Saturday, September 29, 2012


Oh my gosh! I never posted a "done" picture of the counters! Well, here's the only pic I've got at the moment. Not super detailed or anything but you get the idea.

I'll post some more soon.

Crying and Searching for Resources

Well, it's already happened this year: I cried in front of my kids on Friday. At the end of the day I had a student call another student a name (Scooby Doo, if you must know) and that student burst into tears. I also got a new student last Friday who has been the target of name-calling at recess, so this really put me over the edge. I started giving them the business about not being mean and how I don't like it when they call people names because I care about them, and it makes me sad when someone is mean to any one of my students, and I just started crying. I guess it was a rough week! I think I freaked them out a little by crying. I'm not against having feelings, but I really didn't plan on actually crying. Oh well. It is what it is, right?

Sean's working on a new business idea, this time aimed at teachers. So instead of planning today, I've been talking to him about planning. Ha. But the upside is that in the process, I've uncovered some resources I either forgot about, or hadn't known about. Here's a great one if you don't know about it already: Teaching with Primary Resources. If you've ever looked for primary resources online, you're probably picturing the murky, unsearchable dungeons of online collections of various libraries and government organizations, made out of early-90's internets and duct tape. But this is amazing! It's designed for teachers, organized by themes and topics of study, as well as grade level. Crazy!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

60 hours a Week

That's the limit Sean set for me for work, and it's going pretty well! Granted, I at maybe 65 if we're being honest here, but I am getting a lot more done quickly and efficiently knowing I am not going to work past 7 at night and not work more than 5 hours on the weekend. I haven't got the weekend part down yet (that's where the over-spill happens) but I'm sticking to 7:00 pretty faithfully, and I have actually noticed that I'm more focused and productive (6:30 blog-posting not withstanding). I am actually excited and sort of, I don't know, determined to get stuff done, as opposed to feeling tired and defeated, which is how I felt last year when I did work at home. Of course, some of that is being a second-year teacher (yay for not being a first year teacher! I provided moral support only just today to a crying co-worker! But the truth is she's doing twice as good as I did last year). And also having a less hectic school day (I have an hour prep plus a 45-minute lunch every day, as opposed to last year's four 50-minute preps a week [at the end of the day: tough for my disorganized self!] and a 20-minute lunch, plus the day is about half an hour shorter). But I think some of it is just limiting my work time, and promising myself that I get to be a wife and a human every day, no matter what.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Personal Dictionaries

Last year I had a word wall in my room that I barely used at all. It was something that always got shoved down the priority list when I was running behind. So this summer I was thinking about how I could do a better job with my word wall this year. I decided that, instead of a word wall, I would give each student a personal dictionary where they could write down words they wanted to use in their writing but had trouble spelling. I like that a personal dictionary is also differentiated, since not all kids are going to be in the same place in terms of what sight words they can or can't spell. Well, turns out I have to have a word wall in my room, so I figure the personal dictionary can be in addition to it, not instead of. I think that'll actually work out really well, because then we can still do activities and word work around the word wall words to help kids remember them, and then the act of writing them in the dictionaries will help them remember them as well. And then they can add other words they need help spelling, on an individual basis. I'm excited to try it out! I didn't get around to creating the dictionary this summer, but I, uh, have some time on my hands right now, so I made it the other day! And because I am a nerd, I even looked up the frequency of letters appearing at the beginning of words, so there should be plenty of room in each section for whatever words students put in there all year. Here's a link to the pdf it if you want to use it. The pages are in order for copying back to back then folding in half. (The first blank half page I didn't know how to get rid of, but you don't need it. Copy pages 2-9, with 2-3 back to back, 4-5 back to back, etc).

Friday, September 14, 2012

Why I'm Striking

Apparently there's a tentative contract! (update: or maybe not? My union rep tells me that they didn't have a contract to look at during their meeting but they'll meet again Sunday if a deal's reached Saturday.) The Chicago Tribune is swamped and I can't get on to see it, but as of last night, the proposed evaluation plan I saw sounds workable. (My teacher eval post is still in the works! I promise it's coming.) I explained a little bit why it's problematic to use standardized tests for more of the evaluation, but a fellow teacher recently made the point that the silver lining to this is that less of a teacher's evaluation comes from subjective sources like the principal's observation. I think that's a really good point. They are apparently going to use a combination of ISAT (and then presumably PAARC, beginning next year) and NWEA value-added scores. I am still not sure what that means for me as a third-grade teacher though. They also say teachers will be compared against other teachers with a similar demographic of students, which is good too. Also good is that first-year teachers can't be fired for an "unsatisfactory" rating (I can assure you that 90% of first-year teachers are unsatisfactory). 

