Friday, February 27, 2009

Recommendations Are Possibly Not So Bad

In other recommendation letters news, I wrote a recommendation for my friend Lala the other day. Lala wants to go to the Summer Arts Institute and she needed a recommendation, so I did it for her. Unless the application specifies that I return it to the family sealed or send it directly to the institution involved, I usually just give the letter to the child. I did this for Lala.

Lala told me the next day that her parents loved the letter so much that they photocopied it and put it on their fridge. In turn, I had to admit that I carry around a letter of recommendation from a college professor of mine in my wallet, on a daily basis, even today. It makes me feel better when I feel blue.

This week I've been thinking about how we sometimes don't tell people how much we appreciate them, how highly we think of them. Teachers at my school tend not to be very...well, affectionate is not the right word, quite, but...there is much more emphasis on keeping kids humble than on making them feel good. Now I know the perils of artificially high self-esteem, and certainly there are kids (I'm looking at you, G) who need to be gently reminded from time to time that they are perhaps not God's gift to New York City. But kids need genuine positive reinforcement that is founded on, you know, facts. Kids should be praised when they do well, and treated with kindness in general.

There is also a lack of building each other up as colleagues. I feel like I make an effort to compliment my colleagues, thank them, and try to call others' attention to good things they are doing. I have a colleague who's sort of perpetually kind of in trouble, and I always make a point to acknowledge good ideas I've stolen from him if someone compliments me on something of his that I'm doing. And it's kind of sad when you don't feel that energy returned.

I guess my point, without getting too specific about recent events and possibly giving myself away, is that eventually it's going to be too late to tell someone how you really feel. And that, as annoying as writing those letters can get, I'm glad to have the opportunity to give something concrete to kids that shows how highly I think of them. I'd like to write a "recommendation" letter for each of my students at the end of this year.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Recommendations, Questionnaires, and Other Forms of Sublime Torture

My friend T came to visit this afternoon while I was on a prep. T is on in-school suspension right now for a push-and-shove-fest right before the break. It seems that T and S, who is usually T's buddy, had a bit of an altercation over a basketball and T shoved the first shove. I was surprised at first when I heard that T had been in a "fight," though what actually happened seems predictable and mundane enough--not "okay," but not shocking.

So T came to visit with a questionnaire he needed filled out for a high school. T has ADHD, which I've mentioned before, and the form had to do with side effects from his medication. When I got to one part of the form, I paused, because how am I supposed to know if the kid hears voices?

"Are you sure I'M supposed to fill this out?" I asked T.

"I guess," he said.

I looked at the form again. It asked for teacher's name, class, grade level, all that stuff, so I assumed that he was right.

"Okay," I said, figuring I had no choice but to interview him. "Do you ever bite your nails or scratch yourself or anything?"

We both looked at his ragged cuticles.

I'll put that as a "sometimes," I thought.

Moving on, I asked, "Do you ever see things that aren't there?"

"Sometimes," he said. "Like if I watch a scary movie, sometimes I, like, see the killer or whatever when I go to bed."

"So you have nightmares?"

"No. Like, I'm awake and my eyes are open. And I see them."

Another "sometimes."

"Do you ever hear voices?"

"Oh yeah. All the time. It freaks me out. Like, I hear this voice yelling at me. It kind of sounds like my dad, but it's not. It's definitely a guy, though."

Oh crap. "Sometimes."

"Any other comments or insights you would like to share," the questionnaire ended.

I wrote, "T's side effects and/or symptoms do not substantially interfere with his academic performance or behavior." Because it was true. His suspension notwithstanding, T is a nice kid and a good student. I don't excuse the push-and-shove, only recognize that it's something that many kids do and that it doesn't necessarily make a kid evil or even poorly-behaved. Usually he is respectful and decent. And that's not saying he shouldn't be punished--the suspension is warranted, sure--only saying that it doesn't change my opinion of the kid's fundamental character.

"That all?" I asked.

"Well," he said, "I need that other recommendation. That my mom sent in before the break."

"You know, T," I said, "I did that recommendation. Right before the break. And I can't give it to you anymore because when it asked me if you had been suspended, I wrote 'No.' And that's not right anymore."

"I know," he said, looking down.

"I was really disappointed about that," I said.

"Yeah," he mumbled, still looking down.

"So I need another copy of the form, from your mom," I said, after a long pause in which I wasn't even sure what the right thing was to do, "so I can change that."

"Okay," he said, cautiously.

