Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The 14th Day of School

Since October is less than 2 days away, I have to remind myself that today was only the 14th day of school. I was looking at my monthly planner today and despairing at the number of occasions on which I've had to move days back, and back, and back again. I feel like I haven't accomplished much of anything.

I know this isn't true. I have reading levels for every kid I teach and each kid has completed a writing assessment. They've already done one major writing piece, I have 2 bulletin boards up, some kids have already read a few books, and I finished my first unit (a mini-unit, but still). I really have accomplished a lot, I know, especially considering that I've done it in 14 school days. It just doesn't seem like enough.

I was supposed to start a unit today, but I didn't, and I don't think I'll be able to start it tomorrow either. All the assessing and goal-setting takes a long time. It's not even so much that I'm complaining, just that I worry that my "superiors" won't understand. I feel like I'm the last teacher in the building still doing this stuff although I know, intellectually, I'm probably not.

Anyone else finding it hard to get underway? Also, for those of you who are more experienced than I, does it seem like I'm taking too long to do this stuff?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Goal for This Year Is to Avoid Running Screaming from the Principal's Office

Really, a teacher blog about goals pretty much writes itself. All I have to do is say (type) the word and I can hear thousands of heads banging against chalkboards and keyboards. I actually don't mind the goal-setting business so much--I really do think children need to take more responsibility for their own learning, even at young ages, and goal-setting can be a way to help them do it. But, well, take my darling principal. This week, Principal X, as s/he shall be known, got wind of my planned goal-setting activity--I dare not specify how as to avoid revealing my whereabouts and circumstances. But s/he did, and decided to bring me in for a little chat. This chat revealed to me and reminded me of a few things:
  • Any reasonably good idea in education can swiftly turn into a bad one when it is imposed and micromanaged rather than discussed, collaborated upon, and gradually implemented;
  • Principal X is managing from a place of fear and domination, rather than experience and wisdom, and I need to be patient with him/her and maintain faith in my own competence and leadership in my own classroom;
  • Trying to satisfy yourself will always be more satisfactory than trying to satisfy others.

I'd rather not reveal the specifics of our chat, but I will say that it has ended up creating more work and more headaches for me, and less time actually interacting with the material I would like to teach for my children. Commenters here have helped me to accept this as being more or less inevitable.

Principal X doesn't seem to understand that his/her management style is not making teachers come around. What it is making us do is become more secretive about what is actually happening in our classroom, more resentful, less productive, and less compassionate with the children. I'm really trying to cultivate compassion for what s/he must be going through, but I don't think it's uncharitable to assume that most of my colleagues are focusing on what a pain in the ass s/he is making their work. And when they're feeling that way, they don't have the capacity to be compassionate with the children as much, which is certainly not good for them--our real bosses, as I said in one of my NYCEducator posts this week.

So back to goal setting. Mine is to not let my annoyance with Principal X get in the way of loving and teaching the children, though that's certainly not the kind of thing I'd share in a "professional conversation." And as far as teaching goal-setting, well, I'm trying to look at it this way: Doing it Principal X's way will keep him/her at least temporarily sated and off my back, and at least, won't harm the children. So I'm going to do it Principal X's way. If I lose a period to doing something I consider not entirely productive, well, I lose whole periods to things I already consider even less productive.

And maybe one more goal of mine is to keep an eye out for a different school, but only one eye, and only from time to time, so that my eyes don't leave the children I already don't get to "watch" for very long.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Square Peg in a Round Hole

The message could not be clearer that the tide is turning at my school. It was made official, plain and clear to me today. There is no discussion, no PD, no training, no variation. Everyone get on the bus.

I'm depressed about work in a way that I've never been before. My first year or two were rough, but everyone's are, and I was sustained by the thought that I was still learning, I was getting better, and no one really expected me to work miracles overnight. That's not to say I never felt stressed or pressured--I certainly did--but it all seemed to come with an air of this-too-shall-pass, gotta-crawl-before-you-walk to it. Now that I have my act together, now that I've worked very hard to be a halfway decent teacher, I'm being told that it isn't good enough. Not only is it not good enough, but it's entirely wrong and I have to tear it all down and start over again yesterday.

