Saturday, January 31, 2009

WTU: Feel my wrath

Candi Peterson over at The Washington Teacher has a post asking about where the WTU teacher contract proposal is. Apparently yesterday, January 30th, was the day it was supposed to be presented to Michelle Rhee. I've heard not a peep about it.

Now, I'm no union insider (although I'm a member, I don't receive emails, have a union card, or generally know what's going on, despite having sent numerous emails asking the WTU to resolve these problems). But if Candi Peterson doesn't know what's up, then my guess is our union leadership has said / done nothing. She generally seems to know what's going on, being on the board and all.

So my question is this: what do our union leaders do all day? I pay quite a bit every two weeks to have the union represent me, and besides getting awkward robo calls (is there seriously no way to not have those phone messages start with like 20 seconds of silence? can we really not crack that technology?) every Sunday, they don't seem to do much. From what I've observed, George Parker and Nathan Saunders (ugh, don't even get me started on Saunders... he and I have some beef) seem to spend most of their time not liking each other and writing down the vaguely inflammatory things that the other says for use in the media, which of course has learned to stop calling them since they don't actually do anything.

On another, related note: have you seen the WTU website? What the hell is that? Seriously, my mom has a better website than this, and she once thought that if I checked my email while I was away at college it might tie up their phone line at home. And yes, I'm showing my age; I once used dial-up.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Semi-Snow Day

Today was a complete and utter waste of an educational day, but I still don't blame Michelle Rhee for not canceling school.

Yes, there were only about 100 kids in school today (out of around 900 enrolled). Yes, more than 25 teachers called in sick. Yes, we did not have any classes, and kids spent most of the day (which started late, at 10:45) watching movies or playing games. Yes, the teachers and students who did come to school had to brave some pretty treacherous conditions (I personally slipped like 15 times on my walk to school -- thankfully no falls).

But, as Chancellor Rhee has said before, there are many children in this city who only get two meals a day: the free breakfast and free lunch provided by their schools. A day off would have been nice, but where are those kids going to get food? Perhaps the Chancellor's office should look into instating some sort of inclement weather task force that will help distribute meals to students even if school is canceled. But that doesn't exist yet. So, for the time being, I'm satisfied with the decision to keep schools open today.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On Desegregation

I'm currently working towards getting my master's degree, and for one of my classes I had to read Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol. In general, I didn't think it was the greatest of books. He makes some good points, blah blah blah, but I wasn't blown away. Kozol's argument essentially comes down to money, and I think that money is not the biggest thing.

However, it got me thinking about what the biggest thing actually is. And I think the biggest single policy we could adopt to fix urban education would be desegregation. I teach in a school that is 100% minority. There are literally no white children. Similarly, there are many schools in affluent parts of this country that have literally no black children. Kozol cites several statistics stating that the vast majority of black and hispanic children go to schools that are majority black and hispanic. Our schools are incredibly segregated.

We are living in a multiracial society with a black president and a relatively colorful congress, and yet black children and white children do not go to school together. Rather than focus on the newest "reform" agenda, the latest program, or the biggest expenditure, we should end the segregation of American schools. Diversity is a good thing, and we should create public education policies that encourage it in our schools. If that means busing students to different schools or providing incentives for children to go to different schools, then so be it. Our children would all benefit.

That's my two cents.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Oh my.

I just submitted the following discipline referral to my grade-level administrator. I present it here for your reading pleasure. The names have been changed, not to protect the innocent -- because there are none -- but to protect me from getting sued.

"R's journey into insanity began at the beginning of class when students were asked to take a practice final. R asked for help on it, and I told him to try his best and that we would go over the practice test afterwards. He got very upset that I refused to help him, saying, “These motherf***ing teachers won’t help you, they just say to try my best. F*** that.” R then, unbeknownst to me, took the disposable camera that was provided by DonorsChoose to document the use of the donations we received off of my desk. He walked out of class, along with J and D.

The story does not end there. With 10 minutes left, these gentlemen, along with a newly found stranger I do not recognize, came into my class interrupting the review activity we were doing. R took a pair of dice out of his pocket and said, “I want to shoot these in front of Mr. Potter.” He then rolled the dice on the ground in front of me. As far as I know, no money exchanged hands. I asked R (and his cronies) to leave my classroom, and he eventually did. However, he left screaming and banging on every surface he could find, including Mr. M's door next door to mine."

