Sunday, October 23, 2011

Waiting for Distribution

We all remember the buzz around Waiting for Superman.  It got everyone talking about the "problems" in education.  Trouble is, the movie is badly flawed with oodles of inaccurate data.  (I am not going to go into this - it is widely documented.)  But how did this movie get out there?  Well, with names like Gates, Broad, and Guggenheim behind it, along with their money of course, the message was heard.  Public education is the devil and charter schools are our salvation.  Yeah.  Right.

But there are four other films out there that are worth our time and address REAL issues and REAL solutions.  The problem?  They do not have big names and big money behind them.  They are relying on local screenings to get their films seen.  Each film tackles similar issues in a different way, emphasizing different facets of the complex world that is education.  Combined, they tell a more global picture.

I have been doing my part to get the word out to my colleagues through e-mails and Facebook, but that's not enough.  The general public needs to see these films.  The general public needs to be made aware of the data and issues.

Below are the titles and web sites for each film.  Please share this info with folks you know.  Society needs to be educated before it can be a part of the dialogue about real reform.

Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture

The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman

American Teacher

Mitchell 20

Monday, October 3, 2011


That's how I feel right now.  Way too much going on and I have no clue how to put it into words.  The highlights:

1.  Mounds of data collection really can save your butt.  Or at least prove that yes, you are indeed doing your job despite the results of one test.
2.  American Teacher and The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman are the new must-see films about education.
3.  I will never be able to stop drinking Diet Coke.  Never, never, never.
4.  Kids + iPods = Engagement.  Time to make it meaningful.
5.  There are always people who do nothing and complain.  And there are always people that bust butt and pick up the slack.
6.  I still hate two things more than anything else: Lying and stealing.  And lying.  Did I mention lying?
7.  Change is inevitable.  But that doesn't mean I have to like it.
8.  I need to buy another Cootie game for my daughter.  She cannot bring herself to take the four apart from the game she has in order to play again.
9.  When in the hell did kindergarteners start having so much damned homework?
10.  The round file is my friend.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Focus, Daniel-San, Focus!

So, CST scores are out.  Ugh.  While my math scores are the best they have ever been, my language arts scores are the worst ever.  This is so frustrating given all the time spent on preparing students for these tests.  I expected the "third grade dip" that our state experiences, but I was at least hoping for some growth.

Luckily, I have been reading Focus by Mike Schmoker.  This book plainly states, with all of the research to back it up, what I have known all along.  The "inch-deep mile-wide" approach works to hurt our students, creating an artificial need for what Schmoker calls "expensive, time-gobbling remediation mechanisms."  I certainly have seen this in action.  As students' scores "decline" due to the unachievable goals of NCLB, more and more remediation is thrown at them.  Sickening.  As Schmoker puts it, "Educators continue to be diverted toward new methods and programs, even as the most important aspects of curriculum, teaching, and literacy are ignored almost entirely."  So what is the result?  Students continue to fall behind.

I have definitely felt this effect in my own classroom over the past few years.  As my schedule is encroached upon by interventions and remediation, I have less and less time for authentic literacy experiences.  Maybe THIS is why language arts scores are not going up?  Maybe.

So far I have learned a few other key points from Focus:

1.  New initiatives and programs cannot succeed in the absence of decent curriculum, lessons, and authentic literacy activities.
2.  Less is more.  Content standards should be reduced by about 50%, and even more in language arts.  (Singapore, Japan, and China teach to about a third as many math and science standards - about 15 per grade level compared to our 50.)
3. Guided practice and constant checking for understanding are essential and often overlooked.  (Research tidbit: Effective formative assessment and checking for understanding add six to nine months of additional learning growth per year.)
5.  No more than five minutes of 'teacher talk' before giving opportunities to process information.  This is in contrast to the ten minutes I learned.

I am halfway through this book and have not only learned a great deal, but feel so validated.  I am looking forward to reading the rest!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Oh, What A Feeling!

As you can probably tell from many of my posts, I am pretty frustrated with what is going on in education these days.  I was certainly starting to feel burned out and depressed.

Back in February, I applied for a grant - the SCRIBES grant.  This is a two-year professional development grant through UC Riverside.  The underlying premise of the grant is: teachers know what kind of professional development they need.  Teachers should be the ones making the decisions rather than having professional development imposed upon them.  In the SCRIBES grant, 65% of the funds (up to $30,000) must be spent on professional development.  The rest can be spent on materials.