Now is not the time to tell me this. June was the time to tell me this. June was the time to tell me that the curriculum calendar I completed and submitted for this school year in June would not be acceptable. June was the time to hand me a pacing calendar or a binder or something and explain to me what to do with it, send me to some training, give me a book, something. June was the time to make it crystal-clear that there was one right way to do things and here is that way. I might not have liked it, I might not have agreed with it, and I might have looked for a new job over the summer, but at least I couldn't say I wasn't warned. At least I could have come into this school year with a curriculum calendar that was acceptable and not worry about planning something new in the middle of also trying to just grade papers, plan some new lessons, and keep my head above water in general.

This is not okay. I wouldn't do this to kids. "Get with the program" is not an acceptable thing to tell me or anyone right now, not me or my colleagues who are having their lessons interrupted (yes!) to be told more nonsense top-down directives in front of the children.

I can go on Open Market next year and find someplace that's more suited to my philosophy and methodology, or at least someplace that won't spring a brand-new curriculum and way of doing things on me the day before school starts. But I have to get through this year first. And if I don't stop doing all this bitching and start focusing on the kids, even that much won't happen.

Rant over.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Everything in Moderation

So I was pretty blue when I posted here yesterday and I don't think I really thought through my position as much as I should have. I didn't try very hard to understand my colleague's position. Selfish as it might sound, I still don't like feeling like I've lost a friend and that there's one more person in my building that I have to "watch what I say" around, but that is, I suppose, the way it is.

And it's also possible that I'm blaming her for things that aren't really her fault. I had a wonderful year completely planned for myself and my students. I had routines and procedures that worked for me and my classroom. I had books that I loved to share and activities that were effective. And I feel like it's all going to be taken from me the first time I forget to nod and smile at anything my principal says. That's not her fault and I'm projecting frustration with our supervisor onto her, I suppose.

I could, I think, get with my principal's program, or at least parts of it, if I didn't feel like it was being forced on us with no training, no context, and no explanation. We are far from a failing school. Our building is cheerful and clean; test scores are high; children and parents are mostly happy. Why fix what isn't broken? I grant that my principal knows more, certainly, about what's going on behind the curtain than I do, but it doesn't stand to follow that there's SO much more than we can be told. SOME explanation is in order.

I'm glad now that I took the opportunity to moderate my black mood from yesterday. Thanks to the tough and critical commenters who made me think about things in a different light and clarify what I was trying to say.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Like George Washington or Lady Gaga

My students have been studying the Federalists. Today, one girl asked me what the word "iconoclastic" meant. She found it in a prep book for SHSATs.

I said that it described someone who defies conventions, who blazes a trail with their new and sometimes unsettling beliefs.

"You know," I said, "like George Washington. Or Lady Gaga."

She nodded thoughtfully.

Then I realized that I had put George Washington and Lady Gaga in the same sentence.

Going Over to the Dark Side

Nothing I have to say about my principal would surprise anyone. This person is going through the motions that I understand most principals anymore go through: micromanaging everything, changing what doesn't need to be changed, ignoring input from teachers, and steamrolling out a whole bunch of new programs and initiatives with no training or discussion. I could tell you a few grimly funny anecdotes, but if I think of the thing that truly makes me sad, it's not about the principal at all. No, this is about a colleague.

This colleague and I have been working closely together, for various reasons, for a few years now. She is a bright, funny gal, and terrifyingly ambitious. I knew she was thinking about getting an admin license, and I would always joke with her about her becoming my boss, never, I suppose, really imagining what such a thing would be like.

But overnight, she has become an administrative intern, and just like that, our work-friendship is over. She backs up everything the principal says and does, even privately. If I joke or complain about some new policy, she just says, "Well, that's the way the principal wants it. You better do it." She's never around for lunch or common preps; she's always in the office doing the principal's bidding. She has truly gone to the dark side.

