Monday, May 25, 2015

Some Common Sense for Governor Cuomo

Warning: I have never intended for this site to be any sort of political commentary, but every once in awhile I have to share something that I feel is pertinent to the conversation about education today.  A teacher friend of mine just shared something on my Facebook wall that has been put out by a group named Take Back New York.  It's a long read, but it definitely gives a straight up picture of just exactly is going on in the Albany concerning the ongoing teacher witch hunt using standardized tests as weapons to declare teachers ineffective.  If you want to be in the know, here are some highlights that I found pretty pertinent:


The Governor’s plan will fail because he is trying to attain the impossible. He wants all students to succeed at a
predetermined level. While we would all like to see that happen, it is time to admit that it cannot and will not happen.

(By Dr. John Metallo, Slingerlands, NY (The author is a retired teacher and administrator. Among the positions he has held are principal of Albany High School and adjunct instructor at the University at Albany and SUNY Plattsburgh.)

The debate surrounding public education in New York State has pitted parents, students, teachers and school administrators against the Governor, State Education Department and legislature. Parents kept nearly 200,000 students out of state testing on the elementary level as a form of civil disobedience to protest the governor’s plan to evaluate teachers and schools using the results of student tests in his quest to “take on the education bureaucracy” in the state. The “opt out” movement as it has become known has less to do with the tests themselves and more to do with parents supporting their local teachers and schools. Thus, the battle lines have been drawn, and the governor has started a war that he cannot win.

It is instantly obvious that the governor’s motivation is not school or teacher improvement. He is trying to break the teacher’s union which is a very powerful lobby in the state. His rhetoric about improving teacher effectiveness and student performance is nothing more than that. He wants 50% of teacher evaluations in the state to be based upon the results of standardized tests students take once per year. If the student scores do not hit a predetermined level, the teacher will be deemed ineffective. There is NO RESEARCH to back any of that scenario. In truth, he wants to use test scores to punish public school teachers and schools in an attempt to advance charter schools and the privatization of education across the state. This will not work. His attack on public schools will ultimately fail. The reason? Because public schools and public school teachers are really doing quite well across New York State...

...Teacher evaluation based upon test scores without controlling for student readiness and preparation is meaningless. A quick look at the medical practice model will clarify this point. The most skilled doctor is useless if the patient will not follow the doctor’s orders. No physician can heal a patient who will not cooperate. Similarly, the teacher can guide and provide instruction, but the attitude and cooperation of the student (and when appropriate, parents) are key elements to success. Education or teaching and learning is a two way street. Student attitude and cooperation are not measured by the tests being used across the state. Further, the results are not manipulated to control for student attitude, attendance, ability, etc. Thus we have a one size fits all scenario regardless of the fact that no test, curriculum or teaching style can fit all students...

...Some [students] cannot or will not attain the highest levels of success depending on their situations in life or their attitudes toward learning. While the Governor wants to blame teachers for the lack of student achievement, he is patently missing the mark. The teacher is only part of the teaching/learning experience, albeit a very important part, but the teacher only teaches. The other side of the equation is the student or learner. That person is as important, if not more important than the teacher. In order to avoid a fire-storm, the Governor and other politicos are quick to never mention students or parents as part of the achievement gap problem. Thus, their attempts at school improvement are doomed to failure. Schools cannot do it alone…ever...

...On a positive note, New York’s public schools, overall, are among the best in the U.S. and always have been. Teacher certification requirements in New York have always been among the most stringent in the nation, and New York is home to some of the finest education schools in America including the entire SUNY system along with a number of outstanding private colleges and universities across the state. It is important to realize that schools and teachers provide the opportunity for learning. They do not provide learning in and of itself or a guarantee that all students will be successful. ..

...As noted above schools provide the opportunity for learning, however they cannot guarantee learning without the cooperation of the student and family. In addition to educational opportunity, schools provide also provide support to overcome any factors which may hinder learning in order to provide opportunity for all students...

...The idea that teaching efficacy can be measured by the results of one test given per year flies in the face of any research conducted on the topic. The thought that a school operates in a vacuum and that teachers pour knowledge into student’s heads is daft. The practice of judging schools and teachers on test results rather than comprehensive, reliable and valid metrics is odious at best. It is time for the politicians to study education a bit more before they try to make policy that will guide it. Right now, they are all going down a path that will lead them, not the students, to failure… once again...

I couldn't have said it better myself!  For the entire post, check out Take Back New York's Facebook page.

Monday, May 11, 2015

A Teacher's Rant on Smart Phones in the Classroom

Still collecting these from my students...I tell ya, Gov Cuomo and friends need to take this epidemic into account when they think about rating teachers.

