Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I Got Told Yes

That's a heck of holiday from this blog.

But I did get told yes. I'm now in the leadership position for which I interviewed last spring. I'm learning quickly how many curveballs comes toward one who is a high school department chair. I'm learning how much weight others put on your words, and how one must therefore measure one's words. I'm learning how there is a limit to how much one can do in one day, and I'm learning that quantity time with others is important, just as quality time is.

All is well. More later.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

So, what if I get told no

Then I guess I need to re-examine how I invest my time rather than spend it.

  • It's about my kids at home. I minimize the days I stay late. I look for a place closer to home to work. 
  • It's about the kids on my roster. I'll dedicate myself to making myself an inspirational teacher. The kids will walk from my room saying, "Wow, that man knows how to teach." The kids will walk from my class feeling like it's possible to fall in love with a discipline or subject area. 
  • It's about supporting my colleagues. So I'll continue to offer advice, materials, perspective, wisdom, and courtesy. I will also work to establish a gossip-free culture.
So, I have to painfully say no to a few things next year. Perhaps I won't be organizing any after school clubs. Oops, there I go with "perhaps." 

Is it impossible for me to not give more than is required as a teacher? 

Do I ask for my letter of reference right away? 

Do I write a letter of resignation? 

Do I appeal to the assistant superintendent asking for a way I can go somewhere that I can exercise leadership? 

Seriously, what do I say no to next year? Anything that doesn't address one or more of the three bullet points above. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Just logging

In the interest of dispelling notions that teachers don't work enough hours, I offer a bit of an inventory of what I am doing in the interests of being a better teacher with my summer days. Today . . .

  • E-mail communication with colleagues regarding teaching AP Macroeconomics
  • E-mail communication with a former student 
  • Professional Development materials preparation 
  • Course mapping for AP U.S. and AP Macro in 2012-13

Lessons from a Long Year

My school year ended yesterday. It was a long one, though not quite as long as last. My classes were wonderful, filled with earnest and intelligent young men and women. But it was a year in which adults didn't always play nicely with one another, myself included.

Our outgoing chair left us with schedules that made hardly anyone happy. I'll have wonderful classes, though I'll have to work hard (more than 90% of my schedule is Advanced Placement). One colleague will pick up a challenging course he's never had before, in addition to the already challenging course he teaches. Another lost a course she invested a great deal into. Another got a back-handed compliment like mine.

The schedules were the fruit of a war of attrition fought between that outgoing chair and many in the department who never sufficiently bent the knee. Wait, that's cynical. Many in the department never offered the respect due the position. Relationships weren't there allowing adults to reasonably discuss good options in the best interest of the kids. As a result, we're left with schedules that reward friends and chastise enemies.

Sigh. In today's climate we need to be grateful for jobs, for jobs with wonderful kids, and for jobs with outstanding colleagues.

So, what have I learned (or re-learned) from 2011-12? The lessons go like this:

1) Relationships matter.
2) Small difficult conversations marked by candor and honesty make large impossible conversations less likely.
3) There is much more cost than benefit from discussing colleagues.
4) A shared set of values matters. I know this from working in an absence of them. Are we here for the kids? The program? The school? Or ourselves?
5) Making everyone's happiness a goal is to set oneself up for failure.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Romney and Class Sizes

Okay, time to commit some blasphemy: The Republican candidate for president might just be right when he says that class size doesn't matter. I'm a teacher, so I'm supposed to disagree. I'm a teacher so I'm supposed to vote Democratic. I'm a teacher so I should seek a refund for the $25 donation I made to Governor Romney's campaign. His class size comments don't make me regret doing that (his comments on pay for public employees is another story).

My best teaching came when I taught an extraordinarily large class, a 34-student section of AP U.S. History. If one measures my teaching of them to other AP U.S. classes by way of AP Exam scores, it would seem like we didn't achieve as greatly. But the sample size isn't big enough to draw that conclusion. More importantly, the tone that I established in that class, as I deduce from anecdotal evidence, set those kids up for greater success down the road. Many of them translated the skills and habits of mind I taught there toward high achievement in other elite classes. A colleague who taught many of these kids in an AP English class this year had a similar experience.

I think we need to look at class sizes a bit more flexibly. At the elementary level, we should pour in the resources to keep class sizes small. I don't think there's a place for classes larger than 24 before adolescence. In fact, we should keep class sizes there until high school (9th grade). But once we get the students to high school, is it necessary. Maybe it would do the kids a service to assign them to one or two sections that were more like 40 or 50 students in size.

