Category Archives: In The News

Teachers, the End Is Nigh or How’d That Walker Guy Get Elected?

With all the vitriole aimed at teachers these days, it’s nice to know Jon Stewart is in our corner. If you care about teachers and what’s happening to them in Wisconsin, watch this Daily Show episode.

And here’s an interesting article in the New York Times about the recent backlash against teachers.

Strange times indeed to be a public school teacher. More on this soon…

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Michigan Future Schools: Saving Detroit One School at a Time

by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY

In this era of budget cuts—and, therefore, era of “creative funding”—we must look to alternative ways to fund the kind of education our kids deserve. Michigan Future Schools, a non-profit out of Detroit, has a plan to finance new schools in one of the grimmest economies in the nation.

Lou Glazer, the founder of Michigan Future Inc., an economic development think tank, believes one of the keys to rebuilding the economy in Detroit is to connect inner city kids to that economy, via an education that not only prepares them to get into college, but to stay in college.

I’m no economist, but my gut tells me (and you know how Stephen Colbert feels about the truth-gleaning power of the gut) that Glazer’s hypothesis represents an important divergence from current urban revitalization practices, so many of which seem to have an obsession with luring people of means to the city, often at the expense of the people who are already there. Glazer’s vision, by contrast, calls for an investment in urban youth, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will one day participate in—and perhaps take a leading role in—their city’s transformation. As an educator, it makes me happy to have an economist on my side.

Also, he has a plan. Currently he has raised $10 million in donations from local foundations such as Kellogg, Kresge, and McGregor. With this money, Michigan Future Schools will fund the inception of ten new high schools in Detroit ($1 million per school). Grants are for four years, one planning year, and three years of operation. Glazer’s larger ambition is to raise enough money to fund thirty-five new high schools over the next eight years.

Some of these schools will be public, others charter. They will all be high schools, and they will all be new. Beyond that, the only prerequisite is that the founder have a specific and compelling vision for their proposed school. May the best vision win.

So far, one charter school, Detroit Edison Public School Academy High School (yeah, a mouthful) has been awarded the grant. DEPSA is currently concluding their planning year and will open their doors for their first ninth grade class next fall.

Personally, if I still lived in Michigan, I’d want in on this. Continue reading

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The Teacher, Revised Mixed Bag

by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY

A godsend of a day off here in Hayward finds me messing around on the Internet (of course). Here are the five best things I found:

1. An interactive feature in the NY Times where you can quantify the diversity of your school district and see how it compares to other districts in your county, state, etc. For four years I’ve been spouting off about the diversity of Hayward Unified and apparently it’s only the 14th most diverse district in Alameda County (which, by the way, is the 3rd most diverse county in the country). Also, it shows trends in demographics over the last 15-20 years: http://projects.nytimes.com/immigration/enrollment

2. A short video about progressive education in the 1940’s. Too bad standardized testing got in the way between then and now:

3. A Florida first grader is committed to a mental institution after a temper tantrum. Check the ridiculously long and detailed police report: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2010/0212102haley1.html

4. An article and video about the discrepancy between the way students use technology and the way it’s used in the classroom: http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2010/02/03/02kids.h03.html

5. A beautifully done audio slideshow about a student at Bronx Lab School in New York. Joshua’s story is exemplary of the complex and tenuous relationship many urban teens have with education. If you’re an urban teacher, you have to watch this one: http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/nyregion/1-in-8-million/index.html#/joshua_febres

Happy President’s Day Weekend, y’all!

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How to Make Better Teachers: Let Them Teach with Their Friends?

by JESSE SCACCIA

Is the reason new teachers aren’t better–and that they don’t stick–because they’re lonely? Would our schools actually be better if it the teachers were college buddies as well as professional colleagues?

This is just what was proposed in an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday by the director of the teaching program at Williams College, Susan Engel.

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If teachers felt this way about each other, would they teach better?

In the piece, called “Teach Your Teachers Well,” Engel wrote:

Give as many public schools as possible the financial incentives to hire these newly prepared teachers in groups of seven or more. This way, talented eager young teachers won’t languish or leave teaching because they felt bored, inept, isolated or marginalized. Instead, they will feel part of a robust community of promising professionals. They will struggle and learn together. Good teachers need good colleagues.

Engel shared a number of other suggestions for fixing teacher education, including universities taking teacher education more seriously, higher teacher ed program admission standards, and that student teachers should be reviewing their own teaching on tape. But none of her suggestions struck me the way this bring-your-buddies-along concept.

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Teachers: A Greedy and Selfish Lot, says the Wall Street Journal

by JESSE SCACCIA

In this opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, titled oh-so-subtly “Pay Your Teachers Well; Their children’s hell will slowly go by,” the case is made that when teachers unions fight for things like shorter (more reasonable) hours and the use of unionized aids, they are selling the students short.

“The problem is that unions present themselves as student advocates while pushing education policies that work for their members even if they leave kids worse off,” the un-bylined article says.

This makes sense in the absolute simplest of terms. If teachers get paid more, they are taking away budget money that could be used for more aids, art classes, or new textbooks. If teachers worked longer hours and had less ‘preps’ there would be more time for remedial lessons, character education, and college prep classes.

The article talks about a situation in Maryland where teachers at an innovative and successful charter had to cut back their hours to meet union standards. Teachers win, kids lose, right? The piece also cited a case in New York City where parents raised money to hire outside aides, yet the union blocked this, saying union aides must be used. Union wins, kids lose, right?

