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Archive for 2012

Creating a World That’s Safe for Even the Silliest Questions

“Mr. Thompson,” began Nelly, “How come you’ve got such a pointy nose?” He had an inquisitive look of pure wonder on his face.

Later that day, Tonya asked whether I’d become “a little bit more chubbier” over the summer break. There was no judgment in her tone.

So began my fourth year as a New York City elementary school teacher. In both cases I answered matter-of-factly: People have noses of all different shapes, and mine happens to be a little pointier. And, yes, I put on five or ten pounds over the break — very observant of you to notice. I wasn’t offended in either case. My students’ blunt queries brought a smile to my face, endearing them to me all the more.

I was forced to switch grades this year because of an administrative error four years ago that left my school without a class in my setting. I’m also teaching a brand new math curriculum without manipulatives and student reference books because of an ordering mix-up. Less than two weeks into the year, my reading and writing curricula were scrapped by the new literacy coach in exchange for “lessons on monitoring comprehension” without any more guidance than that. And my new guided reading program and literacy centers have been cancelled for an increased focus on independent reading to help my students prepare for the end of year tests. More »

New York Teacher

New York Teacher, Sept. 27, 2012Highlights from the September 27 issue of New York Teacher:

Three teachers, one opening day
How they welcomed the city’s littlest, biggest and in-between as another school year begins: There were tears, fears and fun as kindergarteners experienced their first day of school at PS 315 in Manhattan, awesome rules at MS 244 in the Bronx, and smooth sailing for high schoolers at Cardozo HS in Queens.

Strokes of genius
As the sun sets through the trees of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the work is just beginning for members of Row New York, who are perfecting their mechanics in preparation for an upcoming regatta.

Six off and running in community schools pilot
Six city schools will reach out to their communities this year to bring neighborhood resources, medical programs and social services to their buildings, thanks to a combined grant from the UFT, the City Council and the Partnership for New York City.

President’s column
Lesson of Chicago strike: Be sure to vote
With their bold seven-day strike, our brothers and sisters in the Chicago Teachers Union have won an important victory in their fight to push back the misguided political agendas of so-called “education reformers” that are causing harm in their schools.

Teacher to teacher
Taming the beast: Making learning possible in overcrowded classrooms

District 75 school in Brooklyn beats back city plan to break it apart
The school community at P53, in Brooklyn’s East New York, may have bid farewell to their longtime school building last spring, but the school’s teachers, parents and students began this school year together, thanks to an impressive victory they won against the city’s Panel for Educational Policy last year.

Grievance settlement gives protections to teachers in excess
The recent settlement of a union-initiated grievance provides stronger protections for teachers serving in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool and new provisions governing their assignments.

PCB woes show DOE’s poor repair timeline
Just days into the school year, teachers and students at two schools have faced the risk of PCB-laden light fixtures leaking into their classrooms and offices.

UFT Launches Back-to-School TV Ad

From the press release:

More than 8 million broadcast and cable TV viewers in the New York area are expected to see a new television ad sponsored by the UFT that highlights the dedication of New York City public school educators.

The 30-second spot — “Ready” — will begin airing Friday, Sept. 28 on broadcast stations and cable television networks in the New York area. In addition to running before and after the Oct. 3 presidential debate, it will appear on NY1, the “Today” show, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “Good Morning America,” “Jeopardy!,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Conan,” and Yankees games.

“Everything Is Going To Be Fine”

The first day of school is adorably confusing for freshmen high school students. One earnest young man had already come to my class twice before stumbling in five minutes late to his actual, scheduled English block, and two young ladies tumbled breathlessly into my room at the end of the day, explaining that they aren’t sure what had happened, but that they had somehow missed English. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” I tell them over and over, “everything is going to be fine.”

When it comes to the sophomores, the first day of school is a day for fronting. Last year, we wrote, read, made meaning, cried, hollered and sweated together, and we forged a beautiful community. This year, they swagger into school, walking bigger, talking bigger. I still catch them, though, sneaking into the seats at the back of my room, seeking comfort and familiarity in the little space we shared so much in last year. They’ll build new classroom communities this year, with different teachers and different classmates, but I hope they’ll still seek me out for a hug between classes or an early morning check-in. Do they know that I need it as much as they do?

