June 30, 2008

Outsourcing English?

This is a short follow-up to the essay I wrote the other day, Can we get back to teaching grammar yet? It had been inspired by a spectacularly mucked up section of a test published by McGraw-Hill, a company which is fast acquiring a reputation amongst teachers and librarians for mediocrity and corporate malfeasance.

Very soon after I put up the post, this letter appeared in the in the NY Times:

To the Editor:

I have been a copy editor/ proofreader for many years for text publishers, mainly McGraw-Hill. I have always enjoyed doing it, and my mind is filled with lots of information, some useful and some not.

There are many typos in the newspapers as well as in books. I have found that lately because of the outsourcing of texts to India and other countries, there is very little work for those of us from this country. A sad happening for all of us diligent workers.

Barbara Danziger
Roseland, N.J., June 16, 2008

Did she say that a lot of copy editing work in America is being outsourced?

If so, the publishing megacorps seem to have figured out that when it comes to knowing how our language works, foreign nationals with English as a 2nd language will do the job just as well as native-born Americans. Maybe that's
because Indians and everyone else out there exposed to English English know that grammar is to language what oxygen is to all living things. In any case, it obviously gets them through.

But maybe not. Given the number of errors McGraw-Hill tolerates in these tests, it's hard to say what's going on.

Perhaps the people in charge can't actually tell the difference between a clean text and a flawed one. They'll end up hiring not to get the best job done, but just to get it done at all, and hope nobody's really educated enough to tell the difference.

June 29, 2008

When ignorance trumps logic

The fun thing about being an ATR is re-acquainting yourself a day at a time with subjects you've never had to deal with since high school, and for some of us, that's a really long time ago.

I don't remember, for example, ever seeing the word "heterotrophic" in the HS biology class I took 47 years ago, or actually at any other point in my lifetime. The kids had to identify it, though, in a quiz I administered a couple of weeks ago. Some of these new terms, I'm told, came in after the Big Bang theory, an hypothesis people started getting used to only after I finished high school. Maybe that's why I don't know some of these words. The point is that until I started subbing, I hadn't fully comprehended how much new-fangled science kids need to know before they can get a Regents diploma.

So, I'm pretty used to going into a class, seeing words and concepts possibly for the first time, and helping kids work through their assignments with the glossaries and indexes at the back of the textbooks.

Which is why I was really put off my game a couple of weeks ago in a Health class, where the teacher had left a review sheet for pregnancy and HIV. I thought surely with two sets of textbooks and all those finding tools, we'd have no trouble answering all her questions on body parts, m
icrobes, and birth control devices.

I thought wrong. What was missing from all those glossaries and indexes speaks volumes. Not listed were some of the most important words I could think of on the subject: birth control, diaphragm, IUD, sponge and spermicide. What was writ loud and clear was the word ABSTINENCE.

Let me say right up front that I have no problem with pushing abstinence. What I mind very much is pushing IGNORANCE, which is what happens when key words are purposefully omitted from research tools. I bet "heterotrophic" is in the index over at Living Environment, and don't tell me kids need to know that word more than they need to know the word "diaphragm."

The DoE's HIV/AIDS curriculum, which it says is designed to meet NYS and NYC ed department mandates, seems quite reasonable. Under Samples of What Students Learn, it says that in grades 7-12:
Adolescents learn to avoid alcohol and other drugs, which may impair their judgment and put them at increased risk for HIV/AIDS infection. They are strongly encouraged to abstain from sexual intercourse. Some lessons also address methods of prevention, including the correct and consistent use of latex condoms, which can greatly reduce the risk of HIV/STI infection among people who are sexually active. Lessons also address HIV testing and explore how HIV/AIDS has affected our society.

Not bad. (I have more of a problem, actually, with the bold approach taken in grades 4-6:
Sexual transmission of HIV is introduced, and students are urged to abstain from sexual contact. Abstinence from sexual intercourse is emphasized as the only 100% effective way to prevent infection. Students are advised on how to cope with pressure not only from peers, but also from older adolescents who may attempt to coerce them into risky behaviors.
Are these sentences meant for the upper grades, or is my idea of childhood thoroughly antiquated?)

What I find most interesting and quite scary is something in the DoE's curriculum overviews for HIV/AIDS instruction. The words "abstaining" and "abstinence" appear seven times for grades 7-12, while the word "condom" appears only once, in the title of one of the appendices.

