Friday, December 30, 2011

Another Brick in the Wall

A long time ago it was inherently assumed teachers wanted the best for their students. It was assumed teachers develop their own systems, procedures, assignments and grading policies. As a principal, you didn't tell teachers to track kids' progress. You didn't tell teachers to assess student skill levels on the first day and then teach accordingly. Times have changed.

Today, New York City teachers are told what to do and how to do it, even when we are already doing what we're being asked to do. It's as if principals now assume teachers only want to be teachers for the pension, which by the way is shit, you could do a lot better in the market on your own. If a bulk of principals think this way, I can only imagine what the people above them think of teachers: a greedy bunch of fat cat bums that assign problems out of a textbook and merely grade them. This type of thinking is toxic and unproductive, and only hurts the kids in the long run.

It starts with preparation for the Quality Review, a multi-day visit from a committee that gives public schools a letter grade (like restaurants have in NYC). Unfortunately, this letter grade ultimately drives principals' decision-making process and usually overrides their own educational philosophies. They jump through whatever hoops the committee throws at them to stay afloat and get a good grade, even if what the committee asks for is bullshit.
Side note: don't let my link above to the official definition of a Quality Review fool you. Yes, the committee is made up of Department of Education employees and perhaps they were "educators" at one point, but to me that just means most of them were failed teachers that needed to find another job. Now they're judging administrators, teachers, and schools. Some of these people have never legitimately taught for more than a year in a classroom. A messed up system indeed.
Last year, our Quality Review committee decided our school didn't track our students' performance well enough (bullshit). In their report, they used a lot of buzz words to basically tell us they want us to use benchmark assessments on a school-wide basis. Benchmark assessments are basically tests within each of the main subject areas (Math, Science, etc.) administered throughout the school year to give teachers (but in reality administrators) feedback on how students are performing. In layman's terms: you give a test in the beginning, note the results, then retest, and then assess. Wait, what teachers don't do this already?

Without question, our school implemented the exams. We had to come up with new exams on top of the assessments we already have. The thing is, students at my school are not students who simply sit there and take bullshit. They see right through, from the teachers' attitudes to the made-up requirement that they needed to sit for these tests in order to graduate. My students have nothing to lose. Their GPAs aren't high enough to fight for. Their parents aren't involved enough to protest more standardized testing. Their general attitude toward the broad education system is negative. The only thing this system has ever done was tell them they weren't good enough.

So what happens when you force a bunch of tests down the throats of students with nothing to lose? Here are some interesting responses from the math benchmark assessment.

Exhibit A: The student makes a good point. Critical thinking skills: check.

Exhibit B: Honesty is essential in every learning environment.

Exhibit C: See caption for Exhibits A and B.

Exhibit D: Real-world problems allow students to connect to the material.

I imagine if these tests were given to students at any private school or strict charter school, "the powers that be" would see the results they wanted. However, if you remove from students the investment of education, the pressure to succeed, and the habit of doing what you're told, things suddenly become brutally honest. Kids aren't cattle, they will tell you how they feel even if it costs them later in life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lucky Number 27

After years of contemplation, I've come to the conclusion that birthdays are a lot more fun when your age hasn't hit double digits.

I have few good memories of my childhood, and of those, my birthdays seem to dominate most of them. It makes sense: December 20th rolled in right before Christmas break. Yes, I said Christmas break, because back then, nobody said, "Happy Holidays." You fucking said "Merry Christmas" or you didn't say anything at all. There weren't too many Jews or Muslims where I grew up.

Right around my birthday, school started slowing down. Instead of learning new material, we'd make decorations for our respective Christmas parties. Or maybe we'd go see a school play or watch It's a Wonderful Life. I would bring in some cupcakes on my birthday and we'd be set - coloring with crayons, using scissors, putting shit together with Elmer's glue, and eating chocolate cupcakes. It really didn't get any better for a school day.

My favorite part about my birthday was of course, getting what I wanted. My parents weren't the type to surprise me. They didn't ever talk to me to figure out my interests and then surprise me with "that thing I wanted." In my younger years, I erroneously viewed this as a good thing. See video below to see what I'm talking about.

I wish Old Spice dude was my dad.

Unfortunately, my father worked two jobs. Not because he had to, but because he didn't want to be home. My mother was too busy losing herself in her chores and religion. On the day of my birthday, my parents would drive me down to Toys-R-Us and I would simply point at what I fucking deserved for putting up with their toxic, abusive relationship, which my mother always told me she stayed in because she wanted "the best" for me. I wish she would've just grown a pair and told me a divorce would made her look bad because she married against her family's wishes.

At the time, I thought it was a pretty good deal. I do hereby agree to be kept up until 3:00 AM some nights listening to you two beat the pulp out of each other. For this, you buy me a brand new Nintendo 64 video game system with a copy of Goldeneye, the game that changed it all for first-person shooters. Note to self: should the opportunity present itself again, do not take this deal. No matter how good the game is.

So as I hit twenty-seven, I have to admit I'm a little scared because now, I'm officially in my late twenties. There are no more decorations to cut, no cupcakes to distribute, and most certainly no video games to drown the noise. There are adult expectations. I'm allowed to maintain my sense of humor, but my actions have to speak louder than my words. The problem is, there's a hungry rat scurrying around in my head, craving what I missed from growing up too fast. It's deeply regretting the responsibility that was thrown on me from such a young age. I'm constantly feeling like I've missed out in life and it's ruining the moment.

