31 March 2005

Group Dynamics

I got to attend a workshop today on "group dynamics": how to facilitate a meeting, what to do with people that tell you you're full of crap, and how to encourage teacher leadership. Mind you, this is all information that I could have used a long time ago, but better late than never.

A lot of the information was focused on non-verbal cues: where you stand in a room (and when you sit), how to point (palms up or down), how to physically position your body so that the inflection in your voice changes. Pretty interesting stuff.

We have two more trainings on these ideas and I'm really looking forward to them. It's nice to go someplace, get good information, and feel energized when you leave.

But one of the nicer things was simply feeling "included" in the work the Curriculum department does. Should I transition full-time to that office next year, the people I will spend the most time with are the ones I sat with today. There is certainly a whole set of different "group dynamics" from the crowd I typically run with. I liked that a lot. I liked the discussion and the kind of thinking about student learning that was shared. I liked seeing the expertise of different people coming into play as we moved through the training.

The week has been a whirlwind. Scope and sequence on Tuesday...WASL tutoring all day Wednesday...textbook adoption and training today. It's going to be so nice to get to tomorrow and the beginning of Spring Break. I need some time to breathe and recharge for the final quarter of the year.

I'm enjoying the comments people are posting here this week. I do plan to address some of the things that have been asked, as I'm anxious to join in the conversation.

One last thing before I call it a night...I learned a new term today: "LJ." Probably everyone knows what this is but me. However, if you're as clueless as I was when my AP kids said it this morning, it stands for "Live Journal," (a/k/a "blog"). It's one way that they're keeping up with one another---and I'd be interested in reading a couple. I have to wonder if any of them would be interested in this one.

30 March 2005


I'm too tired to pull together a fully coherent posting, but the following items are rolling around in my mind:
  1. There's a new public data resource available: schoolmatters.com It has great information, state by state, about student performance, state spending, levels of education, etc.
  2. We've had some thunder here recently. Okay, that's not big news...and yes, it rains a lot in the Pacific NW. But while kids here are used to rain, there's never any electrical stuff to go with it. I've had kids who were unfazed by earthquakes ask me if school would be let out early due to thunder and lightning. And they were serious.
  3. The Director approved my minutes of the meeting after asking for a few small alterations...none of which were unreasonable. It made me feel good today to see my department chair so enthusiastic about our work that he talked to our colleagues non-stop at lunch. I can only hope that other participants across the district were doing the same thing today. How wonderful to have that sort of energy for this process and the future.
  4. The 8th Carnival of Education is on now at EdWonk. Please hit the "midway" and check out all the great articles submitted by fellow edubloggers.

29 March 2005

It's done. I think.

Today, the Scope and Sequence committee managed to hash out our decisions and write the recommendations. I felt really good about our work. We had good data and other research to base our work upon and I believe that it will be implemented.

One of the biggest items was recommending full-year science for grades 7, 8, and 9. Maybe this doesn't sound like such a big thing, but it means that (a) increasing our program means someone else's will decrease...and a teacher or two may lose their jobs and (b) we need more rooms and teachers. Those aren't cheap.

The other high priced decision was that related to materials. We will need new textbooks and/or modules for grades 6 - 9. The Director has already committed to budgeting for these next year, but it's still a big requirement.

I have e'd the minutes and our recommendations to The Director. I'm hoping to have some feedback very soon, because we're anxious to present these to the School Board for approval.

A goddess' work is never done.

28 March 2005

Down to the Nut Cuttin' Time

Having grown up in West Texas, I often heard the phrase, "It's gettin' down to the nut cuttin' time." This came from the cattle industry. And at particular times of the year when the calves were starting to grow up, decisions had to be made about which were to become steers, and which would be left a bull. The euphemism referred to any situation where it was time to make some hard decisions.

Tomorrow will be full of those sorts of things. It is our third---and perhaps final---Scope and Sequence meeting. (See Parts I and II for more details.) We will be making some hard and fast decisions tomorrow about what sort of standards-based science courses we'll be offering in the future. Will we increase our courses to two semesters---even though it means teachers in other areas will lose jobs due to the decreased enrollment in their programs? Will we ask the district to spend money to bring in and set up portable buildings for those schools that don't have space for more science classes? Will we choose an "integrated" format for delivering content or stick with a more traditional and discipline-based program? I have my hunches as to what the answers to the questions (and others) will be, but they're not my decision. They belong to the whole committee.

I have been working on guiding this process since October, and it is nice to contemplate that tomorrow, it will be finished. Mind you, it's just a stepping off point to the next phase in building our science program. I feel, however, that I have been able to develop a lot of skills to use in the future. I have also strengthened my ties with the various schools in our district---I may even have a fan or two in each school. This would make future endeavours so much simpler.

So, tomorrow, it's nut-cuttin' time. For awhile, I worried that mine (in terms of credibility) would the ones lost. Now I think that whatever happens, the kids will definitely win.

27 March 2005

I won!

This afternoon, one of my housemates asked me to tag along with her to a family gathering. Crowds of strangers are really not my thing, but since I couldn't think of anything else to do, why not? Besides, at least I'd have some faces to go with the names she uses.

Anybody who's endured a gathering of extended family would recognize the scene: small small children running amok, men-folk watching sports on tv, teens cliquing together in a desperate attempt at coolness, and way too much food. This included "pretzel salad," which was some concoction with stick pretzels, raspberry jell-o, and cool whip. Please don't make me relive it. I politely ate a few bites and believe me, that should be enough for anyone.

Anyway, there was a 1-gallon green glass jug on the dining table, full of all manner of candy. The task was to make your best guess as to how many jelly beans were in it. I thought about it for quite awhile and settled on "125." I was the last person to make a guess (we had to write them down). The answer: 131. I won the whole jar.

