Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I'm about to cut someone

One of the little freakazoids that was in my classroom third period (not one of my students -- since it's the day before Thanksgiving, half of the teachers in the building are gone (because it's not like this is a real job with expectations or requirements) and so I've been asked to take in rando kids all day, and it was one of them that did this (also I wouldn't call my children freakazoids. I like my children and have a vested interest in helping them feel good about themselves. But I don't know these other people's kids, and so they are freakazoids) (is this too much for a parenthetical statement? meh.)) took the bag of candy I was using as prizes during my math bingo game. Seriously dude? You come into my room - uninvited - and take the candy that I was giving out? I was GIVING IT OUT! You could have had some! If I ever find out your name I am going to make sure that you end up in one of my classes every year for the rest of your high school career so I can play games and no matter how many times you win I will NEVER give you candy because you stole - STOLE - candy from me today. This is my version of revenge.

Happy f-ing Thanksgiving, douchebag.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mr. Potter is in Ravenclaw. Allegedly.

After my school's evaluation turned out to be a lackluster experience, I decided to undergo some more rigorous testing. Here are the results.

(NOTE: My wife -- we'll call her Ginny -- was placed in Hufflepuff. She says this means that the test is flawed. I say it means she's a ninny.)

The sorting hat says that I belong in Ravenclaw!


Said Ravenclaw, "We'll teach those whose intelligence is surest."

Ravenclaw students tend to be clever, witty, intelligent, and knowledgeable.
Notable residents include Cho Chang and Padma Patil (objects of Harry and Ron's affections), and Luna Lovegood (daughter of The Quibbler magazine's editor).

Take the most scientific Harry Potter
ever created.

Get Sorted Now!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Obamas choose Sidwell

Barack and Michelle Obama announced this week that Sasha and Malia will attend Sidwell Friends schools in Upper Northwest / Bethesda. There were some that were hoping that the Obamas would choose a DCPS school. I, for one, was hoping that they would not.

I don't have any children, but if I did they would be enrolled in the best school I could get them into. Obviously, the President of the United States can get his kids into some pretty good schools. If the Obamas had chosen a DCPS school, they would have been playing politics with the future (and, likely, the security) of their children. And that would not have been OK with me.

In related news, a student told me he had figured out what he was going to do instead of graduating from high school. He's going to wait until Malia Obama is old enough (which, judging by the number of students I have with kids, is 13 years old) and then get her pregnant. Then he'll just live at the White House with the Obamas. Good plan, kid. I see bright things in your future.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Harry Potter and the Evaluation

My principal officially observed me on Wednesday, and I had my debrief with her today. For those of you who don't know how evaluations work in the idiocracy that is DCPS, let me give you the lowdown.

The teacher picks the day and time that the principal comes. This means that teachers who might normally, for example, hand out a worksheet and fall asleep all of a sudden have spectacular lessons. Also, in secondary schools, the teacher gets to pick the period -- and of course most teachers pick the best one. So essentially teachers get to make themselves look as good as possible.

In addition, since my principal NEVER is out of her office going into classrooms, the kids are flabbergasted to see her and are terrified. So they behave perfectly.

Essentially, the principal has NO idea whether or not good teaching is going on in a classroom based on her observation. In the two years I have worked in my school, my principal has been in my room exactly twice -- both times to observe me in a situation that was totally inorganic. But I digress...

I went in to discuss the observation with my principal, and she basically said she thought everything was perfect. I received "Exceeds Expectations" ratings in every category, and she said that she had no suggestions for improvement. I can't disagree with her rating -- my lesson was very good and my kids were extremely well behaved. But as a teacher, I know I am not outstanding. I'm solidly good, but definitely not great. I'm relatively new at this, and there are lots of days where I really struggle. I'm happy to have the excellent ratings, but this type of observation and discussion doesn't help student achievement and it doesn't help improve teacher quality.

A much more valuable process would be one where the principal pops in for mini-observations more frequently. The teachers might not know she was coming, and the kids would get used to her presence. Then, she'd be able to see a "regular" day instead of a dog-and-pony show.