I don't know what to write. I don't know how to say, "Yes, T has been suspended, but it was NO BIG DEAL." I don't know what kind of message it sends to do a recommendation for a kid who has been recently suspended. But I have slightly less than 24 hours to figure it out.

Advice eagerly accepted.

Yeah, I Know, It's Been a While

Hi all.

So I know it's been a little while since I've updated here. I have the somewhat legitimate excuse of being out of the country over the winter recess (don't hate the playa!), but other than that, I've just been doing other stuff. But I'm back and ready to post. Stay tuned for an update in, like, 15 minutes.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Where All Your Glorious Hopes and Dreams about the Teaching Profession Go to Die

I've mentioned several times that I'm out of my building for quite a while, scoring the ELA exams. I'm one of several teachers in my building who have been out multiple days on this exercise. Fortunately, my sentence is being spent with one of my favorite colleagues, which tends to make the time pass more swiftly. Still, this assignment is...what's the right word? Terrifying? Stark? Mind-numbing? Perhaps all of the above?

Allow me to explain fully. The theory behind some of the full-time classroom teachers in my building going out to score these exams was that, having scored the exams, we would be more familiar with what the scorers expect. This seems like a perfectly reasonable theory and I more or less accepted it at face value when my AP first spoke to me about it. Heck, a day or two out of the classroom would be all right, a quick little breather during the long slog to winter recess. That was before I knew how long I would gone--more than a week. Try planning for a substitute for that long. It's not fun. And that was before I knew what scoring the ELA exam is actually like.

I arrived at my assigned site last week for the first of a long string of days. First, we had to be trained on how to score the exam. Seems reasonable, yes? Not when the "training" consists of someone reading a workbook out loud to you. Remember that the people who run these things are teachers. In fact, in many or most cases, they are coaches, which means that they teach other teachers how to be better teachers! And they believe that "training" consists of reading a workbook out loud to people with master's degrees! Now you could argue that this form of "training" is mandated by the powers that be in Albany or whatever, but that only makes the situation even worse: this "training" is then created and mandated by the people who are in charge of the education of millions, instead of dozens or hundreds, of children across New York State.

So my colleague and I got through this, and then we were allowed to score. And we learned that most of the people with whom we were scoring were, to put it very gently, slightly cracked. Whether scoring the ELA exam for this long made them that way or whether they came to the scoring site already in that condition is hard to say, but they were perhaps one or two lesson plans short of a whole unit. I hesitate to describe them too specifically, but I will say that when one told us at great length about a recent restoration of health sabbatical, my opinion was that this individual was not yet, and may never be, "restored" enough to be around young children. Yes, I realize that we can all let our hair down a bit when we're not around the kids. But the level of conversation to which I have been subjected thus far is wildly unprofessional at best. Plenty of people wanted to interrogate me about the principal of my building, who has something of a reputation. I declined to say anything too specific and nothing that could be construed as negative.

And as I write this post, I have begun to worry even more. Many of these people are no longer in classroom positions: as well as coaches, I worked with "literacy specialists" and "SETSS teachers." One would suppose that these are teachers who are perhaps a cut above their colleagues, who have some sort of special expertise, experience, or professionalism that puts them in positions of greater responsibility and influence. But unless these individuals are completely different people when they are in their home surroundings and around children, there was nothing in their conversation or behavior that led me to believe that these were people of exceptional skill and intelligence. And particularly if they are SETSS teachers or specialists of some kind, they are working with our most vulnerable populations. AND, worst of all, if I'm wrong, and they are fantastic, professional, brilliant educators, then we are damaging those most vulnerable populations by removing their teachers for days and weeks at a time to score exams.

One more thing: Teachers, when you are out of your building but still being paid, do attempt to still act professionally. No drinking at lunch. No spending the entire day texting your kid. No wearing sweatsuits. No badmouthing everyone you work with. No showing up late and cutting out early every single day for no good reason. And yes, I have witnessed all of the above recently, both at PD and while scoring the ELA exam.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

One Day. One Test. One Score...

...determines four years of a child's future.

Today, like all the other eighth graders in the city, my little friends were notified of the results of the specialized high school exam. Almost all of my darlings took it, so as you can imagine, I had many more disappointed children than happy ones.

I suppose I'll start with the good news. One of my students, F's good buddy J, got into Stuyvesant. Usually a pleasant-but-reserved child, he hugged me twice. He was clearly tickled pink.

Another one of my friends, M, got invited to Brooklyn Tech. But she's likely to take a pass because her older brother, a former student of mine, already goes there.

Yet another of my friends, Lala, is off to LaGuardia for vocal music. She cried, with happiness.

