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58 posts categorized "Teaching"

December 03, 2011

Mean, stupid teachers.

The New York Times reports that “millions of American schoolchildren are receiving free or low-cost meals for the first time as their parents, many once solidly middle class, have lost jobs or homes during the economic crisis, qualifying their families for the decades-old safety-net program.”

I was a free lunch kid throughout my entire childhood. 

For most of my elementary and middle school career, I was also a free breakfast kid.

While I appreciated the access to food even as a child (since there was never a lot of food at home), my one complaint was how the program was managed by the schools.  Each morning, my teachers would take a lunch count using the following procedure:

Please raise your hand if you’re buying hot lunch.

Please raise your hand if you’re buying cold lunch.

Please raise your hand if you’re receiving free hot lunch.

Please raise your hand if you’re receiving free cold lunch.    

Having to raise my hand every morning and remind my classmates that I was poor sucked. 

Today, the process is designed so that even teachers aren’t aware of who receives a free lunch.  In fact, most kids aren’t even aware that they are receiving a free lunch every day.  A family’s financial situation is considered confidential information, but even if it was not, no teacher today would ever require a student to raise his or her hand in order to receive a free lunch.

Which leads me to wonder what the hell teachers and administrators were thinking when I was a kid.

This is not an instance of my mother drinking wine during her pregnancy because she didn’t know any better or my parents allowing us to ride our bicycles without helmets  because the public had yet to be educated about the important of their use. 

This seems rather obvious to me:

It’s cruel to require kids self-select their economic status in front of their classmates. 

Was empathy, common sense and basic human decency really at a premium when I was a kid?

September 08, 2011

Stop complimenting students

This piece by Lisa Bloom, entitled How to Talk to Little Girls, appealed a great deal to me. 

This paragraph represents the crux of Bloom’s argument:

Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What's missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.

I have made it my policy for the last decade to avoid commenting on a student’s physical appearance for similar reasons.

A student’s appearance should be the last thing of concern to a teacher, but more importantly, these comments, even when positive, can be damaging and hurtful to kids.

A few years ago, just prior to a performance by my school’s choir, I watched a teacher compliment a young man on his appearance.  The boy was wearing an impeccable suit and tie, and even his dress shoes gleamed in the dull glow of the hallway’s fluorescent lighting.  

The teacher was aware of my no commenting policy, and after complimenting the young man, she challenged me by asking how her few words of kindness could ever be hurtful to a kid. 

I pointed out to the teacher that while the young man was probably feeling great about the compliment he had received, the boy to his left and the boy to his right, who were not wearing suits and had not received a similar compliment, and who were perhaps from families who could not afford suits and ties and gleaming dress shoes for their boys, may be feeling very differently.

Therein lies the danger. 

As one who grew up in relative poverty, I know how it feels to hear your classmates and friends receive compliments for their appearance while you do not. 

Worse, I know how it feels to receive the makeup compliment from a teacher who realizes that he or she has probably made you feel lousy while gushing over the appearance of your best friend. 

There are simply too many other things about which a teacher can and should compliment a student for any educator to be discussing physical appearance.  Effort, sportsmanship, empathy, helpfulness, respect,  and charity are just some of the areas in which teachers can offer meaningful, productive comments.    

Not to mention that a student’s choice of clothing and haircut, especially in elementary school, are often not entirely within their control.  Oftentimes a teacher’s compliment amounts to little more than a comment on how the student’s parent chose to send their child to school, making the words even more meaningless.

So ten years ago, I decided to stop commenting on students’ physical appearance, and I have held the line ever since.

It hasn’t been easy. 

A girl walks into my class with a new haircut and asks what I think. 

I say, “I don’t know about your hair, but I love the way you use that brain underneath the hair to solve math problems.”

A boy walks into class with new jersey promoting his favorite basketball team and asks me if I like it. 

“I didn’t really notice the jersey,” I say.  “But I noticed the way you played kickball yesterday.  Great job.”

Sometimes these exchanges are a little awkward, and sometimes the kids think I’m a little crazy, but I would prefer both of these to the alternative.  

