Friday, February 28, 2014

Budgeting for the TER Conference – Part 1

Something exciting is happening in March and I am chomping at the bit to be there! It’s TER - The Educator’s Room Conference in Atlanta, June 25-27th. An exciting and worthwhile conference for teachers, about teachers and by teachers will take place across the three days. Here’s the official description from the website at:

Attend one of the most intimate and engaging professional development events for educators every held.

The conference theme, #Empowering Educators, highlights the necessity to empower the whole educator in a time where we are being attacked from every angle.

The conference will showcase not only best practices for inside the classroom, but will highlight the issues that educators go through being in the classroom such as: forming meaningful relationships, dealing with conflict resolution, building your personal brand, teacher activism and protecting yourself from budget cuts among other topics.

The Educator’s Room Annual Conference is meant to be an intimate space for educators to talk about topics that no other teacher conference will discuss. We pride ourselves that at our conference you will have a chance to actually connect with fellow educators in a safe, “pro teacher” environment.

Budgeting for any conference should began at least five or six months before the conference, if possible. The earlier you make your airline, hotel, and car rental reservations, the cheaper you can get them. However, make sure the hotel and car reservations can be cancelled or changed without penalty if you come upon a cheaper rate. It’s much harder to find airline reservations that can be changed without a big fee, but since ATL is a busy airport, you might be able to find an airline that is more amenable to change if you find a lower rate.

But even before making your reservations for the above, make your reservation for the conference! The earlier you can do this the better as early-bird conference fees can be made at more than $100 discount! If you are creative and like to share your expertise, offer to run a workshop for the conference and you may find a much deeper discount, perhaps a free ticket to the conference. Of course, your offer really has to be made quite early in the timeframe because they will have to advertise your session in their initial conference registration. Being a presenter is not only flattering for the presenter to share their expertise, but additionally, a rewarding learning experience both the conference attendees and the facilitator.

If you are having a problem raising the money for all of the above, make sure the conference registration is paid first, so you don’t get shut out in the later months. Putting aside $40 a week will get your conference money together in a little over 1 month for the Early bird (gone today!) and under 2 months for the regular conference fee.  Students do even better! $25 a week for a month will get your entrance fee paid. Late registration, while worth the price of admission, is double the early bird price. Get ‘em while they’re hot! Don’t wait!

If you want to attend this excellent conference in June, stay tuned for more blog entries on how to save for the conference. In the next budgeting For the TER Conference, Part 2, we’ll talk about crowdsourcing.


Still learning!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Workin' in the Data Mine

“Working in the data mine, goin’ down, down, down
Workin’ in the data mine, oop! About to slip down.”
Video Courtesy of Lee Dorsey
Parody courtesy of me

We’re workin’ in the data mine,
Goin’ down down down,
Workin’ for the data mine,
Oop! about to slip down.
Workin’ in the data mine
Goin’ down down down
Workin’ in the data mine
Oop! About to slip down

Six o’clock in the morning
Already up and gone
Lord, I’m so tired
How long can this go on? CHORUS

Cause I make a little money
Givin' tests by the ton
When Saturday rolls around
I'm too tired for havin' fun. CHORUS

For the first 35 years of teaching, I spent a good portion of my time and money in August, deciding on color schemes for my classroom, first month bulletin boards, and educational/motivational posters to put on the walls. After all, kids are going to spend 6.5 hours a day x 5 days a week in the room and I wanted them to feel welcomed and inspired.

Through the years, my classroom walls have been painted hospital green,  washed-out yellow or the palest of blue. All around the room above the blackboards was a foot-high space waiting for a splash of color and trim, waiting to highlight important vocabulary words in each subject and a number line, 180 numbers long. The blackboards on each wall were sandwiched between two bulletin boards that held good work, daily reminders, and calendars, schedules and rules.

Inside the room there were posters with inspirational quotes, exhortations to do your best, suggestions on how to get along with classmates, reminders about procedures for solving math problems, writing a narrative, informational or opinion essay, what-to-do-when-you-are-finished, creative art projects, book reviews, and any manner of  poster that would show off the intelligence, creativity and improvement of the students.

Outside the classroom door was a huge bulletin board that, in September, highlighted and welcomed individual members of your class. The rest of the year, it held, art work, poems, seasonal word games, data from experiments we performed, anything to celebrate what great things were happening in my class.

