Monday, August 31, 2009

1:1 Computing PD

Today was the first day that I was required to go to school. It was for some prep work we're doing to ensure our 1:1 computing initiative doesn't fall flat. Last year I worked on a grant writing team that met numerous times throughout the year to draft a proposal for a $250K grant given to schools with a solid plan to improve middle schools. We got it and with it we bought 300 laptops for our middle school. Funding it otherwise would have been impossible, but the mission of the school demanded that we get to this point somehow. This mission was part of the reason I signed on with this school- it involved preparing students for work and college and using technology to do it.

My opinion on the use of computers is anything but lukewarm. I wrote a master's thesis last year dealing with a related topic. To save you from reading the terribly boring manuscript, an important piece can be summed up as:

Students know how to use computers to communicate informally via things like facebook, myspace and AIM. This is an issue because they develop no skills that are academically or professionally pertinent. Generally students use these technologies to talk about themselves and to entertain themselves. Formal instruction on how to use communicative technology is absolutely necessary if our students are going to develop the skills they need to be successful.

Using laptops in the classroom can certainly be a headache. Sometimes I feel like I'd rather set the laptop cart on fire than get the things out only to deal with a thousand questions about why Windows is closing word documents because it thinks that it would be funny if you lost half an hour of work and why it's sending warnings that a virus is about to leap through the screen, kill the user and then destroy the world. To say the least, teachers who use laptops often know very well that troubleshooting problems on the computer can take up a great deal of time that should be devoted to instruction. The older the equipment gets, the worse the problems get.

In spite of issues with computer use, it has become the duty of teachers to incorporate it into widely and diversely into curriculum. I feel this is especially the case in the core classes. If the students do not learn in school how to communicate appropriately via social-networking and communicative, technology they generally don't at all. Because of the way they know how to use technology (see my post on sexting), NOT teaching them to use technology appropriately is actually hurting them far more than simply not giving them applicable skills in the work force.

Funding is a major problem when it comes to getting reliable technology into the classroom. The only reason we were even able to get so many laptops was because of the grant we received. During my thesis defense a couple professors backed me into a corner when I implied that both great teachers and up-to-date technology are the most important things to concentrate on getting for our students. I turned red and admitted that I had no answer to the question as to how we get both. Great teachers have to come before great technology, but the lack of money in education is the reason that there is a lack of great teachers. It's going to take a lot more money and public investment in the education system to get better teachers and technology. In spite of those difficulties, I firmly believe that getting technology into the classroom is imperative to our students' success.

Today's Wine: Chianti Ruffino, whose distributors hails it as a major reason people even drink Chianti today. It made me drink the wine, anyway. We served it at the restaurant I worked at back in Kansas. Chianti is produced in the Tuscany region of Italy.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hiring Freeze Frenzy

Today the New York Times ran an article about the hiring freeze in NYC titled "Amid Hiring Freeze, Principals Leave Jobs Empty." Basically the freeze on hiring means that no one can be hired as a teacher who didn't already hold a teaching certificate last year. I've been pretty riled up about the whole situation and it seems a little common sense would clear it up.

Point 1
New York City has 1,500 schools. Among them are some of the most difficult to staff in the country. Principals EVERY year at this time are scrounging to find decent candidates to put on their payrolls- candidates that will survive the first year in a new school and that will actually teach their students something. There is a reason so many millions of dollars are used to recruit people to work in New York. People are brought from around the world (Philippines, Austria, etc.) to fill vacancies because there are not enough qualified candidates to go around.

I talked just a bit in my previous post about how poor/mentally deranged some of these candidates are. While the union thinks it's protecting its workers by making sure they are given jobs before new hires, it certainly isn't protecting the students. The people who have been unable to find a position for the past year or two probably should never be given a position. These principals are not "quietly defying" the hiring freeze. This is New York City!! If someone is going to defy something like this they'll scream it from the rooftops. These principals are looking out for the best interests of their students by NOT hiring these people, just as they do every year. Pressure is put on them by the city to have a successful school. Who is going to hire someone that has been unable to find a job for twelve months in a city that can't even staff it's schools every year?

