Monday, November 3, 2014

Culture shock in the classroom

By now, everyone is familiar with the changes that have occurred in New Orleans in the last almost nine years. From Hurricane Katrina to a Superbowl win to several TV shows in our honor, the American citizen has developed an idea of what New Orleans is. However, it is a very different story once you are actually in the city.

Despite the romanticized view of this city that most of America has, it is a troubled and complex mangle of culture. When I started this blog my intention was to have a place where teachers new to New Orleans would have some resources for the classroom as well as support in teaching our uniquely demented children. There is a fairly large number of teachers who move to this city and for them, and anyone who has not lived here a while and learned what makes our culture exactly what it is, your experience with these children and their families is often a huge shock. For the young, new teachers this can be an absolute brick wall that divides them from their kids and makes teaching in these classrooms almost impossible.

With that, I have been thinking about some things to know that might help the onset of culture shock.

1. Set rules and expectations and never bend or break them.
Many children come from homes and families where there are few explicit rules and families often give in and bend them if there's enough whining, complaining or fighting about it, and worse, many teachers will be manipulated to bend as well. Students often end up feeling like their teachers aren't fair, are biased, or don't like them if they aren't able to get the rules broken. There's some saying that goes "children crave structure" and it's true. I have read many times that a classroom shouldn't have more than six or seven rules and that makes them easier for the teacher to manage. I have nine, which includes "do your best" (you'd be surprised how, when kids aren't working and wonder why they receive a consequence, saying "you weren't doing your best" is actually an adequate answer). There are also designated bathroom/pass times for every freshman classroom to avoid kids leaving the room during crucial teaching time. With that, kids always know what their teacher expects in the classroom. There will always be someone who will try to bend or break the rules but students truly know what is "fair", and often the students keep each other in check. My favorite is when someone asks to go to the bathroom outside of bathroom time (you may go in the first twenty minutes or last twenty minutes) and before I can even say "no", another student plainly replies ,"20/20 rule, man".

If a rule has to be bent or broken, make it explicitly known that the situation is an emergency or exception. This helps the children continue to feel like they are being treated fairly.

2. Behavior management is tricky.
Unless you are the kind of person who is able to be stone-faced and does not tell jokes to your students or have much of a personal relationship with them, even the best behavior management systems get tricky. A lot of students do not respond to consequences right away; some even do not respond until or unless you are yelling. A lot of parents give their child a direction but don't enforce it right away, then become annoyed and yell and/or whip the child and that's when the child knows where the limit is. If you are or plan to be particularly open with them, they may not take you, your rules or your consequences seriously. A visual behavior tracking system helps because they can see exactly how close to the "limit" they are.

3. Fights are normal.
Fights are normal if not expected. They are not an expellable offense even if the school says so in writing. Parents raise children to hit back if they have been hit and to stand up for themselves if they have been wronged. Parents often fight when they face conflict. Some of my former colleagues once discussed all the fights that they'd been in from childhood to adulthood. I was the only one who hadn't any fights, even with siblings. I always have to be the exception. Even at my current school, which is supposed to be "a cut above the rest", parents have fights at football games and even come to the school ready to fight teachers. Fights are normal. Fights start when a piece of paper is thrown in play. Fights break out across campuses. Fights create chaos where mobs of students run to watch.
If a fight breaks out or is about to break out in your room, do your best to separate the students and call for help. Document as much as you can.

4. Respect is a truly subjective word.
Or rather, disrespect happens often and easily. Also, cursing in the presence of an adult is not considered disrespectful if the student is not cursing AT the adult.
A lot of behaviors are overlooked because children are not shown what respect and having good manners is. Most of the students at school say "please" and "thank you" and "God bless you" but don't see arguing with an adult as disrespect. Defining respect in your classroom is a must.

5. The children behave like and may think they are helpless but shouldn't be treated like they are.
Many teachers truly have the best intentions when it comes to their students and just want them to be successful and feel good about themselves. However, teachers may often be tempted to "help" their students too much. Many of the children of New Orleans are being raised in an environment of helplessness; they often believe that all Black people get food stamps and rightfully so; our poor job market leaves many people with few options for growth and citizens feel helpless to be successful and most of all, our streets are truly deadly for our teens in ways that no one can help. They walk into the classroom already defeated and need their teachers' help to show them exactly how to become independent and strong.
The lines become blurred with curriculum. If every teacher is teaching directly with an "I do, we do, you do" structure and adheres to the "you do" part, children will be less helpless. Many of our schools use centers for independent work but teachers are still present and assist; the students become persistent at getting teachers to give them answers, whether explicitly or through getting teachers to explain every angle of the problem until all that is left is the answer.
My very best freshman will still sit frozen in fear of getting an answer wrong because their previous teachers have "helped" them get the right answer before turning the assignment in. If the material has been explicitly taught and practiced, they should be able to do the work on their own. If the majority can not, ask the students what steps they missed and see how the lesson can be adjusted. Giving kids an answer never helps them.

