Monday, June 25, 2001

NYC School Censors

John Elfrank-Dana wrote:

I hope everyone is having a good time at NECC.

The new BOE policy for publishing web pages here in NYC is the following.

1. All schools (1100 of them) are supposed to submit their web sites (even those of us who have been hosting independently for years), and their teachers’ sites to the Board of Ed. server.

2. A district censor is supposed to review all the material of each site and have it moved to the public viewing area, assuming it’s in compliance with the new acceptable use policy, which includes no links to sites that have a commercial advertisement. The censors will move the content along at “their earliest possible convenience.”

3. No chats or asynchronous bulletin boards allowed!

Anyone who has ever web mastered an active school or class web site that functions as a real communications hub for timely information and class dialogue should be equally dismayed as me.
The policy will go in force Sept. 1. They won’t even tell us how much disk space we will have. They also refuse to support FrontPage extensions (many of us use them to create active pages and discussions forums for our classes).

One practical outcome of this policy: The

Board’s AUP is in Adobe Acrobat, but I can’t link for our visitors to download the Acrobat Reader because Adobe has ads on its site!! 2. Our e-books collection, which VATEA funded for thousands of dollars, won’t work because it requires a web server on location.

3. No discussion boards for class discussions (protected or not).

This policy was conceived by Board of Ed. lawyers and techs who are not now nor have been educators. It’s another slap in the face to teachers as professionals. It’s like the doctors under managed care who have lost control of their practice. For teachers who use the Internet as an instructional tool, this is very heavy-handed policy.

Are other districts implementing similar policies? If so, how has it been going? What organizations, if any, have an interest in this kind of policy? What rights, if any, do teachers have to control the content of their instruction? Is this an intrusion into teacher practice?


John Elfrank-Dana

Web Master/ Social Studies Teacher

Murry Bergtraum High School

Sunday, June 24, 2001

Nancy Grasmick's Speech: Teacher of the Year Gala

October 13, 2000 ~ Nancy Grasmick speaking at the Teacher of the Year luncheon

I once read an online post by novelist Harry Crews. He said that teaching--real teaching--is a messy business. And then, just a few months ago, I read your nomination packets, your views on teaching and teachers, the importance of the profession and your contributions to it. I read your assessments of what makes an outstanding teacher and why you are one yourself...or at least why others say you are. And so it seems to me that you agree with Mr. Crews...that you, too, think teaching is a messy business. And that, in the eye of teaching's predictable chaos--an apt oxymoron if ever there was one--is the key to something wonderful.

Let me elaborate. I read in your biographies that you'll forfeit the lesson you were scheduled to deliver because a student who rarely contributes to the classroom discussion decides to share a thought or ask a question...and, by drawing him out, you know you'll realize an even greater goal.
I read that you don't reuse lesson plans, because you think each set of students is unique, and, therefore, even the best-laid plans are seldom transferrable.

That you'll let the articulate child tell you what she's learned when she has trouble writing it down, and then formulate a better plan to accommodate all learning styles.

You'll open up your house to anyone who needs you--40 rambunctious 3rd graders over for a group homework session or just one 11th grader struggling over an English assignment.

You'll pay house calls to students and fellow them set up computer systems and install software applications...without thought of a favor returned.

You'll dance without self-consciousness, sing without modesty, and act with all the stage presence you can muster, so that instruction is not only a little more fun for your students, but a lot more memorable.

You'll let your students glimpse your world...invite them to participate in what you're doing outside of the classroom.

You'll let your own learning guide your students', and, in turn, let students refine your instructional practices.

You'll show students how learning helps us unravel the mysteries of life--or, sometimes, just helps us appreciate them better.

And so it is no wonder that, when asked, nearly everyone in America can quickly submit the name of at least one teacher who has profoundly influenced--even saved--his or her life...

After all, nearly every one of you did.

You talked about Mrs. Hart, 4th grade, who greeted you with unfailing encouragement and warmth.

About Mrs. Schlotterbeck, 8th grade social studies, who showed you, for the first time, how much fun learning could be.

Mrs. Kennedy, grade 2, who cast you as the lead in the Christmas play and made you feel worthy of the role.

Mrs. Echols, your French teacher, who sat you down and discussed your college options with a parent might.

Ms. Taylor, middle-school math, who presented dynamic lessons and valued hands-on learning.

Mrs. Gass, Mr. Boyer, and Mr. Peerless, who knew you were on the wrong path, and encouraged you to try out for student council or the school musical or the choir, so you would have neither the time nor the energy to self-destruct.

