Sunday, March 30, 2008


When working in NYC Public schools opportunities for unique experiences creep up all the time. This past week three of these said experiences presented themselves. On Wednesday I attended a talk by Jonathan Kozol, legendary educational critic. On Thursday I was able to partake in a learning walk at Bronx Lab High School. Completing the week on Friday I was fortunate enough to be the presenter during a grade level Critical Friends Group meeting.

Kozol, whom was invited to speak at Pace University as part of their annual Distinguished Educators speaker series, was not as angry as I would have thought or hoped from reading several of his previous works. Instead he talked about teacher retention and reminding teachers to be interesting and recognize the spirits in the children that we touch each day. He warned teachers that they dare not steal and rob the children of their childhood in this world of NCLB and standardized testing. Kozol made assertions that in white affluent schools teachers talk about “where a child is right now” and in black and Latino schools where many students are below the poverty line the question shifts to “what the child will be one day.” He went on to claim that teachers are the “frontline in the struggle for democracy.”

What struck me the most about the evening though was the provost of Pace University’s Education Department statement charging, “If you’re not making the world a better place to live than you are just taking up space.” He claimed it was something his grandmother used as a mantra.

The next morning, I entered the school in the Bronx which is housed in the former Evander Childs High School building I was impressed with the classic architecture of the building. Oak molding, marble steps this building looked like what schools in textbooks look like.

Upon entering the building I had to pass through school safety’s metal detectors. We do not have this feature at our high school so my stomach actually got a little butterfly-like walking through the line. I have never had a good experience with the personnel who work with these machines. Maybe there is something with the x-rays that makes them always choose me as the one to hassle, but I digress. The SSA that worked the door were exceptionally pleasant and welcoming. Setting the tone for the entire day the safety agents seemed to understand that the students and adults that enter this building are embarking upon something special.

One of the Co-Directors of the Bronx Lab School gave a welcoming presentation that really shared the history of their small 450 student school. She was quick to share her joy in what the teachers in the Bronx Lab School had created on the 4th floor of the once comprehensive high school.

I visited many classrooms, and during the debrief session was very interested to hear of the partnerships the school had created with several non-profits affording the students several opportunities. Freshmen went on overnight backpacking trips, and seniors had a very “hands on” college office both paid for by grants from non-profits. The staff was young and the culture of the building was positive.

Then came our CFG meeting on Friday; I was nervous to present in front of my colleagues this year because I had really attempted to do something different. I was very attached to the form of the lesson and I wasn’t ready to take criticism. I begrudgingly began showing them student authored WebPages and digital essays that showed off online collaborative groups skills. The teachers on the freshmen team gave comments as to focus and direction which I know are my weaknesses at times. I tend to think big picture and not spend too much time with the details.

I love that our team scheduled a critical friends meeting in lieu of a typical grade level meeting. I am even more impressed that it has sparked a further conversation via email days after the fact. Teachers on my team have been discussing the value of a teaching lesson for enduring understanding vs. teaching for core knowledge standards.

These enriching experiences are what make teaching in NYC so special. Not taking advantage of opportunities, and not learning from the wealth of knowledge within the system would be a waste of resources. This week for me replenished Kozol’s frontline, inspired me that anything can be done with enough grant money, and in the case of my own CFG experience pushes me to teach for enduring understanding rather than broad sweeping E.D. Hirsch type core-content lists.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Path of Least Resistance

When freshmen in my Global Studies Class were given the opportunity to write an individual essay or work in a cooperative group and create an online presentation, more than half the class chose to write the essay.

Why was I shocked by this?

I was shocked because so many other educators have planted a seed in my head that groupwork is easier than individual work. I was shocked because students were relieved that they had the opportunity to do something easy [write an essay].

I shouldn’t have been shocked. In my own life working alone is easier. I don’t have to worry about others feelings. I don’t have to explain my thought process, my rationale for decisions, and I don’t have to answer to peers. I can set my own pace and be in control of all aspects of a project.

Working on a team isn’t easy. Students all have their own thoughts as to how a project should turn out. They all have their own expectations, and each brings with them a particular skill set. Asking people to work together can be toxic. Groups, in classes or SLCs, not only have to work together, but they also have to present findings in a content area.

Teachers working together are no different. Being a true team player is tough.

Often cooperative groupwork in the classroom is criticized for its lack of ‘academic rigor’. Students slack off and refuse to do the ‘real work’. Students, being human, tend to take the easiest route through a course. But then why did 70% of the class choose the individual essay over the groupwork?

Why is it that students know what so many others fail to see; ‘working together is more difficult than working alone’. In a world of a globalized economy, when collaboration on Internet based projects using WEB 2.0 technology real part of everyone’s career, educators would be remiss not facilitating these real world skills. Not working together, not facilitating group skills, and not praising out of the box [off the rubric] choices would be a true disservice to our next generation.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Web 2.0 in the classroom (sort of)

How can I use “blogger” in the classroom? How can technology assist in collaborative groups working together?