Don’t tell the kids, but the first day of school is a day of fronting for me too, of putting up a façade that covers all manner of concerns. How quickly can I learn the names of my 120 new students, and can I do it without any of them feeling the hurt I used to feel when a teacher just didn’t seem to find me memorable? Will these students be kind to each other? Will I be able to push each to their capacity, or more importantly, convince them to push themselves to their capacity? Will I have the energy to constantly modify for each class as they need? I am certain of how I will begin the first week, what I will bring to our class, but beyond that, as the classroom shifts from my space to ours, the uncertainties loom large.  Still, with a smile on my face: “It’s fine, it’s fine; everything is going to be fine.” More »

My Search for My Inner Teacher

Bathroom passYou don’t understand, Miss. I’m peeeeeiiiing,” Samantha says on the third day of school. Her request reminds me of Nora, a student from last year. Both Samantha and Nora chose to loudly request to go to the bathroom as they entered the classroom just the day after I explained to my high school students the process for silently asking to go only after the first 10 minutes of class had passed.

When Nora tried that move last year, I remember being caught without a proper response. I was torn. I did not know who I was as a teacher yet. I wanted to appear nice, but also unyielding.

I wanted Nora to know that I cared about her but also that I was the boss of my math classroom. I wanted to show the whole class that I was reasonable, but I also wanted to show them that the expectations I had put in place for them were real. The semblance of confidence in myself as a teacher that I had mustered together for those first few days of school withered in the face of this seemingly minor challenge.

After about 17 too many seconds of thought, I meekly asked her if she really needed to go right that second. She nodded with conviction, grabbed the bathroom pass from my hands and skipped out the door with a triumphant smile on her face, taking my dignity and authority as a teacher with her. More »

New Middle Schools, Same Old Challenges

New schools find themselves more likely to be identified as Focus schools on the state's new Focus list

New schools find themselves more likely to be identified as Focus schools on the state’s new Focus list.

A lot of middle schools have closed these past ten years in New York City and a whole lot more have opened up. In fact, nearly a third of our middle schools are new, and when we look at the higher need schools, the proportion jumps to 43%. These new schools opened as part of a reform agenda whose ideas are simple and familiar to all of us: empower principals to pick their staff and then focus “like a laser” on achievement. Hold the staff accountable; threaten schools with closure if they fail. And if you do that, the theory goes, they will be far more likely to succeed.

So how’s that working out?

Apparently not very well. The state has designated 100 middle schools in NYC as Focus schools. New schools are over-represented:

  • One third of the middle schools are new schools, but they represent 40% of the Focus list.
  • 43% of the higher need middle schools are new, but they represent 58% of the higher-need schools on the Focus list

Details follow, but what this means is that, at least according to the state, once new schools reach high concentrations of high-need kids, they are overwhelmed by the same challenges as the old schools down the block. More »

Heroes, Not Villains

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson gets it. He’s has enough of the teacher bashing that passes for education reform in some quarters.

It has become fashionable to blame all of society’s manifold sins and wickedness on “teachers unions,” as if it were possible to separate these supposedly evil organizations from the dedicated public servants who belong to them. News flash: Collective bargaining is not the problem, and taking that right away from teachers will not fix the schools.

He goes on:

The fact is that teachers are being saddled with absurdly high expectations. Some studies have shown a correlation between student performance and teacher “effectiveness,” depending how this elusive quality is measured. But there is a whole body of academic literature proving the stronger correlation between student performance and a much more important variable: family income.

Yes, I’m talking about poverty. Sorry to be so gauche, but when teachers point out the relationship between income and achievement, they’re not shirking responsibility. They’re just stating an inconvenient truth.

The whole thing is worth a read »

A Farewell to Teaching

Leo CaseyFor the 27 years I have worked in New York City public schools, the best part of my day has been the time spent in the classroom, teaching my students. When I engaged young people in the dialogue and discussion that is the heart and soul of learning and intellectual awakening, I felt a sense of meaning and purpose unlike anything I experienced in other work I have done. That’s why teachers are so passionate about the work we do with our students.

