Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Friday, December 15, 2006

More thoughts

I have only just now read this NYSUT report on NY charter schools (and I still haven't read this), but I have to concur that their methodology is truly bizarre. I can vouch for a couple of the schools on that list and tell you that the "comparison" school is not comparable. I am mentally throwing this report into the already large pile of studies about charter schools, both pro- and anti-, that are untrustworthy and bogus.

Early morning thoughts

Too tired to really do this justice right now, but this meeting of "experts" on education, including Rod Paige, Richard Riley, and Joel Klein, is an interesting new data point in the ongoing story of the role of business in shaping American education, and the ongoing struggle to define the purpose of American education. Expect responses from business leaders. Compare to G.H.W. Bush's America 2000 plan and the response of business leaders to it.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Thursday, December 07, 2006

An important challenge or just too hard?

How do you know when something is just too hard for a kid?

This week the 8th graders are doing independent projects on the Civil War, doing nonfiction reading in order to answer questions that they chose. I ended up going with these questions:

Why did Lincoln free the slaves?
Was Lincoln "the great emancipator"?
Did the South have a chance?
What was it like to be a soldier?
What was the role of women in the war?
What was the role of African Americans in the war?

One kid, a kid I really like whose IEP says he has ADD, picked "Did the South have a chance?" Even though he was one of the kids we identified as needing a more straightforward question, I let him go with that question because he seemed really interested in it.

Yesterday he was reading a really cool Cobblestone article about submarines in the Civil War, but when I went over to him he was feeling really frustrated. He wasn't alone -- many kids felt overwhelmed by the task and confused about how to use the readings to answer the questions.

Anyway, with this kid, A.J., I could tell he was interested in the topic but felt like it was too hard. I said something like, "you know, A.J., this is a really tough question, but I think you can handle it." At first he protested, saying he wanted to switch to an easier question, but I persuaded him against it. I started asking him some scaffolding questions, like "what would it mean if the South had a chance?" He came up right away with, "they would have a better army, they would have more people, they would have more land," etc. He totally got the question. I said, "what about generals?" He said he didn't know. So I gave him an article about Civil War generals to read. He seemed better.

Today when we were working on the project again, he said "can you give me a different article? I'm switching over to 'what was it like to be a soldier.'" I felt defeated because 1) he still wanted to take the easy way out, and 2) he now expected me to choose the reading for him, which was contrary to the whole point of the exercise. I told him, "A.J., I know this is difficult for you and that you're feeling frustrated. But I wouldn't have encouraged you to do this if I didn't think you could." I reminded him of all the smart things he said yesterday. He seemed encouraged and grudgingly started work again on his original question.

I do believe he can do it, but he will probably have a much more difficult task than most of the other students. Is that fair? Am I wrong to keep pushing him toward that, when kids with much more experience with this kind of thing are getting away with easier questions? And what if I'm wrong and he can't do it? What kind of effect will that have on his confidence?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Maybe if the mice spent more time in class ...

The AFT, my alma mater, has a new initiative on building conditions. New York City has a famously old stock of school buildings, and I've heard of some pretty nasty conditions that are, shall we say, not conducive to student concentration. A new report by the AFT exposes facilities problems around the country and how they affect teaching and learning.

The building in which I am doing my student teaching is one of these big, old buildings, but it is in relatively good condition. Its only real quirk is a large community of rodents. (Like the kind that inhabits most NYC schools.) I haven't actually seen any myself, but I've heard they can be seen scampering through the halls like confused sixth graders, and I have certainly seen ample evidence of their existence. The seventh grade science teacher has taken to catching the mice and keeping them as classroom pets. How does she catch the little dudes? "These mice are slow and dumb," she says.

Other than the mice, the school doesn't have problems like ceilings falling in or mushrooms growing in the corners. An active parent body makes sure things are pretty well kept up, and once a year the parents have a "work day" in which they do things like build benches and bookcases in classrooms. Adequate facilities, however, does not necessarily translate into high student achievement -- at least as measured by state tests. Word on the street is that the school might not make AYP based on last year's scores. Of course, as the AFT will also tell you, and they are right, barely any schools will be making AYP for very long.

AYP aside, I do believe the students at this school are getting a great education, one that is not hampered by distracting facilities problems.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Juan is one of my favorite kids in the class. When I first got there, he was one of a handful of children for whom it was a challenge for me to find something to really like about them. His behavior in the beginning of the year tended to be disruptive and a little bit mean toward a tablemate who had recently immigrated from Georgia.

After a while, however, I realized that these behaviors were his way of doing anything in his power to avoid writing. He HATES writing! I also realized that underneath it all he is a truly sensitive and nice kid. One day Juan walked into class and it was as if he was a different kid -- his attitude toward school was that radically different. He still asks to go to the bathroom anytime it's time to write, but as soon as I tell him 'no' he sits down and really tries.

Yesterday, as part of an ELA test bootcamp strategy, one of my cooperating teachers was having students practice listening comprehension strategies on a read-aloud. The story was a really sad one about a kid whose mom leaves her and the imaginary friend she invents to help deal with it. At the end of the story, one kid looked up and noticed Juan wiping his eyes. Seconds later the entire class was having uncontrollable laughing fits at Juan's expense -- not in a mean way, just out of sheer shock. They didn't blame him for crying, but of all the kids in the class, Juan was definitely not the one you'd expect to do it. One kid was working so hard to contain his laughter that he looked like he was about to throw up, until the teacher made him leave the room. Juan took it well. I wanted to go up and hug him, but of course that would have made it worse.

But it still warms my heart to think about it. And it makes me really appreciate the truly excellent job my cooperating teachers have done in creating not just an atmosphere in which kids can get emotionally that involved in a read-aloud, but also one in which students care enough about each other, and about the work that's going on in class, to let something like that slide. It gives me something to aspire to.