Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Been a Long Time... From the Mouths of 4th Graders

     It has been a long time since I have written in this blog, but a friend and colleague persuaded me to tell this tale. I'm not looking for answers, but they are of course welcome.

     As I embark on another school year, I can’t help but be a bit nostalgic for the days gone by. I’m by no means a newbie to teaching, but I’m not a seasoned veteran either. My career only knows the NYS tests in some form or another. I can’t think back to a time when teachers really drove curriculum and catered student instruction to student needs, but I can think back to more freedom and project-based learning to really extend concepts beyond the classroom. I am now my sixth year of blogging with my fourth graders, and this is one of the few learning tools that I simply will not give up without a fight. To teach them how to use the Internet in a good, responsible way and to teach them to actually use technology really makes me feel good. Nobody is born into this world tech-savvy despite when people tell me that kids are ‘naturally good with it.” That simply is not the truth. We must show them the way through cyber-morality lessons within their digital citizenship. But I digress.

     A lot of what we do in fourth grade centers around vocabulary. We teach vocabulary. We teach how to figure out vocabulary whether through context clues, or a dictionary; both online and print. In every year since I have started it, I have assigned a blog assignment that asks students to use one word to describe fourth grade so far this year, and I typically assign it in the second or third month of school. I like to see their impressions and to see which students challenge themselves with more sophisticated vocabulary. In the past 5 years I have gotten words like “exciting”, “rollercoaster“, “great“, “adventurous“, and “unnpredictible. “ It has been called “amazing“, “fun“, and “brilliant.“ On several occasions it has been referred to as “awesome”, and “super.”

     My class this year, while still using words like “awesome” and “fun”, has used additional different words to describe their fourth grade experiences. Words like “busy”. “time consuming”, “constantly working”, and “challenging” are now in student blog articles. Those are enough to concern any educator, but the two that seem to raise flags more than any of the others are “overwhelming” and “intense”. They mention how there is little time to transition from one activity to another. They feel the pressure constraints that we as educators are feeling, and to be honest I feel terrible about it. I have always tried my best to shield my students from the pressures of the state tests while getting them ready, but with the onslaught of Common Core and cut scores that put many students in failing grade categories there is more pressure than ever. One of my students is writing a realistic fiction story about a boy that is worried about failing the state math test? What are we doing?

      I’m glad that parents are questioning the new curriculum and assessments, and they should. Their children, our children are our most precious, prized things in all of the world. We must question what is happening to them. I don’t want my students, or my own children, to look back at their elementary school years and recall the intense overwhelming time that they had. I want them to remember the awesome, fun times. I want learning to be meaningful and challenging instead of being “time consuming” and “constantly busy.” I just want to teach.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Loss of Inspiration

As teachers and as citizens of this country, we face uncertain and tumultuous times. Economic recovery is still something that we are all hoping for, and there seem to be too many fingers pointing at education. I am all for education reform, but it seems that politicians are trying to redo everything in a matter of months instead of making truly educated decisions that was transform learning institutions for the better. Nonetheless, unions have been under attack as those from the private sector have found a nice scapegoat.

Let's put all of that jibberish aside for just one blog post. I must admit something that I am not proud of. Up until recently, I did not feel invested in my union. Sure... I paid my dues, and I never missed a meeting, but in my heart of hearts I did not feel like I was really part of it. I did not feel like I had a personal stake in it. As the events of the last two years started to unfold, I would look more towards my union as a source of strength and solidarity. My timing was actually perfect, as a new force of leadership was about to emerge. Enter Craig Lagnese. He was a science teacher at the High School that was our new district union president. He had passion in his voice, hope in his heart, and a smile on his face. Through his words I found inspiration. I started to become more involved in union discussions. Even if I was not talking, I was listening.. really listening. If i would ask him a question or email him, the answer was quick, complete, and respectful. In the past few months, I have gotten to know Craig a little better, and I feel that I am better for it. The funny thing is that he was younger than me. Usually you think that those that inspire you so much would have their wisdom from eons of more experiences, but perhaps he lived more in his years than most do in twice the time.

It is with deep sadness when I say that Craig lost his battle with lung cancer just yesterday. It gives me chills to think that only two months ago he was standing in front of a group of us at a meeting as if nothing was wrong. Three weeks ago he had been diagnosed. I feel very fortunate to have known him. Even in our last emails just eleven days ago, he wrote that he had still so much to do. That's the kind of person that he was. I am also grateful that I was able to express to him my sincere gratitude for inspiring me and for everything that he had given us.

He was truly a great teacher, colleague, leader, friend, and mentor. We will try to press on in his honor as he would have done.

In Unity. Rest in peace.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Wake Me Up When September Ends

What a great song, but it is also how most educators feel. Each year brings a new class and this means a whole new set of challenges. Our district also has a few new curriculum initiatives that will surely bring an onslaught of changes and challenges. Add to this APPR, changing state and federal assessments and standards, media and political agendas against unions and teachers in general, diminishing financial support from the government.... wow... looking at it at face value it seems like a total nightmare set up.

On the other hand, it is another opportunity to start anew. I anxiously await meeting my new class and facing these new challenges. As every September approaches, I get just as nervous and excited as I did when I was in elementary school myself. The few nights before school starts will not have too much sleep time in them for me, but that's just the way it is I guess.

After the first day is complete, it's like we never left. We're back in the routine and long, hot days at the pool are a distant memory. The only thing that drives me nuts is that the "Back To School" sales don't have to start the first week of July! Enjoy the rest of your summer.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An Incredible Thing Happened Today...

