Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Even I Get Tired of My Complaints

I was subbing the other day in a technology class and, since the regular teacher hadn't sent in lesson plans, his friend, the librarian, was explaining what the kids were supposed to do. That much is fine, but why did I detect a note of "this is probably too hard for you to understand or do much about" in his explanation? True, I am older and probably don't look all that technology literate, but why is that an assumption? I actually have a master's degree in computer science. True, it is a bit outdated, but I have learned things in the meantime. And the teachers who stopped by to pick up printouts also seemed to have that look on their faces, that "Gee, I am surprised YOU are in this job" look.

When I sub for teachers who are actually there and who explain the day to me, I also sometimes get that look. And, even sometimes from other teachers who stop by to help. Don't get me wrong, I am VERY HAPPY when the teachers nearby offer to help (or even just introduce themselves and make me feel welcome), but I am often surprised what they offer to help with. The things that I often need are class lists (why, oh why, do elementary teachers usually forget to leave a spare class list and, if they switch classes for a certain subject, a class list for the other class as well), schedules, a map of the school, directions on where to pick up the kids after they go to lunch and recess, where the copier is in case I have to make emergency copies. Instead, what I often get is questions about whether I can handle the curriculum for the day. That isn't, by the way, usually the hardest part of the day.

Which brings me to another question: why do teachers often give busywork (a puzzle worksheet, a movie with note-taking) to a sub? The students recognize that it isn't part of what they would normally be doing. It is actually harder to get them to do work that is "easier". They recognize that it isn't important and that the regular teacher will probably just throw out any papers they do while the sub is there. What regular teachers would consider an "easy day" has frequently actually been harder for me. The only conclusion I can come to is that the regular teachers don't have much confidence in the abilities of subs. Perhaps this is justified. But in many cases it is not. I have talked to a lot of subs over the course of my years subbing and many are retired teachers, others are people new to the area, trying to get a foothold in the school district. They usually take only jobs for which they are qualified.

Perhaps the reason the regular teachers are less confident in subs is that subs DO mess up at times. Part of the problem is dealing with normal classroom routines, which the teachers often don't explain - How are requests to go to the bathroom handled? Are kids allowed to go to the library during independent reading? What do you do when the kids don't have any pencils? How do you switch the overhead projector from the document camera to the laptop?

There are lots of things that the teachers assume the subs will know or that the kids will tell them. But often the kids will tell the subs the wrong things - yes, we are allowed to wear hats in class; yes, we can chew gum; the teacher always lets us do X... And, in a few classes, where bossy kids have been designated as "helpers", I have gotten so annoyed at the "help" that I had to ask the student to stop helping me - you have to push this button to get the overhead to work; no, it must be this button; well, maybe this has to be unplugged and plugged in over here; no, maybe that was OK, but this needs to be turned on (and by that time, the whole set up is hopelessly messed up). There are times when I just want to say, "I CAN read the teacher's directions by myself." But, of course, there are also times when the teacher assumes that all subs can work their particular kinds of equipment. Guess what, subs are never trained on using the equipment - and different kinds of equipment are set up differently, are activated differently, and fail differently.

Yes, the curriculum is usually the least of my worries. But I think that probably, for the regular teachers, it is the MOST of THEIR worries, so they assume that it will be the biggest worry for the sub as well. Regular teachers are used to their equipment, their routines, their school procedures, and they don't have to be aware of them - they just ARE. Delivering the curriculum is their focus.

That, and the behavior of the students. I usually DO get warnings about the problem students.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Another Class Size Rant

The other day I took a subbing job for math in a middle school. I taught 6 classes that day: 4 classes of 7th graders and 2 classes of 8th graders. The lesson for the 7th graders was particularly interesting. It consisted of two rather complicated word problems that the students had to figure out. But even more interesting than the actual assignment was the difference that class size made. 3 of the classes were normal size and one was exceptionally small, approximately 25 to 28 students vs. 9. I have no idea why this was so. The students didn't actually seem much different individually from the students in the other classes - that is, they didn't seem to have any special characteristics that were notable. They weren't exceptionally brilliant; they didn't seem to have any disabilities. Perhaps it was just a fluke of scheduling.

