28 February 2005

Botany Made Sexy

This photoshop was created by Brian Pfohl, who graciously allowed me to post it here. I think it's just awesome. It also happens to be something my kids (and colleagues) enjoy very much. My students love being able to "be in on the joke." What better reason for learning some botany?

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The Day at a Glance

I think that anyone who puts their best effort into their work---regardless of the job---has a full day. I am not going to purport that teachers have it any better or worse than anyone else who's out there doing their thing. I will just state the obvious and simply say that it's different.

Mondays are when I try to get as much prepped for the week at hand as I can. So, starting at 6 a.m., I was in there printing and xeroxing. My sophs are doing a Urinalysis lab this week---and I got to make batches of (synthetic) urine for them to test and diagnose. I also pulled slides for my other lab that needed to be set up. I collected glassware and other lab items. I sorted through the e-mail that had accrued over the weekend and took care of a few other items on the omnipresent "to do" list.

My first class begins at 7:50. Really, working with the kids is a relief...a break in the day. I enjoy being with them very much. Today, we got to talk about kinky plant sex and how pee gets made. We got to discuss what classes they're thinking about taking next year...and look at some ideas for upcoming projects.

At noon, I ran inside for a conference during my "lunch" and then chatted with the principal a bit on how to make professional development meaningful. A colleague needed some help and I took some time for her. I prepped for my sub tomorrow (as I have a big district level presentation to make), gathered my handouts, and traveled to central office. I dropped off the draft version of the district position statement on evolution with my curriculum boss. I took care of other errands there and by 3, I patted myself on the back and determined that it was time to come home.

I had dinner with a housemate and have done some things for my job. Right now, I'm supposed to be previewing a video to share at a meeting next week...but I just haven't the focus for it. "Hellboy" is showing instead while I try to shut off my brain for awhile.

After all, tomorrow will have its own challenges to face. There might be a lot of things you can say about this profession---but you cannot say that it is dull. Where else do you get to make fake urine, brainstorm ideas for better teaching with the boss, and guide kids in their decision making about the future all in one day?

The downside is that while all these things are great, I often feel pulled in too many directions. I'm just a girl who can't say "No," and so I end up trying to do too much. I hope to change that a bit for next year. For now, I'm just going to hold on and enjoy the ride.

27 February 2005

Where the Jobs Are

Most of the governors from around the U.S. and its various territories have been meeting this week to discuss deficiencies in the services high schools are providing to students.

The fact that many high school graduates are unprepared for the world of work and/or college is not new. Neither is the reality that all too many students fail to finish high school. Perhaps government expectations for changing those statistics are new, but I'm not going to hold my breath to see if these governors are willing to put their budgets where their mouths are. I don't expect them to "walk the walk" any more than the Feds have regarding NCLB.

What I object to most is the idea put forth at the governors' summit that all students should be equally prepared for college.

It is only recently that being a high school dropout didn't carry the stigma that it does today. According to one source, "The high school dropout rate in 1900 was 90%. In the 1930s only about one-third of the youth population completed high school. By 1950 the number who graduated had increased to 59%. In the 1970s the dropout rate continued to decrease, but it was still nearly 28% nationwide." Today, rates are even lower. How is it that students in the past (our parents and grandparents) ever managed to do so well without a rigorous course of study and diplomas in their hands? And since they turned out all right, why are we so hellbent on changing things for our children?

The answer really doesn't have anything to do with college. It has to do with where the jobs are.

Richard Lynch writes that "In the U.S. today, less than 20 percent of the workforce is in jobs classified as unskilled. This is almost an exact reversal of the nature of the American workforce just 40 years ago. In 1959, 60 percent of the workforce was unskilled, with 20 percent classified as professional and 20 percent as skilled. Today 60 percent of the workforce is in skilled occupations and 20 percent in professions. The assembly line, single-skill jobs of the factory or construction site and the office clerk typist or bookkeeper are largely defunct. Rather, there is a tremendous demand for educated people with general employability and specialized technical skills in areas related to computer science and computer science technology, high-tech manufacturing, software development, biotechnology, biomedical applications, sales and services, data base management, and health care. Nearly all of the rapidly growing jobs and occupations require postsecondary or extensive continuing education."

What I really want you to think about is that in both 1959 and today, only 20 percent of the work force was composed of "professional" (i.e. college degree required) jobs. If that sort area of the job market hasn't increased in nearly 50 years---why should we assume that more kids need college? Doesn't it appear that more kids need technical training?

Mind you, the source quoted above mentions the need for "educated people," which is where this whole idea of standards comes into play. If we can get all kids to be proficient at reading, communicating, and thinking, then they'll be ready for life after high school. For most of them, this means attending a technical school for special training---not college. This comes at the same time that nearly 1.3 billion dollars earmarked for vocational ed is to be eliminated under Bush's most recent budget proposal.

The answer to why students don't finish high school is not a simple one. Some have such significant problems in their home lives that they can only focus on surviving day to day. For others, high school just doesn't "fit" them. And now we're asking that high schools become even more "one size fits all" in terms of student achievement. Will the reduction or elimination of vo-tech programs in high schools mean that more kids will excel in academic classes and head off to college? Based on my own experiences, I find that such an outcome would be unlikely.

The school I work in does offer the traditional college track---and most of the kids I see are part of that. But the school also offers Windows NT certification, Cisco, and advanced auto maintenance programs with their own standards for the job market. I wish more kids could take these classes...and now I'm concerned that fewer will be able to do so at a time when our society will have more jobs ready and waiting for them.

