Thursday, August 30, 2007

Montessori Magic

Mayo writes:

I can't really explain it, but I think the school has a certain kind of magic. We haven't started yet, but I just got home from our freshmen orientation. We invite some of our advisory kids to come back to meet the new freshmen (our advisories are multi-grade) and show them around the building, etc. I think this year we had more returning students than freshmen. On top of that, we must have had at least a dozen kids that graduated in June! The small learning community has become a kind of family. Kids that I know would be disengaged in large schools came back and said how much they missed school this summer. I'll be teaching one section of seniors that I taught as freshmen and sophomores. I am as invested in the decisions that these students make with regard to college as I am with my own children. There is something to be said for teams of teachers dedicated to a specific group of kids.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Excellent Website

A colleague brought this website to my attention. Might this be the future of college lectures? It allows you to make choices and interact with the lecture. I especially liked the panel approach.

I didn't do well answering the questions. I would have failed.

The content talks about the classic struggle over block scheduling, and project based work and their effect on college success.

Check out this website!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

New School Year Stuff

While driving south through Brooklyn on BQE just before you pass the Brooklyn Bridge, there is one section of parkway where all you see is self storage places. Have these places always existed? or have we become so programmed to hold onto everything and acquire anything that we need to rent extra space for our stuff, nowadays?

One of the many amazing things in the Department of Education is that every year I somehow seem to change my classroom. I get to move all the stuff I've claimed in the name of education and start over again. As a teacher I am notorious for my stuff. I have plenty of stuff, I use some of my stuff, I can't say no to free stuff and can't get rid of old stuff. Sometimes I think I hide behind my stuff to avoid doing other stuff.
Not this year. As my New School Year Resolution I'm going to let go of my stuff. Say, "no" to stuff. Give away my stuff.

Basically does anyone else have a New School Year Resolution?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Where do we stand?

The following is a letter I was forwarded from a member of the ICOPE listserv. I think the New York Times and all the media coverage missed the point Sean is trying to make. I am re-publishing the letter here with Sean's permission.

To: Ms Randi Weingarten, President UFT, Local 3, AFT
From: Sean Ahern, Teacher
Re: Kahlil Gibran School controversy
Date: August 15, 2007
Dear Sister Weingarten,

I am a UFT member and I am writing to register my criticism of your role in the forced resignation of Debbie Ammontaser, former Principal of the Kahlil Gibran School. ("Randi Rips Intifada Principal" Yoav Gonen, NY Post 8/9/07).

Why have you followed the lead of Daniel Pipes, the NY Post and the Sun on this matter? Is Labor to lay down with the Likud in New York as well as Tel Aviv? This is a self defeating proposition for us in New York and a recipe for perpetual war and occupation in the Middle East. The issue at the center of this controversy is the defense of civil liberties for all. Free speech is the 'canary in the mine' in this time of creeping totalitarianism at home and abroad. What are you thinking?

Who but a soul mate to Torquemada and Stalin demands a recantation and then deems their victim's own self abnegation inadequate? Defend free speech in the face of these budding Inquisitors! Lamentably, your remarks as reported by the NY Post have lent support to a witch hunt which you could have stopped.
The remarks attributed to you effectively damn "Intifada" as a new "politically incorrect" word. Step by step, inch by inch… When do we damn the politically incorrect books and their authors? When do we burn them? You have turned a word into a leper's shroud and draped it over human suffering. What's to become of empathy and solidarity if inquiry is pre empted by fear?

Literally translated from the Arabic, we are told that "intifada" refers to a tremor or a shaking off. I suggest that our own term "Movement" ( as it is commonly appended to Labor, Women's, Civil Rights, Black Liberation, Black Consciousness, Zionist, Populist, Gay and Lesbian, Fascist, Communist, Socialist, Anarchist, Nationalist, etc) captures the contextual and is pretty close to the literal meaning. My concern is that educators should not rest content when a "Movement", "uprising", "rebellion" or "Intifada" of Palestinian youth is proscribed and thereby removed as a topic for rational discourse and inquiry.

One's views on the term "intifada" or more specifically, the civil resistance to Israeli occupation to which it refers, are matters to be openly studied, considered and discussed both outside and inside the classroom in an age appropriate and balanced fashion. No understanding or resolution of the conflict in the Middle East and our own role there is possible without such a discourse.

