19 April 2008

Return of the Carpet Wetter

This was a long week at work. I'm organizing a three day retreat to DC for 40 women from my boss' District which involves a variety of irritating arrangements including but not limited to: a luncheon, a dinner, a reception, tourist materials, a "goody bag," hearing/press information, bus transportation, a planned shopping trip, a hotel, and 75 Member letter invites to some of the aforementioned events. I do not know how this became my responsibility, but it has, and I am begrudgingly taking care of it. I need a raise.

In the midst of preparing the lengthy list of Member letters for the luncheon, I notice on my boss' schedule that a group of 40 seventh graders from the District are visiting and that I am staffing the visit, which entails a lunch and a photo opp and maybe a small tour of the office. Normally I revel in the opportunity to work with kids but I was not in the mood.

I wait outside the hearing room where the kids are supposed to eat, knowing full-well that my boss may only be able to stop by for 5 minutes so he can go vote and go to a mark-up, and that I will be the sole entertainer of the kiddies. I can hear them from around the corner. Lots of "shushing." They are all tucked in to their sweater vests and pleated skirt polyester uniforms and I introduce myself and create some guidelines for them to arrange the chairs in the hearing room into cafeteria-style-dining and get their boxed lunches from the table.

And I'm looking at the kids thinking "I could swear I recognize some of you..." and then laughing at myself because of COURSE I don't recognize them. But then wait, they are in seventh grade from my old town, and how many years ago was it that I taught the third grade...?

I ask one of the boys who is helping move the chairs: "Is your name... Rashan?"

He stops dead in his tracks. "MISS _______?"

I start laughing."How many of your kids are from P.S.___?" I ask the principal. Four of them raise their hands.

Turns out 2 of them are my old students from my first year of teaching and two of them had my best-teacher-friend in the fourth grade! They were utterly fascinated as to how I ended up going from teaching to working on the Hill. I emailed my friend from my work-Blackberry to let her know that sitting next to me eating a boxed turkey sandwich lunch in the Hearing room in my office building was Juan, the boy who stood up and peed on her reading rug in protest when she wouldn't let him use the bathroom one day for the fourth time. Fortunately Juan is potty-trained now and rather mature compared to his former days. He must have been held over once since he was now in the same grade as some of my old kiddies. It made my day.

The boss came in and did a little intro and Q&A with the kids. Slightly more sophisticated questions than the kindergarten kids. They talked about violence in the community, how to talk to your leaders about improving safety, and when they could vote for him in an election. Then he left to go vote.

I took the students in groups of 10 to the boss' office to look at his photos and awards and trophies and sit in his chair, etc. They asked about my job and the difference between the House and Senate and if they could see my boss on-screen since they have a TV of the House floor in his office and were voting at that time. I showed them how they record the votes on-screen and explained how they were voting to pass an education bill on improving access to student loans. We talked about the tunnels that connect the buildings and how there is a special subway that connects the House and Senate buildings to the Capitol.

By the time I had helped them clean up and escorted them to the exit so they could head over to the Air & Space Museum I had completely moved on from my grumpy-work-mood and was feeling like I have the most fantastic job. I guess I didn't have to wait a whole year to have something to post about after all.

14 April 2008

When Do I Get to See the Ninjas?

It's been almost exactly a year since I've last written, and a couple of really random people have asked me why I never write anymore so I thought I'd give it a shot.

I'm in a totally different universe from the last time I posted... I've been living in D.C. since January after finishing up my Education Policy MA and now I'm a Legislative Aide working on Education, Labor, Housing and Environmental issues (Lord knows how they decided I was qualified for the latter end of that portfolio, but I'm learning fast).

This could not possibly be more different than teaching (duh) -- and it definitely is not as rewarding -- but it is possible that I might actually "like my job." You know, in an everyday kind of way where you wake up in the morning and don't have that pit-of-your-stomach dread. It is bizarre. This is not to say that I didn't like teaching, or that my new job doesn't come with its own set of crap (still working far too many hours for far too little pay), but there is something to be said for not getting spit on, cursed at, or having a chair thrown at you during a typical work day.

While I don't spend my days in schools anymore, but I did however have the opportunity to visit a seriously impressive charter school with my boss in his District last week. The facilities were damn near sparkly, the teachers (2 per classroom) were seriously on-point, and during Community Circle, a class of third graders put on a poetry performance and a short play that were excellent. My boss spoke to a kindergarten class on what it's like to be an elected official and the kids asked precious things like:

"What kind of clothes do you wear to work?"
and
"Have you ever met Martin Luther King?"
and
"Who is your favorite wrestler?"

That last one cracked him up and then some kids started calling out their favorite wrestlers and the other kids would go "Ohhhhhhhhh!" when they heard one of their favorites. All very cute and I really forgot how tiny 5-year-olds are. This group was particularly impressive, sitting still on the carpet for almost 45 minutes -- I don't know how they did it.

One of the things that sort of lingers in the back of my head at my new job, where instead of working with kids, I meet with people who work with kids and get jealous of the cool things they are doing, is wondering at what level people can really be effective in improving schools. Teaching is the obvious answer and I guess I've realized that even though I wasn't half-bad at it, I just am not cut out for a lifetime in the classroom. Being a principal is something I could see doing when I stop getting carded at bars (I don't care how many people tell me I'm "old enough" -- I just can't imagine parents taking me seriously until I have some gray hair or don't wear Chuck Taylors on the weekends).

When I meet with non-profits from my boss' District, or children's advocacy organizations or people from the City or State D.O.E., they say that it's great having someone working in Education Policy that has experience on the ground in schools and how that provides invaluable insight, yada yada yada. And I don't argue that, but what is policy at the Federal level really "doing?"