For a long time, having a college degree was the ideal. I've had many students who were the first in their families to attend college (or even finish high school). I was proud of all of them. But I also think that parents and the community at large should equally shout out the merits of those kids who leave high school with professional certifications in hand. There are an awful lot of college educated baristas at Starbucks. Perhaps some of them would have benefitted from some good career counseling about where the jobs were going to be. And at least they could have taken advantage of their high school's vo-tech program while it still had one.

26 February 2005

Hands on...or off?

When I first started in this profession, teaching science in a "hands on" manner was promoted as the best instructional strategy. The idea was to use manipulatives as often as possible because the more kids "do" science, the better their understanding of it.

Now that science is being held accountable via federal requirements, the hunt is on for what constitutes best instructional practices in science. The hands-on approach is starting to lose its luster, perhaps unfairly.

The most recent brouhaha has to do with a study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon Universtiay. "The study found that students taught through direct instruction were more likely on average to become 'experts' in designing scientific experiments." Furthermore, these students were also found to do just as well in applying their knowledge in the form of "analyzing and attempting to improve upon a series of science-fair posters...devised by other students." ("NCLB Could Alter Science Teaching"; Education Week; 11/10/2004)

Many districts and even one state (California) is looking at this information as proof that kids can do just as well without spending money for a bells and whistles kind of science program. Why worry about building labs? No labs means less need for equipment, safety factors, and you need fewer square feet per student (according to OSHA regulations). I can see why schools who are already pressed for pennies would find appeal in the idea of doing away with "hands on" science...especially if you can get the same results without it.

What I think groups are not looking at is simply the quality of the instruction. If you present an engaging curriculum to students (regardless of how you deliver it), students will actively participate. Meanwhile, not all students learn best in the same way. Of course you are going to have kids who gain more from direct instruction than from hands-on learning.

Science is not simply a collection of facts that you can present in the classroom alone. It is a way of knowing, and this requires practice. Some of this can be gained through classroom examples and discussion. Other proficiency is gained through the direct application of this information.

My forecast for future research is that it will show both hands on and direct instruction are necessary for student achievement. There is not going to be one "magic bullet." It seems as if educational research would be better served at identifying the best times to use each approach within the classroom. This would be far more helpful to teachers. Anyone looking for a project for a dissertation?

25 February 2005

From the Mouths of Babes

Each year about this time, students begin signing up for next year's courses. And each year, I shake my head---remembering that grades from 1st semester were only reported two weeks ago. Parents and kids are supposed to project where students will be for next year?

Our department tries to promote different courses with sophomores. Washington requires only 2 credits of science for graduation. Most sophomores will end the year with 1.5 credits. We're interested in both job security and helping kids extend their science education, so we send students from our upper division classes to talk to the sophomores.

Most of my sophs are college bound. It is easy to sell them on taking chemistry or perhaps even AP Bio next year. Some even get all warm and fuzzy for physics. I try to talk to them about making the most of these last two years of "free" education before they head out into the wide world. I remind them that an ambitious schedule is admirable---but that they are still teens and should be sure to leave time in their day to be a human being. It's good for them to see juniors and seniors who are taking a strong academic load and are also involved with other pursuits. By the end of the presentations, my kids are starting to get excited about the possibilities. And I am excited about sending them on new adventures.

I returned home today to another sort of kid. Long-time readers may remember that I have two housemates. One is a retired teacher with family in the area, including two grand-daughters. They are ages 5 and (nearly) 8. The 5-year old spent the night last night and both are having a "sleepover" tonight.

The girls are a little alien to me. They're very "girly:" they want to play dress-up, have tea parties, do ballet moves, and take their dolls everywhere. And even though I am a grandma-by-proxy in this whole situation, I never feel like I should correct their behaviour---even when they are jumping off furniture or thundering through the house. My house (in part). They know that I like science, but they're not quite sure what that means. I'm trying to teach them little by little. We have a Bonsai Potato doing its thing in the kitchen. The girls want to know how the sprouts get on the potato...but they're reluctant to share their own theories. I gave them each a glowstick when last they were here. They were going to walk down to the country store with their grandmother for some candy. What makes the sticks work? How come putting them in the freezer makes them last longer so that they can use them again? But there were no questions...no ideas.

I almost feel sorry for them. They have so few inquiries concerning the world around them---and so much is handed to them. When they are sitting in my classroom a few short years from now, will any of that have changed? Will they be as excited as my current students about investigating other information? Will they think for themselves? Is this why boys seem to be more successful in the sciences as adults than girls?

There isn't a lot I can do for these kiddos. I only see them once in awhile, but I try to be a good role model. Their grandmother has a great deal of intellectual curiosity and has been busy learning all kinds of things to share with them. I am hoping that we can find a way to spark them here or there. I'd like to hear about their exploits in chemistry and physics when they reach high school.

24 February 2005

Top 5 Reasons for the Goddess to Smile This Week

5. Three new dresses on the way. (Thank you IRS!)

4. Three weeks after my surgery, my final incision is actually starting to close and heal. I might actually get well.

3. Discovered that a teacher at another school who is a negative, sulky, wet blanket on any work toward standards-based instruction has allowed her certificate to lapse. Now, she gets to undertake an extensive and costly recertification process.

2. Nominated to "Who's Who Among America's Teachers" for the 5th time in 9 years.

1. Made Spring Break plans to spend time with my sweetie, who I haven't seen in 6 very long months.

Sometimes, it's good to be the Goddess.

23 February 2005

Does the right piece of paper make you a teacher?

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act has made it incumbent upon districts to place a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom. According to the feds, this means the following conditions are satisfied:
  • Hold at least a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution of higher education;
  • Be fully licensed/certified (traditional or alternate route) with no waivers (i.e., no emergency certificates); and
  • Demonstrate content expertise by passing a state test of elementary content knowledge and teaching skills. (Elementary Only)
  • Demonstrate content expertise in each of the core academic subject(s) taught by doing the following (Secondary Only):
    1. Passing a rigorous state test; or
    2. Completing an academic major, coursework equivalent to a major, or a graduate degree; or
    3. Earning an advanced certification or credentials (i.e., National Board Certification).