My very dear friend AA provided the day's only comic relief when she tore open her letter, read it, scoffed, and said, "Thank God. I didn't want to go to a specialized school anyway."

On to the bad news. Now, to be realistic, some of my darlings who took this test had no business taking it, like my old pal S. Seriously, this child took the test! Most of them were not too badly deluded and therefore were not terribly shocked when they did not pass. My friend Stretch, for example, basically shrugged and went back to drawing after he read his letter. But there were a few near-misses and a couple of seriously broken-up kids in Class A and Class B, too. To wit:

My friend N, whose older sibling is at Stuyvesant, was devastated because she did not make the cut. She was offered a slot at another specialized school, but apparently her family is obsessed with the Stuyvesant brand name. She cried. Profusely.

And G, who had been supremely confident that he would be headed to Stuy or similar, was offered nothing. He had an asthma attack from crying so hard.

Poor T. Someone probably should have prepared him for the fact that maybe, just maybe, he would not do so well on the test. He also cried.

Yaya was offered nothing, a mild surprise to me--she's a bright girl and a hard worker, but just didn't get a high enough score.

And in what was probably the biggest shock, my buddy F, probably the most intuitive, deep, creative, thoughtful kid in the whole grade (with an average well north of 90 to boot), was also offered nothing.

It was a rough afternoon. Our counselor waited, wisely, until the end of the day to distribute the letters. I had been out scoring the ELA exam and had scurried back to my school to powwow with my pals before I went home for the day. I said hi to my sub and one or two of my colleagues, and then distributed tissues and Band-Aids and reassured kids that lots of good news still comes out in the main round.

This next part is going to sound like I'm making it up, but I promise I'm not. When all the trauma had left for the day to be assuaged my friends and parents, a couple of kids were still hanging around outside school. One of them, Ali (not his real name), said hi to me.

"Hi, Ali," I said. "How did you do?"

He shrugged. "Ah, my score wasn't high enough," he said. "I'm waiting for the main round, I guess."

"Well," I said, for the millionth time, "lots of good schools select in the main round. I'm sure you'll get something that will make you happy."

"Yeah," he said. "I'm glad you came back."

In a weird way, I was too.

J hugged me again before he headed to the bus stop.

It was a strange, happy-sad day.


In my next post I will tell you how much fun it is to grade the ELA exam.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Comics By Stretch

As I mentioned, I'm heading out to score the ELA exam for a few days, and I'm starting to lose my mind over what's going to happen while I'm gone. A conversation I had with one of my dear little friends, Stretch, today reaffirmed my fears.

Stretch is a terrific child. He's not terribly interested in school except for art class. He spends most of his time drawing. Differentiating for this child is pretty easy because you just have to think of something that will let him draw or design, and he's happy. He looks a little scary--being six feet tall in the eighth grade will do that for you--but he's a sweet boy with a beautiful smile and a fun personality. I am constantly, however, chiding him as gently as I can for not working harder (when it doesn't involve drawing).

So Stretch was working on his exit project, which is a memoir/graphic novel in the tradition of Persepolis (a book my kids loved). He paused to ask me what literature circle group he was going to be a part of for our new unit, and I told him. He seemed satisfied.

"Now, Stretch," I told him, "while I'm gone, you have to read the book."

"I know," he said.

"You got to pick the book," I continued. "So I expect you to read it."

"I know," he said.

"I don't want to hear that you spent the time working on your exit project," I said, trying to sound stern.

He nodded seriously.

"I'm going to leave a note for the substitute saying that you're not supposed to be working on it, that you're supposed to be reading, and if you tell him that you're drawing it for a school project, you're lying."

"Do it," he said, grinning.

I sighed. "At least read first, before you draw, okay?"

He smiled. "Now, that's more like it," he said.

I like Stretch. I probably should be harder on him. But he makes me smile.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Fellowship of the Fellowship

Like Confused NYC Teacher, I'm a former NYCTF who is watching the news of layoffs and cutbacks with great interest as to the future of the Fellows program. I am of two minds about the Fellowship. On one hand, I doubt that I would have become a teacher without it; on the other, I suspect that it does more harm than good.

Let's look at the good. I think the Fellowship does do well when it brings in mature, serious people who are ready to become teachers after careers in other professions. I have a colleague who is a former attorney and EMT. His life experience and age (40+) both served him incredibly well in the classroom. My experience in publishing, even though I was a relatively young career-changer, still gave me perspective on life beyond the classroom. I think mature career-changers can indeed be great assets to classrooms, if they have a real long-term commitment to staying in teaching.

