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May 10, 2013
When the school year began at the NYC Lab School, something was different. Yes, there may have been a fresh coat of paint in the C stairwell, and the light bulbs might have even been changed. But those are not the changes that I am referring to.
Instead, I’m referring to the appearance of an unfamiliar stranger on the first day of school. “What is your dream?” was the question that he posed to the sleepy-eyed second-period English class. When no one answered, he introduced himself.
“Hello, my name is Tim Shriver, and I will be your dream director for this year,” he said.
Some of us were able to restrain our laughter. Others just let loose and become hysterical. The rest just stared blankly with teenage skepticism. (more…)
May 6, 2013
I had the pleasure of being part of a panel on teacher leadership at the American Education Research Association conference in San Francisco last month. I presented on a paper I wrote, “Creating Capacity & Space for Teacher Leadership.”
I hope you’ll take the time to watch my complete presentation, in the video above. But here’s a taste of the personal narrative about teacher leadership that I present in my paper:
Over the past ten years, I have transformed from a third-year teacher who turned down opportunities to present his work because he felt he had nothing to offer other teachers, to a ninth-year teacher who co-founded a new school, writes for publication, delivers professional development, and nurtures in-person and virtual networks for teacher development, while ﬁrmly retaining a primary identity of classroom teacher. My self-recognition as a teacher-leader follows the identity-formation model of hailing (Althusser, 1972). Just as Althusser suggests that individuals become subjected to ideology through the recognition that a hailing “was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else)” so too has it been with me as a teacher-leader. Throughout my career, others have “hailed” me as a potential, novice, actualized, and then accomplished teacher-leader. Through this repeated call, I have had little choice but to assume the role. …
My experience suggests that schools and organizations must create structures to identify, develop, and compensate teacher-leaders in ways that recognizes their work while keeping them ﬁrmly in the classroom. The attempt to conceptualize such individuals as teacher-leaders or teacherpreneurs is a necessary ﬁrst step, which must be followed by opportunities beyond existing conference structures for teachers to not only to work with other teachers, but to earn recognition and compensation for doing so. By developing more teacher-leaders, there will be a dual beneﬁt: the best teachers will have incentive to stay teachers, while the system will beneﬁt from their knowledge and expertise.
And here’s the text of the slide I’m referring to, and standing in front of, during the presentation.
Creating Capacity & Space for Teacher Leadership
Goal: Transform education from field where expertise and success exists in isolated individual classrooms (or outside of them) to one where expert practitioners augment and influence beyond their classrooms.
- Recognize novice teachers as potential teacher-leaders
- Create space for teacher-leaders to practice and develop
- Recognize and compensate teachers through formal leadership opportunities
April 24, 2013
First Rule of Fight Club: Do Not Talk about Fight Club
Second Rule of Fight Club: DO NOT TALK about Fight Club
Has the New York State Education Department watched too many Brad Pitt movies? Okay, that’s a rhetorical question, but one that might be posed to other state education agencies also engaged in the business of high-stakes testing. This week, students in grades 3 through 8 across the state of New York are taking mathematics exams aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Following on the heels of last week’s English Language Arts exams, the math exams also promise to be unusually challenging, reflecting the complex skills and knowledge inscribed in the Common Core standards.
Regardless of broad pronouncements from policymakers and the media about the inherent superiority of the Common Core standards and the assessments designed to measure mastery of them, the truth is that no one really knows whether the standards will lead to higher student achievement, or whether the assessments will be good measures of students’ readiness for college and careers. In New York, although this year’s assessments are the first to be aligned with the Common Core standards, they have a short shelf-life: the state plans to administer the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessments in the spring of 2015, if those assessments are ready for prime time by then.
In the meantime, discussions about the content and quality of the assessments are hamstrung by New York’s decision not to release test items to the public. For educators, the issue is quite serious: Disclosure of secure test items by a teacher or school leader is considered a moral offense that can lead to disciplinary action, including loss of certification. (more…)
April 22, 2013
This month, anxiety is high as students across New York State take the latest round of state tests, the first to be tied to the Common Core Learning Standards. There has been an incredible amount of energy invested in public criticism of the testing program, culminating in parents telling their children to refuse to take the state’s tests because they disagree with either how the test results are used or the impact they are having on schools. Additionally, a public hue and cry has gone up about details of the test that some members of the public deem unfair. But some of the criticism that has been directed toward the tests has been misplaced. Understanding basic principles of test design makes it possible to see that the tests are doing their best to accomplish a steep, socially important task.
