Domain Name Change

Notice: The old URL http://natalieshandbasket.blogspot.com now redirects to this domain.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Check out this article

Thanks to Kate Fratti for getting it right.

http://www.phillyburbs.com/blogs/news_columnists/kate_fratti/blogging-teacher-being-taught-a-lesson/article_68456dd7-1357-5d95-8660-7d762038d19a.html

Happy 4th, everyone!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bloggate 2012

Well, someone has informed the newspapers of my personnel matters (a play on words, not a misspelling), so you might know about my pending job status.

In short, yes, I've been set up. For now, that's all I'm going to say about it.

In the coming days, I, like my colleagues, will administer final exams to my students-- an overall nice group this year whom I have enjoyed teaching despite the hoops I had to jump through all year at the hands of the district-- and will hope, as do all teachers on behalf of their students, that they end the semester on a high note! I, like my colleagues, will pack up books, enter final grades into the system, and finish the four zillion things that need to be done by week's end. On Friday, I, like my colleagues, will wish my students well as they leave for the summer.

Also like my colleagues, I will begin my own summer safe in the knowledge that I worked hard every day this year to prepare my students for whatever lies before them, to meet the challenges that arose daily, and to perform my myriad duties at work with pride and dignity. Though it will surely be implied otherwise, I know the truth, my colleagues know the truth, my students and their parents know the truth. I stand by my work this year, and every year before.

Last year, when the first part of this saga broke, people contacted me asking how they can help; they sympathized with some of my frustrations, but, what's more, they wrote about how they saw that problems exist in the system and how our country deserves better. As I have been waging my own battles at work every day against a corrupt system, government has continued its assault on public education. Programs and funding are still being cut; class sizes are still increasing; teacher unions are still coming under attack; good teachers are still losing their jobs because the people in charge have no idea what needs to be done.

My husband, Brian, having seen firsthand the problems that exist now (and existed even before Bloggate 2011), is running for State Representative for the 29th District in Pennsylvania. He, too, believes that there are problems in education today and wants to be part of the solution. I'm proud of him for that. (You can check out his website at www.votemunroe.com)

I've always been the kind of person who stands up for what I believe in, but the importance of doing so has been reinforced these past 16 months. We cannot be afraid to take a stand when something is wrong. We cannot back down just because someone makes something harder for us in an effort to shut us up. We cannot go with the flow just because it's easier not to make ripples. We can't be complacent or we're part of the problem. Instead, we have to be part of the solution.

The issue with my job is bigger than me. It's about freedom of speech. It's about having integrity and not compromising the truth. It's about the downward spiral of our education system and the low value that people place on education. It's about making people accountable. It's about standing up for personal beliefs and not apologizing when those beliefs aren't popular.

And, hopefully, it's about bringing people together to make some positive changes that will benefit all of us.


Monday, October 17, 2011

When Less IS More: A Case for Smaller Class Sizes

When the district had no legal grounds to fire me in the wake of Bloggate 2011, they tried to make me superfluous by encouraging students and their parents to opt out of my classes. After all, what is a teacher without students to teach? Unfortunately for that plan, my numbers--though they did drop significantly, leaving me with about a third of the number of students I would normally have had, and with only a third of the number of students my colleagues have--did not zero out.

What I was left with, interestingly, is the number of students that each class SHOULD have for optimal teaching and learning.

The way our education system is set up today, however, the trend is toward increasing class sizes, and not lowering them. Sadly, this is a recipe for failure (which is what policymakers are aiming to do when it comes to public education. After all, if the public school system fails, it must mean that the right action is in privatizing all of education and making it more of a business than it already is. What a clever plan!) Teachers have too many students and not enough time (and, sometimes, resources) to effectively do their jobs. Students are lost in the shuffle as a result of a broken system. Everyone loses.

In years past, I've had classes of all sizes-- from 1 (yes, 1; in fact, I had 2 sections of 1 student each on opposite days and I always wondered why they couldn't combine those sections to at least create a class of 2...) to 30. Now, there is such a thing as too small. 1 is too small. There's no opportunity for collaboration, among other challenges. But 30 is way too large. First, there are too many bodies in the room. Next, there are too many individualized needs and styles and aptitudes and preferences--in a class of 30, someone is always going to go unnoticed.

My classes this semester are 12, 15, and 7 students. I have gone out of my way to make the most of this opportunity, which I've approached as a unique chance to get to attempt to run class in a way that makes the most of it for my students.

