Wednesday, January 29, 2014

High Fructose Corn Syrup

"They're calling this the Bible of effective instruction!" my former principal excitedly announced four years ago in front of his entire teaching staff at the beginning of the school year. He was talking about Doug Lemov's book, Teach Like a ChampionIn my five years of teaching, four have always started with school leadership enthusiastically distributing copies of this book. In short, Teach Like a Champion outlines 49 techniques for inexperienced teachers to become "master teachers." Before I take a shit on the movement this book has created, I'll say this: Teach Like a Champion does aptly summarize what any teacher should do at the minimum. It's by no means a recipe for championship teaching, but rather a list of tools all teachers should be comfortable using when appropriate. The "championship" teaching happens when those 49 techniques are coupled with passion, personality, grit, intuition, and improvisation skills. 

My "beef" isn't with Teach Like a Champion or Doug Lemov. It's with principals, school networks, education consultants, private education companies, Teach for America, and other influential presences in education who have decided that reading this book will transform energetic and inexperienced 22-year old first-year teachers into Jaime Escalante (see also here). It's gotten so popular with everyone (except teachers, of course), that some principals are even using specific language from this book to evaluate teachers. So instead of being evaluated on presence, content delivery, execution, and technique, some unlucky bastards are being evaluated by shit like Technique #8-Post It (be sure your students know your objective for the day by posting it on the board). No shit, Sherlock.

Imagine a doctor wrote Treat Like a Champion, in which rookie doctors are advised to "diagnose the patient" and "check vital signs." All straight-forward and routine, but repackaged and presented as revolutionary. Real doctors and anyone else significant in medicine wouldn't allow that book to take off. The entire situation sounds ridiculous, but it's happening in education and it's devaluing the teaching profession. Teach Like a Champion (and other books like it) are trying to whittle down the major ingredients of a master teacher into a "you can do this too" checklist. They then dangle this list in front of unfulfilled, bleeding-heart types who eat this shit up and believe they can be great and change the world if they only embrace these golden techniques. 

Sadly, these suckers learn much too late that greatness can't be broken down to small, digestible parts and sold to the masses. As a species, human beings have this tendency to want to break everything that's great or perfect down into a science. "How can we scale this?" Fuck you. Scale that. I don't believe everything can be quantified. What baffles my mind is that even the big swinging dicks on Wall Street agree with me: they have a term for something they can't completely quantify: synergy. Investment bankers typically deem synergy as the primary reason for a corporate merger, i.e. the combined company (the whole) is greater than the two separate companies (the sum of the parts).

Other industries have also learned a lesson similar to what education hasn't. Just about a year before Doug Lemov wrote Teach Like a Champion, Michael Pollan wrote In Defense of Food, a book that blew the lid on food science. In his book, Pollan juxtaposes America's nutrition obsession with our nation's increasing obesity rate. This nutrition obsession created a desire to answer the question, "what really makes food great?" As a result, we funded scientific studies to deconstruct food in order to understand its vital components and ultimately, figure out what makes that particular food "healthy." The findings of those studies drove food producers and processors to begin replacing real food with "food-like substances" fortified with vitamins and minerals. These processed foods were marketed as healthier but most importantly, they were cheaper to make.

As a consequence of fortifying processed foods with the "good" components of healthy food, Pollan notes that America's health got worse. As it turns out, nutrition in foods is optimal when the whole food is consumed, not simply its individual components (e.g. eating an orange vs. taking vitamin-C supplements). The conclusion being there's synergy in eating real, natural food that you'll never obtain from eating crap injected with vitamins. The same goes for teaching.

If America demands "champion" teachers for its students, then we need to completely overhaul the teacher certification process. It's too fucking easy to become a teacher in this country, which makes it difficult to ween out people who would be ineffective teachers in the classroom. Teacher certification programs should develop the whole teacher with content knowledge, apprenticeship, and teacher techniques. If however, America wants to settle for cheap ineffective sheep, then we're doing the right thing by treating Teach Like a Champion as the supreme teaching doctrine. For my sake and our nation's sake, I hope we choose to revamp teacher certification because I'm really tired of working with teachers who try to quantify everything because that's the only thing they took away from their three-month Teach for America summer training.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What Social Media Tells Me on Snow Days

After Tuesday's epic-polar-vortex-snow-storm-pacalyse, NYC schools stayed open on Wednesday only to post the worst attendance numbers (47%) this school year. Luckily my school's network decided it'd be best to close Wednesday, so you can only imagine how incredibly lucky I felt.

