Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Bound by Iron rivers

Into my first week working with the Passaic River Institute's summer camp for 7th and 8th graders from Inner city, NJ and loving it. Did I get what I "expected" thus far? Alright so I admit that I did come in with expectations, whether intentional or not. Is it negative or positive that they were or were not fulfilled?

Neither, really. It is an experience. Both the students and myself are learning. I love it when I can learn from the students as well.

The racial population is quite different from what I had expected to see, but often the geography and social extensions of a city can affect where people of different backgrounds and cultures choose to settle and live.

So our group is fabulous on week 1 and a potentially quite controversial question: does this have anything to do wih their race?


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Final Reflections...

... Self Reflection ...

I saw this course as a chance to get more of an inner look at inner city education. I had not known it was required in the MAT program if I were not thinking about teaching in the city, so I actually would not have taken it. I came in thinking that it was highly unlikely that I would look to teach in an urban district. I had toyed with the idea for a spell some weeks earlier in conversation with Dr. S and thought about the strong need for math and science teachers – not only in general, not only in urban areas, but for the children. But I think I came to the conclusion in my mind, for the time being anyway, that I would seek a job in a middle-of-the-line suburban location. It was fear and maybe a bit of the desire to stay in one’s comfort zone that took me that way.

Once I knew I was taking the class, I hoped to learn about what the inner workings of inner city education were like; I wanted to see if preconceptions and assumptions were true, to what degree, and I wanted to see why the state of education is what it is in the inner city. I feel like I had a reasonable dabble into these areas, but I do feel like seeing some of the less successful schools during the visitations would have made it more complete.

I also learned about policy and regulation (which I never had a strong interest in, but I do feel is information that we as future educators should be attuned to), and I now know more about what gives an Abbott District its designation and the court case behind it all. Hearing a little bit about the University’s history as a normal school and the NJDOE standards for teaching was interesting and eye opening.

I learned about the problems of the high teacher turnover rate in urban districts and how this makes providing a consistent and quality education there even more challenging. I learned that just because a child is in an urban area and struggles with a slew of problems and issues that may be hard to stomach does not mean we can let them get away without learning. We need to challenge inner city students with the same rigor as anyone else, because they ARE capable and they can learn.

I learned that our classroom will be the place where we have the most control as teachers, and that even when dealing with a difficult administration in an urban district or otherwise, we need to capitalize on what we do have and make use of it. We can make what we teach authentically ours and connect it to life to engage our students. I learned that perspectives and cultural traditions amongst different individuals in urban areas can be quite different than what we might be used to, but to just be aware, show that we care and want to know, and be respectful. I learned to choose battles appropriately because some you will never win and are just pointless and counterproductive to argue. This also ties into keeping the bigger picture in mind and NOT focusing on the little nitty gritty but to see the children’s optimal learning experience as the prize.

I think one of the most important things I am taking away with me is a fresher, more informed view of urban education. Goodbye assumptions.

Challenges & Triumphs
It was very challenging for me to hear the realities about the state of the educational system and the socio-economic crises in some of these urban locations. It sent pangs through my body to hear that in some urban areas 90% of the kids are on a free lunch program because the state of poverty is so rampant, that some children are homeless and need to make their way to shelters for the night after school, and the degree of the dilapidated conditions in some of these schools and how they are almost helpless to change it in the immediate future.

Learning of the bureaucracy and special interest controls and implications was upsetting. To live in America and not know it’s about the money would put one in a place of primal ignorance, but even with the knowledge of the money mongering, it was still so striking to see to what degree money controls the system. And the problems that plague schools as a result of lack of funds was a very frustrating point for me, especially when seeing how much money other wealthy districts do have. A lot of this I was somewhat aware of prior to taking the course, but I did not really know and I did not think about it on a deeper level.

I felt a surge of accomplishment and inspiration, as well as several varied emotions after the school visitations. How I opened myself up and soaked it all in, even with the interplay of some previous assumptions and fears, was a triumph for me. I went to every single school on that itinerary and I am SO thankful that I did! It was an enriching experience and I would not have wanted to miss any of it.

