Monday, September 30, 2013

Breaking Bad Causes the Federal Government to Shutdown

So admittedly the title of this post is intended to generate traffic but we are busy and do have lives outside of teaching and this award winning blog(that will be true when we win an an award of some sort).   There are at least a few notable events taking place around the nation connected to education.  As we await the fate of the outcome and a looming Federal Government Shutdown we ponder the demise of Walter White and Breaking Bad.  The members of the Underground had a conversation today that amounted to sarcastic banter for the benefit of a student teacher who was present.  But it went something like this;

"I'm trying to plan out this teaching thing but my brain is not really working anymore. I forgot how hard this teaching thing is." 
"Yeah, I thought after my first few years I'd have this thing all figured out, turns out it's still hard."

In other events there were a few pieces of news worth sharing.  

"Movies, Education...Same difference."
He says things like "charter schools (which are generally just public schools freed from union red tape"  -OK?    Basically he's a movie critic with a shallow understanding on education.  He has a loose grip on the subject and while smart  he is forced cite experts like Erik A Hanushek who deals with economic analysis of educational issues.His review of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is much better. 

the fact he has a website and has created a website with teaching advice makes it more scary than comical.  As simple as abolishing Public Schools sounds we might suggest such an effort is neither that wise or that worthwhile.  I'd prefer to abolish dumb as there seems to be plenty of that among our nations leaders.  Utter stupidity as David Gergen called it is often tough to watch but our nation's teachers dealing with reform are getting fairly used to it.  Sadly there is no shortage of people promoting books out there.  We here at the Tu might get to work on one at some point if we weren't so busy doing a crappy job as teachers I suppose.  And they are the ones adversely affecting the fate of us all.  While we wait some who will put Paul's plan into action we'll just keep teaching. 

New York State is holding the  Summit for Smarter Schools sponsored by the Partnership for Smarter Schools and three State Senators.   It focuses on the effects of the statewide testing and possible and common sense approaches for positive change.  Time will tell whether the ideas discussed gain any traction but there are hints of such ideas in many states including our own.  

Bill Gates tipped his hand about the efficacy of his reform agenda in an interview and I and most other teachers I know could likely provide a more substantive change with the funds he is pouring into education through his foundation.  We've talked about Bill Gates before in our How do you Make a Teacher Great post.  That answer remains a mystery but there is no shortage of experts on the matter.  Accountability...only for teachers and students I suppose,

With that we leave you to another week.  Our hope is that even if you lose faith in the Feds ability to get anything done, you keep a bit of faith in your local public school.  We'd appreciate the help. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

It Ended With A Griddle

It started innocently enough. "Mr. Turner, want to host our club?"

They asked politely. So far they'd proven to be good kids. I gave them a chance. "What kind of club is it?"

"The Lumberjack Club!" Both of them proclaimed in unison.

"And what exactly will the Lumberjack Club do?" I asked.

"Wear flannel, eat pancakes, and learn about lumberjacks," he said, then paused before adding, "but mostly eat pancakes. It's really about the pancakes."

How could you say no to that? So I agreed.

They kept me informed of the progress. "We've got people to bring in griddles, we'll get plates, forks, pancake mix, and syrup." They made a Facebook event and told me it was going to be a crowd. The created an excellent video promo for the club.

 Today was the day. Griddles and pancake mix and supplies were dropped of in waves over the course of the morning. A-block, done, B-block, done. The lunch bell rings and it's time for The LumberJack Club!

Five or six of the founders arrived and rearranged the furniture and set up a work space.

"I think we better just use two of the griddles," I said, "we have issues down here in the basement with breakers some time." So we plugged in two of the larger griddles and started mixing pancakes while they heated up.

Pop! (not a crazy loud dramatic pop mind you, just a little)

"Yep, that was the breaker. Give me a minute to get a master key and I'll reset it. But we better scale back to one griddle."