This blog post is a rant, and a well-founded one that I've never heard anyone ever talk about when it comes to the state of our educational system today.  I posted the above picture and caption on my Facebook page today.  It got a few likes, but I think it needs even more attention...  

As you can imagine, over the past several years, smart phones have become a problem in school.  For those who subscribe to the role technology can play in the classroom, the widespread ownership of these devices that we have today can be a boon for learning.  With literally a world of information at our fingertips, that can most certainly ring true, and it is to some degree.  But with today's learner, the learning that goes on via these smart phones is not what it could or should be.  Smart phones are more of a distraction than anything else, and something needs to be done about them, especially if we teachers are going to get bum raps for these kiddies not learning much else other than how to post a Snapchat.  

Cell phones have always been a problem in my classroom.  I can't tell you how many times a day I catch someone with their arms down by their lap, heads bowed, and clearly typing away at their screen.

What are you doing?  I always ask.

Nothing.  They always answer.

I tell you, if it happens in my little classroom, it's happening everywhere.  This year, I instituted a new rule to deter my students from pulling their little devices out during the times when I'm teaching. First of all, if they want to use their phone for school work, that's fine, but they have to ask me first. That's fair, no?  If they do get caught using their phones, texting or checking Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, I not only take it away, I take all of the students' phones for the remainder of the period. Three violations and their parents have to come in and meet with the principal to get it back.    

The idea of taking everyone's phones is that the anger resulting in my confiscations will be directed at the violating student, not me.  Genius, right?  Ha ha, I thought so.  During the school year, I've had to take them away countless times already, but either they've been pretty good lately or I've been tired of following through, because I haven't had to take too many away...until today, when I couldn't take it anymore.  

There she was, one of my 9th graders, sitting there in the back of the classroom typing away at her phone right on her desk.  She was sitting behind a bigger kid, so my view was initially obstructed, but once I saw...give it to me!  You see, even with an ingenious plan such as mine, it is still a daily occurrence.  

The use of smart phones in school, well everywhere really, is an epidemic!  But kids are in school to learn.  We teachers get paid to teach, and when students missed the homework you gave out or fail to answer a question because they were distracted while you were asking it, that is a problem.  

When you take the cells away, the kids argue that their parents won't be able to reach them.  Heck, even parents will argue that!  That's part of the reason they're allowed in school to begin with.  God, I remember the days when I was in school.  If my mom needed me for whatever reason, she'd call the head office and they'd come find me.  It's not rocket science.  

Perhaps it's just a sign of the changing times.  But in today's world of mega-testing and teacher accountability, especially in New York, how can I be held responsible if my students are constantly distracted by their cell phones?  I mean, c'mon, there are enough issues in schools and student learning that we shouldn't have to deal with this problem.  Governor Cuomo, are you listening?    

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Wickedly Awesome Field Trip!

Last Wednesday was a long day, but a great one.  You see, I like to take one big field trip every year with my students, usually somewhere in New York City, and this year's trip was the coolest ever. Past trips have included visits to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, a Central Park Scavenger Hunt, and the Museum of Modern Art, but the destination for this year's foray into NYC was none other than the Great White Way.  

You see, it all started when we read The Wizard of Oz last year in class.  Being from other countries, many of my students have never heard of Dorothy or the Wicked Witch of the West or even Munchkins. Those characters and the story are an inherent part of American culture, but to most of my students, well, they just never heard of them.  Their reactions to the story, as you can imagine, are almost always positive.  They're as fascinated as we were as little kids following Dorothy and Toto, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion on their adventure, and their enthusiasm brought to mind an idea for a great field trip.

Wicked, the Untold Story of the Witches of Oz is one of the greatest Broadway shows I've ever seen, and to me, the story is such a unique and interesting take on the characters from L. Frank Baum's story. The play has everything, from comedy to high drama, and of course a great musical score. When the idea was first suggested to me by my friend and colleague Kristen, I immediately began to plan it out in my head, and after a year of difficult and oftentimes stressful planning, the day finally came, and it was awesome!

My plan was to give these kids, about 24 of them, a day they would never forget, and so I weaved some lessons for my beginners and my intermediate and advanced kids read the script beforehand, but really none of them were really prepared for what they saw.  

We began our day in the city with a pre-field trip of sorts, to the world-famous Carmine's.  In all, 28 of us feasted on family style Italian fare for just about two hours before Wicked and during that stretch my kids made me proud.  Sometime during the second course, a woman walked over to our table and asked who was in charge.  

That'd be me, I responded.

