Category Archives: Students

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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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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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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What I Taught My Students Today

Today was the first day back to school.  It felt invigorating to be back in the building.  The kids seemed to really miss school and their teachers and the teachers seemed happy to be off the picket line and back in the classroom.  I can talk more later about whether or not our deal was as good as we’d hoped (we definitely made some concessions in terms of salary and wages in order to really benefit our students), but what I did today was showed students that every once in a while, a strike was necessary.  I had them read this article and this article.  Then, we discussed the similarities and differences between the Teacher Revolts that happened 79 years ago and the strike that happened seven days ago.  Let me tell, it saddens me that not much has changed.  It’s as if we just haven’t learned our lesson.

I’d like to think my students learned a bit about Chicago history today (and got some Common Core non-fiction in while they were at it).  What I hope they really learned though was just how much teachers love kids.  I hope they really learned that throughout history teachers have always stood up for the welfare and benefit of our students.  That no matter what anyone says, pay is often the last things on our minds.  After all, no teacher gets into teaching for the big bucks.  We do it because we want to make a difference in the world.  We do it because we are idealistic and hopeful that the day-to-dayness of our job will one day make a difference in a child’s life.

PS.  The coolest part of the day?  When we all met in the parking lot, wearing red, and entered the building together.  : )

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Some Thoughts on Standardizing Teacher Effectiveness

Last year, I gave up approximately 35 days of classroom instructional time to give tests.  These tests included ACT-style, common assessments given by grade level teams (i.e. all the sophomore English teachers gave the same ACT-style test to their students) every five weeks (these tests usually took 2 days for students to finish), practice ACT tests given by the district, the EXPLORE/PLAN (a standardized test required by the state), the actual ACT (a standardized test required by the state), in addition to all the regular content-based exams (i.e. chapter quizzes for a novel, end of unit exams, etc.).  In a school year that is only 9.5 months long, that’s a TON of days to suck up just to give tests. The whole point of these tests is to help prepare kids for other tests.  But where does the time come to actually learn?

At my old school, when my former principal told my English Dept. chair that he had to integrate more test prep and more non-fiction, he replied, “But if we spend all this time preparing them for a test, when will they ever have the chance to just appreciate something beautiful?”  Remember that?  Remember that feeling when you would read or learned something in a class that just resonated with you and made you sit up a little straighter and pay attention a little more?  I know the text that did it for many of my students over the years.  I see the difference in them.  All of a sudden, something got their attention.

In my first year of teaching, I had a rough, rough 7th period class.  This class had become a dumping ground for bad students.  All the middle of the road students were in inclusion classes (these are classes that by law have a certain ratio of SpEd students and regular students so that SpEd students can be taught in the least restrictive environment) and the smart kids were in honors classes.  This meant that all the rough kids, the kids who didn’t care, and a handful of poor souls who actually did want to learn all ended up in my 7th period class.  I HATED those kids.  I dreaded going there every day.  I spent a lot of days yelling or standing around waiting for them to get the hint that I was ready to teach.  It was soooo frustrating.  One girl in particular, we’ll call her Ruby, hated me.  Every time I asked her to put her phone away or stop talking, I was met with such hostility and anger.  Finally, I just kind of left her alone.  I tried to focus more on the 10 kids who were there and doing work and really wanted to learn.  One day, I was teaching Benjamin Franklin’s The Autobiography.  This was around the same time as Tiger Woods’s big cheating scandal and I remembered my old professor telling me that Ben Franklin was quite the flirt and ladies man.  I decided that in order to get these kids to care about Ben Franklin, I had to up the ante.  I started telling them that Ben was like the Tiger Woods of his time.  That he was not only an incredibly intelligent inventor and writer who played a role in the founding of this country, but he was also a big time celebrity.  He dined with powerful political figures and held court with kings.  About halfway through my spiel, I looked up to see Ruby watching me closely.  She was rapt with attention and was hanging on my every word.  About ten minutes into class, I started to teach just for her.  I could see she was excited by the story and what I was reading to them.  Her excitement fueled my own teaching and the whole class started to get really interested in, of all things, Benjamin Franklin.  She was appreciating something beautiful.

