Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Return to Public School for Kids (And Their Parents)

A recent Allstate commercial poses the question of how, in the future, we will view the current economic crisis. More or less, that question is, “Will we remember this as the Great Depression or the depression that made us great?” The moral of this anti-materialism, pro-family ad is that when people simplify, their life gets better. Ask any unemployed parent and you’ll know for sure that this isn’t true, but it’s a nice sentiment none-the-less.

In today’s “USA Today” there was an interesting article about how the economy has forced some families to pull their children out of non-public (i.e., private or independent) schools and put them back into public school. In my opinion, this is a good thing. There are certain symbols of our country that deserve to not only be preserved but celebrated and I think that public schools are right up there with Lady Liberty, Election Day, and the national parks. Basically, the way I see it, the more diverse the school community, the better the school. Likewise, the larger the pool of involved parents, the better it is for the school. I believe in free choice and so my heart goes out to folks who can no longer afford “the best possible school” for their children, but there’s a whole country full of Americans out there who are in the same boat. Climb on in, grab an oar, and start rowing, people. We’re all headed in the same direction. Of course we all want what’s best for our kids.

The public schools can’t fix themselves. They are underfunded and undersupported as it is. There is also a dearth of intellectual capital which I hope can be remedied by the reintroduction of highly-educated families into PTA’s and PTO’s. As more kids return to their local schools, districts will have less need to shut down buildings and overcrowd the remaining classrooms. Sports programs, from freshman to varsity, might once again be sustainable. Let's bring back the school play! I believe that the public schools can be as good as the public allows them to be. When families are sending their kids and grandkids, nieces, nephews, and cousins to a public school, then that many more people want to see the school succeed; that many more people will work to see the school succeed.

According to the US Department of Education, over the past three years enrollment in public schools has grown by 1% while it has dropped by 2.5% in non-public schools. I see a silver lining in this cloud. I see a chance for more of our public schools to be great. Keeping in mind that this is a deeply personal issue for many people, please let us know how you see it...

The article: http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2010-01-06-1Apublicprivate06_CV_N.htm?obref=obinsite
And another: http://www.allbusiness.com/education-training/education-systems-institutions/11818830-1.html

Thursday, February 18, 2010

For Aspiring Authors!

I almost titled this piece "For Aspiring Writers," but that doesn't really work, given the fact that we are all writers and have been since elementary school! So instead, one of the nouns I revere most: "Authors."

I was emailing this morning with two teachers who contributed to "One Size Does Not Fit All" and they both want to publish more of their work. So, I figured I'd put together a summation of what I learned from my publishing experiences of the last eight years and also what I learned while trying to get a novel published in the 1990s. It's the only real advice I have to give. I hope it helps and please feel free to pass on to anyone you know who hopes to get work published. This economy has to recover sometime!

Getting published has always been difficult and is especially so now, given the changing landscape of book publishing (Kindle? iPad? Blogs? Apps? Who knows what?!?!), plus the realities of our economic times. Many publishers have cut in half the total number of books they will publish per year, making it even harder for writers to get their work out there.

However, there are other ways, besides traditional publishing. One way to get noticed is with blogs. The river of offers that once flowed my way has slowed to a trickle as publishers take less risks and produce fewer titles, so I’ve just started to explore blogs as publishers, editors, and agents like writers that already have followers. I currently have 9, so I doubt that’s going to cut it! Anyway, I started by picking an area of focus (teaching) and am now trying to gain fans and followers by hitting up people who share that interest. You can also go the self-publishing route (which includes trying to sell your book at related conferences), but I know even less about that than I do about blogs…

Back to traditional means of publishing, I always tell everyone that I am the wrong person to ask for advice. Of the 25 projects I’ve worked on, only two were my ideas and even they were developed in conjunction with an editor who was already working closely with a sales team who already had their ear to the ground, listening for what book buyers were interested in. So, I don’t have any experience with cold calling a publisher, but what everyone says is that you have to get an agent first. If you send directly to a publisher, the chances of somebody ever reading your letter of interest, your synopsis, and your sample chapters (see Literary Marketplace reference below) are about as good as winning the lottery. Basically, some administrative assistant at a publishing house puts all unsolicited manuscripts in a “slush pile” when they arrive and you don't want all of your hours and hours of hard work to end up in a slush pile!

