not education, but worth sharing.

Flocabulary Essay

Here is the published form of an essay I submitted four or five months ago, it was fun to read it again.


Teacher Quality and Classroom Success

I just read one of the most encouraging and equally depressing articles by Bill Ferriter.  The article is written with an unusual honesty.  It was written by a teacher who has won teacher of the year in North Carolina.  A teacher that went from the suburbs to the urban school and quickly retreated. 

In his post, he says that working at the lower socioeconomic school (30%+ lower se - my elementary school is 90%+ lower se) crossed the line from "career" to "calling".  That encouraged me, because I definitely see my job as a calling.

It encouraged me because he is an accomplished, quality educator.  And guess what, his class in the urban school wasn't performing at the exemplary standard that his class in the suburbs had met.

It made me feel good to hear the two schools called the "easy" and the "hard" schools to teach at.  Too often I read about general educational policy and the language in those articles has to treat all schools and teachers as the same.  Meaning that a successful teacher in one school would be successful in any school.  I've always known that to not be true, but it does eat away at a teacher striving to help his students.  My first year I managed to get 80% of my students to pass the test, and that school was 40% lower se.  Then I improved professionally but moved to the urban school - where my students' scores are markedly worse. 

It was depressing because the conclusion of his experience was that the plight of the urban child was failure.  I know his call is to change policy, a call for equity.  But I don't have time for that to happen.  Nor to I have time for excuses.  It was depressing because he attempted to pull out the only chair I stand on; hope for a difference.  He honestly and accurately portrayed a poorer school.  Then he quit. 

I would like to adjust his conclusion to what I would have preferred to have read. 

So I quit.  I went back to the suburban school.  I learned that year that it takes much more than a good career teacher to be successful in a poorer school.  I'm not sure what it takes.  Some luck?  Great support?  Definitely a calling and an intrinsic drive that doesn't get deterred by outside criticism.  All I know is that we on the outside, those who haven't been there, the legislators and taxpayer, the suburban teacher and educational policymaker, need to understand what it is really like.  So let's stop blaming the teacher, let's not blame the student because they deal with extreme situations, let's not blame anyone.  Let's do what we ask of our students and children, let us take responsibility for what we can control and figure out a way to help.  Let's fight for equity, because if you're blaming the teachers then you'll have to retract my teacher of the year award.

I mean no offense by that alternate conclusion and I know that it is more like a childish rant than a real conclusion to Bill's post.  I simply disagree with the statement that not all students can achieve academically.  Let me believe that, even if what you say is true. 


On Being a Good Teacher

I appreciate this post by Steve Davis. Philosophically I agree with performance pay. Too many bad teachers keep their jobs. Although, I think it's foolish to believe that every person who has a job outside of a union or outside of teaching is a quality employee, even though they technically work in performance-based jobs. It's important to remember that the employee, no matter the job, is not the only variable to success.


I love my job. I devote many hours beyond what is contracted. My instruction is driven by data. I tutor students before and after school. I make home visits. I don't make excuses. I do much more than would be required of me if I worked in an "better" school. Yet, if I worked in that "better" setting, I would receive more accolades and higher performance pay (if it were in play).


Developmental, Tested, or Proper Foundation?

This is only my second year teaching 5th grade. I just finished introducing geometry to my second group of students and I have reached the same tough question for the second year in a row. Upon assessment and reflection, I find that my students are having similar struggle this year as they did last year. They can identify the shapes, but they can't explain the rules of that shape.

For example, they know what a square is, but they can't explain why a square is also a rectangle. Or why a rectangle is a parallelogram, even though they know what a rectangle looks like and what a parallelogram will look like on the test. I taught the rules, but I focused on the vocabulary and the nomination of the shapes.

Should I reteach the rules of the shapes even though they are not tested?

Why I should - it is important that they know why a square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not a square in terms of creating a solid foundation in geometry. I am not only preparing my students for the upcoming test, I am preparing them for middle school. I know that most students really struggle with the abstract parts of math (algebra or trigonometry or calculus) because they often learned the how but not the why.

Why I shouldn't - maybe that part of the shapes is not tested because it's not necessary at this developmental point in the students' learning. I ask this question with almost every lesson I plan. Teachers often teach shortcuts that are often, in my opinion, not healthy. Some teach lattice for multiplication. Some teach that an estimation is a guess. Some teach the trick to finding common denominators without ever teaching why it works. Sometimes it is good to not go too deep, sometimes it is important to spend time laying the strong foundation.