Now I had never written a grant in my life.  But I figured, go big.  So I asked two of my colleagues to be on the grant team, and I got started writing.  I received great feedback from my team, administrator, and district technology folks.  This helped me greatly improve the proposal.  Thirty pages and countless hours later, the proposal was done.  The focus of the grant was increasing student engagement and achievement through the use of mobile technology.  Included in the proposal were the following: the ISTE conference in Philadelphia, the CUE conference in Palm Springs, three technology trainings at the OCDE, one iPod Touch cart with 20 devices, three laptops, and various days dedicated to training our staff and having our own district people train us.

In early April I received a letter from UCR.  We had been awarded the grant!  I couldn't believe it!  (I still can't!)  So, last month our team attended the ISTE conference in Philadelphia.  What an amazing experience!  I learned so much, met wonderful people, and of course we jammed in some sight-seeing.  I cannot wait to start applying what I have learned in my classroom.

I feel so energized and renewed.  This grant has given me an incredible gift beyond the actual professional development and materials.  It has given me something I have been missing for quite some time - excitement about teaching.  Being able to choose my own direction regarding professional development has made me feel empowered in a way I haven't felt in years.  And being able to bring my own learning to my students and actually have the tools to implement that learning?  Priceless!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Teachers Have It Easy: Go Wisconsin!

A few years ago, I wrote a book review for Issues In Teacher Education.  I reviewed the book Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers.  In light of what is happening in Wisconsin, I thought I would post my review and share it.  I cannot recommend this book enough.  As I watch some of my colleagues try to argue with the ignorant (including my husband, who is fighting the good fight on Facebook as I type this), I offer this book as a resource.  The book has data - REAL data.  It also offers solutions - REAL solutions.  It also offers something I find very important these days: comfort.  Comfort in knowing we are not out here alone, and there are folks who get it and understand what this profession is all about - and what it should be all about.  Hopefully the review will give you a good feel for the book, and maybe you will find in this book the resources and comfort that I did.  :-)

Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers
A Book Review by Susie Wren
Published in Issues in Teacher Education, Fall 2007

One afternoon while perusing the local bookstore, a book cover caught my eye.  There it was, in bold capital letters: TEACHERS HAVE IT EASY.  I immediately marched over to the book.  Who on earth would write such a thing?  Having been a teacher for 18 years and counting, I knew nothing could be further from the truth.  Then I read the rest of the title in smaller print: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers.  I felt myself let out a sigh of relief, then immediately purchased the book.  Finally, someone has said it!
            There have been many scholarly studies concerning the personal and financial sacrifices teachers make, but few of the studies are read by the public.  As a result, there are many misperceptions about the lives of teachers.  The authors of Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers have written a book for everyone, not merely those in the field of education.  Authors Dave Eggers, Nínive Clements Calegari, and Daniel Moulthrop describe the hard and painful truth about teaching using authentic teachers’ voices punctuated with hard-hitting data.  The format is reader-friendly and its use of narrative is powerful and engaging.  The skillful weaving  of research data into the stories makes reading facts and figures palatable and enjoyable.
            The authors begin with the argument that not only does the educational system need to change, but also the way the system is viewed needs to change.  If not, schools will suffer the consequences of low teacher pay in three ways:
            (a) Many who could enter the profession do not;
            (b) Thousands of great young teachers leave early in their careers;
            (c) Low pay has a debilitating effect on morale.
In addition, the reader will encounter a bar graph that compares teacher salary to the salaries of various other professions’, such as engineering, computer science, accounting, business, and sales.  Teachers’ salaries are by far the lowest.

Dispelling the Myths

We have all listened to friends, relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances not involved in education give their opinions about the teaching profession.  The teaching profession is characterized by many myths.  Some of these myths are teachers have a great hourly wage, teachers get summers off, and the job is comparable to other professions with similar pay scales.
The myths held by the general public about teaching are dispelled in this book.  The authors effectively tackle each of these assumptions with a great deal of data.  Personally, I think I am going to make copies of this portion of the book to carry with me in my purse.  When I have conversations with folks who believe these myths about teaching, I will merely hand them a copy.


Authentic Voices

While powerful, the heart of this book is not found in the facts and figures.  The significance of the book is found in the countless heartbreaking stories of teachers who cannot afford to stay in teaching, include those who work multiple jobs to remain in teaching while earning a decent wage, and those who must neglect their own families to make ends meet while trying to do the best possible for their students.  Some of the stories are unbelievable, and include accounts of teachers who work second and third jobs at various retailers, restaurants, bartending, cutting lawns, and delivering newspapers.  The list is endless.  Even with the extra jobs, teachers are often unable to buy homes.  Many rent or have roommates.  Many more live far away from the schools at which they teach.
The issue of teacher pay leads to the next set of stories in the book, which are stories of teachers and their living conditions.  The stories tell of teachers needing the financial help of their extended families, living in government-subsidized low-income housing, renting without being able to save for a home, or relying on the income of a spouse in order to own a home.  Then there is the difficulty of raising a family in such circumstances.  Again, these stories are heartbreaking, yet this is the truth that teachers live, and the truth the public must hear.


