Monday, April 25, 2011

Day 16: Lead by example

So I took a few days off from blogging. I would love to say that the lengthy delay was planned, but let's just say life can sometimes get in the way.  Anyhow, now I'm back.

Last week was my spring vacation. It was wonderful. I was able to spend a lot of time with my little boy which was amazing. However, two of the days I attended a training put on by the group Growing Educators. These two women were trained at the Teacher's College at Columbia University and have since moved out west and created their own company to help spread the balanced literacy curriculum within our schools. The training was outstanding.  I always walk away from this particular group's workshops feeling inspired and motivated. It is such a breath of fresh air from the mundane discussion of Open Court this or Treasures that (for non teachers those are the scripted reading programs the district uses in its schools). The curriculum discussed at this training requires teachers to think, plan, and adapt their instruction to meet the needs of their students. It assumes teachers are inherently intelligent and capable as opposed to lazy and incompetent. It pushes the educator to constantly change and grow as not only a teacher, but a learner as well.

The most interesting thing to me about these two days was the number of attendees and their enthusiasm. It was spring break, they were not being paid, but these teachers were so excited for the opportunity to be trained in an approach to teaching that requires all that is right with education and ignores the accepted, but ineffective norms.  The teacher trainers that were at the training helping Growing Educators were teachers from my school. All amazing women, and all incredible teachers. They lead us less experienced teachers through the writing curriculum with expertise and passion. Three of the four leaders are waiting to hear if their RIF notices will be rescinded. Here they are, some of the best our profession has to offer and they too were let go. Despite this, they were at training on their vacation  helping other teachers. This selflessness amazed me. They don't act in their own interest, but in the interest of the greater good. They were there to help teachers better teach kids. Amazing.

As many employees of LAUSD wait to hear what the district and union are able to negotiate in regards to concessions to save jobs I hope this attitude of selflessness spreads. While it would be difficult to take 12 furlough days (which is what is currently on the table) it would save jobs, it would keep classes smaller, and that would help kids. I hope teachers are able to see beyond their own best interest and do not take this opportunity to stand up to the district. No one wants furloughs, no one wants a pay cut, but no one wants to be fired either. Imagine a world where teachers set the example of sacrifice for the greater good. Maybe our students would learn this important lesson and implement it in their own lives. Clearly the people running the government or corporations today never learned this. Maybe future generations just need a teacher to show them. The question is will there be any teachers left to do just that?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Day 15: Reach out to a teacher

       This is the time of year that for many teachers we really begin to question our impact. Testing is coming, layoffs are pending, "value added" scores are being made public. I know that I have touched many children's lives and improved them for the better, as have many teachers, but it is this time of year that makes me most question why I do what I do.  So today a ask a favor of anyone who takes the time to read this. If you have ever had a teacher that has touched your life, helped you become a better person, made you grow as a human being, or was even just there for you when you needed someone to listen, please call them, write them, email them.  Reach out to these people who touched your life and thank them. Tell them that they mattered in your life.  It will take a mere moment out of your life, but will mean the world in theirs.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Day 14: Defend one's job or prepare the kids?


~A good teacher is like a candle -it consumes itself to light the way for others.

     Teachers in the LAUSD that have been recently laid off will find themselves in an interesting conundrum soon.  Do they attend the official hearing where they will be given the opportunity to defend their layoff, or do they go to work and teach the students and help prepare them for the all important CST (California Standards Test). Not only does this test solely determine a students achievement in our educational system, but it also singularly determines the teacher's "value added" score that he LA Times now so publicly releases each year? Do they defend themselves and their job only to leave their students a few short days before the all important test?

