“Like” A Teacher Today

Yesterday, I checked in on a Facebook group, an alumni page devoted to people who attended my high school.  Along with catch-up chit chat and reunion info, someone posted a comment about our former math teachers.  Responses show teachers do make a difference.  So many years after we had all moved on, fellow grads still recall people who worked to make them math literate.  In my case, that was a task of mythical proportions.  Think Sisyphus. God love Mr. Roy Rich who gave me confidence to challenge/train my left brain to master both logic and geometric proofs.

Teachers Make a Difference

We all know them.  They are the people who taught us to share and to wait our turns.  They are the people who gave us the magic of reading, music, numbers, history, art and the value of fair play. They are the people who may not have loved us unconditionally as our parents did, but who none the less labored to make us our best.

Everyone can name their favorite teachers. Most of us can name our best teachers, too.   They weren’t always the sweetest, the prettiest, the gentlest, the funniest, or the easiest teachers, either. Kids don’t always see that.  As adults,  however, we know better. We know that  sometimes, the tough teachers– the ones who challenge us, who force our reach to exceed our grasp—are among the finest.

Now we need a public service ad 

If we all know them, if we all can name them, then why do we need this:

Ads like these run on my local network affiliates:  teachers featured in thirty-second sound bytes reassuring viewers that they do indeed work hard, love kids, and know their content.  Is that what teachers have been reduced to doing to assert their worth? Really?

Rationally, I  totally get it.  It is in our own best interest to publicly share the great work we do. I understand that we must be proactive. Education has become part of the political fabric of  the country in ways most of us never considered when we were studying pedagogy and child development.

Most teachers are not political animals.  Most of us simply want to continue what we do best: teach.  Yet, we seem to be forced into the fray, particularly during these challenging economic times. Tenure, pensions, living wages seem to be what outsiders resent most about teachers.   So, I understand the need to self promote.

But, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.  Part of me still finds it offensive.  (It’s that right brain again hindering rational thought!)   I wonder why we need to show and tell so much.  Is this our our Sally Field moment?  We want them to like us, really, really like us?  Watching television ads makes me feel that our profession has been somehow been cheapened, reduced to the same slick advertising copy used to hawk the latest electronic consumer good.

Like a teacher, today 

The teachers I know are professionals.  They take their jobs very seriously, well aware of the responsibility.   They have earned advanced degrees.  They work within a network of lifelong learners who share the vision of effective education as essential to the common good.

Teacher Appreciation Day has come and gone.  But it’s still OK to “like” a teacher today.

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Teaching With The Stars

As reality shows go, Dancing With the Stars is among the most palatable.  It is true that some of the so-called stars have outlived their former celebrity status—Melissa Gilbert, Jack Wagner– and others have been clearly chosen for shock value— Tom Delay, Chas Bono.  But in the end, there is music and dancing and skimpy costumes and that all makes it fun to watch.  And let’s not forget that Mirror Ball Trophy.

What if there were a show called Teaching With the Stars?  How cool would that be?  Instead of professional dancers guiding  quasi-well known entertainers, politicians and athletes through complicated waltzes and sambas, master teachers would put the celebrities through their instructional paces, like differentiation and collaborative learning, culminating in a summative/formative assessment. Nice, right?

Teaching with the Stars: Season 1

Here’s my vision for Season 1.  First, the stars: NY Jets coach Rex Ryan, John Ratzenberger– aka Cheers mailman Cliff Clavin , Today show co-anchor Anne Curry,  talk show diva Wendy Williams, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly,  90’s R&B singer, R. Kelly, and last, but never least, Brittany Spears.   Pretty eclectic gathering, right?  Each star would then be matched up with one of NY’s smartest: teachers.

Practice sessions could be grueling, injuries commonplace.   Stars would have to become content area specialists and study the steps to delivering effective instruction.  There would be stacks of essays to grade for grammar and content, quadratic equations to follow from start to finish, Spanish verbs to conjugate in three tenses.  Simultaneously, they would have to manage planning,  pacing, delivery, and the smartboard, no small task. Motivational speakers and world class shrinks would be on call for celebrity meltdowns.  Students would be hauled in for demo lessons.

The Lesson: Can The Stars Do the Instructional Dance?

