Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Time to Pretend.

The computer paper supply is approaching empty and the threat of the idle copy machine is real. This I have learned in my three years of public school teaching in NYC is "normal." I expect by mid-April we will be completely out of computer paper. No one is talking about it because no one wants to entertain the idea of teaching without paper... and I don't blame them. I keep the secret to myself too and prepare for doomsday. I've seen the empty cupboards and hidden drawers where they usually store the paper... the past few weeks it has been minimal. You have to look harder to find the paper as if paper searching is a new sacred hobby, except its necessary to do your job. I may not know a lot about teaching, but I do know one thing; if one wants to keep the teachers happy, paper is necessary. If the teachers are not happy, Nobody is happy.

Such is life as a teacher in Brooklyn. I'm hoping to get back to blogging. See you soon!


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Now am I wrong for trying to reach the things that I can't see?

This summer I had an amazing opportunity to travel Europe for 3.5 weeks. Here are some of the highlights:

Trip Itinerary
Spain - Barcelona, San Sebastian, Toledo
Portugal - Lisbon, Sintra, Algarve Coast 
Spain - Seville, Granada, Cordoba
Ireland - Dublin, Galway, Belfast (occupied Ireland)

La Sagrada Familia - Cathedral in Barcelona. This cathedral is still being built (it's incomplete), but it is the most modern cathedral I have ever stepped in. This picture only captures the pillars, but stain glass and details around the cathedral are all part of the brilliance of architect Antoni Gaudí. His fingerprint is found throughout the city of Barcelona making it perhaps one of the most artistically interesting cities I have visited.

 The cathedral reminded me of what I liked and disliked about growing up religious. Conversations where had about what it means to worship in a place of beauty, whether that matters at all, and is it justified to spend tons of money to build something beautiful in the name of a religion.

Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, I stopped and realized before I make any final decision on my thoughts on this, I would have to hear music being played in the space. There was no music during our visit.

Park Guell. We visited Park Guell on the last day we were in Barcelona and it's desert terrain reminded me of where I grew up. At the top of the park you can look over the city, but it's a hike through desert wilderness. The bottom of the park they sectioned off requiring visitors to pay a fee to enter Gaudi's masterpiece which mind you he designed as part of the park. We were outraged to hear we had to pay a fee to see it!!! It would be like someone charging you to walk through Central Park. Visitors and locals alike are outraged as this change just took place last October. (Thank you awesome Spanish economy.) Suddenly the park a place designed to be a resting place or a place to sit with friends for however you long you like became regulated.

Basque Country. After spending a few days in San Sebastian we rented a car to explore the Northern Spanish coast. We found this hidden gem during our travels and parked the car to hike out to it. It was difficult to pick just one picture to represent Basque Country, as it was insanely beautiful. It reminded me of the Wenatchee Valley. 

 The walk up to the abandoned church looked much worst than it actually was. Still looking back at the pictures it was amazingly breath taking. It was just so old!

Towards the end of our day exploring Northern Spain, We found a beach in a local small town on our way back to San Sebastian. It was here where a lady made us a ham sandwich after much fumbling of trying to speak Spanish/English. Once it was figured out, I enjoyed the best ham sandwich my life.

Next stop was Lisbon, my new favorite city in Europe! If someone were to tell me I had to pick one European city to live in for the next 5 years, I would not hesitate to pick Lisbon as my new home. Lisbon, a city full of color with an ocean view in a dry tropical climate is my kind of heaven.

View of Lisbon from Castle Jorge. I've never been one to be afraid of heights.

What I loved most about Lisbon is the tiles or "Azulejo's" that people use to decorate their homes. We went to the Azulejo museum and saw tile art from the different centuries. If I ever have a house I want to decorate part of it completely in in these kinds of tiles. I love how it brings color and personality to the building. 

For some reason, I seem to LOVE cities that have hills. In Lisbon I stayed in the Alfama neighborhood, or the hilly part of the city. The views were amazing, but the breeze off the ocean was even better. At night I slept with the windows open, and since it is desert the air gets cold at night (unlike in NYC where you still suffocating at midnight).  For me, being a child of the desert, I found this incredibly comforting. Lisbon has the climate of my childhood and everything I love about New York mixed into an exciting new culture.

Sintra. Not even 30 miles out of Lisbon is magical place called Sintra where dreams come true. It has everything starting with the forest covered "Mountains of the Moon" to dramatic cliffs that drop off into the ocean with secret beaches waiting to be discovered. Our first night arriving we searched for a beach to see the sunset over, we found this one where we had to hike down steep cliffs, which this picture does not do justice describing. It was the type of place that makes you feel alive. Later that night we watched the mountains glow from our balcony as a full moon illuminated their outline. The next day we went down to the Algarve coast of Portugal where we beach explored all day.