There is also some pressure on principals, however morally grounded, to look at cheaper employees. This means hiring younger, less-experienced teachers because their salaries are much lower. This is a problem with the budgets that I feel needs to be rectified. Here's a solution I've bounced around for a while:

Deduct the same amount of money from a principal's budget for every teacher hired. This would eliminate the concern about having to hire younger teachers or forcing older ones out and enable principals to simply hire the best teachers available. Who would pick up the rest of the tab for the salaries of these teachers? Tricky. Principals' budgets would need to be reduced as a whole, presuming they would need less money if they were only paying first-year rates to all teachers. That reduction of course would be highly contended and scrutinized, but if done correctly, most of the schools in the city might benefit.

A problem with this plan: Principals already receive pretty much the same budgets across the city. Some have made it a practice to have a young, slightly less-experienced staff in order to have a few more dollars to buy things like textbooks and computers. The bottom line is that there is simply not enough money to go around. Schools can either have great programs and technology or experienced teachers, but not both with the funding they're given by the state and federal government. The principals who have elected to have younger staffs to afford better programming would take a hit because they would probably lose enough of their budget that they wouldn't be able to afford the special program(s) they offer.

Perhaps this can be offset with grants to inflate budgets, but grants cannot be relied on year after year. If we move that direction in education I fear schools will open and close so often that the idea of "school culture" will be obliterated in the city, eliminating a major incentive for students to come to school.

Easy solution? There is none. Easy to rant about? Sure.

Point 2
Coming out of the school of ed we were all super stressed about getting jobs, understandably. This year it seems like it would be far worse. Because of the hiring freeze, all the people coming out of schools of education are not even eligible to be hired. These students of education did not have a teaching certificate last year and are therefore ineligible. If I had moved this year instead of last year I would have been sent right back to Kansas.

A loophole to this is if you are going through a non-traditional program. Teach for America candidates and New York Teaching Fellow candidates are still being allowed into the classroom without any experience. Regardless of how you feel about the traditional route to the classroom or the alternative routes, I personally think it's a bunch of crap. If traditional education students are worth that little, perhaps we should revamp those programs to make the future educators more valuable.

The hiring freeze, at any rate, as the potential to discourage a lot of eager, great candidates from even joining the field. What kind of message is the Department of Ed and the United Federation of Teachers sending if solid candidates are being rejected while the bottom of the barrel is being placed in schools?

Today's Wine: A Cabernet-Malbec blend at Libertador Parrilla Argentina. Apparently Malbec is oftentimes used as a blending grape, more especially in France, though. This one was from south of the border.

Friday, August 28, 2009

On the Other Side of the Table

Yesterday and today my new team was interviewing math candidates. We had three interviews from incredibly different people, but it wasn't difficult to decide who we wanted. Being on the other side of the table is WAY better than being on the interviewee end, by the way.

I've never interviewed for teaching jobs outside of New York City or outside of the Bronx, so to say I'm an expert on interviewing candidates would be a stretch. When I worked at 65 Court Street my office was in charge of recruiting. I did sit next to dozens of interviews, some with people singing and dancing for our recruiters, some yelling at their interviewer, some very strong candidates who just happened to have a first point of contact with someone at our office, and some whose only contact with a government institution should have been to be institutionalized, not to apply for jobs through the Department of Ed.

Part of that job was also to help with massive career fairs attended by sometimes well over a thousand candidates where row after row of principal/hiring team would take resumes and listen to candidate after candidate in an attempt to find people to fill their open positions. These events were high-stress, generally very hot, full of people who got angrier and angrier (especially as the summer wore on) and wondered why no one was getting a job and no one was helping them specifically. For some these events were life-savers, for many others they were entirely frustrating gong shows that, from what I could tell, could really be run no other way except in an online setting, which wouldn't necessarily be any better. The fact of the matter is that there are only so many positions and generally a lot of people looking for jobs, in spite of general teacher shortages (or shall we say good teacher shortages).

