Okay, so, we’re doing this

I just sent my new principal a nearly 1800-word email message based on a conversation we had at school today. There are two days before school starts where the teachers are supposed to be in the buildings; typically one of those is for meetings and the other is so that we can get our classrooms set up. One of the several bits of insanity during the last couple of days of disaster PD was discovering that the district intends for every teacher to be at the same PD downtown on our “meetings” day; there was talk of “breakout sessions” in the afternoon for individual buildings (where are they going to put us? Who knows!) lasting an hour and a half.

This is not remotely enough time for a building where nearly everyone on the staff is returning. It is absolutely not remotely enough time in a situation like ours, where half the staff and the entire administrative team is new. It is, in fact, insane. I was at school today and asked my boss if she wanted to send her an email (and I was clear it would be a lengthy email) outlining some of the issues that she might encounter at this meeting so that at least she’d heard of them before. Turns out there’s an awful lot of policy-setting necessary to get a building as complex as a school running smoothly! Unbelievable, right? She said to send the email, so I sent the email, and if you’ve never been a teacher before, I feel like it might be illustrative to take a look at it. Obviously I’ve redacted a few things but really the majority of this could be written in any school in American with only minor edits. Enjoy:

(TLT stands for Teacher Leadership Team, by the way; you can probably guess what that might be.)


Principal Person–

This is going to be as complete as I can make it without taking three days to think about it.  I’m sure I’m going to miss some things, but hopefully I can give you a useful heads-up on some issues that will probably come up so that they’re not a surprise.  I’ll do my best to be as factual as possible but obviously any opinions presented are my own and it will not surprise you to learn that others may disagree.  ūüôā

(Assistant Principal Person, I let Principal Person know this email would be coming; it’s not out of nowhere, I promise.)

ADVISORY/BREAKFAST:

The biggest problems here were 1) buses being late and 2) kids simply declining to come to advisory.  Keeping better control of the hallways will have to be a major priority this year, but at no time was that more obvious than during homeroom, where the advisory tardy bell would ring and 1/3 of the students would be in class, another third would be in the hallways, and the last third literally wouldn’t have arrived at school yet.  I *believe* they were not allowed into the building at all until 9:20, and at that time they’d collect a breakfast and head straight to lockers and advisory, with the tardy bell at 9:30.  During inclement weather or rain I think they’d let them into the commons area at the front of the building by the office.  Teachers were expected to be at their doors by that first bell; a lot of the time if someone was absent the nearest teacher would just wave those kids into their room.  

Using advisory for any sort of instruction is going to be tricky simply because the buses don’t arrive on time, especially in the winter.¬† I genuinely don’t remember how admission to the building worked pre-Covid; I know we used to have the 6th graders in the LGI room once they were done with breakfast until the bell rang but I didn’t have morning supervision duty so I wasn’t down there.

PASSING PERIODS:

Four minutes is more than sufficient for everyone to get from A to B.  Kids are supposed to stay to the right and walk; most of them do a good job with that.  Profanity in the halls is a problem.  Some teachers will close and lock their doors when the tardy bell rings; others leave them open and simply mark tardy kids late.  Lockouts were called occasionally; anyone still in the hallway was supposed to go to ISS and generally remained there for a period; we do not have anyone to cover things like detentions so that was rarely if ever used as a deterrent.  There is also the two-period block classes to be concerned about; some of us let our kids out during passing period for a quick break if they wanted one, but there should probably be a firm rule that if you do that you NEED to be in the hallway monitoring, and honestly even the teachers who don’t let their blocks out for that break probably ought to be near their doors keeping an ear open.  

STAIRS:

Typically only 6th graders are supposed to use the stairs by the 6th grade science classrooms and Teachername’s room; 7th and 8th are only supposed to use the stairs near the cafeteria, and God help me, because my classroom is right next to them, but there are also rules about who is supposed to be using the stairs between 212 and 210 and I could never bloody keep track of them.¬† ¬†TLT’s recommendations is that we literally find some hallway signs and put them at the top and the bottom of each set of stairs indicating who is to use them, because these were rules that (at least on my end of the building) the kids were expected to know and abide by but were never actually *told* to them, and when that is combined with inconsistent enforcement, it’s a problem.¬†¬†

SPEAKING OF THOSE STAIRS:

The area at the bottom of the stairway by my room (with the faux fireplace) is a perennial place for kids to hang out and screw around because other than Mx. Teacherhuman, there’s no adults near there and if they hide around the corner no one is going to see them.¬† I recommend installing a wasp’s nest in the fireplace.

