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Archive for December, 2005

Race and Ethnicity: Or, I Connect With The Kids Easier Because I’m Black???

So, I’m in month 3 of my first year of teaching. It’s still challenging, frustrating and very rewarding at times. I still have my battles with the Reading and Writing Workshop Model, but I am slowly starting to see the benefits of it–even if I’m not always sure what they are.

But, there is one issue I still have problems with. At the school I work at, I’m one of a few teachers who are male, and of those male teachers, I can count on one hand how many of them are black men. There are 100 teachers on staff at my school apparently, and educators of color are in the minority at my school. In my particular academy, I’m the only black literacy teacher…PERIOD. There are other black literacy teachers, but in my particular academy a big deal has (and still is) being made because I’m the only black male working there this year.

At times, it doesn’t bother me: I have always been used to being “the only one” or “one of a few.” I was one of a handful of students of color at both my undergraduate and graduate schools–the grad school touting itself as being a bastion of diversity and equality. It reallly wasn’t, But, that is another post in and of itself. Yet, there are times when it does bother me. Specifically, it bothers me because some of my white colleagues tend to use that as a kind of “fall back” when trying to explain to me how I have such an easy time teaching.

I have been trying to tell people that I have been struggling and screwing up left and right. I have had my second observation by my assistant principal, and it was WAY better than the first one. I still have a lot of improvements to make. But, of course, no one sees that since I teach in the honors academy. The honors academy I work at is known for hiring either Ivy League grads OR students from very prestigious schools of education. But, it doesn’t mean that I am any better than anyone else. I have always wanted to be a teacher, and I am committed to education and all that it offers the students I teach, etc.

But, there was one particular episode that really made me question how ignorant and disturbing people can be when it comes to dealing with a colleague who isn’t white. The situation in question happened a week before the holidays. During one of my free periods, I was walking the halls of an academy on another floor of my school. I was hoping to speak to a friend of mine who teaches there, but she wasn’t in her room. So, I decided I wanted to check the floor out. I was told that the kids on this floor were extremely unruly and evil. Yet, the ones I met from the floor were very kind and respectful to me, since I started teaching there in September (I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m cool with their teacher, who everyone loves to death.) On this particular day, I was walking past a room where there was complete chaos. Kids were screaming at each other, throwing paper and pencils at one another–it was scary. The teacher, a NYC Teaching Fellow in her first year–like me, was completely frustrated. So, I walked into her class and asked her if she needed help with calming her class down. She said yes, and I helped her out with doing something I do in my classes every day: There were students who were quietly waiting for class to start. I went over and thanked them and told them to take out their materials for class and gave them a sticker for their behavior (Who knew that middle school kids like stickers so much? It was a class of 6th graders.) I did this for two other tables in the classroom.

The other kids who were talking loudly and acting up stopped. They wanted to know why the other kids got stickers. I smiled, and told them: “It’s very simple. The kids who got stickers were quiet, followed the teacher’s directions and waited for class to begin. Yet, because the rest of you don’t know how to act and checked your manners at the door, you won’t get a sticker from me. Now, what you need to do is to take out your pen or pencil, open your reader’s response notebook and copy the directions on the board. Once you do that, you will wait for Ms. — to begin.” The class was quiet. Now, mind you, it has taken me a couple of months to be able to calm my classes down. My biggest strength is not yelling. I can get my point across by being firm and raising my voice to make a point. I’m still working on this as a classroom management technique, but it is one that works for me.

The class quieted down and the teacher proceeded with class. I thought things would be fine then. But, they weren’t. I finally got to the teacher’s lounge for lunch and ran into the teacher and her friends. The teacher was happy I helped her with managing her class, but she killed the entire comment with one of the most irritating replies one could give me: “Oh, it must be so easy for you. You’re black, and they look up to you. They connect with you immediately. I’m a white woman, and they don’t respect me at all. You must understand their situation completely….”

I just looked at her. Seriously? Since I am a black man, I connect with black and latino kids quickly? OKAY….I don’t think so. It would be easy to say that!

Federal Court Allows Employers to Muck Up Organizing Drives

It’s a sorry way to kick-off a week’s worth of labor activities leading up to International Human Rights Day, but then who said it had to be a walk in the park. Yesterday, a three-judge federal appeals panel in Chicago overturned a Milwaukee County ordinance that actually helped working people organize. The decision has national implications.

The now-moot ordinance, passed by the county Board of Supervisors  in 2000, had required that contractors paid more than $250,000 for services agree to remain neutral when facing efforts to organize their employees.

The ordinance was modest enough by union standards.

It did not require employers to recognize unions as a condition for winning county bids.

It did not require companies to bargain with unions.

It did not abrogate an employer’s right to manage.