I was fresh off the plane from Kansas during that summer, not really knowing anything about the city and not sure where I was going to want to teach a year down the road when I would be looking for jobs. As one of the fairs was winding down, I was brought into a conversation with a principal from the South Bronx by the Bronx Recruiter, one of the craziest and hardest working employees in the DOE, who was also my immediate supervisor and for whom I was a lackey, assistent and most importantly an intern. This principal was going on and on about the lack of qualified people for her school, which was apparently a rough one. She took one look at me, leaned over the table and said, "No offense, but I wouldn't hire you. You look too nice."

I was of course indignant. Did this woman not know that I had one of the highest GPAs in the School of Education?! Was she aware that I had been substitute teaching in rural Kansas for an entire semester?!

Of course she didn't know. I hadn't told her. What's more is that I knew full and well- in a very textbooky sort of way- that those things didn't matter when it came to teaching the students she was teaching. In fact, they matter very, very little, if at all. From her perspective I was a scrawny white guy, clean-shaven, looked like I was about seventeen and I was quietly listening to the conversation, seemingly very passive. Based on that interaction alone, I wouldn't have hired me in a million years.

As for me hiring people(haha), I had three options: wet-behind-the-ears-guy, the scared puppy and the decent candidate.

Wet-Behind-the-Ears-Guy This guy, according to a couple other people at the interview, was almost a carbon copy of me at the beginning of last year. I agreed, save for the moppy hair and bigger ears. He was slinging post-grad vocabulary, soft-spoken but confident and full of what seemed like good ideas, especially on paper and in textbooks. We thought he'd be an acceptable hire- the students would shred him and we'd help him regain his footing and make it through the year with some level of success (pretty much what I experienced).

Scared Puppy She came from another school in Washington Heights serving a similar population. It didn't show. She answered few questions well, none with complete confidence and was very intimidated by the whole process. Not very becoming of a one-year veteran. Had she been hired, she would have been shredded and would have made it through the year, but she would have been a weak link on our team.

Decent Candidate Sometimes it's hard to describe a good interview (again, I'm not an expert). Sometimes you just know that a candidate will work well with you. This candidate was leaving a job for respectable reasons, lives and works in the community our school is in, and easily answered all the questions we had. Out of the three, the team agreed unanimously to extend an offer to her first. She has the potential to be an incredible asset to our team and school.

Yesterday's Wine: A glass of Malbec at Josie's West in Manhattan. Personally I've never had a glass of Malbec that I didn't like. This one was from south of the border.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"All the Wrong People are Leaving"

In this day and age email is the medium through which professionals collaborate. Yes, there are conferences and meetings when necessary, during which half the attendees are on their blackberries irritating those who are not. Email has taken the place of the cubical walk-by, the prep room fly-by and the hand-written note in the mailbox.

That said, email in the workplace needs to be professional. It's official, documented correspondence between colleagues. That means it should be free of slights, heavy criticism and very rude remarks. In the business world if you send multiple emails slighting all the employees in the company I can guarantee that you'll get canned pretty quick.

"All the wrong people are leaving" was a one-line email sent to the entire staff today. It was meant to say that there are a couple people leaving our staff who the sender respected, and that he believes a number of others should quit. It's not the first time this person has sent emails like this and I'm sure it won't be the last. The person's email was actually shut off two years ago because the remarks became excessive.

I was at school today going through books and materials for the coming year and a student worker was helping out. She had the "sender" as a teacher two years ago and she, along with a lot of other students, think he's a fantastic teacher. From what I hear the administration believes the same- he is a great teacher; he gets students excited about the material and holds them accountable for everything they do. From what I know about this person, it doesn't actually surprise me. Whatever you do in the classroom, however, part of your job- and a necessary part- is showing your coworkers respect. If your students respect you and they see you disrespecting the rest of the staff, you are undermining the efforts of all teachers in the building. That is completely unacceptable.

