Tag Archives: teachers choice

Don’t Know Much About History

As I push forward with data collection for my dissertation, I keep returning to the idea that history can repeat itself. And indeed, there is something repetitive — or even static –about the way the New York City public school system implements new reforms and policies.

I taught 5th grade from 2002-2006, during which a new standardized curriculum requiring a teaching method called the workshop model (defined by the the NYCDOE here) took elementary and middle school classrooms throughout New York City by storm. For some, the idea was not new and had either been introduced at an earlier time in their career or taught in a teacher education program; for others, it was an unfamiliar concept. But regardless of familiarity, many of us — particularly those of us teaching in schools with a lack of appropriate resources to do our jobs as required — the workshop model created the necessity to adapt behind closed doors.

As an example, there was the rug issue. Part of implementing the workshop model required a space in the classroom for students and teacher(s) to gather for a lesson, and creating a space with a rug for students to sit on made sense. In many schools it was compulsory. However, rugs were not provided by the school; nor was their cleanliness routinely maintained, which sometimes resulted in ongoing bouts of ringworm or infestations of lice, bed bugs, or other vermin.

In response to this expensive (and at times unsanitary) quandary, teachers were forced to adapt. Some had students gather chairs in a makeshift meeting area without a rug, or had them drag desks around in a way that created a sense of a meeting space, or, less desirably (especially for the watchful eyes of administrators), they eliminated the meeting portion of the workshop model altogether. Oftentimes, these adaptations resulted in reprimand and/or placing blame squarely on the teacher’s shoulders when test scores did not rise.

And while the Sisyphean practice of chasing the intended implementation of new policies like the workshop model without the means to do so seemed brand-new to many of us at the time, educational historians teach us that adaptation in the face of unreasonable or unrealistic policy expectations is not a new phenomenon for teachers in New York City. In a discussion of the introduction of new, progressive-education-based policies in city schools between 1920 and 1940 (shockingly similar to those “introduced” with the workshop model), Larry Cuban writes, “For teachers, contradictions multiplied as they tried to resolve the tensions generated by partisans of progressive pedagogy and the daily realities they faced in their schools” (1993, p. 113), and concludes, “The results were classrooms where contradictory behaviors appeared in an uneasy, often fragile configuration” (1993, p. 114). His words could also describe my experience many years later.

As I climb deeper into my data, I find myself revisiting the four books pictured: Radical Possibilities by Jean Anyon, City Teachers by Kate Rousmaniere, How Teachers Taught by Larry Cuban, and The One Best System by David Tyack. Each of these volumes takes a slightly different approach to the history of teaching and the policies that surround education, and not all focus solely on New York City; however, each helps me illuminate the idea that the pendulum of education policy has a tendency to swing back and forth, creating a sense of running in place without addressing the root of the problem which, often, comes down to a lack of necessary funds and resources.

There have been constant reforms in New York City schools in the last 100+ years, and yet accounts of teachers’ work almost a century ago are, in my opinion, too similar to today’s. It is my hope that we can find a new path — one that doesn’t have us constantly spinning our wheels.

Williamsburg Success Charter

If you live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it’s hard not to notice the billboards and posters advertising the Williamsburg Success Academy Charter School. I snapped these shots a few weeks ago, as I walked into the subway station near my home and felt my jaw drop at the audacity of the school’s promoters.

Take this first image. The caption reads: “All children play games. Our chess players are always a few moves ahead.” The insinuations are many, and obvious, so I don’t need to get on a teacher soapbox for long. However, as a former chess teacher/coach at an elementary school in New York City where my students often challenged me and other grown colleagues on the chess board, I find this particular sign a little hard to swallow. Why not point out the fact that 1) chess programs have been stripped from schools as the accountability movement has taken public education by storm and funding has diminished for anything extracurricular, or 2) it doesn’t necessarily follow that if you’re good at chess, you’re also a “good” student? And on.

And what about this sign? The caption reads: “Most children are excited for recess. Ours are just as excited for class.” Again, insinuations aplenty. But what’s most upsetting to me I think is the fact that both of these signs feed fuel to the fire of the us-vs-them dialogue that only divides our society further.

This advertisement plays off of the ideology that started the charter school movement (which, at its inception, wasn’t a completely horrible idea) — that public funding for education should go to schools that offer an alternative to business as usual. BUT. The Success Academy charter schools, and others like them that “colocate” with other schools that already exist (among other things), create a dynamic that contradicts their supposedly intended purpose: they create separate, unequal schools that often start by moving into a building that’s already inhabited.

I watched this happen first-hand as a 5th grade teacher in Harlem as not one but two charter schools moved into our building in rapid succession. I need to go back to my journals entries and see what I wrote about my experience. I don’t remember it fondly.

If you’d like to know more about charter schools and haven’t already seen it, take a moment to check out the documentary, The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. It’s the best explanation that I’ve seen on what the charter school movement has really done to public schools in New York City.

Night Before the First Day of School

I wonder if my bad sleep patterns lately are a subconscious act of solidarity with teachers throughout New York City who are preparing to start another academic year tomorrow.  I remember all too well that charged mixture of excitement and anxiety that churns in your belly the night before school starts — I always thought that the more experienced I got, the more calm I’d be on the night before the first day, but that never happened.

As a classroom teacher, I spent my time on this night prepping first-day/get-to-know-you activities, and frantically finishing the touches on my colorful bulletin boards, in the hopes that the first day would go smoothly, my prep and lunch schedule would afford reasonable bathroom breaks (one year, I taught for nearly four hours without a break on some days), and I would be able to be myself without being a total pushover (which a former supervisor described me as during my rookie year — ouch!).

Here’s a picture of that rookie (that I’ll probably be horrified about having posted come morning).  Note the empty shelves behind me that demonstrate the lack of books I was faced with during that first year.  I’ll never forget asking my AP (the same one who called me, to be exact, a “soft, white pushover”) sometime in September, when would my books be arriving for my classroom library?  I was directed to make due with what I had, or provide a library using my Teachers Choice money (which amounted to $200 per year per teacher at that time, and funded the purchase of very little for an entire classroom of students, as you can imagine).  The books that existed in the room when I arrived were in a variety of languages and skill levels, and all seemed to be published sometime before 1990.  I think the room had been a learning language lab at some point.  Very few of the existing books were appropriate for a group of third-grade students, many of whom were still learning to read.  I was lucky to acquire a number of book collections from friends during that year, and my classroom library eventually grew to robust proportions; only to be replaced two years later by the “mayors’ library,” which involved an exciting-and-then-anticlimactic delivery of over 300 volumes to my classroom that were mostly inaccessible to my students because of a mismatch in skill level.

So, at the start of a school year when education funding is being slashed left and right, and teachers are busying themselves in the spirit of bringing meaningful, engaging learning experiences to their new students, I cannot help but think about their collective task ahead.  My heart and soul are with all teachers tomorrow — I wish you a wonderful, productive first day, and 179 smooth, engaging days to follow.  In the meantime, thank you for the tremendous work that you do.  Your job is, after all, the most important job.