Sunday, August 31, 2008
I hope this becomes the world’s opportunity to see St. Paul as the sort of city that is open for business. While I trust the conventioneers will enjoy the plethora of things that make St. Paul a fabulous place to hold any convention, from our high quality restaurants, our promising entertainment venues, first-rate facilities, and I might add our excellent selection of local beers, I hope they have the opportunity to discover the other things that make St. Paul among America’s most livable cities.
I hope they can spend time enjoying our sterling city park system, notice our vibrant and distinct neighborhoods, marvel at our brilliant array of residents, appreciate our city leadership, travel the varied miles of our bike paths, and find out about our hard-working, high-quality, comprehensive pre-K through university schools, especially our up-and-coming St. Paul Public School District.
If they do, they might just decide to stay awhile.
I should know. I came to St. Paul from the Iron Range for college. I returned to St. Paul after time in Washington State, Oregon and South Korea to raise my family and teach. Being able to experience “all of the above” makes it easy not only to believe in St. Paul, but to live here, too.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
At 7:07 p.m. tonight my phone buzzed with a text message and it was an SPFT member with the message: “It’s done. The first African American has just been nominated for president. History in the making!” Her joy was palpable.
I would argue that while the nomination is, in fact, done we are actually on the cusp of much more beginning in every other way for our country.
These things reminded me that this is not just any night for some people. Quite frankly, this should not be just any night for any of us.
It makes me that much more excited for our Obama Acceptance Speech Party tomorrow night at the Como Park Picnic Pavilion from 7:30 to 10 p.m. This is an event to watch with community, in the community.
Please join me!
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Most of the Heroes in the Democrats for Education Reform group were folks who champion charter schools. As someone who lives in the charter school capitol of North America, I understand that they are not vanishing from the landscape anytime soon. However, to believe that the only champions of education reform are those “daring enough” to be in the charter school movement is naive.
While charter schools will always have a place in education discussions, school districts will not be vanishing anytime soon either. School districts will continue to educate the majority of America’s children for a long, long time. In fact, I would argue that peering into the myriad of practices and school choice within a school district (let’s take mine, for example) will reveal some of the most promising educational practices of this century at the practitioner and school building level.
I would argue, with the St. Paul School District’s comprehensive city-wide district options, with St. Paul as the cradle of charter school law, and with our affordable parochial school system that there isn’t a better incubator of school choice in the country. Yet, an overwhelming majority of parents still choose St. Paul Public Schools. Why? Because we still do the best job of educating children. We are comprehensive enough to meet every child’s needs. We are small enough to be light on our feet to innovate. We tend to attract high quality, experienced teachers. We have smart, dedicated educational assistants.
Perhaps, no school district can truly meet every families needs, and so I will admit that the mother looking for the music-based, Montessori, Russian-immersion, 4 day week elementary school experience for her child will sadly be out of luck in St. Paul (for now), the students who stay with St. Paul Public Schools truly will graduate to something great.
Our high quality teaching force is a major reason for that success, and our teaching force is also first to reflect on what could be done better. Why else, with a pressure-cooker atmosphere and magnifying glass accountability, would I run in to teacher after teacher this opening week saying things to me like, “I’m ready” or “I’m excited” or “I can’t wait to start”?
These teachers are union members, they are my heroes, and I am honored to represent them.
Monday, August 25, 2008
It is critical for our school board to address, in a public and meaningful way, the runaway costs of our health insurance. Yet, another legislative session went by without one instance of our school board supporting our efforts to find a solution to the rising health insurance costs that are devouring our district’s budget. Additionally, another renewal period for health insurance is upon us and still our school board remains quiet.
It is hard not to be insulted by their silence when the best collaboration they can offer is from the July 15th board meeting where they authorized a joint purchasing agreement with North Branch Area Schools “in order to further collaborative efforts and to enhance both districts’ buying power by participating in cooperative purchases, bids and contracts.”
Once again they have proven that they put a premium on saving money on corn dogs and copy paper, but they are absolutely content to turn their backs on any significant discussions on health insurance, let alone offer a solution. It is clear that they are comfortable allowing health insurance to continue festering the morale and working conditions of the member of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.