WATER: 

For about the first 2/3 of the year last year we provided cups at the drinking fountains.¬† That was convenient but typically a sleeve of cups would have to be replaced a couple of times a day and the kids weren’t good about not blatantly wasting them.¬† Some teachers brought their own cups to hand out and we started selling water bottles as well through the office.¬† The office also sometimes had cups and the water bottles didn’t work great because you would have five of them in a classroom and no one knew whose belonged to who, and teachers sending their kids down to the office to get cups in the middle of class became a serious annoyance to front office staff.¬†¬†

Personally, I provided cups to my own students (and occasionally other kids who asked nicely for them) and allowed anyone to have clear water bottles in class with them.  Other teachers didn’t allow any water in class at all, which would occasionally lead to conflicts of various kinds.  I decided it wasn’t a hill I was willing to die on.

BATHROOM BREAKS:  

Inconsistent.  Some teachers took their entire classes on bathroom breaks during certain periods; each grade was supposed to pick two hours where their kids would get a break.  My classroom is directly across the hall from the boys’ bathroom and not far from the girls’ so I would just let them go (with a pass) if they needed to.  I regularly need a bathroom break half an hour after I eat and I wasn’t about to tell a kid in sixth hour they couldn’t pee because 8th grade’s “official” break wasn’t until 7th hour.

DRESS CODE:

This is a big one, and the biggest issue is going to be hoodies.  The TLT members who were able to make the meeting at my place (names of teachers) came to an agreement that we were all comfortable with allowing hoodies and/or flannel zip-ups in class provided that 1) they were solid color (otherwise complying with polo shirt colors) and 2) hoods were never up.  In general the rule about tucking shirts in was not followed and I would recommend it be eliminated, especially since the combination of the amount of poverty in the building and the fact that middle schoolers grow like weeds means that a lot of the time their shirts were juuuuuust too short to be tucked inРwhich, a lot of the time, explained why especially our bigger kids wanted to keep their hoodies and/or jackets on.  Last year the rule was hoodies were not to be worn, period, and my GOD did it cause a lot of disruption.  I will admit to being firmly on the pro-hoodie side; I remember what being a fat kid in middle school was like, but enforcing it was a daily and constant struggle.

CELL PHONES:

Speaking of daily and constant struggles.  This is a whole email all to itself; my suggestion is that we figure out exactly where the line is that we’re not willing to cross (ie, They Are Not To Be Seen And Must Be In Lockers vs They Are Never To Be Removed From Your Pocket vs whatever other policy you might have).  The TLT went around and around on this and didn’t really come to a consensus; my suggestion is that we set a baseline expectation for hallways and common areas that all of us follow and we make it clear that individual teachers’ policies may vary in their classrooms.  I have more thoughts (and so does everyone else) but this is already a long email.

LUNCH:

I think each grade needs to have a firm plan about how to conduct the kids to and from lunch, and I don’t think those plans each need to be the same plan.  I think a fair number of lunch-related problems will be solved by returning the cafeteria to its pre-COVID borders, closing the wall behind it, and (especially with the older kids) reinforcing that You Are Never Getting Your Lunch Delivered, Ever.  If we turn DoorDash away at the front doors enough times they’ll figure it out themselves.  I have absolutely no problem with picking the kids up from lunch and I think if we start doing that from Day One it’ll be less of a problem than it was last year.  The problem we have here is potentially running afoul of the mandated 30-minute duty free lunch.  

LOCKERS:

We have got to have locker assignments ready on day one.  This also killed us last year because lockers weren’t ready for forever and so kids got used to just having whatever they wanted with them because they “didn’t have a locker.”  I recommend assigning blocks of lockers to the advisory teachers and letting us handle it rather than trying to centralize assignments through the office.

