Thursday, April 28, 2011

How to Make Us All Great

Greatness is a relative term and there is a growing effort focused on making the teachers we have across this country better. But there's a simple solution. Hire more crappy teachers and voila. That will effectively increase the relative quality of those currently employed. Obviously that was a joke but so are some of the suggestions currently gaining favor.

Here's a serious one, actually pay educators for what they do. One way to do that would be to pay higher ups less. Keep the money in the schools with the people who work with kids in them, nowhere else. Don't allow yourself to be naive to the degree that you fail to recognize how influential companies are slowly leeching money away from actual instruction in schools and into management and testing. Let's use that money to do what was suggested in a bad 2008 Time Article reward teachers so that "the most competent, caring and compelling—remain in a profession known for low pay, low status and soul-crushing bureaucracy". If you use student scores and similar measures to rank us some of us are going to be bad. If you must tie this information in use it appropriately and rate, do not rank. Similarly be very careful about how you choose to reward educators. It is pretty important. Why not increase teacher pay across the board?

Great teachers know their subject, they communicate well, they inspire and connect with young people, they motivate, they understand kids and their emotional needs, they have the intangibles, they are creative, dependable, organized, work hard, are patient and resilient(My English teacher would run out of red ink on that sentence). Good luck getting all that from everyone. As some yolk the momentum for change in campaign season the finger can get pointed at teacher preparation. In other professions it seems what you did in college matters, but it seems OK to have graduated and underperformed before you got a job. Each year you work what you did and learned before you were hired matters less. Not so in education. Truth is the best preparation for teaching is actually teaching, the other stuff helps but learning about teaching and actually teaching are very different. Why does this even get pointed out as a big reason our students under-perform? Many kids I know only excel when their performance affects others, when it really maters. Teachers can be much the same. Imagine 25 faces staring back at you wondering what is about to happen when you don't know either. That would suck huh? Thus it'd be great to stop implying what you learned in college makes you a great teacher.

My favorite analogy came from Katy Farber who wrote Why Great Teachers Quit: And How We Might Stop the Exodus . She said that teaching is like treading water and then being handed more and more bricks. I feel that way almost daily. The more bricks we are handed, the less great we are. To offset the increasing demands some propose raising pay but that won't make the day any longer.

Many efforts to increase pay require that increase be tied to student performance on standardized tests(see previous post). Some are calling for experience to play a reduced role compensation or even be removed all together. Would that approach make sense for doctors, pilots, police officers, or any other job? News flash: EXPERIENCE MATTERS IN TEACHING. Tenure allows teachers to take risks and improve. To have piece of mind that they will have a job and focus on developing their craft free of the burdens of probationary supervision. Opponents of tenure argue it serves to keep bad teachers around but there are far more pros to cons.

Other ways to make us all great are to allow and protect the time teachers need for effective and meaningful collaboration. Squeezing it in the schedule here and there with a shoehorn doesn't cut it. That will allow for relevant sharing of resources and ideas along with professional development among peers so they can actually support each other. This enables them to successfully navigate the maelstrom of public education. Collaboration instead of competition.

Force everyone who wants input on educational decisions to sub in schools so they'll gain understanding on how tough this job can be when working with unmotivated or disrespectful kids.

Actually go back to where the kid was the one being held accountable. The are you working to engage johnny and what have you done to reach this kid stuff goes away when a kid acts like an idiot.

Respect the profession of teaching. Foster more autonomy and individual control, allow for advancement and leadership without leaving teaching. Excellence suffers when pressures from efficiency and output are applied to the classroom.

Simplify things. Teachers need time built into the day to settle the chaos. That would allow them to model a much calmer nature and be more understanding. Schedules need to be constructed in a way to allow this. Having full time subs would be a classic example of ways to help teachers be great with simplicity.

Recognize the limitations on digital and online learning, use it to supplement instruction, not just replace it. It has a growing and important role but has limits. Just as virtual human exchanges are useful but fall short of sitting down face to face. One of the lessons of John Henry is that technology is not always better. So much of what teachers do are those more subtle things or actions that have a formative impact of kids. Online classes should maintain similar student teacher ratios to brick and mortar learning. Kids can learn content from a book or a computer but the dynamic between a teacher and student can never be replicated virtually, period.

Keep teaching authentic not out of the box top down. Let teachers use their passion to instruct and do not extinguish that trait with minutia of pupil management.

