Sunday, October 28, 2007

Clutter

I didn’t feel the education world was filled with clutter until the early 2000s, when two directives came down the pipeline to teachers of all subjects:

“Put a word wall up in your classroom”

and

"Hang up your students' work."


What started out as a couple of new bits of pop-methodology developed over time into fierce mandates. The absence of a word wall or displayed student assignments soon resulted in letters to the file and became in some cases a piece of hard evidence that a teacher was, in Klein's DOE, showing signs of incompetence.


Actually, I have nothing against word walls or hanging up some examples of great student work. These are not new ideas, and each certainly has its use. I’ve been putting up these things for as long as I can remember.

What I object to, apart from anyone mandating how I teach or that I set my classroom up in a specific way (especially administrators, most of whom don't know much about my subject at all), is the sheer verbiage on the wall. It’s clutter, pure and simple.

And would it have stopped there, with the word walls and the student work, but in the past couple of years, mandated wall items have most definitely proliferated. (Whether they're a sign of teacher quality is for another discussion, though they certainly do say something about the quality of inspection check-off lists.) In any case, here are some of the more recent mandated items:
Class rules
Class goals
School goals
School grading policy
Rubrics for assessment
Descriptions of what the assignments are supposed to achieve

Of course, these are all in addition to the fire drill posters and ongoing announcements for clubs, fund-raising campaigns, student council meetings, summer camp, bell schedules, and the like. You do feel guilty when someone tells you “Post this, please” and you deep six it. Thus, some of these papers do find their way onto the walls one way or another.

If you are on the “outside,” please try to use your imagination for a minute and put yourself inside a classroom looking at the walls.

You can’t actually read any of these things from a distance unless the lettering is over two inches tall. What you are able to see from your seat is poster after poster, paper after paper of messy or indecipherable lettering, patches of color with squiggles on them plastering much of the entire room, even the glass windows.

How can this possibly improve education?

It can’t, and it doesn’t.

The kids tune out ALL of it, and with any luck, so do I. Otherwise, how could I keep my mind clear enough to talk extemporaneously for 44 minutes, or respond to questions without getting distracted by the chaotic visuals, or get the kids to focus on their texts and their writing, or in essence: how could I do my job?

This stuff is supposed to foster a “text rich” environment. Instead, it results in two very simple and very obvious things: frustration that you can’t read much of it from your seat and a kind of numbness to the entire panoply. It reinforces one thing only: that the written word doesn’t mean much after all, so why bother worrying about what’s up there. And of course, students don’t worry about it. They don’t read it, and they couldn’t care less.

Just like they walk past a dozen signs up and down the hallways saying "No hats, No electrical devices," all the time sporting hats on their heads and checking messages on their cell phones. Signs become meaningless after a while.

A cluttered visual environment is the same as a cluttered aural one. I can’t even begin to teach music unless I first teach kids the difference between sound and silence. It takes a lot of skill to get them to make a sound (like clapping) for, let's say, 4 beats and be completely silent on beat 5. They never get it the first time, or the second. The class clowns will then screw up purposely for another five or six shots at it, but at something like the seventh attempt, when everyone miraculously achieves that precious instant of perfect silence at exactly the same time: wow, what a feeling. Broad smiles all around, sometimes with applause as well for their own collective achievement.

Visual clutter is the same thing as noise, and educators should be raging against it. It does nothing for the mind, which needs to be quieted to learn, and since most posters and papers have no artistic skill, there’s not a shred of aesthetic pleasure from much of it. It certainly does nothing to improve reading skills, since you mostly have to put your eyeballs into the wall to even see the stuff, and who has time for that rushing from class to class.

The ugly chaos we see on so many classroom walls is a kind of environmental contamination, and it shores up an insecure reader’s defense mechanism against written language altogether.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

We can't let Bloomberg define success

It's unusual that a single article exposes what we're dealing with here in New York, not with one, but with two quotes that make your blood just boil. See below for what I wrote a couple of hours ago about the great pseudo-defender of teacher rights, and now a few words about one of the pioneers of America's new caste system.