Nothing like wishful thinking to combat disease.

This brings me to an issue that came up in a recent discussion at the NY chapter of Americans United, an organization dedicated to preserving the separation of church and state. A woman raised her hand to ask why AU considered same-sex marriage as one of its issues. She could understand it as a civil rights issue, but not specifically one that involved the establishment of religion. It was explained to her that when the government is pushed toward, or in this case away from, legislation by such groups as the Religious Right that have specific establishment agendas, the subject of that legislation becomes an AU issue.

In this spirit, maybe we should be asking the publishers of these two textbooks, Holt, Rinehart & Winston and Prentice Hall, on what possible intellectual grounds do they specifically omit references to almost every single method of birth control in their indexes and glossaries. I'll save us the trouble: there is none. These books show that individuals in this day and age can still convince publishers and school boards that censorship is worth more than knowledge.

I didn't learn much more that day about birth control than I knew before. I did learn, though, that even in a town as liberal as the Big Apple, you have to stay alert to the wily ways of groups willing to sacrifice information and study skills as they go about pushing their pretty questionable agendas.

Jump in, the water's not so great

Some comments for Randi Weingarten, UFT pres. and just yesterday, the newly elected president of the AFT. You could read the press release on it, but honestly, you'd need to take almost all of it with that proverbial grain of salt. Or a bottle of Scotch.

Over at
EdNotes there's a story about a guidance counselor who'd been harassed by the principal and other administrators for some time. At the school's end-term party a few days ago, she got a heart attack and died.

I don't know a thing about this case, but I do know that the UFT knows very well that harassment and brutality towards teachers go rampant in every borough.

Weingarten's position remains on a scale of 1 to 10 neutral. If she cared to do anything about it, there would have been work-to-rule protests and media campaigns against anti-labor practices. She wouldn't have bothered with anemic surveys aimed at Klein, or TV ads on how important teachers are. She would never have gutted the grievance system, signing onto something that wasn't designed to handle the techniques promulgated at Klein's Leadership Academy or the sheer magnitude of his aggression.

I heard one of the hosts on Air America yesterday say the tide is turning in this country, that the unions are coming back. I don't see it.

I see a self-serving union president who loves playing in the political pool but who wasn't born a fish. Without the instinct for the job we do, she can't really defend us. Heck, she can't even recognize what's killing us.

There is a level of fear in this profession I don't remember feeling a decade ago. If you made a mistake in the old days, as we all have done, the principal might have had a word with you. If the mistake was a little more serious, maybe there would have been a letter, and maybe there should have been one.

Nowadays you don't know what you're dealing with. Is your principal on your back in particular or on everyone's back in general?
When you get a letter for your file, is it written by him or by one of those lawyers hired by Klein to provide instructions and text on how to admonish staff? And is the principal's gripe personal, or has he been advised by the bosses higher up on the food chain that rule by intimidation is the way to go and that there are all kinds of ways to cut the costs of high salaries?

There's a sickness in our schools that can no longer be eradicated by union collaboration. With the kind of hypocrisy, intimidation, and brutality that have become pandemic in this city under the Klein chancellorship, the union has to change course and push for desensitized administrators to be put somewhere far away from teachers and far away from kids.

It's time for Weingarten to be the fish she never was and swim in our schools. Let her jump in and experience for herself what Klein and all his bottom-feeders have been up to. Maybe then she'll be able to figure out how to fight our fight, the one we're seriously losing the longer she takes some middle, collaborative course out there on dry theoretical land.

PS: Norm gave this some contextual underpinning in his Ednotes
post of July 16th.

June 17, 2008

Can we get back to teaching grammar yet?

Just a day or two after Learners Inherit and I went separately off on the shoddy English tolerated by the DoE and its testing partner McGraw-Hill, NY Times Editorial Observer Lawrence Downes wrote of a similar kind of despair.

In an essay yesterday subtitled "An Elegy for Copy Editors", he reminded us exactly what these very important writers do, and how skilled they have to be to go about doing it.
Copy editors handle the final transition to an ink-on-paper object. On the news-factory floor, they do the refining and packaging. They trim words, fix grammar, punctuation and style, write headlines and captions . . . [they] are the last set of eyes before yours. They are more powerful than proofreaders. They untangle twisted prose. They are surgeons, removing growths of error and irrelevance; they are minimalist chefs, straining fat.
The way I look at it, when they do their job well, you can read the text without stumbling. When they do it superbly, you feel like you’re on a hovercraft, buoyed up and being moved along all at the same time.