Everyone knew our data from Project Groundhog, as it was displayed along with pictures of our international team members and a map marking where our Project Groundhog team schools were located. The last bulletin board had 5 states and 1 Canadian province colored in and the cities were marked with a push-pin. The class across the hall was the 7th and 8th grade math class, who always posted a mathematical riddle or tough problem outside, encouraging kids of all ages to solve it. The 6th grade rooms posted beautiful poetry on their bulletin board, the science teacher always had a topical board and the social studies teacher always posted the 7th and 8th grade students’ projects in the hall, overflowing her bulletin board. When you walked through the halls, you could always tell what was going on in classrooms by the hallway boards. It was very welcoming.

About 2008, the school district began insisting on certain data to be displayed in the main hallway outside the office. Previous to this time, the hallway was adorned with paintings by Winslow Homer, trophies and ribbons from our championship chess team, and banners from the years our school made AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). The art teacher, when we had one, used this hallway to highlight great work of our budding Picasso’s and Monet’s. The year 2008 brought increased emphasis on the data the school district required us to post publicly. Right outside the office, prominently displayed, were the results from the last standardized test, the PSSA. They were disaggregated to include multi-year results in reading, math and writing from each grade and room, along with attendance data. The two bulletin boards outside the office were occupied by attendance charts and the one thing we insisted be displayed, the “Good Citizens” list and photos from the lower grades. Inside the office, the test results had to be displayed and available in the form of a data binder that the principal kept in her office.

Gradually, the data creep began to affect the teachers when we were required to keep drawers of files for work collected from each student that would indicate progress or lack of.  We were also required to keep copies of essays written, along with the drafts and comments about writing conferences. When the powers-that-be came through the school for the infamous Walk-Through that year, they were not happy with the vocabulary walls and visual word walls for math, even though they required us to have them several years prior. We were now required to include the standards we were going to address for the week as well as the daily objectives for each subject, written in kid-language. So we concentrated on the standards and objectives, even though this consumed at least one of the available bulletin boards in the room.

The following years requirements ate into most of the creative work displayed in the class. Instead we hung up anonymous lists of reading levels, rubrics for every project assigned, and we went back to word walls. Every 6 weeks the kids took benchmark exams in reading, math and science and we had to examine the data, write a plan to improve and keep these in our bright red data books, which now seemed to be more important than lesson plans. During this time, the demands from the district began to clash with what we knew was good teaching. Despite that, we were forced to discontinue reading novels in reading, and instead were told to issue a short excerpt and questions in order to prepare for the PSSA tests. Along with these short excerpts were open-ended math problems graded according to rubrics, and writing samples with rubrics.

We were then asked to post samples of successful papers in the hall with comments attached to them indicating what made the paper a 3 or a 4 on the rubric. While kids were always happy to see their papers in the hallway, it was quite evident whose papers never made it into the hallway. Many of those kids, instead of being motivated to do better, just immediately gave up trying to get a proficient grade. We were expected to fill in posters on how many pages or chapters or books our kids read. That was most disturbing in the younger grades, as it became perfectly obvious which kids’ parents read with them at home and which parents didn’t. I was always embarrassed for the poor first grader or kindergartener who only had one or two stickers, while everyone else had 20.

But the most horrible thing for me was when the district said they didn’t want to see motivational posters in the room, only the ones related to testing and data. Every room was supposed to have the same things on their walls. Every hallway was supposed to have the same thing outside each class. Everything became standardized, along with the tests the students took.

But now, many school districts require you to post individualized data from tests you give, so students and parents will know where the students stand and supposedly to be motivated to make them do better. Or motivated to beat their kid for being last, or motivated to berate their learning disabled child into doing better, or perhaps  to question the teacher’s ability, fairness, or prejudices in assigning grades. This was supposed to make the kids desire to do better. It does no such thing. Neither the students nor their teacher can win this battle. And it’s just getting worse. The teachers and principals have to take back their schools form the standardized movement and be able to do what will raise the self-esteem and perseverance of the children. It is different with each child – that part is not standardized either.

Now, with the use of the Common Core computerized tests coming soon to a school district near you, all kinds of data will be available to all kinds of people. There is a real concern about what personal data will be mined from these test results along with the test-related public information the school reformers are hungry for.

Despite the increased use of data on the school walls, standardized test scores continue to stagnate or go lower.  The collection of data is not the solution, but how it is used is part of the problem.

We’re workin’ for the data mine,
Goin’ down down down,
Workin’ for the data mine,
Ooop! about to slip down...

For a view from someone who embraces data walls (not me), click here:

Still learning!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Stone Soup

Stone Soup is an old story in the oral tradition told in many countries about an indigent person who comes into a town with nothing but an old cooking pot. No one will feed the stranger, so he fills up his pot with water, puts in a stone, and proceeds to trick the townspeople into contributing various vegetables to make the soup better. The tale teaches a valuable lesson in sharing and cooperating during hard times.