In-Class Competition

My favorite days are the ones where we play games in class. Today we played a game called "Review Ball" where the kids are in groups and get a math question to answer. The group works together to solve the problem and groups with correct answers get to take a basketball shot (disclosure: the ball is a tennis ball, and the basket is the trash can with a clean bag in it) for a certain number of points. The team with the most points at the end wins. The kids generally get into it.

The best part of my day is making up rules as I go along. Invariably, children will find some way of being annoying. A kid takes too long to shoot, so I declare "each team has ten seconds to shoot or you forfeit." A kid misses his shot but then insists on taking a second, so I inform the class "if you take a second shot, you lose all your team's points." Kids start yelling about not getting their points or me adding wrong, and I state, in my best teacher voice, "if anyone speaks to me above a whisper, they automatically lose." Kids are so desperate to win that they will put up with my most capricious rules. "When you write the answer for this one, it must be in pig latin." "I don't like the number 7. If your answer has a 7 in it, replace it with a triangle." "I will not accept your answer unless you include with it a sentence about how Mr. Potter is the best teacher you've ever had."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Rhee proposes a "Parent Academy"

For a while there my edu-crush on Michelle Rhee was waning. She's been replacing principals fairly frequently, and in some cases has brought in people who are worse at managing schools than the people they were hired to replace. But in general I am supportive of her contract proposals, her critiques of the teacher's union, and her overall focus on student achievement.

When I read the article in yesterdays WaPo about Rhee's future plans (also discussed on DC Teacher Chic's blog), I was pretty impressed. It's the first major comment we've heard from her publicly about student discipline, school security, or parental involvement. What I really like is the idea of the Parent Academy, specifically because it will be focused on addressing the fact that "Too many of our students' parents are uninformed consumers of public education who blindly support the District's public schools without full knowledge of the significant deficiencies of the schools."

I can't tell you how many times something has happened in my school that has made me say, "well this would never happen in a White school." The reason, of course, is that if White middle-class parents heard that their students' teacher fell asleep in class (actually happened - the teacher next door to me last year would regularly fall asleep) or that there was no paper at the school (actually happens,like, bi-weekly), then they would freak out at the principal or the chancellor and someone would get fired.

And, really, this is what is important when we talk about parental involvement. When I think back to my own education, my parents were not terribly "involved" in my schooling (at least in high school). Most days I woke myself up, got myself to school, did my homework myself, and worked on projects without the aid or prodding of my parents. And I certainly never suffered from it. But I know that if a teacher ever did some of the stuff that bad teachers get away with in DCPS, my parents would have raised holy hell. And what's more important, my teachers knew that.

Our schools are in a shambles, and certainly part of the solution has got to be parent involvement. But that doesn't just mean parents helping kids with homework. Ideally, we should be educating our kids in High School so well that their parents can't help them with their homework. Parent involvement should mean parents recognizing that their kids are getting short-changed and demanding change. If every parent in DC whose kid was being under-served started yelling, things would change very quickly. And if it takes a Parent Academy to get parents to realize the extent to which our schools are failing, then I'm on board.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Merit Pay

I've been reading on lots of other blogs about the various benefits / problems / issues with merit pay for teachers. Here's what I think.

First, teachers should get paid more for doing a more difficult job. It is more difficult to work in an urban school where the majority of children are below grade level. So I think we should get paid more for it. Take for example this scenario of two teachers. Both teachers are highly qualified under NCLB. Both teachers have been teaching for 5 years. One teacher works at School Without Walls teaching Honors Algebra 2 to 10th and 11th graders. The other teacher works at my school (i.e., a school with a whole mess of problems) teaching remedial Algebra 1 to 9th graders, many of whom live in group homes, have criminal records, are diagnosed with emotional disorders, and are several years behind. Which teacher deserves more money? Under the current system, they get paid the same. (Disclosure: the second teacher is me. Yes, I want more money for my job. My job is hard.)

