Why the ‘Great Teacher’ Myth Doesn’t Help Kids

“Here’s the problem with the whole ‘great teacher’ idea,” Roxanna Elden tells me.  We’re about halfway through a free-wheeling conversation that has covered everything from TFA to teacher evaluations.  I became a groupie after reading her book, See Me After Class, which she explains is “not Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul” but more like “Hard Liquor for the Teacher’s Soul” because that’s what she believes new teachers need: a shot of real-world, practical advice that’s grounded in common sense and years of classroom experience.

Roxanna serves her advice for brand-new teachers straight up, for example: “After a long, unrewarding day of teaching, suggestions like “Let them know you care’ or ‘Try making it fun’ from people who’ve never taught will make you want to rip off your head—or theirs—and roll it down the street like a bowling ball” or my favorite observation, “I am still waiting to see an ‘inspiring teacher’ movie in which the teacher grades papers.” Continue reading Why the ‘Great Teacher’ Myth Doesn’t Help Kids

Technology is Not A Magic Bullet

I’m sold on technology in the classroom.  I really am.  I mean, books, paper and pens are a form of technology–they’re just a comparatively inert and messy form.  I’m not sentimental about physical books.  I’m sure when they came around, some poor slob was sitting in a corner crying because reading would never be the same without handwritten scrolls, and a few centuries before that, when the scrolls came around, some sad schmuck was tearing his hair out and wailing that you’d have to pry his stone tablets out of his cold, dead hands.

But.  I’m not ready to hand the keys over to Apple and Pearson yet.  The fact that new technology is available does not mean we know how to use it.  The really cool thing about most of these netbooks, laptops, tablets and i-readers is that they are adaptive to your needs, and if the software is smart, it’s adaptive, too.

Technology is not static. Continue reading Technology is Not A Magic Bullet

Are You a Bad Teacher?

I once had a student who was on crack.  It was a nightmare.  Before he’d spun out into addiction, Jorge had been one of the most talented students I’d ever had in my Drama class, with the inspired, all-out brilliance and timing of a comedic pro.  But crack turned him nasty and out of control.  He’d bounce into my class hopped up, sweaty, eyes glinting with rage; we, his teachers, sent each other frantic emails about him.  We did an intervention.  We called in his weeping, desperate mother, who begged him to get help.  Nothing worked.  Jorge, a kid who’d once loved my class so much that on facebook during winter break he’d counted down the days till Drama class, now stared me down every day with simmering, unsettling animosity.  He took to harassing other students and one day, after calling me a bitch, he lobbed the n-bomb at one of the girls

I lost it.  I actually only dimly recall what happened next.  I’m sure I didn’t actually drag him by the collar into the hall, but that’s what I remember.  All I know for sure is that a friend of mine who taught several doors down said that she could hear me yelling at him even with her door shut.  When finished, I was shaking.  He wouldn’t make eye contact and walked out of school, disappearing for the rest of the day.

All I could think was: I am a terrible teacher.  Continue reading Are You a Bad Teacher?

When You Live In A Book Desert

He was beefy and laconic, rumored to be gang-affliated.  Kids whispered that he stood outside of school in the early mornings selling weed, though we could never catch him at it.

He was also brilliant.  If you define “intellectual” as a person who takes delight in the process of abstract thinking, Xavier* was one of the most purely intellectual people I’ve ever met.  Faced with a complex question that would leave other kids stumped or bored, Xavier would stare at the ceiling, a slow grin moving over his face as he contemplated the various possible answers he could give.  Watching Xavier think was like watching him listen to music only he could hear.

Despite his brilliance, he did homework only sporadically, was absent a great deal of the time and was barely passing his classes.  I met Xavier my first year teaching in South L.A. and like many new teachers, was determined that I would be the one to reach him.  The day he approached me after class to ask for a reading list, my heart leapt.  He wanted to read more, but he had no books in his home.   His parents, who had had to start working as children and did not have much education, worked 12-hour shifts at factory jobs.  But Xavier wanted a different life; he wanted to be a doctor.  He wanted to write about his experiences.  What should he read? Continue reading When You Live In A Book Desert

Live at CATE: Are you an Upstander, a Bystander or a Victim?