Understand that teaching is a struggle. Every day is different and presents its own unique challenges. Support teachers accordingly.

Alleviate the student load to a level that allows more one on one attention and focus. This goes for all educators, teachers, counselors on down the list.

Just do what Jeb suggests...I mean he is obviously an education expert. No don't...the seismic shift referenced on that link will be good teachers leaving the job.

Try building teachers up instead of tearing the profession down. It is a human endeavor and the human spirit can accomplish some pretty amazing things when it is cut loose and kept healthy. Ask what they need and work to get it to them. Don't give them stuff then convince them to use it.

Whatever paths chosen locally, statewide and federally to encourage greatness among teachers they should be carefully chosen and well thought out to help us be great, or at least allow us to show that we are when allowed to be.
Just don't hand me more bricks.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Creativity and World Peace in Fourth Grade

I teach in the same school district as John Hunter, but I won't pretend to name drop, I have never met him so I can't pretend that we are any sort of colleague aside from shared geography and profession.  A documentary film (created by Charlottesville local, Chris Farina) features Mr. Hunter and a unique learning experience he created.  The film is titled World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements.  I have not had a chance yet to view the film, but Mr. Hunter recently addressed the TED Conference in California and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.  I've embedded the video of his talk below, it is around twenty minutes long, but definitely worth the time.

This film and the creative work of John Hunter continues to draw praise from an increasingly wider audience.  Both the specific content and method of the game and the educational philosophy communicated by Mr. Hunter in his various appearances resonate with a variety of audiences; the public seems to really get him, and understand the value of his approach to education.  I would almost venture to say that most people (myself included) would identify him as an asset to public education and a quality teacher.  One only has to read the myriad comments that abound on the internet to conclude that he has made an impression.

Yet this impression comes without any reference to student performance or outcomes.  Our nation seems willing to judge positively this individual teacher based on the creation and implementation of a single (yet substantial) learning experience, statements about his educational philosophy, and observation of his classroom performance.  How is this not good enough for the rest of us?  In an era where teacher effectiveness is measured by student performance and proposals for teacher merit-pay are based on student achievement, we are willing to label Mr. Hunter an excellent teacher without any such evidence.

I believe I know the answer.  In this case, we meet an individual who interacts daily and pours his life into young minds.  We are not considering a massive pool of public employees expected to do a job.  We get a chance to hear the voice behind the instructional decisions and the intentions and motives that drive them.  We are not listening to a filtered mouth-piece trying to synthesize the diverse minds that collectively educate our young.  And finally, we're introduced to students and care about what type of people they grow into instead of worrying about what kind of data-points they're creating for evaluating teachers or schools.

Ultimately, the public is able to see the wonder of human interaction that can take place when adults who care about the future of our children meaningfully engage with them in individual classrooms across the nation.  Peeking through this window of the open classroom and witnessing real education transpire melts away the false illusion that somehow the quality of this experience can be captured and measured through simplistic mass-produced and mass-scored assessement.  World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements has opened that window.  I hope that the American public will take the opportunity to peek inside and recognize this illusion.

Hear what John Hunter has to say and let us know if you agree. (or don't)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Taking a Stand in Virginia and Texas

In the previous post on the Underground, my colleague referred to Superintendent John Kuhn of Texas testifying before the Texas legislature regarding teacher evaluation and "value-added" systems of measuring teacher effectiveness.  Across the nation, we are moving toward systems that measure the effectiveness of students, teachers, schools, and entire districts on the basis of standardized testing.  The push toward common core standards will only lead to more. (See here for a interesting post discussing merit pay and common core standards)

I am convinced that the American public agrees.  I am also convinced that our politicians, educational leaders and all of the media-endorsed experts agree that excessive standardized testing degrades our educational system.  I don't think these same leaders and "experts" understand just how much their ideas and policies that sound great in theory can do so much damage when put into practice.  Let me concede a few things:

1) The idea that every family in America can expect a consistent and quality curriculum for their students is a good idea.

2) The idea that a teacher should be evaluated based on how well they are able to move their student from one level to the next is a good idea.

3) The idea that teachers and schools should be held accountable for what and how they teach is a good idea.