I'm not too shabby with estimation, but I was really more interested in trying to divine the answer by another method: "herd intelligence." I was recently reading about this (and desperately wish that I could remember where). What studies are starting to show is that people are much smarter as a "group" vs. an individual. In other words, if I'd been allowed to average all of the "guesses" from today, the number would probably have been very very close to 131, even if none of our individual marks were. And if I hadn't been surrounded by people I didn't know, I really might have asked to have a closer look at everyone's numbers and do just that.

In my preliminary pokings-around on the web tonight, I saw that "herd" or "group intelligence" is gaining favour in business. If you have a big organization to run, why not pull those collective smarts together? I wonder how this would apply to public schools...or if some of this is already in play. Kinda fun to think about.

Tomorrow is the last week before Spring Break. I'm leaving Saturday for a holiday with my Sweetie. Here's hoping the time between now and then flies so I can trade my participation as part of a group for some one-on-one. Happy Easter to you all...does anyone want some candy?

26 March 2005

Wanted: Full Time Goddess

In January, 2003, our Curriculum Director put out a call to see if any secondary science teacher in the district might be interested in being a "specialist" for the district. We were the only content area without one. It seemed that it might be rather necessary for someone to do that job, as state standards and NCLB were staring us in the face.

I told the Director that I might be interested. I admitted that my professional training didn't include some of the skills that a person in a curriculum job would need. I think a couple of other people also threw their hats in the ring, but I ended up with getting the nod. The "job" would start on February 1st and I would be provided a stipend in order to work on things outside my regular class day.

Later in the year, we discussed my status for the next year. I was honest and said that given the choice between money (a stipend) and time (part of my school day allotted for the job), that I'd much rather have the time. Money is a wonderful thing and I would love to have more of it. But it doesn't guarantee that I'll have the space in my day to do what I was asked to do.

I got my time: a .2 contract. Ordinarily, a secondary teacher teaches 5 classes (1.0 contract). The Director provided a way for me to teach 4 classes and then have 1 period in the day to devote to my district job. This job, however, just keeps growing and becoming increasingly demanding. It probably "eats" close to 60% of my time instead of the 20% it's supposed to.

I have no complaints about the job. Yes, there are some difficult people to work with. And I definitely have had quite the learning curve in my face. The position has required me to stretch and challenge myself in some ways that I'd never have in the classroom. I really like it. I just need more time to do it.

The Director and I had talked about trying to find me another .2 next year. School budgets being what they are (ever shrinking), there was only a small amount of hope for that. At least until yesterday. Apparently, the Director thinks she has figured out a way to free up some of her budget to pay me. And pay me to do the job full-time...no more classroom teaching.

I was stunned. We had talked about this sort of thing as being farther down the road. I wasn't ready to leave the classroom---I love the teaching part of my day. I thought I was going to have next year to tie up some loose ends at school and then become a Full Time Science Goddess. The picture now has the potential to radically change and I'm finding that I'm okay with that. I do wonder, though, when the Director was going to pass along this bit of information. I'm guessing that she didn't want to say anything to me until it looked like it was doable...but it certainly isn't a "done deal" yet.

I have the weekend to process this (as well as some other big news from Friday). And for once, I don't have big things to plan or correct for my classes. That gives me some headspace to reflect on the past and contemplate the future.

24 March 2005

Rites of Passage

I love working with high school sophomores. There are members among the faculty at my school who do not, but it has been my favourite age to work with. (Maybe that says something about my maturity...or lack thereof?)

There are so many events I get to be a part of during the year: "sweet sixteen," new drivers' licenses, first formal dance, removal of orthodontia, and so on. It's fun to see the kids hit these marks. It doesn't matter that it's the umpteenth time for me. It's new to each of them.

Perhaps you remember reading Julius Caesar as a sophomore. Maybe you can remember other events associated with your sophomore year that everyone seemed to experience.

High school biology has it's own addition to the pantheon: Hemo the Magnificent. When the time rolls around each year to show this film, I always start off talking to my kids about "rites of passage." (This year, I wrote the phrase on the board, because last year, one kid thought I'd said "rights of passage" and that led the discussion in an entirely different direction.) We talk about "sophomore-ness" and the associated rites. We look forward in time (for them) to what they can (legally) experience at 18 and 21. When they whine about ole Julius, I talk to them about "cultural literacy." We look at Julius from the perspective that it is part of their "ticket" to the adult world. As adults---and gatekeepers of their move to adulthood---we want to be sure that they have been properly indoctrinated with the things the society (at large) claims are important.

I own a copy of "Hemo" in glorious 16 mm. Do you remember watching films in that format? The noise of the machine? The scratches and "skips" in the movie? This year, not a single one of my sophs could say that they'd ever watched a movie shown this way. It's very sad, I think. Maybe they do, too, as one remarked later, "I'm going to be sad when this comes out on DVD." I told her that it already had. Another student wanted to know, then, why I didn't show the DVD. The first student piped up to say, "But then it wouldn't be part of the tradition!"

I had to smile. She got it. Since 1957, biology students have been watching this 16 mm film. It was good enough for their parents, for me, and now for them. (The content is still very worthwhile, too, by the way.)

Welcome, kids, to the fellowship of biology.

23 March 2005

Spring Fever

Spring Break is still over a week away for our district. Kids and staff alike are starting to get a bit cranky. It really feels like a long time since Christmas. We need an energy boost.

Yesterday, a sophomore in the neighbouring classroom got bent out of shape because his biology teacher used the words "penis" and "vagina." Mind you, my colleague didn't just blurt the words out because he felt like it. The terms were related to the discussion at hand. Students had told the teacher that intercourse was necessary for sexual reproduction. The teacher asked them if trees had penises and vaginas. Anyway, the kid wasn't offended by the words. His problem was, "Why do teachers get to say whatever they want and kids don't?" He was sure that if he said "penis" at school he'd be suspended. And he might, depending on how and when he used the term.

Kids this age can still be pretty black-and-white about things. If "penis" is okay to say in one context at school---why not every context? It's still the same word.