I have been told by more than one educator that my policy is unrealistic and unnecessary.  Their arguments are usually bolstered by simpleton statements like, “My teachers complimented me when I was a kid and we survived” and “These kids are going to hear compliments for the rest of their lives, so there’s no reason for us to be sheltering them now.” 

These types of arguments boil down to this:

If it worked for me, it should work for them.

These are people who did not wear the same sneakers through three New England winters while in middle school. 

There are people who did not receive the majority of their childhood wardrobe from their much older cousin.

These are people who are unable to place themselves in the shoes of a student whose shoes will never gleam in the dull, florescent light.

These are people who do not believe that a single person can make a difference.

September 05, 2011

Ready for fifth grade

My wife and my daughter were in the car behind a motorcycle rider without a helmet.  My wife was explaining to Clara how dangerous it is to ride on a motorcycle without a helmet and how easily a person could get hurt. 

After listening to my wife’s explanation, Clara said, “Just like Jack fell down and broke his crown?”

In the teaching world, that is known as a text-to-self connection. 

It’s something I struggle every year to get my fifth graders to make on a consistent basis.

Now my two-year old has managed a simple, albeit completely valid, text-to-self-connection. 

I can’t wait to tell my students that they are now competing against a two-year old. 

September 04, 2011

Extreme teaching

An article in the Wall Street Journal entitled School Reform, Chicago Style described a school district’s policy of providing habitually tardy and absentee students with a wake-up call each morning.

The system has actually led to a significant increase in on-time attendance.

While one might argue the merits of such a program, this type of unusual solution is not new in the educational community.  Speak to any teacher who has been on the job for long enough and you will find similar stories of extreme teaching. 

When it comes to getting kids to learn, teachers are willing to try almost anything.

One story of extreme teaching from my career:

About ten years ago, I learned that one of my struggling students had a television and three different videogame systems in his bedroom. He was not completing homework, was never well rested, was struggling with obesity and was living with a grandmother who only spoke Spanish and was working two jobs in order to make ends meet. 

He basically spent his afternoons and evenings indoors, unmonitored, playing videogames and ignoring his schoolwork. 

I told the boy that if his effort and work did not improve immediately, I was going to take action. 

A month later, after he failed to heed my warning, I did just that. 

One day after school, I arrived at the boy’s apartment unannounced, carrying a desk, a chair, a pile of pencils and a stack of paper.  Accompanying me was the school’s social worker. 

The boy’s grandmother invited us into the home, and while the social worker remained with the grandmother in the living room, discussing the trouble that her grandson was having in school, I went to his bedroom and installed the desk and chair in one corner of the room.  I explained that this is where he was to do his homework and that if he needed more supplies, he only needed to ask. 

Then I removed the power cords from the three videogame systems and stuffed them into my pocket.

Within fifteen minutes, we had left the apartment, and the boy’s three videogame system were no longer functional.

I locked the cords in a file cabinet in my classroom and informed the boy that he could get them back once his effort and work improved. 

About two months later, after his consecutive homework streak had hit fifteen days,  I returned one of the cords.  He received the final two on the last day of school.  

Did this make an enormous difference in this boy’s life?

Probably not.  He worked harder and learned more as a result of my actions, but I can’t really say that he turned a corner. 

But my actions let him know two important things:

1.  Teachers care deeply about their students’ wellbeing.

2.  Teachers are capable of extreme measures when it comes to helping their students learn. 

That’s a start.

August 12, 2011

If it’s important and it’s lacking, TEACH IT.

I don’t understand the teacher who complains that his or her students don’t do something that is easy to fix.

A good example is the use of the word please.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have heard a teacher complain about the lack of manners in their students. 

But the absence of many behaviors that constitute manners is not akin to a learning disability or an emotionally troubled child. 

Manners, like many things, are an easy fix.

And they also have to be learned.  

With the application of instruction, consistent role modeling, practice and positive feedback, the use of the word please, for example, is not a difficult behavior to foster and reinforce in a student.  

