Monday, November 21, 2005

Teaching in Japan

I love EducationWonk. He puts links together so we don't have to. Go over and read this, and all the linked pieces as well.

See, I feel I can actually speak to this, being that I taught in Japan for three years. From 1988-1991, I taught at a junior/senior high school in-between Osaka and Kobe. (I'm not going to name it here, because... well... the whole anonymous thing).

I am not an educational researcher; I don't understand it all. No, I'm a classroom teacher. I've been teaching for 18 years, and plan to do so for the next 18. I hope.

When I got off the plane at Osaka airport, I was 24, and other than "Domo Arigato" I didn't know a word of the language. I had signed a three-year contract with a private and very prestigious girl's school, and I was thinking "What the hell have I gotten myself into?"

Several times over the next three years, that thought would go through my head.

Many people have heard of the J.E.T. program, but I wasn't a part of that. I actually was credentialed by the Japanese government to teach English as a foreign language. Most westerners can only stay a year; I had a 60-month visa. Don't ask me how I got it. The school I worked for hired me in Chicago, took my passport, and it came back to me with the visa magically inside.

I digress.

Actually folks, this might be a bit of a story. I'm not going to get to it all tonight. I'm bushed.

I'll write again tomorrow.

Friday, November 18, 2005

There's this woman at work

We've known each other for several years; went to the same credential program. She was an elementary teacher, but is now teaching social studies and English at Unnamed Junior High School. She teaches a block of each subject twice a day with an extra social studies thrown in at the end. She has to teach this way (combined subjects) because of her multiple subject credential.

Anyway. I've written before how the top guns are pressuring the English department to all teach the same thing at the same time and the same way. We must have common assessment you know. And how could we do that if we dared go off and teach allusion and figures of speech with our own chosen story, rather than Raymond's Run on page 377 in the Holt Literature book?

The members of my department agree that this is ludicrous, but also realize that we have to address it (placate our administrators).

Not Ms. G. Nope. She's going to do her own thing, damn it. No working together at all. Yesterday the eighth grade English teachers met to discuss what we would cover during the last part of this semester. We have a basic overview of the standards we address each quarter specifically, but that's not enough for our bosses this year.

What we all but Ms. G. decided was that no matter how we teach Response to Literature, or Literary Devices or whatever, we will use the short, multiple choice quiz from the Holt book for each section. These quizzes are written in that same weird-ass way the STAR test is written (you know, testing the writing standard by having the students proofread an essay? Like that makes a lot of sense), and they are short enough that they don't take away from our teaching too much.

And it makes Mr. Principal and Ms. Vice Principal happy. It's not a bad way to make sure we are all teaching the same thing, even if we do go about it in different ways.

Ms. G. is having none of it. "I teach Response to Literature" all the time. I don't need to do an assignment from the book or give them a test to know what I'm teaching."

I know how she feels, but on the other hand, after reading the quiz questions, I know that there have been some holes in terms of how I teach particular standards. Writing a Technical Document? I kinda skipped over that one most of the time. Idiomatic phrases? I'd talk about them as figures of speech and similes and metaphors, but did I use the term "Idiomatic Phrases"? Probably not.

There is a good thing in all of this, and that's making sure that no matter which teacher a student has, no matter what texts are used, we as teachers can cover specific standards, using the same language in each of our classrooms, and use these little 20 minute quizzes to inform our teaching.

Problem is, it's not enough for the top brass, and asking too much of our creative "don't fence me in I'll do it my own way" teachers.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The year of the Meeting

I have another one this morning before school starts at 7:45. I should get going.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Is there a school district in California which actually cares about its teachers?

COLA is 4% this year.

Our district would not even begin discussing contract items until November 1st. Said they hadn't figured out their "budget" yet, so couldn't bargain.

So we waited. Of course, they had no problem immediately withdrawing $105 a month from every single employee's paycheck for "increased health care costs." And, of course, even though I'm a department chair, that stipend has been missing in action for the first two paychecks of this school year.

Okay, so they came to the table finally this month. Offered, get this, 0% pay increase, and a 1% increase in what they pay for our insurance. Which means instead of a $105 decrease in our salary, it would be reduced to a $95 decrease.

Oh, and they want to change some contract language. Add an additional required night of duties (we all must attend back-to-school night), for a "Spring Open House" and add 6 adjunct hours of duties for the individual school administrations to assign in any way they see fit.

There's more. Special Ed. and ELL have teacher's aides built into the contract. Now the district wants to take the required number of hours and aides away. Let the individual school decide if the funds could be better spent somewhere else.