Here are just some ways I've noted a positive difference with a smaller number:

Feedback

It is expected that teachers provide students with feedback on their work, so that students can use that feedback to move forward effectively in their studies. With larger classes, the quality of that feedback sometimes suffers because there simply isn't time to do the job the way it needs to be done to have the most positive benefits. Sometimes this might manifest itself in a check mark on a page or a blanket statement meant to cover the trends in the class. But with classes that are half the size, there is time to provide targeted feedback to each student on his writing, his projects, even his tests and quizzes. There is an opportunity to take the time to write comments on every piece a student hands in that is specific to what the student has handed in. There is time to conference with students on their work. Am I saying that teachers with 30 or more students don't manage to do these things in a quality manner? Of course not. Many still make it work. But it's much more difficult and may require, for instance, a teacher meeting with students before and after school, or spending hours on hours of her personal time working to complete these tasks (tasks which very often go unnoticed by outsiders who imagine that a teacher's day ends at 3pm, when, in some ways, a teacher's day is just beginning what with lesson creation, grading, and meetings taking place.) The larger class numbers may mean longer turn-around time to deliver helpful feedback or less pointed feedback being given. And, for the teacher, it may just mean more stress and less patience as there simply are not enough hours in a day to do her job the way she would like to do it.

Student Progress and Community
With large numbers, it is quite possible for teachers to have difficulty keeping track of individual student progress. Students could, theoretically, fall through the cracks. With smaller numbers, though, it's easier to keep on top of trends in homework completion, levels of participation in class discussions, and slips in behavior/interest levels. The smaller numbers make it possible for teachers to be aware of their students' work habits and intercede as needed. The small numbers also make it easier to make sure that all students are heard from in class. Does that mean that there aren't still some dominant personalities in the room? No; but it does mean that it's easier to draw students out who might normally be disinclined to talk. There's a perception that everyone talks--it's just what happens in there. With fewer students, there's more of a need to contribute because there aren't as many bodies to pick up the slack. It can even equate into a stronger class community because everyone knows everyone else; sometimes it can even feel like a little family.

Conferencing

I've been able to conference with each of my students about their progress in class. I've been able to sit down with them and talk to them about the quality of the assignments being assigned, the running of the class in relationship to their needs, and their individual levels of confusion/understanding of the materials. There is face time. And this conferencing can happen more regularly because it doesn't take place over a number of days or by appointment only. It can be integrated into a regular class period while students work on independent or group tasks. I've also found  my students more likely to talk to me privately about personal matters that may pop up, which I attribute, in part, to their comfort level in talking to me because they are used to doing so.

Individualized Needs/Pacing

Closely related to student progress and conferencing are individualized needs and pacing considerations. With smaller classes, teachers are able to consider the needs of fewer students in their class, and can let the class dictate the pacing of the lessons, instead of the need to move forward. I've been very surprised to realize how much more quickly certain lessons run with fewer students in the room. When one stops to think about it, it makes sense. But it's something I didn't consider very much until I was faced with lessons running smoothly because there were fewer interruptions or because every student was comfortable with the material and was ready to move forward. With more students in the class, it's less likely that everyone will be ready to move ahead. Therefore, at any given time, it's possible that some students are forced to wait to move ahead if most students need more time with a concept, while others are being left behind because most students are ready to move on. Some groups, too, prefer different methods of doing things. It's easier to identify and cater to those preferences when their are fewer people involved.

Communication with Parents/Guardians

With fewer students, it is also more likely that teachers have time to notice or spend time on interpersonal matters. This semester, because I have such small classes, I had time to personally email each parent who attended back to school night. It was a great opportunity to create relationships with my students' parents and help build a bridge between home and school. I've had time to email parents when their student seems out of sorts or even when their student makes a positive contribution to class.


When I was shopping around for colleges, one of the big draws for me was the teacher: student ratio. I wanted to be somewhere where I would be a name and not a number. I chose to attend Rosemont College as an undergraduate and was always struck by the individualized attention I received from my professors in my small classes. My largest classes at Rosemont were intro or survey courses (100- or 200- level)--they were about 28 students. My smallest class (an upper-level French class) was 4 students. For most of my major courses, though, the classes maxed out at 12. Sure, it made it difficult to fade into the background. It made it necessary for me to be present and engaged in the proceedings of the day. It made it necessary for me to be prepared when I arrived. (When I wasn't, it made for an embarrassing hour. But I made damned sure I was ready the next day because I never wanted to feel that way again.)  Are any of these factors BAD things? I don't think so. These are the things that students need to succeed.

I wish that policy-makers would realize the benefits of the smaller classes, and find a way to make them a reality.

While my own low class numbers was the result of an effort toward punishing me, ironically, it's been a positive experience. It's helped me to realize anew that we're operating within a broken system, and given me a chance to see another specific way we could work to improve that system.

