Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

I have been a teacher, and a union (in Virginia, an association--we are a right to work state) member since 1978.  And I have stayed a member for a number of reasons.
The first reason: Everything that happens in my state house that concerns education concerns me.  (Look to Wisconsin for verification.)  And I do not have the time to read the bills that affect how my time in the classroom is spent.  I rely heavily on my association lobbyist to read those bills and let me know what might rob my students of resources.  This takes vigilance.  And if you think state law does not affect classrooms just look to our famed "King's Dominion law" which mandates that schools start after Labor Day (so teen employees can continue to work through the amusement park season) or the minute of silence and mandatory pledge of allegiance.  There are also mandatory lessons and courses, textbook adoptions, required professional development (most recently in recognizing child abuse and verifying our skill with technology--all good training, all association approved.), requirements for recertification, and windows for testing.
The teacher voice needs to be heard clearly.
My association provides that voice.
The second reason: I was the adviser for the school newspaper for seventeen years.  I never needed my association's lawyer's fees because, I hope, I was vigilant in making sure my students understood their - and my - responsibilities when putting something in print.  Even though I emphasized that we were not immune from liability laws just because we were in a schoolhouse, working with novices made me understandably nervous.  The association was a resource for peace of mind.
Finally, there is strength in numbers and the VEA has an active membership.  Though I have never lead beyond the building level, I have attended the state level meeting and truly seen democracy in action as the membership hammered out their positions from the floor of the convention hall.
Yes, I am a union (association) member and happy to see that the voices of classroom teachers is clear and loud.
It is sometimes all that stands between our children and the forces of politics.
Color me a lifelong union member.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mourning in America

Tonight was Parent Conference night and my room was full.  My juniors and seniors lead their parent conferences, explaining goals, sharing work, describing their scores.  They introduced their parent to me, offered refreshments, and then lead them to a private corner where they could describe their work and their personal goals for the course.  The parents love the opportunity to hear about school from their child.  I love to hear them describe what they are learning.

I learned how to do this from a colleague in the National Writing Project.

Today, in two classes, we worked on good beginnings--how to get your reader interested enough in your writing to want to read on.  I modeled, they wrote, I wrote.

These three things I learned from colleagues in the National Writing Project.

Earlier in the day, while my students took their state tests, I wrote notes on their personal essays.  I use sticky notes and first respond to the strengths of the writing.  "I love your personal belief.  I agree that you need to set goals before you can achieve them."  "Thank your for sharing a powerful story about the losses in your life.  I'm so happy that you have taken away a positive lesson from these experiences."  And then I ask questions that, I hope, will make the students want to revisit the writing and make it even better.

I learned to encourage all of my students from colleagues in the National Writing Project.

In the twelfth grade classes we dove into poetry with a three-reading exercise.  The students read a poem three times.  After each reading they write a metacognitive passage and describe what they think, wonder, or notice after each reading.  Then they rate their understanding on a scale of 0-10.  Three readings.  Three writings.  Then they discuss the poem with their peers.  Then we all discuss the poem.  At the end of this process most students can articulate a clear understanding of what the poem says, means, and why it matters.  The students will practice this on their own tonight.

I learned this from a colleague in the National Writing Project.

In fact, I cannot think of a single move I make in the classroom that is not the end result of the close examination, sharing, and planning of the teaching consultants and fellows of the National Writing Project.

Here is a list, off the top of my head, of things I do that I learned from colleagues in the National Writing Project:
--Reflective writing
--The Daybook (a cornerstone of my teaching practice)
--Peer review groups (and how to manage them)
--Publishing student work
--Invention strategies (hundreds of them)
--Revision strategies (dozens)
--Multi-genre papers
--I-Search papers
--Building community and trust
--Portfolio assessment

I know there are even more techniques and strategies, all based on a philosophy fed and nurtured in the Writing Project.  
The success students realize are the direct result of work done through the National Writing Project. I am still in the classroom teaching because the National Writing Project has kept me learning and growing so that students can learn, improve, and describe their own growth.
On March 2, President Obama signed a bill to keep the government running until March 18. 
The bill cuts about $4 billion in spending from the FY 2011 budget, eliminating a number of education programs, including 
The National Writing Project.

This can not stand.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Untying the Equity Knot

The school system in America is a swiss-cheese model.  For areas of high-poverty there are gaping holes in both physical and human resources.  The reasons for this are myriad, but a large part is due to the pervasive (though not exclusive) model of basing school funding on property taxes.

So, just thinking out loud, here's an idea that came to me on a walk:

What if the 'hardware' of schools were under the purview of the Federal Government.  That is, all school buildings and their resources were audited and brought up to the same high standards as the most fully funded school facilities, being held to a Federal standard that would be kept current from year to year. (We build schools in Iraq....)

This would expedite, among other things, the acquisition of the technology that is constantly changing but that is also a necessary component if the nation is to deliver 21st century learning.  Access to the best is very much a hit or a miss--mostly a miss if you are poor--in the current system.  (Hey, Bill Gates, here's where your donations would be most appreciated:  Make sure every kid has a laptop and wireless access.)

For those who are fond of the corporate model, think McDonald's.  McDonald's is the largest holder of real estate in the United States.  They maintain quality from sea to sea by owning the buildings in every burg.  A steady stream of income for corporate headquarters comes from the rent that franchisees pay.  I haven't thought about that aspect--whether there would be rent--or if there was rent what criteria that would be based on.  Go ahead and toy with that on your own.  :-)  I'm leaning towards no rent.

Then we could leave the 'software' to the localities: tying curriculum and the hiring of high-quality teachers (with 'high-quality' being a measure left to the accreditation board of a yet-to-be established professional governance system) to the community.

Schools need to be both standardized and flexible because of the highly contextual nature of teaching and learning, and its multiple variables.  Some things must be standard (like access); some things must be specific to the kids and the community (like what we prepare a population to know and be able to do in terms of where they live and what the local needs are.)

For years the state of Virginia has had the Standards of Quality - which was the state's commitment to providing equal access--while the teachers were held to the Standards of Learning.
Though the teachers are still contractually obligated to the Standards of Learning (SOLs), the state has repeatedly reneged on their part of the deal, consistently underfunding the Standards of Quality.

If we want to repair the education system and make sure that our students are ready to compete globally--rather than continue to win top honors as the industrialized nation with the highest population of working-age men behind bars (gosh, we're always building up-to-date prisons....)--then we need to make equal access a pillar of that education system.

You may now talk among yourselves and find the holes in my vision.

Just sayin'.