Despite working in a center for technology, I still struggle personally with dealings with it. I become easily frustrated and my sometimes maniacal perfectionism comes into play when it comes to artwork or writing: creating something, particularly if it has personal value to me. So it may seem paltry, but I felt accomplished in getting through the use of new technology based programs (seen in the blogs and websites) without having any serious meltdowns. I also spent far less time on the cultural collage than I would have in the past. This was an accomplishment. And I saw that the course necessitated it.

A valuable take home point for me involves time management and being able to see the priorital hierarchy of your tasks. Even though you know you might love to dive into something full force, it is that step back and “timeless reflection while in limbo” that you need to practice. What is the main objective for me here as a teacher? What kind of time do I have to get this accomplished and what is truly important? How will I feel tomorrow and what will NOT drive me into an early grave?

Teachers and direction
I will take the whole “I Learned…” excerpt from the Expectations section above, with me into the schools, and with it so much more.

A teacher prepared for an urban classroom needs to see the children as people, see them for the individuals that they are. Every student needs to start with a clean slate, no matter what background, race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, faith or traditions that they practice. There needs to be some type of bonding with the students to set the tone for the classroom. I will definitely make eye contact with my students, I will want to get to know them as human beings and notice how they feel. This is a compassion that helps the children grow and with it, understanding. We cannot truly understand right away where a child is coming from based on the disparity in our life experiences, but it is that time taken to listen and to accept them that matters. Being a culturally responsive individual is vital in an urban environment where the potential to encounter a multicultural population is so much greater.

Some of the skills vital to urban educators include the ability to pull out different teaching styles to teach to the various learning styles. Whether a child is an auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learner, if all are included in some way, the learning potential in the class has increased. The pedagogical techniques that are utilized should be mixed up and varied to increase student engagement and understanding of concepts introduced. It is not just what you teach (the subject area) but how you teach it. I think you also need to have patience in the role of a teacher, no matter where you go. The fact also is that the students will look up to you as a role model whether you desire it or not, so an urban teacher needs to be prepared to be seen and to behave as a positive role model for the students.

Whether I will end up in an urban, suburban or rural environment, I honestly do not know. Regardless of where I am teaching, one practice I would really like to implement is reflective teaching. To be able to self-correct and introspectively explore new ideas and improvements is something that both teachers and students can benefit from.

This course has provided me with a window in to see successful urban teaching and progressing urban schools. My previous thoughts on where I want to teach did not change only because of that, but also because I see the need and the possibilities. Now I do feel a drawing, a pull toward the urban districts, where there are amazing kids, maybe misunderstood and often with untapped potential. Without trying to sound too idealistic, I do think with attention, support, rigorous challenges, and belief in them as human beings, that amazing things can happen.

Feedback to the mouth that helped feed you

Newark visits and Time

The trips to Newark are irreplaceable. I feel that is an essential component to the course. You can’t really teach about inner city education without giving an inside look at it in real time. I feel like I grew a great deal from even these brief visits. But while on brevity, I do have a beef with the course length. I realize this is the way it was set up as a shorter 4 week pre-session and we knew that coming into it, however I really feel like we were really short changed. It was just not enough time. There was so much “good stuff” and “heavy stuff” to digest that I think the time crunch of the class detracted from the students’ ability to reap the most benefits from it. The transforming power of a class like this begs a little more time. I think it could work as a 6-weeker.

Allowing us class time to work on the group website was a good move, especially when considering the short time for the course. Utilizing the ADP Center (and mentioning it in the syllabus as was done) is an important action, especially considering the use of technology in the course. I feel like the classrooms could have been booked and used more, or that laptops could have been reserved, particularly if not many students in the class had their own laptops. Fortunately, most of the class seemed to own them. I felt conflicted with the blogging activity, as a few students in class had also mentioned they felt. I knew it should be professional, but the urge to joke around and make it personal was hard to overcome, particularly when you feel like you’re creating something that is an “internet voice” that you want your personality to be tied into. Finding the balance was hard. I’m not even sure if I found it! At times I felt my writing was too long-winded, formal and flowery; and at other time I felt maybe I shouldn’t make a joke or personal comment, no matter if it seemed harmless.

