Friday, December 28, 2012

Philly TeacherMan’s 2012 Reading (or waiting to be read) List


Not too long ago, I came across a list 50 most popular books for teachers.  As I scanned the list, I was a little dismayed at the lack of substance in the titles.  Lots of books of wit, quotes, jokes, and heartwarming stories, but not much professional analysis or criticism. 

(To be fair, there are a few good ones on the list.  I love Parker Palmer and actually reread him a few weeks ago. Perlstein’s Tested is good. So is Mondale’s School. I’ve heard Roxanna Elden speak and  See Me After Class is supposed to be pretty good.  And I was happy to see a text about Teacher-Researchers on the list.  That’s an important field that we need to grow).  

All in all, most of the books seem like little gifts parents might pick up at Hallmark to give to the teachers at the holidays.  
The list got me thinking about what I’ve read over the past 12 months and the stack of books that continues to grow in my office (and bedroom and living room).  To further demonstrate my textual obsession, let me share the agreement my wonderful fiancĂ©e and I have: If she doesn’t say anything about the constant stream of books that arrive at our door from Amazon, I won’t say anything about the dresses that arrive from Ideeli.  We get along fine.

At any rate, I’m very happy with the amount of reading that I’ve been able to get done this year.  What appears on the list below does not include the stuff that I taught, but it does include a couple of things that I started in my final semester of grad school and finished later in the year.  
I think it’s really important for teachers (and everyone for that matter) to continue to read on their own.  My list happens to be dominated by non-fiction that is related to my classroom or my population, but I suppose that’s just where my mind is now.  I also feel that many of my fiction needs are met in the classroom through short stories and novels that I teach across my five classes. 

Salzman, Mark - True Notebooks
Tatum, Alfred - Teaching Reading to Black and Adolescent Males
Goodman, Greg - Alternatives in Education: Critical pedagogy for disaffected youth
Stein, Garth - The Art of Racing in the Rain
Palmer, Parker - The Courage to Teach
Humes, Edward - No Matter How Loud I Shout
Moore, Wes - The Other Wes Moore
Delpit, Lisa - Multiplication is for White People
Harbach, Chad - The Art of Fielding
Ravich, Diane - The Death and the Life of the Great American School System
Hollowell, Mary - The Forgotten Room: Inside a Public Alternative School
Hill, Marc Lamont - Beats, Rymes + Classroom Life: Hip Hop pedagogy and the politics of identity
Anyon, Jean - Ghetto Schooling: A political Economy of Urban Ed Reform
Darling-Hammond, Linda - The Flat World and Education
Gallagher, Kelly - Readicide
Brooks, Max - World War Z
Pink, Daniel - Drive

Still in the Queue
Aarons, John et al.  - Dispatches From Juvenile Hall: Fixing a failing system
Bogira, Steve - Courtroom 301
Wilson, William Julius - More than Just Race: Begin Black and Poor in the Inner City
Meier, Deborah - The Power of their Ideas
Perry, Steele, Hillard - Young, Gifted & Black
Noguera, Pedro - The Trouble with Black Boys
Kohn, Alfie - Feel Bad Education
Tough, Paul - How Children Succeed
Sandel, Michael J. - What Money Can’t Buy

What have you enjoyed reading this year?? 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Uniting in Dialogue

 Late Friday morning, one of my students barreled into 4th period and said, “Yo TeacherMan, you hear about that school that got shot up?”.
 “What? In Philly?”, I replied confused.
 “Yea. No wait” he said starring at his phone. 
I now know he was confused by the postal abbreviation CT… Connecticut. Newtown, Connecticut - A town that in the last six days has been thrust into the spotlight. 

I was truly at a loss for words after reading of what unfolded at that elementary school on Friday morning.  After all, what more is there to say about a man murdering 26 people, 20 of them children?  


By Monday morning, the news was saturated with images, stories, and conjectures about the shooting.  I sat at my computer torn about what to use as my daily warm up.  

