Sunday, April 27, 2008

Field Day--YAY!

Nothing makes spring more apparent than an all-school field day.  Field day, which literally translates to everyone sitting outside in the yard, is an opportunity for everyone to remind themselves that they are in fact human.  The kids can where their street clothes, teachers can dress down, there are games, the icee truck, music, sunshine, gossip and naps.  Once let out into the world the entire community exhales, and all of a sudden we’re all truly enjoying each other.  I’ve decided to use this post to simply jot some highlights of field day in order to get revved for the return to school tomorrow (officially, the beginning of the end…)


One of my colleagues (and one of my closest friends) was in charge of the tug-o-war.  I have discovered that I am terrible at tug-o-war.  My hands got sore, my feet slipped on the turf, and my team continually lost.  This happened even after I recruited several strong 8th grade boys to jump in at the last minute.  Yes, I succumbed to cheating, and I fully acknowledge that this was wrong.  Luckily we still lost, so I didn’t have to explain.

One of the boys from my homeroom (a really challenging kid to work with—but one I really like a lot) came up to our blanket as I was gossiping with a group of girls.  I had taken my shoes off so as not to “dirty” the blanket, so when he saw my feet he said, “Miss, what have you been walking on?”  I looked at my feet and noticed they were a little (I mean a LITTLE) dirty from the black rubber that the turf is laid on and replied, “Well, the good thing about feet is that they’re meant to get dirty.  I guess it’d from the turf and my sandals.”  He looked at me.  Looked at my feet.  Looked at me again and shook his head slowly—obviously I was a hopeless case.

I learned it is ok to lend your boyfriend your cell phone.  If he loses it/breaks it/gives it away you have immediate grounds for a breakup--unless he buys you a better one.  Also, he should offer to buy stuff for your friends—but your friends can only accept his offer if you are there.  Otherwise he might as well be cheating on you.  This is also a breakup-able offence.

Teach For America Week--and some results

My students and their guest teacher for TFA week!  

TFA week is a national week that brings major donors, partners, companies, and representatives across the country into classrooms to truly see the effects of their donations.  I was one of 12 teachers in NYC chosen to participate, and these are a few of my students who were not only super star participants, but also looked great on camera!

note bene--we received a proficient on our quality review...I will let each of you interpret that as you will....

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Quality Review?

Tomorrow I will head back to work, as always on a Monday, and I will be met with a British review team that has been hired by the DOE to determine the quality of our school. The preparation for such an event has been going on for some time. There have been meetings where we were told the fate of the school rests on our performance, practice questions and reflections, data collection, more data collection, portfolio reviews, bulletin board get the idea. The overwhelming message from each presenter has been that a quality review IS NOT the time to air grievances, make a point, or bear a grudge. As teachers we are forced into a tight spot, do we keep our mouths closed and present the image the school wants us to? or do we take advantage of an opportunity to reveal the truth as we see it?
I'm not sure which answer is right. While I have spent hours this past week cleaning, reorganizing, and preparing for the visitors, I have been excluded from preparation meetings and classroom visits. As a result I fear that the right information will not be presented to review team. Though I trust many of my colleagues, I worry that yet again our school will be able to present whatever image they want.
Like most bureaucratic institutions, the facade can feel impenetrable. When you walk in the building our students are generally quiet and in classrooms, there is work on bulletin boards, and there are friendly faces to greet you. However, when you look closer you can see that the level of student work is low. This is not because the students aren't trying--it's because they are behind and unable to complete grade level work. Though we can "dress-up" student work by typing it, or water-down projects so that they are easier to get a '3' or '4', what we are NEVER allowed to admit is that our students are significantly behind. The more we ignore the root of the problem, the more we feed the feelings of shame and denial that already exist within our school and those like it. Our students become more resistant to help, because their day is so often filled with work that is simply too hard. Should we ask them to accomplish less? No, but we must learn to meet students where they actually are--NOT where we want them to be.
Though this seems easy, it is much more difficult than it appears. To many, the solution seems impossible. Thus the only other choices are to divert the problem, rationalize the problem, or simply ignore the problem. This is the approach administrators take towards students, and this is the approach the city takes towards their failing schools. There is no secret to why urban schools fail. They are under-resourced, they service the toughest population, and they are led by some of the least qualified administrators. NYC has seem some huge changes in its most struggling schools, but not until the administration and a number of staff have been replaced. This is not to say that those in place are not trying their best, but when we cannot be honest about what is actually happening inside of our schools, we will never be able to change the lives of our students.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Times Tries to do The Math.