Second, I think teachers should be paid more for doing a good job. "Doing a good job" can be interpreted in a number of ways. I think we need to look at a "Value-Added" system where we assess students at the beginning and end of a year to find out how much they grew academically. If the students made one year of improvement in one year, then the teacher did his/her job. If the students made less than one year of improvement in one year, then the teacher needs to be put on some kind of improvement plan (and if that doesn't work, removed from the school). If the students make more than one year of improvement in one year, then the teacher gets a bonus. The bigger the improvement, the bigger the bonus. Will this system of bonuses solve all the problems we face in public schools in DC? Of course not. But it's a start. And it might inspire some teachers to think outside the box. For example, I have one class this year that is a real struggle every day (my other classes are fine -- good test scores and good behavior). Right now, I have no external motivation to improve my difficult class. I am internally motivated to help them do better, but there are frequently days when their behavior is so disrespectful that I don't want to help them. There are honestly days when I think, "I can just wait this out until the semester when classes change and they'll be someone else's problem." Now, if I thought that the poor results in this class could prevent me from receiving a bonus at the end of the year, I would probably have more motivation to work to improve the class.

Third, principals need to be involved in the merit pay system, because they can provide input regarding the challenges the teacher faced in the classroom. A teacher who has a large number of students with learning disabilities, for example, might have a lower bar for a bonus than a teacher who had no students with learning disabilities. It is possible to work really, really hard and still not make huge gains with students. Principals know this, and should be able to provide input.

In every other industry in the world, a job that requires more expertise, skill, and training pays higher. In every other professional organization in the world, supervisors have yearly performance reviews with their staff, and usually this results in a new salary in the new year. A system like this will require both administrators and principals hold themselves accountable for results, and help inspire teachers to go the extra mile for their students.

Sunday, November 9, 2008 is my homeboy

I just got word from that two of my proposals have been funded, in part due to the Amgen Foundation and Teach for America (a trifecta of rockstar non-profits). My class will be getting an LCD projector, algebra tiles, ten copies of the book "Flatland," ten huge dry-erase boards with the coordinate plane on them, markers, graph paper, and some resource books! I am pumped.

Being a classroom teacher can be tough sometimes - you're in the classroom all by yourself with students who, frequently, do not demonstrate much happiness about being there. It's really nice to know that people out there support our work.

OK, no more tenderness. Back to mocking DCPS.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Is it wrong to use Obama's victory to manipulate students?

I don't think so. But let me tell you this story and see what you think.

Many (if not most) of my students are extremely excited that Barack Obama is the new President. And good for them for taking an interest. I don't remember being much into politics when I was in high school, so, you know, get excited. Several students are wearing buttons that have a picture of Obama and say "The First Black President." Cool.

But yesterday a kid walked into the room 10 minutes late, yelling obscenities, and singing a song. I asked him to come over to me so we could have a chat. This is the convo that ensued.

Me: Hi, *student*. Nice button.
Student: Thanks. (loudly) OBAMA!
Me: Yeah. How do you think Barack Obama walks into a room?
Student: Huh? Oh. Yeah. Sorry.

Problematic? Maybe. Meh.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

But you're white

Today, in every class, students have asked me, "Who did you vote for?" After I tell them that it's kind of a personal question and that you shouldn't just ask someone that, they wheedle out of me that I voted for Obama. A couple have said, "Oh, cool." One said, "you should have voted for McCain." Most have said, "No you didn't. You're just saying that because we're black."

Then one girl in my first period said, "If McCain wins, tomorrow I'm just going to start attacking white people." I politely reminded her that many white people (especially in DC) are voting for Obama. She told me I was lying. So then my class informed me that no white people were actually voting for Obama, that we're all voting for McCain. "Interesting," I said, "because white people are the majority of the country. So if none of us voted for Obama, then McCain would definitely win."

So then (and this is my point, really) I asked my kids what percentage of the population they thought Black people made up in America. The answers: 50, 70, 30, 45. When I told them that it was more like 12%, they were in disbelief. A couple told me I was wrong. One called me racist.

How do children get to high school and not know that African Americans are a minority in America? What are geography and American history teachers doing?