Arming Politicians with Action

I imagine a moment when an announcement over the P.A. system declares:  “This is a lockdown, not a drill.”   Immediately I close the classroom door, lock it, turn off the lights, hunker down under the tables with my students, and stifle their cries.

Should this scenario be part of teacher training courses?

Apparently so because already teachers in America go through these lockdown or active shooter drills each year.

I have experienced two real lockdowns at Hoover High School though no actual threat materialized.

As if the demands of the job aren’t already stretched to incredible lengths, now teachers have to absorb the remote yet real possibility that one day a nightmare may appear in their classroom.   And those educators need to run through in their minds how they will actually handle a situation they don’t ever want to face.

If the perpetrator shoots into the room, do I barricade the door and, if so, can my students help me move heavy items to do it, do we pray under the tables that he won’t see us, do I physically try to take the shooter down, knowing my life and the lives of my students are at risk, or do I actively ignore the current lockdown procedures and make a run for it?

Wednesday night CNN held a televised town hall meeting at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, a 20-minute drive from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland where the Valentine’s Day massacre of 17 students and teachers occurred.

The arena holds more than 20,000 people; the high school has over 3,000 students.  No one was harmed in the arena due to security measures in place.   Those measures should be replicated at every single school in America.

It would be easier to secure schools than pass stronger gun laws.

President Trump should hold an emergency meeting with his advisers and develop a plan that can implement immediately.  Unfortunately, we have a President who needs to have a cheat sheet—“I hear you”—on how to show empathy for grieving parents, and who believes arming teachers is the way to go.

We are all tired of the cell phone footage of students crouched under desks in terror, the anguish in the parents’ faces upon awaiting the news of their children’s safety, the candlelight vigils, the funerals, the signs, the pleas, the demands to do something, do something, please, please, do something.

Students who study the dangers of driving under the influence are aware that every 15 minutes in the United States a person dies from a car crash.   However, during that same time, a person dies in a gun-related incident.

While cars are regulated for safety—seatbelts and airbags are credited with lowering the auto fatality rate—guns are not.

The number of deaths, 26, and the young age of the children, 6-7 years old, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut along with President Obama’s tearful statement led many to believe that that would be the watershed moment, the turning point when politicians would finally act to stop the rampant gun disease; 200 shootings and 400 deaths later, nothing has happened.

What number of deaths will it take to get everyone’s attention:  50? 100? 500?  Maybe the death of a prominent politician’s child or grandchild?

Yet Congress has no problem passing legislation to expand the rights of gun owners.   Last December the House passed HR 38, Concealed Carry Reciprocity, allowing those with guns to travel from state to state and legally carry their weapons.

I pray that I never hear again “this is a lockdown” and that anyone I love ever hears that.   Children should not attend school even with the remotest possibility that they may not return home.  Yet in today’s climate, the first sound of an administrator speaking on the P.A. makes everyone jittery.

It is not about blue states vs. red states, Democrats vs. Republicans, pro-gun vs. anti-gun.

It is about having a country where the safety of its children is paramount, a priority superseding a citizen’s right to own a gun.

 

A S-Hole in One

Two weeks ago I rolled out my pre-reading lessons for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird which includes sharing motivational stories about unknown heroes such as Edward Thomas, Houston’s pioneering African American police officer.

Thomas, who worked on the force for 63 years, died two weeks following the dedication ceremony renaming the department’s office building after him, a man who while in college was drafted into the Army during World War Two, fighting on D-Day and at the Battle of the Bulge.

His country asked him to sacrifice his life yet did not treat him equally; even in the military he was placed in a segregated unit.

Due to his color, he was not allowed to enter the front of the police department building (he had to use the back door), not allowed to be in the roll call room (he had to stay in the hallway), and was on his own during his patrol (white officers would not back him up).   Still, he persevered.

The final job he held was at the security desk where staff checked in which had now been moved to the rear of the building.    Quite ironic that all officers now enter the only door Thomas was allowed through.

We then analyze a poem, “Incident” by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, describing a heartbreaking moment of racism for a young boy when the only memory that stayed with him during eight months in Baltimore was when another boy called him the n-word.

That leads to a discussion about the n-word and its use in literature.  We went over which words for African Americans would be permissible and which were not.

