Tag Archives: New York

It Snows, and We Go


Yeahhhhh...no it isn't.

Yeahhhhh…no it isn’t.

This will be a brief little rant before, for the third time in 2014, I venture out into what the mayor of New York calls “hazardous” or “treacherous” travel conditions because my job requires it. See, I’m a teacher, and while all indications are generally that New Yorkers should stay indoors and only head out in emergencies, schools are still open because, as the new adage goes, “Kids have to eat.”

They do, of course. And if I’m a new mayor – Bill de Blasio – or schools chancellor – Carmen Fariña – doesn’t it sound great for me to show how much I care about the students’ wellbeing? Sure it does.

I’m not callous or ignorant enough to argue against this. There truly are kids who rely on school for their most complete meals of the day. But, there are other facts that can’t be ignored:

  • The logic behind warning about hazardous and treacherous travel conditions for “all” New Yorkers extends to our littlest ones, too. They’re walking on sidewalks still covered in ice (since no one seems too worried about enforcing the law about property owners shoveling their sidewalks in an appropriate amount of time). They’re riding buses on slick roads when officials are cautioning people to stay off the streets.
  • Many parents think it’s ridiculous to send their kids out into weather-related danger, so they opt to keep them home. Our snowstorms this year have resulted in roughly 65% student attendance across the city. Most teachers with half a brain know that if more than a third of the class is out, you put a hold on any new lessons.
  • Thousands of teachers are being put in harm’s way, too. I have colleagues who travel 20 miles to get to work. Even for me – I’m only five or six miles from my school – it’s an adventure. The main street by my apartment has not been a priority for plowing in any of the storms this year. It’s a mostly downhill trip from my building to the highway, so for about a mile, I’m crawling along (if I’m not skidding along). Furthermore, teachers who drive and work in dense areas, like I do, are contending with deplorable parking conditions on the streets as it is. There are mounds of snow that turned to mounds of ice and on a day like today, with all the new precipitation, getting out of those spots will be even worse.
  • Full-day storms like that one we’re expecting today, actually don’t just impact the morning commute for students and teachers. They affect the afternoon commute, too – you know, when everything’s even worse. No one ever seems to remember that. (This might explain why after-school programs haven’t been canceled, either).

Anyway, it’s getting late. Normally I wouldn’t be up for another 10 minutes. But, I was up at 4:10 today, expecting to hear that cooler heads prevailed in the Ivory Tower – I mean mayor’s office. I don’t know why I ever thought that.

Safe travels, everyone. Especially the kids.

Sandy Closes Schools, Sandy Opens Schools


Most teacher folk I know are outraged that, as a result of the five days NYC schools were closed due to Hurricane Sandy and the need to meet a minimum number of attendance days (per New York State law), three days (plus a half-day) that would have previously been non-attendance days have been switched. In other words: kids will be in for four days they normally wouldn’t have.

I can definitely see both sides of the issue here, but I want to go over some of the many factors that exist.

Before I do, though, I must give credit to Arthur Goldstein, who wrote this excellent letter to UFT President Michael Mulgrew. I draw plenty of inspiration from his words as I share my thoughts on the situation.

Some arguments and some points:

This isn’t fair. That’s what some said to me when they found out. In a sense, it’s perfectly fair. During the week of the Sandy closures, I sat in my warm apartment watching the news, thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t affected. Sure, it was a tense week, as I was out of contact with many people who I knew were in trouble, but materially, physically, and emotionally, I lost nothing. For me, it was really a “week off,” though like I said, hardly a vacation. In this spirit, it’s no skin off my back to go to to work on those days.

The other side of this, though, is all those NYC DOE employees who were affected by Sandy. I’d be interested to know just how many total employees live in the Rockaways, lower Manhattan, Staten Island, Long Beach, or on the south shore of Long Island, all areas that were badly hit. Unlike me, these people didn’t have the luxury of relaxing inside as the storm and its aftereffects raged. No, they spent their week doing all different kinds of things: witnessing their homes burn down; being caught in neck-deep flood waters; shivering in homes without gas, electric, or heat; sleeping in shelters; watching sewage come up through their sinks; and much, much worse.

