A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What a relief that idiocy knows no bounds.

Apparently, there ARE stupid people everywhere, and some of them teach school (just like every other profession). From Australia:
An Australian teacher was reprimanded after giving students an assignment to plan an extremist attack designed to inflict maximum casualties, officials said Wednesday.

The Kalgoorlie-Boulder Community High School class in Western Australia were told to plot against "an unsuspecting Australian community", with the goal "to kill the most innocent civilians in order to get your message across".

The students, aged between 15 and 17, had to explain their choice of victim, location, time and weapon, as well as describe the effects their method would have on the human body.

The assignment, which was designed to test pupils' ability to apply what they had learned about terrorism in a society and environment lesson to "real life", was quickly withdrawn after an angry backlash from parents.

"It was certainly an inappropriate method of exploring the issue of conflict and had the potential to offend and disturb parents and impressionable students," said Western Australia state education minister Liz Constable.

Sharyn O'Neill, head of the state's education department, said it was "inappropriate, it was insensitive and rightly, people are upset".

She apologised to one family in particular with a girl in the class who had lost a relative in the 2002 bombings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

"We are very sorry for the pain and discomfort that this situation has caused," said O'Neill. "Certainly no ill was meant by this assessment task."

School principal Terry Martino said the teacher was "relatively inexperienced" and it was a "well-intentioned but misguided attempt to engage the students".

Wow. Really? It would have been such a better assessment of the lesson's goals to assign kids this: You are the new Home Secretary (or whatever Australians call an equivalent position). How specifically would you attempt to prevent a terrorist attack in _________ (name the nearest large city in Australia). Create a list of at least 5 concrete actions or programs that could be created to address specific situations discussed in class."

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tuesday Musing Open Thread 6: Gag me with a spoon

Okay, so today I was looking at a kid's paper and there was a long, crusty booger on it. I nonchalantly got it off with a kleenex while inwardly suppressing a heave. So.... I'm gonna go there.

For your consideration: what is one of the grossest things with which you have had to deal as a teacher? Let's try to walk the line without actually inducing any technicolor yawns. Remember, euphemisms are our FRIENDS.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Finding Middle Ground Near Hallowed Ground

The controversy over the construction of a Muslim cultural center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City continues unabated after weeks of heated rhetoric. I saw on the news today that over 60% of New Yorkers oppose the construction of the center and mosque.

We should never condemn the members of an entire group based on the actions of the most extreme members of that group. This particularly applies to religions. Would those of you who are Christian want to be judged by the excesses of the Crusades, or the Irish Troubles, or the Sex Abuse crises currently rending so many denominations in two? I would imagine most definitely not. In the same way, no one should condemn all Muslims for the actions of the Taliban, Muammar Qaddafi, or al-Qaeda.

In America, we often condemn Muslim countries such as Iran or even Saudi Arabia for their lack of toleration for those of other faiths. We are proud of our commitment to freedom of religion. Well, situations like this are where our values truly get tested. We only have values if we stick to them even when it is difficult and uncomfortable. It's easy to claim the high road when that road is smooth and easy.

Muslims have the right to worship freely in America, and unless we want to allow extremists like those who attacked us on 9/11 to succeed in their campaign to destroy America and what it stands for, we must resist the impulse to retreat from that value.

Having said that, it would also be wonderful if our Muslim brethren would be sensitive to the very real pain and trauma that still lingers in the wake of these attacks. They don't need to be told that the world will never be the same again, since their lives were changed as well by the terrible events of that day. It would be a sensitive gesture to reconsider the location of a Muslim cultural center and mosque so close to a place that was, let's face it, attacked by people who claimed a fervent if misguided devotion to that religion.

I would like to humbly suggest that a Muslim cultural center doesn't HAVE to be built at that location, and the greatest examples of charity, kindness, and concern for others enshrined within the pages of the Qur'an could be demonstrated by a willingness to consider an alternative location. If the group promoting this project truly wishes to advance understanding about Islam to a still-traumatized America, perhaps it could consider relocating this project to somewhere less sensitive. Frankly, a Muslim cultural center and mosque on this location would not go very far in its goal of promoting understanding and friendship for millions of people-- the very people I am sure they hope to reach out to in goodwill.