If I were rich I would go to Lisbon and Sintra at least once a month from New York (not kidding). It might be my favorite place in the world.

The rest to be continued.....

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Keep Believing in Good things.

I have graciously slumped into to my summer routine, which much to my pleasant surprise involves a lot of thinking and learning. For example, I find in my natural state I tend to watch a lot of Ted Talks, youtube clips, and documentaries on science/philosophy/education, and read pretty much anything on the internet I can get my hands on. (By the way, the Harry Potter newspaper gossip clip JK Rowling released today is just phenomenal. Am I right?)

Anyway, I've been thinking a lot about my previous post and a lot of my frustrations with education. Although I do not have any answers, through my recent internet binges, a few things have stood out to me that I would like to share. The first is a Ted Talk called "How to speak so that people want to listen" by Julian Treasure. I like it because only once in my life have I noticed someone who had an amazing way of making all sorts of different kinds of people listen to him, and what I learned was he follows almost all of these rules. Who knew? I could definitely use some practice in this!

The other gem I found today also happens to be a Ted Talk about "How to make hard choices" by Ruth Chang. As I struggle with my own career decisions, such as whether to stay in public education or to risk doing something else, her ideas about creating reasons for making decisions based off the kind of person you want to be was incredibly powerful. 

At some point during my internet binge I found myself reviewing my tweets over the past year. One of them in particular stood out. It said 

"Keep Believing in Good things," 

I had posted it a little over a year ago when I had a conversation with ironically the person who has a way of talking where people listen (who I mentioned above). He spoke these words to me and I really held on to them because I wanted to believe good things would happen. It was at a time when I was really unsure and doubting my role in education. I had this idea that there was just all this awfulness and I can't justify being part of something I consider so awful. It was (and continues to be) a struggle. 

But at least for today and maybe tomorrow, I will keep believing in good things as I make decisions deciding the kind of person I want to be.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Systems designed by people in power... will benefit those in power.

When I think about this past year very few words come to mind. I would be perfectly ok if everything
So true.. I slept for 12 hours straight
the first day of summer break.
from my memory at work was erased as long as I could retain and keep the skills I learned this past year. There were very few joyful moments and I would not be surprised if I leave the teaching profession in the near future, which is probably why I have not been blogging nearly as much this past year. It's hard for me to love teaching when I feel my ideas of social justice and integrity are compromised.

Earlier this year I advocated to have my students divided based on skill so that students would be set up for success based on their needs. For instance, if a student does not have strong math skills, they are not going to pass the state exam in physics, which is exactly what I was being  rated on a teacher. (see NYC new teacher evaluation system).

NYC Teacher Evaluation System based on the Danielson Model for teaching (which was never intended to be used for an evaluation system). If your students do not pass the local and state measures based on the state and local exams you, as a teacher, are automatically considered "ineffective" despite outstanding classroom observations. The implications for the ineffective teacher means you could potentially loose your job, despite excelling in other areas or taking into account the population of students the teacher is working with.

Perhaps its not my proudest moment, but due to this new and outrageous evaluation system and knowing my students, I knew there was no way I would be rated above ineffective because of test scores - and it infuriated me. I had students in my classroom who where not set up to be successful in a high school regents physics course and I was also not set up for success. I knew it, the kids knew it, the teachers knew it, but my administration didn't appear to know it. 

I am always amazed at how little people will listen when you try to communicate something they don't want to hear, especially when you know it is headed for disaster. "Hey, you know some of these kids haven't passed geometry, and they are really struggling with the math in physics considering geometry is usually considered a prerequisite." Perhaps this is my own folly - of course people don't want to listen! I have 25 years of experience watching people not wanting to listen to things they don't want to hear. Why would education be any different? 

Maybe this idea was what lead me to say, "Listening is a SKILL! A skill we clearly need to work on as a class!" when one of my classes was not listening to directions. I'm afraid listening continues to be difficult even for adults. 

However, when you are thrown into a system that is as dysfunctional as the NYC department of education, you learn that system- and then how to use it.

Rule 1. If you are going to be a public teacher in NYC, you must learn how to tweek the almighty and powerful data to be in your favor.

Rule 2. Whenever appropriate remind the students how little you care about their data, and instead constantly remind them how much you care about them as a person.

So back to my not so proud moment. I knew the main way to get students off my roster for my final evaluation based on test scores was to show data early on that students were not ready for the state exam. What did this mean? Well it meant I wrote insanely difficult exams to be administered by the school that I knew would show very dismal results, because if you remember, data is what people listen to. So sure enough a quarter way into the school year, then half way into the year, the argument still persisted. Most of these students were not ready for the physics state exams and should be taken off the list, immediately if not sooner.

