Questions for Teachers

I have foot-in-mouth disease, and it’s been getting me into trouble for as long as I can remember. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve said the wrong thing, at the wrong time, to the wrong person anymore. Sometimes the more extreme of these moments can haunt me for years (not an exaggeration), and I spiral into a death pit of shame, regret, and embarrassment, every time something triggers the memory of what I had said. A bit dramatic? Yes. But it’s #truths. Occasionally I have to remind myself that it’s better to just have awkward silence than to say the wrong thing. I’m pretty bad at small talk and socializing in general with strangers – combine that with my RBF, and I’m doomed.

Today I had one of those foot-in-mouth moments AT WORK. Oh god. I need to remind myself just to shut up more often during staff/department/grade team meetings. Today I basically told an admin that it was “irresponsible” to give a teacher multiple preps (multiple courses to prep for), when one of those preps is an AP course that has never been taught before by that teacher or even at the school (especially when a teacher is new to teaching). When I left the meeting and re-played things in my head, a flush of “oh my god what if that was taken the wrong way, I should have chosen better words!” came over me. #deathpitspiral

So here I am with a lot of questions for the teachers out there. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how I spend my time as a teacher, specifically how I can optimize time in terms of planning/grading/etc to stave off burn-out. I would also like to get a pulse on what is considered fair game in terms of the work expectations placed on teachers.

First, how much time does it take you on average to plan a lesson for one course? I find that if I’m planning a lesson from scratch it takes me on average 2 hours to complete, from finding resources, creating the PowerPoint slides, and creating the handouts/worksheets.  I have never worked out of a book, and I’ve never heard of a science teacher teaching from pre-built lessons/curriculum. If I get to reuse materials from previous years that work time gets cut down, but I still have to lesson plan and create new slides every year.  Am I doing something wrong? How long does it take you to plan a lesson?

Secondly, how many preps do you think is reasonable for a teacher to have? Two preps? Three preps? Four preps? This year, I have 3 preps – AP Bio, Honors Bio, and Regular Bio. At our school, we teach 5 classes and have 8 hour school days, which means I teach for 5.5 hours and have 1-2 hours a day to prep (on average, with block schedules and meetings).

Lastly, what types of additional tasks are you asked to do regularly on top of teaching, planning, grading, meetings, etc?  At our school, we have stacks on stacks of data tracking spread sheets, surveys, analysis, and plans that we have to submit. Do you consider these documentation tasks to be fair game as a part of the job description?

I have a very real fear of being the ever present negative complainer, which leads to even more foot-in-mouth moments. Please, teacher friends and readers, give me some fresh perspective!

In the mean time, here is my throwback to the 90s outfit from today. I picked this dress up at Urban Outfitters a little while ago, and decided to go all out Sassy Magazine in the mid 90’s style with my Docs and my granny-chic new glasses from Warby Parker x Leith Clark. It was fun getting dressed this morning.

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glasses: warby parker –  cardigan: uniqlo – dress: urban outfitters – tights and tank: h&m – boots: dr. martins

A Life Long-Lived

My grandpa would have turned 100 this coming April.

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An excerpt from his obituary:

Donald W. Schenck, World War II veteran, died on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2016 of natural causes.  He was 99.  He leaves behind two very proud and grateful sons and a plethora of family and friends whose lives were richly influenced by this loving, humorous, and sometimes gruff but ultimately gentle giant. He was looked upon lovingly as “Dad” by many besides his own sons.

Don was born April 25, 1917 in Great Falls, MT to Carl and Emma Schenck of Neihart, MT, the 6th of 11 children.  He lived in Neihart until he was nine years old. The family moved to Great Falls in 1926 and Donald completed his education there, graduating from Great Falls High School in 1935. He lived in Shelby, MT from 1935 to 1972, where he began his career, met his wife Ethel, and raised a family.  In 1972 he and Ethel moved to Helena, where he continued a full and rich life until his death.

He met Shelby girl Ethel D. Gunderson in 1937 and they were married on June 23, 1941 in Great Falls by Pastor Lunde of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, who had also married Don’s parents in 1909 and Ethel’s parents in 1915. They had two sons, Melvin in 1946 and Clayton in 1949.

Don enlisted in the U. S. Navy SeaBees as a Yeoman on July 24, 1942 and was stationed in the Bureau of Yards and Docks in Washington, D. C. and the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Arlington, Virginia from late 1942 until April of 1945, He was then ordered to temporary duty north of the Arctic Circle near Bettles, Alaska in support of a Navy Seabees survey crew providing engineering work for the construction of an airstrip.   This airstrip was vital to air travel over the Brookes Range between Fairbanks and Point Barrow in Alaska.  He received his honorable discharge on January 4, 1946 as a Yeoman First Class and returned to his wife and home in Shelby. Three of Don’s brothers served in the war in the European front, and his brother Melvin died in a German prisoner of war camp at the end of the war.