When these standards were first proposed, each state was given a time period in which to either adopt the definition or supply their own. Most states didn't choose option 2, and many of them are hurting for "highly qualified" teachers. (FYI: Washington state did select its own description, and it isn't quite as involved as ESEA's.)

Increasing numbers of teacher are being certified via alternative routes, as mentioned in this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer. There are only so many people willing to do this job---far fewer than there are positions. It is reasonable to expect that states will find some other way to put certificates in the hands of more people.

I can't quite decide what to think about all of this. On one hand, as I reflect on my own certification process, I really didn't think it did much to prepare me for being in a classroom. Perhaps it's not such a bad idea to let people head out on the job and earn their paperwork along the way. Seems like they'll find out a whole lot faster whether or not the career suits them. And yet, with all of the "dropouts" from the profession each year and the associated costs---shouldn't we make sure that those being sent into the classroom have every available piece of background we can provide?

I like the idea of having good people in the classroom. I want someone who knows his/her "stuff" to be working with kids. But a piece of paper does not a teacher make. I can think of plenty of certificated staff who don't make a bit of difference in the classroom. And I certainly have met lots of people who have a great deal of subject matter knowledge but would make for bad teachers. I'm just not sure that the hoops the government is setting up will allow us to accurately distinguish which group is which.

22 February 2005

One Down...Three to Go

Today was the big day: the first day of Scope and Sequence planning.

Department chairs from every secondary school in the district, along with a few other teachers, convened at central office today in order to begin work on developing a curriculum based on the state standards. We will have 3 more meetings this year in order to look at what we're doing, where we want to be, and create a plan to get there.

I had asked for support for these meetings in October---so the planning has been a significant part of my district contract since then. I've been very nervous about the whole thing. It is one thing to step into a classroom with 30 teenagers...and quite another to go into a room with 12 adults and lead them through heavy duty professional development and decision making. I think the teens are more fun. But my audience for the day was very supportive and positive. I feel much more at ease with things and am excited about our work.

There are a lot of reasons to not like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is also known as "No Child Left Behind." Some parts of it are unreasonable and unrealistic for schools in terms of student achievement. But the good of it is simply that it has forced schools to look at what they're doing. Shouldn't children from poor families have the same classroom opportunities as those from wealthier ones? Shouldn't black children be able to achieve at the same level as whites? Shouldn't boys and girls have the chance to perform at the same level? Until now, schools would likely have said "yes" to all these questions, but they would not have had any particular motivation to make sure that equity in education happened. They do now. All students are going to be assured of the opportunity to learn quality curriculum. Whether or not they will all achieve proficiency is the big question.

Anyway, the committee I am in charge of this spring is tasked with making the standards "real" for all kids, regardless of which school they attend or which teacher they have. There will be a great deal more work beyond this, but it's nice to know that I will have company on the road ahead.

21 February 2005

Science. So what?

On Thursday, I met with other teachers from our sophomore Honors Program. One of the English teachers observed that math and science have "PR Problem." In other words, nobody likes us or finds us useful. What is he supposed to tell students when asked for a reason why they should continue to take courses in these areas? After all, it's not like you use all those Algebra formulas every single day.

I understand why he asked the question---and it is a valid one to consider. But what I didn't appreciate is the idea that math and science are basically useless to the average person. I asked him, "Do you use Julius Caesar every day? When was the last time you whipped out Of Mice and Men to accomplish something in your daily life?" The point being that when viewed through the lens he was using for math and science, English appears just as useless.

His response? "But I can look around at today's political situations and see elements of Julius Caesar. I can tie the themes from Of Mice and Men to things happening today." Well, duh. Isn't that what we're all supposed to be doing? Don't you think that for my classes, I connect our current topic of learning to the "real world"? I just finished some lessons on polio with my kiddos, and lo and behold, polio eradication is still in the news (more than 50 years after its end in the US). Is it possible that information about human health and development, stem cells, genetics, and other biology is not still current or useful for kids sitting in my classes? Might these things have more of a direct impact on their lives then whether or not they read A Farewell to Arms?

I'm not knocking a good background in communications skills. Kids who lack the ability to read, write, and speak well are certainly going to have a difficult go of things in my class (and in everything else). I continue to work on those things with my students, along with the science content. I'm also not knocking the need for cultural literacy. I think it's important for students to have a common set of experiences. But Life is more complicated than what you learn in your 10th grade English class. You need more tools in your toolbox.

This is where science and math come in. I never use the trigonometry I learned in high school. As a set of facts, it has played no role in my chosen path as an adult. However, this class did reinforce my problem solving skills. It helped me continue to develop the ability to look at a situation from different angles (literally and figuratively). My trig class taught me to commit to a task and see it through---to not give up at the earliest opportunity just because I was a little frustrated.

I always try to praise my students for doing the "hard thing." That is, sticking to a challenging set of courses...making an effort to learn to study and connect different pieces of information...learning to thoughtfully examine a problem, set of data, or a conclusion. If they don't remember the phases of Mitosis forever and always, I'm okay with that. Do they understand something about themselves and their abilities? Do they have the skills they need to move on to whatever is next for them? That's the big idea. That's what you tell kids when they ask for a reason to continue to take math and science.

20 February 2005

Best Interests at Heart

I don't think I'll really try to recreate the first post I wrote yesterday, but I am interested in thinking about what is "best" for kids---and who decides.

