Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Last Words

Words are powerful. We’ve heard it before but it can never be said enough. Well thought out words can make you dream of possibilities you’ve never considered. They can make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world or they can convince you that you are worthless. Words are powerful, and yet at times we throw them around like rice at a wedding. They fall scattered among the listeners. We may not even be aware of where they’ve landed or in whose ears.

Words are powerful. That’s what our mothers were trying to tell us when they admonished “if you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all.” Words can bless, uplift, humor, provoke deep thoughts or gratitude. They can also inflict pain, humiliation, anger and fear. The same person can spend inordinate amounts of time agonizing over which words to use when writing. And yet when they talk, their words are careless, thoughtless, causing unexpected and unintended reactions.

The words we use in our classrooms, as in our home lives, are absorbed eagerly by those that look up to us. How are we using our words to show that each person has value; that although we are different and may see things from different perspectives we can speak and treat each other kindly?

Words are powerful. I’ve been listening to a lot of words this summer, words on the television news, kids programs, and radio shows. I’ve been reading lots and lots of words, particularly on the internet, in the blogs I read and posts on social media sights. I’m discouraged by the words I hear. The words are often hateful and insulting. Even in children’s programming the laugh tracks are heard after insults have been strewn. Only occasionally do I hear or read words that inspire me. And sadly, when I do, they are words that were spoken many years ago and just replayed over and over.

It seems to me that we have more opportunity to make our words heard than ever before in history. Yet, it's as though everyone is talking and no one is listening. Is it because in the rush to have our words heard we aren’t thinking about them anymore? There is a popular saying these days that if you just keep repeating something often enough and loud enough people will begin to accept it as the truth. Are we in a struggle to see who can establish their words as the truth? I wonder.

How are we using our words to create change rather than just noise? Words are meaningless unless they are followed by actions. Do our actions support the words we speak? Those children’s shows that insult and create characters subject to repeated pranks are often followed by public service messages that denounce bullying. Twenty minutes of programming versus a 60 second PSA. Politicians slinging insults at each other during primary elections hold hands and become running mates after election night, hoping we will forget the venom they spit just 24 short hours ago. What message are they sending about the importance or reliability of their words?

Words are powerful indeed. We now have the technology to capture every one of our written and spoken words. Words that can be pulled out from mothballs, manipulated and repeated out of context. And in doing so, someone can create an image of you that is not truthful. Yet, the people who know you will remember you best by your actions. What will your actions say about you?

I was prompted to think about the effect words have while watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother last night. The setting of the episode was the funeral service for Marshall’s father. Each family member would talk about the last words spoken to them. Most were loving, touching and inspiring. But poor Marshall was agonized by the fact that his father’s last words to him were a movie recommendation. In turn, he prompted each of his friends to recall the last words spoken by their own father if they turned out to indeed be the final words spoken.

Ten years before he passed away, my father suffered a massive stroke. As a result, he lost his ability to communicate with us beyond grunts and a few gestures and soon gave that up as well. I tried to recall my father’s last words to me before that fateful blood clot traveled to his brain. I just couldn’t. Instead, like Marshall, what I discovered is so cliche – that actions really do speak louder than words. The lessons our fathers (mine real, his fictional) set for us by example are what makes us who we are. Without speaking it, my father was able to demonstrate how to treat people kindly and with respect. He taught me about charity by helping others when they needed it. Even though he lacked an education himself, I knew how much he valued mine by what he gave up to see that I had one.

It would be rare for someone to know which words will be their last. Or to have the time to carefully craft something that lives on in the minds of our listeners. Words are powerful indeed, but it just may be that actions are more powerful still. And when the two can live up to each other, imagine the legacy that will be left behind.

Click the link to see the episode that inspired these words.
How I Met Your Mother: Last Words

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My "AHA" Moment at the Save Our Schools March

This past weekend I traveled to Washington, D.C. to take part in the Save Our Schools March and Rally. As I arrived at the Ellipse where the Rally was to be held a man with a video camera approached our small group. I was browsing the tables set up along the sidewalk and didn't really hear the beginning of the conversation or the man's introduction.

