Sec. Duncan: Brandon and Devon have some lingering questions.

We had the opportunity to take about 40 students to a Town Hall Meeting on education hosted by A&E, Comcast, The School District of Philadelphia and Temple University today.

Rather than posting my thoughts, I was curious what the experience brought out in our students. Here’s what Brandon had to say –

Brandon’s thoughts on the town hall

When he publishes the blog he mentions at the end of the interview, I’ll be certain to push it here.

UPDATE: One of the other students, Devon, who attended today published this to her tumblr. It’s reposted here with permission:

So I went to this thing with school today.. It was about education and how we can teach better. The only people who actually were able to talk were the students.

I thought it was going to be a whole bunch of high school students asking some very important people questions.. but instead there were college students asking some very silly questions towards one specific person. My schools really different from other schools, and even though we can be intimidating, we ask really good questions about things.

Two people from our school were able to ask questions, and really interesting questions that could have been turned into a conversation if they wanted it to.. but the people who were on the panel decided to completely avoid those and talk about something else. Needless to say it was REALLLLLY aggravating.

Honestly I think they just didn’t want to think about an answer, and even though they think we’re doing things right with education.. they don’t want our opinions on things.. What the heck is up with that!?

Talk TO me

To the “superintendents, chief executives and chancellors responsible for educating nearly 2 1/2 million students in America”:


I’m a teacher.

Please talk to me and not about me.

I understand we’ve been talking about each other for a while, and I’d like to work on ending this game of phone tag.

We keep leaving messages for one another in public places and, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a little embarrassed. It seems people are starting to look down on my profession.

Weird, right? Especially since you keep talking about how important my profession is.

I hate to say it, but I think some of the things you’ve been saying may have played a role in that.

You’ll pardon me for saying it doesn’t feel as though you care very much for teachers. If I’m wrong, I’ll happily await the data showing facts to the contrary. Just leave a comment with a link, and I’ll check it out.

I wanted to thank you, though, for drawing attention to the importance of teacher quality. I’ve been working on mine since I entered the classroom in 2003.

From in-services at the end of school days to sometimes weeks-long trainings in the summer to attending professional conferences, I’ve really attempted to learn as much as possible.

That’s just the formal stuff. Since right around the time it launched, I’ve been connecting with teachers across the world through twitter and other social media tools to help me workshop ideas for helping my kids learn. Are you on twitter? If you are, follow me.

Plus, I’ve been using my blog as a space to play with ideas before implementing them in the classroom as well as a place to share the things that work so others can take them an build off of them.

Oh, also, I’ve connected with a couple of non-profit groups nationally and internationally that work to help teachers be better, well, teachers.

This summer, I even started work on my Master’s degree. It’s not required or anything, but I thought it would help me teach better.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to.

What about you?

What kind of learning opportunities have you been taking advantage of? I’ve seen a lot of stuff in the news about what I should be doing in my classroom and what we should be doing in my school to improve learning, so I was just wondering where you’ve been learning.

If you’re looking to start an advisory board, I’d love to join.

I haven’t seen you in my school lately, but you’re welcome to stop by. I haven’t cleared it with my principal, but I’m sure he’d be fine with it.

We’re used to visitors from all over the world, so you don’t have to worry.

I don’t want to make it sound like we’re the only ones who would welcome you.

In fact, I’ve been writing a bit recently about some other teachers across the country who have taught me quite a bit.

You might be surprised to hear about it, but quite a few teachers are doing some great things in their classrooms. If you’ve got a feed reader, go ahead and subscribe. I’ll be writing about more teachers soon.

In fact, I know at least one teacher in every state personally. You should too; they’re doing some amazing work.

Hey, I wanted to tell you not to be that upset. I know several studies have come out talking about how important my job is and how important my principal’s job is, and I know it’s got to be difficult that not much has been written about how important your job is or the great changes you’ve made in students’ lives.

Again, if you want to get that message out there, leave a comment. I’ll tweet it out.