There is something painfully Benedict-Arnoldian about writing this post for me. I am passionately, openly, and sometimes foolishly, in love with authentic assessment and portfolio assessment. I have seen working as a teacher, and now alongside them, the power that relevant and meaningful work holds for students. I found my way into my current position after leaving the classroom for a professional development team funded by the New York State Department of Education. Working on that team, together with personnel from SED, gave me a chance to get to know the people behind the names on mastheads and SED edicts. Those experiences and names didn’t leave me once the funds ended. From my work on the school support team, I was lucky enough to join an organization that devotes itself to learner-centered practices and supporting schools to design curriculum, instruction, and assessments that are rigorous, meaningful, and relevant. One of the amazing things I get to do for a living is help schools design performance-based assessments that ask students to do something with what they have learned, not just recall what they’ve learned. My job does not depend on the success or failure of state tests. I have no stake in testing itself, beyond that of a taxpayer and an educator privileged to work with teachers and schools. So my passionate belief in the craft of the teaching profession comes from my professional experience in classrooms and schools. I believe, adamantly, in using both the science of learning and the art of instruction to provide a quality public education to all of New York’s students.
I’ve attempted to pull out five things that parents and the GothamSchools community may find interesting, or should, know about psychometrics, or test design. (more…)
April 12, 2013
Teaching is an honorable profession with a dash of folly. What sane person would take it on, knowing what it entails? Not only does the work often take over one’s evenings, weekends, and vacations, but one can rarely take pride in a job well done. Each lesson has imperfections, some of them painful; a teacher sees the flaws of her presentation as she speaks, or has to stop repeatedly to deal with chattering students. Then there are other tasks, such as database maintenance, phone calls, and data analysis, some of which enhance the work, some of which distract. On top of this, the teaching profession does not enjoy much respect in society, to put it mildly. What, then, beyond a sense of duty and the need for a job, explains a teacher’s decision to persist in the classroom day after day? For me, it is the intense joy of conveying a subject to students and receiving their thoughts and questions. Sometimes, after a discouraging week, I sit down to correct homework and am enlightened, intrigued, and moved by what I read.
For this reason, the opportunity to showcase and discuss my students’ work comes as a great treat. I teach philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering. The ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the 10th-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the 11th-graders, political philosophy. (I have written about these courses here and here.) I have selected three pieces to discuss; each one, in a different way, has enriched my thinking and the courses I teach. They are all first and sole drafts (with minor edits in the latter two cases); in a future article, I might examine a piece as it progresses from first to final draft.
I will begin with a piece that a 10th-grader wrote for the first assignment of the year:
To get a sense of my students’ ideas and writing, I asked them to write about a situation involving an ethical dilemma, either in their own lives or in a work of literature. I rarely give assignments on personal topics, but this proved instructive; I was overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness of the responses. Among all of them, this one stood out for its philosophical thinking and play. It begins:
While I was about to start this assignment, I spent about twenty minutes stressing over the fact that I couldn’t think of anything that made me question ethics. I complained to my mother that I couldn’t think of anything to say. I then asked her whether I should ask Professor Senechal whether I could make it up. Mom raised her eyebrow. “Is that ethical?” she asked.
This student (who requested anonymity) clearly took the assignment seriously and treated it with respect. His initial thought was not exactly to lie, but to ask me whether he might make something up. Then came the delightful detail of his mother raising her eyebrow, and the question, “Is that ethical?” which the student realized was an ethical dilemma right there. Thus, he ingeniously turns his dilemma about the assignment into the very topic of the assignment.
In the second paragraph, he examines philosophical positions on lying: Kant’s argument that any lying results in loss of dignity; utilitarian arguments that lying may be acceptable if it is used to a good end; and more. He concludes that he is somewhere between Kant and utilitarians. Implicit in the discussion is his decision, for this particular occasion, not to lie. I learned from his piece, first of all, that this was going to be a good year; and second, that real-life applications of philosophy need not be shallow, if the philosophical thought is strong.
The latter point has affected the way I plan lessons. Early on in my teaching, I resisted the overemphasis (in many schools) on real-life learning, where students talk and write about their lives without reading much of substance. I was determined to have my students tackle interesting and lasting books. I keep that determination but recognize that we are all finding our way through our lives, and that the books can help, directly or indirectly. So, I explore with my students why these books matter, as well as what they contain.
The second piece was written by Khadijah McCarthy, also a 10th-grader, for a test that the students took in late October:
Students had to choose one of two open-book essay questions (and were allowed to use their books and notes). Khadijah chose to compare the ideas of Immanuel Kant regarding value and dignity with those of Martin Buber regarding “It” and “You.” (The students had read substantial excerpts of Kant’s “” and Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.”) This was an especially challenging question, because their ideas appear similar at first glance.