Back in the 1990s, I went the agent route with a novel I worked on for seven years. The economy was flowing, everyone was happy, and I got back some nice letters of interest (they wanted to see the whole manuscript), but that was where it ended. No more contact from anyone. So, I changed my focus to paying jobs like writing educational articles. But while going through the process of submitting my novel, the main tool I used was a reference book called Literary Marketplace. It was here that I learned how to submit work and found some names of agents/agencies where I could submit it. You don’t want to buy it (~$300), but the library will have it. There are also several books on finding literary agents, but I haven’t nosed around in any of those. I haven’t even seen Literary Marketplace since those optimistic days 15 years ago! But, I know that in Literary Marketplace you can look up agents who specialize in different areas (fiction, children’s book, how-to, self-help, etc) and also are willing to work with first time authors. Just photocopy the contact information for 9 or 10 agents/agencies and start by focusing on them. It can be overwhelming to send to more than that and hard to keep track of who you’ve followed up with. Hello, Excel spreadhseet!

I think that the two most important things I did were 1) take a writing class (two summers in a row at Gotham Writer’s Workshop in NYC) and 2) accept a paying job that wasn’t necessarily in my area of writing interest, because not only does this give you a working experience to put in cover letters and on your resume, it serves up an invaluable taste of life as a professional writer. Anyone who treats writing like a hobby will only ever do it as a hobby. I’ve built two stone walls and it is the work that most closely compares to writing. Hours of hard labor and false starts and finally, eventually, a beautiful finished product that you will forever see the flaws in but hey… at least it’s done.

All of this may seem difficult and like an impossible journey, but trust me when I say if I could do it, you can too!!!

Best of luck,

To take a look at Literary Marketplace, click here: http://www.amazon.com/Literary-Market-Place-2010-Publishing/dp/1573873578/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1266505458&sr=1-2

Friday, February 12, 2010

How Does Your State Measure Up?: The NCTQ Report Card

From teachers to taxpayers, I’d say it’s safe to assume that folks are going to be curious to see how their state’s education system did on The National Council on Teacher Quality report card. Unfortunately, most of these folks are about to find out that their state earned a C- or lower in how it handles its teachers.

The NCTQ evaluates each state in five key areas: teacher preparation, evaluation, tenure and dismissal, alternative certification and compensation. Connecticut, where I live and teach, earned an overall grade of D+. New York, where I taught for the first eight years of my career, also earned a D+. I sure know how to pick’em!
Florida’s C was the highest grade overall. Washington, DC squeaked by with a D-. Some say that a D- is the ultimate kindness and it made me wonder if the NCTQ is the teacher too nice to fail any of her kids. Then I read about Montana, Vermont, and Maine.

Connecticut’s highest area of achievement was “expanding the teacher pool” for which we earned a B-. But what good does this do when you get an F in “retaining teachers”? In particular, Connecticut was criticized for not offering incentives like retention bonuses. There was also little compensation for those teachers willing to work in high-needs schools and subject areas. If a special education teacher at a vocational school in New Haven can’t get a break on his mortgage, who does? And if you are a teacher in Connecticut and don’t yet know about Hartford’s inability to fund our pension plan, you are in for a rude awakening. This failure earned the expected grade: F.

It isn’t just The Nutmeg State, though. Nationwide, there are some disturbing trends. For example, 47 states grant tenure “virtually automatically,” meaning that there is no real process; no rubric or set of benchmarks to be met. Can you imagine if high school diplomas were granted that way? Without a requirement for credits and passing grades in order to earn those credits? Believe it or not, only five states require elementary school teachers to take a test in reading instruction.
Mathematicians, shield your eyes… Only one state requires such a test in math instruction.

The state-by-state evaluations are not without their faults, but I applaud the effort at accountability. The analysis does not seem politically-motivated, even if Randi Weingarten isn’t a fan, and the NCTQ does not receive any federal money. Among its many funding sources is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So, see how your state fared. Let us know how you and your school fit into this bigger picture and if you have any ideas as to how to fix this mess please share!

For a quick look at all of the states: http://www.nctq.org/stpy09/
For in-depth information: http://www.nctq.org/stpy09/reports.jsp
For something related: http://www.publicagenda.org/pages/new-analysis-suggests-teachers-voices-do-not-have-a-strong-influence-policy-agenda

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Remembering Summer on a Snow Day

I realize it's heresy to recycle when this is just my third blog, but I'm home with the kids on this gift of a snow day and remembering the fun we had one day last summer...