But then there's the bad. Smart as I was, idealistic as I was when I started in the program, I was terribly underprepared. For the better part of three years, I have been flying by the seat of my pants and learning on the job. I sought out a lot of professional development (and thank goodness my administrators supported me in going); I formed close relationships with excellent, experienced colleagues; I tried not to reinvent the wheel; I stayed in contact with my fellow Fellows as we muddled through our first two years. This year is the first year that I have felt like a competent teacher. Not a good one, not a great one. Just competent. In the meantime, what, exactly, did I do for those first two years? The best I could, sure, but that wasn't anything special. I find that my former students are much more forgiving than I could have realized. I remain in touch with many students from my first school (I am no longer there), and they seem to remember me with fondness, which I appreciate. They recognize good intentions, which is great, but I didn't have much more than that for my first year.

The Fellowship is sold to its recruits as a program for the best and brightest young graduates and career changers to replace the supposed waves of retiring teachers. Of course, what I've learned in the past three years is that there are many, many teachers who could, and in the vast majority of cases should, take their places (the ATR problem with which you are probably familiar if you are a regular reader of NYC teacher blogs). A Fellowship might still be a good idea, but it should be much smaller, and should concentrate on more mature individuals who are committed to making careers in education. The Fellowship and Teach for America (TfA is guiltier than NYCTF, in my opinion, but both to some extent) allow or encourage individuals to apply who have no intention of remaining in the system and committing to being part of an excellent teaching corps for the long term. Research has shown that "the revolving door" is very damaging to children--that even an ostensibly excellent first-year teacher, with good test scores and undergrad grades, damages student achievement if s/he doesn't stick around and is instead replaced with another first-year teacher. And who gets stuck with "the revolving door"? If you guessed "our lowest-achieving, poorest, most marginalized population," you're right!

That brings us around to the issue of the budget cuts. As a former NYCTF and a prospective Fellow Advisor, I strongly support the program being slashed. In fact, freezing it for the foreseeable future may not be a bad idea. Relaunch the Fellowship when times improve as a much smaller program focused exclusively on mature career changers. There is no need for a vast army of newbies to come in to teach our most challenged children. Now that I'm on the inside and have done the research, I've learned that it's a recipe for disaster.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

What's In a Grade?

I need to do report card grades. I've been working pretty diligently this weekend, attempting to grade the flotsam and jetsam still hanging around from this past marking period and tearing my hair out over a few of my most precious children.

The good news: DK is going to pass. In fact, he's going to do a little better than pass. I don't think I've mentioned DK here yet, though I have mentioned his mom. DK's extremely involved (again, I mean this in a good way) mom will probably ensure that nothing too tragic happens to him academically, but DK also has a bad attitude about school from time to time. I hate to think that DK is posturing for his friends, because he's a pretty smart kid with some good insights about literature and some motivation to do good work, but I suspect that he is trying to make himself seem tougher than he is. Nevertheless, DK worked quite a bit harder this marking period, and he earned the improved grade he will see on his report card grade. I hope the trend continues.

The better news: Although I don't believe in giving grades of 100 on report cards, I might have to revise my policy. My friend F (you know, the kid who sells volcano insurance) has an average above 100 in social studies, since he took a project that I assigned and significantly expanded it, even though I didn't say I'd give extra credit for it. He just did it because he was interested in the subject. This kid is unbelievable. Trust when I say that every single day I thank God that this kid is in my life.

The bad news: S and E are in dire, dire straits. I offered them one more option to turn around their respectively sinking ships, which I gave them the weekend to do. But I've been in touch with their parental figures frequently, I've spoken to them individually, I've offered to spend lunches and before/after school time to help them, I've differentiated both process and product for them...nothing. It's like the message still isn't getting through. You'd think they'd notice, after the first marking period, that I don't mess around with kids who don't try. Also, you'd think that they'd notice that if they hand in ANYTHING, I'll make them pass. These two are mostly represented by long strings of zeroes in my grade book.

The worse news: There are two kids who have failing averages and I didn't think they were doing that badly. I don't know how I wasn't monitoring their progress closely enough to notice that they were about to flunk, but they are. The even worse part is that they're regular education girls, not the acting-out special-education boys who obviously eat up lots of my time and attention. I feel like I've made a classic and stupid mistake by not alerting these girls and their families soon enough to their situations, and I don't know what to do now. I feel terribly. They are sweet kids and, frankly, one girl is just lazy, but the other struggles a lot and I know I haven't been supporting her enough. I need to change that in the coming days.

I hate doing grades, in case you can't tell.