I have been moved and humbled by the level of passion and urgency of people on all sides of this strike. I realized that I have at times been both too cynical (assuming that there's no money for things teachers are asking for, that their demands are pie-in-the-sky, that some of these changes are inevitable), and not cynical enough (about motives of the city or the motives of the union). I know this may sound crazy to many who are following this closely and care deeply about the issues in play, but I think I was being overly pragmatic. I have deeply appreciated the thoughts and opinions of numerous people weighing in about why they're striking, why they oppose the strike, what their hopes for the future of education are. I am humbled by their passion: I have to confess that I did not have such loftly ideals in mind at the beginning of this. I've come to realize, though, that people on both sides see this as a fight for the future of public education. I am now more supportive of the strike than I was initially, because I realize that this is an opportunity for the challenges of urban education to be visible to people in a way that they usually are not.

I believe firmly that small schools like the one I work in are not inefficient, but in fact essential in high-poverty communities. We need far more mental health services than we have. We need smaller class sizes, better nutrition programs, more enrichment, better facilities...the list goes on. And I sadly know that very little of what I see as essential is going to come to fruition, strike or not. But I feel that, if people want to talk about education reform and implement policies in the name of education reform, it is on some level disingenuous to claim to want those things, and not be willing to do what is essential to that task. Are we serious about changing education? Great! Let's do it. 

If we're serious, then let's be real: forget equality of funding. Students in high-poverty schools need MORE resources than their advantaged peers. Let's overhaul how (and how much) we fund our schools. Instead of suburban schools spending twice as much per student on education, how about we spend twice as much per student in our struggling schools? Let's spend money where it's needed. Let's spend it on the kids who still don't have internet access at home in 2012. The ones who sneak food from the cafeteria so they have something to eat at home. The ones whose parents smell like alcohol when the drop them off in the morning. The ones who scream obscenities and react like a frightened animal when people try to get close. 

Let's overhaul teacher induction: new teachers should get an apprenticeship with a master teacher in order to refine their practice while being held to a high standard, and minimizing the potential negative impact of new teachers on kids. And yes, let's dismiss teachers who aren't interested in improving their practice.

I didn't vote for this strike, but now that we're in it, I find that the reason I am striking is so that people have to think about how much of a priority public education is. If you work in education and you are against this strike, I have the utmost respect for that. If you don't work in education or in low-income communities, I invite you to come visit my school, anytime. We're at 1415 E. 70th Street in Chicago. This is not an abstract problem, and it deserves your full attention and consideration. I work with 27 brilliant, resilient, amazing people everyday who deserve the same opportunities you and I had, and more.

Update: I forgot to include my favorite revolutionary school reform soap-box: abolishing private schools! Here's an interesting article on Norwegian schools if you haven't already run across it yet.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Strike

I've been wanting to write a post about the strike, my thoughts on it, and what it means for my school and my situation, but I've been reluctant to stick my neck out there because there are a lot of strong feelings on all sides of this thing.

Here's a good summary of what's going on with the strike.

On the strike, my feelings are mixed. This has been brewing since long before I got hired in CPS, and I think I may feel differently than a lot of teachers do as a result.

The raise issue: last year I taught at a contract school (essentially a charter, and non-union), so moving to CPS was a 20% pay increase for me. I think CPS teacher pay is pretty fair. And I certainly understand the role that the union plays in getting it to that point, but at this time, I don't think that the raise CTU was asking for was reasonable (I use past tense because I think at this point the money issues have been sorted out). I also tend to be a bit fiscally conservative, and I know there's really not any money to be had, and the Board's credit rating has actually been downgraded recently. So I think teachers need to take one for the team this time and lay off the pay increase issue. Plus I think we look like jerks asking for a pay increase when there's still such high unemployment. And it is really hard for me to feel okay picketing in a community that quite likely has over 25% unemployment. On the other hand, I can see how teachers who worked under the previous contract probably don't feel it's fair that Emanuel rescinded the raise that was in their contract. But the thing is, teachers get step increases every year for each year of experience, and the 4% we were asking for was on top of the step increase. So it was actually something like a 5-6% raise effectively, which is a rather handsom raise to most people.

The big issues still holding things up are teacher evaluation and school closings. I completely and totally agree that teachers should be held accountable for student achievement. The tricky part comes in measuring that. The main issue holding up negotiations right now is that they want to use state standardized tests for this, which are problematic for a few reasons:

1) They're horrible measures of student progress, for students, parents, teachers, and teacher evaluators.

