Field trips are not just a day off

The writing demands, and by that I mean the required monthly student work, in Grade 3 is driving me. We are asked to produce a student response to reading sample monthly – something that is sorely needed by my students. MCAS, soon-to-be replaced by whatever literacy testing the Core Curriculum invents, asks our students to read and respond to a text. On the surface that doesn’t sound too awful, but it usually end up being very challenging.

Starting at “ground zero” as we often do in urban districts, our students seem to not have much experiential background, and therefore schema, for connecting texts to the outside world. With funding cuts, the schools are no longer able  provide the field trips needed to expand this knowledge base and that’s really hurting students, especially second language learners and high-poverty students whose families don’t have means to expose them to “things”.

Most, if not all, of my students have never been to Boston – a 17 mile trip from Lowell. When we talk about the State House, when we talk about Lexington or Concord… these are all just theoretical places to them. How I wish we could take our students to walk the Battle Road, to see where the laws that impact them are made, to connect to the world around them. Even though we live about an hour’s drive from the ocean, many of my students have never walked along the beach front or heard its thundering roar.

If I was in charge of education funding, I would be sure to include these experiences for learners. They provide invaluable schema with which to make connections and that is something the unending rounds of testing can never achieve.

Defining “Good” and “Bad” Teaching

Since when does a nationally recognized newspaper purport expertise on what makes an effective teacher?

Since this morning, April 19, 2011 when the Boston Globe published an uncredited editorial entitled: Ed Commissioner’s Plan for Teacher Evaluation Gets It Right. Apparently all that is necessary for teacher evaluations is some evidence of the following:

Effective teachers routinely impart a year-and-a-half-gain in student achievement over the course of a single academic year. Three or four consecutive years of exposure to that level of instruction can eradicate the achievement gap between low-income and high-income students. Bad teachers routinely secure just a half-year of student progress over the same period.

That’s right, unless your students routinely make a year-and-a-half gain in the course of one academic year, you must be a “bad” teacher. Really? Where did you get that particular piece of data, Mr./Ms. Globe Editorial Writer?  Because if true, those teachers at high performing schools may not be “good” teachers — their students may not be growing academically by a year and a half either.

We all know that there is a real need for real evaluations of educators – and I include administrators too. I’ve taught under good ones and I taught under pathetic ones. I’ve also received children from teachers who clearly hadn’t a clue and that makes me crazy too. No child should have to put up with it either.

Clearly some kind of evaluation that is constructive is needed – as opposed to the punitive “everyone in education is crap” platitudes coming from business types who really haven’t a clue what it is to deal with a human and therefore ever-changing “product” or from newspaper editors who simply and insidiously use their highly inflammatory language to sell more newspapers.

So, Uncredited (do you really exists – show your face coward!) Globe Editorial Writer, if you have some data showing that “good” means a year and a half of growth please enlighten us. If you are pulling this data to support your thesis out of your rear-end or basing your editorial contribution on your own baggage and prejudices, you should be fired.

Uplifting the Soul

This time of year, the weeks before “real” spring arrives, challenges me.  The winter debris, the salt and sand, litter, the ugliness of a still brown landscape make me anxious for a spring that arrives according to its own timetable.

So yesterday, in an attempt to shake out of the depression that has been enveloping me, I took a personal day to visit the Museum of Fine Arts. For some weeks now, I have been anticipating Dale Chihuly‘s “Through the Looking Glass” exhibit. The beauty of glass – blown glass especially – has been a fascination of mine since I saw a glassblower work on a fifth grade field trip to Greenfield Village in Michigan. I have always found the molten mix of sand that begins as a bubble at the end of a tube and ends in shapes and colors wondrous.

The exhibit, which will stay at the MFA through August 7, takes your breath away. The camera does not even come close to capturing the beauty of not only shape, but color. Here are some photographs from the exhibit. There are no words to describe the wonderment that “Through the Looking Glass” instills.

Busted…. and giving it up

There is nothing like returning from a sick day to the chaos that has gone on in a classroom. Oh I know there are wonderful substitutes out there – and I’ve actually had the pleasure of experiencing one or two of them – but lately, whenever I’ve had to be out, it hasn’t been a pretty re-entry.

I know children aren’t exactly on their best behavior when the regular teacher is not present, but what went on in my classroom yesterday was incredible, IF the children can be believed.  Despite rewriting my plans to be more “user friendly”, i.e., more on the worksheet and packets, less of the inquiry-constructive, despite my colleague laying out all the materials needed, what went on in my classroom yesterday was a puzzlement. The substitute reportedly came 15 minutes into the school day (okay, maybe there was a late call), and sat at the desk while the children did whatever. Seriously? Oh, and none of those carefully constructed learning activities, the ones I dragged myself out of bed at 5 am to rewrite while my throat throbbed uncontrollably? Not a single thing was touched – nope, not even the homework was distributed.

What did the kids do all day? Again, if the kids are truthful – they are very skilled in truthiness – they played games with each other, talked, and otherwise wasted a day. Which brings me to the next topic of this rant.

Noticing that nearly all of my paper in our Writing Center had disappeared (about a ream and a half), and noticing that fans, paper airplanes, and other crafts continued to pop up in the room, I used my powers of deduction – that’s why I am the teacher – to figure out that the kids had been taking this valuable supply.  They know the rules so, sub or no sub, they know they shouldn’t have been wasting school resources on airplanes. So, I stopped what we were doing and confronted them.

The story became so squirrelly with he-said-she-saids liberally distributed into the conversation that everything had to come to a halt.  I sadly have a group of students who find it challenging to admit to mistakes; they find it much easier to throw their peers under the bus, even when the peer’s participation in the “crime” seems out-of-character. After giving the kids a blast about wasting our valuable school supplies, along with a does of guilt (“I am so disappointed with the choices you’ve made…”), I asked each student to write about anything they witnessed that would help me discover the truth — and if they had anything further to say, they could include that as well.

I got the gamut of course: boys accusing just the girls, girls accusing just the boys, children who “don’t even know how to make a (sic) airplane”.  My favorite letter is this one:

Dear Mrs. Bisson

I am not going to lie to you. I did not use alote (sic) of your paper I used a little and now I see I am wrong. I am so sorry to dissapoint (sic) you. I hope you can forgive me.

Oh and almost everyone was using paper

Sometimes it’s hard to keep a straight face.