6. Kids need honesty.
New Orleans' public schools are some of the worst in the state-a state which ranks as 48th in the nation. Our kids want to be and should be as successful as any other child but don't know how far they have to go or what they have to do to get there. Patting the children on the back for everything gives them a false sense of ability. It's a delicate bubble that will be burst at some point. We want our children to get better, so just like we do as adults, we should show them how to find their weaknesses and improve them rather than treating them like they have none.

It is also beneficial to teach them how to accept feedback. They exist in a world of negativity and exclusion and it would benefit them to learn that everyone who is honest with them is not being malicious.

7. Parent involvement is unpredictable.
Even the most well-intentioned parents have complex lives that can hinder their involvement. Many others don't know how important their involvement is. Phone numbers and addresses change very often. Parents may go on field trips and to spring cookouts but not to conferences.A plan for what to do if you can't have parent support is good, but don't let the difficulty of getting in contact stop you. For most kids, knowing that you will talk to their parent will alter their behavior.

8. Parents' priorities are often out of whack.
Kids often come to school without bookbags let alone classroom supplies. Girls are donned with $100 Brazilian weave but don't have a week's worth of clean uniforms. Parents may decide that an assignment you give is stupid and not make their child do it. They value sports over education despite how often they will tell their child that their education matters. Children miss countless days of school for no reason but may come to school with a fever months later. It is not a battle that truly can be fought, but awareness of it can help a teacher work around it.

9. Understand that their world view is nil.
Many children do not know the names of places on the other side of town. If they live on one side of the river they most likely don't cross to the other. Many do not know the name of our lake or the major colleges. Lessons should include a lot of context and background information and this is a great way to utilize nonfiction texts! They are very excited to learn these new things- even the older darlings.

10. Many schools do not have adequate special educators.
Classrooms are often filled to the legal capacity and many of the students may have IEPs, 504 accomodations or even be English language learners and the school may not have enough special education teachers or para-educators to help. Be proactive in getting help from special ed teachers and seeking resources that will help you differentiate for the high numbers of special need students.

11. Despite what the news may say about the success of the charter schools in New Orleans, the children are still about 3 grade levels behind.
Children in private schools and highly reputable public schools are still not reading and computing adequately and they and their parents don't know it.
However, you can't remediate everything. Careful choices have to be made about what skills to review/remediate, lessons need to include a lot of spiraled practice of key skills and support can be offered during tutoring time.

12. They are prejudiced.
Not always in a bad way. The younger children tend to find their White teachers novel and interesting and take a liking to them but older children carry some weird prejudices and stereotypes. The older students tend to set out to "run out" young, white teachers and mark them as weak and incapable. Sticking to the rules and not treating the students as if they are "poor, helpless Black kids" is very important as well as constantly offering examples of equality as well as breaking down stereotypes that students will stick blindly to.

13. They need love.
Most of the things the kids will say and do are because they are trying to get your attention. They want and need positive feedback, kind words, compliments and even hugs. Some of the most terribly behaved kids are simply acting that way because they want someone to love them.

I know a lot of these don't seem unique to this city as many of the situations are the same in other places, but the culminations of all of these things can create a very complex and difficult school environment.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Professional development opportunities

I don't know about many others, but my development as a teacher has been exclusively of my own volition. My mailbox gets full with ads and fliers for companies selling uniforms and school gear and book sets but we never get information about trainings and developments. Our school PDs tend to center around online systems and programs that are being implemented school-wide. Because of this I spent my last summer reading InformEd and watching videos on Teaching Channel. Most of the best resources that I've had have come from here or from my certification courses. Last night during my class we had a guest professor come in to talk about technology in the classroom. Thanks to her, we all got new ipads yay! While she told us about some useful apps to use, she also told us about free professional development that is offered through or linked to by the state. Using the District and School Support Toolbox, there is a link to CourseWhere at the bottom of the page. Here there are lists of development opportunities both online and throughout the state (you can link directly to it here). You can search by month or course. There's not a whole lot going on now, and apparently there are fewer courses in December but there may be a lot of choices for things to learn.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Is teaching reading with audio effective?

In classrooms all over the country, teachers are searching for ways to increase student success. Many students struggle with reading, whether it is a lack of desire to do it or missing skills that make it more difficult. Reading teachers are practically doing flips in the classroom to keep children engaged, especially as more schools have block schedules and fewer schools separate the broad scope of literacy into separate classes (the once traditional reading, writing and ELA classes) but some of these tricks may not truly be helping children become more literate.

Literacy is defined simply as the ability to read and write. As the educational systems shift and change, many shortcuts are being made in an effort to show success within that very broad definition while ignoring the smaller implications of literacy. If we look at American students at the first grade level, one could say that they are literate. They can write and read sight words and comprehend short books using many sight words and basic decoding skills. Yet, by the fourth grade, many student's literacy skills stagnate. The gap continues, in most cases, and yet many teachers do little to remedy this. We are often busy with our bells and whistles, just getting children to behave in class and prepare for more standardized tests.

Many teachers' favorite reading aid is the use of audio books. They are used in a variety of ways. Some teachers use them exclusively for children with exceptionalities, while other teachers use them with the whole class on a regular basis. This second use has not ever sat well with me and it wasn't until this past year that I realized why.