The following morning, I basked in all the glory of a snow day by sleeping in a full two hours (crazy I know). Before fully waking up, I rolled over and grabbed my phone to check Facebook (shut up, you do the same). My feed was mostly dominated by teachers' angry posts about Mayor DeBlasio's decision to keep schools open. Those suckers, I thought.

Here's a snapshot of my teacher friends' social media posts from Tuesday night/Wednesday morning:

  1. Mayor DeBlasio, are you kidding me?????
  2. I knew it. NYC schools will be open tomorrow.
  3. Where is my Taun Taun? Mayor Dibloombergsio says that ny public is open.
  4. Not sure how I'm going to drive to work tomorrow, let alone get out of my parking spot... 
  5. Looks like I better prep for all ZERO kids who come to school tomorrow!
Of course, my teacher friends (and really, all NYC teachers) were in the right to bitch about DeBlasio's decision. Most of my teacher friends teach in high-needs neighborhoods, and attendance is usually shit anyway. In my experience, the majority of students from high-needs neighborhoods use whatever excuse they can to not come to school. I believe keeping schools open (particularly in these regions) during unsafe conditions actually devalues the school and demoralizes the few students who do actually come in.

Anyway, here's a snapshot of my former/current students' social media posts from Tuesday night/Wednesday morning:

  1. O nah, it's ova for skool 2mrrw
  2. n*gga snowwwwww you hearddddd
  3. good thing ma smart ass stayed home Tuesday too! 5 day wknd YA BOIIIII
  4. whos gettin smacked tonite!?!
  5. all i wanted was your attention but i couldnt even have that  <\3
Okay, that last one has nothing to do with anything, but it's so emo I couldn't help myself. Sorry kiddos, don't friend your teachers on Facebook: we'll use anything to brighten our day.

Now to the point: our country's education reform movement is obsessed with the idea of extending the school day and the school year; however, it's completely pointless if the school day and year are extended to only do the same things we're doing now (classroom instruction driven by irrelevant standards, then tested).

If we're just throwing more of the same at our students, then in the eyes of a student, school isn't a valuable tool to get smarter and change your life. For any teacher reading this: think about the last two weeks of a semester. Think about all of the students who suddenly care about their grade and demand you give them make-up work, despite their attendance, which has caused a large gap in content knowledge. Some of those students actually do complete the make-up work and redeem themselves. What does that mean? That means we don't fucking need 36 weeks (180 school days) of drill-and-kill classroom instruction. If it's important enough, kids will get their butts in line and learn the hardest shit in the shortest amount of time.

Instead of fretting about X days remaining in the school year, with Y standards left to teach, we should keep the "classroom" calendar short and sweet, maintaining school's "sense of urgency" and emphasizing how important time really is. Simultaneously, revamp the school calendar to include large chunks of internship programs, expeditionary learning trips, summer intensives, and other useful programs to engage students. Let them figure out what they want to learn first. They'll then come to us and demand, "teach me!" Then, the next time we have a psuedo-snow day, at least the students will feel like they've missed something they need.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Ross's Dilemma

I tend to arrive to school earlier than most. Usually the only person to greet me at school in the morning is the school safety officer posted at the main entrance. I'll say good morning to him as I make my way down my school's (only) hallway towards my classroom. Even though I've still got about an hour or so until students start rolling in, sometimes there's a student who beats everyone (including me) to school: his name is Ross and I have absolutely no clue what to do with him. I mean academically I have no clue. In fact, I'm pretty sure the American education system as it stands right now doesn't know what to do with him.

Ross is sixteen years old, but by his high school transcript, he's still considered a high school freshman. His family moved to New York City from the Dominican Republic when he was old enough to be enrolled in elementary school. His state standardized test scores would tell you that he's still in elementary school. It's unfortunate, but true: Ross is at a 1st grade reading level. His math skills are about the same, maybe a little higher. His situation is not that different from others at my school - that may sound surprising, but it's not. Ross is the typical low-income, urban student who was promoted carelessly up to high school even though he never possessed the skills required to move up with his peers. Somehow, somewhere his prior teachers and principals moved him on up until he was somebody else's problem. When he finally got to high school, his weak academics couldn't be brushed under the rug anymore.

