Friday, March 30, 2012

Acting Thirsty

My old students are growing up, and come back to visit me after school. As was the case when they were here, they all continue to mature at varying paces. Some remain impassive to boys, while others are crazed by them. A conversation I had the other day made me laugh, and begin thinking about things that make me act thirsty.

"Are you still close with her?"
"Yea, I guess so. When she’s around boys she always acts so thirsty though."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Phrase of the Day

Catch a Feeling

I love the slang in the Bronx - my students always say things that so perfectly convey a feeling or an idea by combining words that I never considered. Today, I talked to one of them:

"How’s Joy?"
"She’s good – she has a boyfriend but she won’t let me meet him."
"Why not?"
"I don’t know. I guess she’s afraid that he’ll catch a feeling for me."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Book IS the Truth

I took my class to see Hunger Games on Tuesday. They had read the book, and a discussion ensued about whether or not the casting had been what they would have chosen. Of course, for myself and them, there were a few characters that looked different in their mind than they did on the screen.

"Yea, but books be lyin' sometimes!" Kiara lamented

"No, Kiara," Natalie laughed at her friend, "The book is the Truth."

"Kiara looked at her for a moment, and then shrugged this revelation off as if it was nothing, while I got out my markers to make a poster featuring Natalie's words of wisdom.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Magic Bullet?

Theories about what works in teaching evolve constantly. Class size, group work, technology – every year there is a new idea about what works, and teachers change their practices to conform to the newest trends. After a while, you become as jaded as any consumer – there’s always a new technique being pushed, and it’s not entirely clear why it is supposed to be so much better than what you bought last year.

They told you to put your desks in rows, but the next year you are failing the students if their desks aren’t clumped in groups. One day, all members of those groups should be homogenous, based on reading levels, and the next, you are doing them a disservice if they aren’t allowed the chance to work with peers on all different levels.

None of these theories are wrong or right - I don’t mean to discredit the research or thought behind them. However, in education, it’s nearly impossible to find a magic bullet theory. Some kids work well in groups, and some don’t. Some kids learn well using technology, and others need a human to explain it to them in ten different ways before they grasp something. Some students thrive in a big class, and others get lost, desiring more attention from teachers, and fewer distractions.

Most ideas have come and gone. In the four short years that I have spent in the classroom I have been exposed to more than I can count. But there’s one theory that has come to be accepted as a truth: teacher quality matters.

In fact, it’s the thing that matters most. Teacher quality is the number one predictor of student success. We know this, and yet we take it for granted.

In New York, as in many other places, the teacher pay scale is antiquated and ineffective. Our pay structure does nothing to recruit, retain, or recognize high quality teachers. Rather, it values two things – graduate school credits and longevity, neither of which have been established as necessary factors in predicting teacher quality.

Those who would be great teachers would probably be great at any number of professions. Why should they teach? Not only do they have no prospect of making any substantial amount of money until the tail end of their careers, but they also have no promise of professional recognition. In teaching today, you aren’t recognized for being successful – there are no titles to strive for, no bonuses, no raises. You aren’t given more responsibility as you prove that you can handle it.

As it exists, the pay scale perpetuates the status quo – which today means that highly qualified young people aren’t considering teaching as a professional option, and those who do enter it have no financial incentive to stay.

We say that we care about education – yet no one is ready to actually invest in it. We say that teachers are valuable, but their paychecks don’t reflect that. Society seems to assume that those who choose teaching are receiving intrinsic rewards – that they are replying to a higher calling of sorts. But why should we have to choose between doing something good for the world that we live in and being paid as though we were valued?

Now is the time to change the way that teachers are compensated for their work. We know that a successful education system is an important part of any country, and we know that effective teachers are the most important part of the equation. Students achieve more when they have good teachers – not investing in teachers is the same as not investing in the students they serve.

A reformed pay scale can attract great talent to the profession, recognize achievements and successes, and provide incentive to continue improving practices.
A reformed pay scale can elevate the profession of teaching, and by extension, the level of student achievement happening in New York City.

Changing the pay scale isn’t a new theory about classroom practice – but it just may be the magic bullet towards professionalizing teaching.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Better to Go Away

“ACS took Damien this weekend.” My co-teacher told me this yesterday morning. ACS is the Administration for Child Services, and they are responsible for making sure that children are provided for in their homes. ACS is the organization that is responsible for removing children from homes that are deemed unfit, and placed into the foster care system.

Damien is an adorable boy, with big, bright eyes and tight poodle curls covering his head. He has a wide smile, and an innocent nature. He is fascinated by Alex Rodriguez, covering his desk with pictures of him, memorizing and reciting all of his stats.

“Don’t talk about the past, talk about the future. This year he is going to break the home-run record.” Other kids walk away frustrated, because he refuses to give in to logic. You can’t reason with him.

Damien has a sweet, childish voice, that lilts playfully no matter what he is saying. He tilts his head to the side, and widens his enormous brown eyes when he asks you a question. He is one of the lowest level kids in my class, and seems to have developmental issues of some sort – he struggles to grasp concepts, and, once he has been taught something, rarely retains the information for more than a couple of hours. He reads books that have drawings with veracity, but if I give him a book with just words, he’ll hold it upside down and study it seriously, looking at me with mock seriousness when I correct him, before his face explodes into a mischievous grin.

