Sunday, September 25, 2011

Let's make this WORK!

OK, here are my ideas to take all the negative “reforms” happening in education and using those structures for good!

1)  Teach for America:  Instead of throwing these young, talented, driven people off the deep end into their own classrooms immediately, change the program into an internship program.   TFA teachers would be assistants in a certified, veteran teacher's classroom.  Think of the immediate positive impact they could make!   Think of the time and energy they could bring!  Think of how it will help both children and teachers!

2)  Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:  Instead of dictating how teachers should teach or how they should be evaluated, why don’t you focus your significant funds into wraparound services like health clinics, mental health services, pre-natal care, funds for full Pre-K programs, or food and housing programs?  Help combat the poverty which holds too many of our kids back so that teachers can better do what they do best:  teach!!

3) Charter schools:  Stop pushing out children who are difficult to educate and instead focus your time and energy SPECIFICALLY on those kids.  Use the innovation and lack of red tape to be a haven for these kids.  Do not market based on the test scores, but rather the innovative programs that help kids experiencing school failure, behavior problems, or learning difficulties.    How about a charter designed for a full hands-on experience to cater to kids with significant attention problems (Maybe TWO periods of gym a day)?  How about a school dedicated to getting kids out of gangs?  How about special multi-language schools where non-native English speakers are highly valued!?!

I will keep adding to this as I think of ideas….

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

You Can’t Mass Market Passion

After engaging in some light debate on a HuffPo piece by Whitney Tilson (, I came to a new understanding of what exactly bothers me so much about KIPP and TFA type “reforms”. 

For some reason, my thoughts kept coming back to the image of the veteran teacher who inspired Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin to start KIPP.   (Was that on Waiting for Superman?) I’ve heard them interviewed about going to this woman during their time in TFA and learning effective techniques to inspire kids.  They said they were so impressed they decided to start a school based on her style of teaching.

Basically, they took a good teacher’s good idea and mass marketed it.

My understanding is that KIPP teachers are expected to adhere to very strict guidelines including longer hours, being available by phone, and are taught specific teaching techniques to use and phrases to say.  (Kinda reminded me also of that silly binder TFA corp members are given.)   Now the thing that goads me is that many teachers do many of these practices already.  I know many public school teachers who give out their cell numbers and always take a call from a student or a parent.  Most teachers arrive early and stay late anyway.  And nearly all teachers are looking to improve their teaching techniques and may use many of the same ideas.
The problem is that the KIPP model tries to make their schools “teacher proof”.   Perhaps this is why teachers turn over so quickly there, they are expendable.  It doesn’t really matter if they work them too hard, as long as they follow the given rules, teachers are interchangeable. 

I could go on about respect and dignity in the workplace, but I believe there is a more fundamental problem with this type of model.  Great teachers may use many of the techniques that KIPP does, but they may also throw all those ideas out the window IF THEY DON’T WORK.  That’s the thing about teaching unpredictable, creative, impulsive, individual children, there’s no telling what they will do!  Listen to a teacher’s stories someday about the crazy unexpected things that happen on any given day in their classrooms.  It’s all part of the magic.

However, teachers who were never properly trained, who are relying on scripted curriculum and pre-packaged phrases are not ready to capture many of those teachable moments.  Part of being a professional is always adding to your practice.  And a seasoned teacher has a bag of tricks ready for nearly any situation.  

KIPP and TFA negate the autonomy, the creativity, and the passion that real powerful teaching requires.   It cheapens it into something that can be copied quickly.  “Do a chant in class and the kids will learn!”  Fine, that probably does work for some kids.   In fact, I love that idea.  I’ve used that idea.  But depending on the kids in front of me, sometimes that’s not the way to go so I try something different.  No wonder many kids leave charters, the young untrained teaching force is not prepared for their unique learning styles.  And then they blame the child.  I believe it’s called “no excuses”.

A school’s mission should be to give teachers the best possible learning environment and then let them do what they do best.  Figure out the puzzle that is each individual child. We have it backwards in America, we underfund, overcrowd, and stack the deck against even a good teacher, then we tell them what to do and tell them they’d better step in line or risk being held “accountable”.
Did the founders of KIPP forget that veteran teacher who taught them so much?  Do they really not recognize that great teachers like that are great not because of the “right words” or “right strategies” but because of the passion and creativity they bring?  The power to inspire a child cannot be cultivated without serious effort and time as well as encouragement and support.  And they sure can’t be picked up a “Teacher R’Us” and then replaced as needed. 

Let me pull from my bag of teacher tricks now…what is needed for teachers is more encouragement, support, and maybe a gold star wouldn’t hurt.  

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Class Warfare Within the Family

Over the past few months, I have begun to feel some tension within my family.  Just a little background, I grew up in an upper middle class home on the North Shore of Chicago.  My high school is notorious for its upper class snobbery and as a teenager, I spent much of my time at my friends’, well for no better word, mansions.  It was NOT your typical upbringing.

Recently, while spending time with my family I have begun to feel a greater and greater disconnect between myself and them.  I find myself uncomfortable at their fancy galas, awkwardly sharing drinks with my sister’s friends who are doctors, lawyers, and rich business people, and being dragged to various upscale restaurants and bars which I simply cannot afford.

I began to realize that my choice to become a teacher means I have moved to a different social class than my family of doctors and business people.  And the class gap is widening.