DISMISSAL: 

From my lofty perch at the far corner of the second floor, with an 8th hour prep, dismissal mostly seemed to go pretty smoothly; announcements at the end of the day followed by dismissal.  Walkers and bus and car riders were dismissed in waves; I don’t know how well that worked because I didn’t have an 8th hour.  Others may have more useful perspectives on this than me.

LESSON PLANS:

Teachers have not been asked to provide lesson plans to administration at all since I have been at SCHOOLNAME.¬† We were occasionally reminded that we were supposed to have them on our desks at all times.¬† I don’t think most of us did.¬† I don’t know what your expectations are here (nor do I know what contractual obligations there may be) but I just wanted to make sure you were aware of what we were used to.

SUBS:

Don’t exist.  Classroom coverage was all we had, all year.

OK, I’M DONE NOW:

I’ll come up with something I forgot in ten minutes, though.

A story I don’t know that isn’t mine to tell

Many years ago I had this young man in my classes, we’ll call him Johnny, which isn’t his name. Johnny was in an all-boys’ class, the only one I’ve ever taught, and a group that, in general, drove me insane, because temperamentally I am not very well suited to teaching large groups of boys. I had him in 6th grade. He was a pretty good kid, as it went, but he was prone to getting dragged into shit if shit was nearby to get dragged into. I have described this type of student to parents before as a “kindling kid”– he’s not going to do anything on his own, but if there’s fire, he’ll burn.

Anyway, I was describing his behavior to his mother at parent teacher conferences once, and she was reacting quite a bit more strongly than I really felt like she ought to have, and at one point she looked at him and hissed something at him that I actually had to have her repeat to make sure I’d heard it correctly.

Quarterbacks don’t act like this,” she’d said. And I was immediately of two minds; the first being of course they do, and the second being why are you laying that on your twelve-year-old right now? And let me get to the moral of the story before I tell the rest of it: parents, can we not set our kids up to peak in high school, please, and can we absolutely definitely not set them up so that if they aren’t the star QB they don’t feel like their lives are over before they’ve had a chance to start?

This is the part where I start making stuff up, by the way, because I really don’t have any evidence for any of what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway because it’s on my mind.

Anyway, this kid randomly popped into my head this weekend– I found a random little gift that he’d given me in the course of cleaning up, and it had his name on it, and this story came to mind. And I did a little bit of research. Johnny did play football in high school, but didn’t play quarterback, and frankly while he was on the team he doesn’t appear to have played much at all– I was able to look through the box scores of his senior year, because America’s obsession with high school football is genuinely creepy, and I couldn’t find any evidence that he’d contributed to the team in any meaningful way. I didn’t look at every game or anything like that, but it was pretty clear that, at the least, this kid wasn’t the star player.

And then I found a picture of him, from what would have been his sophomore year of college if he’d gone, posted by a local Painters and Allied Trades union. The tone of the caption is celebratory; they’re honoring their newest member. And I honestly can’t believe that they chose this picture to post, because the kid looks like his life is literally crumbling down around his eyes. Johnny grew up getting his head pumped full of stories about how he was going to be the star quarterback, and then he was going to go on to college and then probably the NFL and be a famous football player, and instead he’s 20 with no degree, no sports career, and joining the painter’s union.

This isn’t to say that I look down on these people; I don’t, and as a union member myself I consider the trades unions members to be brothers and sisters. I don’t look down on anybody who works for a living. But Johnny very clearly got raised to believe that there was one way his life was going to go, and it didn’t, and I know I’m reading a lot into it and I haven’t seen the kid in years but the look on his face in this picture is just fucking heartbreaking.

And maybe Labor Day isn’t the best day to post this, either. But fuck it, I’ve been thinking about him all weekend, and I hate it how quickly young kids are willing to cling to sports as what’s going to make them rich and famous when the truest thing I can say to any of them is no, it’s not. You’re not going to be in the NBA or the NFL or really anything else. You might play in high school, but I can count the number of college athletes I’ve taught over the years on one hand. This isn’t any more realistic as a life goal than “I’m going to win the lottery” is.

We’ve gotta stop doing this to our kids.

