Saturday, September 29, 2012

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sneakers on a Wire

"My, my, aren't we special" as the SNL's Church Lady used to say. I mean so much press and all the talk shows and specials on Education in America.  We had Education Nation, Dropout Nation and Won't Back Down Nation.  I guess there is some general public interest in the future of our national treasures, and I suspect that with this widening of the circle, we will have more and more people weighing in on these matters that concern us (teachers) directly.  We are certainly hearing from those looking to promote their agendas for the wholesale improvement or solution to  those very issues that seem to bedevil us poor teachers (never needs ironing, never need ironing...Tom Waits).   I guess the producers didn't know that the area code to Chicago is 312. I mean here they were, supposedly, to discuss the big picture in education; and the big picture was marching loud and clear in Chicago and it could not have been bigger and it could not be more relevant to the discussion. Nearly every issue, which I need not repeat, should have been addressed, and perhaps the teachers who stood up to the privatization enterprise should have their say as to why a teacher would strike. But, that's entertainment.

If you have read any of my posts you know I am not a policy person when it come to problem solving.  I don't think that the solution to local problems rests in the hands of policy makers, miles away from where the rubber hits the road. And I feel that much of teaching is a form of  problem solving in the most visceral of ways. I use the word problem without any negative connotation but rather as a complex energy source with a simmering density and a trajectory of impending resolution.  In short: a student.  A student as a problem is a person on the cusp of change and evolution and hopefully a disentanglement  towards a genuine resolution.  And when you teach in an urban middle school there are a lot of problems careening down the hallway.  The range and disparity of middle school students is the widest of any school-age group.  The elementary age kids are like random molecules all pretty much under four feet tall. When you hit high school, you are already shaving either your face or under your arms, and you are who you are for better or worse. But middle school, ooh, baby, this is in your face evolution.  I have watched sixth graders come in like little munchkins and stroll out with tattoos on their chests.  The sixth grade boys are often smothered by the eight grade girls greeting them in the hallway, if you know what I mean.  It is a period of drastic physical, social and emotional changes and if you think those changes are tough in a stable home environment, try running those changes if you are also homeless or abused or in such an environment that you are doing all you can just to survive another day.  So, when I say that teaching is a form of problem solving, I am only stating the obvious to any other teacher - we look to the whole child and not to their pre-test assessment, test and post test reflection on the pre-test assessment and how well it predicted the outcome of the test...ya know what I mean.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dumping Grounds

What a couple of weeks, right?  The strike in Chicago has brought the issue of education to the front page, as  well it should be.  Most of the coverage seemed to address both the specific issues propelling the Chicago teachers as well as the larger picture (privatization), of which we are all fully aware.  Many of the education bloggers have given pointed assessments of the strike and made useful comparisons of the teaching conditions between Chicago and New York. All this action in the arena has been illuminating and helps in understanding how policy plays out in the ongoing battle.

This past week I resembled, for a moment, an open-mouth trout when I learned that my school, which I thought was comprised of a student population of roughly 30% IEP students, instead is expected to educate a population where nearly 75% have IEPs. So, the school has effectively become a dumping ground for struggling students. We all love a challenge but, hey, at least give us a fighting chance.  However, because the overall population decreased, we will now have less money to solve bigger problems.  Add to this, the dimension of havoc brought on by the new NYC school discipline code and the movement to mainstream.   I can begin to see the not-so-invisible forces that are behind the deconstruction of what was once our model school.  We are told that the school's future will be announced by December.  None of this bodes well.

Now a word from Where the Rubber Hits the Road.  I can remember when I was a student at P.S 76 in the Bronx, how every Friday morning we had a school assembly.  Each class column-marched to the auditorium and took their seats in their class row. Once everyone was seated, the Color Guard, made up of students carrying the flags of country, state and city, marched down the center aisle.  I remember, as a Color Guard, the neat leather holster we used to help hold the flag pole as we proudly marched before the assembly.  Okay, okay.  I am making this observation because this is the second year that my school has not held a single school assembly.  I happen to think that at least a weekly general assembly is a great tool in creating a school spirit and school's unity in purpose.  To not have an assembly is to miss an opportunity to address a myriad of topics, from current events to class based projects, with the class body.  You can remind the kids on a daily basis what their goals are, or how they can achieve what they want in life. You can reinforce the importance of education and the role of the teachers in the school and the necessity for respect. Encourage them to work every day to keep up with assignments and to be active learners.  You can have the school bands show their stuff, the poets can read, the video/computer kids can show their videos, and on and on. This is what we could do, and it doesn't cost much money, if any, but we would have to have an auditorium, and the administrative will, to pull it off.  Or, the auditorium can be used as one of the three new charter schools in our building does every morning in my school. They use it for pep rallies. And because we (my school) have surrendered the auditorium (on our floor) to a charter school - they are the ones who can take advantage of this opportunity to create school/class awareness. Class awareness. Yeah, some of our kids look into the auditorium during these assemblies.  I wonder what they are thinking?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Next Step Forward

