Vive la France! Pas de devoirs!*

Last year, my principal invited faculty members to attend an optional meeting where he would review the longer school day options and discuss our new bell schedule.  I decided I’d pop in and found that I was one of three people.  Talk about community involvement, eh?  The principal ran through the bell schedule and while doing so, he and I became engaged in a debate about homework.  Were we debating increasing the rigor level for homework assignments?  Nope.  Were we discussing how too much of homework nowadays is busy work and not work related to critical thinking?  Nope.  Were we discussing how much kids are under-prepared for college because of the lack of rigorous self-preparation in the form of homework?  Nope again.

So, what were we debating?  Simple: he’s against homework and I’m for it.  I can’t even believe in this day and age that there are people who are against homework.  This is what happens when we let C students gain political power…eventually the world goes crazy with the notion that promoting bad habits is actually a good idea.  So, imagine my disbelief when today I was reading an article about France’s president, François Hollande, and his reform ideas, which include getting rid of homework.  Ummm, I’m sorry, what?

I understand that people don’t love homework.  You’re not supposed to love homework.  Homework is work.  Work is not fun.  Work is, however, important.  It teaches us to think about things differently.  It helps us attack problems on our own.  It teaches a work ethic, too.  It allows us to contribute to society.

Homework is practice, too.  It’s a way to make sure you master a subject.  I teach English.  Homework is a way to get kids to read on their own.  It makes it so that we read a book in a few weeks versus a few months.  Homework is a way to extend the classroom learning experience outside of the classroom.

In an era where we tout Malcolm Gladwell’s rule of 10,000 hours, you would think we would want our children to have more homework.  Alas, it seems as if we’ve forgotten that the rule of 10,000 hours doesn’t mean let your kids play video games for 10,000 hours and learn for 50-minute periods of time a few times a day.

If the goal is to get kids to walk out with mastery of a subject by the end of the year, and we know that 10,000 hours is the amount of time it takes to be an expert, we should aim for at least, what, 1,000 hours?  I mean, I don’t expect a 10th grader to be an expert on American Literature, I just want him or her to have mastered the main concepts I teach.  So, let’s assume that 1,000 hours is the amount of time I need to make my students “master” a subject at its basic, introductory level (which high school is).  That means that if kids didn’t get homework, if all the instruction and practice they got each day was in my 50-minute class for 181 days, they’d be about 850 hours short of mastering anything.  If I give them 1-2 hours of homework a night in addition to the 50-minutes I teach, I’m at least getting closer to that 1,000 hours.  I may not hit it, but at least I’m not sitting pretty at 150 hours total.

Sure, I’m making certain assumptions here: that kids actually do their homework, that all homework is rigorous and actually prepares students for their future, that students who actually complete their homework interact meaningfully with it, etc.  Still, I think you get that homework plays an important role in a child’s education.  So what happens when we take that out of our children’s educational equation?  Simple.  This happens.

So, be careful watch you wish for, Monsieur le President.  Pas de devoirs = Eventually watering your crops with Gatorade.

* Oui! Je suis sarcastique!

(Photo via Deviant Art)

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The Irony of Our Times

A grad professor of mine always talked about an assignment one of the student teachers he oversaw did with her class.  She was reading The Age of Innocence with her students and asked them to complete the sentence, “We live in an age of ________.”  In other words, she was asking students to come up with one word to define the times in which we live.

I love telling people this story because I usually tell people that the perfect word for our times is “retraction.”  This is because I always think people say what they mean, what they’re really thinking, then when the world (or sometimes just a few) disagree, they retract their statements, apologize, and vow to be less offensive later on down the line.

These days, though, perhaps the word for our times is “contradiction.”  Why?  Because the world we live in is filled with people who shop at Whole Foods and buy Fair Trade products, but who no longer support labor unions.  Because the world we live in has people who would never put their child in a school that had 35 days of testing (in fact many of them would pay exorbitant amounts of money in tuition to avoid it), but they would force that amount of testing on people who have no choice but to public school-educate their children.  Because we have a president who is a Democrat, a traditionally pro-union party, but who seems to be joining his Democrat friends in demanding union money for their campaigns, but leaving unions hanging with silence and lack of support when it comes to the laws that want to rip unions to shreds.

I don’t know how to fix the world or its problems, but I do know that a lack of common sense seems to be plaguing many of those around me.  Perhaps the easiest thing to do to change the age we live in is to simply start using some more common sense and encouraging others to do the same.  Perhaps we could put it in a letter and send it to the President himself!

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Internet=Very Important to Blogging

The lack of posts this week has not been for want of trying.  My internet has been down until late yesterday.  I find that a key aspect to blogging is having internet access.  (It also meant my husband and I couldn’t catch up on a few key shows:Homeland and Dexter.)  I’ll be back with some good stuff I was jotting down after the weekend.  Until then, enjoy the spread of consciousness.