And so what if things had been different? I keep wondering, maybe then I wouldn't inadvertently hurt the most important people in my life. Tragically, I've become my own childhood hero without any of his powers, but all of his weaknesses (except Kryptonite of course). I go out of my way to help and accommodate others, but I am not close to any of them. This is incredibly wrong.

Ultimately, this post isn't really about getting old, it's about feeling extremely lucky that I am married to whom I am. I'm lucky that at twenty-seven, I have someone who knows me and is voluntarily willing to stay. She's willing to push me, put up with me and work with me to help me overcome the mental obstacles that could potentially poison everything. I think a small part of me will always want my youth back, but I wish I did a better job of showing her that life really is better with her presence in it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Notes on a Scandal

Last Wednesday marked the beginning of a new trimester at my school. Naturally, this was a high attendance day, as most students come to school to pick up their schedules and renew their free NYC MetroCards. Sadly, some of these students will never show up to class for the rest of the term.

I began day one with a brief lesson on perimeter and circumference, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two students passing a note back and forth to each other.

I looked away and grinned: this was going to be too easy. I progressed through the lesson and as students continued to do a problem on the board, I pretended to make my way around the classroom, checking their answers. As I made my way around to the students writing the note, I quickly snapped it out from in front of them. Then, I began reading it out loud to the entire class:

Exhibit D: Actual student work. Do note the somewhat decent penmanship.
As you probably guessed from the racial slurs, this exchange was between a Hispanic and African American student.

Three things:
  1. The student who asked how many minutes there were left in class is currently in her third year at my school. My school is a two-year transfer school.
  2. The other student actually received an 85% in my class last trimester. He's a funny guy.
  3. My favorite phrase in this note? "You ass whole..."

Monday, December 5, 2011

Stick to the Teleprompter, Hizzoner

Nobody's perfect. A few months ago, I wrote a post about how happy I was that Mayor Michael Bloomberg was launching a Young Men's Initiative for New York City. Then, he went ahead and said this:

What irritated me most was not his comment about "firing half the teachers." It was what he said after that: "Double the class size with a better teacher is a good deal for the students."


No. It's not. Doesn't matter if you're fucking Jaime Escalante. Any teacher knows there is a direct relationship between the number of students in your class and how productive your class will be. Not to mention all students learn differently, and so if you increase the number of students, you lose the ability to work with all students one-on-one at some point in class.

This holds true for college and university as well. For my undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I honestly learned very little material in my "lecture-style" classes. These classes were packed to the brim with 300-500 students in one giant lecture hall. The professor would stand at a podium in front and lecture for about fifty minutes straight. What if you don't get the material? He lectures on. What if you weren't listening? He lectures on. What if you were sleeping? He lectures on. What if you were wondering whether that attractive girl sitting two rows ahead of you would want to work as your partner? He lectures on.

The point is: colleges know large classes aren't great. That's why every lecture-style class had a discussion section, with a maximum of twenty students per class. This was where you could talk, discuss and absorb the material the professor presented with a teaching assistant.

So no, Hizzoner, it's not a good idea to increase class sizes. The only person who would benefit from such a move is you: you save money by hiring less teachers. Education is not meant to be roboticized, buddy. They already tried that with textbooks.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Quote of the Week: 11/28-12/2

Today is the last day of the first trimester. It also happens to be a Friday. Only now, in my third year of teaching at a transfer high school, I finally know what to fully expect on days like this.
Note: If you don't know what to expect on days like this, you haven't read this. Or this.
Grades were due to the administration today at 9 AM. Since my Algebra classes culminated last Wednesday with a final exam, I decided to wrap-up the remainder of the week with Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Yes, I do realize this movie portrays Holmes engaging in numerous fist fights. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle readers: I do sincerely apologize for the heart attack this may have caused you. 

Before you judge me for showing the Hollywood version of Sherlock Holmes to my students, consider this: in the movie, Sherlock not only uses his superb reasoning skills, but he also comes off to be somewhat "cool." Downey's version of Holmes is mainstream enough to be accepted by my students. If I'd have shown Holmes the way he's normally portrayed in British media, my students would've overpowered the movie with conversation. Intelligence and "coolness" is often separated in American high schools. This movie does a half-decent job bridging these qualities together.

As I was about to play the second half of the movie today, Keith opened the door to my classroom and strolled in. My jaw dropped to the ground.

"I'm here, don't mark me absent Mista!" Keith said.

I'm shocked. It's now been two days in a row Keith has come to school. This is quite impressive if you know Keith. His attendance is pretty atrocious. He managed to pass my class only because of his mathematics skills. That, and luck: he conveniently showed up to school on a test or project date.

"Keith, of all the days to come to school in the trimester, you've decided to come the last two days. The most pointless days, quite honestly."
"No joke Mista, I've decided to come to school everyday." Keith admitted.

"Dude, you've only been here for two days straight. Before that, you were absent for seven days straight."

"Yeah I know, I just made this decision two days ago."

Better late than never, I suppose.