First Person

A Snow Day Revelation: Teachers Need More Time

Yesterday’s snow day brought me a revelation about teaching: teachers need more time to engage in the kind of intellectual activities that we hope to engage our students in.  

We teachers need more time to read, write, investigate, research the big questions about our lives, discover new books and new perspectives on those questions, and work on new theories about how we live and work in the world. To be better teachers for our students, we need more time to be learners and seekers of knowledge ourselves!  

There are two categories for the kinds of learning a teacher should engage in. First, teachers need time to learn and explore in order to grow in our practice — to increase our pedagogical knowledge. We teachers need more time for this kind of learning because the necessary pedagogical knowledge for urban teachers is so vast; it is so much more than experimenting with new practices regarding instruction and classroom management. Our pedagogical knowledge also involves being up to date on research on how teachers can best obviate the hindrances to learning created when students are dealing with the foster care system, housing issues, inadequate access to quality healthcare, drugs, gang violence, teenage pregnancy, and the myriad of other outside factors that make learning difficult or impossible for them. Some teachers will see upwards of 150 of the city’s neediest children per day. There is literally no limit to what one can learn to become a better teacher for such children.

Second, teachers should be engaged in meaningful learning related to our content areas — not only to increase our content area knowledge, but also for the sake of being engaged in the kind of learning we want our students to be engaged in. When teachers are excited about our own content area learning, our students are more likely to catch on and become excited about what is going on in our classrooms. Our classrooms come to life when we are energized by the inquiry and discovery process; learning becomes contagious.  

I was reminded of the importance of content area learning — and the need for teachers to have more time for it — through having extra time on my hands due to this week’s snow day. I decided to spend my snow day time completing an assignment I gave to my students in an AP English class I teach at a high school in East New York, Brooklyn. 

Students in my AP English class are currently reading “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf; and I am asking them to write “dialectical reading journals” as they read. In a dialectical reading journal, the student uses Woolf’s novel to develop a big question that genuinely troubles and intrigues her; she analyzes that question within the multiple contexts that are opened up by the primary text, secondary texts introduced through research, and class discussions; and over time she attempts to construct a theory in response to her question. The journal, in this sense, is a space for the kind of serious grappling with ideas that can lead to an interesting research paper and sometimes even to a transformation in the student’s thinking about language, literature, and life.

I decided the best way to spend my snow day was to begin my own dialectical reading journal on Woolf’s novel. I started out by writing about and questioning a psychological theme that a student identified during a class discussion. I explored my primary questions about that theme in multiple contexts and was inspired to do some research on the Internet to see how scholars in the field have addressed the same ideas. As I continued to research and write, I began to realize that my inquiry process may lead me to some profound discoveries about Woolf’s text: Thinking and struggling through my writing about the central motifs in the novel may have the power to transform the way I think about gender roles, gender-based experience, and how these function within the individual psyche.  

I printed out my first journal entries along with two of the texts I researched on the web and plan to bring them to school tomorrow. I am very excited to share my inquiry process and discoveries with my students during our next class session.  

Reflecting on all of this now has me wondering, Isn’t this why I became a teacher in the first place, to share the joys of learning with young people? This is, in fact, one of the reasons I became a teacher. But working in a New York City high school, it is often difficult to find time to engage my own content area learning in meaningful ways. While teachers have a free “prep period” every day, that time is usually spent preparing lessons, tutoring, or, if we are lucky, finding a quiet space with which to regain the peace of mind that is prerequisite to being patient and understanding for our students. There is also substantial time allotted to professional development activities. Unfortunately, though, teachers spend most of this time being inundated with urgent and complicated policy mandates that are designed to create the appearance of quality education and make politicians look good — policies and practices that do more to obstruct teachers’ genuine efforts to reach our students than to bolster them.  

We teachers, therefore, need more time. As any teacher will tell you, we do have lives outside of school. We have families, friends, and hobbies of our own; and unless we compromise the time we normally devote to these things, we will always encounter difficulty in pursuing inquiry and discovery of our own. It is true, as some social theorists tell us, that teachers are being molded into deskilled clerks rather than transformative intellectuals.  

The amount of time and resources that teachers are given to assist them in their job of educating young people is a reflection of how much our society cares about the education of particular groups of young people. In the case of minority and poor children, a more potent compassion needs to become a component of our society’s moral conscience if we are to see an increase in resources that go into their education. Until that happens, we teachers in NYC are likely to encounter more obstacles than support as we work to develop our practice of sharing the love of learning with our students.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.