When originality backfires

It took me much too long to get to Chuck Wendig’s latest book, The Book of Accidents, because Chuck is from Pennsylvania and so is Sarah J. Maas, who I had already read a book by this year, and therefore Pennsylvania was already filled up on my stupid little map. But I’d been looking forward to this a lot– Chuck is one of my favorites– and I finally got to it this week.

I didn’t like it as much as I feel like I should have, and I really hate it when that happens, because I never know how to translate that to a star rating, and then I get irritated with myself for caring about star ratings— I may just start rating every single book I read that doesn’t personally irritate me at five stars on Goodreads just to stop having to agonize about this– and I think I ended up just calling this one four stars for the hell of it.

Here is the deal with this book: I said to my wife during the first or second night of reading it that it really feels like Wendig, with his last couple of books, is quite deliberately trying to horn in on Stephen King’s turf, or at least the turf that King occupied when he was writing his most well-known and immortal books. Wanderers, which I liked quite a lot, got compared to The Stand all over the damn place, and with very good reason. And while this book didn’t map onto any specific King book as cleanly as Wanderers did, it still felt quite a lot like vintage, if updated, Stephen King.

And it also very much wants you to think it’s a haunted house book for, oh, the first third or so of its length. And it is not a haunted house book. It is so very much not a haunted house book, no, it is something else entirely. Like, I really don’t think you’re going to see a lot of what this book has for you coming.

I, uh, was really looking forward to a good haunted house book, though, and I got super excited about what looked like it was going to be a great haunted house book.

Which is why I’m not calling this a review, because I’m not sure if it’s the book’s fault that I wasn’t willing to go with it where it wanted to go. Maybe it is! I mean, it’s not like I picked up a Louis L’Amour book expecting to read a haunted house book. Like, there’s haunted house DNA all over this damn thing. Which sounds gross. You know what I mean. It’s not unfair to expect a creepy haunted house story from this book. In fact, I think Wendig is pretty obviously counting on it. And normally when something like this happens while I’m reading– you think the story is going to go BLAH, but instead it goes NYAH, it’s a compliment. Predictability is generally bad. Except, apparently, in this case, where I can’t claim that it ruined the book– it’s not like I regret reading it or anything, although I think even at my most charitable it’s not as strong as Wanderers. It’s just not what I wanted from it, and as a result I didn’t like it as much as I thought I was going to.

On appropriateness in public places

19dy59dmoqh07jpgThis story has been making the rounds lately; I saw it first on Gawker and it’s popped up on Facebook and Twitter a couple of times since then too. ¬†To nutshell: ¬†little kid crawls all over multi-million-dollar art installation in museum, horrified onlooker scolds parent, but not until after taking a picture and putting it on Twitter, Internet falls on heads of everyone involved.

Put a pin in that. ¬†Lemme tell you a story. ¬†It’s 2012 and I am in Washington, D.C. with thirty-some-odd adolescents. ¬†It is the first day of the trip, meaning that we’ve spent the entire night on the bus¬†getting to¬†Washington, D.C. and then went directly into touring with no chance to shower or rest in between. ¬†We are at the American Holocaust Museum, surely one of the most emotionally draining spaces in North America. I am ushering a small group of my kids through the museum.

In case you’ve never been there before: ¬†the whole museum is damned upsetting, as you can probably imagine it is. ¬†But there are parts of it that are decidedly¬†more upsetting than others. ¬†These tend to be set off with little walls, so that you have to deliberately walk up to them and lean over to see whatever they’re showing you, so that really little kids and people who just can’t handle any more¬†evil don’t get accidentally exposed to whatever soul-shattering horror they’re letting you bear witness to.

The first of these is in one of the first relatively wide-open spaces in the entire museum. ¬†As a rule, the museum is cramped and narrow, and never much more than the first floor after you get off the elevators, which I¬†swear is trying to give everyone claustrophobia. ¬†The weird thing is, even though there are always millions of packed people in those first few halls (and I’ve gotten to the point where I just tell my kids to¬†ignore the first few exhibits and just push through the crowds until they get somewhere where we can breathe) it generally isn’t as bad for the rest of it.