Maybe that is a little common ground that we can all agree on that might help us move toward reducing our differences.  The differences arise in the methods proposed to make these ideas reality.  Organic systems work when they are sensitive to their environment and respond properly.  In the human body, this means the brain receives information from the body and responds accordingly.  Executive functions in a healthy system arise from quality feedback.  For whatever reason, the executive functioning of education policy acts independent of quality feedback.  Perhaps the teachers and students who raise their voices in opposition to the onslaught of standardized testing are seen as too self-serving.  But the survival and maturation of our system requires that decision-makers understand the impact of their decision.

That is why Superintendent Kuhn should be applauded.  Openly testifying to the Legislature that he has considered opting his child out of the testing process and publicly naming a company like Pearson, asserting that we have placed more trust in them than in our local teachers, is not the smartest political move.  Standing out against the grain of public education policy may cost him any hopes he may have had of holding higher position at state or national levels.  Calling out a player in the "industrial-educational" machine may limit his post-education employment options.  But, perhaps for these reasons he will also be taken seriously.

Virginia now stands on the verge of facing an increasing growth in the importance of standardized testing and the resources it will require of schools for administration and reporting.  It is not a secret that the state is on the "value-added" teacher evaluation bandwagon.  The secretary of Education, Gerard Robinson, belongs to the "Chiefs for Change" coalition supported and promoted by former Florida governor Jeb Bush. The group focuses on issues such as creating "value-added" evaluations for teachers and principals, stronger standards and testing, and expanded school choice.

Allowing for the "common sense" thinking that "value-added" is a reasonable method of teacher evaluation, we should consider the serious misgivings of the approach.  Just a few criticisms of the approach can be found on the blog of Harvard Education Publishing, at the National Academy of Sciences, and the Economic Policy Institute.  Full texts of the reports and studies can be found at the links above.

Further bringing Virginia into the realm of "value-added," Governor Bob McDonnell has implemented a pilot merit pay program in the state.  Closer examination of this program reveals that teachers working in "struggling schools" who succeed in raising achievement will be eligible for up to $5000 in additional pay.  The identification of deserving schools in this case does not seem clear to all, but even more problematic is the sublime move toward a value-added model on which to base this reward.  At least 40 percent of a teacher's performance evaluation must be tied to student academic performance. This includes improvements in standardized test scores.   As a "pilot" program, this appears innocuous enough, and framing the terms (a la Race to the Top) in such a carrot and stick fashion might cause  districts to run for the money.

Educators have two choices in situations like this. 1) Take the money and run, don't rock the boat, and accept this as the future and get on board early.  2) Take a stand, speak up for what's good for education, and refuse to play a role in implementation of bad policy.

I am encouraged to hear the news that district leaders in Fairfax and Loudon County are not likely to apply for this program.  I hope they follow through.  I also hope that the school board and administrators in my own county of Albemarle will not accept the advent of value-added as inevitable and take the opportunity to stand against it by refusing to apply for the funding.  To the public, refusal of this funding may appear confusing at first, but it provides an excellent opportunity for school leaders to communicate what responsible reform should look like.  Change is needed in American education, but reform such as this is no reform at all, it is more of the same "carrot and stick" motivation driven by standardization.

We would love to hear other opinions regarding the movement toward "value-added", merit pay, and especially this new Virginia policy even if you disagree.  Click the comment link below to add your thoughts.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Value Added is THAT teacher

I have read quite a bit recently about pay for performance plans in our schools. The Feds continue to push states to tie teacher evaluation and pay to student data. States have struggled to keep up creating suspect standardized tests. Resources continue to flow towards large testing companies like Pearson and away from local schools.

I have yet to read a more appropriate response to the Value Added Model being adopted of rating teachers. It comes from Superintendent John Kuhn of Texas who was testifying in front of Public Education Committee in the Texas House of Representatives. He was asked "teachers give students grades all the time...why shouldn't they be graded?" Below is the response he wishes he had given and it is how many of us feel and I encourage you to read up a bit more on these issues.

Representative, you make a good point. The state has adopted the role of teacher, and teachers are the students. And this is the root of the problem--you are a bad teacher, and that is why we students are getting rowdy now. That is why we are passing notes to one another saying how mean you are. We are not upset that you grade us. We are upset that your grading system is arbitrary and capricious. We are upset at the way you hang our grades on the wall for everyone to see, instead of laying our papers face down on our desks when you pass them back. We are upset because when you treat us unfairly there is no principal we can go to, to report you for being unjust. There is no one but you and us, ruler and ruled. Your assignments are so complicated and sometimes seem so pointless. You never give us a break, never a free day or a curve. And we heard you in the teacher's lounge talking about how lazy we are. You stay behind your desk, only coming out to give us work or gripe at us. You never come to our games; you didn't ask me how I did in the one-act-play.