All it required was that businesses performing county services had to remain neutral during organizing drives. That meant: no intimidation; no firings; no propaganda aimed at a captive audience; no dirty tricks. End of compliance requirements.

In return, contractors got a sweetener: a pledge from union organizers that there would be no work stoppages or strikes.

Sounds fair?  It sounds like a terrific business deal for all parties, not least for the county, which wanted to end work stoppages at companies like bus lines that provided critical county services for the disabled, seniors and others.

Well, not fair enough, it seems. The ordinance was opposed by the area’s business community, and the Milwaukee County Association of Commerce immediately filed suit.

More »

A Number Game

Check. Check plus. Check minus. Zero. I have more zeros in my book than I’d like to admit. At least I know that a zero is a zero. But, the rest, what number grades are they?

Grades were due today, and I had never calculated grades before this. I escaped this wonderful process earlier in the year when I was exessed from my school. Well the entire process made my head spin and left me feeling very overwhelmed and saddened by the number of failing students I had.

I tried to break grading down so that I was not so overwhelmed. Days ago I began to calculate some of the grades I had. My first step was to examine the grades and assignments that I had listed in my grade book. When I began to do this, I realized how many students had done no work – there was zero, after zero in my grade book.

I felt that if my students saw their grades on paper, rather than hearing me say them, they would be more motivated to work for extra credit. So, I went through and typed up each student’s name and grade for different things such as homework, classwork, quizes and projects. I really thought it would pay off, I guess that’s why I spent a great deal of time doing it. I felt good afterwards; I felt semi-organized.

That changed when it really came down to putting a percentage to each category. I suddenly had an overwhelming feeling of “I have no clue what I am doing!” I was very angry that no one had offered to show me how to do this or even asked if I knew what I was doing. How could I be given so much responsibility with so little experience?

After a very frustrating weekend of trying to figure it out on my own, I went on Monday and inundated my AP with questions. She was very helpful and offered to sit down with me and discuss it further. Well because of time constraints and conflicting schedules this never happened; I ended up doing it on my own. I think, I hope, I figured out a good method.

Now I’m just praying that I didn’t screw up any of those 25 bubble sheets I had to fill out.

“Throw Away” Kids

In too many high schools half the kids aren’t in class. Some are ill, others are cutting class and many are out in the streets. In the elementary schools attendance frequently exceeds ninety per cent: as the kids move into middle school and along to high school they fade away from the school system. A friend of mine calls the phenomenon the “pathology of urban morbidity.”

The Department of Education is great at collecting data. The Automate the Schools (ATS) system pumps out attendance reports. High schools receive budget allocations based upon estimates of register on October 31 and March 31. Kids who have stopped attending school remain on the school register, the school, however, does not receive funding for these kids, known as Long Term Absences (LTA). Their daily attendance reflects the LTAs.

For years the system simply discharged kids who were over seventeen and had drifted away to the streets. A few years ago an advocacy organization challenged the process in the courts and the Tweed masters were directed to make efforts to seek out the absentees and not discharge them without a planning interview: a face to face with the truant and his/her parent or guardian.

I sat through a planning interview conference last week. District office folk, supervisors, attendance teachers and counselors were discussing how to discharge kids within the new rules. In the next room a planning conference was in progress. I brought the kid, lets call him Damon, into the meeting. He was nineteen years old and only had a few credits, he freely admitted he had spent too much time wandering the halls, and when security improved he wandered the streets.

“Do you want to come back to school?” “No, I’m too old, I want a job … I’m real good working with my hands …”

Did we fail this kid? He wandered the halls and the streets for five years, why couldn’t we find a program for him? Unfortunately the schools we used to call vocational high schools, now known as Career and Technical Education (CTE) schools are few and far between. And, the kids have to take the usual Regents diploma courses plus the CTE curriculum.

Habitat for Humanity takes ordinary volunteers and trains them to construct houses. Why can’t Tweed create a Habitat for Humanities high school? I know it is considered blasphemous, every kid is not college bound. There are many kids like Damon, “I’m real good working with my hands …” In addition to creating environments that can engage students that offer stimulating alternatives to the streets; we have to provide kids with alternatives beyond the classroom, with the skills that will enable kids to earn a living. In an era when jobs are bleeding overseas there are still opportunities for carpenters, plumber and electricians.

Planning conferences for what? Tweed can’t continue to throw away kids. If we can’t engage the kids in the classroom we have to provide him with the skills to earn living. Collecting data may be the path for Tweed, for society we have to find a path for Damon, a path that leads to job and not to incarceration.

Monday Nerves

Nothing is ever the same in a classroom full of teenagers. I never know what to expect. Some days a lesson will work and others it won’t. It’s trial and error every day. So when Monday morning rolls around, no matter how many weeks into the term we are, I am still nervous.