At any rate, I can't complain about the classes (well, maybe the 8th graders, but everyone complains about 8th graders). They all worked well on the assignment. The difference was the tenor of the classes. The small class just seemed to be much more personal. How much more fun it would be to always have classes of 9 to 15 students! Too bad it can't always be so.

Campaign against PDR - Public Displays of Religion

I am not religious. I have a core set of beliefs, mostly having to do with moral and ethical behavior. I also believe in the power of science and logic.

Given that, I must admit, I am increasingly uncomfortable with PDR - public displays of religion. I dislike the "in my face" aspect of it. My feelings about this are very much akin to my feelings about PDA - public displays of affection. I enjoy my own private displays of affection. I am comfortable with other people's private expressions of religious beliefs. But I am increasingly annoyed at people's public expressions of religion. Why do people insist on inflicting their religious experiences on the general public?

Source of Anxiety

It occurs to me that one source of anxiety for me lately is the overwhelming number of things that I am interested in. With the constant availability of the Internet, with the huge availability of the library, though inter-library loans, with the face to face Meet-Ups on a seemingly endless variety of interests, with all the Facebook friends and interest pages, with the magazines and newspapers that I get, with the long list of emails that I need or want to read, I am simply overwhelmed with stuff. If I were like my husband and narrowly focused on only a few areas of interest, even then I would be inundated with information. But I consider myself to be a generalist. It is one of the reasons why I have stuck with teaching. It allows me to be interested in a wide variety of things.

But recently, I have become more and more aware that it also causes me anxiety. I just can't keep up with the constant barrage of things that I want to read and the things I want to do. I actually have more time now than I have had in earlier years of my life - I am not working on a university degree, the kids are grown, I am not working full time. But that also means that I can develop new interests as well - I have started going to Meet-Ups for playing board games and for speaking German. Last summer, I started making jewelry. This past fall I started writing songs. Since I moved here I have been trying to attend regularly the World Affairs Discussion Group at our local branch library, where I am confronted continually with my lack of knowledge about history, economics, and international policy. And I want to remedy that lack of knowledge.

Perhaps this acknowledgement can explain some of the reasons that students know so little about the world these days. There is simply too much to know; too much to be interested in; too much to do. It is much easier to just focus on the easy things - the latest video game; the antics of pop stars; the latest songs. These things are straight-forward and do not require complicated understanding. Let someone else know the complicated stuff; there is too much for me to know - and by the time I learn about it, it will have changed, anyway.

I suppose other people have come to this realization already - so, again, I am confronted with the question of why should I care? Maybe I should just relax and give up even pretending to be a generalist - but which of my interests should I give up?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bored, or Not

It occurs to me that when I was in grade school, I don't think I complained about being bored. That isn't to say that I wasn't bored. I remember counting the dots on the ceiling insulation and trying to figure out how many there would be in the whole room. But I didn't COMPLAIN about it. I was the quintessential good girl. I did what I was told, did it well, and didn't question the decisions of the adults in my life. If my mother told me I was interested in dancing, I never even questioned her decision about taking dancing lessons. If my teachers told me I was good at math, I did well at math.

At my age now, I can't understand why I was so passive about things. Why didn't I learn to be more assertive? Is it a character flaw in me or is it learned behavior? In a way, I am annoyed that someone didn't at least try to make me more assertive. Even now, I struggle with accommodation. I want the people in my life to be happy and I try hard to mold my behavior so that they are. I suppose I should think of that as a positive trait, but I often feel that I have lost myself in the process.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Logic of Different Abilities

Here is why NCLB and its variations are utterly illogical. Given: people learn at different rates. Some people learn fast, some people learn slowly. Sure, the rates are uneven, but if you average them out over time, they will spread out over presumably a bell shaped curve. Result: If you are teaching each child to 80 or 90% of his or her ability, the curve SHOULD spread out as a cohort of children gets older.

To be more concrete: Let's suppose that one child can learn 100 concepts in a year and another could learn 110 concepts in a year. At the end of one year the difference between the two will be 10 learned concepts. At the end of two years, the children will have mastered 200 and 220 concepts, respectively, bringing the gap to 20 concepts. Each year the gap SHOULD grow. Even if the lower performing student is working to the MAXIMUM of his/her ability, he/she will fall behind. The only way this can be prevented is by holding down the top student.

