Friday, March 27, 2009

March: In like a lion, out like an even bigger, angrier lion

Recently, we had a staff meeting about this year's Learning Environment Survey. Apparently, we didn't have high enough participation in last year's survey, so my principal wanted to give us the chance to fill it out on school time. And by "give us the chance," I mean "fill our head with strong suggestions of how to grade our school in order to get Quality Review off our backs."

Seriously, they did everything but stand over us with a #2 pencil and whisper "strongly agree!" in our ears. "Last year, some teachers claimed they didn't have frequent contact with parents, but don't forget, you send home a homework sheet every week!" "Last year, some teachers said we didn't offer a wide enough variety of courses, but don't forget, some of the third grade classes are getting a theater course!" Come on, a homework sheet? That counts as contact with parents? And that "theater course"? Is offered to an extremely limited number of classes, once a week for about six weeks. That's supposed to count? It's like we were scrabbling around for anything we could pat ourselves on the back for.

And then there's the whole Quality Review issue -- apparently, if a school receives a high enough grade on its progress report, it is exempt from Quality Review for two years. (Like, "An A keeps Quality Review away.") The learning environment survey factors into the progress report grade. So there was definitely a strong aroma of "give our school high grades just to exempt us from Quality Review" in the air of the meeting. As in, I actually overheard a teacher at the next table hissing, "Lie! Lie if it'll get Quality Review off our backs!"

Here's the thing. I don't view the survey as an opportunity to get revenge on my school (even though I'm not exactly feeling love for it at the moment). But hello, people, it's called constructive criticism, or, in my world, telling the truth. (A novel concept, apparently.) Do I feel supported by other teachers at my school? Sure! Strongly agree! But do I trust my principal at his word? Absolutely not. Strongly disagree!

I mean, don't we want to instill these values in our students? Am I moving Jonathan to a level G in reading just because it'll make him feel better and it'll make my life easier because I won't have to answer questions from my AP about why he's been an F since November? No, because you can't dress up Jonathan as a G reader and you can't dress up my school as a delightful haven for learning where everyone gets along and no one says nasty things about the principal behind his back.

So what did I do on my survey? I told the truth. My fiance says it's because I have integrity, but I say it's because I'm freaking fed up. I am fed up with being shuffled around like a substitute and with the fact that 75% of what we do is a sham to make us look good for Quality Review and does not actually benefit our students. Like, right now our administration is twisting themselves into knots to make sure that every grade has an inquiry team, because Quality Review decrees it must be so and lo, it must be! Except that in order to ensure that every grade has an inquiry team, we routinely hold inquiry team meetings that pull all the teachers from a grade out of their classrooms, and AIS and ESL teachers are dispatched to cover those classrooms, so the end result is that students are not taught. I mean, doesn't that seem backwards?!

Our second grade inquiry team is going to focus on teaching a reading skill that is so obscure and so freaking unnecessary that I don't even want to type it out lest one of my colleagues attempt to Google it and wind up here. We're supposed to be using strategy lessons to teach this skill to three students during 50 minutes, which our contract stipulates we are not supposed to have to plan for, except unfortunately our union rep does approximately nothing for us (besides offering to collect the surveys from us and bring them to the post office, like thanks, that's such a generous offer considering they already have stamps on them).

This past week I finally wrapped up my running records. Our literacy coach insists running records should take no longer than one week to complete. Mine took nearly three. Why? Because I was never there; I was off covering other classes all over the building. We've had 18 teaching days so far this month, and in one of my classes (as it happens, my lowest class, where fully half my group are beginner ELLs, most of them in the country less than 10 months), I've missed 10 of them. More than half.

Anyway, so I was finishing up my running records, and I literally wanted to cry, because I could tell that the major problem for a few kids was that they had no idea how to talk about the book they had just read or explain the story to me or answer my questions, and the reason they couldn't do this is because nobody meets with them during reading. I mean, obviously their classroom teachers do the best they can, but at the end of the day they have "their" group to meet with and (this is the key part) write up data on, because God forbid an AP looks in your reading binder and sees a dearth of data. So these kids, who have zero attention span to begin with, who cannot sit and read their books independently for 30 minutes at a time because they're just not developmentally ready for that, go day after day after day sitting around in the classroom during reading time, staring blankly at the cover of their books, and nobody is teaching them or meeting with them. And if there were space on the survey to write something, if it weren't just bubbling in the numbers like everything else in the whole freaking New York City Department of Education, I would write this:

"Dear Administration of PS 00: I am failing my students. I am failing them by not being there when they need me to teach them. I am failing them by not being there when they literally beg me to meet with them. I am failing them by being inconsistent, by being there for them one day and then gone the next even when I've promised I will be working with them. You are causing me to fail them."