Ross has an IEP that provides him with some special education services, but in a city (country?) obsessed with test scores and "college readiness," it really doesn't do much for him. His special services include extended time for exams, the use of a calculator, and the option to take exams in a separate room away from his peers. He can have exam proctors read him questions aloud if he wants. A lot of services indeed, but nearly pointless. His comprehension and computational skills are so low that these services aren't really helpful. As Ross has stated over and over in class, sometimes these services make him feel stupider because he still has problems remembering content even with the additional services. Ross isn't dumb; he just has a number of needs that don't integrate well with this country's standardized testing obsession. Unfortunately, that statement means shit.

Compared to other at-risk high school students I've taught, Ross is a good kid. By all alternative school definitions Ross is actually great: his attendance is over 90%, he doesn't sell drugs, he doesn't have a criminal record, he doesn't cut out of school early, etc. In fact, the only reason Ross passes any "core" classes at school is because he stays the whole day and puts in the overtime to fix tests, complete make-up work, and get tutored. This extra effort typically helps him carry over a borderline pass/fail grade into a passing grade. 

His mathematics skills are considered weak because so much of today's curriculum requires rote memorization. This is why he can't demonstrate mastery of math content in a cumulative assessment. He has a problem memorizing too many things. If I teach him something for an hour today, he can complete all of the work related to today's topic. Tomorrow is a different story. This is a big problem because every high school New York Regents Examinations is cumulative and if Ross has any desire to graduate high school (which he does), he needs to pass this test. It's no surprise these policies cause students, teachers, and administrators to cheat. It's a numbers game, so we have to pad them to look good. We love looking good, don't we? I went from working at an unethical investment bank to working in an unethical education system.

My class has been taking a lot of practice Algebra Regents and Ross has not been faring well. He's probably going to pass my class, but fail the exam hard. In NY State, a high school student needs to accumulate 44 credits (traditionally 11 credits/year) and pass five Regents exams. Ross will probably (through a lot of hard work and tutoring) earn a lot of credits in high school over an extended period of time, but his chances of passing any state exams are very slim. Ross has never passed a cumulative exam or quiz in my classroom. He can pass short quizzes given on a daily basis, but that's not how standardized testing works.

Over the past few weeks, I've provided Ross with cheat sheets, practice exams, and video tutorials but he still struggles question-by-question. I basically have to sit next to him throughout the whole practice test. As he struggles with reading aloud a simple multiple choice question, I stare at him; I can't help but feel incredibly sorry for him and others like him. I wonder what's going to happen to Ross in a few years. If he can't graduate because of our archaic system, then that's plain stupid because he is actually capable of doing things in life. He comes to school everyday despite his peers calling him "retarded" on a daily basis. He's super interested in the arts and photography, and while I can't comment on his photography skills (I'm not an art critic), he talks about it with a passion. What is this kid going to do if he earns 44 high school credits, but doesn't pass any Regents? As an educator in the American school system, I'm not sure. You'd think we'd have an answer to this hurdle in the age of Google glass and Amazon drone-delivery, but we don't.

Ideally, our school system should have recognized Ross's strengths and weaknesses somewhere in elementary school. His middle school should have provided him with remedial support and then communicated his data and characteristics to a high school designed to cater to a student with his needs. He should have been programmed into photography and visual arts courses (balanced with remedial literacy and math) by the time he was 14. He should be able to graduate with an arts-based high school diploma (which doesn't exist) that would have served as an admission ticket into an arts-based program post-high school where he could get super skilled in something to earn a living. If students can graduate with "Advanced Regents Diplomas," why isn't there any room on the other side for students who aren't the best test takers? These are the students who typically grow up to be more interesting than just being a corporate monkey. This country needs to develop its divergent thinkers rather than mold the motivated into yes-men.

Monday, January 6, 2014


I'm back. 

It's been nearly a year since I've last written on Yo Mista! A lot has changed personally. Yet nothing has changed professionally. And I guess that's why I've been so uninspired to write. 

