Thursday, December 16, 2010

You Shall Not Pass: The Role of Grade Retention in Secondary Schools



"Jazelle, focus please..."

The aforementioned phrase has become par for the course as of late in my fourth period Spanish II class. Working at a brand new charter school has offered me many opportunities and one of the best opportunities is the ability to have small, intimate classes. Jazelle is one of four students in my class and I have the ability to work closely with her on a daily basis. Well, I shouldn't say daily. Jazelle is frequently out due to unexcused absences, and because of this she often comes in only three days a week, if that. She has ability, but falls further and further behind because not only does she not make up work, but she also wastes valuable time when she is in class. Students like her bring to the forefront one of key educational issues of today: Grade retention.

Most of us have likely never been retained. Studies have shown that most students who are retained are minorities, English language learners, and tend to be male. We can all think back to someone in our past who was retained. Odds are that this person was the "cool guy" at the onset. This was the guy who could drive during his freshman year and the guy who bought the younger guys cigarettes as soon as he turned 18. We all initially worshiped this guy and many young ladies wanted to pursue a magical evening with him. However, once senior year came around and this guy was the super senior, well he wasn't as cool anymore. We could all drive ourselves and buy our own cigarettes and therefore this guy was no longer needed. As we wrote our college essays and began receiving college acceptance letters, we began to see this guy less and less. In fact, come to think about it, we really don't even know if this guy even made it to graduation.

Sound familiar? I know it does for me. It is inevitable that in a nation that strives to educate all its children that some children will not be properly educated. These students don't progress as society expects them to and yet we expected that somehow and some way they will magically do better the second time around, even though they proved they couldn't do it the first time. Think about it in terms of running a mile. You struggle, sweat, and gasp for air with your peers all the way to the end but fall just short of the finish and everyone else passes you and completes the distance. As you stand there, exhausted, your coach pats you on the back and says "Alrighty, didn't quite get there this time. Why don't you head back to the start and try it one more time the exact same way?" Sounds absurd, right? Yet this is exactly what we do when we retain students.

Having taught at an urban middle school, I have had seen many students be retained and I can tell you this: Retention did not work. The students who were retained were the worst behaved students I had. They knew their peers idolized them so they made it their business to entertain them, at the expense of the learning process. The problem was that many of these students had already thrown in the towel, even at the ripe old age of fourteen. They weren't good at school, didn't like school, and didn't care about any of it. Why did it even matter what grade they were in anyway? They were going to enjoy their last moments in public school by causing as much trouble as possible and hoping to get suspended so at least then they wouldn't be wasting their time in the school building. For these students, being retained did a lot more harm than good and it ended up hurting all parties involved.

So the solution is obviously social promotion right? Well, I wouldn't say that is necessarily the case either. The truth is I am a concerned citizen. I'm worried about the future of this country, hence the title of my blog. I don't want to churn out high school graduates who can't read or write and yet that is exactly what we are doing. Do I really want someone with a fifth grade reading level to have as much political sway with their one vote as I do? Of course not. Yet, this is exactly where our country is headed because we are creating test factories where students cannot think on their feet. I, for one, do not think we should automatically promote a student who doesn't deserve it in an effort to keep him from being retained. So now this begs the question: If we don't retain him or promote him, what exactly do we do?

First and foremost, I think we need to re-analyze the very foundation of public schooling: The grade levels. Being out in southern California, I have begun to see an increasing trend of combination classes. For example, elementary schools often have class combinations such as 2-3 or 3-4. This to me makes perfect sense. If you are an advanced third grader, who says you shouldn't be in a class with a lower-level fourth grader? Teachers have a hard enough time differentiating in the classroom where we have multiple ability levels for our students. Imagine being able to cater your instruction, based on ability. I can see teachers reading this blog and just licking their chops at this possibility. After all, in college we take classes with all grade levels with freshmen and seniors often in the same classes. Last time I checked, nobody was arguing that freshman should only take classes with freshmen, sophomores should only takes classes with sophomores, etc. If this model works at the collegiate level, shouldn't it be implemented in the early grades as well?

But again, this makes too much sense and so this is why I am a lowly high school teacher and not the secretary of education (yet). As for me, I am stuck in a situation with Jazelle which forces me to decide if I should limit her life opportunities by retaining her, or jeopardize her future by sending out into a real world she is obviously unprepared for. If I pass her and all her other teachers fail her, have I done a lick of good? If I fail her and have her in my class again next year and she decides she'd rather be the class disruptor than even try to learn, have I done a lick of good? Is it this girl's fault she isn't good at school even though society expects it of her?

I don't know what I will end up doing with Jazelle. She acted the exact same way last semester. I had hoped that by giving her a passing grade, it would have lit a fire under her and given her a paucity of motivation. However, general apathy has quashed any potential fire that lies dormant inside of her. Begging and pleading do not work. Parental contact does not work. Vince Lombardi motivational speeches do not work. The glaring F on her progress report does not work. This is a girl who has given up on school and could care less about where she ends up in life. She is there everyday to kick it with her friends and if she has done that, then it has been a good day for her. As her teacher at the end of the day, it is up to me to determine if she has earned the right to advance to a further course of study. As of this very moment, I am at an impasse.

So are the rest of her teachers.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Plight of Passion: How Schools Kill the Excitement Factor in Learning



"Are you guys excited about this?"
"Not really."

This is the exact reaction I heard last week in my classes as I introduced the first major language project for the students in the 2010-2011 school year. Our school has adopted the project-based learning model, which allows students an opportunity to work in small groups in order to create a project that has real world applications. The idea behind the model is that the majority of professional work in the 21st century is done in small groups which a goal and a deadline in place. It is up to the group members to divvy up responsibilities and to create a product that is efficient and purposeful. At our school level we will have an exhibition night where students will showcase all of their project-based learnings to staff members, parents, as well as members of the community. We hope to instill upon our students the work ethnic and cooperation techniques they will need to succeed beyond their high school days.

This is one of the reasons why it is so disheartening to hear student responses like the one above. We as teachers try our best to come up with innovative and exciting project ideas. The beauty of working at a charter school is that we can do this without district personnel breathing down our necks and wondering why we aren't following the standard course of study to the T. For my language project, I am having my students create an educational video to post on YouTube about anything, I repeat, ANYTHING having to do with the Spanish language. Students can do it on a musician, actor, country, city, movie, song, grammar topic, whatever they fancy. They can do a song parody, a satire of a television show, a mock interview, or even a traditional teacher-centered lecture. The possibilities are endless. And yet, there my students were after being presented about the project, nearly all of them with the same unenthusiastic response to my query.

Normally, I wouldn't think twice about my students' response to the project. I mean, they are high schoolers after all, and apathy seems to be the norm, even in charter schools. However, last week put me in a situation that I had never been in before: A situation of teaching elementary school children. I was fortunate enough to come into contact with one of my professors who needed a Spanish teacher for an eight-week enrichment session from now until winter vacation. I offered my services since my tutoring gig had expired and the fact that I was looking for teaching opportunities outside of my regular day job. Last Tuesday, I taught nine elementary school children from first to fifth grade the Spanish alphabet. We sang songs, made flash cards, and ended up by playing hangman on the board. Here were students who were excited and animated and wanting to learn, even though it was past the end of the regular school day. It was a stark contrast to what I had experienced just hours before with my high school students.

So these two instances got me thinking: What causes excitable elementary school students to become apathetic high school students? For me, the first thing that comes to mind is the peer pressure and adolescent component. Nobody wants to be seen actually "enjoying" school when they get to high school. Even if you do enjoy it, you keep it to yourself and shrug it off if somebody asks you about it. The most important thing is to be accepted by your peers and the only way you can do it is to appear to be just like them. Granted, there are exceptions, but for the most part the idea of having and maintaining an image is most critical to high school students. This is why the prom king and queen are traditionally the star athlete and head cheerleader as opposed to the valedictorian. I don't think I was even more proud of my high school class than on the night of my junior prom where they selected my friend Matt as homecoming king. Matt was a quiet, but academically gifted individual who would go on to become student body president and eventually graduate first in our class before heading to Harvard. Unfortunately, feel good stories like this one seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

The second thing that causes apathy is a lack of choices in high school curricula. This is an ongoing problem especially in today's high-stakes testing environment where electives are often the first thing to go. Imagine how fun high school would be if you could venture out and choose a class you might not have traditionally taken. I remember my freshman year in high school where I had signed up to take a class in small engines technology. I was all set to become the resident mechanic in my household. Unfortunately, as is the case with most of these kind of electives today, the class got scrapped due to low enrollment numbers. Think how great it would be if schools offered classes in drama, art, music, and film. How much more well-rounded would our students be in they had the ability to take a variety of classes before setting foot on a college campus or joining the military or work force? Giving students choice in their classes would help alleviate some of the apathy that eventually rears its ugly head.