I was going to spend time blogging about books today. I’ve been frantically finishing Stephanie Meyer’s trilogy of Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse, and was going to cope with my withdrawal through writing. (Book withdrawal is one of my most favorite feelings—mostly because it means that I have fallen so far into the story that the transition back to the real world is disorienting.) However, I then stumbled across an article in the Times titled: Report Urges Changes in Teaching Match. (Look it up under Education for March 14.) This article concludes that the real issue is that our 15 year olds are struggling with Algebra, and as a result are not going to do as well academically.
Certainly many of us remember sweating through Algebra II and Trigonometry. I remember spending a few too many afternoons in Mr. David’s room, wishing that I just understood what he was talking about. And yet, I got over it. I learned me some math, and have since never used it. I’m thinking about this now because I am about to take College Algebra test myself to fulfill requirements for my degree. It’s been roughly seven years since I’ve used any algebra skills, but I did just look up the quadratic equation, and recall its use in parabolic functions. But, getting back to the article, I think once again, we’re missing the point. Of course our public school students can’t grasp algebra, they’re struggling to grasp fractions.
Again and again we’re trying to “fix” education by first addressing the symptom and NOT the problem. The problem, as cited in the article is “Half of the eighth graders tested could not solve a word problem that required dividing fractions.” Just this past week I watched my class take the 7th grade math test, and I’ll tell you that half of the students could not complete a circle graph, use a protractor, or manipulate fractions.
Despite this lack of basic skills that the article, and my classroom, is drawing attention to, we need to legitimately consider what is happening. Our students are floundering, and as much as they’re struggling with fractions, perhaps the second half of that problem is that they are unable to understand word problems because they struggle as readers. As a result organizations like NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) are receiving more and more data that pigeonholes our teachers into teaching skills that the students are genuinely unprepared for. No teacher can effectively teach the grade level standards when the students are below grade level. Instead they must spend significant amounts of time “differentiating” material to support and catch up students, all the while meeting absurd requirements for bulletin boards, portfolios, student work folders, investigations, exit projects, and so on. Our teachers have such little time to devote to their teaching that the students are suffering—Big Time. Perhaps, if my day was not torn between senseless meetings and circuitous paper work I could actually address the issues that arise in my classroom. However, if I neglect the bureaucratic duties than I am equally punished with more meetings, because it must mean that I am “not effectively on-board”. We math and reading teachers are stuck. We’re stuck because our content areas are all anyone can ever focus on. We’re stuck because we’re given six different curriculum models at a time, and we’re stuck because our administrators refuse to acknowledge that our students come to us not 6 months behind, but 2-3 YEARS behind. I don’t know how to fix it, but I do know that we need to stop letting kids get away with not learning. When we don’t expect them to retain information, they won’t. It doesn’t matter how old they are, children must begin every day with the understanding that every choice they make within a school building affects their future. We don’t have any more time to let them forget that.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Thoughts that Spring Ahead