Hours after having a sensitive talk about racial epithets, President Trump obliterates the point I was trying to make by using ugly language to discuss certain immigrants.

In a meeting on immigration with lawmakers, Trump said, “Why do we want all these people from Africa here? Why do we want all these people from s—hole countries?”

The language was raw, the racism an open sore. Did our Commander-in-Chief actually say those ugly things?

And then the second part of the story unraveled.

The news media decided to spell the whole expletive out.  There it was in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

Not only that, when I turned on CNN, in the lower-thirds of the screen, there was Trump’s quote with each letter of the fully spelled out word in all its glory—no asterisk or hyphen substituted.

For further shock value, moderator Anderson Cooper and nearly all of his guests actually said the word on the air repeatedly in their conversations.

What’s baffling is when former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci gave obscenity-laden responses to a reporter last July, the media refrained from spelling out the words or saying them on the air.   So why have the standards and practices of the media changed?  Has the bar lowered even further on what words can be in print and on TV? If so, what about the n-word and other racially charged language?

The next day, news broke about a porn star being paid $130,000 to keep quiet about an affair with Trump years ago when his wife was pregnant with their child.

Coincidentally, I also introduced a semester-long assignment called The Decency Project which asks students to come up with ways that they can help others.   Some will be collecting items for underprivileged people, while others will be working at hospitals, animal shelters, and homeless shelters.

Teenagers working at a higher moral plane than the President.  Who would have ever thought that day would come.

Thank you, President Trump, for continuing to provide teachable moments for educators.

 

How many papers does it take an English teacher to grade before he collapses?

For the first time in several years, I feel exhausted.  Fatigue is normal for the first few weeks of the school year, returning to work after an extended vacation.

It takes a month or so for a teacher to get his “sea legs.”  Then, a certain comfort level sets in, and the teacher locks into a rhythm that can carry one through the rigors of a school year.

Well, after eight weeks, I still haven’t found it, making me think about Father Time.

Similar to an athlete whose body can’t work or heal as well as it ages with a lot of usage over the years, I must be experiencing the cumulative effects of being in the game of education for over 28 years which is why I’m still seeking my footing.

Besides, without disparaging my colleagues in other disciplines, the work of the English teacher is formidable.

I have four classes of 10th grade English: 35, 36, 36, and 32 in numbers.  This means that every time I give a test or assign a paper, I am collecting 139 handwritten papers—all with unique printing; some legible, some not.

Within the past two weeks, I have graded 139 tests and 695 one-page essays.  No wonder I am having stomach problems.

I often ask myself, do I really have to work so hard this late in my career?   Why push myself?  I certainly do not get paid by the pound of papers I take home.

If I were to add up all the days off I have had in close to three decades, easily one-third of the days were mental health ones, where I just needed time to breathe, time not to assign any more work, time to get through the pile of papers that like a landfill can easily rise as tall as a mountain.

GUSD used to support English teachers with two programs to help ease their paper load.  One was the lay reader program and the other was paper grading days.

The lay reader program worked like this.  Teachers would farm out class sets of essays to college students majoring in English.  Instructions would be given to the student evaluators to correct all grammar and spelling errors.   Within days, the essays would be returned, and the teachers would then focus on more specialized areas such as organization and content.   Not having to fix mechanical mistakes saved time on the grading.

Additionally, the District used to allocate a certain number of substitute days, labeled paper grading days, to each secondary school with the idea of relieving the teacher from the classroom in order to grade essays.

Both of these programs were wonderful not just for the assistance given to teachers in getting their work done, but the recognition by GUSD that English teachers do have a higher amount of student work to evaluate than other teachers, an acknowledgment rarely given.

Unfortunately, several years ago funding for both programs stopped.  Yet, English teachers’ assigning writing did not.

The bulging briefcase I bring home every night and every weekend remind me of what I need to do before I read a book, watch a show, write this column.

Overwhelming?   There must be a stronger word for it.

I know colleagues who give multiple-choice tests and envy them a bit.  Within minutes, their grading is done, the numbers of correct answers printed on a silver platter.

Others like me who have students write detailed responses written in multiple sentences with supporting evidence have hours ahead of us to read handwritten work and to evaluate the merits of each response.