In an age when the denigration of public service and teaching by the wealthy and powerful has reached a fever pitch unimaginable only a few short years ago, the time we spend teaching our students provides us with a daily reminder of the amazing grace that is our teaching vocation. Every day, we create and nurture significant educational relationships with our students and with each other. Every day, these relationships save lives that would be otherwise lost. Every day, these relationships allow our students to realize untapped potential and explore new possibilities. The redemptive power of these educational relationships gives us the fortitude and the wisdom we need to overcome the vicious assaults on our labor and our schools. We know the truth of our work as teachers in ways that no vain and self-involved politician, no shallow Hollywood movie and no campaign of disparagement and demoralization can ever undo.

In the five years I have served as a vice president of the UFT, my time in the classroom has become even more important to me. In the negotiations and meetings that have taken up much of my time as a union officer, the denizens of City Hall and Tweed have invariably approached the issues before us from a political — not an educational — perspective. From the mayor and his deputy mayors to the chancellor and his deputy chancellors, they have focused on a political agenda, a brand of “education reform” that seeks to remake public schools in the image and likeness of private, for-profit corporations. In their dystopian vision of an educational future ruled by monetary incentives and profit-making enterprises, there is no place for authentic teacher voice rooted in our classes and our schools. My own daily experience in the classroom provided me with a moral authority to challenge those who want to silence teacher voice. And my students provided a welcome haven from the so-called reformers’ cynical politics. The wonderful thing about teenagers is that there is little artifice and guile in their communication: They let adults know very quickly and directly how they feel and why they feel that way.

The life of a teacher has its own distinctive rhythms, its own calendar. The most important season, our time of hope and expectation, comes in those first days of September when we begin anew the process of teaching and learning with new classes of students. For 27 years, I have lived this season of hope in New York City public schools, from Clara Barton HS to Bard HS Early College. But in the coming year, I will be leaving New York City schools and my position as UFT vice president for academic high schools to take on new work as executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute at the American Federation of Teachers. This is not a change that I make easily, or that I make without regret — most important, the regret of beginning this school year without standing in front of a new class. But the prospect of leading the AFT’s policy think tank is a unique opportunity to promote teacher voice and union voice in educational policy debates. Today, our impoverished public discourse on American education is dominated by those who never taught an actual class or led a real school and those whose brief journeys through the world of teaching did not last long enough to even discover what they did not know. Proud in their ignorance, they pass uninformed judgment on our work and advocate policies that can only do harm to the students we teach and care for. The voice of teachers needs to be heard in that educational policy world, and that will now be my work.

The UFT is an extraordinary community of educators, dedicated to public service and acting in solidarity with each other. It has been an honor to represent that community as an officer of this union. And I will be proud to be your tribune in the debates over the future of the nation’s public schools.

South Bronx Educators Demand Justice! Call TODAY!

Thank you to all of those who have reached out on behalf of New York City Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industries (AECI) teachers. Join us for the final push of our call-in campaign to support these educators.

This week we are targeting board chair Irma Zardoya, president and CEO of the New York City Leadership Academy, to help demand justice for teachers at this charter school in the Bronx.

In January 2010, teachers at AECI formed a union to provide a positive and stable learning environment for their students. They have been working for two years without a contract. Meanwhile, AECI’s administration has engaged in a campaign of intimidation against teachers; they have suspended, terminated and otherwise disciplined union activists and supporters.

Call board chair Irma Zardoya at 917-882-3533 and tell her to respect teachers’ rights.

Go to the UFT’s campaign page for talking points and additional
information »

Please report back to us through the campaign page above or our Facebook page and pass the word along to friends and colleagues.

To learn more about the issue, read “Contract talks stalled at South Bronx charter“from the Sept. 6 issue of the New York Teacher.

The NYC Teacher Unionist Behind “Strange Fruit”

NPR’s Morning Edition today had the fascinating story of Abel Meeropol, the New York City teacher unionist and social activist who penned “Strange Fruit,” one of Billie Holiday’s most haunting and powerful recordings.

Meeropol, who graduated from the Bronx’s Dewitt Clinton HS in 1921 and later taught English there for 17 years, wrote the poem after seeing a photo of a lynching. It was first printed in a teachers union publication. He set it to music, and it eventually made its way to Billie Holiday.