The more the teachers give the more the students get, and it is all about the students, right?

Wrong.

While I’m not going to sweepingly defend all actions of all teachers unions, I will say that the unions are necessary. Teachers need to work reasonable hours or else they will burn out. Our unions defend this. Teachers can only ably teach to a maximum of students at once. Our unions defend class size limits. Teachers need to feel some level of job security, especially from the competition of cheaper, less-credentialed workers. Unions defend this peace of mind.

The Wall Street Journal’s argument of student first, teacher second sounds good enough, and it performs the nifty rhetorical trick of painting every pro-teacher action as an anti-student missile. But the argument falls flat in the end.

Just like students, teachers too need to be put in a position to succeed. Let us not forget that without high achieving teachers, you can’t have high achieving students.

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Reflection: Comb Your Hair (Boys) and Smile (Girls)

by JESSE SCACCIA

Something that’s probably obvious by now to our regular readers is that I’m a little obsessed with teaching “the whole student.”

Good grades and high standardized test scores don’t mean anything if our students aren’t passionate about learning, if they leave school socially ignorant in some way, or if they are depressed.

Something that rarely comes up in discussions about teaching the whole student is physical appearance. It’s such a subjective thing, for one. And it’s a line, quite frankly, I don’t think society wants us teachers to cross.

But should we?

According to this article in The New York Times’ Education Life insert, boys experience a statistically significant raise in grades for good grooming, and a penalty for being slovenly.

Surprising? When one imagines the periphery traits associated with being a good student–being on time, polite, well-groomed–and considers that the nature of the human mind is to project identity based on superficial characteristics, this isn’t surprising at all.

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Bringing Joyful Back

by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY

Wanted to share with you all an excerpt from Linda Christensen’s poignant article, “Teaching for Joy and Justice,” from the most recent Rethinking Schools. I don’t typically like to excerpt things this long, but here Christensen earns a rare exception. She touches upon one of the central dilemmas of teaching, while offering a vision of education in which both parties, student and teacher, can feel a little better about themselves (and I mean legitimately feel better—not some kind of cheap, white-lie-induced lovefest, like when you tell your brother’s 5-year-old kid you love his drawing when you and he both know it’s bush league even by grade school standards).

My student Jerald taught me the importance of searching for a student’s talents instead of lining up his writing in the crosshairs of my weapon—a red pen. Jerald entered my classroom years behind his grade level. One day he sat at the computer behind my desk working on a piece of writing—a narrative, an imaginative story, I can’t remember. Jerald knew how to write stories and essays in the big ways that matter. He knew how to catch the reader-listener by creating characters and dialogue so real and funny or tragic that we leaned in when he read his pieces out loud. And the boy could out-argue anyone, so essays were a matter of lassoing and reining in a thesis and lining up his arguments. Jerald had been kicked out of most of his classes, so he came to my class about four times a day. He was placed in special education, and clearly, Jerald lacked the conventional skills that mark literacy—sentences, spelling, paragraphs—but he didn’t lack intelligence.

One morning during my prep period, I decided that I would teach Jerald how to punctuate. I printed out his piece where verbs not only didn’t agree, they argued. And Jerald, depending on his mood, either loved the comma or left it out completely. So on this day, I was determined that I would teach him where the periods and capitals went once and for all. “Come here, Jerald,” I said. “Let’s go over your paper. I want to show you how to correct your punctuation.” I bent over his dot-matrix print-out and covered it with cross-outs, marks, and arrows.

When I looked up, Jerald, instead of hovering, pulled away from me, from his paper. He looked at me as if I had betrayed him. I had become every teacher he’d had over the years, the ones who told him what he couldn’t do instead of showing him what he knew and understood about writing. Instead of telling him how beautiful his writing was, instead of finding what worked in his piece, I found every single thing that was wrong.

Ultimately, students like Jerald taught me to teach the writer, not the paper. Locating his brilliance doesn’t mean that I ignore what needs to be fixed in his writing, but I start the conversation in a different place, and I measure my critique. I show him one or two things he needs to develop in order to become a more competent essay or narrative writer. With each piece, I teach him a bit more about punctuation or grammar. He doesn’t have to learn everything in one draft. If we write frequently enough, he can practice and improve his writing, one essay, one narrative, one poem at a time.

If you want to read the rest of Christensen’s article, here’s the link: http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/23_04/joy234.shtml

Can I get an amen? I can’t tell you how often I’ve felt that tension between creating a positive classroom environment where students of all abilities feel valued and the other very real concern of dear-God-this-kid-can’t-write-a-sentence-to-save-his-life-and-it-is-my-moral-and-professional-obligation-to-teach-him-right-freakin’-now.

It is no fun to mark the hell out of some kid’s paper with a red pen (some teachers will argue, that’s why I do it with a green pen, as if kids were that easy to psychologically manipulate), and it’s no fun for said kid to receive said marked-up-to-hell paper. No fun + no fun = a really shitty time had by all.

I’m not saying education has to be fun all of the time. It shouldn’t be. Learning should, on occasion, be hard. As in, it’s hard to write a good paper. It’s hard to read dense historical texts. It’s hard to solve a geometric proof. I’m just saying it shouldn’t be joyless—no matter the content’s relative level of difficulty. Or we risk losing our students completely.

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