And being that the person complaining about the absence of the word please is a teacher, wouldn’t instruction like this be in his or her wheelhouse anyway?

If a teacher is struggling with a student because he is apathetic, angry, effortless and three years behind his classmates in terms of learning, I understand the occasional complaint.  It doesn’t mean that the teacher has given up.  Sometimes it’s just healthy to express your frustration.

But to complain about a student who isn’t using the word please or doing something that is simple to fix has always seemed a little silly to me.

Perhaps some people are more prone to complaint, but I have always believed in avoiding complaining whenever possible.  So when it comes to easy fixes, I just do my job and keep my mouth shut. 

And I also suspect that despite the persistent belief that kids these days don’t have the same level of respect for their elders, teachers two hundred years ago were probably complaining about the same kinds of things.

August 10, 2011

Should schools stop releasing their honor rolls for publication in order to protect the feelings of students not included on the list?

When I first heard that a middle school in Glastonbury, CT was going to stop releasing its honor roll for publication in order to protect the feelings of those students who haven’t earned the honor, I was horrified.

Students who have worked hard and made the best use of their talents are going to suffer because everyone can’t make the honor roll? 

What’s next?  Will newspapers stop reporting on high school basketball games because there are players on both teams who failed to score any points?

Then I read the article in the Hartford Courant and came upon the rationale behind the decision:

"We have a school where 96 percent of students go on to college," (superintendent) Bookman said. "The percentage of students making the honor roll at both schools is tremendously high. … It makes those who don't make it stand out and puts more pressure on the kids who don't make it."

"There is no reason to put additional pressure on kids," he added. "The motivation to do well should not be to see your name in the paper. It should be to do well in school and go to college."

This rationale caused me to doubt my initial reaction.  In a school district where the number of students who make the honor roll is “tremendously high”, perhaps there is something to be said for keeping the list out of the newspapers.  If one or two percent of the students don’t make the list, the honor roll could conceivably become a means of ostracizing lower performing students rather than celebrating student achievement.

After all, if nearly everyone makes the list, is the honor roll even an effective means of celebrating student achievement?

If everyone is special, then no one is special. 

A student told me that once, and I couldn’t agree more.

Then again, should we remove a means of academic recognition enjoyed by students for decades simply because it might make a few kids feel bad? 

Isn’t the purpose of the honor roll to celebrate student achievement and a establish a level that all students can aspire?

I read this story five days ago and have been going back and forth about it ever since, seeing the merits to both sides of the argument. 

Late last night I finally settled on an opinion. 

In the end, I applied the situation to Clara. 

If my daughter was in that middle school and she was one of the few students not making the honor roll, either as a result of her lack of effort or her innate struggles that she had as a learner, I would not want the honor roll to be held back from publication in order to protect her feelings. 

Life is not fair, and we are not all equal.  Whether her exclusion from the honor roll was the result of effort or inability, it would be my job as a parent to talk to her about this and help her process the reasons behind her exclusion. 

If her effort was lacking, a kick in the pants would be in order, and it would be an important lesson learned.

If her ability prevented her from achieving honors, then a more difficult discussion about reasonable expectations and personal limitations might be needed, and an even more important lesson would be learned.   

But I would not want the world to conform to my daughter for the sake of her feelings. 

The world does not conform to individuals.  Nor should it.

It is a lesson best learned at an early age, as cruel as it may seem. 

August 05, 2011

It is perfectly acceptable to question a teacher’s judgment in the case of a serial killer.

During this past school year, my students spent a week reading graphic novels as an introduction to the genre.  Among the many graphic novels I have is a set of non-fiction books that center on famous disasters in American history like the Hindenburg explosion, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the near-tragic Apollo 13 mission. 

image image

The kids love the comic book-like nature of the books, but even better, they loves the stories contained therein.  Most of them have heard bits and pieces about these dramatic moments from our nation’s past, but few have ever read full accounts of the events until they read these books.

A parent volunteer (who also happens to be a good friend) was in the classroom one day during the graphic novel unit, volunteering to read with some of my students.  After assigning him to a group of kids, I handed out copies of the books and sent them on their way. 

