Archive for the ‘Teaching’ category

Not Just A Useless Meeting, A $36,000.00 Useless Meeting

October 8, 2009

At the time, I wondered how much this cost:

Caddo School District spent $36,611 on a districtwide employee meeting to celebrate the beginning of the 2009-10 academic year.

The Back-to-School Kickoff held Aug. 13 in the Shreveport Convention Center gathered 7,000 school employees for a two-hour pep rally-style event designed to bring district employees together in one place.

Word from several independent sources was that the big thing they learned involved morning greetings. Teachers, when they see each other, instead of saying “good morning,” or “how are you” should always ask “how are the children today?” The mentality that thinks that would make any difference at all in education is the same mentality that thinks a two hour mandatory district wide pep rally could make any difference at all in education. That’s the mentality of the average administrator.

I’ve Been Traded

September 23, 2009

Not really, but it feels similar. Starting Monday I’ll be leaving seventh grade US History for the high school and Civics, Free Enterprise and World Geography.

I like the parish in which I teach. My principal, not so much. While she’s a micromanager and extremely disorganized, I’m very independent and CDO (that’s OCD in alphabetical order, like it should be). As a teacher, my only request from administrators is to be left the heck alone. I have the best test scores in the school, I have no discipline problems, I’m never absent, the students like me and their parents like me. With those credentials, I figured any sensible principal would be more than happy to leave me be and go worry about stuff that actually needs attention. Not so at my school. I actually had a written reprimand placed in my personnel file because I abbreviated the days of the week on my lesson plans. That’s just one example.

That kind of stuff led me to the school board office one day for a transfer request form. Like I said, I enjoy the parish, so I figured rather than look in a totally different place, I’d request a transfer to the high school. I never completed the form. Instead, last week I received a message from the central office telling me to come see the superintendent after school. Of course, my first thought was “OMG, what did I do?” Turns out one of the high school teachers found a job in another parish and that parish’s super called ours for a reference. Knowing we were about to have a vacancy, she had wondered aloud how to fill it. Her secretary remembered me picking up the request form and mentioned my name. Thus, the meeting and my transfer to the high school.

I’m not excited about switching during the year. If I’d completed the form I would have requested to switch next year. Moving now makes me crazy because I feel like I’m leaving a job undone; too many loose ends. It’s no good for the students, either. They’ve adjusted to my system and style but now have to start over. I’m also not excited about switching one class three. The extra prep time means I may, for the first time, actually have to take some work home with me.

Still, this morning when I received the same five page double sided ten point font memo of gripes, complaints and tasks that every other teacher did, I got to throw mine in the trash. And when they all gathered for our weekly hour long faculty meeting while I walked out the door, I knew for sure I would be better off in the high school.

As you might have guessed from my transfer story, I teach in a small parish. That means most of the students I teach this year will be the same ones I taught in seventh grade two years ago. Next year I will have last year’s students. The year after that, this year’s. So it’ll be four years before I have a totally new crop. Not sure what to make of this.

On the one hand I really like most of my students and am looking forward to teaching them again. Especially since they’ll be older and therefore (in theory) more intelligent and responsible. On the other hand, familiarity breeds contempt. In fact, while I was at the high school meeting with the teacher I am replacing, one of my former students saw me and asked what I was doing there. Not wanting to ruin the surprise, I said I was there for a meeting. He replied “Oh good, because if you were coming over here to teach us again, I’d have to shoot myself.” I told him the feeling was mutual. Still, most of the former students I saw today either hugged me (ugh) or said they missed me or something similar. Even the smart asses were, I think, in a way expressing fondness.

In short, I’m happy. When I was visiting with the high school principal this afternoon, I told him I’d gone over the curriculum and planned my first few lessons. Then I asked him what I needed to know to teach there. He thought and said “Just go up there and do your thing, we’ll leave you to do your job.” Like I said, that’s all I need.

Politics In The Classroom

August 26, 2009

During my debate class today I explained to the students that part of their grade depended on how well they behaved while not debating. In other words, they had to be quiet and respectful while in the audience watching the other teams debate. To encourage this, I also threatened to make them alphabetize the list of presidents found in the back of their text book and then copy the list five times if they could not remain quiet. At that, several looked over the list. One student then said “Oh good, Obama’s not in here.” I cringed expecting exactly what came next, angry looks accompanying accusatory shouts of “What’s wrong with Obama?” Alright, I thought, this is a debate class, so this could be positive. But then the first student offered two responses: 1) He has the same middle name as “some terrorist,” and; 2) he wasn’t born in America.