In its current contract talks, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has brought the pot, water, the stone, and the first vegetable in the form of not asking for a raise and agreeing to some health benefit changes. That will mean the members of the union will actually see their take-home pay decrease if nothing else changes. The union agreeing to this is a big deal for the members, who will then be contributing a part of their salaries to stem the deficit of the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). This proposal was made before the contract ran out at the end of August. September arrived without a contract between the School District of Philadelphia and the teachers’ union.

The state-run School Reform Commission and Dr. William Hite had prepared a doomsday budget for the 2013-14 school year which saw 4000 workers laid off, including assistant principals, counselors, nurses, teachers, classroom assistants and others. Laying off all those people still didn’t save enough money to begin the school year. Dr. Hite was asking for $300 million to get rid of the district's deficit and have enough to open school in September. The city coughed up about $100 million in loans and tax revenue. The state put up a whopping $14 million of the $100 million requested and the teachers’ union was called upon to make up the rest with salary cuts, increased benefit contributions, and work rule changes. The union instead put forth the proposal above. Our congressmen got the federal government to forgive a loan owed by the state so Governor Corbett could apply it towards the state’s contribution. He decided to hold it hostage instead, preventing the rehiring of counselors and nurses. The death of an asthmatic child at on the schools was the only reason he finally released SOME of the $45 million which was supposed to be earmarked for the Philly schools, in order for some of the laid off workers to be rehired.

Union detractors and the so-called  “school reformers”  are fond of stating that the teachers’ union hasn’t contributed a cent towards the deficit.  I beg to differ. Even without contributing a proposed salary freeze and benefits change, the first ingredients for the soup, teachers have contributed the pot, water and stone in the form of extra hours spent tutoring students, planning curricula, buying supplies and personal items for their students, attending unpaid meetings, working tirelessly, unpaid, after-hours and on weekends to make certain that their students have the best education they can get with the resources provided by the teachers.

For the past several years, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) members have met for countless hours with parents, students, and community members to propose sensible “reforms” for the public schools here in the city. Our salary is already $19,000 less than the well-paid high-income suburbs in the surrounding counties, who clearly have an easier job. We are not reimbursed for getting our Master’s, Doctorate, or additional certificates, as are many suburban teachers. So we’re on our own to become truly highly-qualified teachers sought by the district.  People are fond of stating that we get paid for summers off. Not true! We get paid from September through June. Any money we collect during the summer is money we have taken out of each paycheck during the school year, so we can have money throughout the summer. Doing it this way actually saves the School District money by allowing our summer money to collect interest during the year.

Now, instead of contributing needed ingredients to the stone soup in the form of equitable funding, the State has begun taking things out of the soup. Governor Corbett appointed William Green as head of the SRC and he has stated, in no uncertain terms, that the state will not give Philadelphia any more money until the union agrees to changes in work rules. The state wants to require a longer day, longer year, Saturday classes. They have already eliminated seniority in rehiring teachers, and also expect the union to agree to the dissolution of tenure for teachers. They want the teachers to take a 13% cut in pay in addition to the increased contribution toward benefits. The state’s whole premise is untenable for the teachers.

A study by the Pew Foundation determined that the SDP was underfunded by the state to the tune of $1 billion. The state took over the district in 2001 because of deficits and poor performance on tests. But during the 13 years it has been on charge of the district, our funding has decreased every year, while teachers are expected to do more. In 1975, the state of Pennsylvania contributed 55 percent of school funding statewide, but by the time they took over the district in 2001 it ‘s share was less than 36 percent.  Pennsylvania ranks 49th out of 50 states in public school funding. The decrease in state funds was expected to be raised by each district’s property taxes. A state system which relies heavily on property taxes for local school funding is one of gross inequities. Wealthier school districts with more property owners and more expensive real estate have more funds for schools. Expenditures for students vary widely, with comfortable suburbs spending up to $10,000 more per student than poorer rural and urban districts. In addition, Corbett has put a property tax increase cap on the districts.

Now that we are back to the pot, water, and stone, with no vegetables (additional funds), the School District continues to be under the gun to increase test scores. Of course, there are no school counselors in the elementary schools under 600 students, there are no extra-curricular activities, no music or sports, no small  class sizes, and reduced supplies and books. With the Common Core Standards being introduced, there is little time to prepare, adapt, and learn the things that are new in the curricula. The new district proposals for next year will have the effect of taking away the water and the pot, and all we are left with is the stone around our necks – pulling us into the abyss of low test scores, decreased funding, closed schools, and low test scores, etc.