My friend looked at me like I was crazy. 

“Are you sure you want us reading that book?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.  “A bunch of kids have read it already.  It’s a little gruesome, but it’s fine. It’s American history.”

“Alright,” he said, still sounding uncertain. 

About fifteen minutes later I checked in with his group to determine their progress.  His look of consternation had been replaced by noticeable relief. 

“The Donner party!”  he said. “Donner!”


“Yeah, the Donner party,” I repeated.  “What did you think I said?”

“I thought you said the Dalmer party.  Like Jeffrey Dalmer.  I thought you had the kids reading about serial killers.” 

“And you were willing to go along with that?” I asked. 

“Well, you’re the teacher,” he said. “I figured you knew what you were doing.”

“Really?” I said.  “Even if it’s a book about a serial killer?”

“Well, yeah.”

Sometimes there’s a such thing as having too much trust in a teacher.

July 14, 2011

Teachers suck at PR

Before you begin reading this, please know that this post reflects the culmination of twelve years of teaching and does not pertain specifically to anyone who I work with in my profession at this time.  The thoughts and observations contained herein reflect the broad spectrum of my experiences as a teacher and as a parent who interacted with teachers.  It is in no way an indictment of the friends and colleagues with whom I currently share my working life and pertains to no one specifically, past or present. 

It should also be noted that while I am about to proselytize about the public relations of teaching, I am not without fault.  But when it comes to promoting the work that takes place within the walls of my classroom, I like to think that I do an above average job, but I am hardly perfect. 

Could I do better?  Certainly.  And I try like hell to be reflective about the decisions I make. 

I can be pretty tough on myself, as my occasionally frustrated wife can readily attest.  

With all that said:

Teachers suck at public relations.  As public support for teachers and their unions wane, too many teachers have little or no sense of the image that we project onto the public, and more important, the ramifications that this image can have on the future of education. 

And while teachers are to blame for this failing, colleges and universities do little by way of training teachers on how to effectively work with parents and the community at large in order to promote learning that takes place in the classroom and project a positive image of public education.

It makes no sense.

As a result, teachers are often lost when it comes to promoting themselves and the work that they do.  They are often quiet, overly humble and tragically understated when the opposite is needed in today’s climate. 

This is why they become easy targets when budgets tighten and cuts are required.

We must become more effective at promoting the important work that we do. 

A few examples:


A friend of mine in Rhode Island teaches at a school that celebrates the end of standardized testing with Movie Day, a school day in which students spend most of the day watching G-rated films and relaxing.

Movie Day?

In the mind of many taxpayers, this sounds more like Give The Teachers A Day Off Day or Let The Chinese Continue To Surpass Us In Education Day.  Even though I am certain that the teachers in his school are spending their time preparing lessons, grading papers, analyzing assessment data and managing behaviors, Movie Day will never be viewed as an academically meaningful day by the average taxpayer.

Nor should it.  

As a result, Movie Day must go.  Kids go to school for 180 days a year.  The last thing they need to do is spend a day watching movies. They can use the other 182 days in the year to catch up on the latest films.

Even if it’s somehow educationally justifiable, it’s bad PR.

No, it’s immensely stupid PR.


One of the largest educational initiatives currently in play in Connecticut and around the country centers on a program called SRBI, which stands for Scientific Research Based Interventions.  These are the teaching and assessment strategies and data driven decision making procedures that educators are now using to target struggling learners in our classrooms. 

But did you notice the name of the program?

Scientific Research Based Interventions. 

What the hell were the designers of this program thinking?

Were they trying to imply that everything that educators have done prior to SRBI was fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants guesswork.

What were teachers using prior to SRBI?

MUSASIIW? (Make Up Stuff And See If It Works)


There has been mountains of scientifically-based research conducted in the field of education for decades. 

The last thing we need is an intervention system with a name that implies otherwise.

