Thursday, April 26, 2007

Coffee House

A little late, but I’m finally taking the time to sit down and write something about the Writing Center Coffee House.

I am always amazed by kids getting up the nerve to read their work in public. To me, it’s about the most exposed a person can be. It's not only putting writing and speaking skills on display, it's also putting thoughts and feelings out there for the audience to hear. It is sharing at its most intense. And we did it. And I could gush on and on about that.

But what struck me most about this event was the sense of community that it made me feel. Brown, who is always there for me (and pretty much everyone else, at any time of day or night), brought in tablecloths from his second job (or is that his third job?). Deirdre helped the kids set up the common area so that it had a warm and intimate feel. There was a buzz of excitement in that space all day.

When have you heard of a payroll secretary reading poetry at a school event? Not only did Betsy bake cupcakes, but she also read a series of three poems about her daughter (complete with three framed photos). Nancy shared poems about intimate and emotional aspects of her personal life; most students never get to see this side of an administrator. Joanna’s father read a poem that he wrote! Brody read a piece that she wrote for the NYC Writing Project that was so good the security guard stopped her the next day to ask for a copy! Wait…the security guard stopped to stand outside the common area to listen to the reading!

People came and went, depending on various obligations inside and outside of the building. Students arrived to read breathlessly each time we thought we had finished. We had such a mix of readers, from the brightest to the neediest; they were all phenomenal.

William Carlos Williams wrote the following words which seem apt on reflection of what happened for a precious hour or two at QHST, and in honor of National Poetry Month and Poem in Your Pocket Day:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Teaching Institute seems to be a hotbed of debate!

The following is a posting that appeared on a student blog. It's interesting that students "get it". Sometimes as educators we forget how effective the covert and enduring lessons we teach our students.

Acknowledge my skittles!!!

I never realized until today, how much some people really dislike our school. Attempting to do a lesson in Teaching Institute today about something very near and dear to my heart (near and dear as in I spend a great - huge - portion of my time thinking about said something...) really drove the point home for me. I had students, smart students, very smart students, arguing that we were at a serious disadvantage because our SAT scores weren't top of the line (not mentioning that we're a small school, so we have less people to include in that average than, say, Cardozo HS or some other school with upwards of four thousand students. But, honestly, people were comparing our school to other schools based on STANDARDIZED TEST SCORES. I just wanted to throw up all over everybody at that one...). The books we read, our teaching practices, and even creative writing were all attacked. The books we read are books I read in seventh grade. So what? The books we read are books that have relevance to the students for where they are in their lives. The books we read are books that can be read at any point in life and still have different, multi-dimensional meaning. And the lessons, writing, and discussions that accompany them are more though provoking and critical-thinking based than my writing a research paper on Hazelnuts (AKA: Filberts) after a two month unit on Shakespeare and Hamlet in the ninth grade.

We teach critical thinking, the application of skills, advocating for oneself and sharing one's opinions eloquently and backed up with facts. We teach our students to write creatively and reflectively, but to include facts, other people's opinions, textual references (all cited, of course!), etc, etc, etc. I have heard many people crying that they can't write a thesis paper. I've never written a thesis paper, I don't know how. Yes you do! All the skills we've learned in the millions and millions of reflections and creative pieces we've done have set us up so well for this! A thesis is an opinion on something (remember all those handouts?! Pick a side?! Take a strong stance?!) that one analyzes, draws out and supports with facts. But it is still essentially on opinion!

I don't know how to study. There are scores of people who want to help you! Teachers and peers are everywhere! Ask for help! There is so much opportunity for extra help if you are having trouble, everyone is so accessible and so willing to help.

We're not prepared for college. Our students are so much more prepared for college, in my opinion, than students from traditional high schools. Our school builds so much self-confidence in students, our ability to vocalize thoughts and participate in classroom discussion is so much more valuable than the ability to memorize facts and dates (unless that's what you dig, in which case, memorize to your heart's content).

However, and while I did think of this on my own, this was brought to my attention more so by one of my fave teachers: even if they don't realize it (and, let me tell you, I did tell them. Loudly. And with a lot of emphatic hand flapping.) they are making amazing use of all the Queens High School for Teaching skittles that we've all worked so hard to instill. I don't know why I can see it when they can't as much (maybe because I'm more observant and objective...?). I suppose that makes me feel better, and hopefully when they're off in college (high school version of the "real world") they'll look back and say hey, they were right. I am prepared. (Or as prepared as I can be coming from a NYC high school.) Maybe we'll all call back QHST and tell everyone how well we advocate for ourselves and how much our professors love our reflective, insightful writing. (Well, maybe that's pushing it just a bit.)

