Monday, March 30, 2009

Think You Can Teach?

All you bloggers, pundits and talking heads out there prescribing solutions for teacher evaluation or pay, this story is for you. You may not have set foot in a classroom since you left school and you may or may not have ever attended public school, so let me remind you first that all public schools are required by law to educate any child who wishes to attend school and who qualifies by age and residence to do so. Here's some real life at a previous school:

It's after lunch, and just like every day, my fifth period students begin to arrive after the bell rings to end lunch. They're all wearing their backpacks in front, and clutching them tightly, as they look around the room to see if "Klepto" is in attendance. He saunters into the room, and the students grip their packs more tightly. I move swiftly to the file cabinets in the rear of the classroom and punch the locks, keeping an eye on Klepto to make sure he does not drift anywhere near my desk. A little extreme? Not even close. This kid has pinched cell phones from teachers, most of the special pencils I ordered for prizes (from the back cabinet), and numerous items from classmates. He's like a well-trained pick pocket; no one ever sees him pinch the stuff, but somehow it ends up in his possession.

I look behind me to make sure I remembered to post the special class rules that go up each day just for this one class. These are not your normal class rules, and include an outright ban on cafeteria tools (straws for blowing spitballs, sporks for catapulting gum across the room), and various other rules more likely to be found in a lower elementary school classroom.

Consequences for disobedience are severe: first offense earns a referral to the dean and suspension from that day's class, second earns a referral and a parent conference, and for the third, "your mom has to come to class and sit with you."
One student asks, "What if my mom can't come?"

To which a classmate replies, in a jaded voice, "Don't get thrown out three times, pendejo." Duh.

Why? This is no "normal" class. On any given day we could have a stink bomb release to start class, a fight, an eruption from one of the kids with anger issues, and any other imaginable type of disruption. I've never had a group like this one, hence the special rules, just for them.

One day, as the students come in, they begin running around the room, cafeteria tools readily visible - no one sits. I call out to them. No response. I stand there, flabbergasted, absorbed by the sheer chaos. Turning around, I notice I have forgotten to post the special rules for that class. I grab the poster and pull out two tacks. As I raise my arms to post the rules on the board, I hear a voice above the din, "She's putting up the rules!" Plonk. The entire class sits in unison, dead quiet, hands on the desk in front of them. I manage not to laugh.

So all of you commentators, here's the reality. This is your class, because you're a new teacher and most of the veterans (unlike yours truly who actually likes these kids) don't want to have anything to do with this lot. Could you handle them? Could you teach them anything? Unsure? You should be.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

On Being Furniture

Most people have seen some version of the cartoon where a man is talking to his dog. One panel says "What humans say" followed by actual phrases like "Bad dog." The second panel says, "What dogs hear: blah, blah, blah, etc."

Yesterday after school I was sitting at my desk talking to a student, F, who was there serving detention for coming to school late - again - even though he lives maybe three blocks from the campus and commutes by skateboard. Just as I was beginning to answer a question he had asked me, another student, B, came rushing into the room and began rapidly talking to F, while I sat there, stunned, mouth open, words dribbling down my chin. It was like I was part of the furniture, invisible, or not worth noticing. To his credit, F actually pointed out that B had interrupted me, eliciting a "my bad," but the incident set me to thinking.

What do teenagers hear when we talk to them? Even when I sit with students individually, I wonder how much of what I say actually enters their heads, without exiting the other side or slithering back out while they sleep.

For a while I became the queen of checklists, checking off who got what handouts, so that no one could come back in a day or two and say, "YOU never gave me that paper" in that accusatory tone teenagers use to indicate their disdain for our age-addled brains. It gave me a one-up, "The checklist says you got that paper, so I'm not totally senile yet, but if you need another one sweetie I do have some extras," (yeah, like around 20 at least).

I remember one student I had at a previous school who had an effective retention level of around zero for anything related to school. Students had to carry time cards to class, and every period of every day for the whole school year I stood near the classroom door with my hand out to collect their time cards as they entered. Every day, even in June, this student would enter the room, observe me with my hand extended and in genuine bewilderment whine, "Whaaat?!?!?"