Oh, but it's not just the endless coverages that have me so ticked off these days (although that's a huge part of it -- last week I subbed a full day for the same teacher three times!); it's our actual units of study and teaching points themselves. Our teaching points are written for us by somebody, God knows who (our literacy "coach"? his coaching group?) and they are literally handed to us...usually the day before the unit begins. OK, so, first of all, the day before? You can't give us, oh, a week to prepare for the next unit? Especially when we've done things lately like non-fiction and book clubs, and we've been running around like vilde chayas (that's Yiddish for "wild beasts," and it's a term I highly suggest adding to your vocabulary, as I much prefer it to "chickens with our heads cut off") trying to get our stuff together.

Second of all, this method of doing things means we have approximately zero say in what we're actually teaching our students. And I have to tell you, lately there's been a bigger and bigger discrepancy between what I (remember me? their reading teacher?) think they need to learn and what Teachers College thinks they need to learn. For example, we did an entire non-fiction unit without ever once teaching them about the actual features of non-fiction: tables of contexts, indexes, headings, bold text, glossaries, etc. This past month, we did book clubs for the very first time without ever once teaching them how to conduct a book club...and then we were told to conduct our assessments without even listening in on their book club conversations the way we were originally supposed to do! Our teaching points have become increasingly ridiculous, to the point where even I don't really understand them or how to teach them. I feel like I'm cajoling and harassing my students to learn something that I feel is pointless. So you can imagine how well my lessons have been going lately.

On top of all that, one of our staff toilets broke, and our janitor informed us that that's it, no new toilet part this year. Which means that we have one bathroom on our floor for about thirty people, most of them women, two of whom are pregnant, and let me tell you, there is now always a line.

And then I came home from school and read these comments on a Gothamist article in which readers opined that New York City public school teachers are "stupid" "whiners" who "just want to be left alone to do nothing until they get their 30 years." I know it's completely ridiculous to take moronic statements like that personally, but I really want to hurl something large and heavy through a window right now.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The causal agent of my frustration

Because of budget issues, my school is no longer hiring subs, which means that whenever a classroom teacher dares to call in sick, we out-of-classroom teachers get pulled to cover their classes. (This has been pretty common for a while now, but it's become even more so since our administration forbade teachers from calling SubCentral.) Recently someone pointed out to me that they always seem to pull literacy AIS, never math or ESL teachers, which is a good point especially since we're right in the middle of running records and I am never going to finish if I keep getting pulled for coverages...but I digress!

Last week, I was covering the class that includes William and Jonathan, easily the most difficult to manage behaviorally of my five classes. And to make a long story short, Jonathan cut another student with a pair of scissors, and I spent my entire lunch period filling out incident reports and injury reports and calling parents and notifying guidance counselors.

So I'm filling out this injury report, marking off the little codes that indicate that the injury occurred in the classroom and the specific activity taking place was "sitting." And then I come to the little box for "causal agent." Now, I'm thinking that scissors are probably a pretty common causal agent in classroom injuries, right? So I'm searching among the many codes for "scissors" or at least, like, "classroom supplies," because I'm sure plenty of school injuries can be chalked up to kids stabbing each other in the eye with pencils or gluing their hands together, right?

There's no place to list "scissors." I can choose "medical waste." I can choose, like, "bloodborne pathogens." I'm debating whether or not to list the causal agent as a "penetrating object," and in my mind I'm weighing that against the $.99 Band-Aid that cured the victim, so I finally give up and just put "other."

Later in the day I was paged over the loudspeaker while I was in the hallway, so I ducked into the classroom and called the number I had been paged to, but no one answered, and when I finally got through, I was asked if the victim of the scissors incident had seen the nurse (which he had), and as soon as I answered, the office hung up.

Oy vey.

Friday, March 13, 2009

This weekend is brought to me by the letter L

Ladies and gentlemen, we have our first grade-level reader.

OK, that's not entirely true. I've had kids reach grade level (and surpass it!) after transferring out of my group. And I've had kids reach grade level who started out in the teacher's group, came to my group after falling behind and ended up going back to the teacher's group. But Dalya is my first student who started with me, below grade level (although juuust barely below), at the beginning of the year who is now on grade level. (Grade level for this point in the school year for second graders is level L. Sample level L book: the Pinky and Rex series by James Howe -- can you tell I still have series books on the brain? And remember Bunnicula, also by James Howe? Anyway.)

