Where does an educator go from here?

I am fully aware that there is a bullseye on my back. As a teacher, this has certainly been the case for quite some time, but never has this been more obvious than in the past year or so. I’m not really sure when the anti-teacher sentiment truly got rolling — I honestly don’t remember this type of vitriol when I was growing up. But I’m not looking to turn this into one of those I walked two miles to school, uphill, every day stories.  (In actuality, it was about a mile and a quarter, and only uphill on the way there…)

Make no mistake about it — this is a critical time in the lives of ALL teachers. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, or South Dakota — it’s a critical time. Respect for what we do is at an all time low and people are quick to jump all over the system at the same time. I’ve heard all of the criticisms and I’ve shared my thoughts about many. But when you really take a step back and take a look at what is being proposed, I hope that you’re as appalled as I am.

This morning I learned more about the current reforms that are being proposed to alter the way education is “done” in Pennsylvania. Included are the following: no more carrying over of sick days, one pay scale that is based upon a bachelor’s degree only (so you will not earn more for having a Master’s or Doctoral degree), no bereavement leave, no sabbatical time, no tenure, and school nurses will no longer be required to be a Certified School Nurse. These are just a few of the things that are hidden in the current bill that’s working its way through the Pennsylvania Legislature — changes I might add that have not been out in the open for the public to see. So much for a need for transparency, I guess.

In addition, our school board conducted its discussion meeting last night and, as can be expected, had to discuss some very grim topics. An article detailing last night’s meeting can be found here. Simply put, this is definitely not a time that I envy the role of a school board member or an administrator who is in charge of trying to figure out what to do when the state suddenly feels that you are less worthy than you were last year — to the tune of $1.6 million less worthy. Making the decisions to cut programs that benefit students and whether or not to furlough teachers in these economic times cannot possibly be an easy one for anybody involved. We will all be asked to do more with less — and I realize that, but we have to be fair in how we make these cuts and changes as well.

What can’t be lost in all of these tough decisions is that we have to keep the most important factor in the forefront of our minds when we make these decisions: our students. We must all work together to ensure that everything is done to protect the educational experience that our students have come to (rightly) expect. We must understand that elective courses like Digital Communications and Basic Design and Chorus and Calculus and Yearbook are vital to our students’ educational experience. Life isn’t only about English and Algebra and French and Biology.

Lost in all of these decisions is the fact that the United States continues to fall behind in worldwide rankings of student performance. Do we truly believe that cutting funding is going to change this? I’m all for being fiscally responsible, but this slash and burn technique that so many feel is the way to go is not going to dig us out of any holes. Again, we must keep our students in mind when making decisions, and quite frankly, I don’t feel as though they’ve been in the forefront of the political agendas that have been playing out in the past year.

Reform in the field of education needs to happen — badly. This kind of politically based reform, however, is appalling and it should be appalling to every citizen in our country. Decisions are being made for all of the wrong reasons, and this needs to change — it’s irresponsible at best and it needs to change. I truly wonder if the people of Wisconsin would take back their vote for Governor Walker if they truly knew his intentions. The same goes for Governor Corbett in Pennsylvania. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if there are recalls in the works or how the next election goes.

In many cases, I find that song lyrics can sum up what’s going on in the world — this case is no different. In the words of Depeche Mode’s (more specifically Martin Gore’s) New Dress:

You can’t change the world

But you can change the facts

And when you change the facts

You change points of view

If you change points of view

You may change a vote

And when you change a vote

You may change the world…

How I would spend an extra $100 million for my school district…

In case you missed my last post, in which I briefly touched upon Mark Zuckerberg’s generous gift of $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey school district, you might want to go back and check it out. In addition, here’s an article from Fast Company that gives some more info on it. This got me to thinking, though – well, that’s not really true – a friend of mine asked me what I would do if this type of money was donated to my district and I had the power to make the decisions.

Amie asked me a great question, and it’s really been on my mind for most of the day. Let’s get real, the chances of a $100 million donation are pretty much slim to none – and the only thing less likely to happen would be me being the one to choose what would be done with it!

One thing that I want to make perfectly clear is that this is not an attempt to criticize my district in the least, we are certainly feeling the effects of the money crunch, just like everybody else – but we’re talking about a dream scenario and $100 million!. That being said, these are the things I would look to improve with this type of money, keeping in mind that this is used to improve the physical much more so than the philosophical changes/improvements that are necessary:

  • I would make the necessary improvements to our buildings first – there are roof problems that have enabled leaking to happen, there are rooms that need to be painted, there are carpets that need to be pulled up and replaced.
  • I would renovate our gym at the high school – this is the part of our school that is seen by the general public more than any other and it needs some updating. It needs to be brighter and more inviting.
  • I would build an auxiliary gym at the high school that included a swimming pool and learning how to swim would be mandatory (way too much of our world is water…) In addition, this auxiliary gym would have an indoor track as well as a fully stocked and supervised cardio room – we need to place a greater emphasis on the need to stay physically active and this needs to be a lifelong goal.
  • My friend Amie actually touched on this in her response, but it’s actually something that almost happened last year: I would dedicate space to create a big time garden. Beyond the obvious lessons being taught in how to build and maintain this garden, the “products” will be incorporated into school lunches, which brings me to…
  • I’m bringing Jamie Oliver in on a consulting basis and we’re going to make sure that our students — all of our students, K-12 — are eating better. Our current company does what it can, but they’re still looking to make a profit – I’m not trying to crush them here – but there’s so much more that can be done. Because of this money in pocket, the district will take over all aspects of food service with the idea of creating healthy, balanced breakfast and lunch options for all students each and every day. Making a profit will be a secondary goal.
  • I would bring in the following to provide additional motivation on in-service days: Sir Ken Robinson, Dan Pink, Taylor Mali, Steve Snider and Paul Murphy.
  • I would build a skate/roller blade/biking park on the school’s property much like the Peach Plaza Skatepark at Twin Lakes. Ryan Parker and a staff would man this area.
  • I would install a rock climbing wall.
  • I would bring in RSAnimate to work with teachers in order to get even more creative with their lessons. Seriously, how incredibly awesome is this company and what they do?
  • I would bring back the concept of In School Suspension and staff it full time. I spent time in In School Suspension and also served an Outside Suspension. Trust me, there’s no doubt as to which serves as more of a deterrent, in my opinion.
  • I would get even more technology into the hands of ALL of our students. I think our district has worked very hard to do this and they should be commended for this. But I would take this even further — whether it be an iPad or a NetBook — our students need and deserve to be 1:1 with technology.
  • I would hire Dave Vuick to be our full time Technology Integration Coach at the High School and I would make sure that there is a Technology Integration Coach assigned to each of our other buildings. I would make sure that each Coach is provided the time to work with teachers in small groups or 1:1 so that they become more comfortable with incorporating technology into their lessons.
  • I would increase the amount of afterschool programs and make them mandatory for those students who are having any type of difficulty in school – whatever that difficulty may be. Again, this is something I think my district works hard to do, but I know it can always be better if you could do the things you want when money isn’t an issue. These programs wouldn’t simply be remediation; our students can never have too much exposure to the Arts – this will be another opportunity to bring in guest artists and speakers.
  • I would make afterschool programs available to parents/grandparents/retirees/anyone interested in our district. The taxpayers, if they want, should be able to take advantage of the things we have to offer also.
  • I’m bringing in Ray LaMontagne for a special concert and songwriting “conference.” (Okay, I’ll freely admit, that one’s specifically just for me!)
  • I would hire two people whose sole job is to search and obtain grants for the district. We do have somebody who’s writing grants, but it’s one of many, many responsibilities. These two people will have no other responsibilities and will be awarded bonuses for reaching certain levels of success (and before anybody tries to call me out on this, I have no issues with doing this same thing with teachers, as long as this isn’t based upon the idiotic standardized tests that are currently in place).
  • I would strengthen the security in each and every one of our buildings. I do believe that it’s pretty good already, however, I would go to a swipe card system for all employees and I would also hire greeters whose job it is to handle the checking in of visitors. In our current system, it’s very difficult for the secretaries to handle this duty, especially when they’re away from the entrance to begin with, and they’re expected to do this on top of everything else that they’re already inundated with. The swipe cards would grant access to each teacher individually – in other words, if I’m a technology teacher, then I would have access to my room and the computer labs. If I’m a coach, I would have access to the fitness center, the gym, etc. (And, for the record, this technology certainly exists – we were using it at my past school district over 10 years ago.)
  • I would make sure that there are ample counselors in each building who are available both before school and after school – some of our buildings don’t even have one.
  • I would expand our current system of professional development to include national conferences. A teacher who wants to continue the learning process is a tremendous model to our students. Having this money would allow these trips to valuable conferences to happen.

I’m sure that more will come to me and that I’ll be adding to this list. Please feel free to chime in with your ideas – it’s perfectly fine to dream, isn’t it??

The times, they are a-changin’

Part of the issue when it comes to bashing teachers is that those who are doing the bashing aren’t actually in the industry. Yes, I know, this isn’t a real “a-ha” type of statement, but it’s really what it boils down to. Those who are making the claims, and in some cases who are also driving decisions that affect education, haven’t stepped inside a school or a classroom for quite some time. I’m here to tell you that today’s school environment is very, very different than the often romanticized view that many still maintain.

Think back to your elementary school years. Typically, we have fond memories of these years. Learning was fun, we loved to go. We didn’t wake up dreading the experience, we looked forward to it. We didn’t question why we were doing what we were doing, we did it and learned in the process.

Now think back to your junior high/middle school years. This is where things started to change. Typically, we had more freedoms (elective classes) and moved around to a new subject every 45 minutes or so. Our bodies were changing and so were our attitudes about school. It became much more social. Seeing members of the opposite sex (and for some, the same sex) became our top priority, not learning about x’s and y’s and gerunds and participles. We discovered love, but really didn’t know what it was. We began questioning things, but typically these questions were unspoken.

