Sunday, February 26, 2012

Teacher Data Reports Inaccuracies - Teacher Ratings Flaws

I could say a lot about the fact that the city published the Teacher Data Reports, and a lot has been said and needs to be said about it.  But, since a picture is worth a thousand words, I thought I would just post one teacher's data.  It so happens that this teacher teaches the same subject to 6th and 7th grade students.  It seems that the teacher in question can teach the heck out of the 7th grade, as he scores in the 88th percentile.  He must be a master teacher!  But, amazingly, when faced with 6th grade math, well, the wheels fall off the bus, as he scored in the 27th percentile.  This teacher is 50 percentage points better at teaching the higher grade than the one just prior to it.  I think this data speaks for itself.  If it doesn't, then you must work in the New York City Department of Education, but you don't teach.

Editor's Note:  I have since found many more intra-teacher variations, and even greater disparities in supposed teacher quality for individuals teaching more than one grade.  Victor Vargas, Guillermin Reynoso, and Tony Toral's scores are some examples that I found by clicking on "Random Schools" five times.  How does anyone explain these results?   Mr. Vargas, in particular, is in the 99th percentile for 7th grade math, but 11th percentile for 8th.  Please, please explain how this is possible.  Now my quest is to find a teacher with an even wider gap than that!  I'm sure that teacher is out there.  I'd love someone to find and interview him or her.

We Interrupt this Miniature and Teaching Blog...


Hello, gorgeous!

                                                                                                                    Anyone who has taken up a craft can tell you that the volume of tools and materials can build up rather quickly.  The cardboard boxes and plastic bags weren't making my kitchen look any more streamlined, let me tell you.  I found this bedside table in the garbage across from my in-laws.  The first day it was out, it was without its drawers.  Awww, so sad.  But then, the next day, there they were, happily reunited!  There was a hole on the top of the dresser, and there were no handles.  But, I never let that stop me.  I had a pair of pulls with a nice shape but hideous finish that I found around a year ago that would be perfect for it.  So, out came the wood putty, the sandpaper and the primer, and voila!  A new bedside table.  The former K-Mart blue light special, press-board, faux wood grain dresser (I was soooo fond of it, as you can tell) is now in the basement, holding all of my craft items, and the bedroom has a bright, white dresser.  Ta-tee!   

Friday, February 24, 2012

Group Non-Work


Can you pick out the student
 who isn't paying attention?
When you think back to your school years, what do you recall about the classroom arrangement?  Some common characteristics would be the instructional borders (print or script alphabets, most likely) above the black board, flourescent lighting, a globe and the teacher's desk.  And, of course, the students' desks were lined up nice and neat, each student facing forward.  Rows are now as obsolete as typewriters, rotary phones and common courtesy.  Teachers now must seat their students in groups. 

Once upon a time, you'd have to employ a modicum of skill to to make a "psst" sound of just the right decibel level at the exact moment to attract the attention of your intended audience, but not of your teacher.  It used to be that the class clowns wanted to sit in the back, but today the prime seats are the ones not facing the teacher.  In fact, a good way to get a quick read of a class is to see who chooses to position themselves with a view of the board and who does not.
We've all been there!  Frustrating!
I have yet to see a movie theater or performance hall with the seats arranged in groups.  Most of us are bothered if a person doesn't make eye contact during conversation, and I'm sure we've all experienced that all-to-common frustration when a lady wearing a large hat sits in the line-of-vision.  It is hard to concentrate on something if you are not looking at it.  Now that attention deficit is on the rise, some genius decided that children should no longer direct their attention at the teacher, but look at eachother.  Wha-ha-ha?