Downes rues the demise of a profession:
As newspapers lose money and readers, they have been shedding great swaths of expensive expertise. . . Copy editors are being bought out or forced out; they are dying and not being replaced.
Style and consistency may have meant a lot in a print environment, but as newspapers compete in a new web world, it is “speed, agility and creativity” that get the job done.

I was working in District 2 when English teachers were running around the halls screaming, “They’re not letting us teach grammar!” That was because Lucy Calkins had come on the scene and sold an entire borough or two on writing workshops.
At the heart of her philosophy is the notion that children ought to be given a “voice,” encouraged to discover and refine their own personal writing style, as they compose “stories that matter.” . . . Her approach to literacy reviles “direct teaching,” where the teacher stands in front of the room and lectures, preferring instead that children work in small groups and consult each other as much as possible. . . . She writes of the “art” involved in teaching and conferring, and thereby suggests that while aspects of literacy can be taught, there also exists a degree of creative intuition in the process, on the part of both the child and the teacher.
Only a few years later, it was the foreign language teachers who were running around screaming. “How can we teach kids to conjugate verbs in Spanish and French when they don’t even know the parts of speech in English!” Some took their jobs really seriously and were telling everyone who'd listen that they were now having to teach grammar in not one language, but two: the foreign one and English as well.

The DoE has told us in so many ways that literacy is what they’re after. They’ve cut arts and sports curricula to make more room for it, they’ve insisted that kids keep writers’ notebooks à la Calkins whether teachers wanted to use this method or not, and they’ve replaced classic works of literature in school libraries with brightly packaged easy-reads on alluring subjects. They've tested endlessly, hoping that this ritualistic act of measurement might, if they could tweak it just right, produce some kind of magical picture of how literate our kids really are.

This is the tradition that has been established for a generation of schoolkids in New York City. But, it has failed the majority of them. They can’t write.

As one distressed teacher wrote a few years ago:
As everyone knows, NYC teachers are being forced to use [the Calkins workshop] model but it is not that effective for the middle, not to mention the struggling learners. Don't tell the mayor and Lucy but most of the students fall into these categories! Also, it is hard to run around correcting all the personal feelings that the kids are encouraged to write. What tops it off is the kids hate it. What happened to directly teaching skills? It is not happening in all the unrelated "mini" lessons. One of the students asked me, "Why don't you teach us how to write like you teach us the other subjects?" He was right! Teach, model and practice . . . HELP!!!

Help is at hand.

For the intellectually challenged at Tweed and McGraw-Hill, there’s an excellent paper that came out of the 2002 conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. It’s been endorsed by the Linguistic Society of America, another scholarly group that, unlike the faux-educators who issue directives to the city’s classroom teachers, cares deeply about language.

It has a very simple title: Why is grammar important?, and one would think that the essence of their argument is something the DoE would have subscribed to a long time ago. Here are some key paragraphs:
Grammar is important because it is the language that makes it possible for us to talk about language. Grammar names the types of words and word groups that make up sentences not only in English but in any language. As human beings, we can put sentences together even as children — we can all do grammar. But to be able to talk about how sentences are built, about the types of words and word groups that make up sentences — that is knowing about grammar. And knowing about grammar offers a window into the human mind and into our amazingly complex mental capacity.

People associate grammar with errors and correctness. But knowing about grammar also helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise. Grammar can be part of literature discussions, when we and our students closely read the sentences in poetry and stories. And knowing about grammar means finding out that all languages and all dialects follow grammatical patterns.

. . . Teaching grammar will not make writing errors go away. Students make errors in the process of learning, and as they learn about writing, they often make new errors, not necessarily fewer ones. But knowing basic grammatical terminology does provide students with a tool for thinking about and discussing sentences. And lots of discussion of language, along with lots of reading and lots of writing, are the three ingredients for helping students write in accordance with the conventions of standard English.

You don’t have to convince me.