She is my first L reader, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer kid -- first of all, the other day I moved her to K, and she's been walking around beaming and hugging her book baggie full of K books, so you can imagine how excited she was to be an L reader, and then I actually got a "Thank you for moving me to level L, Miss Brave."

In other happy running record news, Azul has moved to F. Unfortunately, he has been driving me a little crazy lately, but it is a riot to watch him read -- in the beginning of the year, he was a complete clown during running records, turning to me after each page with a huge exaggerated grin on his face as if to say, "See? I can read this!" But today he was all business, absolutely poker-faced, hunched over the book and taking deep breaths as if to pump himself up for every tricky word.

Too bad the level G texts are ridiculously hard. One is about a boy dancing at a Native American powwow...'cause my eight-year-olds who live in New York City really have the mental capacity to conceptualize a powwow. Also, he's wearing a headdress and they always think he's a girl. Today one kid told me that he was "dancing in water" because the page background happened to be blue. The other G book is about a boy whose family is moving, and he projects all his negative feelings about moving onto his pet fish, so he's all, "Flipper likes his friends and his school, he will miss them if he moves away," and then on moving day his family gets into the elevator and goes up, not down, and the boy is all, "Who lives on this floor?" and his parents are all, "We do now!" and then the kid (and his fish!) are both happy. I have read this book about fifty times and only once has a student fully understood that (a) fish don't attend school so obviously the boy is referring to himself and not Flipper and (b) the family actually just moved to another apartment in the same building so the boy is happy because he doesn't have to move away from his friends. It's not like the boy says, "Wow, this is great because this apartment must be zoned for the same school I currently attend!"

First of all, what kind of neglectful, twisted parents don't tell their sad, worried child that they are actually just moving up two flights of stairs and not, you know, out of the city? Second of all, while the boy is packing he says, "I put everything in the box except Flipper," which makes all the kids think that the boy is sad because he's not allowed to take Flipper with him to the new apartment (because the new apartment building doesn't allow fish? I don't get how their minds work either, I'm just the reading teacher). Usually I manage to interrogate the answers out of them (me: "Why doesn't the boy want to move to a new apartment?" Kid: "Because Flipper will miss his friends and his school." Me: "Do fish go to school?!" Kid: "No..." Me: "So who do you think the boy is really talking about?" Kid: "Um...himself?" Me: :::mental ding ding ding:::)

Meanwhile, the level H book is about this boy whose mother's car breaks down, so every day they try to get to school a different way but there's always some wacky problem (like they get on the wrong bus and it takes them to the beach, or they get on the ferry but it's bumpy and they feel sick), and the only inferring required is the monumentally stupid question of why the boy and his mother look so happy at the end of the story. (Actual answer: because their car is fixed. Miss Brave's personal answer: because he managed to weasel out of an entire week of school! With the consent of his hapless mother!)

I'm pretty sure this entry reflects the fact that I drank a large coffee and a caffeinated soda today, the fact that it is Friday, and the fact that I am still drowning in a vast sea of work created by our series book club unit, a unit that has me so ensnared in its clutches that I actually dreamed about it all night.

There are fifteen weeks until summer!

Friday, March 6, 2009

The cycle of reading

School has been a whirlwind of stress and a mountain of work lately (with the obvious exception of our glorious snow day). For one thing, our unit of study this month is "series book clubs." No one has done book clubs in second grade before -- typically they don't start until third grade -- let alone book clubs centered around books that come in a series. It is next to impossible to find quality series books below level J, and even those that we did manage to scrounge up (Maisy is an H, Rigby Brand New Readers come in levels A-E, Nicky is allegedly an F although this website lists it under "picture books for 2-5 years old" :::buries head in hands:::) don't really give my readers much to converse about in their book clubs.

I don't mean to whine, but book clubs generate a huge amount of work for me. Each of my five classes has three separate book clubs (based on reading level), and each student in each book club is supposed to read the same pages in the same book each day, so I have to figure out how many pages to assign them, and because the books are fairly short, they're going through them fairly quickly, which means I have to keep doling out more books and trying to keep up with who's reading what and when. Even though I tried to make it easier on myself and assign the same series to multiple clubs (I think I have every single copy of every Henry and Mudge book in the school), and even though I'm forcing my lower readers to read the same book multiple times just so I won't run out of books altogether, I've still had to be hyper-organized to keep it all straight. Why, why, why do we have to launch experimental book clubs in March, the longest and dreariest month of the school year? And why do we have to do it with running records and assessments coming up next week? I don't know how we're supposed to listen in on their book club talks when we're also supposed to be doing running records...and don't even get me started on the fact that our teaching points are the same old "Readers infer by paying attention to characters' actions, how they speak to each other, blah blah blah BLAH," and meanwhile we're not doing any teaching points on how they should actually behave in their book clubs -- like how about looking at the speaker when he or she is talking, or not interrupting when someone else is talking but instead waiting to say, "I have something to add to what ___ said" or "What ____ said reminds me of..." These are all critical things that I need to be teaching them in order to have a successful book club conversation, but instead of teaching them during my mini lesson I'm struggling to sneak them in elsewhere.