On top of the fact that half of a class is not even looking at the teacher, understand that the point of groups is "group work".  That is where the ever tolerant and patient children help eachother.  Ah, what a glorious, sun dappled vision of kids working together to solve problems!  Even adults, who largely possess more impulse control than youngsters, do not stay on task when working in groups.  Those of us who were ever assigned a group project knew that meant that one person did the work, and everyone got credit for it. 
This only occurs in movies
and television

The Bystander Effect notes that the bigger the group, the less likely people will intervene to help.  I think the phenomenom applies equally well to today's classroom.  Since students now do everything as a group, that means that no one really needs to pay attention because you can just ask your neighbor.  Shared responsibility usually translates to no one taking responsibility.  I wish I had a dime for the number of times I explain something, ask if anyone has any questions, and when I set them off to work I just hear a chorus of "what are we supposed to do?".  When everyone is relying on someone else, no one is actually learning.  Pluralistic ignorance is the new trend in education.  Everyone is not doing it.

Back from the Magic Kingdom

I felt slightly guilty about
that bacon on my plate
Mishka, Mooshka, Mickey Mouse.  Did you miss me, my throngs of loyal readers?  We just returned from our second Florida family vacation, and this time we submitted to the all powerful mouse.  Perhaps I am turning into an old, sentimental fool, or maybe it's the rock bottom, third-ring-of-hell expectation I held prior to our visit, but I have nothing snarky or ironic to say about it.  None of the characters I met smelled bad, the rides are hokey in the nicest possible way, and the breakfast that looked like a rip-off when I reserved it powered us through the day without needing to buy the dreaded and woeful Theme Park Family Meal of Desperation.  All in all, it was a magic kingdom.  After receiving her last dosage of magical elixir at 3 p.m., L held up beautifully despite not being able to breathe the night before (it turns out that breathing is a crucial ingredient to sleep).  Add to all of that a wonderful hostess, beautiful weather, world-class beaches, and a mid-winter visit with Nana and Gramps, and I have just had the best vacation I can remember in a long time.  This trip has made huge strides in restoring February to its rightful place as just another month, and, quite possibly a month I could actually look forward to once again.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Best Prognosticator of Success

There is a famous study of young children and the determining factors of their future success, called the marshmallow experiment.  The subjects of this experiment are offered a choice of one marshmallow immediately, or two marshmallows after a few minutes.  The findings reveal that one of the best determinants of a child's future is the ability to delay gratification.  So, in general, the pre-schoolers who chose to eat the one marshmallow without delay, as a group, were less prosperous than the kids who chose the postponed, but greater, reward. 

My students just took their "Predictive" test, which is, as the name implies, a predictive measure of how the students are expected to perform on their yearly state assessment.  My supervisor told me that she was taken aback by the results.  I, on the other hand, was not at all surprised.  The students who pay attention, do homework, and try the classwork, did well.  Those who do nothing but talk, disrupt, and generally ruin their own and their classmates' education, did poorly.  I didn't need a predictive to tell me this, nor do I need to wait for the results of the all-important state test to let me know who can perform on-level mathematically.  There are always two groups in every class: the instant gratification crowd, and those that resist temptation.  All students want to do well, and I think most, if not all, parents want their children to succeed.  Not everyone knows how this can be accomplished, however.  I tell my classes that it is up to them whether they will thrive in my class, and that the only ingredient in the success formula is effort.  And, at the beginning of the year, everyone says they want to achieve good things and that they understand what that takes. 

But the school year is long, and new notebooks and good intentions give way to carelessness, laziness, and plain old-fashioned boredom.  In this moment, it is far more interesting to pass a note about who we should be friends with than listen to my teacher talk about diameter and radius.  Right now, I'd rather be texting than doing my homework.  At this particular instant, I'd prefer to review with the kid next to me about last night's Modern Warfare game than try this problem about percent of a number.  However, if I can manage to hold the long view, if I can suspend my current desires in an effort to better myself, which won't pay off until a future date, I will prosper.  This, to me, is not at all ground-breaking news.