How do I decide when to teach them just enough to get the question right on the test and when to spend time on things that may not be necessary for the test this year but will provide a good foundation?


New Rules

New Rules

What do you think? I resonate most with the attack on the constant comparisons to "past scores". I would add a rule about international comparisons, unless we're all taking the same test. And if those international comparisons would show data for ALL STUDENTS IN THE COUNTRY, not just all students who took that test.

Prefixes and Suffixes for 5th Grade - Word clouds - WordItOut

Prefixes and Suffixes for 5th Grade - Word clouds - WordItOut

Virtually Real World

We just got finished with a unit on decimals, fractions, and percents. Midway through the unit I had the idea to have each of the 4 groups of students in the room choose an NBA team and we would track their wins and losses and then calculate their winning percentage. Definitely not a new idea.

But when the day came to tally up the first round of games put Sportsline up on the projector. Once it was up there my kids started noticing things that I never did.

Just on this screen image alone (from today's sportsline) the students could notice the poll results at the bottom. You can't see that 75,348 had voted, but I would simply ask, "about how many people would 60% of 75,000 people be? That's how many people think the Colts will win. We've also done some work around conversions. There's a countdown to the superbowl - a perfect opportunity to talk about conversions with 5th graders. There's a headline for a hockey game, a player assisted 2 of the teams 4 goals....quick! "what percentage of the teams points did he have a part in?" There's a headline the reads, "13-year old commits to USC". That definitely would get the students' attention, I would ask how many months it would be until he would actually be at USC playing football.

I was loving the discussion but we needed to move on (different day, same basic stuff). Just then one of my boys pointed out a couple of editorials. I couldn't pass up the opportunity - we had just talked about editorials in persuasive writing and the students were so confused by my examples I had been trying to figure out another way to talk about them. Thanks to a student pointing out a great example of persuasive writing on a site I check every day, I now know how to introduce editorials AND engage the students at the same time.

All of this had me thinking - I need to acknowledge the virtual real world when I am developing lessons and word problems. So often I use computers and the internet in the classroom, but I only access educational sites or sites built specifically with school at the focus. But it is important to remember to access the real world on the internet and use that as a launching pad and even assessment tool for the classroom. I wish I had access to facebook and youtube - it couldn't be much more real world, virtually, than that and the students might begin to connect what we're doing in class to something they love.


Learning Lessons Every Day

I have heard so many stories from and about my students that they don't always impact me the way they probably should. In some ways, I think I am desensitized to the stories. I had a student leave my classroom yesterday for another school. He was always one of my favorites even though he hated sitting in his chair - unless I would let him turn the chair upside down. He told me they needed to move because their electricity had been cut for a year, their gas had been cut for two months, and their xbox had just been stolen. It saddened me more that he was leaving than to hear about his home life over the past year. I think that's a problem.

Leaving school today there was a group of 8 or so tough-looking fellas hanging out on a porch right across from our school. They were somewhat intimidating in their solidarity of all black outfits and black and silver bandannas. It isn't unusual to have these guys outside, usually picking up their younger, less scary siblings. But is was the first time I had seen them congregated in such a large group.

They were just watching the hundreds of students leave the building. Standing next door to a house where the police shut down some sort of drug operation two days ago and about 20 yards away from where a 7th grade student had been shot to death about this time last year.

There was something else unique about this afternoon. When we walked outside every one of my students looked at them and then back at me. Several of them asked me why the guys were there. The students are used to us providing a safe environment. What was also unnerving to me was that many of the parents who were waiting outside were glancing over their shoulders at the gang as well.

Keeping an eye on each of my students we walked down the sidewalk. When I was down to one student, one of my rougher boys (but he is a great student), I asked him if he knew the guys on the porch.
"yeah, they used to be friends with my brother."
I was curious. I had heard about his brother who had recently gotten out of a short stint in jail and was trying to turn his life around, but was having a hard time finding a job. So I asked, "was he in that gang?"
"Yeah, Florence" He said in a very matter of fact way.
Then he told me that his brother's best friend is still in with the gangs but that he had switched from the Florence (f13) gang to another one. Then he said - "that's why the guys flipped the Florence sign at me when we walked past, so that I would know they were still mad about my brother's friend switching and my brother quitting."
"That's crazy." I said, "I didn't even see them do anything. Are you sure they meant for you to see the sign?"
"yeah. Once when my brother picked me up they were doing the same thing. But my brother just ignored them because he's not into that anymore."