Moving on, let’s get to our high school years. Changes continued. We suddenly knew everything and nobody could tell us anything contrary to this. We pushed the limits. We got our driver’s license, got a job and thought even more about love and that girlfriend or boyfriend. We experimented with all of these things, did things we shouldn’t have done and all along thought we were right. All the while our teachers worked to wrangle us in and actually teach. We sat and we got. (My dad had this theory: the job of the junior high was to pump our heads full of hot air; the job of the high school was to get it back out of there). And then we moved on.

I’d actually be willing to say that those descriptions are pretty similar for most of us. In fact, on a small scale, they also apply to today’s students. But there is one big, HUGE, exception. The lack of respect that students have today for anything beyond themselves is absolutely, positively dumbfounding. These students have been told from the very beginning that they can do no wrong. (Enter Natalie Munroe-like comments here at your own risk). And this is where the problem ultimately lies, in my opinion.

If you haven’t been in an elementary, middle or high school in the past 10 years, then you truly have absolutely no clue of the current conditions. I can’t even begin to put into words just how much this lack of respect has increased over the life of my career. You would be shocked to see how some of our students speak and act on a daily basis. And while the vast majority are absolutely awesome to work with, it’s this vocal minority that ends up taking up the time and attention of those in control.

I’ve often said that there are few students who had more fun while in school than I did. And I was certainly no angel. At the same time, I would have acted much worse if it weren’t for one thing and one thing only: a healthy fear of what my dad would do to me at home. This fear, for the most part, no longer exists amongst our students. As just a short aside, in 9th grade I faced a choice from my Assistant Principal – a paddling or a detention. After finding out that taking the detention brought with it a call home while the paddling did not, the decision was easy. Avoiding that call home made those smacks worth it.

Keep in mind that I work in a pretty darn good school district, and, for the most part, some absolutely incredible students. This being said, we all must take responsibility and be held accountable – and this includes the parents who don’t want to parent, but rather be friends. We live in a feel good society and we need to toughen up. As teachers and as a district – heck as a system in general nationwide, we need to toughen up. We need to become realists, not everyone is great. Not everyone is going to end up on Jeopardy! competing against Watson (or creating Watson! for that matter). Some of us are going to fail; some of us are going to succeed. Such is life.

Effort creates ability is a tag phrase that’s been used in my district for the past 10 years at least. I couldn’t agree with this statement more, but there’s something inherent in this statement that gets lost on many of our parents and students today, the idea that effort is necessary. It takes a strong effort to learn. It takes a strong effort to get better every day. It takes a strong effort to say, you know what, I’m not that good at chemistry, but I’ve been working at it and I’m getting better at it, so maybe if I work even harder, I’ll do even better. It takes a strong parent to demand excellence and instill in our students a desire to get better in everything we do.

On our end, we need to raise the bar. We need to stand up and demand more of our parents, our students, and, most importantly, ourselves. WE need to get past this adversarial relationship that so many have these days, come together and then figure out a way to get our students back to the top, where they need to be. Make no mistake about it, though, there’s no shortcut to achieving this. No KIPP school or TfA teacher or charter school is going to achieve this without an extremely diligent group of concerned people working their butts off to make it happen. We need to move past the idea that we can teach the same way we did in the 50’s, 80’s, 90’s or whatever we’re referring to the first 10 years of this century as. We need to realize that the landscape of our environment is very different, we need to adapt and we need to do everything we can to accept it and excel in this environment. It’s an exciting time, make no mistake about it.

As teachers, we need to value the input of both our students and their parents in this process; reciprocally, this must also be true. Our society must learn to value those who are going out of their way to try to make our society’s children better on a daily basis. Teachers in foreign countries are treated with respect; we deserve this as well in our own country.  Our priorities are all out of whack.

On a different note, dropping $100 million into the Newark school system so that you can hand pick a system that you THINK will work is not only against the state’s laws, but just doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. But because Mark Zuckerberg owns a gazillion dollar company, we take that money and give him a voice – even when that voice doesn’t make much sense. Keep in mind that Newark is currently spending $22,000 per student per year. Think about that number – it’s just absurd. And, just in case you were wondering, they are graduating a whopping (roughly) 50% of its students. You read that correctly. Obviously, throwing a ton of money at them is not the answer.

Turning our schools around is more of a philosophical problem than it is a monetary problem. Don’t get me wrong, well-spent money can certainly help the problems, but we need to get on the same page philosophically before any improvement will ever truly occur.

Natalie Munroe, you’re killing me…

I’m sure it comes off as a broken record, but I’m a free speech kind of guy. That being said, Natalie Munroe, what in the world were you thinking?? There is such a thing as tact (and I’ll freely admit that I haven’t always exercised a tremendous display of this – cue laughter from some colleagues).

Natalie Munroe is the teacher who was suspended with pay for recently being discovered as the creator of a blog that was critical of students and parents in the Central Bucks East School District. She never referred to students by name and never identified herself beyond Natalie M. (although she did post a picture of herself on the site as well). The title of her site is/was “Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket? and while she shut it down, the cached version of her response can be found here.