The next thing I knew the questioning was directed towards me with the statement that he should really talk to me because my bargaining unit the day before had been handed a wage cut. I should explain that my school district is under a governor appointed Emergency Manager who has the sole ability to void or alter our contract or any portion of it he desires. Although the wage cut is 10%, along with step freezes and certification "bonuses" the total of my lost wages will equal nearly 25% of my compensation.

Suddenly the camera was thrust towards me and everyone waited for me to speak. What would I say? I could talk about the Emergency Manager Law that allowed our collectively bargained contract to be thrown out the window. But that wasn't the reason I was in Washington. I could talk about how teacher tenure in our state was "reformed" earlier this summer to abolish last in, first out practices and how teacher evaluations will now be tied to student's standardized test scores. (See previous post.) That wasn't really it either. I could talk about the over-emphasis of standardized test scores and the effect it has on the educational opportunities of students as schools restrict curriculum to assure successful test scores or face closure.

It was then I had my "aha" moment. What I said went something like this:

I would love to talk to you about all the reasons I came to the March this weekend. I obviously have some very strong feelings about the direction education reform is currently taking across this country or I would not have come all this way on a beautiful summer weekend. However, my state - Michigan, has recently "reformed" teacher tenure laws. Because of the changes in this law I no longer feel I have the ability to exercise my right to free speech as I would in the past. After all I have no idea who you are, what your purpose is or where your video may appear in the future. Therefore, out of fear that my employer or future employers may at some time see this and object to what I say, I am not at liberty to discuss my personal opinions with you. My family relies on my continued employment.

This is what it has come to.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Not WHY, But For Whom I March...

On July 30th I will join thousands of teachers, parents and citizens concerned with the future of our public education system in Washington D.C. for the Save Our Schools March. Although I would rather be spending that sure to be beautiful July weekend relaxing at home, poolside with my family, I feel as though I MUST participate and take a stand.

What worries me most is the number of reform measures that claim to be the path to better schools. What I have not seen is convincing evidence that any of these measures is the answer. In the push for one-size-fits-all reform, what I have seen is millions of education dollars being diverted to private, for-profit ventures that claim to have the answer. No Child Left Behind demands that ALL students will achieve. Admirable yes, but it does not leave room for the devastating effects of poverty on our most vulnerable students. The U.S. Department of Education predicts that by these standards over 80% of our public schools will be labeled as failing this fall . Punitive policies that close schools or convert public schools to charters who do not play by the same rules only further ignore some of the roots of underachievement.

In my last post I began to tell you very simply the answer to Why I March. Today I begin with not why I March but instead about just a few of the many I March For. Since I am using the names of actual students I have taught either this year or in the past, I am only using their first initial to protect their privacy.

I March for K****** – who spent the last three weeks of her time in our class living in a drug rehab center with her mother before disappearing from our system.

I March for T****** – who, after being rescued from foster care by her aunt, was denied admission to the charter school where her cousins attended because it was after the state funding count day. (Public schools accept students even when there is no money attached to them.)

I March for C**** – a high achieving student from a stable home who becomes so stressed out during our quarterly benchmark tests that he puts his head down and cries.

I March for B****** – a visually impaired first grade student who is currently mainstreamed but faced with class sizes of over 30 next year will likely need a much more restrictive environment.

I March for Sh***** – a student with cognitive difficulties who cannot get the special education evaluation she needs because resources are stretched beyond their limits. She will need to repeat first grade – AGAIN due to a “no social promotion” policy.

I March for I**** – a boy with health issues that cause him to sleep through class every day even after getting a full night’s sleep, but not enough insurance to get proper medical care.

I March for A** - an emotionally impaired kindergartener who was pushed out of his charter school when the teachers couldn’t deal with his behavior problems.