I pray that I never become desensitized, nor that I will ever romanticize the gang world. It is easy to do because I still feel a little like I am an extra in a movie when I see the tattooed groups walking around. I also pray that God will help me be a difference in some kid's life. That I will at least provide a positive classroom so that they can have as an escape from the chaos outside. I also pray that I will not be overly fearful of the gangs nor exaggerate their influence on my students' lives.

I love how God is teaching me lessons every day.


A Typical Day in 208

The other day we applied some of our recent work with decimals, fractions, and percents during our morning work and we created the above graph that shows what the typical school day looks like in Room 208. At first the kids were insulted that recess was such a small piece of the pie. But as we continued to talk about what information the graph provides the viewer, one of my quieter girls noticed that we spent 14% of our "perfect day" not learning something. As I was getting ready to spring from that into a discussion about why I try to integrate learning into recess (chess, checkers, backgammon, math games, etc), during lunch (book groups and voluntary tutoring), and dismissal (class jobs and DEAR time) - just as I was ready to climb onto my soapbox, another one of the girls astutely added, "and how often are we actually in the classroom for writing at 2:55?" The students began to recognize how important every minute is.

A couple of days later we used the morning work to estimate what the average week in our life looked like:

This led to even better discussion about how we choose to spend our time. They weren't too happy that over 40% of their week was spent sleeping (we came up with the average amount of sleep for the class as 10 hours a night).

Next up - The Average Year. The goal? To help them understand that what they choose to do outside of school is important.


Waiting for Superman

I just read about a film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and has been picked up by Paramount. Called Waiting for Superman, the documentary was created by the same guy who did 'An Inconvenient Truth'. It is a documentary about the flawed and failing public education system.

Being a teacher, especially one in an urban school, I am used to hearing how screwed up the entire system is. I have grown accustomed to hearing quick fixes - it's about having good teachers, it's about building strong relationships, it's about preparing for the test, it's about not teaching to the test, it's about character education, it's about rapport, it's about regiment - I could go on. So when I read the description of the documentary and a few short articles that were analyzing why Paramount picked up the film I expected to hear more of the same. But this film seems like it might get at the real issue - it goes after the unions.

It is not a quick fix to say 'get rid of the NEA.' It actually would reveal some tremendous holes in every school. Teachers would no longer be protected simply because of experience, teachers would have motivation to improve every year, the tests would be shown as an inaccurate measurement of growth...OR teachers would become protected by connections more than quality, teachers would have more motivation to cheat on tests to obtain more money, and the tests would stay the same.

Surely a quality documentary will explore the alternatives to a system controlled by the union. That is why I want to see it. I would love to see this option actually explored. Not because I think the disappearance of the union would be an immediate solution but because I think the abolition of the NEA would force people to hammer out bigger issues.

I think it could lead to much better education for my students - therefore I hope the film shines a light on a problem that is commonly brought up and rarely taken seriously.


How Long Does Recess Last?

I had a student today who was telling me that I might as well not give him homework. He told me that he didn't mind doing his work during recess but that he would always lose whatever I sent home so I might as well save the copy and just have him do it during recess. Enjoying his logic I reminded him that if he would just do it at home he would get his recess everyday.

He then asked me a question, one of those questions that I love, he said "how long should it take me to do my homework each night?"

"20-30 minutes."

"How long is recess?"

"15 minutes..."

"That's why I do my work here, I get more time to play."

Now to figure out how to make him care about his homework enough to do it at home, as I design it to be done there while he is interacting with his parents. His reasoning is smart. It tells me that I need to do a better job planning homework to be meaningful. And it tells me that I am somehow a teacher who uses recess as the ultimate form of punishment, it's nice when a student sees recess for what it is.


Donors Choose, part II

For a long time I have wanted to start a chess club. Hopefully this Donors Choose project will make it possible. I'm sure it will now that I have released this announcement to my thousands of followers.