Monday, May 28, 2007

And so it begins. . .

Another school year, another summer vacation. I remember hearing my parents joke around with their fellow educator peers about the 3 favorite parts of teaching: June, July, and August. Not until the end of my 3rd year in education did I finally understand their sentiments.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t better or more rewarding components to the teaching profession, it’s just that those 3 months we have off are not entirely meant for the students to shut off their brains from learning. Those 3 months are VITAL to the survival of teachers. Without a break, I doubt I would stay in this profession much longer.

Granted, this year wasn’t exactly easy. I can honestly say that I have never worked harder in my entire life, but I also feel that I have never felt a greater contribution or a have influenced a greater amount than this year. July of last year, I transferred schools. I was at a very accomplished middle school here in Sarasota County and felt that if I stayed, I wouldn’t be challenged (the school is 98% Caucasian) and I wouldn’t therefore be able to move up and accomplish much else. When I sit back and digest my 2 year stint there, I realized that there just wouldn’t have been much room for advancement. So I applied for a multi-grade position, 7th and 8th grade science, at a more diverse campus. After being notified that I was offered the position, I now had the new task of packing up my science classroom. You want to know what the weird thing is? I had a feeling I would not be back in my old classroom after school let out for the 2005-2006 school year, so I had taken down most of my things.

Oh yeah, did I mention I also got married last summer? That is in itself a major change, especially since I am an independent brat.

Before I was able to move into my new classroom, I hit a snag – the science room was not ready. I had packed up all of my things, loaded up my Trailblazer and drove across town to find that my room was for Arts & Crafts time for the YMCA summer camp. YEAH, my room was a freakin’ disaster. Luckily, my friend, the guidance counselor, allowed me to dump all of my crap into her office. Thank heavens she had a large office.

So the night before Parent Night or Welcome Back to School Night (or whatever the heck it is called, doesn't really matter), my floors were waxed and dried and finally ready for me to move in. I was at school until 10PM then back in the morning to finish at 8AM. We also had the last interview for the math position on our team. Yeah, the d-bag who was supposed to return as our math instructor decided to take a leave of absence 2 days before school started. Thanks a lot, d-bag.

Oh yeah, did I mention I had high school volleyball tryouts that week? We found out last minute that the tryouts had to be moved because they were resealing the gym floor. Then, we had to change the tryout time to the afternoon because the Boys and Girls Club had double booked the gymnasium.

Ok, so the whole transition between one school to the next wasn’t exactly smooth, but I was finally on a team that worked together to create integrative units of study! My team was awesome – we had a very experienced LA teacher who was ready to disseminate all of her collaborative knowledge, a young and hilarious Social Studies teacher who quickly became my best bud and a rocket scientist (literally) for a math teacher. We had the recipe for success.

When I look back on the all great things we accomplished with the students, I shake my head in amazement. Creating collaborative and integrated units takes a lot of work on each team member’s part. A LOT. I cannot even describe the amount of hours it took for us to plan out schedules to complete certain aspects of each unit. The good thing was, the framework was already done for us by the previous teams, we just had to tweak it and make it work for us.

We tie-dyed t-shirts for chemistry and studied Edgar Allen Poe. The students researched the gold rush, careers in science and created websites on our solar system. We transformed our classrooms into 4 major habitats found here in Florida and lead groups of 4th graders through our habitat museums. We read To Kill a Mockingbird, a Short History of Nearly Everything and My Brother Sam. Our students even reenacted the Ellis Island experience for our immigration unit, complete with checkpoint stations and costumes.

And just for the record, we didn’t have any gifted students, for those of you who wonder if we were able to achieve so much because of the caliber of kids we were given. All kids can be successful, it just depends on the environment you provide for them to learn.

Like I mentioned before, I have never worked so hard in my life but I have never felt better about what we were able to accomplish with our students. This is the first summer that I have truly needed so that I can recharge my batteries, collaborate with my peers (that’s right, plan for next year!), write grants for my classroom and just relax. It is so nice not to have a schedule to follow or papers to grade or lessons to plan. I can talk with my fellow educator friends about new ideas and gossip on who our principal will be for next year.

Well, I suppose I will have to take the “no schedule” comment back because our team has to move into new classrooms and we can’t move in until the walls are painted, the floors waxed and the prior inhabitants move out too. At least the YMCA won’t be in my room this summer. I am also taking classes for my gifted certification, am beginning my +45 courses, am being trained on the ACTIVBoard so that we can train the others at our school and am going to be presenting to the county principals on how to effectively use the ACTIVBoard in the classroom. I guess I am going to have to retract that relaxing statement too.

Ok, so maybe my summer won’t be as relaxing as it seems, but I swear to you, it is so nice to be able to do the things I am unable to do during the school year. Dentist appointments, pedicures and taking my dog to the Venice dog beach are just a few of the things I am able to do on my own time, without too many restrictions.

This is going to be a good summer.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Animal Farm of Education

On Friday, my best friend (Simoni) and I accompanied our 8th graders to Adventure Island for their “end of middle school” field trip. Within 10 minutes of being there, I got in trouble. Not 10 minutes later, Simoni got in trouble. It was great! We were worse than our students – pushing one another off of the rafts, tipping kids in the lazy river, and running up the stairs with inner tubes. My voice is still recovering from all of the laughing and screaming… and I don’t mean the kind of screaming you hear when our white trash, cigarette smoking, overweight neighbor curses at her own toddler for being loud (and those descriptions are an understatement). I mean the kind of screaming you hear teenage girls howling out when riding anything remotely frightening. Roller coasters, water slides, the occasional spider, you get the picture.

