I have a medication

My doctor prescribed this little, round, cantaloupe-colored pill as an anti-anxiety med. The pill is to be taken as needed. My last bottle lasted years. This one may take me through until spring.

I’m not very anxious. I don’t suffer from social phobias. In a professional development meeting, I never have to tell myself to speak up. I contribute to professional conversations regularly and spend at least some time telling myself to keep my mouth shut because I’ve shared enough. I’m not afraid of my classes. I get along well with my kids and I can manage them. Administration sometimes makes me feel like taking a pill, but by the time they’ve finished with me, well, they’ve finished and I no longer need the pill that I might have taken in advance if I were clairvoyant. If I were clairvoyant, I’d have resigned in August. But I’m not, so I am doing the best that I can for the sake of a group of needy kids.

The pills are slowly going away, though. I take them when I’m grading. I don’t pop one every night. I can gut my way through a small quantity of grading without assistance. When I get behind, though, or when I have given exams all day on top of daily work, I may resort to half a tablet to help me through the hours of papers on my desk.

Especially on Fridays, my grading often terrifies me. This was not true in the past. Last year, I taught the material. When I thought the students had mastered the material, I gave the test. I would give smaller quizzes before that summative test to get information on how instruction was going. I’d look at quiz results and tweak my instruction. The process was straightforward with most students producing acceptable to excellent results at the end.

Now I am giving tests written by outsiders, matched to a curriculum determined by the need to make points on the PARCC test at the end of this school year. My weekly tests are tailored to the formal grade level of the students in my classes, a level four years above the operating level of one of my classes, and only slightly less than four years above another class. These bilingual students struggle to read the tests. They are no where near understanding the subtleties of math and science that are clobbering their grades.

It’s easy to grade a good test, quick and affirming. These tests are not good tests. I wade for hours through attempts at test-taking. I try to find partial credit opportunities. I work to understand where the quizzes and tests went wrong, so that I can attack specific learning deficits in specific students. In the end, I still lack information because these tests are almost all multiple choice or fill-in. In order to keep the data consistent between teachers, we all are required to give the same tests and we can’t allow much freedom of choice in answering. An essay test would be problematic because teachers are expected to use consistent grading criteria.

I spend many hours grading due to the profusion of tests that other teachers and administrators create each week. That’s not the problem. I am used to spending many hours grading. So why do I currently want to curl up into fetal position and hide under my bed? My students don’t understand these tests. Even if I teach them the test’s content, question by question, I receive some results that are simply incoherent. In the end, students operating at a third grade level can’t do a great deal of seventh grade material without more tutoring and extra support than I am able to provide. I send students for tutoring after school, I call them into the classroom before school, and I am even meeting students in fast-food restaurants on the week-end. Some tutored students are hanging by their fingernails from the cliff face. Others are falling onto the rocks below, along with almost all the students who cannot or will not attend tutoring.

Eduhonesty: When my students are failing, I feel as if I am failing. I am failing. But I’m damned if I know what to do. I’ve been told in very threatening terms that I have to stay in sync with my fellow teachers. So I keep doing what everyone else is doing. I keep consoling the special education teacher, whose students are also failing all these tests that she is not supposed to adapt.

I hate those tests. I purely hate those tests. I completely and utterly loath those execrable excuses for assessments. I’m reaching the point where I almost can’t stand to grade them although they are easy enough to grade. I look for “C, D, B, B, A, B, C” or whatever the latest string of letters and/or numbers may be. I add up the mistakes and put the result in the grade book. As of this date, I have not a single “A” grade and very few “B” grades. Many students are failing my classes.

I’ll acknowledge that these students perhaps ought to be failing. They are lacking fundamental knowledge from elementary school. I hate to be a party to this mass retooling of expectations and requirements in its first year of implementation, though. Some of my students feel so sad and lost. I’m great at pep talks, but no pep talk exists that fixes “I know you’re failing three classes for the first time in your life despite the fact that you are working diligently and staying late for tutoring on a regular basis.”

Listening to the protests

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Elie Wiesel

Across America, teachers are protesting the Common Core, PARCC, and the onslaught of standardized testing that has been sucking educational hours from our schools, while channeling curricula into smaller and smaller boxes. People outside education are sometimes persuaded to ignore these protests when bureaucrats throw the magic words “data” and “comparison” into the equation. We need to be able to compare our students, we are told, and raise the scores of those who are disadvantaged. That score argument can sound persuasive on the surface.