[Every morning, I pull a couple of sentences from an interesting or relevant news story and write them with an error like and SAT question on the far side of my board.  As students search for and correct the error, we discuss the story

Though I knew the shooting was likely the biggest and possibly the only news story that my students had seen over the weekend, I felt that discussing it further might only exhaust the matter and draw out the tragedy and sadness.  However, I knew my discomfort was nothing compared to what others closer to Newtown were feeling and I certainly couldn’t ignore this event  

On the left side of the board I wrote:

Friday morning a 20-year old man forced his way into a Connecticut elementary school and began shooting.  He murdered 20 children and 6 adults before killing himself, police still don’t fully understand his motive, but they suspect he was mentally ill.  NO ERROR

I wasn’t sure what type of response to expect from my students.  Would they be tired of hearing about it?  Would it be just another story of violence in their already hyper-violent world?  Would it turn into a shouting match about gun control?

As usual, my students rose to the occasion.  In each class, we had a very different conversation, but all were very insightful, poignant, and respectful.  The discussions lasted between five and ten minutes, though at lunch several students came in to talk in greater depth, but it was clear that talking about what happened was important to everyone (myself included).  

Some of the topics we talked about:
 - Mental health as an explanation, excuse, or warning sign.
 - Safety in urban schools vs safety in suburban schools.
 - Feelings of revenge after a mass shooting.
 - Why there was so much confusion and misinformation in the media
 - People’s need for a “clean” story or narrative after a tragedy
 - Racial differences in mass shootings
 - Whether to ever reopen the school or not
 - Teachers sacrificing themselves for “other people’s kids”

At the end of the day, as my 5th and final class filed out of the room, I was left with more questions about the tragedy than I had six and a half hours earlier.  However, I didn’t feel the same discomfort.  I realize now that what I was feeling that morning was in large part due to not talking about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, by keeping my own thoughts and reactions inside.  Though the short dialogue at the beginning of class, I was able to reflect with my students on a moment of trauma that we had all experienced. 

It is impossible to imagine what the Newtown community is going through and I hope that they are able to find some tiny bit of solace in the fact that communities around the United States and around the world are uniting in their honor and in their memory. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The only way you can be wrong is if you do nothing…

--> I did my student teaching in a predominately white, very well resourced, rural school district.  Many of the students lived in two-parent homes where there was a legacy of post-secondary education.  The majority of my students, even those from lower socio-economic families, carried a high degree of social capital.  The population that I currently teach (and have taught for the last four years) could not be more different on paper - almost entirely black, low SES, non-traditional or “unstable” family structure, and very minimal history of post-secondary or even secondary academic achievement. 

Though I had some experience working with urban schools in my undergrad (spending a month in the Boston public schools), I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t be prepared for the challenges that would await me in Philadelphia.  Though there were many ways that this was true, I continue to be struck by the reality that in the classroom students are students.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that I discount the role that experiences, family life, SES, poverty, social & cultural capital and a host of other factors have on students. (After reading almost anything else I’ve written it should be pretty clear how I feel about the “no excuses” approach to education reform). The point I’m trying to make is that there are some student behaviors that you’re going to encounter if you’re teaching in rural Vermont, in a ritzy Main Line private school, or in North Philadelphia.

One of these behaviors that I’ve been struggling with recently is what I call:
 The Power of the Blank Page. 

The brilliant Margaret Atwood summed it up pretty well when she said: 
The fact is the blank pages inspire me with terror. What will I put on them?  Will it be good enough?  Will I have to throw it out? The trick is to sit at the desk anyway, everyday.

Now, if a blank page can have this debilitating effect on a woman referred to as the voice of an entire age, imagine what it can do to a high school student, especially one who is just coming back to the classroom and hasn’t written anything for a teacher in over a year. 