Read on if you want to share in the great summer day we had today or if you want to live vicariously through the great summer day we had today or if you're in the mood to procrastinate on a great summer day! Read on if you like sprinklers, hammocks, toads, peeing outside, lemonade stands, tree houses, Curious George, and/or if you like a wireless service that can reach all the way to the Adirondack chair in the back yard. Read on if you can appreciate the anticipation that builds in the hours before a barbecue of chicken and squash marinated in Stubb's.

Our week was a bit hectic. Alicia had to work crazy hours and that coupled with the rain, coupled with it being the fourth week of summer vacation together made for a bad mix for Noelle, David, and me. The capper was Noelle ramming David into a shelf at the grocery store so hard that his finger nail was ripped off. When we got home I removed the bloody Stop n Shop band-aids and then patched him up again while putting groceries away while trying to not kill Noelle, which is what I would do to a stranger if s/he hurt David that way. That was Tuesday.

Finally, we made it to Friday. I told the kids on the way home from swim lessons that we were going to turn the backyard into the greatest playground ever and they bought into it. You cannot put a price on the innocence and optimism of a child.

We cleared out the garage for bike riding as the gravel driveway is still too hard for them. We put out all of the soccer, wiffle ball, basketball, and baggo gear. I'd filled up the kiddie pool earlier in the day, so the temperature was just right when we descended upon said playground following a classic spaghetti and meatball lunch. I brought out the hammock and much to my surprise, enjoyed a peaceful half an hour rocking back and forth with both of them. Noelle made me her mattress and David curled up against my side, using my arm as his daddy pillow. I think that everyone was tired from the week. I also think that I could have stayed with them there, that way, for the rest of my life.

After the hammock, we busted out the lemonade stand stuff. We're on a busy road, so suddenly I was the head of a not-for-profit, decorating the back deck with signs advertising prices no one would ever pay, the only beneficiaries being our taste buds and tummies. It was pink lemonade with lots of ice and lemon chunks floating around inside a sweating glass pitcher. Cheez-Its and mini-Oreos played the role of hors d'ouvers and I told them we'd climbed the food pyramid for the day because, on Fridays in July, lemons count as both fruit AND vegetable.

After snack, we hit the sprinkler: round and round and round we went. Serendipity struck as the iPod shuffle gave us Sinatra singing "Young at Heart" while we ran and giggled and giggled and ran. Someone spotted something in the grass and the earth stood still.

It was a baby toad, tiny as could be. I actually thought it was a beetle, at first. All around this particular baby toad were its siblings. Baby toads hopping everywhere! We quickly got the bug jars and began to capture at will. "My finest bottle of bourbon to he or she that captures the most!" I cried. (They each captured four, so I said they could share the bottle.) Much like there was a simple recipe to follow with the lemonade, we quickly gathered the necessary ingredients for the jars: leaves, grass, clover, dirt, and a couple of drops of water. As the afternoon wore on, we returned to the jars to pour water on the lid where it would sit until we gently pressed down, sending virtual rain through the air holes and into the jar to refresh our captives. While peeing in the bushes, David found yet another toad and was so excited he picked it up without pulling up his bathing suit. I will never forget seeing him walk towards me, suit down around the knees and hands cupped around another toad; band-aided fingers raised up to show me what he'd found. The image was the final clue to me that this afternoon was something special. We put the toad in with his brothers and sisters and David pulled up his suit. He's such a good kid, I know he'll share the bourbon with Noelle anyway.

As the sun dropped down below the tree line, we pulled out every junky towel we own and clipped them around the tree house that crowns our swing set Playscape-a-ma-jiggy. We lay down a couple of blankets for comfortable seating and put "Curious George" on the portable DVD player. The toads are up there, watching, too.

Alicia is home now and just in time for Noelle's ice cream sundaes, the pinnacle of any kid's summer vacation food pyramid. (And just for clarification's sake, the dessert-before-dinner ritual is one we practice all year round.) We'll barbecue in an hour or so and the kids will sleep well tonight. I don't know if we created the greatest playground ever, but I'm pretty sure that, for years to come, Noelle and David will smile as much over recollections of this afternoon as they will about the day David lost his fingernail at the Stop n Shop.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Of Kickoffs and Cleavage: Super Bowl Commercials and Kids

When the lights go down on the Super Bowl halftime show tomorrow night, parents can rest easy knowing that all young and edgy artists have been exiled from the program. After the "wardrobe malfunction" of 2004, the NFL and CBS agreed to sign only safe, middle-aged rockers like Bruce Springsteen and The Who. Innocent young eyes will be fine for that part of the party, but then there are all of those expensive, look-at-us-in-all-our-naughtiness types of commercials that are sure to pop up throughout the evening.