In the coming years, these stories will be supplanted by stories about you. Vivid stories about how you sparked an interest, opened a door, coaxed, cajoled, prodded, and prompted. How you took a different approach when the first one failed--and the second and the third and the fourth.

You are, right now, a legend in the making to thousands and thousands of students.

Poet and critic John Jay Chapman once said that "teaching...implies a need and a craving in the teacher, himself."

That, too, was evident in the synopses I read.

All of you mentioned your love of teaching; more telling, perhaps, is that many of you spoke of a need to teach. All of this passion is who I am, said one Teacher of the Year. It cannot be separated from me.

And so I thank you for heeding the call, for satisfying in yourself the need and the craving.

You have touched more lives than even you could possibly know.

We honor you, and we thank you.

Teacher Pay

This tongue-in-cheek post appeared on a teachers' listserv. The name of the writer was accidentally deleted and I'm sorry for not being able to give credit to that person.

I, for one, am sick and tired of those highly-paid teachers. Their hefty salaries are driving up taxes, and they work only nine or ten months a year! It’s time we put things in perspective and pay them for what they do -- baby-sit! We can get that for less than minimum wage. That’s right.........I would give them $3 dollars an hour and only the hours they worked, not any of that silly planning time. That would be $15 a day. Each parent should pay $15 a day for these teachers to baby-sit their children.

Now, how many do they teach in a day?...maybe 25. Then that’s 15 X 25=$375 a day. But remember they only work 180 days a year!

I’m not going to pay them for any vacations. Let’s see... that’s 375 x 180=$67,500.00 (Hold on; my calculator must need batteries!)

What about those special teachers or the ones with Master’s Degrees? Well, we could pay them minimum wage just to be fair. Let’s round it off to $6 an hour. That would be $6 times 5 hours times 25 children times 180 days= $135,000.00 per year.

Wait a minute, there is something wrong here! There certainly is...... huh?

Friday, June 22, 2001


Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” - Jonathan Swift

Thursday, June 21, 2001

School Testing

So our new President thinks our schools need to do more testing? He couldn't be more wrong!

I wonder how many people realize just how big a role testing plays right now in our nation's schools. Everything we do now is centered on the MSPAP. Students are taught the testing jargon. They are taught the testing format. They practice for the test. They practice for the test some more. Then they practice for the test even more. Finally, they take the test!

Everything in the curriculum revolves around whether it will help students perform better on the test. If it is not related to this concept, there is no room in the curriculum for it.

I wonder where we first got the idea that testing was so important? No one will argue that you have to know where you are in order to know where you're going and how to get there. But it seems to me that we are traveling around in circles, chasing our own tail.

I think there is a connection with the false assumption that schools can be run like businesses: Run a test to check production, set reasonable production goals and run a final check to see if we've achieved our outcome. To an outsider, this seems perfectly logical.

But to a teacher, things are not so cut and dried. For one thing, we are not dealing with the normal "product." Look at what lies behind the data. We are dealing with children, human beings.

Long ago, educational philosophy thought that children were like containers into which teachers poured knowledge. We know this is absolutely untrue. There must be interaction--active learning for things to "gel."

What Students Remember

Several years ago, a former student came to me during Back to School night. He asked if I remembered him. This young bearded adult resembled no twelve-year-old I had taught and I asked his name. This I did remember. That night he told me that he'll always remember my class. Since he had failed my class in spite of all the strategies I tried, I was flabbergasted to hear this.

Out of curiosity, I asked him what it was that he remembered about my class. He said it was the hero/monster book project assigned in my 7th grade class. He told me he still had the bound copy of his group's book and that it was one thing that he really enjoyed in middle school.

That year I had divided each class into groups of four. Each group was responsible for working together to create a book which would have an original hero story that included a monster. Students were given instructions to include specific elements in their story after we had finished reading "Beowulf." Besides the illustrations and main story, other elements included book jacket information, table of contents, and an interview with the monster's mother.

This project, truly an activity which reflected the critical thinking that MSPAP is supposed to encourage, had captured this former student's imagination. I'm sorry to say that I no longer have time in the curriculum to include this project. It takes too long and I would not have time to do the required unit assessments and writing prompt practice for their writing folders. And I certainly wouldn't have the time to grade all that and manage to get the student books assembled. Besides, my copy allotment would probably run out with so many book copies for the students.

Albert Einstein said that "imagination is more important than knowledge" but those who power the educational system policy must not have discovered this yet. Could it be they lack the imagination to envision what the education of our children could be?

The buzz word these days is "assessment" and this word is now in bold print with Bush's leadership. Awakened policy makers realize that our students are not prepared with the necessary skills for successful living in the real world. The answer is to test, analyze and then re-test ad infinitum. The thinking is that if we hammer away enough at assessment hard enough, then students' test scores will go up and their education will have been successful.