For them, Sandy week was not a week off. It was a week from hell. Many of my colleagues who felt the worst effects still managed to make it to work everyday, even though they were displaced from their homes. They shouldn’t have to work the extra days. They never got the time off I did.

So, what are you doing this February break? In my youth, the mid-winter recess meant we were going to Florida for our annual visit to the grandparents’ house and all the fun that entailed. Many students look forward to the break as I did because it means a trip somewhere. Now, despite the Mayor believing that many parents rely on schools to keep their kids under watch, don’t think for a second that if families already have vacation plans, they won’t be keeping them. I actually think we’ll see a large dip in attendance February 20-22: days that were previously part of the break but are now attendance days.

But I have all this paper work to do. June 4 was to be a clerical half-day, so that our morning could be spent teaching and our afternoon be spent completing report cards and cumulative records in preparation for the end of the year, which also brings with it reorganization of classes and record exchange. The time allotted for this work is precious. In my school, we basically all sit in our rooms in silence and get it done. And it’s wonderful.

This June 4, kids will be with us all day, meaning one less 3.5 hour block to do extremely important work against a deadline. My only guess is that on Brooklyn-Queens Day, which is a non-attendance day for students, we will be given time to complete records, only under more pressure because it’s later in the week.

Like I said, I see all sides of this issue. In a perfect world, my dear colleagues in school and out who suffered the worst – people who lost homes or are continuing to gut and rebuild – would not be required to work these three-plus extra days because they never had a day off anyway. But where do you draw the line? How do you determine who fits the criteria?

I don’t believe kids should be kept out of school, but I also don’t believe this is as cut and dry as the law says. This storm is unprecedented in our history, so exceptions and nuance must apply.

I have no simple solution, only these thoughts. What real ideas and solutions do you propose?

After Sandy, A School Community Comes Together for Its Own


It’s amazing the way people come together for good when the chips are truly down. Community is, indeed, an incredible force.

Having now distributed the cash we collected for staff members affected by Hurricane Sandy – people who lost so so much – I am able to look back at the whirlwind experience it was to collect the donations and give them out.

I was knocked speechless when I took the first donation: a crisp $100 bill. Donations continued to come in on a steady basis with people showing similar generosity. Some asked sheepishly what others were giving, and expressed disappointment that they couldn’t give more than they did. My answer was the same each time: “This is a beautiful donation.” And they all were.

We had a group of folks we planned to give the money to. It was all supposed to be a surprise, but eventually word got around to me that some people on the list were planning to decline the money. They felt there was no reason for them to accept it when others were dealing with much more than they were.

As incredible as it was for colleagues to come up to me all week with envelopes of cash and checks, I was perhaps most moved by the gestures of those who said, “Others need it more than me.” And try as I did to convince them that people wanted them to have it, they wouldn’t budge. They passed on their cut so that others could get more. It’s hard for me to even express how touched I was by that. To be sure, when they first told me they wouldn’t take the money, I was disappointed and bordering on indignant, but the more I thought about it, I totally understood why. Needless to say, I gained plenty of respect for them.

I’m proud to say we raised more than $3,000 from the staff. The recipients were overwhelmed with gratitude and shock when I presented them their portions. You always wish you can do more, but my colleagues should be proud for having done what they did. We all hope it helps people start moving forward.

Related: Sandy Left Tons of Destruction. Now What Can I Do About It?

Sandy Left Tons of Destruction. Now What Can I Do About It?


Sandy, you suck.

The so-called “superstorm” may have been amazing in its magnitude and historic impact, but for too many people, Sandy was an unwelcome house guest who unapologetically trashed the place before leaving. She didn’t even have the decency to say, “good-bye”.

When schools were closed in the wake of the storm, I kept in touch with people in affected areas via text or calls as much as possible. Cell service was terribly spotty so communications sometimes took a day or two to get out and back. I got bits and pieces of everyone’s stories – tiny inklings of their concerns and misery.

When we returned this week, though, I had a chance to hear everyone’s stories in fuller detail, and I must say, they’re bad. Staff in my school – many of whom live on Long Island – remain without power today, nine days later. Unfortunately, that is the best case scenario among those affected.