Ultimately, teaching requires faith that what one does is going to benefit young people.   I still believe I’m doing the right thing.  Even if it kills me.

 

Why I Did Not Renew My National Board Certification

Back in 2003, I earned my National Board certification.

If you don’t know what that is, you are not alone.

Established in 1987, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) is an independent, nonprofit organization working to advance accomplished teaching for all students.

Its noble goal was to elevate the teaching profession to the level of doctors and attorneys by offering teachers a PhD of sorts.  And, like the bar exam, create a certification process rigorous enough so that not all applicants would pass on the first attempt.

The certification process requires videotaping multiple classroom lessons and writing dozens of pages analyzing student work and reflecting on one’s practice.

While sometimes grueling, I found the process more rewarding and relevant than the work I did for my master’s degree.

Plus, the NBPTS encouraged school districts and states to reward those who earned certification with a bonus, something unheard of in the teaching profession.

Many did reward teachers, though to varying degrees.  North Carolina was a standout in the country, giving five-figure annual bonuses.

GUSD provides some additional money, but expects the National Board (NB) teacher to work extra hours, which makes no sense.   Teachers with master’s and doctorate degrees receive annual stipends without having to work more, so why should NB teachers do so?

Also, the district never promoted the practice by offering to pay for part or all of the $1,500 fee to go through the process (when I applied the fee was $2,300).

The goal of NBPTS was to have 100,000 board-certified teachers by 2003.

That didn’t happen.

By 2007, only 60,000 teachers achieved certification.

Ten years later, the number is finally above 100,000, equating to just over three percent of total teachers in the country.

One catch, though.   Unlike a college degree which once earned never needs renewal, the NBPTS requires teachers to renew their certification every 10 years—at a cost of $1,250.

That I did not do, yet still view myself as a National Board certified teacher.  Once earned, no fee should strip that designation away.

This past summer, NBPTS was soliciting board certified teachers to work over the summer at the professional rate of, get ready, $25 an hour.   My electrician charges me $100 an hour.

The Princeton Review pays high school graduates $22 an hour to tutor, yet the NBPTS pays just three dollars more for a teacher with a college graduate, a fifth year of college earning a teaching credential, and national board certification.  It doesn’t make any sense.

Which is why I contacted NBPTS President and CEO Peggy Brookins.

Here is a portion of the letter:

As much as I would like to work with other noted educators around the country, I wanted to let you know why I am not submitting an application to do this work:  the low remuneration of $25 per hour.

What surprises me is of all the organizations to spotlight high quality teaching talent, one would think that the NBPTS would be the one to recognize the importance by compensating NBCTs adequately, commensurate with their expertise to the field of teaching.

I never received a reply.

Imagine that.   The head of the organization that purports to lead the charge for the best and brightest in the land, yet has no time to respond to one of its own.

Beyond higher pay, NBPTS’s hope was for those in charge of running schools to view NB teachers as resources, experts in the field of education.

I would like to tell you about all the exciting opportunities my school district offered me in helping them shape education policy and set curriculum standards.   But I’m still waiting.

 

My son, the high school graduate

The end of high school for seniors is often bittersweet for their teachers who may have known the students for up to four years.

The end of high school for a parent of a senior, however, resonates deeper for it marks a significant rite of passage.

One senior graduating this year in particular means a great deal to me.  He is my son.

People who know Ben frequently comment that “he’s a good kid.”  Any parent would be proud of a child who generates that reaction from others.

Goodness is in short supply in today’s world.  It does not show up on a standardized test.

Ben is very polite, always responding to a meal at home with a “thank you for the tacos” without any prodding; it comes naturally to him.

I overhear him talk to grown-ups on the phone asking “How are you?” interested in having an adult-like conversation.

He makes his own breakfast of eggs and oatmeal each morning, and often assists me with dinner.

He engages in adult-like perceptions on politics and the world.  Our family TV time is watching Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN and “60 Minutes” on Sundays.

He knows cultural history, recognizing an Ella Fitzgerald vocal or an Alfred Hitchcock film.

He has a taste for long-established restaurants such as the Smoke House.

He doesn’t mind getting dressed up to go out for dinner, or picking up after the dog in the backyard.

He rarely wants anything.  His iPhone is not new, his car as old as he is.