If we look closely, though, flaws in the standardized testing rationale stand out almost immediately. For one thing, many districts are now spending more than two weeks testing students to get those comparisons. That’s an irrational amount of testing, especially when we consider that testing hours directly replace instructional hours. Much of that testing is duplicative, documenting academic performance issues that have been repeatedly documented in the past. For another thing, ample evidence now exists that struggling school districts are eliminating classes that don’t directly contribute to test score improvements. Our strongest districts continue to offer pottery and studio art classes, while our weakest eliminate woodworking, cooking and even music classes. The kids who most need an anchor to keep them in school often receive the least interesting classes, as the push for higher scores drives out fun classes in favor of extra math and English instruction.

Eduhonesty: PLEASE, LISTEN to our teachers. We have been teaching test strategies for years now when we ought to have been fostering learning. Evaluations make this more necessary by the year. The problem is not data; we need data. The problem is that the data train seems to have run off the rails, and it’s falling down into an abyss of numbers that people often have no time to evaluate, while taking some very good kids down with it.


Sit up straight.
Ask and answer questions.
Nod your head to show you are listening.
Track the speaker.

I’m not sure where SLANT came from, although I’ve heard that the acronym came from KIPP schools originally. I decided to blog SLANT because it works. In particular, SLANT gets the heads up off the desk. We avoid discussions about how Hector can listen with his head down and, honest, he is paying attention even if he sometimes shuts his eyes. We avoid discussions about how the absence of eye contact and questions does not mean the student has tuned out. We have a simple set of rules, expressed in a one-word command which comes down to sit up, look at me and show me you are listening.

Eduhonesty: If I say, “Sit up straight!”, I may have to fend off discussions about why posture matters. I know that when I tell students they need to listen, the great majority will respond that they are listening, no matter how intently they are staring out the window. All of these discussions and comments suck up time. If I say, “SLANT!”, I don’t seem to have these problems. No one chooses to debate the different aspects of the acronym, a word that is easy to teach and easy to remember. I have the steps posted on my wall too. SLANT has been a professional development win.

Parent-Teacher Conferences

The snow hit yesterday, so attendance was light. Some parents came. One stepdad came with his girl, gathering information for her dad in hopes that dad would quit buying the girl new phones and shoes until her academics improve. I sense a battle for the girl’s affections and a future filled with new shoes, whether this student does her work or not. At least someone is trying to keep her on track. Stepdad seemed like a lucky draw, one I hope the girl will eventually appreciate.

Students with stronger grades outnumbered their counterparts. That’s always true in conferences. The students who most need help often manage to keep their parents home on conference night. The students who know they are academically in good standing will remind mom and dad about conferences, eager for their moment in the spotlight. In the larger scheme, I’m sure that this attendance pattern contributes to the results I see in my classroom. Conferences reinforce the need for continued academic effort.

I wish more struggling students had made it to last night’s conferences. I hope a few will come this morning. Grades this semester are very low, in part due to the scripted master plan provided by the strangers now running my school. I keep having to give tests I did not write that are years above the academic operating level of my students. Some students are seeking out extra help and tutoring. Others are staying in their cabins as the Titanic goes down. I need to talk with many parents, but day conferences are almost always much lighter than evening conferences. Contrary to preconceptions about the lazy poor, most of my student’s parents work. Many work two jobs. They are the working poor, putting in 50 hours at slightly over minimum with no benefits because their employers hold them below the threshold for benefits.

Eduhonesty: I have to put on my high-heeled shoes now, going off into the snow to visit with moms and dads. That day of evening conferences runs long. I worked twelve straight hours yesterday, gulping down coffee and Dunkin Donuts egg white flatbread in the short break between my regular day and conferences. I enjoy conference days, though. Moms and dads are my strongest allies, shoe-and-phone-dad notwithstanding. Sometimes they can get the homework done. They can make a student understand that schoolwork and school behavior matter. I give a lot of talks, but parents walk the walk. When they step out into a night where the air hurts their faces, and white ice crystals cover the road, they tell their children how very much school matters.

