When PD isn’t a laughing matter

On September 1 I reported to professional development on new textbooks with a couple dozen English teachers. The first thing I was given was an index card with a room number. I’m used to being talked down to at development, but assuming I couldn’t remember a 3-digit number seemed extreme. It turns out this was an compliance practice. We were to show our card, with our name on it, upon returning from lunch, to make sure we actually returned from lunch.

The message from my bosses: We don’t trust you to take this seriously, but we’re not willing to do anything about it. Just know you are not trustworthy.

On November 11th, I arrived at another large High School for another PD, this time on LGBTQ students and district policy. We were ushered into a large auditorium. The first presenter introduced the policy and gave an uninspired, monotone talk about it. She occasionally did not have prepared remarks and resorted to reading from the Power Point. The third speaker had no remarks and read straight from the Power Point the entire 15 minutes, which was a word for word, size-11 font rendering of District policies such as those forbidding staff to commit sexual assault.1

In between, a speaker from The Lighthouse gave a talk about sexuality, changing terminology, and why teachers need to step outside their comfort zone. It meant nothing. The vile, numbing, brain-devouring banality of the two district speakers ruined even the smallest chance of positive discourse. Oh, and it was the day grades were due. And we couldn’t read the slides And so on.

I was furious because this issue elicits a ton of push-back from staff. A few hours later a teacher told me she leaves sexuality outside the class. I asked her if she could do the same with race. We had a powerful, if brief, conversation that has since spawned some other talks.

This 10 minute talk had more power than a two hour meeting because both of us were interested in helping LGBTQ students. The District’s purpose was rooted differently: in compliance. The goal was making sure nobody gets sued, instead of making sure nobody tries to end their own life. I don’t know the heart of the district presenters. But if they really cared about this issue, they wouldn’t have read off a Power Point. They wouldn’t have used a giant auditorium. They would have shown an iota of passion for the most vulnerable children. They didn’t.

And then the election happened. Now our LGBTQ youth, especially our transexual or questioning children, feel like targets.

I’ve made a habit of rolling my eyes at PD. I pull out my laptop or grade papers and dare the presenter to do anything. They usually don’t. They’re called upon to present, I’m called upon to be present. We both, truth be told, have better things to do.

Except, in the age of Trump, that’s deadly. The rise of hate crimes targeted in schools must be addressed by every person in the building. The institution for that is professional development. On this day, like many of our institutions, they failed. And kids will suffer because of it.

I don’t know how to fix PD. I like EdCamp, but I no longer see it as a silver bullet. I think most teachers want to get better, although they’ve become so embittered or conditioned by awfulness that the default is to turn out. But we have to move forward, and the revolution will not read off of a Power Point.

  1. This is actually against the PFT contract, which should be front and center in our goal to unionize white collared workers 

Snow Days As Data #phled

(Last week, a certain education-themed extension of the financial secotor1 wrote a piece for the Philadelphia media touting some gains at their pet schools.  While we love hearing success stories at public schools, the authors didn’t tell the whole story.  I suppose philly.com and their ilk were already awash with real teachers telling their stories, so they decided not to publish our response. 

This piece is co-authored by Larissa Pahomov.  You should read her blog and follow her on Twitter)

With six snow days so far this year, the routine has become familiar to all students and their families in Philadelphia. There’s wild speculation in the days leading up to the storm, constant checking and refreshing of news sources for updates, and a celebration when the day off gets called.

Unfortunately, the snow day routine reveals something else about students in our city: a lot them hate going to school.

We’re not talking about the appreciation of a day off. Students (and educators, too) like a break from routine as much as anybody. But a winter like this reveals the wide gap between school’s missions and the students they seek to serve. Administrators fret about lost “instructional time,” but students literally jump for joy because they have been freed from their desks. Book bags stay closed on snow days. The last thing students want to do on their holiday is learn.

How did things get this bad? Unfortunately, a part of the problem is the increased emphasis on “proficiency,” as measured by standardized tests. Too many schools are telling their students the only knowledge that matters is what can be bubbled in on an exam. When Mother Nature disrupts the schedule, she brings some uncomfortable questions with her. When the tests end, does that mean our children stop learning?  Do we have to keep them locked in the classroom to stop their brains from melting?