A trip upstairs for the key and a visit to the utility closet later and we were cookin'. Six cakes on the grill, two pitchers of batter, and a line of hungry, lumberjack-dressed teenagers waiting in a line.

Then I got the word from the teacher next door. "Did you have anything to do with the wireless being down? Because my entire lesson plan next period depends on it."

"Ooooooh. Maybe. I'll check."

Realizing I was over my head, I turned to my fellow Underground Teacher for help. Before we could search for a solution, I heard unwelcomed words. "There it goes again."

Twelve pancakes in and we'd blown breaker number two.

I reset the switch and headed off with Mr. Lindsay to the menacing "internet closet."

If networked buildings had real bowels, they'd look like this. Wires and boxes and blinking lights everywhere. We were lost. The only thing we knew for sure was that the blinking red light on the router meant nothing good.

I began to panic and just went back to try and hide in the middle of the fifty or so flannel-clad teens aimlessly waiting for pancakes in my classroom. Pancakes thirteen through eighteen had just been poured on the grill when I heard the custodian at the door.

"What is going on in here?" He looked genuinely surprised. I wished that I could offer him a pancake.

Innocently, I replied, "We're cooking pancakes?"

He seemed confused. What could be confusing about fifty kids in flannel, huddled around an electric griddle waiting on some pancakes?

"We've got fire alarms going off upstairs. You're setting off the heat sensors. We've been running around trying to figure out what's going on."

"Oh. Yeah, it's us. Just trying to make some pancakes."

"Are y'all done yet?" He was very polite, considering the circumstance.

"Do you need us to be?" I offered.

"Yeah, I think so. Let me use your phone to call upstairs to let them know what's happened."

Trifecta! We killed power, we killed internet, and yes, you guessed it, the phone was dead.

What's the moral of this story? The twenty-first century isn't ready for twenty-first century learning.

I created an open space for learning and allowed the students to engage in an activity of choice. I respected their comfort (what's more comfortable than flannel) and turned my room into a maker space (making pancakes is every bit as vital to society as making bridges) for them to collaboratively create. Their work had an authentic and immediate audience. And what was the result?

Absolute chaos! And mild disappointment. But no worries. The teenage lumberjacks, undaunted by setback, spent the remainder of lunch figuring out how to engineer LumberJack Club 2.0.

Good luck Lumberjacks! (and Lumberjackies)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Media Bias, Ignorance, or Apathy?

Word for word, here’s a recent story that appeared on the website of our local television station:

Federal numbers show that the majority of Virginia's teachers are paid more than the national average.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says Virginia teachers receive average annual wages from around $58,000 to $60,000, compared with a national average of $56,000 to $57,000.

Among Virginia's 10 metropolitan areas, only the Washington region has wages for all teachers that were significantly more than the national average.

Teachers in Richmond and in parts of southwest Virginia are paid significantly less than the national average.

Somehow, this report is supposed to be informative. If I did my job this terribly I’d lose it. Despite the “evil teacher’s union” too protect me.

My county pays teachers well compared to many others in the state. I’d guess we’re at least in the top quarter. Even so, a teacher with a Master’s Degree would have to make it to their 18th year of service to earn $56,000. (20th year with only a Bachelor’s)  That mean’s that about 75% of districts in Virginia require at least 18 years of service before a teacher hits the low end of the national average.

In our county, a teacher would not reach the minimum range of the Virginia average until 20 years of service. (24 years with only a Bachelor’s).

What’s the headline of this story? “the majority of Virginia’s teachers are paid more than the national average.” It just can’t be true. Simple statistics. Median and Mean aren’t the same thing, and this average refers to the mean.

Let’s simplify. Two sets of numbers. (1,1,2,2,3,3,10,10,10: Average- 4.7) and (2,3,3,4,4,5,5,6,6: Average- 4.2). The majority of numbers in set one is BELOW the average of set two, even though the AVERAGE of set one is higher than the average of set two.

In Virginia, average salaries by location range from $35,700- $76,874 ( . A simple comparison of state to national averages do not justify the statement “the majority of Virginia’s teachers are paid more than the national average.”

