Saturday, November 22, 2008

Losing it

Yesterday, for only the second time this school year, I cried in school. Wait, it gets better! I cried over a big ol' pile of data. Wait, it gets better! I cried over a big ol' pile of data in front of a science teacher!

OK, let's back this train up. For reasons unknown to everyone outside administration, our school assigned a science teacher and a technology teacher to input all our...literacy data. As you might recall, we administered the first round of assessments (which consisted of a spelling test, which we gave to the whole class at one time, and a list of sight words, which we gave individually) at the beginning of October. Then we sat on the data for a month (in my case, I literally sat on the data, because I had nowhere to keep it but in a pile under my desk, where I hoped the roaches wouldn't get it), when we were told it needed to be graded and turned in by the end of the week. Which I dutifully did, even though it meant grading 100 spelling tests round-the-clock for days.

I handed in all my data, and it was given back to me with a post-it stuck to it that read, "Keep these results." Then one day, in the middle of first period, we heard an announcement on the loudspeaker: "Please send all your assessment results down to the main office immediately." So I scurried back to my office to get all the data, quietly steaming about it because my big pile of papers still had that "Keep these results" post-it stuck on it!

So now someone else had my data. And apparently they sat on it for a while, because last week we found out that we would need to administer the second round of assessments...even though we had never (a) entered the data from the first round, (b) looked at the data from the first round, (c) analyzed the data from the first round or (d) used the data from the first round to plan our instruction in preparation for the second round.

The problem with this (well, besides the four major problems outlined above) is that I needed my data from the first round to give the second round! So I asked for it back, and shocker of shockers, I actually received it! Except then the science teacher and the technology teacher kept coming after me and asking for it again, which was puzzling to me because (a) what was being done with it all the time I didn't have it? and (b) what kind of genius minds would expect three different teachers to be able to do different things with the same data booklets at the same time? (Hmm, let's not even attempt to answer that question.) One enchanted afternoon during my prep, the technology teacher and I actually almost came to a physical tussle over the stupid sight word booklets:

(Scene: My office. Seventh period. Players: Miss Brave and Mrs. Impatient, the technology teacher.)

Mrs. Impatient: "Hi. I need your word lists."
Miss Brave: "I know, it's just that I'm using them this week, because we're using the same booklet for this round, so I can't test them if I don't have the booklets."
Mrs. Impatient: "Okay, are you using them now?"
Miss Brave: "Yeah, we're doing it this week."
Mrs. Impatient, giving me a 'duh' look and indicating the room around us: "No, I mean...are you using them right now?"

I let her have them, but I practically made her swear an oath in blood that she would return them to me by the next morning, and as I did so I thought: Dear God, what have I become?!

Anyway, I'm getting to the part with the crying! So all week long, Mrs. Impatient and the science teacher (let's call her Mrs. Condescending) have been coming after me (usually at wildly inopportune times like while I'm pushing my easel of doom down the hallway or while I'm -- no lie -- in the middle of teaching a class) to ask me for, say, Edmund's spelling assessment or Dara's word list. I have more than 50 students, so of course I have no idea off the top of my head, so I have to go searching through my giant pile of data, which is wildly disorganized (as you may guess, as a teacher, I hate feeling wildly disorganized), and sometimes I can't find what they're looking for. To be honest, we gave those assessments almost two months ago, and it's been through so many hands since then, that I'm not sure whether it was never administered in the first place, whether I had it and then lost it, whether they had it and lost it, whether the classroom teacher has it get the picture. And to be further honest, it has yet to be explained to me how this data is going to be used to help us drive our instruction, because our school is like a crazy funhouse where we're constantly being asked to do things without anyone bothering to explain to us why they're necessary, as if administration has some secret master plan that can only be revealed to us a little at a time, so I don't think anyone is exactly feeling doubly motivated to get it done.