Have you ever been in a special ed class? I was an aide for seven years before I became a teacher, and it was all in special ed. Monday I observed a so-called "resource" class. There were 14 students, a teacher and 2 aides, and it was still mayhem. None of the students are at the same level, so some are working on algebra while others are trying to add negative and positive numbers. In addition, some of the kids were emotionally disturbed, some with learning disabilities, and others, well, I don't know. Tell me, how is that teacher supposed to meet her students' needs if the school decides it can't afford the aides?

So, here we are. November 16th. No contract, no raise, nothing.

Every year it's the same thing. We end up having to fight, and attend board meetings, and call people and walk around with signs... just to get what the state has already sent down for us.

Why oh why are teachers the last priority when it comes to this?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Spelling errors, their corrections and keeping a straight face

English teachers (and, I suppose, other teachers) have stories after a few years of spelling and word choice errors made by their students.

I taught in Japan for three years in the late 1980's, and I got some whoppers of mistakes. One that charmed me was a student's attempt at"enthusiasm" on a spelling quiz.

She wrote on line 6, "Susie Adams" (who was another American teacher at our school.)

Another student wrote this sentence for "volunteers":

"I had many fallen tears when I took the English test."

So cute.

The winner of all time however was not in one of my classes. Oh no, it was a seventh grade honors class, taught by a friend of mine. The students were writing autobiographical narrative essays. Ms. HK was working hard with them to put action in their writing, showing not telling and all that.

Well, one girl wrote about falling off her bike and cracking her head open. In the paragraph describing the actual fall, she wrote of the cement "rushing up and then slamming" into her face.

Except, she wrote "Cement" with an "S." And then spelled-checked it, and then clicked, "Replace" with the word spell-check suggested (have you guessed it yet?).

So, the kids are peer-editing, and this girl's partner is frantically waving her hand;
"Ms. HK, I don't think this is right... is this right?"

Ms. HK is dying, trying to stifle her laughter, as she reads what has been written. The two girls know something is odd, but aren't quite sure what's up. Ms. HK just scribbles out the word with her purple pen (because red has such negative associations) and spells the word correctly.

Sometimes I do love my job.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Go and read this if you haven't already

Just found it tonight: NCLB in your face.

I wish I could be that eloquent.

Another productive in-service

So, yesterday was another minimum day. The teachers had a "luncheon" in the cold cafeteria (yes, it even gets cold in California, especially when the heat is not turned on. It was about 60 degrees in my room yesterday and closer to 55 in the cafeteria for lunch). I've emailed and called about the heat in my room not working, as have several other teachers, but no answer. This goes along with the fan system (no AC for us) that also wasn't working when it was 92 degrees in my classroom in September. Ah, it should toughen us up, right?

Anyway, we had an in-service after lunch. Which was held at school to keep us from actually leaving campus, eating at a real restaurant, and perhaps coming back three or four minutes late. I've heard from Mr. Principal, "I don't want to see you parking at one o'clock, I want you in this room and seated at one o' clock."


So, it was an in-service from NCCJ, which used to be the National Conference of Christians and Jews, but is now the National Conference of Community and Justice, or some other more politically correct name. Mr. Principal found it this summer (It's been around since 1927), and has now decided all his teachers should take part in it.

Actually, as a teenager, I was quite involved in NCCJ. Went to the national convention when I was 16. I told Mr. Principal that, and was informed that I should have gone to the conference this past summer. I told him I would have liked that. He told me that an email was sent to every one about it and frowned at me.

um. No it wasn't. No one on staff got it. Of course, we all got 34 copies of the November faculty meeting agenda, because Mr. Principal doesn't understand that he doesn't have to hit "send" more than once when emailing us, and that, just like an elevator, it doesn't make the email go out any faster.

This is the same person to whom I made several telephone calls to last July, after I found out about a conference about equity in the classroom that was being given a few towns over. Not only would the county ed office pay for it, they would actually give stipends to teachers who attended. Did Mr. Principal know about that one? No. Did he get back to me? No. Did I miss the conference? Yes.


So, we're having the NCCJ meeting in the quads, all 49 teachers plus assorted aides and counselors, and we are all still cold. Heat doesn't work over there either. We watch a video on a detracked ninth grade class in Los Angeles. They read and then have great discussions about literature and what it means. The "low" kids and the "high" kids are all given equal voices in the class. It's great, but...

We are the English department that has been told recently that we don't have time to teach novels. We don't have time for discussion of students' personal connections to literature, because it's not on the test. Who cares what they think? Critical thinking skills? Can't test those. Listening to other points of view? Well yes, of course that's important, but not as important as our API score or whether or not we hit our AYP.