I had the conversation with my students on more than one occasion this past year. They want to either be read to or listen to audio. The other three English teachers use audio and I would not. I cited the reason that there are two separate parts of the brain that process auditory information and visual information, and I could not continue to reinforce the short-cut of relying on audio to get them to understand a text. As an English teacher in a society that is decreasingly interested in reading, I am constantly considering what the purpose is of my teaching. Am I teaching literature to familiarize students with classic books? Am I teaching literature to teach students how to analyze written text? Am I teaching literature to teach students the art of writing? Am I teaching literature to teach them how to think critically about words on a page?

Consider which of these is a good reason to teach English.

I do not believe that every child is going or should go to college. I do, however, believe that it is very hard to be successful at anything if you can not think critically. Therefore, my focus is on understanding words on a page. Not many bosses are going to give audio recordings of reports or files, nor will many professors. Even if we are using our phones, tablets or even using Netspeak, we are dependent upon understanding written language far more than verbal communication.

How can we understand words on a page if we are listening to them? Several people have told me that their students are required to follow along while reading, and some do checks to ensure that students are accurately following along. To me, that is tantamount to listening to a movie while looking at a series of still photos of the movie. There is no continuum and there is no whole.

Consider the large-scale goal for students. Small scale, educators want them to pass their standardized tests. Large scale, we want them to be successful in life. If I want my students to compete in the workforce, they need to have real skills instead of a grab-bag of short-cuts.

Children develop their auditory processing before they are born. Do we really need to give them more practice at that? Conversely, their vision is highly undeveloped even by their sixth month of age. When children finally learn to read, the first thing that they must learn is how to recognize the visual symbols that make up the alphabet. A child's ability to recite the alphabet has no relationship with their ability to identify the 26 letters that compose it. When I was a child, my sister used to always say "facetious". I knew the meaning of the word and the correct context to use it. Yet, I never saw it written until I was about 20. Could I have effectively used the word in writing if I had never seen it? Remember, literacy is the ability to read AND write.

Students have an amazing ability to expand their receptive vocabulary but struggle to reuse the words on their own. It may seem like they understand what is in a text but they are relying on their auditory processing to figure out context and meaning, which is the basis of early communication.

A functional knowledge of neuroscience, child development and educational psychology are almost as important as content knowledge when it comes to teaching. Many times, our expectations or practices don't match what is actually reasonable in a developing child's brain.

In this article, The Reading Brain, the importance of understanding the complexities of literacy in English and the parts of the brain that must work together are discussed.

This second article Reading the brain jumps right into the mechanics of reading and includes photos of PET scans showing each area that is used for different tasks. There are even more resources included in the pdf that could be very helpful for teachers.

This article looks at the adaptations that humans have made to accomodate written language.

The Science of Reading research simply addresses how scientific research can and should be used in improving reading outcomes.

Next year, my students will work more on developing decoding skills, morpheme knowledge, critical thinking tasks and syntax as well as focusing on more skills-appropriate readings in order to facilitate more academic and, hopefully, life-long success.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Making history or making mistakes?

It has recently been publicized, first through The Washington Post, that The Recovery School District has officially closed the last of its schools, making New Orleans the first city in the country to be completely charter (with the small exception of a few open enrollment schools in Orleans parish, mention in the Times Pic article here). Many people are proponents of the charter system. To the average outsider, charter schools in New Orleans seem to have improved the performance of it students, at least improving school SPS scores above a failing rank; however, few people, know much about the differences between charters, charter management organizations and district run schools. In New Orleans, the conversations are quickly becoming moot.

Many eyes have turned to our city as an example of the charter done right but are we really making history or making mistakes that the children of the city will have to pay for? Charter schools were supposed to open up school choice by allowing families to send their children to any school in the district, not just the one closest to them. What has happened is the school have since been franchised to owners who have few people to answer to. Some people might say that absolute power corrupts absolutely; can this happen to the charters and their boards? Jessica Williams wrote an interesting article on the topic at "The Lens. New Orleanians might want to take a closer look.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Home to the state's top high schools

My friend's mom, a long time educator in Mississippi, sent me this link to a NOLA.com article naming Thomas Jefferson High School as Louisiana's top ranked high school. The article is news from the recent U.S. News and World Report article. Thom Jeff is a selective-enrollment, gifted school in Jeferson Parish. Great school, with a nice, new campus at the old site of Archbishop Blenk high school. I wondered about the ranking, though, knowing that Thom Jeff was chosen over Benjamin Franklin High which is actually a national competitor, and so many other parishes whose schools out rank the New Orleans metro area. Everything you need to know is always in the data. For a person who hates mathematics, I trust in data and statistics wholeheartedly (it was the only math course that I ever got an "A" in-EVERYONE should know how to read and analyze data). In the complete pdf report, U.S. News details the methods used in ranking the schools.

In the methodology I found that these rankings hinge upon the number of disadvantaged students in a school and how much better those students performed on state tests than expected. There seems to be no determinant for what is the "expected" performance for "disadvantaged groups", which includes minorities and low-socioeconomic families. The last stage of factors is if the school carries AP or IB courses, which are considered college preparatory. This aspect makes sense in considering the effectiveness of a high school, however, it just isn't enough data to print national rankings based on diversity.