You’re A Teacher?  Well, Good for You!

Are there social costs in choosing to teach?  Absolutely.  Society’s jaundiced view of the profession only adds to the problem.  Through the voices of teachers, the authors illustrate many of the social costs, which include the relative standard of living for teachers is the lowest it has been in 40 years, the public see teachers as “givers,” and families are often disappointed when a child chooses teaching as a profession.  While teachers are expected to be intelligent and highly qualified, they are treated as second-class citizens.  The authors make a very important point in this section of the book, which is people in general feel teaching is not actually challenging and anyone can teach with little or no training. 


Reality Check

            So what does it really take to be an effective teacher?  The experts, sociologists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, education-policy makers, and professors of education offer what they believe are the elements of effective teaching.  The experts indicate teaching is a highly complex art as well as a science.  It is not something that merely anyone with a bachelor’s degree can do.  Teaching requires a wide range of expertise, both academic and social.  Teaching is also stressful and requires a high level of energy.  It is demanding; teachers have to be “on” at all times.
            The reality of day-to-day teaching is told through several teacher testimonials, but the most powerful tool used by the authors is a comparison.  Two typical workdays are compared minute by minute – the day of a pharmaceutical sales representative and the day of a high school math teacher.  This is another segment of the book that I would like to carry with me ready to give to folks.  I actually laughed out loud while reading this chapter of the book.  I have worked in education as a paraprofessional, a teacher, and a part-time university instructor.  I thought my workday was comparable to those in other professions, but the comparison shows nothing could be further from the truth.  The information is organized in terms of a table with columns, with the teacher’s day on the left and the sales representative’s on the right.  The teacher’s day starts at 4:00am.  The sales representative’s day starts at 7:00am.  The teacher’s column is full, while the other column has a great deal of blank space.  The benefits of the sales representative’s job are also highlighted in the comparison, such as a company car, subsidized gasoline, seminars (fully funded by the company), expense accounts, and plenty of time for rest and relaxation.  In contrast, the teacher’s day is full from start to finish with teaching, preparing materials, tutoring, checking e-mails, grading papers, and meetings.  The sales representative’s workday ends with his 3:15pm arrival at home.  The teacher arrives home at 6:00pm, but brings work home to do after his children are in bed. The comparison makes the life of a teacher concrete and real for the reader.

Why Do  It?

            So why do teachers teach?  Why do they enter such a profession?  The authors devote an entire chapter to this topic.  Teachers of all levels and experience share the reasons they stay in the profession and how rewarding the profession can be both emotionally and intellectually.  These stories give hope to the reader.  These teachers love their jobs, and effectively share. In contrast, the following chapter explains why good teachers consider leaving the profession.  These two very different chapters make an important point: while there are some wonderful teachers who are dedicated and excel at what they do, there are many more amazing teachers that leave the profession.  The resulting teacher shortage is hard to fill.  Many people, who want to teach, choose not to due to the low pay, lack of advancement opportunities, lack of respect, appreciation and personal safety, and because teachers are often made the scapegoat for the problems of society.  The authors make a powerful case.  Reform is needed. 


So What Do We Do?

            While painting a very real and often depressing view of the teaching profession, the authors also offer hope by describing successful reforms that are making a difference for the better in school districts around the country.  These reforms deal with teacher pay and alternative methods of compensation.  These reform movements are not without their problems, but the examples illustrate positive changes are occurring.  The authors also describe many alternative programs that have been created to address teacher shortages.  The programs include recruiting teachers from other countries, implementing public relations campaigns, allowing alternative paths to teacher credentialing, and paying teachers compensation in the form of coupons and discounts in the community.  Would these programs be necessary if teachers were paid properly?  The authors argue no.  While these programs have met with some success, the authors remind the reader the more one relies on alternatives, the more one would mistakenly think the problem has been resolved.