In closing I request that you provide a suitable forum in the pages of the NY Teacher to allow for a open exchange on this matter by members so inclined. Ms Ammontaser seems to be viewed by all but her inquisitors at the Post and Sun as a bridge builder, peace maker and dedicated pedagogue. Unwarranted notoriety and political cowardice on the part of those who should be her advocates has interrupted her career and disrupted the Kahlil Gibran school community. I urge you to seek out Ms Ammontaser and use the weight of your office to heal this breech. and repair the harm done to this school.

Sean Ahern

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Are we teaching tolerance?

Published: August 15, 2007

When aides to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein were presented last fall with a proposal for an Arabic language and culture school, they thought the idea could be controversial. But they said they could not resist the appeal of a school that seemed right for the times and that would be a piece of the school system’s mosaic of dual-language programs.

Those intentions ran straight into the treacherous ethnic and ideological political currents of New York and were overwhelmed by poor planning, inadequate support for the principal and relentless criticism from some quarters of the news media, primarily The New York Post and The New York Sun.

The founding principal of the school, known as the Khalil Gibran International Academy, Debbie Almontaser, a Yemeni immigrant with a long pedigree in the school system, resigned on Friday under pressure after defending the word “intifada” as a T-shirt slogan. On Monday, the schools chancellor hastily appointed Danielle Salzberg, an educator who is Jewish and speaks no Arabic, as the interim principal, prompting taunting tabloid headlines like “School Bad Idea Even Before Hebrew Ha-ha.”

And Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was again explaining his administration’s handling of the school. “You don’t have to speak Arabic in order to run a school,” he said at an unrelated appearance yesterday in the Bronx.

“We don’t look at anybody’s ethnicity in anything else and we’re not going to start here. This is a school we should do, we’re going to do, and I’m sorry the last woman didn’t work out, but I think we’re better off going out and attacking the problem again, and I think we’ve got the right person.”

But supporters and opponents alike wondered how the administration had blundered so badly in a city where Mideast politics can be as passionately debated as in Tel Aviv or in Gaza.
“I believe there is nothing wrong with having a school related in Islamic culture,” said former Mayor Edward I. Koch. “ I don’t think there is anything wrong with the idea at all.” He added, referring to Ms. Almontaser: “They were too quick to fire her though. I thought she apologized and gave what she thought was an adequate response and is believable.”

The tumult continued yesterday morning, as dozens of parents and teachers showed up for orientation at the school in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. A staff member said that one parent asked Ms. Salzberg whether the children would be the focus of relentless media attention.
Indeed, just a few moments after she tried to assure the parents, they walked out to see television cameras outside.

“This is their midsummer debacle,” said Henry J. Stern, a former parks commissioner. “The idea was well-intentioned but utterly unreal.”

Certainly the school system is no stranger to ideological and ethnic ferment. School decentralization was born out of the clash in Ocean Hill-Brownsville four decades ago that pit black activists against the then-largely Jewish teachers union. Multicultural curriculums, the Harvey Milk school for gay adolescents, and the ousting of black and Hispanic school boards have all had their days of attention.

Ms. Almontaser was known as a community organizer in Brooklyn who had worked with interfaith organizations and helped organize peace rallies after 9/11. She was working with New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit group that helped start dozens of schools in recent years.
Khalil Gibran was intended to serve 60 students, all sixth graders, with just two classrooms.
Garth Harries, who is in charge of planning the city’s new schools, said the idea for an Arabic-themed school was appealing from the beginning.

“It had a particular focus, it had an international studies theme, as well as an emphasis on Arabic language,” Mr. Harries said in an interview yesterday. “That dimension of it was something that we saw as useful and enabling to that core goal of a quality rigorous core education.”

He said officials knew there could be problems ahead. “We were obviously conscious that this was a sensitive subject,” Mr. Harries said. “ That was something that the planning team had been aware of from the very beginning.”

But if they were aware, they did little to help and defend Ms. Almontaser, or even pave the way for the school with parents, many political figures and education officials said.

Only months after plans for the school were announced, a group of vocal parents and administrators at Public School 282 in Park Slope, which was to share space with Khalil Gibran, managed to have it moved elsewhere. Columnists in The New York Sun began attacking the school and suggesting that Ms. Almontaser was an extremist. Some high-profile figures, like Diane Ravitch, the historian of the New York school system, questioned why the city should have specialized language and cultural schools at all.