Oh, something else. And, I’m midwestern, so I’ll have to admit to being a little uncomfortable broaching this topic so publicly, but I’ve got some questions about money.

First of all, I know the government has allocated quite a bit of money to helping schools and districts improve teaching and learning.

I was just wondering why nobody checked in with me or my colleagues about how we could use that money to shape lives and help our kids. Now, if you e-mailed me about this, I’ll have to admit I didn’t get it. I even checked my spam folder.

One other thing about money.

Quite a bit of talk has been batted around lately about the idea of merit pay.

I’d like to decline.

It’s just that I don’t want my kids thinking I’m teaching them stuff so I can get more money. I’ve got this thing going where I help them come up with questions about their lives and their worlds and then help them to work to find answers to those questions.

I worry that, if they found out about merit pay, they’d start to wonder if I was just teaching them stuff so I could get paid more rather than because I wanted them to be thoughtful and caring citizens. I’m sure it’s not what you meant, but I’d rather not have my kids stop trusting me.

Plus, added bonus, they’re already doing well on the tests you’d probably use to help determine how much I’d be paid, so that’s taken care of.

Right, enough talk about money.

If I could just make one more point before signing off. Actually, I made it before. Please talk to me and not about me. You see, in all this talk about how important my job is, I’m starting to get the feeling you don’t think I’m that important.

Reduction in Force (and Spirit)

When I ask her how much of her information I can share, Megan says, “There’s a part of me that says put it out there, but there’s a part of me that is a little more concerned than I’d admit about losing a job.”

The thing is, Megan’s already lost her job – 3 times.

A teacher in a district in the Southwest, Megan has been RIF’d (reduction in force) three times in her 7 years as a teacher.

Megan explains the process to me.

In March or April, principals deliver form letters to teachers’ classrooms letting them know RIF will be announced.

“People have been pretty understanding,” she says, “Still, it’s a form letter.”

Each time Megan has been RIF’d, she’s been hired back, learning in June or July where she’ll be teaching and signing a contract near the end of August.

“When I got the last one,” she tells me, “I put a piece of red duct tape on it and wrote something like, ‘This is like a spring day. In just a minute it will change.'”

It did.

Megan is teaching at the same school she started at – sort of. It was combined with one of the other schools in the city this year, so it’s not quite the same.

Luckily, Megan got laid off from the now-defunct school as well, so she’s in the unique position of knowing and having worked with both faculties.

While she’s talking, there’s a hopefulness you wouldn’t expect from someone who’s had this experience.

“One thing that’s good is that I’ve been able to work with a variety of different teachers,” Megan says.

At the same time, the reality of the situation is difficult to ignore. She describes the faculty as existing in two separate campes. “It’s not very connected. There’s all these fractures in something that could be built with a very strong foundation.”

Adding to the tectonic stress is the budget freeze in Megan’s district.

“We actually took a hit if you look at the numbers and not how they phrase everything.”

“I think it’s difficult for teachers to continually build rapport with admin too. It’s hard for people to start new programs if they don’t feel like they’ll be supported financially or professionally. If they don’t feel like it’s going to last more than a year, people don’t want to put energy in.”

She talks of running into two former students at the grocery store. She’d thought, before getting RIF’d, that she would be teaching them again this year. The students have been forced  to build new connections with their new teacher, and Megan say’s it’s not going particularly well.

“We spent a lot of time building that classroom community,” she pauses, ” If I’d been able to work with them for two years, the strides we could have made with them as learners would be different than if we have to start over every year.”

Megan’s starting to feel the stress of the seemingly constant reshuffling as well.

I ask her, if the three notices haven’t put her off teaching, where she sees her breaking point. What would push her out of what she describes as her dream job?

“As they try to streamline things and make things more efficient and less costly, I feel like I have less freedom. When I feel like I don’t have the freedom or trust of my administrators to facilitate learning, then I’m going to have to go.”

She admits to having it easier than some, “My feelings would be very different if I had kids or a mortgage or giant amounts of debt to pay off.”