The good news:  There’s a better way.

At Franklin Learning Center, teacher Ann Leaness inspires her students to read and become readers.  The method?  Stop grading reading and start encouraging students to see themselves as readers. For a snowbound teenager (and their parents), the ability to curl up with a good book is invaluable – for their sanity and continued learning.

Leaness’ class is just one example of a growing movement. All over the District, teachers are realizing that when kids are given the chance to pursue their passions, we don’t need to obsess over “proficiency.” At Science Leadership Academy, Seniors work overtime on Capstone projects, from designing machinery to crafting screenplays to producing their own hip hop album.  At Central, teacher Dan Ueda and the Robolancers teach students to build technology instead of merely playing with it.  So-called “Makespaces” at The Workshop School and Chester A. Arthur encourage kids to make things because it is something worthwhile to do, rather than because it will show up on their report card.

The education discussion in Philadelphia is obsessed with numbers, data, and the assessments that drive them.  This Winter reminds us that we can do better.  If students, guided by caring and passionate adults, are owners of learning instead of consumers, snow days become a day to work on a project, finish a book, or collaborate with a teacher. Authentic learning cannot be gridlocked.  We should stop looking at what kids do on a bubble test, and start looking at what they do on a snow day.

Larissa Pahomov and Andrew Saltz are public school teachers and members of the Philadelphia Teacher’s Action Group

  1. I’m trying Larissa, I’m really trying 

Other Gaps

As a “hook” to our Legal Clinic, I spent a day in January working with graphs and charts about the legal system.  Charts and graphs are awesome tools in the classroom.  If you are a teacher and don’t use them, you should do so.  I don’t care what subject.  Reading data is a type of nonfictional reading, essential for basic citizenship.  It’s also fun.  On this day, my class walked into a “gap”.  I think we’re still stuck there.

The prompt for charts is “What do you learn from this?”  Students are encouraged to list as much as they can.  Normally I go with “There are a bunch of right answers and a bunch of wrong ones.  Defend your answer and try.”

For this chart however, there’s only a few possible choices.  Almost every student observed a higher number of African Americans in NC prisons than Whites, about half concluded it was suspicious.  One student noted that the layout of the graph was ineffective – laying the population numbers side-by-side and the prison numbers side-by-side would be less confusing.  Critical thinking, people!

There were a few students who deduced that African Americans commit more crimes than Whites.  This was troubling.  It was easily dismissed with a few questions1, but it was hard to fathom and, in retrospect, something I should have dealt with.

This is an awesome graph if you like teaching awesome graphs.  First, it’s an absolutely staggering illustration of the US prison population.  Next, it lends itself as a lesson against the lazy reading of data.  Most students claim that crime has gone up every year – proof “our generation” is the worst2.  But a simple “every year?” pushes student to test their hypothesis.  When I ask if they can find any years where the number of inmates went down, you can see the gears start to move.  What was the turning year?  1980 or 1984.  Why?  Lots of answers here.  Drugs, gangs, disco, wars.  In each of my 3 Junior classes I had some studenst who connected the year with the rise of crack cocaine.  The lingering question, of course, why are there so many people still in jail if we have way fewer people using crack?


The last one (link is better than my screenshot) is a Zillow.com heat map of crime in our fair city.  It’s a fun one.  Since the lesson was done through the projector, we toured the city together.  The point here is that some of the highest crime is in places you wouldn’t expect it – 15th and Market has a the larger concentration of crime than 61 and Kingsessing.

In two classes, we never made it this far.  When were “touring” Mt. Airy or Chestnut Hill, a student in my largest class explained “There’s no crime because that’s where all the nice, White people live”.  And silence.  In a class of 32 African American young people, not a single easily-outraged teenager was moved to outrage over an out-and-out racist claim.

I addressed it.  I did so with data and logic and more angst than usual.  I didn’t scream, even though I really wanted to.  And I was humbled by the job, thinking about all the gaps we are trying to fill.

Teachers in Philadelphia are inundated with the Achievement Gap, the one which shows that African American and Latino students are falling behind their peers.  We see it at every professional development.  Our school’s contribution to that gap will make up a healthy chunk of my evaluation.  It’s the constant boogeyman – say what you want, but you can’t deny these numbers.