But, hey, I bet that corn dog will go down nicely with some ketchup, and then you’ve added a vegetable.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Some buildings were completely shut down this summer to save energy and despite the fact that principals and clerical staff reported for work on August 4th (with office lights, I hope) teachers who came in early to work were told that the lights would remain off until teachers officially reported back on August 25th.
For as long as I can remember teachers have been coming in to school in August to begin setting up our rooms, deliver school supplies purchased over the summer, or to meet with other teachers to plan. I have occasionally been asked to leave because of a mammoth construction project that wasn't quite finished yet, but this is the first time I have ever heard of someone not being allowed to use their lights until their contract year actually started.
It will be interesting to see if there is a mandatory "lights off" period when the school year starts. That sure would make "work to rule" easier to implement for our union.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Well, now that we established that, I realized we got his show because we worked with the Yemeni Teachers Syndicate (their rival union and I suspect the aforementioned liars…) the week before them. He made it clear that he has no intention of recognizing them, let alone working with them. They obviously do not get along, so when it was my turn to speak I told them a story a friend of mine pointed out years ago. My friend said to me, “We could spend all day with you arguing that your football team is better and me arguing that my football team is better, or we could decide that it’s great that we both like football.”
As much as the fact that he was a Packer fan bugged me, he had a good point: One that I have tried to live by in many situations since that day. It is most applicable in my teaching life: growing up, in St. Paul, and here.
I grew up in an “FT” household. Over the years I watched my dad and his friends organize to get a majority of members in the Hibbing Federation of Teachers so they could bargain the next contract and I heard them grouse when they didn’t feel they were represented at the table. But when it came time for me to join the SCEA in St. Cloud, no one encouraged me more than my dad. When I moved back from the West Coast and Korea, it seemed to me that no one was more ready for the merger of the MFT and the MEA than my dad and the others who had lived through those years of bitterness and rancor. In Minnesota we had finally decided to stop arguing about whether my union was better or your union was better and decided to think it was great that we all wanted a better future for Minnesota’s students together as Education Minnesota.
I hope that the Yemeni Teacher’s Syndicate and the General Union of Teaching and Education Professionals decide someday that, despite these hard feelings that seem like they will never go away, they will think it is great that they all want a better future for Yemen’s children together.
I want that for them, too. And I was glad I was here to tell them that it can be done.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Our last day of teaching in Yemen is tomorrow and every day we have had multiple interruptions. The president of the union has stopped by every day and every day when he comes in he walks around to greet certain attendees genially and then says a few words to everyone. Today he interrupted us to say that he was inviting everyone to lunch in our honor, which brought spontaneous applause. That was in the middle of a lesson.
The president also brings random dignitaries in from the Sana’a Secretariat Education Ministry, the Government Oil and Mineral Ministry (?), and various others, who then also get to say a few words to us and the group assembled about how much they believe in education and how much they support teachers. Now granted, I’m not an administrator, nor have I played one on TV, but a little something I picked up from a couple principals I used to teach for: If you really want to support teachers, then let us actually teach! Criminy, what a concept!
On top of that, there are these random principals of different neighboring schools (this training is being held in a school) who are stopping by and insisting that we come for a tour during our breaks. The first principal who stopped by admonished us, “Why aren’t you holding your training in my school?” as if I had control of where the training was going to be held. One principal hounded us to 2 days to visit his school. On the bright side, the planets aligned enough that when we taught the “Time on Task” portion of our professional development we had secured a killer teachable moment. We gave them the definition and example of allotted time. “For example, we have from 12:45 to 2p.m. allotted in the schedule to teach you between these breaks. When you didn’t drive us back from the school visit until 1:05 and then we had a visit from Mr. Minister for 5 minutes, we lost 25 minutes of our allotted time. What then happened to our engaged time commensurately?”
This time, I don’t think anything was lost in translation.
Saturday, August 9, 2008
Our first day with our new group today was a little more raucous. I felt a little more like I was teaching 7th grade again because there were many points where adults from every corner of the room were vying for our interpreter’s questions, so he could not focus on any one of them let alone us. That classroom management issue was only part of our struggle, however. There were also lots of experts in the room who raised their hand for the floor to expound on what they had learned in their last graduate class. Folks who listened to our ideas and then spent a considerable amount of energy coming up with reasons for why it couldn't be done in their classrooms rather than brainstorming how they might actually apply the idea. We even got the classic “Do I have to work with this group?” which, trust me, translates without interpretation even through a veil. Of course, none of these behaviors are exclusive to Yemen. All of them deserve diagnosing and some of them even deserve ownership.