The last thing that kills student excitement is the sheer pressure we put on kids starting about halfway through their elementary school experience. Nowhere else in the modern world are students expected to perform well on high-stakes tests at such an early age. Should a third grader's promotion to the next grade really hinge upon how well he or she does on a single year end test? Of course not, yet this is the case time and time again in today's high-stakes testing environment. Whereas once upon a time every hand would shoot up when the teacher asked a question, now only a few of them shoot up as the rest begin to doubt themselves and their abilities for the very first time. Sure you thought you were good in math, but when you got that failing score on the state exam last spring, now you're not so sure. You think you know the answer to the question the teacher is asking but to be safe you just sit back and wait for one of the "smarter" kids to jump right in there. After all, it's a lot safer that way.

There is no doubt in my mind that all three factors are equally important reasons why student excitement levels wane as they get older. One thing I struggle with on a daily basis is trying to get my students to actually ENJOY their learning. Even if they are doing individual work, I encourage them to carry on a conversation with their neighbor. They look at me like I have three heads. The problem is they have all come from environments where the fun has been sucked out of learning. Where test preparation has replaced recess. Where student schedules are set for full years with no other options. Where those that are smart and can critically think are immediately ostracized. High schoolers quite simply have forgotten how to have fun when learning. It's not their fault. They are products of a system that sucks the life out of its students and leaves hollow shells of what the students were when they first started school. Students want to have fun in school. The problem is they have forgotten how. So it is up to us as teachers to reignite that long-lost fire.

Now, who wants to go and make a super fun video?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Money Talks: How Affluent Families Have the Advantage in Today's Public Education



"Your services are no longer necessary..."

The six words that no employee wants to hear. They're the words that sting the soul, words that indicate that despite our best efforts, for some reason or another, we failed. I've heard those words twice before: Once when I was sixteen and working at the local gym. The other time was this past year when my long-term substitute position terminated at the end of the year and there was no permanent position available to me. Each time I could see the logic behind the removal. At the gym, they couldn't afford to keep providing me with a free membership for my otherwise non-paid work. For my previous school, the truth was that staff with seniority were placed ahead of me and there was nothing for me beyond the school year. This past Monday, I heard those nonmagical words for the third time from a woman whose son I was tutoring. The reasons behind my dismal this time are not as clear cut as in previous situations.

Let's start with economics 101. As I often talk about in my blog, there is a tremendous discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots in education. The truth is that money can't buy you happiness, but in this day and age it can buy you opportunity. And nowhere is this opportunity more apparent than in the education field. Think about how many opportunities money can buy you in education. Transportation to and from school and extracurricular activities. Transportation on the weekend to sports events that might earn you a scholarship. Money for field trips, both local and long distance. Computer access at home. SAT prep books, classes, and tutors. College guide books. Money for multiple college applications. And the list goes on.

Despite dedicating my life to helping those students who have had their lives stacked against them by society, I also feel the need to work with those who are more affluent and who do have those opportunities I have mentioned. The reasons for this are twofold. First, it is important for a classroom teacher to be able to work with all students in his or her classroom. I know that working at a start-up charter school, I will be working with the whole spectrum of students, especially this first year. Secondly, I'll be honest: I enjoy making money. Working with the more affluent students outside of school in a tutoring situation gives me the chance to not only enhance by teaching bu also to make a few dollars on the side. Simple theory of supply and demand: There is a demand for language teachers in Southern California and I am part of the supply of teachers in that field. Who am I to argue with basic theories of economics?

So, with that logic in mind I decided to take a tutoring job with a local high school junior. This student was enrolled at a private school about 30 minutes north of his home. The family lived in a nice home in an area that overlooked San Diego Harbor. This student had struggled in Spanish the year before and his teacher recommended that he continue studying the language only if he got a tutor for the upcoming school year. Knowing that competitive University of California colleges and state universities expect three years of foreign language in high school, the student's parents asked around for assistance in Spanish. Fortunately for me, I went to Kenya with another graduate student who is friends of the family and she recommended me. The rest, as they say, is history.

I worked with this student for an hour a week for 4 weeks. There was no question he was bright. Despite "struggling" in Spanish as his mom told me, he still had a B-average. However, that wasn't cutting it and so I was brought in to help raise that B to an A. In working with the student, I noticed he lacked a lot of the foundation needed to be successful in a third year high school Spanish class. We spent a lot of time reviewing material from the previous school year. The structure of the class was one that required a lot of outside studying. I had to convince the student that vocabulary flash cards would help him learn the material in preparation for the weekly quizzes. We went to the classroom website and he learned how to use the links to practice with material that was presented in the notes for the previous day. After 4 weeks, the student still had a B, but his needs had been analyzed and we were ready to move into a positive direction for his upcoming assessments.

Then, I got the ax.

On Monday morning, the student's mother told me that his grade wasn't improving at the rate at which she would have liked. She thanked me for my efforts and told me that the student would take it upon himself to work with the teacher during lunch and after school to try and bring up his grade. This news hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew that we had turned a corner and that the student was on his way to steadily improve. I also found him to be an interesting case study, and in my working with him I was hoping to help lay the foundation for my action research project that I had to do next semester for my last graduate course. I also was disappointed to lose out on the added income that tutoring was bring me. It wasn't a tremendous amount, but in this economy each and every dollar matters and I enjoyed the fact that my gas would be paid for monthly thanks to my new tutoring endeavor.

So why did I get canned? Simple. I didn't live up to the ridiculously high expectations of this family. They assumed that I could somehow and some way make their child an A-student in Spanish class, a class that he had barely passed the year before. This same student also had tutors for both chemistry and algebra as well. Do I blame the family? No. Why not? Because they expect their child to do well. The parents both did well in school and graduated from college. During one of the tutoring sessions, the mother informed me that the tutoring session had to be done in exactly an hour because it was junior college night and they had to return to school for it. That meant two hour-long trips to and from school in the same day, a sacrifice that mom was willing to make. These parents fully expected their child to succeed and end up at a top tier university.

This family is not unique. Not in San Diego, not anywhere. I do not fault this family for trying to help their only child succeed. It's what we all want for our children. It's why my twenty-five year old self has a financial planner as a way to start saving money now so that my children will have all the opportunities I had as a child. And those opportunities were given to me thanks to a super hard-working father. Thanks to his efforts, I had many of the same opportunities that the student I tutored had. I went on the field trips throughout school. I traveled all over New England to play sports. I took an SAT Prep course that raised my score by 150 points. I applied to eleven colleges and universities, writing multiple college essays on the desktop computer in my room. It was never a question of if I was going to college, it was a question of where I would end up. The same can be said for the student I tutored.

I leave you with these thoughts: How can someone from a less affluent home be expected to compete against someone who has had all these advantages? How does a struggling student stay after school if he or she has no ride home? How does the high school athlete with no transportation compete year round against those who travel all over the region for tournaments? How does the elementary school student go to the art museum if his single parent hasn't yet gotten her paycheck for the month? How does the middle school student type up his social studies report if he doesn't have a computer at home? How does the high school student apply to multiple schools if she doesn't have that much money available and doesn't qualify or know about scholarships? How does she get into college with low SAT scores? Does she have any hope for her future?

You tell me.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Kryptonite Revealed: How One City Intends to Defeat "Superman"




This past Friday, the movie Waiting for Superman debuted in selected cities. The documentary follows five students that had negative experiences in public schools and thus turned their attention toward the world of charter schools. The movie is already being met by both praise and criticism, hardly a shock to anyone who has seen how divided our country has become in the past few years. Proponents of the film view it as a realistic showcase of public schooling and its failures. Opponents see the film as unfairly representing public schools and being overly generous toward charter schools. Regardless, there is no denying that there is a great battle taking place between public and private schools today. I know. I'm part of that battle.

I currently am employed at a first-year charter high school in the Kearny Mesa neighborhood of San Diego. We are the product of Dr. Coleman Furr, the founder of the local Coleman University. Dr. Furr wished to start a charter high school in San Diego that would echo what Coleman University stands for: that is, small class sizes, group interactions, and using the latest technology to prepare students for the outside world. The school's charter was approved in early June leaving the leadership team a mere three months to not only recruit students, but also to make sure we had a workable building that was up to code and ready to house up to 120 freshmen and sophomores. By mid-August the staff had been finalized and the team of ten administrators and teachers were brought together and began embarking on the establishment of a brand new charter high school. Despite well-designed marketing and local television appearances, the student enrollment was to only be roughly 35 students. However, these small class sizes combined with a laptop upon entry would give students a unique learning opportunity not available anywhere else in the county.