Representative Hochberg, the problem isn't that Texas wants to grade us; the problem is that Texas is THAT teacher, the one who punishes the whole class for the misbehaviors of a few bad apples, who worries more about control than relationships, who inadvertently treats all kids as if they are the problem kids. This approach has made you the teacher all the kids dread. The one who builds fear instead of trust, who never takes late work or asks how our weekend was. You are the teacher and we are the student, and if you want us to mind, you should create a happy classroom, work with us, relate to us, build trust with us, seek our input, and ask our opinions once in awhile. Give us choices. Give us room to experiment and permission to risk new things in your classroom, permission to try and fail without disappointing you.

I again take the opportunity to remind folks it is not just me who thinks this is a bad idea. I am not an obstructionist, really. I am not afraid of being held accountable. I am just scared of how we are choosing to do it. I wish others would express this opinion more often. Arne Duncan and any other politician getting mileage out of this plan might want to rethink it when all is said and done. Myth and emotion are powerful forces in public debate and sometime truth and accuracy can take a backseat to political will and motivation. In Chicago for example the jury is still out just as it is in Texas, New York, Colorado and elsewhere. This conclusion is not unique and one shared by many. Love to hear other thoughts on such plans.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Catching the Carrot and Breaking the Stick

Discussion of education policy and reform often centers on issues of curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  No doubt these are among the most important factors in education, but increasingly I realize the most important aspect of my job is motivation.  Twentieth century psychology was pretty firmly entrenched in a behaviorist view of motivation-- provide the right incentives and if needed the right punishments, to gain the desired behavioral outcomes.  We are learning today that this type of motivating works well for tasks that are simple, but for more complex and higher level cognitive tasks this behavioral model of reinforcement can actually become a detriment to performance.

Even if you've never heard of B.F. Skinner and Behaviorism doesn't ring any bells in your brain, this theory today has become common sense.  So much so, that when I teach about Skinner's operant conditioning in my AP Psychology class, students wonder why this guy was so important.  After all, he just describes the stuff we already know.  These ideas and theories have become so embedded in our popular culture that it has become counter-intuitive to suggest that "rewards and punishments" are not always the best way to motivate.

Dan Pink has led the twenty-first century charge that the operating system of motivation 2.0 is due an upgrade.  This is not a new idea, but Pink has done an excellent job of promoting and articulating the fact that while external motivation creates significant short-term but shallow gains, the power of intrinsic motivation creates life-long learning.

That is point one- Extrinsic motivation may get us short-term results, but will dissapoint in the end.

Once upon a time, we believed that motivation was primarily a drive resulting from acquiring things that we need.  At the most basic level, food and shelter, but moving forward, secondary acquistions that facilitate the acquisition of these needs.  This is still very external.  Harry Harlow in his famous "terry-cloth monkey" experiments began the psychological studies that would eventually prove that humans also have many psychological needs such as affiliation, curiosity, achievement, etc., that can motivate just as powerfully as those external survival needs.  Again, Dan Pink summarizes much of this research from the last half-century, articulating the argument that humans will strive toward outcomes such as mastery and excellence absent any traditional rewards or punishments.

That is point two- We know that humans possess many internal drives that prove to motivate us toward sustained efforts to learn, understand, and acheive.

So far, I have not said anything original.  If you are familiar with Dan Pink, psychology in general, or any number of popular writers over the last decade, you may be thinking "o.k., so what?"  Here it goes.  Individuals working outside of the classroom have become increasingly critical of our "creativity killing school systems and teachers."  They are partly correct in their criticism.  Hollywood movies portraying out-of-the-box teachers showing students how to unleash their inner potential are inspiring.  Examples of innovative charter schools allowing students to explore their own paths to learning are hopeful.  Images of children scattered about a school campus engaged in authentic learning experiences emphasize the value of hands-on discovery.