Other than the disaster that is No Child Left Behind and the annual appropriations funding show-down that I worked on in March, the things that happen at this level of government feel very removed and abstract to me -- numbers and dollars and formulas and legalese.

I hate to end abruptly, but How I Met Your Mother is about to start, and I'm not sure how much I can write on here without somehow getting in trouble at work and/or fired. I may need to come up with something else to ruminate on... perhaps by April of 2009.

17 April 2007

Did you know...?

That dating back to 3500 B.C. there are paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs with men wearing "astralagi," which are ankle bones of various animals that were used as dice for gambling? And that "loaded" astralagi have been found as well, implying that they tried to cheat each other out of winnings, even back then. Gamblers who were caught being dishonest were then forced to work on the pyramids to repay their debt.

This ranks in the top 5 of the most interesting or enjoyable occurrences and discoveries of the last few days, including (in no particular order):

1) Upon paying the overpriced rate of $1.00 in an NYU vending machine for a 3-pack of Peppermint Patties, the very same vending machine that has eaten my money numerous times this semester when I go for much-needed-snack-break during Stats, the machine gave me two packs instead of one! I gave the extra one to a kid in my Stats class and now I think I have good vending machine karma coming to me. Watch out, SunChips!

2) There is a homeless man in the W4th Street subway station who stands at the fifth column by the downtown local E/C track. He has an assortment of hefty bags and duffel bags, a tall wooden walking stick, wears a red bandana, and talks on the payphone. I was actually under the impression that he was really talking on the payphone for quite a while, until I realized he has been there almost every day for the last 2 or 3 weeks and that if he had enough quarters to talk for such a long time he probably wouldn't be on the subway platform for days and nights on end... This made me sad, because he's actually talking the whole time, nodding his head and smiling, and I wonder if he really is trying to get in touch with someone.

3) I took a fantastically wet walk home in the Noreaster on Sunday morning. I had my headphones on, and an umbrella that kept inverting, so I decided just to close the umbrella up and get wet. There wasn't really anyone on the sidewalks and my slip-on shoes were filled with water, so I hopped around in puddles singing along loudly to Maximo Park on my headphones until I ran into someone I knew from high school on 5th avenue and felt a little sheepish since he totally caught me singing and skipping around like a 7 year old. It seems that you run into people an awful lot considering how big the city is. By the time I got home I was soaked through all four layers of my clothing, and my shoes are still not dry as of this morning.

4) I learned that there is a place near school that has delicious Thai food in huge portions for not that much money, and that it has been about 2 blocks from the department office where I work, all year long, unbeknownst to me. I will now eat Basil Udon approximately 2-3 times per week, until 2057 when I finally finish this endless doctoral program. By then, the very skinny women who waitress there will surely not only know me on a first name basis, but also offer me a discount on the lunch special, considering my longstanding loyalty and the inevitable noodle-cost-inflation that will occur in the upcoming fifty years. I will also be 78 by then so I might need to ask them to deliver instead.

5) Aforementioned gambling trivia-facts from a book I'm (supposed to be) reading right now (instead of writing in my blog) about the politics of gambling for my policy class.

11 April 2007

12:54 am

I had a 2nd interview today for a summer job I REALLY want, working with high school kids on leadership & public policy issues at a summer camp program in the Bronx. I'm trying to figure out a way I can write about it without getting into issues of privacy, especially since high school kids are far more Internet savvy than my sixth graders were... The 2nd interview required that I do a demo-lesson for a small group of "alums" from the previous summer's program. I came up with an activity on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which was only allowed to be 20 minutes long, and was to be followed by the students interviewing me for 20 minutes, and finally, 10 minutes where I could interview them.

It only ended up being four girls for the lesson plan, which made it possible for me to cram my somewhat extensive activity into a measly 20 minutes and actually have all members of the group participate. I was VERY impressed by these girls [is it mostly girls in this program, I wonder?]. They come from a number of small high schools in the Bronx, part of the "small schools movement" that I have become rather disenchanted with after my experience last year in a "small school" with a social justice oriented mission statement with a rather disappointing end-result. But these young ladies made quite an impression on me. I designed a role-play activity where they were each assigned the role of someone with a different socioeconomic background, career, marriage-status, and quality of health insurance (a doctor, a banker, a teacher, a single unemployed mother, etc.) I was "the doctor," and they all needed a "life or death" operation, which would be costly enough that even those of them who had insurance would have to pay some money out-of-pocket. I asked them if they thought the doctor should be charging the same amount of money to each of these patients, despite their different levels of resources, and we linked our discussion on the fairness of charging the same or different amounts of money for surgery to the idea of "equity."

At this point, I realized only about 5 minutes had passed, and that I was going to really have to get into the whole Campaign for Fiscal Equity history & their recent progress with Gov. Spitzy. I hadn't really imagined I'd have enough time for this, so in my head, I had only half-considered what I would say. Fortunately, I'm reading about the CFE in 2 of my classes right now, so I put together a quick overview of the background of CFE on the fly--the basic arguments for equally distributing money across school districts vs. letting the wealthier districts continue to have better funding because they have more tax revenue, and how this related to our discussion about the "life or death" surgery. To my relief, they totally got it. I realized that they had probably already learned about CFE last summer, since they were prepared with such intelligent remarks as:

"That is a difficult issue to think about--if I was a rich parent, I would probably be pretty upset if my tax money was going to help a kid that wasn't even mine, but at the same time, maybe I would have some perspective and realize that kid might need the money more than my kid does."

or

"I wonder whether giving the school more money would help, because sometimes schools don't spend their money well. They buy all these books but don't fix the leaky holes in the ceiling."

or [my personal favorite]:

"Maybe instead of taking the money from the rich people, we could use some of the government's money that is spent on bombs and the war on something more useful and important, like educating our youth."