The proofreaders responsible for the text excerpted by Learners Inherit would have done well to rely on the rules of grammar to get their meaning across. In example 1, for instance, it is entirely unclear whether it is the dual identity of Pluto or the planet itself that has been enshrouded in controversy, and I doubt very much that the ices mentioned in example 4 can on Pluto or anywhere else “rise,” as the passage says. May I add how depressing it is to see the words Sun and Earth capitalized, as if this were some kind of medieval tract giving supernatural powers to those celestial bodies.

The beauty, subtleties and greatness of the English language cannot be pulled out of the minds of children who do not hear much of these qualities in their daily lives. We do them no great favor when we pay more attention to “self-expression” than to the rules and structures that make the communication of their ideas possible.

Amy Benjamin reminds us that the ancient Greeks included grammar as one of the seven liberal arts. These, she says, have been considered the “handmaidens of thought.”

We should never tolerate the dissolution of our precious language traditions as the result of decisions made in corporate boardrooms or by advisors who are completely out of touch with what inner-city schoolchildren need to know to become successful communicators.

New post: I had some further things to say on this subject here.

June 14, 2008

Senior ATRs and a long, hot summer

Having never received a response from any of the 11 schools I applied to last spring through the DoE’s Open Market Hiring System, or even from the computer itself, I was startled to receive a response from one of the schools I applied to this year.

That’s not to say I got an interview there. Far from it.

What I did get, which shows they’ve actually tweaked the system a bit this year down at the DoE, is a letter telling me that the vacancy no longer exists, that it’s either been filled or removed from the school’s budget. I guess you could call this progress, that something was trying to communicate with me, if only a machine.

Also new this year is an acknowledgment you’re sent for each school you’ve applied to. Here's what one looks like, with the specifics redacted.

Dear Open Market Applicant:

Thank you very much for submitting your application to our school through the Open Market Hiring System. This email is being sent to you to confirm that your Open Market application has been received by the following school:

99 X999 – Name of School

Please note that you may be contacted directly at a later date if further information is required from you or you are being invited for an interview. Also, please note that an email notification also would be sent to you in the event that another candidate has been selected for an opening at our school. You may continue to submit applications to other schools in the Open Market Hiring System through August 7, 2008.

Thank you very much for your interest in our school.

Yours truly,


Notice it's signed by the Principal, but think about that for a moment.

We know that the Open Market computers have received our applications, ergo this form letter, but we don’t really know if the school itself ever received a darn thing. This letter is not, after all, coming from any flesh-and-blood principal: 11 of them would hardly be in a position to acknowledge the receipt of my 11 online applications immediately and all at the same time. In other words, an electronic fabrication, and we trust this letter and this application process about as much as we trust anything else this chancellor puts out, which amounts to zip.

When I went online a couple of weeks ago and couldn’t get the Open Market computers to accept my new cover letter or provide a place to insert my additional school choices, I guessed the system was actually down. There was a red alert message running the width of the screen that told me to try again later. Depressingly, it managed to contain one spelling error (guys, it’s “retrieve,” not “retreive”) and one grammatical error (“sometime” is not interchangeable with “some time,” two words).

It’s possible, by the way, that the text on the Open Market computers is being handled by the same kinds of proofreaders (newbies or grad students perhaps, people who don't cost too much) that they got to vet an exam the kids took this week. Published by McGraw-Hill, the DoE's partner in the New Order's test industry (see Acuity, but with more perspective at the Huffington Post), the exam had a word missing in the opening section. A citation was missing, too, which we knew should have been there because the directions told students to make sure they didn’t overlook it. But, you don’t want to know about all that. Honestly, it would make you ill.
That's what I wrote yesterday. This afternoon, The Chancellor's put up some shocking examples of how McGraw-Hill masticates written English. It'll make you really angry, I warn you, but you have to understand the magnitude of what Klein's been doing in the name of educational reform.

I was also pretty fascinated to discover that a school in the vacancy list that had caught my eye didn't even exist. Nothing but the name was coming up through the school search screen, and a Google search or two reported a budget of $0, but not much else. Why the computer is even listing it is beyond me, and it wasn't the only phantom school showing up in my search.

I don’t think I'm surprised by anything the DoE does anymore. It’s run by a chop-chop businessman, not an educator, someone who’s busy supplanting long-term educators with uncertified grad students, mostly self-professed transients. A rank amateur at promoting scholarship — obviously — he tolerates a level of shoddiness in computer systems, reorganizations, tests and just about everything else he designs that has made our jaws just drop.