I have to tell you...when me and my friends saw all of those teenagers walk in we thought that it was going to be trouble, but these are the most well-behaved teenagers I've ever seen.

And they were!  I hadn't even realized it before, but my students were about as well behaved a group of kids that I've ever seen.  They did do me proud, but not only during the two hours we spent stuffing our faces, but afterwards, as well.  We only had about fifteen minutes to make our way up to 51st St., where the theater was, from 44th, where Carmine's is.  The students followed one another (and us chaperones!) all the way through seven blocks of Broadway and we made it to our seats only moments before showtime.  

The rest of our afternoon was spent engrossed in the incredible story of poor, misunderstood Elphaba, her best friend Glinda, and her sister Nessarose.  Like I said above, this show is so entertaining for anyone who comes to see it, and my kids loved it.  In fact, at the end of Defying Gravity, the finale to the first act, four of my students turned to me to ask, disappointingly, if it was over.  Of course, it wasn't.

After the show, all plied happily onto the bus for a grueling, three-plus hour ride home, and for the most part, the students were well behaved there, too.  I love field trips, and I especially loved this one,  Hopefully, I've given 28 kids a day they won't soon forget and they gave me the kind of warmth I simply love to soak in...watching them experience an awesome, shared memory!

And then, the bus ride, lol...

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Reality Check for Educational Policy Makers

These kids are good organs in a sick body.

Yesterday morning, one of the students in my school's GSA, a lovable kid by the name of Zach, sent me a link to the video posted below.  He said that when he saw it, he thought I might be interested in it and I certainly was.  The video appears on a channel called Button Poetry on YouTube, and it speaks to the idiocy that has become or our educational system, specifically how it affects the field of ESL, what I teach.

Students who've been in the country for one year are now expected to perform at grade level on standardized English tests....If the kids don't jump high enough, the school loses money.  Improving a school by picking its pockets is like tuning a guitar by ripping off the strings.

As I watched the video, I couldn't help but become incensed at what the dude in the video was saying. ESL is already hard enough to teach, and because of the nature of my students, the fact that they come from Spanish speaking countries, adds a lil old-fashioned bias into the fray (see the Alien and Sedition Acts).  No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and Common Core are three phrases that give every teacher chills down their spine, but very little is said about how these "college and career readiness" standards affect my kids.  

Their heritage is a banned book.  Learning to read in a new language when you can't even read in your own is like trying to heal a burn victim by drowning them.

In an climate of standardized testing and teacher accountability, the premise that all students are the same is to me just a microcosm of the larger struggle between those of us who see everything as black and white and those of us who see a lot of gray.  I happen to be of the latter, and I may not be right about a lot of things, but I feel pretty damned confident that there is a lot of gray in the world, especially when it comes to student learning.  

We are telling these children who have spent their whole lives in the deep end that they'll learn to how to swim if they just float out a little farther. 

I spend my weekends, unlike many of my colleagues who teach mainstream subjects, doing school work.  My only opportunities for rest and relaxation from work come during the summer months, and even that isn't 100% true.  I wish it would be easier, but alas this is the life I chose, and the students that have passed through my classroom all make it worth it.  I love the time I get to spend with them, but even during that time I worry.  I worry for them, that they'll be able to get through the tough rigors of today's educational system without dropping out and getting lost in a sea of uncertain futures.  

I'm lucky enough to be one of the winners of this game.  I was handed a head start and a rule book in my own tongue, but the winners of a rigged game should not get to write the rules.  On the television, some senator preaches that throwing money at an urban school is like feeding caviar to your dog.  They just won't know how to appreciate it.  After all, if these parents can't take care of their own children, why should we? 

One of my biggest gripes about education is that those who decide what goes on in our classrooms have little knowledge of what goes on in them, so how could they possibly know?  This of course holds true for all children and all teachers in all schools, but socially, the kids in my classroom and the classrooms of every other ESL teacher out there are even more maligned than anyone else.  I could say so much more here, but for the sake of time and space, I'm going to leave you with the video.  I urge you to click play below and think about it...

Welcome to John's ESL World

Yesterday, I was incited to write a piece to go along with a video I had watched.  The video was all about the state of education today and its impact on English Language Learners, or ELL's, the kids I teach.  In writing that post, I'd been reminded that in the spirit of keeping subject matter unique to my blogs, I've been wanting to create another blog within John's World where I can talk about educational topics, from school stories to lessons and general educational topics. This was my opportunity to do so.

So welcome to John's ESL World blog, where I'll be sharing memories, lessons and an occasional rant on the state of our little corner of the teaching world.  Stay tuned...