The Blog That Was A Decade In The Making! Part Five

12 Oct

October 12, 2011

Part One can be found here,
Part Two is here,
you can find Part Three here,
and Part Four is here.

One thing that was true then, is true now, and is universally true wherever you go is that the newer you are, the more jobs you get stuck with after everyone else turns them down. That’s how I was given the job of newspaper advisor.

It didn’t seem like that at the time. My boss very casually asked me “how would you like to make some extra money?” and I naively said “I’d love to.” In reality it wasn’t that bad a job, once I realized I had to do most of it myself. My school never had a lot of enthusiasm for things like school newspapers and while I did get the students to write a couple of articles the layout and design was all up to me.

The previous newspaper advisor was still using the out-of-date methods of laying out the articles by hand on tabletop, the way newspapers were laid out in the old west. I used the very simple Microsoft Publisher program. The last few years our school newspapers were printed in-house on copy machines. I had mine professionally printed on newspaper from an outside vendor. Even though eight years later I was in charge of school’s best yearbook in history, this little two sheet newspaper has better memories for me.

But it was still a lot of work and not much money and it was a bit of a watershed moment when I finally had the seniority to pass it on to a rookie teacher. And for the record, after I left it was almost always printed in-house on copy paper.

In a previous entry I mentioned the Getaway program. Despite putting a lot of effort into it I wasn’t in it for long. Part of the trouble was that it was focused on math and science and I was an English teacher. While they did well in those subjects they didn’t do well enough in English to create a dedicated Getaway English class. There weren’t enough of them with high enough grades. While their other classes were Getaway only, the English class was half Getaway and half honors English. The honors kids were on too high a level (or the Getaway kids were too low) so I was in effect running two concurrent classes. That was OK, but the Getaway kids were often not in my class because they were participating in Getaway events, events which I should have been a part of as a Getaway teacher but I could not be involved in because of the other kids I was responsible for. I had to be in the classroom. Because I could not be included in most events I never really fit in with the Getaway staff.

The worst moment came when the Getaway kids had a pizza party on the football field and the other half of my class sat in my room and watched the party from the windows.

To be fair, on days when the Getaway kids were gone I gave the honors kids a free period. It was unfair any other way. How could they sit in a class and work when half of the same class got to go on trips and have parties?

I wasn’t long for the program and I didn’t miss it, the Mr. Anderson the AP, or the other teachers. However, I knew I would miss the cd players and other things I ordered so even after I was no longer in the program I held on to the things I used. Selfish? Maybe. But they stayed in the school and were used for the students and I shared them with the other teachers. At least those who knew I had them.

Things changed on a regular basis at the DOE. It all depended on who was in charge/ what was in vogue/ whichever article had just been published/ who was running the meeting/ whatever some other school district had done/ what new book someone discovered/ what the Chancellor ate for breakfast. Take the Aim, for example.

The Aim is the point of each lesson. It was always written on the board at the start of every lesson. Don’t confuse that with the Objective, which sounds the same but was not. This was a common type of Aim when I started teaching:

AIM: To discover metaphors in Tom Sawyer.

Clear, isn’t it?

At some point it was decided that all Aims had to be written in the form of a question.

AIM: What are the metaphors in Tom Sawyer?

The reason was that the Aim should be answerable, so that if you asked the aim at the end of the lesson the answer would show that the students learned. If they could answer the Aim the lesson was successful.

But that was not considered a good Aim. It was a closed question. Even if you give the metaphors it shows only that the students can parrot the answer, not that they can think and discover the answer.

AIM: How can we discover the metaphors in Tom Sawyer?

That’s good. But it didn’t stop there.

Eventually it was decided that the Aim should be elicited. In other words, in a reversal of decades of educational policy, it was decided that the Aim would be left blank.


At first this freaked out the students. The intent was that after the lesson the teacher would ask the class “so what was the aim of this lesson?” and if they could answer it correctly you did your job.

That idea didn’t last long and soon Aims were back on the board. But that wasn’t good enough. Not only did Aims need to be on the board, so did such stuff as Do Now, Objective, Motivation, Agenda, Rubric, and of course Homework. This goal was to outline the entire lesson on the board for the students to follow. It was ridiculous. In effect it put your lesson plan on the board and it was pointless. The students did not need a step by step, question by question guide to the lesson. That was for the teacher to follow. It also made lessons less dynamic and more rigid. It took out flexibility and creativity. It also took away the spontaneous “A-ha!” moments that students love. There is nothing better than when a student has everything click in their heads. This was akin to a magician standing in front of an audience saying “I am going to make this rabbit disappear and here is how I am going to do it,” then proceeding to explain every movement and sleight of hand, and showing the trick compartments and phony rabbit. It made everything clinical and uninteresting. But that didn’t last long either.