One of the things that this week's Time magazine cover story gets at is that we have a generation of parents now who were raised with a "feel good" attitude. Hey, I remember growing up with "Free to Be You and Me." I remember all the concerns about self-esteem and teachers making sure that everyone felt good. I've also been directed to teach with this premise. And parents who were raised with it are now using that directive to raise their kids.

Don't get me wrong, I would never advocate belitting or verbally abusing students. But I also think that we do kids a disservice when we don't give constructive criticism because it might hurt their feelings. What other "damage" are we doing to kids by not preparing them to handle life outside their home and the Ivory Tower of Education?

The education pendulum is starting to swing toward the "back to basics" part of the spectrum in a way that we haven't seen in America since the Russians launched Sputnik. Some of this change is seen in the requirements of NCLB. And other aspects are causing to examine the way we interact with kids.

There has recently been a lot of press about the self-esteem issue. Kids brought up with a false sense of positive self-image (given to them by parents and schools) aren't doing very well on their own. Meanwhile, research about the brain is giving educators pause to think about other things, such as the time of day when school should start. Teens need more sleep and current reasoning is that high schools should have a later start (as opposed to elementaries). That's what is best for their brains at that point in development. The author of this OpEd piece wonders if we should really do this for kids. After all, the working world doesn't care if you're a morning person or not. If you have particular hours to be at a job---then that's when you have to be there. Businesses are not going to change their expectations because your brain needs something different. Do we want to train kids for the "real world," or do we want them to feel good?

The truth is, we want both. We want happy, healthy, young individuals with the capacity to pursue what they want. And that only comes from providing them with the tools of communication and knowledge and being honest about their capabilities. If a kid has achieved proficiency in their academic skills, then we should celebrate that. We can boost their self-esteem in a much more real way. With the skills they need and confidence in their ability to use them, I have no doubt that every kid can find success.

19 February 2005

The Ether Ate My Homework

You'll just have to believe me. I wrote this nice post about the current Time magazine cover story ("What Teachers Hate About Parents"), self-esteem, and an anecdote about one particular dad-from-Hell I dealt with a few years ago. And lo and behold, I pushed the "Publish Post" button as I always do, and the whole thing is gone. Argh.

I have yet to have this sort of thing come up in class. But since the advent of the personal computer in nearly every student's home, I have heard plenty of similar reasons. The most common "excuse" for late work is that the "printer was out of ink." Considering how expensive ink is (good thing we don't run our cars on it), I can understand that families might not have extra lying around. But a kid can always bring an assignment to school and print it out. Or e-mail it to me. Or handwrite it. This last idea also gets at the number two reason kids don't hand in homework: "My dad took apart the computer." I hadn't realized that so many men out there delighted in discombobulating electronics. Seems to me that there might be more appealing hobbies.

Anyway, I'll try to recapture my thoughts on parents later.

18 February 2005

Let's Get It On

Now, before you go cuing Marvin Gaye, I was thinking of "getting it on" as in "fisticuffs," not as in something else I'd rather be doing on a Friday afternoon. Sigh.

Today, I had a brief meeting with our Ass't. Superintendent in charge of Curriculum. She is my "boss" in terms of the district portion of my contract. The topic of the moment: the "e" word. Come closer and I'll whisper it in your ear.


My gosh. Do we teach it? I assumed that she wasn't using the royal we, but rather just a plain old plural pronoun. Do science teachers in this district teach evolution? All of the ones teaching life sciences? Do we have teachers who refuse to teach it? Do we have staff who also bring in elements of Creationism and/or Intelligent Design (which are the same, as far as I'm concerned)? What about origins of life, as opposed to change over time?

I didn't know the answers to all of these questions. It does appear that our junior high teachers are afraid of the topic, although I have helped one school obtain curriculum materials. High school teachers don't shy away from evolution. Yes, I do know one teacher who is adamantly opposed to the theory of evolution...but he doesn't teach biology anymore.

The standards for Washington state are pretty basic in terms of evolution---and there is nothing about the origins of life. And while I know that we are bound to have some objections from members of the public at some point, there really isn't a lot for them to fuss about. I have been tasked with surveying what is happening at various schools and then drafting a statement that all teachers can use if they are prodded about this issue. I think that this is a very wise idea. I'd much rather be proactive...be prepared in case members of the public come with their questions and objections.

The other thing I had to clarify for my boss is what it means for something to be a scientific theory. I have all too often heard people toss off evolution as being "just a theory." You know, so is gravity. And the Earth orbiting the Sun? It's only a theory. Atomic bonding? Same thing. Just a little ole theory about what holds things together. Now, all of these concepts are built upon repeated observations and valid experimentation---some even have mathematical formulas used to describe and support them. In other words, they are based upon facts. A common interpretation of a collection of facts becomes a theory. No one has ever sat at a fixed point out in space to watch and see if the Earth really does orbit the Sun. We're pretty sure that it works this way, but no one has seen it...only evidence for it.

Here are some other facts for you to consider. They are taken from an article entitled "How Well Do Biology Teachers Understand the Legal Issues Associated with the Teaching of Evolution?" by Randy Moore. It is from the September 2004 issue of Bioscience.
  • Teachers are not required or permitted to give equal time to creationism if they teach evolution.
  • They do not have to modify their teaching of evolution to appease students who claim that evolution offends and is incompatible with their religious views. In other words, if a kid refuses to participate in an assignment for such a unit, then s/he doesn't get a grade.
  • The government can use tax money to promote the teaching of evolution but cannot use tax money to promote creationism, creationism-based books, or creationism-based exhibits.
  • The First Amendment does not entitle a science teacher to teach creationism.
  • A school can force a teacher to teach evolution and to stop teaching creationism.

The other thing that has to be considered in all of this is that it is not the school board, the Curriculum office/director for the district, and not even the teacher who determines the "what" that occurs within a classroom. The state has set the curriculum. In our state, it includes evolution.