Are they simply trying to make the point that they think teachers are already overpaid?

The unfortunate truth of our local media is they only report what they're fed. They don't recognize that everyone feeding them is promoting their own specific agenda. And the public is left with a very skewed understanding of what goes on behind the walls of their own schools and a very unbalanced understanding of the nuance of education reform and policy.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

September 11th, Syria, the Dead Bodies and More.

Our school marked yet another anniversary of the September 11th attacks. My ninth graders were two at the time.  We did a reflective journal and some shared stories of their parents' experiences but did so with a sense of disconnect.  I shared my experiences and together we discussed how our world has changed.  Our posts of the past (here and here)bring up these same issues that we confront each and every year as teachers.  I wish we could go deeper.

At the tail end of that discussion a student asked a pretty provocative question about possible US involvement in Syria.  I did my best to respond with some appearance of ful understand which likely failed miserably.  Such real time events are so difficult for the experienced news consumer it must be near impossible to comprehend for the average 14 year old.  But believe it or not amid all the snapchats and Facebook updates I think there is actually some genuine American sense of concern for their world.  After going around in circles and bringing in everything from Pearl Harbor, ethnocentrism, oil prices and how to define terrorism, I punted. John Green saved the day.  To be honest the bell to end class helped a lot too.

The rest of the week has been pretty normal if you call taking your classes outside for a Mock Archeology Dig to learn about Prehistory "normal".  In what I can only describe as either my most ambitious or most foolish project ever another teacher and myself created two fake dig sites full of artifacts.

The students have been excavating for two full periods engaging in a variety of jobs.  In the 90*+ heat they've been digging in the dirt,  sorting and cleaning artifacts and cataloging them using a Google form.  Put that in your reform pipe and smoke Pearson Inc.   All of this has happened under the watchful eye of a former student of mine who actually did archeology in on a site in Pompeii.    Will we do it again?  Absolutely.  But I suspect we will also do some things differently.  For instance don't bury anything that might make students think I actually put a body in the pit.  Those jokes got old after about 3 minutes.  Also never hand a 9th grader a digital camera without first saying "You are not to use these to take selfies." I really enjoyed the time it took to discard about one third of the images they took.

Lastly this week our division was visited by the former CEO of Lockheed Martin who discussed STEM in education.  That buzzword and the either real or manufactured shortage of experts in these fields is all the rage in eduspeak nowadays.  The article in our local paper asked him some rather leading questions which hint and the media's willingness to accept the narrative about needed reform from just about anywhere.  Anywhere except teachers or people working in schools. These question in particular stood out:  "What’s working in Albemarle County Public Schools?" and "Why are so many school divisions struggling with STEM-focused education?"    No one has ever asked me anything even remotely like that...and if they did they certainly didn't wait for an answer.

Still his was a good visit and he likely has positive goals in mind for kids.  We are on the same team.  I just wish that folks in charge would pass the ball  a bit once in awhile or at least listen to me in the huddle. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Virginia's Candidates for Governor on Education

If you’re unfamiliar with the 2013 race for Virginia Governor, this statement from Larry Sabato sums up why this election is so peculiar:

“These two are running against the only people they could beat”

No doubt, we’ve got two terrible choices. All politics aside, we’ve decided to look at both candidates' education platform. I could never endorse either of these two as a candidate, but there are significant differences in their plans for education.

Ken Cuccinelli

Cuccinelli’s plan begins by pointing out the obvious. Despite a history of success in Virginia schools, our biggest problem lies in racial, economic, and geographic disparities in student outcomes. His plan is based on four principles described below.

1) Empowerment
In order to ensure all of our students have the best possible education, we must empower
parents with the option to determine the best academic setting for their child’s education.