My own school was recognized, as it is still an "A" school by Louisiana's standards but does not meet U.S. News' standards because we are not diverse. The student body is primarily Black and we are 84% free or reduced lunch. While I know that our AP scores are less than stellar, falling below the radar as compared to a more diverse and selective enrollment school (which my school was when I attended) feels like a cheat when such standards seem like they're in place to assist in benefiting the minority and poor children. My school consists of those very children!

I can appreciate the rankings, whether I agree with the standards or not. I wonder how other people feel about their own school and district rankings and if other districts, especially teachers who have taught in multiple districts, feel that New Orleans is really doing it better than the rest.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Utilizing direct instruction

A former coworker shared this short article about keeping instruction direct.

I found it and the comments interesting when considering my own teaching and teacher training. One of the commenters agreed that scripting your lessons can help you say just what you want to say in the amount of time that you want to say it. Another commenter disagreed that if you don't know your content well enough to teach exactly what you need to in that moment, then maybe you shouldn't be teaching. The original commenter replied that he often asks his new teachers to script their lessons. The second continued to disagree.

Is scripting a lesson helpful? Should all teachers do this? What IS direct instruction, anyway?

I was trained to teach a lesson in the "I do, we do, you do" format. However, this format doesn't always apply to English class, especially the higher up in grade level that you go. This method is essentially "direct instruction". You teach, uninterrupted, for some amount of time and THEN you check for understanding,students are invited to ask questions and do work with teacher assistance. This was taught to me at a charter school with a very high number of new teachers. Doing this also helped me to learn how to break broad skills into smaller skills. However, scripting my lesson, which I no longer do, did not make me any better of a teacher nor any more able to anticipate student misunderstandings. I hate lesson scripting. I think it is another way to manipulate teachers into devoting every possible second to work rather than having any down time. One colleague of mine wrote a 19 page lesson plan for one week of teaching. ABSURD.

Despite the fact that this is a very common way to structure lessons, my students HATE to follow this. Just yesterday they were in an uproar because I asked them to listen only so I could clarify their misconceptions about a skill (character archetypes). I couldn't get a sentence in edgewise without arms shooting up and students yelling questions. Despite doing exactly what is mentioned in the article, my students can not follow that format, even at this point in the school year. My opinion, though, is that it is the best way to teach new skills. It is the best way to keep pacing on track. It is the best way to ensure that you teach only what you mean to and not muddle the lesson with unnecessary details.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

School districts

A lot of new teachers and even families have questions about or are confused about the school districts in the city. It is a complicated mess of politics that has left the very small city of New Orleans with a splintered group of schools that it is not always easy to learn about. The city's schools are divided into schools run by the Recovery School District, Orleans Parish School board, charter and private schools. Unlike most cities and even our suburban counterparts, there is no unified district that handles all students within New Orleans/Orleans parish.

This can be troublesome for parents looking for schools and teachers looking for places to work. There is a very large difference in the two types of public schools. Charter schools are completely autonomous, save for the requirement to take the same state-mandated standardized tests. This means that everything from teacher salary to amount of funds available to the school can vary. Charters are being touted as the solution to the education gap, however, being a charter school is a very vague description of what the school does. It is as vague as saying "fast food restaurant"; it only means that they are self-governed and it does not give any information about what systems are being used within the school. This alone means that statistics about charter schools are inaccurate; the methods used within each type are not considered when collecting data. For instance, Audubon Montessori uses very different teaching methods than Kipp Central City but they are both charter schools.

Within the heading of "charter school" are two more types: Charter management organizations and Independently run charters. The CMOs are basically franchise organizations. It is one organization that runs multiple schools. These charters are eligible for more and different types of funding and have a different set of requirements to keep their charters. These are organizations like Crescent City Schools, ReNew Schools, KIPP Schools, Firstline Schools , New Beginnings Schools , ARISE Schools and Algiers Charter School Association. Aside from the Algiers CSA, and New Beginnings, they all use the KIPP school model.

Then there are the independently run charters. These schools are governed by either the Orleans Parish School Board , which was the city's original school district, or the Recovery School District . These schools are autonomous, however. Some are montessori, some follow traditional school models, some are new and some are old. The Orleans Parish Schools are the highest performing and most prestigious schools in the city. The politics behind why that happened would have to be saved for another day.

That leaves everything else. The Recovery School District came about as a means to "recover" the failing and damaged schools in 2003. The plan was for them to take them over (leaving the passing schools to stay with Orleans Parish), improve their SPS Score then charter them out. Why the schools wouldn't be returned to Orleans Parish is more politics that will be saved for another day. What actually happened, however, is that the RSD was mismanaged; run by people who did not know why the schools were failing and did little to actually improve the schools. They quickly ran out of money and had outstanding bills all over town. The ultimate solution was, by the end of the 2013 school year, to close or charter out the bulk of their schools. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. This district now only runs five schools in the city.