I intend to own some of this professional development misbehavior because I believe my students were telling me something. They were struggling in various places to connect to our agenda and to see how it is relevant to their professional lives. I made a classic teaching mistake. I didn’t differentiate my agenda and I did not take their place along the learning continuum into account when planning this agenda. The agenda that was like a hot knife through butter for last week’s group (because it hit their zone of proximal development I would guess) fizzled out a bit on the first day because their needs hadn’t been assessed beforehand.
We had been told (as those professional developers who are flown in from afar often are) that the assessment of what these teachers needed had already been done and they just needed us to deliver the content of what was needed. We just needed to develop a five day training on classroom management, interactive direct instruction, time on task, and (whew) teacher praise to deliver to 2 different groups. Well, like the oldest definition of accountability in the book, no one knows a lesson is bombing faster than a teacher 2 minutes into class with 30 pairs of eyes looking to be simultaneously educated and entertained and feeling like they are getting neither education nor entertainment.
Amber and I scrambled to retool during both of our breaks and we worked through tonight for tomorrow’s lesson, but we are left second-guessing whether this group is getting what it needs from us. Right now we will just have to create more of a connection at the beginning of each lesson when we assess their prior knowledge. We will have to scaffold a little more critically. I don’t think our agenda is fatal and I have confidence that we can salvage meaningful and relevant learning for these students.
I know I will have fresh appreciation for those emailed agendas of professional development days and comments at membership meetings from the members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. Additionally, if every experience, good or bad, is supposed to teach you something, I will make sure that this experience teaches me how to be an even better advocate for high-quality, meaningful professional development. Ultimately, for the members of SPFT that is going to include better contract language. Immediately, for the GUTEP teachers, that is just going to mean a little more work on my part. In the most delightful way.
Friday, August 8, 2008
I didn’t start this summer thinking I was going to Yemen, that I would need to actively defend the Employee Free Choice Act, or that I would get so fed up as to wash my hands of any remnant of No Child Left Behind at all. I did know that I was going to spend the summer connecting members with each other and our national affiliates. I knew I was going to make our ambitious professional development goals a reality. I knew I was going to spend time building our union’s ability to endorse and campaign for key state house seats, Al Franken, and Barack Obama.
As full as that plate is for the summer, I think the St. Paul Federation of Teachers has just begun to uncover our potential to answer that question collectively.
Tomorrow, Amber Prentice and I are going to lead the official Yemeni teacher’s union (GUTEP) through a series of exercises that evolve from “What are some common concerns facing your teachers?” through “How can this professional development class help your union?” We hope we have set up the time to be transformative and to bring them a perspective on union work we have been told that they’ve never had. In essence, we are asking them to name what they would do if they knew they would not fail.
Professional development is a union’s work and it is impossible for us to fail at it. We have the talent, the tenacity, and the collective strength within our ranks to set up powerful learning communities because a union already is a professional learning community.
Which leads me to ask the members of SPFT, what else would we do if we knew we would not fail?
I’m looking forward to hearing your answers.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
- You attend professional development and get excited about new ideas despite persistently large class sizes.
- You are eager to share ideas with your colleagues despite a demoralizing lack of safe and healthy buildings.
- You are eager to learn new ideas from your colleagues despite crippling financial shortages in education.
- You are not afraid of accountability despite administrative favoritism, student threats, and parental influence.
- You belong to your union and you look for ways that you can work as a union member to improve your working conditions and student learning conditions.
- You have entered the profession to make a difference to your community and the future of your country or as a way of giving back for what opportunities your community or country gave you.
That is what leads good people to say things like “We'll have to do more faster,” as an apology for the gains that students of St. Paul Public Schools made as not being large enough. Just as an FYI, we’ll be doing more faster with less money. We’ll be doing more faster with fewer educational assistants. We’ll be doing more faster with fewer social workers. We’ll be doing more faster with some of the lowest morale these buildings have ever seen.
Our students will be doing more faster with less physical education, less music, and less art. Our students will be doing more faster with fewer properly licensed library media specialists and less library time. Our students will be doing more faster with fewer enrichment opportunities.