I don’t doubt that anybody in the field of education has had their fair share of students and parents and co-workers who have caused all kinds of frustration. Heck, I think you’d be hard pressed to find any field that doesn’t have these frustrations. But to post in your blog the types of things that Munroe did concerning her students and parents? Well, that’s just stupid. Yeah, you might get a chuckle out of these things, but c’mon, putting these things out there was idiotic.

This might not seem to be as easy as some would make it out to be. Yes, there are elements of the First Amendment at play here, but teachers also have things known as morality clauses in our contracts. Defining morality is a slippery slope, but I can understand those who say she’s violated her contract by doing what she’s done.

Munroe has said that she did this to share her frustrations with her family and friends. If this were truly the case, then she should have locked this down as much as absolutely possible and made it accessible to only these people. I get it, I’ve certainly vented at times – a lot, at times. But again, this just isn’t something that should be made public – and if she didn’t understand just how public this would go before, well, I’d guess she completely understands it at this point. To think that anything you post on the internet at this point is completely private is unbelievably naive.

I do believe that as teachers, we also have to take responsibility in trying to alter the objectionable behaviors. I’m not saying this to excuse the behaviors – but there are times that we need to look at ourselves as well. Have I set up a classroom environment that enables this type of behavior? Am I properly structuring my lessons in a manner that engages the students who are causing the problems? Am I seeking the advice of others? Have I contacted the parents in the attempt to get some help from home with these issues? Without being in her shoes (actually, in her classroom), it’s difficult to truly get a feel for the entire issue.

There is one thing that I do believe Ms. Munroe has nailed: “There are serious problems with our education system today,” she wrote. “If this ‘scandal’ opens the door for that conversation, so be it.” She doesn’t want to be the martyr and she shouldn’t be – but if this gets people talking – and working to improve the situation – then so be it.  If nothing else, perhaps this will truly get the conversation going even more.

For the record, I can understand the “lazy” and “loafers” sentiment. But I see this all around me, every single day in more than just students – and I am absolutely certain that I was looked at in this same light by my dad and his dad. This tends to be the way of the world. These weren’t the truly objectionable comments, though. And if you stuck with just the mainstream media this week, then perhaps this was all you thought she had said.

As a person who works with students by teaching a Mass Media class, I think it’s been interesting to see just how the media has been handling this “case.” Overwhelmingly, I think the media has been too soft on Munroe – the vast majority of the stories I’ve read have stopped short of printing the truly objectionable pieces (note: this has changed as the story has progressed). I always thought the idea was to present the whole story and allowing the reader to determine an opinion. Call me old-fashioned, I guess.

It’s an interesting topic, to say the least. In this day and age of teacher bashing, while Munroe may have had the right to say what she did, she didn’t exercise proper caution, digital literacy and tact in doing so. The conversation that truly needs to happen, in my opinion, is one in which we are able to get everybody back on the same page concerning what we need to see happening in our educational system.

We need for everybody to get on board and realizae that we can’t truly be successful if we aren’t working toward the same goal – which must be increased student achievement. This means we need to establish high expectations and standards out of all of us – administrators, teachers, students and parents. We need community support; we need school board members who drive their decisions based upon what’s best for all students, not an agenda they had to get them elected; we need a long term goal.

I know that I’m getting off the topic of Natalie Munroe now, but we need the space race, so to speak. We need a sense of urgency. So what should that goal be? For my money, I think it should be a race to find the cure for cancer, but that’s another topic and another post.

Natalie Munroe, I’m pretty certain that you didn’t mean to call this attention to yourself, but it’s there. Your 15 minutes have started. Now do something with it. And if you don’t then all that you’re doing is enabling students and parents to come up with their own assessment of your abilities.

Some links if you’d like to read more:

Time Magazine: How one teacher’s angry blog sparked a viral debate about the modern classroom

AOL News: This article has the more objectionable comments that Munroe made in it

Should we ban fiction from the curriculum?

NO. Absolutely not. No way. Hell to the no. NO.

Okay, that’s out there. I feel better after having typed it, I really do. So let’s take a deeper look at it.

Grant Wiggins started this call – and I don’t really care if he meant this piece to be satirical or not – he’s too widely respected (by myself as well) and too many people are running with it, one way or the other. And while I wholeheartedly agree that we need to infuse more non-fiction into what we are teaching, as well as more up-to-date pieces of fiction, to ban it? C’mon now (as my kids would say).

When I first read of this – on Mary Beth Hertz’s wonderful Philly Teacher blog – I immediately thought about a piece that Thomas French introduced me to when I took part in an ASNE Journalism Teacher’s Academy about 10 years ago. The piece expresses what I want from what I read better than anything else I’ve ever come across. I have shared it with my students on the first day of classes ever since:

Here’s what I’d like you to do for me: Make me laugh.  Make me cry.  Tell me my place in the world.  Lift me out of my skin and place me in another.  Show me places I have never visited and carry me to the ends of time and space.  Give my demons names and help me to comfort them.  Demonstrate for me possibilities I’ve never thought of and present me with heroes who will give me courage and hope.  Ease my sorrows and increase my joy.  Teach me compassion.  Entertain and enchant and enlighten me. Tell me a story.