I March for L**** - who lived with his mother and brother in their tiny pick-up truck all winter. His mother would bring his clothes to school to wash in our bathroom sink.

I March for Z**** - an Arabic speaking kindergartner with very little English who was required to take the same standardized test as her native English speaking classmates because her family had been in the country for two years.

I March for C******* - a student who comes to school hungry because their family has no refrigerator to keep food at home. She is often tired because they have no beds and she and her sister take turns sleeping on the couch at night.

I March for T** who recently dropped out of high school when his vocational classes were eliminated due to budget cuts.

I March for students who have a revolving door of substitute teachers every fall while they wait for a permanent teacher to be assigned to their classes.

I March for teachers who spend the first week of school sitting on the floor of the Human Resource Department waiting to receive their teaching assignment.

I March for former students who this fall will be attending their 3rd school in as many years due to repeated school closings.

I March for parents who have repeatedly experienced their neighborhood schools closing and never regain their feeling of community that characterize effective schools.

I March for communities that are in constant upheaval, never sure if the “gem” they’ve found, or in many cases helped create, will exist a year from now.

I March for the millions of children whose names I will never know that will not receive an education with a rich curriculum including art and music that I had as a child in public schools.

During the school year 2009 – 2010 nearly 49 million children attended public k-12 schools, 1.6 million in Michigan.

Do you know someone worth marching for?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why I March - Part 1

Everyone has a cause. Some have many. In case you haven't guessed mine is education. I believe in quality public education for ALL children - yours, mine and ones who I will never meet. Whether you choose to send your child to public or private school is your choice and I respect all your reasons for doing so. However, public education is one of the things that has made this country great. If we deny a quality education to others, for whatever economic or political reasons, we will hurt our own chances of a great future and a future for our children. Upset that the 7-11 clerk can't make the proper change? Imagine our future when most of the available workforce is uneducated?

I post many links to articles about education issues. I hope that you have read a few. I have spent most of my adult life apolitical but I feel I cannot remain quiet and passive. I am watching our education system go down the drain in the name of "reform". Many people are using their money power to influence policies that I believe will damage our system. Will it be permanent, I hope not. But for the children who are in school today, tomorrow and next year, there are no second chances to get it right.

You may not agree with my position. I respect that. But please don't let your disagreement be out of ignorance or complacency. Read and watch. Issues like high stakes testing, merit pay, and charter schools all sound good on the surface. What sane person can disagree with slogans like "No Child Left Behind", "Race to the Top", "Teach for America", "Students First"...etc? Seriously would you name your reform - "Slash State Budgets By Using Only New Teachers"? Read up and be informed. If you want to know more, and don't know where to look - ask. I will be happy to direct you to information on BOTH sides of the issues. But please don't be apathetic. Many bad things happen when people are not paying attention. Schools need improvement, this is true. Change takes time. Don't be fooled by reforms that promise miracles.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What You WOULD Have Seen...

Today our school was besieged with visitors - important people in suits, with reporters and camera crews. Among the visitors were the presidents of the American, Michigan and Detroit Federation of Teachers, DFT Vice-President, Detroit Public Schools new Emergency Manager, and an asst. superintendent. In all I counted at least 15 people, maybe more. This wasn't a surprise visit. On the contrary, we were told of the visit last week with plenty of time to prepare ourselves both physically and mentally. We were even given a schedule of which classes they would observe and when they would come. My 1st grade classroom was on the list, last stop.

I am not new to this profession and this was not the first time my school has been scheduled for a visit. I know there is a degree of uncertainty as to whether the visit will actually take place, if the plan will stay the same and who will actually show up. I know better than to place bets on what will happen come D-Day. So it was no surprise when an apologetic person appeared at my door at the scheduled time to announce that they were running behind schedule and would not make it to my class.