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Growing up, my sister and I would spend every other summer and every winter up in Montana with Grandma and Grandpa. I remember one summer, he told me that “children we meant to be seen, not heard”. I spent most of my time with Grandma anyways, watching her make pies and helping her cook Christmas dinner. Grandma and Grandpa were the ones to introduce my sister and I to casseroles and cheese whiz.  They also called their couch a “davenport” and wallets “billfolds”. Grandpa aways carried a white cloth handkerchief around in his back pocket for when his nose needed honking. He often used to try and steal my nose too, a trick that would always confuse me but would bring out a giggle anyway.

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Grandpa and I didn’t really have much in common, and if we did it was kept secret. As a tween, when everything was about peace signs for me, Grandpa went on a rant because he believed the peace sign was a symbol of the broken arms of a cross. In winter of 1988, after the Dukakis/Bush election, I asked Grandma and Grandpa who they voted for. That did not go over well, because apparently politics were never to be discussed at the dinner table. I think Grandma was actually pretty liberal, which was at odds with conservative Grandpa. I wonder if they even ever discussed politics with each other.

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Grandpa was very devoted to his faith, a subject that I actively avoided discussing with him. He adamantly believed the bible was the direct word of god, and that it should be taken literally, whereas one of my favorite books is “the God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins. Needless to say, I never bothered to talk about science, politics, or religion with him as I knew it would only lead to huge blowups during the holidays. Instead, we stuck to conversations about the weather, the dinner, and the holiday decorations. In the later years, more often than not, Grandpa would just sit at the table sneaking scraps to the dog while the rest of us carried on in our conversations.

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Grandpa was also very dedicated to public service and giving back to his community. He once tried to explain to me what the Freemasons were, and what he did with the Lions Club. I asked why Grandma wasn’t also a Freemason, and I don’t remember ever getting an answer. The only thing I understood at the time was that with the Lion’s Club helped raise money to provide glasses to children who needed them, and I thought that was cool. I was 8 years old and my only exposure to clubs and associations were the Chinese Family Associations my mom belonged to. I remember thinking that these were the same, but for white people.

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I hadn’t been back to Montana to see Grandpa since December 2009. I wish I had asked Grandpa to teach me how to fish. I regret never asking him to tell me stories about growing up in what is now a ghost town in Montana. I think my sister was better at that stuff, and most of the time I preferred to be an observer rather than a participator. That’s my sister above, dancing with Grandpa at her wedding.

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I’m No Expert on Cat-Calling

I just finished up sexual health week in my bio class, where we talked about STIs, contraceptives, and I answered a hundred burning questions from teenagers about sex (both as a noun and as a verb). We ended the week with consent as the discussion topic of the day, and it spilled out into a whole new can of worms that I’ve been mulling over for the past few days — rape culture in high school.

A few disclaimers to start with: I’m not an expert on anything.  I’m not an expert in teaching, not an expert in science, not an expert in rape culture, not an expert in sexual health, not an expert in psychology, not even an expert in fashion (which is what this blog is all about). I’m also not intending to make blanket statements about any groups of people. I may inadvertently do so in this post, but please know that it is not my intent to create nor perpetuate stereotypes about any groups or communities. So, take this for what it is – a teacher who is struggling with how to approach a sensitive topic with her teenage students.

I started the lesson with a warm-up, asking kids to respond to this comic I found from an old Huffington Post article. Responses in my  first period class (non-honors Bio) ranged from “some of the things being said aren’t bad at all” and “she’s getting complimented”, to “she looks angry”. Responses in 3rd and 5th (Honors Bio) were more what I expected to hear, such as “she’s being cat-called and it’s gross”. Following the warm-up, we watched this video about a woman walking the streets of NYC for 10 hours and getting cat-called a ridiculous number of times. The conversations exploded the moment the video finished in every class, but the difference in the tone of the classes was striking.

In first period, the conversation was dominated by the boys (and one girl) with comments such as “well, she was walking down by the clubs, so what would you expect?” and “that’s rude! she should say thank you when people say good morning!”. Girls are already out numbered in this class, and most of them pretty much kept quiet unless I called on them.  A couple girls tried to argue back with the boys, but they ended up getting drowned out. One kid said something along the lines of “well, you know, she’s got curves and she’s wearing tight pants, you know, how can people ignore that?” The most vocal girl was agreeing with the boys – even going so far as to say the guy in the video who followed the woman for 5 minutes was “just going in the same direction, what’s wrong with that?” My jaw just hit the floor at that point.