Designing a measurement system with 16 ways to fail and only one to succeed, with an artificially chosen end date, with mandatory implementation but optional and capricious funding is malpractice. We need to recognize this is a measurement system that was designed to kill public education.
Admitting anything else is educational Stockholm Syndrome.
Don’t forget to put “red cape” on your school supply list. Last time I saw someone do this much more faster he was battling Lex Luthor.
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
While their study measurement is still intensively test-based, their rationale is student based. Test a student at the beginning of the year and test them at the end of the year. The end of the year measurement is then used to determine how well that school year went. When the student returns the next fall, the beginning of the school year test will be used to measure student learning over the summer or flag any student loss of learning over the summer so it can be corrected as soon as possible. This could be powerful information to a teacher just starting with the student in organizing group work, individualized instruction, and enrichment opportunities.
The test scores published today don't deserve the word adequate. Unless you like to punish people, then I suppose it is adequate.
Monday, August 4, 2008
As it often does, this perspective made me very hopeful, in this case for the future of Yemen.
I was reading the August 2nd edition of the Yemen Observer, a weekly English language newspaper here, (www.yobserver.com or for the Arabic version try www.yemenobserver.net) and the front page story was about President Saleh using the occasion of celebrating a national college graduation to call for more education reform. I could have stopped at that headline, just assuming I could have written the article myself considering the plethora of ‘education reform’ headlines that have come and gone in the United States in the last 10 years. However, I’m glad I kept reading on.
Yemeni reporter Mohammed al-Kibsi quoted some fairly encouraging statistics. The president had said “that 46 years ago there was not even a single university in Yemen and that only a few people” even finished a high school program. The university graduation ceremony President Saleh presided over had 28,400 graduates just in 2008. Yemen now counts over 240,000 university graduates in their country. Up from zero 46 years ago. They now have 8 universities in Yemen, when 46 years ago they didn’t have any.
Yemen is still direly short of trained teachers. Girls are still dropping out of school at rates that should make all of us blush with shame. There is still a critical fresh water supply problem, but it was good to take a minute to celebrate this progress for Yemen.
As we have a habit of saying when we see good data, this is trending in the right direction. Yemen has an opportunity to set an ambitious goal of college access for everyone within the next generation. Maybe we can even be successful enough with our work in St. Paul to show them how it’s done.
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Our numbers look not much at all like Arabic numbers and yet, I grew up calling them Arabic numbers.
Yesterday, Amber and I did, what we thought, was an extremely easy addition assignment of 8+8 just so we could demonstrate how to use some note cards as manipulatives to report answers. When we asked the teachers to hold up their answers, some held up 16, because, well that’s the right answer and, they wrote it in numbers that are commonly used in English. Many others held up what looked like 17 because they used Arabic numbers and the Arabic 6 looks like a 7. So these teachers had the numbers right, but as Amber looked around she started commenting that “some of you have the right answer of 16, but for those groups that have 17…” and I stopped her before the translation to say, “No, wait! Those are Arabic numbers Amber.” It only took her a second to recognize immediately what I meant.
Whew! Potential misunderstanding averted and yet the story is not quite over.
As I was talking about the incident to my interpreter Hallid today, explaining that the numbers I grew up calling Arabic sure don’t look Arabic at all, he told me that they also call the numbers we commonly use Arabic numbers and they call their numbers “Indian numbers.”
There is either a fascinating numeric-linguistic explanation for this or he is just pulling my leg. I’m not ruling either one out yet.
Saturday, August 2, 2008
This morning Amber and I launched into our first day of professional development with teachers from the Yemeni Teachers Syndicate and I completely forgot to do the most basic PD opening of all time: announcing where to find the bathrooms, where to get coffee, and … where to take your prayer break.
Now I may get sanctioned by the National Staff Development Association, lose a draft pick, maybe have to pay a fine, for the omission of the bathroom location because being out of practice is no excuse I am sure, but the prayer break was complete rookie cultural literacy. Especially for someone who went to sleep the night before so pleased that she had set up a TIME, from 12:20 to 12:40, in the agenda for a prayer break.