And then, there were my sophs yesterday. We talked about hormones related to the ovarian and menstrual cycles. I asked them to design a birth control pill. They asked me all kinds of questions about menopause (I'm guessing there's a lotta moms out there who are cranky, too.) and PMS. And no one batted an eye.

So, what's the difference? Is it because my "honors" students have a better developed pre-frontal lobe ? Is it due to talking about sex in biology all year long? Was the kid yesterday more in need of a vacation than the rest of us?

It's always interesting to come back from break. Kids have acquired tans and shorter hair cuts. The girls have brought out all their skimpy clothes and the sap will really start to run. I wonder what yesterday's upset boy will be thinking about sex then?

22 March 2005


On days when I have time for lunch, I wander in from the "science suburbs" (a/k/a portable) to visit with my department colleagues. I always enjoy these lunch breaks. You see, we're all just a bunch of nerds. But it makes for the most interesting conversation.

The day after I'd had a charley horse in the middle of the night, I went in to bandy around the possible cause of such a thing with my cohorts. I told them that I'd been thinking about something in the wee hours. Another teacher looked up and said, "Me, too! I was pondering the genetic relationship between my wife, my son, and my dog." So much for talking about calcium uptake and motor units in my leg. But I admit his topic was more interesting.

Or...a time recently, when we went on a hunt to find out how being gallbladder-less would impact fat absorption. (40%...which is nice to think that everything I eat is now "half the fat," however it is also "half the fat-soluble vitamins.") Once, we hauled in a "kelvinator" another teacher picked up free from a biotech company that was getting new equipment. And when was the last time you got to talk about which local butcher would saw a bone in half for you...provided the condyles were in place?

One of us has been a physical geologist and a nun (but not at the same time). One has taught in Saudi Arabia. Another grew up in England and has a PhD from the University of Glasgow. One has the boundless energy and enthusiasm of a puppy, coupled with an insatiable curiosity about the world and all too many puns for expressing his thoughts. The range of experience and information people have to draw upon is astounding to me.

Sometimes, we talk about the goofy things we do for kids. Like the teacher who kissed a sea anemone just to see if it stung. Or the one who purposely set himself on fire as a safety demonstration. Should I mention how my department chair put liquid nitrogen in his mouth and its "steam" came through his nostrils, making him look like a dragon? Or how about all the men rocked out to "Mole Thing" (think "Wild Thing," but for Mole Day) at a pep assembly this fall?

It's never dull at lunch. (Few things in teaching ever are.) We laugh and blow off some steam. And rarely do we talk about our students. Lunch is a time to revel in our collective scientific knowledge and amuse ourselves with it. And if you don't think this really does qualify us as "nerds," you should see the official school pictures for the yearbook---where people are decked out in Einstein wig, lab coat, and thick goggles.

Gotta love my department. And lunch.

21 March 2005

Not Everything Is More Romantic by Candlelight

Especially blogging.

We had a heckuva windstorm blow through here on Saturday night, and I've been without electricity, etc. until now. Oh, how I love to take tepid showers and figure out a way to put on my pantyhose aided only by a flashlight.

Regular blogging will recommence tomorrow, weather permitting. :)

19 March 2005

Paging John Stuart Mill

I've always felt that Utilitarianism has had a great influence in the shaping of American education. Are we not, as educators, working for the "greater good for the greatest number"? Do we not insist that in spite of one child's unhappiness at being at school one day is morally okay because overall happiness from education will result?

I was thinking about this again after reading this study published by "The Common Good" last year. According to their research:
  • "The present legal environment undermines order in schools by enabling students and parents to threaten a lawsuit over virtually anything," said CG Chair Philip K. Howard. "The legal system must strike a better balance between the claimed rights of individuals and the legitimate interests of society as a whole."
  • Public Agenda President Ruth Wooden noted, "At a time when the achievement stakes for students have never been higher, the fact is that in school after school, a minority of students who routinely challenge legitimate school rules and authority are preventing the majority of students from learning and teachers from teaching."

Ah, seems like some students and parents aren't acting with utilitarian-like motives.

I have found many such instances throughout my career. They took the form of a student who required much of my time and effort during each class period that s/he was present. With 30 students in a room, many of whom were at least somewhat eager to learn, why did they have to have a peer who did everything possible to take away their opportunity? Does one student's "right" to an education outweigh the "rights" of 29 others in the room?

The answer sometimes is "yes," but only if it is for SPED kids. We have kids who routinely beat adults in the building, as well as fellow students. There are others who bring weapons. Still more who disrupt learning in classes in other ways. But it doesn't matter, because as long as that child's actions can be related to his/her disability---his/her rights to attend school will always outweigh the safety and academic environment of others. Please keep in mind that only a few SPED'dies out there act in these ways. The vast majority are as delightful to have in class as any other student.

However, according to the poll conducted by The Common Good, "76% of teachers say that special education students who misbehave are often treated too lightly, even when their misbehavior has nothing to do with their disability."

SPED students comprise 14% of the student population in my district. What about the other 86%? Are they all angels in the classroom? I think the proportion of students who come to school in order to learn far outweighs the few who don't. But we still have to deal with those few. And many of them have lawyers at the ready in case we might suggest that they change their behaviour to suit the "needs of the many."

What do we do about this? For one thing, I think that teachers and schools shouldn't be afraid to discipline a student as long as (a) the "punishment" is reasonable and (b) there is a well-documented history of the student's behaviour. Even teachers who have well-established classroom routines and management strategies have to deal with nearly unmanageable students at some point. There needs to be some sort of alternative educational environment for those students. I'm just "utilitarian" enough to believe that the 29 other kiddos sitting in a class represent the "greater good."

18 March 2005

Cruel Schools

What could drive a parent to these lengths?! "I sat down and I ate three Mr. Goodbars because I was so angry," she said. "You can't lump parents in one group."