It makes me sad that someone with whom I laughed and struggled for so long is no longer the equal I remember. I have to assume that she is now firmly in the principal's pocket and quite possibly telling the principal anything anyone says, and that the days of commiserating and happy-hour-ing are probably over.

Another of my favorite colleagues is leaving letters to school districts in Westchester and Long Island in open view on her desk.

What is going on?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

From My Cold Dead Hands

When I started teaching at the school at which I still work, my grade was brand-new to the school. In terms of curriculum, I was given two enormous binders, one from Teachers College and one from America's Choice, but it was stressed to me that they were only "suggestions" and "resources." I had no idea what to do with either of these binders, so I simply ignored them. When I made up the curriculum from scratch as I went along, no one seemed to mind.

I will admit, of course, that this is hardly an ideal way to do long-range planning. I was a newbie then--a real newbie--and I knew jack-squat about curriculum mapping and backwards planning and only slightly more about writing lesson plans. I learned, of course--I looked at sample curriculum maps online, worked with my colleagues, learned what students did in earlier grades at my school and what students did in my same grade at other schools.

Out of this process came the most treasured document in all of my great repository of lesson plans, memos, charts, journals, and cocktail napkins: My curriculum map. It is a thing of great beauty. It is organized by month and by week. It has been de-spiral-ized, meaning that I felt free to throw out the ubiquitous "poetry book" project because every other teacher in every other grade has made kids do poetry books, and by the time they get to my grade, they are well nigh sick of poetry books. It has been backwards-planned Grant Wiggins-style. It is aligned to state standards. It kicks not a small amount of ass. I love it, I refer to it constantly, I stick to it. Like Charlton Heston's gun, you could take my curriculum map away when you could pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Except...oh, how I fear the worst for my beautiful curriculum map. Its days are numbered. An informal chat with my principal today about an entirely unrelated subject led me to begin to fear for my curriculum map. I believe I am going to be forced into an unholy three-way marriage with the new "Core Curriculum" and its thematic units (thanks for all the notice and PD I didn't get on this, btw, DOE) and motherplucking Teachers College. If not this year--if, by some small holy chance, I can squeak through this year with my rich, deep, funky, unique curriculum intact--then most certainly next year.

Those of you who know that I'm a fan of Core Knowledge might be surprised to hear that I'm so resistant to a uniform curriculum. My response would be that I would buy into a Core Knowledge curriculum so fast it would make your head spin. But this TC nonsense that's about to get shoved down my throat? No thanks. I built a curriculum for my classes myself, from scratch, and as a result I know it intimately, believe in it, and can defend every single thing I teach. As they say, I have ownership of it.

I have no ownership in this nonsense. Already I have been told that I have to throw out one of my units entirely to make way for a TEST PREP UNIT in April, gag me with a machete. The thought of doing all test prep all the time for a month makes me want to quite literally cry, considering that April could have been spent doing some deep, serious literature.

If my curriculum map's days are numbered, I suspect that my own days are numbered as well. I don't mind following someone else's map as long as it's one I can believe in. But I can't believe in this. And I don't think my principal will understand, respect, or accommodate that even a little.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lucky, Black Enterprise, and Fighting Over "The One With Obama in It!!!"

Hope everyone had as delightful of a first week back as I did! Well, "delightful" if I focus on the kids, which is precisely what I'm choosing to do. I have great groups, I really do--sweet and funny and ready to work. I've spoken to most of their parents already, as per NYC Educator's advice, and most of them were very pleasant and receptive. In those terms, at the very least, I had a fully gratifying first week.

I just had to blog about what happened this afternoon during independent reading. The kids restored my faith in humanity. I asked them to bring in some magazines to supplement our classroom library. Some of my favorite reactions:

1.) "I don't like Lucky [a magazine about shopping and fashion]. It's all just ladies standing around in they bikinis."