Part of our jobs as professional teachers is to act like professionals. Part of that professionalism is to work with coworkers, not against them. Running around, believing spiteful emails are "fighting the good fight," and that the administration is what we should be fighting against is not going to help anyone. It certainly isn't going to help the students in the school, nor is it going to rally the "troops" to a cause. What is more, teachers are attacked as being unprofessional, often times for their appearance, but also for reasons like this.

In order for our education system to improve, teachers must gain more respect from the populace. Behavior like this is not going to do it.

Today's Wine: 3 Buck Chuck pumped from yesterday

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sexting- Sex Texting in School?

There are articles all over the web right now talking about Houston's ban on "sexting". Basically Houston is trying to combat really inappropriate pictures and videos of students being sent through their airwaves at school. I picked up on it at, where the author made a really good point- why are we not taking action on the use of the cell phones in schools, rather than one thing the students are able to do with them.

Cell phone use was a huge problem in our school last year. Suspensions sky-rocketed because of them. Students would be on their phones in class and would be asked to turn them over as per New York City's Chancellor's Regulations, which forbid electronics in school except for students with medical conditions. When students refused to turn them over they were suspended, plain and simple. The long and short of it: it is IMPOSSIBLE to teach a student if they are chatting on their cell phone during class. It is also IMPOSSIBLE to teach a student if they are suspended every other day because of they use a phone in class. What is more is that calling parents is completely fruitless, as students being suspended are often-times using friends' cell phones. The response from the parents when their students are suspended is: "my student doesn't even have a phone." Solution: ban cell phones from the school.

Now, some parents complain that they need to be able to reach their student at any given time in case of emergencies. This has beenappealed to the New York Supreme Court several times. In one case the defendant claimed that cell phone usage was the only thing that saved her daughter from a stalker after school. Other cases seem to concentrate on what happens after school rather than during school. Solution: Instead of banning phones outright, have students check there cell phones in at the beginning of the day and give them back at the end of the day. Recommendations by parents revolve around "punishments" being delved out to repeat cell-phone abusers or they point to cell phone policies at schools like Bronx Science (one of the best high schools in the city, full of academically prone, self-motivated students) as examples of why having a rule against cell use in the classroom is completely adequate. If there is some kind of an emergency during the school day, I'm pretty sure most schools are equipped with phones these days. In fact, most classrooms have them. Students simply do not need their phones in class, nor any other time during school.

At the end of the year last year, most teachers agreed that it is incredibly necessary to have students check in phones if are to get anything done. When it comes to "sexting" in class, we certainly don't want any more of that either. Last year while a sub was in a sixth grade classroom, a girl filmed herself grinding on a male classmate and posted it to the web. Bing, bang, boom- just like that. Had the phones been taken at the door, it wouldn't have happened.

As for inappropriate use of cell phones in general, I believe that if parents aren't going to teach their children how to use the things the kids shouldn't have one. If it's generally accepted at this point that the internet can be a dangerous place for children given no direction, why in WORLD would you give your child access to it 24/7 without any supervision? Personally, I don't feel it's my job to patrol what a child does on their cell phone during school hours. When it comes down to it, any court will say that's an invasion of privacy. If students are doing inappropriate things under our watch, however, we are liable. This is why we restrict websites and access to inappropriate materials in schools. If parents are going to just hand over access to their children anyway, what are we trying to protect them from?

How do other schools approach the cell phone issue?

Today's Wine: Charles Shaw Cabernet

Monday, August 24, 2009

Down a Math Teacher Two Weeks Before Day 1

I was the only teacher in the building today. The battery on my school-issue laptop died, so I thought I'd go in and get another one if they had it and also poke around to see if my book order had come in. I also had a major craving for West Indian food- rice and beans, oxtail gravy and jerk chicken. It was nice being the lone soldier for a day, as I got a chance to talk my principal, which is difficult to do sometimes during the year when she's crazy busy like principals are. She informed me before sending out an email to the entire staff that our eighth grade math teacher would not be returning.