If only I could have had this contented-ish kind of calm (and make sure you mind that -ish, still kind of mad that people spent ages attacking the school...) when I was trying to facilitate this discussion. As it was, Lori yelled, as I wanted to, and I just turned red and really wanted to yell and cry, but couldn't decide, so did neither and listened...

(Just a side not: This wasn't the actual convo. I wanted to have, I wanted to have some cool conversation based on some focus group questions created in my participatory action research group that related strongly to the project they're doing - designing concept papers for their own schools - but this was good too. And that discussion can wait until next class.)

I am glad, though, that they are able to use many of these all-important skills, even if they refuse to recognize them.

(And, just because I can hear John saying "But, what's with the skittles?" Skittles is Superfly for Skills. Duh.)

Monday, April 23, 2007

Deborah Meier's Rant

Great Ideas April/May 2007

(reprinted from the Forum for Edcuationa and Democracy Blog)

Some people wake up with great ideas. But I’m a night person. Right before I fall asleep I think I’ve finally found just the right way to say what it is I’m thinking. Often when I wake up I've either forgotten it or it seems banal.

But here are two ideas that keep reoccurring, and it is morning now so I’m going to try to capture them.

Great Idea 1:The whole point of public education (vs job training or even some forms of private education) is to prepare a public for its responsibilities which, in a nutshell come down to exercising careful, thoughtful and reasonable judgment in the face of complex evidence. In the two tasks that confront 18 year olds—voting and serving on juries—these are the presumptions that lie behind the privilege. Our best judgment is what in the end we bring to the table. Note there are neither admissions tests, nor licensure requirements for either voting or serving on a jury. It's the unspoken and awesomely heavy presumption and also the most irrational facing governance by democratic principles and practices. It makes no sense, except (as Churchill said) it's better than any of the alternatives. But for every problem confronting this absurd idea—that everyone has a "right" to such power—there is a solution. Better education.

Not just formal K-12 schooling, surely not just or even college—which comes too late for many voters and jurors and is not open to everyone. But, as the slogans say, our aim is “lifelong” learning, on-going adult education. Newspapers are one of these educating forces, as are all the new technologies. Public access to books, libraries full of resources for getting at "the truth", public spaces for communicating one’s ideas, and for demonstrating on behalf of them, etc, etc. I’m enamored even of the idea of subsidizing adults for going back for a liberal arts education later on, when they are more likely to appreciate its usefulness. But the one and only institution we set aside for this and only this purpose—with no obligation to make a buck in return—is our K-12 system of schooling.

I challenge any of us to spend a day with a kid in an average school and try to connect the dots between what is being learned there—formally ad informally—and what a citizen of a democracy requires (in contrast to citizens perhaps of countries that don't even pretend to be democratic). The world is full of virtues. And economic necessities. But what are the explicitly democratic predispositions, skills, habits of mind and heart that we are not born with, but could learn in a setting devoted to such a purpose?

Great Idea 2:Then, one night it occurred to me, that for all my ranting and raving against the term accountability, in fact the idea of being accountable lies at the heart of democracy. Democracy is a form of accountability—a concept intended to hold the powerful’s feet to the fire. Naturally as our schools have moved further and further away from being attached to their publics, it has become more and more important for us to invent other non-democratic, bureaucratic, “mandarin” forms of accountability. When there were 200,000 school boards serving a population less than half the size of today’s, a lot of people knew who was making judgments about their schools. Today with as few as 10,000 school boards, and with some of them having almost no realistic power over anything but floating bonds, well.... No wonder! There ought to be a half million school boards or more, if—big if—we really believe in democracy as our most special and effective form of accountability.

Given that I'm not a fan of many of the decisions reached by democratic decision making bodies—including many school boards as well as state legislatures and Presidents—this is a leap of faith. I make it because I still agree with Churchill about the alternative to holding on to this often counter-intuitive and even counter-reasonable faith. Neither various forms of benign dictatorship or market-place utopias seem more reasonable. Although if I got to choose the dictator it does some nights appear to be the solution. But by morning I have to face the fact that it’s unlikely to be someone of my choice; and if it were I’d probably be in the opposition the day after—coercion just has its limits when it comes to the important stuff—the stuff inside our hearts and minds.