Let's search for a middle ground near this hallowed ground.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tuesday Musing Open Thread 5: Beginning of School nightmares

For your consideration: Some of us are so tightly wound that our work life invades even our sleep time. What are some school-related dreams or nightmares that you have had? Mine come back even before the start of the actual school year for extra special torture.

Place your responses in the comment section!

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Monday, August 16, 2010

It gets earlier every year.

Show of hands: how many of you are back at school already? And if you feel like it, tell what state you are in and what the temperature currently is.

It feels like they turned down our A/C to try to make the case that a bond issue needs to be passed, since A/C is on the wish list. However, they supposedly fixed it the last time, and it sure doesn't feel cool right now. Maybe they didn't account for the hundreds of teen-aged bodies radiating at 98.6 degrees?


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tuesday Musing Open Thread 4: Suggestions for new teachers

For your consideration: What is the most valuable advice you could share with a new teacher in your building?

This time of year, there are thousands of people across the country who have been hired for a new teaching job. Now is the time for us to come to their aid! Put your comments in the comment section!

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Monday, August 09, 2010

How to deal with failing schools: a continued conversation

Remember our discussion of failing schools and layoffs a few days ago?

Now listen to this idea from Boston, via the NY Times:
Earlier this year Massachusetts enacted a law that allowed districts to remove at least half the teachers and the principal at their lowest-performing schools. The school turnaround legislation aligned the state with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program incentives and a chance to collect a piece of the $3.4 billion in federal grant money.

From Washington this makes abundant good sense, a way to galvanize rapid and substantial change in schools for children who need it most.

In practice, on the ground, it is messy for the people most necessary for turning a school around — the teachers — and not always fair.

Often the decisions about which teachers will stay and which will go are made by new principals who may be very good, but don’t know the old staff. “We had several good teachers asked to leave,” said Heather Gorman, a fourth-grade teacher who will be staying at Blackstone Elementary here, where 38 of 50 teachers were removed. “Including my sister who’s been a special-ed teacher 22 years.”

And while tenured teachers who were removed all eventually found positions at other Boston schools, it’s unsettling. “Very upsetting,” said Ms. Gorman. “A lot of nervousness for teachers.”

Blackstone’s new principal, Stephen Zrike, who made the decisions, agrees. “I’d say definitely good teachers were let go,” Mr. Zrike said, explaining that a lot of his decisions were driven by particular skills he wanted for teams he was assembling. “I wouldn’t doubt a lot will be excellent in other places.”

And how much to blame are teachers for the abysmal test scores at Orchard Gardens, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade turnaround school here, that’s had six principals since opening seven years ago?

The goal of the turnaround legislation is to get the best teachers into the schools with the neediest children, but often, experienced teachers get worn down by waves and waves of change and are reluctant to try again.

“You fear being pulled by the latest whim,” said Ana Vaisenstein, who has taught in Boston for 12 years.

“Sometimes in education, there are so many changes being made at once, the important things get lost,” said Courtney Johnson, a five-year veteran.

Asked about applying to one of the city’s 12 turnaround schools, Lisa Goncalves, a first-grade teacher with seven years’ experience, said, “I’d be hesitant to go alone.”

And that is the simple idea behind a new program that is being used to staff three of the turnaround schools in Boston: you don’t go alone. Rather than have the principal fill the slots one by one, the Boston schools have enlisted the help of a nonprofit organization, Teach Plus, to assemble teams of experienced teachers who will make up a quarter of the staff of each turnaround school come fall.

“It’s like jump-starting a culture at these schools,” said Carol R. Johnson, Boston superintendent of schools. “In turnaround schools, you often wind up with a high portion of first- and second-year teachers, so you need some experience, a team of teachers who are enthusiastic and idealistic.”

Said Celine Coggins, the chief executive of Teach Plus, which developed the idea and is financed by the Gates Foundation: “I think teachers want to know they’re not going into a school alone as a hero.”

The teams will spend two weeks working together this summer. While teaching a full load, they will serve as team leaders for their grades and specialty areas like English immersion. They will work 210 days versus the normal 185 and get paid $6,000 extra a year.

On average they have eight years’ experience.

There were 142 applicants — from as far as Arizona, Florida and Nevada — for the 36 positions. Everyone offered a job took it. Sixty-eight percent came from Boston public schools, 18 percent from charter schools.