      So let's just say that a teacher attends the hearing (which could take multiple days, no guarantee of timeliness) they could be out of the classroom for valuable hours just days before the test their students have been preparing for all year. This could not only negatively impact their students' scores, but also their own "value added" score which is currently the only quantitative measure of a teacher's effectiveness. Therefore, even if the teacher has a job next year, they could be labeled as an even less effective teacher. These are the moments that you just have to take a breath, count backwards from ten, shake your head, and ask how in the world did our educational system get here? More importantly how do we get back out?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Day 13: "Value added" Strikes Again

Ahh the spring time: warmer weather, birds singing, layoff notices, and "value added" scores of teachers in LAUSD are again released. What a joyful time of year.
Another year with a less than good value added score for me. So according to the LA Times I add no value to my students during the year. The Times has explanations for questions about the "value added" system. According to them it is accurate, so then I must clearly be an ineffective teacher, and perhaps my layoff notice really is a benefit to our educational system. Each teacher gets a chance to write a response to their "value added" score. Below is my response to the LA Times.
I have five years of scores considered in this "value added" system. I concede that is is likely that I was not highly effective my first year or two. I do however know that my third and forth year of teaching over fifty percent of my students test scores increased or remained proficient or advanced. How do I know this you ask? I saw the scores. Maybe this is not enough to be highly effective according to the LA Times but it sure was effective for those children. In addition, I know the Times claims that there is no need to control for race or socioeconomic status, but a 2010 Study conducted by Stanford University and Berkley said differently. It claimed that the races of the children in the "value added" scores could effect the overall effectiveness rating. My career began at a school where 100% of the students were socioeconomically disadvantaged and all minorities, and I'm sorry Times, but no matter what you claim, that does matter. Finally, last year I began with a fourth and fifth grade combination class, by November I was renormed into a substitute position and then in January given a class of the school's 22 lowest scoring FBB students as an intervention. I worked with them until May when I left for maternity leave and the students tested with another teacher. I don't even know which group of children that I taught last year is even included in my "value added" score. Whichever children it was did not receive my instruction for more than three months in total, but I have their test scores to exclusively represent my test scores and effectiveness as an educator. How do you control for that Times? Do you even consider such factors? 
At the end of the day, you can keep printing "value added" scores. You can even contend that they define a teacher, however those of us that actually work in a classroom everyday know that simply cannot accurately represent our effectiveness. I know people want data, and statistics, and numbers to crunch. However, your "value added" system does not define me as a teacher nor as a human being. It does not define my enthusiasm, my knowledge of pedagogy, my intellect, or my love for my students. Finally, I know it does not accurately determine how "effective" I am in the classroom and nothing the the LA Times has to say will change that. Please LA Times come visit sometime, or would that be too much trouble?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Day 12: Nuttin but Stringz

Last night Ryan and I attended the Catalina Ball out on Catalina Island.  We were fortunate to attend a reception on Mt. Ida at the Wrigley Mansion, and then the ball itself held in the famed Catalina Casino. The events were beautiful and we had a wonderful time. The ball is an annual event held by the Catalina Nature Conservancy to raise money to support their preservation work around the island.

The highlight of the evening came about halfway through the program. Music began playing and two young black men entered playing violins.  If you ever watched season three of America's Got Talent you may have recognized the young gentlemen as Tourie and Damien Escobar.  These two violinist were born in Jamaica, found music at the ages of seven and eight and used this art to avoid the trouble in the streets surrounding their childhoods that befell many of their peers. They later studied music at Julliard and then remained in New York trying to catch a break.  Ultimately they did just that and last night I was fortunate enough to see them perform live.  As they played in one of the largest ballrooms in the country, to an audience whose median age was probably around sixty five, there was an amazing amount of enthusiasm.  The audience joined them on the ballroom floor and clapped and danced along with this violin meets hip hop performance. If you have never heard or seen the group it is worth a minute to check them out. Their website is

This performance made me again realize the importance of arts education for our children. What an amazing journey these two young men have had, and their success has come playing instruments that are often not associated with young men of color growing up in rough neighborhoods. In their case, music took them to a place that was unlikely for them without it. As budget talks continue I wish that the people making the hard decisions would take a look at the story of the Escobar brothers.  In their case music was a way out and a way up.  We have many children living in the inner city looking for the same type of escape and as we continue to cut funding for our schools there are less opportunities for many children to learn the skills that may just be their one big chance.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Day 11: food poisoning

So I spent all day today home sick with food poisoning. That being said I did not have much time to blog. My only thoughts for today are excitement that a government shutdown has been prevented. This gives me hope that maybe other legislators will be able to reach compromises to limit the serious impact the current fiscal crisis will have on education and out children. So tonight I go to bed with hope.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Day 10: Let's just turn it over to the kids already

So today I had students settle an argument without name calling, all look at the speaker and listen while they were talking, start a sentence with that was an interesting idea but I disagree with you, and finally discover the importance of not judging someone based on blanket unfounded generalizations.

