My Life Untranslated

The Secret Adventures of an ESL Teacher in NYC

Archive for the tag “NYC”

Differentiation at ALL Levels

If you are starting your own mom and pop business, you can expect to wear many hats and have a variety of responsibilities that would otherwise be the domain of other people, if you were able to hire staff. This could be true even with serious financial backers worth millions.

But fast forward a few years and most likely, if you became successful, you would be in a position to farm out your different responsibilities and even develop departments such as marketing and billing. You would find yourself with more time to specialize in whatever got you started in the first place and perhaps initiate innovations you otherwise wouldn’t have time for. You’d be less pressed to do the myriad of tasks you used to need to do practically simultaneously so that you could take more time to step back, assess the company, and even transform it to meet new needs you are now in the unique position to see.

Not true for teachers in most schools, though I’m learning that there is a very wide spectrum. Each individual teacher is kept in the position of the new businessman. Enterprising, dedicated, passionate, and hardworking even to the point of working twice the hours you are actually paid for. Doing the job of multiple people: decorator, data analyst, data collector, teacher (lesson planning and instruction), parent (are they eating dinner at home? Sleeping enough? Do they own a winter coat?), etc

Many good teachers keep their mouths shut and their heads down, consistently taking on the new burdens As a result, most are not able to become excellent teachers because they have become a jack of all trades, at best. They think they are doing an excellent job when they manage to do everything, or when they have been able to improve in one area. But then the administration determines 3 new areas of focus to become proficient in.

Being a jack-of-all-trades is not the same as being a Renaissance man/woman. Some school leaders don’t realize this. So teachers end up where we are — doing the work of a small business as one person, trying to do everything and excelling at very little.

In my previous professions, there was a division of labor. When I worked for television, as well as for magazines, I wasn’t expected to be able to analyze the stock market; I was expected to know how to rely on the analysts so that I could interview intelligently and write coherent, factual pieces. I had people I could delegate to hunt down documents at the courthouse in Texas.

Companies who don’t know how to manage and divide up their labor force don’t succeed as well as those who can, in my opinion. And, in the eyes of many, schools are failing. We may have different criteria, but the conclusion is the same. Schools are not meeting the needs of the children. Nor are they meeting the professional needs of teachers to be able to rise up and succeed at the new demands in teaching.

Because don’t be mistaken — times have indeed changed. Schools do need to transform how and what we teach because of the changes in society, globalization, technology, you name it. Even the makeup of the student population itself has been transforming. But heaping more on an already over-burdened workforce is not the smartest solution. It’s simply the easiest. Yet another quick-fix that fixes nothing.

Why aren’t schools given money to do a different form of differentiation — hiring data analysts, or more teaching assistants? Having more team-teacher scenarios? Or allowing for even 30 minutes a day where kids are working truly independently so their teacher can reflect on the day or analyze her own data? Rather than expecting her to, once again, add to the list of hints being done at home or on her own time?

Someone recently said to me — it used to be that teachers were not allowed to get married, have children, or even drink alcohol, and the same ideology continues to run schools. Instead of a warped sense of morality dictating these restrictions, it’s the rising demands and underlying belief that the job comes first and all else must be sacrificed for it.

I didn’t get into teaching to be somebody’s indentured servant (even if indentured and tenured sound remarkably similar), or some mediocre,jack-of-all trades laborer who ends up watering down excellent teaching in the name of doing it all. Something has to give. Or I’m gone.

Tenure.. Curse or Cure?

Education isn’t as much in the mainstream media as it was just this past school year, which is sad given the march on Washington that recently happened (psst! As a former activist, i have to say that emergency rallies, while harder to populate, are much more effective).

So while this post also may not be as timely, I feel I must weigh in.

Not long ago, I was discussing (here?) a colleague from a nearby school who was being scrutinized for no clearcut reason. Her principal said things like, “I don’t think you know how to teach children how to read.”

The teacher in me cringes when I hear this because, while quite pointed, it isn’t helpful criticism. Is there a strategy she’s using that’s ineffective? Is there some aspect of the program she isn’t implementing to the principal’s liking? With the principal’s few extra years of teaching experience, was she able to problem solve and lead the teacher to find and address her weaknesses? Or is teaching children to read suddenly as easy as A, B, C?

The researcher in me cringes even more. The children this particular teacher is responsible for tend to be young, English-learning immigrants with limited or no prior education or experience with literacy in their native tongue, and have no exposure outside school with oral English. They typically aren’t read to at home or included in meaningful conversation since parents work long hours or are illiterate or alliterate themselves. Anyone who knows anything about ESL knows how pivotal oral competency or proficiency are to literacy. And there is scant research on how children such as these are learning to read in this new tongue. Much of the existing research is based on older students. They can’t “transfer” in the same way literate children can (in terms of reading skill and habit), even though some people like to talk about transfer as some magical element that just makes literacy in the target language “happen”.