But it’s not the only gap, and our focus on skills and standards belie the other challenges we face.  If students believe their neighborhoods are worth less because the people who come from those neighborhoods are incapable of civilization, they are going to have some problems succeeding in school.  If they honestly believe that people who look like they do and talk the way they talk possess an innate talent for ruining nice things, they will go out of their way to avoid nice things.  They will lower their expectations.  They won’t follow through on a college application or “forget” their financial aid or become as small as possible so as to slither through the closest available crack.

I have no idea what to do about this.  I addressed it in class, I addressed it with individuals.  I add context to my lessons that (hopefully) connect with my students’ lives.  I’m relentlessly positive about my students.  But in the end, I come from a different place and lack the specific ethos to make an impact.

So what are you doing about this gap?  What systems are in place to break these stereotypes?  What do you do to reinforce the good and question the bad?  The stereotype threat is real – what are we doing about it?

  1. “Is everyone in jail guilty?” “Does everyone who commits a crime go to jail?” 

  2. A favorite talking point 

Things I Like – More Authentic Grading

There’s a lot of talk in Education about strategies and ideas “That Work”.  Sadly, these conversations have generally implied two things:  That all other things before have not worked, and that this idea is the one and only answer.  “Things I Like” is simply about thing I use in my room – and I’m always looking to improve

Mr. Kramp was a mentor teacher to me for many reasons, the primary one being we are both hilariously short.  He  taught social studies when I arrived at Robeson.  He had an incredible way of dealing with students – tough but fair, friendly but commanding.  He could rock a Phillies shirt and shorts 5 days a week and still be the most respected guy in the building.

Sadly, Mr. Kramp has left us for an administrative gig1, but I still remember one of his great ideas.  Mr. Kramp started American History with a quiz on the 50 states.  It was a simple as possible – here’s a map, label it.  The catch was a student would earn above an 80% or receive a mandatory make-up (and an F).  That’s it, that’s all.

It’s beautiful in its simplicity.  How can you talk about slavery, he would pontificate, if you don’t understand which states are in the South?  Either you do a great job or you didn’t do well enough – there’s no middle ground.  I loved this because it made so much sense.  “Do great or try again” is the “realest” grading system I’ve seen.  I relate it to students as a driver’s test, a college placement test, or the army physical exam. You can or you can’t – that’s life.

Continue reading

  1. his responsibilities include ignoring my happy hour invitations 

Not a Joke

I used to tell this story as a joke:

It’s June of 2010, a Thursday, and I see one of my students crying in the office.  I took little notice – when the weather rises above 85 degrees, my school literally beings to bake.  Robeson is straight bricks with a black roof.  There are two points of exit that exist on other sides of the building and every window is “slanted” to open only about ⅓ of the way, even on the second floor.1

If you think of a brick structure with two points of exit ,a whole lot of heat, and assume it’s an oven, you win.

So it’s not surprising that I found a student, Kaila for our purposes, sitting in our deep blue chair, head in her hands.  When it’s hot, kids get upset.  When they get upset, they get into trouble.  When they get into trouble, they end up in the office – one of 3 air-conditioned rooms in the building.

Quietly, with the assumption that any time I had for grading or spending time with my wife would be forfeit, I gave her the customary “Y’arite?”

“I can’t breathe,” she whispered

Continue reading

  1. I never quite understood what they were trying to prevent. If your school has a problem with people jumping out the window, who decides the best thing to do is fix the window? 

Small Victories

(If you are an English teacher, or aspiring English Teacher, please stop here.  Go read “Book Love” by Penny Kittle. Follow Meenoo Rami and #Engchat.  You’ll be a better teacher, reader, and dancer.  Do it.)

I’d like to savor a moment of happiness.

Each summer, I go through the process of recklessly re-working my curriculum.  I work myself into a frenzy trying to incorporate all of the pedagogies into my little room:  PBL, PrBL, MakerEd, UbD, Inquiry, etc. 1

And, as usual, I’ve been doing wrong.

Continue reading

  1. No, Charlotte Danielson, you’re not invited