Posted on

Sweet home test scores…

Oh, this post started off so well so many times in my head, and now that I am faced with big, bad computer screen, the beginning feels dicey.

Should I begin with how I know this person, whom I greatly respect and appreciate being allowed to be part of grand discussions? Should I begin with a short anecdote? Or, perhaps, I’ll begin with an ending:

Strike Over, Chicago Students Go Back to Classes

So, my friend Jason sent me this email recently:

Ok, so here’s my problem.  I generally like teachers.  In general terms I think they are overworked, under-appreciated, and underpaid.  But the more I read about this Chicago strike the harder I find it to come down on the teachers’ side.

First off, there’s pay.  According to the Union, the average teacher salary is $71,000 ($76,000 according to the city… which if these folks can’t even agree on how to calculate an average, maybe we should be spending more time talking about the math curriculum, but I digress.)  I know that 71k a year isn’t exactly get fat rich and retire early money but it’s not pauper money either.  My point here being, I’d love to be able to pay every teacher in America a 6-figure salary but at the same time, I’m surviving in San Francisco on 17k a year, so it’s hard for me be sympathetic to a the notion that only getting 71k is worth striking for.  Of far greater concern is that the contentious item in the salary debate is the amount of the automatic raise the teachers get every year.  As far as I can tell, every teacher in Chicago gets this raise without question.  This bit really rankles me, I have encountered plenty of teachers who have simply checked out and are phoning it in.  The teachers who are working their asses off and doing a good job are getting smaller raises to pay for the ones who have checked out.  I simply can’t imagine that there isn’t a better way to distribute these pay increases.
Another item of contention is the plan to lengthen the school day.  I saw a debate once on the inclusion of Intelligent Design into the science curriculum (which, by the by, I am vehemently against) in which the teachers lamented how little time they had to devote to complex subjects, such as evolution.  This makes perfect sense to me, everything has an opportunity cost and we live in a very complex world.  The teachers who I admire and respect are always trying to cram just a little bit more into their lectures and never seem to have the time to get everything they want in.  I cannot understand how teachers are not jumping for joy at the opportunity to expand their curriculum.  Obviously it means being “at the office” a longer but it seems like the benefits to the good teachers who want more time with the kids would vastly outweigh the costs to the bad teachers who can’t wait for the bell to escape.
The next concern I have is with regards to the “job security” clause.  The Union is demanding the kind of guarantees that no one else in any industry gets.  Of course everyone wants to have job security but I cannot understand why this sort of guarantee is justified, particularly when everyone else in the job market is facing such wicked unemployment.
Lastly, there seem to be a variety of clauses intended to increase accountability.   If these measures are reasonably accurate, it seems like the only people who would be opposed to them would be the bad teachers.  Of course, there’s the argument that the measures aren’t accurate but I don’t hear that argument nearly as often as the claim that “X number of teachers won’t be able to pass the exam.”  It seems to me that that argument is not an argument against having the evaluation.  That means one of two things, the evaluation system is flawed, in which case we should be arguing for a better evaluation rather than no evaluation.  Alternatively, the evaluation is a reasonable approximation of performance and those teachers who can’t pass need to do something about that issue.
The other thing that isn’t an issue directly relating to the strike but making it hard for me to come down on the teachers’ side is the nature of the two campaigns.  From Mayor Emanual and his supporters, I see a number of what appear to be very reasonable, specific proposals backed by concrete numbers.  From the teachers and their supporters I see primarily vague values statements, e.g. “We have to protect education for our kids and our futures.”  (Or something to the effect of “Rahm Emanuel is a jackbooted thug pushing the Evil Corporate Overlords’ Plan to Destroy the World.”)  I think it is clear that most Chicago (or American) schools are not adapting to our information age or adequately preparing a scientifically literate population.  If they’re against Mayor Emanual and for us, where is there alternate proposal?  I’m always hesitant to assign motive but if you wanted to resist change purely because it was easier to just keep doing what you’ve always done, it seems like you’d behave exactly the way the teachers are behaving.  To put it another way, President Franklin Roosevelt once said, “There are many ways to move forward but only one way to stand still.”  No matter how much I want to be on the teachers side, everything I observe seems put Mayor Emanuel on the moving forward side of that quote and the teachers on the standing still side.
So, at the end of the day, I still want to be on the teachers side.  What am I missing?  Where am I wrong?
Jason, Serious Economic Smarty-Pants Esquire
P.S. I’m adopting that as my official job title.  Also, sorry if this is a bit haphazard, I’ve got a lecture in a minute and don’t have time for my usual editing.
