Saturday, September 28, 2013

Sailing Into the Storm

When I was 16, right after finishing high school, I attended a course at Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. I don't necessarily trust all my memories from that time, as I've retold things in my head enough, and I've changed enough, that I'm sure some things in my head have altered from historical fact. But I am confident it was a powerful experience for me.

In particular, I remember an incident that occurred on the final expedition. For those unaware, the Outward Bound schools provide a variety of wilderness experiences to their participants. The Hurricane Island school, off the coast of Maine, was focused on sailing experiences in 30 foot ketches. Our time was organized into increasingly longer sailing trips, culminating in a five-day final expedition.

As luck would have it, a hurricane was moving up the coast right about the time we were to leave on the expedition.We had bunked on the island and prepared to sail, but were not even sure the expedition would not be cancelled (or delayed) because of the weather. As decision time came closer, the hurricane lost structure and was downgraded to a tropical depression. The expedition was on.

We sailed out of the harbor. It was blustery and raining. We were all decked out in our yellow foul-weather gear. Each of the twelve people in the boat was assigned a task, and with the fog and rain, we were quickly out of sight of land. I remember feeling very cold.

Even though we were in the Atlantic, it was still coastal, and there were rocks and shoals we had to be careful of. The rocks off the coast of Maine are not friendly, soft rocks, but could put a hole in the hull and would be very dangerous to strike. One of the most important jobs in the boat was bow lookout, to watch for those rocks. I was given that job.

I wear eyeglasses.  I've worn eyeglasses since just before third grade. If you are not familiar with eyeglasses, let me assure you that they do not work well in wind-driven rain and fog. The lenses quickly become speckled with water and mist, and you essentially cannot see through them. The cold wind was blowing, the rain was coming down, I was supposed to keep us away from the rocks, and I couldn't see.

I was unhappy, because I was aware I could not do the job I was supposed to be doing. I told our watch leader (was his name Geoff? don't recall anymore.) so he assigned another person to help as bow lookout. He assigned Miles.

Miles and I were the only two people in the watch who wore eyeglasses.

The two of us were in the bow of the boat looking for rocks. I asked him (I think I had to shout, because the wind was so loud) "Can you see anything?" "No." he said. "You?" "No, I can't either."

This is something that may not have actually happened, but I remember right about them feeling the wind calm just a bit, and turned warm. It was somehow just comforting. Miles and I looked at each other, laughed, and just did the best we could, taking turns wiping our glasses.

I'm writing this story now, 41 years later, so obviously things did not end in disaster. But I remember this story sometimes when I'm harried, and it continues to calm me.

You may wonder why this is on my math teacher blog. I'm attending a workshop on building virtual learning communities, and this is my response to an assignment prompt to write about a peak learning experience.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

What's So Bad About the Common Core?

Three years ago I was invited to be in the audience for NBC's first Education Nation extravaganza.  For the most part it was scripted ho-hum. But, by chance, I wound up sitting next to and had the chance to chat with Jason Zimba, one of the lead authors of the Common Core State Standards.

Back in those days CCSS was just a dream for me. The notion of agreement across most of the US on a rigorous set of standards, broken down clearly by grade level seemed so commonsensical as to be a no-brainer. Who could object to having high expectations for the students of our country?

At that point, I had already been teaching for six years, and I had seen wave after wave of 9th graders come into my school lacking in skills that I associate with elementary math (e.g. fractions, measurement, multiplication tables). I'd been on grading committees for dozens of Regents Exams for which New York State decided that a 35% was passing grade. In the effort to out-Wobegon Lake Wobegon, it seemed the passing criteria had been watered and watered and watered so all the students could be above the redefined "average."

With that background I was excited about the ideas behind CCSS. Specifically, "a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn" that are "robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers." (see CCSS Mission Statement) I was sure it would decrease the chances I'd get students whose 8th grade test results showed them "significantly above grade level" only to find that they can't work with signed numbers, as was frequently the case with the then current NY Standards. Obviously, common rigorous standards are a good thing for me, as a teacher, and us, as a nation, and us, as a global community.

My rant today is prompted by the surprising number of criticisms I'm seeing directed at CCSS (or Common Core Learning Standards, CCLS, as they're called in New York) coming from educators! What? Just yesterday a friend posted a reductio ad Hitlerum video, as though to say rigorous common standards must be bad because they claim Hitler would have liked them. (no, I'm not going to link that video, because I find that sort of fallacious argument personally offensive) There was an uproar when New York published the results of last year's 8th grade testing, which showed that 70% of students had not mastered the basic foundation for 9th grade mathematics. That was no surprise for me, since I see that year after year in my incoming 9th graders.

But the surprise is that otherwise reasonable people think the solution is to ease up on the standards. No! That was the problem in the first place. The standards are good, and the test scores seem to reflect reality. I'm sorry if you don't like reality, but pretending that unprepared students have a good quantitative foundation doesn't help anybody in the long run.

We've got some good standards. Better than 90% of the US has accepted these standards. Now let's apply them rationally and consistently, and work with reality.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Starting a Turnaround

DeWitt Clinton HIgh School has to improve if it is to survive. Both city and state have consistently given us poor ratings in  recent years. Last spring, due to a precipitous drop in enrollment numbers, budget was slashed and massive numbers of staff were excessed (that's DOE terminology for a layoff). Math department staff was decreased by 1/3.

Although the administrative staff have been working on this for a bit longer, as a classroom teacher, I've only seen my first two days of the attempted turnaround. There appear to be two major factors driving this. First is a new principal. Second is assistance from some consultants.

Our longtime principal, Geraldine Ambrosio, retired, and her expected replacement is Santiago Taveras. I say expected although Santi, as he likes to be called, is already in place and working. But his official title at this point is something like "acting interim principal" while he waits for official appointment to the position. I would describe what I've seen of his style as more actively engaged in the operation of the school (a good thing) and very organized (another good thing).

The second factor is the consulting firm. We met Brad Darling, who works for Pearson (the publishing company). But his division has nothing to do with publishing, and instead helps schools become more effective.  He's worked with a number of large, comprehensive, urban high schools, and so he's got experience with the type of issues and strengths such schools have. Over my time as teacher, I've seen a large number of consultants come in, and some of them disappeared before I could even remember their names. But Brad shows no signs of disappearing.  He's even given us a schedule that goes all the way through June 2014 of what meetings are happening when. I'm strongly encouraged.

So, we still have a long ways to go before we can determine whether or not there was a turnaround, but I think we have some key elements in place, and I'm optimistic.