Then the moment of truth: the lesson. The stars and their pros will have collaborated to choreograph engaging tiered instruction, incorporating technology, the common core and differentiation, hoping against hope that it will all come together for a perfect score on the Danielson scale. All performed for a group of kids asembled adn held against their will, seated next to their BFFs.

Imagine dear Brittany, in her plaid school uniform, hitting eighth graders one more time with the Pythagorean Theorem or Rex Ryan creating a graphic organizer sequencing the events leading up to the Boston massacre.  Sight words–read and frisk– with the Commish. Gizmos and Science 21 per R. Kelly.   Anne Curry’s original DBQ.  Wendy Williams–“How you doin’?”–leading the physical fitness challenge in red spandex. All the while, teachers–professionals in the encouragement business–would be coaxing, cajoling and cheering on the celebs.

Yeah, imagine it.  Team teaching at its best.

Then there would be the judges.  Ah yes, who would/could apply  appropriate APPR standards to the lessons? Experienced principals? Veteran educators?  Nah.  The panel on DWTS are three former dancers/choreographers. Makes sense, right?  So Teaching with the Stars should feature former educators as evaluators.  Sting was a teacher. So was Stephen King as was Gene Simmons of KISS.  Rumor has it that Art Garfunkel spent some time in the classroom, too.  Sounds like a plan.

Winner Takes All

In the end, though, like Dancing with the Stars, the winner will be determined by public votes. Winner takes home the coveted E-Learning Trophy.

Let the games begin.

E-Learning Concept in abstract  background Stock Photo - 10120832

What’s on your desk?

If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk a sign?”  Albert Einstein

I know this looks bad, really bad. I know.

But I swear, I am not a hoarder.  Honest.  My house isn’t anything like this. I hang up my clothes and empty the dishwasher.  OK,  I  lied; my husband empties the dishwasher.

I am an English teacher and no matter how many promising organizational gadgets I schlep into school, my desk still looks like this.  This picture was snapped first thing in the morning.  You don’t have to be Maurice Sendak (RIP) to imagine what kind of wild things are lurking here by the end of eighth period.

Then this morning, I heard that a student had asked my humanities counterpart, “So, how high are you gonna let that pile get?”   That’s when I began to suspect that desk clutter might be an occupational hazard, not just a personal school induced disorder.

It was a teachable moment, time for some good, old fashioned research. Thus, I donated my prep to science, perusing the other classrooms in my corridor (You: no wonder her desk is a disaster; she wastes her prep time peeking in on other people’s messes).   It seems that my social studies comrade and I are not alone.  There are plenty of other teachers’ desks that look like ours, worse even.  I spied expired Educational Warehouse coupons, office memos about an impending Christmas concert rehearsal, gum wrappers, flips flops and of course, endless bundles of student papers awaiting the red pen.

So what else is on teachers’ desks?  Let’s see: colored pencils, unlabeled CD’s, smiley face stickers, the odd diet Dr. Pepper bottle, framed photos of kids and pets, NY Yankee baseballs, neon post-it notes galore, canned peaches, a rubber snake, orthodontic wax, Thing 1 and Thing 2…  need I go on?

It wasn’t always like this, though.

At the start of my career, I taught English 11 off a cart, a two-shelved metal gurney my husband had painted industrial green to camoflauge spreading rust. My mobile home away from home was a base model, featuring stock accessories: a few extra books, a plastic pencil case, a stapler,  a couple of dictionaries, loose leaf, homework sheets,  some overhead transparencies.

I didn’t need the Ultra-Super-Mega-Sorter–a four-tiered inbox  that flashes an LED code and plays the Halleluiah Chorus when empty– to manage the paperload.  Paperclips did the trick. No color coded post-its, lucite pen cups or desk calendars, either.  If it wasn’t on the cart or in my messenger bag, I didn’t need it.

And  take a look at me now. The battery operated dinosaur roars.  There are three–yes, three–pairs of reading glasses among the disarray.  I can’t find my keys or the calulator I need for simple math.   But as my foreign language colleague–the paragon of positive thinking–points out, “We do clean up for company:”  Substitutes and observations. Duly noted.

So what is on your desk?