— Dennis O’Neill, The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics

I mean, come on – how brilliant is that? And while I’ve read a lot of great pieces of non-fiction, I’m having a really hard time thinking of any right now that have done what O’Neill describes above.

I know that our English Department worked really hard over the past year to update our selections. We work by theme and updated these as well – we’ve moved past The Scarlet Letter and The Good Earth and other pieces the kids just weren’t relating to and we’ve replaced them with The Book Thief and Fences and Catcher in the Rye. We’re continuing to look for even better pieces for our students and providing independent reading opportunities as well. And I’m proud of our department for recognizing and acting on this need.

Please read that piece by O’Neill again. We all want that, don’t we?

Pieces that I have had the opportunity to teach that would be wiped out if this actually happened. This saddens me when I look at this list…

The Book Thief, Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, Raisin in the Sun, The Great Gatsby, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Anthem, Animal Farm, anything by Shakespeare, The Crucible, The Outsiders –  and the list goes on…

Jonathan Alter exemplifies the sorry state of today’s journalism

As a teacher of Mass Media, I take great interest in current events – and pay particular attention to how they are presented. Admittedly, it’s getting easier to teach students what not to do using examples from the writers of today. While I don’t like teaching things in this manner, necessarily, it can be a very effective way of doing things. As an aside, I much prefer to use pieces like The Hard Road, written by Thomas French, and Final Salute, written by Jim Sheeler.

Which brings me to Jonathan Alter’s latest piece for Newsweek. A Case of Senioritis, Gates tackles education’s two-headed monster is, quite possibly, the definition of a puff piece. Actually, it’s a shameless plug for everything Bill Gates, and Mr. Alter should be ashamed, to say the least. Because of the money Gates wields, his voice is heard – especially when those like Alter are willing to forget the principles of Journalism as they were taught.

To be fair, Alter does mention that Gates previously spent $2 billion to break up larger schools into smaller ones, reducing class size at the same time. He did mention that Gates has now come to the realization that class size has little to do with the issue – that it’s the quality of that person who’s leading the class that matters, but the topic of attack du jour is now seniority and seniority pay.

Alter refers to this as the two-headed monster of education in his piece. According to Alter, “After exhaustive study, the Gates Foundation and other experts have learned that the only in-school factor that fully correlates is quality teaching, which seniority hardly guarantees. It’s a moral issue. Who can defend a system where top teachers are laid off in a budget crunch for no other reason than that they’re young?” These statements are based upon the oversimplified idea that all young teachers are the “top teachers” and that those with experience are not. And this is just preposterous. In terms that are certainly more blunt, this is actually offensive – and both Gates, and more specifically, Alter – should be held accountable for propagating this idea so freely.

I’ve said it many times before – there are lazy teachers and teachers who just aren’t that good or passionate about what they’re doing at every level – first year teachers and 30th year teachers can be equally as ineffective – and for very different reasons. They can also both be exceptional – and it’d be nice if both Gates and Alter would recognize this for once.

Alter, in his tribute to all things Gates,  takes some pot shots at the “jaundiced” Diane Ravitch as well. He does so without giving her the opportunity to defend herself or contradict the statements that Mr. Gates has to say. A little one-sided, wouldn’t you say? Well, I would. And I’m living for the day that people like Alter and Gates and Davis Guggenheim, of Waiting for Superman notoriety, actually take the time to sit down and allow someone to refute their faulty ideas. They don’t have the guts to sit down with Ms. Ravitch, though. They’d rather just sit down with Alter and the likes of Oprah – people who are going to advance their cause sans logical questioning.

Perhaps the most appalling part of Alter’s piece, however, is allowing Gates to get away with the following: “In most states, pay and promotion of teachers are connected 100 percent to seniority. This is contrary to everything the world’s second-richest man believes about business: ‘Is there any other part of the economy where someone says, ‘Hey, how long have you been mowing lawns? … I want to pay you more for that reason alone.’ Gates favors a system where pay and promotion are determined not just by improvement in student test scores (an idea savaged by teachers’ unions) but by peer surveys, student feedback (surprisingly predictive of success in the classroom), video reviews, and evaluation by superiors. In this approach, seniority could be a factor, but not the only factor.”

As a teacher, I am greatly offended at this comment that Gates said and Alter printed. I mean absolutely no offense whatsoever to the landscapers of this world – they work extremely hard – but this analogy simply makes no sense. It’s a classic example of somebody giving a faulty analogy and using faulty logic. Actually, let’s ask Mr. Alter if we could simply change the quote to the following: “Hey, how long have you been writing articles?…I want to pay you more for that reason alone.”

Or, for that matter, let’s continue to compare things in an inaccurate manner in such a manner: “Mr. Alter, you’ve been writing for X number of years, and you just wrote a piece that demonstrates absolutely none of the journalistic principals the industry was founded upon. Because of this, and the fact that Newsweek is hurting for money big time, we’ve decided to let you go and we’re bringing a new young buck because he is young and therefore must be better than you.”