If you’re a classroom teacher, what I’m describing here is probably something you’re all too familiar with.  However, the Power of the Blank Page is often overlooked, ignored, and belittled by administrators, curriculum writers, and reformers. These are the folks who don’t understand that even literary luminaries like Margaret Atwood are frozen by a blank page.  They are the folks who expect students to produce brilliance on demand (high stakes testing?).  You can recognize them because they will use the phrase “students will be able to” in casual conversations. 

The harsh reality is that whether you’re a professor’s kid in a small college town or in DHS custody in West Philly, the blank page can evoke the same feelings of terror and dread.  Even teachers feel the Power of the Blank Page (maybe that explains the recent blog hiatus or the reason that lesson plans lay blank until the night before they’re due).  
As educators, it’s important to bring the Power of the Blank Page to our students’ attention. The title of this very entry is a phrase that I say so often that sometimes I think it’s my name. While it is not the only reason that students disengage and screw around, the Power of the Blank Page often pushes my students to put their heads down, hoods up, and headphones in.  It has even been the cause of several of my most memorable blow-ups (of which there have been many) that usually involve profanity like I’ve never heard before.  The Blank Page is a powerful nemesis indeed. 

I try to encourage my students to take risks with their writing and it’s nearly impossible to take risks if you’re afraid of being wrong. 

The only caveat to my “only way you can be wrong” dictate is that it can become a law for some students.  I would caution all teachers, but especially newer teachers, to be sure to distinguish between times when there ARE ways to be incorrect and times when a blank page is the only way to be “wrong”.  Inevitably, I encounter students who will look at essay that they did poorly on and shout, “Teacher Man a FRAUD! He said if I wrote SOMETHING, I’d get an A”.  

I’m careful to distinguish between analytical, reflective, and creative writing.  I also am very clear with expectations ahead of time. I tell students what I’m going to be reading for when I give credit (and it’s almost never a page length… UHHH do I hate the ‘how long does this have to be?’ questions).

We need to help students take control of the Power of the Blank Page and to do that, they need to know that they’re not alone in their terror.  This comes through low-stakes writing, empowerment of voice, and PRACTICE.

How do you counter the Power of the Blank Page in your classroom? 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Double-edged Sword of Teacher Autonomy

 It is safe to say that I work in an environment with a very high degree of teacher autonomy.  When I was first hired, the then-principal told me that we followed the School District of Philadelphia curriculum, but as an accelerated alternative school we were charged with pulling the “meat” from the curriculum and focusing on that.  “Awesome” I said with a huge, happy to have a job smile on my face.  I figured that at some point someone would come and explain what that meant in terms of what I ought to be teaching. 

After four years, I’m still waiting for that someone to explain what I’m supposed to be teaching. 

I quickly realized that I am the English department. 
 I developed the curriculum, selected the texts, created the assessments, and carry out the instruction for four different English courses (five if you include summer school).  I have great colleagues and an amazing principal, all of whom are more than willing to collaborate, but all of whom are also creating their own courses and managing their own workloads. As a small alternative school, we are, in many ways, on a super-autonomous island in the sea of highly regimented School District curricula.

And I love it.

In fact, I’ve become so used to this level of autonomy that I often worry how I would adjust to a more regimented or even collaborative environment.  Now don’t get me wrong, I utilize the SDP scope and sequence to an extent and my curriculum aligns to CCSS (perhaps better than the SDP mandated curriculum I might say).  It’s not like I’m off brain-washing my students with whatever brand of rhetoric I choose as many of the neo-liberal reformers would have you believe.  Nor am I kicking back while my students watch movies everyday as the corporate reformers would claim. 

I have worked very hard to develop a curriculum that is responsive to my students’ needs and interests.  With that said, my content is constantly changing.  I have the freedom to try out a wide variety of texts to accomplish my curricular goals.  Today alone my English 1 class was reading Matheson’s “I am Legend” and making stylistic connections between modern and classical horror, while English 3 was exploring bias in autobiography through the film “The Hurricane”.  English 2 was listening to some classic hip-hop to practice supporting themes with text (or lyrics) and English 4 was doing some collaborative close reading of Act 1 of Othello.   