If I could talk to the DoE computers, I’d be asking them all kinds of other questions, like these, for example:

I hear principals hold back some positions for the job fairs. When they do, are they holding back just the computer posting or hiding the job altogether, computer or otherwise?

Is it OK for a them not to post a vacancy? If they're holding back vacancies from the Open Market computers, does the DoE know about it? Does it condone this practice? Encourage it? Care?

Can a principal be fined for hiding vacancies and/or creating other kinds of obstacles for job-seekers, particular senior educators?

What does the principal see when he gets your application? Your step? Salary? Age? How much does he have to infer from your resume, and how much is the computer supplying for them in automatically calculated fields?

Why doesn’t the system allow me to upload a formatted resume and cover letter? Doesn't the DoE assume that people with advanced degrees have these documents ready to go, all formatted? Unless someone advises me I'm encountering a Mac problem or there are some upload or format buttons I’ve overlooked, the DoE computers knock out style. You have to re-format your documents in the simplest kind of plaintext to make them readable. What a waste of time, and so easy to design right.

Does the Open Market close down the computers at a specific time during the week for maintenance? If so, when is that, so I can save myself the frustration of multiple fruitless attempts to get it to work?

The way I see it, there’s only one way for a senior ATR to handle all this.

Go online and apply to whatever. Then make yourself a gin-and-tonic, put your feet up, and relax. Nothing will happen with your application. You’ll be subbing back at your old school or somewhere else until you put in for retirement — or until KleinWorld devises another way to push you out of your job.

June 12, 2008

A moment of thanks

I'm 100% sure that the guys who found my cellphone on the subway won't ever read this blog, but I needed to memorialize their kindness anyway.

I had gone down by subway through three boroughs, from the north Bronx through Manhattan and into Brooklyn, before I found my phone was missing. The young guy I eventually got it back from told me that a man had noticed it on the floor of the car at 42nd Street. He said it passed quickly through a number of hands before someone gave it to him to deal with just as the doors were closing.

So thank you, anonymous New Yorkers. It's small moments like these that remind me how much I'm happy mixing in among you.

June 8, 2008

I prefer acupuncture

Imagine yourself on an acupuncturist’s table, with all the needles placed neatly into the back your neck and down the length of your spine. Then imagine electronic wires being attached to some of those needles, and a device being plugged into the wall that will send current down those wires into your body.

You wait in apprehension for the first turn of the dial.
You’re fearful and confront your vulnerability flat on. You remember that you’ve just turned over the control of your forthcoming discomfort to the doctor and the pain you’ll be feeling, if any, is entirely in his hands.

It reminds me of the feeling you get when you're called down to the principal's office on an abuse charge. But there's a difference. You can trust your acupuncturist to know what he’s doing and treat you without injury. With your principal, that's not always the case.

In BloomKlein’s New World Order, teachers are beginning to understand how precarious their position is in at the hands of a supervisor investigating an allegation of abuse. Two things are becoming ever more apparent: he won't necessarily apply the chancellor's regs in the teacher's favor, and he will always protect his own butt first.

At a faculty conference the other day, a supervisor indicated that a gentle touch on an arm or a shoulder to keep a line of kids moving was a No-No, that it would fall under the category of corporal abuse. What did you say?

When the staff started looking around at each other in very reasonable disbelief, a teacher asked if this could be clarified a bit, perhaps with a few examples of the kind of corporal abuse we wouldn’t know we were doing if we were doing it.

Quoth the supervisor: “Um, er, I don’t have the regs with me, I can’t remember.”

I’ll tell you this right now: I don't expect my acupuncturist to give me an answer as poor as this with all his little needles in my spine, and I certainly don’t want my supervisor admitting to ignorance when his judgment could potentially push me out of my career.

During Klein’s tenure we have come to live with a level of fear that is as sick as it is unprecedented. People misread and misinterpret the regulations on what constitutes corporal and verbal abuse and then use these misrepresentations to assess an incident that may or may not have happened.

I’m not defending abuse here, marginal or otherwise. What I’m talking about is an apparent willingness of some supervisors to misuse the regs to intimidate a teacher or put a career in jeopardy.