I'm definitely saving this one.

Update: When the student described above came to my class today, I sent him to the assistant principal to discuss the referral. He returned to class with a note that read, "Please admit -- We conferenced and promised he will be better."

Oh, hell no.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

On standardized testing

With the confirmation hearing for Arne Duncan today, I have some thoughts on the standardized testing that is such an integral part of No Child Left Behind. As some context, I administered the DC-BAS test (essentially a practice test for the DC-CAS in April) to my ninth graders today. It was not what I would call a joyful experience, but that's really irrelevant.

The three points I want to make are:
1.) Standardized testing is a good and useful thing.
2.) Standardized tests need to be truly "standardized," meaning that they are based on standards that we expect students to have mastered.
3.) Standardized testing only means "teaching to the test" when teachers aren't very good.

First, despite the fact that many teachers hate standardized testing, I think it's good. We need to have some system of assessment that objectively lets us know where our children are. It's fine for me to say that a student is making great progress, but we need quantitative proof. Standardized tests give us that in a way that nothing else can. We need to make sure that standardized tests really are as objective as possible (example: probably not a great idea to have black urban youths answerring questions about golf) but I think it's possible to have a set of knowledge we expect all students to have, and to assess that knowledge in a systematic way.

Second, standardized tests are only acceptable if they accurately assess what students are supposed to have learned. Today, I gave my students the DC-BAS test, which is nearly identical to the DC-CAS test that is taken at the end of the 10th grade year. My students could not do most of it, because they have only taken one semester of algebra and have taken no geometry. The test was not written to assess what they are supposed to know now, it was written to assess what they are supposed to know in 18 months. So, obviously, it was a waste of time. This is not the first time that I have seen standardized testing like this, and it bugs me. It was designed this way so that the adults who wrote it wouldn't have to spend time thinking about what the students were supposed to know. A test for 9th graders given in January should cover the first half of the algebra curriculum, and nothing more. A test for 10th graders given in October should cover all of Algebra and the very beginnings of Geometry, and nothing more. The way that the tests are designed now, we are teaching our children that this test is a thing that is supposed to make you feel stupid, and that is the message that they will carry with them into the real test. When we set up a system of assessments that is designed to assess what students are supposed to know, it will be acceptable to me.

Third, standardized testing does NOT mean "teaching to the test." I am so tired of hearing teachers complain about "teaching to the test." First off, if it's a well designed test, then teaching to the test means just regular good teaching. Second, just because creativity isn't on the test doesn't mean you don't teach it. I personally strive to teach beyond the test. Of course, that's a lot tougher said than done, but it's a goal that we should all share. We need to continue to pressure district and state administrators to refine the assessments so that they are fair and valid, but we need to stop whining about the notion that a test limits what you can teach.

To close, this quote from my student, J, regarding standardized testing:
"I know they gotta give us these tests, but for real these tests be making me want to steal somebody in they face."

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Yesterday I had a volunteer from Howard University come into my second period class (I guess Howard is starting a program where they will be mentoring at-risk high school students, and they were just looking to get some face-time with students in various classes). She is a 19-year old architecture major, and she knew how to lay the smack down. I want her in my class every day. First, she latched onto the kids who are the biggest challenges and stayed with them the entire class. Second, she had some great words of wisdom. Like this conversation, which took place with a male student who has had plenty of struggles academically.

Volunteer: *Student*, how are you going to get girls if you can't add?
Student: I get plenty of girls now!
Volunteer: Yeah, high school girls. High school girls are stupid. But once you get out of high school, all a girl cares about is your college GPA and what your 401(k) benefits are like.

I nearly peed my pants.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The genius of my students

I know I talk a lot on here about some of the stupid / ridiculous things that my students do. But today I was reminded of how brilliant and creative my kids can be.

My algebra students have been working in groups to make presentations to the class for a final exam review. I split up the topics we have covered and assigned them to various groups -- one group had graphing, one group had solving equations, one group had writing equations, etc. Today was the first day of our presentations, and, although not every group was amazing, I was very impressed with some of the work they did.

One group (a group that had not been doing much work in the class, which caused me some frustration) had an amazing power point presentation. They made a jeopardy game, and connected various slides with hyper links. I've saved it on my computer and plan to use it next year.