Things like this happen, it was no one's fault, schedules just get behind sometimes. While I was a little relieved, I will admit that what I mostly felt was disappointment. A lot of emotional energy had been invested in this visit, along with a considerable amount of time spent cleaning and de-cluttering. Elementary teachers are solitary creatures by profession - just us and our room full of darlings for 7 hours a day. Most of the time this suits me just fine. However, I get so excited about all the great things we do every day and how much my students are growing I look for opportunities to showcase our class. (see previous blog entry and my invitation to Arne Duncan) An opportunity like this coming at the end of the year, when routines and expectations are established, projects are in full swing and students are filled with pride over their accomplishments was just to good to be true. Alas.

So, as a small consolation, I will tell you just what you would have seen, if you had come to my class this afternoon. To do that I'll start with what you wouldn't have seen. You wouldn't have seen me teaching to a large group, or even to a group of more than 2 or 3 at all. That is mostly done in the morning. Mid-afternoon is the time when we work independently on individual projects, catch up on missing work, get some individual instruction or work in small groups, practicing skills.

At the time of our scheduled visit you would have seen a group of four students at a listening center practicing fluency skills. Today, they were struggling readers who benefit by hearing the week's reading selection read and following along in their book. You would have seen one student sitting off to the side of the room with headphones on practicing this week's spelling words by listening to them with a Califone Card Reader. The card reader allows me to record blank cards with the spelling words. Students then run the cards through the reader, see the word and hear it spelled. They can then run it through on their own and record their own spelling and compare it to the correct spelling.

You would have seen various students around the room sitting with Neo2 keyboards and one at a computer typing the words they wrote to the wordless Tomie dePaola picture book "Pancakes for Breakfast". You may even have seen one student with a red pencil and the printed version of his story, checking for spelling errors, punctuation and making other corrections. And you would have seen one or more of these same students illustrating their story for publishing. Hopefully you noticed some of the already published stories hanging outside our room in the hallway.

If you had looked on the carpet, you would have seen me with a group or 3 or 4 students going over the procedures and rehearsing for our end of the year reflective interviews. Each student was given a list of 6 questions about their year in first grade to ponder and make notes about. The questions are designed to look back at their year and reflect on what they have learned, what they have enjoyed most, the friends they have made and what they would like to do next if we had more time.

After completing the questionaire in groups of three, the students will videotape a "interview" around these themes. One will be the interviewer, one will be interviewed and the third will videotape using a Flip camera. Then they will switch roles. These videotaped interviews will become part of a digital portfolio that each student will take home next week. On the dvd will be scans of their best/favorite journal stories, class videos from our Christmas performance, field trips and reader's theatre, individual videos made for class projects like the interview and television weather reports students wrote, and a slide show of all the photos I took this year.

For the 15 minutes or so that you were in our room what you saw may not have always appeared orderly. It may not have always been quiet. And more than one time you would have seen me running from student to student to give guidance on this or that. You may have even seen a student off task for a minute or so before they caught my attention. But for the most part you would have seen a group of students engaged in challenging and hopefully fun activities designed to encourage critical thinking and problem solving skills.

This is the important thing I would like everyone to take away from the picture of my class this afternoon. I have an unuasually small class this year. In fact, until this week I was afraid to publicize that I have averaged around 15 students since November, lest someone decide to close a class and combine the two first grades at our school. I have been teaching for 22 years and this is the first time I have been blessed like this.

Truthfully, it is the children who have been blessed. In the past my classes have been anywhere from 27 to 37 students. I would never have attempted something like a digital portfolio with that many students. There would never have been enough classroom technology for every student to complete projects. Perhaps more importantly I would never have had enough time or energy to devote to each student, indiviualizing to the degree that I have been able to this year. So excuse me while I step up on my soapbox for a moment. When you start hearing talk about class size and so-called school reformers are talking about how class size doesn't matter, please think about my small class where students have options and materials and attention. And then tell them class size matters, it matters very much.

