Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I've ranted a lot lately about accountability so today I will try to steer my thoughts elsewhere for a change :) It is easy to get into the complaining mode and forget the fun part of teaching middle school. Usually, it is the kids who are out of control and wound a little too tightly, but today, it was me.....
My social studies class has been working on their Life in the Sahara projects for the past week or so. Today was presentation day. Some partners had worked to create board games, others had posters, and still others had dioramas depicting desert scenes.
Two young ladies have been working to get their diorama and accompanying informational posters done. They wanted miniature camels to include in their display but the closest they could find in our town (where shopping consists of Family Dollar or the grocery store) were those little animals you put into water to expand. Unfortunately, the animals did not include a camel, but luckily, 7th graders have imaginations and they decided to use giraffes instead. The camelraffs, as we named them, have been expanding in plastic cups in my window for about a week. The girls have changed the water faithfully, even experimenting with hot water to see if that would help them grow more.
Things were moving along fine. One of the girls with the aforementioned project had been whining all morning that they wanted to go last. But me, being the mean teacher I am, just went straight down my list calling on groups. Some students had good projects, some had great ones, some, well, they were embarassed to be in front of the group sharing. Finally, time for the camelraff girls. For some reason, I started giggling as they started their presentation. The whole camelraff suddenly struck me funny. Well, you know how the more you try NOT to laugh, the you DO laugh??? It didn't take long and I was snorting and crying and out of control. THe poor girls were trying to present, but there I am, in the back of the classroom, laughing and lauging and tears are running down my cheeks and snot is running out my nose.
Finally... I get a slight grip on my sanity.... but the boy sitting next to me whispers, "camelraff" and I start again. Every time I would manage to stop, the little whisper comes from him, "camelraff, camelraff".
It was epic....
Thank goodness spring break is coming next week for I think I have almost lost my grip on reality....

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I am back on my 'accountability' soapbox today. The answers to my questions are multi-faceted and complex to be sure, and I don't expect they will ever be answered. Nevertheless... they long to be asked:

What accountability for excellence do we instill in our students? At a young age, children learn that failing grades does not mean they will be held back. They see disruptive students rule the school with their distracting behaviors. Unless you are a student who faces consequences at home for poor performance at school, most likely, they fall through the cracks.

Sure, there are exceptions, those rare children who want more than is expected of them, work to better themselves, strive to please their teachers, just out of sheer intrinsic motivation. It seems as time goes by, these children are rarer and rarer. The norm is becoming the coaster, the kid who shows up, does just enough not to get too much grief, but does not exert enough effort to actually experience success.

What accountability is there for parents in their child's education? We've become quick to blame the school and the teachers for students not making the grade. And to be sure, much of the responsibility does and should fall upon their shoulders. However, school is a small portion of child's life. All the knowledge a child must learn cannot be imparted in this small percentage of time. Students are in school about 50% of the days of the year, and about 30% of the hours in a day. Not even 15% of a student's life is spent in school but teachers and schools are being held 100% accountable for 100% of their education.

Some interesting points to consider:

"Children who have not already developed some basic literacy practices when they enter school are three to four times more likely to drop out in later years." (National Adult Literacy Survey, 1993)

“Children must have access to books if they are to read. But books in themselves are simply not enough. Children also need to have a caring adult read to them and talk to them, preferably every day.” (Starting Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Children’s Reading Success, National Research Council, National Academy Press, 1999.)

Perhaps we need an entrance exam INTO school. If parents do not have their child 'ready', that child will not be allowed into school. How's that for breaking tradition? Doesn't it only seem fair that if a child is not prepared for school, his parents ought to be held accountable, since once he enters school, all the responsibility falls upon the school?

Once in school, parents will be held accountable for their child's attendance and skill maintanence over breaks, particularly summer vacation. If your child misses too much school, bam, they are gone. If they lose skills over the summer, bam, they don't come back until you bring them back up to speed.

Wouldn't that revolutionize the entire way we view parenting and education? Would it change things or create a generation of uneducated children? I am not sure.... I just know then some of the blame and responsibility would shift.