 Jason is a friend whom I’ve genuinely enjoyed getting to know through social Azeroth connections. I have a handful of those whom I now consider actual friends. This is not uncommon, nor unusual. Consider it like a weekly bridge or book club–some of your friends bring along others they know, and your circle of friends grows. (True, you may want to throw your glass of Chardonnay in the face of the woman who takes a bold stance on why Twilight is greater fiction than Harry Potter, but I digress…) I know of many couples who have even met, and married, from their social gaming, but that is a post for another day. This is about having new arenas for the grand conversations, the debates, the “Smarty-pants” talk that I do not get to enjoy with my colleagues.
Wait, what?!
What did I just say? I don’t get to enjoy these types of conversations wit my colleagues? No, as a matter of fact I don’t. In our meetings, though we have established ‘norms,’ the norms get tossed aside by those who do not follow ‘norms’ as a general personality rule. We don’t get to collaborate or discuss because the focus are data, data, data, including this morning’s 7:35AM meeting, on the same day as Open House, so I will be part of my job literally for over 12 hours with a 25 minute lunch break. Yes, there is a break between the end of school and tonight, but I will be spending that trying to get my room ready. Why isn’t it ready? Because I went to Texas to see my mom who had just had surgery, and I love my mom, and my dad, and would see them anyway, and I had to move classrooms, and I have to drive sons to activities before and after my contract day, and my classroom still needs organizing, and and and ….I asked to come in on weekends but alas, I can’t. None of us can. I know our new principal has solid reasons, but my three hour window before Open House will be spent preparing my room so I can give parents a good impression. (The NBCT sticker on my classroom door window should signal to them I am bonafide!)
Wow, were you as tired reading that as I was writing it?
So, back to Jason’s question. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Wait. No. Wrong question.
The Chicago thing. I still haven’t had time to really read anything about it. Sure, I listened to the NPR story yesterday after work while I was frantically driving to the bank and grocery store to pick up dinner. This is after another long day because we had a union meeting in the morning (we had another 7:35 am meeting on Tuesday morning, too). Our building representative touched on the Chicago story briefly saying it was about “test scores.”
I am sure it was more than that–BUT — if that is all it was about, that’s all it needs to be about.
I asked my students last year if they thought it would be fair if I got paid based on how well they did on the MSP (Measurement of Student Progress). They immediately, and resoundly, said “NO!” These astute seventh grade kiddoes knew immediatley how much their ultimate performance was not in my control: many of them are truant, many come from families whose first language is not English, many of them have not enjoyed early childhood experiences, such as reading a story every night, or going to the library, or talking about their day with an (intrusive) parent (from the perspective of an adolescent anyway). My esteemed ELL teacher/colleague was near shaking when she reminded us about the twenty African refugees who literally had to take the MSP the week they arrived in the country. So–her salary should be based on their performance?
I promise I will do everything I can to get your child to read because it’s the right thing to do.
Wait, that’s not enough? What about those teachers who don’t make that promise? How can we weed them out?
First, I am not sure. I’m not even sure what is a “bad” teacher, except for the obvious egregious lack of moral character. Second, I do know that using an arbitrary test that may have deep flaws as the guillotine blade is not the answer. Last year, our district purchased a testing service that was so faulty, so flawed, so full of typos and confusion, that I am deeply horrified to imagine if this assessment was used as a means to judge my teaching credentials. And, I have suspicions that it was, considering the morass of red ink on my students’ data. And yet– my students went up to 57% passing. I believe it should be more, and no, I don’t want to be paid more for it.
If districts need data for teachers’ worth, perhaps the classroom work in itself can be used? Those best practices can somehow be managed and reviewed? Oh wait, they are in bi-annual reviews.
Now – let’s talk money.
I know there are teachers who make twice what I do. All I have ever wished for, and this is morbid, scary, and sad, is a salary that if something happens to my husband, I could still make a yearly salary so I can pay for our mortgage, a car for me and my sons, and college. But that is not my current reality, so yes, I am kind of freaked out. Romney would say I’m acting all entitlted and stuff, I know. I  am crazy like that, wanting to educate my children and have a roof over our heads.
I wish my master’s student loans weren’t hanging over my head. I wish I didn’t owe more for those loans than the sum total of all cars I have ever owned. I wish there was a savings account and a retirement fund and a hefty college savings for my sons. And I also wish all of my students could read at grade level and beyond. I am so overwhelmed by the next five minutes, I can’t carve out time to think about the big picture.
So do I stand with or against the teachers in Chicago?
I wish it wasn’t the question.
Posted on