While this came as a a surprise (it is two weeks before school starts), we weren't completely blind-sided by it. Our math teacher looked for a job last year, was offered one, and then the budget was pulled for the job at the last minute so she stayed at our school. I'm both sad and grateful to see her go, and I'm happy for her in that she wanted to leave, she wanted a math coach position and she got both. It was best that she moved on.

It's important to keep negative chatter about colleagues to a minimum, not only because it's unprofessional, but because it oftentimes comes back to bite you. Schools are not sororities, nor are they locker rooms, regardless of whether the school has any. People who feed on gossip in an attempt to deal with their own insecurities certainly don't disappear because you are out of high school or college, nor does it stop because you are in a profession that is supposed to teach students how to be well-balanced adults.

Today's Wine: Beer, because it goes better with bratwurst.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Taking Time Out While There's Time to Take

Some random Ed activities today, but nothing concrete- mostly flipping back and forth between email, writing that article for Social Education and procrastinating like a professional.

Yesterday I took the day off, too, which is a skill teachers must master in order to be successful. When I was in college I could work seven days a week. While taking eighteen or nineteen credit hours, I held down a couple part-time jobs, worked 25-30 hour weeks in addition to the course load and pulled an eleven to thirteen hour shift once a week. When I started working in the South Bronx last year it became blindingly apparent in the first two months that I had to learn to take time for myself or the floundering act I was performing would soon turn into a drowning act. You hear it all the time as advice from veterans: take time for yourself. Those that don't burn out quickly. The strong vein of adolescence still left in me as I went through college spoke to the opposite- of course I could work hundred hour weeks with no rest. I'd gotten good grades in college doing something similar, right? The veterans are just old and worn out and can't handle the rigors of the classroom (about which I knew next to nothing). They complain too much and should only cherish the fact that they have the opportunity to teach the children, right?

As a teacher entering their second year, I can certainly vouch for the fact that taking a break is necessary. Hell, taking a personal day is sometimes warrented, depending on your life circumstances. That's what they're there for. While school hasn't started yet out here on the coast, I'm both enjoying my last days of summer and practicing to take a few minutes for myself this year. It would also be a shame to live in a city like this and not enjoy it. If I can't do it myself, how can I teach my students to do it?

Last Night's Wine: I split a bottle of Zaccagnini Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Tralcetto. Sounds fancy, right? The variety of grape is Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, which is a grape grown in east-central Italy (Abruzzo), east of Rome. This bottle isn't ridiculously expensive and has a stick attached to it- presumably part of a vine?. Montepulciano is another variety that's pretty easy drinking if you like red wine at all whatsoever. If you bring up the name it makes you sound like you know what you're talking about too- another important ability as a teacher.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bureaucrats' Mecca

Today my girlfriend and I had some errands to run in Brooklyn so I thought I'd stop into the New York City Department of Education Central Office at 65 Court Street in Brooklyn Heights. Most teachers in the city steer clear of this building as it is the cause of endless headaches and frustration. I, on the other hand, think of it fondly, as my first job in New York was at this location.

As mentioned before, my friends and I at the School of Ed in Kansas all had big plans to tackle urban education once we had completed our program, which made a lot of sense considering most of us had spent very little time in urban areas. To me this objective meant finding a job in what I perceived to be the toughest place to teach in the country: New York City- a place I had never been to.

In my infinite post-pubescent wisdom I knew that to simply move there and start teaching would be difficult (in reality it would have been damn near impossible), so I decided to try to land some kind of internship or summer job in the city before I started student-teaching in Kansas that fall (2007). After finding very little online in terms of paid internships for pre-service education students, I stumbled upon an internship opportunity at the central office for NYC public schools. A couple months afterward I received a call from a woman with a thick New York accent- very exciting for a young man in the Midwest- asking, "When are you going to be in Brooklyn so we can interview you?" STOP- "In Brooklyn?" I lived in Kansas. As I found out hauling a moving truck to coast last year, to "swing by" Brooklyn takes about 23 hours from the Land of Oz.