We need a fair funding formula for Philadelphia and the other districts on the brink – Reading, Allentown, Harrisburg, etc. Poorer districts that cannot raise enough revenue from property taxes, need a different way to have the increased funds that it takes to raise high poverty districts from the threat of failure to a the stone soup of success, a high quality education.

It’s not the teachers union that is preventing this from happening. But  the state is more concerned with breaking the union than educating the children, and has gone so far as to threaten shutting down the district if they can’t get their way. Throwing out tenure and seniority is not going to make me a better teacher, because they have nothing to do with making the children in my class score better on a test. As PFT president Jerry Jordan says,  "Work-rule changes don't put textbooks in our children's hands, computers in their classrooms, restore their counseling and nursing services or return music and art to their curriculum."

work-rule changes don't put textbooks in our children's hands, computers in their classrooms, restore their counseling and nursing services or return music and art to their curriculum
Which school district will do better? The one that spends $10,000 per student or the one that spends $20,000+? Which one will score better, the district whose parents make $200,000 or the one where the average income is $30,000? The one with 60% low-income or the one with 10% low income?

We already know the answer and it has nothing to do with seniority or tenure. It has to do with the difference between stone soup and lobster bisque.



Still learning!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Size Matters

Class size seems to be a constant point of controversy for education, although it should be a no-brainer. Simply put, smaller classes are better for students than larger ones. A study I read recently reported that 13-17 students constituted a small class and a class of 22-25 children is considered a large one . The large number caused me to laugh hysterically, as the maximum class size preferred by the administration in Philadelphia is 32. It has been 32 for decades, which is actually decreased from the 33 students packed into the classrooms when I began teaching. That decrease of 1 student per class was a hard-fought issue in one of our contract negotiations years ago, a reluctant concession on the part of the school district. One fewer student will not make much difference, though.

Without doing any studies or having any personal experience, I could unequivocally say that smaller class sizes are better for academic achievement without leaving my place behind the computer. All I’d have to do is examine the brochures of the private schools in the area.

Let’s examine average class sizes of some private schools in the Philadelphia area:

Episcopal Academy – 15

St. Joseph’s Prep – 25

Friends Select – 12 to 20, with two teachers in larger classes

George School – 15

Westtown School – 15

Villa Maria Academy – 15

Sacred Heart Academy – 16

Malvern Prep – 9 to 13

Baldwin Academy – 14

St. Basil’s Academy – 18

Friends Central – 13

Agnes Irwin School – 14 to 17

The Haverford School – 17

The Hill School – 12 to 14

The Phelps School – 7 (serves both IEP and underachieving students)

Miquon School – 20 to 24 with two fulltime teachers in each class

Shipley School– 12

Springside School – 15

Germantown Academy – 15

I think I’ve made my point.  The private schools in the Philadelphia area that advertise great success and almost 100% college admission rates have determined that small class sizes matter, and use those statistics in their brochures as selling points for prospective students. So why are we even entertaining the thought that high-poverty, disadvantaged students can easily reach academic success in classes of 32 and beyond?


It is incredulous to make class size a bargaining point in the teachers’ contract when it’s obviously one way to increase the educational success of students. I often wonder if the members of the School Reform Commission, who are making these decisions, send their children to private or public schools. I think it should be a requirement of a sitting board member to have sent their children to public schools, so they can be personally affected by some of their asinine decisions,  thereby creating a lesser chance of foolish rules and regulations.

A report published February 2014 by Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University, calls on the faulty study and faulty conclusions of Malcolm Gladwell and Eric Hanushek in examining 59 case studies of class size done in 1987 and 1995. Those studies found no significant difference in the achievement of students in large or small classes. There were several flaws in this study, one in the size of the data sets (too small), another in not taking into account other causes for the results (it wasn’t random), and faulty conclusions. Mr. Gladwell subsequently wrote a book on the subject, titled David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, which is the source frequently cited by class-size-deniers. Many experts call his “research” into account, questioning its validity. You can read an article below about Malcolm Gladwell’s “Pseudo-Profundity.”

The study cited by Schanzenbach was one of many that have refuted Gladwell’s conclusions. Called STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), it was a real experiment, totally random in assignment of students and teachers to smaller classes and was done over the span of four years from Kindergarten to third grade. There were 11,500 students, 1,300 teachers and 79 elementary schools involved in this study in Tennessee from 1985 to 1989.  Conclusions from this better-designed study, show that students in classes of 13-17 scored 5 percentage points more on standardized tests in math and reading than students in classes of 22 to 25. Looking at the scores from a black-white achievement gap or an economic achievement gap showed an even greater advantage to being in a smaller class.   The results were unequivocal.