Anyway, yesterday Mrs. Condescending launched into one of her helpful suggestions about how this time around I should make sure that all my students are given each section of the assessment and how I should consider making copies of the assessments before I hand them in and...I lost it. I just broke down and teared up in front of my giant pile of paper: "I understand that, but it's just that I have so many students, I cannot make copies of all of this paper, and then it amounts to doing the same work four times, because first I have to grade it on these individual sheets, and then I have to add all the same information to the classroom composite sheet, and now you're telling me to keep another separate grading sheet, and then you and Mrs. Impatient enter all the data, and we're all doing the same work, and some of my students were absent during the spelling test, but it takes a whole period to do the re-test, plus I have to test all my kids again on the word assessment because none of them mastered it the first time, but it's impossible to do that and the spelling assessment when the information is due on Monday and I haven't filled out the composite sheets yet!"

And then, to my surprise, Mrs. Condescending vented right back at me: "Look, I'm a science teacher, I don't even know why I'm doing this, Mrs. Impatient and I are going crazy upstairs trying to enter all the data and track down every piece of missing information, and all the work I have to do has to be done outside of school, and you're not the only one missing information, so don't feel bad, every class has missing information, and I'm just the messenger, I'm just saying that when the data gets entered and the administrators see that there are students missing information..."

You get the picture. Basically, it boils down to everyone at school losing their minds. Where is our literacy coach while this is going on? No one knows! Where are our administrators? They're walking around the school launching surprise observations on a Friday the day after everyone was at school until after 8 pm for parent-teacher conferences! (Which, side note, comes on the heels of the world's most depressing faculty meeting this week; there were three items on the agenda, and it boiled down to (1) The school neighborhood is getting more dangerous, so don't park too far away after dark, (2) We have no more money in the budget for anything, so don't expect any paper and don't get sick because we can't afford subs and (3) Remember how we thought our school would be well-developed on the Quality Review? Well, they changed the Quality Review standards and surprise! We're actually underdeveloped.) I was so fed up that at lunch I went out and spent $22 of my own money to buy color-coded file folders for each class and then stayed late at school creating meticulous checklists to ensure that my data is well-organized and my behind is well-covered in case of mix-ups.

I have already sworn up and down that I am not taking that data out of its folder for anyone. If Joel Klein himself wants to see Alejandro's latest sight word assessment, he can come to my office and comb through the whole beautifully arranged folder. He would probably have to go through Mrs. Impatient and Mrs. Condescending first, though.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The desire to learn growing among my beginner ELLs. First there was Azul, my Arabic B reader who is desperate to be a C. (In his quest to become a C reader, Azul has taken to drawing a large letter C in the air with his finger and then giving me an exaggerated thumbs up.) Now there is Lukas, my extremely adorable Polish-speaking B reader who is obviously exiting the "silent period" that is typical of beginner ELLs. But Lukas doesn't want to become a C reader. No, Lukas wants to go directly to D!

I was sitting with him today as he did the high-frequency word assessment, and when he finished, I tried to send him on his way so he could move on to the next kid when he surprised me by saying, "Can I read a book?"

This is the most Lukas has ever said to me at one time. "Yes, you can read a book. Where's your book baggie?" I said, pointing toward his reading spot. But Lukas had other ideas. "No, with you?" he said.

Have I mentioned that Lukas is extremely adorable? So yeah, there was no way I could refuse his request. We read Polar Bears together (which, for a B book, has ridiculous vocabulary: "Napping, sliding, waking," I could go on), with me pantomiming the vocabulary to help him figure it out. Then he looked up at me, smiled his extremely adorable smile, and said: "Can I be a D?"