After finding out that it is possible to wink at another person through the phone- indicating that with an interview I was guaranteed the position- I hopped on a plane to New York where I stayed for the day (6.5 hours), spoke with my future boss and secured the position.

That summer I joined 26 other interns, all but one who were born, raised and educated in New York (the other out-of-towner went to college in Manhattan) and the staff of The Office of Recruitment and Selection Operations in hiring thousands of teachers to staff New York public schools. We worked at 65 Court Street, the sometimes cartoonesque building where teachers would come in and be sent to sometimes literally four to five different floors, standing in long lines on each of those floors, until they arrived at an office and were told they did not have the proper form or document with them and would have to come back at a later date.

That internship landed me with connections to the heart of the largest education system in the nation (1.1 million students)- a couple higher-ups in the monstrous bureaucracy that is the NYC DOE and numerous connections that would help me to get into the classroom the following year. The summer proved to be one of the best I've had- both in terms of entertainment value and educational value- and without it I wouldn't have even made it to New York, let alone survived the first year here. From time to time I stop by to say hello to the people there and to say "thanks".

Today's Wine: Montalto Sicilia Nero D'Avola. A friend of mine recently introduced me to the Nero D'Avola grape. Apparently this is a very popular grape variety in Sicily and it makes for smooth drinking. I always wanted to know more about Italian and French varieties.

Flexible Iron-Clad Structure

Today was devoted mostly to charting out the first month or so of lesson plans. This is often times a difficult task, as random things invariably arise that make you push lessons back a day or two. This might be particularly problematic this year as I am trying to implement a similarly-structured lesson each given day of the week. Mondays will be reading/introduction of material; Tuesdays- charts, maps graphs, etc.; Wednesdays- intensive vocabulary work; Thursdays- using time lines, working with Document-Based Questions (DBQs) and/or online activities when appropriate; Fridays- a quiz, and tying together the week’s material through the scope of citizenship.

I may very well give up on this structure, but I want things to be predictable for the students. Our students demand structure and predictability. When you vary from the norm they call you out on it immediately in one way or another- sometimes literally yelling it at you, sometimes acting out in a plethora of other ways to demonstrate their frustration, sometimes just struggling a bit to get to the point you’re trying to make. The funny thing is that they complain if you do the same thing all the time as well!A story to illustrate the point:A good friend of mine and three year veteran planned a lesson two years ago that required her to move the desks around the classroom before the students arrived. This can be quite a trick and shakes things up, which some students appreciate. When I was student teaching in Heidelberg, Germany, I used this trick all the time, sometimes staying at school until late figuring out how to precisely place desks in the room to form groups, set up a stage or create a factory simulation for instance. In this particular case she was arranging the classroom to set it up like courtroom.

Being certain that the students would enjoy the change from what they complained to be a generally monotonous classroom, she rearranged the desks as the simulation prescribed. Their reaction was less than desired, however. They walked into the classroom and immediately cried fowl pointing out that the teacher had messed up that classroom and it was unacceptable to them. They then took the initiative to move every desk back to its “proper” place, in spite of their teacher’s pleas to stop and certainly much to her chagrin. Needless to say she was left without a lesson for the day and had to wing it.

While this story certainly seems outlandish, these students are not incredibly different than their more privileged counterparts around the country. As humans, we crave structure and order in our lives. While this rings true more for some than others, every one of us requires a certain amount of predictability in our daily routines. In general this can be achieved in the home with parents and some siblings helping to establish a very routinized day to day existence beginning when one is woken up until the time one is sent to bed. This is not true for many of our students, which means the only structure they have- the only predictability they have every day is in a place they often times don’t particularly care for- school. Regardless of how the students feel about school, they crave the structure it gives them. To be fair and balanced, this is certainly not the case for a lot of our students. Contrary to popular belief, we have parents doing their damnedest to make sure their children grow up in the most stable and predictable environment possible- and against the odds. My hat’s off to them.

