About Me

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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Review of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book. The main message seems quite relevant to our time. The rich and powerful maintain their power largely by keeping the rest of us fighting among ourselves for the few scraps they allow us to have.

Case in point, the recent lottery ticket buying frenzy. Lotteries exist largely to fund government services like education. Why? Because the rich and powerful have convinced us that increasing taxes, which hit them the hardest are wrong. So, they have conveniently arranged to have us to tax ourselves by buying a 200 million to 1 chance to join the ultra-wealthy.

In the world of the Hunger Games, poor children fight each other and die for a chance to live a comfortable life.

All good science-fiction is a modern morality play to teach us through story what we need to learn in fact.

I look forward to using this book in my classroom.

View all my reviews

Thursday, March 29, 2012

State Releases List of 11 Schools Slated for Takeover

OKC Roosevelt Middle School
Oklahoma Centennial Not On List

The state released its list of "low performing Oklahoma schools" it has slated for takeover.  Three schools are in the Oklahoma City Public School District: Shidler Elementary, Roosevelt Middle School, and Santa Fe South Middle School.

My school, Oklahoma Centennial Middle/High School is not on the list, for now.

All three schools are on the south side of the city and have predominantly Hispanic student bodies.  Santa Fe South Middle is an "alternative charter" school where many students struggle due to limited English abilities as do those in the other two schools.

I am curious as to how the state hopes to turn these schools around, and how the teachers who work with these students will be treated.  Will the state, for example, provide more language assistance, additional instruction for English Language  Learners, more alternative placement for struggling students?

As I said yesterday, I am skeptical that a state that ranks as one of the nation's lowest in per pupil expenditure will do more than try to shuffle new bodies in for old. 

We all await to see what miracles will come from Lincoln Boulevard.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The State of Oklahoma Plans to Takeover Up To 10 Schools: What They Will Do and What They Won't

There is a report in the Tulsa World that the Oklahoma State Department of Education will release a list tomorrow of up to 10 schools it will "take operational control"of next year.

My school, Oklahoma Centennial, could very well be on that list.  I know we are on the state "Priority School List" of schools where this could happen.

The state is calling this a "partnership", but when the state partners with a school, we all know who the "senior partner" is going to be.

This takeover, let's be honest and call it what it is, comes out of the waiver Oklahoma was granted by the federal Department of Education to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law that has governed education since the early days of the Bush II administration.

No one really know what this takeover will entail. Joel Robinson, spokeperson for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Janet Barresi, claims that, "[c]ollective bargaining agreements and school vendor contracts won't be affected by the process." 

Of the latter, I have no doubt. Of the former, I'm not so certain. It could well be that, at the age of 60 and at the top of the district's pay scale, yours truly will have to reapply for his job or try to find a new one. Such was the case for the teachers of US Grant High School when the district "took over" there.

I am not sure what the state would hope to gain from this, no matter who is on the takeover list tomorrow. Just what can the state do for us that we are not already doing and have been doing day in day out?

I know some things that the state WILL NOT do.

The state will not try to help deal with the systemic poverty that blights the lives of our student body.  The number one predictor of students success in America is the economic condition of the students' families.  The state could try to develop "empowerment zones" that have helped areas like Harlem in New York City with economic development, but the state won't do that.

The state will not try to raise the minimum wage of the students' parents and even the students themselves to where they are paid a "living wage" lifting them out of poverty. 

The state will not provide adequate, affordable child care for parents and students who have to care for pre-school children.  This could go far to help with our high absenteeism rates often caused by students having to care for babies and toddlers at home.

The state will not provide adequate treatment opportunities to deal with constant partners to Poverty--Despair and Addiction.

The state will not provide after school programs so that children can engage in constructive activity when the school day ends.

The state will not create alternative placement programs for students who, for various reasons, do not function in a regular school environment, and instead constantly disrupt classes making it impossible for other students to learn. These students drain time and energy from teachers who exhaust themselves managing the few while trying to teach the many.

Instead, I look for the state to replace teachers, staff, and administrators, and then wonder why nothing ever gets changed.  Then they will replace teachers, staff, and adminstrators, and then wonder why nothing ever gets changed, Then they will replace teachers, staff, and adminstrators, and then wonder why..........

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

House Panel Says to OK NBTC teachers, "Get out of the classroom!"