Give the Kids a Break

Well, here we are in the second week of the Chicago Teachers Strike and the beat goes on.  Despite the striking teacher's best efforts to keep the children's welfare in the forefront of the debate, the critics have been doing their best to portray the teachers as money grabbing ($76K avg. OMG we are almost milliionares) slackers who simply put in their time in (not enough of it apparently) without regard to the educational responsibilities that go with being a teacher.  I dunno, maybe they never had a Miss Crabtree in their sorry lives.  Some of these critics should spend a day in one of  the inner city classrooms that the striking teacher's decry.  Maybe if they spent the day in an over-crowded room, without the benefits of an air-conditioner, trying to get the intellectual engagement of forty, hungry, ten year-old kids who are sharing a seat and a textbook, they would perhaps see that the "working environment"of teachers is the "learning environment" of the students.  Perhaps, just perhaps, one of these critics would see that the teachers struggle is for the benefit of the children in their care.  Every issue at hand, from the teacher evaluation to hiring formalities will, in the end, impact the students.  Teachers already know the political dynamics of how teacher evaluation will effect not only their status in the system but also how this evaluation framework can be devised to essentially dismantle public education and the mandate that all children have access to quality public schools and teachers.  This is more than a struggle for wages and benefits that might normally be the focus of a striking union.  Teachers are different - you can't measure our effectiveness by looking at the bin to  see how many widgets we assembled during the hour.  And just because some private edu-enterprize devises a self-serving system of evaluating teachers or the skills teachers employ in education, it does not mean that the teachers are going to buy into that system especially when it is exposed as intellectually bogus, misleading and serves neither the teachers nor the students affected. Enough is enough - it is time to forcefully inform those who look to portray us as "cry babies who get so much for putting out so little", that we will not back down, will not be bullied into submission and we will continue to fight for quality public education, for funding in distressed communities and dammit, to put a piano in every music classroom so we don't miss out on the next Frank "Sugar Chile Robinson".

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Miss Crabtree? Really!

Even Miss Crabtree would be vilified, yes, Miss Crabtree!
Last year at this time I was engaged in the usual teacher's routine of early September and my thoughts were pretty much swirling around the perimeter of my classroom.  But today, aside the personal moment of silence for 9/11, I can't get away from the billboard-sized event of the strike in Chicago. Well, the union issues finally made the front pages of the NY Times and another column by Joe Nocera. In this situation we need to be in front of how the teachers are portrayed because there is an army of media people in the deep pockets of the privatization movement who are out to demonize us with broad strokes. Is it that they think teachers are coddled education slackers who get compensated enormous sums from the strangled tax payer for sitting behind a desk... and with the summer off?  Or perhaps they think we have a different agenda, perhaps a grand conspiracy to create a generation of illiterate welfare recipients?  I really don't know what happened to the image of Miss Crabtree?  Maybe they think we just don't care? Or then maybe it is just a union thing, you know, collective bargaining and all that.  We know schools are failing, hell, we are in them, but we as teachers also know the students and why they are failing.  Look in your old yearbook and see if you have any extracurricular activities at your school.  I can name about six kids I knew in my 8th grade class who would not have been in school were it not for JV Football. Look at my school's 2012 yearbook: we have band (during school) and track (no more) and rock band (also, no more with the teacher excessed). That is it and that is pathetic. This is not news for teachers. I think even most teachers would agree with the precept that we have to make the kids care, to care about something that matters: if not about educating themselves for the love of learning, then at least about getting prepared for a career, or at least a job, or maybe about getting a HS diploma, or of getting to school, of getting up out of bed, of getting up at all.
What on earth do these education deformers know about teaching? The very first thing is a near insurmountable task of making many of these children care about anything. But we try and try and though it is sometimes thankless and often without any real results, you do get to see those standardized test scores at the end of the year and reminisce "Yeah, hey what ever happened to what's his number? 789478 ?  Did he ever graduate?"
And what happens when the kid and their parents do care? They are invited to a charter school.  I watched it today in the hallway at school.  A parent was in with his bright and smiling, young daughter and they were coming to tell her teacher that she was leaving.  Teacher, "...oh back to Puerto Rico?" "No, to the charter school," she said.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Voila! A Teacher's Lounge.