"In the private sector, cash incentives are a proven motivator for producing results,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “The most successful employees work harder, and everyone else tries to figure out how they can improve as well."
True enough in his line of work, but not in ours. In fact, I can think of many kinds of jobs where a little more cash can crank up the volume to get a few more things done. Telephone marketing, cross-country trucking, manual labor, to name a few. Many of us including myself would certainly go for cash bonuses if we were doing any of these worthy jobs.

But not teaching — or for that matter, healthcare, or manning an emergency room, or putting out fires. These jobs are not done "better," and we are not more "successful" at them, with cash incentives.

For all his intellect, Bloomberg’s sociopathic soul always shines through the vacuous remarks he makes about how to educate kids. His
corporate world is riddled with white-collar crime, yet he wants to hold businesses in “the private sector” up to us as models of good institutions with worthy goals. There's no match here, as much as he says there is.

It's hard to believe that the man
actually doesn't know what being a "successful employee" is in the field of education, or how educators measure their own successes. We certainly don't rate ourselves by tests or seek rewards for what we do well in the form of cash.

A "successful" teacher holds the room together with most kids on task when they’ve all just come in a huge variety of moods, from deeply depressed, to hungry, to love-starved, angry, ready to work, jealous, giggly, pre-occupied, fearful, and downright horny. A successful teacher can turn an apathetic expression into a moment of joy, like when a student “gets” a concept he’d been having trouble with a second before. That’s a “eureka” moment worth its weight in gold.

Success means when parents and teachers work together to change aberrant behaviors and help students take control of the harmful things they do to themselves and to others. A successful teacher can reverse a bad attendance record. Sometimes success means just the ability to survive in overcrowded classrooms with no textbooks or inadequate equipment — which, trust me, won’t get fixed even when they get around to lowering the numbers by one or two bodies or putting a few extra dollars towards extra computers or more Snapple machines. And it means being able to turn kids away from gang-think, and get them to see there are other kinds of worlds that would serve them better.

Sure, we have notions of success that are similar to Bloomberg’s, like acing a test, or giving a relatively error-free performance, or even just graduating from high school. How could we not, having been through the educational mill ourselves and enjoyed these kinds of successes.

But their world, the corporate one he holds up as a model, is deeply flawed, and no one should be buying into those limited and possibly fraudulent notions of “success” that revolve around test scores and silent submission to administrative directives that don't make sense.

The savings-and-loan corporations of the 80s, Enron, Arbusto Energy, ChoicePoint, Blackwater, subprime lenders: these are some of the greatest “success” stories in Bloomberg’s corporate world — before the muckraking, that is, and before some of the directors got caught and put in jail. People get “successfully” rich working in these kinds of institutions all along the way, and when they're particularly clever, they get to keep their assets even when they serve hard time. That must be a super mark of success. And you could say that politicos and lobbyists like DeLay, Frist and Abramoff were supremely successful at what they did as well, though they dragged the country through the mud.

But to educators, these companies and what these players are all about are some of the most destructive and immoral by-products of capitalism in America.

“I am a capitalist,” Bloomberg says according to the article in Ny1, which means he swims comfortably in these same murky waters.

This is not good for the education of our kids, and because he is unethical at heart and ruthless, we're not saying anything he doesn't already know.

Is the word "prevaricator" politically incorrect?

If what NY1 reports she said is really true (and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t, is there?) -- Randi Weingarten should be growing a nice long nose by now:
"We have to attract and recruit and nurture teachers in order to get the best and the brightest, not only to get them to come, but stay."

WHAT ?

Attract them and recruit them, yes. But nurture them?

When was the last time you “nurtured” a teacher, Randi?

Was it when you cut our summers a little shorter? or when you incrementally allowed a 5-period teaching day to turn into a 6-period one, which calculations showed hardly made a dent in take-home pay? (I think some actually thought it didn’t even equal what we had before.)

Was it when you agreed to enforced "Staff Development," as if teachers were still students and need to be "developed"? Did you even think of using another name for the kind of in-service sessions that keep professionals abreast of things, like "seminars," "forums," or just plain old "conferences"? I bet you didn’t insist on that terminology because you don't even think of us as professionals — unlike yourself, of course, who is in a “real” profession, like law. (Who's ever heard of a lawyer or a doctor or even a middle-manager being "staff developed"?)