Designating the blogging as a continuous activity throughout the course provided a nice progression and timeline – as long as we didn’t leave too many entries towards the end! I also feel the website activity was a good culmination for the course, especially after the school visitations. The school visitations were appropriate after initial introduction to the course, some readings, and discussion of assumptions, but if it were possible to schedule them a little earlier in the progression of the course (even just a few days earlier – late May) that would fit in better. Earlier would also be better for school visits around this time of the year as many field trips are scheduled and students/ faculty may not be around or they are gearing up to prepare for final exams.

The Annenburg Institute's "Promise of Urban Schools" made some important points and provide valuable key areas to keep in mind when looking at Inner City Education and reform. It was a dryer read but I think should be held onto to introduce the AEIOU concepts.
Although Bulman’s article on “Teachers in the ‘Hood” was long, I feel like it was an engaging read that connects something many students understand well – the movies and the media – to all the prevalent misconceptions about urban education. This one I would include. And in that vein, I think it would also be great to include something that explores how a teacher should teach differently (in terms of technique) – or should not teach differently in an urban district as compared to suburban and rural districts.

I also felt like due to the condensed time factor of the course that it was very difficult to keep up with all the readings, while blogging and working on other assignments as well. I do appreciate that the volume of readings was lowered or halted when we had another big thing going on, such as the cultural collage. At times I did not know there was a reading to be done for the next class; it did not seem clear when it was to be read by. I checked blackboard and would see nothing for a few days then would miss when a reading was posted (this was later on).

Dynamic teaching really helped with this course; I thought it was great (and I am not sucking up). A variety of teaching styles and methods were used. The round robin website evaluation activity was so engaging and interesting, so I definitely really appreciated that technique. It got us moving around the room, actively reading and evaluating other students’ work, thinking critically about how theirs/ours might be improved and what worked, and it was not stressful! (The only thing for me would be the time pressure to switch stations, haha). I liked the employment of Base groups in our website groups. These were students in the class that we knew we were in a group with from early on in the course and this way helped us to be able to connect to others and go to them for help/questions as well.

We had variety in class discussions and thought sharing on articles read, small group discussion, group work and individuals writing assumptions up on the board, some professor direct instruction (and I do think some is necessary), and group presentations of the cultural collage. Something I found really refreshing about this course is that I did not feel quite the same pressure to “perform!” as I have in past courses. This does not at all mean that we did not have a lot of work and learning to do, but that it was approached in a different way. Presentations were not “ohhh no, a PRESENTATION!” but more relaxed run throughs of what we were doing and what it meant to us. The alternate assessments used also provided for a more comfortable and better learning environment than “exams”.

The only thing I can think of to suggest at the moment is maybe more of a discussion on how to implement the techniques in different subject areas across the curriculum in the inner city. I realize that through our own critical thinking we can determine this ourselves, and that maybe it is something more for a methods course, but that would be the next step for me. Thank you for a productive, inspirational and eye opening course!

Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire

Ok, so I haven't had the chance to read it yet. But I am dying to! This book was a Christmas present from my cousin Paul and every time I think of the title I want to say "teach like your pants are on fire" but then think... no, wait, that's not right...

So I wanted to put it out there and post this as a resource even though I cannot yet personally give an "educated" perspective or review. However, I did find that the author Rafe Esquith was also recently on npr (well, last year recent). Check out the article and the INTERVIEW - this is good stuff!

Turns out he teaches 5th grade in one of the roughest neighborhoods in urban L.A. and he's teaching the kids algebra and Shakespeare. This really puts life to the point that we need to believe as teachers that our students are ALL capable and CAN learn at higher levels! We need to expose them to that same rigor and challenge.