Their credentials are impressive. Ms. Vaisenstein, who will teach English immersion at Blackstone, has been in education 33 years, speaks Spanish and French, understands Portuguese and directed a Head Start program in Boston for five years. Lillian Pinet, an 18-year veteran, is fluent in Spanish and Amharic, an Ethiopian language, and teaches an education course at Boston College. Sylvia Yamamoto, who will teach third grade, is a 20-year veteran who taught English to foreign students at Harvard for years....

There's more at the link.

Now this plan shows some serious consideration about how to change the culture of a school. It is not enough to replace the teachers (and apparently keep a principal for more than a year at a time). You have to put in place a cadre of seasoned, EXPERIENCED veteran teachers-- and you have to do what you must to make them want to take on that challenge. The administration has to agree to listen to what that cadre of master teachers has to say.

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Saturday, August 07, 2010

This is dumb.

Milwaukee's teacher's union would rather have the district's insurance cover Viagra than make sure colleagues who are laid-off From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
The Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association has filed a civil suit claiming that MPS' exclusion of Viagra and other drugs that treat erectile dysfunction from its health insurance plans constitutes sexual discrimination against male employees.

Last September, an administrative law judge dismissed an earlier ruling that sided with the union, which filed an equal rights complaint in 2008. The state's Labor and Industry Review Commission upheld the decision in June.

The union now seeks a review of that decision by a Milwaukee County circuit court judge.

"This is an issue of discrimination, of equal rights for all our members," said Kristin Collett, spokeswoman for the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association.

According to documents contained in the MTEA lawsuit filed last month:

MPS first agreed to cover drugs that treat erectile dysfunction in 2002. By 2004, there were 1,002 claims for such drugs from MPS employees. During negotiations with the union for its 2003-2005 contract, MPS tried to stop coverage of the drugs, citing rising costs. An arbitrator sided with the district in 2005.

In 2008, the teachers' union filed a charge with the state's Equal Rights Division, complaining that not offering the drug violated the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act.

"The exclusion of an FDA approved, medically necessary drug from an otherwise comprehensive pharmacy plan violates Wisconsin's prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex," the union argued.

Lawyers for the union claimed that because treatment for female sexual dysfunction such as vaginal cream and estrogen replacement medication is covered, the removal of Viagra from the health plan unfairly disadvantaged male employees.

The school district has countered that the elimination was a cost-saving measure and non-discriminatory because the drugs are mainly recreational.

Setting aside both arguments, a judge and later the Labor and Industry Review Commission dismissed the suit, ruling that MTEA, by acting collectively for its members, did not offer proof that any specific individuals had experienced discrimination, and that the statute of limitations for discrimination suits had passed.

Collett said she was aware of at least one member who had formally complained about the lack of Viagra coverage, but that the MTEA was not seeking relief for an individual member. Rather, she said, it is seeking to stop a discriminatory policy for all members...

There's more if you care to read it at the link. Look, there are some things related to the pharma industry one may have to pay for themselves. I personally would rather that all "sexual enhancement" meds (for females or males) be on your own dime (since we can't seem to get real health care reform in this country) and instead see all autism treatment be covered, for instance, or family planning services. One is definitely more of a "quality of life" issue than the other.

I understand principles. But in a time of lay-offs, it's about another "p" word-- no not that one, you nasty minded things. The one I was thinking about is "priorities."

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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Tuesday Musing Open Thread 3: Qualifications for hiring administrators

For your consideration, and as an extension of last week's question: If you were given the chance to revamp the hiring process in your school, what would be the top qualifications you would look for in administrators being hired to fill open positions? How do these compare with the qualifications that are currently in use by your school district?

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Monday, August 02, 2010

Of Back-to-School Sales and Personal Budgets

In my Sunday paper, there they were. The "Back-to-School" sales fliers.

After I wiped the tears out of my eyes, I realized how grateful I was that at least they hadn't put these out in early July. Then I ran across this tidbit. Please note the items I have boldfaced:
Fewer parents plan to cut their back-to-school budgets, but they will count on smartphones and social networking to find the best bargains during the second biggest shopping season of the year, according to a Deloitte survey released on Tuesday.