P.S.  I just found this link on Martha Stewart.  Think it might help? http://bl152w.blu152.mail.live.com/default.aspx?rru=inbox#n=1502644566&rru=inbox&fid=1&mid=14ff891e-a72b-11e1-acd4-00237de4a786&fv=1

Dear Andy:

Dear Andy:

You probably don’t remember me.  We were classmates at Fordham University , many years  ago, before you were elected governor and before I became a wife, mom, grandma and, oh right, a teacher.   Yeah, I was the little red-haired girl in sociology, sitting all the way at the back of Keating auditorium with the pre-meds. Gosh no, that wasn’t me reciting complicated organic chemistry formulas.  I was English Lit and Journalism. Sitting with the pre-meds was merely symbiosis: they tutored me in my required math and science classes, I supported them in humanities. Back then, I planned to either pen the next great American novel or win a Pulitzer for cracker-jack investigative reporting.

But not long after Zbgniew Brzezinski delivered our commencement address, I found my way into education and I never looked back.  Lucky thing, too.  I love what I do.  Every day.  It has been far more rewarding to share Fitzgerald’s truly great American novel with kids than it would have been to try to write a weak imitation of Gatsby.  As for that Pulitzer, I discovered the free press wasn’t all Fordham Jesuit journalism professor, Ray Schroth assured me it would be.  I guess I wasn’t predatory enough to be a real reporter.

But I digress.  Andy, surely you must know you are the Big Kahunna of the Class of ’79. No kidding.  I tell people all the time that I went to college with two big shots of contemporary culture: Denzel Washington, Class of ’78 and you, governor of the great state of New York.  In truth, though, we both know that Denzel spent most his college career at Lincoln Center.  We two, however, are Rose Hill stalwarts, comrades, fellow alum of the parking wars and survivors of the infamous trestle and The Jolly Tinker.

Well, I was back on our beloved Bronx campus recently, Andy, and I hardly recognized the place.  Really.  So much construction. Our alumni dollars at work.  You should see the new library and the new dorms.  Amazing. Remember when a suite in Martyrs Court or an apartment in 555 were the best accommodations an upperclassman could hope for?

Anyway, being back on Edwards Parade really got me thinking, though.  Both you and I are the products of a liberal education, right?  We were both fortunate enough to take the core courses the Jesuits required so we would leave Fordham truly educated, not just schooled for a job.  Both of us heard the same convincing messages about the importance of education for civilized, democratic societies.

Why then are you so intent on wrecking havoc with NY’s education system?   I mean, I am open to change.  That is something else the Jesuits taught us, right?  Change is good.  But for it to be successful, that change has to be intrinsically sound.  It has to be motivated not by political gain, but for the public good.  Is it in the interest of the public good to dismantle the existing system without proposing a stronger, smarter replacement institution?

I won’t deny that there are many weakness in contemporary education, not just here in NY, but across America.  We should be preparing our students to read more carefully and write more clearly and to perform basic mathematical calculations. Kids have to be able to meet the challenges associated with both college and the workplace.   And we should also be insisting that they know how to think, that they become independent learners.  There are very few teachers that I know who would ever argue that these are among our basic professional responsibilities. In fact, there are no teachers I know who would disagree with this. Not a single one.

The paradoxically piecemeal/wholesale change you are imposing on schools and educators, however, is already showing signs of distress.  Schools don’t have the resources to manage the paperwork.  Schools don’t have the resources to support increasingly needy pupils.   Testing—especially flawed testing—cannot be used to measure teacher effectiveness.  If you want to apply test scores to teacher evaluations, then surely those tests must be well constructed in order for the scores to be reliable and valid. Pearson’s questions for The Pineapple and the Hare should never have made it to NY.  Concerns about these questions have been circulating since 2006. There are too many variables that remain unaccounted for. What about inconsistent attendance?  What about kids who routinely arrive at school hungry or sick? What about all of the other intangibles that are part of every day in every classrooms, those things we can’t see or hear or touch, but that impact instruction?

Our old Fordham professors insisted that we examine every angle of a question in order to formulate a postulate that would hold up to scrutiny.  Call it a Jesuit obession.   Could you really look Father McDermott in the eye and say that you have done that with education reform?   There has to be vision.  Andy, I am having trouble seeing your vision for our state’s public schools.

Road Trip!

