Tuesday, April 28, 2009

So apparently swine flu is a thing now?

I had a kid tell me today that he almost didn't come to school because of swine flu. Several other kids echoed this. Seriously.

Now obviously, what most of them mean is that they told their parents, "I don't want to go to school" and their parents asked, "why not?" and the kids responded, "umm..... swine flu?" because the mostly just wanted some excuse. And of course, swine flu is a big deal in Mexico.

But it's amazing to me the things we care about and the things we totally ignore. 20 people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with swine flu (none in DC, Maryland, or Virginia) and only one has required hospitalization. And think about how many news stories have been written on this topic. Now this question: how many DCPS students have been killed this year alone? Which problem deserves a press release?

Update: I tried looking up how many students in DCPS have been killed this year (or any given year). Couldn't find it. In fact, the only urban school district that I could find the information for was Chicago Public Schools, which has seen 28 students killed so far this school year. It's interesting (sad? infuriating?) to think about which types of numbers make news, and which don't.

Another Update: So after school today I was watching TV at the gym (don't be impressed -- I walked at a fast clip for like 20 minutes before going home, drinking a beer, and eating ice cream) and I saw that there are now like hundreds of cases of swine flu. So apparently this thing is a big deal. My bad. Still, I'd like to think that there's a point to be made in asking why the flu gets more coverage than the violence the plagues our city. Right?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The problem with DCPS

I've become convinced over my (relatively short) career in teaching that the real problem with education reform is not the kids, it's the adults. As we were finishing up testing this week, I became acutely aware of this.

First, our administrators made the decision that for the entire month of April, our 10th graders would be in special tutorial classes, which basically means that they do reading and math all day every day. They do not go to any other classes at all for a full 4 weeks. All this in order to help them "prepare" for the DC-CAS. Ridiculous, of course, but we "need to raise test scores."

Second, as anyone in DCPS knows, one of the hardest parts about making AYP is that you absolutely have to test 95% of your students, and you must test 95% of the students of each ethnic subgroup. Getting 95% of kids in our school to do anything is nearly impossible, so getting them all to come take a test that lasts a total of like 7 hours is quite a challenge. You might think the problem here is the kids (and I suppose at the high school level, you could argue that it is). However, when calling parents to remind them of the test, I was informed by one mother that her son is "sick." When I pushed further, I discovered that he is in fact on vacation for two weeks in New York. What parent lets their kid go on vacay for two weeks in the middle of the school year?

Third, our kids were promised a series of things as a reward for going through all of the testing hooplah. Example 1: a barbeque at the end of the week to celebrate the end of the test. The barbeque has been put on hold indefinitely for indeterminate reasons. Example 2: the kids were supposed to be given a special breakfast and lunch during testing. They go downstairs for breakfast on the first morning and are greeted with little mini cups of cereal. Lunch was left-over sandwiches. Special indeed.

The most heartbreaking part of this whole thing was watching how hard my students worked on that test. They all tried their hearts out and put forth a lot of effort. I'm very proud of them. (Even though I'm not technically their teacher; I was one of the poor saps that was recruited to teach these special tutorial classes). It makes me so sad when I think about all of the ways that incompetent adults -- either purposefully or through their own ineptitude -- stop them from really succeeding.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

'Tis the Season...

...for educators to freak the hell out and go bonkers getting kids "ready" for testing.

My school, like most around DC, is doing some pretty bizarre-o stuff to help kids do well on the tests. (Parenthetically, it seems to me that if we put that energy into, I don't know, planning and executing a curriculum that really taught kids the skills they need at high levels, we'd do a lot better on these tests...) This article in the Washington Post outlines some of the things that schools are doing.

The debate on testing is extensive, and most ideas have been hashed and rehashed by people far smarter than I (there's a great book called "Many Children Left Behind" which raises some good criticisms about testing --- this coming from someone who generally supports it). So I want to bypass the debate about whether or not testing is good, and draw your attention to a specific quote in the article:

"Way too much emphasis goes into getting those few kids to score better, while the entire rest of the student population is just put through useless paces," said Virginia Spatz, a schools activist with a son at School Without Walls High School and a daughter at Woodrow Wilson. She said the tests left her sophomore son's schedule "completely whacked out for two days each time."