"Retailers may be encouraged that fewer consumers are planning to pare back this year, although they may find that shoppers continue to be deliberate in their purchases," said Alison Paul, Deloitte's retail sector leader in the United States.

In the online survey, 28 percent of 1,050 parents of school-age children said they were planning to spend more this year on back-to-school clothing and supplies, while 17 percent said they would spend less.

The survey showed that among households that expect to spend more, about 34 percent said their children needed more expensive items, such as computers, and more than 26 percent said school budget cuts meant parents needed to pay more for children's items.

Back-to-school shopping trails only Christmas for the amount of money consumers spend in a season.

The survey was conducted between July 9 and 11, and has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

This year, 58 percent of respondents said they would change the way they shop for back-to-school items by buying more items on sale or only items family members really needed.

Last year, 70 percent of the respondents said they expected to change the way they shopped because of the recession, down from 90 percent in 2008.

"The survey indicates that consumers' recession-induced behaviors are beginning to wane as households seek to replenish certain items and worry less about the economy," Paul said.

Twenty-nine percent or 305 of the people surveyed said they planned to use mobile phones for price information, retailer advertisements and to find discounts and coupons.

An equal number of people said they would use social networking sites to find promotions, look at products, and read reviews and recommendations.

"Consumers are increasingly on the phone, online and on-the-go," said Paul, adding that retailers using mobile applications, text alerts and video content may win an increased share of shoppers' back-to-school budgets.

Discount stores were still the No. 1 shopping destination, with 89 percent of consumers surveyed saying they planned to shop at discount stores for back-to-school items.

According to the survey, 31 percent of consumers said they would shop at traditional department stores, up from 26 percent last year, and 23 percent cited specialty clothing stores, an increase of six percentage points over 2009.

After two consecutive years as the second most popular destination, dollar stores dropped to the third most popular destination behind office supply/technology stores.

Some of you may work at schools that are sending out those supply lists soon. As a parent, I have one serious request: please consider whether students will really need all of the items you have marked as "required" on those lists. If my family sometimes struggles to be able to afford all of the new things required at the start of the school year, imagine how other families who are led by parents either unemployed or underemployed are going to get by. If kids are going to use markers and scissors or, worse, a $100 calculator only once or twice a year, perhaps they really shouldn't be necessary (and those calculators bug me for a different reason, too).

As a teacher, I often see students whose families can't afford to buy loads of supplies. I try to buy pencils and spirals in bulk at these sales and store them in my room. I claim to have "found" them when distributing them to my needier students (and that IS true-- I "found" them on sale for a penny at Office-O-Rama).

I realize that schools have fobbed off ever more of their own budgetary problems on parents and students, but let's not be a part of the problem if we can help it.

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Student sues counselor over college recommendation letter

Whoa. For those of us who teach high school, here's a reminder about how truly important those recommendation letters can be:
Shannon McCoy's collegiate future looked bright. As a swimmer with two state champion titles and a respectable 3.0 GPA at Lafayette High School, she received scholarship offers from several four-year institutions.

McCoy also received an award for the "highest standards of excellence that embody the Rockwood spirit" four times during her high school career.

But her plans were nearly scuttled by her own high school's guidance counselor, according to a lawsuit filed by her parents late last month.

Beth A. Brasel, the counselor, filled out a recommendation form addressed to Colorado State University describing McCoy as below average in five key areas - initiative, character, integrity, leadership and commitment to service.

The university pulled the scholarship, although it was later reinstated.

Mary McCoy, Shannon's mother, said the family has filed the suit in order to figure out what exactly went on in school's guidance counseling department.

"The reason we're pursuing this civil suit is because there are things we don't know what happened or why," she said.

Kim Kranston, chief communications officer of Rockwood school district, declined to comment, saying the district has not yet been served with the suit.

According to the suit:

Brasel had never met McCoy when she filled out the form.

After receiving the news of the rejection from Colorado State in March, McCoy found herself in a bind.

She had already turned down swimming scholarships from several other universities, including University of Nebraska and the University of North Carolina, after she signed an NCAA National Letter of Intent to accept the scholarship at Colorado State University in November 2009.

All the scholarships offered were based on McCoy's resume as a high school swimmer.

In addition to winning two state championships, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch named McCoy to its all-metro swimming team four times, twice to the first team. Lafayette High School also awarded McCoy Lancer Student Athlete awards three out of her four years at the school.

