Friday, November 30, 2012

APWATW (A picture is worth a thousand words).

Add your own insightful or humorous caption for the image in the comments section.

"Little Barry already stood out among his peers by the 1st grade"

The kindergartners, angered at more standardized testing,  staged an impromptu sit in.

"This administration is determined to leave No Child Behind, except those already sitting behind me."

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reformers, TFA and Me.

Good teachers are always in demand.  Yet it seems many good ones can't find a job.  Specifically a job where they want.    Some good ones are even losing their jobs in our current economic climate through no fault of their own.  In demand school systems are more appealing to recruits based on many factors including compensation, benefits, student populations and of course where you are from.

In that sense I am fortunate to have grown up in Albemarle and even more fortunate to have finally* been hired to teach in the system.  (* it took me 4 years to become full time) One thing true of our division is they are not wanting for a supply of talented new teachers.  With the University of Virginia's Curry school a stone's throw away a steady stream of some of the best helps us fulfill our needs for new teachers.  Other communities around this nation are not so fortunate.

Enter Teach for America.  Its stated purpose to bring high quality individuals from all over from all types of fields into the world of teaching.  I am so tired of hearing about TFA that honestly I rarely read about them and try not to think about them any more.    I recently caught an  NPR story about TFA and it got me thinking.   I went to their site for the first time in a while and saw "Teach For America is growing the movement of leaders who work to ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education."   Slow down there, that is not exactly the context I usually hear about TFA.   Many teachers aren't too fond of it. Maybe I am too hard on them.  Maybe not.  But it is worth considering TFA, hence the today's post

I've never actually worked directly with anyone from TFA.  My only real experience with "the corps" is with two amazing former students who sought a TFA recommendation.  So how can I possibly be able to judge it?  You'll just have to trust me.  My credentials as an experienced teacher are spotty and I didn't attend Yale or Harvard.   I wrestle with how I feel about TFA and acknowledge my views are not static.   I have a healthy and innate sense of insecurity common among teachers which may explain why I was defensive towards the concept of TFA from the get go.  Flawed as teachers are, good ones care less how they "look" and more how they are "seen", meaning they understand teachers do more than simply instruct.  They  know they can do a great job with that instruction and still fall short by some measurements.  Moving beyond professional resentment,  I personally am still leaning over the fence far enough to conclude that I dislike more than I like about TFA.  The marketing and closely massaged public image coupled with intensive lobbying probably contribute to that and the slick video spots leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Several former students of mine are still working as part of the "corps".   They are great kids.    I'd trust them with my own children.  This is why I am so torn.  I think it is safe to assume that the majority of people serving/ involved with TFA are good people, probably better than me even.   I have little doubt they are affecting kids in a positive way as they work with them and take their mission seriously. But beyond the ones I know,  why are the future leaders of TFA signing up and doing this? Altrusim?  Does the optimism spewing from TFA blind us to the complexity what is going on?  Are they altering the way teachers are trained and schools are staffed?   One thing that bugs me is the concept that it is OK to leave teaching after 2-3 years.  That in my view does more potential harm than good.

Take for example Colorado State Senator  Michael Johnston, former TFA member  My impression is that Johnston is a great guy.  He's done probably more good than I ever will and he is a year younger.  But  mere weeks of training and two years in the classroom can scarcely be a substitute for wisdom and knowledge built through real experience.  Like many TFA members he quickly elevated to graduate student, then law school, became a policy maker, then a principal and finally a legislator.  I know in my second year as a teacher I had little concept of what excellence in the classroom was and hadn't even begun to consider a teacher's role in larger issues affecting education.  But I didn't go to Yale.

As a result of TFA contracts with local districts did Johnston potentially take the spot of someone who might still be serving those kids in that school?  Did he really want to be a teacher or did he simply sign up for the chance to do some good during that time with those kids and see it as a rung on his way up?  Who am I to say?   But what I can say is afterwards he ascended to be named by Forbes as among the 7 most influential educators in the country(Why does Forbes even have that list?).  As I proofread it sounds like Sour Grapes but underneath what it reveals is a philosophical difference.    At best someone who is a teacher for two years can be good, at worst awful.   It would seem the antithesis of what I see a teacher should be.  Far more than simply transmitting knowledge teachers should be be loyal, dedicated, engaged and involved in community.  Not interlopers. 

As a state legislator Johnston worked to pass major teacher evaluation reform.  Half of a teacher's rating will be based on student growth.  Much of that will come from statewide tests and while this reform might do some good, it will do a lot of harm.  And most teachers agree why.   Teachers are the biggest in-school factor for a child, but much evidence supports we are not the biggest factor.  Even if we were, there are many things beyond our control that are simply seen by too many as excuses.    So Johnston and TFA's stance on poverty has directly altered the accountability placing it squarely on the teacher. Does this serve kids?  But legislators tend to see the world in terms of things they can actually control.  Since poverty or social inequity wasn't one of those it is only natural that things would gravitate towards education.

