Saturday, April 12, 2014

When JOY Is Sucked Out the Door

Just this morning I was thinking about all the great projects I could do with my students and technology. Powerpoints, green screen videos, digital story writing.....these are great tools for promoting student engagement. I used to have my students write and produce a weather report that we videotaped using all their own creative backgrounds. Boy, they were really into learning about weather.....we used to write and animate scripts for giving information about topics we were learning and just plain fiction writing (check out the website), made presentations using VoiceThread, we even set up a talk show stage and made videotaped exit interviews about their year in review ...and that was just the tip of the iceberg...all in first grade. The kids were always so excited to learn more so they could create more!
Now, our use of technology is limited to using the computers and ipad to take benchmark tests repeatedly as well as regular quizzes on math and reading as mandated by our district. We are constantly being told that we need to "increase our numbers". Meaning get the kids taking more quizzes!
Every Sunday night I sit and plan for the upcoming week and am determined to "reclaim" education in my classroom. I make plans for technology projects, art projects (all that support learning) and learning games that support our standards. By mid day Monday I begin to feel defeated as I realize there just isn't time to get to these plans. Reform model education has every minute planned out for teachers and students and most of it is based on passing a test! I am so discouraged and weary.
I have always LOVED school, which is why I became a teacher. I never complained about getting up and going to work every morning and was frequently heard saying how much I love my job - even though I have always worked in a high poverty, urban setting. I planned to teach until at least age 65. Teaching, although hard work, was so much fun I couldn't imagine my life without it.
Now, I have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning and can barely stand the thought of going in to school. Although I try to make learning fun for my kids, there is so much standing in our way that my students are apathetic at best and at worst are starting to hate school. They are 6 and 7 years old! The school reform movement is all they have ever experienced in their lives. Most of them could care less about learning to read and are never actively engaged in these scripted lessons (when there is an opportunity for engagement, that is.)
Here is just one example: Every morning from the first day of school, like most teachers, I write a morning agenda on the whiteboard that includes a little story writing prompt. These are fun “imagine if” scenarios that the students are supposed to write about. Of course it is all written in first grade friendly writing so that as their reading skills increase they are more able to read the board independently or with a partner. I do not read it to the class initially and wait to pull struggling students aside AFTER they have given it their best shot. Later I go over it with the class to make sure everyone has understood. By this time of year, in the past, students came into the room and went directly to the board to read it, even before they took care of their backpack or ate breakfast. They were so excited to be able to read that it trumped everything else! There was always a crowd around the board and I had to chide them about going to their seats to read it so that everyone could see.
This year no one reads the board - NO ONE- not even the best readers. Every morning they eat breakfast and then sit there with blank stares or get busy with their friends. When I remind them about their bell work they always ask – ASK- what are they supposed to do. Every morning I have to say “read the board” and then remind them that they are readers now. Inside I’m crying. Just this simple act of walking in the room and getting started has become such drudgery that my little kids don’t even care that they are able to read. Can you imagine?!
This is education reform. I witness it daily and if you and your children haven’t yet, then good for you, you must be in a district that is not experiencing a great deal of poverty. But make no mistake, what happens in my district, happens to yours eventually. They just do it to us first because the parents don’t have as much political capital as in yours. But it will come, trust me. UNLESS we all start to scream and shout! Don’t wait; there isn’t a moment left to lose.
If you stand outside my school in the morning, when the first bell rings and listen very carefully as the doors open wide, you’ll hear it. In case you don’t recognize the sound, let me tell you – it is the sound of all the JOY being sucked out the doors.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Today is the last day of November and I have been remiss in posting why I am thankful. My friends seemed to have it covered with family, children, friends, sunshine, peace and the likes. I certainly hope I convey my love and thanks to the people in my life on a regular basis so that I don’t need November as a prompt for making a declaration. But here are some things I am extremely grateful for and take for granted on a daily basis. I think I could name one for each day of the month, but that would be terribly long and I think you’ll get the idea. 
Here goes: 
   After long weeks at work I look forward to my Saturday shower. Last week I stood, just stood, under the spray of hot water and let myself bask in its warmth and felt myself relax. I realized I was a little thirsty so I turned my face to the spray and let some of the water fill my mouth and relieved my thirst. That’s when it hit me what a luxury we have and take for granted. Water - you never think about it, but we bathe in it, wash with it, cook with it, drink it, swim in it, water our grass and sometimes just let the water run and play in it. I have been known to use my hose in the summer to wash my driveway on a hot day rather than sweep. We never really think about where it comes from or how it gets to us, and we only rarely have to worry about if it is safe. But over 780 million people in the world DO NOT have access to clean water. I am thankful for water. 