2.) "I like this magazine. [Student points to Black Enterprise, a business magazine aimed at African-Americans.] It shows that black people aren't just interested in being rappers and athletes."

3.) [Two boys fighting over an issue of Scholastic News] "I want the one with Obama in it!!! I had it first!"

Seems like they have their priorities in order.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Good Luck Tomorrow

No fancy way to say this, so I'll just say it...

All the best to all my colleagues, readers, and friends--the ones I've met and the ones I haven't. I hope for every success for all of you and your students this year. I'm excited to meet my new students tomorrow, to start being a teacher again. Summer vacation is nice and all--and, as I've said before, you'll pry it from my cold dead hands!--but I'm more than ready to hit the ground running tomorrow.

May PDs be brief and painless, may parents be understanding, may kids be funny and sweet (and compliant), may unannounced observations be rare, a happy school year to all and to all a good night.

Friday, September 4, 2009

An Auspicious Day

According to our Jewish and Chinese friends:


I knew that 9 was considered auspicious in China and was planning to share this fact with my students on the first day anyway, but the article in the Times might be an even better thing to have. I could make copies and we could do a little activity with it.

Hope this is a good sign! I was lesson planning today and I'm so very excited. Now, a long weekend full of staycationing fun in the city and upstate awaits me. Enjoy this one!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

I Got Picked Up by GothamSchools!

Woot woot! In the "Remainders" section, all the way down:


Another day of classroom setup. I'm finished enough that I think I'm going to have myself a four-day weekend. It's looking like a very happy and cozy place.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Ego Book

I went back to school today to start getting my classroom ready. Not all of my colleagues came today, and the ones who did came in several hours after I did, so I had a few hours of total solitude to begin unpacking.

Towards the end of the year, I took a number of letters, cards, pictures, and the like given to my by students over the past few years and asked one of our school aides to laminate them for me. (The poor woman was laminating everything in my room that wasn't nailed down anyway.) I never cut apart the laminating film or anything after she gave them back to me, just rolled them up and put them in my closet, because I was running out of June by then.

Today, I cut them all apart and put them in a nice pile, and reread them. One of my favorites was from a student of mine from two years ago whom I'll call Jasmine. I would never have forgotten this letter from Jasmine even if I hadn't had it laminated. The letter goes something like this (paraphrasing):

Dear Miss Eyre:

Do you remember that day that Mrs. Brocklehurst yelled at me and made me cry because I forgot my notebook? I was so upset that I came and ate lunch in your room. You said I should tell the nurse I was sick and I should go home. I went home and I felt better later that day. Thank you for caring about me.


I don't know if I should feel particularly proud that this student remembers me so fondly for encouraging her to fib to the school nurse, but this letter always makes me smile.

Anyway, I have this collection of lovely notes from former students, and I'd like to put them together in a binder or a photo album. I hope it doesn't smack too much of an "ego book" type thing.

I also had fun decorating my room today with a few mementoes from last year's students, silly little things mostly, the kinds of things they probably expected me to throw out--art projects they gave me, paper flowers, snapshots from field trips. I've tried to save a few things from each school year. Last year's objets d'arts in particular bring back beautifully sweet memories.

It was a nice way to start preparations for the new year.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Modest Proposal Part 2: Intervisitation and Peer Colleague Professional Development Working Groups as Components of Teacher Evaluation

I've been thinking about the issue of teacher evaluation much more than I've been writing about it. It has not left my mind. I recently earned tenure, and I'm very proud of making it through the Fellowship, sticking around for another year to get tenure, and coming back to do it all again. That's all well and good. But I'm not persuaded that I'm now as good as I'm ever going to be as a teacher; this year, I plan to be much better than I was last year. But here's the problem: What constitutes "good," "better," or "best" for teachers? Can it be measured and evaluated? I think it can, and it can be measured more precisely and meaningfully than it is now. In my last post on this issue, I suggested peer review as one component. Another component of how to evaluate teachers might be through intervisitation and professional development working groups.