Too many people are totally displaced from their homes. A lack of power is one thing. A lack of heat and gas are quite different. Some people lost major amounts of property from the floods Sandy caused. Goodbye furniture, fencing, carpeting, photographs, clothes, cars, and normalcy.

When someone dealing with this catastrophe tells me their neighborhood is like a “war zone,” I have to believe it. Army trucks driving down the streets tend to create that feeling.

It all makes me feel a bit helpless and even guilty. Thankfully, I dodged the storm’s major bullets. Never lost power, never lost heat. My car is fine and I was lucky to have a full tank of gas before the storm hit (so I don’t yet know the pleasure of waiting 3 hours for gas that may not even be available). It is difficult to see others in such distress when I’m able to come home, open up my fridge for a snack and sit down to write a blog while listening to Spotify, lights off only by choice.

I want to help these good people going through this trying time.

That’s why I was totally pumped to hear from a colleague who thought it might be a good idea to take up a collection of clothes from staff to donate to the Breezy Point residents sheltering near our school. What a great way to make an impact on our fellow New Yorkers.

As we discussed the idea and brought others into the discussion, we came to agreement that our priority should be to focus first on our own affected staff. Breezy Point victims were reportedly receiving copious amounts of donations at the shelter, and it just wouldn’t have seemed right to start expanding our efforts outside of school when there were people in school who might need our assistance, too.

Today, everyone in the school received an e-mail outlining our plans for collecting money, toiletries, and clothes to help relieve some of the pressure Sandy has exerted on staff. It is my sincere hope that people are able to unite for everyone and help them begin to move forward in some small way.

I know it’s trite – and maybe even obnoxious to the untrained ear – if I say something like, “We’re New Yorkers and we’ll get through this.” Sorry, but it’s true. I hope my colleagues and I can play a small part.

Dear Parents – A Principal Tells it Like it Is


Here is a phenomenal back to school e-mail sent by a principal willing to put his neck out in order to speak the truth! His courage is admirable and his honesty is necessary.

September 4, 2012

Dear Parents,

On behalf of the teachers and staff of the Wantagh Elementary School, I would like to welcome you back to school. I anticipate that the 2012-13 academic year will prove to be an exciting year.

We are all enthusiastic about the arrival of our new superintendent, Mr. D’Angelo, and the promise of a fresh vision for the academic well-being of our school district. Also, Mrs. Chowske will be joining our WES staff, functioning as our school’s Elementary Supervisor [aka, Assistant Principal]. The future is bright as we move forward with the implementation of our Writers’ Workshop program expanding into our fourth grade and kindergarten. This year we will also initiate a new K-5 math program called enVisionMATH. This program not only meets the national Common Core standards for Math but does so with enhanced technological experiences for our children.

One significant issue as we move into this new school year is that we will, at times, find it difficult if not impossible to teach authentic application of concepts and skills with an eye towards relevancy. What we will be teaching students is to be effective test takers; a skill that does not necessarily translate into critical thinking – a skill set that is necessary at the college level and beyond. This will inevitably conflict with authentic educational practice – true teaching.

Unfortunately, if educators want to survive in the new, Albany-created bureaucratic mess that is standardized assessments to measure teacher performance, paramount to anything else, we must focus on getting kids ready for the state assessments. This is what happens when non-educators like our governor and state legislators, textbook publishing companies (who create the assessments for our state and reap millions of our tax dollars by doing so), our NYS Board of Regents, and a state teachers’ union president get involved in creating what they perceive as desirable educational outcomes and decide how to achieve and measure them. Where were the opinions of teachers, principals, and superintendents? None were asked to participate in the establishment of our new state assessment parameters. Today, statisticians are making educational decisions in New York State that will impact your children for years to come.

Standardized assessment has grown exponentially. For example, last year New York State fourth graders, who are nine or ten years old, were subjected to roughly 675 minutes (over 11 hours) of state assessments which does not include state field testing. This year there will be a state mandated pre-test in September and a second mandated pre-test in January for allkindergarten through fifth grade students in school. In April, kindergarten through fifth grade students will take the last test [assessment] for the year.