So then the divide came at semester time. Only a select 40 were chosen to sit for the state exam, or the more appropriate word only 40 were "tracked" to take the state exam. Now, tracking is a bad word in the modern education word. So yes, we steeped low enough to track our students and that is perhaps what I am most ashamed of, because just like you would expect - racial and gender divides happened over night in my classroom.

When I started the classes the second semester I had the following collection of students:

Class #1: 85% Black/Latino
Class #2: 80% Female
Class #3: 65% Male, mostly white and Asian

I imagine you can guess which class sat for the state exam at the end of the year (give you a hint, it wasn't the first too.) After the split was done, it was clear to me what had happened. Everything was divided along gender and race. 

As an educator I really struggled with this knowledge (and am still struggling with it).

But, making of it what I could, I had the unique and perhaps rare opportunity to teach the same class to different audiences in different ways at the same time depending on the needs of the students. I became more and more interested in the idea of "what a feminist classroom" looks like, which had this divide not happened, I'm not sure I would have spent so much time thinking about it. I hope to write more about that later.

I often wonder at what expense I paid with regard to my students. Surely I didn't make any students who hated science love it by having them take these exams to get them what they needed- I'm sure it didn't help their self esteem. But, I didn't know how else to get my students what they needed, which was to be in a project based physics class without the pressure of an end of year test.

Finally, bringing it back to the big picture. What price are we, as educators, parents, administrators, policy makers, willing to pay in New York City to get the test scores that we need to be determined as successful?  Furthermore, who is deciding what it means to be "successful"? Finally, why do we even care what they think about what it means to be successful? 

Did we always forget about the needs of our kids?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Parallels and Paradoxes

Last Friday, I ran home (very literally) during my lunch back to my apartment to check to see if I turned off my hair straightener. Some might call it a senior moment, but I could not for the life of me remember if I turned it off. All I could think about was how the dog was there by herself and how if the apartment was enveloped in flames how terrified she would be... and it would be my fault. That was a responsibility I did not care to find out about after work, thus the frantic sprint home. 


Flashback to the morning. Heard on the morning news........

"Last night on a Brooklyn bus bound for Bedford-Stuyvesant, a 14-year-old boy rumored to be in a street gang allegedly spotted a member of a rival gang and pulled out a .357-caliber revolver.

Shots were fired, the bullets missing the intended target, killing a 39 year old man." 

Roommate #1: No! That's the area I work...... I hope it isn't tied to any of my students....


The uneven cracked sidewalks of Brooklyn flash by me as vivid visions of my apartment in flames spring to the forefront of my mind. I'm saying a million swear words in my head as I curse the most unhelpful pair of healed boots I happen to be wearing. At least the blue corduroy jacket with the pop up collar that admittedly makes me feel fairly bad-ass, isn't being annoying..... if there is a fire, at least I can say I saved my bad-ass jacket in perhaps my biggest accomplishment of idiot-icy. As I cross Flatbush Avenue with short breath, I realize I don't hear any sirens in the distance and premature relief falls over me. "Everything's going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine".... muscles strain.... I slow to a brisk walk.

I can see the apartment building. No sign of smoke, yet. Three flights of stairs later, I open the apartment door to find, Laika the dog, stretching her hind legs as she is waking from a slumber.  She's slightly confused by presence as if thinking "the human returned? It seems early? Do I get food!!!" My room is fine, the straightener is turned off. Crisis avoided!  "Well at least I know!" I say to myself, not knowing whether I should feel like a complete moron or  congratulate myself for in fact turning off my hair straightener

Laika's coat greets the mid-morning sunshine as she is treated to outside with my unannounced presence. Her business is taken care of and I hear children playing outside from the middle school across the street. Middle School. One of my NYCTF friends works at that middle school and sends out daily snapchats about how much he hates his job. It's one of the many weird comforting ways you don't feel quite alone. He won't choose to be a teacher for long.

Back in the privileged neighborhood I teach, I check the time on my phone to see if I'll make my grade team meeting on time. I won't, but I do have 2 snap chats. Like clockwork I assume it's the same story of hating your job from the teacher mentioned above and wonder if it will be his packed lunch in the picture with the phrase "finally some peace and quiet" or an exasperated selfie with a look of exhaustion- it is Friday after all.

I'm wrong. As I open the news, a picture with his hand making the number 3 and the caption saying "3 kids in the hall are arrested. Three." I don't even remember the picture of the next snap, but it said "a student shot a man." 

Step, step, step, in my tennis shoes - Everything comes together. Texts are exchanged, it was the same kid in the news. Step step step, He will be tried as an adult. Still late for grade team meeting.... step step step. 