Should be interesting to see what happens, don't you think?

17 February 2005

Too Many Pies, Not Enough Fingers

I had another day of professional leave today in order to work with some other teachers of our sophomore honors program. I didn't relish another day away from students, but I do have to admit that the conversation was productive.

Most teachers I know are involved in (too) many things. As if working to ensure that each student---regardless of ability or motivation---can read, write, and do math and science at a proficient level weren't enough, we manage clubs, plan field trips, attend student performances and athletic events, and so on. How some teachers do these things and still manage to have some semblance of home life is a mystery to me.

This year, I am on our school's accreditation committee. I also help with our Sophomore Honors program. Another teacher and I run a recognition program for seniors who have a high GPA, have taken rigorous coursework, and who have completed a project. I am in charge of the academic lettering program. I have four classes of students deserving my attentions. And, I have 6000 more of them and 60 teachers who are supposed to be getting my time 1 hour each afternoon. Not to mention the other work I am doing for the district. In the fall, I am the "spotter" for our home football games (and I was the announcer once). And did I mention I'm one of the mentors for gifted and highly capable students in the building? It's good to be busy, but this year has just been nuts.

Learning to pick your battles is an important part of surviving in education. In my meeting this morning, I realized that it is time for me to scale back. Too many items are drawing my attention and while they are all getting some, I'm not sure I'm giving any the very best that I can. My decision? Even if it means $1500 less in my bank account next year, I'm doing away with the mentoring, the recognition program, and academic lettering. I am also tempted to let go of my involvement in the Sophomore Honors program, which has been a labour of love for me for 8 years now. But there are new things on my horizon and in the meantime, my partner for these activities has become almost impossible to work with. Perhaps it is best to move on to something else.

Stay tuned for some upcoming drama regarding teaching evolution. I have been waiting for someone to squawk about this in our district---since it seems to be such a hot issue these days---and now the cows have come home to roost (or something like that). Whatever happens, I'm sure that it won't be the last battle I'll have on this front. After all, with more "W" and his cronies in D.C. conflicts over curriculum are going to be more and more frequent.

16 February 2005

No Teen Left Behind

The science department at my school is, for the most part, committed to doing what we can to improve our students' ability to meet the standards. Every year in April, our 10th graders sit for the "WASL" (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) in four areas: reading, writing, math, and science. Standards based testing in science is a relatively new phenomenon and we are still trying to wrap our heads around it.

Our current crop of sophomores represents the last graduating class for whom passing the WASL will not be required for a diploma. However, even though this year's scores won't "matter" to kids in terms of graduation, we do want to know that we have improved our ability in preparing students to meet the world after they leave our charge. According to a recent report both employers and college professors estimate that about 4 in 10 high school graduates are not prepared for their roles as a worker and/or student. We want to do what we can to decrease that statistic.

This year, we have attempted several alterations to our curriculum and instruction. We are also going to try an in-house tutoring program next month. Using a variety of data on kids, we have identified a core group who look like they'll be able to pass the test, but would probably benefit from some targeted help. We're going to pull them out of their regular science class twice in March and provide some additional instruction in their area of need. Maybe it will work...maybe not. But I'm hopeful. If anything, I believe it will boost kids' confidence going into the exam.

I have one colleague in the department who is completely opposed to all of this. After all, what does the test matter to these kids? And isn't it unethical to not be doing more for the low kids (instead of the ones in the middle)? He is a smart man with some good ideas---but he is unwilling to share them with us. And in the meantime, he has caused a great deal of uneasiness in what is usually a very fun group of people.

It is true that we are "writing off" the low kids this year. There are just some who aren't going to make it, no matter what we do or have already done. Our "tutoring lifeboat" is being built to support those who have a fighting chance. Is it kosher? In the grand scheme of things: no. But we are doing what we can do for this year...and continuing to make plans for the road ahead.

Today, I talked to my 8 that I'm putting in the lifeboat. I was honest with them about where they are and what things are looking like. I told them that there is going to be additional help, if they want it. And every one of them smiled and asked to participate. They want to do well---it doesn't matter to them whether or not they need good scores for graduation. They have something to prove to themselves and I know we're doing the right thing.

15 February 2005

Back in the Saddle, Again

Today was my first day back with my kids following my surgery (and continuing recovery). It went well. They have really worked hard during my absence and I am very proud of their ability to make the most of a difficult situation.

I am absolutely exhausted. My physical energy is still rebuilding and I was only able to make it through my classes and then crawl home. But it did feel good to be with the students. I didn't realize how much their enthusiasm would spur me on to do more with them today than I thought possible. And as much as I needed last week to just try and heal, I really missed my kids. It makes me anxious to return to work tomorrow.

Other things do not---like all the work I have staring me in the face. My "to do" list is a little scary at the time being, considering how little energy I have at the moment. I will just have to do what I can and hope that others will be patient with me for another week or so.

14 February 2005

You Know You Want To

A teacher in Chesapeake, Virginia, has been fined and sentenced to 6 months in jail for punching a student. More information on the student behaviours that sent the teacher over the edge can be found here.

I would bet that there are very few teachers out there who have never ever wanted to hit a kid. I know I've had my fantasies of doing so. There are just times and situations where a kid pushes all your buttons and almost dares you to get physical. It is exceptionally rare that any teacher would act on such impulses. And while I could never physically harm a kid (unless s/he was endangering someone else...including me), I admit that I did smile when I read the article about the Chesapeake teacher.

Perhaps it is because thoughts of revenge activate the pleasure centers in the brain. I am always fascinated about our more "primitive" impulses. My students are, too. Recently, my seniors talked about how weird it is that this 3-pound wad of fat sitting in their skulls can do so much. Hopefully, they'll use it wisely.