I can imagine what lumping might cause three Mr. Goodbars' worth of consternation for myself. In Ms. Donaldson's case, it was because she hadn't been sending her grandson to school and the District Attorney in Knoxville, TN, was talking about holding her accountable.

As if the quote wasn't amusing enough, try this on for kicks and giggles: the DA sent out letters to 582 parents of consistently truant students...and 41% didn't show up for the meeting with him.

Attendance issues are the plague of most schools' existences. How the heck are we supposed to be teaching kids when they don't show up? I have already posted on this issue, but this most recent article brings it all back to mind again.

Granted, it sounds like the woman quoted in the article has a grandson with some health problems---but what has kept her from (at minimum) calling the school to at least tell them that he was ill? Multiple times? If you're too lazy to pick up the phone...might it be reasonable to assume that you might also not take a kid to school because you didn't feel like making the effort?

Do parents understand that every unexcused absence a child has gets reported to the feds...and that the more of these absences a school has, the greater the penalties placed upon the school? Do they even stop to think that by keeping a kid from the opportunity to attend school, they are risking the future resources a school may have available for all kids? I'm not talking about playing hooky once in awhile, I'm talking about kids who miss at least once a week. Out of the 35 days we've had this semester, I have a kid who's missed 30...and another sitting at 20. It's maddening.

From a classroom standpoint, an unexcused absence is no skin off my nose. If a kid has this sort of absence, I'm under no obligation to allow them an opportunity to make up the grade. But if the absence is excused...then I have to provide an opportunity and a reasonable time to complete it. Most teachers find this a real headache---especially if the assignment happened weeks beforehand. It takes a great deal of time to find old assignments (or make up a replacement) and then grade them if/when the kid completes them. Hours are added onto my workload each year by just a few students who want to do things at their convenience, as opposed to getting up in the morning and coming to school like the rest of us.

I hope that Knoxville, Tennessee, puts its penalties for parents where its mouth is. And, I hope that Ms. Donaldson realizes that there won't be Mr. Goodbars in jail. While she's there, perhaps someone will see to it that her grandson gets to school each day.

17 March 2005

All Dressed Up and Ready to Teach

I'm not sure if it was my teacher role models while I was growing up or my own teacher prep program, but I have had a strong feeling throughout my career that a "teacher should look like a teacher." At least in terms of what they wear to work. We're professionals, are we not?

Mind you, when I started this job, I was all of 21. I'm about 5'2" in height and for the first few years of my career, I was often mistaken for one of the kids. (Keep in mind that I taught at a junior high.) Somehow, putting on a dress, pantyhose, and high heels each morning made me feel like I was able to separate myself from my students. Whether or not it made me look more "adult," I couldn't tell you. But being able to feel that way was enough of a confidence boost to keep me going.

And here I am, 14 years later, still wearing dresses, pantyhose, and high heels to work. Even on most lab days. Do I really need this sort of outfit anymore? Do clothes matter to my students in terms of my credibility?

According to "The Effect of Teacher Dress on Student Perceptions," by Pamela Phillips, et al. (1992), "Research indicates that clothing is a significant form of nonverbal communication that affects the perceptions of others. Fourth, seventh, and ninth graders (27 males and 33 females) were shown three photographs of a female model in casual, moderate, and conservative attire. A modified Likert scale was used to measure student perceptions of eight teacher traits for each of the stimulus photographs. Results indicate that students' perceptions of teacher attributes are affected by teacher attire. In addition, different modes of dress tend to elicit certain perceptions while simultaneously decreasing the probability of other perceptions. Casual clothing was perceived by students to convey teacher friendliness, fairness, and interestingness. Moderate attire conveyed teacher friendliness, organization, interestingness, understanding, and discipline. Conservative dress elicited perceptions of teacher organization, knowledge, and disciplinary skills. Although differences in perceptions were evidenced at varying grade levels, no pattern of differing perceptions due to student gender emerged."

Okay, so looking at pictures is not the same thing as being in the classroom and seeing someone in action. But the results are interesting. I would put myself in the "moderate" to "conservative" range of things. Very rarely do I dress down for work. I've been looking for some research on whether or not teacher dress makes a difference in terms of student behaviour/discipline. What happens when a whole school staff dresses professionally? So far, I haven't found an answer. My personal anecdotal information is that I believe it does make a difference. It conveys an important message to kids that we're here for a purpose. And an important one at that.

"Harry Wong, a former California science teacher who now conducts workshops and writes books on classroom management, including the widely circulated The First Days of School, says he believes teachers should have decision-making power about what to wear but that what they wear sends a message. He tells teachers to ask themselves, 'What do kids perceive? My issue is that people look at you and they make perceptions. Right or wrong. Usually it's wrong. That's a reality of life. It's how people market products. So I tell teachers, 'How you dress so shall you be perceived. And as you are perceived, so shall you be treated.' Wong adds, 'Always dress better than your students. If you don't care how you look, how can they care about you?'"

16 March 2005

The Joys of Tutoring

Today, two colleagues and I team taught. We had 70 sophomores who showed up for our tutoring sessions in planning a scientific investigation. Their feedback was fairly positive and I felt like the day was well spent.

The best part for me was getting to work the crowd with another teacher. Teaching is usually such a private endeavour. You shut the door to your room and work with 30 kids at a time. But it is so beneficial to be able to see what other people do and how kids react to it. And the ability to collaborate on and then deliver a lesson is a real rarity.

We have good people in my department. There are 5 men (two teach science part-time) and 2 women. We all have Master's Degrees. One has a PhD. Everyone enjoys working with teens and is also passionate about their subject. And in spite of our individual---and rather nerdy---idiosynchrasies, we get along very well. All these things make it a joy to work in such a place.

Will our work today make a difference for the kids we tutored? If we didn't think it would, we wouldn't have pursued it. Considering that not all of the identified kids chose to participate, we have an "experimental control group" more or less built into this process. Maybe the results of next month's test will give us some data to consider. I don't know that we'll do these particular tutoring sessions next year. This time around allowed us to "pilot" some curriculum that we would like to just roll in with our regular classroom stuff next year.