And it isn't limited to test, analyze and retest. Between the tests, students are taught the language of the test and the best strategies to do well in the test. During this time they take multiple practice tests. All in the name of good education.

The tests rely heavily on "real-life" situations and the skills needed to cope with them. Don't get me wrong. This type of activity has many merits. However, things are so weighted toward this kind of thinking that we have left out time for kid things, the kind of things that encourage and reward the growth of imagination.

Have you ever wondered why Harry Potter has been so successful? Kids hunger for what is missing in a diet lacking imagination.

Harry Potter fills a void in children's lives that has been fostered by our culture and educational system. Our media culture leaves nothing to the imagination. They are entertained rather than becoming the entertainers. Our way of doing things in the world today provides instant feedback. Kids are used to instant gratification. They are not prepared to accept that education doesn't necessarily provide instant feedback. It can be a long and difficult process. If we can't give them instant feedback because of the nature of the learning process couldn't we at least provide an environment which fosters imagination. Using the imagination is fun.

More students than ever are dropping out of school. We complain about the lack of student motivation. I'm with the students. I understand because I wouldn't be motivated by the hope of increasing MSPAP scores. After all, students do not see the results of their test and it has no impact on grades and anything else they see as relevant.

For sure, test scores are going up. We are successfully preparing our students to understand the language of the test and to be good test takers. But will this prove that we are giving our children a good education?

The Art of Teaching

“The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.” - Mark VanDoren

Thursday, June 14, 2001

Don't Eat the Green Ones

Don't Eat the Green Ones ©

I'll tell you, speaking from experience

Life is like a bag of potato chips

Some are perfect and round

And they crunch just right

While others are green

All hard and nasty

They just don't taste the same


If you pick around them

And be careful what you eat

You'll find

That bag of potato chips

Really is all it's cracked up to be

Those green ones may make you sick

(That's a myth, I think)

If you listen to my advice

And keep it close at heart

You'll find if you pick and choose your chips

(And don't eat them in the dark)

Picking around those green ones

Won't be so hard

And the extra work will pay off in the long run

So be careful when eating potato chips

And don't eat the green ones

Tamara O’Connell

Note: My great Aunt Gleasie, before she died while in her 90's, gave me this poem she wrote on the day I was born, December 10, 1944.

Fifteen Days Before Christmas

"Twas fifteen days before Christmas on a Sabbath morn,

In the Norfolk General Hospital, a baby was born.

There were other babies too--ones I've never seen

But this one in particular is little Bonnie Jean.

She was tucked in her basket with the greatest of care

Without the slightest idea that Daddy was near.

He was--and Granddaddy too--

Awaiting news of a baby in blue.

Thirty hours he waited in great suspense,

Till the doctors thought he'd have no sense.

So he bit his nails and paced the floor,

When suddenly a nurse appeared in the door.

Said she, "Mr. Schupp, your wife presents you with a fine baby girl."

But she realized his head was still in a whirl

When he still imagined she had said a boy,

because like a sailor, he simply shouted, "Ship ahoy!"

Now that all is over, and Mother and baby are doing well,

Daddy feels much better too, as everyone could tell.

He is not disappointed, and confidentially I think,

He is perfectly satisfied with a little girl in pink.

Gleasie Leatherbury

Tuesday, June 12, 2001

You Might Be In Education If...

(I don't remember writing this so I must have seen it on an education listserv. Sorry I can't give credit.)

You might be in education if...

a. You believe the staff room should be equipped with a Valium salt lick.

b. You find humor in other people's stupidity.

c. You want to slap the next person who says, "Must be nice to work from 8 to 3 and have your summers free!"

d. You believe chocolate is a food group.

e. You can tell it's a full moon without ever looking outside.

f. You believe "shallow gene pool" should have its own box on the report card.

g. You believe that unspeakable evil will befall you if anyone says, "Boy, the kids sure are mellow today."

h. When out in public you feel the urge to talk to strange children and correct their behavior.

i. You have no time for a life from August to June.

j. Marking all A's on report cards would make your life SO much simpler.

k. When you mention "vegetables" you're not talking about a food group.

l. You think people should be required to get a government permit before being allowed to reproduce.

m. You wonder how some parents ever MANAGED to reproduce.

n. You laugh uncontrollably when people refer to the staff room as the "lounge."

o. You believe in aerial spraying of Prozac.

p. You encourage an obnoxious parent to check into charter schools or home schooling.

q. You believe no one should be permitted to reproduce without having taught in an elementary setting for at least 5 years.

r. You've ever had your profession slammed by someone who would never DREAM of doing your job.

s. You can't have children because there's no name you could give a child that wouldn't bring on high blood pressure the moment you heard it uttered.

t. You think caffeine should be available to staff in IV form.

u. You know you're in for a MAJOR project when a parent says, "I have a great idea I'd like to discuss. I think it would be such fun!"

v. You smile weakly, but want to choke a person when he/she says, "Oh, you must have such FUN every day. It must be like playtime for you."

w. Your personal life comes to a screeching halt at report card time.

x. Meeting a child's parents instantly answers the question, "Why is this kid like this?"