These texts, learning activities, and assessments are not on any mandated curriculum that I was handed; instead they were developed with my students’ interests and needs in mind. And I will happily show any parent, colleague, or district administrator the standards alignment and my rational for making these curricular decisions. 

The crux of the matter is that I feel both empowered and challenged by the level of autonomy that I am fortunate enough to have.  However, this is not the case for everyone. 

At my own school, I’ve seen the darker side of such autonomy.  With such little oversight, it’s easy to become complacent. Over the last four years, we’ve had a few teachers who took this high level of autonomy for granted, relying heavily on worksheets and movies that did little to accomplish any curricular goals.  I’m sure part of this was to do being overwhelmed, but in large part I think it was complacency. 

It is because of those rare situations, however, that teachers are often stripped of autonomy. 

On the other hand, in order to gain a degree of autonomy, some teachers are required to give in to certain “accountability measures”.  Reformers will cede a degree of curricular autonomy, if teachers agree to have their evaluations linked to student performance.  Of course, it’s easy to see right through this ploy.  Since teachers are not able to make the assessments, but are held accountable for the students’ scores, the “autonomy” is merely symbolic. 

As such, autonomy represents a sort of double-edged sword.  It allows teachers to be creative and responsive to their students' needs, but too much can be overwhelming and be a detriment to learning (especially if teachers are new or inexperienced).  Strip teachers of autonomy and you remove professionalism and expertise from curriculum.  Even worse than this is using autonomy as a bargaining chip to manipulate educational reform. 

My solution:
In my utopian “wonder-school”, teachers would exist in autonomous groups. Perhaps based on subject and level, perhaps not.  The curricular goals would be developed by the teachers guided by groups like NCTE or NCTM and even CCSS.  Based on these curricular goals, teachers could then design their units and lessons as they saw fit.  They would be free to choose texts, readings, and other material that were of interest and relevance to students.  Further, this would give teachers the freedom to innovate within their courses and even develop new courses to better serve the needs of students.  

After all, innovation is consistently pegged as a 21st century skill that students will be expected to have, so why not afford it to those guiding their academic journey. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

My Letter to President Obama

A few weeks ago, I read a post on Diane Ravich’s blog that suggested a campaign to write letters to President Obama on October 17th.  The goal of these letters is to share our experiences as educators or parents with the President, to show him the effect that his administration’s educational policies (or lack thereof) have had. The campaign was suggested by another outstanding blogger, Anthony Cody.

Below is a copy of the letter that I submitted to the President.  

Dear President Obama,

I strongly supported you in 2008 and I continue to support you in 2012; however, your record and your policies on education give me pause.  Unlike Governor Romney, who by all accounts views public education and teachers with contempt, you have expressed some interest in preserving and improving our nation’s democratic educational system.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric and lip service that you pay public education and teachers has not been matched by the policies of your administration.  As a result, I am left wondering if there is any hope for a truly democratic educational system that affords all students, no matter what neighborhood they live in or what their family circumstances, an opportunity for an equitable education.  

I teach in Philadelphia, a city that has struggled with violence, concentrated generational poverty, unemployment, and inequality for decades.  Further, I teach students who are over-aged (16-21 years old) and under-credited (having fewer than 12 of the 23.5 credits necessary for graduation). My students are teen parents, foster kids, victims of violence, and full-time workers.  They have struggled with abuse, seen expulsion from “no excuses” charter schools, and been incarcerated.   My students have been labeled dropouts, failures, and delinquents. In spite of these myriad mistakes and roadblocks, my students come to school everyday with more energy, determination, and drive than any I’ve experienced in my entire educational career. 

I share this description of my specific population to demonstrate the importance of alternative programs.  Unfortunately, programs like this are a dying breed. They are an easy target for budget cuts.  Every spring, my colleagues, students, and I wait with bated breath for the District’s decision about the fate of our school. Two years ago, we have saw our doors shuttered, only to be reopened months later after being used as political leverage. However with the mobility and fragility of our population, this experience served as the final blow for nearly one third of our students. 