But next year will bring all new kids with all new needs. I'm hoping it gives me another chance to team teach.

15 March 2005

(Wo)Men's Work

When I was in grade 5, there was a student teacher doing his practicum for part of the year. Yes, I said "his." Until that time, I have no memories of a male influence within the school setting, other than the principal, of course. In fact, things didn't change all that much in junior high and in high school.

Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the number of males in America's classrooms is at an all-time low: a meager 21%. They cite three major reasons for the decline over the years: fear of sexual harassment lawsuits, low job status, and the view of teaching as "women's work."

I can understand the first reason. News stories are all too common these days about alleged improper teacher-student relations. (Although it does seem more typical at the moment for the media to report on a virago, rather than a lecher.) All it takes is a whiff of this sort of thing and your career could be finished. We work in a profession where if you say you "love children," someone will take it too literally and you'll end up in jail and have a pimp named "Buddha."

I consider myself to be a decent person. I would never consider pursuing anything other than a teacher-student relationship with a young man. This is not to say that there aren't some nice-looking boys that pass through our halls, but I'm just not interested. (I'm certain they aren't, either.) However, it never really crosses my mind that one of them might accuse me of something. How interesting that it does for many men...enough to keep them from teaching.

Low job status? Check. But that is of equal issue for both sexes. This time, I have to wonder what the women are thinking. If we know it's "low status," then why do we go into the profession while some men avoid it for the same reason? Is it a biological thing? Men with low status don't attract mates...women are looking for more security than a mere teacher could provide? Is it a competition sort of issue---men checking their status against other men?

And the last: teaching is perceived as "women's work." Please don't expect me to go off on a feminista rant here, because I'm just not going to. There are enduring stereotypes for both sexes in our culture. Teaching happens to be one of them. I don't think rehashing all of that will do anything about addressing the real issue: how do we get (and keep) more men in the classroom?

It's kinda funny. The article doesn't really mention what to do about that.

14 March 2005

Ethical Dilemma

Some of you have been haunting this blog long enough that you might remember me talking about a plan that my department has. You see, NCLB requires that districts test students in science at 3 points in their scholastic journey---but, whether or not scores improve isn't factored into "Adequate Yearly Progress." In other words, while we have to test kids, it's okay to "leave them behind" in the case of science. Washington state, however, will require passing the science test as a graduation requirement for the class of 2010. My district---and certainly the building I work in---are scrambling to see what we can do to help kids meet the standards. Science is not used to being accountable.

But, back to my department. On Wednesday, we will hold the first of two "tutoring" sessions for kids who are in danger of not meeting the standard. Not all of the kids---just those that are so close that they would benefit from just a little boost.

There are 2 people in my building who are fuming over this. (One of the teachers is part-time in my department...both of them teach math.) It's completely unethical to do this! In tutoring these kids, you are consciously neglecting the students at the lower end! I sort of understand where they're coming from. We do need to do what we can to move all kids toward proficiency with the standards. But this "tutoring" is only one part of our overall plan for helping kids. Frankly, I think we're sort of revolutionary. How much money do schools pour out each year for low end (SPED) and high end (gifted, AP, etc.) kids? When was the last time we looked at the ones in the middle and lent them some support?

All of the kids who are participating on Wednesday have been asked. Each teacher has talked to the students about what their strengths and weaknesses are and why we think they might benefit. Nearly every kid we identified (through data) has been interested---and relieved. They want to succeed and seem genuinely grateful for some extra attention. Should we leave them to their own devices merely because of parity issues...because the "low" kids aren't getting the same presentation?

Part of me feels like lashing out at my naysaying colleagues. When was the last time the math department sat down and looked at data on current students and strategized to help them? I want to tell them, "You go to your church and we'll go to ours," in terms of how we address student needs. I want to tell my students to blow off the math WASL---but won't, since scores will be on their transcripts.

What I will tell my kids is that I care about whether or not they have the knowledge and skills to pass the WASL next month. And it's not because the scores are reported under my name or because there is some sort of pressure from upper echalons for improvement. It is because I believe that if they can kick butt on that test, those kids will know how to apply science to their daily lives. These are the kids who will read a research study in the paper and determine for themselves whether or not it is reasonable. These are the kids who will be able to ask intelligent questions of their healthcare providers. These are the kids who can think critically about information. Is there anything so wrong with that?

13 March 2005

Working Weekend

I wish I had something exciting to report from the world of education, but somehow blogging about writing lesson plans and doing paperwork is about as thrilling as actually doing those jobs. I hope to get out today and enjoy some sunshine and fresh air. Tomorrow it will be back to the real grind.

In the meantime, enjoy these links:
  • Want to know what other people accomplished when they were your age? Have a looksee. This can either make you feel really good ("Hey! There's still plenty of time for me to do something awesome.") or not so good ("*#@&! Mozart and his genius.")
  • The Christian Science Monitor reported this week about the upcoming Symposium in Plant Neurobiology. Do plants have minds of their own? I've always been a big fan of plants, even though I don't do any gardening. I have to admire any organism with a genome large enough to manufacture anything it might need, the ability to manipulate other species to do its bidding, and the cunning to commit all kinds of warfare with its neighbours. That benign looking tree in your yard is just trying to fool you.

11 March 2005


Today went very well, if I do say so myself. The admin---who was very concerned about the whole day falling apart---did a very good job delivering my/his speech and leading the small group discussion (I was in his group). I was actually rather proud of him. I think people were interested in thinking about the kinds of questions raised by the morning's survey of the standards.

The only weak spot in the day was when the ass't. admin got up to introduce the afternoon's agenda. She blew it big time. But, I think that people were still able to salvage the task (having professional conversation about standards in our own classrooms).