The good news about the marshmallow experiment is that children can be taught to suspend their immediate wants, and thus any child can do well.  The bad news for teachers, especially secondary educators like me, is that this lesson is not one that can be easily taught by us.  It comes down to parents of young children not giving into to their child's every whim and desire.  It requires being a Tiger Mom and telling your precious little one that good enough isn't good enough, or that your baby needs to try harder and persevere even if things are no longer fun.  Like everything else, the earlier it is taught, the more easily it is adopted.  As a teacher, my anecdotal ratio of short-term vs. long-term minded students is 20 out of 30 middle schoolers.  Trying to impress upon this amount of 11- to 13-year olds such a vital life lesson, in between my official math duties, is an impossible feat.  I have had, in my nine years in the classroom, exactly one student who turned things around, and the parents, not I, take credit for this.  For the rest of the 500 or so students I've been charged with, if they come through my doors in September not caring, there is nothing I can do to change their attitude.  I know that this is not a great sound bite for the politicians, and there is no neat little quantifiable statistic.  Nor is there any other way, that I know of, that this can be addressed by the education system.  It is the responsibility of the parents.  And no one wants to hear that.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

At Least It's a Short Month

A week in the life of a teacher: Monday, as always, I woke up late.  As in LATE.  Monday's are never good because I have a non-cooperative teacher in my room first period, so I have to leave.  And, since the computer loses it's charge over the weekend, when I come back from Common Planning (again, always late), it takes excruciatingly long to power everything up and get started with the lesson.  Any teacher can tell you that a delay is seen as an opportunity to run amok by the students, so that is always pleasant.  Fast forward to Friday, which started with a lecture from my mother-in-law about hair clips and underwear (don't ask), then I find out that the day I've chosen for a field trip is a "bus maintenance day".  Scheduling a field trip requires more paperwork than a bank closing, so learning at the last step that you can't get a bus is stupefying. And then, the pizza-resistance, my last class came into the room fighting.  A girl hit another in the face, and not one, but two pairs of boys were fighting eachother.  Another boy walked in 30 minutes late and proceeded to disrupt the class and argue with me.  And, a student threw a pen cap at me twice. 

Which brings me to my main point.  Lately, February has not been kind to me.  I had my stroke in February.  Both of my two LONG years teaching in Middle Village hit their nadir in February.  The gunk on the side of the highway is especially grey this time of year.  Mystery 24-hour bugs are rampant.  It's becoming a month I truly dread.  Or, at least, I certainly hope it's just February, and not the new direction of my life!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Arco Lamp - Finished

Well, ladies and gentlemen, here it is.  My first finished Arco lamp.  This one is battery powered.  I learned a lot.  Here is what I will try differently next time:
  1. Paint the inside of the ornament.  You can see even in the scanty 1.5 volts of light in this picture that the light shows the light patches from the inside of the ornament.  So I will paint the inside on the next one.
  2. Use a non-wired LED light.  Some come with miniature conductor wire attached, and other just have pins.  I will use the pin type from now on, since the wire, once I put the heat shrink tube on it, is too thick to pass through the aluminum tube. 
  3. Spray paint the battery cover.  The mod podge looks good except at the seams.  Spray paint will give even coverage, although I will have to then emulate marble with paint.  Not sure if this will be the easier route or not.
  4. Open the little cover on the inside of the battery case while soldering.  After I soldered the wires, I was trying to tuck the excess in the battery holder, when I realized there is a little cover inside that can be popped off.  This will make the wiring easier.
  5. Make the base even weighter.  Even with the AA batteries in the lamp, it is STILL top-heavy.  I'm looking into different size washers of brass or stainless steel to attach to the base to make it heavier.  Or, should I try to fashion a sculpey cover, and the combined weight of the batteries, holder and sculpey will balance this creation perfectly?  In any case, prepare to be dazzled with Arco lamp version 2.0!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Thinking of Building a Dollhouse?

Have you ever been in the dollhouse kit market?  Have you ever noticed how many "unfinished" dollhouses you can score online?  Does the fact that there are so many unfinished dollhouses give you pause?  Well, it didn't stop me.  I seem to have the overly optimistic outlook, or I believe that everyone else is an idiot and I will succeed where so many others have failed.  And, inevitably, I figure it out; making a dollhouse is a major pain in the bazumpa. 