After that, Ruby seriously improved in my class.  She took it more seriously, working hard to really improve her grades.  At a later report card pickup, she even told her mother I was her favorite teacher.  That’s the power of teaching.  It’s not something that can be replicated in every classroom because my approach, my teaching style, and my humor cannot be replicated; I cannot be replicated.

In everyone’s quest to “reform” public schools (aka privatize public schools), they claim the most powerful indicator of students outcomes is teacher effectiveness.  They think this can be measured by standardized tests.  That moment with Ruby?  That cannot be measured by a test.  Sure, you could point to her “growth” over the year, but what I did was probably more permanent than her ability to walk out of her sophomore year a better reader or writer.  Those things are important and they are somewhat measurable by a standardized test, but what is not is the passion I gave her to stop fooling around and start investing in her education.  She walked out a better person because of me and that will never be measurable by a standardized exam.  Unfortunately, this seems to be something everyone forgets.  I’m not just effective because of my ability to get kids to be better readers and writers and thinkers.  My efficacy lies in my ability to inspire.  And that can never be measured.

PS.  That 7th period class that I hated so much?  It ended up being my favorite by the end of the year and I won over almost all of those students.  Standardize that.

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A Fascinating Read…or Two

A few weeks ago, I got into a debate with a friend over the union.  She told me Karen Lewis wasn’t good for our union.  I respectfully disagreed.  After reading these two articles (here and here), I’m now realizing she’s way smarter than even I realized.  And I’m also realizing that she’s definitely smarter than our mayor and maybe even our president.

I’m proud to be striking and later today, I’ll share some additional thoughts on that later.  Right now, I’m too busy marching somewhere in the city and singing my new favorite hymn: “Hey, hey!  Ho, ho!  Rahm Emanuel’s got to go!”    Join me in a verse, won’t you?

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Highlights Day One

Some photographic highlights from Day One.  See you on the picket lines!

(Images by me)

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Sad, sad, sad

Every year, I spend about $400-500 on my classroom.  I could spend much, much more, I’m just cheap (and have a lot of loans left to pay for my teacher education).  Sure, I can get reimbursed for $100 of that.  Yeah, I can claim it on my taxes.  But it’s still ridiculous and you and I both know it.  It’s sad when Officemax has to spend money to create ads to help raise awareness that teachers blow their own cash on their students all the time.  Great ads, though!

(Images via here)

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I Teach Criminals*

This week, a student walked into my class.  He immediately started copying down the assignment I’d written on the board.  He was focused, respectful, and covered in tattoos.  He looked tough and older than the other students.  After I spoke to the class as a whole, I went up to him to catch him up on what we were doing.  After my spiel, I asked him if he had any questions.  He replied, “Do you mind if I turn this in tomorrow instead of Friday when it’s due?  I have to meet with my P.O. Friday.”

For those of you not in the know, P.O. stands for parole officer.  Yup, that’s right.  I’ve got a criminal in class.  Don’t worry.  He’s not the first.  He won’t be the last.  When I was student teaching, I was verbally assaulted by a kid with a record.  At my first school, I was punched in the chest trying to break up a fight.  Last year I taught a student who was recently arrested for shooting and killing another young man.  By now, nothing surprises me.

The thing is, as curious as I am about why this kid was in prison, I also don’t care.  Why?  Because when that kid walks in my door, he gets a second chance.  Because I always think, what if this is the year that kid changes his life?  What if I’m the one who helps make that happen.  My old friend Nick Carraway was right, “Reserving judgement is a matter of infinite hope.”  And I, like most of my colleagues, are constant idealists.  Constant optimists who believe in the power of education.

So instead of asking him why he was in prison, I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.  His answer?  A music teacher.  Now, we talk about playing guitar.  See?  A fresh start.

*Somebody has to.

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Our Fight

Last week, I began the 2012-2013 school year and without a contract.  Like most Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers, I sat around, wringing my hands wondering if I would strike and if so, what would happen as a result.  I mostly wondered what that would mean for my family and the families of my colleagues.  If I strike Monday morning, I will not be paid and risk losing all my benefits, depending on the length of the strike.  Currently, I am the sole provider of healthcare benefits in my family.  This means that because, after more than 45 negotiation meetings where Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has not budged despite findings from independent arbitrators and support from a study by the University of Illinois, all of which back the union and its requests, my husband and I would have no healthcare coverage and half our income would disappear completely.  That is a very scary thought.  It would be even scarier if we had children.