How Do I Manage to Teach?

This year alone, I’ve dealt with the following issues in my school:

– Rampant programming issues, running from way oversized classrooms, double-booked classrooms, kids getting multiple program changes, teachers getting multiple program changes, and a constant stream of new students walking through my door.

– Multiple (and some very important) classes being taught by subs while these programming issues were worked out (they’re finally worked out so that this is not happening anymore, but some of the above issues are still happening).

– A 7-day strike which began 4 days into the school year.

– A new evaluation system that no one can really explain to me very well.

– The use of performance tasks to be included in my evaluation, again, which no one can explain to me very well.  Neither can they answer my questions.  I received no training on how to administer or grade these tasks.  I received a color PDF file via my email telling me how to enter the data into all new software that I’ve neither used before nor had any training on previously.

– Constant interruptions to my instructional time.  In previous years, they built in five minutes to one of my class periods for announcements.  This year, they did not.  This means that every day one of my classes is simply interrupted five minutes early for announcements.

– No set in stone curriculum.  Because we did not have a previous curriculum, we are still creating one, so while, overall, it will be a good year, it’s still getting off to a scary start.

– Thousands of books for our department strewn about the school because the book room was not handled properly in the past.  None are inventoried and I have no idea where things are.  As the Dept. Chair, I’m responsible for distributing these books and have given up multiple preps and time after school trying to get these things all solved.

– Lack of a working projection screen, media cart for my overhead projector (I had to steal one from another teacher while I asked repeatedly for my own), and a LCD projector (again, running back and forth from my classroom to a friend’s to borrow his) even though many of my lessons have called for these resources.

– Limited copy machines (only 2 that I have available, 1 that’s easily accessible) to make copies.  For those of you who don’t know, making copies is a huge part of teaching.  Handouts, tests, etc. are often photocopied.  I try to limit my copies, but I still need easy access to a machine.

– Multiple days when the copiers were broken, out of toner, or there was no paper.

– Loud construction right outside my window that sometimes interrupts my class.

I’m sure there are other problems, but for now, those are the glaringly obvious ones.  How in the world do I manage to even teach in these working conditions?

I Thought I Left This Behind…

Before I became a teacher, I worked in advertising.  Specifically, I worked in direct response advertising.  Don’t know what direct response is?  Bet you do!  Ever seen this?

That’s right!  I was the miserable human on this planet forcing infomercials on you!  (My apologies, people.)

What a lot of people don’t realize about direct response advertising is that it can be just as pricey as regular advertising.  Not only that, but a lot of people don’t realize what counts as direct response.  For instance, religious programming, like Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar, is counted as direct response.  Those preachers pay big bucks to a media company who then reps them out to different stations/brokers for airtime.  That airtime doesn’t come cheap either.  Good Christians are alive and well…and charging millions of dollars to help spread the word of Jesus.

Part of why I left advertising for teaching is because I couldn’t stand the fact that people were spending millions of dollars on hour-long advertisements for Feed the Children instead of, you know, spending that money on feeding the children.  Teaching appealed to me because it wasn’t about money and making someone richer, it was about helping and making a difference in this world.  I never, ever thought that I’d have the feeling money was blown on commercials that could have been directly helping students while working in education.  I thought I was safe.  After all, schools don’t make commercials.  They have no vested interest in advertising anything other than the first day of school.

So, imagine my surprise when I started getting bombarded with Rahm Emanuel’s friends’ awesome “infomercials” about greedy, money-grubbing teachers and how kids are getting a fair deal post-strike (because teachers don’t care about kids, but Rahm does!).  And then, to find out that his wealthy friends are paying millions of dollars to run these ads?  It’s like I got jolted back into time by about 10 years.  Why not really help the kids and donate that money to some schools?  Why not stop trying to spin things and start trying to fix things?  (Start with the TIFs.)

Peeps, I think Rahm was too flattered by all our signs about him during the strike.  He didn’t see that they were negative, he just saw his name everywhere in big letters and thought we wanted more of him, I suppose.  Hey Rahm, you misunderstood!  You were supposed to disappear for a while, like your friend.  Lay low.  Hide out.  Not be on my TV every hour on the hour.  Perhaps if you’d had better teachers as a child, your critical thinking skills would have been a little better (and you’d be able to memorize 35 seconds of speaking instead of having to read a teleprompter).

Insulting Ad #1 aired during the strike

Insulting Ad #2 aired after the strike

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Data

Anna Chao Pai (b. 1935)

I have a friend who always says, “Data is what you want it to be.”  Truer words have never been spoken, especially in the field of education.  When I first entered education, I was shocked, SHOCKED at the way data was compiled and used.  Since I entered Chicago’s public school system, I’ve fought back on the use of data to drive instruction.  I’ve repeatedly said that real statisticians would  simply laugh at the way schools use data.  We manipulate it to make it what we want it to be and make sweeping judgements about the state of our students’ learning based on these numbers.  And we only consider what we want to consider.