And Ms. Almontaser, with her limited experience as an administrator in the public eye, appeared unprepared for the onslaught.

“This is not a job where you want to learn on the job,” said one former high-ranking school official who did not want to second-guess the administration on the record because he still has dealings with the city. “If you’re going to be thrown into the deep end, what you need is someone who is an experienced official.” Ms. Almontaser gave an interview to The Post last week, and was asked about T-shirts sold by an organization that shares space with a Yemeni group that Ms. Almontaser belongs to. Her attempt to explain away the term intifada on the shirts began a weeklong onslaught of damaging headlines.

“I am surprised that in the few weeks before the school started, the principal — as opposed to a Department of Education official — would be talking to the press about an issue that doesn’t relate to the school,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, who has been critical of Ms. Almontaser’s remarks.

“She has no experience as a principal, and there was no support for her,” Ms. Weingarten said.
Education officials say that they were trying to keep the focus on opening the school. “We can’t control all the ways that the discussion goes,” Mr. Harries said.

Education officials turned to Ms. Salzberg to take over the school. Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions, said she was chosen based on her experience with the school over the last several months.

“I think that the calculation here was that we wanted to make sure that there was continuity for the faculty, the students who had accepted the school, and the planning process that had been in place for the last six to eight months,” Mr. Hughes said. “Given those circumstances, Danielle was the natural choice.”

Ms. Weingarten compared Ms. Salzberg to a relief pitcher in the eighth inning of a baseball game. “She’s started a lot of small schools,” she said. “They had to find somebody quickly who would have the confidence of opening a new school.”

But once again a principal seemed caught by surprise by the attention as details emerged about her religious identity, where she goes to synagogue and her signing of a petition to Orthodox rabbis asking them to do more to help Jewish women whose husbands will not grant them religious divorces. A person close to Ms. Salzberg said she has been stunned by the media attention. The Education Department has declined to make her available for interviews.
Even as the department pressed on, promising to open the school on time despite the criticism, it was faced with a relatively low enrollment — 44 students, most of them black and Hispanic and only six with any Arabic-language skills, according to officials.

Some were left wondering whether the whole effort was worth the fuss. “It’s only worth it if you have gone into the Muslim community and found a tremendous desire to have a school like this,” Mr. Koch said. He said he also found the selection of Ms. Salzberg strange. “To put a principal totally unimmersed in the culture seems like spitting in their eye,” he said.

But Lena Alhusseini, the executive director of the Arab-American Family Support Center, a partner with the school, said yesterday, “I’m very excited about the school, and I’m looking forward to working with Danielle.”

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Standarized Paychecks

Some Wonder if Cash for Good Test Scores Is the Wrong Kind of Lesson

Published: August 8, 200

Should cash be used to spur children to do better on reading and math tests?

Suzanne Windland, a homeowner raising three children in a placid enclave of eastern Queens, doesn’t think so. Her seventh grader, Alexandra, she said, had perfect scores last year. But she doesn’t want New York City’s Department of Education to hand her $500 in spending cash for that achievement. That’s what Alexandra would earn if her school was part of a pilot program that will reward fourth and seventh graders with $100 to $500, depending on how well they perform on 10 tests in the next year.

Mrs. Windland wants Alexandra to do well for all the timeless reasons — to cultivate a love of learning, advance to more competitive schools and the like. She has on occasion bought her children toys or taken them out for dinner when they brought home pleasurable report cards, but she does not believe in dangling rewards beforehand.

“It’s like giving kids an allowance because they wake up every morning and brush their teeth and go off to school,” she said. “That’s their job. That’s what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Actually, Alexandra will probably not be eligible for the reward because the program, which has been adapted from a similar Mexican cash incentives plan, is aimed largely at schools with students from low-income families. Mrs. Windland, who grew up for a time on food stamps but now works as coordinator of volunteers for a social services agency, thinks it is unfair that Alexandra will see other seventh graders being rewarded for far lower scores, while she savors only the intangible plums of pride and satisfaction.

Mrs. Windland predicts that the impact of the program may be paradoxical, with resentment depressing the achievement of hard workers.

“The kids who don’t get reimbursed are going to say, ‘Why should I bother!’ ” Mrs. Windland said.