Once teens grow out of being teens and into the amnesia of adulthood and parenting, they look at the young people around them and proclaim "I was never like that!" Maybe, but you might want to go back and visit some of your teachers and ask them.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Success and Consequences

What happens to students who need an environment where they can attempt to rectify past academic and social mistakes? If they're fortunate, they get transferred to an alternative school that will meet their needs. Many go on to catch up and graduate from one of these lifeboat schools.

The problem with success is that if those who make the big decisions don't know or understand what you're doing, you run the risk of being annihilated for arbitrary reasons, like money. Take my school.

Our test scores went up significantly. Our students completed more classes as a whole and per student than any other comparable school in our area. Two groups of students competed in a regional urban planning competition last year and one of the two groups went to the finals - the only alternative school to do so. We have a team in the competition again this year, and the students are working hard to get the win. The school won a grant to fund a student horticulture class and plant a vegetable and flower garden that would delight Alice Waters and the slow food movement.

Our reward? Almost certain closure. Students who failed spectacularly at their large high schools get stuffed back into the same school just as class sizes are set to increase - or they can drop out. Either way, they're expendable. How is that logical or even cost effective? How much will that unfulfilled potential end up costing society over time?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Her Way

The first year that students had to take the high school exit exam, the state gave the exam to 9th graders to beta test it. If they passed, they would not have to take the exam again the following year, when the permanent testing of all 10th graders began. I was teaching two double-period sections of 9th grade English, both "honors," which at my school meant any student who came to school almost every day, didn't cause trouble and was willing to do some work. It did not mean that the students actually functioned at grade level. The reading range in the two sections ranged from 5th to 12+.

The students worked hard, read hundreds of pages each semester, wrote every day, and generally did a great deal of deep thinking. When it came time to respond to practice prompts, I taught them a sort of formula that they could use to give the evaluators what they wanted on the essay. If it worked, the students could be done with the test and be able to move on to more interesting work in 10th grade.

Everyone bought into the idea that they could "do the box" without "becoming the box." Everyone except C, who had to do everything her way. Everyone took the test, and when the results came out, everyone had passed, everyone except C, because doing it her own way had turned out not to be the best choice.

One year later I transferred to an alternative school, and used the story of C as a cautionary tale to "do it Ms. G's way." At my new school, the pass rate on the exit exam was 100% for the students who did it my way. Only one student in four years outright refused to do any of the work I gave her to help her prepare; she failed to pass the test, and did not graduate as a result.

Last year, I was shopping in Best Buy one day after work when I heard someone call my name. "Ms. G, you used to teach at JHS. I'm C..." and I said, "C" plus her last name, "You're famous. I tell everyone about you." Then I told her why, and how her story had helped me to convince students to give my methods a chance.

The epilogue is actually sweet. She did graduate on time, and completed an AA degree at the community college. She's transferred to a four-year to become .... (drumroll)..... an elementary school teacher!
"I always felt I'd failed you, because I couldn't get you to 'buy' doing it my way. Now I don't have to worry about you anymore, and my story has a better ending." Big hug. "Please tell your students your story." I think she will.

Get Into the Box

What do standardized tests actually measure? Do they measure reading skills, the ability to reason or analyze? Maybe, but I'm starting to think that what they actually measure is the test taker's ability to function inside the proverbial box.

Case in point would be the state high school exit exam, which students statewide took last week. Part of the exam is an essay. Students are given a prompt for which they have to write a response. Failure to follow instructions, no matter how well written the essay may be, results in a score that indicates the student is not proficient as a writer. For example, if the prompt asks students to write about a significant historical person that they studied in elementary or middle school and they write about Obama, they get dinged because he's too recent to qualify.

The student may well have written a wonderful essay, with a definite point of view, voice, interesting ideas, excellent grammar and spelling - as one of my students did (to a different question) on this week's test. He did, however, write from the point of view of an X, instead of the point of view of a Y, so when the graders read his essay, he will be given a score of non-proficient, not because he is not a proficient writer, but because he was not able to get into the box.