What really sticks in my craw is that TFA works hard to bring the best and brightest into the classroom, only to work equally as hard to move them out.  This is traitorous.  As if they cannot affect enough change working face to face with students inside a classroom.  If we are to continually move in a positive direction we need teachers.  Not everyone can be a "leader" as TFA sees it.   And by teachers I mean people committed to the classroom and the students in them.  We can be leaders too. I believe change needs to happen from the bottom up and not so much from the top down. 

Is it possible to separate the larger organization from the people within it?  Sure.  TFA does much good.  Specifically targeting under-performing schools they in some cases fill a need and schools that are difficult to staff.   I know they do good there.  Just as there are many great teachers serving in schools that are labelled as "failing" in so many case around the nation.  But does the fact kids are poor justify a reliance on TFA members?  Would it be OK in a more affluent community?

 I agree with much of what they stand for "poverty is not destiny" and find their abundance of infographics hypnotically appealing.  They are more successful at recruiting a more diverse teaching force than most school systems.  TFA is selective.  So the assumption is people they seek are on the whole more capable in many ways.  But smarter doesn't mean gooder when it comes to teaching and educating children(It hurt to type that).  TFA quickly points to research to the contrary maintaining their leaders outperform "regular" teachers.  But much of their sand castle is built on test scores.   Kids need and deserve more.  They deserve caring and committed professionals well versed in how to excel at their job.  Not simply banking their Peace Corps time in the trenches always looking ahead.

So effectiveness is an immediate concern.  If any other profession were to propose bringing in people with a few short weeks training and handing them the keys of a hugely important job(doctor, pilot, bus driver, machinist) there would of course be some objections, maybe more.  But anyone CAN teach right?  Wrong.   I can do the jobs of a lot of different intelligent people but know quite well they could barely function in mine.  That is not boasting.  You learn a few things about the world after being a teacher for 15 years.  In discussing TFA we are talking about what amounts to the largest teacher preparation program in the nation.  That scares me more than a bit.  Measuring the effectiveness of TFA, like a lot of education research,  remains muddy even after 20 years.  I can locate studies and research concluding TFA is good, and ones that say TFA is bad.  Who to trust?  Trust the person whose been there working for years and isn't going anywhere.  The one that doesn't want to.

Trust teachers.   Worth pointing out is that many TFA members remain as dedicated teachers and I commend and welcome them.   Maintaining great respect for the folks I know who have joined up and those that want to isn't that hard.  Yet I remain conflicted.  I don't think this is true for many non-teachers as the public image carved out by TFA is overwhelmingly positive, if ill informed.  It is not so much that I have a problem with TFA so much as what it is made out to be.   Politicians and reformers have mistakenly seen and promoted TFA as a model for change at scale.  I am resolute in my belief that what is needed in the most at risk under-performing school is not always what's best for every school.  Hiring a top notch graduate versus a novice may prove fruitful in the short term but what of comparing them to an experienced teacher?  The motivation to hire TFA members versus "regular" teachers makes you think.   One thing that struck me from the website was a comment I read from a member: "I am a teacher - not a student teacher, not a volunteer worker or a tutor - but a teacher."   No doubt with a larger support network, broader resources, and a clearer mission I might have been a vastly better teacher in my first years.  But I was always very careful about how I presented myself.  And even today I see my humility and insecurity as a strength.

TFA expends a great deal of effort and funds to present itself a certain way.  Today's press and media do little to alter their carefully crafted narrative.  That makes me both nervous and suspicious.  You learn those traits with years of teaching,  it has hardened my idealistic soul.  The promotion and marketing of such a program I believe does harm and has moved it far from its grass roots beginning to a data fed monster.     That expansion effort is more indicative of a business than a agent of change.  I'm not a big fan of Wendy Kopp.  I'll just put that out there.  Not a big fan of higher ups in the organization who see it as a cash cow funneling funds their direction.  Not a big fan of the folks who sign up, "serve their time", and kick on up the chain to assume more comfortable(and potentially lucrative) role in the ever swelling educational bureaucracy.

Good teaching is still very much a mystery.  TFA has not found a silver bullet nor an 8-fold path to learning.  Given that fact we must resolve to use something that appears lacking the higher up you go.  Good common sense.  Is it wise to bring people in, train them with great haste, and then cast them out to teach our children?  I have an opinion.  That is one thing that there is no shortage of, and it has taken far longer than a few weeks or two years to become informed.   Arrive at your own conclusions but just be sure to look before you leap.

Can we do better?