The ads have long been a part of the Super Bowl tradition and most of them are both funny and (relatively) family-friendly. But there are always those landmines, whether it’s some sort of ménage a trios involving fruits and vegetables or a celebration of the fact that guys Roger Daltry’s age have nothing to fear other than the occasional four-hour erection. The only option, it sometimes seems, is to turn the TV off during commercial breaks, but this is social suicide if you’re at a party. (That’s why these companies don’t mind spending just under $3 million for a 30-second spot!) You can tell your kids to cover their eyes when Danica Patrick slips out of the shower or Tim Tebow starts preaching, but they’ll look through their fingers anyway. So, the question is, when something questionable comes on the screen, is it even worth barking orders at them? That kind of overreaction usually draws more attention, so probably not.

I suppose the answer is that old parental fallback: exposure warrants explanation. The latter can be controlled a lot easier than the former, after all, so why not put the focus on explaining it in kid-friendly terms? The happy medium is to proceed with caution without driving ourselves (or our children) nuts. And when the usual level of vigilance just isn’t reasonable, simply answer those questions they’ve asked or are visibly contemplating. Sure you could yell “Cover those eyes!” at every sign of cleavage, but to do so is to risk having you and your mortified family kicked out of the party before Pete Townshend launches into his first Viagrified windmill of a power chord. Not worth it, in my book.

So, enjoy the game, relish the return of “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” eat, drink, and be merry, and read more about the ads (see websites below) if you just can’t take the six hours of pregame analysis that will be on every channel tomorrow. And oh yeah… gooooo Saints!


Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Did We Learn from Midterms?

In sixteen years of midterms and finals, Regents exams (New York) and CMT/CAPT exams (here in Connecticut), I have never walked away from an exam period feeling so battered and bruised.

Now, I'll admit, I'm sure the students feel twice as worn and weary as I do. They had to organize all of their materials and then study. And then, as a reward, they got to take all of those exams. And this, right after turning in all of the work they owed as it was the last week of the 2nd quarter. So, even those who didn't prepare well for exams (ie, organize, make a cheat sheet, bring a cheat sheet to school when the teacher allowed it) still had to sit through those hours of agony, reading multiple choice questions, addressing short answer topics, and attempting to formulate persuasive essays that weren't just five paragraphs worth of shoveled manure. Test takers of the world unite. You have my sympathy!

But what I am writing about today is the self-pity I felt during our exam week. I had recently spent two days working with another teacher (Ms. Gratz) in each of our freshmen World History classes on study skills and then saw evidence that no more than half of the students had studied. I worked in classes in which the teachers invited their students to create a cheat sheet for use during the exam... and then watched helplessly as freshman after freshman after freshman walked into the exam period without said cheat sheet. And the problems with test preparation weren't just for our underclassmen. It went all the way to the top where some hybrid form of senioritis and immaturity led our 12th graders to neglect their studies.

I am generalizing because I do not have data to back up these claims; simply my observations. But trust me, I don't lose sleep over hyperbole and hypotheses. I lose sleep when I see stressed out kids and stressed out teachers. I lose sleep when I know something's serioulsy wrong and that it's my job to do something about it. I lose sleep when I don't know what the heck to do.

I'm open to suggestion, but I think that one way to focus our energy (I have a theory that sleeplessness is caused by energy that simply needs to find a productive way to be expended, but more on that at a later time!), as a school, is by looking ahead to final exams. I don't think CAPT is a great opportunity for helping our kids to apply lessons learned from past mistakes, but final exams sure can be. And across the board, I've heard that the kids recognize the error of their apathetic ways. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Mea culpa! What we can do is try yet again to use direct instruction to improve their study skills. We can get parents involved by informing them that a cheat sheet will be allowed. We can arrange group "cheating sessions", after school. What else can we do? I don't really know. I am sleep-deprived, after all!

I'm hoping that you out there will have some ideas on how we can better prepare our students for the next go round. All input is welcomed.