Monthly Archives: March 2016

A Second Opinion

Sometimes, I worry that I’m seeing thing that aren’t there.  I tend to be pretty idealistic and hopeful; I try to see the best in people, and I always think that things can get better, but I recognize that my idealism very often casts a veil over what I’m really seeing.

That being so, it’s hard for me, sometimes, to get underneath bad things.  I tend to be all or nothing; either the bad thing is terrible and needs to be burned to the ground, or I second-guess myself and think that maybe things aren’t that bad and I’m just overreacting.

This is why it’s so wonderful to get second opinions about things.  I have felt vindicated in the fact that several of my coworkers have expressed dismay and frustration about many of the things that *I* see as problematic in the school, but something happened the other day that really confirmed that I’m not making this shit up.

We’ve got a graduate student working here as an aide.  She’s primarily working one-on-one with two of the most needy students in the school, but she also goes to a couple of their classes with them (which is how I met her; one of her kids is in one of my morning sections).  As part of one of her grad classes, she’s required to write reflections about her experiences.

We’ve had a couple of private conversations about the environment of the school.  Most of them have been her expressing her shock over what she’s been seeing; a lot of her experiences thus far have been very different from what she was expecting, and these differences have been troubling to her.  She understands the desire to reject the “traditional” model of kids in desk cranking out worksheets, but she also understands that it’s important for teenagers to have SOME structure – and for needy kids to have a lot of it –  and she’s not seeing the kids get that here.

Her dismay and frustration have increased over the past couple of weeks, and that’s been reflected in her writing for her grad classes.  Here, unedited, is a reflection that she shared with me two weeks ago:

Throughout the semester, I observed several classes in the course of my work as a paraprofessional at  Charter School (CS). In many ways, the experience has been a valuable introduction to the challenges and rewards of high school teaching. I am only more convinced after these observations that teaching is my vocation. The observation has also been useful as an exposure to the alternative approach to learning that CS is modeled on. In the first place, there is no homework. All of the schoolwork required of students takes place in the classroom. Although this drastically reduces the amount of time students are required put into their studies, the hope is that it affords the students the autonomy to direct their learning.
    After two months of working at CS, I am becoming increasingly convinced that this educational model is at best ineffective and at worst, damaging to students’ self-esteem. Unfortunately, the culture of the school seems largely to be one of underachievement. Grades are given on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is the only failing grade. I have yet to understand the minutiae of this grading system, and the academic expectations communicated to students vary wildly from teacher to teacher. However, in most cases, my impression is that both individual assignment and quarter grades are often arbitrary.
    Worst of all, none of this is lost on the students, most of whom seem to be very aware that the expectations placed on them are drastically lower than those found at other high schools. On many occasions, I’ve heard students refer to “CS moments,” in which assignments, activities, or lessons are strikingly watered-down or blatantly age-inappropriate. In one instance, a student asked his teacher if they needed to memorize the material being presented. “You don’t need to know anything,” another student replied, “this is CS.”
    A school with no homework, no tests, no finals. It is as if, in response to the numerous shortcomings of traditional education, CS has thrown the entire playbook out the window. And in its place, CS has established itself as a school that pivots around the concept of project-based learning. What is missing is any pretense of a theoretical framework within which project-based learning is to be practiced and to what ends. In its rejection of all facets of the public school experience, CS has become a caricature of the so-called progressive schools that John Dewey criticizes in Experience and Education, for “assuming that it suffices to reject the ideas and practices of the old education and then go to the opposite extreme” (22).
    Although I disagree with many of the underlying philosophies that structure the classes I have observed, the experience has nevertheless been instructive. It has reinforced for me the value of concrete learning goals in lesson planning. While the concept of learning goals may in some instances be conceived of as being too rigid and inimical to student-centered learning, CS offers a vivid illustration of their necessity in lesson-planning. Most of all, CS has spurred me to heed Dewey’s warning to proceed carefully with branching off from the practices of traditional education––not because those practices are unobjectionable, but because it does not in fact suffice to build one’s educational philosophy on the foundations of the opposite extreme.

and this came as a text message to me this morning:

This. Is. Not. A. School.

Just came from —‘s class. No instructions given for first ten minutes, then a student presentation a la the “Google this shit and present” pedagogy. The presentation closed with a vocab  activity that the kids came up with. And no body. As in not a single goddamn kid even pretended to participate. And — did nothing. So the last 10 minutes were a waste too. Not a school.