At that point I just wanted to get up and hug them all and say PLEASE HIRE ME. My other options for summer employment include teaching summer school (Lord, save me if I decide to do that), or sitting on my butt in a coffee shop all summer grading papers online for a pittance of a paycheck.

When they interviewed me, the girls were so professional and earnest, it was great. They were taking notes on a graphic organizer as I responded, and politely took turns asking me things about my teaching experience, my leadership skills, what I would do if I caught a high school student on MySpace instead of doing her work one day, and how I would break up a fight if one happened. Then I got to ask them about their experiences and when pressed for their "most and least favorite" experiences with the program, they kept referencing how much the program had taught them about their potential and saying things like: "now that I've been here all year, I understand the importance of understanding multiple points of view, supporting my beliefs with facts and reasoning, speaking my mind, and making sure my voice is heard." It was like watching an infomercial for a self-help & personal liberation workshop (you know, since I've seen so many of those).

I have to wait a few more weeks to hear back about this job, but I'm hoping for the best... I miss working with kids, and it would be refreshing to write about kids doing & saying great things instead of kids strangling each other and throwing books out the window.

09 February 2007

Pee-pee, Dinosaurs, Pregnancy, & Loehmann's.

Yesterday was MFT's birthday, and we all went to celebrate at a restaurant with delicious Latino food in midtown. My old principal [yes, that's right, he's cool enough to invite to a birthday dinner...] and some of my old colleagues were there, which was great because I haven't made it up to visit yet in February, and it's looking like I wont have time to until March. After everyone had a drink or two in them, we started to talk about the kids, which was a combination of shocking [if that's possible anymore], charming [rare], and totally depressing [but not at all surprising].

Apparently, this week, one of the new sixth graders [they are all "new" to me, since I don't really know them], asked to go to the bathroom, and the teacher said no. So he decided to pee in his Poland Spring water bottle. And then, he thought "why not see if my friend William will take a swig of my urine?" And William unknowingly took a giant gulp of pee. How this all happened with out the teacher noticing, well, that's another issue altogether. But I guess when they both ended up in the principal's office, the kid who DRANK the pee was pleading with the principal not to get the other kid in too much trouble because it really wasn't too big a deal. "It didn't even taste so bad," he insisted. William wanted the other boy to "just go to detention for a few days" whereas my principal was saying things like "you know you could go to JAIL for this!" [appropriateness of this comment is debatable... I'm just tellin' it like he told us at dinner]. And the kid who did it is actually normally a "good kid" and couldn't stop laughing about how funny he thought it was. The thing that really gets me is that this kid actually took his you-know-what OUT of his PANTS in CLASS and then peed in a water bottle! How does this kinda thing happen when a teacher is in the room?

In other news, T-Rex is apparently out of control. I mentioned in January that when I last saw him he was listening to some song called "Hot F*ck" or something like that, and being all aloof and too-cool-to-talk-to-me, which was sad. He got in some giant fight a little while ago and my principal keeps telling him he's going to have to call ME to talk about it, and then he's like "Oh naaaaw, G, don't call her she'll get all disappointed and sh*t" which is pretty hilarious considering he pretends that I am no longer of any importance to him. I like the idea of having power from beyond.

But the biggest and most depressing news is about Mel. [You may remember Mel from this time last year, or if you don't, here's one refresher [scroll down to the last post waaaay at the bottom of the page], and here's another--incidentally, rereading these old postings was a tremendous reminder as to why I am no longer teaching]. Melanie holds the all-too-prestigious title of being the only student in my three year teaching career that I was not able to win over, despite endless attempts.

Apparently Melanie is back in NYC. She is not at my old school, but still in the neighborhood. And she is pregnant. Very pregnant. Mel's 14 by now, maybe 15, [and still in the sixth grade], and just as she told us last year, "If I get sent to Jamaica, Ima just end up pregnant like my sister." She wasn't lying. I guess her mother, who is very sick, lives in Jamaica. And her father, who is a lunatic alcoholic, lives up here. He was the one who said it was "her fault" last year when we found out she had had sex with something like 8 of the boys in the 8th grade, and then said that she was forced into it, but no one [including her father] would believe her, which is awful. Of course, she wouldn't talk to me about this, because she thought I was, I think the term she used was "beasted." I have resisted the temptation to inquire as to the meaning of the term.

This was, I believe, the catalyst for sending her to Jamaica in the first place. I guess one of the 8th grade boy's girlfriend had found out and was threatening to "knife" Mel, and so every day in class, I had to lock the door from the inside to make sure no crazy 8th grade girls came inside to hurt her. Keeping Mel inside my classroom was always a challenge, and sometimes I kind of just wished she would leave and stop torturing me, so locking her in was not pleasant [you know, in addition to the fear that some knife-wielding 8th grade girl who was 3 feet taller than me wasn't going to burst in at any moment].

So Melanie's having a baby. The notion of her being responsible for a child is completely horrifying, and when I started to think about it last night at dinner, my old co-teacher and I were having a hard time not getting teary-eyed. I guess when they are in middle school, you can have the "idea" of bad things happening to them in high school, and a lot of the time you can predict, as sad as that is, the select few who will end up dropping out or having babies, and which ones will grow out of whatever attitude they are sporting at the time, or just coast through on natural smarts, or really sincerely care about school and impress the hell out of all of their teachers. But when you are only teaching them in middle school, you don't necessarily get to "see" those outcomes, and you can naively reassure yourself that they will all probably be just fine, dismiss the horror stories as being unlikely. I mean, you go visit your old third graders, some of whom USED to be nuts-o, at their new boot-camp-charter-school and they are doing pretty phenomenally, so anything can happen, right? I just wish "anything" didn't have to be Mel having a baby.