Did you nurture us when you made us babysit the cafeterias?
Or supervise the halls, losing a chance to sit down for a couple of minutes and becoming the butt of all the abuse dished out by obstreporous teenagers along the way?

Was it when you weakened the grievance procedure?

Was it when you've never really showed any outrage about the flagrant and system-wide mendacity in observation reports? Some people call it harassment, and some people know it’s being done to get the senior salaries out of the system.

Was it when you didn’t protect us from the actuality or even the threat of what’s been going on all these years in the teacher detention centers, where some don’t even know why they’ve been put there, and others are told they can’t lean against the wall, or use their laptops or go to the bathroom without a security officer accompanying them? Is this is your idea of “nurturing” teachers?

Was it when you made no concerted effort to save our careers when the city was turning subjects mandated by state into mere recommendations? That meant even more music, art, drama, dance, foreign language, and library postions being closed down. (For the record, I hated being forced to teach elementary school music, on one day’s notice mind you, when my position was shut down several years ago, and I can’t tell you what I think of being an ATR now. This is most certainly not my vision of what I thought I’d be doing as a senior teacher, but it certainly was yours until we started fussing about it. In fact, it still is: your people are saying even now: "You still have your job, don't you.")

Nurture? Never.

Whether Weingarten’s values are skewed or whether she's not been savvy enough to stand up to some political foes who do not care one whit about the common man, she broke this union — by maneuvering in all kinds of ways to get the votes to go her way at the delegate assemblies, by handling individual problem cases one by one and not fighting for whole categories of abuse, by manipulating Robert’s Rules more times than one can count, by forgetting altogether about building union from the ground up and taking her authority from the membership not just from her lackeys (especially the really thuggish ones), and now —

— by negotiating, in stealth, a hugely objectionable initiative, the nuanced merit pay plan, which goes contrary not only to what teachers stand for but strikes at the heart of what public education should be about.



Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Ideologies that kill

Well, whadya know. The Times is reporting today that a new Research Partnership for NYC Schools has been created by BloomKlein to “gather reams of data” on the schools to figure out what works or doesn't work. And a certain Ms Wylde, the president of another Partnership (oy), is declaring, according to the paper, that this group or whatever they do (it’s not really clear) is “something that everyone needs.”

By “everyone” I assume she means all the people standing to make a buck from this statistics-infested business group that calls itself a school system.

I doubt anyone who sends their kids to NYC schools could give a rat’s ass about more data. They want their children to have greater access to the teacher (i.e., LOWER CLASS SIZES), better equipment, textbooks to go around, more than a minute and a half to see a counselor to help them through their problems, and vocational subjects so they can earn a living when they get out. More data? Are you kidding me?

There is a parallel here between two very rich men and their very twisted aspirations for society. George Bush and Michael Bloomberg are all about bringing their own financial empires into deep contact with governmental and public institutions.

The Bush family’s connections with the oil industry are already well documented, particularly by Greg Palast in “Bush Didn’t Bungle Iraq, You Fools”. Most people now think he took the country to war to get control of more of the stuff for his own family and friends.

Bloomberg built his wealth around what A&E Television calls a financial information computer “that revolutionized the way securities data was stored and consumed . . . [It] soon branched into the media business.” Data storage, media. Lights should already be flashing in your head.

The country has taken a tremendous hit by a foul president’s ideology of oil. We were duped, and we are paying for it dearly in human sacrifice and national debt.

Can we afford to be indifferent to this other kind of ideology, that the collection of data will somehow have all the answers to America’s educational and sociological problems? Because we’re being sold this line of thinking by BloomKlein and their ilk, who stand to gain in all kinds of ways from keeping us counted and pigeonholed, as well as undereducated and underserviced. It is a vast, self-important, expensive and irrational way to spend the public purse, because you can’t collect what is not collectable in the first place. Everything they will try to collect will be tainted in one way or another. Garbage in, garbage out.

It is time we start tuning into the tyranny of “data collection.” It will not get us better educated, or better prepared for life, or more functional in our complex, open society. It will allow a certain caste of people, the very rich and government- entwined, to keep a great segment of American citizens incapable of improving its quality of life.