Excessive testing is unhealthy. When I went to school I was never over-tested and subsequently labeled with an insidious number that ranked or placed me at a Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 or Level 4 as we do today. Do you want your child to know their assigned ‘Level’? What would the impact be on their self-esteem and self-worth at such a young age?

Of additional concern to me is the relationship between children and their teacher as we move into an era where teacher job status is based upon student assessment scores. Guess what, some children will become more desirable than others to have in class! And, conversely, others will be less desirable. There, I wrote it! That concept is blasphemy in our school where teachers live to prepare children to be productive learners and members of society. Teachers state-wide are worried that their relationship with students might change when they are evaluated based upon their students’ test scores. Teachers want to educate students, not test prep them for job security.

Additionally, what should be shocking to you as a parent is that state and national databases are being created in order to analyze and store students’ test scores – your child’s assessment results and your child’s school attendance! Do you realize that the state has mandated that classroom teachers must take attendance during every math, ELA, social studies and science lesson – everyone, every day for the entire school year! Those records are sent to the state and become statistically part of the teacher evaluation process. It will no longer be enough that your child ‘was in school.’ Rather, if he or she was at a band lesson or out of the room for extra help in reading and a math lesson was taking place in class, he or she will be noted as absent from that instruction. That will be factored into the teacher evaluation. Thinking of taking your child to Disney World for a week during the school year or leaving a day or two early for a long weekend skiing? Think again! Those absences will be recorded as illegal, missed seat time and sent to the state – as mandated by the state.

This is all part of the massive, multi-million tax-payer dollar teacher evaluation processes started by our Commissioner of Education, our governor, and our state legislators and fully supported by statisticians employed by the state and assessment-making companies. No one in Albany is selecting to see the end of the journey; that 98 percent of the students graduating from Wantagh Schools go on to two- and four-year colleges. Their myopic view is focused on the ‘parts’, not the whole. Who will eventually suffer? Your children!

The balance must now be struck between maintaining the special nature of an elementary school setting and the cold and calculating final analysis rendered by statistics. The use of assessment data to drive instruction is a tenet of good educational practices. The use of assessment data to render a yearly prognostication of teacher competency is ridiculous.

You have the greatest impact on your child’s school performance. Each teacher only has your children for 180 days per year and for less than six hours per day [minus lunch and recess times, art, music, and physical education classes]. It is our expectation that as partners in your child’s education, you will be doing your part as well. As part of any evaluation of student performance, Albany must simultaneously be asking parents the following questions:

Does your child read at home each day for at least twenty minutes?

Do you read to your child every day?

Are math facts gone over daily until they are known automatically?

Is there a quiet location in the house for homework time and do you check your child’s homework each night?

Is your child sent to school ready for the day with a good breakfast following at least eight hours of sleep?

Are after school activities monitored so that your child is not ‘overbooked’ and their stamina compromised?

Is your child in school daily [except when they are sick] and not taken out of school for any reason other than illness?

We will continue to have field trips, assemblies, and special school events but some events will be curtailed or rescheduled with an eye toward prudent times during the school year to maximize student seat time. However, it is unmistakable that we have entered into a new era of educational practice with higher stakes than ever before.

I look forward to working with you and your child as we start our new school year because….together we make a difference.

Thank you.

Don Sternberg, Ed.D.

Principal

A Note on Nature


Our most recent field trip took us to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is known for it’s wonderful birdwatching opportunities. It rained all day the day before the trip, through the night, and into the morning of the trip, so there was some uncertainty as to whether we’d even go, third graders being out in the rain and all. Optimistic minds prevailed, though, and with a timely note home urging parents to send kids in raincoats, boots, and sweatshirts, we did go.

At Jamaica Bay, you start off in a visitors center that, among several exhibits, has a section of wildlife specimens to handle (feathers, horseshoe crab shells, bivalves, pinecones, etc).  The kids gravitated to it, asking lots of questions and making inferences. Their excitement bubbled to the surface and they nagged and nudged me to get them out on the path. (Not before I went over our scavenger hunt with them, though!)