In reality, the gap could potentially be much wider. I seem to remember reading that average kids learn concepts after approximately seven repetitions. Slower kids need more repetitions; faster kids can learn something with as few as 1 to 3 exposures to the concept. Thus, some students could learn as much as 10 times as much as some other students.

Look at this the other way around: Parents: are your special needs children falling further and further behind each year? Well, that means that the other teachers are doing their job. Your children aren't failures; some may be succeeding incredibly. Some of them may even outgrow their disabilities; others may not. But, even if their disabilities persist, they still shouldn't be deemed failures - nor should their teachers. Board of Education people: if the gap between your lowest students and your highest students isn't getting BIGGER each year, then you are holding your top students back (or the test can't measure adequately the top students' progress).

Yes, we should try to remedy any disabilities that can be remedied. But you need a different yardstick to measure progress with different disabilities. Some disabilities are permanent or semi-permanent and the best teachers in the world could not bring these students up to grade level proficiency. Some disabilities are not permanent and can be remedied, compensated for, or even simply outgrown.

But we also shouldn't deceive ourselves into thinking that just because the achievement gap is shrinking, we are doing a good job. It means that we are neglecting those students who should be moving faster.

If someone can point out the problems with this diatribe, I would appreciate it. Perhaps I am missing something.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Reframing Your Greatest Worries as Gifts

This is taken from Ken Page's blog in Psychology Today:

"Are there essential qualities in you which have sometimes felt more like a curse than a gift? Perhaps you haven't known how to handle them, or maybe you've had the painful experience of other people misunderstanding or taking advantage of them. Take a minute to begin to put words on these qualities. As you name them, you'll learn to honor them, and you'll come to understand your struggles, your intimacy journey and your life story in a new way."

Qualities that I sometimes feel are a curse, rather than a gift: my accommodation of others wishes - I sometimes feel that I am so sensitive to the wishes of others that I almost unconsciously shape my own wishes according to what they want, rather than stick up for my own desires. I value the sensitivity, but there are times when I wish I could turn off others' wishes and just act on my own.

Another quality - perhaps a penchant instead of a quality - is my need to analyze everything. Other people see this as annoying, but I am constantly surprised that, in spite of this penchant, I still miss such obvious things. This leads me to want to do even more of it.

Day 2 - Positive changes

1) Three new things I am grateful for: I am grateful for the excellent discussion I was a part of at the library today - and grateful that I didn't say something stupid for once. I am grateful that I am able to turn down subbing jobs that I don't want to do and that I don't have to take them just because I need the money desperately. I am grateful that I found the will power to take a walk today, even though I really don't care for exercise.

2) Journal about a positive experience. The World Affairs discussion group at the library today was one of the best that I have attended. We were talking about the news event that happened in Afghanistan. Someone (presumably American soldiers) was burning garbage and the locals discovered that, among the items in the refuse were some copies of the Koran. This caused the Afghanis to start rioting against the Americans. We explored the culpability of the soldiers and in a larger context the culpability of soldiers in general for unconscionable acts. Which led to a discussion of the Ugly American and cultural insensitivity as well as the In/Out group instinct. Very interesting. I like food for the brain - especially when I don't say things that are too stupid.

3) Exercise. When I got back from lunch with the WADG group, I made myself take a walk. It was a nice day and I walked to the bridge that is fairly near to Platt Middle School and back. I don't really enjoy exercise, but I did do it.

4) Meditation. I still don't know how to meditate, but I did take time to read for quite a while. Maybe that is going to be my form of meditation.