An Oklahoma House of Representatives sub-committee voted 9-2 against requiring the state to pay the $5000 annual stipend for Oklahoma teachers who have met the requirements for National Board teacher certification.

Basically, what the members of the panel said to Oklahoma classroom teachers is, "Get out of the classroom if you want to significantly increase your salaries."  Instead, these teachers will earn basically the same pay that a teacher who has not gone through the rigorous certification process makes.

I have attempted the National Board for Teacher Certification program, twice. Failed both times.  It's very demanding. I don't think I work as hard for it as I did my English M.A., certainly not during the first year's process. I attended classes at Southeastern Oklahoma State University for a week. Then I spent the rest of the year gathering material for my portfolio. This included two video taped classroom teaching sessions.  I wrote 4 different essays totalling more than 60 pages, gathered artifacts and endorsements, and took a two hour exam and still came up short.  I very much admire those who have successfully completed the process.

In Oklahoma, there are around 3000 NBTC teacher, around 115 in the Oklahoma Public School District alone.  Several years ago the legislature created an incentive for those in the program: successfully complete it, and you will received a $5000 stipend each year for the next 10 years.

The idea behind this comes from an odd reality in education: for a teacher to make significant money in education, she has to leave the classroom and get into administration or consulting.  After a while, we get to the top of our pay ladder and after that, we get cost of living raise, if we are lucky.  The next step usually means becoming an assistant principal or working at the district or state office, away from the kids we teach who are the reason we became teachers.

The stipend for NBTC teachers was designed to help correct that somewhat. It also provided pay for performance, a phrase dearly loved by those who want teachers to earn their salary increases for something other than longevity.  Now all those noble plans are in jeopardy.

Last year, the Oklahoma State Department of Education decided there was not enough money to pay the full $5000 stipend and voted instead to give NBTC teachers $3900.  Whether this amount will rise or fall or even be there at all is uncertain.  The bill the House panel was considering not only contained a requirement to pay the stipend, it also contained scholarships to help pay for the fees associated with being accepted into the program, which costs a minimum of $2500 to go through Oklahoma's version of the preparation process.

There is hope that the legislation will continue to see the merits of having such a large number of NBTC teachers.  I hope so because we know that the most important figure in a child's education is her teacher.

We need the best in the classroom, not in some office.

Monday, March 19, 2012

On a Rainy Day During Spring Break

We are on Spring Break today. Acutally, we have been on Spring Break for a week already and won't be back in school till a week from today. 

The first week of Spring Break was for Cat and myself and "Intersession" where we were tutoring students in need of extra help for school and the end of term tests that our middle school and high school students have to take.

I had about 6 or 7 students come to my classes, all of them 9th graders.  They do not have to take the high school End of Instruction (EOI) tests, so the tutoring I did with them mainly consisted of helping them with reading, writing and vocabulary.

We wrote poems, did interviews that appeared in newspaper articles they created, created posters, and read some essays.  They seemed to enjoy most of it, but I cannot say that they made much improvement or really needed to in the first place.

We keep trying to find ways to help our students, but we never seem to get the job done.  I keep thinking there must some some magic trick that will turn straw into gold.

It has been raining all day today.  I don't mind it because the state has been through one of the worst droughts ever, but it means that we cannot get out and tend to our yard like we would like too.  So, I come inside and do some reading, plan my lessons for the rest of the year, and enjoy a little down time.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Gonna get more dramatic?

I had my conversation with Dr. Roy, our consultant, and Ms. Jaramillo (Ms. J to all of us) over what they saw in my classroom yesterday.

One thing Dr. Roy told me is that I love my subject, and I want my students to love it. So, he said I need to look for ways to invite them in.

Ms. J said that I ought to borrow the techniques I use when I announce the school football games. I need to put myself "on stage" so to speak.

So my students should expect me to be a bit more of a performer in the classroom. (Though probably not as much as the guy above.

Any suggestions on how to pull this off?

Monday, March 05, 2012

When Bad Things Happen to (Pretty) Good Teachers

Today was one of "those days" at school.

On Friday, my principal, Ms. Johnson, informed me that a couple of consultants would be in the building on Monday and Tuesday to visit our classes.  They would be specifically looking at our classwork "engagement strategies"--those things we do in our lessons that get the students involved in learning and excited about their education. Not the sort of image that many of our adolescent learners have about their days in the classroom.