He likes to talk. He writes love poems about talking, and about A-Rod, and is unapologetic about his devotion to both. He’ll linger after class, talking, even when he has no audience, until someone’s patience reaches its end and he is sent away.

Damien has an attendance problem – only showing up at school three times a week – if that. He gets behind, but doesn’t stress about it. His parent is impossible to get a hold of, and no one has ever been in to meet us, or pick up a report card, or respond to a concerned phone call.

Apparently, he was taken out of his home due to the fact that his attendance at school was spotty, and his elementary school age sister had missed the entire school year. Obviously, these things happen. Kids are removed from homes, one day things are normal, and the next they are not. The only predictable thing about life in this community seems to be its unpredictability.

As a teacher, there is nothing that you can do, or expected to do about a situation like this. I am not even in a position to judge whether it is a good or a bad thing, not knowing the full story of what went on in his home. As a rule, it seems that being taken from their family is something that kids don’t recover well from. But I’ve also seen kids who are victims of traumatic abuse, who are tortured by their guilt of wanting to stay away from that parent who hurt them, but who they still love. The truth hurts those kids – the truth that sometimes it is better to be taken away than to stay.

I feel sad that Damien is gone – sad that he may not return to our school, and that we may never know what becomes of him. But it’s a part of the job, I suppose, that some kids are lost mid year, and all of them are lost at the end. What this really brings up, for me, is the reality of how temporarily these kids are in our lives, and we in theirs. For a year, they are the whole world – you think of them despite yourself, at home, in your dreams and nightmares, on the weekends. And then like a flash they are gone, as they are supposed to be. Growing up. And although it hurt s sometimes, the loss of a kid you invested yourself in fully, it’s the way that it is supposed to be. It’s better for them to grow up, and go away, than to stay.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Students walk into the room, shouting, laughing, cursing, shoving one another. ‘Play fighting’ is very popular, especially after lunch. From the moment that they enter the room, they are energized, buzzing with gossip and stories and things that they are dying to say out loud –and so they do. Then they remember that they are in school, and glance slyly towards the front of the room, to see if the teacher is also talking, or if there is something that they are supposed to be doing. If what they are supposed to be doing is not apparent in that ten second glance, they relax, and return to their conversations.

There are a lot of moments of realization in teaching. There’s the day that you learn that the students need to be DOING something at all times – just listening to you talk is not enough. There’s the time when you see how awesome it is to teach a class of kids that are actually engaged in what you are teaching them, dying to participate, on the edge of their seats. Then you eventually realize that they need to really be invested in their goals, or else they are fine when you tell them that they will get a zero. There’s the day – a long way in – when you realize that they hear you better when you talk than when you yell. There is the time that you understand how to make sure that the lesson is manageable for kids at all levels, when you master the art of differentiating your lessons. It takes a lot of days to learn how to be good, but it takes about one day as a teacher to realize that you have to have a plan, and that it has to be good.

You learn when your class is wildly out of control, and other teachers walk by scornfully. You learn when you try to lead them down the hall in a straight line, and half of them run off of it. You learn when they curse at you, and challenge you, and push you to make good on your threats – and you can’t. You learn when after forty minutes, your room looks like a battle zone, your voice is hoarse, and your appearance disheveled. You learn, despite yourself, to be good at your job.
It’s hard to keep up with what research is trendy right now in education. Every year there is a hot buzz word, and every year there is a new philosophy that gets carved in stone, right over the old one, so that modern education becomes an illegible cave drawing.

One year we are told we need to make information more accessible, by creating crutches for the students. The next year, we are told we have taken it too far, and the students have forgotten about independence – we have to take the crutches away. Some years we think kids learnt o read by reading books on their own level, and other years that’s simply not rigorous enough, and we must focus on teaching them to cope with ‘complex texts’. The research changes, the methods, the philosophy, and certainly the vocabulary. They morph over the summer, so that you have to learn new words to describe the same old stuff each year, until it all loses meaning.

The truth, however, is that no matter what words we use to describe out jobs, no matter what research we cling to in a moment – it will change by the end of the year. What won’t change, however, is the reality that it is miserable to teach a class where kids aren’t learning. There is no worse feeling than grading a pile of tests in which everyone has failed. There is no way to feel more pathetic than to not be able to control a bunch of thirteen year olds. There is nothing that tears you apart than a year spent futilely forcing knowledge onto resistant bodies, without ever figuring out how to open them up to it.

We learn to teach because it makes our lives better to be good at our jobs. When I first entered the work force, I lamented that after college – you don’t get grades and feedback very regularly, so you don’t always know how you are doing.
Well, I suppose I ended up in the right field, because in teaching you always know how you are doing – every second of every day. If you are unpopular, you are told. If you are boring, it is screamed at you, both verbally, and through the actions of your unrestricted students. I even know if I am gaining weight, or looking tired, because my students don’t censor themselves – they don’t feel that they owe me anything. They don’t lie to make me feel better.

The new teacher evaluations, and the data reports – those do a lot to our esteem, but they don’t change the truth – they don’t even really reflect it most of the time. They can make the humiliation that we may feel in front of a room of kids, something bigger, that we have to feel in front of our peers and families. But they can’t let us know how we are doing any more than the audience we speak to each day. They, in the end, are the expert judges that we plead our case in front of daily.