Though Megan says she stays in the community because, “I feel most at home and I feel as though my voice is most valid,” I have to worry that no one is stopping to listen to that voice or the voices of thousands of teachers like her.

Not broken.

Get in your seats.

Take out your books.

Get in your pods.

Matt hollers to his class of 9th grade English students.

They’re studying Homer’s Odyssey. Once in their pods, the students pull out permabound copies of the text littered with fluorescent sticky notes. The notes are covered in the scrawl of ninth-graders. Each one unique, but all of them somewhat crude and uncertain.

The pods are charged with discussing “Book III.”

“This book was awesome,” one student says when I ask what he thought of the chapter.

“It was boring,” said another.

“No it wasn’t!” shouts the first, “I don’t know why he doesn’t just say things more simply.”

Matt interrupts.

“What do all the characters have in common?”

A girl with a feathery voice raises her hand to answer.

Matt asks why King Nestor tells a long-winded story only to say that he does not know anything.

Hands shoot up.

“No, no, no. This is a question for your pods.”

The room is again engulfed in noise.

“Just so you know, Dawn is a god,” one student tells his group.

“This was a lot easier to understand than ‘Book II,'” another student says to hers.

Matt and the senior assigned to this class roam opposite sides of the room, checking in with the pods.

The senior is part of the school’s Student Assistant Teaching program. Now in it’s second year, the program matches seniors with the sections of lower-classmen to help with the class. More than 30 of the school’s grade 9-11 classes have SATs.

At the back of the room, an observer from one of the local universities discusses the reading with a pod seated in dirty, over-stuffed chairs Matt has pulled in to his room over his five years at the school. It’s the kind of furniture you wouldn’t want in your room, but would expect to find in an ad hoc dorm room.

Traveling around the room, Matt overhears a pod discussing the Spanish alphabet.

“We’re good, we’re good,” he yells, “First question in 45 seconds.”

The students hurry to their original seats.

“Only a pencil or pen and a piece of paper. Everything else, including your Odyssey book and your old quiz, away.”

In a little over a minute, the kids are ready.

“Forty-five seconds,” is one of those teacher time warps that’s been around for ages.

“Ladies and gentlemen, no talking,” Matt says as he connects his laptop to the digital projector in his room.

“This is from class,” he says of the question on the board.

The students use their “off” or non-writing hands to protect their answers.

Aside from the shuffling inherent in ninth-graders at the end of a school day, the room is silent.

On the second question, the student beside me is stumped. “Just keep putting words down there until you’ve got it,” Matt advises. To the rest of the class, he encourages, “Folks, leave no doubt. Just keep writing.” It’s the first lesson some of them are getting in the importance of trying above all else.

“Hands up for more time,” Matt says. A third of the room’s hands go up. “Ok.”

Each of the questions pulls from the content of the previous night’s reading. They’re comprehension questions.

Matt is checking to make certain his students are understanding the reading before they move to student-generated higher-level questions later in the class.

Interested more in activating the students’ knowledge than trapping them in the details, Matt offers hints and rephrases the questions for those with stunned surprise registering on their faces.

Five questions in, during the last academic class of the day, the students remain silent and focused ’til the end.

“Quiet. Quiet.” Matt says after the quizzes have been turned in. He polls their feelings:

  • Hands up, I’m totally a rock star and got them all right.
  • Hands up, I’m getting there.
  • Hands up, I’m halfway there.
  • Hands up – listen to all of this – I sat down with no distractions with my Odyssey book, with my pencil or pen and my stickie notes, spent at least 20 minutes or a half hour and focused on the book, wrote down questions I didn’t know, came to class, sat down with my pod and asked questions of every member of my pod and still didn’t get anything right.

With snickers, a few hands go up.

Matt asks the students if they notice they’re understanding the book more because he is reading it to them in class. Many say yes.

“That may be because you’re what kind of learner?”

“Audio,” they respond in chorus.

