Saturday, March 21, 2009

ACCE Baseball

I love baseball, think its a great sport, probably the best sport, possibly the most perfect sport. Baseball is a pretty easy sport to understand, not too hard to learn to play, but impossible to master. Its a very elegant sport in the same way that simple, definitive science experiments are elegant.

We are in the midst of tryouts, there are some great players, some with potential, and some that just don't quite have it. Everyone has a good enough idea that they could come out and play a game and follow the rules. But thats the thing with baseball, it takes forever to master.

Its a true game of millimeters, game thats decided at the margins. The ubiquitous example is of batting average: You get about 4 at bats a game, so over three games you get 12 at bats. A struggling major leaguer would get 3 hits in those 3 games (.250). An all-star would get a whopping 4 hits in those three games (.333). Its consistently getting that one 2-4 game every series that makes you a man among boys.

Similarly, defensively you need to do it right EVERY time.

This is what its difficult to get across to my players, to my students. You can't take a day off (in the classroom), and you can't take a play off, or a pitch off, or an at-bat off. You need to 'do right' every time. I say need meaning in order to excel, they can go out and do whatever they want to and nothing bad would happen, but the point of sport is to push yourself and to excel. We've already said it at tryouts, but we are out there to win the championships.

It doesn't hurt there are only 5 teams in the league

Formal Observation

I had my formal observation on thursday. Getting observed is always nerve racking for me, I'm so self-conscious about my teaching that having another adult, any other adult, in my room takes a lot of attention away from my teaching.

Last semester I set up my class so that the formal observation came on a lab day, my kids tend to do better work in labs, and my administrators tend to be in awe of scientific phenomena. The observation went alright, but was definitely not my best teaching of the semester. It was good enough, and because of other informal observations my principal said I was doing well.

Last thursday I decided to not do anything special, and instead, stick to my long term plan and see where the cards fall. The observation happened to fall on one of the least traditional teaching days of the year for me. The students were in the middle of a 3 day assignment to prepare for a debate. Wednesday was the introduction to the assignment, research in the computer lab, putting them in groups, and having students assign each other group roles. Thursday was about how to turn your arguments and evidence into an introduction, rebuttal or conclusion (depending on your assignment), and writing a rough draft of your debate part, I also introduced the rubric they would be graded on. There was some teaching, but not a lot. Much of the class was small group work, with me going around helping students.

There have been a lot of things going on at ACCE this week, so my principal has been busy. While doing my observation, he got called out several times, missing much of the teaching I did have. He was there for much of the independent work, and then left just before my conclusion and exit ticket, coming back into class just at the end.

I feel that the class was well, students worked on a skill, they did it pretty successfully also. I'm afraid about the conversation at the post-observation conference because it was such an abnormal day. On the other hand, it was a pretty easy day for me because when the principal is in the room, the behavior is GREAT.

I hope to talk about baseball tryouts later today...

Monday, March 16, 2009

In other news

Soon I will be writing an update about how baseball tryouts are going, and about the beginning of the ultimate season. Also the potential of a change of my summer plans, but I don't really know about that yet.

Update from the last post

In some classes the lab went really well. In some classes it didn't. There wasn't any big problems, just some people not actually doing any of it. That was a problem. That is a problem. What can I do when students won't do work? Its one thing when they don't answer questions or take notes, but when they refuse to go through the process of the lab, when they avoid productivity at any cost.

I have one class, thats very large, has students with IEPs, and has many 'behavior problems.' There are several of them who have below a twenty in my class.

During class I get mad at them, I'm upset with them disrupting MY class, them stopping the other kids from learning. But at home every night, I realize/remember/think that its not their fault. They have been hurt, beaten down, destroyed, mentally, usually physically and sometimes sexually. They want to learn, somewhere in there. They come to school every day (or 3 times a week, or one who I've seen about 9 times this semester). They want to graduate, go to college, live differently then their guardians. I need to figure out how to keep their eye on the prize, and not on who said what to whom in what tone of voice and what it means for who will be at whose house this weekend.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The curse of inexperience for a new teacher

We are about to finish our unit on Climate Change. My students have mixed understanding of what we are actually doing. I went about it by teaching the carbon cycle (photosynthesis, the carbon cycle, organic decay, and combustion). This week we are going to get into the greenhouse effect, which will actually get us to talking about climate change.