Despite all of this, children are eligible to go to any public school regardless of which district governs it or where it is. The only restrictions ever fall under the selective enrollment schools which require a testing process to be considered for entry.

Teachers entering Teach for America or Teach Nola are eligible to work at any public school regardless of which district governs it.

Knowing how the school districts work, which schools are governed by which organization, and how to find their SPS scores is very important in navigating the New Orleans educational system.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"This is stupid, that is stupid, EVERYTHING is stupid"

Just now, while re-reading "To Kill a mockingbird" (because this is my first year teaching it since I read it in eighth grade *mumblemuble* years ago), I realized why my students and I have the relationship that we do. We argue and butt heads and they often ask me why I don't like them. Most days they are lazy and unmotivated. When I make them do work on their own, they gather together like an angry mob and attack me. When we first began reading "To Kill a Mockingbird", I'd spent a week on building historical knowledge and then introduced the novel and said "now begin reading the first ten pages of chapter one". Several heads popped up with confused looks on their faces. Read? Well, OK. Several students opened their books and stared at me. Apparently, they were waiting--waiting for me to read to them.

Our classes run on a block schedule of 95 minute classes for one semester each. Ninth graders take "Reading" in their first semester of high school, then they may or may not have a different teacher in the second semester for English I. Most of my students were new this semester, and many of them had come from a neighboring teacher who was new, young and looking for an easy way out. Students had often listened to audio or watched movie versions of our texts before or while reading the text. I made it clear that I do not read books aloud and my class is about developing self control and independence. The students that I'd had the previous semester did not accept this statement that I do not read aloud as we'd read parts of "A Raisin in the Sun" aloud and all of "Romeo and Juliet" was read aloud. So, when the angry mob set in, it wasn't just new students. I had to explain to my former students that we read aloud plays but we do not read novels or even short stories aloud. One of the new students looked at me, eyebrows gently furrowed and said, "what, you don't feel like teaching today?".

Changing grade levels every year that I've taught had left me questioning every decision that I'd made until this semester. Now that I finally understand Common Core and I continue to use GLEs, I have had an easier time of setting the level of expectations for these students. I still had a rude awakening when it came to their actual reading levels, though. I'd had the idea, and even discussed with first semester's students, that passing the LEAP should mean that they have a basic knowledge of skills that they would need for ninth grade but that they would be at varying levels of mastery of those skills since they come from a variety of schools all over the city. However, I hadn't anticipated that many of them would still be reading at the sixth grade level, some lower, and why they were reading at such a low level. Eventually, it hit me.

Every time we work on vocabulary or grammar I get mass numbers of students shutting down. Working on fragments resulted in yells of "this is stupid!" or bugging students about completing vocabulary work ended in "that's stupid" or when I use just about any polysyllabic words in class I am faced with "why are you using big words?". And I don't mean excessively academic language, I mean the language that is used commonly, like on the news or on the average TV show. Each time was like a big puzzle piece being laid out in front of me.

If you are an experienced teacher you might be thinking "duh" at this revelation. However, I am not experienced yet due to my never repeating a grade level, however, my varied experience is what made this awakening happen. I know that vocabulary is not a separate skill to be worked on in middle school. I had gone into middle school thinking that there were grade level word lists, much like the Dolch sight words lists, that I could look up and teach my students. I went back and forth between several lists online, but lack of knowledge and experience coupled with no pacing guide or curricular support from my instructional coach (who, might I add, had never taught above fourth grade), left me piecing together a myriad of skills in no sensical order which often left vocabulary cast by the wayside. If my experience was anything like any of my students' experiences, then they didn't adequately develop their vocabulary before reaching high school, and this is most likely why reading a complex novel was daunting to them.

Our school uses a vocabulary system called "Wordly Wise 3000" for ninth and tenth grade. Although I've grown to dislike the way that the system tests, it is still a set of grade level appropriate words complete with five activities for each lesson, supplemental comprehension activity and tests. I wondered why vocabulary wasn't done like this at the middle school level when there is still time and ability to learn new words. My ninth graders are using the eighth grade level book and I have been asked on several occasions why that is. Thinking back on it now I understand why the kids think everything is stupid.

Conversations with my students, much like the ones referenced in this post, have made me realize that my students aren't actually mad at me; they are frustrated that I ask a lot of them, and they are worn down because, for them, the work is hard, and they are sad that I won't rescue them and give them the answers or tell them the page number to find it on (when they haven't done the reading) and they are confused that, at this stage, reading is about analyzing and there are a variety of ways to analyze a story. They are angry that the system has failed them. They are angry that they have gotten all the way to ninth grade and no other or few teachers have challenged them. They are angry that they want to go to college but, for the first time, our school is telling them "yes, we want you to go to college but you will have to work very hard to make that happen". I have heard at least two students say, when discussing their academic weaknesses, that it wasn't their fault. And all I can do is reply, somewhat sadly," I know". And while I know it is a bumpy road for these kids, I realize now that deep down they knew that the responsibility to work hard was on them, but they just wish I would have been more understanding about how hard it is for them to do something for the first time, even if they should have been doing it all along.