What responsibility do schools have to remove ineffective teachers? More than they are accepting now... With the current union systems in place in many states, and the heavier and heavier reliance on high stakes test scores to evaluate students and teachers, education is frought with disasterous situations. Teachers are being judged by a one snapshot view of their students instead of being held accountable for day to day instruction, classroom management and growth. Unions protect the good, bad and ugly, with little regard for what is truly in the best interests of students.

Educators need to step forward and become responsible for their own profession, policing each other, ensuring that each child gets a quality educational experience in EVERY classroom EVERY day.

There is enough blame for our failing students to go around... let's stop throwing the blame and start fixing the problems!

Monday, March 15, 2010

The ups and downs and ins and outs of every day life at school can take the most interesting twists and turns when we try to sort out what needs to be done, what we want to do, and what truly is in the best interest of our students.

It is spring in Upper Michigan for some strange reason. The spurt of warmth we are experiencing, with 50 and 60 degree days is just wrong! We should be shoveling snow, not watching daffodils and daylilies poke their heads up through the ground. Typically a blanket of several feet of snow would still lie silently across the landscape for another month or so. Then I would be to the point in my math curriculum to start going outside and doing some activites relating math to the real world.

But this weird weather is throwing a monkey wrench in my plans. What to do??? Do I jump ahead, and head outdoors where they all WANT to be?? Then we will be off-track, a bit befuddled in the overall BIG PICTURE. Does it matter?

Spring break is another 2 weeks away.... and we all want to be outside. Maybe I need to reconsider...... *sigh*

Monday, March 08, 2010

How to Fix Public Schools
How's that for opening a huge can of worms? The news is filled with No Child Left Behind, Rhode Island teachers being fired, California teachers having to fight for their jobs, Race to the Top, and others bits of educational information smattered across the headlines, bashing anyone and everyone involved in education.
I will wholeheartedly agree public education in our country is in need of reform. We are failing an entire generation of young people, as we toss around rhetoric about who is at fault and how we ought to fix the problems. These are the kids plodding their way through our halls, forgotten in the larger shuffle of fault.
Many people think firing all the teachers is the solution. Let's just clean out the deadwood. OK, fine.. sure. There are many teachers who do not do their job effectively, teachers who show up for June, July and August, a paycheck, an insurance card, and a secure position. They may or may not like kids, their subject matter or for that matter, have little real desire to teach.
But there are many others who dedicate their lives to being wonderful caring role models for their students. These are the uncelebrated heros. They give freely of their time and resources to make the lives of their students better.
Sometimes test scores proclaim teachers from both these groups as successes, but just as often, they are touted as failures.
To those outside the classroom, a test score speak volumes. Can't anyone TEACH a kid to learn? Can't you just get them through the stuff you are supposed to teach? If you do, then automatically those magical test scores will soar!
Wait a minute.... whoa... slow down....
Not so easy in the real world with real kids....
What about a little responsibility on parents and students, themselves as well? We have kids with chronic absenteeism, missing more than a third of the school year. How I am supposed to educate that child in 9 months worth of material in 6 months? She is already lacking basic skills when she comes to me, from the past how many ever years of being in school 2/3 of the time, and now, I am supposed to catch her up on all that lacking, PLUS bequeath her with my 9 months worth of learning, all in 6 months time?
That's like telling Joe Average on the line at GM, "Here's a whole line of chassis coming along but down the line ahead of you, they forgot to put in the transmissions and engines, but you have to, working only 6 hour shifts, get those cars ready to ship out in working order, getting your doors installed like always. OH, and by the way, while you try to get those transmissions and engines in along with your doors, make sure you are watching those other 25 beside those."
Kids today are electronics pros. Any given student in my class can tell you the latest X-Box game or Wii, or whatever, the ins and outs of how to win, where to buy it cheapest. They are experts on cell phones and computers, Facebook and texting. But they have never read a newspaper, or watched the evening news. They know who Hugh Hefner is, but not Martin Luther King, Jr. They know the names of all the casinos in Vegas, but have no idea where Iraq or Afghanistan, or even Texas and Florida, are. They can circumnavigate the best of filters to find pornography, but can't be bothered to type a journal entry about North Africa. They have tatoos and piercings in middle school, but can't afford a calculator, pencil or paper for class.
So the solution for improving education does not lie entirely with teachers and the school. It is a systemic problem in society as a whole. Until education is a priority for parents and students, the school has limited control over how to make it all better.
Here it is... my plan:
#1 Hold teachers accountable for teaching what they ought to be teaching.
#2 Hold adminstrators accountable for making sure teachers teach what they ought to be teaching.
#3 Hold students accountable for learning what they ought to be learning.
#4 Hold parents accountable for making sure students learn what they ought to be learning.
It sounds simple and it is simple. If teachers teach what they should, and adminstrators have the power to do something about it when they don't, the education piece is soundly in place. If students put forth effort to learn, and parents make sure their child is IN SCHOOL, doing the work assigned, and putting in the necessary time outside of class to be successful, there you go, educational reform, SUCCESS!
The last component of success is enforcement. What happens when someone doesn't fulfill their part of the bargain? Fire teachers, fire adminstrators, hold back kids until they master the material, and if parents do not parent, then remove the child from the home. It's a system of balances, pure and simple. If everyone along the way contributes his equal share of solving the problem, there will no longer BE a problem!
(Am I being sarcastic? maybe just a tad.... but how much worse can it?)

