May 25, 2015

Jury Duty

Last week I had jury duty. I didn't get placed on a jury but it was still an interesting experience.

When I arrived I stood in line to hand in my questionnaire (age, ethnicity, profession, marital status etc.) I imagine they collect this information to try to get a diverse jury. When I submitted my form the person looked my name up on a list and told his co-worker the number to give me. I was pleased to see my juror number wasn't assigned by the time I arrived, but had already been randomly assigned. The difference between random and diverse is one that most people struggle with, we've already seen both and the day has yet to officially start! As part of the 'Welcome to Jury Duty' video they speak to the randomness:

"Random means you can get called three times but your neighbor hasn't been called yet. It's like getting heads three times in a row."
The court room isn't so different from the classroom. There are certain behaviors that are expected, and the court marshall recognizes that those behaviors need to be taught. It's not reasonable to assume that everyone knows how to act in front of a judge, so before the judge entered the room the jury pool is reminded to put away phones, remove hats and close books while the judge is speaking. When the judge enters the room we are instructed to rise and then told when it is appropriate to sit. It was a good reminder that everyone needs a friendly prompt to behave appropriately. (Even if they're in high school and we wonder "How could they possibly not know this yet?!")

Next up we moved to a courtroom to hear about the case they're building a jury for. The case involved a girl who was sexually abused as a child. Did you know the first person someone discloses to is required to go into court? At least in Massachusetts it's the law - there must be testimony from that first disclosure. I remember being told at some orientation that if a student starts sharing abuse to get a counselor immediately. It seems like a terrible thing to do - "Stop. Don't tell me, even though I'm the one you trust enough to divulge this deeply personal information." I understand that a counselor is better prepared to have a conversation with the student and is also more attuned to details that I may not be able to share in the courtroom. I still think I'd let the student finish their story and then go with them to the counselor. But it's important that I make the decision aware of the fact that I will have to testify - and pay extra attention to detail.

After a few group questions where we got to vote using our numbers - a mix between an auction and A/B/C/D cards - we were sent to an adjacent courtroom to wait for our individual questioning. Since we were told to make ourselves comfortable I spread out my grading in a lawyer box. Teachers, we'll grade anywhere!

Finally when we got to the individual questioning the judge asked if I could act on this jury without my experience as a foster parent influencing my decisions. I struggled with this question. Can anyone truly answer that they're impartial? I can promise to be aware of my potential bias and to work hard to make a conclusion that isn't influenced by them. But my experience is absolutely going to influence my thoughts. During the group questioning we were asked if we had already formed an opinion on the defendant (who was in the room). No one answered yes, and I wondered what kind of person would admit to it. But I had made judgments based on his attire, posture, etc. We all make judgments about all the things we see. What we do with them and whether we're aware of them is what makes the difference. I wonder if a judge would declare us eligible to serve on the jury in our own classrooms. I know I could use more frequent reminders of my biases and the importance of judging as impartially as I can.

May 14, 2015

Wish for Respect

We walk into the meeting to see some extra faces in the room. The email said we needed to meet for ten minutes to go over next week’s testing procedures and then we would be able to work with our content teams. Twenty minutes pass and we are still discussing changes to the plan that wasn’t fully formed before the meeting. We start previewing possible videos to use in an assembly. Side conversations begin to break out as people strive to use part of the hour for productive discussion. The hour ends with several loose ends still undecided and no time to meet with content teams. I wish our time was respected.

Two weeks later meetings are cancelled so “we can do grades” - a task that all teachers are expected to complete during prep time. I wish collaboration was respected.

Two weeks after that we spent an entire hour confirming that data entered into a spreadsheet was accurate. It was. We won’t act on the data until the next week. I wish I was respected.

As part of my participation in the teacher's cabinet I am writing a memo and giving a presentation on Use of Time. I am lucky to be on a 9th grade team where I have an amazing amount of common planning time. However, it is not used effectively. Part of the goal of the teacher's cabinet is to show that teachers have ideas and should have a voice. I wish my voice counted more when determining how to spend my common planning time.

April 30, 2015

Budgeting Thoughts

I hope you've had time to imagine what you'd do if you had to make some budget cuts in your district. I find this more interesting than the "If someone gave you an extra $100 to spend in your classroom what would you buy?" questions.

During her introduction, the mayor said:

  • Transportation is not efficient, they zigzag all over the city and bus people within the 1.5 mile 'walking distance' as set by the state. Part of this is related to school choice at the elementary level but it's not an option to change for next year (placement decisions have already been announced)
  • There are four custodian positions currently open, we could also contract out after school cleaning
  • Opening our district to multi-city school choice would provide revenue (other cities would pay Salem if one of their residents attended school in Salem).
  • Class sizes are small. She asked if that was true in reality or just on paper. (You know my classes are absurdly tiny. If you didn't know that - my classes are absurdly tiny.)
Before we even got to dinner, I spoke up and requested that we stop paying outside consultants to run bad PD when we have people in district who could run good PD. The cabinet is about promoting teacher leaders and this would be a great way to do that. In our dinner we thought through that a bit more and I realized that I could teach four blocks and use my fifth block as a PD (and prep for PD) block. If I could get a schedule where my duty period and that block lined up I would have half a day to visit other schools. This sounds so awesome. I would love to visit classes and work with teachers during their common planning time while still teaching four classes. I doubt anyone would approve such a wonderful thing but I can dream!