Here is what the State says, and it’s written right into the Chancellor’s Reg A-420:

These blue frames are from the UFT website , but are mirrored in the regs themselves. As you can see in the next one, the term does NOT mean using reasonable physical force for any of the following purposes:

To qualify the 4th point above, A-420 actually says that you can use physical restraint or removal for:
a pupil whose behavior is interfering with the orderly exercise and performance of school district functions, powers or duties, if that pupil has refused to comply with a request to refrain from further disruptive acts, provided that alternative procedures and methods not involving the use of physical force cannot be reasonably employed to achieve the purposes [of the first three items].

I have been hearing some pretty weird stuff about members being charged with what seems to me pretty normal behavior for people who are being paid to serve in loco parentis. Someone, I heard, is in the rubber room because s/he sat a child down in his seat after the boy refused to follow reiterated verbal instructions to go there and stay there. Any parent would have done the same thing with the child. And all the other parents would be fuming if they knew the amount of teacher time this particular child was taking up while he continued to disrupt the class.

As to Verbal abuse, regulation A-421 clearly indicates that a student must feel fear, distress, threat, or belittlement from your words.

So when I hear things like people being brought up on charges for raising their voice, I say there’s a huge difference between doing that to cause fear and doing it to get the kids to tone down the volume. One would like to believe the supervisor knows the difference as well. Teachers who can’t project their voice are clearly not in as much danger as someone like me, who has had operatic training and actually takes considerable pleasure making the walls vibrate without the help of a microphone. Whereas I’ve seen a few kids put their hands up to their ears when I really max out, they have never felt threatened, belittled or fearful of my voice. They know I’m doing my thing, but in Kleinworld, you never know how a supervisor might run with this.

Assessing the “intent” behind a possible A-420 and A-421 violation is not the only landmine you’re up against. Some supervisors haven’t realized that verbal and corporal have long been split into two separate regulations (the most recent versions were issued on 9/26/07). Many of them don’t know the protocols or follow them, like letting the teacher review the witness statements. One administrator I knew let a parent write a student’s witness statement and sign his name to it. What might cause a student "distress" needs a volume all to itself. (There are more examples over at Chaz’s School Daze, and AVoice comes at the whole issue of human contact between teachers and kids over at The Chancellor's. Fascinating, and we should be talking more about this. She posted another must-read on this topic the next day.)

You are not allowed to punish a child, or cause him distress or excessive fear — not moderate fear, but EXCESSIVE fear, mind you. (Who would want to, by the way.)

But, Klein's supervisors favor some pretty outrageous interpretations of this regulation, and when they do, they’re either protecting themselves against a parent they see as a personal threat, or they are plain out to get you.

Either way, teachers are on the front line, and teachers will take the fall.

Appendix: It's worth a few minutes re-acquainting yourself with these if you haven't read them. I see contradictory wording in the regs for the Answer to the 2nd question. Maybe someone can sort this out.

Bloggers, keep sloggin'. There's a long way to go.

As long as the NY Times and other big media prefer regurgitating whole bucketfuls of corporate PR to muckraking and reporting the realities of our education landscape, we have to make it our business to rail against the dissolution of the First Amendment and fill in the holes as where we can.

You can count on the Free Press organization to be one of the standard-bearers in this war against truth-telling. Important speeches are being made at their National Conference for Media Reform this weekend in Minneapolis. Bill Moyers gave the keynote. He called the media reform movement "the most significant citizens' movement to emerge in this new century," and until they post a transcript of it next week, you can listen to it at this video link.

Coming down pretty hard on corporate news, Dan Rather shines a spotlight on what happens when reporters ask the tough questions:
These questions are met with what is now called, euphemistically and much too kindly, what is now called "message discipline."

Well, we used to have a better and more accurate term for "message discipline." We called it "stonewalling."

. . . But when a tough question is asked and not answered, when reputable people come before the public and say, "Wait a minute, something's not right here," the press has treated them like voices crying in the wilderness [Chancellor's, are you listening?]. These views . . . become lone dots — dots that journalists don't dare connect, even if the connections are obvious, even if people on the Internet and in the independent press are making these very same connections.

He answers the big question, what the press (and by extension, the rest of us as well) are going to do about it, with a call to be on the alert for news media bowing to undue government influence. The internet, he says, must remain free so that journalism doesn't have to pass through a corporate filter. Corporations can't have "preferred access . . . to this unique platform for independent journalism."