But here’s where his story really gets interesting: He was also the adoptive father of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s two sons.

Robert Meeropol [né Rosenberg] says that in the months following his parents’ execution, it was unclear who would take care of him and his brother. It was the height of McCarthyism. Even family members were fearful of being in any way associated with the Rosenbergs or Communism.

Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.

Read the rest at NPR.org »

Resources By Teachers, For Teachers

sharemylessonShareMyLesson.com, a new teaching resource site developed by the AFT and TES Connect, the digital arm of the UK’s long-running Times Educational Supplement, was officially launched at the AFT convention this summer. As teachers and students head back to school here in NYC, it’s a good time to check out what the site has to offer.

From the AFT:

Developed by teachers, for teachers, Share My Lesson already includes more than 250,000 resources, and that collection is expected to grow rapidly as more educators add to it. The user-generated content will be supplemented by tens of thousands of contributions from hundreds of content partners, including Sesame Street, Oxfam, GreenTV and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Educators can register and start using the site immediately, for free, utilizing its offerings or contributing materials of their own.

Visit Share My Lesson »

Charter School Call-in Campaign is Building Momentum

Thank you to all of those who have reached out on behalf of New York City Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industries teachers. Our call-in campaign is building momentum and we need your continued support as we enter Week 4.

This week we are targeting board member Robert Burton to help demand justice for teachers at this charter school in the Bronx.

Teachers, parents and other community members are participating in this call-in campaign to support the teachers at AECI.

In January 2010, teachers at AECI formed a union to provide a positive and stable learning environment for their students. They have been working for two years without a contract. Meanwhile, AECI’s administration has engaged in a campaign of intimidation against teachers; they have suspended, terminated and otherwise disciplined union activists and supporters.

Call board member Robert Burton at 917-376-4182 and tell him to respect teachers’ rights.

Demand that the board:

  • End all retaliation by administration against teachers and staff involved in the organizing and contract campaign.
  • Respect educators’ right to strengthen their school community by advocating for the best working conditions for teachers and learning conditions for students.
  • Negotiate a contract in good faith.

Go to the UFT’s campaign page for talking points and additional information »

Please report back to us through the campaign page above or our Facebook page and pass the word along to friends and colleagues.

Middle School Charters — Suspending Their Way to the Top

In June, School Stories published the names of the 10 charter schools with the highest suspension rates. Many of these were middle schools and three had suspension rates at least four times above the city average.

Highest Charter Suspense Rates

Now, the city test results are out, and two additional facts emerge about these schools.

First, students in these schools weren’t just suspended; they also disappeared. Specifically, as classes moved up from one grade to the next, the number of students in them got smaller and smaller. The average reduction was 15% between 5th and 6th grade alone, which is when the size of cohorts is most likely to shrink.

School Grade Span Change in number of students in cohort % Reduction in cohort
Harlem VIll. Acad. Ldrshp 5th (2011) to 6th (2012) 96 to 77 -20%
Bed Stuy Collegiate 5th (2011) to 6th (2012) 81 to 69 -15%
Kings Collegiate 5th (2011) to 6th (2012) 80 to 71 -11%

Classes shrink faster at these charters than as just about any other charters in the city. All three, in fact, rank in the top five citywide (and citywide the median reduction from 5th to 6th grade is 6%).1

The second thing we learn about these high-suspension schools from the latest testing results is that as students disappear the passing rates rise dramatically. The average gain between grades 5 and 6 was 21 percentage points.2

School Grade Span % Reduction in Cohort Increase in Number of Percentage Points (ELA) Change in Percent of Students ELA
Harlem VIll. Acad. Ldrshp 5th (2011) to 6th (2012) -20% plus 24 33% to 57%
Bed Stuy Collegiate 5th (2011) to 6th (2012) -15% plus 20 35% to 55%
Kings Collegiate 5th (2011) to 6th (2012) -11% plus 21 37% to 58%

So what’s the relationship between high suspension rates, shrinking cohorts and rising passing percentages?