I spend so much of Sunday afternoon rereading books, planning lessons and racking my brain for engaging and “fun” activities. And then I spend Monday morning looking over all my plans and praying that they will work. You just never know.

Two Mondays ago I was so nervous going into class that I actually broke out in hives. Last Monday I was not so nervous, not so sure why? This Monday I was not so much nervous as I was anxious. I just wanted to get into the classroom to see how my lesson would go. The not knowing, I’ve found, is what makes me so nervous and anxious.

Will this change as I get further and further into my career?

NAEP-TUDA scores-another cut

This is Part 2 of the post below this one.

The NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) looks at its test scores two ways: first, it measures states and cities’ average scores along a 0-500 achievement scale. That scale is not specific to a grade. For example, the math scale of 0-500 runs from 4th to 12th grade, so you’d expect higher scale scores as the grades go up. Then, NAEP divides the scores into four levels–below-basic, basic, profiicent and advanced–looking at the percentage of students who fall into each group.

In the first post I looked at scale scores in the urban districts, from the so-called Trial Urban District Assessment or TUDA, released this morning. Now, let’s see how New York City did by achievement level.

The first thing you see is that everbody is below basic. OK, not everybody, but it is startling to look at this graph and see that "below basic" is the single largest category in every city, as well as for the nation as a whole. For those who followed this, it was a scandal that many newspapers and editorial writers picked up on, suggesting state and local tests inflated their scores, and led some to question whether indeed the NAEP tests were politically calibrated at "impossible" in order to flog the public schools and bring in vouchers.

In 4th grade reading, the chart shows NYC among the top three cities in reading, yet 43 percent of kids scored below basic. Another 35 percent scored at "basic," which denotes partial mastery of required knowledge and skills for the grade. Eighteen percent were proficient, and five percent were advanced. In the 2003 NAEP, 47 percent of New York City’s 4th graders were below basic and again 18 percent were proficient, so this year’s scores show improvement for the lowest performers but stagnant performance at the top.

The comparison with city and state scores is enormous, as we said a month ago. New York City ranks 60 percent of its fourth grade readers as meeting all standards, while statewide, the claim is 70 percent of 4th graders meet standards. Er, NAEP says nowhere near…

In 8th grade reading, NYC falls to about the middle of the urban pack. In 2005, 39 percent of city kids fell below basic, 41 percent were at basic and 18 percent were proficient. In 2003, 38 percent were below basic and 2o percent were proficient. The falloff in 8th grade reading actually tracks the state scores this time, and the real scandal here, the fact that we can improve 4th grade readers but that 8th graders just slide and slide, requires a whole other post, which will have to wait for now.

You can look yourself at the math scores by proficiency level here.

Overall, it looks like NYC teachers are doing a great job of addressing illiteracy and innumeracy, but that no city is moving kids to the much higher levels that the times demand. San Diego and Boston may be school systems to watch. Charlotte is a subject of national study already. Houston looks to be recovering nicely. Austin is a strong performer but new to the TUDA list.

NAEP results for cities: NYC looks OK in 4th, bad in 8th

The feds just published NAEP test results for 11 large cities, called the Trial Urban District Assessment or TUDA. It looks like New York City has lost a little lustre, though we did put in a good 4th grade math performance and 4th grade reading went up. But our 8th graders look weak in comparison to everyone else. And in 2003, when these urban NAEP results were last published, NYC kids ruled. Our scale scores exceeded everyone –Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, DC, Houston, LA and San Diego–except Charlotte-Mecklenberg, which is kind of a suburban urban area anyway.

2005 NAEP Math Scores 4th GradeThis year NYC had a 5-point gain in 4th grade math over its 2003 results, not bad, but San Diego, Houston Boston and DC all gained six points or more. (Chart on the left, click on the chart to view a larger image.)

2005 NAEP Reading Scores 4th GradeIn reading, we are up 3 points and keep our lead over everyone except Charlotte. (Chart on the right, click on the chart to view a larger image.)

2005 NAEP Math Scores 8th GradeBut in 8th grade math, while we gained a point, every other city but Cleveland gained at least two and as many as eight points in scale score. We lost our lead in 8th grade math. (Chart on the left, click on the chart to view a larger image.)

2005 NAEP Reading Scores 8th GradeAnd in reading, our 8th graders went down a point while everyone else except DC either stayed the same or went up. We lost our lead in 8th grade reading too. (Chart on the right, click on the chart to view a larger image.)

We’ll keep looking–there’s a huge volume of data here. (The charts above were taken from the NCES powerpoint report. (Warning:Big powerpoint file))