Perhaps there should be a push for parents to opt out of large classes for their students, so their kids can more consistently get what they need from an instructional and community standpoint.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Day of Remembrance

Growing up, I'd hear adults around me discussing where they were when Kennedy was shot, or where they were when Pearl Harbor was bombed. While I could tell that they clearly felt affected by these events, I never really understood how an event could be so seared into the memories--and very souls--of people.

Then the events of September 11, 2001 occurred.

It has been 10 years, but I remember exactly where I was, who I was with, how I felt as I watched the events unfold, and how I felt afterward. And I know that I'll always remember.

I was a junior in college, a little over 2 months shy of my 21st birthday, and living at home. Since I commuted to school, I tried to schedule my classes on only 2 or 3 days so that I didn't have to drive to Rosemont 5 days a week. While of this point I'm not certain, I'm pretty sure that I didn't have classes scheduled that day, which means that semester I was probably on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday rotation.

I was asleep in my bed, in the room I'd slept in for some 17 years. Besides my dog, who was asleep at my feet, I was alone in the house; my mom was at work, my brother at school, my dad at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia.

It was the ringing of the phone next to my bed--not the sun's rays streaming into my window, though they, too, might have done the job--that woke me at just a little before 9am. It was my mom. She told me to go turn on the television. I think I asked, "What channel?" and she said, "Any channel." We hung up.

I walked into my parents' bedroom, settling onto their bed, and flicked on the tv. I actually don't know what channel I had on, but I suspect it was Good Morning America on ABC because I vividly remember watching Peter Jennings for the rest of the morning. (Interestingly, in my memory, I've believed for years that I was watching Peter Jennings as the 2nd plane struck, but in watching some youtube video of the coverage today, I discovered that Jennings wasn't even on air yet at that point. I'm even thinking now that it's possible that I didn't get to the tv until after the 2nd plane struck and that I am misremembering because I've seen the footage so many times and because it was replayed over and over again that morning. I suppose it doesn't matter, but it's never occurred to me before now that my timing could have been off.) The way I remember it, I watched, incredulous, as the camera was trained on the burning World Trade Center Tower 1. Then I watched, shocked and horrified, as the second plane flew into Tower 2.

I felt sick with fear when reports of the Pentagon crash came in. It seemed like all hell had broken loose, that major US landmarks were being targeted. I was terrified for my dad's safety, as he was in Hahnemann Hospital receiving treatments for his MS, just blocks away from William Penn atop City Hall, with no way to get out of the city. It seemed to me that this iconic building in Philadelphia could be a target, too.

I don't know if I knew it at that moment in the morning (though I certainly knew later that day), but my aunt had business at the Pentagon that day. She was safe, but we worried for most of the day until she was able to get through to someone and check in.

I cried when I saw Tower 2 fall. I felt despair when Flight 93 went down in Shanksville. I wondered, would this nightmare ever end? I cried more when I saw Tower 1 fall...all of those lives lost.

I don't know if I realized it at the time, but the world as I knew it was forever changed.

The events of that day caused me to start having panic attacks in the ensuing weeks. I worried for my safety, which, before, I'd always just taken for granted. I was heartened, though, by the way the country pulled together. It seemed as though every business I drove past posted signs like, "God Bless America" and "United We Stand" and similar messages of resilience and patriotism and hope. They brought tears to my eyes every time. It seemed like people, for a time, were just kinder to one another (almost in the same way that people seem nicer around the holidays). For a time, we were bonded as Americans. It was something I'd never experienced before.

As the years pass, any thought I have of September 11, 2001 brings me back to that morning on my parents' bed. All of the fear and concern and shock and horror and sadness comes rushing back. I weep for the lives that were lost, for the families who have to deal with the pain of their own losses, for my children who don't realize how their own lives --before they even existed--were to be changed as a result of that day. But I try to also remember that strength of spirit that I witnessed, and the pride I felt because of it. I try to remember that the horrible event did not break us, but made us resolved to fight for what we have.

I am thankful for the resilience of spirit that people have. I am grateful that even the families of 9/11 victims can make positive things come of their losses, that memorials are created and that people are celebrated as heroes and are remembered. In that memory, these innocent people live on, and will always live on.

I know that I will always remember, and that I will always be profoundly affected for having experienced this national tragedy.

