"A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops." Henry Brooks Adams

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Knowing Your Kids

This week, for just about the first time all year, I saw T get excited about something. T is one of my reading and social studies students who has been "a tough nut to crack". He is usually sort of quiet, even sullen--and does just enough work to get by. It has been hard to get to know anything at all about him--he does not seem to find enjoyment in much of anything. But this week, I got a glimpse of something he cares about and it has given me a whole new perspective on T and his life. We were walking from one building of our school to the next, when I heard T's excited voice: "Mrs. Luebbert, Mrs. Luebbert can we stop and look at that?" His voice was so urgent, I stopped and said, "What is it, T?" It was trash and recycling day in our neighborhood, and T had spotted an old aquarium tank someone had put out. "The tank, can I see the tank?" "OK, but what for?" T informed me he had a turtle, and that the turtle needed an bigger tank. He was thrilled at the possibility that he may have found that tank. Unfortunately, taking a closer look, we realized one side of the tank was cracked, so it would not work. But, I learned something important about T--he had a pet that he likes to care for. On the way into class I asked him a little about his turtle and he was happy to tell me. This short exchange was the first real personal thing I knew about T outside of school--and it gives me an "in"-- subjects he may be interested in, or something to talk about or ask about when I see he is in a bad mood or getting ready to fight.
This small incident led me to reflect on how important it is to teachers that we have a chance to get to know our students. It makes a great difference in the lives of students and in the life of the classroom if teachers can form relationships with their students. It saddens me that this time is less and less available to us as we think about testing and documenting results all the time. Not all things that help a child's education are quantifiable in numbers and test results. We used to have an "advisory" period--time that we did attendance while kids read independently or got ready for the day. This was a good time to talk to kids and to find out about their lives. Now, however, we have a "do-now" activity that has to be kept track of for the region. Instead of getting ready for classes, or discussing a problem or issue with teachers and peers, kids now have to do another activity that will be graded. I've had kids tell me all manner of things during advisory ---they range from just showing me photos of things they are proud of--family members, get-togethers, etc..., to telling me they had a fight with a sibling or parents, informing me a family member is ill, or even that they were upset because a brother was "going away" (a common euphemism for prison).
I always figure that my students tell me things because they need to, and it is my job to comfort, advise, or sometimes just listen. It also helps me teach my students better when I know them better. I can give them slack the days they need it and tough love the days they need it. If I know them , I know what might get them interested in a subject, or what they might like to read. Teachers need time to foster these relationships--and in our crazy "Race To The Top" world--we are losing it. Of course, most of us still carve it out somewhere---in the walks between classes, on the way to lunch, and after the bell rings. But what all the education reformers need to realize is that kids need trust and relationships as much as they need math and reading and science and social studies. Letting teachers foster relationships will lead to students who flourish in other areas as well.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Can Charter Schools Compete On A Level Playing Field?

Well, In the Philadelphia School District we are going to be opening MORE charter schools. This decision by Dr. Ackerman comes during the same week that we have learned that six or seven Philadelphia Charters are under federal investigation for "financial irregularities". Three of the charters even hired a super accountant who (according to her) works between 400-600 days per year! (http://www.philly.com/inquirer/home_top_stories/20100331_City_Controller_questions_payments_to_charter-school_accountant.html). Even during all this turmoil, the powers that be have decided that most of the "Renaissance Schools" (schools that are deemed persistently troubled) will be given over to charter operators. Nine schools will be converted to charters, and Ackerman is keeping six for herself and her cronies--those will be turned into "Promise Academies". The interesting, little discussed part of all of this is that the charter operators will have to deal with a new twist: SUPPOSEDLY, they will be obligated to keep all the students already in the school. This is a complete game changer for charter schools. Anyone who is at all familiar with charter schools knows that they specialize in turfing out any kind of problematic student. The "problems" might consist of a mild to severe discipline problem, an attendance problem, little to no parental involvement, or a child who desperately needs an IEP that the school simply does not want to deal with. For years charters have sent these sorts of students back to their neighborhood public schools with nary a second thought. One of my students lasted exactly 10 DAYS in her charter school, another was given the cliche "the school is not a good fit for you" before they sent him packing. This is classic charter school speak--it is the school equivalent of "it's not you, it's me." The issue for regular neighborhood public schools is that we are open equally to all comers--bad attitude, bad attendance, uninvolved parents, the works. Of course, that is the stated and sacred mission of public education--so we do not really mind. What we DO mind is being compared to schools that get to select students. We also mind entities that spend public tax dollars being exempt from the rules of public schools. However, if you can believe the School District (and I'm not betting the farm on their veracity), the charters that take over the Renaissance Schools will have no choice but to deal with all the students in the catchment area. So, it will be quite interesting to see how this plays out: How many students will be "encouraged" to apply for a voluntary transfer or an extenuating circumstances transfer? What will charter operators do when parents refuse to show up for meetings, or tell their kids it is a good idea to get involved in fights? How will charters deal with the myriad problems that already exist in the schools they are taking over? The charter school toolkit for dealing with difficult students is not really very large--it mostly consists of saying "see ya" to the problems. How will they be able to cope when the difficult students are theirs for keeps? OR, will the district--in a desperate attempt to prove that their initiative is a success--manipulate the students and the numbers and quietly allow charters to conduct business as usual (getting rid of the students that are hard to work with)?? It will be very compelling to see how it all plays out, and I (as well as many other teachers I know) will be watching closely to see what happens.