Anyway, I hope I can pull off this structure throughout the year. With all the holidays, parent conferences, random assemblies, state-mandated testing, school administration-mandated testing, fire drills and other interruptions thrown in it may be tough, though.

Wine of the Day: Mouton Cadet Bordeaux This guy is one that I buy pretty regularly. Apparently other folks do too. Of the two "Top 50 Wines for Under $10" lists that I’ve read, it made both. I strongly recommend it if you like Bordeaux. It’s an easy drink and it’s easy on the wallet.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pre-Season Opener

When I walked into my school last year two weeks before the students arrived I felt prepared to do what I needed to do to teach them. To be honest I felt sure that I was going to take over the world of education in a single fell swoop. I believed my big head and brain, not to mention my incredibly inflated ego, were enough to get me through the toughest part of the year and then I'd be fine after that. What that assumption got me was a whole lot of back-peddling, endless headaches, and a struggle to survive my first semester and year with some of the most difficult-to-teach youth in the country.

This year, instead of just assuming I'll be able to handle things, I have a year of experience to fall back on. It's almost solely my experience from last year that I'll be using to plan for this year. I'm making no grand assumptions about what this year will be like, but I am not discounting the successes I did experience last year.

Planning officially began today. My English teacher and the Eighth-Ninth Grade Learning Specialist (Special Ed Teacher) came over to my place and we started tossing around ideas about what we wanted to do this year- of course after precursory stories about students acting like miscreants, other teachers being pains in the butt and parents that are going to give us trouble this year. Conversation centered on cross-curricular writing and reading, management practices and a whole gambit of other things.

While many UFT union members I've worked with are staunchly against working outside of their contractual day, we all thought that getting together before we were required to was a good idea, especially considering the English teacher is new to the school. She will be replacing her three predecessors from last year- the first cut and ran after three weeks citing a nervous breakdown as the cause, the second lasted most of the rest of the school year, but left with more than a month left in the school year due to "personal reasons," and the third was really a long-term sub that stuck it out for the last few weeks of school, which was very commendable given the circumstances. The new hire (knock on wood) seems far more likely to last the year and is someone I'm actually looking forward to collaborating.

By getting together before school begins and not relying solely on our egos to teach inner-city, disadvantaged youth, we have a much better shot of supporting our students as they need it and feeling successful ourselves. Both are required to be great teachers.

Today's Wine: A glass of generic Cabernet I bought to compliment the bento-box lunch special at one of the sushi places across the street. One benefit of moving out of the bomb shelter of a basement studio apartment I lived in last year (155 sq.ft.) is there are many multiple choices of cuisine within one block of my apartment.
On Deck: Something besides cheap Cabernet

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Local History

Last year as I was teaching the students about the history of the U.S. it became more and more apparent that they were not incredibly interested in it for a lot of reasons. First, it was a lot of work learning history- you have to read to do it, generally speaking. Second, they felt that U.S. history had absolutely nothing to do with them. While I could certainly counter the second argument, I began to realize as the year went on that it was somewhat viable. Most of my students certainly couldn't relate to rich white men who've always run the country- a pretty common argument; still other students were themselves immigrants and went back and forth between feeling lukewarm about the U.S. to actually wanted very badly to go back to their home country. Regardless about how you feel about immigration, the charge given to teachers is to educate students and motivate them to learn about the country in which they are currently residing.

Now, New York is an incredibly test-driven school system. All last year I was working like mad to prepare my students for the state test given in June. When that test came around only a bit over half of my students were even made to take it, and then the results were calculated and promptly ignored. It was a bit disheartening to say the least, and to be honest I was pretty apparently pissed. The legitimacy of these tests are certainly debatable, but the point that came across was that it did not matter at all how well my students did on the test.