Wednesday, June 6, 2001

Teacher Rant


On Wed, 6 Jun 2001, Jeff Amdur wrote:

To my dear friends, colleagues, associates, supervisors past and present, and fellow members of the FLTeach and MdK-12 mailing lists, please pardon my indulgence. Some of you may have received something similar about two months ago.

It is the whole gamut of feelings that I am going through right now as I ponder my retirement from the Anne Arundel County Public Schools after 30 years, a retirement that will take effect in two days. I still enjoy teaching itself, foreign languages, my school, my students and colleagues, the other language teachers I have met and worked with, and the Arundel High School community (Gambrills-Odenton-Crofton) that I have taught in for the past 24 years. Up until about three or so years ago, I never thought I would be one to retire after the thirty years. I thought I'd go until age 65 or 70; but recent events (events having very little to do with the above mentioned school, students, colleagues, principals and supervisors) have told me that it's time to go.

The educational bureaucracy headed by Nancy Grasmick (whose main qualification seems to be that she is the wife of a political ally of ex-governor Schaefer) and the Maryland State Board of Education have taken a "throw out the whole machine, even if many of the parts are still in perfect working order" approach to reforming what is being taught in the public schools. The changes they have wrought, and how the county has implemented these changes have had the effect of re-inventing the wheel, making it a wheel that will no longer fit on my car/psyche. Although I know I have been teaching the "new approach" successfully, I know in my own mind that I am uncomfortable with it because it is become increasingly harder for me to be "selling" something that I wouldn't "buy" myself.

Let me explain:

(1) I do not buy the basic assumptions behind the "critical thinking" approach. I do not believe that every student is potentially college material. Algebra and geometry as requirements for graduation in Maryland public schools, regardless of intellectual level? I don't think so. Furthermore, I don't believe that every student can be taught to "critically think" at high levels. Sorry, but some kids just don't have it up there in the cerebrum‹they may have it in their hands, feet, or whatever, but some folks will never be able to "critically think at a high level". If the potential is there, we must certainly develop it; but I am not convinced that the potential is there in every case. There is such a focus on this nebulous process of "critical thinking" that many of the basics are being neglected and that we're not feeding the students enough information to process and think about. Subject matter is now a prisoner to "process".

(2) The emphasis on group work in the MSPAP tests means that the less-able students will be able to pass the tests by riding on the coattails of the more-able, perhaps giving a false impression of an individual's ability.

(3) These one-size-fits-all assessments (MSPAP and High School Assessment) do not encourage homogeneous grouping of students by ability in individual subjects. MSPAP tests hold schools and teachers accountable while not putting any accountability on the shoulders of the students, hardly a preparation for the future HSA's which they will need to pass to graduate.

(4) Curricula for every subject are being gutted and rebuilt so that every activity and objective can be indexed to one of the Official State Outcomes, or "program indicators".

(5) I am not a textbook writer, nor am I being paid to be. In my specialties, French and Spanish, the re-writes of the curricula have made uses of coherent textbooks virtually impossible. I have never been one to use a textbook lock-step (if I did, I'd never have to spend hours upon hours writing worksheets and creating activities); but when a truly great textbook such as what I am using for French 3 is reduced to only the cultural readings between chapters to support the new "thematic units" rather than > the excellent vocabulary/structure themes provided in the book, it depresses me. One of the thematic units (4-6 weeks of discussion of environmental problems) seemed so uninteresting to me that I went back to my textbook-based way of doing things for the last 6-8 weeks of the school year so I could hold the students' interest. I'm not saying it is a bad curriculum; it's just not for me. I can't tackle it intellectually and be the best teacher I think I can be. It's time to turn over room F-115 to someone more attuned to the new curriculum; I owe it not only to myself, but to the future students at Arundel High.

God, I'm tired of this new terminology. "Multiple choice" becomes "selective response". "Short answer" becomes "brief constructed response". "Essay" becomes "extended constructed response".

I'm tired of euphemisms; you can call it "bathroom tissue" all you want, but it's still toilet paper.

