A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Monday, October 22, 2012

What exactly is a statesman? The Jefferson Conundrum

Eventually, I promise to get back to Mr. Five, a middle school counselor who brings Positive Behavior to a whole new level with his raw enthusiasm, but as Dan Pink has suggested in Drive, when minimum needs are not being met, motivation has nothing to hold onto, and my motivation for blogging has been, well, in the toilet. Here's why: while I made the decision to try to become a teacher in 2003, with two years of classroom teaching experience and a Master's degree earned last June, after nearly 10 years, what do I have to show for it? Daily substitute teaching gigs.

While I would love teaching without pay if I could afford to do so, I cannot afford to continue to be doing what I am doing much longer -- to do so would be selfish and irresponsible to my family and my creditors. Moreover, since I am still pursuing a teaching position, despite having made the tactical decision to focus on preparing myself for my next opportunity rather than preparing myself for "selling myself" in an interview, an approach that hasn't worked, or "getting help" from my university professors, an approach I refuse to try until after I have completed consolidating my "Master Teacher's Tookkit, (a.k.a., "Master Mechanic's toolkit"), which was my primary goal in earning a Master's Degree, which is something the pace of earning a Master's Degree in a year did not allow, I have a hard time justifying the investment of time in blogging, beyond the cathartic aspect of venting, which makes the effort seem almost worth it.

The most frustrating thing about being, essentially, an unemployed teacher -- which is what a substitute teacher really is -- is that I know how to teach and recognize so many needs. When a student is asked to round 78 to the nearest ten and is asked to find the number on a hundred's chart, I can immediately spot the misconception when he identifies the number as seven, eight. When that same student is asked to go along the side of the chart and is asked to count by tens, and he goes "10, 20, 13, 14, 15," I immediately recognize that the child does not understand the base-10 number system. When a student is learning how to write words, I know that teaching word families is best practice, e.g., if you know "ball," you also know "fall" and "tall." When a student is in the "trigger" phase of the "acting out cycle," I know how to look for signs of "agitation" and use "high probability requests" (HPR) or "differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior (DRL) strategically to change the trajectory of behavior and get some momentum in the right direction, and head off behavior problems before they "accelerate" out of control. These are not the kinds of things raised in interviews. Instead, interviewers seem to only be looking for flaws in past performance. My motivation to write about my experiences with Mr. Five and his passionate approach to Positive Behavior just is not there now, because my minimum needs are not being met, even though the Mr. Five story deserves to be told because this wonderful man makes me wonder how he is able to remain so incredibly positive, while remaining so incredibly real with middle school students when they need to hear a little reality. I'll probably run into Mr. Five later this week, so maybe the spirit will move me later, but the motivation to write about Mr. Five is just not there today.

Here is something that moved my motivation meter enough to blog today: a history lesson that popped into my email inbox via my dad. My dad sent me an article about Thomas Jefferson that raises important questions about what and how students learn about this enigmatic figure who famously authored the Declaration of Independence. What bothers me about the teaching of history is how few difficult and open-ended questions are raised in curricula that are a mile wide and an inch deep. Facts, schmacks. When we talk about statesmen, Thomas Jefferson for example, rarely does anyone ask the question, "What is a statesman?" Answer: "a statesman is a dead politician." Here is a link to one of my favorite Bloom County cartoons, where Opus discusses statesmen. Considering the portrayal of Jefferson in

“Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves” by Henry Wiencek, commented upon by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post's book section, the real Jefferson was a terrible person, which is too often the case with brilliant people who become famous. If I ever become brilliant, I promise not to become a terrible person.

The issue of slavery raises so many interesting questions, it makes me wonder why the social studies is not studied in more of an exploration format. The method of evaluation by which "essential knowledge" of social studies is typically measured, with predominantly simple right or wrong answers, communicates the subtle message that the source of truth is the all-knowing state, which knows which facts to include, and more importantly, which facts to leave out. Given the complexity of 21st century decisions, including the decision about who to vote for in the Presidential Election, the perpetuation of a view of history that involves simple right or wrong answers is exactly the wrong way to prepare students for a post-industrial future, where tough choices loom right over the horizon. In a country where elementary school band classes, in poor schools, are conducted in the teacher's lounge, something seems a little lacking in our nation's priorities. Oh, and by the way, playing musical instruments has been correlated with higher math scores, which remain so low, we have no time or money to teach music.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dogwalks Through Accotink: Mr. Five