If my seven, eight, and nine year old students can handle this than why can't the people running this country? I am so tired of grownups behaving like children and throwing tantrums to get their way. Life is about compromise. We can't always get our way. How did these guys miss that lesson in kindergarten and every year since?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Day 9: Quick fix now, but we'll pay later

Today an LA Times article discusses the dropping number of students enrolling in college coursework to become teachers. Can you blame them? In the article titled Today's Teacher Layoffs Threaten Tomorrow's College Classroom, Larry Gordon explores the ever decreasing enrollment in the education departments in the state's universities.  The number of teaching credentials given out in the state has dropped 29% during the last 5 years. In addition to the increasing requirements to become a teacher, (mentioned in yesterday's blog) the continual job uncertainty and perceived stress surrounding teaching is causing people who would otherwise like to join the profession to reconsider.

You may be thinking what's the big deal? If less people become teachers then there won't be layoffs in the future. Problem solved right? Actually, not quite. One problem is that many teachers that are baby boomers are on the brink of retirement. They will soon need replacements. A second problem is that according to a study by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, a Santa Cruz based nonprofit, the number of elementary students in the state will increase 7% by 2018 and high school enrollment will begin to increase again in 2016. So there will be a need for teachers, but after all the layoffs leading to people leaving the profession and the decrease in enrollment in the education departments at many universities, this need will potentially lead to an era of emergency credentials given to anyone willing to teach who has a college degree. So much for highly trained and prepared teachers we have been demanding for the last decade.

It was twenty years ago when there was the last shortage of teachers just like this in California. Many people were recruited from the private sector and out of state to fill the need.  However, as we continue to demoralize the educators already working within this profession how can we expect other professionals in their right minds to willing choose to enter the fray?  Without them who's going to teach the state's children?

Without trained teachers in classrooms it would not be far fetched to imagine that student performance is likely to further decline. Then, as these students progress through the grades we can count on producing less and less students prepared to move on to a university. So as we create a state with far too few teachers to adequately serve the state's students we are simultaneously disabling the future success of the state's students and therefore the state.  By creating a large class of citizenry without college educations we are continuing the growth of the state's population that is increasingly seen as unemployable. In the April 3 NPR story Measuring Joblessness Through an Educational Lens, Zoe Chance describes an economic recovery in which people with college degrees are beginning to find work, but those without one cannot. College educations are becoming more and more of a necessity for our children's future employment success. Unfortunately, at the same time that a college education is proving increasingly important, money is being cut from these institutions and teacher's are being laid off as a quick budgetary fix with no real concern for the long lasting impact this will have on the state's future workforce or productivity. 

The implications of the current situation are fairly clear. The number of students in this state is increasing. The number of people to teach them is decreasing. People without college educations are having a difficult time getting jobs. What is it about this equation that is difficult for our legislators to understand? How can this state create an effective, productive workforce of people in the future if it cannot see the benefit in investing in the people necessary to teach them now?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Day 8: New textbooks will teach students without teachers

LAUSD is about to adopt a new reading language arts program. Macmillan/McGraw Hill's Treasures was selected. Congratulations!  So long Open Court.  It has been an adventure. While this new program is not a scripted basal reading program, as far as I understand it, it is still a complete reading and writing curriculum leaving little room for teacher discretion or adaptation of instruction.  In short, this means little need for a teacher to think.  In addition to this new text book adoption, LAUSD is also working hard to implement DIBELS.  This is considered a fast easy assessment teachers are expected to use to gain information about their students' reading needs.

What I am interested in knowing is if the district feels like teachers need "fast and easy" curriculum and assessments to effectively teach out students, why do teachers have to receive so much training before they join the profession?