Then, the shit hit the fan.

The day before Labor Day we were called in for a late afternoon staff meeting. It was revealed that despite doing everything asked of us and going through the proper channels, the city planning office had suddenly deemed our building unfit to house students. This was despite the fact that we teachers had been in the building for over three weeks and had never once questioned the building's safety. Our administrators met with our board members and held an emergency parent meeting. It was decided to start school a week and a half later in hopes that we could get our building up to "code." This "code" required the installation of an interconnected fire alarm system as well as the removal of all classroom doors and hinges. Apparently doors that open inward are not a fire hazard in the business world but are a hazard in the education world. Who knew?

As all this was going on we made contingency plans. Our first day of school involved us being off-campus at a charter school roughly 45 minutes away because you have to open school in a building approved for education and education only. The next day we went on a field trip. On Friday, our computing teacher brought his wireless router on the bus and students collectively wrote a letter to San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders, making him aware of our situation. We then showed up unannounced to the mayor's office and presented the letter. One of the mayor's assistants met with our assistant principal and we were given assurances that the mayor's office had our support. Would Mayor Sanders stay true to his word? Only time would tell.

This past week, we still did not have the needed permit to enter our building and so our "mobile classroom" continued. Each day we scheduled an appointment with city planners but on more than one occasion they refused to see us. Yes, you read that correctly. City planners refused to see a school that needed its approval to let students into the doors. Apparently free, public education is not a priority of the San Diego city planners. We again adapted by going on field trips and providing students with meaningful work on the bus and at home. Friday was a teacher work day to see where we stood in terms of our building permit. As we came in, our assistant principal looked glum. We found out why. The city had thrown a new set of rules and regulations at us before we could open our building. This latest set of guidelines relates to a law that will be enacted in December of 2010. However, they feel that with lag time needed to process all the paperwork, our school should be up to these guidelines. I guess city planners think that they're Superman and can magically rotate the Earth forward to make it three months from now. Mayor Sanders is nowhere to be found.

Our last resort is to now have an independent study for our students for the next three weeks. We will use building space at Coleman University and will work with our students twice a week for individual instruction. We have already lost a few students. We have a building with four ActivBoards, a digital media lounge with a flat screen television, and multiple classrooms ready for use. We have seven teachers who have been working furiously for six weeks to prepare our ever-evolving curricula. We have an administrative team who has gone to bat for us multiple times including our Director of Student Services driving to and from Sacramento in a 24 hour span to demand that the Department of Justice allow her teachers to be fingerprinted so that we would be allowed to teach our students. We have nearly 30 students who have become disillusioned by traditional education and want a place to call their home. They have a home waiting for them on Aero Drive. One that the city of San Diego will not let them enter.

So why the resistance? Who has a vendetta against our school? Why are we being held to a standard that nobody associated with the school has seen in nearly forty years of public education? The answer relates back to the inherent battle of charter versus public school. Our school is a threat to traditional public schools and thus a battle of epic proportions is being waged against us. The fact is, if we are allowed to survive we open up the floodgates to other charter schools who want to convert office buildings to school buildings. San Diego public schools are hurting big time right now. The entire district is in year two improvement. If scores don't dramatically improve (and odds are they won't) then the possibility exists that as many as one-third of the failing schools will have to be converted to charter schools. The district would lose a third of its schools and thus a third of its income. Our little school has become a microcosm for the problems that are plaguing the country's eighth largest school district.

So this is how the Lex Luthor's of public education defeat the Superman charter schools: With kryptonite. The kryptonite in this case is the one unforeseen weakness that we never saw coming: fine print. Legality. Or in our case, non-existent legality. Made up rules. The city planners of San Diego are playing hardball with us. However, they are just pawns in this game. The forces that be are behind them and are those with powerful connections that would lose a lot if we are allowed to succeed. They are proponents of public schools who see the charter movement as a fringe movement. They are firmly entrenched into the ideals and values of their teacher's union. They represent the status quo, something that the very nature of the charter school movement threatens. These are the same people who will inevitably stand outside the theater when Waiting for Superman comes to San Diego. I, for one, will be in line with these people. I will talk to them. I will ask them one question: Is it worth ruining the education of 40 dedicated students and staff members to prove a point?

I can't wait to see how they respond.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Par for the Course: Designing and Implementing a New Curriculum



"Just choose what you think is important and go from there..."

The magic words. The words every teacher longs to hear. The words that give the teacher, the instructor, the trained professional the autonomy and control to teach what he or she wants the way he or she wants to teach it. However, this amazing gift in this day and age has become like winning the lottery. Everybody wants it, yet a select few ever have their wish come true. And yet, here I was one week ago, being given that elusive gift via my school administration. I'm normally not an emotional person. The last time I got visibly choked up was when the Patriots lost the 2007 Super Bowl. And yet there I was, slightly teary-eyed after having been giving the green light to teach with ultimate freedom and autonomy. In other words, I am one of the few teachers in America who can teach the way teaching was meant to be.

Herein lies the advantage of teaching a non-tested subject. The state of California has no say in how I teach Spanish as long as I teach it. I currently have the ability to teach Spanish any way I damn well please, pardon my French. And it is invigorating! I can look at tons of websites and identify what first year language learners need to know and be able to do. I can look back on my own experiences and those of my classmates and co-workers and ask them what worked and what didn't work when they were learning a foreign language. I can ask other Spanish teachers for their resources and can pick and choose what topics to present and when. If my students just can't get a topic for whatever reason, then I can try to reintroduce it later in the course or even in a follow-up course if need be. The sky is the limit. For the first time in my professional career, I am my own boss. I am the only language teacher currently at my school so the buck stops at me: literally. If the curriculum isn't working, I have nobody to blame but myself. I will drop back and punt and make it work. Because the success of the entire school's language learners depends on one person: me.

So as much as I would like to continue to brag about my new-found curricular freedom, this ultimately begs the question: Should all teachers, regardless of subject, have this much autonomy? Are our state standards enough? Or should we have national standards that all teachers must adhere to? Ah, herein lies the debate. Spanish is one thing, as it is not a tested area. It doesn't matter what exactly I teach my students because they will never have to deal with a national norm-referenced test. But what about our tested areas like math and reading? What about science and social studies where there are common bodies of knowledge? Should there ultimately be lists of what every student should know or be able to do by the time they graduate from college? There are many questions raised and many viewpoints supporting all sides of these arguments.

Let's first look at the idea of a common body of knowledge. E.D. Hirsch in the late 1980s brought forth the idea of each student knowing or being aware of a list of common facts and people. However, he was immediately attacked for being too conservative and not including valuable people and events that are traditionally neglected by our history books. He was accused of promoting the idea of "drill and kill" and not having our students think critically enough. As much as I agree that this list would ultimately neglect valuable parts of our history and culture, it made me wonder. Do we need some sort of national standards for our core curricula? If Johnny transfers from Oklahoma to Nebraska during his sophomore year, shouldn't he theoretically be able to pick up where he left off in his world history class? What happens if all of a sudden he leaves Mr. Brown's class discussing the Roman Empire and enters Miss Jones' class where they are in the middle of discussing the Qing Dynasty. This means that Johnny is now behind and doesn't have the core knowledge that his classmates have. And guess what? Johnny will be expected to take the same end of course test that all his classmates are despite missing out on the first portion of the year.

Think this is an exaggeration? Curricula can vary not only across states but even across schools. Yours truly opted to take a freshman year seminar in high school that combined language arts and social studies. My peers opted to take the traditional world history and freshman English classes. Yup, you guessed right. Yours truly, paid professional teacher of social studies, never formally learned about the Greek or Roman empires because they weren't taught in my seminar class. Well, technically we briefly discussed the Greek empire. But all I remember from that portion of the class is Doric, Corinthian, and Ionic columns because we had to do a video project on them. When people mention Caesar to me I first and foremost think of the delicious salad. So, what do you think? Is it really fair that people go their entire schooling in American public education and don't know basic facts about the Roman Empire?

And yet, I have to go back to the fact that if we taught the same things to everyone, we would not only lose out on student critical thought, but we would lose out on teacher creativity as well. There would be no way to pursue outside interests or areas of expertise. Maybe a certain teacher discusses Bartolome de Las Casas in his world history class. A student learns about Las Casas, someone his teacher studied and shared with the class. The student asks the teacher about him and the teacher tells him how he was one of the very first people to protest the European treatment of the natives in the Americas. The student wants to further study Las Casas and the teacher gives him some resources to look into. The student takes the initiative and learns all he can about not only Las Casas but other early protesters on the European invasion. Eventually, this student goes on to study other oppressed peoples and eventually decides he wants to be a public defender to fight for those current-day people who have been oppressed and haven't been given equal opportunities in their lives. All of this, thanks to a teacher who taught slightly outside of his given curriculum.