To many on the outside, the impression becomes that since all children are "learners" by nature, if the restrictive adults would just get out of the way we could experience real learning.  I learned long ago that the best lessons I've provided in the classroom would look like I'm doing no work at all, while in the worst lessons I'm active for the duration of the class.  The former requires great skill and much work, the latter may require the skill, but much less work in preparation.  Getting out of the way and letting children experience learning requires much more effort in planning and executing meaningful experiences than a plan requiring constant direction from the teacher.  In the classroom, this will look effortless, even natural.  But compare it to an athlete or performer-- they will only give the perception of executing their craft effortlessly when they have put enough effort into their preparation.

True education occurs when caring adults make the effort to prepare meaningful interactions and experiences that engage learners in exercising thier natural curiosities and tendencies.  This learning is far superior to "carrot and stick" methods of rewarding and punishing appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, but this learning also requires much more effort on the front end.  I applaud administrators, parents, and others who demand this from teachers, and also the teachers who understand this.  To the critics and politicians who seem to thrive on bashing our public school systems I would ask that you realize this type of instruction is stifled by the insistence that true performance is measured only by standardized testing.  Also, to the casual observer, recognize that quality student learning doesn't "just happen."  As natural as it may seem, usually great effort and dedication is required to nurture it to maturity.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Education Market

Is there a market for education?

If you keep up with the news from the education world, a number of influential members of the business world are ready to put this question to the test.  From Zuckerberg and Gates to Klein and Black, whether through donations and special projects or appointment to administrative positions, we are experiencing much high profile involvement in the way public education functions in the United States.  I won't doubt their motives, but I find it hard to believe in their efficacy.

The focus on education zooms in during crises, and the first decade of the millenium has been one of crisis.  Across the nation, unemployment has grown, and school budgets have shrunk.  We face pressure to prepare students for a new economy with fewer resources than before and the task seems impossible.

Many districts believe that the innovation and efficiency driven/profit maximizing strategies of the business world may be the solution to our problems in education.  I'm baffled why.  If asked to explain why we are in a financial crisis today, would most people point the fingers at our schools or our business and financial leaders? 

Yet for some, Superman has an MBA, or some other business world credentials.  Superman is an entrepreneur who can market an idea.  He is skilled at the art of PR and looks really good on paper.  He is ready to prepare students for the 21st century by placing the latest and greatest technology in their hands.  He collaborates with like-minds and creates a network of groupthink while dismissing critics as backward or stuck.  And with a reputation built on good ideas and courageous execution, he moves on to the next great thing before the fruits of his labor are ripe (or perhaps rotten).

Another consequence of the "educational marketplace"-- focusing more on PR and marketing than on what really works.  I recently read a blog post titled Educational Programs That Work: Funding the National Writing Project.  Recently, the federal government cut funding for this program and educational bloggers have rallied to support the National Writing Project.  I found the following paragraph from this post particularly relevant to the issue of the "education market."
The National Writing Project makes an easy target because it is a relatively quiet, modest program. Despite nearly 4 decades of success, they don't use the hyperbolic rhetoric that marks much of the current discussion around education reform. They don't oversell what they do, or oversimplify the amount of work required to enact meaningful change. And unlike many of the newer crop of educational reformers, when they talk about helping kids learn, their conversation is shaped by people who have direct experience working with kids. People working with the National Writing Project tend to focus less on marketing their work, and more on actually doing the work of transforming classrooms through day after day of thoughtful, reflective practice.
Districts are increasingly pressured to "buy into" this "education market" because of the political decisions of state and local governments.  The nationwide attack on teachers serves to undermine their credibility to measure student performance and improvement.  Accountability has been outsourced.  While teachers (and for that matter, we can include everyone in the school district) are expected to provide instruction, the only meaningful measures of accountability are administrated by testing companies.  (Several recent articles do a great job of pointing out the flaws not only in testing, but in the testing industry itself- here and here)  

Textbook publishers have long taken the criticism of profiting in the education market, but today, technology for testing and managing student and teacher data increasingly takes the lion's share of public education funding.  (Many of which are already tied to long-time textbook publishers). 

This is our problem.  I'm a teacher, and I sell my subject to students.  I motivate them by trying to unleash their natural sense of curiosity on the content of the topic that I am supposed to teach (or or should that read "they are supposed to learn").  I'm not good at selling myself, or my methods to anyone uninterested or unable to spend a little time inside the walls of my classroom or to talk with my students about what we do.  Unfortunately, in today's educational climate, the ability to "market" an idea is beginning to trump the ability to effectively engage the 21st century learner.