It's all especially ridiculous because technically I'm supposed to be invisible during the book club talk, but instead I'm totally breaking in because hello, they're in second grade, they don't know how to organize and run their own book club. Supposedly we're doing this to prepare them for third grade book clubs, but as far as I can see there's nothing really modified about what we're doing -- we're doing the same third grade version of book clubs without really preparing them to be ready for it.

Book clubs are also stressing me out because in some ways they really highlight the gap between my struggling readers and the average and above average readers in the grade. Even though a lot of my readers have made tremendous progress during the year, and even though some of them are doing really well, it's still disheartening to be in the same classroom with kids who are all, "I infer that my character is feeling glum" while my kids are all :::blank stare:::

Meanwhile, my new student who speaks no English cries all day long, and it is the saddest thing ever. I have him paired up with another Spanish speaker who speaks a pretty good amount of English now, and I have a Spanish/English speaker to translate for him during the mini lesson, but he is still sad and misses his mom and constantly asks when it will be time to go home. Today during my mini lesson the other kids were asking why he was crying, and we got into a discussion about what it's like to be new in a place where you don't speak the language. One of my beginner ELLs confessed, "When I come here, I so scared, I only know yes, no." And I said to her, "And now you talk so much in English I have to tell you to be quiet!" It did make me realize how far some of my ELLs have come; I remember a few of them from first grade when they didn't speak any English at all, and now they are D and E readers.

Coming up next: running records, assessments, report cards, parent/teacher conferences, and book clubs -- many, many more book clubs. Is it April yet?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Snow day!

One of those funny little role reversals about becoming a teacher is that you realize that teachers fantasize about snow days as much as students do, and we feel the bitter sting of disappointment when we face the disappointing truism that New York City public schools never close because of snow.

...except when they DO!!! Yesterday, I knew better than to fall into the snow day trap, so I prepared as though it was any other Sunday. I laid out an outfit. I made my lunch. I printed out directions to the bakery I ambitiously planned to visit after school as consolation for the long snowy bus ride. I set my alarm early so I could leave early on the subway instead of in my car.

Most importantly, I did not jinx anything -- because everyone knows New York City public schools never close.

I never sleep well when it snows all night -- I'm always up to check on the accumulation, and I always have dreams that no snow has stuck at all -- so I was up extra early this morning. DOE website: nothing. NY1: nada. Local news channels: nope.

So I got dressed. I put on my track pants and boots. I put my work pants and work shoes in a backpack. I packed my lunch. I even accessorized.

Just before 6 am, I gave the DOE website once last chance. "Come on," I pleaded as I hit refresh. "You really don't want to close schools? No? OK, then, thanks for nothing."

I put on my big puffy coat and my hat and my gloves. I headed downstairs. The snow made it difficult to push open the door. I lifted my hood against the wind and began trekking through the unshoveled snow. It was still dark out. Cars were driving cautiously through the streets.

Then my phone rang. "Are you sure they didn't close schools?" said my fiance.

"Of course I'm sure," I answered impatiently, still hoofing it through the snow.

"I think they might have just closed them," he said.

I stopped cold. (Get it? Cold? Ha!) I made him check the DOE website, which was not updated ("They're probably just inefficient!" he said). In an effort to convince me, he held the phone up to the television, where I could halfway make out various news anchors telling me that city public schools were closed, only I didn't really trust them, because everyone knows city public schools never close.

Finally my fiance suggested that I hang up and 311. And when the recorded message informed me that New York City public schools were indeed closed, I actually jumped up in the air, shouted, "Yahoo!" and began running back toward my apartment. Five minutes later? I would have been underground on the subway headed towards school.

I grew up as a New York City public school student, and the only time we ever got a snow day was in 1996, when the city recorded 20 inches of snow. Schools hadn't closed due to snow before that since 1978. According to NY1, we've only gotten five or six inches on the ground so far, and my main man Pat Kiernan is quite surprised at the chancellor's decision. But for the first and probably only time in my life, I say praise Joel Klein and hallelujah!