On a more personal note, my first two years in the school district were spent teaching pre-Kindergarten, with a maximum class size of 20. Throughout the year, I noticed that any day where 16 children or less were present, worked like a charm. It didn’t even matter which children were present, the better behaved or the behaviorally challenged.  A full class of 20 always posed a challenge to reach everyone. In Kindergarten, the same phenomenon was observed with an ideal number present of 20 to 22, where 30 was the maximum allowed.

In fifth grade, the max was 32 and the ideal, depending on the combination of kids was 16 to 24. The success of the class depended on the behavior problems that were assigned to the class, not the number of kids with IEPs. It just makes sense that a smaller class size gives you the freedom to get to know each child personally and understand what thinking processes you need to stimulate in order for him/her to learn well. It’s easier to foster a sense of community in a smaller class, so students will not be afraid to speak their mind or be made to feel stupid. The space in the class is also a consideration. With a smaller class, there’s more room to be flexible in your room arrangement, and you’re not sitting practically on top of one another. Smaller class sizes just make way more sense than larger ones.

The school district, at its cost-cutting best, stacked the classes to the maximum of 32 this year, creating over 100 mixed-grade classrooms. You can imagine the current class configuration is not going to be conducive to higher test scores. If 22 to 25 is considered a large class, I suppose Philadelphia has a XXXL size as its norm. No wonder we’re having such a tough time.

Bigger is not always better. Size matters.

Does Class Size Matter? - Schanzenbach article


Still learning!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Poem By Any Other Name

In my email this morning was an article about how not to teach poetry. That got me thinking about how my feelings about poetry have changed through the years. There has been no love lost between me and that noble subject Up until I decided to throw away everything I had ever learned about poetry, I hated it. I feel differently now.

In grade school, on Friday afternoon, we had our introduction to Fine Arts. It was at this time that we learned about poetry and art. We had a tiny Picture Study book that introduced us to famous paintings, and our main mission was to memorize which artist painted which painting. I was never really good at that. I was more interested in the various genres, or styles of painting. We did this for 15 minutes each week.

The other 15-30 minutes of Fine Arts consisted of reading and memorizing poems. In the lower grades, the poems were mercifully short and sometimes evoked in my mind one of the pictures we had just studied. We were expected to match titles or stanzas to the name of the poet. Sometimes we were instructed to draw the scene described or to write a poem like the featured one.

In 7th grade, we were supposed to memorize poems such as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Paul Revere’s Ride.  I hated poetry in the lower grades but my 7th grade Homeroom teacher made it a game to memorize those looooong poems. She’d allow us 2 mistakes and if we could get through it with only those 2 mistakes, we got an “Angel Card” which was good for a night free of homework. Don’t you know I got an Angel Card for each of those poems that year! But to me, that’s all poetry was, memorizing.

In high school, I was fortunate to avoid poetry entirely until senior year, although technically, I guess the sonnets we had read in junior year qualified as poetry. My English teacher in my last year of high school crushed any love I may have developed with the introduction of sonnets the year before. I was often late for her class because the previous class was held in the basement on one end of the building and her class was on the 3rd floor at the opposite end of the block-long high school. Battling 2700 other students was usually a losing proposition when you only had 3 minutes to get from one class to another. So, at least twice a week, I had a detention for being late. Add to that her method of teaching poetry, which was a whole semester’s theme. We would read a poem and have to tell her what it meant. I was always told I was wrong, but she never explained how I was supposed to be thinking when I read it. Luckily, I was very good at essay writing, which was the second semester’s theme and I managed to pull a B for the course.

In the meantime, I met my future husband, who actually captured me with his poetry. He read poems to me from his book of personal poems, explained how some of them came about, and a bit later, wrote a poem about me. Me! Maybe there was something to poetry after all, that I just hadn’t seen until then. That thought stayed with me as I left the halls of my Alma Mater and went on to higher education.

College freshman, as it is all over the US, choose their classes after everyone else at the university. I had a double whammy that year, as the only gym class left was Field Hockey (I had never even heard of it) and the only English class left was Poetry. I did not go into my first collegiate year with high hopes, as I hated poetry and was one of the most uncoordinated people on earth.


Gym class was one frustration after another, as everyone else in the class had played on their high school team. The coach recognized my ineptitude with team sports and played me only when she HAD to. I was, however, a whiz on the rules and regulations and made a good ref. At our final in Hockey class, we had to volley the ball on a slalom course of orange traffic cones in a certain period of time, and then we had 10 chances to hit it into the goal 5 times. Although I volleyed well, I could not for the life of me get the damn ball into the goal. She gave me a D in the practical part since “I could see you were really trying.” My A grade in the written exam allowed a passing grade. I think she didn’t want me back another semester anyway. So, I had one of my horrible courses vanquished that year.