For the first time yesterday, since I started teaching, I lost hope. Just briefly. The thought that I don't want to be doing this anymore passed through my mind.

I became a teacher because I love learning. I love the kids, I love teaching, but I love learning the most. Finding new things to understand and new ways to understand them. If I can help others learn to form their own opinions and then articulate them, in both the written and the spoken word, what more could I ask for?

But that's being discarded and forgotten about. Now it's about what is being tested. Can he identify a subject and a predicate? Does he understand the poetic form of a ballad enough to identify it? And can she pick the least necessary detail in a narrative she's read from a list of 4 choices?

We get the message again and again that we as teachers need to "step up" to this challenge. What challenge? We're going in the other direction my friends.

Monday, November 07, 2005

A good day

Every once in a while, I have a good teaching day. The planets align or something, and not only am I planned out well, can find everything on my desk, and attend every meeting I'm supposed to, but the kids actually seem to be able to articulate that they are learning something.

We used Transparency 5 in the "Fine Art Transparencies" book. A Speculation on the Possibility That There Might Be Another Earth Out There, or something like that. We read "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Bradbury last Friday, and so we were comparing it and it's tone to the artwork. I love when I'm not sure about something, and it gets pulled off.

Of course, it wasn't a perfect day. I think I scared my student teacher to death.

See, I have a teacher friend, Ms. C., who is always calling me with funny voices, pretending she is a parent with a complaint. This morning, while I was trying to unjam the copy machine, and instead shredding the paper that was stuck, and subsequently getting yelled at by the school receptionist, who I'm supposed to get before trying to fix the damn machine on my own, my cell phone rang.

I heard a very faint and cracky voice.."Ms. X? Hel---o?"

Meanwhile the chastising from the secretary is continuing, the other copy machine is chugging away, and I can't hear a thing.
"What?!" I say, irritated. I hear something, and realize it's Ms. C,
"What do you want? What is it? Catherine!" I go out into the hallway to hear her.

Except it wasn't Catherine. It was my poor little student teacher who sounded like she has strep throat, calling me to tell me she was sick and not coming in. Boy. What an evil woman I am.

Whatever she's got, I hope it's not catching.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Put on a Happy Face

Lots of folks at school have been commenting on my attitude this year. They say I'm positive, and full of enthusiasm.

I bet they think I'm on drugs.

Although I do like my Vicoden, that's not it. And it's not that I am not riled up at least once a day. I am still just as pissed off about what's happening to education because of standardized tests as the next thinking person.

What's changed is the sight and sound of me banging my head against that stone wall.

Mr. Principal doesn't have a clue about curriculum, and never will. He would like us to teach out of the Holt Rinecourt and Winston textbook, and be on the same page at the same time.

He doesn't get it. I try my best, but I'm not going to be the one to bring him around. His brain is not big enough to get around the idea that a good English teacher, doesn't need to teach "Broken Chain" by Gary Soto, to teach plot structure. Even though that's what our textbook uses.

The latest was last week when we all started drooling over the new novels that came in. Another teacher and I worked our butts off to get them approved by the school board. The librarian ordered them at the beginning of September. Ms. Second year teacher and I were discussing how we could both use The House of the Scorpion at the same time (not enough class sets for that), when we were overheard by Ms. Assistant Principal.
"How are you ladies going to fit that in with all the other work you have to do with your classes?"
"uh... we're going to use it to teach Response to Literature... yeah... that's it."
"Isn't there already an example in the textbook for that? I'm not sure you have enough time for a novel."


So no, I'm not happy happy joy joy about all this. But, I'm going to bide my time. Teach from the textbook (mostly anyway), so that next year, I'll know exactly what is expected in each unit in the textbook, when I go back to actually creating some of the lessons that I teach.

I did however, point out to Mr. Principal, that at our district meeting for "best practices" we all shared our best practices with each other, and at the same time, realized that they didn't fit in with the "Year-at-a-glance" Teacher's mapping guide that came with our textbooks.

At the same time they are demanding excellence, they are taking away our ability to demonstrate it.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Candy High

Will any work get done today? I don't know. Remember how your parents used to ration out your candy after Halloween? Make sure you didn't eat a pound of it for breakfast?

Me neither. Yesterday was fun with all the costumes, but it was just a prelude to the craziness of today. No candy in class is the rule, but they all sneak it anyway. Wrappers magically appear on the floor under desks, and suddenly no one can answer me without rearranging the contents of their mouth.

"noh, ah don hab anee caadee, mizz X"

Then there's furious chewing and swallowing, and then the sticking out of the tongue,