And what I’d like….

Recently the Boston Globe ran an editorial in support of gift limits for teachers.  I can’t relate.

First of all, working in a high poverty, urban school district, I don’t have the experience of parents buying outlandish gifts at the holidays for junior’s teacher.  Sorry. It’s all my families can do to put food on the table and pay their rent.  The thought of a parent purchasing a spa card for me just is not on my radar. I say this without regrets or envy. And honestly, some of the money amounts written about in the Globe editorial ($2,000 is an amount I remember), are outrageous. They may not be intended as such, but it sure seems like a kind of bribery or influence that could get in the way of honest conversations about children and their schooling.

I don’t need monetary recognition or rewards from parents. Really.  When I worked in a private school, I generally asked parents to donate to a local charity — if they were so inclined.  I don’t really want for anything. And now, as a teacher in a high poverty system, teacher gift-giving puts pressure on any parent who is struggling to make their paycheck last.

So here’s what’s on my “wish” list:

I would like our elected officials – those in charge of money allocations for school budgets – to stop short-changing school systems. The budgets are cut to the bone. Less is more is getting just a bit tired.  In my world, less just means I fund what supplies are needed from my own pocket. I’m not talking about construction paper for optional art projects here. I’m talking about binders and notebooks and pencils and tissues.  Yesterday a Globe reader wrote a letter citing a amount close to $500 per year paid out of pocket by Minnesota teachers as if it were outrageously high.  Well, that is. But I routinely spend between $100 and $200 a month on my classroom.  You do the math.

Secondly, I would like the Globe to stop talking out of both sides of its collective mouth.  You can’t trash teachers and the teachers’ unions one day and then kiss up that teachers need parent respect in the form of some recognition the next.  Gratitude starts with you, Boston Globe.  Either you respect what teachers do or you don’t. Stop whining that teachers are unfair whenever we don’t go along with the privatization, whether it’s vouchers or Charter Schools, and when we point out that we are not teaching commodities but actual humans who have variations bean counters can’t even fathom.

And lastly if one really wants to thank me, write a note telling me about something you appreciated.  Better yet, send a copy of the letter to my Principal or Superintendent.  Day in and day out teachers hear all manner of disrespect; after a fashion that takes a toll on even the most confident of educators.  How refreshing and totally appreciated an unsolicited compliment would be!

So in the spirit of the holidays, I offer my Christmas wish list.

Why Do You Teach?

This afternoon’s email brought a solicitation from the AFT: Why do you teach and what do you and your colleagues need to do the best job for your students?  It is the why of something I have been so passionate about for more than 22 years that is difficult to put into words.

Why do I teach? At first I went into teaching because my grandmother, for whom I had been named, had been a teacher in the early 1900s. Having never known my grandmother, who died when my Dad was 9, I was of course fascinated albeit enamored by the thought of her. So, from the age of 8 — I remember it distinctly — I have wanted to be a teacher.

I, in fact, left teaching for a while to pursue other more lucrative jobs in business. One layoff too many, and I found myself rethinking my career choice again. This time with a lot more maturity, I bucked the trend of going from education into corporate jobs, studied and obtained my M.Ed.  I became an elementary school teacher.

I taught back then and I continue to teach now because in the end, it is a profession that challenges me each and every day. That’s the selfishness in me speaking — I thrive on the challenge of change. In 22 years, I don’t believe I’ve had any two years alike enough to recycle lesson plans with any regularity. Each year is a new invention.  Just as each student I’ve encountered over the span of my teaching career is different, so must the delivery of instruction be redesigned.  It is the pursuit of making a positive difference in the learning life of a child, the ability to turn a child on to loving reading — and mathematics — that moment when my students “get it”, that exhilarating high of seeing students grow and approach their own potential that cannot be replicated in any other profession. It doesn’t hurt that every once in a while a student calls me “mom” — most times I take that as a high compliment.

I truly believe that it is our societal responsibility to provide all students with an education — not just a select few, not those who pass an entrance exam.  This is why I choose to teach in urban public education.  It’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s not often appreciated. And oftentimes what happens is unbelievable. I don’t always mean that in a good way.

