New York

Heckuva Job, Blackie

Incoming Schools Chancellor Cathie Black visited overcrowded Francis Lewis High School a few weeks ago. She came with her entourage from Brooklyn, and was therefore an hour late. She stayed only 40 minutes, as she needed to run off somewhere else. Admittedly, I lack the organizational skills of a publishing executive (let alone someone about to run the largest school system in the country). Yet even I know how long it takes to get from Brooklyn to Queens. Ms. Black got a good look at the principal's office. It's a great office. There's a desk, a computer, a sitting area, and a full conference room. She didn't see the trailer. (The trailer is not so great, but after considerable effort, I got it a desk.) She didn't see our dual-national champion JROTC program, or meet our award-winning science students. She didn't meet our parent representatives. She didn't see our kids struggle to get to class at peak time, the half-classrooms we had to create to accommodate the overflow, or the kids who run around in the cold and the dark because we haven't got sufficient gym space. She didn't see kids eating lunch at 9 a.m., but she joked to some kids about it. Cathie Black was there, in fact, because those kids are student activists who got themselves on NY1 and invited her. It was good public relations for her to show up (and PR seems to be the one thing Tweed is good at). This was a good opportunity for Ms. Black to reach out, as relations between teachers and the DOE grew absolutely toxic under Joel Klein's tenure. Nonetheless, she didn't ask to meet me (I was out teaching in the trailer), and she didn't ask to meet any other teachers either. She did say she opposed tenure for teachers, but it's unlikely that was her opening salvo at mending fences. Having missed Ms. Black, I spoke to the kids who met her.
New York

Let’s Get Complicated

New York

Fire Miss Crabtree!

Poor Miss Crabtree. She's getting married, and she has to leave her job. Such things happened back in the day, before anyone thought of equal rights for women, tenure, or indoor plumbing. Nowadays we no longer insist teachers take chastity vows, remain unmarried, fill the inkwells, clean the coal boilers, or do whatever else they did in the good old days. Still, without tenure Miss Crabtree could now be fired for some more contemporary reason. Perhaps she told her colleagues how much UFT teachers earn. Or maybe she insisted they provide services mandated for special education students. Maybe she didn't do anything and they took the word of an angry student over hers. Perhaps they posted her scores (despite an explicit agreement not to — how can anyone trust these folks?) and decided to discontinue her, rendering her license useless in New York City. These things happen when teachers don't have tenure. Yet, I keep hearing, tenure is evil. Why? Because there are bad teachers out there! If you watch "Waiting for 'Superman,'" you may walk out thinking they all hide behind the skirts of evil AFT President Randi Weingarten. You might even think Weingarten recruited them and granted them tenure, but she did neither. People who think she did are confusing her with folks like Joel Klein and his merry band of administrators, who actually have such powers. Say what you will about Weingarten, but she's the most "reform"-minded union leader in the history of civilization. Weingarten most certainly does not defend bad teachers. In fact, I've never seen anyone at all say we want more bad teachers, or that bad teachers need to be retained indefinitely.
New York

What Goes Around Comes Around

Francis Lewis High School can be a tough place. We're the most overcrowded school in New York City, and kids have only four minutes to make it from one class to another. In the case of my students, they have to make it all the way to the back of the building, then out almost to the street to Trailer 5, my workplace. It's a formidable trek, but as a teacher you have to defy logic, set a tone right away, and frighten kids into arriving on time all year. Maria had come late the first three days, and the fourth morning I called her mom.  Mom said she and Maria had discussed it, and that Maria has always moved a tad slowly. Maria had tried, but just couldn't make it. I told Mom Maria was a joy when she showed up, but that I couldn't allow one kid to come late while everyone else came on time. Mom was very reasonable and understanding, and we ended the conversation hopeful of an acceptable solution. The fact that Maria came from room 306, all the way up there on the opposite side of the building made this a challenge. I didn't want to read Maria the riot act again. For starters, she knew very little English, and likely didn't much understand it. I got off the phone, grabbed my bag, and moved straight to room 306, Maria's science class. When the bell rang, I walked in to find Maria leisurely placing things in her bag. "Come on, Maria!" I said, gesticulating with all the urgency I could muster. "We have to make it to the trailers before the bell rings!" She was appropriately shocked, and began to move accordingly.
New York