Anyway, yeah: ¬†first wide-open space, claustrophobia, no sleep, kinda smelly, exhibit where you have to deliberately view it that I’ve seen three times before. ¬†I wave the kids over to it if they want to see it and then lean back against a bench set into the wall. ¬†I set my elbow on the bench and kinda lay my face into my hand a little bit.

And then catch the look on someone’s face, who is¬†glaring¬†at me. ¬†And I notice what I’m actually leaning against: ¬†actual goddamn barracks from an actual goddamn concentration camp that somebody probably starved to death on. ¬†There’s a¬†teeny tiny plaque a few feet from my head suggesting that maybe it might be kinda nice if you didn’t touch them. ¬†And I’m practically taking a¬†nap on the thing.

I was horrified, of course, and I yanked myself away from the thing like it was electrified and shot the lady who’d caught me an apologetic look, which didn’t seem to mollify her too much. ¬†But here’s my point: ¬†in my current not-entirely-attentive state, those barracks really looked like something I should be leaning on, so I¬†did.

And damn if that multimillion-dollar art installation doesn’t look¬†a lot like a bunk bed, or a ladder.

As an educator I find myself constantly having to think about space and how to use it, and about classroom policy and how it will¬†actually work in the context of having dozens of potentially argumentative and/or apathetic and/or actively destructive teenagers exposed to it. ¬†In some cases, spaces¬†themselves sorta set the agenda. ¬†You know why kids tend to run in hallways and wide open spaces? ¬†It’s because the wide open spaces themselves¬†scream “Run!”. ¬†And when you’re dealing with tired people or little kids who can’t be expected to know any better, sometimes shit happens, and if you can¬†anticipate shit happening, which you ought to be able to do, it’s sorta on¬†you to set up your art installation or classroom or museum in such a way that it minimizes the chance of inattentive or young people being able to misuse and/or¬†destroy either millions of dollars of art or priceless historical artifacts. ¬†You don’t want anyone groping the brass boobies or the protruding nose on the priceless African brass statue? ¬†Maybe you don’t put it where we can¬†reach it,¬†then. ¬†People grabbing boobies is kinda predictable, y’know?

None of this justifies the mother’s reaction. ¬†Civilized people teach their kids not to do shit like this, or correct them when they¬†do, or when they transgress on their own they’re apologetic and not argumentative about it. ¬†But I can’t pretend I don’t get the “You don’t get kids” response on some level or another, even if I do think saying it out loud kinda makes Mom an asshole.

Because, seriously: that thing begs to be climbed on.  And the museum should have been smart enough to have anticipated that.

In which I fix everything (part 3 of 3)

standardized-testing

For the last two days I’ve been griping about standardized tests, brought on by¬†this article¬†and¬†Diane Ravitch‚Äôs reaction¬†to it. ¬†I hope I’ve adequately demonstrated that relying on a pass-no-pass model for determining effectiveness in schools is at least pointless and at most actively destructive. ¬†I’ve also talked about the alternative to a pass model, which is a growth model, and offered some criticisms of how growth models, at least as they’re practiced in Indiana, tend to work.

Here, I’ll present an outline of how a growth model for standardized testing ought to work.