I'm sorry to digress in such a depressing direction... And honestly, it's noon on Friday and I've been up for three hours and haven't started my schoolwork yet, so it's time to get going on that.

I'll leave you with an "Overheard in NY" comment that I witnessed in my policy class the other day. This was said by possibly the most annoying girl in my entire university [she's the kinda girl who makes me question whether I want to be in grad school anymore], to the girl sitting next to her, who is Chinese, and doesn't speak English very well yet.

"Oh my God, Ming! You've never heard of Loehmann's? That is like THE best part of America!!"

07 February 2007

Wendy's Not a Miracle Worker

Good morning friends... I have reached a level of procrastination that I had previously thought unattainable by someone who claims to be as compulsive as I am. It started with the furniture rearranging, which is nothing new for me: shifting the bed away from the window for "practical reasons" [i.e. the unbearable cold], noticing the now-uneven distribution of furniture in the room thereafter, and then deciding you might as well just find a new place for your desk. Of course, when you move your desk and your bed, you are likely to find an assemblage of dust bunnies that you should probably vaccuum, except it's almost midnight and your neighbors [who are probably already irritated by the fact that you are sliding furniture around on wooden floors late at night] might not like the vaccuuming, and you aren't really a fan of vaccuuming yourself... Maybe leave that for tomorrow.

But now your wheels are turning. What about that plan you had to move all of your DVD's and videos [that's right, videos! you aren't one of those suckas with cable and DVR/Tivo]off of your bookshelf to make room for the rapidly accumulating pile of journal articles and photo-copied book chapters that your professors so kindly post on Blackboard sites for you to print out and that you have devised a theoretical filing system for in your head, in class the previous day? You should probably do that now, you know, since you are awake and all, and grad students don't really need to wake up early in the mornings.

This necessitates unplugging and rewiring all of your stereo and music equipment, so you can pile it next to your TV instead of under it, so that you can put the movies underneath. And what are you really doing with that 6 CD changer anyway? When was the last time you used that thing? [because contrary to your lack of technological progress in recording television, you are quite state-of-the-art with your music playing and prefer the iBook or iPod to the CD anyday]. You decide to sell the CD player on Craisglist. When you open up the CD carousel, you find the first Strokes album and the Police's Greatest Hits and realize just how long it's been... And what about all that other crap you found under your bed that you don't really use anymore. You could probably sell that on Craigslist too, right?

Once the TV and stereo are rewired, and the movies have been carefully arranged in a row, you set out to create "for sale" postings on craigslist for your CD player, your old rollerskates that you never use, and the classical guitar with the broken tuning peg that has sat, unplayed in the corner of your room for years. You could really use the cash. You also realize that maybe putting your movie collection right there under the television where everyone can see it might be kind of embarrassing, owing to the fact that in addition to having things like The West Wing, and Hotel Rwanda in your collection, you also have Felicity, Mean Girls, and the first season of the OC, and perhaps should consider getting some more "high brow" viewing materials to balance things out a little bit. You know, to preserve your "image."

It's now 2am [not "now" but you know, "then" in the timeframe of this story]. You have not completed copy-editing the manuscript for your adviser, nor have you read the four articles on social stratification for your class tomorrow, or graded the online discussion postings for the grad course you are a TA for. But your apartment looks great. And you are wide awake.

I had intended to post about seeing Wendy Kopp speak at a "social entrepreneurship" presentation I attended last week. It was the first time I had seen her talk, and it reminded me of the beginning of teaching, when things like making charts and designing a "behavior management stoplight" to track student behavior were still exciting... The woman who introduced Wendy kept reinforcing the idea that Wendy wasn't a "superhero" or a "miracle worker" [just because she created the national organization Teach for America when she was 21, an extension of her senior thesis at Princeton]. Her point was, that people "just like you and me" can do tremendous things if we devote ourselves to doing them. Before I started grad school, I had kind of hoped I could be one of those people doing tremendous things, but right now, I'm having trouble just getting my reading done before class starts in an hour.

18 January 2007

I'm Too Sexy for the Movies

I'm at MyFavoriteTeacher [MFT]'s house in the Bronx for a mid-week sleepover, watching the Justin Timberlake episode of Saturday Night Live. He and Alvin & Chipmunks are singing the Christmas Song. "Meeee, I waaaaant a huuuuula hoooop..."

Today, I took a trip up to my old school to visit MFT and the kiddies, who finished up the state ELA exam yesterday, and were rewarded with a field trip to the movies. One group went to see Dreamgirls [the kiddie verdict: it was too looooong, but Beyonce was hot] and the other to see Stomp the Yard [the kiddie verdict: that sh*t was hot!] Of course, there were a select few who were "left behind" for various reasons. I asked Isaac why he didn't get to go on the trip, and he responded "They said I'm too sexy for the movies, Ms. G," which was pretty much the best reply he could have given me, although I'm fairly sure it had more to do with the fact that he was swinging around a broom handle at one of the girls for the greater part of the afternoon. Why there was a broom handle floating around the halls with no "broom" attached is beyond me.

Before MFT's group returned to school, I went down to the cafeteria for the late-lunch of the group who got back first. I received my typical welcome [read: screaming OH MY GOOOOOOD MISS _________ COME BAAAAAAACK WE MISS YOU, followed by an onslaught of very clingy hugs, which made me glad I got a flu shot]. They have a new math AND a new ELA teacher now, the second of each of the school-year, and I guess they have now come to think of themselves as pretty "bad-ass" because of this. "How was the test?" I ask, "It was eeeeeasy!!" they insist, which is generally not a good sign. "I hear you have a new math teacher now?" I ask. "We're rude!" Ellonie explains, and a number of them concur. Even though I know they are perfectly capable of being rowdy and obnoxious and hyperactive, I cannot really concieve of them as being the total whackos that they have apparently come to be this year. Last year, they could keep it together under the correct supervision, and were generally "good kids" underneath the craziness. But the descriptions I have heard this year, even from teachers who knew them last year, are really disappointing.