To operate:flick wrist briskly
Turn over to turn off
Am I glad to have been picked up again by my old school? Yeah, because I'd rather be in the nightmare I already know than in the one I don't.  So, like Lazarus, I returned to looks of surprise and welcome from my colleagues and friends. However, it wasn't long before the eerie disturbances began to take shape. A quick report card: we lost one wing on our floor to an expanded charter school forcing us to share classrooms, our  "facility" lounge which used to be the teacher's lunchroom, which is air-conditioned, was given over to charter and cleared out so they can have a dance and yoga studio. I don't know where they managed to put the dozen or so tables and scores of chairs except perhaps in our classroom. We spent that Tuesday clearing cabinets, which we were told not to put in the hall ( so where?) so they can be carted off (to where and when?) so we could actually set up a classroom.  During school day, Thursday, you can see the stuff carted away to the back of the school, to the small section of grass enclosed by a hurricane fence - yeah, that looks nice. So, in exchange for the yoga studio we get to sit in a conference room. A small, crowded, stifling room with books and boxes, over sized tables and yes, a nice vase with artificial flowers, but no air-conditioner, no fan even, but open to the side long glances of the kids in the hall. And, not only did the "teacher's lounge" disappear, the conference room is now the lunchroom for the entire staff in the school. Ah, the well know aroma of KFC in a closed room.  So who made this deal?  Who came up with this? I can see what we gave up but what did we get beside a piece of cardboard (see pictures above)? Why do we in the "public school", it is OUR school after all, have to be the ones who have to accommodate these charter intrusions and expansions and dance to their tune. Were there negotiations or did "I SAY SO" just come in and rearrange everything to accommodate their needs. I mean, it is not a big deal, and there are more serious issues at hand but it is simply indicative of the casual disregard  for teachers and staff as displayed by whomever is agreeing to these changes.  I guess it just doesn't matter how that affects staff and faculty - but hey, keep telling us we're family and there is nothing but respect.

We shrunk as a school; probably in anticipation of closure. There are about 435 or so students at this time and about fully 30% have IEP. We lost our librarian to the ATR, so no one is there, all the computers in the library are disconnected and we did not have an assembly which in my mind would be something to do without question. There were no new hires in my school which was good to see but a bad omen as this years population has dropped again.  I tracked down the teacher assigned from the ATR - the fellow wheeling the cart of history books down the hall. We had a chance to speak and he has been swimming in the pool for a year already, he has gotten used to it and in the end, will just accept his paycheck for a couple more years to retirement.  Not too big a bullet to bite he says and as Vonnegut wrote..."so it goes, so it goes".

And now for a little entertainment...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Out of the ATR

Last Thursday, as I was writing a post about the recent changes in the discipline code, I received a phone call.  It was the AP from my old school and I was being asked if I was interested in returning.  It appears that the final head count brought forth additional funds for teachers and that I was one moving up in line. I accepted the offer to return from the dead and was assured of my old computer lab as my room.  Thus, no longer am I "Excess'd -- A Teacher Without a Room". And I was just getting comfortable being an ATR. What with a blog that at least a few people seem to read, an animation character; Mr. Letgo who, it seems, has taken on a life of his own now that he has a Facebook page and a new attitude on my own part about my work as a teacher and of the current skirmishes on the educational battlefield. If nothing else, being a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve has evolved to being a member of the Angry Teacher Revolution. There is a fight against the privatization of education and the dismantling of the teachers union and it is being waged on every level and across the country.
You never know what might set you off in a particular direction.  When I was a jock at seventeen and laid up in a hospital bed from a football injury, I read my first book on my own: "Last Exit to Brooklyn"  by Hugh Selby Jr. and it changed my life. For me, being sent to the ATR pool has made me more engaged with the political realities surrounding me and my profession and made me want to add my own take in my own way.  I am clearly, not a policy wonk, but I am in a world where enacted policy has a direct effect and I intend to communicate that reality in my own personal way.  Now that my "situation" has changed my perspective has shifted.  My feet are no longer in the ATR;  I am in my classroom where I have my first obligation. 
We return to school on Tuesday and I know what an empty feeling that gives those who are still in the Reserve.  Their welfare and future must be an issue that stays alive despite the union's efforts to keep them silent and fragmented.  I am going to keep this blog going and advocating for our shared principles and goals under the current moniker.  I just will not be able to give first hand accounts of life of an ATR (and I had just signed a contract with Mr. Letgo for three more episodes) but I will continue to post as a teacher in the NYC system.  As far as Mr. Letgo's Facebook presence and his page for the ATR's - well, I will keep it going as a platform for ATR people but if no one is going for it then I am not going to keep it open, there is enough work to do already.  Well, I think I have a handle on all this...and now, I need to get ready for school.