There is no easy answer to the curriculum dilemma. If I had to approximate one, I would say that teachers should use their state curricula as guides but have freedom to teach about what they are passionate about. If a U.S. history teacher wants to spend two weeks on the Era of Good Feelings, then let him or her spend time on that era. If another history teacher in Texas acknowledges that Charles Darwin wrote an important book about something called "evolution", then he or she should be allowed to do so without facing consequences. If an English teacher in Virginia wants to study Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, then with parental approval and administrative support, she should be able to. Not all teachers can have full autonomy but they should have the ability to teach beyond the simple drill and kill that have bogged down the tested areas. We all got into teaching because we are passionate about what we teach. It's time for school districts and national education policies to realize this and let us share our passion with our students.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

From the Heart: A Genuine Graduation Speech

Erica Goldson, the valedictorian of Coxsackie-Athens High School, completely nails why public education today is failing our children. Kudos to her for using her moment in the sun to bring attention to the issue.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On The Hunt: Reflections on Job Searching in 21st Century America



For those of you that are reading this blog after getting home from a long day at your workplace, I salute you. No, really, I do. The fact is that you all are coming home to your friends and loved ones after a hard, productive day. You have helped make your company/business/workplace better because of the time and effort you put in today. You might be tired and dragging, but that shouldn't diminish what you did today. You gave it your all. You got up in the morning, despite the fact that rolling over and sleeping for an extra view hours was mighty tempting. You survived the morning commute once again. You enjoyed your lunch on site. You made it home through rush hour traffic. You might not realize it, but there are people who are jealous of what you have accomplished today. I know I am.

As I sit at home composing this newest entry, I felt compelled to discuss what it is like for an unemployed teacher in 21st century America. For the third time in four years, I have entered the month of July not knowing what I would be doing come September. Already I am describing myself as a career educational journeyman and yet I am only 25 years old. The fact of the matter is that in today's educational setting, jobs are hard to come by and even harder to maintain. I have left one job already because I was unhappy there. I have left another job that I was happy at, but my position there got cut. I now stand before you on the other side of your computer screen looking, hoping, wishing that somebody would once again give me a chance to teach at their school.

The truth of the matter is that my situation is not that unique. Once upon a time this country had a shortage of teachers. Nowadays, there is a surplus of teachers and you combine that with budget cuts left and right and well, you have the makings of a very difficult job hunt. If you teach the tested areas of math and science, then you at least have a shot. For us social studies and foreign language teachers, it is much more difficult. The truth is that foreign language programs frequently get the axe and are seen as unnecessary. Even here in Southern California, I have seen very few postings for language teachers and that is with a heavy Latino population. For social studies teachers, it seems now that being a coach is valued more than the teaching of social studies. Schools are much more likely to hire a coach and stick him in the classroom rather than the other way around. It is sad to think of social studies as a throwaway class, but due to the testing premium in today's society that is exactly what it is becoming.

The problem also lies in the huge bureaucratic machines that are the public city school districts. Long gone are the days when you turned in your resume to the school secretary and then sat down one-on-one with the principal of the school for an interview. In today's world, everything is done online and through human resources. People who know little about educational pedagogy are making decisions about who gets interviewed based on what you have submitted in your online portfolio. My patented youthful exuberance pales in comparison to someone who has taught for 20+ years. Even if you somehow manage to make it to an interview, that interview is with people not even associated with the school you might end up at. Already I have received auto reply messages from principals who are on vacation until the middle of August. They, like many others, are placing all their trust in the hands of the district's human resources staff. They are assuming that the most qualified candidate has gotten the job.

So, what's a young teacher to do? How do I "play the game" in this kind of dog-eat-dog environment? Well, seeing as I'm currently unemployed, I'm not sure. However, I do have some theories. First and foremost is to forgo the bureaucratic juggernaut of online job postings through the school district website. I'm not saying you ignore it completely, but you need to know that any job that you are qualified for that pops up you most likely won't get. This means that you turn your attention to the charter schools in your area. The majority of charters have their own interview process, independent of the main school district. These are the schools that are more likely to actually read your resume and grant you the traditional sit-down interview in person with the school's principal. Charter schools get a bad rap from time to time, but the truth is one thing they definitely get right is the hiring process. They have a certain vision for their school and their candidates must fit that vision for the school to succeed.

Lastly, you need to get your name out there. Contact people that you know and can speak highly of you and let them know you are looking for work. This can be previous employers, professors, former colleagues, etc. Contact schools directly. For me, I've found that emails are extremely effective. Even if a school doesn't have an immediate opening, things might pop up later on and they will remember your email. This also gives you an advantage as the school will already be familiar with your name. Call me old-fashioned, but I firmly believe in taking initiative and if something as simple as an email can help make an impression to a potential employer then by all means I will do it. You never know when an employer might email you back thanking you for your email and suggesting another school that might have an opening to your liking. In today's job searching world, any tiny advantage will go a long way in helping your procure that elusive job.

Those are my current thoughts on the matter. Whether or not I'm successful remains to be seen. I like to think of myself as a qualified candidate and already I have gotten several complements on my resume and what I'm done thus far in my first three years in public education. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger and I have already survived two job searches, so why not one more? At the very least, it has helped me get back into the swing of updating my blog, which I have been away from for this past month. Speaking of my blog, if any of you reading this happen to know of any schools that need a history or Spanish teacher in the greater San Diego area, please let me know. I know it's a long shot, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to ask.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Tell Me What I Can't Do: My True Motivation to be a Teacher



As the school year draws to a close, I tend to become overcome with various emotions, as all teachers do. For me, this year is particularly meaningful because for the first time I will see students graduate that I have taught. It will be a proud moment for our school as I know that many of them have been given a chance to succeed where in 99% of the cases they would become just another sad statistic. I don't consider myself overly emotional, but I might shed a tear knowing the obstacles some of students have had to overcome to graduate with a high school diploma. I also will be anxious for both the students and myself. Has my social studies instruction helped prepare them for life beyond high school? I hope it has and that in some way, they will be able to use what they have learned in my classes to further their success.

I also think about why I teach in the area that I do. This idea has recently resurfaced in one of my graduate courses. One of my assignments was to describe a moment that was particularly meaningful in my life. Right away, one specific moment came to mind. It occurred during my second and final year of teaching middle school in North Carolina. I had just been observed by my mentoring teacher and she offered me some harsh criticism about my lesson. As disappointing as this was, it was what happened next that most got to me. She asked about my student teaching experience where I had taught at an affluent high school. I told her, that yes that was my experience. She then looked me square in the eye and said, "You should not be teaching here." By here, she meant an urban, inner-city school with a large percentage of minority students as well as those from the lower socioeconomic classes.

In response, I walked away, went to my room, ripped my evaluation to shreds and then took a long walk to think. The audacity on her part to criticize my chosen location angered me greatly. Criticize my lessons, that was one thing (although I disagreed with that too). But to flat out say that I shouldn't be where I was was to me utterly unacceptable. After going through the rest of the day and then returning to my house at the end of the day, I was still heated. I had to get something off my chest and so I wrote an email to my mentor. This was the last contact I ever had with her. If I had the chance to talk to her again, I would thank her. I would thank her for motivating me, for telling me I am not good and that I shouldn't be doing what I was/still am doing. I would tell her that I am the kind of person who takes things personally and that I make it my mission to prove people wrong who doubt me. So, Miss Motsinger, if you are out there reading this, thank you for doubting me. I am still teaching "those" kind of students that you didn't think I should and I am now better at it than ever.

This is the email I sent her:

Miss Motsinger,

I just wanted to write an email to you addressing my evaluation. Although I disagree with your evaluation I feel that something was brought up aside from the evaluation that needs to be addressed. The most troubling thing out our meeting today for me was your assumption that I am not fit to teach these children at Philo. I want you to know that after we talked I later broke up a gang initiation at 1:15 in the girls restroom and then coached the boys soccer team after school with several members being local gang members here in Winston.

I bring this up not to be praised, but to show you my dedication to these children. After student teaching at West Forsyth I knew I never wanted to teach at another school like that. Why? Because I did not want to teach myself. I don't want to teach kids whose biggest dilemma in their lives is whether they go to State or UNC. Despite my apparent shortcomings as a teacher, I actually had multiple job offers and chose to teach at Philo to work with the kids I am working with. After having taught them for two years I cannot imagine myself working with any other group of students. I wanted to remain at Philo but it was the new administration's policies that were harming the STUDENTS that ultimately led to my decision to leave.