Now, I’m not saying I am completely upset by this change.  I find myself proudly joining ranks with union brothers and sisters.  I am impassioned to work side by side with the less fortunate.  I am glad that I am not so far removed from the suffering of people directly impacted by bad economic and educational policies.
But I find I have less and less to say to my family.  In many ways, they just don’t get me and they never will.  My sister works hard as a doctor, and I respect her dedication and drive.  But she is invariably surrounded by people who are of a similar social background, only coming into contact with lower classes through her patients, never as friends.  Her doctor friends complain of those “lazy nurses at Cook County Hospital” who are too protected by their union.  I always challenge them to question, “What bad practices caused the union to fight for those protections to start with?”  But the doctors do not care.  In their mind, the nurses are just plain “bad”.
Time and time again, I have been forced to sit through dinners and nights out with my sister’s friends who literally brag about the new diamond earrings they bought, rave about the condos they have invested in for the bargain price of 500 grand, and show off the latest designer bags or clothes they have purchased.  They complain that after student loans, they will only be making a measly 100 grand in their new job.  Sometimes I want to scream out “Do you realize that I will NEVER have that kind of cash thanks to my career choice?” Making a six figure salary is not in my future.  Nor is owning a home, a car, heck, I’d be hard pressed to keep a dog.   

But I love what I do.  I think I make an important contribution, in my small way, by working with the children and adolescents who have been left behind.  I love advocating for those kids, protesting for their rights, pushing back on systems that only benefit the diamond earring owners and six figure salary types.

Still, I do have regrets.  I find myself really really angry that people who are doing jobs like business or public relations are making so much more than I am.  I feel like what I do is ultimately the more important job.  And there is some jealousy there.  Jealousy, resentment, and the feeling that a deep injustice is occurring. 

I suppose I will need to just get over whatever it is that I am feeling.  I am just scared that if the people who I love and know to be thoughtful, kind, intelligent folks don’t care enough or know enough to be outraged by the growing economic inequality in our nation, what hope is there that change will ever happen?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What about the Kids? The Useless Battles of Mayor Emanuel, CPS CEO Brizard against the CTU

Currently in Chicago, there is a debate raging about Mayor Emanuel’s plan to lengthen the school day by 90 minutes.  I have watched some nasty comments be slung over the airways and in print for some weeks now.  The Mayor and CPS CEO, Jean Claude Brizard, have framed the debate to say that “courageous teachers” will vote to lengthen the day, regardless of compensation, because “it’s the right thing to do” while the Chicago Teacher’s Union is portrayed as a bunch whining obstructionists.

So I decided to take the debate to a group this new plan would affect directly:  the students.  I teach in a psychiatric hospital on a child and adolescent inpatient unit.  My job allows me the unique ability to interact with kids from all over the city and surrounding suburbs.  When I asked a group of about 15 students ages 13-17, about the plan, I got some very interesting responses.  Here is a sample (I have not changed any of the student’s spelling or grammar mistakes): 

“I do not think the Chicago Public Schools should lengthen the school day…because the school principle laded off alot of teachers because they couldnt afford to pay them but 1 hr and 30 minutes more how are they going to do it?”  --8th grade CPS female student

“No the plan of extend the school is a bad Idea because no child wants to stay more longer and even thought Just to keep teenage/childrens safe to 4:00pm  Still when they get out from school they still get killed. “  --7th grade CPS female student

“I don’t go to school so it doesn’t matter to me” --17 year old male former CPS student (He was held back TWICE, once in the 3rd and then again in the 4th grade.  He thought he was “too dumb” for school, had joined a gang, now was hospitalized for aggressive behavior at home.   Yet another kid pushed out of a system which discriminates against the low achievers.)

“No, I do not think the plan to extend the school day is a good idea because…at 2:45 students are ready to go home and are just thinking about plans for after school.  An extra 90 minutes students won’t have their full attention on school work anymore.”  --8th grade female suburban student

Only one student was in favor of the change, and his response is interesting because he drew from his experience in a charter school:   “Most charter schools such as Noble charter go from 8:00 – 3:55 which a extra hour these stundts often excel in both reading and math and they usually go to a great college” –17 year old male CPS student

Interestingly enough, since this student specifically cited charter schools as an example of how the longer days helps academic achievement, I asked him if he currently went to a charter school.  His response was “I did in 9th grade, but I was told to leave because of my emotional problems.”   Wow.  Yet another example of kids being “pushed out” of charters.  Seriously, this refrain is so common among the kids I work with, it’s really starting to upset me.

The kids got into a lively debate about this issue as I pushed them by saying “but don’t Chicago students need to do better in school?”  Their response was 1) that until teachers had better control of the classes, more time doesn’t matter (quality over quantity!)  2) School is too boring already and they are sick of the “multiple choice” work (a.k.a. test prep) and 3) a very big worry among my students was the possible later release time and the threat of violence.  They were very concerned about having to walk by certain corners or parks after dark.

They also agreed that they needed to “work harder” in school, but most of the kids already hated school so much, the extra time “makes me want to give up.” 

I really believe we have to look at what the actual experience of school is like for kids.  Running little militaristic schools which focus on compliance, obedience, and getting the right answer turn kids off to learning.  One boy described school as a “Chinese finger trap” saying "the harder the adults push us, they more we resist".  
The mayor and Brizard are not listening to the people whom these changes will affect the most.  We need to have a serious discussion about the real impact of this debate.   That doesn’t mean there isn’t some merit to having more time in the classroom, but the teachers’ and students’ concerns are important.  We need a voice in the conversation too.