Next year there is going to be a complete overhaul of the Freshman English curriculum that will allow us to keep the bar high but give better supports to the students while they stretch and climb to reach it.

Friday, March 7, 2014

What are the lasting effects of the KIPP style charter movement on urban and low-performing students?


            There is currently a lot of focus on the New Orleans Charter schools as an example of the successful charter movement in this country. Along with the shift to Common Core Standards, there are a lot of changes in place in education that can and are having effects on the children that they were meant to help. In the Article, “The Great New Orleans Charter Tryout” (http://mag.newsweek.com/2013/09/20/post-katrina-the-great-new-orleans-charter-tryout.html ) , some of these effects have been noticed by those outside of the charter movement. Students who are trained to believe that they are “going to college” are showing a deep lack of success which is being attributed to the way the schools are run, teachers are told to teach, and students are made to feel.
            In the last three years I have seen some saddening effects of this movement. Having taught in kindergarten, sixth, seventh and ninth grade, I have had a perspective that many administrators, teachers and especially lawmakers have not. Children who entered kindergarten with no preschool learning had to be brought “up to speed” to try to close the achievement gap that would undoubtedly open in reading. However, by the end of the year, 2/3 of the students did not meet the end of the year goal. The achievement gap opened.
            During this year I was trained to use the Doug Lemov “Teach like a Champion” behavior management system. This system is chocked full of positive enforcement mantras, chorus style responses, non-verbal hand signals, visual behavior management systems, and chapters of recommended classroom procedures. Teachers were evaluated solely on their ability to follow this system. Yet, by the end of the year, children had not met kindergarten learning goals.
            Both that year and the following, teachers were told to use “small group instruction” to be able to take lower performing students and give them more individually directed learning and teaching time. The concept is designed to keep lower level students in their primary classes and to get them close to grade level or, in some cases, able to pass the LEAP/ iLEAP tests.
            While many may say that small group instruction is ideal, or a wonderful way for students to get the extra help that they need, doing so in the now kindergarten through eighth grade schools that pervade New Orleans leaves children unprepared for the high school stage of their education. A dependency on teacher assistance is leaving students unable to apply skills, new or previously learned, on their own.
            There are many charter high schools in New Orleans, however only a few of them continue the KIPP style of learning environment, and even then, as the article above mentions, the students are still not succeeding. The documentary “Rebirth: New Orleans”, takes note that many high schools students are having just as hard of a time despite the efforts of the charter movement.


            My current students, freshman estimated to graduate in 2017, are struggling to acclimate to the rigors of high school. The freshman aren’t the only ones; discussion across grade levels have revealed that many of the students struggle to read, write, comprehend and apply skills that they have learned and used year after year. Students complain that high school teachers “don’t teach” whenever they are expected to work independently. Many students are entering high school reading as low as a fourth grade level. Others are walking through the doors of high school with absolutely no self-discipline, little self-motivation, and very unrealistic goals for their futures.

My current school draws students from all over the city with varying academic grades. It has a long-standing reputation of success and is one of few well-rounded high schools in New Orleans (complete with a state champion football team, state champion band, cheerleaders, dance teams and countless extracurricular clubs). Many students come from schools who are failing (but whose grades may have improved based upon the change in grading scales. Information about how this change has affected the lowest and highest performing schools can be found here: http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2013/10/school_performance_improves_ac.html ) despite their high reputations. Many others come from top performing public and private schools.   This varied academic background and mix of reputable school names leaves the ninth grade students with wildly variant knowledge and behavior expectations. Those who have come from private and KIPP style charters have the hardest time adjusting. Most of the charter school students feel abandoned, that their teachers don’t care about them, and that they can’t succeed because their teachers are setting them up for failure by not telling them what is the right answer or checking their work for correctness before it is turned in. These are the same students who often boldly proclaim that they are going to prestigious colleges like Yale, yet turn in as little as 50% of their work.
This encourages me to wonder if these schools are actually serving their students. The children are told that they are going to college (at many schools, this is a mantra that is repeated daily, even teaching kindergarteners what year they will graduate) yet the academic practices are leaving the children with almost no critical thinking skills, little ability to problem solve, and so little self confidence that they cannot trust their own thoughts as correct.
The transition to Common Core Curriculum is also garnering attention around the country (see http://www.nationalreview.com/article/347973/two-moms-vs-common-core  and http://truthinamericaneducation.com/common-core-assessments/new-york-principal-speaks-out-on-ridiculous-common-core-test-for-1st-graders/ ). Parents, students and educators are questioning the validity of the standards. Many have acknowledge that the standards have basically come out of thin air, have not been tested, and require teachers to change HOW they teach in order to try to get students to think more critically. The language is complex and vague all at the same time. The speaking and listening standard for kindergarten is “Confirm understanding of a text read aloud or information presented orally or through other media by asking and answering questions about key details and requesting clarification if something is not understood.”  Many believe that these standards and the language within them is more of a means to get the next generation to be capable of little more than holding menial jobs. While I do not agree that this is the case, I do agree that this supposed transition to critical thinking is made up; students will not transition to thinking more critically or creatively because the standards do not specifically identify a way to teach children to think.  Instead, the charter schools, coupled with a half-witted set of curriculum, are leaving students less able to think and problem solve.