Actually, I have been trying to up my game about my teaching techniques and engagement is one of the areas I am trying to explore.  So, most of the day Sunday I was hunched over my school laptop trying to come up with some engaging lessons for my juniors and seniors.  I should say I was hunched over my school laptop and my home desk computer because, unfortunately, I left the power cord for my laptop at the school and the power ran down half-way through the process.  I don't know if this caused the later problems, but it should have been an omen.

After working from mid-morning to late at night, I had two pretty good lessons, I thought.  The junior would be analyzing Langston Hughes poem, "Mother to Son". (Well, son, I'll tell you:/
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.)

Specifically, they would be looking at the extended metaphor of the "crystal stair" in the poem. I had a pre-assessment using the Smartboard, a Power Point presentation, and a handout that would help the students take really good notes.

I wanted to give the seniors an introduction to the British Romantic movement starting with William Blake and William Wordsworth. I had a Power Point for them, a note-taking guide, even a YouTube hip hop version of Wordsworth poem "Daffodils".

All set for the big day on Monday.

I managed to get through the first hurdle: beating everyone else to the one functioning copy machine we still have in our building.

When I got to the classroom, I set up the now re-charged laptop and fired it up to get things ready.

That's when the trouble started.  Nothing worked. My Smartboard wasn't talking to my laptop, no matter how much I rebooted, pleaded, swore, or threatened violence.  My laptop itself seemed to have trouble getting on with the program that I had loaded from my home computer to my flash drive. Finally, it's screen went blank except for the message that somehow, my operating system was nowhere to be found. I rebooted and got the same message. My great plans were no more!

I went screaming, inwardly at least, to Ms. Jaramillo (Ms. J), the high school assistant principal. There in her office was one of the consultants. I explained my problem to both of them and charged back to my classroom trying to figure out what the heck to do.

Sure enough, as soon as I started teaching Ms. J and the consultant came to my room.  I used the note-taking guide and the poem for my lesson.  My presentation was rather "old school", using the white board in place of the Power Point.  I got through best I could. About half-way through they got up and left. The consultant, a very nice guy, said that we would consult on what he observed tomorrow.

I had turned the computer off at the beginning of class. At the end, I walked over to my now dead machine and turned it on one more time.  It worked fine. The Smart Board picked up up the image from my lesson like no problem ever existed. 

There are those times when you don't know whether to cry, laugh, scream, throw things, throw up your hands and give up, give up your hands and throw up, or just follow the advice in "Mother to Son":

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now—

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
--Langston Hughes

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Organizational Health Inventory

I was not in school today, nor will I be there tomorrow.  Instead, I am in a workshop with my principal, Ms. Johnson, and fellow AFT building representative Linda Dudley going over the results and significance of the Organizational Health Inventory (OHI) that our district has done every year for the past 8 years or so. 

The OHI is a survey done by the school's teachers and administrators designed to measure how everyone feels about their working conditions, things like do we feel focused on our school's goals? do we feel empowered to reach those goals? do we feel we have enough autonomy to carry our our mission to attain our goals? and so on.  This is Ms. Johnson's first year as our principal, so she and the other first-year principals (about 18 or so) were there with each building's union reps to get the lowdown on what the survey said and what it means for us.

According to the survey, our organization health really improved over last year.  The staff were more positive in each of the 8 categories covered in the inventory.  One reason was probably due to the feeling that, even though we are a "needs improvement school" operating under a "School Improvement Grant", we finally had been given clear directions on what we were supposed to be doing (Goal Focus was our highest category) and more of the means to be able to do it.

Had the survey been taken later in the school year, it is always taken near the start of school, the news would probably not have been as positive.  Back in October, as Ms. Johnson put it, we all hit a collective wall.  For one, we had been in school since August 1st and for another, the reality of our situation began to weigh on us.  No matter what new techniques we had been trained to do, we still were faced with many of the same problems we have always had with our students. They had not yet turned into the model scholars we all dream of teaching.  Some of us, me included, struggled with applying the new techniques.  Some drifted back into old habits of teaching, which is what one does when one feels a bit lost in the new methods. 

I think then, things have gotten better. At least they have with me.  I am beginning to finally learn how to organize my lessons and approaches better.  I still struggle with classroom management, but I use technology more and have learned some good engagement strategies.

I think that most of our faculty are on-board with the direction we are going and the course corrections we need to make.  I hope we can see real improvement in our students' test scores because that will give us a real boost in morale (another OHI category that in our school could use improvement).