The most benign way to tell that story is to claim that attrition and suspension have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Under this scenario, less school time for troubled kids is actually a good thing, so good in fact that these suspended kids experience terrific academic growth — much better than they otherwise would have — which accounts for the rising passing rates. True the cohorts are shrinking, but that’s only because other students, not these troubled students, are disappearing to lower grades-levels or other schools.3


What seems more likely is that some students with behavioral problems, and possibly emotional disabilities, are being pushed out of these schools by repeat suspensions. If that’s the case, then the students who remain are generally those who arrived more ready to learn and then became even more so after seeing what quick work had been made of their more rambunctious peers. We don’t know if that that’s true, but we do know that many charter schools sanction this approach. In a report from the charter community itself, for example, the writers record what some charter operators see as the happy outcome that results from ridding schools of troublesome kids:

“…By this logic, schools should be full of students who share a common culture of learning, provided that the culture is not defined in an exclusive fashion … a student who leaves one school to find a better fit at another should be considered a success story.”

A success?

Was that how we were supposed to be measuring the success of charter schools?

Everyone who works in education understands just how hard it is to create the kinds of school cultures that keep kids focused on their education. And we do not have enough information to know for sure how many struggling students are pushed out of charters by a culture of punishment (though we do have anecdotal evidence). What we do know, however, is that these schools are public schools, and at public schools we take it as our mission to support every student who shows up at the door.

If these charters are suspending students right out of the school, we would not call that a success story.

We’d call it a disgrace.

1Another two middle school charters have similarly high attrition between grades 5 and 6, at 19% and 25%. All five belong to the same two charter networks: Uncommon Schools (the Collegiate schools) and Deborah Kenny’s Harlem Village. In fact, the seven schools with the highest attrition all belong to these networks.

2It should be noted that a fourth charter school, South Bronx Classical, followed the same pattern as these three middles schools — over four times the city average for suspensions, a 39% reduction in size of the cohort, and a 36 point increase in the passing rate. Because this post focuses on middle schools, I have omitted it from the main body of this text.

3While we don’t know for sure that shrinking cohorts indicate that students have left the school altogether, it seems much more likely that they have left than that they have been left back. When students are left back, we expect the class they join to rise in size — or at least to stay the same. But in these schools, the pattern is just the opposite — most cohorts shrink, including the ones that would be receiving students from shrinking cohorts. It seems likely therefore that numbers are shrinking because students left the school.

Keep Up the Fight for AECI Teachers

UFT ACTS Contract NowFor those who have already called-in this past two weeks, the educators at AECI thank you. We are certain our message was heard by the board and is having an effect, but we must keep up the pressure.

We want to ask you to once again call another board member to help demand fair treatment for teachers at this charter school in the Bronx.

Read our post from two weeks ago for the background on this campaign.

Call board member Maria M. Ramirez today at 917-807-2273 and tell her to respect teachers’ rights.

Demand that the board:

  • End all retaliation by administration against teachers and staff involved in the organizing and contract campaign.
  • Respect educators’ right to strengthen their school community by advocating for the best working conditions for teachers and learning conditions for students.
  • Negotiate a contract in good faith.

Go to the UFT’s campaign page for talking points and additional information »

Want to stay informed?

Fill out my online form.

A Blood Libel

Recent days has seen a nasty tweet fight break out, as Mayor Bloomberg’s proxies – Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, StudentsFirst honcho and former Bloomberg Albany lobbyist Micah Lasher, and former television anchor Campbell Brown – have used the 140 character forum to launch a vicious slander that the UFT protects sexual predators, defending their return to the classroom.  Their argument is that since arbitrators who decide dismissal hearings against tenured teachers are jointly selected by the Department of Education and the UFT, they split the difference in decisions and do not fire teachers who have engaged in sexual misconduct or sexually inappropriate behavior. The only solution, they argue, is to overturn tenure and give the DoE the power of judge, jury and executioner.

The UFT has a position of zero tolerance on sexual misconduct, and we have negotiated in our contract the strongest penalties for sexual misconduct in any collective bargaining agreement in the state of New York. If an adult violates the trust that is at the heart of the educator-student relationship with an act of sexual misconduct or with sexually inappropriate behavior, dismissal is the only appropriate response.

The Mayor and his proxies know this well, and yet they have still mounted this campaign. More »