Five-Square Miles

This is one of those writing-to-publish moments I may regret. I am still so romanced and naive about the whole “Internet is permanent” thing that sometimes it takes over my better judgment, what little there is of it. I will rationalize it with this: I am a believer in sharing of credible information, so I will take up that banner, and march bravely on. You will understand in a moment.

This school year, so far, has been amazing. I asked our intrepid school counselor to put as many of my seventh grade students on my eighth grade rosters, and he did, and I am thoroughly enjoying meeting many wonderful new students. Let me qualify “wonderful:” these students have already been freely expressing emotions, curiosity, creativity, and genuine kindness. I have one I am concerned about for many reasons, and one I am concerned about for other reasons, but I can see how building a community can help pull the tide of compassion to all of our benefits. Our new principal is just what I and the school needed: direct, bullet-pointed and logical. It feels refreshing to have data provided and time to work in PLCs to analyze it, because as we all know, data without analysis are rubbish (and yes, data are plural, as in “Data R Us.”) At first glance, “my” reading numbers for seventh grade jumped up (I did not teach seventh grade in 2011-2012, but my eighth grade students were hovering around 55%):

7th Grade Reading
Year School District State
2005-06 WASL 47.2% 56.4% 61.5%
2006-07 WASL 56.4% 63.0% 68.7%
2007-08 WASL 51.6% 60.0% 63.1%
2008-09 WASL 49.2% 51.5% 59.3%
2009-10 MSP 47.7% 57.7% 63.4%
2010-11 MSP 43.7% 54.9% 56.5%
2011-12 MSP 57.6% 69.3% 71.2%

Writing: Not so great. I have a few theories on this, but suffice it to say when we analyzed our students’ writing last year, we spent a lot of time looking at each others’ students, and not our own, and feedback to our own students was starved of time. That was one hill I “died” on, but will continue the discussion if I need to do so.

It was also interesting to note the rise of free and reduced lunches, from around 65% to almost 75%. Well, I say “interesting,” but that is not the word. It’s not interesting at all, or surprising. We are still reeling from the fall-out of Wall Street greed, and will be recovering from that debacle for decades.

Which bring me to yesterday morning. My husband of almost twenty years has Type II Diabetes and atrial fibrillation. He blacked out yesterday morning, and we went to the new emergency room. He’s fine, and will be fine. Ignoring my logic and instincts, because I operate on both, which comes in the form of living in a constant state of asking “Is this foreshadowing in my real life?!”, I had thought to myself I had better get sub plans together, and my desk organized, in case something happened to him. And sure enough, between the 6:30 AM drives to jazz band for our boys, and meetings (see data above to know topic of said meetings) and then my own fuzzy-brain-ness at the end of the day (middle schoolers are an enthusiastic bunch), I didn’t get to it. I have NEVER not had a sub folder ready to go in my room, until of course, yesterday. Needless to say that is one thing I will be doing this weekend. To be clear: I did not share the story of my husband because I am seeking sympathy: I shared it because we are all going through something now, and seem to be on collective survivor mode. This is not good.

So, as I am checking emails and such, a very dear friend was quering me on the state of things in Chicago. Chicago? What? Why? I responded, mystified, and then realized, “Oh! Chicago!! The strike!” I was so self-absorbed in my own little patch of earth, my husband, my students, my data, my whatever, I have barely noticed. And that saddens me. Punching through the radio dial earlier this week, I heard one angry Chicago mother, screaming about the teachers’ greed. I turned to the rock station. I read one of my favorite bloggers, Teacher Tom, and his insights:

and I looked over another one of my favorite teacher bloggers, John Spencer, to see if he had anything to say, but I couldn’t find a specific post.