The adults are doing too much to own the problem of lackluster student achievement at higher grade levels. I think it's necessary to closely monitor the underperforming 6th or 7th grader: they're too young to weigh the consequences of not completing their work and not focusing. However, a 10th grader is ready to begin experimenting with the consequences of willfully underperforming, even if it is at risk of not graduating on time. We have a duty to keep kids on track and doing everything possible to guarantee proficiency until high school. Yet in high school I think it's time we let kids court danger, and even occasionally have to repeat a class or grade level. For the high school student graduating on time is a great motivator. Repeating a class when one is 16 or 17 is a lot better than getting to age 20 and floundering in a college program for which one isn't ready (and when there is no support network).

So, I guess I'm advocating that we, as teachers, start to make concessions at the upper grade levels in the interest of flexibly meeting students where they are. Class sizes should start to vary in size, the school day might need to go beyond 3pm, and we might need to let the students fall so that they have the chance to get back up. I'd rather see a system in which teachers are there to help the kids who take the initiative to ask for and commit to that help than a system in which we work feverishly to make sure a kid passes but doesn't necessarily have the learning that the credits would imply they have learned.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Taking Pieces of a Good Idea

A friend who works in staff development sent me an article about how one can approach the school house once a bring-your-own-device policy has been enacted.  It's worth reading.

I have a tendency to sometimes jump too aggressively on an idea without really absorbing what pieces of it work and which don't.  I was close to forwarding this to my own principal when I decided to re-read it.  I'm glad I did, for while the author has good ideas, some I think are impractical in our situation.  I don't, for instance, like her idea that teachers should engage in conversations via text message with students.  The advent of a technology doesn't necessarily mean it's time to breach the formality that should characterize the adult-child relation.  Also, one of the blogs to which she refers advocates teachers taking cell phones from students engaging in misconduct, something we have been told is legally out of bounds.

Instead, it's worthwhile mulling over the provocative point she raises that it's time we revise our classroom management practices.  Students aren't going to learn how to courteously conduct themselves in an academic setting if we don't take the time to teach, model, and reinforce mature expectations. 

Are we afraid the cell phones are going to be more interesting that us?  Are we afraid the cell phones are going to be more interesting than our lessons?  If so, can't we and our teaching strategies win most of the battles with the cell phone?  I think we need to accept the dare. 

- - -

Another good read I had recently was from a Chicago area English teacher who called for ditching the five-paragraph essay.  You can read this essay by Mr. Salazar here.  Again, I was ready to jump all over his idea, but then I wondered about the role teaching the five-paragraph form plays in the formative years of a writer.  Coaching a fifth- or sixth-grader to do this seems quite appropriate.  Building a middle schooler's ability to write it seems appropriate to.  I propose that teaching the five-paragraph form is critical to nurturing functioning skills as a proficient writer.  Where we make the mistake is when we fail to stretch the kids beyond that form in high school.

And with that I need to pat myself on the back, for I've been waging war against the five-paragraph form in high school for years.  I just didn't know it.  For years I've been teaching my AP kids to do more with the introduction and summary than they are accustomed to doing.  I've been coaching them to write two-part arguments in five-paragraph form.  I've been teaching them to go beyond the ABC thesis to create ones that are compound and complex.  I have fought many of these battles in my academic classes as well. 

Perhaps to sell myself it's critical that I find kernels in what others write, and sometimes seek vindication and articulation for practices that I have already adopted. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Now for the next challenge: BYOD

We took a decisive step toward the 21st century today by inaugurating a bring-your-own-device policy to the school.  From this point forward, students will have access to the wireless internet service at our school.  Use of cell phones, tablets, and laptops will be permitted.  I think it's been a long time coming.  It's a good change, filled with a lot more good than bad.  I can see our challenges being as follows:

  • Bandwidth and other infrastructure limitations: I don't know if the grownups of schools realize how video-rich the content our students use is.  Even with legitimate school projects, students are accustomed to video rather than straight text.  Also, a lot of our kids might rely on their devices to stream Pandora or Spotify as they work.  I think we're in for a shock as to how much our kids will consume.  
  • Modeling how responsible grownups use technology in a social setting.  Of course, we don't really have a firm set of rules for ourselves.  We trial-and-errored it throughout our own 20s and 30s.  The presence of kids' devices in our classroom will force us to think deliberately about what habits and manners we want to see. 
  • The divide between haves and have-nots.  We've moved toward the laptop being an essential item for an adolescent.  But many of our kids come from households than cannot afford this accoutrement.  Those without the devices are going to feel like a lonely minority.  Inevitably, there will be a low-cost device kids can buy, rent, or borrow.  But it's a few years until we'll see it as a merit good, an item for which all are deserving.

But, again, there's so much more potential for good here.  I'll be able to move toward a paperless classroom.  I'll be able to more flexibly assign work and guide research.  Further, I'll be able to have students send me that work that somehow doesn't get through from home.  This really could clear up a lot of problems.