  It’s holiday shopping time and the stores are crowded, which means full parking lots. I have never been one to sit and wait for someone to pull out of a parking spot, or circle the lot looking for an up-close spot. Except that is, when I used to take my mother out. Bless her, my mother was blind and had a leg amputated due to diabetes. Her remaining ankle had been shattered when someone ran a red light and hit her in a cross walk. Her foot was attached to her leg with a steel plate and pins. This gave her very limited mobility. But my legs work. They work even when they are tired. They work even when they are bruised. My knees bend, my feet flex and even when my shoes are too tight, I can walk and climb stairs. I remind myself regularly that God has blessed me with legs that work and don’t sweat parking in the outskirts of the parking lot. I am thankful for legs that work properly

  I am thankful that I have never had to go hungry. Sure, there are many times I felt hungry. But I’ve never had to go hungry. I have never had to worry if I would get to eat tomorrow. I have never had to beg for food or scavenge through other people’s scraps. Many times I’ve stood in front of the open refrigerator or cupboard door and thought “we don’t have anything to eat.” But of course, that is never true. There is always something that could be eaten. Just not something that suits my craving at the moment. What a difference. Open a can of green beans for breakfast? Peanut butter on a spoon for dinner? A bowl of white rice or plain pasta as a meal? How ridiculous that we throw away left-overs because we are sick of eating the same thing for more than a couple meals. My friend calls these “first world problems”. I don’t know what it’s like to be truly hungry and I hope I never learn. I am thankful for having food to eat and to feed my family. 

   I am an information junkie. I wonder. I ask questions. I like to know things. I may forget them quickly, but when a question occurs to me, I like to get an answer right away. I like that instant gratification. So I am grateful for the internet and Wi-Fi connections. Social media aside, I absolutely love having the world at my fingertips. I have a hard time disconnecting, not because of the social aspects but because there is so much information out there. Yes, I am aware that much of it is false. Occasionally I am taken in by a false story. But I think I’m a pretty level headed and analytical person and can cut through most of the bull. I can’t imagine not being able to get the answer to my questions instantly any more. I remember when you had to go to the library and search for the answers to your questions. Each question was a lengthy search and sometimes you just never found what you were looking for. Remember when you would change the topic of your research report to fit the information you could find? I have to admit I did that more than a few times. I am in awe of the people who create internet search programs that make it possible to find the right information with just a few key words. I am thankful for the internet. 

  These are just a few of the things for which I am thankful. They are things that I don’t often give much thought. I could certainly list others such as electricity, books, pets, and more. But I think you get the idea. What do you take for granted?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Virtual Education....Can I Make the Grade?

As I have been preparing for the possibility of teaching some online courses I have had to take a hard look at my practices as both a teacher in a traditional brick and mortar school as well as my habits as an online student.  I can see that there are many area I need to work on improving.  In fact, for many reasons, I would say that I am not prepared to be a virtual instructor at this time.I felt this question is a good place for me to begin my reflection. 
"Consider the areas you struggle with in the traditional classroom. How can you better prepare yourself so you will struggle less with this in the online environment?"
When reflecting on my classroom practice, I would say that the area I struggle with the most is in planning the appropriate amount of content. I suffer from the affliction of wanting to do it all and wanting students to experience it all. So, instead of choosing one or two significant activities or lessons per topic, I over-plan and over prepare, Frequently we do not have enough time to finish an activity before it is either time to clean up for the day, or move on to the next topic. This leaves me feeling frustrated. At times it has even led to short changing different subject areas because our lesson will run over into another subject period and, not wanting to abandon our project it will take up that period as well.
In an online course, if I was to over-plan, it could cause extreme frustration in students who will most definitely struggle to complete the course. It could lead to students dropping from the course or receiving an incomplete grade.  Students may leave the course disillusioned about online education and reluctant to take another online course even when it is in their best interest to do so.
I think the best way to prepare myself for this would be to decide up front how much time per week I expect my students to devote to coursework. Then I need to set realistic expectations for the number of assignments that can be completed in that time. Because online courses utilize the internet, it would be wise for me to exaggerate the amount of time needed, even if just slightly. The reason is because as students are working online, attention can be drawn off topic as one explores all the resources available. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Allowing students more time to explore internet content may allow them the time needed to put a topic into a personal context that makes it more understandable. I will also need to closely monitor student’s completion rates and make adjustments when necessary.