Here's some additional resources:
Teach for America Site

National Education Policy Center

Living in Dialogue(an great site)

Education Week

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Why Thankfulness Matters

Have you ever tried to actively nurture an attitude of Thankfulness? While dwelling on gratitude, it is difficult to keep a bitter heart. With one's mind filled with thoughts of blessing, petty complaints of life begin to separate from true concerns and hardship. I hope that throughout the year, the opinions expressed on the Teaching Underground reflect these legitimate concerns about public education and not petty complaints. Despite the many problems in our systems, the positives certainly outweigh the negative. So with a grateful heart, here's what I'm thankful for this year:

1) Student Feedback- I used to get bitter that elementary teachers get all of the gifts. Today I recognize the many gifts that students give me every year that have no monetary value or tangible uses. Just last week I found an anonymous notecard in my teacher mailbox. "You have taught me a lot this year and I really enjoy your class. Thank you for giving me a seventh period I can look forward to and where I don't want to fall asleep." If you're a student reading this post, a kind word of encouragement-- written or otherwise-- beats any gift you can give. (Unless it's like a $100 gift card to a nice restaurant or a new iPad, or something like that.)

2) A Dynamic Workplace- No two days are the same. It can be a challenge to deal with changing student moods, variable schedules, technology failures or other unforeseen disruptions, but it forces you to keep your mind active and engaged. Teaching requires a delicate balance of thorough planning and flexibility. Practicing this daily is invigorating. Today, a student brought a four-foot air cannon, decorated as a "Canon" camera to class. It was a physics project. Too large to be ignored and too enticing not to play with, I figured out a way to integrate the model into my lesson for the day on "Motivation." I don't often have air cannons in my class, but when I do, we certainly use them.

3) Excellent Colleagues- Some teachers need to go. I could name a few, but in a building with over one-hundred teachers, the balance is clearly not in their favor. If you or one of your children has suffered a year with a bad teacher this is no consolation, but most of the people I work with are great. I learn from them everyday. This year I think I've had more opportunities to interact with other teachers in my building and system than any time in the last ten years. When good teachers connect, good things happen. I'm thankful for the many great colleagues in my building, in my system, and increasingly across the country.

4) The Internet- I enjoy the idea that my ideas connect with a larger population through the Teaching Underground. When we started, I thought maybe a handful of friends and colleagues would read, but I continue to appreciate the wide reach of our blog. Through it, we've discovered numerous other educators with similar passion and motivation and in the process we've become much less "ignorant" as a result.

I've also discovered a Professional Learning Community of my own.  Usually I'm the only Psychology teacher at my school. There's only one other full-time Psychology teacher in our county and we meet to share ideas and communicate by e-mail. But this year, using Twitter, I've connected with over a dozen other Psychology teachers by participating in #psychat. I take away something new for my classroom almost weekly through the combined knowledge of other participants.

It goes without saying that I'm thankful for a short break. I hope that all of you can find the time to connect with family and friends, or perhaps just to get some time to relax and reflect. Enjoy the break and enjoy your return to work. It's still work, but there's much to be thankful for in that.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Part of the Problem or Solution

Last week we reported on the new Virginia plan for meeting federal waiver requirements from No Child Left Behind. Pass rates were set at 82, 68, 52, and 45 percent for Asians, whites, latinos, and blacks respectively. After talking to several other educators, the state's explanation-- "if we look at where these children are starting from, we're making efforts to move them forward"-- sounds somewhat reasonable.  Maybe you remember a little of your "forms of reasoning" from philosophy. If the premise is true and the logic is sound then the conclusion is true.  For example-- all birds fly, penguins are birds, therefore penguins must fly.  We could argue all we want about how sound the reasoning is, but anyone can see that penguins don't fly.  We got something wrong.

To all of my educator friends-- if you think the logic behind this plan is sound, just look at the conclusion, something is wrong.  If not the logic, then our premise. It would do our system well if instead of defending such an egregious plan we would step back and figure out how we got here because somehow good intentioned efforts at progress just resulted in some pretty serious regress.

First, the ever present statement that "teachers are the most important factors in student achievement." Most everyone who uses this line fails to add the caveat of the most important in school factor. Many out of school factors impact student achievement. Remind policy-makers and other high-ranking ed officials of this and the reply goes something like this-- "we only have the ability to control what is in our power to control"-- leading us to complacently accept the reality that no one is addressing the issues outside of school that impact our students. So yes, students are coming into our classrooms with different abilities, many times as a result of their environment.

Second, if students are coming into our schools (their starting point according to the Virginia Superintendent of Education) at such various levels of performance, why don't we try to find the reason. When colleges find that too many incoming freshmen are in need of remedial classes, don't we first look to the high schools from which they graduated as the reason. Why satisfy ourselves with the excuse of lower starting points instead of asking why these children are already underperforming by the time we get them.

I have a feeling that race may not be the answer. If it is, what does that mean? It means that there is some inherent difference in ability based on race. We know this isn't true, so what else could be the cause? George Bush is famous for saying that we need to fight the "soft bigotry of low expectations", but I don't know who added "instead of addressing the hard bigotry of  poverty." Why are we still separating these children into categories in 2012? Won't we find the greatest correlation between school performance and economics rather than race?