Sunday afternoons always pose an interesting series of contradictions. I am often torn between wanting to embrace the final weekend moments—lounging, seeing friends, yoga—and preparing for the week ahead. Preparation is, of course, always necessary, but it also seems to cast a long shadow over the course of the week. In the next few days my students will sit for the New York State Math Exam. This test, coupled with their state English exam, will determine whether or not they are promoted to the next grade and whether or not our school will remain open.
As you can see, a test is never just a test.
The toughest challenge is not the test itself; it is instead the hoopla that accompanies such a stressful day. The children come in anxious, the staff is anxious, and we ignore it. In our school it is best to deny the actuality of any given situation and instead paint a picture of control. For example, the preparation for the test has been long, but none of the teachers actually know who will be administering the test, to which students, and for how long this will happen. I can presume that I will spend the entire morning with my homeroom. (When I say entire morning, I literally mean from 8:40 am until 11:15am when they go to lunch.) I shall then see them for our regularly scheduled class time, from 12:00 to 1:30pm. This results in a whopping 5 period day with the same group of students. Anyone who has ever spent 5 periods with a group of seventh graders knows exactly what I am talking about, and while I love them, no one person should ever be subjected to that.
This also means that once again, my abilities to teach will be compromised. Though we are in desperate need to move forward through out fiction writing unit, one of my most favorites to teach, we won’t be able to. Instead our work will be pushed back a few more days simply because the kids will be bouncing off the walls in a mixture of frustration and hyperactivity. Simply put, we can only prepare them so much for the test, and the truth of the matter is they are too far behind. It is not that they can’t do the work; it is that we rob them again and again of opportunities to catch up. When I think back to the amount of time spent learning math, or learning anything, it is interrupted by any number of issues. These range from extreme behavior problems that my school is unequipped to deal with, to ice cream parties, announcements, ballroom dancing, announcements, teacher-meetings, suspensions, schedule mishaps, class changes, teacher changes, and bureaucratic nonsense.
It seems as though we are always about twenty paces behind, no matter what we teachers try to do, and on Sundays you really begin to feel it. The potential for the week lays out before you in a Word doc, and yet you know that to there will be approximately five things that will interrupt it. I have six new students, boys in my now disbanded all-girls class, (because when you go wrong with same sex groupings it goes very wrong) who have ostensibly spent the first part of their year learning how to cause trouble rather than how to be students. They are so far behind I’m not sure how to catch them up. Now they will sit for a math test that will prove to them, yet again, that they are not good enough to try. As I said before, Sundays pose contradictions. This week I have to find another way to lift them up, knowing that I am a part of a school that is more interested in looking like we are supporting our students rather than actually giving them the tools they need for success.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

New Idea...New Blog!

As I was beginning to prepare my next post i realized that i felt much as i wanted to write about the two great books I just finished, I actually want this space to be more about my teaching life than about my reading life. Not wanting to leave my reading self out in the cold snow that seems to have turned 116th steet a bit grey, I have created another space to write about great YA books that I'm reading, while also giving some of my students as space to write about their reading. Go ahead, check out this link:
You'll see a repeat post, but then you'll also see some new titles that have made it in!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Blood and Chocolate

I recently got to attend a fantastic workshop at Teacher's College that was hosted by Terri Lesene, aka "The Goddess of YA Literature". Terri has an amazing blog that EVERY teacher should check out, simply to stay abreast of new YA titles. I dream of a time when I can read as many books as Terri can, so until then, I will post my own YA lit picks.

Annette Curtis Klause's Blood and Chocolate, certainly falls into the current hot topics of YA lit. Vivian, a HOT seventeen year old werewolf, searches for her identity in this teenage love-drama. Klause thoughtfully challenges her reader's to contemplate the divide between instinct and intellect as Vivian struggles to determine her future within her familial "pack". Friendship, family dynamics, sex, relationships, love, desire, death, and violence weave together this hot and fast read all about what it really means to become an adult and to fall in love.


It is about the time of year when New Year's Resolutions become obsolete. One of my resolutions, at the prompting of many, has been to begin writing about my experiences as a 7th grade teacher in East Harlem. So here it is, what it means to ride a roller coaster through a washing machine, or teaching 7th grade English in one of the city's most struggling schools.