T-Rex had his brand new shiny nano, in electric blue, and was walking around with his headphones on, so I tapped him to say hello, and asked to see his nano. He was listening to a song by an artist named "Hot F*ck" and so I opted to hand it back to him instead of browsing his music library. Then, I noticed that Chanya was sitting at a table nearby and had not come over to see me. I sat down next to her at one of the long cafeteria tables and said:

"Um, helLO!?" and she replied, "hey."

I looked at her stunned, like Where Is My Enthusiastic Screaming Hug?

"That's all I get? Where's the love?"

Ellonie came over and said "Don't listen to her, we still love you" and I raised my eyebrows at Chanya.

"I don't know, my 'closest' student doesn't seem to miss me at all" I said, with a pouty face. So Chanya got up... "hold up one second..." ran about ten yards across the cafeteria and did a flying running squealing "HIHIHIHIHIHIII" and after hugging me, promptly dropped the enthusiasm, lost the grin, sat back down, said "What up Ms. G?" and went back to her headphones. I think she's gotten over me. She got braces, and seems a little more subdued than she was last year. She doesn't write me emails anymore either. I feel like I've been dumped.

In general, the school seemed relatively calm. This may have been because the majority of the seventh grade was on a trip, returning from a trip, or chilling in the cafeteria after a trip, and not having to participate in any remotely academic activity. But nonetheless, the visit didn't have the same sense of chaotic urgency as my last visit. My principal seemed tired, the AP was nowhere to be seen, and rumors that he took an "unvoluntary leave of absense" travelled the halls. A few teachers told me that they were leaving next year, and my oldest friend teacher who I taught with at my first school [not to be confused with MFT], got engaged! Then, my principal invited me to attend their brief staff meeting, because MFT and her kids were not back from their trip yet, so I got to sit in on a staff meeting congratulating the teachers for surviving test week and bracing them for some "scary visitors" in the upcoming weeks. For me, sitting in on a staff meeting is a surefire way to remind you why working in a school is a drag, much more so than socializing in the cafeteria, which is most people's least favorite situation.

Well well, MFT is telling me to wrap it up so I can watch JT perform "Dick in a Box" on SNL. Time to go...

12 January 2007

Happy Birthday No Child Left Behind!

You are five years old, as of this week. Around this age, if you were in any of the public schools I taught in, you probably wouldn't know how to read. And then in a few years, you might get held over in the third grade because you couldn't pass the damn standardized tests, and then you'd get older and older, and since the woman hired to give you "extra help" services like reading remediation would end up doing class coverages for absent teachers and eventually probably filling the position of someone who quits in October, you'd continue to fail the third grade until they decided you were too big and too angry for third grade, and to just push you along a few years until finally, you were so behind and so frustrated with school, that you'd decide to drop out. Below, please find my extensive rant about NCLB and why I hope it does not make it to its sixth birthday.

In my favorite course this semester, which was a seminar on the issues in education research, we read two books about the infamous No Child Left Behind [NCLB] legislation. Both of them were a compilation of various essays on different aspects of the bill, and the first one, titled "Many Children Left Behind," [ed. Deborah Meier] was anti-NCLB, while the second one, titled "Within Our Reach" [ed. John Chubb] was about how NCLB, with some modifications, could be an excellent path towards improving our nation's public schools.

In sum, NCLB promises to achieve 100% proficiency in ELA and math by the 2013-2014 school-year, through increased standardized testing accountability, ensuring that all students have access to quality teachers, and adequate funding across school districts. Critics of the bill explain the infeasibility of this promise, citing the bill’s under-funding, the detrimental effects of “teaching to the test,” and the overly punitive nature of the financial penalties placed on schools that do not reach the unrealistic performance targets set in place by NCLB.

There are numerous paradoxes central to the stated goals of this legislation, from the fact that it aims for 100% proficiency on norm-referenced exams (which by their very nature require 50% of students to fall below the norm), to the “diversity penalty” which basically makes it more difficult for schools with more diverse populations to reach performance targets, since the failure of even one group means the school as a whole has "failed." As a result of NCLB, some schools which were not previously considered in need of improvement have been re-classified as failing, and many schools have engaged in dishonest practices such as under-reporting drop-out rates, or denying enrollment to students who would potentially bring down their testing average.

On the other hand, those in support of NCLB claim that with some improvements, the bill could prove successful in repairing the public school system. Chubb, et al., make four key recommendations for the improvement of NCLB. First, they suggest that state standards should be aligned to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments so that there are uniform benchmarks in achievement for all schools nationwide. Second, they feel that the present system of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) needs to be augmented so that all schools are following a trajectory that will allow them to meet 100% proficiency by 2013-2014. Third, the authors recommend that the mandate of a “highly qualified teacher” in all classrooms be adjusted to redefine what constitutes “highly qualified” to include possession of a bachelors degree and either an undergraduate major in the subject they teach, passage of a rigorous content examination in their subject area, or, in the case of veteran teachers, statistical analysis that shows they have achieved adequate gains in proficiency for their students. Finally, these authors recommend that NCLB establish independent agencies to arbitrate (and inform parents about) school choice transfers and supplementary educational services (SES) for students in failing schools.