Taking Action

            What can teacher educators do?  Educators should ensure teacher credential students are entering the profession aware of the economic hardships and personal sacrifices of teaching while working toward change.  Reading Teachers Have It Easy in teacher education coursework and engaging in meaningful dialogue about the issues is a simple and effective way to begin the process of improving the teaching profession.  Furthermore, teacher education and the credentialing process must embrace realistic working conditions so those entering the teaching profession can be advocates of their profession and effect positive change. It is important for credential students to be prepared with a more honest perspective of teaching to not only keep them in the profession, but also ensure they will work to improve it.  
Teacher educators must also realize their job does not end once students leave their programs.  Teacher educators possess a great deal of knowledge and skills, powerful tools that can be used to improve the teaching profession.  Teachers Have It Easy is an excellent tool to have in one’s tool kit to promote dialogue and action.  The authors of Teachers Have It Easy have given us an incredible gift that serves as a stepping-stone for effecting positive and significant change in the teaching profession.  Someone has finally said it.  It is up to us to help spread the word.


Moulthrop, D., Clements Calagari, N. and Eggers, D. (2005).  Teachers have it easy: The
big sacrifices and small salaries of America’s teachers.  New York: The New Press.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Where Is My Time Going?

The last few weeks I have really been noticing how I am spending my time working - both at work and on the work I take home.  I have come to the sad realization that I am spending it on tasks that are more clerical and custodial in nature rather than instructional.  I have no time to reflect on my teaching, engage in meaningful planning, or really take a look at how my students are doing.  It is a constant game of catch-up.  Grading papers, entering scores, making copies, running and analyzing computer reports, analyzing benchmark and testing data, cleaning.....  It never ends.

I truly believe that part of the problem lies in the fact that my students spend a minimum of five hours a week on the computer.  Now you might think, "That's great!"  And it would be if the students were using the computer to explore, think, and create.  But they are using them to prepare for the state tests.  And if they are English learners, add another hour and a half per week on the computer learning English.  When I think of how much instructional time I am losing every week, I have to take a hard look at what I am doing with the time that is left.  It just isn't enough time to get everything in, and certainly not enough time for students to participate in meaningful, engaging, and worthwhile lessons and projects.

This is what a typical Monday looks like:

8:15     Journal writing or silent reading (Flip-flopped every other day - This is when my English learners are on the computer.)
8:30     Calendar math
8:45     Computer lab (on two different programs back to back)
9:55     Recess
10:10   Read Aloud (which I REFUSE to give up)
10:30   Math
11:10   Language arts or reading groups (This is also when my English learners are on the computer.)
12:00   Lunch
12:40   ELD
1:10     Spelling and weekly planners (Because weekly planners have been linked to improved test scores)
1:30     P.E.
1:50     Recess
2:00     Promethean Board activities  (I am struggling with this - it's new to me.)
2:15     Writer's Workshop
2:45     Dismissal

You might look at this and say, "That's not so bad."  Notice anything missing?  Social studies and science?  I am able to squeeze a little bit of those in on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Now, in a typical week any number of things come up such as assemblies, All the Arts (guest art teachers), vision testing, district benchmarks, field trips (although those are becoming very rare) - you get the idea.  Just as an example, the last two weeks I had to drop writer's workshop.  We had to do two weeks worth of science lessons in order to prepare for an upcoming field trip.  Of course these lessons were worthwhile, but something had to give.  Something always has to give.

Go back in time ten years ago.  I made sure I had 45 minutes for writer's workshop four days a week.  I had 45 minutes for language arts instruction as well as an additional 40 minutes for reading groups.  Then there was the integrated block which was typically 45 minutes to an hour; social studies and science were emphasized and hands-on science and further literacy instruction occurred.  I was able to spend 45 minutes to an hour on math.  ELD instruction was delivered throughout the day as lessons were differentiated depending on language level.  (They still are, but now there is the 30 minutes of leveling them and farming them out.)  I didn't need to spend time using weekly planners - I personally think they are a waste of time and money for our third graders considering the way our program is set up.

So, what to do?  I don't know.  But as test scores become more and more of a focal point in education and teacher evaluation, we can expect to see an increase in mandates and loss of valuable instructional time.  Time I need to meet the needs of my students.  Time to work with my four students who are barely reading at the pre-primer level.  Time to work with the six that are reading at the first grade level.  (And this is just a sign of the times as well.  I have noticed, at least in my own classroom, the more we focus on test scores, the less skilled the students seem to be.)  As my students need more and more skills, I must give "interventions."  The documentation linked with interventions is another example of a massive time-suck in the form of clerical work.  And if you need to refer a student because you think they might have special needs, you better take a sub day to get that paperwork completed.  It never ends.

If I could do something else, I would.  I used to love my job.  Now I just feel like an ineffective teacher.  I want my time back.  I want my classroom back.  I want my profession back.