The students themselves comment on their feelings during their transition into high school. Doug Lemov and similar types of management systems focus upon positive reinforcement for students. On its own, it is good to positively support correct work and hard work but, coupled with an environment where teachers are asked to coddle students who are not succeeding, avoid addressing students who struggle, and tell all students that they are going to college (despite the student’s individual aspiration), students feel like they cannot be successful anymore and that high school is too hard. Many others feel that high school is supposed to be the time that they stop having to work so hard, or are free from the rigid expectations of their K-8 schools.  This response to burnout coupled with below-level reading and math abilities is getting students off the path to success.
Despite all of this positive attention, the students of the New Orleans charter system are crying out for a better and more long lasting fix. Biased documentaries and TV shows are not actually preparing our urban students for the challenges they are soon to face. These students deserve more than bright-eyed, optimistically inexperienced teachers (which many of the older students do not trust nor are motivated by), excessively test-prep centered curriculum and deeply biased media attention. It is about time that we figure out what will make these students successful in their lives long after they’ve taken their last standardized test.            

Teaching in New Orleans

I should have started my blog with writing about WHY it exists. I have been on an intense journey over the last three years of teaching in various schools in the city. I have been hard-pressed to find blogs from other teachers in this city (although I have found an exceptional Slideshare page of a teacher in Jefferson Parish!) whether of a personal nature or of sharing and providing resources. I thought it about time that I compile any and all things about teaching in New Orleans into my own blog.

My journey began when I was hired to work as an associate fourth grade teacher at a charter school that was under new management. This school proved to be based on the KIPP model and was very regimented, controlled and rigorous. Despite having worked with children for years before, I found myself struggling to keep up with the demands of the administrators of the school and was moved to be an associate kindergarten teacher. My area of certification is in 9-12 English, and I found this transition to early elementary to be very difficult. Let it be noted that if you are not trained to teach in early elementary education, it is in the children's best interest that you not teach it. To teach early elementary you must know and do a lot, and I discovered that without that background in early elementary, I struggled throughout that year. Children come into the New Orleans schools with little to no preschool knowledge, making it more difficult to "close the achievement gap". During that year, I watched the achievement gap open when my co-teacher flubbed reading scores for children and skipped whole steps in learning reading skills, leaving 2/3 of our kindergartners ending the school year below grade level expectations. This, coupled with the incestuous relationships between charter school management organizations and the organizations that evaluate them, led me to wonder and investigate the schools in the city and apply for my next job with much more skepticism.

As an uncertified teacher with no experience in her grade level or content area, I didn't have my choice of jobs for the next year. Just a matter of days before the start of the school year (and weeks of phone tag with the school's principal) I landed a job teaching sixth and seventh grade English at a Recovery School District school. The teaching pendulum, so to speak, swung to the opposite side. The school where I taught had a terrible reputation and there had been a staff overhaul that year. That overhaul found the school with a less-than-competent instructional coach, a showboat of a principal and teachers left to a myriad of methods in attempting to get students to pass the LEAP. The lack of structure was shocking but left me free to figure out exactly what the students needed and I finally began to learn how to teach English. Despite the reputation of the school, those were the best bunch of students that I've had to date.

Ending that year with such a lack of structure, support and general work ethic led me to apply to teach at the high school level. Remember, my certification area was originally 9-12, however this process has taken me so long that they now no longer provide that certification. It is only in English 6-12. I am still not sure if my certification will be amended once I finish.

This year I teach ninth grade English. While the school and administration are, despite coworker's complaints, a well-oiled machine, I have learned even more still about the student population that I teach. While I still teach in Orleans parish and in a primarily Black school, there is great diversity in the ability of the students. Now that my questioning of my ability has started to stabilize, my questioning of the school system, students and families has begun.

This blog is a place for me to write about experiences in the schools, opportunities for parents to learn about what is going on in the schools, a place to tell the story about the school system for all of the many new teachers who are or will transplant to New Orleans and attempt to affect a system has been broken long before any of us got here.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

What are the lasting effects of the KIPP style charter movement on urban and low-performing students?

