Thursday, December 10, 2009


Today was a hard day. Hard days are when I leave thinking, trying to figure it out.

A former student visited school today. This former student happened to be former class president, with a 93% GPA, in charge of multiple clubs. She pretty much ran the school. Accepted to Dartmouth on need-based scholarships. She came to answer questions about college and the application process.

My 5th period class has some pretty strong students. They had good, insightful questions. And then this is how it got hard. I asked about the reading level. She told them how she had to read 10 books in 8 weeks. I asked if Dartmouth has remedial English. She said they don't call it that, but that all freshman have to take a writing course. She said she started out in Writing 2/3, which was a high level class, and after one paper, her professor asked if English was her second language (it is not). Now she's taking Writing 5/6 (lower level) her second semester. (At this point I asked her to share her high school GPA and all my students freaked out, most likely seeing their futures in remedial English. I quickly pointed out this girl never had me for a teacher, and they should listen to what I tell them when I talk about college essay writing.)

And this is when it got ugly. One boy started sucking his teeth. I don't remember exactly why. He didn't believe something she said, or she swore by accident and he doesn't approve of swearing. Here's back story about this boy: he's very smart, he wants to be a math teacher. He loves math, he doesn't love English. I am the first English teacher whom he cannot pass simply by being polite. You cannot pass my class without reading the novels, and he does not like reading. He has failed twice. He has started to take a gangster, too-cool-for-school attitude in my class. And today it boiled over. The former student and the current student got into it. She said she didn't go here anymore and didn't have to be nice. She was tired of these attitudes like the one she saw in front of her. She was tired of reading about who people had to fight on facebook and the street attitude. She saw at Dartmouth, that for every 10 African-American female students, there was one African-American male students. She wished people got it.

I had to send the current student out of the room. She left shortly after. She was visiting other classrooms. When she left, we continued the conversation. We talked about the culture of the school, and how students don't have the right attitude towards work. Some students shared their anger and frustration with school. Some students cried. We talked about how to get the most out of school and the opportunities it does provide.

I don't really know. I don't know what to say to the boy tomorrow. Nothing I have said to him before has worked, clearly. All the evidence regarding inner-city students and college is so depressing. I try to push them so hard, but will I do a good enough job? Will they flunk out? Get so overwhelmed that they drop out? Even make it to high school graduation?

Today was a hard day.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

How the Test Was Won

The day before I have to give my first District Acuity assessment, I show an episode of The Simpsons that challenges the validity of multiple-choice tests. In one scene, Lisa ponders a question in which all the answers can be right. We pause on the close-up of the question and discuss why the question itself is flawed. In another pivotal scene, the principal, who is in charge of taking the most disruptive students out of school for the day, must run in circles on a shipping crate in order to spin it and save a student who has fallen on a barge. The students think he’s crazy. He yells out, while running in circles and causing the crate to turn, that this is centripetal force. All the “disruptors” immediately get it. For the first time, the principal understands that students learn from seeing their teacher run around in circles, not learning tests.

The next day, when I tell my students it’s time to take a District Multiple-Choice test, they all revolt. “But there are questions you can argue multiple answers to!” I calmly explain, this is what we have to measure how good I am at my job and how well you respond. It isn’t perfect. Even if you score well on the test, you may still be placed in remedial English in college, and that says more about the test than it does you. But until you all go and earn your PhD in educational policy, it’s all we have. So I need you to try your hardest so I can continue to run in circles on shipping crates rather than teach you tests like I’m supposed to. They all tell each other to try hard. They’re literally slapping each other on the shoulder to try hard. I have the greatest job in the world.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

education reform

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Reverend Al Sharpton and former Speaker New Gingrich were all on Meet the Press today. I agree with everything they said. Teacher evaluation needs reform, parents and communities need to be more involved, we need to be able to fire bad teachers. It's all true.

Teacher evaluation: tomorrow I will be evaluated. I will have a pre-observation meeting (only because I requested one) and my assistant principal will observe one of my lessons. These are the items she will look for: Is my aim in question format? Do I have state standards posted? Do I have student work posted on the wall? Is my Do Now under 5 minutes? Do I have a 10 minute mini-lesson? Do I have a 5 minute summary? Do I have a lesson plan? You can have all of these factors in place and students will not learn. Teaching is an art. Good teaching can look like a hundred different things. Artificial measurements on teaching detract from student learning. I don't need a mini lesson. I don't need to write out a lesson plan. Magically, I can hold that in my head. I may write down questions I know I need to ask, but how I get from point A to point B is going to vary between every period, and no plan will tell me how to navigate. Good teachers can turn on a dime when the class doesn't understand a concept. If that happens tomorrow, which it probably will, my assistant principal won't mention it. I'll jump through her arbitrary hoops and at the end of it, I'll receive a "satisfactory."