What was I to do with that? On the one hand, you’re told over and over to leave your personal beliefs at home. The teacher must remain neutral. On the other hand, how could I, as an educator, allow someone to hold such absolutely ridiculous beliefs? Surely I would be failing my calling if I let this student think either of his “reasons” were legitimate causes to oppose Obama.

I had a similar dilemma last year around the time of the election. Most of my students were, and are, strong Obama supporters. When I asked them why, however, most had little or no idea. One time I had a student give me a definite and clear answer. When I asked what was so great about Obama, that student said “He’s black.”

Again, what to do? In that situation, I asked them why that mattered. As a history teacher, I quickly steered them to the historical importance of the election. No doubt, everyone can agree that in a county which only fifty years ago segregated the races, electing a black president is an amazing thing. But then I pushed them past that by asking if the fact that he is black has anything to do with whether or not he’ll be a good president. Eventually I think most of them got the distinction.

Back to today. I had to correct that student. There just isn’t anything to debate about Obama’s name or place of birth. Letting the student “make up his own mind” about those things would be like a science teacher letting a student make up his own mind about whether the Earth is round. Or a math teacher leaving the multiplication tables up to each student’s opinion. I could not let his little mind be stolen by the nutcases.

Of course, for his sake and the sake of all the Obama supporters in the class, I pointed out that even though those reasons were bunk, there are genuine reasons to oppose Obama. I used his call for longer school years as my example. No controversy there; we ALL agreed that was a bad idea.

I Guess We Can Only Improve From Here

August 11, 2009

The first day of school I give my students a survey. Mostly I’m trying to get a basic idea of who they are and what they think of school. One of the questions is: “Is there any person from history you really admire? If so, why?” Today, on one of the papers, I received the following answer to that question:

George Washington. Because he discovered America.

Even now, I’m shaking my head in disbelief. I don’t expect my students to have much prior knowledge of U.S. History (or anything else) but . . . really? After seven years of school?

The student put his name on the paper, and while I remember the answer, I can’t remember the name. I’m not sure if I should even check the paper to remind myself who the author was. On the one hand, if I do, that answer will be in my mind every time I look at that kid. On the other hand, if he ends up doing well, it would be nice to know how much he improved. I guess I’ll file the papers and wait until the end of the year. Then either the paper will have been prophetic or the results of the class miraculous.

My Students Kicked A** On The iLEAP

May 19, 2009

There’s five possible grades on the thing, from best to worst: Advanced, Mastery, Basic, Approaching Basic, Unsatisfactory. Basic and above is the goal; below basic is failing. Last year my students did well for my school, with just under half making basic or better. When the students I have this year took the test last year, they had a similar passing percentage, with about half making it. This year? How about a twenty five point improvement over last year. Seven of  ten made basic or above this year. That’s a HUGE improvement over my students last year and over their own performances last year. I am happy.

Obviously I’m happy for the students. The school makes such a big deal about these tests that they can’t help getting excited about doing well.

I especially happy for all the ones who worked hard all year and succeeded. There were some serious slackers who managed to succeed. Some of them with straight F’s in my class, even. Good for them, but the ones I really feel excited for are the dedicated ones who worked hard every day. And the vast majority of those who did work hard succeeded. Of all the flunkies on the iLEAP, only two were good students, the types who did their work, paid attention in class and studied for tests. All the rest of the students who did those things passed.

It also makes me happy because this confirms that my teaching system works. Last year – my first year in the classroom – it took me half the year to really figure out something that worked. This year I was able to implement my plans from day one. That, I think, is the big reason for the difference. Now next year I can tell the new students that if they do  what I tell them, they will succeed on the test.

Of course, the scores also makes me happy because now I have even more license to be a recalcitrant faculty member. Do not doubt for a second that I will tell my superiors that the guy with the best test results is the same guy who has skipped every faculty meeting, failed to turn in ninety per cent of assigned paperwork, and generally avoided all duties not directly related to classroom instruction. In a way I’m a bit like some of the slackers who passed the test. If that’s all that matters, why bother with anything else?

The Internets Are Evil

April 21, 2009

I swear, whatever non-teaching educational professionals say about the importance of technology, that is their true belief. As evidence of web-o-phobia, consider some of the sites blocked by my district’s internet filter.

