Sunday, January 28, 2007

Speaking the Truth..

...whether or not anyone's listening.

My letter (also known as career suicide) to the people in charge of "Research, Assessment, and Accountability" in my district. Also known as the department that makes my kids take so many tests. (They're not responsible for the state testing, only for the mountains of district testing heaped on top of the state testing). I may be blacklisted now, but there are some times that - even if it's just for my own sake - I need to say what I know to be true.

Dear XXX,

I am a 3rd grade teacher in this district. I have just finished giving my students the mid-year math assessment and mid-year language arts assessment and I have a number of concerns that I hope you can address for me.

First, this is the second math assessment this year which covers standards not yet scheduled to be taught. In particular, this mid-year assessment - with a testing window of Jan 22-26 - covers geometry, scheduled to be taught from Jan 22 - Feb 9. Among other topics not yet covered, there are two or three questions on the different types of triangles; a standard not taught until Feb 8 and 9. I have to question the validity and usefulness of data obtained by testing children on standards not yet taught. It seems to me that either the math pacing guide or the testing window could be adjusted to make a more reasonable assessment.

Secondly, I am highly concerned about the math and language arts assessments being held at the same time, as well as the sheer number and frequency of district assessments. This week we had to complete both the mid-year language arts assessment and the mid-year math assessment, in addition to the regular weekly math, reading comprehension, and spelling assessments. Because of the time and energy these assessments take, it was difficult to fit the required teaching into the week.

The main reason I am concerned about the frequency of district tests is the adverse effect that it seems to be having on the children. To have five intensive Open Court Unit tests throughout the year, three district math assessments, the new district language arts assessments, on top of state testing and the weekly assessments required by the math and language arts curricula, is simply too much for my third grade students. They are not being given enough time to learn the subjects they are tested on, and are even tested on subjects not yet taught. They are frustrated and discouraged by being tested on what they haven't learned yet, and the frequency of testing is overwhelming them and causing some of them to dread coming to school.

I have a class full of wonderful students who are eager to learn and beg to be allowed to act on their innate joy of learning. They actually beg for science, they love exploring new topics and ideas, whether they be in math or language arts, and I feel that an excess of district testing is taking away from their valuable learning experiences. I hate to see children's self-confidence being damaged by being tested on subjects they haven't even had a chance to practice yet, as has been the case in some of the problems on the math assessments.

At this age, children will learn to love or hate school. We as educators, by our actions, can encourage the students to love learning or we can turn them off to it entirely. I hope you will take these concerns into consideration when planning assessments for the next school year. I am sure you want the best for all students in OUSD. If you have any questions about any of my concerns, please feel free to contact me via email at any time.

No. I never got any sort of response at all. Predictable, but still disappointing.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

What I Want People To Know

I was talking to a friend the other day and trying to figure out why I am keeping up this blog. Part of me wants to show off my kids, how cute they are, what funny things they say. Part of me wants people to know what I'm going through with my ridiculous, dysfunctional district. But if that's all it is, I don't think I'd continue writing - I have a lot of other things that should be taking up my time. I think my main hope is that people will read this and understand that things are not OK in education in California. And more than that, I want people to get MAD about it.

Most of this is detailed in previous entries, but there is severe inequality in our schools. If you (or anyone else!) doesn't believe me, read my blog, read Jonathan Kozol's books, come visit my school. The inequality is so entrenched that I honestly have no idea what can be done about it at this point, but I do know that nothing that has been done is working.

No Child Left Behind isn't working. I'm willing to bet that politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, have no idea what daily life is like for children or teachers in these low-performing or "failing" schools. If they did, no one would be suggesting ridiculous strategies, like imposing "sanctions" against schools that are not making progress on the tests. "Sanctions" is not my word - it is the official word used - our sanctions were having our teachers' aides taken away - obviously punishment isn't a successful motivator because we're still a "failing" school. Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, and the children of East Oakland - all the beneficiaries of sanctions by the U.S. government.

"Accountability" isn't working - at least not when accountability means tests, tests, and more tests. Does no one realize that never-ending tests do not motivate students, but do the exact opposite? I have had students cry, scream, throw tests, refuse to take them, throw up... It's hard to explain how heartbreaking it is to see a child - who loves to learn, who loves science and reading and mystery and adventure and computers and her teacher and her class pet and doing well and feeling smart - to see this child put her head down on the test and sob and say, "I'm just too stupid, I'll never pass all these tests." And for me to have to say, "Please don't get the test wet - I have to turn it in?"