If my students who worked harder than everyone else and got better results than their classmates only got satisfactory, they'd revolt. Right now they're arguing over who got better stickers on their essays in the student work Hall of Fame, and talking big talk about their next essay that's going to make the board.

Satisfactory stickers don't exist for a reason, and they shouldn't exist for teachers either.

Friday, November 13, 2009

drama day 1

It was a bad day. It was a bad two days. I spent yesterday talking down 5 girls from fighting. They had been antagonized, one took the bait and went looking for a fight. The others went with her, some to stop her, some to back her up. They play on the team I coach. The girl who was supposedly antagonizing the fight came in with her mother to press charges. Because there were more than 3 girls positively identified, it's automatically a gang charge. Today, we had a security issue. About 30 girls were waiting outside for these 5 to come out. Deans and I were rounding girls up so they wouldn't go out to fight. Some were easy to pull from class, one was hiding. It was not how I wanted to spend the last two hours of my day. No one fought. The cops came and arrested a few of the girls outside. We had college representatives coming today to interview prospective students. This is not the type of show you want to put on for college admissions.

But this shit happens every year. I didn't react to the pregnant student whom I asked last year if she was going to graduate college or start making babies for the welfare check. The beginning of the year is over. Now it's time to make a name for yourself. Look tough. Get out of class. Something. I don't know.

So instead of going to a bar, I got two pints of Ben and Jerrys, my husband read my mind and bought two bottles of wine and I'm reading Perez Hilton to complete the brain numbing. It's not that today was so bad. It was, but not mind-splitting. It's the realization that it's only going to keep going. The other side of the school year has begun.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


My confession. I'm not a teacher. Well, not according to the pieces of paper I'm supposed to have. I have a transitional license, which means I'm getting my masters in education in addition to teaching everyday. So I don't have my pieces of paper, but I'm teaching, which either means I'm doing a rubbish job because this would be like a surgical intern performing brain surgery on her first round or my medical school and the whole medical training process is rubbish. It's both possibly, and some days it definitely both.

But here's the great part. As rubbish as teacher training is, sometimes I come across a nugget that even makes the other rubbish my school and district tells me to do look like total and complete rubbish. Because it's right and true and makes sense and totally confounds everything I'm told to do. So that's gotta be hard.

It's better to rant here before I try to write a paper, because ranting doesn't usually earn high marks. Not even in rubbish school. It's been 10 years and two lifetimes since my last confession. Thanks for listening.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

my LC

My literacy coach of my school teaches in my room. My LC should be a mentor, providing support, materials, offering advice. This should be awesome. Right now, at this very moment, my LC is teaching the summer reading to her 11th grade class. They're half-way through one of the two assigned summer reading books. She assigns questions about each chapter at night, and then they go over the answers the next day. She reads aloud answers that they are supposed to copy down. I don't think you need to know about learning modalities to have a few questions about this practice.

It makes me feel like I should disinfect the room. When I work in here during her teaching periods, I can't look up from my desk. Afraid I won't look the flower and be the serpent underneath. (I'm teaching Macbeth with my 9th graders.)

The bell rang. It's my house now. Time to finish The Scarlet Letter. Which many students have told me is the first book they actually read in high school, and the first book they actually liked reading in high school. Good thing this is the first time teaching this curriculum and my LC was able to provide support.

I've never been good at not looking the serpent. Flowers are for wimps.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

ditch day

It's ditch day for me. That's code for it's Election Day in the city and rather than sit through a day of "professional development," which conversely to it's fancy title really means being yelled at for taking days off, not following directions and not teaching our students how to write, I'm sitting at home not grinding my teeth and not developing the ticks that lead into alcoholism.

Because the fact of the matter is, I don't take days off -- well, actual teaching days that is. And I do follow the rules, unless the rules are wrong. And I categorically do teach how to write papers. So I'm at home, not getting yelled at for things I'm not doing, and I'm beginning to understand why the smartest kids often end up in detention -- because they're smarter than the system and choose not to participate in it.

So while I sit and do some actual work (ie, grade the mountain of papers I assign), I don't feel an ounce of chagrin for ditching school today. Because it's not really school today, it's teacher detention day.

If you happen to be sitting at home too, I recommend this op-ed about how to reform teacher training. It's just a hunch, but if we reformed teacher training, we may not have to remind people that you shouldn't take a personal day once a month (or once a week) when you get three months of vacation time as it is, and that in order to teach students how to write, you're probably going to have to assign papers and return them in a timely manner with constructive feedback. Just a thought. But what do I know? I ditch school.