So there we are at about 12:16 and the call goes off. I can clearly hear it inside the Hotel Sana’a. I am scribing for Amber and the translator is speaking for her, so there is a lot going on in the room when I try to get her attention. When I get it, I ask both she and the interpreter simultaneously “Should we just quit here until the break is over?” Something gets lost in the request momentarily and the interpreter tells us just to finish, at which point Amber and I both ask “Are you sure?” and his eyes get very large as he says “No, no, no, no, no let’s break here and then we will come back.”
Whew. I think we are back on the right track when I notice that everyone is getting up to leave but they are looking around.
Of course men and women don’t pray together and we didn’t designate where each group should go during this break. Someone more with-it than me settles the matter quickly in Arabic and just like that we are in an empty room and I’m feeling somewhere just south of Rookie of the Year.
Here is a summer quiz just to keep you sharp. Read the following list and determine if it was generated by:
A. St. Paul teachers, or
B. Yemeni teachers
When teachers have time to talk to one another, what do they talk about wanting to improve about teaching?
Too much noise in the classroom
Discouraging environment inside and out
No ventilation, no lighting
Village schools have many different grade levels in the same room
Students drop out
Lack of audio-visual aides
Weakness of some teacher’s performance
School buildings not suitable for teaching
Girls dropping out
Lack of modern technology
Syllabus much more rigorous than student ability
Students getting absentminded (day dreaming) in the afternoon
Lack of classroom space in villages so students study under trees
Students not interested in studies
Principals sometimes act like dictators with teachers
The new syllabus is not always suitable for teaching techniques needed in training
Scientific mistakes in books
Problems between teachers and principals and sometimes parents
Some teachers lack effective methods to hold student attention
Teacher training programs are inadequate
Social workers in some schools who don’t do anything
Families do not stress the importance of school
No specialization in some subjects
Some basic subjects in 1st-6th grade are too difficult
Lack of communication between school and family
The phenomenon of cheating
Some teachers interested in subject matter but don’t take responsibility to teach behavior
Syllabus not provided at the beginning of the school year
Teachers don’t do any professional development
Some colleagues spend a lot of time talking about negative things with nothing positive to say ever
Lack of access to teacher manuals—not given to the teacher
Some teachers are assigned to teach subjects that are not their specialty
School management does not cooperate with teachers; they interfere with a teacher’s work with students
Students fail, an influential person comes to school and the student is suddenly passing
School management deals with teachers according to political affiliation
If you picked “B. Yemeni teachers” you were right! You pass with honors if you used the testing strategies of context clues (the word “village”) and prior knowledge (knowing I am in Yemen) to choose the answer without even reading the passage carefully.
Of course, as I discussed with leaders and members of the Yemeni Teachers Syndicate today, it is easy to complain about our jobs. However, it is courageous and incumbent upon the richness of our union history to do something about it. That is exactly what each one of us can do as the voice of our union in our buildings, in our departments or grade levels, and in our district. We may not have every problem on this list, but each one of us can find one that we do recognize AND that we can collectively work to improve, whether it is 3 of us speaking up at a faculty meeting or 3000 of us standing up for each other.
Each act we carry out that improves our profession and the learning experience of our students makes us powerful.
Friday, August 1, 2008
As someone who guides the budget for our union, I understand and have a healthy respect for budgeting, saving money, and offering the best quality for the value in all areas. However, we must very, very soon draw a line in the sand for low budget professional development with high stakes expectations.
If there are clear expectations for what teachers should know in order to start a year, or start the profession for that matter, in order to meet the needs of our students in the 21st century, why are we continually forced to cram them into 19th and 20th century school years and school days? Why are there corners cut in professional development but the same mile-long expectations and accountability?
Let’s leave the expectations and accountability alone for now, but let’s stop shoe-horning in an hour of mining test data here, and 54 minutes of professional conversations there. Our union needs to lead the conversation around a professional day and year that allows us to do our jobs and meet the needs of our students, allows us to talk to each other regularly and not on the way to the bathroom or just before basketball practice, allows us to build relationships with students in meaningful ways (another day I will talk about the lunacy of “fresh-starting” teachers in our most vulnerable schools), and allows us at the end of the day to feel that we had the professional voice to shape the day and year we have because we are the professionals who understand how to meet the needs of our students.
Some people might call that ideal; I want to call that reality. In St. Paul, and hopefully someday here in Yemen, too.