He still sleeps in the same bed that he got back in elementary school, though lies diagonally accommodating his nearly six-foot frame.

His only luxury is a flat screen TV that his uses primarily for playing videogames on his PS4.

Something else Ben does:  when he is out, he always calls us (not texts) when he is coming home.   This is not something that we have demanded; it comes from Ben’s own sense of responsibility.

What is the recipe for a good kid?  Along with love and support from family and friends, Ben’s teachers deserve recognition: kindergarten teacher Ms. Solyom, third grade teacher Ms. Rostomyan, fifth grade teacher Ms. Essex, sixth grade social science teacher Ms. Lamb, sixth grade P.E. teacher Ms. Asmussen, seventh grade English teacher Mr. Martin, eighth grade English teacher Mr. Rothacher, biology teacher Mr. Margve, astronomy teacher Mr. Movsessian, AP Psych teacher Mr. Collazos, AP English Lit teacher Mr. McNiff, and AP U.S. History teacher Mr. Thomson.

My wife and I were amazed as his maturity blossomed earlier this year.  Within a matter of weeks, he made the decision to attend CSUN and got his first job.

It was a surreal feeling to have my photo taken with my son in front of CSUN”s Oviatt Library where I graduated 35 years ago.

Back then, the idea that one day I would have a son who would attend the same college as I did was not even a flicker of a thought in my mind.

When we moved into our house 18 years ago, Ben was three months old.  Today, in that same bedroom lives an 18-year-old.   Oh, the baby still lives in the man.  You can it in his eyes, his smile, and the way he speaks.  And you can see his younger brother looking up at him from an early age, absorbing Ben’s life as a textbook on how to grow up.

Ben, you have had a good life so far.  I hope you continue being good and doing good in the years to come.

Absence makes the mind grow flounder

It used to be that going to school on time every day was a given.   Only truly sick children missed school.

Not anymore.

Six million children missed at least three weeks of school in the 2013-14 school year, according to the U.S Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection report.  That equates to 13 percent of all students.

Think of a business that could operate effectively without 13 percent of its workforce.

The bad habits students practice in kindergarten through 12th grade cannot simply be altered like a light switch once they enter the job market.

Name one job where people get paid for not being there.

“Even the best teachers can’t be successful with students who aren’t in class,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr. told reporters last June.

California has a Compulsory Education Law stipulating that “every child from the age of 6 to 18 be in school—on time, every day.”

A student’s education suffers when he is not in school.  Period.

There is a direct correlation between missing school and falling behind academically. According to the California Department of Education, “first grade students with 9 or more total absences are twice as likely to drop out of high school than their peers who attend school regularly.”

Last December, President Obama signed into law a revision of the No Child Left Behind act that requires for the first time that states report individual absences for all students.

It’s not just the learning that suffers when a student isn’t in a classroom.  Money is lost as well.

Schools derive much of their funding based on Average Daily Attendance or ADA.  In Glendale the ADA is $55 per student per day.  With an enrollment around 26,000, that adds up to $1.43 million if all students are present.

If 10 percent of students are absent for one day the entire year, that results in a loss of $143,000.  Multiply that by 180 school days and you have $25.7 million.  Quite a sum of money that could go towards hiring more teachers and funding more programs.

Last semester, I tracked the number of students present over a 78-day period and here are the results:

In my first period class, 25 percent of the time I had full attendance, second period had seven percent, third period had 17 percent, fifth period had 20 percent, and sixth period had 12 percent.

Looking at the numbers in a different way, 88 percent of the time I had at least one student absent in my Per. 6 class.   This makes it quite difficult for a teacher to maintain consistency in lesson planning as well as cooperative learning groups.

I had 25 students who had double-digit absences including one who had 24 (that’s a loss of 5 weeks of instruction in a 17-week period), plus five students with double-digit tardies (the highest 16).

When I returned to work last week, teachers were asked to do more to encourage students to get to class on time in order to decrease the number of tardies.   However, the bulk of the tardies come at the start of school; in other words, due to kids arriving late.

Unless teachers don Uber hats and pick up kids from their homes, the responsibility of getting children to school rests on the shoulders of parents.    Parents need to model to their children good work habits and work habit number one is getting to school every day and on time.