To whet your appetite, here is a small excerpt from the prologue:
Prologue: Fire in the Classroom
"It is a strange feeling to write this book. I am painfully aware that I am not superhuman. I do the same job as thousands of other dedicated teachers who try to make a difference. Like all real teachers, I fail constantly. I don't get enough sleep. I lie awake in the early-morning hours, agonizing over a kid I was unable to reach. Being a teacher can be painful.

For almost a quarter of a century, I have spent the majority of my time in a tiny, leaky classroom in central Los Angeles.... I doubt that any book can truly capture the Hobart Shake-speareans. However, it is certainly possible to share some of the things I've learned over the years that have helped me grow as a teacher, parent, and person. For almost twelve hours a day, six days a week, forty-eight weeks a year, my fifth-graders and I are crowded into our woefully insufficient space, immersed in a world of Shakespeare, algebra, and rock 'n' roll. For the rest of the year, the kids and I are on the road. While my wife believes me to be eccentric, good friends of mine have not been so gentle, going as far as to label me quixotic at best and certifiable at worst."

The book was written for new teachers that may not be prepared, veteran teachers that are set in their ways, and parents that are concerned about the education of their kids. I personally can't wait to read it, and if you have, let me know what you thought!

Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 by Rafe Esquith. Penguin Books, London England. 2007.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Curriculum Director: Expendable or Invaluable?

A curriculum supervisor (or director) develops, implements, and coordinates new programs within the schools of a district for grades K-12. In some cases they also supervise teacher development and oversee grants for the district. The qualifications for a curriculum supervisor are not light: a Master's Degree and either a Supervisor, Principal, or Superintendent certificate, with previous experience as an administrator preferred. So it is not surprising that the position doesn't come cheap.

This piece published in The Record on June 6th speaks to the dilemma of whether or not it is worth it to employ such a position within a district. Some pros and cons are examined, with examples of what is currently being done in some towns in Bergen County.

To see the full article, click here: Curriculum director: a vital position or unnecessary expense? (or just click on the picture)

If the right person is brought in with the expertise, this can make a huge difference for a district. This way they can anticipate programs that are needed and the supervisor can help to pick out the most beneficial programs for them. They can also oversee a group of teachers that determine the best programs.

This is a Suburban area. What are the implications for a curriculum director in an Urban district?

While googling around for a bit, I located an article in the Chiefline newsletter for the CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers) touting the accomplishments of Dr. Laverne Terry in the public schools of the Christiana School District in Newark, DE. Although not NJ, this is an urban district where this woman is credited in having managed, through administrative and curriculum work, "to triple overall student enrollment in Advanced Placement courses and increase enrollment of minority students by over 300%," (Chiefline, weekly update 1/31/08).

This is clearly an example where having someone working at and overseeing curriculum made a large positive impact on enrollment in academically rigorous programs. I think the potential is great, but the effect depends on the individual in the position as well as the follow through of other administrators and teachers.

The alternative to paying a separate position of curriculum director may be to allow teachers and lower-level specialists to take on the task, working as a team. This definitely saves money in the district's pocketbook, and subjects can be overseen individually, but it seems there is something to be said for the attention and focus that a curriculum director can potentially give to a district's programs being best fit.

Works cited:
"Curriculum director: a vital position or unnecessary expense?" by Maya Kremen, Staff writer. The Record, page L-2, June 6th 2008.

"U.S. Virgin Islands Nominates Dr. Laverne Terry as Chief" by Paul Ferrari. Chiefline e-mail newsletter weekly update, 1/31/08.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Sights & Sounds of the Art of choice

My eyes danced across fabulous paint strokes & creations, my ears enveloped themselves in the wonderful tones of vocal & instrumental performance at this visual & performing arts high school

What talent. Our fluctuating cohort of educator hopefuls spent its third and final day of public schools visitations at a magnet school geared towards the visual and performance arts. Four music students played pieces on the acoustic guitar for us as a welcome, to warm us up for student-led tours and classroom visits.