In the end, consider the national narrative regarding education for the last ten years. We've increasingly focused on racial differences in performance and ignored the harsh reality that economic differences have the greatest impact. Last year, when the Teaching Underground attended the NCSS national convention, we listened to Geoffrey Canada's keynote address. He shared his heuristic on decision-making in his Harlem Kids Zone-- "when in doubt, do what the rich people do."

In this ongoing debate between so-called education reformers-- the people who want to measure everything, expand test-based accountability, evaluate teachers on growth models, get unions out of the way-- and people like us at the Teaching Underground, we're often cast as a voice for the status quo.

Come by my classroom one day and look out at the brilliant black students that are taking my AP Psychology course and explain to them why it's a good idea to have a lower pass-rate for "their people." When you put it like that, status quo doesn't sound too bad.  But then again, maybe the progress we're being sold isn't really progress at all.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A picture is worth a thousand words(APWATW).

Add your own  insightful or humorous caption in the comments sections.

This image appeared on as part of a story on elementary school students learning Chinese. We once again are looking for a caption to go along with the photo.

Kid in Angry Bird Shirt is thinking "I can't hear you."

Teacher in back of room "Maybe I can fly to my happy place"

TU- "No wonder these students score higher.  They are being taught how to fly"

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

When Numbers Betray Reality

Target pass rate of 82% for Asians. Target pass rate of 68% for whites.  52% for Latinos and 45% for blacks.  Those are the new performance goals for math in the state of Virginia and it's good enough for a waiver freeing us from the untenable mandates of No Child Left Behind.

No matter how reasonable the explanation sounds, the result-- 82% pass rate target for Asians, 45% pass rate target for blacks-- is absolutely unreasonable.  My psychology class is in the middle of a unit on Testing and Intelligence and we looked at group differences in I.Q. scores last class.  We discussed the 1994 book The Bell Curve and how sometimes inferences about race and ability based on testing results are seriously flawed.  A diagram from the book shows overlapping normal curves of I.Q. scores between Asians, whites, hispanics, and blacks from right to left on the curve.

I was shocked to hear news of the new Virginia targets that evening after viewing this diagram in class.  NPR's All Things Considered ran the story titled "Firestorm Erupts Over Virginia's Education Goals." The story stood out to me after hearing the percentage target rates that matched the order of I.Q. scores presented in the diagram.

We listened to the audio in class. I didn't anticipate how awkward the transition would be. "We've just listened to people talking about Asians and whites and latinos and blacks, but when you look to your left and look to your right you see people with names, your friends. And I can't look at any of you and say that I expect any less of you because of who you are."

Is it reasonable for an entire state to articulate that our expectations of performance are different depending on your race?

For over a decade now, schools, divisions, and entire states have struggled to prove their merit based on the primary metric of the standardized test. Percentages, percentiles, and pass rates have surpassed the noble goals of civic responsibility, critical thinking, responsibility, and achievement.  Never mind that some schools don't even have high enough numbers of "sub-groups" to qualify in that reporting category, we've found a way to numerically rate and therefore compare quality from one location to the next.

When schools started meeting the required pass rates of state testing, No Child Left Behind came along and labelled them as failing because not every reporting category met the benchmark pass rate.  It essentially created an all-or-nothing system.  Success didn't matter unless it was complete success.  Any partial failure became the character of the entire school.

Expectations of perfection looming in the next few years prompted the offer of waivers for NCLB. The education world has always promoted an "every child can succeed" attitude. You can't  achieve excellence in this field without that attitude. But most teachers learn within the first year of teaching that just believing that every child can succeed doesn't make every child succeed.

We hear that new state pass rates are set with the understanding that these racial groups aren't starting at the same place.  So we want to look for growth.  We hear that what's important isn't where we finish, it's how much improvement we've accomplished.

Either way, we're left with numbers. 82, 68, 52, and 45, and they define success depending on your race.

If that doesn't wake you up to the damage that our reliance on test based accountability has done to education and American society I'm not sure what will.  Welcome back to 1954 Ms. Brown.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Educational Leadership-Part III Advice to Leaders

PART III and final of series on Educational Leadership

Any fool can open a computer and explore the wealth of resources on leadership to improve themselves or others. But what sense does it make if those of us not necessarily in a leadership "position" don't throw in their 2 cents?   Enter the TU and our advice to education leaders everywhere.

First and foremost start by picking people as leaders who want THAT job. Not someone who wants to use it for advancement. Those types usually have agendas and will need to show quick signs of progress to move on.  They act more like a bull in a china shop than a leader.  National education leadership is rife with examples of people that fit this mold.   If you are a teacher you likely know a few closer to home. They are not all bad. But they are far from all good.   If I got their ear for a few minutes I'd bend it and offer some advice.  How honest I'd would depend largely on whether I thought it would do any good.

Another piece of advice for leaders is to listen to people before they listen to data.  What's lost in the data driven education landscape is good common sense built on years of experience. Valuing tests more than people creates exactly the test driven world many fear. The healthy tension that exists between those inside a classroom and those that direct them doesn't have to be bad thing.