I view teaching as a calling. It is something I will continue to do despite the negative feedback I continue to get. I am trying to teach children how to read, not just for the EOG, but for whatever they end up doing in their lives. Eighteen percent of our students are proficient readers and they only way they can improve that is constant practice, no matter how repetitive it might be. This next year I am heading back to grad school to get my master's in literacy, culture, and teaching English as a second language. My experience at Philo has only furthered my desire to work with this population and I want to help these ESL learners who have had these unrealstic expectations placed upon them. I will eventually return to the classroom as I know it is where I belong.

You are more than welcome to evaluate me in terms of how I conduct a lesson. Even though we might not see eye to eye on that, I will respect your opinion and will be willing to discuss our differences. Please do not question my commitment or dedication to these children. If I didn't care I would throw in the towel at this point. Yet, even though I know I will not be returning next year I am still busting my hump for these kids. They are and continue to be my reason for getting up at 6 AM. No matter how they may act in my room I know that deep down inside I am making a difference in these children's lives. That is something that neither you nor anybody else can take away from me.

Friday, May 28, 2010

We've All Got Papers: The Role of Undocumented Students in the Classroom



You! You sitting with your computer reading my blog. Come closer. Closer. Closer still. I've got a secret for you. Are you ready? Here goes. I have taught undocumented students.

The response I get when I tell the aforementioned "secret" to people their reaction often varies with a wide range of emotion from disdain to praise. I assume that in this day and age, it's not necessarily a popular statement to make. However, it is the truth and I am never one to hide the truth from people, regardless of how uncomfortable it might make them. Working in inner city schools, you see and teach a variety of children throughout your time. Being three years into a hopefully long-lasting teaching career I already know that I have taught some undocumented students. And I know I will continue to teach them in the future. There are some students who confide in me with their deepest secret. There are others who I know I will end up teaching for an entire year and have no idea that they were even undocumented. Such is the nature of the beast.

One common argument on the immigration debate today is the fact that these undocumented students place an unfair burden on our education system. To this I have one simple response: Hogwash. The fact is that these students pose no more burden on our education system than affluent White kids from the suburbs. This "burden" that critics often speak of is set in place due to overcrowding in our inner city schools and the inadequate resources available to them. I have yet to hear a teacher say, "I was doing fine in my class with the first forty-one kids. However once I got that forty-second kid, that undocumented kid, that's when my classroom really went to hell." The fact is these students are part of the general school population and it is our job at teachers to teach all of our students no matter what kind of classroom conditions might be placed upon us.

I also hear the argument that these undocumented students are the troublemakers, the ones who are in gangs and wreak havoc upon their school communities. Again, this is a gross exaggeration of the truth. The fact is that yes, some undocumented students to end up choosing the gang route. However, this can be said for any immigration population that constantly faces the home-grown xenophobia that is so prevalent today. We as a society don't label all Asians as gang members just because a few Hmong students have chosen that route. Why should we do the same with Latinos? Of the (known) undocumented students I have taught, some of them were in gangs. Some of them were my hardest workers and best students. Undocumented students, like all students, run the gauntlet in terms of behavior. I feel no more "burdened" for teaching them as I do any of my other students.

There is also the criticism that these undocumented students do not even try to learn English. Again, another erroneous statement. Studies have shown that this current generation of immigrants are learning English faster than any generation that has proceeded them. I have yet to have a student flat out refuse to speak English. However, there are definitely some students that have been bullied by previous teachers and who definitely lack self-confidence in the language. Imagine if you went to a foreign country and were forced to speak a language you were still learning. Imagine that each time you misspoke, you were reprimanded. It would hurt your confidence, right? Make you hesitant to want to speak, to play with the language? This is the same experience that many of our undocumented students have had. Somewhere during their schooling, some teacher told them they were bad at speaking English. Odds are, it happened at an early age. This kind of experience can cause a child to shut down for a long period of time.

As teachers, we need to respect our students' home culture and language. Just because our students aren't producing constant English doesn't mean they aren't being exposed to it on a daily basis. Many of these students can code-switch back and forth between English and Spanish, which is an incredibly valuable asset. Having any student become fully bilingual will continue to help them throughout their lives in both school and their chosen professions. I personally have seen some of my undocumented students translate during parent conferences. They understand the need to maintain their cultural identity at home but also to do their best to learn the dominant language as well. For critics to say that these students don't learn English is a gross exaggeration and one that will not be verified in any public school today.

I guess my biggest qualm with all the criticism of undocumented students is how they are viewed as criminals. Many of these students were brought here at too young an age to have any choice in the matter. Some of them do not realize until their late high school years that they are even undocumented. Regardless of how you feel about the immigration debate, you must first realize that these students are HUMAN BEINGS. They know what is expected of them and they do their best to live up to teachers expectations. They laugh, cry, smile, and frown like all their peers. They play sports, have friends, go to dances, and date just like anybody else their age. The difference is that each and every day they come to school, there is the chance that their lives can be swept out from underneath them. They come, they take this chance each and every day, for a better life for both themselves and their family.

I leave you with this image: A student of mine in tears, being consoled by her boyfriend. This student not knowing whether or not this day would be her last in her school, her city, her country that she had known as far back as she could remember. This student who writes all her papers in Spanish and then meticulously translates them to English in my class of eighteen. This student who has been late to my class because she had to go with her younger brother on the city bus to go and try to track down his school ID. This student who missed classes one afternoon to be excused to attend a multi-cultural fair and dance with her partner. This student who writes about the greatness and fairness of the American laws but has to add that sometimes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can be a little unfair. This right here is your undocumented student. The one who is a burden on me and my classes. The one who is a bad influence on her peers. The one who isn't trying to learn English. Contrary to popular belief, this student has papers. She has papers due in all of her academic classes. And knowing her, she will pass them all with flying colors.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

What Teachers Make

Slam poet Taylor Mali says it better than I ever could.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Pick-A-Winner: The Objectivity of Multiple Choice Tests



In your journals, please answer the following question: What is a zigger?

A. A zogger
B. A zummer
C. A zooker
D. A zaller

The correct answer is B. For those of you who got it, congratulations. For those who didn't, well you obviously should have.

Pretty absurd, right? Well, not so much...

The above example is a variation of one given to me by my college adviser when he explained the evils of standardized testing, more specifically, that of multiple choice testing. This past week I had to watch students bubble in answers on state tests for four hours on two consecutive days. We have two more such days this upcoming week. Students are being asked to bubble in one of these four letters as a way to demonstrate how much they have learned throughout the year. If they are good bubblers then our school gets positive recognition. If they are bad bubblers, then it hurts our school. And yet, questions like the one in the cartoon and the one mentioned above are exactly what our students will see when dealing with the multiple choice subject tests given each year by the state of California and every other state across the nation.

Multiple choice tests are not a reflection of student knowledge. At all. They are a reflection of who is good at guessing. Think about it. The next time you or someone you know take a standardized test, try a little experiment if you have time. Go through a section, reading only the questions and not the answers. Put a mark next to all those you can answer without the multiple choice options. Odds are pretty slim, right? Maybe there's a question here and there that you could answer. But for the vast majority of the questions you will need to see the four possible answer choices. Therefore, you don't really know the answer. But you can be a good guesser and arrive at the right answer eventually. So did your history teacher this year spend all his time teaching you content or did he spend all his time teaching you how to guess? Odds are the guessing lessons were nowhere to be found.

And yet, this is exactly what multiple choice tests do to our students. Sure, there are test taking strategies such as eliminate ones you know it can't be, make educated guesses, etc. But when push comes to shove what multiple choice tests do is assess how good our students are at guessing. And let's be honest: These tests expect these kids to be pretty damn good guessers. None of the above, all of the above, B and C only. These tests expect them to be Nostradamus good at making predictions. We all know somebody super smart who bombed the SAT. We all know somebody non-so-smart who aced it. The difference? One was a poor guesser and the other was a great guesser. These great guessers end up going on to fame and fortune and those of us who can't guess as well lose out on many opportunities. Life really is a guessing game in this regard.

All this begs the question why. Why do we assess our students in this idiotic manner? Wouldn't it be much simpler to have students show off their knowledge in written or oral form? Instead of nitpicking certain elements, why not offer students multiple ways to demonstrate what they have learned? How amazing would it be to show the state of California how much we have learned this school year through the magic of art, song, dance, and performance? An actual painting for an art class. A video-taped reenactment for a famous historical event. A recording of a spoken word poem highlighting the various uses of voice in a poem. A written proof in geometry, using all the rules one had learned throughout the process. Yes, I can see it now. Cardboard boxes filled with student work being sent to Sacramento to be scored accurately by individuals who are experts in the various content areas. A true testament to student learning right there in the flesh.