Six years ago, I went back to school to get my graduate degree in education.  I graduated with a 4.0 and worked hard to prepare myself for the world of education.  I wanted to be the best teacher I could be.  I wanted to work in Chicago’s public schools because I attended a public K-8 school (as well as undergraduate college!) and it profoundly affected who I am as a person.  Midway through my first year of teaching I realized nothing could prepare me for the world of education.

Each year I teach five sections of high school English.  That’s thirty (or more!) students in a room.  That means that in my short career, I’ve already influenced almost 500 people directly!  This doesn’t even include students I’ve taught in summer or night school, students who I mentor, have in my after-school club, or just smile at in the hall on a day when no one else did.  Being a teacher is the most challenging thing I have done in my life; it is also the most rewarding.  I can’t even fully describe it.  Everyone always points to the moment when the kids “get it,” but it’s so much more than that.  Kids teach you, too.  They teach you how to be better parents, because you parent them when their parents don’t.  They teach you how to be accountants, when you dig into your own pocketbook to buy them supplies or give them money for lunch.  They teach you how to be lawyers, when you defend them to their peers or the school because they had a bad day unlike any bad day you or I will ever have.  They teach you how to be doctors, too, when they come to you and tell you their most personal medical problems (seriously, that happens) and you have to decipher the level of care they will need (and often how they will get it).  Sometimes, they even teach you how to be a MMA fighter when you have to break up a fight.  And yet, the one thing they don’t teach you, the one thing my students haven’t taught me is why, despite the fact that I am all of those things to all of those students, I am mistreated by my district and the mayor of the city I was born and raised in and in which I work as a public servant.  They can’t teach this to me because they don’t understand it either.  As a teacher, I am vilified and my profession is denigrated by the mayor and his office’s media tactics.  Last year, as my husband can verify, I cried more than I ever did.  You have no idea what it’s like to work until 5 or 6 or later at night, come home with a pile of work that there aren’t even enough hours in the day to get done, watch the news and hear that you don’t work a “full” school day.

As a child, I had amazing veteran teachers all of whom worked incredibly hard and taught me to be a creative, critical thinker who continues to love learning.  That is an extraordinary feat!  Some of those teachers are still teaching and still inspiring students daily.  Did you have a teacher like that?  Someone who inspired you and changed you in far-reaching ways?  I’d like to believe I am that teacher for some students.  I know some of you are that teacher for your own students.  Imagine what our world would be like if teachers like that weren’t around.  What happens in this fight for a fair contract could very well make that decision for future generations.  When we settle for less than we are worth and less than we deserve, we send a message to future generations of teachers that this is not a profession worth entering.  That this is not some place where you will be treated fairly in a job that already demands so much of your body, mind, and soul.  Ask yourself if you would want the children in your life to have that as their future.

I know not everyone is pro-union.  Perhaps your ideologies and political beliefs do not align with that of a labor union.  However, this fight is about more than unions.  It’s about the future of public education in this country.  It’s about the slow and steady eradication of a working middle-class.  It’s about the dismantling of a public education system and neighborhood schools in particular.  It’s about the dirty not-so-big-a-secret that labor unions no longer have a political party.  It’s about the world we live in and the world we want to have for our children and their children.  What we do matters.  And support for the Chicago Teachers Union is paramount right now.

If you have a Facebook account, I am urging you to post this image on your account.  And if you don’t have a Facebook account (like me), please forward the link to this post to those you know that do.  Tweet about our struggle with the hashtag #insolidarity.  Tell people to read the facts.  Explain to people that this isn’t about money, that’s the only thing we have left to strike about, but we’re using that as leverage for other things that our students need: smaller class sizes, more resources, art classes, music classes, physical education, and experienced teachers.  We need to send a clear message to the world that teaching matters, that teachers matter, and that a public education is worth saving.

I also urge you to explore the issue of teacher pay and its effect on the state of education in our country, the turnover rate within the profession, and the problems it is creating with recruiting teachers for future generations by watching the film, American Teacher (a movie I would see).  If you have Netflix instant watch, it’s free!  It is the ONLY movie I’ve ever seen that accurately portrays what teaching is like.  Except for Dangerous Minds.  That’s true, too.  : )

(Support the CTU Facebook designed by Martin Ritter via Fred Klonsky)

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