Both Kant and Buber are concerned with human dignity and how it is upheld or demeaned. According to Kant, each of us has value and dignity; our value is that which can be measured and replaced (our job skills, for instance), whereas dignity allows of no measurement or replacement. In Buber’s view, humans have a dual attitude toward the world: an “I-It” attitude, which involves treating others (humans, animals, trees, things) as objects, and an “I-You” attitude, which is a full relation, an acknowledgement of the entirety of the other. Like Kant’s “value,” “It” can be described, experienced, and contained; “You,” like Kant’s “dignity,” has no limits. Khadijah, who has shown exceptional perseverance and keenness in working with complex texts, was able to find a difference between the ideas of Kant and Buber:
Kant offers a solution that is everlasting; as long as you have dignity, then you can never be matched, and because dignity has an intrinsic origin, you will have it for as long as you live. With Buber, you can only remain in the “You” realm for so long; as Buber states, “It [the “You” realm] lacks duration, for it vanishes even when you try to cling to it.” If this “You” realm has the ability to vanish at any given point, and there is nothing that you can do to prevent that, then this may not always be a tangible, realistic alternative or solution.
I was fascinated by Khadijah’s idea that Kant’s solution is more “realistic” than Buber’s (if his can be called a solution). I asked myself: is this so? One might also argue that Buber’s is more realistic, because it acknowledges the extreme rareness of relating to others in their fullness — and the greatness of such relation. Also, alhough Buber’s “You”-encounter vanishes, it can affect the rest of a person’s life, and thus has a kind of eternity. At the same time, Kant’s idea of dignity does seem unshakeable, intrinsic to humans, and thus more practicable than Buber’s “You.” Khadijah’s interpretation of the texts challenged my own thoughts and helped me form questions for future class discussion.
I conclude with an 11th-grader’s parody of Plato:
In the fall, the 11th-graders delved into ancient political philosophy and discussed the benefits and pitfalls of different forms of government. After we finished Book VIII of the “Republic” (where Socrates explains one form of government decays into the next, until tyranny is reached), I asked students to write a continuation in which Socrates and Glaucon explore how tyranny devolves into something else. Through this assignment they could demonstrate their understanding of the reading, their grasp of Plato’s logic, and their political imagination. As I collected the students’ work, I started reading Christian (“Kit”) McArthur’s piece and stifled my cachinnation. I looked over at Kit, who looked back with a mischievous twinkle. The piece begins (with Glaucon speaking first):
Well, I am still unsatisfied. Socrates, could tyranny devolve further into something else?
We’ve already established that an aristocracy devolves into a timocracy, which devolves into an oligarchy, which further devolves into a democracy, which even further devolves into tyranny.
Therefore, according to logic, the tyranny would have to devolve further.
Kit grasped that much of the dialogue in Book VIII isn’t dialogue at all; most of the time, Socrates speaks and someone else agrees. (Elsewhere in the “Republic,” there are substantial exceptions to this pattern.) Kit’s piece turns the tables, making Glaucon lead the way, yet it’s clear that Socrates remains in charge (or does he?). The piece becomes increasingly sophisticated as it progresses, with a combination of wit, insight, and parody. Such qualities in combination cannot be conjured at will, but I want to do more to make room for them.
Grading homework does not always bring delight; often, when working through stacks of papers, I realize that I am not offering my students the detailed comments they deserve. (Or the grammatical errors start to endanger my hair.) Everything from the ideas to the spelling needs attention, yet I must work fast in order to get the grading done. Then a piece comes my way that makes me stop and marvel. I sink briefly into thought, then shake myself and move on. Still, the piece doesn’t go away. It finds its way into a lesson or question; it comes back to mind months or years later. Often I am overwhelmed not by all the work I have to do, nor by the distractions and disruptions, but by the gifts.
April 9, 2013
Editor’s note: After some of our readers criticized our decision to publish a story about parent activist Leonie Haimson’s decision to send her younger child to private school, we asked Kelly McBride, a media ethicist, to evaluate our reporting and promised to publish her assessment, no matter what she concluded. This is what she said.
In a professional newsroom, employees are often warned to get used to the spotlight of scrutiny. When you make your living holding others accountable, you have to expect that others will hold you to a high standard.
In the last decade, as the number of professional journalists has shrunk, activists and bloggers have stepped in to do the tough work of journalists, namely holding the powerful accountable.
This is especially true when it comes to education in New York City, where many people have stepped into that gap to hold the powerful accountable. Among them is Leonie Haimson, founder of the NYC Public School Parents blog and executive director of the non-profit organization Class Size Matters.