Our precarious position is a direct result of growing privatization in the educational system. Coincidently, this same privatization is the exact reason that the waiting list for my program continues to grow each passing semester. 

Privatization within public education is systematically undermining our nation’s democratic educational ideal by siphoning resources from public schools and communities.  Additionally, this system of privatization has created a two-tiered reality of education in large urban districts, affording a select few students a high caliber education, while the majority of students are forced to cope with under-funded and dilapidated schools. 

More troubling even than the inequitable system created by privatization is the proliferation of for-profit schools.  In Philadelphia alone, we’ve seen a staggering number of cases of fraud coming from charter and cyber schools that promise parents and children better opportunities, only to take the money and run.  When education becomes a for-profit business, the focus shifts from learning to the balance sheet.  Students and parents become customers.  Teachers cease to be educators and become merely workers. Education is a public good and must be regarded as such.

In 2008, I was energized by your message of hope and change.  Though I recognize the mountain of challenges that awaited you when you took office, I am dismayed by the absence of efforts to address the profound inequality that exists in our education system.  It is astounding that in Philadelphia, two schools less than one mile apart see more than a $13,000 disparity in per student funding. The way that schools are funded at the local, state, and national levels is antiquated and perpetuates this two-tiered system of education.    

I implore you to push your Secretary of Education and your administration to abandon symbolic actions like “Race to the Top”, test-based accountability, and merit-based pay. Our nation’s educational system requires a dramatic rethinking beginning with funding, teacher training, and teacher retention. All students, particularly those in poverty, deserve highly practiced, compassionate, and committed educators.  It is only through an investment in equitable public schools that our nation can achieve a truly democratic system that will serve as a model for the world. 

Please, President Obama, recognize that your policies are demoralizing not only teachers, but also the students they serve.  They are well aware of the divestment in public schools and turn to their teachers for answers.  Almost daily, my students look at me and say, “The city doesn’t care about us. The nation doesn’t care about us. No one cares about us.” 

Prove them wrong, President Obama. 

Prove to students in Philadelphia and in cities across the country that you have not given up on them.  Prove this by ensuring equality in our nation’s public education system.  

Thank you very much for your consideration. 

Philly Teacher Man

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Making Room for Creativity or "Hey TeacherMan, is this going to be on the test?"

   I am certainly not the only teacher who feels the push to conform to test-based skills and coverage over genuine learning, engagement, and enjoyment. More and more, however, I see this push rubbing off on my students as well. Often I feel like their preoccupation with credit borders on obsession.  There are days when I feel like my classroom is filled with Gollums yearning for their “precious” credit.

When I first started teaching, I graded everything… and I mean everything.  The cries of “TeacherMan, look at my book. Come give me my credit” and “Yo TeacherMan, you better give me my credit” still haunt me in my sleep.  Now as a “veteran” (after 4 years, I’m the most veteran teacher at my school) I’m not ashamed to say that I make random marks in my attendance book or give arbitrary “checks” on students’ work to denote mythical “credit”.  If a check mark at the top of the page pushes my students to proofread a quick-write or dig deeper on a “grammar boot-camp” mini-lesson, I’m happy to oblige because I'm certainly not going to collect and grade every piece of writing they do. 

Though I would rather they felt an intrinsic motivation to put forth their best work, I’m happy to indulge my students’ credit-obsession because I'm pragmatic.  They see tangible reward (or consequence) for their efforts.  However, when it comes to a systemic obsession with “credit” in the form of standardized test scores, I refuse to compromise.  I am so fortunate that I have a principal who is confident in my professional abilities to design curriculum that supports our students and doesn’t try to micromanage or push test-prep, drill and kill.  In spite of this, however, I can’t help but feel a sense of urgency when I’m designing unit plans. 