This was when it really hit me (at 8 in the morning) how grossly ill-prepared  I was for this conversation that was happening around me. These are teenage boys (and a girl), earnestly and innocently having a conversation that essentially perpetuates rape culture in our society – victim blaming, mansplaining, and #notallmen. The saddest thing of all was when I moved the conversation on to Brock Turner, a couple girls said, “it’s sad, but that’s what we expect now”. *tears*

My 3rd and 5th periods were so different from this – girls spoke up, the boys agreed with the girls, and even expressed solidarity with the woman in the video.  *tears* One kid mentioned that a girl from 1st period had warned her that she “was going to get so mad about class today”.

In the end, I failed my kids big time on this.  I hadn’t created enough of a safe space for my girls to speak up. I assumed the kids were mature enough to tackle these sensitive subjects and I assumed they’d all agree that cat-calling was a negative thing to do. I failed to recognize and anticipate past experiences of my students (one kid told a story about when he had paid a genuine compliment to a stranger who misunderstood and cussed him out and how he’s still upset about it).  I was woefully unprepared for what happened. I should have paid closer attention and structured the lesson to give girls opportunities to share in smaller groups. I should have designed a pre-lesson that focused on empathy. I should have done a lot of things, and next year, there will be changes.

Or…maybe I should just leave it up to the experts? Who are these experts in high school? I know some of my colleagues also struggle with this. When I asked around, I heard that one year an English teacher taught A Streetcar Named Desire, and some kids said that Blanche deserved what she got (rape). Who’s taking this on and is it even our place? Is this one of those things were I’m stepping out of line as a biology/science teacher? I really don’t have an answer to this. Reader, do you?

In the meantime, here’s an outfit from this past week.  Moving through my Australian COS haul slowly. A lovely kid in 6th period (AP Bio) said that my “outfit is on point today, Miss.”  *tears*

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top: cos – jeans: uniqlo – shoes: cole hahn

Heavy and Light

A quick update from the last post:  I spent time discussing race with each one of my classes the next day.  Over the next few days, word had spread and individual students sought me out to talk about it.  We talked about so many things, and the students had a lot to contribute.

Each class’s discussion was different, and conversations morphed towards gender issues and consent.  I showed them this video showing a woman walking in NYC and dealing with catcalls and creepy men (I know that there is an issue with race in this video also, but I think the message overall is relevant).  As they watched it, I watched them.  It was interesting to see their reactions – none of them had seen the video before.  The girls faces either had horrified looks or nervous laughter (that weak laugh that we have been trained to do when they feel uncomfortable or scared).  The boys were either shocked or laughed.  It was a great learning opportunity and I’m happy I took the time out of traditional Biology curriculum for it.

Back to light hearted blogging!  This was what I wore that week.  Everything here is an oldie but goodie.  I’ve had these Pilcro loafers for ages, but never wear them.  I’m just too addicted to ankle boots!  I had listed them on my Poshmark closet, but decided to take down the listing in keep them after all.  I only just started listing things on Poshmark, and I’m feeling like it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

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cardigan and jeans: f21 – t shirt: zara – belt: gap – shoes: anthropologie – jewelry: madewell, family heirloom – watch: pebble

Code Academy, a newbie’s perspective

This summer and its idleness has been turning my unused brain into mush.  With a good amount of prodding from B, I’ve decided to revisit my olden days of “coding” by learning some front end development.  Mostly just for fun now, with a long range plan of redesigning this blog on my own, and possibly, maybe, perhaps some small side work for future summers.  My experience with coding goes as far back as 1994/1995, where my freshman year computer class was introduced to the world wide web through Netscape.  This naturally led to a desire to create my own page which documented all my favorite bands.  I learned some HTML through viewing the source code of pages, coded a few iterations of personal sites and promptly stopped when it got really complicated with tables. A couple years later came sites like GeoCities, and my need to learn how to code just died.  If I had known back then that this tinkering around with coding  could branch out into an actual career, I probably would not have just given up so soon.