2) They are a narrow assessment of the teaching I do and the goals I have for my students (though the PARCC test, aligned to the Common Core Standards, seems somewhat more promising than the ISAT on this front, but still will not test all areas of student learning).

3) It totally sucks to depend on one week of a pressure-cooker test that students could do poorly on for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with me.

4) A teacher could quite conceivably show varying levels of student growth from year to year and still be a good teacher with the same level of quality and expertise from one year to the next, and that is not being taken into account. I only got to see percentile data from last year's ISAT for my students, but I moved my students an average of 13 percentile points higher from third to fourth grade in math last year. I can assure you that, as a first-year teacher, I did not perform some kind of miracle with my students last year. I am a much better teacher now, but I think the odds of me making a gain like that this year are really slim. Plus, there's the complication of teaching third grade this year: how exactly will they measure the progress I've made with my students? Third grade is the first year they do state testing. The progress I can make also depends what the students' education has looked like up to the point they enter my room. Consistently high-quality teaching is likely to make my job at any grade easier. (FULL DISCLOSURE ON THIS ITEM: I have no idea if Emanuel's proposal calls for student performance to be measured as value-added as I've described above, or a percent meets/exceeds. If it's just a flat percentage of students who meet or exceed, then I'm totally hosed. This year's No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress for percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards is 92.5%. Last year my school's meet/exceeds average was close to 50%. That represents gains in meets/exceeds for every single grade who took the ISAT, by the way. No small feat, but still failing miserably by NCLB milestones, and still heart-breaking as a teacher to see what that actually means in terms of student achievement.

5) Focusing on one test for evaluation means that teachers will focus more on the test with what they teach (read p. 28 in the link) which means your teaching is only as good as the test you use. This means two things: a) that teachers in struggling schools where students are below the target meets/exceeds goal spend time on test prep, which is something that I know as a kid I never experienced going to suburban schools, and b) teachers spend less time on subject areas that are not tested. So reading and math start to crowd out social studies and science. The recent alarm over science time in schools is actually a result of science not being a tested subject for most grades (only 4th and 7th). The other grades spent relatively little time on science because it wasn't tested at their grade, and science education suffered as a result. I guess the answer might be to test science every year, but then what about social studies? Or writing? And I spend a good deal of time helping my kids learn about getting along with each other, managing their emotions and reactions, navigating conflicts and misunderstandings, making going decisions—social-emotional learning. I do this because it's important, and because I frankly couldn't keep my classroom calm and safe without it. But this isn't tested. Should I get rid of that?

6) Particularly in schools with a high mobility rate, standardized testing sometimes is measuring student progress of students who haven't spent much time in front of that teacher. When I was a teaching intern, we had a girl transfer in two weeks before the ISAT. Should her scores be a part of my mentor teacher's evaluation?

The thing is though, if Emanuel is in good faith trying to gradually implement an evaluation plan that he's willing to tweak (on an ongoing basis) to fix its inevitable shortcomings (and include teachers in the formulation of the evaluation system), I'm personally okay with that. This is one thing I wish the union were a little more flexible on:  I think people would be much more sympathetic if we adopted some kind of performance-based evaluation and then later protested unfair outcomes or implementation of it. 

In terms of the other part of teacher evaluation—observing instruction—CPS has just switched from the infamous "checklist" system of observation-based teacher evaluation to one based on the Charlotte Danielson Framework for teaching, which is a wonderful tool for assessing teaching. I think I'm actually going to write a separate post on my thoughts about teacher evaluation and what I think it should look like, and I'll talk more about the Danielson Framework in that post.

The other big issue for me (and the other big issue still not resolved in talks) is closing schools. My school would more than likely get closed under the proposed plan. First of all, it's really small (one teacher per grade level) which makes it a target for consolidation. But I feel very strongly that the size of the school is really important for our students. Many of our students have really unstable home lives, for any number of reasons. We also have an extremely high mobility rate: we get new kids, kids leave, and some kids who were there and left, come back mid-year. It's chaotic and stressful. But I believe that having a small school is a hedge against the chaos of high mobility and difficult home situations. The teachers who have been at the school for a couple years know all the students by name. The kids know all the teachers. It's a very close-knit community, and feels like a family. My personal feeling is that larger schools can't provide this same level of stability and security for students who are in inherently unstable situations, and I think it's wrong to close schools just because they're small. I think the opposite, in fact. We should have more small schools. I know it costs more, but at some point we have to ask ourselves whether we're willing to accept the cost of what it takes to give kids what they need.