Rubrics weren’t bad in theory but as with everything the DOE touched, awful in execution.

They are standards for grading. For example, if the class did a skit, what would be a 100, what would be a 90, what content would be looked for, etc. Not only did it make it easy for the students to understand what was expected of them, it made it easy for the teacher to grade.

The problem was that by this point the DOE decided that the students needed to be in every step of the process. The class had to develop the rubrics. They decided what passing or failing meant, they decided all aspects of grading. Now in reality a good teacher could guide the outcome so no class had a standard like “45 is a passing grade” but it was a lot of wasted class time and effort.

Yes it helped the students take ownership of the learning process, but I was always of the opinion that my students could take ownership of it simply by showing up prepared with a pen and paper, which they rarely did. You see, the DOE was in love with high-concept ideas that might have worked in high performing schools with high level kids but that is not the reality of the majority of NYC schools. Most students don’t have stable homes, most students are not motivated by school. And with the low-level kids I usually worked with, attendance rates often hovered around 70%. When they showed up they might not have their textbooks, and homework? The homework rate was ridiculously low. And I was being judged based on those students.

I do believe that students will rise to the level they are treated, but I also believe that students do have to meet a minimal level of effort. And while I agree that school should be interesting, we are not there to put on a show. At some point it is up the student to realize the value of school and, at least to an extent, motivate themselves.

I can accept a lot of things, but when a failing student is held against me by lowering my passing rate, and the student missed 2/3 of the class, how is that my fault? I can’t teach a student who isn’t there.

I also can’t teach a student who is wearing headphones, talking on a cell phone, throwing books out the window or walking out the room whenever they want. Yet the DOE felt that eliciting the Aim was the answer.


Part One can be found here,
Part Two is here,
you can find Part Three here,
and Part Four is here.

7 Responses to “The Blog That Was A Decade In The Making! Part Five”

  1. Mac of BIOnighT October 12, 2011 at 12:27 am #

    “I can’t teach a student who isn’t there”
    My mind might be a bit overworking in these days, but for some reason this sentence has stuck to it and I keep feeling there’s something deeper to it than meets the eye… Odd.

    Not to mention the fact that I’ve been reading Tom Sawyer and I haven’t found a single metaphor so far, so now I feel I’m kind of dumb… ;-P

    Anyway, can’t wait for chapter six! 🙂


    • bmj2k October 12, 2011 at 12:39 am #

      Mac, I meant that line literally. How can a teacher be blamed for a student’s failure if the student had 36 absences?

      Part Six I am a little concerned about as it is a little controversial and I may or may not get some angry mail.


      • Mac of BIOnighT October 12, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

        I have a new client who’s already skipped three lessons out of five. Does he really expect to learn? :-/

        I know you meant it literally, it’s just that it stirred something in my mind, like the thing about the couch and the divine (don’t remember if I told you about it?).

        As to controversy, what’s the point of writing if you don’t piss off somebody who deserves it? 😉


        • bmj2k October 12, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

          If people take what I say next week as intended, as the criticism of one specific thing and not extend it to a broad generalization of a larger whole then I’ll be just fine.


  2. Nuchtchas October 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    I can see what the DOE was going for, but sadly when someone gets a good idea they tend to try and enforce it in every class, instead of tailoring it to the class.

    The idea of coming up with an open ended question and having students help come up with question reminds me of an “Essential Question” which is what we start with when doing project based learning, which is something we use all of the time. Yes we have the students come up with the question, but really we know what the question will be before they do. A teacher’s role is to help students find the information and form the question, and it happens, every time. BUT to do this you have to tailor the project to the class and the students, to try and say every class must do X,Y & Z is insane. Every class has different needs.

    One thing that frustrates me most is when teachers, administration and even students believe that they can’t do something, or that something is out of their reach. I hate when people sell themselves short, this idea that because you are from a lower school means you won’t ever achieve anything and can’t learn is hogwash, it requires a lot of things, one of those things is for the students (teachers, admin) to believe in the students.


    • bmj2k October 12, 2011 at 9:17 pm #

      The DOE is great at doing calligraphy with a sledge hammer, if you know what I mean.


      • Nuchtchas October 12, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

        I’ve worked with the DOE so I know exactly what you mean


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