While these recommendations do appear to strengthen some of the existing weaknesses and failures of NCLB, they do not address a number of the concerns critics have with the bill. For one, standardized testing is not necessarily an accurate measure of student achievement. Chubb maintains that present methods of testing take into account fairness, bias, and validity, but fails to cite any evidence to support this other than referring the reader to another chapter in the book, which also does not explain how testing agencies eliminate bias and increase fairness in testing. Secondly, the authors do not recognize that punitive sanctions detract from existing shortages in funding for schools in poor districts, or that the bill is grossly under-funded to begin with. While Meier, et al. claim, “current requests for funding NCLB… fall as much as $12 billion short of the requirements of the legislation,” Chubb, et al. say, “the direct costs of NCLB are fully funded, as the Government Accounting Office concluded in May 2004.” The former data came from a professional of educational finance who [presumably] did research on the subject, while the latter data came from a governmental source, which may have vested interest in claiming the bill is adequately funded.

Chubb, et al. give the impression that schools that have previously not met performance targets are failing to do so because there have not been sanctions in place, or for lack of trying to do so. Is it possible that the reason schools do not set performance targets that would put them on a trajectory towards 100% proficiency by 2013-2014 is because they know it is not feasible? NCLB does not, at any point, suggest HOW schools in underserved communities should go about addressing the plethora of social issues that these communities face, such as inadequate housing and healthcare, unemployment, and families with limited occupational and educational attainment, factors that have been connected to student achievement by researchers for decades. Merely “demanding proficiency” does not make it so, and the threat of sanctions is a tactic designed to scare schools into compliance, without recognizing the reasons these schools are struggling to achieve. NCLB aims to increase the federal government’s power to punish schools for poor performance, while avoiding any federal responsibility for how to achieve this performance, or how to pay for it, given the existing inequities of public school funding and the other social issues plaguing underserved communities.

I would suggest that perhaps the "real goal" of NCLB is to discredit the public school system so entirely that the government can say "see, even with all of this money and reform effort, public schools just CAN'T WORK, and therefore we should privatize the whole system!!" Because to be honest, if you were seeking to discredit the public schools, what would be a better way to do that than to set up a host of completely unreachable goals and requirements, and then when they are not reached, point to their failure as evidence that a new approach [privatization] is necessary. The bill is filled with privatization pushes already--from the fact that test-prep is a HUGE industry that clearly in high demand when testing is high-stakes, to the sanctions that require schools not meeting their performance targets to offer tutoring services, which are often offered through private companies. The bill was initially proposed with school voucher options, but those were removed because the bill wouldn't pass with vouchers included.

In any case, I'm signed up to take a Public Policy course this semester, and I'm thinking that NCLB might have to be my policy-of-choice to analyze [since clearly I can ramble on about it endlessly].

Stay tuned for next week, when I will be visiting my sixth graders again...

09 January 2007

Teacher Man

I had but four goals set for myself during winter break: painting my kitchen cabinets; reading Fortress of Solitude, Nickel and Dimed, Teacher Man, and about four issues of the New Yorker piled on my night-table; affixing the missing buttons to an assortment of my clothing; and completing one of the many short stories I have started in the last two years. I have completed only 1 and 1/4 of these goals. The kitchen cabinets, well, they were painted within the first two days--before Christmas even--as a time-filler on the night I waited up for my brother's plane from California, which was delayed for about five hours on the runway. Much to the dismay of my parents, who on several occasions reminded me of the critical importance of sanding furniture before you paint it, I did not sand the cabinets prior to painting them black. The way I see it, I really keep very few things in the cabinets that I access on a regular basis, and I'm thinking the paint will stay on there just fine, save for the little spots where the door touches the frame; those are totally f*cked.

In a far more rewarding experience, I have just finished "Teacher Man" by Frank McCourt. Having read and loved his two earlier novels at the insistent request of an ex-boyfriend ["Tis," and "Angela's Ashes"], I had meant to read "Teacher Man" when it came out last winter. But at the time I actually was a teacher, and quite frankly, entirely disinterested in reading books after work. This book was fantastic. It was interesting to hear McCourt's own self-deprecating remarks on his teaching skills, all the while knowing he was a highly regarded English teacher at Stuyvesant, a, if not "the," top public school in NYC. His tales of dealing with distracted and disinterested students who startle you with poignant observations when you least expect it made me incredibly nostalgic for teaching, and for the first time since the summer, I actually wonder whether I'll end up back in the classroom again, even though that really wasn't the game plan. Read this book! Even if you aren't a teacher, it's brilliant.

Despite the fact that I only accomplished a small fraction of my stated goals, I have managed to consume a record amount of ice cream and watched the old Aaron Sorkin series "Sports Night" in its entirety.

Today, my old roommate Jennifer was in town from California, and I requested that we go out for dessert this afternoon. We realized, upon consideration, that there really are not many places to get a good old ice cream sundae in NYC. I mean, there's Coldstone, and Ben & Jerrys, but those aren't really "sit down" places. There's all of those chain restaurants, Uno's, Applebee's, etc. where you can get brownie sundaes, but really, who wants to go there? A friend suggested Serendipity, and my initial reaction was "will my life become the subject of a poorly written romantic comedy if I choose to eat dessert at Serendipity?" Braving this fear, Jennifer and I met in midtown, where I have had the misfortune of travelling to twice in the last week, sat in the back by a gigantic and elaborately decorated Christmas tree, and consumed monstrous ice cream sundaes. She wisely chose the fruit sundae [you know, a "healthy" sundae], while I decided to indulge in the "can't say no" sundae, which included a slice of humble pie [peanut butter pie with graham cracker crust], hot fudge, and bananas. We rationalized these choices by selecting frozen yogurt instead of ice cream as a base and drinking tea with no sugar on the side, because when it comes down to it, it's really not about the ice cream, per se. These sundaes were delicious, despite the fact that they cost about $13 each and we ate them in the company of a variety of women with very tiny purses and an assortment of tourist-accents. Next time I go there [because if my life is indeed going to become the plotline of a romantic comedy, surely it will come full-circle by a second visit to Serendipity, where I realize that our waiter, who was quite pleased that we did not order the cliched "Frozen Hot Chocolate," is my long lost soulmate], I will order the sundae that comes with a giant slice of blackout chocolate cake underneath it. I'm considering the possibility that 2007 may be the year where one eats sundaes in lieu of dinner.