13 February 2005


Blogger has been kind enough to change the ways that they do comments. You no longer need a Blogger account to leave a note. Huzzah!

Once a ___, Always a ___

Today's post involves some "fill-in-the-blank" work for you. I know, I know, I usually don't give assignments other than occasionally asking you to taste some food for thought. But this one is easy. The word that goes in the blank is the name of your high school mascot. For me, it's a "buck" (as in "male deer").

Anyway, now that you're thinking of your alma mater, perhaps you'd also like to think about how long you wish to be identified as a ___. Whenever graduates of the high school I work at do something of note---good or bad---they are always tagged as "Chris So-and-So, an (insert year) graduate of High School X, was found..." I never quite understand this. Wasn't Chris So-and-so also a Methodist/Catholic/Jew? Or a boy/girl scout? Or a son/daughter of someone? Or a member of Rotary? Or an employee somewhere? But that is rarely given, no matter how many years may have elapsed after the student's graduation. The student is always assigned to us. Sometimes, this can be nice...other times it's embarrassing or horrifying.

A former colleague (Jane) came over to visit this morning. She has not worked in my building for 6 years. Recently, two former students were murdered by another of our former students (who subsequently committed suicide). They all attended school during my tenure there, but I didn't know any of them. My friend did know the two who were murdered and she knew them well. By they time she heard the news, however, it was too late to attend the memorial service or participate in other public ways of grieving. She needed to reach out and find some answers for herself.

Jane was surprised to find that this event has not been a topic of conversation at school---for staff or students. How could we not respond to this tragedy as an institution? Jane had had the kids on her journalism staff. Jane is hoping to write an article for the school paper where those students attended and perhaps even visit with current newspaper staff to talk about the kids who died and what their vision had been for the paper.

I understand the need for Jane to do something. I can see why her proposed course of action would be healing for her---and I want her pain to ease. But I'm not sure that I get why it needs to be tied back to our school. She has moved on in her life---and so did the kids who died. They didn't self-identify with our school...they never came back to visit or volunteer or contribute. There were other things that filled their young lives.

I really think that's okay. At some point, it is time to let our kids go out into the great wide world. It doesn't mean that we don't care for them, worry about them, or grieve them. But an adult is (thankfully) a lot more than just the high school they moved through. We all need to understand this. For school staff (and newspapers), we should spend more time looking at kids as humans---not just as students. And for you kids (and former kids) out there, remember that like it or not, your high school is always going to claim you.

12 February 2005

Where are the Teachers?

I was pointed toward this article about why so many educators leave the profession within five years. I hadn't thought about the economic costs. The author states that "When teachers drop out, everyone pays. Each teacher who leaves costs a district $11,000 to replace, not including indirect costs related to schools' lost investment in professional development, curriculum, and school-specific knowledge. At least 15 percent of K-12 teachers either switch schools or leave the profession every year, so the cost to school districts nationwide is staggering -- an estimated $5.8 billion." There are more noteworthy stats there, as well.

The author, like many in our school, is/was a "retread," meaning someone who has come to teaching as a second (or third) profession. We have lots of "Navy Retreads" in my district, as there are 3 different Navy bases in the county. But, even one of my housemates qualifies for this moniker. Most retreads are people who are community-minded. They look at teaching from whatever profession they're currently in...and think it will be something both "easy" and a place to make a difference: a "fun" change from their current job. Many of these retreads don't last long in the school setting.

With the economic downturn of the last few years, there have been more and more retreads in the teaching business. After all, in spite of the stock market, kids are still waiting at the schoolroom door. However, jobs for professionals were not there and education was a convenient place for some of those displaced professionals to land. But now, the economy is starting to perk up...and as retreads go back to their "first love," there will be an even greater need to fill in classrooms.

Meanwhile, the author of the article mentions that "37 percent of the education workforce is over 50 and considering retirement, according to the National Education Association. Suddenly, you've got a double whammy: tens of thousand of new teachers leaving the profession because they can't take it anymore, and as many or more retiring."

When I hear a kid say that they like to be a teacher, I try to be encouraging. I don't tell them all the hard stuff. Let's face it, there are aspects to every job and career that will be difficult, no matter what your experience and education level is. But somewhere, we have to find people who can do what a career in teaching now requires and then find a way to help them make a go of it.

I saw a quote in an elementary school when I was a first-year teacher. It stated that "Somewhere in America, a future president of the United States is sitting in a classroom. Let us hope that she is having a nice day." I have tried to remember that at various points, but perhaps it is time to amend that quote. Maybe it is time to think about the future teachers sitting in our rooms.

11 February 2005


As promised, you'll find a picture of the products of my malfunctioning gall bladder. I was really hoping that they'd match and I could make some earrings. As is, I'm looking for some suggestions as to what I should do with the beasts. Also, does anyone have any ideas for names?

Here they are!

Hosted by Photobucket.com

10 February 2005

Tracking Kids

Did you see this story about a school in California that requires students to wear radio transmitters? The idea is that it makes it simpler to track where kids are while they're at school.

While there are several reasonable objections by parents and lawyers to making kids wear these, I am also wondering what the school really gains in all of this. In my experience, it's not much of a problem to figure out where kids are once you get them in the building. Problems arise when kids are between home and campus---or skip school all together. It doesn't seem like these radio transmitters are going to solve any of that. Meanwhile, as a teacher, having one more impediment to taking attendance (such as a handheld device for logging kids and "beaming" reports) would really be unwelcome.

