Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You Should Struggle with the Almighty!

[The quote in this title is from Angels in America by Tony Kushner, one of my favorite plays.]

I was having a reading conference with ShaSha a few days ago that wasn't going so well. ShaSha is an average student by almost any measure. She's sweet and funny and likeable, but in terms of her schoolwork, she's pretty much the middle of the road. I think she has the ability to be a better reader, and I've been trying to challenge her in that direction. But our reading conference wasn't off to a good start.

"I'm having a hard time reading this book you gave me," she said.

"What's hard about it?" I asked.

"I don't know. The story is confusing."

"Well, can you tell me what you've read so far?"

She retold the story accurately.

"Okay," I said, "that sounds about right."

"Yeah," ShaSha said, "But I don't get why she [the author] keeps switching back and forth between the two settings."

"Which settings?"

She named them correctly.

"And you noticed that she tends to concentrate on those two different settings and switch back and forth."

"Well, yeah."

"Why do you think she does that?"

She thought for a minute. "I guess to show how the character is different, like, in the two settings," ShaSha said. "Like, people treat her differently and she feels different based on where she is."

"I think you're right," I said to her. "So I have to ask you, ShaSha, what's hard about this book, then? Because you seem to understand it pretty well."

"Well, I understand it NOW," she said. "Like talking to you and to my group."

"Right," I said. "It's a little above your reading level. That's why you're reading it with your group and having conferences with me about it."

"Okay," she said, doubtfully.

"So when you read by yourself," I said, "it should be a little hard. That challenge is what's going to stretch you to your next reading level."

Then she seemed to get it. "Oh, right," she said. "I see."

ShaSha felt better after that. After the period ended, I walked with her to her next class and thanked her for sharing her struggles with me--we teachers aren't mind readers, after all, and her honesty helped me help her that day. And it reminded me that, as teachers, we sometimes need to gently remind our students that learning is supposed to be hard. It shouldn't come instantly or easily. If it did, it wouldn't be called learning--it would be watching or consuming, but not learning.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"That Guy Looks Like Ice Cube"

It was a busy and tiring day at the Morton School. My darlings were a little crazy this afternoon and probably not terribly encouraged by the results of the quiz I handed back to them, and they were cranky and mumbly for much of their double period. They were also annoyed with their guided reading group members, a number of whom had not done their reading last night and a few of whom were several days behind. In turn, I was also not perhaps in the most chipper of moods by the time last period rolled around.

When my truculent dears were finally settled into their works, I set to conferencing with my groups. One group had a boy I'll call Levar who was far ahead of his partner because his partner was way behind, so I decided to start him on a new, more challenging book. I went to the classroom library to get a book I'd borrowed from another teacher with him in mind.

"Here," I said, handing him Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis. "I thought you'd like this. It's about the civil rights movement and there are some really exciting parts about how Lewis confronted violence in the South while trying to fight for equal rights. And it will be a challenging read for you, too."

Levar took the book and held it at arm's length. "Yo," he said thoughtfully, looking at the portrait of a young, tense Lewis on the cover, "that guy looks like Ice Cube."

Well, I probably should have stopped him from comparing the august John Lewis to a gangsta rapper. But I didn't. Instead I laughed, and laughed, and my tension and frustration softened, at least for a while.

Thanks, Levar. I needed that.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Itty Bitty Witty Committee

I've never been on a committee at the Morton School. This shocks people who know me. I am fond of groups and have belonged to many in my life, and even led a few with some success. But I resisted committee memberships at first because I was busy and scared, and then because committees at the Morton School tend to be clannish little groups that are by invitation only and feature the same people over and over again.

So I was pretty surprised when Principal X asked me to be part of a committee. S/he was so enthusiastic and nice about it that I found myself saying yes before I'd given the matter any serious thought. Then I got an e-mail about the committee's first meeting and remembered, Oh yeah, I'm an idiot, I signed up for a committee membership. But this committee sounds pretty exciting. It's a committee for professional development and teacher leadership. I'll get a chance to say what kind of PD I think the teachers at the Morton School need and want, what's working for us and what isn't. So I e-mailed Principal X back and said I'd come to the meeting.

I was just glad to be asked, to be honest. I was never asked to be part of anything before in a school. I was asked to do stuff, sure, but never asked to be part of how things get done and what gets done. I've never had any input beyond my own classroom. This is a really good chance for me and I felt happy when Principal X asked me. Yeah, yeah, I know, y'all are making me eat my words about him/her, but I'm happy enough to eat my words if it turns out that I judged wrong. I think s/he really does care what the teachers think. I'm cautiously optimistic and, for whatever insane reason, looking forward to a committee meeting.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Murderers' Row

I am a Yankee fan, one in a long line in my family. Ever since I've cared about baseball, I've rooted for the boys in pinstripes. My favorites are Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte. (Especially Andy Pettitte. I love Andy Pettitte. And not just as a pitcher, ifyaknowwhatimean! Wink wink!) I was driven completely to distraction by the World Series this year, staying up long past my bedtime to watch every game. And I felt a warm, hugging satisfaction when they fielded the last hit by the Phils to seal their 27th championship this year. I felt that they deserved it, and not because of the ginormous payroll and baldfaced ambition, but because they learned this year how to play like a team. Even A-Rod, who I never liked, toned down his attitude and pumped up his game. No more Choketober for A-Rod. Nice job. Way to earn that astronomical paycheck.