Anyway, I feel like celebrating a little. Even if I am just the (wo)man behind the curtain---if people believed in Oz the Admin, that may be good enough. Today we managed to get put together a coherent day of professional development that has the potential to form the strong basis for change.

I do have to ask myself how far I'm willing to go with this. How much time and effort am I willing to put in to get the admins to enact the kinds of changes we need? Do I want to spend several hours with them every quarter/semester ensuring that they make quality opportunities available for everyone? I do admit that I am enjoying this particular challenge and so perhaps I'll see how things go for awhile longer. If the end result is more effort from everyone to help kids achieve, then that seems like a worthwhile reason to keep playing puppetmistress.

10 March 2005


I don't know if I've mentioned this, but on Thursdays our school has a different structure to the day. Each class is about 15 minutes shorter (except the one around lunch) so that we teachers have a 90 minute "common planning time" at the end of the day. In terms of the ways in which classes work, it's a lot like cramming 10-gallons of shit in a 5-gallon bag. (Thanks, Sweetie, for the euphemism.) Yes, I know, we could scale back on the content we deliver, but time always feels too precious. Anyway, this makes Thursdays feel rather hectic.

Meanwhile, my admin and his two assistants are still trying to figure out how to handle the LID tomorrow. Last Friday, I gave them my materials. On Monday, I was asked to proof the preliminary agenda and then sit in on a meeting about it most of the afternoon. Yesterday? I got to write the "guiding questions" for the morning's discussion, revamp a survey they wanted, and then structure the afternoon with them. And, lucky me, today I got to have more fun. I got to write the admin's big speech introducing the morning session, as well as frame out what to say for the afternoon. (I wonder if Bush's speech writer feels like this.)

We'll see what all happens tomorrow. I have done just about everything I can and it is up to the admin to carry it. Mind you, he did ask me today if I was sure that I didn't want to be involved in presenting any of this to staff. I told him that this type of information and work needs to come from him. Get on up there and be the instructional leader.

As for me, I have a presentation of my own tomorrow and my PowerPoint needs some polishing. Enjoy your Friday, gentle readers, and I'll be back to give you all the skinny that's fit to blog tomorrow afternoon.

09 March 2005

Things That Make You Go "Hmmm..."

Today, I got to work at my usual bright and early time of 6. I took a few minutes to collect things my sub had left for me yesterday. I then sat down to write the Minutes from yesterday's Scope and Sequence meeting.

Before these meetings began, I met with my Boss at central office. I wanted to know the "boundaries" of our work---what was within our scope as a committee? She also has a much more global perspective on how things work in the district and it is good to have her ideas. At the time, she mentioned to me that I ought to publish the Minutes for all secondary science teachers in the district (not just those participating on the committee) and also the secondary administrators. The idea is to keep as many people as possible "in the loop" as far as what is happening with the process.

I followed her advice. After the first meeting, I typed up the Minutes and sent them to everyone. This morning, I did the same thing, but the reaction was different. I received a note from the Boss Lady: "Your notes are thorough and will help keep all informed of the committee's work. It sounds like you enjoyed a productive day. When possible, I would like to read minutes before they are sent to everyone. This will allow me to seek clarification on areas that may be unclear or to identify any areas where I may want to recommend other considerations."

Does this strike anyone else as a little odd? They're just Minutes---there were no decisions or recommendations made yesterday. Why does she need to proof the record of our meeting? What if, in the future, she doesn't like a topic that came up for discussion. Is it ethical for me just to delete it at her request?

Perhaps I'm reading too much into this. It may be that she just wants to be prepared in case principals or others have questions. Maybe she's just trying to watch my back. But something makes me suspicious. I didn't reply to her e-mail today. I think I'll just stew on it overnight and see if there is a tactful way for me to find out why she has requested future "previews."

Tonight, I have more work to do for Friday's big event at my school. Over 500 people have dropped by today to read about it...and no one's left me any advice. Maybe they know I'm as doomed as this guy does. :) Place your bets, people. Just don't forget to let me in on the pool, too.

08 March 2005

Scope and Sequence, Round 2

Today was the second (of four) meetings developed to address Scope and Sequence needs for secondary science in my district. It's my task as District Science Goddess to figure out how to do this important, but daunting process. So far, I'm pleased...but exhausted.

People came today with positive energy and good expectations. They came ready to participate and discuss. I was pleasantly surprised.

The major task of the day was to let them do some research/discovery. It's one thing for me to get out and learn some things and try to share it with staff. It's quite another for them to find out for themselves. I got to see several "A-ha!" moments today, which is usually something I only get to see with students. I was also thrilled to see their interest in future collaborations for developing units to use across the district. If I can rally support from that from the admin side of things, we can build an amazing program.

The group would really have liked to have started making some decisions today about what to do, but I held them back. I had two reasons for this. First of all, we only have 11 of the 50+ science teachers represented at these meetings. To not give everyone an opportunity for input would be disastrous. There's plenty of time to make decisions and recommendations at the next meetings. And secondly, it might be a very long time before the district affords us another opportunity like this. We shouldn't make any quick decisions---because whatever we do, we will have to live with it for a long time. I didn't want any of us waking up tomorrow going, "Oh my gawd...what have we done?!"

I now have three week respite between meetings. I'm sure that the time will pass all too quickly and that once again, I'll be a bundle of nerves before the meeting and (hopefully) end the day with a smile. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

07 March 2005

Do they make strap-ons for those?

Faithful readers of this merry little blog may remember that last month was "Infectious Disease Month" in my sophomore biology class. In fact, I even got to make a kid pass out on the very first day. This month in my AP class, it's Sex Month.

Last week, we got into the nitty gritty details of kinky plant sex. How they have threesomes right there in the ovary. How they'll trick a poor bee into thinking the orchid is a willing sex partner. How it makes you look at those Georgia O'Keefe paintings just a little bit differently.