Special thanks to David Hecker, Mark O'Keefe and Jack Elsey for stopping in for a few minutes to see some of our class videos, because as you know, when you tell children something is going to happen, it's important that it does.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pardon the Interruption...This is a TEST

Last night I couldn't sleep. I kept going over the calendar I had been working on all evening. You know the one? - an overview of what I am going to teach in May. A plan for the prescribed curriculum, art projects, field trips, spring celebrations, and yes...testing. This is what has me lying awake at night. There just isn't time for everything and since the testing can't go...what to give up?

Let me explain our May test schedule. Oh, and before I do, did I mention I teach FIRST GRADE?

This coming week I must complete all our end of year benchmark assessments for DIBELS, TRC and BURST. These are all done one on one. So, let's see, DIBELS - a series of 3 one minute oral reading fluency tests, and a nonsense word assessment - total time with instructions, transitions and all, about 10 minutes per student. TRC - this one is tricky, because the better a student reads, the longer it can take. It starts with reading one book, and perhaps book after book, until you determine the student's instructional level (90 - 95% accuracy + comprehension). This test is untimed so the slower a student reads or the higher the reading level, the more time it takes. The last benchmark test I gave took anywhere from 5 minutes per student to 40 minutes PLUS transition time. Finally BURST - measures vocabulary, decoding and comprehension- about 10 minutes per student. My modest estimate is a minimum of 20 - 30 minutes per student.

This testing is done during class, so while I am spending 10 hours plus assessing my students one by one, guess what I am NOT doing. That's right, teaching! And the rest of the class has to be monitored and kept engaged in an activity while I test. This year my class is relatively small, but I keep thinking about the fall when we have been promised class sizes of 37 for first grade. How in the world can this be accomplished?

As soon as we finish these end of year assessments, we move right on to Quarter 4 assessments for reading and math. These assessments are fill in the bubble tests the entire class takes at the same time, so they are not as time consuming. While the math test is fairly appropriate and measures what we have been learning during the year, administering the reading test is one of the most painful things I have had to endure in my 22 years of teaching.

What is the purpose of all these tests you might wonder? I mean, why so many? In a perfect world, tests should be used to inform instruction. That is, let the teacher know what skills students have mastered and where more instruction is needed. Assessment should be for determining "next steps". I did say perfect world, didn't I? I'm not naive enough to think the world is perfect so let's move on to the next purpose, the one that is all the buzz in education news and politics. That purpose is accountability. That's right, make sure teachers are doing their jobs and that students are doing theirs. Let me set the record straight; I have no problem with accountability. In fact, I have often asked to be observed and critiqued so that I can improve. I welcome anyone to come sit in my class, observe me teach, or speak to my students. Are you listening Mr. Duncan? You are welcome in Room 3 ANY time, no notice necessary.

There are yet other purposes floating around lately. The first is to connect student performance on these assessments to teacher evaluations. And finally, a proposal by our new governor would link school funding to student performance. On the surface it's hard to argue with either of these. After all, if teachers are teaching, then students are learning, right? I wish it were this simple. That takes me back to the dreadfully painful quarterly reading assessment.

For the first ten weeks in the fall I work endlessly to encourage my students to read, to convince them they are readers even if they can't write their name and there are plenty of those. Kindergarten is not mandatory in Michigan and many first graders are entering school for the first time. Even those who were in kindergarten may be considerably behind grade level. Because I believe that attitude matters, that's where I start. By the end of the first marking period, everyone believes he is a reader. Yay! Then I pass out the test.

First grade does not take the Q1 assessment, we start at Q2. This is supposed to give us a baseline for each student so we can mark progress throughout the year. The problem is, this assessment is 4 stories, comprised of several unspaced paragraphs taking up to two full pages of space each. Then come the accompanying questions - some multiple choice, some constructed response questions with two and three step directions. Students must read stories, questions and answers all on their own. And write their own responses, no help given. The readability level is end of first grade/beginning of second. Again, on the surface this sounds reasonable.