Faulty logic. And it runs amok in Alter’s article. Actually, I think I’ll just stick to French and Sheeler – I’d rather my students aspire to be better than Mr. Alter, his position be damned.

An open letter to Bill Gates…

Due respect, Mr. Gates, but you have no clue.

None. Nada. Zilch.

Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, in this puff piece — or ode to you, if you will — published on Newsweek.com today, does everything but say that you are the savior that our educational system needs right now (I’m saving my critique of Mr. Alter for tomorrow – I’m so beyond disappointed in this piece of “journalism” that I need some time to cool off).

Mr. Gates, you are now calling for larger class sizes – of course, I guess we’re to forget that this is a complete 180 from your former vision of smaller schools and smaller classes. So let’s just throw some big time money at the wall and hope that it sticks this time. And since your name is Bill Gates and Newsweek is kissing your butt, more and more people will mistakenly think this is the way to go.

Beyond your extraordinary wealth, what exactly are your qualifications when it comes to education? Do yourself a favor and move beyond the pay system. If you truly believe that merit based pay, in which the merit is based upon a high stakes test score, well, then I’d like to know what you’re smoking — or who your advisers truly are. This is beyond a joke and you need to come to this realization. You’re obviously an intelligent guy — why are you so blind when it comes to this topic?

While I agree with you when it comes to seniority pay having “little correlation to student achievement,” I think that people need to truly understand that the converse of this is also true. A new teacher does not guarantee a good teacher any more than experience guarantees a good one (or a bad one as so many people are wont to say these days). I wish that people could truly come to this realization sooner rather than later. You should know better than to base your theories (and comments to Newsweek for that matter) upon such a horrid assumption. By the way, I’m with you on the rest of your ideas concerning how pay and promotion are determined — just not by basing it on these idiotic tests. And please don’t take my disdain for these standardized tests as not wanting to be held accountable — this would be the furthest thing from the truth.

Mr. Gates, your influence is incalculable. Do yourself a favor and sit down with some teachers. Don’t announce that you’re coming. Don’t take a television or documentary crew in with you. Just walk in, observe and listen. I have a feeling that any school in the country will grant you the visitor’s pass to do this. Ask the teachers for an honest response concerning how these high stakes tests are ruining our system of education. Ask the teachers what kind of support they’re getting on a daily basis from the parents they need to have this support from.

And then quit blaming seniority and teachers in general. Are lazy, bad teachers partly responsible? Absolutely. But no more so than the lazy, bad parents. Or the lazy, bad administrators, for that matter. We all must take responsibility to turn things around. And you could help us greatly in turning this around. (By the way, why is it that nobody will take the parents to task for their misgivings in this situation??)

While on your visit, take the time to speak with some of these new teachers. These teachers who are the supposed saviors are being poorly prepared to teach. The state of our nation’s training programs is — well, it’s just horrendous. Walk into their rooms unannounced and see just how ready — or not — they are. And I hope when you do this that you truly see what is going on in our schools — both the bad AND the good. The vast majority of our teachers are caring, well-educated human beings who are doing everything they can even though we are being trashed on Oprah and by Davis Guggenheim, and now Newsweek.

The money you’re throwing around right now is being wasted. Your investment is failing you and the return will be small, if anything. If you want to be a reformer, then you need to truly do your homework. And if you’re willing, I’d love to have you come to Greensburg Salem High School’s Room 273. I’ve got some great kids who’d love to speak with you as well. I’m 100% confident I can get you that Visitor’s Pass.

I love to read… (or, please don’t take my books away for the sake of pushing the iPad on me)

You know, I truly love reading. I always have – my grandparents started me early, and I have a vivid memory of reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit in about 3rd grade. I was captivated by the characters – and scared by them as well. I’ve learned, I’ve traveled, I’ve been brought to tears, I’ve been inspired, I’ve been scared, and I’ve escaped — all through the power of words and the ability of some incredible writers to take me to a different place.

I try to impart this love of reading on my students each and every day. I think it’s important that we impress upon our students that we can find whatever we want on the pages of books that are at our disposal at all times. But I’m worried about where we are heading with technology. I’m all for using available tech in order to reach a reluctant reader. I’m just not sure that we need to believe that this is the absolute future, so to speak. I’ve heard constantly that the iPad will streamline reading in classrooms – that it will save money and that it will be the vehicle for all to read. I’m just not so sure about this. And I would also like to make it clear that I have no problems using them as a supplement, just not a replacement.

First of all, they are pretty darn expensive. Yeah, yeah, yeah – I know – so is a class set of Elements of Literature — and let me go on record as saying I’m also not a fan of using the anthologies (first and foremost because I think they lead to laziness on the part of the teacher). But there’s a lot more involved in that brilliant piece of technology that starts at $499 per. Are we getting class sets or are we getting one per student? Are we letting the students take them home or are they to remain in the room? To me, this is the crux. Schools will argue for class sets – that this is all that’s needed – that this is the way to save. But lost in this argument is the idea of instructional time. Now my students will need to be provided the time to read in class – valuable instructional time that’s now been taken away. Valuable time where learning is fostered is now lost to what will be nothing more than a gimmick to many, leading to even more laziness. Beyond this, let’s take a look at support for the technology. Who’s going to take care of these? The way I see it, we’d be lucky to get three years out of each – maybe a little longer if we’re very diligent with their upkeep and care. I’ve seen this to be the case with most laptop carts we’ve had in our district. Try as we may, we’re still dealing with students who aren’t always the most careful when handling technology, no matter how thorough the teacher is in promoting their care.