But first, I wonder why we need a filter in the first place. At least at my school, the students never have unsupervised access to the internet. Why not just trust the judgment of the teachers to decide in each individual case what sites are proper or not? Sure, some sites would never be appropriate. There’d never be a legitimate educational purpose for sites with nekkid women, obviously. But filters often eliminate the good with the bad.

For instance, in my speech and debate class, the students are currently preparing descriptive speeches. I let them pick their own topics, hoping that would make the whole process more interesting for them. A few of the guys in the class – who usually make little or no effort at any kind of learning – were excited about doing speeches about their favorite sports teams. After securing through begging and bartering a coveted spot in the school’s one computer lab, we headed over there to do some research. Sadly, the sports fans’ excitement soon turned to disappointment and frustration because they discovered that nearly every sports related site – the ones with the information they needed for their speeches – was blocked by the filter. In other words, some off site office dwelling egg head decided ex ante that there could never be any legitimate educational use for a sports web site. That prejudice cost my class excited students and good speeches.

I had a similar incident with the school social studies fair. A few thugs in training wanted to do their papers about “drugs.” I helped them fine tune their idea to a paper on the legalization of marijuana. I thought this made everyone a winner. They had a topic they found interesting and I had an opportunity to help normally reluctant students learn to think critically. Alas, the filter prevented all that. While it’s fine for law enforcement officers to come to the school to tell impressionable young minds that all drugs are bad all the time, when those same minds want to think for themselves they are barred by the filter from turning to the internet and seeking a different opinion from law enforcement. LEAP wasn’t the only site banned. Enough were that they could not do the project at school. And for these kids, that meant they could not do it at all.

There’s other ridiculous stories. YouTube has no value. At one time even the school website was blocked. A petition by the AFA to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage is blocked as “hate speech.”

I know, I know, this is all someone else’s fault and there’s nothing we can do and if you just fill out the proper request form in triplicate and submit it a week before you need the site it might be allowed and one computer might have access to it for ten minutes on the the second Tuesday of the month. And we have to save the children. I just really wish the bureaucrats would trust teachers to be teachers. I don’t need a an absentee busy body big brother to make decisions for me about how to best educate my students. I’m supposed to be a professional. Let me be one.

Praise Jesus, The Tests Are Over

April 8, 2009

Final tallies:

Two weeks gone.

Five tests administered.

Two cheaters busted.

Five near fights and one brawl involving ten or fifteen students.

Four movies watched.

Untold games of dominoes played.

Maybe three hours of real teaching.

One aggravated teacher who is seriously ready for spring break.

The big unknown, of course, is how many of them passed their tests in my class. My students did fine – by my school’s standards – last year. This year I covered more of the subject and spent more time reviewing, plus I have a year of experience that I did not have last year. They also all reported that I had taught them everything on the test, even if they did not exactly remember it. Hence, I expect scores to rise over last year. But, you never know, and they did abysmally bad on their last practice tests. I’ll just have to wait.

In Which I Begin My Complaints About Testing

March 30, 2009

This one isn’t about the tests; it’s about how my school prepares for them.

Knowing how much emphasis everyone from the feds on down places on these things, you might conclude we use every possible pre-test second to study for them. Not so. At least not at my school. We start them Wednesday. Nevertheless, we lost an entire day of instruction Friday to school pictures, an awards ceremony and a basketball game. Yes. A basketball game during school hours. Three days prior to the BIG TESTS. Today, we lost the last part of the day to a LEAP test pep rally. You read that right, too. Only a non-teaching education professional could thing that’s a good idea. Tomorrow, instead of last minute review, we will have something called an “Academic Olympics.” I say “something” because – despite repeated requests for information – I have absolutely no idea what we are doing. For those counting at home, that’s most of the last three days prior to the tests wasted on non-academic silliness.

Part of me wants to say big deal. By this point the students have already determined for themselves who is going to pass the tests and who won’t. For the most part, that’s accurate. However, there are a few on the border who could go either way. And every question counts. I had a great three day intensive review planned. I’ve no doubt it could have helped at least a few students get the one or two more questions they needed in order to make it to the promised land. Alas, I lost it all to goofy do your best rah-rah cheerleading.