Friday, April 8, 2011

2012 or 2014?

As the Underground wraps up Spring Break I find my mind wandering and relax watching ALL of the Masters so pardon my lack of focus with this post. But I am reminded the "end" is near.

I recall just last week my classes sped through our unit on Mesoamerica before one of many looming deadlines. We watched one of my favorite videos on the Maya and it included a segment on how the cycle of creation comes to an end and the Mayan Long Count expires on December 21st, 2012. The end of days. It sparked some interesting discussion and we chose to ignore the potential Federal Government Shutdown and its impact. Most people are now familiar with the doomsday predictions for when the Mayan Calendar ends. I found it funny how both political parties are spinning out similar predictions about the effects of a shutdown. What's the connection? Great question(sorry not on the test though).

Flashback 50 years ..."First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind..." these words came from President John F. Kennedy in May of 1961. Powerful rhetoric that put the heat on everyone involved to achieve this goal. I spoke recently to man man(who asked to remain anonymous) who after staging moon landings and covering up the JFK assassination said that if we make it to 2013, we might not make it much past 2014. That's the year when the much maligned No Child Left Behind legislation demands that all children be proficient in reading in Math. "Who's the we" I asked. Did he mean schools? He mumbled something about President Obama's proposed revisions to the law and how he and Congress weren't likely to do much better and then pressed a flashy red thing on his pen(did I mention he was dressed in black?).

The 2001 NCLB Act was President George W. Bush's(erroneously referred to in all failing public schools as Bush Jr.) call to action to make our schools better. NO child would be left behind in an ambitious plan reminiscent of the days of the Space Race. Among the authors of this bill were current House Speaker John Boehner and President Kennedy's late brother Ted. The bill did something pretty amazing, it took a well intentioned effort at reform and created a federal act that messed everything up. In fact it makes many of us teachers feel analogous to the Russians during the Space Race. I'll borrow heavily here from Gerald Bracey and his "THE SEVEN DEADLY ABSURDITIES OF NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND"
critique but it went about things the wrong way. Actually many wrong ways...a mistake that continues today. So states and schools have chimed in with their own ominous prediction when most of their schools are deemed "failing" and kids allowed to transfer. While Bracey rants a bit at the end( something I do well myself), pardon him as he illustrates much of what went wrong. Imagine if Kennedy(had he not been killed by the Oswald, the mafia, CIA, Castro, Russians, man on the grassy knoll or all of the above) had punished an entire agency or dept at NASA when one engineer miscalculated something? Somehow we made it to the moon but where is NCLB and now Race to the Top taking us? Another great questions...ask again at the end of class.

As a young teacher in 2001 I paid no attention to the law. Did anyone in schools really? That changed when scores started to matter. Admitting some good has come from the law it is the unintended effects that are frightening. Will it bring the end or at least contribute to the undoing of our public schools as some predict? I am uncertain but I have grave concerns about where we continue to be driven by Federal legislation intended to improve our schools. In my view new reform ideas are even less likely to realize improvement than the old. Where they succeed is making schools focus too much on testing, demoralizing our educators and potentially undoing much of the good we have done educationally the last century. When others ask why I oppose a lot reform they overlook the reality that there are just some things teachers know and understand that others cannot.

Bracey gets this and also talked in a separate post about the "schools suck bloc" and in some small way connects the title of this post, my unfocused rantings and actual events. Schools can only do so much and in that sense they are just like my unit on Mesoamerica. Set some realistic goals, make a plan, and get going. Just don't forget about the people involved. A rocket and a kid are different...though both can go off course without warning sometimes.

I have not fared well in predicting the future but I will say one thing for certain. Kids, schools, teachers, even our federal budget all face an uphill climb at times and we don't need any scary partisan rhetoric or cumbersome legislation making the hill steeper. Is 2012, 2014 or tomorrow the end? Another great question. I have to go back to the last government shutdown and I guess that also depends on what your meaning of is, is.That's for a later post

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Short Story

"A compact, tense story about one of our greatest fears, a gun in school.  Artfully constructed with shifting narratives, the plot races to an ending that is unexpected but strangely believable."
John Grisham

Local readers may already be familiar with the story, but last month, I entered a local short-story contest judged by John Grisham and took first prize.  The quote above is Grisham's response to the story.  The story is about a gun in school resulting in a lock-down.  The story can be found online here:  A Small Brown Box.