To me, that includes the bloggers, who are doing real reporting from the inside of real schools.

June 6, 2008

TFA and myth-making

In her insightful post on how ideologically challenged TFA is, Learners Inherit says that those who run that program do not understand what commitment means and how damaging it is to install grad students into our city schools who have a turnstile agenda.

Before encouraging everyone to go over to The Chancellor's to read the whole essay, I'd like to say just a couple of things.

First of all, I admit right off that I only looked up the TFA website for the first time this evening. Under the heading What we do, they tell us:
Teach for America exists to address educational inequity. [LOL] In our nation, which aspires so admirably to be a land of equal opportunity [LOL], where a child is born still determines that child's educational outcome. [Does it really mean where he's born, the specific place?] Our mission is to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity [LOL] by enlisting our nation's most promising future leaders in the effort. Our vision is that one day, all children [LOL] in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

What a chuckle. I'm sorry, but who believes this stuff?

At the link What is educational inequity? there's a
heading more appropriate for a soap-box called "Our nation's greatest injustice." Four bulleted points illustrate some "educational disparities" in the academic success of specific groups of kids, and the writers attribute these to such things as school capacity, socio-economic pressures, health care, nutrition, pre-school programs, and stress at home. I basically agree with them, kids are affected by all of these. And I also agree with their conclusion that "communities haven't taken sufficient steps to mitigate these socioeconomic pressures . . . because of our prevailing priorities, policies, and practices."

Unfortunately, however, neither the socio-economic phenomena causing the disparities or any of those prevailing priorities just mentioned have anything to do with the job of TFA. No one told these people to go out and fix society, and of course, they wouldn't even be able to.

There's a helluva a disconnect between the socio-political landscape of a big city and a mere teacher training program, and no juxtaposition of these two things in a website or in glossy PR materials will establish a link between them. To couple them is devious, and on some level repulsive.

We finally get to read about something tangible and even possible in a
second link, which says that TFA recruits new teachers and "invests in their training and professional development." That's fine, but that's what all colleges and universities do: attract college grads into their ed programs and train them how to teach. No extra points for this.

Saying that after the members complete their 2-year commitments, TFA continues "to foster their ongoing commitment to and leadership in effecting the fundamental changes necessary to expand educational opportunity," the writers have headed straight into the theater of the absurd.

Everyone knows that teachers who leave the profession after such a short period of time have abandoned ship, and all that folderol about fostering and effecting and expanding is just a load of codswallop. Gone is gone, and they aren't coming back.

Now, over to Learners Inherit . . . .

June 1, 2008

Dumbing down, numbing up

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard teachers say they work “in the trenches.” Usually they mean in the city’s classrooms, “on the front line,” so to speak.

It’s one thing to roll up your sleeves and get down to work with troubled kids in troubled schools in troubled neighborhoods: we’re talking vocation here. But, it’s a whole other thing to find yourself mucking around with the real thing: guns, gangs, and the sanitizing of violence in BloomKlein’s New World Order.

I’m not a newcomer to this system and have seen my share of aggression and blood in schools. The first time I ran into it wasn’t even in this country, it was at a British grammar school. Some boys were fooling around with a javelin they’d stolen out of the gym, and one of them got killed. It wasn’t intentional to be sure, but neither was there any reason for that kid to hurl the weapon directly at the others. The teachers were horrified.

I was also horrified about 12 years ago when a big, bad kid put his fist through a glass door in the Manhattan middle school I was working in. It was at the end of the day and there were only two of us there to apply a tourniquet and stop the blood shooting out from a severed artery in a six-foot arch. The parent couldn’t be reached (she could never be reached, draw your own conclusions), the other teacher couldn’t deal with it and left, and I accompanied the boy to the hospital. To tell you I disliked this kid for all his disruptive behavior in my class is an understatement, but I had him squeeze my hand while they sewed up his gaping flesh without anesthetic. He didn’t seem to know or care that we had saved his life, he never acknowledged our presence or came in to talk about the incident with us at all.

And all of us know about those hallway fights you try to break up, the ones that in spite of all the advice in the world about not getting involved seem to require your help the most, and you end up throwing personal caution to the wind. Big kids, little ones, girls, boys, scratching, kicking, biting, pulling hair, spitting venomous language. When kids are getting themselves hurt in front of our eyes, it's not so easy to just stand by and watch. And you’re again horrified. How can these students be in their teens and still think anything someone might say to them is worth a brutal physical response?

