Tag Archives: education

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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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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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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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 Photos from Week One, Prt. 2

Here are the rest of the best of photos from Week One of the CTU Strike.  Enjoy!

(All Photos by me; Please do not reproduce without my permission)

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Some Photos from Week One, Prt. 1

Picketing is no joke, guys.  It’s grueling work that you don’t get paid for.  Not that I’m demanding pay…I walked out on my job.  I’m just trying to correct a common misunderstanding that I’m getting paid for not working.  I’m not.  At all.  And I’m starting to feel it.

Yesterday was the first day of Week Two of the CTU Strike.  Our spirits were down today; we really wanted to be back in the classroom.  Still, we are unified in our fight for a fair contract and for the future of our schools.

Last week, I took 1500 photos.  After Day 1, I got a little behind uploading them and posting them, so I spent the better part of yesterday sifting through them and post-processing the best ones.  Here are some highlights from last week!  Hope you enjoy!

(All Photos by me; Please do not reproduce without my permission)

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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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