As a teacher, I have a unique opportunity to talk to my students each year about the events of that day. This year, my school had a lovely, well organized, and meaningful commemorative assembly to recognize the 10th anniversary of the event. My junior students were in 1st grade when it happened. Some of them don't remember it very well at all. Most of them only remember it as a blur of harried parents and teachers, confusion, and anger that they'd have to have indoor recess on such a beautiful weather day. Unless they'd lost someone or known someone who may have been injured, they were shielded in some way because of their young age. (Sometimes ignorance IS bliss...) Pretty soon, though, I'll have students not even old enough to remember it at all. Soon--so soon--the younger generation will hear me and others talking about where we were on September 11th, and they will only be able to recognize that it affected us greatly, but may not be able to really understand.

While it's a memory that I will always hold closely in my heart, I pray for them that they'll never need to know.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Nice Article

Here's a nice article from today's phillyburbs.com.

I appreciate the sentiment, and thank its author, Kate Fratti.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In the event that the link doesn't work for you, here's the addy: http://www.phillyburbs.com/blogs/news_columnists/kate_fratti/teacher-s-crime-truth-telling/article_be03d798-2e00-528d-a49f-d48a54a6abab.html

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Decision Time

Back on February 9th, I was escorted by the principal out of my building. At the doors, without really looking at me, he said, "Someone from the district will contact you when a decision has been reached." On February 22nd, the superintendent read a press release at the school board meeting that not only stated untruths (the bit about my so-called attacks on special needs students; see "Below the Belt Tactics" post) and indicated that a formal decision would be reached while I was out on maternity leave, but also that, by my own actions, I had made it impossible to teach in the district. (Read the entire press release)

Apparently, they've had a change of heart.

However, I was not contacted by district regarding my status. I had to contact them.

First, I had to call the district number 5 times. The first time, when I opted for 0 to talk to an operator, the phone rang and rang. I tried again with the same results. On the third call, I tried to dial by name. Apparently the Director of Human Resources must get a lot of annoying calls, so he's not even in the directory. On the fourth call, I tried accessing him through the department listings. Only, when I chose Human Resources, I had to listen to a long message instructing job candidates on how to access information on the Internet; there was ultimately no option to talk to this man or another human. Finally, I tried the operator route again and got a human. She connected me to Herr Director's secretary, but I only got that woman's voicemail.

Second, though I'd gone to all of that trouble and left a message before noon, I didn't get a return call until this morning around 11:15. (I suspect, perhaps, that the fact that there was a board meeting last night may have had something to do with the delay, though there's no way to be sure.)

Third, the call was ridiculous.

It went something like this:

HR: I'm returning your call.
ME: I called yesterday to find out about my job status because I was told that someone from the district would contact me when a decision had been reached, but I still haven't heard anything.
HR: You haven't heard from the district?
ME: Not about my job status.
HR: I was under the impression that you'd received several pieces of mail from your school but hadn't responded to them.
ME: I received a tentative schedule--which could mean nothing other than you being sure you've kept your ducks in a row in case you brought me back--and I received an evaluation that also means nothing regarding my job status. Was I to be a mind-reader and assume that these items meant that I have a job to come back to, after I was told I'd be contacted about the results of the suspension decision?
HR: Those are indicative that you have a position to return to. As far as I'm concerned, you've been out on maternity leave.
ME: Let's not pretend that my leaving was a normal occurrence. I've been on maternity leave before, and there was no question that I'd be back after that.
HR: Well, you're on maternity leave now.
ME: The fact that you're acting now as though my confusion over my job status is silly--when my inquiry is after my union attorney attempted to find out my status and was informed that only I could find out--, and when we both know that this was not a simple case from the onset, is just preposterous. If you take the maternity leave out of the equation, any person who had been suspended would need to be informed of whether they were no longer suspended, and you know it.
HR: Well, you do have a job. Hopefully this clears things up. If you have further questions you can contact your principal. Do you have any further questions for me?
ME: Yeah. Can I get a transfer to another building?
HR: At this late stage? I don't think so. You'll be in the same place.

And there you have it.

All innocence. How silly of me not to have realized that these documents meant something definitive and were not just a means of making sure that the district would be covered if they had to have me back. How foolish of me not to have connected the dots. Only, had they determined that they were firing me, and I'd just shown up to set up my classroom thinking that these 2 innocuous documents meant that I was no longer suspended, they would have said, "Wait. What are you doing here? That schedule was tentative. We said you'd get notified when a decision was made! We didn't change your status-- you're still suspended!"

In my mind--and, I'm pretty sure, most any reasonable person's--if one is suspended, at the end of that suspension--whether it ends with a termination or a reinstatement--one should receive a formal letter saying something like:

Dear Suspended Person:

This letter is to inform you that your suspension is over. You are expected to report back to work on X date. Please contact X person to complete X paperwork.