Ironically, I think that this very student, who remained true to his own voice even at the risk of failing a test that is a graduation requirement, may well become a writer one day - precisely because of his determination to adhere to that very voice.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Work in Progress

How many times have you heard stories of successful people who just wanted to let that teacher who told them they'd never amount to anything know that he or she was wrong? They'd made it. They were successful, and even happy, but the hurt from the put down all those years before still lingered.

I wonder what E is thinking tonight, after I laid into him today after school, but from an opposite perspective: "You have skills and insight. You've demonstrated you can think deeply and critically. But you're not respecting your ability. From what I've seen, you can do or be anything you want to do or be - if you polish those skills and talent while the doors are open to you."

This kid is a work in progress. He has done well on any low-stakes assignment, but has frozen on high-stakes assignments like timed writing prompts. Why? Ever read Stanford professor Carol Dweck's book Mindset? I had, and made E read the first four chapters, about the fixed and growth mindsets. Growth mindset people are cool with "failure" because they know that they will learn and grow from their mistakes. Fixed mindset people are terrified of failure because they think that others will discover that they are really not "smart." They'd rather not try at all than risk trying and failing.That's E.

So I've called his bluff. Nothing he can do will make me think he's not smart, so he has no choice but to live up to his potential in my class. "When you complete this class, I want you to still hear my voice in your head telling you that yes, you are smart enough. No more excuses." I'm putting a request out to the universe to run into him in about 10 years, and keeping my fingers crossed.

Post Script: About two months after I wrote this, E was jumped by some gangbangers one night and beaten within an inch of his life. After several weeks of being kept in an induced coma to help reduce brain swelling, he was gradually brought back to consciousness, but the loss in cognition did not become fully evident for a few months. He no longer knows how to read or write, and will never function normally. Some will blame him for being out at night. He will be a burden on his family and/or society for the rest of his life, his potential shattered.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Choices and Consequences

The first thing I think when I see him is that he's so short. He looks like a sixth or seventh grader, not a kid who's been in high school for two years: little bald head, wearing the "uniform" favored by the local neighborhood male bonding associations, as I call them, but with a smile that could light up any grandmother's heart.

Then I see the hands. Damn. Here he is, still in school, still holding out hope for himself and his future, but with his past etched in huge old English letters on the back of each hand. They're like billboards advertising bad choices. Not surprisingly, the kid has skills, writing a decent essay in response to a practice prompt.

I say not surprisingly because I've seen dozens of kids like him over the years, and I've been part of concerted efforts to pull some of them away from their dangerous extracurricular activities. Yet I know that on any given day, I might get a call or arrive at school to find out that this young man has been relieved of his existence because the past he could not quite leave behind has not quite unexpectedly caught up with him.

Epilogue: A few days after I wrote this, I noticed a police car parked outside our postage stamp campus. About 15 minutes later, the young man walked into my room, one of his tattooed hands wrapped in a bloody bandage. He'd been spotted by unfriendlies on his way to catch a bus to school, and had had to run for his life, hopping fences, slicing up his hand in the process. Somehow the police had gotten hold of him and taken him to the big school next door, where the nurse had cleaned and bandaged his hand. Then they delivered him to us.

Towards the end of class, I sat down with him, "I wrote about you on my blog."

He was stunned, but curious. "Do you want to read it?" He did, so I pulled it up.

"Do you want a copy?" I printed it out for him.

"Did you understand what I was trying to say in the last sentence?" He read it again and nodded gravely.

"Thank you," he said. That was the last time I saw him.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Political Rant

     I've been observing another effect of the know-nothing governing style of junior Bush.  For years, it was rare, even among the at-risk kids I work with, to encounter a pregnant student.  Now, the pregnancy high schools are so packed that they have waiting lists, and regular and alternative schools are experiencing a baby boom.  
     I think Bristol Palin put it best when she said in an interview, holding her baby, that abstinence only education just doesn't work.   Research indicates that when babies are born to teen mothers who then have to cut short their educations, the chances that that baby and four succeeding generations will remain in poverty are high.  
     The question is whether those who supported this ridiculous policy even care.  It's like the Republican congressman who did not want AZT given to pregnant women to prevent HIV infections in their children.  His thesis was that if the child got AIDS, "people" would see the consequences of their promiscuity and change their behavior.  Some logic.