I recently read Why Don't Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham, a book I would recommend for any number of reasons, but I'll focus briefly on Willingham's suggestions for improving pedagogy. He suggests videotaping yourself teaching (augh!, I mean, still a good idea, but AUGH!), observing other teachers at work, and meeting with this partner or small group of "critical friends" to discuss what's going on. (Note the absence of an administrator in this equation. I like it!) These strike me as sound and sensible ideas. I really enjoy intervisitation, and I'm lucky to have a few colleagues who have warmly encouraged me in visiting their classes. Heck, even when I ended up substituting for an elementary class during The Great Swine Flu Panic of May '09, I learned a lot by poking around my colleague's classroom.

Willingham's suggestions aren't exactly new, but they do matter in two important ways. One is his own inclusion of his tips in his book on brain science and pedagogy. His message is that teachers think and make decisions so constantly and, as such, contrary perhaps to what some people believe, teaching children is an intellectually lively and challenging pursuit. We as much as the children need to monitor our own thinking and reflect on what we are doing in the classroom to critically engage with our actions and square them up with what we think and know.

The other is what he doesn't say in the book, but what I'm going to suggest here: The ways in which we seek to learn more about our practice, specifically through working with peer colleagues, can be a component of teacher evaluation. Attending professional development workshops is fine, and the better ones can certainly be helpful (sometimes they feed you and give you free stuff, for example), but there is no substitute for working with peer colleagues. These are the people who work with the same administration in the same building at the same time as you do. They teach, have taught, or will teach some or all of your same students. Thus their experience and feedback will match up most closely with what you need to be thinking about and doing in your own classroom. We can all think of one or two or a hundred workshops that were perhaps well-intentioned, but not exactly positioned to be of immediate and real value to our own classrooms. Intervisitation and peer colleague professional development working groups, on the other hand, do serve that purpose.

How could they be used as a component of teacher evaluation? A journal or log of meetings may be kept, or the group could form one or two particular goals at the beginning of a term or year and observe how each member is working towards those goals, or the group could form recommendations for each other based on what they see. Or, GADZOOKS, teachers could themselves discuss and resolve towards how they will use their work to evaluate themselves and each other. (I know. Letting teachers make decisions about how they will be evaluated sounds very scary. Hold on. It'll be okay.)

Of course, we're all seeing one immediate drawback: When, exactly, are we supposed to do this? Our vast reserves of free time? Well, this criticism is spot-on, of course. Three Standard Deviations to the Left had a great post on this issue recently, observing how few hours teachers in the U.S. have to plan and collaborate as compared to other nations. Mrs. Bluebird also mentioned that when she and her colleagues were actually given, in the school day, more time just for planning, lo and behold! their students showed improvement. I'll admit that, other than saying, "Well, we need more planning time," I don't know how to solve that problem. We do need more planning time. But proposals to lengthen the school day are currently coming with more instructional time and no extra money. That, frankly, is kind of a problem for me. My kiddies are already wastes of space by 3 p.m. If a longer school day came with more planning and collaborative time, and more breathing space for the kiddies, and, oh, I don't know, maybe a dab more money, I might get behind it. But more instructional time? I think most teachers are already spread pretty thin in that sense. And, as NYC teachers, let's not lose sight of the fact that in some states, teachers are carrying even heavier course and student loads than even our contractual maximums.

That's the crux of the biscuit for any kind of teacher evaluation reform, incidentally. I believe the best, most meaningful, most effective reforms will come from teachers working together, reflecting, and supporting each other. But we need time to do that, and lots of it. No surprise, then, that most teacher evaluation reform ideas are top-down, computerized, checklist-type things rather than holistic and engaging processes for teachers.

Nevertheless, I plan to soldier on with this idea. My guestblogging over at NYC Educator is going to two days a week for the fall, but I think I'll keep these thoughts on my own blog.

Oh yeah, school starts again soon, right? (Kidding.) I suppose I should post about that, too. Maybe tomorrow.