Let's remember the stated purpose of this test is to measure student growth. In order to show growth, you must use an instrument that shows where the student begins. Remember those first graders who are just learning to write their name when they begin the year? What does this measure for them? All it tells me is that they can't read at end of year standards yet. Thanks, I already knew that. What it doesn't tell me is which letters or letter sounds they can already identify, phonemic awareness (rhyming, alliteration) concepts of print, sight word recognition, vocabulary...the list goes on.

Then comes Q3 and what do I learn? What? That child who couldn't write his name in September still can't read? But, how many letters does he know now, which sounds can he identify...you get the point. According to Q3, there has been NO growth. Same for Q4 - still can't read those four stories, questions and answer choices? Is it correct to say this child has shown no growth? Absolutely not. In fact, some students could show up to a year and a half's worth of growth and it would not be measured on this assessment. So I have failed as a teacher, he has failed as a student and the school should be penalized. Right?

Let me introduce you to Bob. Bob could read at grade level when we assessed with Q2. In fact, using the measures in our core reading program, he was slightly above average. Bob knew he could read. His teacher had convinced him he could read. His parents had told him how proud they were of his reading ability. Robert was an able, confident reader and had a positive attitude towards reading. He opened that test booklet and began to read. Alas, it was written to end of year standards. He tried and he tried, but in the end, he put his head down and cried inconsolably for the next hour. After lots of soft words, gentle hugs and assurances that the test wasn't important, not to worry, I wiped his tears and sent the class to lunch. Then I closed my door, put my head on my desk and cried along with him.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Geranium on the Windowsill...

Lately I have been haunted by the words of a poem I barely remember from my early college days as an elementary education student. "The geranium on the windowsill just died and teacher you went right on..." At the time I don't really think I fully understood what those words meant. But today they keep coming back to me, a refrain that whispers to my soul without warning. I don't recall the rest of the poem and in fact, until this morning, wrongly attributed it to the Shel Silverstein book Where the Sidewalk Ends.

The words come from a collection of poems by the same title published in 1971 by teacher/author Albert Cullum. It was reprinted in 2000 and is currently out of print. While unsuccessfully searching for the words to that particular poem, I learned this about Mr. Cullum: He was an elementary teacher in the 40s, 50s and 60s who objected to teaching through the popular Dick and Jane series. Instead he used Shakespeare and other great literature to motivate his students. Mr. Cullum believed that play and learning could be combined in the classroom. His effectiveness at mastering this is evident in the documentary produced about him in 2004, A Touch of Greatness. While watching you can't help but wistfully wonder what the world would be like if we all had a Mr. Cullum in our educational past.

As an undergrad at Michigan State in the early 80s and a graduate student in Early Childhood education at Wayne State in the mid 90s, I studied developmental psychology like everyone else. I memorized Piaget and Vygotsky's stages of cognitive development, Erikson and psychosocial development, behavioral psychology by Pavlov and B.F. Skinner. I also studied systems for educating the young child ala Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner (Waldorff schools) versus traditional public school. As a teacher I chose what I felt was best from each and concentrated my instruction on what worked for the particlar group of children I faced.

Nothing taught me more about early childhood education than submitting to the National Board process in 2002. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) has established a set of teaching standards that one must exemplify in order to hold the status of National Board Certified Teacher. Through a series of portfolio submissions that included not only student samples and collected documents but also videotaped lessons, I had to describe, analyze and reflect on my teaching practice in comparison to those standards. I am proud to say that my entries achieved me the designation of "accomplished teacher" and I wear my National Board status with pride. It has also inspired me to encourage others in the teaching profession to go through the process and learn what they can about their own practice.

