the local junior college, their ability to get into the military, and maybe more importantly, that very valued “First to Graduate in My Family” title.  For most, self-motivation starts to kick in after the frustration. 

Teachers need to maintain consistency and support during these times.  Students that start to show up, regardless of the reason, want to finish the journey.  Give them the extra help they need.  Realize that their lack of knowledge due to prior attendance habits will frustrate them at first.  Let them be frustrated while keeping your body near the door and tell them that there is plenty of time to fix this.  Most will not walk out on you.  The sliver that do make the choice.  Be a little sad, hope they come back, and then continue to focus on the students that are there.  They deserve your energy.           

Shoe fail


Ok, so maybe it was the fact that I try to multi-task in the morning.  Coffee, dress, watch news, talk to wife, it all seems to be too much.  And when I reach for my shoes that are usually together, I expect them to be, you know, the same ones. 

I was surprised that actually got through one and a half classes without the mishap being noticed.  When a student pointed it out midway through second period, I simply turned read, shook my head at my own mistake, and laughed along.  What else was their to do?  I went home and got it right later in the afternoon before Winter Sports Awards night.  However, that hasn’t stopped the fashion jokes from coming down the pike, even by teachers who have heard students get a good laugh.  Aw well.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The small uprising

All it takes is one quiz.

“Match the person with the Social/Political Agenda”

That was the question on Friday’s APUSH quiz, followed by eleven names including Upton Sinclair, Jacob Riis, and Ida Tarbell.  The answers I got included book titles, obscure references, and evidence that limited review was taking place.  The quiz was out of the norm, the norm being textbook quizzes that were right after a night of reading.  This quiz was about retention.  It was my check to see if the students were able to gain some kind knowledge from information from the book and the class.  The result was bad.  Some people insisted that we never discussed some of the names, until I reminded them that they came straight out of reading.  At that point, the frustration started to boil.  Students came at me with snappy remarks, looks and sounds of anger, and evidence started to surface that a small scale rebellion was in the works. 

It sounds like a crisis, and in some circumstances it might have been, but not on Friday.  Friday was a blow off session.  I calmly listened to the complaints until the dull roar started to take the place of singular voices.  I stopped them, and calmly explained why their answers were wrong, and the roar started even more.  I let it roll for about 45 seconds, calmly stating that I was not going let them dump the quiz regardless of the low scores.  When I got a really nasty glare from a girl I respect, I let out the very abrupt “Enough” in my low, baritone voice, stood the full 6’2” of my body’s length, and let the following be known:

-The reading was clearly not done.  They reviewed notes from class, and did not pay attention to the full spectrum of the information.  By now, they should know that.

-I’m more than willing to give students the benefit of the doubt when I make a mistake.  Just two days hence I gave students credit on a test question because a couple of students correctly justified an answer.  I’m not inflexible. This was not one of those instances.

-We were done with this matter.  Now on to WEB DuBois….

And with that, the revolution fizzled, the pressure faded, and while some glares remained, I went straight to the lesson without mentioning it again.  A couple of students made a smarmy comment here and there, but I totally ignored them and eventually the focus took over and the students left fighting-the-power behind.

It was a mix of academic pressure and simple bad days that started this small distraction.  Why didn’t it get out of hand?  My rapport with my students definitely helped, and teachers need to remember to read the classroom because we are not dealing with robots.  Some students will bitch regardless, but as you watch the reaction of certain opinion leaders change, so might your methods of dealing with the upcoming situation.  Venting for a few minutes might do the trick, then firmly regain control and press on, because too off-track can and will ruin the entire day. 

Two students apologized after class, blaming the blow-up on bad days.  And I’ll be doing another version of that same quiz this week. 

Attendance Matters: Stealing Opportunity


Senior year for many is the home stretch.  It is a time for students to put it on cruise control and let that disease called “Senioritis” kick in and totally overwhelm what little is left of their high school career.  Senioritis hits all but a very few who persist through the mind screw that this year should be easier, and they usually are rewarded with scholarships, good college admission, and a nice run near the end of the year of realizing that they dominated everything, and they are prepared for the next challenge.  This look at attendance has to do with those that are, or think they are, the very best.  These are students that will show up most days of the year, but miss weeks for a variety of reasons that parents see as legitimate, that you see as legitimate, but in the end, test the ideas of who is really the best for our colleges.

Absences from high achieving students are often due to situations that you don’t often see with the typical high school student.  Students with good grades want good colleges, and this means college visits that often last from two days to a full week.  Tack onto the mix the performances from drama and music, tournaments and meets from athletes, and recruiting and field trips from the variety of clubs and you have a substantial amount of time that is missed in class.  Then comes the money.  Let’s be honest here; those with good grades often have a good source of income.  This means that absences appear in the form of “opportunities”.  A family trip to the Bahamas that “happens once in a lifetime”, only it seems to happen a dozen times every year. Teachers in our school take advanced students to Europe or Central America on educational expeditions.  Or some students take time out for religious or charity work, often in New Orleans or Mexico.  On top of all that is the Senioritis that kicks in during Spring.  It creates havoc for teachers.

Most of these absences could be considered “legitimate” for the purpose of education, yet cause problems within a classroom.  Make-up work in my AP classes is primarily assessment, which is often forgotten by students or the information is crammed in the day before the student goes to class.  This results in the, as expected, loud thud of a students grade falling back to reality.  That brings in parents, which we’ll talk about in a second.  Another AP issue is cheating.  Believe it or not, studies show (including my own) that high achieving students are more apt to attempt to cheat on tests and quizzes.  This means that teachers need to create make-up tests that are altered, and again feel the anger of a student that feels cheated by taking a “different test”.  Finally is the introduction of parents that feel like their child is being slighted.  “My kids have this awesome opportunity.  Who are you to take that way from them”?  I’ve heard that comment many times.

My response is that I’m not taking anything away from them.  Students have a responsibility to themselves to get the best education they can, whether that means helping the poor, going to Europe, or cruising in Hawaii.  When a student enrolls in a class, especially an Advanced Placement class, they are choosing to make that academic knowledge a priority.  Yet for some reason we as a society have lost the value of a teacher in a classroom (regardless of what pundits say).  The best students can miss a week of school and manage the make-up and the grades.  Hell, most upper echelon students can probably self-teach many classes.  The teachers that stay consistent and supportive remind the students that their education is often loaded with choices.  When I mean supportive, I mean that students have access to the knowledge available.  Whether they choose to use it is up to them.  If a student feels like they can’t handle the school work load, maybe they need to make a different choice. 

Dealing with the upper echelon of parents in regards to attendance can be an tedious issue.  My recommendation is that teachers focus on making resources available, then being consistent with standards and rules because those are the things that you can control.  Remember, you must believe that the best education possible happens within the walls of your classroom.    

Thursday, March 03, 2011