Thursday, November 29, 2012

Am I the Only One Who Thought This Was About Camp Counselors?

The Teacher - An Instrument of Power
by Haim Ginott
I have come to a frightening conclusion.
I am the decisive element in the classroom.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

As a teacher I possess tremendous power
to make a child's life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture
or an instrument of inspiration.
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. 

In all situations, it is my response
that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated,
and a child humanized or de-humanized

This was always in our staff manual, but teacher was changed to counselor. I don't mean to suggest that we are the only people of good in kids' lives or that you're not allowed to be a human around them. But isn't this nice? 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Do When?

The do now receives a lot of attention in secondary classrooms today. The do now provides a way to start class with an academic focus, encourages promptness, and allows teachers to take care of attendance while figuring out who is about to have a meltdown and who needs to switch seats. Some teachers criticize them as adding to the factory-like atmosphere of public high school today. We can talk about that later, but for the purposes of this blog post, I'm sold.

In our classroom, we start the day free writing. I provide a couple of topics that relate to what we're working on or that may provide a way to further classroom community. Students always have the option to write about whatever they would like. We all just keep writing for ten minutes and then share out. I learned this technique in grad school and find it really helpful for setting the tone in our classroom.

After about three people share their free writes, we do a grammar exercise. Together, we correct one of these passages and then explore the vocabulary embedded within the passage. Grammar exercises can get tricky, and I think Ms. Kiester has caught on to something here. I don't want to stop doing them.

But we have got to put some pep in our step.

I wonder if part of the reason we're behind is because we've lost some of our beginning of the year energy. I'm thinking about moving the grammar portion to the last ten minutes of class. The risks include students zoning out, going over on another worthy activity, or competing with the other end-of-class administrative tasks like announcements. Potential pay offs could include having ten minutes of a calm beginning and then time for a more exciting activity where students move around (you can only make grammar so fun, y'all). Thoughts? Ideas? Experience from the field?

Monday, November 26, 2012

What is an Achievement Gap?

A couple of weeks ago, a teacher named Camika Royal wrote an essay asking us to stop talking about achievement gaps. By achievement gaps, she meant the often wide differences between in test scores between kids who are white and kids who are not (except for kids who are Asian. That's a whole other blog post).

Royale suggests that labeling these gaps as such suggest that kids who are white have smarts that kids of color don't have. The phrase, according to Royale, normalizes white achievement and makes it the standard for all other racial groups. But should we hold kids to different standards based on race?

Here in Virginia, the state department of education recently came under fire for creating standardized test goals that are different for every race and ethnicity. The creators of the varied goals said they were trying to be honest about where kids are and not set up schools to fail by expecting them to overcome the deficiencies in learning.

I don't think that white kids are smarter than black kids. I do think that kids who come from homes with higher incomes tend to do better in terms of graduation, college attendance and completion, and health. I do think that kids who are white are more likely to come from homes with higher incomes than kids who are not. I don't think we're privileging whiteness. We're privileging an upper-middle class existence that is most readily available to white people (although many of them struggle, too).

Royale seems to argue these aren't deficiencies. They just are facts of society's inability to prepare kids from minority backgrounds for scholastic success. She starts to make some sense to me when she talks about calling these differences not in achievement (obligatory point out that what we're using to measure this achievement is a questionable measure at best and harmful at worst), but in opportunity. I think introducing the idea of opportunity gaps and what they do to people on the bottom of them is the main point of Royale's argument. It just takes her awhile to get there, and we have to wade through some semi-questionable ideas to get there. Once we're talking about opportunity gaps, however, I am on board.

It is fundamentally unfair to expect schools, teachers, and other educators to pick up the slack for other community resources. That sort of expectation also sets students up to fail. But that doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and go home. We should account for the fact that schools can't make up these gaps in opportunity now, and then create ways for them to do so going forward.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Minus a few technology glitches, the zombie projects went pretty well this year. There aren't as many natural places to hide in this new community, so kids had to get creative. What really impressed me, however, was the way kids got excited about zombie literature. We talked about The Walking Dead, of course, and how masterful the graphic novels are. My favorite, however, was this Neil Gaiman poem one of my typically struggling students e-mailed me one evening:

The Day the Saucers Came
by Neil Gaiman

That Day, the saucers landed. Hundreds of them, golden,
Silent, coming down from the sky like great snowflakes,
And the people of Earth stood and
stared as they descended,
Waiting, dry-mouthed, to find out what waited inside for us
And none of us knowing if we would be here tomorrow
But you didn’t notice it because
That day, the day the saucers came, by some coincidence,
Was the day that the graves gave up their dead
And the zombies pushed up through soft earth
or erupted, shambling and dull-eyed, unstoppable,
Came towards us, the living, and we screamed and ran,
But you did not notice this because
On the saucer day, which was zombie day, it was
Ragnarok also, and the television screens showed us
A ship built of dead-men’s nails, a serpent, a wolf,
All bigger than the mind could hold,
and the cameraman could
Not get far enough away, and then the Gods came out
But you did not see them coming because
On the saucer-zombie-battling-gods
day the floodgates broke
And each of us was engulfed by genies and sprites
Offering us wishes and wonders and eternities
And charm and cleverness and true
brave hearts and pots of gold
While giants feefofummed across
the land and killer bees,
But you had no idea of any of this because
That day, the saucer day, the zombie day
The Ragnarok and fairies day,
the day the great winds came
And snows and the cities turned to crystal, the day
All plants died, plastics dissolved, the day the
Computers turned, the screens telling
us we would obey, the day
Angels, drunk and muddled, stumbled from the bars,
And all the bells of London were sounded, the day
Animals spoke to us in Assyrian, the Yeti day,
The fluttering capes and arrival of
the Time Machine day,
You didn’t notice any of this because
you were sitting in your room, not doing anything
not even reading, not really, just
looking at your telephone,
wondering if I was going to call.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sometimes I'm Scared of Literature

I love to read. I love to read just about everything. Anna Karenina makes me feel the same way as Cold Mountain. And I love to talk about what I read. At one time, I was an active member of three different book clubs (and a fourth that met electronically).

But sometimes, I get really scared to talk to my students about literature. So much of my training in ed school was about engaging students, teaching them skills that translate to critical thinking, and thinking about the role of school in a democratic society.

No one taught me how to lecture about Beowulf. Last year, I faked it. A lot. I borrowed powerpoints from other teachers about Shakespeare and The Odyssey. Now that my feet are a little wetter (and my body a little less exhausted), I think it might be time to venture into designing my own lectures.

Is that even useful? Some people say the lecture is dead. The Freirian in me wonders if there's a better way for students to get the cultural capital that I know they can use to compete if they choose to go on to college.

The tired teacher in me just wants to finish this jazzy powerpoint.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

We Are So Behind

We are very lucky here in Central Virginia that Hurricane Sandy caused very little physical damage, and my prayers continue to go out to places like this town that had to cobble together uniforms to get to the playoffs when most kids weren't even living at home.

But we really couldn't afford those two days off.

I had planned for tenth grade to finish A Raisin in the Sun before Thanksgiving. Twelfth grade was going to read Beowulf by then. We haven't started A Raisin in the Sun, and I did read the first fifteen pages of Beowulf out loud today to last period.

The English department at school is moving toward a skill-based curriculum that emphasizes what students can do with texts rather than which texts they read. But I still think there are just some things every one should read -- if only to understand the allusions in headlines. I have three canonical texts for each class that I want us to read this year. We've gotten to one in tenth grade and fifteen pages into the first one in twelfth grade. At this rate, Shakespeare will have to happen over summer break.

Other teachers, does this happen to you? What do you do to stay on track? Or have you mastered the art of knowing they're mastering the skills and the texts themselves truly don't matter?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

What Do Teachers Make?

About a month ago, it was World Teacher Day. It's okay if you didn't notice. We don't tend to do much to celebrate teachers in the U.S. the way that many other countries do. Teachers here work about 500 more hours a year for about 40 percent less pay than our counterparts in countries that often best us on national tests.

Hours worked and pay received are just two measures of value, but I think they are important ones. These measures can be compared across professions and they are a quick way to discuss the problems of expecting teachers to move data-driven mountains without giving us the resources to attract and keep the best and the brightest.

One professional facet that isn't as easily measured is respect. For educators with at least a bachelor's degree, teachers are the bottom of the pyramid. Becoming an administrator constitutes a "promotion." And while the job of an administrator is also extremely important, stressful, and time-consuming, it isn't classroom teaching. We need classroom teachers who feel like they can stay classroom teachers but also have room for professional growth. In just a year and a half as a classroom teacher, I have seen colleagues leave for more lucrative careers with less stress or decide to start phoning in their instruction because their job can feel like a bit of a dead end.  Both of these outcomes hurt students (as does the incredibly high teacher turnover that many Title I schools face).

So, what can we do to help teachers feel more respected in this country? A report McKenzie did while I was still in graduate school suggested that starting teacher salaries at $65,000 and topping them off at $150,000 would encourage 68 percent of high-achieving college students to consider teaching. That sounds awesome, and I'm for it, obviously, but I think in this economy it's not feasible to demand that sort of pay. Nor is it very empathetic toward the millions of Americans who struggle so much more than my colleagues and I do to make ends meet.    

But what about a national campaign to recruit teachers? To explain the importance of teaching? To highlight just how hard these often bombarded people work? EdWeek had a blog post about how countries around the world encourage caring, high achieving folks to become teachers. I'd never really thought about how we don't celebrate teaching nationally, although it makes perfect sense as a recruitment strategy. Every year at my university, hundreds (thousands?) of kids sign up to be wined and dined by executives in the finance and consulting industries. They are willing to do a job that consumes their life because they feel special for even considering it. And sure, the money helps.

Here is my favorite video EdWeek shared. I got a little teary at my desk and challenge you not to as you remember all of the teachers who encouraged you to do your best even when you had no idea what your best might mean. How cool would it be if we spent a little time and money encouraging people across the country to do the same?