5) Random acts of kindness. I complimented one of my UWA/Facebook friends on her improved ability at a game we play with each other. I used to win all of the games, but she has gradually gotten better, to the point where she wins a fair number of games.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Evaluating Teachers

Years ago, when I was a new teacher, my principal was supposed to evaluate me.  He was supposed to come into my classes a minimum of 20 minutes and two separate times.  What actually happened is that he stuck his head in the door to my room once.  From this he wrote up my evaluation.  It was a run of the mill evaluation, except for two things that I remember very clearly.  He wrote that I had demonstrated no interest in furthering my teaching credentials.  Since, at the time, I was in the process of getting my Master's degree in Elementary Education at the local, and highly regarded, university, I thought that this was a rather bizarre comment and I politely told him that it wasn't accurate.  He refused to change that statement.  He wrote also that I never read the journals about teaching that were in the staff room.  Since I subscribed to several education journals at home, I didn't feel the need to read them at school.  He also refused to change this statement on his written evaluation. 

Fast forward to years later.  I was again up for evaluation.  Again, the criteria were that I was to be evaluated twice in the year for a minimum of 20 minutes.  This time, I was supposed to turn in detailed lesson plans ahead of time, discuss them with the principal, then actually teach the lesson, with a detailed follow up with the principal.  Only he forgot to tell me when any of this was to take place.  Finally, with the evaluation due, he told me one day that he needed to watch me teach a lesson THAT DAY.  Since there was no time to do the pre-lesson consultation, I invited him to come watch me teach a class right then.  Most of my classes were small groups, as I taught gifted, pull-out classes, but I had two classes with the entire grade level, teaching general social studies.  I invited him to watch one of these.  I taught what was one of the best lessons I have ever taught.  Things just seemed to come together for that lesson.  His only comment:  I forgot to summarize "what we have learned" at the end.  The evaluation was relatively non-committal, with scores in the middle of the range for most things.  When asked why the scores were that low, he said that he wanted there to be room for improvement.  There was no standard of comparison, nothing to say that that was an awesome lesson.

I have been evaluated in other teaching jobs, but, I must admit, I don't remember those evaluations.  Either the results were so average that I promptly forgot them, or they never took place at all and the principals just wrote an evaluation, based on their perceptions of how my classes were going. 

Thus, my experiences with teacher evaluations by principals have not been very positive.  What should have been a collaborative experience between the teacher and the principal, has not been one, in my experience.

But is the method of using test results any better?  What if Congress were judged on the number of bills they have passed?

Changing My Attitutde

I listened to a TED talk on creating lasting positive changes. The method involved 21 days of doing several things:
1) Make a list of 3 things you are grateful for each day. They have to be three new things each day.
2) Journal about a positive experience
3) Exercise
4) Meditate
5) Perform random (or conscious, whichever you prefer) acts of kindness, such as sending a positive email to someone in your social network.

Now, as a baseline, I think I am generally a pretty optimistic person - except that lately I have been plagued by self-doubt. That happens when you have been under-employed for a long time - and I have been. I am currently substitute teaching up to 4 days a week and I have a regular job on Wednesdays for 7.2 hours at $16 per hour. I think I am a good sub, but it is a tough job, and there is little chance for much positive feedback. Occasionally, I get comments from teachers I have worked for, but it is pretty rare.

The last two full time jobs I had, I had to resign - one due to health reasons and both because the kids were pretty awful at those schools. The full time job prior to that I also resigned, but that was due to the fact that the funding for the gifted program that I ran was cancelled and I didn't want to do any of the other jobs that were offered to me in that district.

So, in spite of the fact that I think I do a good job, I don't have a good job and it does get a bit depressing. Thus, this effort to focus on positive change.

1) 3 things I am grateful for: I am grateful that my mother made it through surgery OK; I am grateful that I could talk about it at my music lesson; I am grateful for a cat peacefully sleeping next to me right now.

2) Positive experience - in a day filled with anxiety, I guess one positive experience was the support I got from the secretary at my dentist's. She offered to fax a document I needed to send and was overall very helpful to me. People can be really great when you reach out to them.

3) Exercise - I swam 48 lengths of the pool. I actually count my laps in base 12, so I really swam 40(12) lengths of the pool.

4) Meditation - I am not sure how to do this. I think it is similar to how I get myself to sleep. I will find out more about meditation tomorrow.

5) Acts of Kindness - ah, well, there's always tomorrow. An act of kindness was given to me, though. A lady at the pool said that my swimming suit was perfect for me. I am too fat, but it is nice that someone said that the suit I wear looked good on me.