There are parents who support the program. And Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein responds to skeptics by arguing that no one has figured out how to get more poorer children engaged in learning. Trumpeting the long-term benefits of education, the better jobs and lives well lived has not worked. Cash just might.

“There are lots of kids who think education is not relevant to them, who think education is a waste of time,” he said in an interview.

Still, critics warn Mr. Klein to be prepared for a backlash from families, both poor and more well off. The program will foster “ill will,” said Tim Johnson, chairman of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, whose members include Mrs. Windland.

“The word bribe comes to mind,” he said. “You certainly don’t want kids with identical abilities, where one gets paid and the other doesn’t.”

Some parents, like Nakida Chambers-Camille, a school administrative assistant who lives in St. Albans, Queens, think the program should be given a shot. Ms. Chambers-Camille has a seventh grader, Leana, at a school that probably won’t qualify. Leana, she chuckled, may think that is unfair. But Ms. Camille believes such sweeteners may ultimately benefit her daughter. “If that’s going to help the child my child is playing with, then I’m all for it,” she said. “I want my child associating with people who have education as a priority. If that child is not learning, that child will pull my child down with her.”

But Mr. Klein also has some opponents in poorer communities that might benefit. Robert A. Reed Jr., president of the parents’ association of Public School 46 in Harlem, a school where nearly all students qualify for free lunches, called the program “dead wrong” in an e-mail interview, saying children learn “because they want it, not because they’re getting paid.”

Mr. Klein, who grew up in public housing, could recall nothing more in the way of carrots and sticks than an allowance raise or a grounding for one of his bad report cards. His interest in succeeding was quite conventional.

“I wanted my parents’ approval,” Mr. Klein said. “I found education interesting and exciting and I engaged it in those terms. I thought education would create opportunities my family didn’t have. My father said if you want to grow up and not live in public housing, pay attention in school.”

The crucial if amorphous role homes play in whether a child succeeds is why Mr. Johnson thinks the chancellor should come to grips with the limits of what schools can do.

Other critics of the new program, like Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, think Mr. Klein should put the incentives into college funds, saying instant cash undermines the idea of learning for its own sake.

Another parent, Joan Rose Palacios, whose daughter Olivia is a fourth grader in Queens, wondered: “What happens when the money dries up? You pull a carrot away, do they stop working?” But, she added, she is keeping an open mind because she feels that schools in poor neighborhoods need more aid.

The pilot, devised by Roland G. Fryer, a 30-year-old Harvard economist who has studied racial inequality in schools, is part of a wider program by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration that will offer cash to adults for keeping a job, maintaining health insurance, attending teacher conferences and getting children to show up at school.

Laura Rawlings, an economist for the World Bank, which finances $1.2 billion worth of incentive programs in 12 countries like Mexico, says such programs have raised school attendance.

The programs can be favorably seen as a form of income maintenance that replaces pure entitlements by requiring parents to commit to behaviors society prefers. But the Mexican program does not reward children for passing tests. And it may be hard to explain to children, sensitive to any unfairness, why one child is getting money while another with better grades is not.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

‘Fail’ Becomes a ‘Pass’

Published: August 1, 2007 NY TIMES:

Several weeks into his first year of teaching math at the High School of Arts and Technology in Manhattan, Austin Lampros received a copy of the school’s grading policy. He took particular note of the stipulation that a student who attended class even once during a semester, who did absolutely nothing else, was to be given 45 points on the 100-point scale, just 20 short of a passing mark.

Austin Lampros quit after a student he had failed was passed.

Mr. Lampros’s introduction to the high school’s academic standards proved a fitting preamble to a disastrous year. It reached its low point in late June, when Arts and Technology’s principal, Anne Geiger, overruled Mr. Lampros and passed a senior whom he had failed in a required math course.

That student, Indira Fernandez, had missed dozens of class sessions and failed to turn in numerous homework assignments, according to Mr. Lampros’s meticulous records, which he provided to The New York Times. She had not even shown up to take the final exam. She did, however, attend the senior prom.

Through the intercession of Ms. Geiger, Miss Fernandez was permitted to retake the final after receiving two days of personal tutoring from another math teacher. Even though her score of 66 still left her with a failing grade for the course as a whole by Mr. Lampros’s calculations, Ms. Geiger gave the student a passing mark, which allowed her to graduate.