Whoever is doing the doing…

Education is filled with catch phrases. I like this one: Whoever is doing the doing is doing the learning.

Eduhonesty: All the confusion about the benefits of homework aside, I’d say this phrase supports homework. It supports student-led activities, graphic organizers, quick writes, and project work.

That said, I’d like to put in a vote for the much-maligned worksheet. You can’t do a worksheet without doing.

I’d also like to observe that group work always includes students who are not doing. My daughters used to hate group work because they often ended up being the doers, while other students rode on their coattails. We teach strategies to teachers that are designed to make sure all students are involved in group strategies. Honestly, many of those strategies don’t work. If a kid drops his or her ball, more motivated students simply step in to fill in the gaps. Especially when work is done outside the classroom, Ursula’s absence from group meetings likely will end up with her team mates doing “Cuba” for her in order to fulfill the requirements needed for a good grade.

We are heavily pushing student-led work and group work. Frequently, this work sounds better in theory than it works in real-life. How well these activities work varies from class to class, subject to subject and student to student.

Teachers should not be required to do frequent small-group work in order to look good to administration. My first period can work much more effectively in small groups than my last period. The student mix in the classes varies enough to affect results. My first period students are significantly more academically advanced than those in my last period. First period also has more natural leaders who value their grades.

Admin has been telling me what to teach and when to teach what they require. Here is my observation: The administrative plan seems to be working much better in my first period than my last period. I’m not sure I need more flexibility in choosing activities for my first period. The students in that class are not quite drowning as they attempt the requirements created by the outsiders who are running my school. My last period is drowning.

I wish I could take the helm. I can’t. Admin has already verbally savaged me for going off the official lesson plan. I won’t take a chance on that happening again. I march in lock-step with the others, watching my last class sadly. They deserve better than they are getting. But I don’t think I have the courage to make a stand. Any time I try to explain, my principal just barks, “No excuses!” Apparently, there are no explanations either.

Eduhonesty: Whoa, this post went sideways. I started with a cheery maxim I like. My maxim works with my first period. I guess where this post decided to take on a life of its own was that last, final class, where doing isn’t doing much good, because my students in that class can’t do what the East Coast consultants expect of them. To adapt my maxim: Whoever can’t do the doing can’t do the learning.


(I was tempted to scrap this post because it did not end where I intended to go. I’m leaving it, though. This much truth should not be expunged from the record.)

Individual kids

My last post raises an issue that more and more often disappears from the radar. We talk about differentiation and addressing individual learning styles. Too often, though, we don’t look at individual kids. Too often, we don’t recognize the myriad factors that are outside our control. Mabel likes me more than she likes some other teachers. It might be me. It might simply be the fact that I am a woman.

Family relationships spill over into school. When I smeared my eye make-up, applying it at some stoplight in the dark, a boisterous student came in and immediately quieted and said, “Oh, Miss, did your husband hit you?” (Some days, you should skip the make-up and listen to the music.) He sympathized even as I told him, no, I just messed up my mascara. I’m not sure he believed me. This student had difficulty being told what to do, but worked pretty well when asked politely. I understood that women weren’t allowed to tell you what to do, but you could be nice to them if they approached you with respect. His sister was extremely quiet. She never made demands. She never raised her voice. I talked to the counselor about these two students. I never had cause to call child services, but I can make some guesses about that household.

Eduhonesty: Culture matters. I know when I call home there’s a good chance my student may be physically punished. Parents have given me specific instructions to hit their kid when he or she misbehaves. But if we wonder why impoverished or urban schools have more physical violence, a fact documented in government literature, we need to look at home life. All the literature about the harmful effects of spanking? It’s read by readers. Many of the mothers in my district had two children by the age of twenty or even eighteen. They may have four or five children by the time they turn up for parent-teacher conferences. I always have coloring books and crayons in my room during conferences. These mothers are fighting to stay afloat. They have little time to read.

Mabel does math

She’s mouthy, stubborn and loud. She stands up for the underdog. She sasses the guy across the hall on principle, I’m not sure what principle. Maybe she just doesn’t like his teaching style. I think she’s great, but she’s a handful.

She’s also listening in math. She’s filling in potholes fast. Why? Maybe because she knows I think she’s great.