My background knowledge of HTML only gets as deep as links, images and background colors, so needless to say, I’m starting from the bottom.   The internets to the rescue!  B suggested three sites for me to check out:  Codeacademy, Treehouse and CodeSchool.  Code School requires a decent background on the fundamentals of HTML and CSS, so that’s coming later.  I poked around Treehouse and Codeacademy, looking for a good fit for my non-existent skill level and learning style.  After going through the first demo session of Treehouse and Codeacademy, I’ve decided to go with the freebee and more comprehensive Codeacadamy (CA).

A few things I love about CodeAcademy as a student of code with the mind of a teacher:

  • It’s free, and therefore I can force recommend that my students use it also. When you start from scratch, it makes sense to save here and shell out bigger bucks (possibly at Code School) for higher level coding.
  • CA starts you off with the basics.  The real basics, from the very very bottom, as in “what are tags?”  Treehouse on the other hand, claims to start with the basics, but jumbles CSS and HTML together from the get go, which was confusing.
  • CA leads their Web Fundamentals track with HTML only, getting you used to the skeleton of a page.  After a bit of practice, it eases you into incorporating some CSS  inline with the HTML, before guiding you into separate HTML and CSS files.  My student brain needs that type of delineation between HTML and CSS in order to fully understand how the two interact with each other.  It also helps with a more overarching understanding of why CSS exists in the first place.
  • CA’s “teaching style” is practice and learn through both repetition and applied skills.  It works well with both my old school “memorize and regurgitate” brain and my new school “show me what you have learned by applying it in a different way” brain.
  • Positive reinforcement! Screen Shot 2013-08-16 at 7.39.45 PM I’m not such a sucker for badges and the like.  But I do value positive reinforcement, no matter how cheesy I find it.  It ads a bit of cutesy and competition that I know the kids would like.  I have a bunch!Screen Shot 2013-08-16 at 7.40.28 PM

A few things I feel like CA was missing as a newbie coder who needed B (web developer) to help fill in the blanks:

  • There was never any real explanation for coding syntax and the reasoning behind it.  Why is it “font-family” and not “font family”?  Why is it a “{” in CSS but a “<” in HTML?  I felt the need to ask these questions so that I could move away from just memorizing to applying, ie: when spaces are allowed and when you need hyphens.  CA goes into a bit of syntax reasoning with the use of a “;” to separate properties.
  • The individual lessons were too small for my taste.  I wanted larger chunks to learn.  CA walks you through one tag at a time, which can get a bit tedious  I’m such a fast learner I blow by them as my brain needs larger projects with multiple tasks to fully grasp the bigger picture.  With CA, you learn headers, then paragraphs, then lists, then tables, etc all as bite sized lessons.  Why not learn more at once and use more at once?
  • I need my vocab to be front loaded (little known fact: I was classified as an ELL until 4th grade) and CA academy does not touch on vocab development.  I kept calling things like “background-color” style elements until B corrected me to “properties”.  A bit of vocab can help, so that I at least have the right words to use when I’m stuck and looking for help.  I already forgot – what’s an “attribute”?  So far I’ve gotten one little bit of vocab in CA:Screen Shot 2013-08-16 at 7.43.11 PM
  • no videos – not something I mind, really.  But I can see how some people would be drawn to Treehouse’s snazzy tutorials.
  • There wasn’t much said about code formatting and code editor use.  Little did I know, this question led to a complete TMI explanation from B about tabs vs 4 spaces and nesting and aligning coding practices.

School is starting in a couple short weeks, so here’s hoping I find the time to keep this up during the school year.  It would be pretty darn awesome to be able to teach a web design class of some sort in the future.  I’ve only been at this for a few days here and there so far — I’m about 60% of the way through CA’s “Web Fundamentals” pathway.  I’m still far from embodying my favorite 90’s move character:

Data

The other day, David Brooks of the New York Times published a short piece, The Philosophy of Data, on the current prevailing mania for “data-ism”.  This op-ed strikes a chord with me, as this “data-ism” is something I have seen in public education for as long as I’ve been teaching (which is just a paltry 4 years).  This data-driven mania is prevalent on both coasts – with San Francisco Unified School District and with the New York Department of Education.  I’m willing to bet that it’s the same with most other large school districts and probably trickling down into the smaller ones too.  When I started teaching, one of the first things I was told (or was implied to me) was that data was the be-all, end-all, and that it was a measure of how good a teacher you are.  I mulled that over my first year and initially agreed – we enjoyed a double digit increase in percentage points of the STAR test that year – but I was always skeptical of the implied causation of the results.  I don’t think I was a very good teacher at all my first year.  In fact, I’d say I was horrible.  David Brooks’s article touches on this skepticism for data driven strategies.  He says that there is no evidence that teaching to students’ learning styles gets results.  Does this mean it’s OK to not break my neck over trying to tailor everything I do to all the different student learning styles?  Blasphemy!