Sunday, March 07, 2010

I had to laugh when I came into school this afternoon, trying to get my planning for the week completed, sub plans for Thursday and Friday finalized for my being gone to MACUL, and doing a bit of cleaning in my classroom. No matter how frustrating the kids are, when I come in and they aren't here, when it is quiet in the room and the hall, when the chairs are up on the tables, and their disarray of papers and pencils left behind sit silently waiting for the return of their owners, I always feel a sadness, an emptiness, and a wishing they were here.

As I make plans for each hour, each class, each day, I think about this student and that one, knowing he will have trouble with this assignment, she will like learning about this, and am curious as to how another will approach the new tasks set before her. I smile at their little notes and cards hung around the room for me, linger at the multi-colored date already in place for Monday in someone's 7th grade scrawl, and check to see whose math book has been left behind.

When it comes down to the truth, my job is pretty darned good most of the time, and I feel lucky to have it. I am blessed with parents who care, students who make me smile, and a feeling that I DO make a difference for many.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Soooo... it's been tough lately, if you've been reading my recent posts. I am starting to believe the legacy of this group of kids, despite my best intentions not to. I was determined that they were 'just kids' and have treated them as such all year.

A little disclaimer before I go on... of the 63 students I have this year, 50 of them are wonderful, amazing, terrific, fantastic, amazing, incredible, typical 7th graders. They have good days, bad days, and everything in between. They are funny and dumb, smart and ridiculous. They make me laugh, they make me cry, often with the same stunts. Every day with them is like a vacation. I really can't believe I get paid to spend time with them.

The other 13 though.... wow, do they drain my time, energy, creativity and patience. It doesn't seem to matter what we are doing, boring worksheets, fun open ended creative projects, bookwork, computer work, videos, me lecturing, them teaching each other, whatever it might be.... they hate it, simply hate it. They either refuse to do it, period, or they are so disgruntled in the process there is little if any real learning taking place.

I have tried all the tricks in my book, all the things I have used with success on hard-core kids in the past. Somedays, I see a tiny little speck of light at the end of the dark tunnel of oblivion they seem to live in, but most days, it is like I might as well abandon them on a desert island and pick them up in June because nothing I am doing makes a difference one way or the other.

In all my years of teaching, I have never felt so disenchanted, so hopelessly futile in my efforts, and like I am barely treading water holding my head in the crashing waves, gasping for breath.

I keep focusing on the 50.... while trying not to let the other 13 drown on my watch. But somedays it is more than I can handle.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

What do you do when students get into trouble on the computers? Gut instinct response in education seems to be, kick them off computers. I get that this knee-jerk response is simply the easy way to deal with the offense, but it makes everything worse.

I had to be gone yesterday. Three of my boys got caught surfing porn, not just mild porn, but something that should have never made it through the filters, something so disgusting, the teacher who saw it won't even describe it to me.

There are so many issues going on.