Do you see Apple implementing a new MAPS program? (Mathematically Accurate Programming Strategies)

Or Aetna implementing PLIP? (Profitable, Legal Insurance Practices)

Or Disney implementing FADS? (Fun Absent Dangerous Scenarios)

Of course not.

Yet our brand new program of learning interventions has a name that unnecessarily emphasizes the fact that some jerk just didn’t make it up in his head.



In my experience as a parent and as a teacher, I have encountered teachers who build enormous walls of faux-professionalism between themselves and parents, thus preventing our most potentially vocal and supportive constituents from gathering the positive information that we should be disseminating out there on a daily basis.

These are the teachers who feel that parents should be seen and not heard. 

You can usually identify these teachers by the following characteristics:

  1. They never learn the first names of the parents of their students. 
  2. They make only token attempts (or not attempt at all) to get parent volunteers into the classroom (one of the best ways to promote the good work done by teachers)
  3. They dress exceedingly formal for meetings with parents but considerably less formal when interacting with students (as if parents aren’t fully aware of the shifty nature of their wardrobes)
  4. They assume that they are always right and make no room for the possibility that parents might know more than they do when it comes to education.

For example, for years I was told by parents that I would become an even better teacher once I had children of my own, and that not having children caused me to have a blind spot in terms of the parent-teacher-student dynamic.  I always assumed that this was not true, but I left room for the possibility and told these parents as much.

And it turns out that I was wrong and the parents were right.  I am a much better teacher now that I am a parent, and I would venture to guess that this applies to almost everyone in the education field. 

Having a child of your own provides you with an indescribable perspective that is incredibly useful as a teacher.  

But until you have kids, it’s almost impossible to see.

As a teacher, you need to be smart enough to account for this possibility, and more importantly, for the possibility that the  untrained parent of one of your students might know more than you do and can be exceedingly helpful in the education of their child.

Some teachers understand this.  Others prefer to assume that they are the experts and should assume the position of ultimate authority. 

This is foolish, and it projects an image of a profession filled with close-minded, unapproachable people. 

Colleges, universities and school systems would be wise to begin instructing teachers on how to promote the work that they do.  The same public relations and publicity professionals who work to enhance the image of businesses, corporations, entertainers and even authors must also be utilized in enhancing the image of the teaching profession.

We must learn how to reach out and engage the public in the work we do everyday.  So many remarkably skilled educations work tirelessly in order to help children learn, and yet so much of this good work goes unnoticed by the public at large.

If we want our public schools to be adequately funded and our profession to be respected, we must begin to do the hard work that is required in order to let people know who we are and what we do. 

July 10, 2011

If you are going to perpetrate a fraud, please don’t be stupid about it.

While I don’t support fraud, I can understand engaging in it for profit’s sake. 

When there is enough reward, the risks can sometimes become reasonable.

But when there is little or no benefit to the fraud, or the risks seriously outweigh the rewards, I have to assume that anyone attempting such a thing is as stupid as they come.

The recent revelations about the cheating taking place by Atlanta school teachers is a good example of this.  For the possible reward of improved test scores, increased job security and satisfied administrators, teachers and principals chose to place their careers, the public trust and possible prison time on the line by changing answers on standardized tests and facilitating student cheating during testing periods.   

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.  

The risk-reward ratio in this scenario is ridiculous.   

And I have to wonder:

Hasn’t anyone in the Atlanta school system read FREAKONOMICS or the related literature on school cheating?  Identifying cheating has become a simple examination of the data.  From the privacy of their nondescript cubicles, statisticians can look at a set of assessment data and determine which teacher is cheating and which one is not.

It is simply a matter of pressing a few buttons on a calculator. 

Making the attempt at fraud even more stupid. 

An even more egregious case in point:

The CBS television affiliate in Boston recently falsified the images of the fireworks display from the Fourth of July in order to improve the quality of the footage. 

Boston-based executive producer David Dugar admitted that the station had shot well known landmarks such as Fenway Park, Quincy Market, and the State House prior to the fireworks show and then superimposed these images into the video footage before airing it to the public.