However, all of my professional habits are not negative and in fact some are very relevant to the experience of online work. In the article "WhatMakes a Successful Online Facilitator" there are seven criteria of successful online instruction listed. The one that resonates the most with my teaching style is:
#5. The person should be able to subscribe to the value of introducing critical thinking into the learning process.
For me, the internet is a wonderful laboratory of learning tools that encompass every learning style. Information is constantly updated and it seems new web tools are being developed every day. Students can dig deeper into a subject than easier than they ever have before using libraries with magazine articles and books.
I find this to be terribly exciting. With a few clicks of a mouse, students can access information in textual, auditory or visual formats on just about every topic imaginable. Just about every learning style can be accomodated. 
Then with a few more clicks, students can experience wonderful real life applications of this knowledge in a way that can bring about more meaning and understanding than any lecture could ever. Students can launch new ideas in a public forum and get immediate and varied feedback from countless sources. In fact, students are free from limitations. 
How wonderful to be a student in the 21st Century!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

I can't believe it's been so long since my last post. That tells you what this school year has been like for me. We started with 41 students in my first grade class. Then we were assigned 3 additional teachers around Halloween so I went down to 18. That was heaven! But Christmas break brought the reduction of a second grade teacher and I went up to 25. That's ok, we were still cruisin' along. In January our teaching staff was reduced by two more teachers and my number went up to 35! I'm now sitting at 33.  Start, stop, start, stop....reorganize the desks, redo the schedule, learn new students' habits, reorganize materials, reteach routines.... It seems we have been in September mode the entire school year. Not to mention only two 45 minute prep periods per week, 1 - 2 hour meetings several days a week after school and the ever present testing,testing, testing. Don't even get me started on Core Curiculum State Standards. Imagine the stress level in my room. It is off the charts!
Sometimes you just have to yell:

This week we did just that. With our 4th grade friends in the next room, we went to the library, kicked up the jams and had a little fun. No connection to the Common Core. (Although if pressed, I could come up with some.) No pre or post test. No anecdotal records. Just pure FUN. 'Cuz sometimes, school should be just that: FUN! 

Judge for yourself.


on Youtube:  P3A Harlem Shake

Monday, August 27, 2012


This morning several thousand Detroit teachers are waking up wondering if they are employed or not. Today is the day all DPS teachers are to report to their schools. However, the district is downsizing after turning 15 schools over to the new state EAA district. This means a serious reduction in DPS staff.
 Late spring, teachers were given the opportunity to interview with their current principal and the principal from one other school to secure a position for this fall. That’s it, you get two tries. That is, if you were lucky enough for HR to actually schedule you an interview outside your school. I know many teachers for whom this never happened. That means if your principal didn’t want you, either because you were minimally effective or she wanted to bring in someone from the outside for your position, it’s your tough luck. Also, interviews were scheduled during a one month period of time. Teachers were notified of interviews through their board email with typically less than 24 hours notice. So if you are a teacher like me, who checks email before the morning bell and then again after school because you devote instructional time to instruction rather than email, again tough luck. You may not have seen the notice until after your scheduled time. Or perhaps you had an after school commitment that day, there was no opportunity to reschedule.
Principals were told this was their opportunity to clean house and get the people they wanted on their staff. Seniority is not a problem due to Michigan Teacher Tenure Reform which removed seniority from the equation. On paper this sounds like a great thing. Clean house – get rid of those ineffective teachers and keep only the best! Unfortunately, this is not how it seems to be working out. Many highly effective teachers are being looked over because their job categories were reduced or eliminated. Or perhaps, the principal that interviewed them was content with their current staff.
Here are just a few of the cases I know personally. The names have been changed to protect their identities as much as possible.
-          Teacher “A” is a National Board teacher certified in Adolescent Science. Last year she secured a position at a high school for technology with a principal who was very excited to have her on the staff. At the last minute the district pulled her from that school and placed her in another teaching English Language Arts. As you might expect from a teacher placed outside their area of expertise, her evaluation was not stellar. However, during the interview process, the original principal was able to select her as a science teacher for her high school. Yay!, right? No, because of the evaluation, she was told (verbally through the grapevine) that she is terminated.
-          Teacher “B” is an excellent Reading Recovery teacher. A former first grade teacher and early interventionist, the district has invested thousands of dollars in her training. In a district where a great majority of our students come to school unprepared for the rigors of reading instruction, you would think an early childhood educator who has intensive training in early intervention would be golden. However, most principals do not have the Title I funds in their budgets to keep Reading Recovery in their schools. So instead of placing this valuable teacher in a high needs first grade classroom somewhere in the district, her lay-off appears to be taking effect this morning.
-          Teacher “C” is a previous year Michigan Teacher of the Year, National Board Certified Teacher and National Board Candidate Support Provider. She has worked extensively to develop School Improvement Plans and has written for many School Improvement Grants. For the past several years, she has been an Instructional Specialist in the district. Although she has repeatedly been assured by her principal that she was indeed selected, the money was budgeted, and her performance is stellar, she has not received a recall notice and in fact has been locked out of her board email over the weekend. This teacher has devoted nearly her entire summer to re-writing the School Improvement Plan (pro bono) to meet the ever-changing demands of the district and state, and now faces unemployment.
These are not isolated cases. This is being repeated throughout the district in great numbers.
So, how are employees finding out if they’re laid off, terminated or rehired? This is the greatest injustice of all. If you did not receive a call back letter last week, you don’t know. So far there is no apparent method for notifying teachers of their status if they did not receive a recall letter. This is a facebook message circulated this past weekend providing some (unofficial) guidance.
                "For those Detroit Public School folks still waiting for a word, please go to Peoplesoft & check your employee status under payroll & compensation. Depending upon what that says, it may give you a clue if you have been rehired or terminated, Not a good way to find out information, but it's better than waiting day in and day out for an answer."
Find out for yourself. Yep. Self-serve at it’s best. And it may have worked except those without recall letters, and even some who have them, were locked out of their board email yesterday. Seriously.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