It wasn’t so easy to vanquish Poetry. 

The professor of our poetry course was a distinguished graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and had also studied at Oxford University in London, UK. She considered herself an expert and made sure to let us know, also. We read some great poetry that year, but once again, when asked to analyze it, I was an abject failure.  I was proficient at identifying the type of poem, the rhyme scheme, the imagery used, and had a personal connection with much of what I read. But I could not for the life of me get into the poet’s head and relate why he wrote the poem or what it really meant. Unless the poet had written down what they had in their head when they wrote the verses, I couldn’t see how I was supposed to get inside their long-dead heads to figure it out.

I haven’t mentioned up until now that I went 12 years to Catholic School, the last 4 years spent in an all-girls high school. Keep reading- this is relevant.

The first poem we had to analyze was a Walt Whitman poem. I knew nothing of Walt Whitman except we had a bridge and a school named after him here in Philadelphia. Turns out he was a pretty sensual guy and had some fairly raunchy (for the times) poems. I may have been the only one who hadn’t a clue about that. That poem, whose title I cannot remember, was about the sunrise across a lovely field of flowers, I could see that field, the fog lifting, the flowers tilting their heads toward the light, and the sun’s rays spreading its warmth across the scene. He really had a way to get it across, painting with his words. After we had all handed in our homework, the professor insisted that this beautiful word painting was all about sex! Oh Lord! What did I know about sex? I had just spent 4 years in an all-girls school and was now attending an all-girls university. When my paper was handed back, I got an F. It was only the second F I had ever earned in my school career.  I told myself I’d do better the next time.

But the next time, I got an F, too, and that poem was all about sex apparently. The third and fourth poems also had F’s associated with them, and were also sexual in nature. I finally called up my brother Tom who had successfully graduated from college years before and pleaded with him to teach me how to know if a poem was sexual in nature. My wonderful big brother explained what a phallic symbol was, and also told me about the missionary position and other things that might indicate that a woman was waiting for a man to have intercourse with her.  Suddenly it all made sense. We also discussed how the professor must be pretty frustrated sexually to actually see sex in every poem. Having spent my teenage years in an all-girls school did not prepare me in the least for all this. In fact, I don’t think we spoke about sex at all in those years, certainly no conversation ever mentioned sexual positions and phallic symbols!

Armed with my new knowledge about sex, I plowed into the next poem, eyes wide open for phallic symbols and the like. Guess what? I earned a B! The rest of the semester was spent not enjoying the verses I read, but delving into sexual nuances and positions. In the end, I pulled a B in the course but it did nothing to instill a love of poetry into me.

Much later, after I had graduated with a degree in teaching, I had an opportunity to take a writing methods course that began my new appreciation of poetry. I learned it didn’t have to rhyme, that there are many more forms of poetry than I realized, that it should invoke a gut reaction, and it didn’t have to hold any hidden meanings, sexual or not. 

Armed with that knowledge, I began to teach my classes about writing poetry and how easy it could be. To put your feelings into some verses and make your reader feel what you do was a powerful thing. We wrote poems about colors, vegetables, feelings, family, dreams, anything that could be imagined and put on paper. The longer I taught it, the more a part of me poetry became. Indeed, I have since written many verses with my students through the years. And often used songs and songwriting in examining poetry.

A few years before I retired, a former student spied me in the parking lot and came over to thank me for teaching her how to write poetry. She was a struggling learner in fifth grade with a learning disability. She said poetry helped her get her feelings sorted out after her brother was killed in a drive-by shooting. She didn’t think she would have been able to get past it otherwise. In fact, she informed me that she was teaching other kids in her class about writing poetry. The hug we shared as we said goodbye was mutually grateful.

So now poetry has been a good part of my life for more years than not and I cannot imagine life without it.  My daughter Karen is a prolific poet on the All Poetry website and I know it got her through some tough teenage years. I encourage everyone to try their hand at it, but do me a favor, please? If you want to write about sex, make it obvious, ‘cause I don’t want to go looking for any more phallic symbols. And don’t read too much into a poem. If you don’t understand it, ask the poet. If the poet is dead, don’t assume.




Using forceful verbs,

Flamboyant nouns,

Sprinkled with adjectives, adverbs

Illuminate the page with feeling,

Paint a masterpiece with words.