Anyway, I got to wondering about the Yankees' success rate. The Yankees, more than any other professional sports franchise, makes it their explicit, singular goal, year after year, to win the championship. Period. "Rebuilding" years are not acceptable. Pennants are not enough. Only the World Series will do. The payroll and the attitude go hand-in-hand: We are spending lavishly, ridiculously, far beyond any other team because we want to win. There is nothing else. And it was frustrating to watch the biggest payroll in baseball implode for these past few years, and implode because of divas and egos and a lack of team spirit (and, some years, a lousy bullpen, but the loaded bullpen this year took care of that). So this particular championship was sweet because the rings weren't going to a bunch of jackasses. Well, A-Rod is still kind of a jackass. But I was happy, on the whole, for this group, especially the Core Four who don't have much time left.

So. Enormous payroll. Major superstars. Some of the most storied players in the entire game, going back over 80 years to the Ruth and Gehrig years. And what is the Yankees' success rate, if you count this current championship, after all that?

25 percent.

Which is still higher, by far, than any other team in baseball.

What does this have to do with school? Stay with me here.

Schools want 100 percent success rates for their students. Teachers do, too. Parents do. Certainly 100 percent of students would like to succeed. And anything less than 100 percent is unacceptable, just like anything less than a World Series is unacceptable for the Yankees.

But here's the difference: The Yankees are willing to spend, spend, and spend some more to make it happen. They don't pretend that success is going to come cheap. They will lay out for A-Rod, Sabathia, Jeter, whoever they need to lay out for at whatever price to win. And then they expect to win. It's not that hard.

So why do politicians and, to some extent, taxpayers pretend that education can be done on the cheap? That "throwing money at the problem" doesn't work? I agree that money alone won't buy success in education, but the Yankees know what politicians and eduwonks don't seem to understand: Success isn't going to come cheap.

Education can't be done on the cheap. Let's admit that. Let's admit that cutting corners results in kids left behind. Let's admit that anything less than a Harlem Children's Zone for all children everywhere is going to result in dropouts and failures and frustration. And, most importantly, let's really wake up to the fact that every dollar we don't spend on education--and by this I mean all kinds of education, from universal pre-K to rigorous vocational education to Ph.D.s in astrophysics--is just fifty dollars we'll have to spend on incarceration and welfare some years down the road.

And if you don't believe me, ask the Yankees.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Teacher-y Teacher

I recently took on some tutoring work, hoping to make some extra money to travel to Europe with some friends next summer. I didn't want to work per session at the Morton School (I spend enough time there already, and there was nothing available to work with the kids rather than the adults) and I CERTAINLY didn't want to work retail. Tutoring it is.

SHSAT season has kept me pretty busy, and I was meeting with a client this evening. I checked her homework, chatted with her about her school choices and how she's feeling about the test for a few minutes, and then decided on a lesson for the evening.

"Okay," I said. "You did pretty well on the critical reading, and pretty well on the logical reasoning too. But the scrambled paragraphs are still giving you problems. Let's walk back through these few, and then we'll try a few more out of my book here."

She looked at me in amazement. "Wow," she said, "you're, like, a teacher-y teacher."

I laughed. "What do you mean?"

"You're, like, all organized and stuff," she said. "All prepared and everything."

I took it as a compliment and set her to work. But the comment had me smiling to myself for the rest of the night. I never would have dreamed of calling myself "organized" or "prepared" two years ago. I'm not even sure I would go that far on a daily basis these days. But I am pretty proud that I come across as a "teacher-y teacher." I like that a student meets me and feels like they're in the presence of someone who knows what she's doing.

That plus a very positive meeting with my coach today has me feeling excited about school for the first time since the first few days of school. All the changes at the Morton School really got me down for most of September and October. But as it becomes clear that Principal X is going to leave me more or less alone, and as we get into the really meaty units of study, I'm starting to feel happy about going to work again. I'm building a group of kids that likes and trusts me and works hard for me.

Maybe I really am a teacher-y teacher.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

With Friends Like These...

What is with teachers turning on each other?

I was having a chat with a coach at my school the other day, a lovely woman who has taught me almost everything worth knowing about teaching middle school ELA. With all the changes afoot at my school, my department has tried to band together to adapt to the changes the best way we can and support each other in keeping as much of our good work intact as we can. Our coach complimented us on sticking together, lamenting the fact that so many teachers in other grades and departments are selling each other out. One teacher will blame another for not sharing a piece of information. One teacher will rat out another who's not with some particular part of the program. And, in a particularly insidious twist on the old "toss under the bus," teachers are, in the presences of coaches and admins, bragging about how they've done or mastered something that their colleague hasn't.

If you're familiar with the NYC teacher blogosphere, you know about the Ariel Sacks and Matt Polazzo debacles. While I certainly respect Sacks' and Polazzo's rights to express their opinions, I can't say I much care for the way they tore down their colleagues in doing it. I'm not sure I'd want to be one of their colleagues, lest any fear or weakness I confess be fed back to a boss. Most of all, I rarely trust anyone that displays that degree of, well, smugness. If a few years of teaching has taught me anything, it's that fads in education come and go, and you can be on the right side of things one year and the wrong side the next.

There's a way to share what's working, yes. There's a way to celebrate our successes, to show our colleagues what we've done that might be helpful for them. But we shouldn't do it to make ourselves look better to a boss or to save our own skins--we should do it because helping each other is the right thing to do, and because if we all help each other, we'll all pull through.