Dugar defended his decision by claiming that the show represented entertainment rather than news, thus placing him squarely in the same camp as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann in terms of his ability to admit fault. 

Viewers began calling into the Boston Globe on Friday to say it was impossible that the fireworks could have appeared over the famous city landmarks when they were launched in the opposite direction from the Charles River.

Once again making the attempt at fraud even more stupid.

So the CBS affiliate comes across as looking foolish and incompetent, and for what?

Had they not been caught, to what advantage would the falsified video footage have served?  Were the producers hoping to create a social media buzz about the remarkable quality of the broadcast in hopes of drawing more viewers next year?

Do they really think that a fireworks display on television is buzz-worthy?

Does the advertising that they sell before and after the fireworks really amount to much in the grand scheme of things?

Was there any money at all to be made had this fraud been successful?

And what did the television station risk?

In addition to the embarrassment that they have experienced on a national level, they have now transformed their fireworks broadcast into the only one that should be avoided next year.  In their short-sighted and inexplicable effort to boost ratings for a blip on the programming radar, they have found a way to make their fireworks broadcast the only one in the history of television that cannot be trusted. 

In addition, they managed to damage the reputation of their station in the process.

Like I said, I’m not defending fraud, and I don’t recommend that anyone engage in it.

But if you decide to do so, at least be smart about it.  Make informed decisions and ensure that the risks are balanced by the potential benefits in the event that your fraud is successful.

Adding immorality to the world is bad enough.  Don’t add any more stupidity in the process. 

We have plenty of that already. 

June 24, 2011

Should my students be allowed to make fun of me online?

Time magazine asks:

Do students have a First Amendment right to make fun of their principals and teachers on Facebook and other social-media sites?  Or can schools discipline them for talking out of school?

This question comes in reaction to two recent court rulings supporting the right to free speech for students. In both cases, the court said that schools were wrong to suspend students for posting parodies of their principals on MySpace — one in which a boy made fun of his principal's body size and another in which a girl made lewd sexual comments about her principal.

Both actions took place outside of school and failed to "materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school," the standard set by the Supreme Court in the 1969 landmark case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which students’ right to wear a black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War was upheld by the Court. 

I agree with the court in these matters.  The First Amendment does not stop at the schoolhouse door, and speech taking place off school grounds that does not significantly impair learning in school should be permitted.

My question is this:

Are these students legally subject to defamation and libel claims made by principals and teachers whose reputations have been unfairly impugned?

Having been in a similar position at one point in my life at the hands of an anonymous, non-student source, I fully understand the power of purposely manipulated, unmitigated speech, particularly when it originates from a source too cowardly to claim ownership but brazen enough to spread the word far and wide.

I support the First Amendment and a student’s right to speak, but when the speech is blatantly false and results in damage to a teacher’s reputation, I believe that a teacher has a right to legal recourse. 

This is why laws relating to defamation of character and libel exist. 

Unfortunately, in my case, there was no recourse since the libel was conducted by an anonymous source.

But when a students creates a video that falsely claims that his high school principal has made inappropriate sexual advances towards students, shouldn’t that principal be provided with the opportunity for legal recourse if it can be proven that his reputation has been unfairly and irreparably damaged?

Shouldn’t students be held accountable for the damage that they do?

A teacher’s reputation is his most valuable asset.  It can mean the key factor in establishing positive, productive relationships with students and parents.   When students, parents and the community implicitly trust an educator because of the reputation that he or she has earned, learning is invariably accelerated in the classroom and a teacher’s career outlook is improved considerably.    

To allow students to damage that reputation and only suffer a parental punishment seems wrong to me. 

While I would not want students suspended for exercising their right to free speech off campus, I would like them to be made aware of the consequences that can result from that speech when it is baseless and purposely destructive.

And when actual damage is done to a teacher’s reputation, a teacher should have legal recourse.

While I cannot imagine suing a student or his or her family for a purposely false and intentionally destructive YouTube video, we cannot allow a system to exist in which students are permitted to say whatever they want about a teacher and the teacher is not afforded the same protection that the legal system provides for people outside the schoolhouse.