But here is what I think, and have thought:

  • This is more of the same. Greed, bullying, and disregard for what makes our country superlative: free, public education.
  • We lose that, we lose everything.

For those of you who think that voting for the “rich guys” is going to make you part of their club, that ‘poverty by assoication’ is what you get when you vote for financial reform and ensuring those at the top pay their fair share, I am pleading with you–consider, well, me. I am one of the good guys. I am trying my damndest to education our children. I want our children to be able to articulate why they want to work for your company. I want our children to help make the world better, be it a software engineer, doctor, performance artist, writer, or risk analyst. Don’t believe the bully-spin.

We teachers all know of students whose parents have more than they can handle now. Single moms, more than three children, high unemployment, and their children begin to run feral. They entertain themselves by filming students fighting, or worse. They entertain themselves by manipulating their peers, and using technology to devastate each other. They use media to propogate hate and lies.

Wonder where they learn it?

So, I am going to do some thinking outside of my five-mile patch, and see if I can do some world-changing, too.



Of course, pondering the woulda-couldas, I realized this post was even leaning too much to the bleeding heart side, even for me. I had the chance to review it with my respected friend, who is a genius economics smarty-pants. I do not want to paint too broad of a stroke over the word “greed.” We can point to specific causes, for example the repeal of the Glass-Steagal act. 

But–I am trying to pin down my point of all this: perhaps it’s while we’re all living our daily lives, trying to work, trying to raise families, trying to do whatever it is that brings us joy, we lose sight of our bigger goals. If I’m worried about my husband, and I’m worried about health benefits, then I’m worried if something happens to him, then I’m worried about trying to raise two sons on a teacher’s salary, then I’m worried I won’t be able to pay for their college, and so on, so that when things like the repeal of the Glass-Steagal acts happen, no one is on the watch, no one knows their history, and no one is there to try to keep it from repeating itself. This is squarely my opinion: the wealthiest want us to forget. They want us to not know. They want us to stay ignorant, so that we don’t say “Wait a red-hot minute!” They claim we are the bombastic, the audacious, the entitled and the ungrateful.

I just say –you’re breaking my heart, bleeding or not.

Posted on

Genre Lessons

 Yes, a wall of books. It took most students’ breath away, and teachers, too, who peeked in my room. I was inspired to try this real-life sorting activity and authentic book-talks because of pragmatic realities: having moved classrooms nearly every single year, I had had enough of putting books back on shelves by myself, never to have them handled again by students. So they were left in their boxes (we had school on August 30th and 31st) until that Friday afternoon, when I put boxes on every table, and then had students dump them out.

The sorting process started with background knowledge building of what a genre was, and then the over-arching ones. Already from student responses I could assess who came into the room more book savvy, and who is going to need some convincing. It was also interesting to note who stopped working because they were reading, and who stopped working because well, they stopped working. I didn’t call out the ones who were reading, but I did single out those who weren’t, saying that in my class, their brains were going to get tired from all that thinking they were going to be doing, so buck up, spunkies!

The lesson didn’t go totally as intended: class to class kept resorting what others had accomplished, and many just ended shifting one piles to the next. But, I will say overall, it was successful in that once we sifted out genres by table groups, it provided many opportunities to discuss why a book would be considered ‘mystery’ versus ‘realistic fiction’ and so forth. I would say historical and realistic were the trickiest overall. This was a week-long activity, with many stops along the way for further sifting and instruction, including a half-decent Power Point I found on the Internet, and no, John, it didn’t use Comic Sans!

Our students receive their laptops today, and so we begin our digital instruction–much more to say on this, but it’ll have to wait. I’ll leave this link in the meantime:


Posted on

Loving monster arms.

My teacher-self and my creative-self had to take a break from one another for a bit. What I loved so much about teaching was its inherent creativity and craft, and for some reason, perhaps many reasons, this disconnected for me. I couldn’t seem to fit my mental sabbatical in a time-frame clock-shaped box that is a ‘summer vacation.’ This regeneration of loving my crafted profession, my calling if you will, required some slash-and-burn style chaos to opportunity regrowth. In other words, I was burnt out. Happens to the best of us.