It's Official!

One by one today, via facebook , twitter and text messages, my friends are letting the world know they received their recall letter. For most, they had already been verbally assured by a principal they were being recalled and to which school. Still, the sense of relief you get reading these posts is overwhelming. Layoffs were to take effect tomorrow at 4:00. Yet, this is much more notice than many received the last few years where letters were typically received AFTER the date to return to work and school assignments took up to several weeks to receive. Unbelievable isn’t it?
And yet, professionals that they are, most Detroit Public School teachers had already been reporting to duty the past few weeks. Workshops were scheduled and attended without any substantial assurance that they would be assigned to these schools. Some brave souls even began carting their belongings and materials to set up rooms that could be revoked at the last possible minute. While the news has been focused on the antics of a dueling Emergency Manager and School Board, they haven’t taken notice that teachers are doing everything possible to help the children of Detroit get off to a good start despite the madness of politics gone wild.
Mr. Roberts, exercising your financial power today, you shut down Fredrick Douglas Academy forcing the elected school board to meet in the parking lot. Elected School Board members, you have been busy scheming the last few weeks to reverse every Emergency Manager decision made over the last couple years. Did you notice your teachers busily stepping over and around you to offer our community some stability? I thought not.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Missing the Point

It was Friday morning and there were not enough substitute teachers to cover all the classes. We had the great idea to put all the K - 3rd grade students in the auditorium and show Ruby Bridges for Black History Month. The subject is a little deep for the 5 - 8 crowd so at certain points I would stop the movie and explain what was going on and try to put it in kid friendly terms using their own experience. When we got to the part where Ruby was attending her new school for the first time, I stopped and asked the kids to try to imagine that this was what greeted them on their first day of school. How would they feel? Would they come back?

Later that morning I passed a former student with his vision specialist working in a small office. He is especially bright and has very sophisticated critical thinking skills for a second grader. So I explained that we had been watching the movie and asked him to tell her what he learned from it.

Very slowly, in his stuttering kind of voice he said "Well, I.. I learned. I learned..." We waited anxiously for his insight, certain it would be brilliant as he is. "I learned...never go to a school with all white kids." (ah, innocence)

We laughed, of course, and explained that he missed the point of the movie. But did he? Maybe it is we who are missing the point. Our school is 99% African American, 75.5% free and reduced lunch and not likely to change any time soon. We have no supplies, no ink for printers, no toner for copy machines, few workbooks, few textbooks. There are no noon hour aides to watch over the kids at lunch, no lunch recess; no vocal music, no art. We share a violin teacher with 5 schools and consider ourselves very fortunate. When she retires this year, she will not be replaced. There is no nurse. The ceiling leaks in many classrooms, including mine, only half of the lights in my class are working. The list could go on and on. The threat of closure looms over our every breath.

Now that I think of it, Brandon is very insightful indeed. He gets it so much more than we do. Not much has really changed, has it?