As a leader you must yoke your strengths.  In education that is good teaching.  So one of the best things you could do is allow teachers the freedom and flexibility to teach well.  Support them, value their time and protect their ability to function by insulating them from anything that interferes with the process of teaching and learning. 

Start not by telling, and not necessarily by asking. Start with proposing and then listen closely. Unlike a true politician who recognizes they will have to compromise if they want to get anything done, educational leaders don't have a "loyal opposition" to keep their poor ideas in check.   Honest feedback is too frequently neither welcome nor sought in the process.  Imagine if we had decisions made only by ideology in politics. It'd be a less than ideal scenario.

Teachers, counselors, principals and other staff in the school buildings often have to negotiate very delicate situations. This requires an equal amount if not more political skill than an actual politician. Difference being, they work to always keep in mind the goal of what is best for the student, not what is best for themselves. Assuming all act as professionals and not in their own self interest, the results should be positive.  But not always.  That's because education is not an exact science.  The good decision makers try to balance all interests and arrive at compromise as appropriate.  We can't do only what students want(there are obvious flaws there).  We can't do only what parents want.  We can't do only what teachers want.  We shouldn't do only what educational leaders want.  That last bears repeating.   We shouldn't do only what educational leaders want.

Leaders should actively seek feedback use it to guide their decisions and future direction. They should recognize that experience in the teaching field and education brings a certain amount of wisdom worth listening to.   They might benefit from bringing everyone to the table when needed. Including critics who do not see much of what today's schools do as successful. Their different perspective might provide an alternative to status quo.  But it is also key to separate theory from practice and remember who has their feet on the ground each day.

Leaders must avoid self fulfilling prophecies. Finding what they are looking for either before or after their actions may be an outgrowth of selective evidence. This grows increasingly common with data driven decisions. A change is made and then data selectively harvested  justifying the course of action and confirming what they seek. Belief can be a powerful thing.

Leaders should hold themselves accountable to their goals. I and my colleague face this each year. Not just with benchmark tests but each time we know there will come a reckoning when we assign a grade. We must be able to justify it or make it right by the student and their parents. We mustn't forget the individual nature of education. The formalized process has been this way for thousands of years and enables individuals to survive in an increasingly diverse and complex civilization. Online classes and other increasingly common means of "instruction and learning" differ little in that all the data, science and research will never change the fact that in there is a student and there is a teacher.

Leaders must build relationships with people at different levels who can speak openly and honestly.  That as much as anything would be a key help guide a successful leader. Avoid the cursory "walk among the troops" or anonymous opinions and instead try to establish a network or pipeline to help guide innovation and improvement. This should be built from the bottom up and as more of a partnership. Too many "yes men" insulate leaders from the realities of the front. I personally favor internal promotion which seems to have fallen out of favor in the networks of leadership. While risking stagnation it affords a more collegial system of relationship among leaders. There are some weaknesses of this approach but good leaders can overcome them.  Certainly there are exceptions and most effective leadership skills transfer well to other settings.

Of course everything said here should be taken with a grain of salt. I am after all just a teacher. But those who have that thought when speaking with me without first listening to what I say have proven they know less than I do about leadership.

We at the Teaching Underground World Headquarters endure and succeed(that is debatable) because we make a point and manage somehow to avoid the vitriol and rhetoric that takes over almost any current debate on education.

The last bit of advice I have to leaders is they could follow the lead of our nation's greatest teachers.   Keep an eye on fixing what's broken and simply helping others do, and be, their best. I read recently a comment on a blog that said the following of educational reform:  
"A reform movement that assigns no responsibility to students, parents, administrators, school boards, state and federal legislators, universities and taxpayers is doomed to failure." 
It would seem that instead of including and listening to teachers, too many are simply blaming them.

I will leave you with some images meant to have you consider how they relate to leadership.  As you consider them ask some simple questions  "Why should anyone be led by you?  Why do you really want to be a leader?  Are you really making things better?"

How and why are people able to do extraordinary things? 
How and why is it possible that people at the top can see farther and reach higher?

ROYGBIV  Which color leads?

Friday, November 9, 2012

This is America

If you read yesterday's post on the Underground, you know we spent the day in Washington, D.C. Wednesday.  It was quite a serene and quiet place to be the day after elections.  It's hard not to spend time in D.C. without feeling a strong sense of American pride.  Here are a few of my observations.

1) Even on a "down" day, I felt like a tourist.  So many monuments to not be touched, velvet ropes to not be crossed, and armed guards protecting... I'm not sure what they were protecting.  I appreciate the need to keep "tourists" like myself from interrupting the business of America, but the distance between the governed and the governors has grown even since I first started taking this trip fifteen years ago.