I love that this kid speaks about a dozen words of English, but already he knows that the goal is to move his reading level up. Meanwhile, I would spend all day every day working with Lukas if I could -- he is a pleasant, polite, funny little kid -- but instead I spend all day every day doing assessments.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Confirmed: testing = teaching

As I valiantly finished up my running records this past week (I say "valiantly" because I managed to do it in the face of being off for Veterans' Day and being pulled out of six of my classes this week to proctor a fifth grade exam), I was starting to feel really pumped about the future of my reading groups. I'm losing some kids who have progressed enough that they no longer require intervention services, and I'm gaining others who have stagnated and who will hopefully benefit from being in my group. I had already decided to rearrange my reading partnerships so the kids could work with fresh new partners (I have maybe one partnership that works beautifully, but the rest are sick of each other and need a change -- plus I'm not entirely sure that it's the best idea to pair kids who are on the same reading level, because if both of them happen to be on the planet Jupiter then they're not helping each other move, so I tried to pair kids I thought would work well together even if they might be one level apart). I had even written up goals for myself to organize my small group planning -- my greatest ambition is to plan more strategy lessons based on the kids' running records rather than on our monthly teaching points checklist, since that's really what showcases their deficiencies and what they need to work on.

So I stayed at school until after dark two days this week, planning and organizing my strategy lessons and guided reading groups until I was sure everything would run like clockwork. I pored over those running records and really got down to the nitty-gritty of the weaknesses we needed to tackle -- I even felt like a bit of a rogue, planning strategy lessons that included Fundations work, but I was all, "The only thing holding these kids back is that they're miscuing all the words that include vowel teams and blends, so let's do it!" I felt really energized by the latest round of running records and ready to get down to business tackling my students' weak areas one by one to help them move to the next reading level. Third grade, here they come!

Or so I thought. Because you know what happens when you get really energized by planning, don't you? Your administration comes along and !@#$s with you, that's what happens. And so, for the first time in recorded history, I enthusiastically swore out loud at school (in the privacy of my office, when no children were present, of course). Because on Friday, just as I was wrapping up another full hour of planning and organizing my small groups for next week, a colleague dropped THE BOMB.

"You heard we're starting assessments again on Monday, right?"

My brain went like this: ASSESSMENTS -- MONDAY -- NO ONE TOLD -- I NEVER HEARD -- I JUST PLANNED -- WTF?!?!

Yeah, so, the memo was addressed to "classroom and AIS teachers," but did the AIS teachers actually get this memo? No. (OK, it's not like the classroom teachers knew about it and never told us -- they didn't get the memo until Friday morning either.) Meanwhile, the memo is all, "Kindly do this Monday and turn in your results by 11/24," despite the fact that no one bothered to let us know in advance. Meanwhile part two, there are certain parts of the assessment we don't have to administer if our students already demonstrated "mastery," only I don't know who did and who didn't because they took all my data to input it and never gave it back to me. And the data comes in booklets that are supposed to be re-used with each student so I can't assess anyone because I don't have those booklets. And everyone at my school passes the buck, because it's all about who you take your orders from and who issued the rule, so when I timidly went to check with my administrator, she said she would refer my question to the literacy coach, who never got back to me because she never gets back to anyone and then blames it on TC. Meanwhile part three, the memo (because the memo is gospel, and we all stood around trying to analyze it like it was the Dead Sea Scrolls) said that the assessment was to be administered "during independent reading time," which makes it sound like we're supposed to conduct a mini lesson, which is -- how do I put this delicately? -- effing ridiculous because that spelling assessment takes, at minimum, one full period to conduct. And oh, woe, do you remember how long I spent grading these things last time? The horror!

I told one of my colleagues that I think our administrators think our time is like those cars and tents in the Harry Potter books that look normal on the outside but magically expand on the inside to fit, like, a palatial suite. Like, a typical week in reading may appear to be five days (with interruptions for announcements, crying children, bleeding children, fighting children, field trips, days off, fire drills and being pulled out of the classroom to cover other classes, proctor exams, and go to professional development, and other various emergencies) and 50 minutes each, but actually we should be able to get thirty weeks' worth of work during this time! My colleague told me that as long as all these interruptions were documented, then administration would understand why it looked like I hadn't actually taught anything in weeks. And I was like, "But aside from that, I care that I'm not getting to teach, no one is actually working with my students during this time and they're not learning anything, but they're still being expected to magically progress in reading," and she told me that unfortunately, I would learn to live with that feeling (it was a very "I used to be you" moment reminiscent of old Mafia movies), which stinks, because -- what am I doing here? All I want to do is teach my students. It would be a bonus if I got to teach my students using a tiny bit of my own professional judgement. Is that too much to ask?