If you’ve ever read any of Jonathan Kozol’s writing, you know and understand that we — that’s the gigantic and collective “we” — owe our most vulnerable citizens the best education possible.  We owe them the possibility of a better life.  I teach because I wish to be part of that solution, even if it’s for just one child.

Teaching is something of a religious experience for me. I believe that I am impacting — positively most of the time — my students’ lives. I am passionate about doing the best I possibly can. That means keeping up research, talking to other educators when I can’t figure out how to reach a student, reaching out to parents who may not want to reach back, covering my behind and filling out paperwork. But most of all, it means putting the possibilities of learning out there for students to see, to feel, to experience and to value for themselves.

It’s more than I ever imagined.

Asking Questions, Forming Equations

Some part of the ARRA money allocated to the Lowell Schools is being used to give teachers time to look at assessments and collect data about how our students best learn.  Grade level teams and cross-grade level data teams have formed since late summer all with the purpose of methodically looking at our assessment data and making decision about what to do next.  We use the ORID protocols to analyze our data while the mechanism for assessment of our own teaching is the process of Learning Walks.

My grade level, Grade 3, has been contemplating a mathematics inquiry that will help us improve our instruction and, ultimately our students’ learnings.  The development of the question has taken us in a circuitous route through methods for comprehending a particular operational skill (multiplication) to the question we’ve agreed upon this morning: What does best practice look like when we are teaching our students to generate or identify a correctly constructed equation matching a word problem situation.

We’ve noticed that our students, particularly our ELLs, meet the standards for whole number computation.  However, many students, regardless of whether or not they are ELLs or native speakers, cannot for the life of them select a reasonable equation to match the word or story problem.  This is critical mass for our kids — the bulk of the MCAS testing that will take place in the Spring requires students to decipher story problems in just this way.

Those of us who have a strong background in Constructivism dislike the very idea of teaching students “key” phrases:  for example, in all means to use an addition equation. Personally I feel that there are other ways to get kids to comprehend the problem and generate equations from their understandings.  I want my students to visualize the events in a story and be able to logically create an equation that will get them to an answer.

But what about of kids who have so many language issues that visualizing is not a strength? Is there another, better way? The data analysis tells us there has to be – at least with the students we are currently working with. As my colleagues and I work through this cycle of inquiry, we will be peeling away our preconceptions; this can be pretty scary.

Our next meeting will begin the process of researching what might work with our students, and maybe, we’ll invent something new.  Now that would be something!

Lies and Damned Lies

This past week, the  local paper featured several “news” articles about the school where I formerly taught. The principal at the school was given notice recently that his contract would not be renewed due to MCAS, our state educational yardstick. There is no equivocating that the Superintendent of schools has a right to do this: principals work without contract in this state.  However, the aftermath of this sad moment in a school’s history made me wonder what in heck is wrong with people today.

The local paper carried a page 2 article which, in summary, stated that when the above-referenced principal announced to his staff that he would not be returning for the 2010-2011 school year, he did so by lambasting the staff for failing to get the MCAS scores where they would need to be.  When I read this “account”, it seemed rather curious. Only a moron would further demoralize a teaching staff already on edge because the administration was changing by such unprofessional behavior. I was acquainted with the principal in question, having worked at the school during his first year’s assignment there. Such an outburst truly seemed out of character — yet there it was in black and white for all to see. It was in the paper — it must be the truth. Newspaper reporters fact check, don’t they?

Later the same week, the current staff — the very people who would have been sitting in the meeting during the alleged lambasting — categorically and without prompting denied that the reported events happened. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The principal complemented his staff for their efforts and received a standing ovation.  How could the newspaper report have been so inaccurate? To date, there has been no retraction. The only way the accurate accounting of events has become known is through word of mouth. Not gossip. People who were actually sitting in the room and who are now trying to correct inaccuracies one ear at a time.