What will happen now? I don’t know. Not only have they missed valuable instruction, but all the disruptions and chaos has their little minds focused on everything except learning. When I take my own kids to the park, it takes us half an hour to walk the block over there. Why? Because every time they take a step, they see something they have to go inspect: A stick, some bugs, a flower, the neighbor’s cat, whatever. And after every distraction, I have to re-focus them on the trip. Middle schoolers are no different. They lose attention even in the best of circumstances. I’m not saying all this wasted time and distractions will make a huge difference, but I bet it makes a significant one. At the least, it’s a pain in the ass with no benefits.

Not Much To Like In Obama’s Education Speech

March 11, 2009

For now I’m only going to mention one part: Merit Pay.

“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom,”

Sounds great, right? Someone like me – dedicated, hard working, cares about students – ought to really support it, right? Well . . .

First, it’s based on a myth, that schools are full of ancient slobs of teachers made lazy by tenure who do nothing but sleep at their desks while students cry out, desperate for an education. And there probably are teachers like that. I’ve never met one. Every teacher I know works extremely hard at their job. They all spend hours preparing, constantly try new ideas hoping one will work, and care deeply about the success of their students. They all deserve a reward.

Second, I have serious doubts about the definition of “merit.” In my parish, our merit pay depends on our entire school’s performance on the state-wide tests. I don’t know if every other school district would also make individual rewards dependent on group results. I hope not, especially since what I do in 7th grade history has absolutely nothing to do with the test results in 6th grade math. So I see no reason, if the 6th grade students all passed the test, that teacher ought to lose her reward because my students did not. Whether or not other schools made that mistake, though, I do know that no matter how they try to disguise it, nine of ten schools would tie merit pay to student performance on standardized tests.

Those tests are a good idea as a general indicator of what students have learned. As they are now – the end all be all of education – not so much. I really don’t want to make them even more important than they already are.

Third, merit pay is not fair, at least not based on standardized tests. Why? Let me explain.

In my school, the students are grouped by ability in each subject. That means some classes are stronger than others.

At one end of the spectrum is my first hour class. There are 22 students in that class; there’s never less than 20 on any given day. They always have pens, books, and pencils ready. I have no discipline problems from them. When we have parent events, their parents are always present. When I involve current events in class discussions, someone always knows what I’m talking about. These students do all my assignments, take all the notes, study for their tests, and make excellent grades.

At the other end is my seventh hour class. This one also has 22 on the role. Rarely do more than 15 arrive for class. The first five minutes are a chaotic attempt to settle fights, provide pens and paper, and force them to start working. Usually at least one or two will have to leave class due to constant disruptions. If I mention a current event, they look at me like I’m speaking another language. I think I’ve talked to one of their parents. Only about a third regularly do their class work. Ditto taking notes. On average, when I give a test, two or three will make an A, four or five more will pass and the remaining fifteen or so will fail.

Anyone want to guess how the two classes will fair on their state tests next month? And when one group fails and the other succeeds, whose fault is it? They have the same teacher, the same curriculum, the same environment, the same resources. Could it possibly be . . . their own fault!

This discrepancy between students is the major problem with merit pay. Some teachers have nothing but students like those in my first hour class. Some have nothing but students like those in my seventh hour class. When the foreseable happens – the first group doing exceedingly better than the second – it would be grossly unfair to reward the first teacher for that group’s success. The students, not the teacher, are the issue. If anything, the second teacher needs higher pay for having to deal with such a difficult situation.

Maybe Obama has a secret plan to avoid all the problems I’ve mentioned. The speech was just a broad outline. If not, though, I guess I’m one of these greedy, lazy teachers who opposes merit pay.

My Parent Letter About Test Prep

March 5, 2009

With the BIG TESTS a few weeks away, all the annual silliness has begun. First up, we’ve been ordered to write a one page letter to parents telling them what they can do to help prepare their child for the tests. What follows is my letter.

Dear Parent,

By now, the students have all determined for themselves who will pass and who will fail the upcoming iLEAP tests. For an athlete, the will to win does not matter without the antecedent will to practice. In the same way, the desire to succeed on the iLEAP does not matter absent months of hard work prior to the tests. Accordingly, those students who took my advice in August and spent the last eight months listening in class, doing their assignments and studying for tests will pass without any problem. Those who did not,will not.

All that said, over the next two weeks we will be reviewing key concepts. The students will make flash cards involving key terms, events, people, places and ideas from United States history. If you want to help them prepare, when they arrive home from school ask for those cards and then quiz them on the information.

To those who have worked hard all year, congratulations on what I know will be an excellent score. To the rest, work harder next year.

Thank You,