I have a pretty exciting week going, including experiments, watching an inconvenient truth, and having a debate (I still have to figure out exactly to make this accessible to my students).

The problem is this is a first, and I have no idea how its going to go over. I don't know if the students will learn anything. I don't know if the students will find it interesting. I don't know if this will be the week the students revolt. I'm doing little more then throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. I'm getting a little better, now that I'm teaching the same thing for the second semester, but its incredibly different teaching juniors and freshmen.

I feel that the way the day goes is based more on how my students are feeling then how well my lesson is designed. I don't have the skill, the ability, to greatly effect my students mood. I do it sometimes, but not with enough of the students and not enough of the time.

Baseball starts tomorrow, lets see how that changes some of those relationships...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Letter to Alonso

This is a letter I wrote to Dr. Alonso, the CEO of Baltimore Public Schools. I like him, thinks he wants students to learn well and in the right way. Here it is:

Dr. Alonso,

I wanted to thank you for coming to ACCE to speak with teachers about how they we are doing. I look forward to continuing the dialogue, and seeing Baltimore schools improve as we work in the city. This got pretty long, but I hope you can bear with it.

This is a continuation of the conversation I was a part of at ACCE high school in late February (I am the first year TFA teacher).

I think the first thing you should know is that even though I came into teaching through Teach for America, I don’t like to categorize myself as such. I didn’t get into teaching to get into a grad program, and I don’t see myself as teaching for only two years. I am employed by Baltimore City to work for young people in Baltimore and my supervisor is Mr. Mitchell. Teach for America was the enabler and not much else for me. Although I think that this is a plus, you may not, either way I think you should know in the interest of full disclosure.

The topics I want to talk to you about are: 1) State Assessments, 2) Technology, and 3) Teach for America cooperation.

State Assessments -- I know that (only) controlling the city’s education system you don’t have a huge impact on State (let alone Federal) mandates. It is because I think you are a true reformer of public education that I will try to think with you, and convince you, about what changes need to be made with public education.

I was so delighted, and completely agree with what you said about the way we need to teach our students at the meeting. We absolutely need to teach them computer skills, as well as how to criticize, analyze, create, innovate, etc. I believe we are wasting minds putting kids through an education system that hasn’t changed in form since the advent of the computer (or electricity for that matter).

I have tried to do this in my classroom, and will continue to try as I improve my teaching. I am lucky in that I don’t teach an HSA tested subject. The point of my course (science and sustainability) is to get students to think critically about their world. I have problems with the curriculum, and there are a lot of things I’ve altered, but I believe it has the right idea at heart.

The Biology on the other hand, seems to be a very important class assessed by a trivial and imprecise test (its not bad for a multiple choice test, but those tests have their limits). One can be a great scientific mind (in that they think critically, logically, design and perform experiments well, and can draw conclusions from the experiments), but they can fail the HSA because they don’t know natural history very well. Science is a process not a pool of knowledge. (Think the Liberty Science Center in NJ not the American Museum of Natural History in NYC). On the other hand, someone can be a bad scientist but pass the test because of specific test taking skills or content knowledge.

I agree that if we taught science from elementary school on as a process and not specific knowledge, our students would pick up the information they needed on the test as they were doing great work in the classroom. I believe this doesn’t (and probably can’t) happen in the current system. The pressure that principles and teachers feel in the lower grades puts science on the back-burner, and once students get to high school there is a 2 or 3 year cram to get students to learn the content they need for the biology HSA.