Continue reading

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Let’s Start a Revolution

With all this talk of merit pay for teachers, modeled of course after the business world, where “accountability” is king, I wonder why citizens don’t push these ideas back onto the politicians.  After all, these people, more than a McDonald’s employee, should be held accountable.  They are given millions of dollars by the citizens to make promises to the citizens of they things they will do for the citizens, and yet, very few of these promises come true.  Why aren’t politicians held accountable?  Why can’t there be merit pay for politicians?  Perhaps a nice bonus structure?  Base salary of $50K, with a nice $5K bonus for every promise kept.  Cap at their current salary of $174.  Doesn’t this sound like a solid plan?

Why are politicians able to pass laws to hold other public servants accountable and withhold their raises, but they themselves have not taken any such pay cut?  Nobody even realizes how lazy some of these congressmen and women are.  Did you know that Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee) sponsored a bill this year to incentivize Congress to work called the No Budget, No Pay bill?  The idea is simple: Congress must set a budget by October 1st, their deadline, or risk losing their salary (see below for a very interesting video discussing the bill and congressional reform…be sad it’s only been viewed 52 times).  In other words, they have to show up to work and do some work to get paid.  Shocking concept!

Speaking of Congress, did you know:

– That Congressional members only work 260 days a year?  That’s 52.6% of the year.

– In America, 1% of the population are millionaires.  In Congress, 40-50% of the population are millionaires.

– That because of such rampant insider trading within Congress, the STOCK Act was passed just this year?  If Martha Stewart had thought to run for office before her little insider trading stint, perhaps she could have avoided jail time.

When I think of how I was disparaged on the news almost every night as a teacher being called lazy and greedy for wanting a measly 4% raise, and then how these people are looked at as golden gods, I want to throw up.  When I think that my so-called ability to reduce poverty and change a student’s home life through 46-minutes of teaching is now going to be measured through crazy amounts of standardized testing and performance tasks (and some good old-fashioned value-added assessment for good measure), but these politicians answer to no one except their financial backers and lobbyists, I practically do throw up.

I took a pay cut last year and this year.  I’m sure you did, too.  My brother-in-law’s girlfriend who is also a public servant hasn’t had a raise in five years.  People across this country are hurting for money and resources and politicians are seemingly unmoved by this.  Politicians can choose to take pay cuts (in the form of turning down a raise) and some do, but why in the world should they continue to make such exorbitant salaries for such little time worked?  Why shouldn’t their pay be frozen?  Why shouldn’t they be held accountable?  Perhaps a little value-added assessment would do them some good?

I say we start a revolution.  I say we demand that politicians be held accountable.  I say we get out into our communities and get talking to our community members and get our communities mobilized.  I say, merit pay for politicians!  After all, people work to get stupid laws passed all the time, why not a smart one for a change?

(Merit pay political cartoon by Jeff Parker of Florida Today via here)

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Roseanne: Predictor of the Future

Even then, people Roseanne was talking, but nobody was listening.  She’s been saying for years that she could never do a show like this now because this kind of working class family doesn’t really exist anymore.  She’s also expressed her more recent (and smart!) views on why this country needs a third party, which is pretty much the only reason she’s really running for President.  She’s not trying to win, she’s making a point.  Whether you like her or not, she’s at the very least provocative.

P.S. I like how, even on TV, politicians are so myopic.

P.P.S. I know Roseanne is crazy, that doesn’t mean this isn’t funny or true.

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An Interesting Idea

My husband suggested I read this NY Times Op-Ed on how to fix schools.  Truth be told, I think the author’s suggestion that good teachers should come from a strong educational background and rigorous training is an important part of the puzzle that often gets overlooked.  That being said, I think it is rather short-sighted (and perhaps a little naive) to leave out the testing and funding aspects of public education that are also extraordinarily different than the public school systems in Finland or Ontario.  The reality is those are HUGE pieces of the puzzle that seemingly no one wants to acknowledge.  How we fund schools in this country needs to change.  Funds for schools should not come from property taxes.  Schools should not have to play Russian Roulette for resources.  Standardized testing helps us learn some things about our students, but frankly, I learn more about them from the classroom.  Standardized tests are tools to help me assess my students’ needs, NOT tools to assess me as a teacher.  Oh, when will we learn?

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Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

Ummm…peeps, the most awesome thing happened.  Diane Ravitch, THE Diane Ravitch, blogged about ME.  Crazy no?  It was about this post.  And she asks some important questions and of course does it beautifully. Check it out!  This and meeting Michael Shannon on the streets of Chicago are probably the two most awesome things that have happened to me. I may have sat in the same room as many celebrities in my lifetime, but these two experiences are the ones that make me act like a total fan.  Oops.  : )

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