Sincerely,
District Official

But I received no such letter, and was instead made to call to find out my job status, and then made to feel as though I was some sort of dolt for not being a mind reader. For whatever reason, it feels like the games are continuing; I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at this juncture.

In any case, according to the tentative schedule, I'll be back at the same building, teaching almost entirely the same classes I taught before (except for one new elective addition).

On the bright side, I've really missed Macbeth.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What Are We Really Compromising?

I wrote this blog post back in the middle of June--and if blogger is the same as it used to be, it might even show that post date when I hit "publish," even though it's now July 19th-- but I ended up holding off on posting it because I hadn't had a chance to vote on the contract yet, I was in the process of getting answers to a few questions about it, and because I wasn't sure if part of my issues with the contract were because I still have a bad taste in my mouth about everything that's happened since February. However, in re-reading it tonight (about a month later), I still feel the same way as I did when I wrote it, so I'm posting it.

For the record, this contract was accepted by both our teacher's union, and the school board, so it reflects the contract we ended up getting.

Part of my issue at the time I wrote it--and something that still bothers me a bit--was that, as a union, we were encouraged to vote to accept it; we were told that it was likely the best we were going to get with the current economic climate, and that it was a decent contract under the circumstances. Now, I believe that our union wouldn't try to guide us down a bad path, so if they said this was the best we were going to get, maybe it really was. But then, another part of me thought: that's bollocks. We're wussing out. I felt sort of let down and out of the loop. I understand they can't keep all of the members in on every stage of negotiations for myriad reasons, but not knowing what went on behind the scenes and what was tossed out and compromised and all of that during the process requires a lot of trust. And frankly, if this is the best we could get, that's kind of sad.

The mediator's report for the possible new teacher contract was released last night at the school board meeting. It was the first I'd seen it because, despite being a union member in good standing, since I'm out on maternity leave (and, if not that, then I'd still be out on suspension), I apparently don't get to know about anything going on with the negotiations unless I seek out the information. Plus, I only get to know what the newspaper shares with the public, as if this isn't my own contract that's in question here.

Regardless, of what I do know about it, I have some serious concerns.

First, there's way too much in the way of pay freezes, and too slow a movement upward in the pay salary. We've already been frozen this year, and people would continue to be frozen until a pay increase in July 2012. Then there's another freeze for 18 months. In a time when, at the least, the superintendent is still receiving bonuses and cost of living increases, and merit pay, and an annuity and car allowance and the like--and who is decidedly NOT frozen--it seems quite unfair and ridiculous that so many people are being asked, nay, expected to take freezes and cuts.

Second, there's an increase to health insurance costs which are supposed to go into effect this July. It seems only fair that, if teachers aren't getting salary increases, they shouldn't have their premiums raised until they're making more money.

Thirdly, and what seems the most glaringly problematic to me, was the proviso that teachers' salaries will be frozen if they receive an 'unsatisfactory' on their annual evaluations, and that 2 'unsatisfactory' ratings result in termination. It seems like an awfully easy way to save money if there's a district shortfall, or to get rid of teachers who are at the top of the pay scale (or who are thorns in the district's sides). After all, these evaluations are pretty subjective. I do not doubt that it would happen. In fact, I happen to know of places where it HAS happened.

Don't get me wrong--I don't have a problem with evaluations. Pretty much everyone in the world is subject to evaluations--students in school, people in the work world--I get it. It's a good check to be sure everyone is still sharp. But to tie the pay to it when the district is constantly trying to save a buck, and to have the fingers of the upper level admin (aka, building admin) performing those evaluations, sounds like a recipe for a whole bunch of new teachers coming in at the lowest level of the pay scale. To me, agreeing to this is weakening our already-weak stance, and opening the door to a place that we don't want to be.

Some district official tried to say this is the opposite of merit pay, because it penalizes teachers for poor performance. Bull. Semantics.

The public touts the importance of teachers doing things with students in mind. They say it should be all about the students. But, I ask, what about the teachers' lives and livelihoods? Should they be doing their jobs for next to nothing? Should they have to worry about providing for their own families? No matter how many teachers love the students and want what's best for them and love what they do, it IS still a job, after all, and something for which they should be compensated fairly. And, though unions tend to get a bad rap, there is a need for them in some industries. Why? Because there needs to be some ability to collectively bargain so they don't end up working for peanuts. Teachers aren't trying to bilk the system. They're just trying to--like every other worker in the free world--get compensated fairly for their work.

This contract as proposed has elements in it that move toward taking away those rights. I'm very concerned that through our effort to compromise, we are compromising ourselves.