Meanwhile, part four, poor Azul has taken to hanging around the desk where I am conferencing with other students, wearing his best puppy dog face, clutching his B books and saying, "When you teach me? I want be C!" Hmm, does anyone know how to say, "I'm sorry, Azul, but I can't work with you individually to give you the help that you need in English and in reading because my bosses at this school just told me I need to listen to your classmates read long lists of high-frequency words for the second time in two months even though it's highly unlikely that their skills have improved in that time because I haven't gotten the chance to actually teach them anything" in Arabic?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Easy as ABC

Azul is desperate to be a C reader. He's an Arabic speaker who arrived in our school (and the U.S.) late last year. He is adorable and obviously bright; the only thing holding him back in school is the fact that, well, he doesn't speak English (although he's learning!).

So he's reading on a level B, but he is anxious to be a C. So anxious, in fact, that he checks in with me about it every time he encouters me. See, I've been doing running records this past week, and sadly, Azul is not ready to read C books. He's got a good number of sight words, and his comprehension is pretty good ("Why do you think Mom painted all those things?" I asked him, and he responded brightly, "Because it's Halloween!"), but he needs to work on his decoding and his vocabulary. When I broke the news to him -- that he would be staying a B reader -- he gave me the most exaggerated lower lip I've ever seen on a child (and that's saying a lot). As consolation, I told him he could put one C book in his book baggie.

Now, every time he sees me, he asks me whether he can be a C reader. I'll pass his class in the hallway on their way to lunch, and he'll call out, "Hi Miss Brave! Today me C? Now I C?" And I can't help it: he cracks me up. Now that he knows I find him irresistible (he knows how cute he is), I think he does it on purpose to make me laugh. "No C today. Still B," he'll say sadly to his teacher as he returns to the line.

It's nice to have such a motivated student in my group. I'm looking forward to our guided reading group -- at level C, of course!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yes we did

When I came to my first period class this mornning, the kids were bursting with excitement, breathless and eager to share their news. This isn't unusual; I get to hear random comments like "Today is my sister's birthday!" or "I lost another tooth!" all the time. But today their news was different.

"Barack Obama won the election he is the new president of the United States!"

I was amazed and pleased that they had any concept of who Barack Obama is and what the election is all about, but they were totally into it. Many of them had gone with their families to the polls and reported back that "my mom and dad voted for Barack Obama...and I did too." I told them I hoped they would grow up to take their own kids to vote in elections! They were calling out "Obama rocks!" They asked me who the vice president would be, and then they giggled like "Joe Biden" was the funniest name in the world. My favorite moment was when one of my ELLs who knows very little English animatedly said to the kid next to him: "Barack Obama...and John McCain...and...Obama win!"

Of course, politics is such a touchy subject. (Something I found out at PD yesterday...I had no idea I worked with so many Republicans...!) One kid asked me if I liked Obama, and I said I thought he would be a good president. Another kid said, "You know, Miss Brave, I hate George Bush." I said, "Well, hate is a very strong word, and you can't really hate George Bush, because you don't know him." He got very annoyed and exclaimed, "Yes, I do, from TV!"

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Please, may I have some more?

I just spent the past half-hour composing a meticulously worded e-mail to my assistant principal, asking a question about something that came up at one of our (largely useless) professional development sessions today. Our literacy coach introduced something that sounded, to me, like a great idea that might really benefit my beginner ELLs. Unfortunately, this idea is to be implemented during Word Work (which I do not teach), and the reality is that no one really does it during Word Work because no one has time. But no one wants to admit that they don't have time to do it, because no one wants to get in trouble for not doing it, so no one said anything.