These two ideas have become more than nighttime fantasies, but daytime ones too. I long for a more robust discussion. We confront the increasing daily power of BOTH my dystopias— increased centralization of public schools in the hands of the few, and increased “selling off” of our schools to private interest groups. And yet we confront a very thin response to both.

What, readers, would we have to do to make these issues part of the conversation about K-12 schooling among our friends, parents of our children’s friends, colleagues, fellow citizens?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Cultures of Commitment

Teachers in the small public high schools cropping up in many U.S. cities find the human dimension of their jobs bringing both strains and rewards.
By Bess Keller

"About how many hours did you put in a week?"

The question prompted an eruption of laughter. But there was nothing funny about the answer teacher Jody Madell finally delivered.

Starting at 8 in the morning, the faculty members at Ms. Madell's new, small secondary school in New York City routinely worked till 6:30 or 7 at night. And then, after the teaching, planning, meeting, and tutoring, she and others went home many evenings to solitary thought and a heap of student work.

Now as a co-founder of a school not unlike her old one, where she plans to keep a hand in teaching while coaching her colleagues, the 39-year-old mother of two is about to ask a fresh band of teachers to shoulder similar burdens. The audacity of it makes her laugh.

"There's no way I can do [that job] and be a parent," she admitted.

A major strand in the current national push to improve secondary education is the movement to scale down schools into smaller, more personalized units, especially for students facing the greatest obstacles to success.

Hundreds of small schools and learning communities have cropped up in recent years, famously helped along by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's $1.5 billion campaign to raise the numbers of students who graduate from high schools ready for college and work. (The foundation also helps support Education Week¡¯s annual Diplomas Count report on graduation-related issues.)

Small-Schools Primer
Amid a push to improve U.S. secondary education, interest has mounted in getting students and teachers into settings that are smaller and more personalized than is typically the case in large, comprehensive public high schools.

Whatever promise the small-schools approach holds, though, there's widespread agreement it won't be realized without a sufficient supply of teachers who are up to a triple threat of challenges: urban teaching in the context of a start-up operation, often with a heavy dose of surrogate parenting thrown in.

And as Ms. Madell and many other small-schools educators can attest, ensuring that supply will be no simple task.
"Human capital is going to make or break this enterprise," said Timothy S. Knowles, who directs the University of Chicago's Center for Urban School Improvement, which opened its first small high school last September and plans several more. "Our view is human capital is gold."

Many of the new small schools, especially the ones in cities, virtually guarantee teachers long hours as they struggle against the inadequate preparation of their students. Teachers pour their time, too, into shaping the new institutions, where they are obliged to wear a number of hats.

Ironically, it is the human dimension of small schools "precisely the attribute that experts see as their greatest strength" that can be the most draining. When a school is small enough for teachers and students to know each other well, teachers come face to face with the meager advantages available to the youngsters they teach.

"You can read the first paragraph of their biographies and be in tears," said Christopher N. Maher, the founding principal of the Academy for College and Career Exploration, a small high school that opened in Baltimore in 2004. "If you are a teacher, especially in a small school, you feel it."

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Who are our Heroes?

A colleague from Arizona, recently sent me a copy of an interview with Roland Barth. Although Barth's work is no stranger to QHST he challenges us with an interesting task in this excerpted section.

THe following is excerpted from :

In search of heroes: Give educators a place on the pedestal
Interview with Roland Barth
By Dennis Sparks
Journal of Staff Development, Winter 2002 (Vol. 23, No. 1)

Trust us as professionals
JSD: Here’s what you wrote regarding the assumptions of some school reformers: "Behind the models, the rubrics, the principles, the analyses of the problems, and the prescriptions for improving them was a very chilling assumption: Schools are not capable of improving themselves. ... Sadly, our profession seems neither to trust nor to rely on the accumulated wisdom of its own practitioners."

Educators read about the heroes and heroines in other fields — the business heroes, the military heroes, the sports heroes — but where are the Katherine Grahams, the Colin Powells, the Lance Armstrongs in our field? They’re out there, but we don’t have access to the exemplars in our field, and we don’t accord them the same place on the pedestal. Our profession enjoys neither the visibility nor the legitimacy of others. But if we want others to take us seriously, it’s time we begin to take seriously our heroes, ourselves, and the important work we do.