  • First, and most importantly: ¬†remove any notion of “passing” and “failing”¬†completely from the testing process. ¬†The two most well-known standardized tests in America right now are the SAT and the ACT, the two tests for college readiness, taken by nearly every high school student at some point or another. ¬†Even kids who don’t necessarily plan on going to college take at least one of those two tests, and many take both. ¬†Have you ever heard of someone “failing” the SAT? ¬†No. ¬†Because it can’t be done. ¬†You can get a terrible score on it, yes, but you can’t fail. ¬†Your score is your score. ¬†As it stands right now, creating a cutscore for “pass” and “fail” does the following: ¬†1) It makes the test scores easier to manipulate (just change the cutscore and it looks like more kids passed– or that you’ve demonstrated “higher expectations”) 2) it puts an artificial, pointless barrier between kids who barely passed and kids who barely failed (there is¬†no difference between a kid who got a 450 or a 46o; that’s a question or two. ¬†It’s I-had-breakfast-and-eight-hours-of-sleep versus I-sorta-have-a-cold-today. ¬†But if you put the pass cutscore at 455, it¬†looks like a huge difference. ¬†3) It embeds a shaming mechanism into the test that has no good reason for being there; 4) It creates an incentive for teachers to focus solely on the “bubble kids;” 5) It provides no useful information to anyone that the actual scores did not already provide. ¬†There’s no reason for these tests to have a passing score. It is an entirely useless piece of information. ¬†I can think of only one exception, which is when districts use test scores as part (PART!!!) of a decision on whether to pass a student from one grade to another. ¬†Most districts don’t do that, though, since frequently scores aren’t available until very late in the year– it’s the second week of July already and I don’t know my kids’ scores yet.
  • Removing the notion of pass/fail from the equation makes it easier to focus on¬†growth as the metric. ¬†As I’ve demonstrated already, this means that you can’t exclude any of your kids as “unimportant” to your school’s or your classroom’s end-of-year scores. ¬†How a student’s score changes from year to year becomes vastly more important than what their score actually is, which is as it should be. ¬†There’s a bunch of ways to do this; Indiana’s model has some good points but is unnecessarily complicated. ¬†Here’s my suggestion:
  • Pick a start year; any start year. ¬† Divide those kids into groups based on percentile scores on the test. ¬†I like using decile groups (in other words, ten) but you can use quintiles or quartiles or whatever. ¬†In Year Two, determine how much those kids moved in their test scores from year one to year two. ¬†There are a bunch of ways to quantify this depending on how mathy and technical you want to be about it; the simplest way is to determine movement by thirds. ¬†In other words, let’s say the lower third of decile A went from a drop of 140 points to a gain of 10 points, the middle third went from a gain of 11 points to a gain of 90 points, and the top third went from a gain of 91 points to a gain of a million points. ¬†You could use standardized deviations from the average or something else if you wanted, but the point is there’s a different standard based on your decile. ¬†This means that the kids in the top decile (who don’t have a lot of movement up left for them) can only gain a few points or possibly even lose one or two and still be “high growth,” and kids who start in the low decile and drop anyway would probably be “low growth” kids. ¬†This allows some recognition of where the kids started from without looking as random as Indiana’s model does, where a kid who got a 525’s growth model looks wildly different from a kid who got a 526; it should be a bit more predictable as well.
  • In Year Three, you determine how much they moved from Year Two, and so on.
  • Kids who transfer into a district aren’t a problem because they should have¬†some sort¬†of score from their previous district, and even if they were taking a different test in their previous district a percentile score on that test should be trivial to establish. ¬†They then join whatever decile their percentile score belongs to. ¬†If they literally took no standardized tests in their previous district because of their age or their district’s policy on standardized tests, well, the world doesn’t end.
  • Teachers and schools are evaluated by how many kids they have in the “average growth” and “high growth” categories. ¬†Those kids should have been enrolled in the district for a certain minimum number of days (I’d say no less than 75% of the school days up to the test week) and– and this may be controversial– should have been¬†present for a certain minimum number of days as well, and I’d say the absence number should be more stringent than the residence number. ¬†I can’t teach a kid who isn’t in school, and I also can’t¬†control whether a kid’s in my classroom or not. ¬†Individual districts or states can determine on their own what their requirements for average growth and high growth numbers should be.

One disadvantage of this is that it does make it more difficult to present school data to the public in an easy-to-understand, useful format. ¬†One big advantage of the pass rate is that parents understand it; moving from 50% pass to 52% pass has a clear meaning, while we’d have to present averages and medians and all sorts of other data to make the new model understandable when we’re comparing schools. ¬†That said, if you want a “one number” comparison, providing the sum of the “high growth” and the “average growth” kids would do nicely; giving all three, combined with averages and medians of actual scores, would provide sufficient information, and anybody who wants to dig deeper (provide numbers per decile, too, maybe) is welcome to.

It’s not great– we’re still paying too much attention to standardized test scores– but it’s certainly better than what we’re doing now. ¬†Feel free to comment (Please! ¬†Comment!) with suggestions and questions.


Be prepared, by the way, for me to find something utterly irrelevant to gripe about tomorrow.