Trailer Trash Shall Inherit The Earth

Years ago, the technical guru in our school was a guy who sat in an office running the school computer. No one knew what the school computer did, but all seemed well, and the guy pretty much never bothered anyone. Several times a year, he gave professional development sessions, and whatever he was demonstrating never worked. Things popped, fizzled, went up in flames. Pieces of important-looking machines fell off. People tripped over electrical cords and were rushed away in ambulances. Our presenter would leave the room for thirty minutes in search of a solution. You'd sit and talk, and wait, and by the time the session ended, you weren't really sure what it would have been about if it had occurred. After his retirement, technology became more commonplace, and professional development sessions began to focus on the Next New Thing. For some reason, I missed the first round of Smartboard training. Everyone was amazed, I was told. The following session entailed usage of tablets, which were very cool, and would quite possibly replace Smartboards (except they didn't). You could write on them and your miserable handwriting would magically turn into computer fonts, just the thing for the teacher with awful handwriting (me). Unfortunately, by the time the session ended we hadn't managed to turn on our tablets. The next round of training was learning how to set up the Smartboard, which you apparently had to do every single time you wanted to use it. This took 10 minutes, during which time you had to trust the kids would engage in whatever meaningful activity you'd provided. I say "trust" because you'd be too busy fiddling with the Smartboard to check. Last semester's round of training utilized more advanced Smartboards, which were mounted to the wall and no longer required the ten minutes setup time. You could put all sorts of stuff up there, you could play games, you could illustrate whatever you were discussing, you could write, play music, maybe have it do a little dance — the possibilities were endless. Smartboard training this week incorporated suggestions on how to use it to teach English. A young English teacher got up and showed us a PowerPoint presentation. Up until now, every PowerPoint presentation I'd ever seen was read aloud. I'd assumed, therefore, that PowerPoint's prime function was to prolong life by cultivating boredom. However, this teacher used it to present questions that might serve to stimulate discussion. It seemed like a great idea. But as good as the presentation was, I still felt like I'd wasted my time.
New York

More Than A Test Score

Every year, I fill out a form specifying which courses I want to teach and what time schedule I would like. Each September, I sit down with my department coordinator, and she calmly and methodically persuades me to do whatever she wants me to, whenever she wants me to. Two years ago, she asked me to prep English learners for the English Regents exam. I said OK, and spent all year making the kids write until their hands were ready to fall off. Most of them passed, and for some, it was miraculous.  Of course, they're fortunate that more stress is placed on content than grammar and usage ("conventions" rates the very bottom of the grading rubric). I showed them how to write highly formulaic four-paragraph essays that minimally met the requirements. One technique entailed copying directions and converting them to first person. Another featured repeatedly rehearsing canned literary references, many of which could be trotted out to support virtually any quote about anything. No technique, in my view, much encouraged writing habits that would prove useful in the long haul. There was no time for such things and besides, half my kids could barely communicate in English. Sadly, there was almost no time to work on that either. English language learners should not be taking this test at all. It's designed for native speakers. If my kid couldn't pass this in eleventh grade, I'd be very concerned. But a kid who came from Korea two months ago needs other things — including the grammar and usage that the state test doesn't value that much.
New York

All the News That’s Fit to Invent

I recently met a guy from another country who found himself a little surprised by what he'd seen in America. People here, he said, spent almost all their time working. In their few free hours Americans watched TV and seemed to believe everything they saw.  In his country, he said, we would go to a cafe and talk about what was on. We would question whether or not we could believe the commentators — then we'd make up our own minds. Our conversation started because I'd mentioned the frenzy to create more charter schools. President Barack Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, created a program called Race to the Top, in which states compete for cash. What states needed to do, apparently, was subscribe to as many unproven educational programs as possible, and the more shots in the dark they took, the more chance they had to win the money. The jewel on the crown of New York's monumental struggle to kowtow to the feds was the raising of the charter cap. This was very important to Duncan, even though charters, with fewer English as a Second Language and special education students than those attending neighborhood schools, have still not managed to outperform public schools. This amazes me because I strongly believe proactive parents to be the number one predictor of academic success, or lack thereof. When I call parents, which I do with great frequency, the ones who react the most vehemently tend to be the ones who effect the quickest changes. That parents could take the time and trouble to research and enroll their kids in any alternate setting is a sure sign they care about their kids. With 100 percent proactive parents, any school ought instantly to rack up better stats than its counterparts. In any case, the new law says charter schools will have to serve the same population as public schools. After reading false accounts in the New York Times claiming they already do, I'll believe that when I see it.
New York

A Bill of Goods

Bill Gates is amazed at what he sees happening at KIPP charter schools. Bill has no idea those same things happen at Francis Lewis High School, and countless other public schools, each and every day. Because Bill believes in the very same "reforms" that have caused Francis Lewis, my school, to balloon to 250 percent capacity, he surreptitiously funded the Learn NY campaign to preserve mayoral control (in practice, mayoral dictatorship). So I don't trust him, and I don't think he knows much about education, despite the millions he throws around imposing his pet projects on us. Still, I withheld judgment when he sent his new program to my school. I did not participate, but I said nothing to those who chose otherwise. The Measures of Effective Teaching program, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, is now at my school and many others across the city. Teachers were told this study would show what worked and did not work in the classroom. They hoped it would give them ideas on how to reach their students more effectively. How long should you pause after posing a question? Did certain seat arrangements promote more interaction? Is group work always more effective than lecturing? A young woman from the program came to our school and told our teachers that the study was actually examining newer ways to observe teachers. Traditionally, said she, there've been only a few ways to accomplish this. The most popular is the traditional observation, in which a supervisor sits in the classroom and writes up the results. She also cited peer observation, and the notion of test scores being used to determine whether or not lessons are effective. However, she said, this new study had an entirely new element — the panoramic camera. This camera, specially designed, could observe not only the teacher, but also the students. Are they engaged? Do they understand? Are they texting their girlfriends during the final exam? Should we grant tenure to the teacher in question? Perhaps the camera could tell all, if only they could get it to work properly (there have been issues, and they're apparently working on a newer version). Three participants told me that learning about the panoramic camera caused them to question the sincerity of the program's sponsors.