Let me hear your song.

Then tuck it away for later,

Share with someone special,

Or put it out there in the spoken word.

You are capable.

You are powerful.

You are worthy.

You are a poet.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Experience is the Best Teacher

When No Child Left Behind was conceived, one of its tenets was to have a highly qualified teacher in every classroom. According to the federal government - The federal definition of a highly qualified teacher is one who meets all of the following criteria: 1) Fully certified and/or licensed by the state; 2) Holds at least a bachelor degree from a four-year institution; and 3) Demonstrates competence in each core academic subject area in which the teacher teaches. That competence is demonstrated by Praxis test scores as well as observations by administrators.

In the state of Pennsylvania, it takes 3-6 years to become permanently (fully) certified to teach. This entails jumping through several hoops in order to become qualified.  The first thing necessary after graduation from a teaching program is passing all subtests of the PRAXIS that are required for your certificate. PRAXIS is a nationally recognized teachers’ version of the Board exams given to lawyers, nurses, and doctors. They assess your knowledge of child development, teaching strategies, and content knowledge in your chosen field of education. Depending on your desired certification, you may need to take and pass 4-6 of these exams before getting your temporary teaching certificate. In addition to passing the Praxis, you must continue to take a certain number of courses by your sixth year of teaching.  Most teachers take courses in education or in their field of expertise, with the idea they can use them in their current teaching situation. Some teachers go on to get their Master’s in Education. None of this is paid for by the school district here, although you can currently get a raise for adding an advanced degree or two, at least until the school district takes that away.

All of us were happy when they put a Highly-Qualified requirement for the teaching positions because the districts and principals often placed newly qualified teachers in positions for which they were not certified. Teachers who had a social science degree may have been called upon to teach English or Algebra if a suitable person could not be found for this position. My own sister-in-law had an English teacher assigned to a beginning Algebra class in high school. Needless to say, she didn’t learn much that year. In my own experience, our school assigned a classroom teacher to a Special Ed position for a year. Even though that particular teacher was studying to get her degree in Special Ed, she was not qualified that first year. Indeed, we sometimes had a difficult time filling positions because the school was in a high-poverty area. Teachers with experience were valued highly here, since they would not be undaunted by the challenges found in the school.

But the “highly qualified” tag actually now means nothing because the US Congress has changed the rules. The blogger, Geaux Teacher, explains in a recent blog entry.

In language that does not give a hint about its real meaning, the deal extends by two years legislation that allows the phrase “highly qualified teachers” to include students still in teacher training programs — and Teach For America’s (TFA) recruits who get five weeks of summer training shortly after they have graduated from college, and are then placed in some of America’s neediest schools.

Teach For America’s 5 weeks of training doesn’t even come close to the months of observation and months of practice teaching under close supervision of a certified teacher that the college students in teacher prep classes put in. Those 5 weeks don’t come close to the 4-6 semester’s worth of child development and educational methods courses taken by teacher prep students, nor the additional 36 credits required to become permanently certified. Not to mention that it takes three years before they will even THINK about giving you permanent certification.

Why? Because it takes that long to get good at what you do. It takes that long to have a grasp of the developmental and emotional states of the age group you are teaching. It takes that long to know your content for that grade, And it takes that long to find your teacher legs, the ones that will help you stand up to challenging students, or support emotionally needy ones, the ones that will hold you up on days that never seem to end.

TFA teachers only promise 2 years of service. Most are gone after that second year, on to Graduate School or a job where educational experience will give them a leg up in their career. Don’t get me wrong, there are TFA teachers who eventually stay and learn to become good teachers, but the point is, they are being labeled as ‘highly qualified” from the get-go, when they are clearly not. To throw someone with 5 weeks experience into an inner-city classroom and expect them to be highly qualified is a joke.

A teacher’s first year is usually a washout as they learn how to teach by themselves, paying attention to all the things no one explains in teacher prep classes, like collecting data, analyzing, diagnosing and prescribing while planning 5-7 step lessons in each subject and keeping the lid on 30 wriggling bodies and wandering minds. And don’t forget answering phone calls from the office and from parents, making sure you are following the IEPs and 504 plans for each noted child, all the while teaching towards the visual, auditory and kinesthetic needs of each child. While you are assessing whether they understood the lesson and need re-teaching. Oh, and keeping track of the schedules of the Special Ed kids and the gifted kids who may be removed from the class each day for specialized instruction, but making sure they get the instruction they miss when they are out of the classroom, all the while exposing them to grade level tasks, concepts and vocabulary that they are expected to know for the standardized test. You think that a non-educator or one trained for 5 weeks could come in and handle that? Think again. All TFA does is take away jobs from real highly qualified teachers

Not to mention all the educational policies foisted upon us by people who have never been a teacher or have only been a teacher for 3-4 years. Remember, you really don’t get good at what you do until the third year. From the top of the chain on down we are forced to follow the policies of these unprepared, clueless administrators and legislators making educational policy that doesn’t make sense.