As tech savvy as teachers may be personally, translating that into classroom practice isn’t easy. Often technology simply becomes either an encyclopedia for questionable information with shady sources or a vehicle for a glorified bulletin board. Many including myself have used the web to publish student work in the past, but it wasn’t until very recently that I pushed my students to create an online collaborative piece of work. Students’ truly working on the web was an amazing thing to be a part of.

In my ninth grade social studies class, students in group of four were brought to a mock crime scene an (idea James Woolsey came up with three years ago) from there they were given a digital camera to take crime scene photos. [The unit was based in NYS Regents standards for Global Studies] From the photos they then proceeded to research the evidence that had been displayed and asked to publish a webpage with the groups’ findings. Ultimately the groups linked all their WebPages together. The students were then asked to evaluate pages based on their resources and utilize and cite the sources of their classmates.

A couple of interesting things happened:

  1. Students realized that information on the web must be critically evaluated for its veracity before being cited in their work. Many for the first time questioned the authorship of many websites.

  2. Students realized that gathering information from “real world” experts in the field is quite simple on the internet. (One student contacted an archaeologist for help)

  3. Students appreciated the real world skills of creating an attractive blog. (Students were thrilled that someone was recognizing that making a “MySpace” type page had value in a classroom.)

  4. Students were very excited to share skills and information, the class, as a whole, was constructing knowledge together as the web content on each page improved. Students started asking each other "Where did you find that? Did you see what their team wrote?"

  5. Students became furiously upset when plagiarism of their work was suspected. They began to take true ownership as a group of their work.

At the conclusion of the unit the students used Google-docs to create individual hyperlinked essays. These essays will now become the examples for next year’s class.

The whole process really created a buzz and students are already asking what is next? Admittedly this is where I am stuck. How do I go back to “tech-less” learning? We opened a door together as a class and because of limited resources [school has limited amount of accessible computers (one cart of 36)] we have to step back out. Admittedly the work was immense for me as a facilitator [ the process of getting the laptops each morning from a safe, securing the key, and at time s the laptops are not connected to a password protected and filtered network] and didn’t work for every student, but I see this becoming easier and improving the accessibility.

I was thrilled to have this work. The future of collaborate groups in a classroom looks interesting.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Where is the Advisor in Advisory?

Advisory. My passion.

I love everything about advisory- mixed grade levels, the ability to "know" a small group of students, small group size, flexibility of what to teach....

Recently, at an MFM(Montessori Faculty Meeting) as well as in the Sophomore team meetings, we have been discussing the role of the advisor.

Advisory is quite diverse in the Montessori community, with mixed grade level classes and a variety of lessons and ideas shared during our one period a week meeting. I like that all advisors teach different things based on what they feel is best for their advisees.

At the MFM, we've identified the many different views and perspectives on "What is Advisory" and have been looking towards a more academic focus.

In addition to this, the Sophomore team has discussed how the role of the advisor seems to be a bit lost when it comes to communication, and we've identified the issue, and will be taking action to informing advisors so that they can be in more of an academic role.

"We schedule what we value." I agree. With such diverse needs of each advisee, how do we make it work? What was the original vision of advisory?

I believe I understand what advisory is about and agree with it, but struggle to make it "ideal." With responsibilities becoming more demanding, how do you get it all done without feeling like you are missing something?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"But They Work for ME"

I wanted to discuss something that has been taking place at my school, and get some feedback from outside, objective people. It came to a head yesterday during PD.

As a new, small HS, last year was our first. The students who comprised the first high school class were largely students for whom this school was not their first choice; for some, it was the choice between retention and promotion. A great deal of time was spent last year (and this year) changing culture and attitudes about schools, as well as making up for deficiencies which many of our learners have in many subjects.

Teaching the lower grades in a high school are tough anywhere, I'd guess, simply from a maturity perspective. Factor in some of the academic, social, economic issues that these kids brought to the table, and that job becomes tougher.

One teacher in particular has struggled with this group. This teacher has tried numerous methods, groupings, differentiation, etc. to work with the students, and is doing fairly well, given the circumstances. However, when this teacher has vented (as we all do) about classes, or has stated that certain methods, classes (like DEAR) or other interventions have not proven successful, others in our building have replied with "well, I have them, and they my class." Or "they work for me." Moreover, when this teacher has expressed an opinion on a topic, this person is seen as being "too negative."

I've always had a hard time with this comment, and yesterday I spoke up for this teacher. I don't believe it's fair to judge one teacher, in a completely different subject by the same standard as another. For example, if the students value what's given in one class, or enjoy that class more than another, or are not lacking in requisite skills (Math, for example), surely their performance may be better.

I was really upset by this "they work for me" commentary. As a collaborative community, isn't it, or shouldn't it be more about how we can help ALL of our learners, teachers and students, to become successful?

I am interested to hear from people on this side of the expressway. I value this forum greatly for its help.