I was not only impressed by the talent of these students, but by the personalities and general ambition that it was so easy to see. Even more interesting, as the students involved in leading tours introduced themselves, their majors, and what they aspire to study, I noticed the disparity between their current major at the high school and their desired major at the college they were seeking to attend. I hadn't expected it. Given a special talent and focus in a secondary school, wouldn't you want to further and develop that into a future career?

Now wait a second, is this the crux of hypocrisy or what? I did not attend a magnet high school, but during my time at a suburban public high school, my passion for art was quite obvious and according to the visual art classes I packed into my schedule, it was almost as if I were "majoring" in Art to the extent that I could. Did I further that in my college studies? A wildlife conservation major would indicate no, however I did declare the art minor a year into my studies.

I asked the student panel later in the program if they felt there was a balance between the arts focus of their major and the other academic areas and if those areas suffered as a result of the arts emphasis? They said they felt the school was strong in all subject areas and that they always made time for other homework and papers. One of the administrators/coordinators of the public school programs had also mentioned earlier that research shows that this study and envelopment in the arts really helps kids to learn their academics and actually turns them on to education.

This all brings me to a question, though. Should we have magnet high schools that select children based on talent, performance, and demeanor? Does this "choice" create a biased and elitist system that leaves other children in the dark?

I was very much impressed by this magnet school. I felt almost like I was in a college classroom as I witnessed a final presentation and critique of a student's artwork in a "mini gallery" in the school. But I also felt like it did not show an accurate representation of Newark's general student population, due to the selectivity factor.

I truly do feel that the ability to dive into art and expression in high school helped me fulfill that within myself and supported my performance in other academic areas. And while studies show the effects of the arts exposure may benefit students in learning other subject areas (Sousa, pg 217), wouldn't this put other students not in magnet schools at a disadvantage? If I received this benefit at a non-magnet school (granted it was a suburban school in a better financial position than many urban schools), I think students should be able get this out of other non-selective public schools as well, even on a lower budget. Giving the students an opportunity to focus and choose a specialty school can be a great thing, but the fact is also that we are choosing them and leaving others out.

Works cited:
Sousa, David A. How the Brain Learns. Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2006.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Teacher judgments and Jackets

I saw some great teaching this week. I saw a great deal of good in urban education despite the media's pervasive negative connotations. I also do have to say that on Day Two in a couple classrooms I witnessed teachers that seemed slightly impatient or easily exasperated with students and had to wonder why. I found myself disenchanted with them at first and thinking that they should be more positive, treating the students differently and approaching the task at hand with more vim. I certainly had to stop myself and realize that there could be a number of factors that influenced their behavior, which might not be the regular occurrence at all. A long tiring day, a tragedy in the family, disrupted sleep, conflict in relationships, problem upon problem with students, physical pain or discomfort - the possibilities are endless...and we all have experienced these in life at some point and time, haven't we? But to try not to reserve quick judgment can be quite difficult as I think we tend to make split second judgments on a daily basis, but I think it is a NECESSITY for a future teacher not to judge others.

If we judge other teachers like that, we will just as easily judge our students. And we cannot take that dive, especially not knowing or understanding their story.

Appearance is a huge factor in our judgment - and come on, the adage "appearances can be deceiving" does have some truth to it. But appearance can also be a transforming factor. Like in jackets.

We were fortunate enough to have student-led tours at many of our school visits. Some of these students were dressed in a chosen colour of more formal attire. A burgundy jacket and skirt or classy slacks and a navy blue blazer. Should we judge the students differently seeing them dressed like this? It's not the judgment but the outcome of an experience that was so neat in this given opportunity.

The students were given the chance to feel valuable, to prepare, take on responsibility, to be leaders, and were performing a service. We, the visitors, had the opportunity to be taught by students in this way and to get more of an inside look as a result.