#1 One of the students was not where he should have been. He is not even in my homeroom, and did not have permission to be in my room, and homeroom teacher had no idea he was gone from her room. If the adults cannot be responsible for the whereabouts of the students, doesn't it seem like we have a larger issue to deal with FIRST?

#2 I have no idea why they were using computers in the first place. The sub apparently was allowing it, but WHY? Let's just allow 13 year olds to do whatever they want whenever they want? Is that our new mantra? This would NEVER have happened if I were here, so why do subs have so much trouble maintaining order? I know it is a tough job, I get that. But if you enforce the rules already in place, maintaining order is much simpler than if you just allow them to do their own thing.

#3 It is unclear which boy did the searching, who was logged into which computer, etc... Fundamentally, it doesn't matter, and I truly believe they should all be held accountable because they could have said something, shut down the computer, or even simply removed themselves from the situation.

#4 All 3 are frequent fliers for lots of minor offenses in lots of locations. Yet, the 'punishment' was 1/2 day suspension and 2 weeks off computers. At some point, we need stiffer penalties for 'crimes'. I hate suspensions, period.. If a kid isn't here, I can't teach them. But at some point, we have to get the message across that school is a priority, and being here is a privilege. We need clearcut, consistent consequences, predictable for parents and students.

#5 The boys are not allowed to use school computers for 2 weeks. Oh great... now how are they supposed to complete their social studies project? We wouldn't take away their pencils if they were drawing inappropriate pictures. Why take away their laptops for inappropriates sites? I can print the materials they need for research, but that is just another thing for me to take care of.

I brought the boys in my room before school and did some major butt chewing. I explained the reason I was gone yesterday, to visit a relative who is dying. I explained my disappointment in their lack of respect for ME to have done that when they were in my room. I tried to talk to them, rationally but honestly. But then again, we've had those conversations before, repeatedly. I don't know what else to do. Talking to their parents gets me nowhere, talking to the boys gets me nowhere. I am left here, trying to figure out how I can be gone, knowing they will be terrorists for the sub.

It's a never-ending issue, with no solution.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Welcome to whiny, disgruntled Monday in my world. Part of my frustration comes from having used Compass Learning now for a week while listening to my students whine and complain about how boring it is, how they do not understand the directions, how they computer just died, how they are having login issues, blah, blah, blah!.... I thought that maybe, just maybe, a break from listening to ME teach would have been a break in the drudgery, something different, if not exactly fun and entertaining, at least would give them a new perspective. Apparently not...

I think the worst part of everything is simply February blues, drug into March. We've not had a day off since Christmas break, and our spring break is not until the end of this month! Everybody's nerves are on end. We are all tired of each other and ready for a break. Add in a weird winter, weatherwise, with hardly any snow.... and things in our universe are just not aligned the way they ought to be!

Now it is Tuesday, and I never got yesterday's done!

But today there was sweet justice. As my social studies class left out the door, I noticed blue ink all over the table, chair, and floor. Of course, students were quick to point out the perpetrators, so off I went to grab them. Of course, student 1 said it wasn't him, not his pen, etc... but student 2 said it was HIS pen but #1 had grabbed it, stuck the end in the hole on the computer and broken it, causing the ensueing damage. I said I really didn't care, but THEY could clean it up. They looked hopelessly around for some cleaner, until I pointed out I didn't have anything so off they went, looking for a custodian. They came back with this cool magic eraser type sponge and a rag. Starting in the table, I was amazed at how well the sponge worked. The ink just wiped off. The boys were all smiles and giggles at how easily their mess was disappearing.

But justice, sweet justice, was on my side! The floor and the ink seemed to have created some sort of bond with each other. No matter how hard they scrubbed, the ink seemed to be permanent. After about 20 minutes of constant scrubbing, the ensuing raw fingers, and my trying not to smile too much, my floor looks pretty darned good. I don't think there will be any more ink incidents this year :) Problem solved.

I love it when it works out like that. Logical consequences - you make a mess, you clean it up. It is pretty humbling to be down on your hands and knees scrubbing the mess you made while your peers are watching. Works better than detention, better than a phone call home, every time.