Sunday, March 09, 2008


At Charter School, Higher Teacher Pay

I guess my question is what would you do differently in the classroom if you salary doubled? I'm doing everything I personally can now. Doubling my salary would be great, but my in class performance wouldn't change.

Would six-figure salaries attract better teachers?

A New York City charter school set to open in 2009 in Washington Heights will test one of the most fundamental questions in education: Whether significantly higher pay for teachers is the key to improving schools.

The school, which will run from fifth to eighth grades, is promising to pay teachers $125,000, plus a potential bonus based on schoolwide performance. That is nearly twice as much as the average New York City public school teacher earns, roughly two and a half times the national average teacher salary and higher than the base salary of all but the most senior teachers in the most generous districts nationwide.

The school’s creator and first principal, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, contends that high salaries will lure the best teachers. He says he wants to put into practice the conclusion reached by a growing body of research: that teacher quality — not star principals, laptop computers or abundant electives — is the crucial ingredient for success.

“I would much rather put a phenomenal, great teacher in a field with 30 kids and nothing else than take the mediocre teacher and give them half the number of students and give them all the technology in the world,” said Mr. Vanderhoek, 31, a Yale graduate and former middle school teacher who built a test preparation company that pays its tutors far more than the competition.

In exchange for their high salaries, teachers at the new school, the Equity Project, will work a longer day and year and assume responsibilities that usually fall to other staff members, like attendance coordinators and discipline deans. To make ends meet, the school, which will use only public money and charter school grants for all but its building, will scrimp elsewhere.

Entire Article

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

New Comment on an Old Post

Below is a comment I received yesterday on a post that was written in May of 2007. We seem to be having a new discussion around our model of inclusion. Venting frustrations can be healthy, but more importantly offering solutions is really the only true way to overcome adversity.

The comment reads:

"As a CTT teacher, I absolutely feel this model is not working. It could work, in theory, but not the way things are set up now. Being forced to stand up in front of a class and embarrass yourself teaching content you don't know just to put on a show that you're standing in front of the room is stupid, frankly, and benefiting no one- not the students, not the CTT teacher, and not the general ed teacher who will have to reteach the lesson the next day, anyway. Steamrolling your CTT teacher into doing what the general ed teacher wants, whether it be either extreme- ignoring them and not planing with them, or handing them a lesson that you wrote and wondering why they can't posibly teach it is not exaclty what 'relationship' building is all about. If you have never taught special ed, please do not read theory and a manuel and then feel you are an expert and able to give advice and instruction to CTT teachers. Go teach a CTT class. Then you might have even a fraction of an insight as to what you're talking about. "

How might we help our distressed colleague through this situation? What are teachers supposed to be doing in a CTT model classroom?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

What are we doing to prepare kids for all the other days of their lives?

"Chris," he said, "We have to teach the kids to take tests... the SATs, the LSATs, the MCATs, these are serious tests and serious days that can forever alter the path of a person's life.'

It's a good point, and certainly, it can be the tip of the sword in the argument for schools like SLA. But something popped into my head...

"Yes, they are, and we cannot ignore those tests, and we should prepare kids for them but those are three days in a person's life. What are we doing in our schools to prepare kids for the other 20,000 days of their lives?"And I realized that's the question we should really be asking. That's the answer to all those who say the tests are paramount.

What are we doing to prepare kids for all the other days of their lives?


School is Hard

This is the time of the year when I always feel a little overwhelmed. QHST being annualized my relationships with my students are either on autopilot or reaching levels of unspeakable stress. Talk around school starts to focus on next year.

Who will be teaching what?
What schedule will we be using next year?
Who will not be returning?

How many new-hires will be joining us?
Are we meeting the needs of all learners?
Has the CTT model been working for teachers and students?

What are we doing wrong?
What can we fix before June? What will have to wait til next year?

What will summer school look like?

And then there are the seniors, they are stressing about college, or other post high school expectations. I must admit with the room changes this year, I teach in four different rooms, and the pressure from the DOE to make data driven decisions, I forget why I love teaching. Outside of school with the economy in disarray and a hotly debated presidential race and I seriously need to refocus.

What has saved me this year from sheer depression have been a couple of "ah ha emails". Former students feeling compelled to share their college experiences with me, or even asking me for help. Through these emails I've been invited to “sit in” on an undergrad class by a students who compares her current sociology class to her experience in my government class. Another student thanked me for going paperless senior year it helped her greatly making her transition to her current economics class.

QHST will never be the same year to year. Our family of students and parents changes and grows. Not becoming so overwhelmed with the here and now and focusing on the long term accomplishments helps me gather the energy to dive back into Mondays. Tuesday I start to look at data again, start to look at multiple failure lists, start to look at suspensions, start to look at attendance rates, exam scores, start to look at ID cards, hall passes, teacher time, credit accumulation, teacherease, IEPs, and will start to look once again at the day to day.