So we stepped out and made for the path to the loop that would take us around that particular part of the bay, and wouldn’t you know it, everything stopped when one of my students spotted a tiny little snail on the path. Well, of course, we had to investigate the snail, and I didn’t mind one bit. They were, however, apprehensive about picking it up.

Let me explain my background with nature. As a kid, I wasn’t a boy scout or anything fancy. I didn’t fish, I didn’t dig, and I sure as heck didn’t touch any insects. I did, however, like fossils, geodes, rock specimens, and stuff like amber. (I lined all of these things up on the desk in my room and called it my “museum.” Every time someone got me a new specimen, my mom would say, “Oh, look! You can put that in your museum!” I have a humorous image of bespectacled and doofy me curating the exhibits right now. Let me sit with it…Okay, done.) I also liked playing Super Nintendo and Game Boy, and the extent of my outdoor involvement was digging a hole at the beach or playing catch with my dad or friends.

In my teens, my cousin introduced me to fishing. He was a maven, so I took his lead and had some good times with him on docks and rowboats. It took me a while until I mustered the courage to bait a hook with a worm or a fish (he’d so flippantly say, “Put it through the eye and get it behind the skull,” as if explaining how to shoot a basketball), and I was still squeamish about handling a still living fish. Working at camp, I became still less intimidated by nature, willingly handling worms, gerbils, turtles and the like.

Three years ago, I decided I wanted to go camping. And it wasn’t like I said to myself, “I may like it.” No, I knew intuitively I would like it – being one with nature, building fires, encountering wildlife (not really, it turns out), hiking, etc. So I’m much less squeamish now than I ever was, which brings me back to the snail on the trail.

As my little dolls gathered round the unsuspecting animal, oohing, ahhing, and ewwing, I picked it up like it was nothing special. But when I offered it to the kids to hold, they were nauseated by the prospect. I can understand being momentarily put off by the potential sliminess, and I have been there in my own life, but it begs the question: Why are kids so scared of nature? I mean, nothing is more natural than nature!

This isn’t to say the kids didn’t eventually hold the snail or that they didn’t love the trip (swarming gnats and all!), but there is something unsettling about this nature phobia.

Nature shouldn’t be feared. It should be embraced. Kids should be out catching frogs in the pond, holding caterpillars, inspecting slugs. They should be looking at different plants and trees and lifting rocks. Mud and dirt are not bad things!

Maybe kids need exposure before they can throw themselves into plucking snails up as joyously as others. Maybe they’ll wait 20 years before they explore more fully the wonders of the world. Maybe they’ll never care, and who am I to say they should? I just wish I saw less fear in these situations. Nature isn’t yucky! It’s awesome.

See? It’s actually pretty cool!

Don’t Mess With Texas!


Deep in the heart of Texas, it seems the delicious taste of a people’s revolution is hanging in the air. Indeed, state Education Commissioner Robert Scott is firing salvos against testing that someday might earn him the distinction of being, “The Scott Heard ‘Round the World.”

His army is responding. According to the Washington Post, “more than 100 districts” have passed a resolution condemning an “over reliance” on standardized testing.

It is wonderful to imagine what adults can accomplish when they put aside their selfish greed and instead, act in the best interests of students (who are our future, after all). Let’s hope Texas becomes a model for other states – including my own – on how to stand up and demand an end to the insanity of forcing students to take tests that are essentially meaningless. Let them be the model for demanding students have rich, meaningful learning experiences that promote our country’s best possible future.

This is the kind of courageous and intelligent behavior that seems to have been eroded from the landscape, so kudos to the folks in for Texas standing up and thinking with their own brains!

I am posting the resolution here in the hopes that you read it, feel inspired, and spread it. It’s the start of a revolution!