A week or so ago we not only had a gun scare at school, we had a real gun. I’m ashamed to say that hardly anyone was horrified. Some even remarked: “Well, it wasn’t loaded" and went about their business.

I am unhappy on all kinds of levels about this incident — mostly, of course, that the words gun and school can show up in the same sentence. I am unhappy about the way it was handled: the delay in telling staff about the incident, the withholding of details, the dissemination of misinformation. We were left uninformed and unprepped, which was not unexpected, but nevertheless strange.

The casual reaction of some of the staff gave me pause. Have we become so inured to this war that’s been going on for five years that anything less than bloody and ruthless devastation is somehow acceptable in the normal run of things? Or has that war become so Bush-sanitized that some people disengage from the reality of violence out of habit and can no longer react to it on a gut level or be shocked by warlike things?

Boy, are we buying into illusion these days. With their deep pockets and expensive PR machines, Bloomberg and Klein have made it their business to obscure the problems in our city's schools, not to mention all the things students have to deal with before they even get there.

We don’t need a billionaire mayor who encourages the wholesale manipulation of testing, data, programs, and accountability to get people to believe he’s been a “successful” education leader. But that’s what we are told by a compromised press, and we keep buying their newspapers and watching their newscasts.

We don’t need Klein’s tireless assaults on teachers, kneecapping union workers and making them the scapegoats for all the ills of society, the greed of education lobbyists and corporations, and the abuse of political office. But we’ve allowed them to convince us it's the teachers who are at fault.

We don’t need transparent schemes like credit recovery that educrats hobble together to cover up their dismal record of not giving students a decent set of skills by the time they graduate. But, our kids certainly feel great once they’ve learned how to work the system.

We don’t need people in office who ignore state mandates for special education and the subjects you need to graduate, and who have little use for time-honored methodologies, vocational skills, the arts, and smaller class sizes. Yet, union managers demur mildly with one lame explanation or another (like “They seem to be turning state mandates into recommendations”) and call for no action at all.

And we certainly don’t need cover-ups for the weapons, crime, gang graffiti, and violence that come near and into our schools.

To be in the eye of the hurricane and believe it’s not raging around you is both foolhardy and stupid.

And to fight this particular storm here in New York City, fanned by high-end hypocrisy, malfeasance, and social engineering on a massive scale, teachers must recognize two things: that some facts never come out unless we demand them, and that it’s always better to get them out there than to remain comfortable in studied ignorance.

The GHI/HIP merger — more corporate shenanigans

This alert on the merger (and privatization) of the GHI and HIP health plans has been submitted by John Powers. It is a call to action, so anyone who reads this in the NYC area, please try to attend the next demonstration:

[Extracted from a longer post]

There is much work to do. Rest assured, if rank and file members begin to organize, mobilize and make noise, our leadership will begin to transform itself or it will disappear and be replaced.

Transformation is not impossible.

I was recently asked: How long have you been an activist?

Answer: Since my first DA in October 2007 (7 months). I spent the last fifteen years of my life with my "face in the books." I didn't get up off my ass to do anything connected with my political and societal beliefs (one big exception, of course, has been teaching and mentoring students and other educators). Democracy and equality are still the cornerstones of my teaching life; but the consciousness raising events of becoming a chapter chair have transformed me. Quite frankly, it has been an exciting, inspiring, scary and humbling experience.

I have made mistakes. Mistakes make you feel stupid and can threaten to undermine you. I reread something I sent out a while ago that said: "Union Member Who Told Cami Anderson to Stick It."

Can anyone say "Jackass?" What was I thinking?

I have also had disagreements with a couple of activist friends only to learn that the disagreement had a lot more to do with my inexperience and impatience than it had to do with their being wrong. How can I (we) not make mistakes when the stakes are so high and so many of us have had limited experiences with the kind of work that is needed to help our union and to withstand and turn back the Bloom-Klein tide of so called "educational reform?"

This year I became aware. I put one foot in front of the other each day and try my best to make a difference. It feels good.

I hope I haven't bored anyone. It wasn't meant as a sermon. My apologies if it comes off this way.