And then I awaken from my idealistic slumber. Much like most things that make sense in public education today, this will not happen. The reason? Money. Cash. Cashola. The Almighty Dollar. The buck stops here. Literally. Yes, friends and family, we put the futures of students, school, and even entire school districts in the hands of our students' guessing abilities so that we can save money. That's it. That's your reason. We make our students bubble in letters so that we can ship up boxes to a secured location in Sacramento. Once there, student score sheets will be fed into computers that tell us how well students, schools, and districts guessed. The test booklets, where students took notes, showed work, and eliminated wrong answer choices? Discarded. Partial credit doesn't exist in the guessing world. These supercomputers tabulate the results and get them back to us within a few weeks. And we all know that these counting machines never ever make mistakes. Unless you're counting the 2000 presidential election...

So, in the coming week or so as you watch your students bubble in letters, think about your teaching. Was it really important that your students wrote personal narratives about themselves and their lives? Was it important that they created their very own webpages? That they made scrapbooks about life in the 1920's? That they read about current events and debated current immigration policy? That they made Styrofoam skulls and labeled all the parts of the brain? The answer to all these questions should be a resounding no. What you should have been teaching all along was the proper way to guess. Because after all according to state testing agencies, that is the only skill a student needs.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Crippling American Education: (Un)blessed Union of Souls



"We're an organization. We here down south don't like to use the 'U' word..."

Thus began my first encounter into the world of organized labor in the education profession. From the very get-go, I had a chance to see a manipulative organization at its finest. The aforementioned speaker was the local union representative at the first school district I started in. He painted a picture of a magical bureaucratic machine that catered to a teacher's every need. Higher salary? You got it! Representation in the state capitol? You got it! The room of newcomers to the school district unfortunately bought it hook, link and sinker and immediately signed up to join this union (yes, I said union because that's what it is). The next day a gentleman from another union came and several of the people who had signed up for the other union had no idea that our district even had a second union. Thus, even those that joined were manipulated from the onset.

I never felt the need to join this union. The main reason is I didn't feel it was worth paying dues to an organization that did nothing for me. As my mentor teacher told me, as long as you keep your door open when you are working with a student, there is no need to join the union. (He felt the only quasi-benefit was the union's lawyer, but that he was needed only in extreme circumstances). The last year I worked for the district the union and all its members protested teacher salary cuts AFTER the cuts had already been made. The assistant principal, who shared my skepticism of the union, and I had a good larf about that one. All union members at my school wore red clothing one day to protest and then took a group photo in the cafeteria at the end of the school day. Despite this brilliant display of solidarity through color, the union members were unable to reacquire their lost salary.

This experience solidified my long, upstanding belief: Teacher's unions are an antiquated notion. I know, I know, I can hear the dissension now. "Without unions, we would be teaching in near prison conditions!" Um, hello? Thanks to the resegreation of America's schools, many inner city locations HAVE become like this. And these are teachers who ARE part of the union. Teachers are underpaid not because of their union or non-union status but rather because we as a nation have gone away from valuing the education profession. Inner city schools have become difficult environments not because of a lack of laws or conditions, but rather because the students there have been segregated and told repeatedly that they are no good.

The fact remains that unions serve no purpose in education today and have done more harm than good. The fact that teachers are one of the few professions that still have tenure boggles my mind. I am a good (not great) teacher. I WANT to be evaluated every year. If I'm not doing an adequate job then I deserve to be removed. If I can improve, I want to know how. This has caused teacher's today to become complacent. Students today learn differently than they did 5, 10, 20 years ago. We need new blood, a new infusion of teachers who grew up in similar fashion to our students. We need teachers who can relate to students on a personal level, who know how tempting it is to text in the middle of class, who get bored when a teacher lectures for an hour straight. Odds are that a complacent veteran teacher who has tenure does not want or care to change the way she or he teaches because in all honesty, why should they?

Unions also have thwarted any attempt to have student scores used as an assessment for teachers. Now, don't get me wrong I do not think these scores should be the sole measure of a teacher's effectiveness. But it should be a component. If I taught language arts for an entire year and my class didn't improve on the state test, then what was the purpose of me teaching for 180 days? We could have gotten a cardboard cutout of me and student scores would have been the same. If you are an effective teacher then your students' scores will improve. I'm not saying they will pass due to various socioeconomic reasons. Yet, at the very least they should improve and this should be a part of your year-end evaluation along with several other measures.

However, the major problem remains that teacher's unions are here to promote the status quo. That's why they are fighting tooth and nail in places like Washington, DC where Chancellor Rhee is removing inefficient principals and teachers. "How dare you make changes based on consistent failure!" the union cries. The problem is that Chancellor Rhee is going up against a powerful union. One whose hands are deep in the pockets of Washington lobbyists. This is a union that would lose a tremendous amount if the status quo was upturned. Think of how lucrative education is. Building contracts, food contracts, contracts with publishing companies, and the list goes on and on. Education is a business folks, plain and simple. Major unions like the NEA and the AFT have a lot to gain and lose should a city like Washington, DC succeed in its reform efforts.

So where does that leave us? Honestly, the answer is up a creek without a paddle. Very few people outside of education think negatively when they hear the term "union." This works in the NEA's and AFT's favor because of all the benefits that various unions have provided our country over its history. To be anti-union is to be un-American! We've all heard that, and the teacher's unions take this mentality and run with it. For those of us that choose not to join unions, the problem is we are so small in number it is hard to overcome. The unions also have corporate backing and powerful lobbyists in DC. What they want is what is best for business and this in no way correlates as to what is best for children's education. Teachers unions are not part of the solution to fix education as they claim. The harsh reality is that they are and will continue to be a major part of the problem.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Two's Company: A Response to Critics of Bilingual Education




I feel compelled today to discuss the idea of bilingual education. This is something I am a passionate believer in yet it is something that continues to be underfunded and misunderstood at the national level. It is something that brings forth heated debate on both sides and yet ultimately no compromise is reached. It seems like this is an issue with no middle ground. You are either for or against bilingual education in schools and there are no ifs, ands, or butts about it. It remains one of the super sensitive issues that Americans love to debate, right up there with abortion rights, health care, and gay marriage.

I could defend my position by citing study after study about bilingual research and its positive effects. However, I think it is most important to tell why I favor bilingual education with my own story. There is a simply truth: I am a better person because of my bilingual education experience. Starting in middle school when I first began taking Spanish language courses, I was opened up to a new culture. Growing up in suburban New Hampshire where my town’s population was 97% Caucasian, I did not have access to a lot of diversity. I firmly believe that I am where I am today because my bilingual education experience in schools opened up doors that I wouldn’t have otherwise known had existed.

The best thing about studying a second language is experiencing the culture that goes with it. Throughout middle and high school I ate Hispanic food, did Hispanic dances, and watched Hispanic television. I was able to read the great poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca and Antonio Machado. I got to study the amazing art of Velazquez, El Greco, Picasso, and Salvador Dali. I got to see movies dealing with the difficulties of trying to immigrate to the United States. I also had an opportunity to learn about a Los Angeles high school calculus teacher who inspired his students in the movie Stand and Deliver. Recently the math teacher, Jaime Escalante, who the film portrayed passed away. However a good friend and I recently reflected about how fortunate we were learn Escalante’s story in our senior Spanish class. The culmination of my high school Spanish experience was spending a week in Spain during my senior year and seeing just how far I’d come with the language.

In college, I continued taking Spanish courses my first two years. I read more Spanish literature and took my first conversation class. As part of that class, we had a chance to work at a center where Spanish-speaking adults were learning English. Our professor introduced us to the music of Bacilos and Juanes, two artists that now feature heavily on my Spanish playlist. We had opportunities to role play and had to create our own dialogues for classroom skits. The professor definitely challenged us to get outside our comfort zone, but in the end I felt it was a much more enriching language experience because of everything I had been exposed to.

Then, my junior year came around and I was fortunate enough to travel to Spain for the fall semester. I did my best to embrace the culture and every morning I marveled at the fact that I was walking to Europe’s third oldest university to take classes. I learned about Spanish art and architecture and got to travel all around the country. I did the touristy things such as seeing the famous statues, churches, and buildings. However, the most intimate moments I had were in the streets or in the parks talking to Spaniards about their lives and their beliefs. My parents came to visit me and we spent a weekend in Portugal together. Upon their departure my dad told me that he could tell this had been a rewarding experience for me in the fact that I was so much more confident now as a person than I was when I started.