In addition to being small, we're on probation due to extremely low scores (though they've been going up: my principal has been at this school for five years and I think it could be demonstrated that she and the staff she's put together are making progress. But that's not something that's necessarily considered.) So I would likely get laid off, and then I would not have recall rights, which it seems would suit Emanuel just fine because by his logic I am a bad teacher from the bad school he just closed. 

Teachers are also asking for smaller class sizes, air conditioning (yes, sad), more support services like counselors, social workers, and nurses (badly needed), and to stop expansion of charter schools. I know a lot of those services are not going to happen because the money's not there. But the same thing applies there as with the small schools: are we willing to actually pay for things that will help students who struggle the most?

At the end of the day, my feeling about the strike is that I want it to end, and I don't care how it ends. There are things I think the union is asking for that are unreasonable and not in students' best interests, but I also feel strongly that some things Emanuel wants to put in place are perhaps well-intentioned or pragmatic, but ultimately not good for students. I support the strike because I think Emanuel is trying to bust unions, and I believe we have the right to collectively bargain. But I would be okay if the strike ended now and the board got to implement everything they're currently asking for.

To be honest, I just want to get back to teaching. I love my students, and I love my job. I'm a good teacher and I'll only get better each year. I want to be respected for what I do, and I want to be supported in my growth and improvement.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Spock Power

This is what Sean has named Love and Logic. Ladies and gents, I am really exercising my Spock Power these days. I Love and Logicked one of my students yesterday/today: he didn't stay to talk to me about a minor incident yesterday, so I left a note on his desk that said, "I need to talk to you about something pretty serious. We can talk at recess. Don't worry about it til then." It absolutely had the intended effect. So, so sweet.

Then today, I had another student give me the opportunity to Love and Logic her (yes, it's a verb. Deal with it.) I say opportunity, and I mean it. So fun! The Teaching with Love and Logic book says that you might start looking forward to opportunities to give kids choices, delay consequences, make them solve their own problems, etc, but I have to admit I was doubtful. But guess what? It is so, so fun once you start to get the hang of it.

Today a girl in my class was talking and laughing during independent work time, and I asked her to move to the time out area (I call it the Cool Down Area). She threw a fit, talked back, and refused to move, so I told her it was too bad she was choosing to make this worse, but I assured her we could talk about it at recess. She never did move to the Cool Down Area, but she was completely silent the rest of the time, and kept trying to show me how much work she was doing whenever I walked near her desk. I just ignored her. At recess I had her come to the room (which I think surprised her for some reason), and she told me that she hated this school. I had her write a behavior reflection, and then I asked her to read it to me. (the reading it aloud bit is a pro tip from lovely coach Kate: thanks Kate!) This proved to be challenging for her since she was still in avoidance mode. I told her if she wasn't ready to talk about it, there was still some more time left in recess, and she could sit at her desk til she was ready. So I just worked at my desk and didn't really care when she was ready: genuinely. In the past I've pretended to have stuff to do while I secretly am waiting for a kid to come talk to me. It's so freeing to really just not care when they're ready! A couple minutes later she was ready, but we didn't finish discussing the problem because we ran out of time, so I told her that unfortunately we'd have to continue our conversation after school, or maybe during recess tomorrow. I can't wait!

As a side-note, part of the entertainment of Love and Logic is when kids get suspicious of the system. They're so used to being dressed down. She really didn't know what to do with me. At one point she told me, "This is kind of weird." And the awesome thing is, we had a productive conversation once she decided she was ready.

Yay for Spock Power!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Procedures Quiz

So, you know how you're supposed to think about outcomes and what you'll be assessing first, and then plan how you'll teach it (at least if you're approaching planning with a backwards design framework)? Well, I have just had an epiphany about teaching procedures to my kids. My first week plans borrow heavily from the awesomely talented Ms. Kelly at Brownell Elementary, and one of the things she does is a test over her classroom procedures. I didn't do this last year, but I just finished making one for this year, and as a person who struggled mightily with management and procedures in my first year of teaching, let me tell you, this quiz was more for me than it will be for my students. It really helped me to nail down what each procedure would be when I had to put it in quiz form. (This probably sounds more obvious to the more naturally-organized among you, but I really sucked at this last year. I had a hard time caring about how kids sharpen pencils or get tissues. But these stupid, stupid things about killed me last year, directly and indirectly.) So anyway, I highly suggest making a procedures quiz to help you think through what you need your kids to know about working in your classroom.

Oh, and I have a Love and Logic post brewing, I think. I hope. Today there was an incident that is currently be Loved and Logicked. I'll let you know how things shake out.