Wednesday, April 28, 2010

ELA Exam... a review

So the annual New York State ELA exam has come and gone, and I'm fairly confident the students walked away with a feeling of success. After looking over the test, and hearing feedback from students, I am confident that we covered the necessary material for them to "pass" the test.

However, it's the notion of "passing" that is the center of the post. A colleague of mine told me today that in order to score at least a "2" on the test, students only had to answer seven questions out of 39 correct on the sixth grade test. Is this an indicator of how low our standards have become? Since when is scoring less than 20 percent on an examination considering passable? The state should be ashamed of itself if this prediction of scoriong proves true.

For the alst few weeks, my students and I have been learning test prep stategies to help them on the exam. For me, this involved reviewing grammar, word use, and parts of speech (topics that are typically left out of the stardard curriculum in New York City). As I proctored the test, I noticed something... my students not only filled all of the available space writing their essays but they had to use the extra blank page in the back of the book. I was elated.

But I still wonder, are these non-uniform tests really proving growth, or are the tests being dumbed down each year to show "growth" when really the students haven't mastered anything new?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Really reform or reform for real?

Reform is needed, but this isn't it.

For weeks I've been wavering on the merits of merit-based pay for teachers. Sure I can understand why non-teachers would think this could be a potential driving force for reform in an educational system that so desperately craves it. Even more pro-reform self, a teacher in practice and in heart, thought the idea had some merit to it.

However, there are too many "what ifs" at stake to drastically alter the way the education system hires, fires, and retains teachers. Certainly, drafting legislation without the input or consent from teachers is never going to work, but goodness knows teachers are slow to change the status quo, especially when it could signal their time in the classroom has come to a close.

Now, let me preface, I have my reservations about merit based pay. I believe that teachers are morally obligated to work hard and try to educate EVERY student that sits in their classrooms, even if that means rewriting lessons, altering curricula, or reaching out to coworkers, peers, and parents for advice. Teaching is by no means a profession for the self-absorbed, but unfortunately many of our union and school board leaders have become so anti-change that our students are suffering. To that end, I do believe that teacher tenure should be abolished. Like one of my professors at the University of Florida said after turning down tenure twice, "If I am no longer fit to teach, then I shouldn't be in the classroom." Thank you professor for creating what would become a linchpin of teaching philosophy.

But where to we begin to institute change in our school system? Is it right to force merit-based pay onto an unwilling populace/workforce? Both questions are difficult to answer. In Florida's case, the attempt to force merit pay onto school districts statewide would have led to revolt among teachers. Let's be frank, did the state legislature honestly think that teachers in a state where the average starting pay is significantly below the national average stick around if their pay was centered on student test scores? Of course not.

This is where the "what ifs" come into play. What if a menacing administrator schedules all low-level students into a single classroom as payback against a teacher? That teacher certainly could not increase test scores with a group of students who are either seriously below level or lack the skills needed to catch up to their peers. Ultimately, the teacher would be at risk and not the administrator. Secondly, what would stop teachers from forging the tests or giving the answers to the students? Sure this is an extreme example, but it definitely happens in classroom across the country on Test Day. Lastly, teachers are only with students on average seven hours a day; they cannot control what those students do the remaining fourteen hours. Without parental support, teachers cannot possible make any gains with their students... the test results prove it, the research proves it, and quite frankly, my own practice has proven it.

If the United States wants to reclaim its status as the preeminent educational system in the world, it's high time to abolish tenure (much like the Washington D.C. school district is attempting to do), close the "rubber rooms," give under-performing teachers the boot, and finally fund schools equally so that ALL students have access to the resources, extracurricular activities, and class choice that made the American school system great in the first place.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

And year two begins

It's hard to believe I'm starting my second year of teaching... sheesh how the time flies and how bad I have been about keeping this up to date. I promise a more-detailed posting this weekend.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Washington D.C. Trip

So if you've been living under a rock since November, you may not have known that I have been planning a school trip to Washington D.C. for our students. Well, the trip has come and gone, and I am glad to report that it was a HUGE success. The kids all had a blast (and so did I). I wanted to take a few paragraphs to talk about some of the challenges of planning such a big trip, especially as a first year teacher.

The first hurdle I had to get over was convincing my administration to let me do the trip. Our school had NEVER done an overnight trip before, much less to a different state. So when I first approached my AP and principal with the idea, they both flat out told me know. However, my AP warmed up to the idea after some more one-on-one conversations, and after she received a flier in the mail from a tour company, she was hooked. A few weeks after my initial proposal, she told me that she would personally talk to the principal and see what she could do.

Obviously my nagging, and my AP's persistence, paid off. But the hard part was just beginning. My principal wanted a list of students to see who would be interested in going on such a trip. I asked a couple of coworkers to help me approach the 8th graders about the trip idea, and an overwhelming majority said they would be interested in going. Step one: Success.

After showing the principal the list, she then asked me to send out a letter to the parents to see if they would be willing to pay the $140 cost of the trip. A week later, I had more than 90 7th and 8th grade students whose parents said they would pay (we added 7th grade just to ensure that we had enough people to fill up a bus). Step two: Success.

However, narrowing down 90+ students to 54 was more difficult than I could imagine. There was so much to consider, including attendance, uniform violations, grades, attitude, etc. It took more than a month to finally come up with the final list of students. Then, we had to give out the information packets and permissions slips. Once they were collected, we had to collect almost $8,000 to pay for everything. Fortunately, my students were enthusiastic about paying for everything, and collection was fairly simple. Step three: success.