Ms. Geiger declined to be interviewed for this column and said that federal law forbade her to speak about a specific student’s performance. But in a written reply to questions, she characterized her actions as part of a “standard procedure” of “encouraging teachers to support students’ efforts to achieve academic success.”

The issue here is not a violation of rules or regulations. Ms. Geiger acted within the bounds of the teachers’ union’s contract with the city, by providing written notice to Mr. Lampros of her decision.

No, the issue is more what this episode may say about the Department of Education’s vaunted increase in graduation rates. It is possible, of course, that the confrontation over Miss Fernandez was an aberration. It is possible, too, that Mr. Lampros is the rare teacher willing to speak on the record about the pressures from administrators to pass marginal students, pressures that countless colleagues throughout the city privately grumble about but ultimately cave in to, fearful of losing their jobs if they object.

Mr. Lampros has resigned and returned to his home state, Michigan. The principal and officials in the Department of Education say that he missed 24 school days during the last year for illness and personal reasons. He missed two of the three sets of parent-teacher conferences. He also had conflicts with an assistant principal, Antonio Arocho, over teaching styles. Mr. Lampros said all of this was true.

Still, Mr. Lampros received a satisfactory rating five of the six times administrators formally observed him. He has master’s degrees in both statistics and math education and has won awards for his teaching at the college level.

“It’s almost as if you stick to your morals and your ethics, you’ll end up without a job,” Mr. Lampros said in an interview. “I don’t think every school is like that. But in my case, it was.”

The written record, in the form of the minutely detailed charts Mr. Lampros maintained to determine student grades, supports his account. Colleagues of his from the school — a counselor, a programmer, several fellow teachers — corroborated key elements of his version of events. They also describe a principal worried that the 2006 graduation rate of 72.5 percent would fall closer to 50 or 60 percent unless teachers came up with ways to pass more students.

After having failed to graduate with her class in June 2006, Miss Fernandez, who, through her mother, declined to be interviewed, returned to Arts and Technology last September for a fifth year. She was enrolled in Mr. Lampros’s class in intermediate algebra. Absent for more than two-thirds of the days, she failed, and that grade was left intact by administrators.

When second semester began, Miss Fernandez again took the intermediate algebra class, which fulfilled one of her graduation requirements. According to Mr. Lampros’s records, she missed one-third of the classes, arrived late for 20 sessions, turned in half the required homework assignments, failed 11 of 14 tests and quizzes, and never took the final exam.

Two days after the June 12 final, Miss Fernandez told Mr. Lampros that she had a doctor’s note excusing her from school on the day of the exam, he said. On June 18, she asked him if she had failed the class, and he told her she had. The next day, the principal summoned Mr. Lampros to a meeting with Miss Fernandez and her mother. He was ordered, he said, to let her retake the final.

Mr. Arocho, the assistant principal, wrote in a letter to Mr. Lampros that Miss Fernandez had a doctor’s note, issued March 15, permitting her to miss school whenever necessary in the spring. Mr. Arocho did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment.

There is such a note, issued by Dr. Jason Faller, but it excused absences “over the last three months” — that is, the period between mid-December and mid-March. In a recent interview, Dr. Faller said he saw Miss Fernandez only once, in March, and confirmed that his excuse note covered absences only before March 15.

For whatever reason, school administrators misinterpreted the note and told Mr. Lampros that Miss Fernandez would be allowed to retake the final — and to retake it after having two days of one-on-one tutoring by another math teacher, an advantage none of Mr. Lampros’s other students had, he said.

Mr. Lampros, disgusted, did not come to school the next two days. Miss Fernandez meanwhile took the test and scored a 66, which still left her far short of a 65 average for the semester. Nonetheless, Mr. Arocho tried to enter a passing mark for her. When he had to relent after objections by the teachers’ union representative, Mr. Lampros was allowed to put in the failing grade. Ms. Geiger promptly reversed it.

Samantha Fernandez, Indira’s mother, spoke on her behalf. “My daughter earned everything she got,” she said. Of Mr. Lampros, she said, “He needs to grow up and be a man.”

From Michigan, Mr. Lampros recalled one comment that Mrs. Fernandez made during their meeting about why it was important for Indira to graduate. She couldn’t afford to pay for her to attend another senior prom in another senior year.