If you take the time to read it, I would love to hear your feedback.  Thanks to "the HooK" magazine and its editor Hawes Spencer for sponsoring the contest, to John Grisham for judging, and to all who have read the story and responded so positively.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Underground Re-Open for Business

Despite our recent episode with DHMO on April 1, the Teaching Underground is alive, well, and celebrating a milestone of sorts.  April Fools' Day marked the sixth month of Teaching Underground.  In September of last year, we faced some pretty dramatic changes in our little "educational basement."  Our district had increased class sizes, added an additional class to high school teachers' (and students') schedules, and implemented a student information system with so many problems they finally decided in March to discontinue its use for the next school year.

We entered the school year with energy and high hopes, but hours of time spent re-learning how to use a gradebook that didn't work, planning for an additional class, and managing the grading and paperwork for an additional 30-40 students started to get us down.  From the beginning, we wanted to use the Teaching Underground as a forum to raise awareness of major issues affecting education locally and nationally.  We also hoped to balance this with a little humor and encouragement for others in the profession.  You can see this evident in our first few posts Should We Trust Superman? and Teaching and Donuts, both of which remain among our most popular posts.

Around the time we decided to launch the Teaching Underground, we were asked to give a presentation about leadership during a professional development day at our school.  Part of the objective for this session was to inspire and encourage others in our building to think beyond the classroom to become leaders for positive change in our school and in the lives of our students.  Even in September, the burdens of the new school year were already evident.

From this experience, and the lessons learned in the last six months of writing for the Teaching Underground, I've come to believe that educators must speak up and honestly react to policies and change that negatively impact the student experience in the classroom.  Just as importantly, they must refuse to fall into the trap of complaining and resisting change.  The only way to balance these two roles is to stay informed, continually makes efforts to improve, and maintain relationships with families, peers, and administrators.

We sincerely appreciate everyone who has made Teaching Underground a part of your experience.  Our readership has grown significantly in the last few months, so thank you to everyone who follows us on google and Facebook and to everyone who has taken the time to share us with your friends.  We hope that you continue to join us, and if you like what we're doing, please share.  And, we hope that we are able to continue to provide support and encouragement to the education community.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Underground Closed

It has been a rough two days and we are in a bit of shock. We were called to a tense meeting on Thursday afternoon where six of us were informed by administration that effective Thursday afternoon and then after our Spring Break the 6 classes housed in the school's basement(where the Underground has taught for the past 10+ years) will be closed for environmental abatement. We had noticed several small monitors placed in the hallway but figured it was some sort of pest control. So after being allowed 3 hours today to remove items from our room the basement is now sealed. We were then told in the upcoming weeks contractors will be working to remove contamination including a chemical called DHMO. No timeline for the removal has yet been established and bids are being sought for the work to begin as soon as possible.

The origin of the DMHO on our hall is not yet known. Ideas range from it came from solvents, was used on site and leached through the soil and walls, or was present in the ground from before the school was constructed, or even came through the plumbing. No one knows for certain nor is it certain we will ever know. The bottom line is that it is present in our school and our rooms and that is scary. It is dense and apparently settles in low lying places. We asked lots of questions about the health risks but honestly weren't given too many answers. All they did was assure us that there were no concerns about any individual's health at this time.

Worse yet we were asked not to discuss this publicly and looked online and called around and it appears no one is certain what exactly the health risks are. I figured speaking up will not be noticed when wind of this hits the parents.

The following is from the website

Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) is a colorless and odorless chemical compound, also referred to by some as Dihydrogen Oxide, Hydrogen Hydroxide, Hydronium Hydroxide, or simply Hydric acid. Its basis is the highly reactive hydroxyl radical, a species shown to mutate DNA, denature proteins, disrupt cell membranes, and chemically alter critical neurotransmitters. The atomic components of DHMO are found in a number of caustic, explosive and poisonous compounds such as Sulfuric Acid, Nitroglycerine and Ethyl Alcohol.

Another informative site was:

Despite the known dangers of DHMO, it continues to be used daily by industry, government, and even in private homes across the U.S. and worldwide. Our concern is that this could have been something in our rooms for years and no one told us. How safe are our kids, our schools and the people in them? I can say on behalf of all of this this has been a difficult 48 hours.

We will keep you posted and welcome any information from those who experience with DHMO contamination.