But now–it feels like time for growth again.

Maybe this is the cycle for many teachers to go through. “They” say that most teachers leave the profession (via quitting, not retiring, obviously) around the fifth to seventh years. Perhaps it is because any endeavor we undertake: children, marriage, careers, we do spin our wheels, backtrack, cycle around, and hopefully–move forward.

I had many posts drafted in my mind as I recommit myself to this blog. This blog has changed over the years, too. First its focus was student-teacher discourse, a place for students to use as an resource, extending beyond the classroom day. As my district moved forward with technology, this has been a cause of great “ah-ha’s” and “oh, no…” for me. There is more “technology” but less actual interaction. Multitudes of websites are blocked, Vimeo was shut down for student access, the Minecraft club I am trying to get going has met with many obstacles, including my own Luddite-approach to pixelized building blocks, all the while trying to understand the “new old school” jargon that changes literally year to year. We, as a district, implemented “walkthroughs” last year, my school in particular being heavily placed under a microscopic view because of its continuing low test scores. “We” don’t call it AYP anymore, (annual yearly progress) but something else now. I forget what. It’ll come to me. Hang on. Oh yeah…School Progress.

So the blog mutated, evolved, regressed, progressed, whatever–to a safe place for me to capture my thoughts on teaching. I would come across cool things, and keep them here, my happy “isn’t the Internet a really cool place?” place.

And I still believe that. In fact, more than ever.

One ‘hobby’ I took up a few years ago, at the behest of my younger son and husband, was playing World of Warcraft. My brother-in-law works for Blizzard, and both he and my husband worked in games for years. My husband started at Sierra On Line, and helped get my brother-in-law there, and though Sierra and my husband parted ways, and my brother-in-law went on to work for Blizzard, and ultimately being a lead developer for Diablo III (a super fun, but yes, gruesome game of monsters, demons, lurking things, zombies, and lost-and-found souls). So, this is a ‘family’ activity for us. I ended up branching off more to the fan-fiction side of things, using my love of writing, and the lore (albeit highly derivative) sparked my cob-webby imagination. But–it is still a ‘game,’ but this is where the lines get blurry.

What have I learned during my time in the University of Azeroth? I learned that we as educators of this generation, and I mean kindergartners to thirty-somethings, need to be very aware of the lives that are led in social media contexts and in flesh-and-blood reality. I learned that not only do we have the honored responsibility to promote citizenship and critical thinking skills in one plane/dimension, but multiple realities. I am not so naive as to think this is an original thought with me – far from it. Much as been written about digital citizenship, and it is the ‘hot topic’ now. What I am proposing is that — wait, what am I proposing? That all teachers log into WoW to see the smack-talk, racism, sexism, trolling, and mean spiritedness of anonymous players? To go to Facebook and see what kids are saying to one another? Heck–kids?! How about the awful so-called adults?! Should you hang out in Minecraft for a few hours only to hear “CHEEEZEWHIZZLE KILLED ME!” as a griefer destroys long hours’ of pixelized civilization building?

I am not sure.

The image above was taken at our teachers’ meetings during the first two days prior to school. Our focus from our new principal (my fifth one in seven years–please stay…please…..stay!) is about PLCs. Our staff has been more than ready for PLCs: last year, before this principal arrived, someone, somehow, took away our “teams,” and the fall-out was near devastating to our students. But this year, we have teams back, I have many of my students from last year, and a wonderful schedule, and best of all: focus. Clear, sharp, beautiful focus. My colleague Chris and his table group came up with this interpretation from one of the passages, and he titled it “Loving Monster Arms.” That is the best analogy I can deliver: teaching, the technology, the world, and its dual citizenship status, are indeed like “loving monster arms.” They are not so scary once you understand them. Everyone wants to grow, be nourished, and be loved. We’re going to hold on tight to what is good, change what needs to be adjusted, and do it all with care.

So–this blog. Yes, it’s mine: I pay for it, I write it at home, on my dime, and it belongs to me. I share it for those who want to read it. Sometimes I may write about tough questions, hard feelings, and wonder if the emperor isn’t dressed properly. The opinions expressed are mine, and observations subject to flaws of perception. But isn’t that what we’re trying to get our students to do? Think for themselves, and have the ability to express it?

Hope so.