Friday afternoon. It's my prep period and I'm sitting quietly in the main office printing things to make copies and making a few updates to the gradebook. The ATR that has been at our school this week looks over my shoulder while I have my gradebook open and makes comments about the grades. Not only is this completely unnecessary, but he feels the need to educate me about "other" high schools in New York City. "You know, in other schools teachers have it much more rough than you." 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"For the people that put the passion before them being comfortable" -Macklemore

Being a second year teacher is like being a first year teacher except you can actually see the train in the distance accelerating to you, but you still aren't quite good enough to make the train stop or know exactly how to dodge it. But you see it coming - which in a way almost makes your second year harder than the first.
Let me explain, by the time you are a second year teacher you have a basic understanding of the very basics of basics of what it means to be a teacher. You can plan lessons moderately well, you can see the holes and limitations in your plans, and can expect and anticipate where certain undesirable behaviors will show up in your lessons (usually in the transitions), but you still lack the swiftness to make everything completely fluid - partly because you still don't really know how. You become much more reflective and critical on your teaching and realize nearly everything you did your first year teaching was horrible as you now have more tools to create better lessons.

So everyday becomes an experiment. You learn how to make your language direct and specific, you learn how to motivate students with your words, a timer in the classroom becomes your best friend, everything becomes about limiting distractions - or letting them perceive something like a personal story is a distraction so that it feels like a special occasion when really that too is thought out.

What I've come to realize this year is a large part of a teacher's job is to make routines and organizational systems so mindfully thought out so students never have to think about it. In this way the routines and systems don't become a distraction to students either. 

Some of my readers have asked why I have not been blogging lately. The answer is complex. Part of it is I feel that if someone doesn't have anything positive to say they shouldn't say anything at all - at least publicly. I've been writing a lot privately about my frustrations with education that I'm not going to share publicly at this time. There's a lot to be angry about with education from impossible NY teacher evaluation systems to standardized exams to state examinations. The worst part is I can't believe HOW many people drink this kool-aid. I don't. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

To Sousa and the End of the Semester

Every year as a band student I would have to face playing a dreaded Sousa March EVERY year. See for some reason every conductor I have ever had the pleasure of learning from has had a love affair with Sousa - from middle school all the way through college. They go on and on about he's the father of marches and how actually his more brilliant work is found in the many operas he composed that are mostly forgotten. He's an American musical icon and every band student must play and recognize the brilliance of Sousa. It was a fundamental part of my musical training. You just don't mess with Sousa, the March King.

So every year as a band student I came to expect and dread playing a new Sousa march. It's not that I didn't like Sousa marches, in fact, I rather did enjoy listening to them, BUT playing them was a whole different story. See I played the oboe - a perfectly wonderful instrument; however, the oboe was not meant to play marches. So when I walked into the band room and saw on the board the list of composers we would be playing for whatever particular rehearsal, I would know if I would be spending my time counting rests and playing off beats OR engaging in a wonderful musical experience. 

When Sousa was the focus my rehearsals they went something like this: Warm up with the band, tune with the band, and then sit... and sit.... and sit.... and sit... Of course I was supposed to be counting rests -  you know for something like 50 measures AND then when I finally would come in... it would be the really important part of off beats! 

SO. Boring. Not only that, usually I was playing off beats with the French Horns who could perfectly cover the off beats by themselves that I would often think.. what's the point. I guess I'll sit here and be insignificant. If I don't play no one will actually notice. This is a waste of my time.

I had one of these frustrating moments as a junior college where I was playing Stars and Stripes Forever. I was pretending to count off beats meanwhile internally I was panicking over my physics homework that was due in less than 24 hours that I had not started yet. WHY am I sitting in rehearsal on a Thursday evening playing SOUSA when I have this massive homework set due that I have no clue how to start? This. Is. Pointless.

Disrupting my thoughts, the professor had stopped the band and shook his head. I don't remember exactly what he said, but the sentiment was something like this... "NO! You are doing it wrong! Sousa Marches are SO beautiful but SO difficult to do right. This is his MOST famous march. People know this! Messing it up is NOT an option! From the top." 

Meanwhile, my young adult self was like "yeah, yeah, whatever old man. I don't know about you, but I'm NOT majoring in music. You know that thing we go to college for.. to major in something and then go on and be successful at or something. YEAH. Well that major is kind of kicking my butt right now and this music business and getting this Sousa march right... SO not important to me."

With my bad attitude and annoyance with being forced to sit still and think something dawned on me. There will come a day when I will miss playing Sousa - off beats and all. I laughed at the thought at the time, but I remember distinctly thinking it. What an absurdity! How could I ever miss playing Sousa! Surely I never will.


I caught myself humming Sousa today while washing the dishes and nearly dropped the glass in my hand. It had happened. Somehow, through all those hours in rehearsal, Sousa had leaked into my subconscious and found its way into my ordinary boring routines 4 years later. 

The idea of playing a Sousa march in rehearsal sounded like music to my ears. I would give almost anything to go back to those precious and frustrating moments.