Haimson’s narrative as an activist began 15 years ago, when she enrolled her daughter in elementary school and was discouraged to discover a large class size. Since then she has become an influential thought-leader, activist, and blogger, her grassroots expertise widely cited and quoted in significant conversations about public policy that impact New York’s children.
So it made sense that when Geoff Decker, a reporter for GothamSchools (another organization dedicated to holding public school officials accountable) learned that Haimson’s only minor child was attending a private high school, his instinct was to write a story.
It was a good call. (more…)
April 4, 2013
On Tuesday, GothamSchools will be bringing educators from across the city together to discuss opportunities, challenges, and unanswered questions about the new Common Core math standards. RSVP now for the event.
To prepare for the discussion, we asked teachers who will participate to answer one question: What is the biggest issue teachers and students in your school are facing as the Common Core math exams approach? Here’s what Bushra Makiya, an eighth-grade math teacher at C.I.S. 303 in the Bronx and a Math for America Master Teacher, had to say.
The greatest challenge we have faced at 303 regarding the Common Core has been wrapping our heads around the depth of each standard. The Common Core has required us to completely readjust from the New York state standards, which were extremely scripted. Each standard has multiple dimensions; they are not just single skills where every problem looks exactly like the next. This has meant that it takes a lot more time for teachers to unpack the meaning of each standard than it did in previous years. (more…)
April 1, 2013
This piece is the fourth in a series by students and counselors from Bottom Line, a nonprofit that aims to bridge the college-readiness gap by supporting high school students as they transition into college.
I remember so vividly the anticipation of getting my grades each term in the mail, tearing off the perforations to reveal whether or not my all-nighters were worth it. Had I studied enough? Had that extra trip to the writing center paid off? Should I have gone to tutoring? Now, even though grades are available in an instant and perforated paper is a thing of the past, I have that same excited anxiety for my students each time they send me their grades online.
First-semester grades can be a very exciting time for some students and a harsh wake-up call for others. College work is different from high school work and, unlike at the beginning of their first semester, I don’t have to remind my students of this when grades come out. They remind me, unprompted. (more…)
March 26, 2013
This piece was originally published on April 21, 2011.
One of my favorite parts of the Passover seder has always been the discussion of the Four Children. The traditional seder discusses four children — The Wise Son, The Wicked Son, The Simple One, and The One Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask. Each of these sons has his own question, and the haggadah explains the appropriate response for each one. Since entering the classroom, I’ve had my own thoughts about each of these children, and their manifestations in my own classroom.
The Wise Son asks, “What are the laws and statutes by which to fulfill the commandments of Passover?” This son is exalted, because he seeks to learn more about the rituals of Passover. Furthermore, this question is considered wise, because it shows understanding of the story of Passover and seeks deeper meaning from the seder.
A wise child in the classroom hopefully offers the same sort of questioning for the teacher. A wise child is not content with the cursory understanding of a topic or a strategy, but asks for more information. While too many children are willing to absorb knowledge passively without further elucidation, a wise child asks for more. (more…)
March 26, 2013
This post was first published on GothamSchools on May 2, 2011.
I participated in a Passover Seder meal this year. Raised in the Catholic Church, I’ve got a soft spot for ritual and the way that so many of our senses are engaged in religious ceremonies. As I sat through the Seder, I couldn’t help but think, isn’t this a perfectly crafted educational experience?
As a Seder newcomer (I’ve been to about three in my life), my interest trumped my lack of knowledge about Jewish religion and Hebrew language. Even though we sat at the table for over four hours, I was engaged throughout. Part of my engagement came from the knowledge that something important and sacred was about to happen. It made me wonder: How do I make classroom experiences important, even sacred, to my students?
The female rabbi, our leader in this Seder, provided a Haggadah she had assembled for each person at the table. The pages were numbered, as books in Hebrew always are, from back to front, tying us in a simple way to the traditions that we were about to practice. The ritual, which retells the ancient story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, was conducted with a mix of Hebrew, English, and Aramaic language. While some participants were familiar with all three languages, some, like me, only knew one. As a teacher, I thought: How do I expose my students to cultures with which they are unfamiliar? How do I invite them to bring knowledge of their own cultures to the classroom?
The leader began by providing us with an outline of the parts of the Seder, pronouncing the Hebrew names of the components, with them providing an English translation along with a hand motion. Throughout the Seder, as we transitioned from each part, we chanted the parts we’d completed, using the accompanied hand gestures. While I never did fully remember each Hebrew pronunciation, my level of confidence increased each time we sang and gestured. And even though I hadn’t understood, I was fully able to participate in the hand gestures, my favorite part. I asked myself: How can I integrate the arts into the classroom to provide more entry points for experience an expression? (more…)