2) There's too much gravity.  We took our students into the House Gallery.  I told the complaining students "It's kind of like going to Chicago and stopping by to see Wrigley Field just to see it even if there's no game."  The floor of the House was empty save the dozen other tourists who must have a better Representative than us; they got to sit in actual legislators' chairs.  I walked into the gallery sympathizing with my low-riding students.  I had to keep a grip on the waist of my pants to keep them from falling after removing my belt in order to enter the empty chambers.  Thinking it fun to "root for democracy" I encouraged a student at the end of our group to start a wave.  Security guards squelched it before it even got as far as me.  We were shuushed quite a bit on Wednesday.

3) Our country is divided, but I still visited D.C. with thankfulness that on the day after a contentious election in which nearly half of the population wanted a different outcome, we could tour our nation's capital without fear of violence or unrest.

4) America is about moving forward.  We've got quite a bit of nastiness in our history that shouldn't be ignored.  It informs us as we move into the future.  It is the ideal that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights.  It is the realization that we can elevate the individual and society without sacrificing one for the other.

Quote from the FDR Memorial
5) Things are going to get better, even if they get worse.  We spent our day with three-hundred almost adults.  Sometimes teaching is frustrating, sometimes it is hard.  Sometimes you want to give up and sometimes you want to quit.  But on a trip like this, you're not so much a teacher.  You get out of the way and watch.  Watch how the students interact with each other.  Watch them take the time to say thank you to a bus driver.  Watch them exchange friendly conversation with tour guides and security guards.  Watch them learn at their own pace of their own accord.  Watch them admire the monuments to our nation's history.  And take comfort in the hope that one day they too will be admired for their contribution to this American society.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Mr. Underground Goes to DC...again.

What would a normal sane person do the day after an election?   Be thankful and get back to work right?    Probably... but that's just not how the TU rolls.  We decided to head into the heart of the action...downtown Washington DC.    We volunteered to chaperone a government field trip to the nation's capital(also went to Capitol)

The day started off about 4:30AM rather iffy when I forgot to wear a belt.   It ended when our bus collided at highway speed with a bench.  Yes you read that right, a bench that must have fallen from another vehicle and sat square in the middle of US 29S.   Some quick moves by our driver who went by the name "DC" (not a joke) helped us avoid disaster.   Minor damage and all were safely returned home in one pice, barely.   I returned home with some welcomed souvenirs and of course, space ice cream.  Other than complaining about the low temps and some straggling the group of 200+ AHS students behaved in an exemplary manner.  More on this tomorrow.  

The best way to bring you the action, or lack of action , from DC on the day after the election is with photos.  Enjoy.

Sweater vests are always a good call.

 Recognize this?  
1st correct answer in comments section wins a free TU T-shirt(if they ever get made)

 Student: "Why do they have a guy with a bowling ball in here?  TU:  "Ooof.?"

 It truly is an awe inspiring building in so many ways.  We are lucky to live so close.

 "Wait what?  A coffin in a pickup bed?  No students...that is completely normal"

 Only memorial believe it or not I've never visited.  I get a lot of TJ in town.

So many quotes to like but this one stuck today.  From FDR to Congress in 1935

Lessons from the 2012 Election Part Deux

Six billion dollars total in all campaigns and it is over.  The Electoral College functioned as it was  intended.  Proof past leaders deserve continued credit for the benefits we continue to enjoy.   President Obama won and Romney conceded in a graceful and respectful manner.  We can finally move forward. As predicted the schools will all be open tomorrow and the mail will be delivered.  The TU  will actually be in the Washington DC chaperoning a student field trip.   That ought to be fun.  Maybe we'll get the chance to photo bomb a network anchor? 

A lot of the pundits and analysts on TV have said it will basically be the status quo.  Einstein said Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  Maybe that will sink in and we will get better results.  Time will tell.    Obama wins, the Senate leans left and the House right so there is still a great deal of uncertainty.  It is likely nothing good will happen without both sides working together.   Hopefully the gravity of the issues that confront us all will motivate everyone to learn some things.  They need to learn that compromise is OK.    They need to do what they are paid to do.  They need to lead.

A few other lessons. 
After hearing time and time again that we need our best and brightest as teachers I couldn't help but think the same is true of our policy makers.  But I am not certain the smartest or best are heading to Dc or the statehouse any longer.  Same could be said of teaching I suppose.  Just sayin'

It's Commercial. 
Anyone else in a battleground state ready to see some normal "ads"?  The only commercials I recall for the past 4 months other than political commercials are ones from     Exxonmobil's help with math and science is great and their "invest in teachers" approach sounds great.  But does the world's largest publicly traded company really know that much about the average school?  I mean I like their commercials...I think?  I suppose I have grown distrustful in my approach to education and ask now ...what's the catch?  I do like that slogan though.  I plan on saying it as often as I can over the next few weeks.  Imagine what the money spent on commercials do for kids?  The Homeless. Veterans.  Our infrastructure.  Maybe our political leaders should ponder that of as well.