I purchased my dollhouse kit with idealistic, soft-lit visions of my daughter and me working on it together.  We would share the creation of it, smiling and making eye contact in slow motion, and we'd treasure the memories forever.  It would be part of my own personal drug commercial montage.  In reality, I haven't let her do anything except paint the roof, and the most vivid memory she may have of the process is when I strung together the F-word with BS in front of her this morning.  I asked her not to touch it while the glue dries and she proceeded to "walk" her new plushy friend through the front door.  F-ing BS!

So, as someone who has experienced the joy of building something like this "together", let me just give you this one little piece of advice: DON'T.  It will fall apart.  You will wallpaper the wrong walls.  You will get splinters and none of it is fun.  Not even the finished product is satisfying because everytime you look at it you see the crooked walls and the glue blobs and all the other flaws.  And the thing is so fragile there is absolutely no way that you would allow a child to play with it.  Oh, heavens, no.

Perhaps someday, far in the future, she and I will gaze at it from the couch, a mug of coffee in our manicured hands, while the next generation plays with it.  Sun will stream through the window, making our blown-out hair glow like halos, and we'll think of the days when we built it together.  Until then, I'm hating every minute of it.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Unenthusiastic Child - Pay if you Play

Most everyone agrees that there are some major problems with American public education.  As a math teacher, I've been hearing a lot about Singapore Math, plain math with lots of repetition, and I could not be more pleased.  American math textbooks try so hard to be cool, and any parent of a tween or teen can tell you that nothing is as eye-rollingly embarassing someone or something inherently geeky trying to look hip. 

Let me make an announcement about math here: it's not fun!  Parts of speech are not fun!  Subject-verb agreement is boring. Memorizing spelling words or times tables is not as interesting as texting or playing Modern Warfare.  Guess what?  You have to know these things in order to be an educated person, and tit is important to be educated.  We've been trying to "engage" and "hook" the kids because so many of them are not interested in learning.  The best students are the enthusiastic ones that find life and learning fun and fascinating.  For some reason, and I have plenty ideas as to why, there are less and less of these types.  No matter how many manipulatives you drag out, whether or not you have them write a rap (or heaven forbid, you try to rap), regardless of the math games you invent, kids will tune out and not be engaged. I even took my students on a field trip and asked them what that thought of it, and their refrain was "boring". 

I feel bad for these kids.  If they are this morose as children, I can't imagine how dreary their adulthoods will be.  There is truly nothing I, as a teacher, can do for these students.  I only see my students 6 hours a week for 40 weeks, or 240 hours.  That is 10 days, or 30 eight-hour days.  Even with 11 year olds, there is a lot of life to counteract in that time.  An educator's job is not to entertain children, it is to teach.  Learning takes work and responsibility.  Florida introduced a parent accountability system in their state assembly, which is a great idea, but difficult to enforce.  If parents are given an F because their children do not do homework or get to school on time, do you think they will be mortified, when they are currently unperturbed that their children are failing?  Probably not.

But what can we do?  Part of the problem with teaching is the lack of authority that teachers have.  Want better education?  Give teachers and schools real power and control.  Here's my plan: public education remains free  unless you are disrespectful in school.  Stop the tyranny of the individual.  When a child has more than three incidents of contempt for education or educators, you are no longer guaranteed a free education.  The parents will now be responsible for directly subsidizing their child's public education.  If a parent is partially underwriting the cost of schooling, and the child continues to exhibit disdain for authority, the parent's percentage of the cost will be raised and the state's will be reduced.  And if a particular student really does not stop disrupting others' education, then the child can be removed from public schools entirely.  The parent will be responsible for providing and funding their child's education.