For you non-teachers (in case anyone reads this blog) becoming a teacher is not as easy as the main stream media reports and public perception of teachers would make you think.  Anyone who has been in the profession for less than ten years has had a particularly large amount of requirements to meet prior to ever being offered a credential. Let's just say for fun that someone wanted to become a teacher (by the way this would not be a good time to try to go into this particular profession).  First you would need a bachelors degree. That's pretty standard for employment these days. Then after the BA you enter your credential classes.  To finish this credential process you must finish what are called Teaching Performance Assessments.  There are four of them. They are time consuming and elaborate projects that demonstrate "proficiency in teaching".  While completing your coursework you simultaneously must pass the California Subjects Examination for Teachers (CSET). If you will be an elementary teacher this covers all subjects.  There is also the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment (RICA). This test is given to all teachers whose credential will cover reading.  If all tests are passed, the assessments are completed, and your degree is finished then you complete a stint as a student teacher (unpaid).  Then, finally you can join the profession.

I do not argue with these requirements. I think they are valid and necessary. If one is going to be responsible for the instruction of our children they should have to demonstrate a certain breadth of knowledge and general intellect. However, if I am going to complete all these tasks clearly I have demonstrated my competence in the classroom and with the curriculum I am expected to teach. So let me teach. Don't throw quick fixes and easy curriculum my way.  If the district that employees teachers doesn't respect their competence by allowing them to teach the curriculum that meets their student's needs the way the think is best then it is a clear sign that the district does not respect nor value the intellect of its teachers. If the district that employees these teachers cannot give this respect how can society be expected to do so?

If we want education to be more effective than it is time to stop counting on a textbook, or an assessment, or a program to teach our children. It is time we trust the professionals who have been specifically trained with the skills to teach. It is time we trust the teachers. We're not as incapable as you might think. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Day 7: Let there be paint

Today my students and I were lucky enough to receive a program called Art to Grow On.  We are lucky and have parent volunteers that put on this program for our students four times a year. This is not your traditional cut and paste art program. Previously this year we made sculptures out of recycled garbage and the children were taught about the pacific trash gyre (otherwise known as a trash heap the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean.  At the second program the students learned how to mix primary colors to make secondary colors and to mix secondary colors to make tertiary colors. In addition, they learned how to make tints or shades of colors using black or white paint.  The programs were fantastic, but watching my students complete today's project was amazing.

Today the students were shown the art of painter George Rodrigue.  His is well known for his blue dog paintings. The students then learned how to grid a canvas in order to replicate a print by first sketching and then covering the sketch with acrylic paint. The created amazing acrylic painting on canvas. My seven, eight, and nine year olds created art that was simply extraordinary.  For the entire program the children were smiling. They were engaged in their work and so engrossed in what they were creating. It was one of those moments that one really appreciates being a teacher. Maybe we weren't preparing for "the test".  Maybe we weren't working through one of your "traditional school subjects" but we were learning and sometimes that in itself is simply enough.

Days like today I remember why I became a teacher in the first place. First and foremost, I believe in the education of the whole person.  I know that each child, or person for that matter, has unique skills and talents and sometimes those talents are not reading, writing, or math. There is a place in the world for artists. What would the world be without them? What would we read, what would we watch, what would we listen to, what would we enjoy? Today some of my students learned that art was a passion of theirs. As educators it is our job to not only support the talents we find meaningful, but also those that our children seek to explore.  I understand that this program is not in every school, but there are parents and organizations that are willing to support these types of programs if we seek them out. I know that the schools are in trouble financially. I understand this fact. However, I also understand that an education without some exposure to the arts in as injustice to our students. Many of our most creative thinkers are never given the opportunity to explore their potential. Art is good for the brain, it is good for the soul, it is good for our students.

Somewhere along the way our system of education has lost focus. We are so centered on test scores that we have forgotten how important it is to nurture the creativity that is inherit within us all.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Day 6: Some thoughts my dad would want you to know

Today is my dad's 61st birthday. So today I write in his honor. I am confident he shares my thoughts on this topic so I will be short and sweet just like him.

This morning On CBS Sunday Morning they shared a few statistics from a USA Today study that alarmed but sadly did not shock me. In 2010 the median salary of the CEOs of the top 150 companies was 8.6 million dollars. That does include benefits, bonuses, and stock options. This was a 22% increase from the previous year.  Major league baseball's median salary for the same year was 3.3 million dollars. This is only a mere 1% increase form the previous year. Alex Rodriguez's salary alone was 32 million dollars. That is almost 3 million dollars a month.