Another group wrote a go-go song about graphing equations entitled "the slope beat," and performed it live in the class. It was a pretty good song, and the lyrics showed really great understanding of the concepts. Also, it was hilarious. It featured this slant rhyme: "B is the intercept and m is the slope / if you don't understand you better check your notes." I was dying. I'm going to get a video camera and make them do it again so I can record them for next year.

It's great to have reminders of how amazing our students can be. If only I could figure out how to get them to be that way all the time...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Rhee's Five Year Plan

An article appeared in yesterday's Washington Post describing some specifics of Michelle Rhee's 5-year plan for DCPS. It represents the same mistakes that Rhee has made time after time with regard to teachers in DC.

Ignore for a moment the ideas you might already have about Rhee, and read these quotes from the article:
  • "Rhee wants more teachers who share her central belief about education reform: All children can become high academic achievers, regardless of the disadvantages they face outside the classroom."
  • "Rhee plans to move the District away from the regimen of courses and workshops that have defined continuing education for teachers. Borrowing from best practices in surrounding suburban districts, she is building a system of school-based mentors and coaches to help instructors raise the quality of their work."
  • "[Rhee] also wants to import a nationally prominent Massachusetts consulting firm with a reputation for improving teachers' skills."
  • " She had hoped to winnow out poorly performing teachers by weakening tenure protections in exchange for higher salaries."
  • "Rhee has dropped the school system's direct support for instructors seeking certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a rigorous one- to three-year teacher development program, citing a lack of evidence that the training improves student achievement."
All told, it doesn't sound half bad. I don't know much about the efficacy of National Board Certification, but if there really is no evidence that it helps student achievement, then we probably shouldn't be paying for it. A system of effective teacher development sounds great, considering the incredible lack of support that many new teachers experience in DCPS. Getting rid of poorly performing teachers (we all know that they exist, and should not be in the classroom) is good, as is paying teachers higher salaries. I'm not thrilled with the idea of giving up tenure, but if it will help remove those truly awful teachers (the ones who sleep during class, use racial slurs against students, and show movies 3 days a week -- things that have all been done by teachers I personally know who are still teaching in DCPS) then I'm okay with it. To me, the plan sounds reasonable and, in fact, fairly smart.

Of course, this plan is not being evaluated by most educators on its merits because most educators that I've talked to in DC (especially older teachers, but teachers of all ages and races) think Rhee is out to get them. And they think that because Rhee continues to give them evidence that it's actually what she believes. Her plan might be great, but no one gives it a chance because it is couched in phrases like, "She promises to 'identify and transition out a significant share' of instructors, through buyouts or dismissals," or "Those who don't improve could face termination by the end of the school year." Simply put, she's not nice and people don't like her.

This is what Rhee should be saying in every interview when she talks about teacher quality:

"All research shows that teacher quality is the most important factor in determining how well low-income students will perform in school. Research also shows that students who experience 3 years of bad teachers will never recover. We have thousands of dedicated, intelligent, hardworking teachers in DCPS, but the work of these brilliant educators is being undone by those few teachers who are not doing their jobs well. For too long, these teachers have been allowed to remain in the classroom. We need to create a system that develops good teachers, rewards exceptional teachers, and gets rid of bad teachers."

Isn't that nicer? Doesn't that make you think happy thoughts? Rhee has said numerous times that she isn't interested in making people like her. Well, guess what: she should. When people like you -- when you're nice to people and they feel valued -- they do what you want. Every good classroom teacher knows this -- students will do whatever you want if they believe you care about them. My guess is this is one of those teacher best-practices that carries over into good management as well.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Happy New Year

Unfortunately, I got more than I asked for this Christmas -- specifically, a cold that is kicking my butt. But I wanted to write one quick post before going home and taking a nap.

My nerds (Yes, I call them nerds. To their faces. They're always like "we are NOT nerds!" to which I respond "yes you are, you're just not good at it yet.") are working on presentations this week. They'll be leading the review for our final exam which is next Thursday. Anyway, I wanted to share this interaction between two (admittedly, less than stellar) students who are working in a group together:

Student 1 (whiningly): We should, like, make the presentation really good and stuff.
Student 2: You gotta shut up because I made a New Year's resolution to be good, and you're making me want to smack you.

At least she made a New Year's Resolution to be good?