09 February 2005

The Saga Continues

The Goddess has been at home this week, recuperating from surgery. Today, represents a pothole in the road to wellness. One of my incisions has developed a helluva infection. I don't know if any of you has had your navel lanced, but if not, I hope you never do. Save that particular curse for only the worst of your enemies. Four hours after a trip to ye olde surgeon, I'm still draining. Let me tell ya', it doesn't look or smell pretty. I am not a weak-in-the-knees kind of gal, but after experiencing what I have today, I have just about turned into one. Ugh.

The "up" side is that I actually do feel better. With all the pus and fluid build-up on its way out, the pressure and pain in my abdomen is significantly less. I now have antibiotics to help my beleaguered immune system. I grieve for the zillions of macrophages who gave their lives in a valiant effort to save my belly button. I am proud to give their compatriots chemical reinforcements.

In the meantime, I've been trying to arrange for my sub to stay through the end of the week and dealing with other tasks as best I can. I am looking forward to a good night of sleep and returning to the classroom very soon.

08 February 2005

Special Ed

In the 1960's, the federal government responded to a problem in American schools. Students who had their complete mental faculties, but who had a physical disability of some kind, were being denied entry at the school door. The monster that is now known as "special education" was created.

At its inception, SPED was not intended to provide services for students with severe mental and/or physical capabilities, such as teens whose "goal" for the entire year is to learn to sit up by themselves. Or students so violent that they do little more than beat school staff black and blue, along with threats to maim and kill their families. And yet, lawyers have made sure that these children get their entitlement to a "free and appropriate education...in the least restrictive environment."

And frankly, these children are getting it while "normal" kids do without.

In Washington, the state per pupil expenditure is around $9000 per year. If a student is in SPED, they receive about 25% more in funding. Why? Because some of these students get full-time aides. While 30+ regular education students are trying to meet the standards with the attentions of a single teacher in the classroom, most SPEDs are in small classes (<10) with 3 or more adults. The more severe the handicap(s), the more adults present.

Many states are facing a crisis in terms of funding special education. A recent article from the Jefferson City Post-Dispatch states that "Missouri could be forced to shell out as much as $23 million a year to educate just 1,200 special education students." Jeepers. Imagine what could happen if that sort of funding was made available to regular education teachers and schools in inner cities or rural areas.

SPED is a nasty problem that no one in politics wants to talk about. Who wants to look like the bad guy who told the kids on the short bus that they don't have someone to change their diapers this year? Who is going to staff SPED classrooms when it's just one teacher and 30 kids with differing needs?

The money available to teach kids to sit up or to not hit someone comes out of the classrooms where "normal" kids who can learn to read and become fully functional members of society sit. If I were a parent, I'd be irate. And soon, legislators are really going to have to take a long hard look at the laws they've put in place---and decide what they can do. But it ain't gonna be pretty.

Speaking of...

Check out this story out of Detroit, where parents are being arrested for not sending their kids to school.

07 February 2005

In Absentia

I really don't like to be out from work, although there are times (like now), where attending is unthinkable. Being gone from the classroom creates a host of problems---from trying to find a worthwhile sub to finding ways for the kids to keep moving forward without my guidance. I feel like I have this week covered. I'm still secretly, and perhaps foolishly, hoping to be back on Thursday.

Most jobs allot workers a particular "bank" of sick days. In NM, I was allotted 15 for my first year---as new teachers tend to catch every bug in the book---and 10 every year thereafter. Here in WA, I've been given 12 per year. Currently, I have enough to be gone for about 50 days. I have never been one to abuse my sick leave, although I do admit to taking the occasional "mental" health day when Life has just been too crazy.

I am always interested by colleagues and students who push the limit (and then some) with sick days. I have worked with several teachers over the years whose philosophy is something along the lines of "if the district has allotted these days off for us, use them up." And when these teachers get closer to retirement, it may mean that they take 2 or 3 days off each week throughout the school year. I find this irresponsible, but there isn't anything the district can do about it. There is no policy here (as there was in NM) for providing a written note from a physician if you are out more than 3 days in a row. I suppose I should be appreciative that the district trusts me enough to believe that when I say I need to be out more than 3 days, that I do.

We also have no policy in this district regarding the number of days students may be absent. In one class during this fall semester, I had students gone 57, 40, 36, and 17 days. Out of 89 possible school days. The "57" was primarily due to suspension---she was something of a bad hat at school, although she gave me no grief. As for the others? The "40" had a parent who liked her to stay home. And while I don't know the full story of what was happening with the family, I have to think that keeping your kid home when they aren't ill is another big case of irresponsibility.

For the most part, the school trusts parents as the district trusts teachers: if you say your kid can't come to school, then we'll assume it's because of some sort of personal emergency. Just give us a call or send a note with your kid the next day. And doesn't it seem the province of the parent to decide first what is in the best interests of the child? Is there a point where there are "too many" days? Who decides the magic number? And who enforces it?

We do have some recourse, for kids like my "40," but it is rarely pursued. What school will initiate legal action against families for keeping their kids home, even though the school should do its part to ensure the child has access to an education? None that I know of.

So, here I sit in the middle of the night, bothered because I am physically unable to do my part later today to help my kids...and yet we have a number of parents who won't be bothered if their kids take a 3-day (or more) weekend frequently throughout the year. There are so many areas of education today where we really need a stronger partnership with parents and yet we're having such trouble making connections. And it will be the schools who are blamed and penalized when students can't meet standards or fail to graduate. I'm not sure what the answer to all of this is, but for the 8 hours a day that schools are "in loco parentis," we have to do a better job of encouraging students to come and make the most of that time. I'm sorry I can't be there this week to do my part.

05 February 2005

Behind Closed Doors

In my district, students go home early on Thursdays so that teachers can have some "Common Planning Time." In principle, this is a great idea. With so many demands on schools these days to improve performance, shouldn't we have some time to get together and develop the game plan?