Will this be a perfect workaround?  I doubt it.  If I think that teachers are under fire now, imagine what would happen if the parents' wallets were involved.  But, I think it would help our students learn, which is the point of education.  It is no coincidence that authoritarian states, such as Singapore, that protect that the well-being of society more than individual liberties, perform better academically.  Most kids are followers.  If you subdue or remove the worst instigators, the chaos will lessen and the teacher can teach.  My goodness, wouldn't I love to be able to teach.  And the students who want to learn will be able to.  Doesn't that sound utopian?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The One-Room Schoolhouse

I went through a frontier phase as a child; I had a Holly Hobby bedspread, doll, and lunch box, I read every Laura Ingalls Wilder and even Rose Wilder Lane book at the Greenville Library, and naturally, being a product of the 70's, my must-see TV was "Little House on the Prairie".  Of course, I enjoy many modern conveniences, including indoor plumbing, furnaces, airline travel, desk jobs, cheap and easily attainable food, and medical advances.  Neither my 5-week premature daughter, nor I would be here today without respirators, blue lights, TPA's and heperin, so I gotta give props to science, yo!  However, there are parts of settler life that we could probably reimplement, especially in the moral and character building realm: self-sufficiency and responsibility ranking high amongst them.
I brought home a middle-school level book called "A One-Room School" which describes early American schools.  The students' academic day would begin by "making manners" to the teacher; I consider myself lucky if I get a 20% return rate on my "good morning"'s with my students.  Obviously, greetings are no longer something that we can assume will occur.  Frontier students were also required to do chores such as fetch water from the well, bring firewood from home, and clean the floors, chimneys, windows and blackboards.  In comparison, the other day, one of my students sat in gum, so I asked her if she could get it off the chair with the intent to not disrupt her education.  She tried for less than 1 second, and said that she could not.  Maybe I should add perseverence to the list of characteristics above from the frontier period that we should reemphasize today.   Anyhow, I sent the persistent student to the nurse to call home for a pair of new pants.  The irate, angry-at-somebody-but-I'm-sure-it's-not-me, father called saying he was confused why I was making his daughter do the janitor's job.  Might we have swung the chores pendulum a wee bit too far?
Now let's compare the supply issue.  As a teacher, I have to constantly confront students about why her own, as in bought with her own money, scissors were returned snapped in two, and then I have to endure the inevitable cover-up ridiculousness about how the scissors were dropped (please demonstrate with this exactly similar pair), uh, no, uh, how they were stepped on (go ahead and jump up and down on this pair to demonstrate again how they were twisted in two when they were stepped on) and a likewise string of embarassing, ever-changing lies.  But then I can't actually use the word lie, because that is corporal punishment and would irrevocably damage the deceitful, property destroyer's self confidence.  As a teacher, her markers are left uncapped, her books are ripped, her legos are stolen.  I would like to show these entitled, unappreciative students the supplies that settler children were given: nothing.  The schools couldn't afford more than two books: a primer and the Bible.  The latter book is a subject I won't even attempt to broach, and a primer is equally taboo today.  Children wrote on slates, that they themselves bought, which to me seems one step away from writing on a stone with a chisel.  The students of yesteryear would surely be horrified at the mass of pencils and unfilled notebooks that the school custodians sweep up every night.

Finally, "A One-Room School" talks quite a bit about punishment.  I am old enough to remember corporal punishment.  I know, I know, that IS hard to believe.  My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Holland, kept a paddle behind his desk; all the teachers in my middle school in Ohio had paddles, and they all used them.  Did it keep kids in line?  Yup.  Do I condone corporal punishment?  Nope.  But, corporal punishment has been expanded to include anything that could be construed as possibly ruining a child's self-esteem.  If a child is embarassed because he has to wear gum on his nose, well, that's sort of the idea.  What kind of authority does a teacher have if they cannot provide consequences for the students?  I'm still waiting for that answer.  I can tell a child a hundred times a day, and do, to not chew gum, but without a punishment for not conforming to the rules of the school, they will not stop.  I would love to see how police officers would fight crime if they were only allowed to ask the criminals to kindly stop their illegal activities, thank you.  Which is what is wrong with education today.  It is not the teachers, it is the mamsy-pamsy, don't ruin a child's self-worth, let-children-run-ramshod-over-the-teacher parents and their lawyers that are ruining education.

Thank you, "A One-Room School" for bringing this important lesson to the students at my school.  I will return you to my classroom tomorrow, to either be vandalized, ripped in two, covered in gum, or left on the floor to be swept away.

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