Here I sit, eight years later, faced with the task of renewing my certification. It should be a simple task, at least no more difficult than the original. And yet it is so much more difficult in so many ways. Eight years ago I was able to use the curriculum handed to me by my district, teach it the way any good teacher does - twisting here, padding there, and stretching it a little in this or that direction. Collect the evidence; reflect on what happened, why it happened and how I would make any changes in the future and viola! Don't get me wrong, this was a very agonizing accomplishment. I spent immeasurable hours looking at my lessons from every angle imaginable, researching best practices and scrutinizing every word I wrote. Then there were decisions to make - which pieces of evidence best reflected the learning outcomes of the lessons and demonstrated my knowledge of the standards, which videotape segment showed the true essence of what my class is about. Be sure to get as much in those 15 minutes as possible. But the elements were already there for me. All I had to do was the work.

Fast forward eight years. Our curriculum has changed. We are using scripted programs for nearly every subject. Pacing charts tell us when and what to teach on any given day so that classrooms across the district are doing the same thing at approximately the same time, at least in theory. We must find time to give K - 6 students individual reading screenings 3 times a year for benchmarks and at least once every one or two weeks in between for progress monitoring. Quarterly benchmarks in reading and math (yes, the dreaded fill-in-the-bubble) for grades
1 - 12 as well as MEAP for grades 3 - 11 round off the onslaught of district-wide testing.

But it doesn't stop there. Our district has also bought into different computer based assessment programs, 2 for reading and one for math at the elementary level. We are constantly being reminded that the "powers" downtown are monitoring our use of the computer programs to determine how often we are assigning tutorials and assessments and what pass rate our students are achieving. This is in the interest of promoting increased student achievement. While true, there is also the unstated realization that the results will be used to evaluate teacher effectiveness. Conspicuously absent from all the data collection are uncontrollable factors such as student attendance, homelessness, poverty and language deficits.

The geranium has not only wilted but the leaves are crisp and falling to the counter below. There is no time to stop, examine the plant, make shared decisions about how to save this plant or decide whether to plant new seedlings to nurture.

Here I sit reflecting on my teaching practice as it is today, comparing it to those noble standards accomplished teachers must live up to. I feel like a fraud. Strip the letters NBCT from behind my name. I know the standards like the back of my hand. I believe in those standards; I want nothing less for my students. And yet, I sit and ponder "creating" evidence as opposed to "collecting." I contemplate introducing lessons for the sake of videotapes and documentation rather than using what comes from the natural events of our classroom. I am frenzied by the attempt to be two teachers rolled into one: the one who knows her students and does what's best for them, and the one who fulfills all the district mandates. Unfortunately there aren't enough hours in our already extended school day. So I do a little bit here, a little bit there. Make sure the assessments are current. Skip a lesson or unit if needed. Keep extensive records of those uncontrollable factors so when it comes time to defend myself I have the exalted DATA.

Yes, Mr. Cullum, the geranium on my windowsill has died, but there is no time to stop. I am already three weeks behind my pacing schedule. And the walls have eyes.

Friday, April 8, 2011

I Need a Hero!

We're not "Waiting for Superman", we just need UNDERDOG!

There's no need to fear! Underdog is here!
when budget cuts and laws appear
destroy the schools, bring kids to tears
and frighten all who see or hear
the cry goes up both far and near
for Underdog! Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!

speed of lightning, roar of thunder
fighting all who rob or plunder
Underdog. Underdog!

when in this world the headlines read
of those whose hearts are filled with greed
who rob and steal from those who need
to right this wrong with blinding speed
goes Underdog! Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!

speed of lightning, roar of thunder
fighting all who rob or plunder
Underdog. Underdog!


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It Happened to Me and It Can Happen to You

It seemed like a rather benign task: Write a blog entry on “Why Teachers Like Us Support Unions”. After all, I could write about the historical perspective on how unions fought for and established fair working conditions for all Americans such as the 5 day/40 hour work week, workman’s compensation and unemployment insurance. I could write about how teachers’ unions in particular have fought for improved conditions in schools for BOTH teacher and student such as smaller class sizes, availability of books and supplies, cleanliness and security.

But as I sat writing I realized the one, most important thing my union has done for me, I can’t write about it. Oh, I’m able to write about it. I just can’t, at least not in detail. Let me explain.