There is currently a lot of focus on the New Orleans Charter schools as an example of the successful charter movement in this country. Along with the shift to Common Core Standards, there are a lot of changes in place in education that can and are having effects on the children that they were meant to help. In the Article, “The Great New Orleans Charter Tryout” (http://mag.newsweek.com/2013/09/20/post-katrina-the-great-new-orleans-charter-tryout.html ) , some of these effects have been noticed by those outside of the charter movement. Students who are trained to believe that they are “going to college” are showing a deep lack of success which is being attributed to the way the schools are run, teachers are told to teach, and students are made to feel.
            In the last three years I have seen some saddening effects of this movement. Having taught in kindergarten, sixth, seventh and ninth grade, I have had a perspective that many administrators, teachers and especially lawmakers have not. Children who entered kindergarten with no preschool learning had to be brought “up to speed” to try to close the achievement gap that would undoubtedly open in reading. However, by the end of the year, 2/3 of the students did not meet the end of the year goal. The achievement gap opened.
            During this year I was trained to use the Doug Lemov “Teach like a Champion” behavior management system. This system is chocked full of positive enforcement mantras, chorus style responses, non-verbal hand signals, visual behavior management systems, and chapters of recommended classroom procedures. Teachers were evaluated solely on their ability to follow this system. Yet, by the end of the year, children had not met kindergarten learning goals.
            Both that year and the following, teachers were told to use “small group instruction” to be able to take lower performing students and give them more individually directed learning and teaching time. The concept is designed to keep lower level students in their primary classes and to get them close to grade level or, in some cases, able to pass the LEAP/ iLEAP tests.
            While many may say that small group instruction is ideal, or a wonderful way for students to get the extra help that they need, doing so in the now kindergarten through eighth grade schools that pervade New Orleans leaves children unprepared for the high school stage of their education. A dependency on teacher assistance is leaving students unable to apply skills, new or previously learned, on their own.
            There are many charter high schools in New Orleans, however only a few of them continue the KIPP style of learning environment, and even then, as the article above mentions, the students are still not succeeding. The documentary “Rebirth: New Orleans”, takes note that many high schools students are having just as hard of a time despite the efforts of the charter movement.

            My current students, freshman estimated to graduate in 2017, are struggling to acclimate to the rigors of high school. The freshman aren’t the only ones; discussion across grade levels have revealed that many of the students struggle to read, write, comprehend and apply skills that they have learned and used year after year. Students complain that high school teachers “don’t teach” whenever they are expected to work independently. Many students are entering high school reading as low as a fourth grade level. Others are walking through the doors of high school with absolutely no self-discipline, little self-motivation, and very unrealistic goals for their futures.

My current school draws students from all over the city with varying academic grades. It has a long-standing reputation of success and is one of few well-rounded high schools in New Orleans (complete with a state champion football team, state champion band, cheerleaders, dance teams and countless extracurricular clubs). Many students come from schools who are failing (but whose grades may have improved based upon the change in grading scales. Information about how this change has affected the lowest and highest performing schools can be found here:http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2013/10/school_performance_improves_ac.html ) despite their high reputations. Many others come from top performing public and private schools.   This varied academic background and mix of reputable school names leaves the ninth grade students with wildly variant knowledge and behavior expectations. Those who have come from private and KIPP style charters have the hardest time adjusting. Most of the charter school students feel abandoned, that their teachers don’t care about them, and that they can’t succeed because their teachers are setting them up for failure by not telling them what is the right answer or checking their work for correctness before it is turned in. These are the same students who often boldly proclaim that they are going to prestigious colleges like Yale, yet turn in as little as 50% of their work.
This encourages me to wonder if these schools are actually serving their students. The children are told that they are going to college (at many schools, this is a mantra that is repeated daily, even teaching kindergarteners what year they will graduate) yet the academic practices are leaving the children with almost no critical thinking skills, little ability to problem solve, and so little self confidence that they cannot trust their own thoughts as correct.
The transition to Common Core Curriculum is also garnering attention around the country (see http://www.nationalreview.com/article/347973/two-moms-vs-common-core  andhttp://truthinamericaneducation.com/common-core-assessments/new-york-principal-speaks-out-on-ridiculous-common-core-test-for-1st-graders/ ). Parents, students and educators are questioning the validity of the standards. Many have acknowledge that the standards have basically come out of thin air, have not been tested, and require teachers to change HOW they teach in order to try to get students to think more critically. The language is complex and vague all at the same time. The speaking and listening standard for kindergarten is “Confirm understanding of a text read aloud or information presented orally or through other media by asking and answering questions about key details and requesting clarification if something is not understood.”  Many believe that these standards and the language within them is more of a means to get the next generation to be capable of little more than holding menial jobs. While I do not agree that this is the case, I do agree that this supposed transition to critical thinking is made up; students will not transition to thinking more critically or creatively because the standards do not specifically identify a way to teach children to think.  Instead, the charter schools, coupled with a half-witted set of curriculum, are leaving students less able to think and problem solve.

The students themselves comment on their feelings during their transition into high school. Doug Lemov and similar types of management systems focus upon positive reinforcement for students. On its own, it is good to positively support correct work and hard work but, coupled with an environment where teachers are asked to coddle students who are not succeeding, avoid addressing students who struggle, and tell all students that they are going to college (despite the student’s individual aspiration), students feel like they cannot be successful anymore and that high school is too hard. Many others feel that high school is supposed to be the time that they stop having to work so hard, or are free from the rigid expectations of their K-8 schools.  This response to burnout coupled with below-level reading and math abilities is getting students off the path to success.
Despite all of this positive attention, the students of the New Orleans charter system are crying out for a better and more long lasting fix. Biased documentaries and TV shows are not actually preparing our urban students for the challenges they are soon to face. These students deserve more than bright-eyed, optimistically inexperienced teachers (which many of the older students do not trust nor are motivated by), excessively test-prep centered curriculum and deeply biased media attention. It is about time that we figure out what will make these students successful in their lives long after they’ve taken their last standardized test.