Teachers responsible for teaching these children — and their administrators– are doing them little good if they are simply regurgitating the same approaches used to teach English-dominant kids. Yet that is what some teachers are being told to do. They are given teaching points such as, “good readers make sense of new words by asking themselves ‘does that sound right?'”. What a worthless lesson for newcomers! Yet when these teachers’ students don’t advance as quickly as native English-speakers, they are the ones being held accountable by getting their probation period extended before tenure is granted. Who does this help? It’s like setting a fire and locking the exits.

Anyway, back to my colleague. After two years of getting observed months apart, her principal came to teach a lesson to the students in this class. Only then did she realize the problem wasn’t with how this teacher was teaching. She saw how much they still needed to hear their first language to understand complex ideas (and codeswitching is outlawed), how several had clear learning disabilities, and how the current curriculum was severely deficient. This colleague was finally given some validation and the S grading she deserved.

My purpose in recounting this story is to show that the problem isn’t tenure per se. It isn’t a lack of tools for assessing teachers. It is sometimes a lack on the part of those assessing them. It might be pragmatism, relying too much on “data” (which is neither objective nor completely accurate), laziness, and lack of experience implementing the new curriculum and strategies they are pushing.

New Teachers: Don’t Believe the Hype!

Right now in NYC, Mayor Bloomberg and others, as part of a nationwide movement to undermine teachers and transform public education into a cheaper-by-the-dozen private enterprise, are working to undo the tenure system. They say the system of “Last In First Out” a disservice to students and new teachers.

Newbie or tenured, teacher or not, you may agree with them. I personally go back and forth on the question. But one thing we must be sure of: these politicians’ and pundits’ motives have NOTHING to do with worry or concern for new teachers, nor is it based on any research that proves experienced teachers are systematically worse than new ones, nor do their motives even have anything to do with any understanding or concern for how or what students learn.

If they succeed in doing away with tenure, soon they will just be on to the next point of attack — like collective bargaining, pensions, reduced class-size, etc., that are at the core of unionized labor typical demands/expectations, and the rights of teachers and students. And we will see a return to teachers leaving after 3-5 years. (Which is why I am linking to this article. I agree with it to an extent, but I think it really misses the point. This battle is not about new vs. old, and if we continue to let Bloomberg et al., set that as the terms of debate, then we’ve already lost this battle. *That* is the urgent idea.)

I don’t want to be so crude as to reduce Bloomberg et al.’s motives to simply the $, ¬†though that is no doubt key, or even central. Instead, I argue that their stance is ideological at its heart, and up for debate is NOT just tenure but the whole approach our cities have toward education.

You can see this if you read between the lines in the recent piece by Bill Gates, which many of you have likely read already and I will rant about soon.

Posted on the run with WordPress for BlackBerry.

“No, there is something ELSE wrong with him”

November 2010–

A very veteran teacher who comes in to teach social studies to my 5th and 4th grade bridge class was noticing that one of my students, “Edwin”, couldn’t read the words “United States”.

“We wrote it on the board. We said it. We say it every day in the pledge of allegiance. Yet he mixes the letters and can’t read it,” she said.

I explained that he cannot read in English or Spanish, his first language, and last March was the first time he had started attending school. EVER. In 4th grade.

“Well, I think here has to be something ELSE wrong with him.”

And, this, ladies and gentlemen is what is wrong with our school system. No, not the teachers, even the ones who all their colleagues know shouldn’t be working anymore (young or old). The problem is the absolute ignorance and the ignorant absolutism that permeates the thinking about children.

My Edwin does not know the difference between letters like h, w, b, or t. He spells “noche” as “nolle”, showing some understanding of the sounds Spanish letters make, despite the mistake. He never went to school before last year when he immediately started to learn in a totally new language after a very traumatic border-crossing experience. The only thing “wrong” are the parameters we chose, or are expected to use to judge/evaluate him.


March 2011 —

It is now several months later, and “Edwin” is making great strides. He still reads at a first grade level, but he went from a C to an H, and more importantly, he LOVES to read, including reading out loud in class, and he can sound out a very large percentage of words in grade-level texts. He still doesn’t understand them all since he’s still acquiring English, but that’s a different hurdle.

Far, far too often, ELLs and SIFE students are misinterpreted by those who don’t take the time to know them, or who perceive certain educational milestones as gateways on an absolute timeline. As a result, far too many are defined as “special ed” or needing some intervention like speech therapy, when all they need is time and space to adapt. The same is true for those who want to use tests and other “hard data” assessments to equate all students and measure all teachers. Students are not products. They are people and school is not an assembly line.

Posted on the run with WordPress for BlackBerry.

Protected: Reflecting and reconsidering

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