I'm doing what I can about the tests. I tell the kids that no one should have to take this many tests, that school should be about learning with occasional tests, not testing with occasional learning. I tell them that the people who make these tests don't know how to make tests, because if they did, there wouldn't be questions that haven't been covered in the curriculum yet. I tell them that the people writing the tests don't know kids so they don't know what to put on the third grade tests and they make it too hard. I tell them that as long as they are thinking and trying and learning and doing their best, I am proud of them and what their teacher thinks is more important than what people who don't know them think. I tell them that it is important to do their best, but that no test, EVER, should make them feel bad about themselves, and that if it does, they need to say, "You silly test, you can't make me feel bad! I'm more important than you'll ever be!"

But I'm fighting a losing battle. Last year I had to teach science secretly - yes, secretly - since I wasn't supposed to be teaching science. (It takes away from No Child Left Behind curriculum). Each year, more tests are added and more pressure is put on us and the children to achieve. And no matter where you go, the schools with more black and Latino students will be in worse areas, with less experienced teachers, less materials, less autonomy, and more ridiculous bureaucratic requirements.

I don't know how it will ever change. But maybe if people know how bad things are, they might begin to.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Infirmary Ward

My whole class seems to be sick - which is strange, because they were all at school for once. I had seven or eight who were sneezing with running noses, three or four who threw up, and two who just felt bad all around and fell asleep.

I'm starting to feel ill - not sure if it's psychosomatic or if I'm actually getting sick from the little germ balls, also known as children.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More Evaluations

This is student work. The reasons I point out that this is student work is that on my last evaluation, I was told that I had minimal (she underlined it twice) student work up in my room. She said all I had up was some art. I had to take pictures of all of the student work and write it all up to prove to her that I do indeed have student work up in the classroom. I'm not sure if she needs glasses or is just out to get me.

I could have used all this time to actually plan things for the kids or do actual work. But no, I need to write up a rebuttal for my ridiculous evaluation.

This is what's going to push me over the edge.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Sinking to New Depths

Oakland Unified and No Child Left Behind are ruining my students' education. That may sound dramatic, but it's true. And I'm pretty close to just walking away.

We got another math assessment from the district that covers what we haven't taught. The first one covered types of word problems that were supposed to be taught a few weeks after the test was due. This one covers geometry, which is a unit we are just starting (and we're taking the test this week), including questions on the types of triangles, which are not supposed to be taught until the SECOND WEEK OF FEBRUARY. The test is due on Jan 29. We're back to time traveling, I see. Let me point out that the same department made the schedule of lessons taught and the test. Big problems.

This is not the only problem. The testing schedule has gotten unbearable. Let me explain. There are four types of tests that we are mandated to give, not including any teacher-generated assessments that might actually help us assess the students.

  • *Weekly tests - in math, language arts, and spelling, take anywhere from 10-90 minutes
  • *Unit tests - sent by the district every 6-8 weeks for language arts, we're kind of supposed to do math ones too, but I don't, take about 3-5 hours to finish
  • *District assessments - 3 times a year for math, take about 3-5 hours to finish; now we have language arts ones 3 times a year also
  • *State testing - 2-3 hours a day for almost two weeks

Now look at the schedule. I'm not including the every Friday tests, so add those in your mind

  • October 17-20 testing window for Language Arts, Unit 1
  • November 27-30 testing window for Math (and next year for the new language arts test)
  • December 12-15 testing window for Lanugage Arts, Unit 2
  • January 22-26 testing window for Math
  • January 22-26 testing window for Language Arts (the new one)
  • February 12-15 testing window for Language Arts, Unit 3
  • February 27-28 testing window for an "extra" district math test
  • April 4-6 testing window for Language Arts, Unit 4
  • April 22-May 11 testing window for state tests
  • May 21-30 testing window for District Math test
  • May 21-30 testing window for Language Arts district test (the new one)
  • June 6-12 testing window for Language Arts, Unit 5

Now add in the 3 tests we're supposed to give them weekly, and answer me:


I think I may have to get out of this profession.

Friday, January 19, 2007


My evaluation came about a month ago but I've been so irritated by it that I haven't gotten around to writing about it. We're evaluated on a scale of 1-4, with 3 being acceptable, 4 being outstanding, 2 unacceptable but developing, and 1 being unacceptable. Now, I wasn't expecting to get all 4s or anything like that, but I also wasn't expecting what I got.

There are definitely parts of my teaching that I can improve. My classroom's a mess, to begin with, and I'm sometimes just way too tired to do everything I should do. But I absolutely should not have been marked down on what I was. Two areas: assessment and parent contact.

Let's take assessment first. She has observed me once for one hour. One. Hour. On the basis of this, she says that my assessment is not up to standards. Not only do I give all required assessments and use the scores to drive instruction, but if you name any one of my students, I can tell you what they're good at, what they struggle with, usually the scores they got on their last tests, how often they turn in their homework, if their parents are supportive, what they want to be when they grow up... What else does she want me to do?