It’s that time of year again when school administrators solicit “volunteer” chaperones for end-of-the-year trips. At those spring team meetings, I actively avoid eye contact.  It’s a little like being at an auction, though.  You adjust your glasses or shift in your seat and the next thing you know, you are herding seventh graders up the gangway to the Circle Line for a three hour tour around Manhattan, the Gilligan’s Island theme song playing on a continuous loop in your head.

Maybe I am too neurotic. Maybe I just have control issues.  But I am not a fan of the class trip.  I honestly do love my students.  I also want to believe that class trips are great extended learning opps.   But there is just no way I can relax with my students off school grounds.

My brother-in-law enthusiastically escorts up to 50 of his high school foreign language students to Europe.  Europe?  Are you kidding me?  A trans-Atlantic flight?  Passports? Currency exchange?   High school students?  It sounds like a combustible concoction. He makes all the travel arrangements and hosts parent meetings. He is a traveler and he loves sharing the culture and history of France and Italy with his pupils.  I do admire that in a man.  I envy his courage, especially when I see the photographs of his students having coffee in Rome or  climbing the stairs to Sacre Coeur.  He has given his kids an amazing gift and memories they will never forget.

A shrink might say my class trip anxiety dates back to my day camp counselor days.  (It’s always about the past, right?) Each summer, the camp schedule included a Yankee Stadium pilgrimage to bleacher seats funded by Con Edison.  Summer sun and boredom took a toll on the kids and by the bottom of the third inning,  we were continually counting heads outside the rest rooms in the old Yankee Stadium. It didn’t help that the group of kids I was responsible for were little boys or that on one return trip to the bleachers, we picked up an extra who immediately started wailing, “This isn’t my camp!”  Traumatized. Not the crying kid; me.

Then there was the time, years later, when I accompanied the best and brightest of our high school students to Columbia University where they would be sitting for the prestigious Columbia Science Test.  These were twelve hand- picked candidates, s elected for their intellect and character. Piece of cake, even early on a Saturday.   What seasoned teacher can’t manage a dozen honor students?  The kids had been assigned to testing rooms in various buildings around the campus.  We agreed to reconvene at the alma mater statue at 1:30. 1:30 came and went and only eleven of the original group returned.  With very little prodding, these honor students sang like canaries, admitting that Joey was headed to the Javits Center for the annual car show.  “He had his parents’ permission,” they assured me.  Guess I was just the last to know.

Oh and yes, then there was the trip to Medieval Times in New Jersey. After devouring a meal with their bare hands and consuming quarts of orange soda from pewter tankards, my tenth graders could scarcely contain their enthusiasm during the joust.  Three kids threw up in the parking lot and two others were ready to fight students from another school in defense of the honor of the yellow knight. Fun, right?

So I don’t have a stellar trip history.  It is true that I never lost a kid, but that doesn’t mean I don’t live in fear of that happening.

None the less, when my principal asked if I would help him out and go along on the seventh grade trip, I agreed.  The trip isn’t for another week or so, but already I am counting kids rather than sheep in a futile effort to get some sleep.

Can I go to the nurse?

“Ms. D, can I have a pass to the nurse?”  Sometimes the voice is deliberately distant, punctuated by panting.  Creative kids add a sniffle or a rasp for good measure.  Some clutch their guts and buckle at the knees, while rolling their eyes.  All in all, the effort is admirable.

Over the years, I am sure I have been scammed by legions of kids who just desperately want to put off a vocabulary quiz or avoid writing a critical lens essay.

But be honest.  When they are standing in front of your desk, giving you an award winning imitation of post-apocalyptic survivors, you never know, right?   You never know which kids are legit:  who is really about to puke or otherwise combust, who has a rash, a migraine, athletes’ foot.  So you write the pass. But you don’t always know what happens after they gather their things and head down the hall.

We don’t always know how often and how well our school nurses patch up our kids.

Too often, we take the nurse’s office for granted. The daily attendance goes through here. Cutters get a comeuppance here.  The nurse applies ice and gives out band-aids and takes temperatures.  She examines eyes for conjunctivitis and heads for lice.  In extreme moments, she calls 911.  For most kids, though, a trip to the nurse is a one-time deal.  They get to school, and feel sick.  They go to the nurse, call home and get better and come back to school in a day or two.