That is my bilingual educational experience in a nutshell. I am a better person because I had all these experiences. When I first began teaching, I wanted to work with a diverse student population. I currently work at a school with a large amount of diversity and I think I learn as much, maybe more, than the kids do on a daily basis. I also greatly enjoy the interactions in the grad school program. Learning about the culture and lifestyles of Saudi Arabia, China, Taiwan, and Kuwait make me a better teacher and a person. Even though I teach history and consider myself to be fairly world savvy, I still learn new things each and every day from my classmates. Their experiences help shape who I am and how I view the world.

I realize that not everybody has had a similar bilingual experience. I also realize that I come from a privileged background and thus had opportunities that many others could not have. I was always in the advanced Spanish classes in high school. My parents could afford to send me to Spain my senior year and also afford to send me to a good university where studying abroad was an option. I had financial stability that allowed me to travel all around Europe when I was there. I currently have the funds available to continue to teach but also pursue my master’s degree in education. I am well aware that many of these opportunities have been given to me because of how I look and how much money my parents make.

However, if bilingual education has so much to offer just one small-town boy from New Hampshire, shouldn’t we at least try to offer these kind of experiences to those across our great land? The answer clearly should be yes; however, it will ultimately be met with much resistance. In today’s educational setting where funds for education are dissipating, can we really afford to add bilingual educational programs? And do our students really need to speak another language? Let’s be honest, English is the lingua franca. You can go to pretty much anywhere in the world and find someone who speaks English. If it’s something that is not even needed to be competitive at the global level, should it really be stressed at this point in time in our schools?

The answer in my opinion is a resounding yes. We need to somehow, some way figure out how to implement bilingual programs into our schools. At a time and place where the world is becoming more interconnected each and every day, it is becoming a necessity to speak a second language. The majority of students I traveled abroad with were pre-med. They knew that in order to get the best jobs at the best hospitals they would need that additional feather in their cap. Finding a teaching job in California in 2010 is difficult enough. I can’t imagine trying to go at it and not be bilingual. I have heard firsthand stories of teachers whose jobs were saved due to their bilingual abilities.

Lastly, I will leave with this point: Don’t we as a country want to better ourselves? We can become better people by studying and learning about other cultures. We can be better informed about world events and understand how and why certain events are unfolding the way they are. It’s time for Americans to realize that English can only get you so far in this day and age. We as a society need to embrace the interconnectedness of the world today and use it as a vehicle to better ourselves. We have the ability to learn so much about ourselves and our neighbors and all we have to talk is learn their language. I can’t speak for everyone, but it seems like a worthwhile investment to me.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

RIP Jaime Escalante (December 31, 1930 - March 30, 2010)

The man who inspired the 1988 film Stand and Deliver passed away earlier tonight at the age of 79. Thank you for giving me ganas, Mr. Escalante. The education world will miss you.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Fall Into the (Achievement) Gap: A Uniform Decision



Recently, thanks to the keen eye of my mentor and good friend Ray Jones, an article has come to my attention that deserves to be discussed. The article itself is from the Winston-Salem Journal and describes how my former middle school intends to implement school uniforms starting next fall (http://www2.journalnow.com/content/2010/feb/15/philo-gets-dress-code/). This in itself is not much of a surprise. This was something that had been discussed while I taught at Philo and was something the administration and staff had supported. However, I felt compelled to comment on this topic not so much because of what the article said, but because of the abundance of comments that the article generated. Let's take a look at some of these from the Winston-Salem Journal website:

"It sure was nice long ago when us kids could wear whatever we wanted and no one was around to ruin it for the rest of us. Why don't they discipline or remove the offenders?"

"We must provider these kids meals because they and their parents decide to spend money on expensive clothing and not food. Many of these people are not poor. They are just lazy, greedy and vain. Such people are an insult to the true poor."

"Parents are also negligent for allowing their children to wear unacceptable clothing. Most problems start in the home."

"I wonder how many of those who qualified for the discounted meals [free and reduced lunch] own 1 or more cell phones? 1 or more vehicles? 1 or more color televisions? A sophisticated video game system?"

"The ACLU needs to challenge this. No way a public school can demand that a child must dress a certain way. A school can certainly BAN an item of clothing but it has no right dictating what a child has to wear in order to attend public school."

After my head stopped spinning from reading these comments, I felt I had to express my own opinion seeing as I actually had set foot inside Philo's hallways unlike any of the above posters. First and foremost, I feel this is a positive decision for the school. Truth be told, we tried to implement a quasi dress code my first year at the school for the 07-08 school year. We required students to tuck in their shirts and wear belts to keep their pants from sagging. The students at Philo fought, and fought hard. We tried to suspend our repeat offenders, but it got to the point that students flat out refused to do what was being asked of them. I saw students disrespect not only teachers but administrators as well by refusing to adhere to the dress code. About 2/3 of the way through that year, we as a staff decided to cut our losses, and we vowed to implement a school-wide dress code the following year.

Unfortunately, with the change over from one administration to a new one, the idea of a dress code got lost in the shuffle. It was not until about two months into my second year that the idea was breached again, and by that time it was too late to implement anything for the 08-09 school year. However, there was without question a need for the dress code. Students wore sagging pants, inappropriate shirts, as well as gang affiliated clothing. It got to the point where I could tell you which young men would be coming to school on a Wednesday wearing white t-shirts and jeans. That was no accident, those were gang members showing off their "true colors." When a group of 15 boys walk down the hall together wearing the same thing, you know something is up. Any time students can openly broadcast their gang affiliation, it is time for a needed change.

That is why the offenders were not removed as one of the comments suggested. In terms of the ACLU getting involved, well I wouldn't lose any sleep over that one. Besides since 80% of the parents and staff approved the new dress codes, they have no legal recourse anyway. One comment I didn't post mentioned how students would now want to leave the school if they had to wear a uniform. This poster clearly has no idea about Philo's demographics. Half of our students are Hispanic. Many of their parents or even themselves come from a background of wearing school uniforms. This is nothing new and I wouldn't be surprised if many of the families actually embraced this new dress code. There will inevitably be a handful of students who leave. That is their choice and ultimately, if you don't buy into a school's philosophy then maybe you should consider other options anyway.

I also wanted to comment on the posts about welfare and the socio-economics of the lower class. These posters clearly have no idea about what is going on. The truth is that there is a class system even within the urban poor. One way to assert your status in this group is by what you own. Conspicuous consumption is not a trait reserved for the elite. Students from lower socio-economic families know they too are being judged on a day-to-day basis. Yes, they are on free and reduced lunch. However, this doesn't stop them from owning an iPod or having new sneakers. I have seen near fights break out over some boy scuffing another's shoes. Walk into any middle school boy's bathroom and you will see the boys fixing two things: their hair and their shoes. If you ever want to get on a young male's good side, complement his shoes and he will immediately respect you.

Lastly, the comment about letting their child leave the home dressed the way they are was simply foolish. These are single parent homes for the most part. Some students live with a relative, others live in foster homes. The whole idea of "dressing properly" is a middle-class value that we assume our students to have when they get to us. The truth is, they don't know what it means to dress "properly" and neither do the parents. I have met parents who dress the same way as their children. Some dads come in to parent conferences with baseball caps, baggy jeans, and do-rags. Some moms come in to parent conferences with t-shirts that are 1-2 sizes too small. It is the culture and we should not be judging them for their mode of dress. Students either emulate their parents or their peers in terms of dress. Also, a lot of their parents work multiple jobs and multiple shifts so many of them are forced to fend for themselves in the morning. They wear want they want to and so do their younger siblings that they might be in charge of. For students of poverty, how they look in the mirror when they leave the house is the least of their concerns.

I applaud Philo for this decision. The truth is that once clothing threatens the safety of a school, it is time for a change. That is how I felt about the dress code when I was there. I have nothing against gang members. I have taught them before and I teach them now. Some of them have been very pleasant young men and women in the classroom. However, what they do outside of school needs to stay outside of school. The more visible they are, the more likely it becomes that younger children will want to emulate them. I saw gang membership increase twofold from my first year to my second year at Philo. That is because of the presence of gang members and their gang-affiliated clothing. People knew who the gang members were. I had one African American student find a Hispanic gang member's bandanna with the gang colors. He dragged it on the floor and then took it into the restroom where he urinated on it and flushed it down the toilet. He knew what that bandanna stood for and so did I. With uniforms, that tension that the African American student displayed will be greatly decreased. Then and only then will the teachers at Philo be able to teach in an environment that is truly conducive to learning.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Making The Grade: Reevualuating How We Assess Our Students



As I finish up a week at my school where teachers have just given their mid-term examinations, I felt it would be an appropriate point to raise the issue of grading. Grading is one of those things that all teachers do. It consumes our planning periods, week nights, and weekends. Students constantly ask us what their grade is because depending on which of the first six letters of the alphabet they receive (excluding E of course) can dramatically alter their weekend plans. We as teachers can be graded and schools as a whole are also readily defined by one of those magical five letters. Clearly grading should not be taken lightly. However, I pose the following question: Should we even be grading at all?