And while I’m sure that some schools have seen success in their use, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that this is always going to be the case. Seton Hill University unrolled a promotion this year in which every single incoming freshman received both an iPad and a 13″ MacBook pro. Don’t get me wrong, it’s enticing, and most incoming freshmen probably don’t realize that these weren’t truly just given to them. I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to speak to some former students attending Seton Hill, but came across an article entitled Reacting to the iPads that was recently published in the Setonian Online. Read it and you’ll see some mixed reviews. The possibilities are certainly endless, but you’ll see students who aren’t necessarily using them for their intended purpose: “I really like the iPad, I just don’t see the necessity of it. I love technology, so I’m definitely not complaining, but I don’t use it much for school work,” freshman Laura Homison said. (Bonus point opportunity to the first of my Mass Media or Yearbook students who happens to read this and brings that quote in rewritten the proper way according to AP style…)

Now let’s be fair. For every Laura Homison, there’s probably another student who is using the iPad “properly.” But I also think there’s something to be said in the following taken from the article: Most textbooks for the iPad also lack tools for highlighting and annotating text. I know, I know, I’m not letting my students write in the books we have for their use. But at the college level, when students are paying for each book, this is an advantage that comes along with each purchase.

In my teaching career of 13 years I’ve noticed a sharp rise in the amount of students who are reading for pleasure and I think that this is partly due to the Harry Potter series as well as the Twilight series, despise them as I may. I have to give them their due, however, as they have both persuaded many reluctant readers to find something else to read after they’ve finished them – the gateway to more reading, if you will. Pretty hard to begrudge them for this, no matter how sick I am of sorcerers, werewolves, and vampires.

And I’m a tech kind of guy, so please don’t take this as me being against the use of technology in the classroom, I’m just not much for the use of this technology as a replacement for hard copies of books. There’s something to be said about having that tangible copy of The Book Thief in hand. Being a collector of books, there’s something to be said to see them accumulate, knowing you’ve accomplished something as you put each newly finished book in its proper place on the shelf. As I’ve moved around through the years I can tell you without a doubt how cumbersome my book collection has become to both pack and unpack. But I can also tell you how much I have looked forward to unpacking the books from their boxes and getting them organized in their new home.

I think it’s important that we model a love of reading for our students. It’s important for them to see us as readers and to also see that we pursue lifelong learning through reading – in whatever type of genre that may be. And it’s important that your librarian is as militant in her love of books as ours is at Greensburg Salem. If you don’t have a Carrie Vottero in your school’s library, you’re missing out. Truly.

As for my favorites, well, I’m asked this a lot. In the picture below can be seen the books I most frequently recommend, with the exception of the aforementioned The Book Thief, which is currently on loan to a student. Each of these books has helped to form who I am, has gotten me to where I am today. (From left to right: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Le Petit Prince, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (graphic novel form), The Hunger Games, Native Son, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, High Fidelity, The Big Sleep, Road to Perdition, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Steppenwolf)

I once attended a conference for teachers of Journalism and had the opportunity to hear Thomas French, formerly of the St. Petersburg Times, speak. He provided us with a handout that summed up what writing was to him. At first, coming from a comics writer, I discounted it as not possibly being serious enough. The more I thought of it, though, the more I realized the idiocy of this thought process. At the simplest level, Dennis O’Neill, in his forward to The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, nails what he expects of a text when he reads anything. It’s something that’s stuck with me ever since and I’ll leave you with it. If you’ve gotten to this point in the post, you deserve the reward of something great, as opposed to my rambling on and on…

“Here’s what I’d like you to do for me: Make me laugh.  Make me cry.  Tell me my place in the world.  Lift me out of my skin and place me in another.  Show me places I have never visited and carry me to the ends of time and space.  Give my demons names and help me to comfort them.  Demonstrate for me possibilities I’ve never thought of and present me with heroes who will give me courage and hope.  Ease my sorrows and increase my joy.  Teach me compassion.  Entertain and enchant and enlighten me. Tell me a story.”

Does this part of the profession ever get easier?

I received word today that two of our school’s former students passed away overnight. While one was never a student of mine, news of her being murdered by her boyfriend is sure to hit our students hard tomorrow in school. The other former student, who died in a car accident, was an extremely active member in our school – she was a star on our Mock Trial team, a valued member of our Newspaper Staff and just a fun kid to be around. Making this even more difficult is the fact that her younger sister is currently a senior this year.