Next year I will be teaching part time (two classes of ninth-grade Spanish) at Beth Tfiloh Community School, a Jewish parochial K-12 school in Pikesville. It is a recent winner of a Blue Ribbon School award, and education director Zipora Schorr holds students and faculty to high standards. I look upon it as a challenge to revitalize myself as well as teach in a manner that I feel more at home with, teaching with an emphasis on communication as well as the ages-old Talmudic tradition of respect for learning. I hope I can be as successful there as I have been for the last 27 years of my public-school teaching career (the first three years I’d like to forget). I am also looking forward to becoming involved in all facets of the BTCS community; I have already talked to the athletic director about becoming the announcer/timekeeper for winter sports events. Plus, I will continue to serve in that timekeeping capacity back at Arundel whenever the BT schedule allows me. With the money I’ll be making next year (salary plus pension), I’ll be taking a pay cut of about $23000; but I feel I will be in a less stressful yet more challenging situation. It will be a chance to continue what I enjoy doing.

In conclusion, I’d like to thank all those people who have helped me become successful in my teaching career. Some teachers are born teachers; I wasn’t. I made myself one, and it took several years of hard work to do so.

Thank you all. It’s been a pleasure. I wish you all continued success and good health.

Tuesday, June 5, 2001

No Progress Scott

Scott again. While discussing in class what my students have learned and reminding them they are becoming smarter, Scott blurts out, "I feel like I'm getting stupider."


I asked him if he had ever heard the expression, "Use it or lose it." He had. I then reminded him that it didn't only apply to muscles and working out but it also applies to the brain, so if he feels "stupider," then he must not be using his brain.

Scott is turning 14 and has failed 7th grade this year.


There's a lot to be said against the MSPAP tests but one of the biggest factors is that the way in which the tests are reported does not take into account simple human nature. Students receive no feedback on their performance on the test. There are no consequences for the student. The schools receive a "report card" for the performance of their students. What's wrong with this picture?

Middle school students are concrete thinkers and the abstract escapes them. They usually ask, "What's in it for me?"

Yesterday, Scott said that when he takes the test, he's not going to try at all because it doesn't matter to him. Then I reminded him that the school receives a report and that students ARE the school and that if he messes up on the test, it makes the school look bad and ultimately he will look bad as part of the school community.

I'm afraid this test is merely a reflection of the trend to hold teachers accountable for student learning but not holding students responsible. The old saying is true. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. I could stand on my head trying to compete with MTV, knock myself out to teach a lesson a dozen different ways in interesting ways and agonize over how to help a student to understand the lesson. However, if the student is unreceptive for whatever reason, there's nothing I can do as a teacher.

If a student chooses not to work, not to learn, should I be blamed? Absolutely not.

And the MSPAP test should hold the student responsible for performance by providing test results to every student.

The Obvious

I was telling Lisa to start her work and she questioned me with, "Why should I do it?"

My response? No long intellectual answer about the joys of learning and succeeding. No long diatribe about her responsibility as a student. No deep answer about growing. At this point it was useless.

My answer was, "Because I'm your teacher and I told you to do it."

Sometimes the simple answers are the best.

Sunday, June 3, 2001

Encouraging Students to Be Mischievous

Jonathan, a student in my above average class, takes everything very seriously. He tries to be perfect. He rarely smiles and always has a worried look on his face. MiJun also is very serious and focused,

Last week I assigned a project where students were allowed to work in pairs. I heard Jonathan ask MiJun if she would like to work with him. I knew I could depend on them to do a good job.

As I walked around the room checking on student progress, my attention was drawn to Jonathan's laughter. Not only was he laughing but it was escalating uncontrollably. And MiJun was smiling in spite of her obvious attempts not to do so. I was not worried about these two becoming unruly, but I was very curious about the cause of the laughter. When asked, Jonathan explained that something MiJun wrote was very funny. Students, at the end of their "book," had to write a brief bio of themselves for the book jacket. Apparently MiJun had written something humorous. She didn't want to show it to me and seemed embarrassed and I didn't insist. A few minutes later, Jonathan brought it over to me to share. He was still laughing. I read it and laughed also. MiJun showed a good sense of humor.

I wound up telling both of them that I was very pleased that they had done something "sort of mischievous." I told them that they are both such serious students that I sometimes worry about their ability to have fun. I also told MiJun that I thought she was good for Jonathan because he doesn't smile enough and that it made me very happy to see them both smiling.

So...a glimpse at an infrequent teaching experience.

Friday, June 1, 2001

People who complain...

People who complain that they are bored are themselves the most boring people I know. Bonnie Schupp