Right now there is a great deal of talk going on in our nation about bullying. Playground and cyber bullying get the most attention. But the one I want to talk about is workplace bullying. I want to tell you my story, of how grateful I was to have a union, with all its protections, standing behind me.

One September, just as school was starting, I received a phone call offering me the job I had been hoping for all summer. “One thing I should tell you,” the voice on the other end said,”some people think the principal can be difficult to work with.” I like to think I have a natural ability to get along with most everyone, even difficult people. The secret is to work hard, listen well and look at things from other perspectives. And I have worked for difficult people before, so I jumped right in.

Three definitions of bullying:
---To force one's way aggressively or by intimidation (thefreedictionary.com)
--- the act of intimidating a weaker person to make them do something
--- repeated oppression, psychological or physical, of a less powerful person by a more powerful

My first year I witnessed bullying like I never knew existed. I was brought in to witness many sessions between this administrator and other teachers making me look and feel complicit. I worked long and hard to establish a relationship with the abused hoping to restore a sense of worth and normalcy to their work life and credibility to my own. I hope I was successful. Many could not stand up to this type of pressure at work. About one third transferred after the first year, not just teachers but EVERY category of employee. One poor soul retired mid-year as this torment added to an existing medical condition making her life hell. I survived – and stayed.

I survived by walking that fine line between people; listening- but not speaking. I did my job the best I could, provided comfort and support when necessary but mostly tried to fly below the radar. I knew that the union was working to have this situation resolved. Secretly I prayed they would hurry. I wasn’t sure how long I could hold out. Year two - rumors are flying. The union has been working with central administration to find a solution. People are hopeful. One third of the staff is new. Smiles are painted on faces and I wonder how we are supposed to educate our students with the air so fragile we could all break into a million pieces with one sneeze. And then it happens to me.

I wish I could tell you what happened to me. I want you to know that I would never wish it on anyone - understand I mean anyone. The teacher in me is screaming: SUPPORTING DETAILS!! I could give you details, lots of them. After consulting an attorney, I started recording our conversations and making transcripts. I became the queen of documentation.

But you see, back then, I had my union to stand behind me shielding me from the capricious whims of a bullying administrator. And that administrator is still around. Only now, I may not have the protection of my union for much longer. So I must protect myself with my silence. And pray that my silence does not bring harm to someone else.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Business as Usual?

The Michigan Senate just passed the Emergency Financial Manager bill today. Your city, town or school district can be declared as having a "financial emergency" (think $715 per student budget cuts coming up) by our governor or a company he appoints. This manager will have supreme power to void all private contracts and collective bargaining agreements AND the power to dismiss elected representatives! BUT here's the rub - the EMF doesn't' have to be a PERSON - they have deemed it okay to be a CORPORATION. So, governor (or corporate appointee) declares your city/schools to be in an emergency...appoints a corporation to take over...dismisses your elected representatives...do you see something WRONG with this?

Now, if you have children you should be worried. What this means is that in an effort to slash budgets and without the constraints of collective bargaining agreements, the most experience teacher and school leader may be the first to go. Why? Well, of course, it only makes sense that you can get two first year teachers for every teacher you release that has 15 or more years experience. It's Walmart shopping for you child's education. This is not to put down first year teachers. But without that experienced teacher in the room next door, um...will little Johnny really learn the skills to be competitive in college?, or will we be fumbling for the light switch in the dark?

Think I'm crazy? I hope you're right. Because I still have a child to get through 6 more years of public education and I'll be happy to eat crow if it means quality for him. For those of you who feel righteous triumph, erroneously thinking this will only affect Detroit and the likes - don't kid yourself. Most school districts and soon cities will be on the brink of financial collapse if the new budget proposed by Rick Snyder is passed.

Hmmmm, I wonder if they thought to put a provision in the bill that prohibits any corporation named as an emergency financial manager - AND their subsidiaries - from doing business with the public entity? Well, they can't think of everything, now can they?