My misery kind of loves this company.  If nothing more, she’s confirming for me that I’m not seeing things that aren’t there.

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The Downside of Leaving

I have already made up my mind that I’m not staying at Charter School past the end of this contract.  I had really hoped that I could see some indication that big changes were in the works for next year – not a LOT of changes, but at least a couple of significant ones – so that I could justify staying for one more year, but I’ve seen nothing that indicates that any of the things that I find unethical to the point of being unconscionable are going to change.

Mostly, I’m at peace with my decision.  Sometimes, the only thing that gets me through the day is the knowledge that there’s a clear end in sight (13 more weeks… 13 more weeks…).  Every once in a while, though, something happens that makes me the tiniest bit sad that I’m going to start packing up soon.

One of those things is three of my coworkers.  There are three of the 9 that I work with (well, FIVE, really, but only three I see regularly) whom I’m going to desperately miss.  These people are straight up professionals who care about the kids, care about what they’re teaching, and care about the environment they’re teaching in (and are as frustrated as I am that they can’t effect any change, but aren’t in the same financial position as I and, therefore, can’t afford to bail without having another job in the proverbial bag).

The other thing I’m going to be heartsick about leaving are some of the students.  There are a handful of kids with whom I’ve really bonded, and I’m going to frickin’ HATE leaving them.  This post is about one of them.

There’s this boy; let’s call him Richard.  He’s a freshman in one of my morning sections, and I can already see the gentleman he is going to become.  He is a quiet, observant, thoughtful young man with the kind of humor that you have to look for but, once you find it, it’s one of the first things you see from then on.  He’s gentle and kind, genuine and earnest, and he has bonded with me.  He comes in every morning with a cheerful, “Hi, Mrs. Chili!” and asks me how my day goes.  He grins when I call him out for playing Plants vs. Zombies instead of working on his class work.  He tries to keep his classmates on track and his favorite line when someone’s making me crazy is, “this is why we can’t have nice things!”  I love him, and he knows it, and it’s wonderful.

So, this boy also keeps chickens, right?  He’s my egg dealer, and yesterday I told him I was ready for a new dozen.  This morning, when he handed me the bag, I noticed there was a piece of  paper in there, too.  When I took the paper out, I discovered a note from Richard’s little sister (keep in mind that this little sister is little – I think she’s 8 or 10 – and that she doesn’t come to our school.  In fact, I’ve only met her once, at an open house a few months ago).  On it, she’d drawn a picture of Stitch with an ice cream cone (I have Stitch everywhere in my classroom; the kids know he represents my belief about the importance of chosen family) and wrote “To Mrs. Chili, from Mary.  Thank you for being awesome to my brother and his friends.”

I burst into tears when I saw it.

Think about it for a second.  Why is Richard’s little sister writing ME notes?  How does SHE know that I’m awesome to her big brother?  Clearly, the answer is that Richard goes home and talks about me to his family, and Mary has decided that the things he says are worth writing me a thank you note for.

It’s going to KILL me to leave that kid.

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I Would Have Prefered Monkeys

I assigned my freshman Humanities class a debate about the relative merits of capitalism.  They had an opportunity to line up along a continuum based on how they felt about capitalism after viewing a couple of short videos – one that extolled the virtues of free market systems and one that pointed out that free market capitalism often exploits people, sometimes to the point of effective slavery – and, based on where the kids put themselves, I broke them into two groups and gave them the premise that “the American form of free market capitalism is an ethical and sustainable economic system.”

We spent the better part of a week preparing for the debate.  I gave them handouts, directed them to sources that would be helpful to them in supporting their positions, and encouraged them to meet periodically to clarify who would be doing which job in the team.  I showed them a video of a sample debate and mapped out the way their debate would be run, making clear that every role in the list had to be filled by different people; every member of the team had to participate in some meaningful way.

The debate was today, and one side essentially walked all over the other.  The differences in the groups’ performance was so great as to be…. well…  Let’s just say this; when it was all over, I asked the class to debrief their groups’ work and to reflect on what they might do differently next time (because there WILL be a next time; they really didn’t meet any of the benchmarks for the assignment).  This, unedited, is one of the responses I got:

My team fucking sucked.  Four out of seven people didn’t do any work.  One of these four didn’t even know what the hell we were doing.  A monkey could have done better than half this team.  Next time, I want a new team.  I don’t want to be stuck with people who don’t do shit.  It was embarrassing to be with this team due to the fact that they never work or pay attention.  Overall, I hate most of my team.  I would have preferred monkeys.

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