My day culminated in the first meeting of an intersession class I'm taking as a pre-requisite to taking classes in the policy school. It is essentially American Government 101, which was basically an overview of all of the terminology they sling around on the West Wing, except instead of being packaged amongst witticisms and clever dialogue, is delivered by a young professor getting over the flu who speaks at an alarming rate which I am barely able to keep up with while taking notes. The class is in a giant lecture hall, meets four nights in a row, and is followed by an exam this Friday that will surely merit a giant happy-hour-reward afterwards.

I know it is out of the ordinary for me to post about mostly non-school-related matters [or post more than once a month, these days], especially ones so mundane as to include full paragraphs on ice cream sundaes and what-I-read-over-break, but I'm thinking it's time to get back into the habit of writing. Feel free to disregard it entirely.

02 January 2007

Since You Been Gone.

I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that "Fastred1" is my brother [?]... No, my blog has not died per se. More like it has taken a long restful vacation for recuperation. And apparently, during this hiatus, Blogger has changed over to some new Google format? I'm not sure what this means exactly, except for that it is somehow linked to my Gmail account now which makes me wonder, is Google planning on purchasing everything for sale in the universe of internet services?

The real reason I haven't been writing, asides from the obvious fact that I am not teaching, and therefore lacking in entertaining adolescent anecdotes, is that I'm not sure what I can write about in the realm of education that will be even remotely interesting for other people to read and not completely depressing and cynical. I continue to visit my former 6th graders in the Bronx about once a month, and I also visited a handful of my third graders from my first year of teaching, who are now in 6th grade at a charter school in Brooklyn. A former colleague of mine helped open the charter and took some of our kiddies with her.

I visited both schools within the span of 48 hours, and it was like night and day. At my old school, the children have quite literally taken over the halls. At any given moment, T-Rex and an assortment of hyper-sexual girls can be found roaming the halls, cursing, pushing each other around, hiding in the bathroom, ignoring the security guards, etc. They have found a replacement for the teacher who has my old students that quit. He is from England, and Shamra wrote me an email about him saying "Ms. ______, a new teacher has started teaching us ELA and he's from England and we can't understand anything he is saying. We miss you, Ms. _______. We could understand EVERYTHING you were saying." This, while flattering, just makes me feel sad. From what I have seen, there are a handful of new teachers at the school that are really great, and getting things done in the classroom. One guy, who actually taught his demo lesson in my classroom last year when he interviewed, is working with an all-girls class on writing personal narratives, and when I visited, I sat in on the class and was impressed. But from what MFT tells me, this is not the norm. About 6 teachers have quit mid-year, and have been replaced by people who were excessed and sitting in the district office waiting for openings.

When I visited the new charter school, which is known for its somewhat controversial behavior management tactics [namely that they are notorious for enrolling smart inner city kids with "tough" attitudes and basically putting them through "manners boot camp" and getting impressive results, but some question whether their tactics are dehumanizing or unethical in their harshness]. This network of charters is also known for producing high levels of achievement with low-income school populations, both in standardized testing and in graduation rates and higher education enrollments. I had braced myself for the worst, picturing some kind of robotic classroom setting and children who had been stripped of their personalities participating in rote drills. My favorite teacher-friend from my old school came with me, on a freezing cold day in December, to visit with our former students [I had taught them in the third grade, she in the fourth].

Fortunately, I was, for the most part, pleasantly surprised. The school is housed with in a larger building, just like the middle school I taught at last year, and from what I know about the rest of the schools in the building, they are pretty rough. We walked all the way up to the top floor, and learned that the students were finishing up a practice exam. The hallways were dead silent, which I generally find to be an eery quality in a school. But since it was a testing period, I guess this was appropriate [Later on, when regular classes were in session, we saw kids singing and chanting math rhymes and eavesdropped on music class with a full band of sixth graders playing instruments]. A teacher appeared in the hallway with her class, and they walked in one straight single-file line, down the center of the hall, and each of them turned on a dime, a perfect right angle, as they entered the stairwell. The boys were in suits, the girls in dresses. Apparently Friday is "professional dress" day. This was a little creepy.

We found our old colleague, and she was able to come into the hallway to speak with us, leaving her students quietly finishing up their practice test. She said they'd be out in 5 minutes for lunch and that we could all go downstairs together. When they came into the hallway, I saw three of my now-gigantic students and they asked their teacher if it was ok for them to come over and say hello to us. They were all taller than me and looked like little grown ups in their professional outfits. Paula started jumping up and down when hugging me and we almost both fell over. It was cute.

My friend and I, and about 8 of our old kids sat and ate lunch together in the cafeteria, which was shared by one of the other schools, and the environment on our side of the cafeteria vs. the other side was so completely distinctive that you had to wonder what it was that prevented the kids we knew from acting like the kids in the other school. Our former students were amazing. They showed us their writing, and their vocabulary lists which so far surpassed the sixth grade vocabulary I taught last year that I was embarrassed. They told us about the awards ceremony coming up, and the cool elective classes they take on weekends and how they love their teachers like they are family. I asked the kids if they minded that the kids from the other schools were being loud or rowdy in the hallway or at lunch and one of my old students said "Not really. I know they aren't climbing the mountain to college." I guess that is part of the behavior-brainwashing I've heard about...