Today was the last meeting of my fifth grade math club. During this last meeting, a student came up to me and thanked me. He said that he really enjoyed being part of it, and had a great time. I then thanked him for being part of the club, and I thanked him for allowing me to get to know him, as I did not have him in fourth grade. We both smiled, and it was a sincere smile for both of us. It was a bit bittersweet, as we both genuinely enjoyed getting to know each other. It was an incredible moment that I will hold on to in order to get through the tough times.

This is why I teach.

Monday, March 28, 2011

It Is What It Is....

Sometimes it seems that no matter how hard we try, we can't make our point. Teachers layoffs are happening all over the country, while mandates and standards are putting more and more of a strain on our education system. I wish that I had better news to speak about, but sadly, I do not. Perhaps in another few months things will be better, but for now I can't see the education system improving as a result of losing so many great educators and putting even more pressure on those of us that remain.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

You teach? Seriously?

Turning on the television or news website and the latest "media attention" seems to be teachers. Several state and local government leaders have targeted unions as the evil force against the suffering middle class and, if you want to get to the more specific scourge, educators. Teachers make too much money. Administrators make too much money. They all have part time jobs. They don't work hard. They only take the job to have summers off. They are untouchable once tenured. Seniority ensures that we will always have terrible teachers and newer, more capable teachers will never have a chance to get into the profession. Each of these stereotypes (and outright lies) are disgusting, yet too many people allow them to continue. The only reason to perpetuate these (in the media no less) is to encourage (manufactured) jealously and push attention to this issue and distract us from other (really) important issues. It's either this or what is happening with Charlie Sheen. Politicians such as NJ Governor Christie, NY Governor Cuomo, and NYC Mayor Bloomberg come to mind as those seeming to try to build up the "tough guy" image by attacking teachers.

How can we stop this? If you look for a list of professions that absolutely require a postgraduate degree, there are not many. I'm not talking about how having an MBA helps in the business world. I am talking about needing the degree to get and keep your job. Is that not enough to be treated as a professional? Taking the education of our children seriously and making it a priority begins with giving educators the respect that the profession deserves.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tenure: Right or Wrong?

Ordinarily I would shy away from subjects like this, but in these economic times when the public needs not only a scapegoat that they can blame, but one that they can vote on. Tenure has become one of the things debated, and I recently had a discussion with a buddy of mine on a recent train ride to the city...

Now here is an intelligent person that often makes informed decisions, yet I find that in this area of conversation he was misinformed. If your life and career was outside education, think to the setting of your own experiences. First of all, let's assume that you went to public, not private school. Next, I assume that your school experience was quite a few years ago especially if you're talking about elementary education. Things have changed and I don't mean just computers. Federal and State mandates are placing more into our curriculum. Educators and administrators are also placing more in to meet the demands of the 21st century. Many teachers introduce even more material simply because they are passionate about a subject or perhaps there was a teachable moment and his or her students wanted to do 'more'.

In any event, the classroom has changed and we have had to change along with it. This is a good thing in many aspects, but it has its disadvantages too. In any event, Mirriam Webster defines tenure as "a status granted after a trial period to a teacher that gives protection from summary dismissal". This means that your boss cannot fire you simply because he or she wants to. It cannot be done hastily, and there must be reasons for your dismissal. Police officers have this same right. It is not a 'job for life'. It is not an entry card into the lazy, do-nothing hall of fame. It is simply protection against hasty termination. Add to that the fact that the person has to prove themselves for at least three years.

Working in the private sector has plenty of advantages, but the one thing that is not afforded by most is that same due process. If your boss doesn't like you personally, or he/she wants to move you out of a position or job to bring someone else in, all he or she has to do is terminate you. There is little that you can do short of bringing a civil suit. Due process offers you protection from this. It must be proven that you have not fulfilled your responsibilities or broken the rules. Isn't this something that private sector employees would love to have? In the corporate world, you are just a number. In a school, you are a member of a family. Yes, there are some businesses that are like a family, but they are disappearing as more and more companies care only about the bottom line.

I hope that schools are never run as businesses. Yes, we are in the business of educating children and helping them to grow into the best that they can be, but this is not a cookie cutter factory that produces widgets. This is not a financial institution that invests money for its customers. This is not a vendor that sells products to its customers that use pretty packaging and a slick advertising campaign.

We are teachers that are given the gift and responsibility of playing a role in the lives of the students that enter our classrooms day after day. We face challenges from their lives, our own lives, state and federal curriculum mandates, state and federal funding (or lack thereof), proposed tax caps (Cuomo are you kidding me???), district initiatives, time constraints, public perception (New York Newsday just loves to blast schools and the police - tune the hate out!), and other things.

The key to redefining education and making sure that our children are ready for the challenges of tomorrow requires informed decision making. It will not be easy, but I'm pretty sure that the solution is not cutting funds and laying off teaching staff. We all know how tough the economic times are. People are losing their homes, and many of are struggling to pay bills the best they can. Teachers live here too, and we are also facing the same things. The government can write a huge check for banks, but when it comes to education and our children, it seems like the wallet is empty.

I love my job, and I am grateful that tenure offers me protection from wrongful termination after I have proven myself. Perhaps the private sector is jealous of this protection. I think they should try to incorporate it into their jobs instead of eliminating it from ours. I think it would be better for everyone if we were all treated fairly instead of unfairly. What do you think is most equitable?