Over the last year, my professional life took a backseat to my personal life. When the dust settled, I realized I didn't want to write Yo Mista! anymore. I still felt passionate about my work, but I was somehow uninspired. My day-to-day at school over the last year hasn't changed. I still teach over-age, at-risk students at an alternative high school. Everyday, crazy shit happens in my classroom. Everyday, a student either feels supremely connected to me and my content or feels without direction and completely out of touch with education. My students and I still keep each other on our toes. The only problem is, I'm getting jaded. 

This is my fifth year of teaching at-risk youth and I'm getting tired of seeing students arrive to school high as a kite. Their lack of discipline is starting to irritate me. And I can't even blame them - who was there for them to teach them not to wake-and-bake when you're behind in school? No one. Or how to arrive to school on time? No one. Who was there for them to teach them when it's okay to curse and when it's not? No one. No one taught them that gaming, cheating, and hustling isn't a sustainable lifestyle for most. And even if these students did have an adult or two in their lives, that doesn't necessarily mean these adults are any different from their own kids. Babies are having babies and kids mirror the adults they see at home. This problem is rooted well beyond the classroom.

I'm really getting fed up teaching a year-long course that culminates with a high stakes state exam. It's fucking miserable. As a proper (and real) teacher, I want students to love learning. I want to teach them something they can use when they go home. Yet this country's education system can't trust me enough to perform this task, so they created benchmarks. They want data from me, so they can compare my kids to others. So, how do you generate data and compare across states, cities, and districts? You create standards and then test to those standards. When you've done this, you've created arbitrary gauges: everyone has to be "here" by age "X." This is a landscape fit for sheep, not creative outliers.

Forget loving to learn. Sheep are best trained when they've been told since birth about how important school is by over-involved, stressed out parents. That doesn't sound like most of my students' circumstances. Their circumstances haven't allowed them to learn how to be skilled multiple choice test takers. No one at home is prepping them for the college race. For this reason, my students are divergent and creative, and they're unwilling to blindly subscribe to a system that from their perspective funnels them into prison (just Google, "School to Prison Pipeline"). 

Schools were originally designed to meet the needs of our country's industry and work needs. Today, K-12 schools don't mirror our industrial needs anymore. Rather, they're an endurance test of grit, upbringing, and financial resources. The winners of this race get to graduate with a piece of paper that proves nothing (and proves no skill) and subscribe to the college lifestyle, which is another race but with a greater emphasis on financial resources. 

I can't imagine more than 10% of the at-risk population I teach being successful in college, where you're truly independent. No case workers constantly calling your house. No teachers hounding you to turn in missing assignments. No principals showing up at your door asking where you've been. My at-risk student population requires a fuck ton of manpower to squeeze out a little bit of success: we have different levels of administrators, double the number of teachers to keep class sizes down, guidance counselors, more case workers than any school I know, private hallway monitors, and a myriad of after-school programs. Even so, attendance is typically shit. It's clear traditional and non-traditional schools (which are pretty traditional, actually) are still not designed to cater to at-risk students.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do know this: I need to stop measuring success using the same measuring stick that existed when I was in high school. That same measuring stick has become a baton, and it's beating our neediest kids down into prison. I need to stop getting mad at students when they can't make it to my 1st period class for the 3rd day in a row. In the past, I couldn't help but hold a secret grudge against them for that, probably because I knew I would never do such a thing - my discipline is crazy (thanks mom), but that doesn't make me a better person. 

For my students, constantly coming to class late typically means failing that class. What do they learn when they fail? This consequence means little to nothing to them until it's too late and they're about to age out of high school. Humans learn best in the moment of need. My kids aren't in this rat race towards the perfect GPA for the "reach" college; they just don't buy this shit. Personally, the older I get, the more I know that our current system of education is meaningless. On Wall Street, I worked with a bunch of guys from Ivy League schools, and I was definitely smarter than most of them when it came to financial modeling and using Excel to do math (and I went to a state school). All of this just doesn't matter and what university you went to certainly doesn't make you better. Does going to a university at all make you better? What if you can accomplish something great, be fulfilled, all without a college degree? It's possible through trade schools, apprenticeship models, and quality education programs, but that's not what this country is funding.

Happy 2014.