Mr. Five's is the kind of man who would leave the war room for the classroom. His desk used to be located in an office at the Pentagon, directly where the plane hit on 9/11. That fateful morning, he probably would have been serving at the pleasure of his commander, who was one of the unfortunate heroes who lost their lives on that awful day, had he not already left the Pentagon a few years before to pursue a softer kind of mission. Instead, Mr. Five had already left our Nation's war machine to become a school counselor at a middle school. Everyday, Mr. Five greets students at the door who experience extreme poverty, students of military families, students of a second language, students of middle class families, some who want to learn, and some who are already convinced they are failures and are unable to meet high academic standards, and anybody else he feels may need a hand or positive influence. The other day, Mr. Five was wearing orange, and captured students wearing orange as they walked in the door for a group photo and quipped, "Orange you glad you're here today?" On another occasion, he noticed his Principal carrying several heavy bags from her car, rushed to help her, and held the door for her. One morning, he rode his bike to work.

On another morning, Mr. Five pulled me aside and told me a story about a great thing that had happened to him earlier that morning. Mr. Five runs every morning. On his route, Mr. Five had noticed that there are a few assorted widows and retirees. As a random act of kindness, he had been putting their newspaper inside their screen doors for a while. That morning he had found a card addressed to the "Mystery Deliveryman." Mr. Five was so touched and tickled that he had received a thank you, and he was pulling aside people in the hallways as they entered the building to show people the good news.

(To be continued)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Dogwalk through Accotink Reflection: Tiger Mom

Note: I edited out "Crazy Chinese Mother" and changed it to "Tiger Mom" at my sister Dawn's recommendation. I had heard of Amy Tau's description of a "Tiger Mom" but had forgotten it. Mine was a real encounter and I was simply describing what happened from my perspective, but my sister felt that my descriptions might be interpreted by some as racism, which were never the intent, so I made the editing change.

Most of my experiences with parents in education have been with parents of lower socioeconomic status or of the middle class. Virtually every parent I have ever spoken with in a classroom has expressed sincere gratitude and shown a high level of deference to the teaching profession. That was not the case with a "Tiger Mom" who surprised me at the end of the day in a 4th grade classroom in an elite public elementary school where I happened to be subbing. Her blood was boiling, having concluded that her daughter was not being adequately challenged in an Advanced Academic Program classroom in an elite public school. She was seething because the teacher was not there to defend herself against her biting criticisms, enraged by the polite response she had received from the teacher who had sought to reassure her via email that her daughter was doing fine, regardless of the fact that school had been in session for less than a month, that back-to-school night remained a few weeks away, and that her daughter was, in fact, doing fine. Had I noticed how agitated the mother was, and realized that this crazed mother seemed to want her daughter's teacher's head served on a platter, I would have politely declined the engagement.

When I arrived at the elite public school last week, a violinist was pleasantly performing in the hall. The Principal considerately invited me to get a mug from the kitchen and get a cup of coffee in the office so that I would not have to wait in the line for the special breakfast that was being served to the Staff, since all I wanted was a cup of coffee. The lesson plans warned of a "hectic day." I crossed out "hectic" on the plans and replaced it with "exciting." A special ceremony was being held later that day to induct the recently elected officers of the SCA, where members of the Army Fife and Drum Corps would be performing in front of the entire school, plus VIP's. Additionally, the community was celebrating the awarding of a prestigious national award to the school from an environmental group for the school's truly remarkable green initiatives. A message from the Principal communicating expectations had been included in the plans. A member of the 4th grade team came in to warn me that a parent would be by the school to drop off popsicles during recess for her son's birthday. Everything about the day had been unusually positive. At the end of the day, since every assignment had been completed so efficiently with so much cooperation, the class had extra time at dismissal, which led students to become move the noise meter upwards. One of the students suggested that we find the teacher's Brain Quest game, which is an activity that the teacher often does at dismissal. Unable to find Brain Quest, I noticed some multiplication flashcards. Having noticed that a number of students had expressed a desire to become more automatic with their multiplication facts, I started up a game of Around the World. Mistake One was not communicating my expectation that students remain calm and by their own desks during the game, which I had assumed would be the case since the students had so calm and cooperative for the entire day. The class got a little too excited. Meanwhile, the Chinese mother was waiting, growing ever more impatient and scowling while waiting outside the door for her daughter, who did not want to leave the game. I told the daughter she should go with her mother. Before I noticed, the mother was in the classroom. I ended the game, apologized that the classroom had gotten a little rambunctious, and pointed to the television, which showed an instruction that "silent dismissal" had begun. Students complied without complaint.