Two days?!? This proves my point that at schools that actually teach -- School Without Walls, Banneker, etc. -- testing isn't this huge issue. The kids at Walls have to take the test for 2 days, show how much they know, and then get to go back to learning. My kids have to sit in special testing group classes all day long for FOUR WEEKS. That isn't accountability. It's crazy.

What are your schools doing to get ready?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The best part is the title

This article in today's Washington Post seems promising. For starters, Rhee, Parker, and Weingarten were able to agree on a mediator. So at least they're capable of not being petulant.

The best part is the fact that the article is titled, "Howard Law Dean to Mediate Schools Beef." Specifically, "beef." When I think of "beef" I think of immature, irrational, and pointless hostility. All of which seem appropriate in this contract negotiation. Excellent word choice, WaPo.

I mostly can't wait for this contract dispute to be over so that 1) I can get paid more, and 2) Randi Weingarten will go away.

In other news, did anyone else see this? It's kind of interesting to see Michelle Rhee -- the tough-as-nails wicked witch of DC -- being so warm and engaging with students.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Quick Post

I'm leaving to go back home for Easter at like negative 4 o'clock tomorrow, so I have to post quickly. However, I defo have something to post.

Today one of my AP Statistics students had the following question:

"Why are we working so hard to prepare for this AP test? I don't even care about this test, I just want to learn."

Breaks my heart. Obviously, the AP test is a very important test, in that it determines whether or not the kids get college credit for the class. The worst part is that I spend the rest of my day working with 10th graders trying to get them to be functional enough to pass the DC-CAS. And those kids don't even realize that they're being denied real education in an effort to raise their "test scores." As an apologist for standardized tests, I have to say: this is not what testing was supposed to be about. Yech.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Research Shows Poor Children Don't Remember Things

OK, the research doesn't exactly show that. But, as the article in today's Washington Post explains, it does show that the stresses of living in poverty can lead a decrease in working memory. That means that children who grow up in poverty have a more difficult time remembering new information and making connections with it. For teachers, this is really important in helping us understand how to help children who live in poverty. It also helps to explain the achievement gap.

What concerns me about this research is that I can just hear the way some people will interpret it. Some will say (and have said already on some other blogs) that this research shows that we can't make the kind of significant gains that are required in DCPS. I hear (too many) teachers in my school saying things like, "Until we change the socio-economics of the community, we can't turn around the school" or "I can't teach a kid who doesn't show up ready to learn" (both are direct quotes).

Here's what I say: suck it up. Is teaching in DC difficult? Yeah, definitely. But if you can't hack it then go work somewhere else. If teachers make excuses for why we're not succeeding with our students, then they shouldn't be teachers. Now, I don't think that teachers who don't raise test scores should be fired, and I don't think that all teachers should be expected to be martyrs. I personally am not confident that I could get the most difficult 10th graders at my school to pass the DC-CAS, even if I had two years with them. But I do think it's possible, and I intend to continue to seek out resources, development, and constructive criticism so that I one day will be the type of teacher who can make those gains.

The effects of poverty make it more difficult for children to remember things. Having a family life that does not value education might lead students to be apathetic. A long history of low-quality teachers will make students angry. Teaching high-needs children is difficult. But we're paid to be teachers to everyone, not just the kids who don't have issues.

Phew, that was quite a rant. I'm going to go eat a cookie.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

10th Graders are Hilarious

Today began the great (dumb) experiment of throwing our school into turmoil and having all the "good" teachers teach the 10th graders for the month of April in preparation for testing (see previous post). After one day, I have this to say: 9th graders are ridiculous. I didn't realize how bonkers 9th graders were until I got to work with these older children. I'm working with the group that has been assessed as being "below basic" in terms of skills, and they were still light-years more capable than 9th graders. What happens in between that first and second year of high school that turns a totally dysfunctional mess into a reasonable person?

While you ruminate on that question, here is a conversation that took place between me and one of my 10th grade tutorial students.

Me: Make sure you hand in your exit slip on the way out the door.
Student: What happens if we don't.
Me: I'll freak out. And you don't want to see a nerdy white math teacher freak out.
Student: Yeah, he's probably all (in robot voice, as she starts shaking hands above head and twitching) Does. Not. Compute.

Hi-larious.