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?”