Oh wait, I did do more. I have had each student , right before report cards every trimester, look through their work, assess themselves, and decide on goals, both short-term and long-term, that they have for themselves. I had a meeting with each student to talk about their improvement or lack of improvement and how they can meet their goals. But I don't perform assessments up to her standards.

Even more ludicrous is the mark I got on parental contact. Not only have I done all the required parent conferences, but every parent in the class has my cell phone number, some of them on speed dial. They come back and visit me, they bring me copies of my former students' report cards, videotapes of their children's graduations, and presents. They come in and talk to me about their kids, their personal lives, their family history, their work. They tell me that I'm the only teacher who's ever come to their child's sports games. Some of the kids get phone calls home every day, good or bad. They even come to talk to me about my evaluator and how unapproachable they feel this woman is. But I'm the one who gets an "unacceptable" in parent contact.

I've got to write my rebuttal for the evaluation this weekend to get turned in to HR and put in my file next to the evaluation. It probably won't hurt me at all because I'm tenured and I"ve lasted at the school for 8 years. However, her other evaluatees are new, but excellent, teachers and they can be hurt by the evaluations. Our current theory is that since she's a new administrator, she's trying to gain authority by having highly unrealistic standards. It's certainly not working though. The last thing she's getting around here is authority.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Dr. Suzy

They learned about brains, hearts and lungs and even got to see REAL brains, hearts and lungs. It was SO COOL!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Butterflies, Warren, and Suzy

Totally just realized that science with Dr. Suzy didn't make it on the blog because I was slow in getting the pictures. I'll do that soon because it was AWESOME!

In other errors, for some reason, the butterflies posted down under a few other posts, so make sure you see the cool pictures. Warren and his super-zoom lens get credit for all the photos.

Speaking of Warren, he's been a great volunteer this year. Besides Science with Mr. Smith and the butterfly field trip, he has come a number of times to help with math. (Even though the first time he was there this year, he got accosted by an administrator in the hall and asked - not so nicely - who he was and what he was doing at the school. After he had signed in and gone through all the necessary paperwork. Right. And we wonder why we don't have volunteers).

Each time he comes, he takes about three kids at a time and goes through word problems or new math procedures with them; things that are too complex to be taught to the whole class at once. Many of the children need to learn things this way, with a much smaller group and more attention, but of course it just can't really happen in a class setting with only one adult.

Warren is a natural with the difficult kids. He patiently reassures them that it's OK to not know the material yet, because if they knew it, then they wouldn't be at school. He somehow keeps the kid who is just a ball of kinetic energy in his seat and relatively focused. And he patiently explains the math problems to them over and over until they understand (which in some cases, takes a long time). He told "Phil" that he was a good kid. Phil had never heard this before. Ever. I am pretty sure it's changed his life.

The kids love Mr. Smith. They want him to come every day, they want him to be their sub when I'm gone, and a number of them want him to be their daddy.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Lights Out!

I was remembering today about a day from last year when the lights went out. I was remembering this because it illustrates - so beautifully - the lack of logic among the administration.

The lights went out - and stayed out for four hours - and it was totally dark outside from the rain. We couldn't see anything at all, but had to keep the kids the whole time. Afterward, they canceled our staff meeting in order to give us time to work on report cards. Unfortunately, it was so dark, I couldn't really SEE said report cards.

When I went to talk to the principal and tell her I was throwing in the towel for the last 45 minutes of the report card period and going home to do it, she told me that I would have to fill out an absence form and take an hour of sick time for it. So I sat in the dark for 45 minutes, mulling over the question of why there is no logic at all in my district.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Another Old Email

This was the email I sent to people who agreed to pray for my kids a few years back.

Hello pray-ers,

I wish I had kids' names for all of you already, but I still have no class list. School starts in 11 hours and we were supposed to get class lists in JUNE. That's almost as logical as my other big problem - I only have
dry-erase whiteboards in my room, no chalkboards, and the office will only give me chalk, no dry erase pens. You can imagine how useful that is. I'll spare you the rest of the supply horror stories.

Anyway, thanks for volunteering to pray. I will get names out as soon asI have them. For now, please pray for my sanity :) Just when I
think it couldn't be any more difficult, I get proved wrong. The school is just so set up to fail that it's amazing. It makes it difficult to keep a good attitude for the kids too. Please pray for the new teachers too - there are 8 of them, mostly young and pretty new and right now extremely discouraged.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

More City Wildlife

In answer to the question "How do birds survive in the city?" I was expecting to read some answers out of the story we read, Urban Roosts, which tells, actually, how birds survive in the city. Instead, I got this from one girl who really got to the heart of the matter with her simple answer.

Question: "How do birds survive in the city?"

Answer: "Birds survive in the city by not getting killed."