I can hear the outcry now. Of course we should be grading! How then would our students know how they are doing? They need grades for graduation, college admission, and job applications! This is all very true. Our current educational system is entirely dependent on grades. Those with A grades graduate with honors and go to the best colleges and universities. Those with B and C grades graduate and have opportunities to attend local colleges and community colleges. Those with D grades barely graduate and most likely join the work force right away. Those with F's, well they don't graduate because a lot of those letters mean that the student just hasn't cut it in his or her classes. There is the system in a nutshell. Your future prospects all depend on which of those 5 letters are most abundant on your report card.

I want to take you all back to ancient Greece. Here, teachers did not have all the technologies and access to information that we have today. They taught their pupils outside and taught them about the world they lived in based on the teacher's experience. Believe it or not, even the great Aristotle was not a straight-A student. In fact, Aristotle never received a 100 or an A on ANY assignment. That's because his teacher, a gentleman named Plato, was not constantly assessing his students with either a number or a letter grade. Despite this lack of evaluation, Aristotle seemed to do okay for himself. He not only produced some work on his own but he also managed to impart some of his wisdom onto some of his own students, especially one named Alexander, who later on was moderately successful in the field of empire expansionism.

The thing to think about is that we learn so much more from our mistakes then our successes. Think about when you've learned the most in your life. Odds are it was when you did something wrong, instead of when you did something right. I can't remember the countless words I spelled right during my elementary school spelling bee days. What I do remember is how to spell "bailiff" and "dumbbell" as those two words were the ones that brought my magical runs to an end. The same holds true for other areas of school. You don't remember your answers to that quiz you got a 100% on. But that one test where you missed one question and got the 99%, ugh, that one response will stick with you for a while. Has anyone else realized how backward this is? The more our students make mistakes, the more they learn from those mistakes. Yet those making the mistakes are the ones who "fail" classes as opposed to those who don't.

I know I am not the only one who feels that grades are superfluous. A former colleague of mine and good friend is currently trying to adapt this philosophy to his high school classroom. He is being met with much resistance. Why? Because it is so ingrained in students' minds that grades are the only thing that matters. I have lost track of how many times students have asked me, "Are we getting a grade for this?" If for whatever reason I say, "No" then students respond with a "Well then, why are we doing it?" Long gone are the days of ancient Greece where students learned to learn. Everything today is geared toward the acquisition of one of those 5 little letters. A class without grading? Why, that's just foolish. How could anybody learn in that environment?

I personally believe that this kind of environment would create superior learning. Think about having the opportunity to try classes in both high school and college without having the pressure of a grade. How many students would try something new like a shop class? How many students who have never drawn a picture might want to take an art class? How many high-level math students would try their hand at a class like calculus just to see how high they can jump? Think about the opportunities for students to pursue knowledge that they would genuinely find interesting and exciting. This would revolutionize education as we know it today. Students would be learning. Teachers would not have to have a red pen in their back pocket and be giving up their free time to grade. Colleges and universities would have to actually get to know students, interview them, and talk to them instead of basing admission on a sheet of paper with a lot of funky letters on it. The possibilities are endless and I get giddy just thinking about them.

Of course then I realize it will never happen. The system is too cemented. The American system of education needs easy ways to differentiate students and letters are the easiest way. We as teachers need to know why one student is understanding 95% of the material while another is understanding 70% of the material. Clearly, one deserves and A while another deserves a C-. Cultural backgrounds, language difficulties, home life, attendance, none of this is important. One student is an A-student and the other is a C-student, case closed. They can't both get A's that wouldn't be fair. And if they didn't receive grades, well, we've already gone over the anarchy that system would cause. In the meantime, it is up to us as teachers to decide how we can best assess our students. As for me, my students get a grade every day. If they are physically present and not disrupting the class, I see no reason why they should get anything lower than a C. Their grade is based on the day's lesson and is something that if they have been working diligently then they will have success on. I realize this is a far cry from my ideal gradeless world. However, I do think it is a positive first step in the right direction. It's not a flawless system, but in my mind it is A-OK.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Nine Numbers That Decide Your Fate



I felt it was time to bring forth my own personal thoughts and experiences dealing with undocumented students in the classroom. Being public school teachers, we are required to teach all of our students. This includes those who are undocumented as well. It is not within our jurisdiction to question the legal status of our students and our computer system states that they are all legal citizens of the United States. However, I know that I have taught undocumented students in both North Carolina and now California. They have asked me various questions about immigration and pathways to legalization. The look in their eyes shows a tremendous determination and my heart goes out to each and everyone of them.

Undocumented immigrants continue to make headlines throughout the nation. The debate over immigration seems to always pop up every couple of years and I have no doubt that it will reappear at some point in 2010. It is a very heated debate with passions flaring on both sides. Humanitarian groups, border patrol agents, and vigilantes are constantly at odds. In an economic recession, more eyes turn to the debate and questions are raised as to the employment status of these undocumented workers. Not since the 1920s have we seen this much xenophobia in America. There has been an increasing sentiment of nativism, especially in the southern border states.

Largely lost in the shuffle has been the effect of all this on undocumented children. Like I mentioned, they are here and in school doing their best to learn. However, for many of them their promising futures essentially end after high school. Because they don't have the magical nine digit code we call a social security number, their chances for higher education and employment are essentially shut down. As of now, only 1/5 of our nation's states allow undocumented students to attend colleges by paying in-state tuition fees. That's right, in 40 states undocumented students who LIVE in the state have to pay out-of-state tuition fees to attend a school in their home state. For many undocumented students, this price is simply too unbearable. It is in this way that we have hard-working students being denied a continuing education that they so desperately desire. We are essentially closing doors for future scientists, doctors, teachers, and lawyers because they don't have those nine magical numbers. Valedictorians, class presidents, musicians, and artists are all being denied a chance to further their education and to better their lives.

Many of these students were brought to the United States at a young age. They have no recollection of where they were born or how they arrived here. To them, they have been and will always be Americans. Imagine the following scenario: Five year-old Jenny is living with her family in Southern California. One day, her parents tell her and her two brothers that they are going "on vacation." They pack the car full of boxes and drive south. What Jenny's parents did not tell her is that her father and just taken a job setting up a refrigeration company in Mexico. The job pays well, but her father must be there for some time to help get the company off its feet. The family ends up living in Mexico for six years. Jenny and her brothers go to school and learn Spanish. They return later to the United States being bilingual and with a family in much better financial shape.

The above paragraph describes what actually happened to my own mom in the late 1950's. Now, flash forward to today. Reverse the two countries in the above paragraph. Instead of having the family in good condition, imagine a family from poor, rural Mexico. Imagine the family so desperate for a better life that they risk everything for a three day trek across the desert to enter a new country. All Jenny knows is that her family is going somewhere new, she isn't exactly sure where they are going. Jenny's family relocates in Southern California and Jenny works hard in school, becoming bilingual. She has friends and hobbies throughout her childhood. She has no idea that she is undocumented until she applies to college and the form asks her for a nine digit code called a social security number. Right there and then, Jenny learns the truth and her whole world gets turned upside down.

Anyone who teaches in an urban area has Jennys in their classroom. You might not know or suspect it. They don't necessarily have to be your Hispanic children. Forty percent of undocumented workers are people who have overstayed their work visas. That's right, an undocumented student could be Asian, Latino, African American or even (gasp!) White. These are students who do anything and everything from your athletes to your musicians to your class clowns to your honor roll students. They are just like their peers in every way except one: They don't have those nine numbers. While their peers talk about the upcoming graduation and their life beyond high school, these students remain silent. They do not know what their futures hold.

This is why I encourage you all to support the DREAM Act, which is a proposed piece of federal legislation. This act would provide all undocumented students who graduate from high school, who arrived in the country as children, and who are of good moral character temporary residency for a six year period. During this time, the student must graduate from community college or a regular university or must serve in the military for 2 years. They also must not commit any major crimes during the six year window. If they do this, they would then become permanent residents of the United States. A version of this bill was already defeated once in the Senate. However, I implore to have your voices heard. Don't be swayed by racist ideologies and myths about undocumented students. They are not all criminals or gang members like some media outlets would have you believe. For those of us that teach undocumented students, we see the spark that ignites them. They are too talented to go to waste. In an increasingly competitive world, these students could go on to do great things for their country, the only country that they've ever known and that they feel a part of. All they need is a chance.