Now the fun part. With money in hand and a budget to work with, my team and I had to collaborate on an itinerary, find a bus, hotel and food for 61 people. The bus was easy to find (thanks to an Internet search), and I found a great website that allows you to submit information to a database of hotels, who then bid on your event. We found a great deal at The Churchill Hotel ( Planning phase: success.

Finally, after months of planning and long hours of work. We were ready to go. So on March 20, I arrived at work at 5:50 a.m. and left New York with 54 students, four teachers, and three parents to Washington D.C. for two days of action-packed fun. Here are some pictures that highlight everything we did:

ELA Exam

I know it's been a long while since I last posted, so I suppose it's time to catch up on everything that has been going on.

My students have successfully complete the NY State ELA exam. We won't know their scores until June, but based on their initial reactions to the test, I think they all did great. Trust me, after all of the preparation we did for the exam, they should be pros by now!

However, all of this testing has helped me see the effect of NCLB. Don't get me wrong, I think have a systematic list of standards for the country is a good thing. It helps create a bar that every state must reach. However, different communities obviously have different needs that make meeting those standards difficult. Plus, different states require different standards at different grades. So what does that translate into? Inconsistency... and according to all of the teaching practice I've had, that is a very bad thing.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

State Tests and Brain Parties

So the NY State ELA exam is just a couple of days away, and, to be honest, I'm becoming a nervous wreck. Don't get me wrong, I am confident that my students will pass the test -- no, not pass, succeed -- I still find myself panicked about the implications for the exam.

To be fair, I shouldn't even refer to it as a test or an exam, my seventh graders told they hate the word test, so I vowed to come up with a different term. We settled on "Brian Party." My eighth graders think it's "corny" but it has been an affective motivational tool.

Anyway, I'm nervous because of the implications of this test. For all my students, the test determines whether or not they can be promoted to the next grade without having to go to summer school (and subsequently retake the "brain party"). For my seventh graders, the "brain party" scores go onto their high school applications next year. Talk about intense pressure!

But as I was saying, I'm confident in the teachers my students have had the last couple of years. The potential they've shown in my class the last couple of months has been astounding. What worries me is my teaching ability. I wonder, have I done enough to make a difference between a 3 or a 4 for any of them? What about between a 2 or a 3? I guess in a few days we'll know.

Till then, keep your fingers crossed.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

First term reflections

A year ago, I never would have believed that I'd be sitting here writing about my first full term as a teacher in New York City. Actually, 12 months ago, it seemed like my life had no direction other than graduation approaching in May. It really is amazing how much things can change in 12 short months.

So here I am, sitting in a hotel near the Pittsburgh airport, on my way home after finishing my first four months as a teacher in New York City. At the beginning of the school year, I was scared to death and had no idea what to really expect, and after hearing stories from countless older TFA corps members, I just knew something horrendous was going to happen somewhere down the road (that's just my kind of luck).

Fortunately, divine providence has dealt me a tremendous blessing the last four months. The school I work at (I.S. 528 in Washington Heights), is an oasis and what could easily have become a long, arduous journey though the inner city. During the last four months, I have forged tremendous friendships with many of my coworkers and have developed a deep respect for my administration as well. Perhaps most importantly, I admire my students. Each and every one of them have inspired me in some way. In fact, with each passing day, and the more I learn about each of them, I am even more blown away by the way they are turning into adventurous young adults.

Looking back, I worry that the last four months have been an anomaly and that the next six are somehow going to go wrong. Although, certainly such fears can be alleviated with lots of pre-planning on my part, which shouldn't be too bad. Either way, I can't wait to get back to work in January and see all my "kids" again. It's tough raising 129 of them!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Newsletter success

Oh! I forgot to mention... my newsletter class finally finished the first newsletter of the year. I'll upload it so everyone can see the great work my students did. It's called: the I.S. 528 HEYREADME... yes, we're witty like that.

Working together

So the last few weeks have brought a slight change in approach to lesson planning. During our first unit of study, I approached lesson planning as a personal endeavor. I used some resources from Teach for America and mapped out the unit to cover the areas I felt my students needed the most practice with. However, this time around, I've started working with two of my co-workers to plan out our non-fiction unit and the subsequent writing projects that the students have to complete. How are we doing? I think our co-planning meetings have been successful. Not only are we able to bounce ideas off of each other, but it has helped me fill in some of the gaps in my own plans.

Let's hope this continues.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Going beyond the classroom

Two weeks ago, our school started showing a documentary called "Darius Goes West" to the entire school. One of my co-workers coordinated the effort, sold snacks and drinks, and raised money for Muscular Dystrophy awareness. The movie focuses on one boy from Athens, Georgia, who has the diseases. It shows how his friends went on a cross-country road trip so that Darius would have the chance to see parts of the United States before the disease takes his life. It's a tear jerker.

After showing the film, we had our students write letters to Darius, who is still traveling around the country promoting awareness and raising money towards finding a cure for the disease. Several of my students wrote about how inspired they were by Darius' ability to focus on the positive aspects of his life and how he didn't let the disease hold him back from achieving his dreams.

On October 14, Darius and his team stopped by our school. The visit was a complete surprise for the students. Each grade got to spend about an hour talking with Darius and his friends about their trip and the struggles they have had during their cross-country journey.

You can read their blog about their visit to our school here: Darius Goes West Blog.