WHEREAS, the over reliance on standardized, high stakes testing as the only assessment of learning that really matters in the state and federal accountability systems is strangling our public schools and undermining any chance that educators have to transform a traditional system of schooling into a broad range of learning experiences that better prepares our students to live successfully and be competitive on a global stage; and

WHEREAS, we commend Robert Scott, Commissioner of Education, for his concern about the overemphasis on high stakes testing that has become “a perversion of its original intent” and for his continuing support of high standards and local accountability; and

WHEREAS, we believe our state’s future prosperity relies on a high-quality education system that prepares students for college and careers, and without such a system Texas’ economic competitiveness and ability and to attract new business will falter; and

WHEREAS, the real work of designing more engaging student learning experiences requires changes in the culture and structure of the systems in which teachers and students work; and

WHEREAS, what occurs in our classrooms every day should be student-centered and result in students learning at a deep and meaningful level, as opposed to the superficial level of learning that results from the current over-emphasis on that which can be easily tested by standardized tests; and

WHEREAS, We believe in the tenets set out in Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas (TASA, 2008) and our goal is to transform this district in accordance with those tenets; and

WHEREAS, Our vision is for all students to be engaged in more meaningful learning activities that cultivate their unique individual talents, to provide for student choice in work that is designed to respect how they learn best, and to embrace the concept that students can be both consumers and creators of knowledge; and

WHEREAS, only by developing new capacities and conditions in districts and schools, and the communities in which they are embedded, will we ensure that all learning spaces foster and celebrate innovation, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, communication and critical thinking; and

WHEREAS, these are the very skills that business leaders desire in a rising workforce and the very attitudes that are essential to the survival of our democracy; and

WHEREAS, imposing relentless test preparation and boring memorization of facts to enhance test performance is doing little more than stealing the love of learning from our students and assuring that we fall short of our goals; and

WHEREAS, we do not oppose accountability in public schools and we point with pride to the performance of our students, but believe that the system of the past will not prepare our students to lead in the future and neither will the standardized tests that so dominate their instructional time and block our ability to make progress toward a world-class education system of student-centered schools and future-ready students; therefore be it

RESOLVED that the _____________ ISD Board of Trustees calls on the Texas Legislature to reexamine the public school accountability system in Texas and to develop a system that encompasses multiple assessments, reflects greater validity, uses more cost efficient sampling techniques and other external evaluation arrangements, and more accurately reflects what students know, appreciate and can do in terms of the rigorous standards essential to their success, enhances the role of teachers as designers, guides to instruction and leaders, and nurtures the sense of inquiry and love of learning in all students.

Where Are We Headed?


I try to keep it optimistic here, I really do. Maybe you’ll find some tones of optimism as you read, but I confess at the outset that I sit down to write today feeling very pessimistic.

The other day, I read something that disheartened and frightened me. It was Diane Ravitch’s lucid and scathing critique of the deal struck between New York State and the unions on new teacher evaluations. As Ravitch, Carol Burris, and others have pointed out, it is a scary thing when a new evaluation system can only use 40% of student progress – but is designed, as Ravitch writes, in a way that “actually counts for 100 percent.”

Fuzzy math, you say. I urge you to read both the Burris and Ravitch pieces, linked above, for better explanations, but this is essentially how it works:

  • There are three criteria in the evaluation, in which a teacher can be rated ineffective, developing, effective, or highly effective.
  • One of those criteria is student performance (as based on state and local assessments), which, theoretically, accounts for 40 % of the evaluation.
  • The other two criteria are not important for this discussion because, per the state and union agreement, via Ravitch, “Teachers rated ineffective on student performance…must be rated ineffective overall.” That means that regardless of your ratings in the other criteria (even if both are highly effective), if your students don’t do well enough on the tests, there is no way of being labeled as anything but ineffective. Two straight years of ineffective ratings and you are relieved of your employment.

Can you see why such an arrangement is so troubling to so many?

Both Burris and Ravitch wrote that such a system is going to eliminate truly wonderful teachers, either automatically based on their ratings or because of the increasing lack of autonomy and need to raise test scores at all costs (ie. the conditions will become too overwhelming). It has basically become a choice: test scores or your job.

After reading Burris’ piece, I sent a tweet to Randi Weingarten, former UFT President and current AFT President, saying the following:

To which she responded:

Maybe so, but it seems to me the writing is on the wall. Until I see something saying otherwise, I have to assume that English Language Learners and students with IEPs will be held to the same assessments and standards as everyone else, and therefore, so will their teachers.

Well, guess what? That’d be me.