Matt clarifies, “Even when you get your laptops with the audio, that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get it.”

“No matter what, every lunch period, the lit lab is open. Take your book and everything else and an English teacher and several other students are there to help you.”

He explains the school’s Lit Lab, run mainly by upper-classmen, is another on the long list of ways the school helps its students.

“It’s one more reason I don’t accept what?”

“Excuses,” the class responds in the weary voice that denotes they know he’s not kidding.

Matt refers to higher-order questions as “HOT questions” and tells the class it’s time to discuss them now.

Matt takes the students’ attention to a flashback within the book and walks them through some of the complexities of the text.

Pens and pencils scribble new notes on stickies.

A confused student raises her hand.

“Can you say that one more time, but in baby language, so I can understand it.”

“Sure,” Matt says, “But not in baby language. I’ll fix what I said.”

He grabs a marker too draw a map of events while the students help direct him.

Back in the book, Matt begins reading again. “You with me?” he asks.

The students are silent.

“Talk back to me. You with me?”

“Yes,” they respond.

With the basic plot outlined, Matt turns class over to the students and his SAT. “If you have any high-order thinking or HOT questions, ask them and then ask your classmates.”

Hands shoot up around the room.

As the students answer their classmates, they turn not to Matt, but to the student who owns each question to make eye contact in their attempts to answer.

If an answer doesn’t seem quite right, hands shoot up for course corrections.

In this classroom of students with IEPs and 504s and home lives their classmates might never understand, everyone is participating.

When the last student is called on to offer her question, a few side conversations have broken out.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Matt says, “Demand to be respected when you’re speaking.”

The student waits. The conversations stop. The question is asked.

By the clock, the class is over, but this last question has incited some disagreement in the class and the students make no movement to gather their things to leave.

“Take this sudden curiosity,” Matt says, “and read ‘Book IV.’ If, when you come in next week, and people are seeming like they read it, I will not give you a quiz.”

The deal made, Matt dismisses the students, “You’re beautiful. I’ll see you next class.”

And he did it all despite being in a public school, part of a union and having tenure.

I know. I didn’t think it could happen either.

They’re breaking teachers

A friend of mine has been crying a lot recently.
After more than a decade and a half in the classroom, my friend has been labeled unsatisfactory.
You may have heard about the schools my friend works for. Oprah loves ’em. Turns out the federal government loves ’em to. I’d be willing to venture neither Oprah nor Sec. Duncan would want to learn there, but they’re fine enough for other people’s children.
About a month into the school year, my friend had her first formal observation the other day.
We talked before. She was nervous.
Seems a rating of unsatisfactory could come as a result of not keeping her lesson within the timing framework of 10 minutes of introduction, 20 minutes of whole group instruction and 15 minutes of practice. This friend who guided and mentored me when I entered the classroom 8 years ago – this master teacher who has shaped thousands of lives – has been reduced to cookie-cutter teaching.
It is breaking her.
As it turned out, the timing of her lesson was not the point of contention. Content was the problem.
Her lesson introduced her learners to a key component of her subject area.
Without a mastery of this element of content, her learners would flounder in their further studies. Truly. In the list of basic things you need to know about the content of her course, this little tidbit sits near, if not at, the top.
My friend’s evaluator didn’t see it that way.
You see, this particular content is only featured in two of the questions on the quarterly benchmark tests her learners will be completing. And, they’re only comprehension-level questions.
The lesson should have been a mini-lesson, my friend was told.
Also, she should have waited for the learner who walked in tardy to the class to present her demerit card rather than moving on with the lesson and dealing with the issue when time permitted.
My friend – this resource, this veteran of the classroom who loves children and learning and igniting children’s curiosity and passion for learning – is being broken.
Something she loves is being molded into a pretty but deeply fractured system of homogeneity.
Other than these words, I’m uncertain what to do to help my friend. As the nation looks admiringly on, I can’t help but imagine others like her around her country who are finding themselves broken by the system.