One could argue we already do this. Parents can discern from many rankings (including the states A-F rating) what schools are good. Once they’ve done so, they simply move into that district. Yes, that is ludicrous, but only in its extreme from the idea that parents can simply choose a good school. Factors of economics and parent involvement will still keep disadvantaged kids, well, disadvantaged. What about the goal of providing every parent’s child with the best academic setting?

2) Excellence
We need to always remember that teachers are the backbone of our education system. Study after study proves there is no more important variable in terms of determining a student’s long-term success and financial security than teachers.

Anyone propagating this falsehood has zero credibility. It is a statement meant to promote an agenda and a disservice rather than a complement to good teachers. Some studies show that teachers are the most important IN SCHOOL VARIABLE determining student success. This lets policy makers off the hook in addressing the most important variables that happen out of school. It also provides an easy target when reforms don’t work.

3) Opportunity
All children, regardless of who they are or where they live, deserve the opportunity to attend a quality school and learn from motivated teachers.

The obvious fix, provide support and resources to make every school a quality school. The reform fix, punish bad schools and reward the good. Create more disparity and place the outcome for children in the hands of whether or not their parents make the right choices.

4) Accountability
If we care about our students’ progress, we must implement real and verifiable measures
that allow our education system to replicate success and remedy failure.

Several decades of “accountability” haven’t moved us very far. Instead of starting over to find something that works, we keep tinkering with the tests. The best question to ask is “to whom are teachers accountable.” In today’s testing climate we are accountable to “big government” to borrow a phrase. Our students and their parents should be the ones to whom we’re accountable. A real education platform would figure out how to make that happen.

Terry McAuliffe

Like Cuccinelli’s plan, McAuliffe's plan uses numbers. That makes it easy on us. Here’s what he says about plans for education.

1) Reforming the SOL tests.
We must have a strong system of student achievement and teacher evaluation.

How about scrap and start over? I do like his ideas about what needs to change, but I don’t trust his plans to change them. The plan seems to place much faith in the validity of “growth measures” and still focuses on the purpose of SOLs being teacher evaluation rather than student learning. He also calls for a “Blue Ribbon Panel” to reassess content. How about we just release some of the content and let parents, teachers, and students judge for themselves whether the tests are fair?

2) Innovation in Education.
Quality educational systems need to think more creatively. Partnerships with businesses and community colleges, emphasis on STEM and Computer Science, and increased flexibility for our school districts will all help bring our schools into the 21st century.

Public/Private Partnerships and an emphasis on STEM are good, but if we’re not careful, we sacrifice other areas of equal importance. Education should not be solely driven by economic incentive. As a teacher, my job is not to prepare students to earn as much money as they can when they grow up. Let’s not sacrifice the arts and humanities for the sake of preparing students for a global economy. And, the quest for private/public partnerships should not overshadow the fact that education is a public trust and the public has a responsibility to support it, fully. The addition of private partnership should enrich, not support. (On a side note: Quality political systems need to think more creatively. Can’t we do better than just using words like Innovation, STEM, and 21st century and really focus on what we’re doing now in the present)

3) Supporting our Schools
Over time, the Commonwealth has reduced state investment in our schools, reducing the resources of our schools and shifting the burden to local school districts.

I agree. But the biggest obstacle to spending money on education is accountability. I think the public wants to know what they’re getting for their investment and the lack of transparency in educational spending creates a public sentiment of distrust. I don’t think the public wants test scores, I think they want to know how their money is being used. We don’t do a good enough job of letting them know.

4) Let Teachers Teach
Our teachers need to be relieved of the growing amount of paperwork and administrative tasks so they can focus on the job they signed up for: educating our kids.

Let’s focus here. Paperwork and administrative tasks are a nuisance, and when I’m overworked, they become the proverbial “straw that breaks the back.” I did sign up to “educate kids” but I’m educating about 35-50 more of them a year than I did in the late 1990’s when I started. Before worrying about the administrative burden, we need to understand the “job that we signed up for.” It takes much energy, effort, and time to “educate our kids.” Many teachers today are not doing their best, they’re doing the best they can.