When McCoy signed the letter of intent, Colorado State University's athletic department issued a press release announcing McCoy's intent to swim for their university.

After receiving the news from Colorado State, McCoy and her parents spent three months unsuccessfully trying to find a suitable substitute.

A resolution finally came in June when Colorado State reversed their decision, accepting McCoy on a full athletic scholarship for the incoming class.

The university based their decision on documents filed by McCoy to appeal her initial rejection by the university.

Though McCoy will attend Colorado State in the fall with a swimming scholarship, her parents filed suit based on financial, emotion and psychological harm they claim they and McCoy suffered during her period of uncertainty.

Mary McCoy, who is not a lawyer, is representing her daughter in the lawsuit with the help of an out-of-state attorney who is a relative. The suit was filed against the school district, Brasel and John Shaughnessy, the principal of Lafayette High.

The suit claims that the guidance counseling department of Lafayette School conspired to bar McCoy from receiving her scholarship through submitting a "derogatory and inaccurate" recommendation form.

According to the suit, during the three-month time period between McCoy's rejection from Colorado State and the reversal of the decision, McCoy and her parents suffered direct and indirect consequential damages.

The suit seeks a total of $75,000 in compensatory damages, punitive damages and pre-and post-judgment interest.

"If the department procedures are found to be flawed, our main goal after finding out why this happened is to correct it so this doesn't happen again to any other student," Mary McCoy said.

The McCoys may get an attorney in the future, she said.

"There's so much we don't know," McCoy said. "We don't know where we're heading, as far as that goes. We haven't even thought that far in advance."

So as I read this, I wondered: what is the case law on this subject? And I found this discussion about the liability of counselors in giving erroneous advice here:
The complaint indicates that, as a direct result of receiving the recommendation form, the Colorado State University admissions office declined to admit Shannon to the university, leaving her without any other viable options for receiving a college scholarship to a four-year institution. In 2003, the Wisconsin Supreme Court applied governmental immunity to a guidance counselor sued by a student to whom the counselor had provided inaccurate information regarding student athlete scholarship eligibility requirements, causing the student to lose a four-year university scholarship. Scott v. Savers Property & Casualty Ins. Co., 663 N.W.2d 715 (Wis. 2003). Before Scott, the Iowa Supreme Court recognized a cause of action for educational malpractice by a student against a guidance counselor based on the counselor's negligent representation that a course would satisfy the National Collegiate Athletic Association's core course requirements for eligibility. As a result of the counselor's mistake, the student was ineligible, and his athletic scholarship was revoked. The court concluded that a school district can be held liable for educational malpractice just as an attorney can be liable for legal malpractice. Sain v. Cedar Rapids Comm. Sch. Dist., 626 N.W.2d 115 (Iowa 2001).]

So there's not much there about a teacher's (or counselor's) liability in filling out recommendation letters.

I write recommendation letters all the time. I work over them, writing each one very specifically. I have been told that some teachers use a boilerplate, but I think that is wrong and makes the whole recommendation letter pointless.

However, every so often there is a request from a kid that I cannot in all honesty recommend very highly. So I have been known to say no rather than lie or exaggerate.

Before I DO agree to write a recommendation letter, I ask the student to provide me with a college resume (our college counselor has all the kids who wish to go to college do this and a listing of the classes they've taken, since it has sometimes been a while since I had that student in class. I am very careful to be honest in filling out the recommendation on what is known as the "Common Application" that is used to attend many highly selective schools. One part of this form contains a survey of personal and academic qualities with a range of check-boxes running the gamut from "poor" to "one of the top students in my career" or something like that. In all of my time filling out these applications, I have checked that top box three times. All three kids were National Merit Finalists, yes, but also amazingly selfless peer helpers, active in their community, and deep thinkers and lovers of knowledge. These were kids who had their heads on straight and their hearts on fire. I cannot in good conscience check that box very often, no matter how "nice" a kid is.

I have no idea if what the counselor wrote was honest or a vendetta, of course, but I will say this: getting into a college or attaining a scholarship is serious business. If you are not willing to put in the time to write an honest yet positive recommendation, just say no when kids ask you. You'll be doing yourself a favor.

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