Well, I do have a few thoughts about such phenomena  — plural, because who knows how often such blatant, mean-spirited misrepresentations occur and no one hears the truth.  Educators work in a profession that no longer carries any respect. It used to; but now it is much more convenient to blame educators for the evils of our society.  We’re easy targets – too busy to make a big stink and  out there sucking up tax dollars,. Or so it would seem to those who would like to ignore the common good or their responsibilities in a democratic society.

When it comes to spending public money, no one wants to spend much on public schools. It’s much more easy to cut or withhold desperately needed funding by vilifying public education and the people who are dedicated to it. The press around public education says nothing about what really goes on in a classroom.  I can’t actually recall much positive press unless of course you count the feel good sports stories after the Thanksgiving Day football games.

Some of our elected officials would be better informed if they actually set foot inside classrooms and stopped relying on agendas put out by small-minded publishers supported by sloppy reporting. It would force those in a position to champion public schools to abandon efforts to dismantle public education — the education that is available to all.

However, it’s much more  convenient to read and believe misrepresentations reported as truths. This week’s local news article is just one more example of such.

32 and Counting….

This month marks Adrien’s and my 32nd anniversary.  We met in college when he asked if I would be his piano accompanist for a student trumpet recital… I would not. “Juniors do not play for freshman” — I hear about that with reliable frequency every time my ego gets in front of common sense.

I am writing this post on the eve of  December 7 — the date printed on our wedding invites — even though we were actually married on December 17th.  Back in the dark ages of 1977, wedding invitations were sent to one printer who presumably could not possibly be reached by telephone to make corrections (perhaps the phone wasn’t yet invented) — the date was only one of many on that printing job (just how many “e’s” are there in ceremony?) And printing screw ups were just one in a series of now-comical faux pas marking our wedding day; none of which seem to have affected the actual marriage.

Thirty-two seems an incredible number to me. One that is marked with many ups and downs.  The highs have been exhilarating — we’ve celebrated new jobs, new careers, new homes, incredible travel, and a lifetime of landmarks around our son, Matt. But the test of time has been in the lowpoints — job losses, family deaths, serious illness. It is the fabric of our life together, and Adrien has been the rock, the friend, who has been there to celebrate and to worry through any and all of it. How lucky I am that my best friend is my partner through it all.

No one can anticipate what the future holds, but I feel confident that no matter what life throws at us, we’ll be just fine as long as we are there for each other. To paraphrase Lou Gehrig, “I’m the luckiest (wo)man on the face of the earth.”   Happy Anniversary my friend!

Is Letter Writing A Lost Art?

Yesterday’s poll on Reading Rockets asks the question “Is letter writing (formal and informal) included in your writing curriculum?” While most respondents said yes, 20% said no. Some comments went on to say that letter writing is important, but in our society today, very few people actually write letters any longer.

Our Third Grade Writing Calendar focus in December is letter writing. In my classroom, we refocus and clarify some misunderstandings the students have developed as we write letters all the time.  The students are required to write a Reading Response Letter to me at least once a week, we have penpals in another state, and we write thank you notes as needed.  My own thinking is that functional writing such as Letter Writing is and needs to be…. well, functional. We learn as we use. Yesterday, I demonstrated a few tricks for lining up heading, closing and signature (a partial “pinch” in the half rolled page) and used the vocabulary of letter writing more purposefully, but really, we’ve been learning by doing since September. Don’t take my word for it though, here’s more from Reading Rockets Blog.

Granted, my most common form of personal communication today is either email or IM/Texting. So why teach letter writing? Well, I for one enjoy the feel of a letter in my hand — one that comes in the mail with a postmark from some known or unknown locale. I enjoy reading and rereading letters when I receive them; it makes me want to respond and keep the conversations going. I’ve noticed this same reaction from my students when we correspond to one another through Reading Response letters. Children always flip through their Reading Notebooks to find what I wrote back — and inevitably, I’ll get that child’s new response back in my In Box before the end of the day. None of us wants to break the chain.

So for me, letter writing is not lost, just somewhat unappreciated in our lightening speed world. There’s a place for electronic communications and even if I had the choice, I wouldn’t be able to live without it. But there is also a place for a thoughtful, well-written letter. I don’t plan to join that 20% not teaching letter writing any time soon.