Technology Helps?
Seeing all the network folks using those fancy touch screen devices as they flip and zoom through analysis of different races almost made my brain explode. Are there parallels in the classroom?  You bet.  A smartboard doesn't make students learn better. 

Enjoy getting back to normalcy or hopefully something better!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Lessons from the 2012 Election

Young people like the rest of us are saturated this time of year with campaign ads, election coverage and political banter.  Both members of the TU teach Social Studies and we both have years of experience teaching US/VA Government.  But neither of us currently count that course as part of our teaching assignment and we don't deal directly with the topics in our curriculum.

Since the classroom is a reflection of the outside world, politics invariably comes up and over the last few years impartial and balanced discussions of politics have grown more challenging.  Students often simply echo what they hear at home with little depth of understanding or awareness that there may be a student with a very different view sitting right next to them.  Critical remarks are usually followed in kind. 

That is not an indictment of their views, merely an observation.  We do offer our 2 cents, but ever mindful of doing so in a balanced way so as not to influence or even reveal our own views.  Any talk of Obama and Romney this past Fall has been like when a students farts.  You have to adress it and move forward but that is often very tough.

Elections bring out the best and worst in our great nation.  On Tuesday, many of our schools will serve a different role in that they will function as polling centers.  Each a mecca for the democratic principles which make our system so remarkable, so admirable.  The "What Ifs" are intriguing and a lot remains in doubt.  What is certain is that after Tuesday we will know who the winner is and we will get a respite from the partisan politics and get back to normal. Right? appears there are several scenarios where we not only have no clear winner, but might even end up with leaders from different parties.   Wouldn't that be fun?  Imagine you are teacher facing students Wednesday morning and they begin to ask questions no one can really answer. 

Ideally the Electoral College will function as it intended and produce a clear winner.  If not we could be in for weeks or more of legal wrangling and uncertainty.   One of the rationales for the Electoral College is that it tends to produce a definitive winner.  The 2000 election stands as a notable exception.  I remember how difficult it was explain to students the mechanisms at play.  Many never seemed to digest that Bush was declared the winner even though Gore had a popular vote edge.  Even with the bitter outcome the Constitution did its job.  Thanks in part to events 200 years in the past the system is designed pretty well.

The 1800 election saw for the first time the peaceful transfer of power from the Adams led Federalists to the Jefferson led Republicans.  Jefferson and Aaron Burr ended up in a House contest as to who would be President and who would be the Vice.  On the 36th ballot, Jefferson won and he and Burr shared an uneasy term.  The Electoral College was modified in 1804 with the ratification of the 12th Amendment. 
Though it is unlikely, it is possible the nation could produce a 269-269 electoral tie.  At that point the Presidential outcome would be decided by the newly-elected House of Representatives and likely go to Romney.  But the Vice Presidential outcome would be determined by the Senate and that is more likely to remain under Democratic control. So a Mitt Romney/Joe Biden result is not inconceivable.
Even in that instance the mail will still be delivered and the schools will be open.  We assume.

The Bush and Obama administrations have seen little change in the direction of national policy toward education.   More testing, growing influence from testing companies and corporate reformers are all components of the last 12 years.   Anyone expecting major changes from whoever wins is likely to be disappointed.  We simply ask that whoever wins does not appoint Michelle Rhee as Secretary of Education and decides that the best approach might be one endorsed by actual educators across the country. 

Our hope is that we do indeed have a winner and the loser concedes in a graceful and respectful manner.  In the event that does not happen we hope that the system and people involved with it will rise to the occasion as they have managed to do throughout our storied history. 
As for TU's predictions we must again remain impartial.  The Redskins lost this weekend.  The "Redskins rule" dictates that Romney will likely win.  If that happens Obama supporters should once again blame Dan Snyder for everything.

The lesson I would offer is that parents should talk to their kids about the issues.  Don't leave it solely to media outlets or even schools to educate our children on politics.  Young people often struggle to comprehend the significance of political events as they have no foundation from which to operate.    Watch and engage with them during this time in an open minded manner and alow them to form their own, well informed opinion.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Best Technology Tool Ever- BubbleSheet

I found this gem today in the iTunes App store. Who says technology doesn't revolutionize education?

Here's the description from the App store site:

MasteryConnect is a web-based system that allows teachers to assess and monitor student performance of the Common Core and state standards, share common assessments, and connect in an online professional learning community.  With the BubbleSheet app, teachers save time in grading student assignments and assessments as scores are automatically populated in the MasteryConnect’s scoring system.  

I came up with this:
From the makers of DigiRoll the computerized Wheel comes BubbleSheet.  Paper and Pencil is so old fashioned, why not add some critical thinking and analysis to your assessment by enhancing it with technology. Twenty-first century learning just got easier.
Think you can create a snarkier description than that?