Eduhonesty: I suspect she is working for me right now. I hope she’ll start working for herself. But in the meantime, I’ll take what I can get. She’s caught the math wave. It’s times like these when I really enjoy my job.

Filling in the potholes

How do they reach the age of twelve without learning that sentences start with a capital letter? Why can’t they spell the name of their own state? What makes six times eight, or even six times five, so hard? When did they miss the math bus? Who taught them — or did not teach them — to add fractions?

These are a few of the mysteries that middle school teachers encounter on a regular basis.

Part of the art of teaching becomes filling in the potholes. What critical material did Jasmine or Jeremy miss? Teachers try to patch the missing pieces together all the while chugging forward with the curriculum for their grade. At this point, I can’t even slow down since outside “experts” have determined exactly what material I need to teach, when it needs to be taught, and when I need to give the assessment created to go with the material.

It’s a daunting task. Every kid has an individual set of potholes.

Eduhonesty: Teachers can’t remediate without knowing where remediation is needed. A common solution offered by administration consists of tests, tests and more tests. But often those tests are pitched somewhere near the putative grade level of the students being evaluated. Testing at that level provides little useful information. I need to know where third or fourth grade went wrong. I don’t need to be told that my student does not know the middle school curriculum.

I’ve got news for some particularly clueless administrators: I figured out how far behind that kid was by the time we had finished our third or fourth quick write. I had the same information in math after I gave my informal placement quiz on the first day of the year. I didn’t need to waste days in testing. A standardized test often provides me with less information than I can get by sitting down with a student for an hour or two after school, especially when the test does not match or even approximate the academic level of the student.

Wish I could rap

Check this out: http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/11/18/355129803/secret-lives-of-teachers-bored-of-education?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=2043

Rapper I.C. Will is Ian Willey, the assistant principal at KIPP Washington Heights Middle School. If that mouthful of a link does not work, google I.C. Will Bored of Education rap. I loved watching this video.

Eduhonesty: I burn CDs for my classes regularly. Music does add a little complexity to class with whining here and there, plus the occasional girl crying because “that was our song!” Some songs have too many memories to be played in class. But my minions love the music. I like it too. Yesterday I was dancing a little as I went around the room. The right music at the right time improves all our days.

Tip for teachers: Letting them pick from the internet is too dangerous. You can’t be playing explicit lyrics when the Principal walks past. I pass around a list and let them write down songs they like, making it clear I have to like the song too. “I won’t buy Skrillex,” I tell them. I also review the lyrics before I make any purchases. The process takes a bit of time, but my music library is richer for their suggestions. I also get a great deal of good will for my purchases.

Meetings galore

In the last two days, meetings took up 360 minutes. This number’s quite exceptional, a relatively rare occurrence. But still, I was struck by an irony during one of today’s meetings as we read a piece about two difference lessons, one a PowerPoint with an accompanying worksheet and the other a complex review of the past involving realia and primary source material. The second was clearly the better lesson for many classrooms. The second also required time-intensive preparation.

Eduhonesty: SIX HOURS OF MEETINGS in two days. Who is going to do the preparation for that second, better lesson? I haven’t even had time to catch up on my grading for the last two days. It’s a damn good thing that we are preparing canned lesson plans as a group. I can’t get through that lesson plan in the time allotted, generally speaking, and I end up triaging, as I figure out what parts of the lesson I may have to sacrifice due to time constraints. But if other people didn’t tell me what to do, I’d be in more trouble. Every day, I hit the ground running somebody else’s play and go as fast as I can until the next meeting tackles me and knocks me to the ground.

These meetings are also filled with minutiae. Periodically, tasks are assigned to me. I can’t keep track of them all, whether they’re in googledocs, notebooks, smartphone notes, or email. You might say I need a better system, and I do, but I am simply overwhelmed with tiny details. Sometimes the words just wash over me like ocean waves as I lay in the psychic surf of my exhaustion. I can barely key in on the topic by the end of the hour, much less the exact date when the bowling incentive has been scheduled.

I figure the most important tasks will get done.

In the meantime, I am keeping lessons simple since I don’t have time for anything else. We’re lucky we managed to look through the microscopes a few weeks ago. And I bless all those nice folk in Idaho, Ohio and the United Kingdom who are preparing PowerPoints for me to use to stay afloat. I always leave their names and give them credit.