The rest of the recommendations my dinner group came up with:

  1. The middle and high schools start at the same time and are a couple blocks apart. Why not bus them together? There's an age issue but we hypothesize bus monitors cost less than doubling routes. (Another group suggested centralized bus stops; K-12 can't take the same bus but they can wait at the same stop and can walk a couple blocks to get there.) Future plan: re-evaluate school choice for district elementary schools to cut down on cost of busing kids across the city but this needs to be done equitably.
  2. We think it would be totally cool to let kids from other cities come here and pay for it. We have stuff to offer (the high school has an awesome tech department - we offer certificates in auto, electrical, culinary, child development and maybe one more thing). We have kids who live in Lynn who come to school and try to stay under the radar anyway, why not let them be up front about it?
  3. Don't fill the open custodial positions. We can teach kids to pick up after themselves and take pride in their school.
  4. Cut some para positions (schedule 2 kids who need extra support into the same class). When we made this recommendation to the mayor she shared that para salary is not a huge expense (we hardly pay them anything, much less than neighboring districts) but if they're full time and get health insurance, the insurance can cost the city as much if not more than the salary!
  5. Cut extra programs if they haven't proven effective. Is the thing they run during February vacation just free babysitting?

That's six recommendations (including the one before dinner) for how to change things! Shockingly, we struggled to come up with five non-negotiables and the other groups didn't even get four. 

  1. Teachers. Don't cut teachers. Another group said teacher salaries, our district is already well below surrounding districts so it didn't even occur to me that they would consider that (they weren't) but it is worth saying.
  2. Admin. I learned that one of our elementary schools just got an assistant principal and I didn't want them to lose that position. Another group said to cut admin, specifically at the high school. I didn't consider how many positions we have that are considered admin (athletic director, head of special ed...) and paid on a very different scale than teachers. Each school needs a minimum of principal and assistant principal; I'm willing to sacrifice anyone beyond that if needed (and hand some duties over to teachers to reduce class size by having us teach less courses?)
  3. Curriculum coaches and lab classrooms. If we're going to take on our own PD we need to keep these resources available. How cool is it we have lab classrooms? I love learning about new exciting things happening in my district!
  4. Whole programs like music and arts. The mayor specifically said they wanted to do distributed cuts rather than chopping an entire program. That's essential.
  5. Social/emotional supports like counselors. High poverty rates means a real need for supports. Kids have to come first and they desperately need those resources. 
What would be on your list? Anything make your list of non-negotiables that's on my chopping block? Or vice versa? Most of the time I feel like math is math, but other times I wonder exactly how different my situation is than yours. Do share!

April 29, 2015


Salem has a budget problem this year. Some grants are ending, state funding is down and costs continue to rise. We need to make up a substantial deficit to balance the budget. The mayor invited us (the members of the teacher cabinet) to weigh in this evening. Our TeachPlus leader set us up in groups and assigned us the task of identifying our five nonnegotiables (things that absolutely should not be cut) and our five recommendations for places to rethink. I was surprised which aspects of this activity were challenging, so I don't want to take away your chance at discovery. Tomorrow I'll share some of the items we discussed. For now, consider what your own recommendations would be if there was a budget crisis in your district. 

April 28, 2015

Algebra Review

We're just starting fourth quarter. The third quarter benchmark test results are in. The kids didn't do well. Now what?

For once, we're going to take some drastic action to remedy the situation rather than try to patch over gaping holes in the foundation. Scratch quadratics and statistics. We're spending the rest of this course really building a solid foundation. Our focus will be:

Solving equations and inequalities
Linear functions

It's not that we haven't taught these topics (and more!). It's that we haven't taught them to the point of recognition and retention. When I say "graph this linear function" kids can dutifully flip to that note card and with some guidance complete the task. They can do a couple more with minimal assistance. Then they can do the same process forever independently. Unless there's a pause. Say, 24 hours between class periods. Then they go back to needing some guidance. By the end of the week they're pretty good. They take the test on linear functions. They do okay. We move one. When I mix linear functions in with the exponential ones I'm shocked to discover they're already rusty. When we get to the benchmark test, all the topics are mixed together. There's no guidance. There's not a lot of success. Now, I could complain about how awful the benchmark test is all, day but the test isn't the point. I already knew this was an issue when I mixed linear and exponential functions. So what do we do?

On the one hand, they just need more practice. Lots of practice to make the thought "I need to graph an equation, I'm not sure what it looks like, I should make a table!" automatic. Part of what's preventing them from getting lots of practice with that thought is how loooooooong it takes them to make a table. They need practice evaluating functions (basic facts are weak). But the way to practice that is by doing it, and making a table is a great way to have repetitive practice with a purpose.

But, kids are only willing to do random practice for so long. And I don't blame them. It's boring and it's not helping them to build connections. So we need something more. And that's where you come in - I got a few (great!) suggestions from Twitter but I have a whole quarter to fill and I've already used my best stuff the first time through. Equations and lines. I'd happily take data based stuff so we can mix some stats in with our linear modeling, or exponentials/polynomials if they reinforce something more foundational. I'm considering factoring numbers - radicals - factoring expressions as an arc. I'm open to ideas, what've you got?