And this week, it's time for some animal sex. Today, it was all about the ovarian and menstrual cycles. My guys were all given imaginary ovaries for the week (since apparently there aren't strap-on versions). We talked about the bossy hypothalamus demanding estrogen levels raised. I asked my kids to chart out a cycle and see the hormone dance...and think about what happens when all those chemicals don't play nice. We watched a story of a woman's pregnancy, told primarily from the perspective of the embryo. My kids agreed to go home tonight and thank their mothers.

Tomorrow, they'll watch an episode from the PBS Evolution series entitled "Why sex?" as a start at our look at the evolutionary biology of sex. By Wednesday, they'll be ready to be sex therapists to an animal in need. And by next week? Why, it's on to the "Naughty Bits Lab," where they'll get to dissect some pregnant reproductive tracts from different animals.

The students in these classes are primarily seniors and tend to handle things well. I never have any parent complaints, but for some kids, it's the first time that an adult hasn't presented sex as being something "dirty." I feel sorry for the kids who already have a complex about sex before they've even had an opportunity to do anything about it. This is not to say that I condone or promote promiscuity. In fact, I don't comment on what I think is or isn't inappropriate about their sex lives (or lack thereof). But I would hope that the "abstinence until marriage" kids would have a better reason for their beliefs other than "sex is dirty," and have a disgusted look upon their faces. I just hope that they're pleasantly surprised later on in life. :)

06 March 2005

Time Out

Like an idiot, I had my classes turn in 4 separate assignments on Friday. We did mark one in class, but that means I brought home the other three (x 2 classes each) plus a set of lab reports I didn't get to earlier in the week. I'm making good progress, but marking is usually one of the least favourite tasks I have. I'm having trouble staying motivated and getting the job done before tomorrow morning. So, I'm using this blog as an excuse for a "time out" from my needy papers.

Turner Classic Movies---far and away my favourite channel---is showing "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" at the moment. I love this film. At least I can have a few laughs whilst I work.

But back to grading.

There are some alternatives to slogging through paperwork over the weekend. One: don't give so many assignments and/or don't grade what kids turn in. This is probably the easiest one to implement, and yet, I feel like kids benefit from regular feedback concerning their learning. Damn my ethics.

Okay, so option two: have kids do more grading in class. I do this sometimes with homework. I go by and check it for completion, and then we go over the answers. The problem with having more official grading is that if you have kids trade papers, mommy and daddy might sue you for letting another student see their work. My gradebook is considered a legal document and I must treat what is within it with the greatest confidentiality.

And the final option to reduce my load of papers: design more assignments that I look forward to reading. I admit that this is what I should be doing all the time. And I do try to do this as often as possible. Creating assessments which both interest the students and me is a real challenge, but a worthwhile one. However, with my days crammed full with other tasks, I don't always have the opportunity to do something as well as I'd like.

I am starting to see where other teachers in my department are more interested in collaboration. We're all so used to being independent contractors---but think of all the effort reinventing wheels we could avoid by pooling our time to develop some common assessments. The mind boggles.

In the meantime, since this stack of papers isn't going to grade themselves, I'd better get back to the task at hand.

05 March 2005

School, Sweet School

Imagine a house (perhaps even your own) that is roughly 2000 square feet in size. Now, imagine that 20 people live in it. That's not so bad, right? It's still about 100 sf per person. Let's say that over the years, you only do basic maintenance on the house: take out the trash and clean the bathrooms; paint now and then; mop or vacuum the floors, etc. If there's a slightly larger problem, like a hole in the roof, then it might get fixed...or it might not. And if something truly significant is needed---like a new furnace---don't hold your breath. You may have to wait until there is room in the budget next year.

Okay, so how does this house look 25 years down the road? Might the flooring need to be replaced? Will it need a new roof or maybe a new ventilation system? Is it possible that you might need to do some remodeling to accommodate issues that have arisen since you first built the place?

This is what is happening at the average American school. And mine, is slightly "above average" because it is only 25 years old at this point. (The average age is 40.) Buildings are in constant use but only the minimum upkeep can be afforded. In my district, some of the physical conditions under which students are expected to learn are truly undesirable.

Why doesn't the district do something about this? It's expensive---and the money for capital improvements has to come from the voters via levies or bonds. Personal budgets don't have the extra room in them any more than school budgets, so levies and bonds often fail. Ditto for state budgets, although my state will at least provide matching funds for capital improvement levies that pass. And the feds? Why, they have allotted $54 million dollars in the 2005 budget to help out with school improvement projects. That might even be enough to build 6 new schools. Nationwide. Pretty generous, don't you think?

Since other schools in my district are older and more in need of either complete replacement or repair, my school isn't slotted for an overhaul for at least 10 more years---and that's assuming all the levies pass between now and then. That means another 12000 students in our house in the meantime. Another 1800 days of doing the bare minimum maintenance and hoping that things don't fall down. I hope my kids remember to bring their umbrellas to keep the rain off their papers as they work in my room.

04 March 2005

The New Breed

Tuesday night was our school's annual "Information Night" for parents of next year's students. The principals do a little dog and pony show in the gym. Then the parents wander down to the cafeteria where the various academic and vo-tech departments have displays and staff on hand to answer questions. And last of all, there are various breakout sessions for those parents interested in particular programs. It makes for a long evening, but usually, it's a piece of cake.

This year didn't quite go as planned. There was a whole new kind of parent that showed up for the evening's festivities. I really don't know how to describe them. What I will say is the parents of incoming sophomores have the first crop of kids who will multiple accountability measures factored into their graduation: Did they pass the state tests? All of them? Did they take the required credits? Did they complete their senior project? How about their "year plus" plan? Even parents who had children that had already passed through our hallowed halls were acting a bit odd on Wednesday night. They have this "deer in the headlights" look. And, boy, were they concerned about getting their kids into college.