Even if we can’t get the assessments to change, we need the buy-in from science staff. Inquiry is the buzz word now, but we don’t need only a curriculum that is inquiry based, but a staff that comes wanting to teach science as a process, not merely a content area.

As I said at the meeting, the bridge projects are a much greater assessment of students ability to do science then the HSA. I went to The Beacon School on the upper west side of Manhattan (I’m from the Lower East Side). That school had a waiver from the Regents test and instead had yearly portfolios and each subject had a graduation portfolio at the end of our junior or senior year. I had to design many of my own experiments, and write papers or lab reports on those experiments. Not only did it prepare me for college science, it meant that I could work easily in a college science lab. I did this for all of my classes, and it revolutionized my critical thinking abilities as well as my college readiness. I know that this school would not have been able to do this if I had to take the Regents test (even though I am confident in my ability to pass them!)

Technology -- Part of the reason we are teaching in such a old-fashioned way, is because its the only thing available to us. Because of the light quality from my southern exposure, I don’t have to use electricity on a sunny day until after noon (as long as I’m not using an overhead projector). I know that there is a huge initial cost to technological and infrastructure upgrades, but I believe that those investments must be made.

I believe that I’m better then most at using technology in my life (although not yet in my classroom), but an education conference I went to earlier this year gave me a huge sense of what is possible in terms of using technology. Here is a link to the conference website that should tell you a lot:

I am going to go back next year and try to bring a lot of my staff members along.

Technology should only help, never hinder become something we are a slave to. Here are some ideas of how better using technology could help our classrooms (I’m thinking especially at ACCE for many of these although I think they would work throughout the city).

Immediate and accurate information about students’ attendance in each class, as teachers input attendance on computers on a wireless network
A detention system that immediately and specifically updates based on teacher input. I had the idea of implementing a system where every time an expectation is broken it gets recorded, and each number of broken expectations turns into time served for detention.
A reward system that immediately and specifically updates based on teacher input.
Grade wide behavior tracking system that could be kept online (i.e. google docs), with each teacher having several students they are responsible for calling on behalf of the entire grade level team.
Deeper and more immediate class conversations where students post on wiki-boards to analyze material, debate different viewpoints, and create new ideas
Useful computer training so that future scientists can use a spreadsheet application to do statistical analyses and future office workers could make a spreadsheet and graph to show where food services is losing money, and how to close the budget gap while making the food healthier
Students being able to practice doing (and do) research for critical or analytical essays, lab reports, debates, etc.
Video Production and other modern art forms
There are many more that I can’t think of right now.

Teach for America -- I think this is a very good organization that is trying to move sub-par schools to the point where they are on point with America’s mediocre education system. Now that I have begun teaching I have realized how little I know, I don’t trust a non-teacher’s educational philosophy. That is part of what gives me great respect for you and less then great respect for Arne Duncan and those that set the TFA agenda.

I have been having conversations with Omari Todd about how TFA could best improve education quality in Baltimore City Schools. I believe that the organization should focus on retaining the quality teachers that are entering their third year rather then expanding the Corp so quickly. I believe that expanding the Corp is best for TFA the corporation, and retaining teachers is best for Baltimore City. (How much more effective is a third year teacher than a first year teacher? How many 1st year teachers equal a 3rd or 4th year teacher? I know at my school the third year TFAs are far more productive in the classrooms then the first years).

I could see you not agreeing with this, but I think that you making a case for TFA making ANY effort to retain teachers in teaching (and not only policy or administration, etc) would have an impact on the quality and experience of teachers in Baltimore.

I also think that the focus on the TFA Baltimore office on its current teachers would help teacher retention before the two years are up. I think its partially the decision of the office to expand the corp that took focus away from current corp members that led to those corp members not getting the help they needed that led them to quit. I don’t think that the corp members were necessarily going to quit, the believed (and still believe) in the mission, but didn’t feel as if they were making a difference and became hopeless and distraught. I’m afraid that the same thing will happen next year when we expand the corp by 33%.

Sorry this is so long, thank you for your time