The other day, my English 1 (ninth grade level) class had just finished an exploration of character across a few short stories and they wrote exceptional analytical essays on the topic.  They took care, made assertions, used text-based evidence, and offered rich analysis.  Needless to say, I was very proud, particularly since this is the first time several of them have been in a classroom in over two years.  As I read the first few essays, I couldn’t wait to dive into our next unit working with style in horror fiction. 

As I worked through the massive pile of analysis, however, I grew tired… drained… wiped out.  I needed something different, something creative.  “Of course” I thought, “this must be how my students feel too”. 

I decided that we all needed a chance to flex our creative muscles (and I needed a break from character analysis). 

Before moving into style and horror, we would take a detour through poetry… and not analyzing techniques, but capturing the drama of daily life in verse.  I knew from experience that while my students are wildly talented and creative, they often seek out only what’s necessary for “credit”, as a result I decided to issue a challenge. 

I printed out twenty-five iconic and dramatic photographs and posted them around the room.  “Select an image that stands out to you and write a 25-line poem that captures the drama and emotion”, I said.


As I expected, I was met with some blank stares.  So we looked at two short examples, Hamphill’s “American Hero” and Francis’s “The Base Stealer”.  We talked about what drama means (a discussion in which I learned more about the shows Bad Girls’ Club and Basketball Wives than I ever wanted to know).   But when I felt confident that they were equipped to wrestle with my challenge, I left them to it. 

Students carefully selected images, often starting with one, then trying another, only to return to the original.  I worked my way around the room, explaining, “No, it doesn’t have to rhyme, but it can if you’d like” and “I understand you don’t think you can write poetry, but think of it as telling a story. What’s going on in the photo.”  

 When the students were all settled, I quietly selected a photo of my own and began writing, sitting at a desk right beside one of my students.  After watching me for a few minutes, he turned to one of his peers and said, “Yo, TeacherMan’s doing one too.  You gonna let us read yours TeacherMan”. “Absolutely,” I told him. 

(I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this, but I love writing beside my students.  Though I’m not always able to, especially in my bigger classes… getting 25+ students focused doesn’t always leave time for me to join in… but I’ve had a ton of success with sharing my own writing). 

Though some finished their work by the end of class, several took their images home to finish.  The next day, as students shared their work (and I shared my own), I was reminded why it’s so vital to make room for creativity and genuine expression.  Though these skills aren’t on some assessment somewhere, it’s what reading and writing is all about.  It’s tragic that students nationwide, but especially minority students in urban districts, are deprived of these type of experiences in favor of basic-skills and test prep.  No wonder students are leaving schools in droves… would you sit through 50 minutes of test prep or grammar instruction?

At any rate, I was blown away by some of the writing I received.  With very little instruction and guidance, students grabbed emotion, action, and tension.  With their permission, I've posted some excerpts:  (the image that inspired the work is beside it)

from “A Legend’s Legendary Fans
Their stomachs couldn’t bear
the excitement
Butterflies and that gut feeling
you get right before you fall.
Boom-clack. The 808s started
pouring from the speakers
next it’s the base.
Shouting, screeching and screaming
drowning out the sound of
his sweet symphony.

from “a new beginning”
But this is how the world turns
we have to start over
but where do we begin?
we have no future
we have no past
but it has to start somewhere
create a new beginning.

from “Lift Off”
The crowd is silent
Thousands waiting to see my next move
I dribble the ball
I close my eyes and open them.
I picture the crowd empty
and I am back at practice.
by myself…

from “Trouble in Time’s Square”
Screaming, yelling, crying
into a riot.
shots fired.
Boom, Boom, Boom.
Someone goes down.
Thefts and vandalism
erupts everywhere.
Cars flipped
people dead
arrested for no reason
but for being there.

After sharing their work, students talked about lines from their peers’ poetry that stood out and images that were powerful.  And not once did anyone ask, “Hey TeacherMan, is this going to be on the test?”