I confess I enter this in a skeptical frame of mind, believing that we tend to get carried away in our desire to reduce everything to the quantifiable.

…many teachers have an intuitive sense that different students have different learning styles: some are verbal and some are visual; some are linear, some are holistic. Teachers imagine they will improve outcomes if they tailor their presentations to each student. But there’s no evidence to support this either.

This philosophy of using data as absolute proof has so many implications for what I do every day in the classroom.  For example, the big thing in SFUSD is using data to inform your instruction (if I had a dime for every time I heard those words…).   In an effort to help us teachers inform our instruction, and to hold us accountable, our school implemented mandatory “accountability and assessment meetings”, where we had to show data from an assessment and talk about how we plan to act on the information we get from the data.    The district licensed the use of a handy program called Data Director, which took our (mostly multiple choice) test questions, aligned them to the state standards, and spat out a statistical analysis of how our students performed after we scanned in the answer sheets.  Sadly, this sort of cool efficient technology is not available to me here at the NYDOE – I have to spend hours entering in answers to an Excel spreadsheet to run my own analysis.  What a time-suck.

I had a love/hate relationship with Data Director.  It made test grading super fast and easy, allowed me  to design assesments with a variety of types of questions and did all the analysis for me.  I could look at performance across a class, across a grade, special population students, every which way.  The data was super informative and clued me into things I probably would have missed otherwise.  I could see what questions students struggled with the most and what answers were most popular, allowing me to clear up misconceptions right away and re-teach only the most important or commonly missed topics.  I was also able to be transparent with this data and show the students their own numbers, their class data, and how they compared to the other Biology sections.  This transparency was a huge boon to my instruction.  For kids who thrive on competition, they could reflect on where they stand when compared to others.  For kids who are self motivated and benefit from quiet reflection, they could see  which topics they needed to study more or get tutoring on.  Students who just didn’t give a shit could see that many of their peers did in fact give a shit (thus motivating them to actually give a shit – in theory).

While I love seeing data, it continuously serves as a slap in the face.  It crushes my confidence, it depresses me, it pisses me off and makes me disappointed in my students.  It also tells me that I’m a crappy teacher who shouldn’t even breath the same air as my administrators, because we’re all made to feel (or just I feel on my own) that they could have gotten better results.  I get anxiety when I analyze my data.  The take home message that is continuously driven into our psyches is that if our students aren’t performing, it’s because we’re doing something wrong.  Plain and simple, if your students are not acing your tests, it’s because you’re a bad teacher.   This alone is enough to drive anyone into a stress and anxiety induced breakdown.  And what does the data also show, that for some reason is not talked about as often?  That many teachers do not last past 5 years.  Who would, when the measure of your success is wholly dependent on the performance of your students, regardless of all the other variables that come into play when educating kids?

These variables that are most of the time completely out of teacher control include but are not at all limited to: the amount of time students spend studying, whether or not homework was completed (I have an abysmal HW return rate BTW), and how motivated students are by test taking (and grades).   These variables are just the tip of the iceberg, not even grazing the surface of the plethora of emotional/social/economic issues our students face.  This lack of control renders tests (especially these standardized tests like the STAR test in CA and the Regents exams in NY) completely unreliable and invalid.  For more on this issue, check out this blog post, called “Don’t Buy the Snake Oil“, written by Lisa Myers, the same teacher who also inspired this post.

Our educational system is data driven – I know that and I accept it, even if i don’t like it.  Kids in every state have to take standardized tests, whose data then gets used to label schools as good or bad, teachers as effective or ineffective.  Thus, I find that I am forced to play by those rules.  This means preparing my students for those tests and using data.  If my data tells me that my class average on a practice Regents exam is 50%, I freak out for a couple days, then I get rational and relax.  After all, kids only have to score a 45% on the test to be considered “passing”.

I’m all for data in terms of it’s informational purposes.  I’m completely against using data as a metric for the worth of a teacher.  I can and will use data to see where I need to go back and teach differently.  But if that data is going to used to compare me against another teacher who does not have students who show up sporadically, with a 2 year old waiting at home, and then sleep through entire lessons then I call bull shit.  And don’t you dare tell me that kid is sleeping because my lessons aren’t exciting or engaging enough.   I put on a song and dance for every lesson.

Data is not everything, something teachers have always known.  For once someone else is also talking about it.

 

2/25/13: David Brooks wrote a follow up to the discussion on data, titled What Data Can’t Do.