"Can I do this during Readers' Workshop?" I asked. "With my beginner ELLs who are A/B readers? Because it sounds a lot like our modified guided reading cycle for beginner ELLs, and I think this would really help them." (Plus -- I did not say this out loud -- but my A/B readers are not exactly reading during reading time, because they cannot read, so it's really not like pulling them for a small group a few extra times during the week is going to take away from their independent reading time.)

Several other teachers agreed with me. But our literacy coach told me that she could not answer my question, because it concerned questions of procedure, which had to be directed to my supervisor. So she told me to write it down and direct it to my AP so that it could be brought up and discussed at a cabinet meeting.

It was at that point that my nerves slowly began to fray, because -- grrr! -- how many people do I need to get permission from before I attempt to use a new strategy to teach my students? Why is it that every single teacher at my school has to teach in the exact same way? Why does every single teaching decision I make need to be brought before a committee, discussed, debated and agreed upon before I can go ahead and try it?

I met with my principal recently, and I was shocked -- shocked! -- when she asked me a question about which of two strategies I felt like was more effective, and when I answered her, she gave me permission to go ahead and do that more often in place of the other -- I was so tickled I practically went skipping off down the hall. And then I thought about it, and it kind of made me sad -- it was the first time since I've started teaching that an administrator asked my professional opinion and then took it into account. Normally, I either (a) do exactly as I'm told because I'm afraid I'll get into trouble or (b) do certain things sort of in secret so I won't get in trouble. Because nobody says, "Miss Brave, what do you think most benefits your kids?"; instead, they say, "We have decided that you will all be teaching this way. Hopefully it will benefit your kids!"

As a teacher at my school recently noted, our administrators may say they want to see differentiated instruction, but if they really did, we wouldn't all have to teach everything in exactly the same way. Like, I'm supposed to be provided academic intervention to struggling readers -- why group all the struggling readers together if I'm not making any modifications for them?

Lastly: There was a teeny debate in the comments of my post on paperwork about how teachers in time come to figure out which paperwork is actually looked at and which can be shafted aside. To clarify: I am sorry to say that at my school, each and every checklist, label and outline is actually scrutinized by administration. And I am even more sorry to say that it sometimes seems they're looking for quantity over quality -- because if you do a really quality lesson that happens to take a little longer so that you don't meet with a second group that day, you're not seeing enough kids during one period and it's curtains for you!

Sigh. On a happier note: I did not win the New York City marathon, but my students think I did :)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

26.2 to the finish

I can't resist posting this personal note: Tomorrow morning at 10:20 am, I will be lined up at the start of the New York City Marathon. Cross your fingers for me!

On Friday, one of my colleagues announced to her class: "Everyone, Miss Brave is going to be on TV on Sunday!" She happens to have the sweetest second grade class, and they went NUTS. "What channel? What time?" Some of them were distressed: "I want to see you on TV but I have to go to church school on Sunday!"

I explained to them that I was running my big race (earlier in the month I used my running as a metaphor for reading), but that 40,000 other people were also running and therefore I would probably be very difficult to spot. When they persisted -- "What will you be wearing?" I discovered that Mrs. A was having a little fun with me: "Maybe next week Miss Brave can wear her running outfit to school and then we can see what a real athlete looks like!" The kids were of course all in favor of this idea: "Miss Brave! Can you wear the same clothes next week?"

I told them I would bring them a picture instead. Then a number of them started to ask that inevitable question: "Are you going to win?"

"You know what?" I told them. "There are going to be a lot of other people running this race, and a lot of them are really, really fast. I'm not going to win, but I'm going to try to be the fastest that I can be. And when I finish, I'm going to get a medal and my friends and family are going to cheer for me, and I'm going to be really happy and proud of myself no matter what!"

See you at the finish line!