It is silly for anyone to assume my students will make progress at a rate equal to their general ed peers. It is the nature of their disabilities to require more time to progress – and that progress often isn’t linear. It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole – you can will it as much as possible but until that hole is changed to meet the needs of the peg, it just won’t happen.

Teachers of students with disabilities and ELLs are being asked, then, to do the impossible. Only thing is, if anyone says this, they’re written off as a poor teacher. Baloney.

We are moving toward a very scary time to be a teacher, and, how ironic, New York finds itself drawn into the storm. The horizon seems very dark.

I fear for what school is becoming, what my job is becoming, and what my career may turn out to be. I still believe resolutely that I affect my students’ lives in positive ways, and I am proud of the progress many of them have made this year (because, despite what others may say, it is significant to get a kid off a kindergarten reading level and onto first grade even if they’re nine years old).

I worry, though, that none of it’s going to be good enough.

And then what happens?

 

A State of the Classroom Address


It’s been a rough start to 2012 for NYC educators. The ball dropped twice on New Year’s Eve,  when the city refused to enter arbitration with the union over a new teacher evaluation system, thus causing the state to withdraw $60 million in Race to the Top funds that were budgeted for NYC. State Education Commissioner John King to city: “Drop Dead.” Union President Michael Mulgrew to city parents: It’s not us.

Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo (humbly) declared himself, “the lobbyist for the students” in his State of the State (easily my favorite State of the ___ title, by the way), thereby pissing off principals and teachers who try their darnedest to do their best despite the limitations, and incidentally, offending a bunch of parents who paid Albany a visit in response.

And just yesterday, entrepeneur and mayor (in that order, according to this) Mike Bloomberg laid out a series of divisive ideas to further cement his (humbly) self-appointed title as “The Education Mayor.” Among them: bonuses of $20,000 for teachers rated highest in the evaluation system still not agreed upon; arguing the benefits of using the “turnaround” model in 33 struggling schools (ie. gutting the staff, despite state law requiring this be negotiated with the union); and continuing to open charter schools (despite the now well-established fact that they don’t do more than neighborhood schools and in more cases than not are actually significantly worse).

No doubt President Barack Obama will have plenty to say about education in his State of the Union address, highlighted, I’d imagine, by him praising states that are making the expected progress in their reform implementation and lambasting states that aren’t (like good old New York).

Outside the classroom, it’s bad. Inside, though – where it truly matters – it’s pretty solid.

This month, everyone of the students I assessed in reading progressed to the next level. The shyest kids have taken the lead in the Justin Bieber dance and singalongs as we prepare for our play. Struggling spellers seem to finally be getting it. Sloppy writers’ handwriting seems neater. Previously flippant authors are suddenly writing deeper and with more purpose than ever. We had a universally-loved trip and students are establishing friendships with new kids who they must have just discovered are in their class.

The state of New York may be dire, but the state of our classroom is just dandy.

New Learning and New Experiences


Being in New York City, my students are lucky to have many wonderful, world-famous cultural institutions within travel range via relatively inexpensive public transportation. Unfortunately, museum visits and the like are not usually worked into their families’ plans. When I request or book a trip, one of my main guiding considerations is whether the students will ever go to the place if we don’t go together.

That’s an argument I made when we went to a NY Liberty basketball game at Madison Square Garden and it was the rationale behind the fifth grade trip to the Liberty Science Center a couple of years ago. Trips can be as much about new experiences as they can be about learning.

Today, we are heading to a personal favorite of mine, the American Museum of Natural History. We’ll visit the Hall of Biodiversity to consider the balance of organisms that exist in nature. I expect the students will be enthralled by the models hanging on the wall, representing the range of life from the single-cell organisms to the highly complex ones. We will sit inside the rainforest diorama and look and listen. Students will sketch organisms within certain parameters and then label them (after all, we just did finish up our informational writing unit, so this is something of a celebration).

My hope is that they have fun getting into one of the world’s greatest classrooms. I’ll probably preach a little, too, and urge them to ask their parents to take them to a museum some time. If not, though, they’ll at least have our class trips.

Related: Trips Are For Teaching