 (Here's a link to the site if the screenshot quality is poor)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

How Teachers are like Coal

The future and direction of our nation's environmental policy had been buried behind other conversations about more dynamic issues during the 2012 Presidential Campaign. The ongoing political and academic debate over whether climate change is really happening has ultimately paralyzed us from taking any effective action.  No matter where you fall on the issue you likely agree big issues often see this sort of entrenchment and it takes something equally big to move us forward.  Enter disaster politics. 

Hurricane Sandy may be that things as it blew the issue to the forefront.    No doubt the most awful thing to occur in a long time lives and livelihoods are ruined and disrupted.   The TU certainly sends it heartfelt best wishes to those affected by devastating storm.   In the aftermath Northeastern politicians like Governors Christie and Cuomo and others like Bloomberg and Schumer are being forced to address the issue as they move forward.  

Sometimes such events are seized upon by opportunistic individuals as a bellwether  for change.  This Superstorm and all the misery it brought may actually bring about some decisive action on our environment though I am not holding my breath such change will be all good.  Nor do I think speaking freely on the topic is simply an overt effort to access future federal funds for major Depression like reconstruction.    If  it seems possible the issue of the environment and our effect on it has become too political.   Some might say that money directs our path.  That is usually not a good thing.

As the coastal regions proceed with their efforts first recover, but later both better prepare and prevent such calamity it is incumbent upon us to use wisdom and sound evidence, not politics to guide out path.  It will require the best our leaders from both sides of the aisle have and even then the cooperation of other nations.  We must listen to informed and educated people who have the necessary understanding gained from years of experience.  Energy companies, environmental groups, big business, scientific organizations, international posturing and of course the two major parties all have formed their position and agenda before the conversation even begins preventing effective dialogue.  Common sense succumbs to the storm surge.  We cannot control nature but we do control how we choose to proceed.  One thing that is certain is that the issue is far too important for politics and money to affect the conversation.  It affects all of us.  If we do nothing, maybe nothing will happen.  But can we afford to just do nothing?

The same could be said of education.   It may seem a callous comparison at this sensitive time  but education  has problems and we are in a seemingly constant state of crisis since the 1980s.  This crisis breeds a degree of urgency which polarizes the issues.  Camps are quickly formed by anyone discussing education and reduced to an "us vs. them" where people are characterized and forced onto sides with clear positions, whether they hold them or not.  Lost is the "common ground" that is the foundation of all meaningful progress.   The gravity of what is at stake in both cases presented here should be a mandate for success, not just change.  Most heavy lifting falls to the classroom teacher and when added to their everyday duties the weight is more than many of them can stand to bare. 

Education is unlikely to have some momentous event that is a catalyst for movement and whether Sandy will materialize into that for the environment remains to be seen.  The exhaustion of natural resources would be a far greater cataclysmic event to even Sandy.  But it also will take much longer.  Few can argue with legitimacy that reliance of fossil fuels alone is preferable to a policy which shifts our reliance toward more renewable sources.  Whether it is one decade or one hundred the supply will eventually run out. The side effect of such intensive use are also problematic. 

Shifting back to education one resource it appears we are content as a nation to "burn through" is our teachers.  Unlike coal or oil one big difference is that no group seems to lobby as successfully for their value as teachers.  Lately as one I have confronted the reality that many view me and others like me in our profession  as a resource to be used and cast aside.  Evidence of this everywhere.  Teachers are at least as unhappy with how they are treated with how they are compensated.  Many are quitting.  The pedestrian nature of our national response to this trend should be alarming.  But it has caused no substantive progress to be made and instead has simply brought about rationalizations from many in a position to do something about it.  To think that we can "replace" the teachers that are retiring, leaving or burning out is ill informed and maybe even dooms the fate of of the entire system.  Schools are not places or things, they are the people within their walls.  What will be the effect of our delay and no action?  Will there  still be a sufficient pool of quality teachers to draw upon willing to teach our young people?If we wait until the void begins to have real results on our graduates  it will be too late.

Reasons why one areas teachers quit.
I take solace in the fact that the issues concerns raised by teachers seem to be finally gaining some attention.  We also have control over the reasons teachers say they are leaving the job.  People are starting to see that a decade or more of failed policy or self interested involvement from outside groups is not necessarily a  good thing for kids.  But the appearance of movement is more valuable and carries far less political liability than actual movement. So nothing gets done.

In the meantime we continue to bleed talent causing untold harm to our schools.   I feel obliged to note that every teacher thinks about quitting, some quite a lot.  Those who  stay do so because we love our students.   But each time we are told by the unknowing to do the impossible for the unwilling with next to nothing, more damage is done. Teachers are being exhausted and that is having a dire consequence on our the educational environment.  As a beginning, I strongly encourage those with influence to appreciate the value of the teaching force in this nation and yolk its strength in a less consumptive way. 

I think in both cases it will take a leader with enough courage and insight to finally bring about reform of consequence.  We must all come to the table and agree on decisions that affect and will hopefully better our shared future.  Failure to do so will have dire consequences indeed. 
Did Mr. Loweyt quit?