I am not asking to make the compensation of these CEO's or professional athletes. There jobs are clearly valuable, way more valuable than that of the people teaching our children.  In all honesty, I would never expect or ask for that much money. I don't feel that I deserve it.  So I guess that leaves me with the question does any one person really deserve to be paid that much money for any profession? My dad and I don't think so.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Day 5: Bubblefest: Hands on Learning a Thing of the Past

Today we took Reef to The Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, CA. We attended an event called Bubblefest.  This is the fifteenth year that the center has had the event. We watched Fan Yang, an internationally renowned bubble artist, (who knew that existed) perform an amazing show full of bubbles, lasers, and smoke. It was amazing! We ended the trip with a family picture taken in a bubble. Not some fake mock up of a bubble, but a man literally blew a giant bubble around us. The trip was amazing. I was engaged, excited, and amazed throughout the entire experience. On the drive home today's trip got me thinking.

The Discovery Science Center is amazing, but fairly expensive. An adult ticket is around $13 and that does not include special programs such as Bubblefest. A children's ticket costs around $9. So for a family of four you're looking at $44 dollars just for entry. The trip is well worth the money, but that amount of money is not really reasonable for many families, especially during this time of financial uncertainty. In the past, many families counted on trips to places like The Discovery Science Center to be part of a child's school experience as the center and many other facilities offer free admission for schools. However, in the current era of school budget shortfalls field trips are becoming a thing of the past. Even if a facility offers free admission, the bus is often too expensive for the school to send classes on trips.  This is a shame because I know many of us remember field trips taken in school as some of our fondest memories and greatest learning experiences.  For children who come from families that can do these type of trips independently maybe the loss is not so great, but for our most at risk students the loss of these trips is stealing an experience from them that they are unlikely to receive any other way. They will not know these places exist and it will never offer to them the engaging learning experience that a field trip can offer.

I know that our educational system if facing bigger problems than field trips. Right now they can't even afford teachers.  Still I feel like these hands on learning experiences are an important component of education and I am sad to see them disappearing. This morning I saw parents and children alike with looks of awe and glee on their faces as Fan Yang created a mystical bubble world before our eyes. I was one of them. The sense of wonder and imagination is fragile in our children and any opportunity that we educators have to foster these ideas in them is valuable. However, it is just one more thing that is being cut from schools, and it is likely that it is our children that will pay the ultimate price. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Day 4: Hedging the future on the backs of public employees

As Reef and I drove around today, I had a day off thanks to what I can only assume was one of my furlough days, we listened to NPR and from that we heard a topic we just couldn't ignore...

Today on Air Talk Larry Mantle was discussing Governor Brown's plan to negotiate pension reforms with the state's public employees. These pensions must be negotiated because the state cannot afford to make the payouts to employees that would be required down the road. Many Republicans would argue that this due to the fact that unions have been greedy and negotiated unreasonable pensions over the last decade, but it is really mostly due to the fact that the pension money of the employees was poorly invested in what was seen as an unsinkable stock market that then sank. I'm sure someone will eventually find a way to link the collapse of the stock market to public employees as well but they just haven't been able to connect the dots as of yet. Most problems with the economy these days are our fault it seems. No one would want to blame bankers or executives working in the private sector. They never cost the government any money.

The financial situation of the states, and the federal government for that matter, can't have anything to do with the fact that companies like GE make billions of dollars in profits each year and pay nothing, I repeat nothing, in taxes. It certainly couldn't have anything to do with the hedge fund managers that find themselves listed on the "rich list". This a list of the top 25 hedge fund managers in 2010 who personally pocketed over 22 billion dollars collectively over the last year. This is not their company profits, but their personal earnings. The gentleman who was number one on the list made over 4 billion dollars for himself last year.

I am not trying to begrudge these people the money they apparently earn each year. Good career choice I suppose. My point is simply that perhaps starting our search for a place to begin cuts to help the financial solvency issues facing our country is not with the public employees. Maybe it isn't the teachers, police officers, firemen, or government office employees that are taking home so much money and benefits that the county is unable to support their lavish lifestyles.

Who am I though? I'm just one of those greedy public employees whose salary and benefits are so expensive that they have to be let go. Does anyone know a good hedge fund that is hiring?