Because of that I decided to start teaching the way I'd wanted to the entire year last year. Other than testing, my lack of knowledge of the area my students live in and my lack of management skills didn't allow for a lot of wiggle room for progressive education techniques and the like. This year I'm going to concentrate on Bronx history and many more hands-on, project-oriented lessons. I tried very much to concentrate on literacy last year, which is incredibly important for our students (mine were three full grade levels behind on average), but this year I'm actually going to concentrate on the core concepts of social studies- preparing our students to be productive citizens.

To get things going I read The Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler earlier this summer and I picked up the book The Bronx by Evelyn Gonzalez yesterday to get a better idea of what happened in the neighborhood in which my students live and go to school. I'm also planning to use the book The South Bronx of America by Mel Rosenthal, which should provide some decent images of what the South Bronx looked like in the past sixty years.

Today's Wine: The same bottle of Charles Shaw Cabernet from two days ago. I used a wine pump on the bottle and stuck it in the fridge, something I was advised to do by an ancient bar-tender I used to work with. Red wine's shelf-life increases considerably using the two, just take it out an hour before you drink it to let it warm up.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Side Job

My work for today centered on writing an article for the journal Social Education, which is a publication of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). When I was in my second year at the School of Ed my adviser and mentor suggested that I work with him on developing some materials for the classroom that we ended up presenting at the NCSS conference in Washington D.C. that year. Since then I've worked with him on two other presentations for the NCSS conferences in San Diego (2007) and Houston (2008). He also guided me through the process of writing a master's thesis, which was the capstone to the M.S. I finished this summer in Curriculum and Teaching with an emphasis in Social Studies Education. The article he suggested we co-author sprang in part from that work.

A bit of advice I'd give those still in Schools of Education is that they get more involved in their teacher preparation than is required. For me that meant substitute teaching and working in the academic side of the field outside of my course requirements. Subbing is a great way to get a look at the job before you get into a classroom as a student teacher. I started subbing the semester before I student taught, but I could have started earlier- you're only required to have sixty college credit hours to be an "emergency sub" in Kansas. While I didn't get called first as those with teaching certificates did, I still worked as a sub every day that I wanted to. As it turns out, not many people want to be substitute teachers in rural Kansas. I really enjoyed it, though, and became a regular at a couple schools I worked in.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

2nd Year in the Classroom

In a couple of weeks I will be starting my second year as a teacher in the South Bronx. As I went through a School of Education and as I taught last year the analogy of the "Front Lines of Education" kept coming up. Some of my friends from the School of Ed and I talked about manning the front lines from the beginning. About a handful of us actually took the dive and sought out the most difficult teaching positions we could find- those generally reserved for teachers who couldn't find positions elsewhere, those who grew up in the areas where those positions are found or those who go through alternative teaching programs (such as Teach for America, New York City Teaching Fellows, etc.) and may or may not be serious about making a career out of teaching.

This blog is dedicated to our fight for a better education for our students. We've done our damnedest in the past year to survive and discover what it takes to make it as teachers in these positions. This year I'd like to reflect on the differences I see between the first and second year in the classroom. Fifty percent of teachers nationwide leave the field in the first five years, and in the city it's more than that (we had three different English teachers for our eighth graders last year - and they had three the year before). Perhaps jotting some of this stuff down will help them to change their minds. The long and the short of it is that we need good men and women on the front line. In the words of one of my esteemed colleagues last year, "the more we help you newbies the less work we have to do training your replacements."

As for the wine, it came to my attention that to calm my nerves last year a drink now and then certainly didn't hurt. Wine - especially the reds - have positive health benefits if consumed in moderation, so I've taken it upon myself to set the goal of having a glass of red wine five nights of the week this year.

Wine Tonight: Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon- also known in New York as "3 Buck Chuck." For the money it certainly can't be beat, and seeing as how I'm a teacher with some credit card debt as a result of a recent move to the Upper East Side, this one might be a staple this year.