Dealing with death is never an easy thing to do, we all know this fact. But we have had to deal with an inordinate amount lately – and I’m really not sure that this part of the profession was ever explained to us in our schooling. I’m not sure how to deal with the questions dealing with why this keeps on happening to “us.” Off the top of my head I just counted 13 former students who have all passed away tragically over the past 10 years. Obviously, that number is just ridiculously high. You’d think that I’d know what to say by now, that I’d be prepared to comfort the students who need my support. But I don’t. Heck, right now I’d like some questions answered myself.

While I never had the student who was murdered last night, this news hit me just as hard. Immediately, I was taken back to February of 2006 when I was told of another former student’s death at the hands of her boyfriend. Jessie was also a valued member of our Newspaper staff and I remember the numbness that immediately took over my legs. She was the first student to ever beat me at Scrabble and I remember just how proud she was to rub this in (I deserved it, I gloated about beating her all the time…) It’s still hard for me to open up the closet that holds the pink Care Bear she got for me as a thank you before her graduation. It was just all too familiar when I heard the news today and then only compounded when I heard of Cathy’s car accident.

I want to lead. I want to know the right things to say. I don’t want my kids to see that I’m numb. And right now I just want to figure out how to get through tomorrow.

“Teach” – a reality show in which Tony Danza becomes a teacher…

I’ve been known to watch a reality show here and there. Okay, honestly, I’ve worked hard to wean myself off of the hours worth I used to watch each week. I still can’t quit Top Chef, but there are some doozies I’ve worked hard to leave in my past. (Real World, Road Rules, Real Hous… okay, I’ll stop right there…) So I have to admit that I was drawn to Teach for many different reasons. Beyond the obvious fact that I’m a teacher, there’s that whole I tend to like reality television angle. And there’s the whole I’ve really liked Tony Danza ever since first seeing him on Taxi angle as well (c’mon, he’s not that bad!)

So let’s start with the obvious problems with the show. We are told from the onset that Danza always wanted to be a teacher and was sidetracked by his acting career. What we aren’t told, unless we take a deeper look, is that his degree was in History Education, not English, the subject which he is teaching in this show. Beyond this, I’m guessing that he’s working on an emergency certification, but there’s never been any talk of this beyond the fact that there is a “teaching coach” in the room with him at all times. It’s obvious that some on the staff have accepted Danza, while others, including an Assistant Principal and Principal seem to resent being saddled with this experiment.

One angle I continue to find laughable is just how tired Danza is through this process. He’s constantly discussing just how worn out and exhausted he is — and he should be, he’s helped with both the football team and marching band. He’s sung the National Anthem at a Phillies game and helped the Mayor keep his wife happy. So why shouldn’t he be tired, you ask? Well, here’s why: he’s teaching ONE CLASS. Yes, you read that right, but let me expound — he’s teaching one 45 minute class a day. Mr. Danza, if you want to see tired, try hanging with those who do this same exact thing day after day, week after week, well, you get the picture. I don’t think Danza would argue with that statement, but there are those out there who constantly put our profession down who need to get the message.

There are plenty of legitimate arguments as to why this never should have been permitted to happen; including the fact that there are many, many qualified teachers who I’m sure would have gladly appreciated the opportunity Danza was provided based upon his desire to get back to his original goal in life. Perhaps the most important argument is the fact that a group of students was being provided by an unqualified teacher for a year, and a few of these students had no issue lamenting this fact.

I found myself liking the show, however. While keeping the flaws mentioned above in the back of my mind, it’s hard not to like Danza. He’s humble. He’s a hard worker. He cares and is unafraid to admit his failures. He’s experienced the ups and downs that all of us have experienced and has let those watching see these struggles. He’s doing this in an urban school that is in a pretty tough area, not some posh, affluent school that some would expect to see for an experiment like this.

The cynic in me wonders if he’s simply putting on a show in order to re-launch a floundering career through what’s become a regular route. The optimist in me — for those who know me, yes, there is a little bit of an optimist in me, thank you very much — wants to take Danza at face value – after all, he isn’t that great of an actor.

It is obvious that Danza has grown to care for his students; he genuinely seems to want to help them in many different facets, the least of which is through his teaching of English. For their part, the students don’t seem as though they’ve been coached — positive and negative behaviors abound. They’re both critical and complimentary, harsh and kind when speaking of Danza — and he probably deserves all of it. (I’ve always said that you can fool a lot of people — but good luck fooling the students.)

I like that Danza is so open in this documentary style show and that he is willing to listen and learn on a daily basis. I like that Danza’s respect for teachers has grown exponentially through the process. And I like the fact that the viewer is able to see all of this about our profession as somebody who has succeeded in other forms of life has struggled in ours. Danza’s principal explained to him, on his first day, that teaching is an art. Danza has respected this art and brought light for many to said art. Perhaps some ignorant people — you know, the ones who think they can simply become a teacher should all else in life fail — might see just a little more about what makes our profession so difficult — and so rewarding.

I’ve got Teach on my DVR schedule and it makes for some good Saturday morning entertainment. More importantly, it is something that brings our light to many people in a positive way. Here’s hoping more people see it — and learn from it.