Let’s start at the top.

Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education for the United States – zero years as a teacher, majored in Sociology, no teacher training

Michelle Rhee, former Superintendent of Schools in Washington DC – only 3 years teaching in a charter school, degrees in Government and Public Policy, TFA training of only 5 weeks

David Coleman, developer of Common Core Standards - zero years teaching experience,  English and Philosophy degrees, worked for McGraw Hill, was on the Board of Students First, Michelle Rhee’s organization

Because he’s been so high-profile these days, I will include John King, NY State Education Commissioner - 3 years teaching in a charter, law degree and degree in Educational Leadership, no teacher training at all.

William Hite, Philadelphia’s Superintendent, looks like a long-timer with – 4 years teaching experience, BS Secondary Education Marketing Education, regular teacher training.

So that’s 5 high-profile educational big whigs, making policies that affect tens of millions of children, and among them they have 10 years teaching experience and only ONE of them has had more than 5 weeks training. Is it any wonder why the United States is floundering where education is concerned? The three most influential figures, Arne Duncan,  Michelle Rhee and David Coleman had a total of 5 weeks training and 3 years teaching – total!  Yet they are in charge of writing policy for all those who are in the trenches, have the education and training, and could tell them a thing or two about teaching. Please, if you do nothing else this weekend, investigate your state education policy makers and see how many years experience they have. And with the primaries coming up, make sure you look at the education experience and records of your already elected politicians and the wannabees.

Vote for people who know what they are talking about. Get rid of the ones who have no clue. Write letters of no confidence for those in power who have no business being there.

And opt out of the Common Core testing. It was NOT written by teachers and is only going to make billions for Pearson, the educational testing company. It will not be of any value for your children. Get involved with your local school board. Get rid of the Common Core and get them replaced with standards that are written by people who know and understand your children – teachers.

Take back education from the corporations.

No Teacher Left Behind

What do teachers want from school reformers?

Almost in the TFA's clutches, Gary Rubenstein opens your eyes.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

There's No Place Like Home

Well this blog is supposed to be about educational issues and boy, did I get educated this week about winter storms!

We were hit with heavy snow on Monday and by the time I got home from my cataract surgery, our driveway had been plowed in by the township plows. I have no argument with the plows, they do a great job, much better than the surrounding townships. However, Vic had to climb over a three-foot snow bank in order to get the shovel so he could shovel a van-sized spot at the end of the driveway. We couldn't get the garage door open (it was frozen shut) and had to wait until my daughter and her boyfriend came over and roughhoused it open in order to get the snowblower out.

Shortly after we plowed the driveway out, it rained for an entire day and froze to the trees and wires, causing a massive power outage in 5 counties in Southeastern PA. We were 4.5 days without power, causing us to be wandering nomads after the first three chilly nights at the house.

I learned I have the best family, as we stayed with my Mom one night at her apartment. She wined and dined us and we got to watch the Opening Ceremonies together, just like when I was a kid. My daughters and their beloveds treated us to a wonderful dinner and we slept there last night. Lily, my grand dog, gave me a lick attack welcome, and my daughter Karen drove past the house to see if we were back on and as she did, the lights went on!

I learned that the county was great at getting info out through social media during the outage and that other community institutions were generous with their space and time. The Chester County Library let us borrow their internet and their warm building, West Chester University provided a large space for a warming center and Shelter, complete with medical center and housing for pets. Various states and New Brunswick, Canada sent their crews to rebuild the power grid and get people back on as quickly as possible. They've been working around the clock in 16-hour shifts to get us back on.

Thanks to my hubby who drove home tonight through some very slippery snow, so we could sleep in our own bed tonight.

There's no place like home.

Still learning!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

To Blog or Not to Blog

So my goal for January was to write a blog entry each day. Except for the day I was in the hospital, I kept that true. I do have a lot more to say, however, and would like to know how often you would like me to blog and if you have any educational issues you'd like me to blog about. You can answer here or on the It Wasn't in the Lesson Plan's Facebook page or  on my personal Facebook page. Please tell me how often you'd like to see a blog entry - once a day, every other day, once a week, or never again.


It Wasn't in the Lesson Plan -

Anne's FB page -

Or comment below on the blog.

Still learning!