Sometimes, this really does work out. It depends on what the time has been allotted for that day. One problem, however, is that teachers are independent contractors. We are individually hired to teach a specific audience. Getting one another to "deprivatize practice" and collaborate is no small feat.

The other roadblock includes the unique individuals you find on any given school staff. Let's face it, some people are just weird. Some of these people are teaching your kids. Not all of them are bad teachers, but they are usually the ones most resistant to any sort of change in how the school operates. They are also well protected by the union, so nearly anything they do will not get them fired. Even inappropriate conduct with a student will only merit you a paid vacation while things are investigated.

At my school, we don't have anyone quite like the teacher (Susan Bartlett) described in this story. (Thanks to the anonymous donor for the link.) I'm relieved to think that I don't have a colleague who is likely to moon me at the next faculty meeting. There are just some things that I don't want to know about the people I work with.

Someday, I'll post about my own view of "No Child Left Behind." One of its requirements is for a "highly qualified teacher" to be in every classroom. This is not such a bad idea, although it is difficult to find good people. My last year in NM, the person who ran the self-contained classroom for children with severe behaviour disorders had previously worked at K-Mart. I'm not sure how one tied to the other, but my guess is that the principal was just desperate to have one willing adult in the room. This is how people like Ms. Bartlett get into classrooms.

For now, the Goddess needs to get back in bed. In case you were wondering, the surgery went well. Today, I feel like I've done 1000 situps, which is certainly not pleasant. Rest assured that I have some good drugs and will be continuing to improve.

03 February 2005

Questions from Kids

Being a biology teacher, I receive all kinds of questions from kids. Some of these are rather benign, and others are predictable. For example, I know that every year, each sophomore class I have will want to spend time talking about hermaphrodites.

Today, I told my kids about my rogue gall bladder and that I would be out for awhile. I let the kids ask whatever questions they needed to in order to digest the news. I think my favourite query today was what the scar in my navel (where the surgeon will insert the endoscope) will look like. You know, I hadn't really thought about that. But I don't think that I will show them. Heck, I don't think I'll even be able to see it.

Teachers are always looking for "teachable moments:" some current event that sparks interest and learning. Today, I got to supply the spark and then take some time to talk about body parts and purpose. It really wasn't what I had planned on today, but I'd like to believe that the kids came away with some useful (to them) information.

Tomorrow, I'll head back into the classroom and then it's off to hospital at lunch. A pleasant Friday to you all. I'll be back here on Saturday.

02 February 2005

I Like 'em Big. :)

After much running hither and yon to see surgeons, radiologists, and everything in between today, the Goddess has been scheduled for some surgery on Friday afternoon. Apparently, I have "gall rocks." I have not been cultivating mere pebbles in my gall bladder, but in accordance with my Texas upbringing, I've done this on a grand scale. The surgeon says I can keep them after he takes them out, so perhaps I can show my fine work to you in a few days. I'm certainly anxious to show them to my students. (Any bets on how many I can make pass out with this trick?)

Of course, this means that I missed school today...and may be out up to a week next week. This makes my head spin. How on earth do I plan for being gone for a week? I know that the kids will muddle through, somehow. I've tried to raise them to be good independent learners. But the fact is, we have a co-dependent relationship: I'm guiding them and also having a grand ole time learning things from them.

Kids always have such interesting medical stories to share from their families. I'm not sure if all that they say would be appreciated by their parents, but it often makes for some good discussions. My favourite student story (so far) happened when I was student teaching (in Texas, mind you). The topic was worms, and I had told them about some various experiences my dad had had. One girl very enthusiastically raised her hand, wanting to share, too. Here is what she told us...

"When my mother was a little girl, she had a tapeworm. And one day, she threw it up, and my grandfather had to go out and shoot it!"

Apparently, granddad liked 'em big, too. Tales, anyway.

01 February 2005

A First for Me

Yesterday, I made a kid pass out in my class. This is the first time I've had that particular reaction happen because of something I'd done. I told my principal, who said, "Cool! How'd you do that?"

I was reading the first chapter from The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. In my class for sophomores, February is always "Infectious Disease Month." It's a good place in the curriculum to talk microbiology. And the description of Ebola contained in this book always hooks the kids. Usually, I just have kids ask to borrow the book. But yesterday, one young man took things a step further and fainted. Made for quite the dramatic impact.

A couple of years ago, I had another boy faint when a representative of the blood bank was talking about their work. Considering all the things we see in biology (dissections, pictures of genetic diseases or abnormalities, etc.), I find it interesting that the mere description of blood has been powerful enough to knock two boys out cold in the last three years.

I love teaching microbiology, but I am doing less of it this year. Very little of the subject is found in the state standards. I need to focus my time elsewhere. This reflects how science curriculum (in general) is changing. In the past, students (like me) learned a lot about plants and animals. There was very little chemistry involved. But with the advent of DNA, biotechnology, and advances in biochemistry, biology has a molecular focus.

In nearly every high school in America, students take the same sequence of science courses: biology, chemistry, physics. This sequence was suggested in 1893, the same year that the zipper was invented and that the amendment abolishing slavery was ratified. Biology was placed first in the sequence because it needed the least amount of equipment and understanding to teach.

Many districts are reversing the sequence. If a student can understand physical forces, then s/he can more easily grasp atomic models and bonding. And a kid who can master those topics will have a much richer understanding of biology. This will be one idea my district will discuss as we remaster our own scope and sequence.

In the meantime, I'll keep plugging biology with my sophomores. They are always full of surprises. And even if their minds have yet to be exposed to chemistry and physics, they are obviously imaginative enough to enjoy and react to the some of the richness biology affords. I wonder what will happen on Friday when we get to smallpox. :)