I ran into Shavon on the lunch-line, from my second year of teaching, all dressed in a little shirt & tie and I thought about the day we sat in the cafeteria and he cried and said he wished he could go to a school where things weren't crazy all the time and from what I saw that day, he had managed to do just that. Unfortunately, my old favorite Demetri had transferred to another school after last year, and Tommy had apparently gone back to living with his real parents in the Bronx after his foster dad had become sick and was not well enough to take care of him. His foster dad was basically my right-hand man my first year of teaching, coming in and sitting with Tommy on his "bad" days, and tearing he and Demetri apart when they fought, if I couldn't do it myself.

After lunch, we got to see some behavior-management-in-action. There was a fifth grade boy, who we didn't know, sitting on a chair in the hallway, looking at the "school motto" which was basically a pledge of rules for the students to follow. He had a stack of about 100 sheets of looseleaf and a pencil, and he looked totally pissed. There was also a masking taped "X" on the floor nearby. His teacher came into the hall and dramatically told us how this little boy had stood up during the practice exam and thrown a crumpled up piece of paper at a classmate, and that his punishment was to recopy the pledge until all of the paper was full. This teacher, and the teacher we knew there, did a little back and forth banter, chastising the child in kind of a joke-y way, how they were disappointed, etc. She also explained that the masking tape was a mark to show where he had thrown the pencil she had originally given him. It was "evidence." The boy was basically silent through their banter, and continued to look very unhappy.

So here's the thing. I wonder whether this boy is actually going to fill up 100 sheets of paper with the school pledge, and what happens if he doesn't. I wonder who can "force" him to do that, or if at a certain point in the process, the teacher changes her mind and says he's done enough and maybe he goes to detention or something? Apparently, there is an extended-day detention in the evening after school ends for kids who have not behaved or are missing homework. I'm not sure I take any issue with the punishment, although it is a fairly pointless exercise. I just wonder whether it is effective. Will this kid think twice the next time he wants to act out? Apparently, according to our friend, it works. And based on the fact that they have about 35 kids in each class and virtually no behavior problems by the time winter rolls around is decent proof of this phenomenon. Is this the only way to get results? I've heard tales of misbehaving kids having to turn their uniform shirts inside out and none of their classmates talking to them. Is that humiliation? Is it only humiliation if the kid is so proud of their uniform shirt that they are upset when they cannot display it properly? Does it take something this extreme to manage tough kids?

There is an ongoing discussion both in schools and in grad programs on education about what "works" for inner city kids. I have worked in two places that have definitely not "worked" and visited about a half dozen other schools that have not "worked" to varying degrees. The only schools I have seen that have "worked" have had one thing in common: A staff that is essentially willing to give up their entire lives in order to serve the school & their students. They work from 7am till 5 or 6pm on weekdays, teach Saturday school, and do lesson planning and staff meetings on nights and weekends. They may be paid more, but only to scale of the extra hours they work. They are relentless in pursuing their school's mission, and the most crucial thing is, this is consistent across every single teacher and administrator in the school. There is staff support from administrators, and staff collaboration across the disciplines. Lesson planning and behavior management is shared and uniform across the school. In the schools I have taught in, there were always a handful of excellent teachers who were willing to go the extra mile, but this was generally so severely compromised by abusive administrators or teachers who never pulled their weight or used their contract to get out of anything they saw as "extra work" that it created an environment that was neither collaborative or conducive to wanting to put in extra time, especially since you were rarely given any kind of recognition for the extra effort. Who wants to hang around for extra hours in a building with an unpleasant or hostile environment? Who wants to collaborate with unfriendly staff members, or share their hard work if there is no reciprocation?

What I wonder is, is the only way a school can be successful in meeting the needs of underserved communities by having teachers who need to basically sacrifice their whole lives? If so, where can you find enough teachers like this to staff an entire city of public schools? And even if you could, is that kind of model sustainable for more than a few years, when these teachers inevitably burn-out from the hard work?

One of my professors suggested that if public schools had enough money, they could afford to pay two people to do the job of one person in a school. I guess he was implying that these hardworking teachers could halve their hours and share responsibility, thereby avoiding burn-out. But I'm not sure that two people could achieve this goal--part of what was so amazing about the kids in the charter school we visited was the intense bond they recognized between themselves and their teacher, and their awareness that the teacher was so entirely devoted to them. I don't know if two people could be consistent enough to create that same bond. On the other hand, would a teaching job requiring an 70 hour week be worthwhile if the salary was comparable to other professions with insane hours and stress? I don't know if a six figure salary would eliminate the "burn-out" factor, although I suppose it would make rationalizing the job easier.

Basically, after seeing both of these schools, and having always been in favor of public schools, I wonder whether public schools have enough autonomy or funding or man-power to create consistently effective schools, and whether there will ever be enough "amazing" teachers to fill the schools that need them. I'm not saying I don't think public schools can "work," since there are obviously many examples in NYC and elsewhere of inner city public schools that "work," but the common characteristic between all of these schools seems to be a staff that is willing to go above and beyond what is required of them by a teaching contract. And in my last school, our staff appeared to be on board with this kind of devotion, but mostly jumped ship by November, and many of us left at the end of the schoolyear to pursue other areas of education [myself included]. I have to wonder if I would have left if the rest of our staff had been willing to put in the time and effort as the handful of us who were not constantly using our contract to avoid extra responsibility. How can you really know for sure that a teacher is any good until you put them in the stressful environment of a public school and see how they react?

I think the other reason I haven't been writing is because most of the things I am thinking about schools are just plain depressing. I think the length of this post makes up for the last two months that I have not written, no?