Somewhere in between the fun we had on Friday and today at school, something really got to me. I started to think about a comment someone made to me about making sure we “pass on” certain kids. I couldn’t help but be perpetually bothered by it.

When did schools stop focusing on what’s best for the kids and start functioning like a mindless and emotionally inept factory?

I do feel sometimes that American schools have eliminated the closeness and security kids might be feel in a classroom and replaced it with standardized testing and stricter standards. Don’t get me wrong, I think standards are vitally important for not only the students, but more for the educators because we need to know what exactly we are to teach them. But, somewhere along the line, I feel like we (teachers) are required to evolve into factory workers, churning out kids like machines in hopes that one day, those kids will move onto the next level of schooling. All of the requirements that it takes to become an educator is rigorous, time consuming and is very similar to a dog chasing its own tail at times, but once you are in, you’re IN. You then have a checklist of things you need to accomplish in order to earn tenure and unfortunately, there are people in this profession who do not take their jobs (or their own personal effort) seriously and therefore pass by the skin of their teeth. I have seen first hand how difficult it is for administrators to remove crummy first and second year teachers from the classroom and it makes me nauseous to know that I have the drive and desire to be good at what I do while these schlubs just do what they have to get by. I get sick to my stomach because these “factory workers” have too much of a negative influence on a child’s learning experience.

On top of feeling like we are to be essentially robotical, there are some individuals out there who feel that all educators are the same, as if we are interchangeable gears that can all perform the same task. No offense, but I know for a fact that I would not be a good language arts teacher and I know there are plenty of teachers out there who would hate to have to teach physics, human anatomy or even geology. The American education system needs to embrace the diversity EACH teacher brings to the classroom because that is what enhances a child’s classroom experience and encourages cross curricular comprehension.

I know America is different than other nations because we actually attempt to educate every child whereas other countries might educate the top 25% of their population. I have read articles stating that the national graduation rate is rising by 4 to 5% a year, so our high school graduation rate really isn’t that bad considering we do educate a larger range of students… but I have to ask, is our graduation rate higher because we have continually passed kids on? Have we lowered our standards for graduation so that we don’t have to deal with the problem students any more? I feel as if we are passing on kids because we don’t want to deal with them any longer because if the student earned a failing grade and more importantly, we record the failing grade (notice how I didn’t say we GAVE the student a failing grade), then more likely than not that student will end up in your classroom again. It’s like we are passing kids onto somebody else, so they are no longer our problem. I have a personal problem promoting a student when I fear for their future - would passing them on actually benefit the student when I know they lack the experience and the maturity to stick it out through high school?

Having said this, I am fully aware that not every one of my students will be college bound. Only 27% of adults over the age of 25 in the United States actually have a college degree, but I am not even using this data to support my awareness. Some kids just aren’t meant for college. Period. At least 1/3 of my students won’t make it to high school graduation, and sadly, I could probably identify those middle school kids in my classroom right now.

To address this problem, Sarasota has created an amazing school which I identify as a “pre-dropout” prevention program. The Phoenix Academy is one of the few schools I am familiar with who actually adhere strictly to the rules – if you don’t pass, you don’t move onto the next grade and you do NOT collect $200. They have a smaller school setting with a maximum number of about 150 students and almost 15 full time teachers. The student to teacher ratio is the lowest in the county (including the support staff who will drive to the student’s home and pick them up if they decide not to attend school that day) therefore they have probably the highest expenditure of any school in Sarasota county. Yes, it is expensive to run the Phoenix Academy. But is it worth it?

Hell yes it is.

Why, you might ask? Because they are doing what is best for the KIDS. (What a concept!) They do not promote students if they are not fulfilling requirements. They work with at-risk students to get them onto the right track and get them prepared for high school because the teachers and staff at Phoenix genuinely care.

It irks me when a teacher says, “If you were able to reach one student today, you need to consider yourself successful.” Ok, so if I worked at a car manufacturing plant, putting together automobiles and I successfully installed 1 airbag out of 100, don’t you think I would be fired? More importantly, wouldn't a normal human being have enough of a conscious to realize how many people I could harm or potentially kill? How on earth can we measure success by only reaching ONE student?! Would a doctor be considered successful if he saved 1 out of 100 patients? Would a lawyer be thought of as competent if she won 1 out of 100 cases? How about a plumber or a coach or a farmer? How is not alright for these people to have a higher expectation and definition for success but teachers do not? Was there some universal law created stating that since we don't get paid huge sums of money we therefore have the permission to be underachievers? We need to quit lowering our standards because what happens is, our students begin to lower their own and will do just enough work to get by and pass.

Can you imagine what this world would be like if we all did the bare minimum just to get by? What if we were all interchangeable parts? Why don’t we just put on our blue factory suits with our names stiched in cursive and work goggles to generate and build some average learners who have to fit the rigid mold that we make? (And if they don't fit the mold, they are labeled DEFECTIVE or IRREGULAR.)

I shudder at the thought.