After the students had been dismissed, the mother was still there wanting to engage me, and expressed her unhappiness that the classroom teacher was not adequately challenging her daughter. I told her I was just a sub, and that this was the first time I had been to the school, but having seen schools from across the county, this was one of the most impressive classrooms in which I had ever worked. Having seen clear evidence of a positive classroom environment, where students were handling the responsibilities of the classroom economy, with classroom jobs and daily double entry bookkeeping entries for credits and debits, where every student had handled their classroom assignments with aplomb, where children were unfailingly polite and treated each other respectfully, I unfortunately made the foolish attempt to attempt to help a mother notice the many positive things about the class that I had noticed. First, I shared with the mother that the students had written letters, which would be going home to parents, explaining their SMART goals for Citizenship and Academics. Unimpressed, she replied that everybody does SMART goals. Then, I showed the mother an inventory of her daughter's reading that her daughter had completed that day, and explained to her that all the students had taken the assignment seriously, since it would be factored into how their reading levels would be determined. I shared my opinion that the reading assessment the teacher was doing was a great assessment, in fact a far better assessment than SOL tests, adding, SOL scores have been consistently rising while SAT scores have been falling.

My offhand comment that the books the mother's daughter had listed were not particularly challenging compared to what others in the class had been reading was like tossing a match in a tinderbox. The infuriated "Tiger Mom" replied that her daughter was capable of doing much more challenging work. I shared with her that the teacher was doing assessments in preparation for setting up reading groups. She complained that her daughter was "not getting 12 pages of homework per night," as she had gotten during 3rd grade and that other Advanced classes were getting. Nothing had been coming home, the mother bitterly complained. In response, I expressed my opinion that her issue might be with the curriculum, which comes down from the state, and expressed my opinion that the 3rd and 5th grade curricula were far more interesting than the 4th grade curriculum, where students are required to take an SOL in Virginia history, which as constructed requires, primarily, lower level thinking, i.e., memorization, as opposed to higher level thinking such as evaluating, analyzing, or creating. I observed that the students in the class had beautifully demonstrated knowledge of SOL facts when I questioned them during Social Studies. When I pointed to the map of Virginia on a bulletin board in order to highlight the primary placement held by Virginia History in the 4th grade curriculum, the mother complained that the bulletin-board was empty, that no student work was hanging outside of the classroom, and that she had seen no evidence of higher level thinking coming home. I advised the parent to speak directly to the teacher, because many of the great things happening in the classroom such as the classroom economy and system of double entry bookkeeping may not be entirely obvious, and that I was just a sub. The mother emphasized that her daughter had gotten 600's on all of her SOL's. She complained bitterly that, based on her experience with Advanced Academic Program classrooms, and based on discussions she had been having with other parents of students in the class and other schools, she was completely disappointed and dissatisfied with the teacher.

The concept of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), a hallmark of Special Education legislation, applies to this scenario, even though it was originally intended to apply to students with disabilities. The question is or should be, to what quality of education is an Advanced Academic Program student entitled? The Cadillac or the Chevrolet?

Next: Mr. 5

Dogwalk through Accotink Reflection (Introduction)

One of the great joys of writing a blog post is feeling the hair tingling excitement of walking that fine line between going viral with a self-destructive rant in front of a world wide audience, and creating a short masterpiece, raising penetrating questions that might lead others to consider simple, obvious, and creative solutions to seemingly impossibly complex conundrums. The hard part is where to start, because typical narratives have a clear beginning, middle, and end, whereas I do not really have a clear beginning, only a swelling level of frustration that has been building over many years like magma welling up from beneath the bowels of Yellowstone Park. Imagine how Cassandra must have felt after she read in advance the fall of Troy, when all her frantic warnings of impending doom were mocked or fell upon deaf ears. Imagine the frustration Columbus must have felt as he sailed from kingdom to kingdom trying to sell his proposition that Cathay could be reached by sailing in a different direction, only to face rejection time and time again. Imagine Galileo sitting before the Spanish Inquisition trying to defend his scientific observations, his tightly crafted logic based on those observations, against the highly refined, cynical scholasticism of the Establishment. Lacking the credentials or family connections of a Cassandra, Columbus, or a Galileo, imagine my sense of powerlessness when I try to present who I am, a unique thinker approaching education from an alternative perspective, to prospective employers when I try to sell the proposition that difficulties I faced early in my teaching career led me to Marymount University, where I earned a Master's Degree from their Professional Development School, that I am in a far different place professionally than when I started. When the conversation starts with failure, I have a hard time selling the proposition that repeated failure is often a precondition for great success. In an educational climate where the steady rise of SOL test scores has been trumpeted, celebrated, placed upon a garish billboard for everybody to see,while SAT scores have been consistently dropping, it has been difficult to get a word in edgewise.

(Next: Encounter with a crazy Chinese mother of an Advanced Academic Program student)