I was tasked with leading the breakout sessions on our Sophomore Honors Program. I'm rather proud of this program and have been actively involved with developing it over the last 8 years. It's easy for me to gush about what all we offer. But when I opened up the floor for questions, all the parents were concerned with was the AP program. Should my 15-year old take a college level class next year? What if s/he doesn't---does it mean s/he can't get into college? What if (gasp!) they get a "B" in the course?

I wouldn't want you to believe that we never had high-maintenance parents at school before. We've just never had them in such abundance. I wanted to tell these people to back off a bit. Yes, college entrance is becoming more competitive. Yes, it's wonderful to encourage kids to challenge themselves and make the most of their opportunities. But you know what---they're still 15 years old. I personally don't believe that most 15 year-olds are ready for a college level class. That's why there's this thing called "high school" sandwiched between junior high and university. There's nothing wrong with a kid who needs to take 1 honors class (instead of 3...or 2 + 1 AP) in order to build their "readiness" for the next step.

Anyway, I was caught off guard. And all of this happened after a dad came up and questioned me about evolution in the biology curriculum. "Do you teach it?" Yes, we do. It is mandated by the state. "Do you teach creationism and/or intelligent design?" No, we don't. We can be sued for doing that. "Do you teach evolution as fact?" No, it's a theory based on facts---just like atomic bonding and gravity. "Yeah, but do you teach it as fact?" I repeated my previous answer. "What if a kid wanted to bring in a paper with an opposing viewpoint?" There would be no opportunity for this type of assignment. "But what if they wanted to bring one in?" Oh, I went round and round with this guy.

When the last parent filed out at 8:30, I was grateful. Next year is already shaping up to be very interesting.

03 March 2005

The Blind Leading the Blind

The principal in our building is a nice guy. He's got a great sense of humor, has diverse interests, and has now invested several years in our school. I always enjoy chatting with him.

Here's my big but: the chief admin isn't strong in instructional leadership skills and (self-admittedly) avoids any sort of situation where there might be confrontation. These are not the best attributes to find in your school's leader.

We teachers know that the "emperor has no clothes," so it isn't as if I'm spilling any beans here. But the problem is that with all the issues schools are taking on these days, we really need strong instructional leadership.

Next Friday, we have a "Learning Improvement Day" (LID)---which is just a fancy term for a teachers' workday. It's been on the calendar for ages...and yet, the principal is just now getting around to thinking about what to do on that day. And if that isn't enough to worry anyone, just guess who he's called in to help him plan things: me.

It is true that I am called upon to deliver high quality content to a passle of people everyday. I am used to putting together presentations and leading discussions. However, this is not the same as delivering professional development to one's peers. I am working to acquire these skills in my role as district Science Goddess, but I am a novice, at best.

I have somehow convinced my admin to undertake a hefty program next Friday. We will finally start having some discussion in my building about standards-based education, our beliefs about change, and starting on the road of Powerful Teaching and Learning. This sort of conversation has been sorely lacking---and is very necessary if we're ever going to move forward as a school. How can we expect to help more of our students achieve if we just keep doing the same old, same old?

This is big stuff. And if you're my principal---it likely leaves brown marks in your tighty-whities. But it's time for him to step up, I think. I really believe that he can do a wonderful job. The kids who will land on our doorstep in September will be the first for whom the new graduation requirements are in effect. Those sophs will have to earn their credits; pass the state tests in reading, writing, and math (science will be a "must" for graduation 2 years beyond); complete a culminating project; and file a "year + plan," outlining their goals for the year after high school. If we don't find ways to work together as teachers, these kids will pay the penalties. They won't graduate, although we'll keep our jobs.

So, as small as my Professional Development knowledge bank is, I'm going to do what I can over the next week to help pull together the kind of workday that we should have been having for a long time. Which one of us is the "blind leader" in this scenario? I'll let you decide.

02 March 2005

Busy as a Beaver

After 4 periods of labs, two intense meetings, grading papers like a maniac...I have just a short window before returning for our annual "Information Night" for parents of next year's students.

I'll be back tomorrow...assuming I survive the rest of today. :)

01 March 2005

Will Work for Pay

Teachers are invariably described as being "underpaid." I hear all sorts of ideas about merit pay, raising pay and/or benefits to attract more people to the profession, voters who pass initiatives to give educators cost-of-living-adjustments, and strikes for better pay. But I hadn't seen this until now.

A group of teachers in California is refusing to work outside their contractual hours. School events have had to be cancelled, assignments are going unmarked, and other business is not being completed. The teachers have not had a contract nor a pay raise in two years. In the meantime, they are also looking at a cut to their benefits.

I think this is an interesting way to make a statement. Schools stay open, but all of the things that teachers do "gratis" outside of the school day fall by the wayside---which makes an impact on parents, the community, administration, and of course, the kids. I'm sure that the teachers in the Berkeley district do not want to negatively effect kids. Their point is that teachers are people, too. We are professionals who are expected to work miracles with these kids and must make do with less and less.

As usual, I don't have much in the way of answers. My own experience includes working for a very poor school district in NM. I had few benefits and my take home pay (10 years ago) was sometimes $500/month. When I moved to Washington, I more than doubled my salary and gained many benefits (such as dental coverage) that I hadn't had before. I remember how things used to be and that keeps me realistic.

Would I like more money for what I do? Heck, yeah. Who wouldn't want a bigger paycheck? But I can also look around and see that I have a roof over my head, food on the table, and clothes on my back. I have a car that's 5 years old and I can afford a holiday now and then...not to mention the occasional treat when I'm out shopping. I have insurance that covered almost all of my recent surgery and associated treatment. There are thousands of people in this country who don't have those things.

Somehow, I think what teachers really want is more respect. The idea of being compensated akin to other professionals with the same level of training gets equated to respect in many minds. We are asked to work miracles each day with kids, all the while the expectations upon us increase and the resource pool dwindles. No wonder we feel pooped on.

The Berkeley teachers are certainly making a point about this. Will they get more money? I don't believe that it's likely...at least not in the immediate future. I think the more interesting question is "Will they get more respect?"