Biggest takeaway at CATE: pretty much everyone seems in agreement that the Common Core standards, though not perfect, are full of exciting possibilities (as opposed to the Common Core tests, which are almost inevitably paired with the phrase “train wreck.”) Continue reading Live at CATE: Are you an Upstander, a Bystander or a Victim?

Live at CATE: The Tech Wave Is About To Knock Us Over

It’s coming at us.  Don’t you feel it?  Even if you have dug a nice hole in the sand for your head, surely you feel the rumblings of the massive wave of technological innovations, or supposed innovations, about to hit classrooms.  21st century education.  Blended learning.  Flipped classrooms. Continue reading Live at CATE: The Tech Wave Is About To Knock Us Over

What’s Effective Teaching?

I demand an effective teacher in every classroom!  Don’t you?  Earlier this year in Los Angeles, students in the Vergara v. California case testified in court about horrible, uncaring, sometimes verbally abusive or demeaning teachers who truly damaged them.  Those teachers should leave.

They need to be replaced by effective teachers.

But wait…

What do I even mean by an “effective teacher?”

Right now in this country, we are all about “effective” teachers.  The Vergara v. California lawsuit hinges on students’ constitutional right to an effective teacher.  The students’ stories on the stand were genuinely heartbreaking and horrifying.  Scientists, meanwhile, testified to the enormous virtues of an effective teacher and how much better students fare when they have one.  They whipped out charts demonstrating the truth of this statement.

Here’s what they didn’t do: define what they meant by “effective teachers.” Continue reading What’s Effective Teaching?

Give Students A Chance by Getting to Know Them

This post is second in a series of one on one conversations with students in order to hear their stories.  Who are our students?  What does their education mean to them?  What effect do teachers have on them?

Today’s interview is with Genesis, a student in Cynthia Castillo’s class at RISE Pilot school at Augustus Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles.

I’m the one in charge a lot of the time,” Genesis tells me early on in our interview.  We’ve pulled two chairs into the quiet, clean hallway at Augustus Hawkins outside her English class, and she’s telling me about her home life.   Latina, with blond-highlighted hair, an easy smile and a diamond piercing that glitters above her upper lip, Genesis is confident and charismatic.  She is president of her class, something that seems to come naturally to her because she runs her household at home as well.  Her mother is debilitated by migraines and, according to Genesis, has to stay in bed much of the time.  Her stepfather has two jobs, one as a baker and one as a chef at a supermarket, so is home only on Saturdays from 4 till 8. Continue reading Give Students A Chance by Getting to Know Them

Developing an Identity: A Student’s Story

Starting with this post, in addition to interviewing and observing teachers, I’m also going to be talking one on one with students in order to hear their stories.  Who are our students?  What does their education mean to them?  What effect do teachers have on them? 

Today’s interview is with Leo, a student in Dennis Danziger’s class at Venice High.

Leo is a gangly, extremely friendly 17-year-old white kid with a buzz cut and diamond earrings; he agrees immediately to an interview, shaking my hand and helping me set up chairs outside of class.  He lives nearby with his parents and two older sisters.  “My mom made me come here,” he says with a shrug when I asked how he chose the school. “It was the closest one, and it’s free.”

He freely admits he was not always a devoted student.  “In fifth grade I was the bad kid,” he says.  “I’d steal things, candy bars, I was the leader of a little group who’d steal.”  But in 6th grade, his parents sent him to a Catholic school, St. Mark’s.  “That’s what changed me to who I am now.  They whipped me into shape, they set up strict rules and guidelines.  In 8th grade I had this teacher who sat me down and said, this isn’t a game any more. You’ve gotta get your stuff together, high school is not a joke.  I was like: I’ve gotta be on top of my game!” Continue reading Developing an Identity: A Student’s Story