But for other kids, the nurse’s office is a refuge, a sanctuary where someone actually listens to them, where someone serves them the breakfast they didn’t get at home. The nurse has stickers for scared kids or lonely kids or kids who are having a really bad day. The nurse has beds for kids who need a nap, blankets for kids who need to wrap themselves up to feel safe and the nurse has the patience to deal with so many patients.

Every year, our 8th graders write thank you letters as part of their autobiography projects and every year a couple of kids choose to write to the nurse.   Every year. They thank her for supporting them while their parents split up.  They thank her for helping them through tough times in the cafeteria or on the bus.  They thank her for making them feel special.  They thank her for things she doesn’t always even remember doing. Every year.

When one of our families fell on hard economic times, our nurse solicited the staff for donations so the kids would have food.  She orchestrated faculty support for another school family facing a baby’s illness, making sure that the school age kids had Christmas gifts and the family had meals. Her heart spoke again when our cafeteria manager had a fire in her apartment and lost almost everything.  Our school nurse found time to take up a collection for gift cards for clothing and basic household supplies.  It is little wonder that kids write her thank you letters every year.

So when I heard last week that our school nurse is retiring after nineteen years with us, my head ached and my knees buckled.  I guess I needed a pass to the nurse myself.  Though I am happy she will now have her days free to spend time with her husband and lavish attention on her grandson, I also selfishly know we will miss her TLC and her 41 years of medical expertise.

A pass to the nurse?  Just this once, OK?

How Movie Teachers Hurt My Self Esteem

I’ll admit it.  I am a sucker for a sports movie.    Baseball.  Football.  Hockey.  Even boxing and rugby. Rugby?  Really?  Really.  The sports movie storyline is pretty much the same regardless of the featured competition: underdog/washed up athlete gets one last chance to showcase a winning spirit and just when it seems that the big smack down is inevitable, the final scene plays out in super slo-mo and the hero pulls off the impossible.  Cue the triumphant tunes. Fade out. Feel good.

Why, then, can’t I accept teacher movies?  The premise is similar to the sports movie: naïve teacher faces unimaginable odds but somehow manages to win over hostile/disengaged students.  Kids find their inner poets/ mathematicians/scientists and the world is a better place.  Cue the triumphant tunes. Fade out; feel good.

Maybe it’s because I am not a pro athlete that I find it easier to accept that Rocky Balboa can go the distance with Apollo Creed than to believe that Robin Williams as John Keating captivates and motivates the otherwise unoriginal boys of Welton Academy.   Though they have their flaws, movie teachers always make me feel, well, inadequate.  Even a teacher like Mr. Holland, who initially views education as a ruse to buy him time to write his opus, comes around and performs miracles. Movie teachers find the funds. Movie teachers are mavericks who buck the administration with no regard for the long term employment outlook.  In a Venn Diagram, the movie teacher beats me out every time.  A T-chart?  I got nothin’.

And don’t get me started about how the bio-drama movie teachers make me feel.  These are, after all, real people. Oh, and yeah,  let’s not forget that they just all happen to be English teachers, too.  How ’bout that? Erin Gruel and the Freedom Writers?  Louanne Johnson and her Dangerous Minds?  Why can’t I do that?  My students aren’t nearly as needy and hard core as these kids.  So what am I doing wrong?  Even on my best day, I am not bringing the game these two women do.  I have read and re-read Charlotte Danielson but there is nothing in her book about what mountains the movie teachers can move.

OK, intellectually, I know that Hollywood and reality are not necessarily in sync.  The rational me who studied logic years before I studied education knows that even the real life movie teachers might not be as perfect as their on screen depictions show them to be.  Where are the state tests? Huh?  What about initiatives identified only by initials? And how do the movie teachers handle politicians whose understanding of education is limited but whose influence is wide?   All of this, I know.  But emotionally, I am still on the inferiority fast track. I really want to be that good. I do.  I want my kids to stand and deliver like Jamie Escalante’s students who did so well on the AP Calculus Exam the College Board accused them of cheating.  I want to stir passion and courage.

That’s when I realize that this game of compare/contrast with the heroes of movie classrooms might not be such a bad thing after all. There is inspiration in these stories.  Just like sports movie, the teacher movies give us hope.  Why not?