The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

This content shows Simple View

December 2013

Holding my nose

The national war over American public education is playing out right in our backyards. A recent article in the Boston Globe reveals that the last surge of spending in what was a ridiculously expensive mayoral race here in Hub was from the AFT.

The American Federation of Teachers confirmed Friday that it was the donor behind One Boston, a mysterious political action committee that paid for a $480,000 television commercial supporting Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh during the final days of the Boston mayoral race.

The national teachers’ union exploited discrepancies in state-by-state campaign spending disclosure laws to anonymously fund nearly a half million dollars worth of advertising on behalf of Walsh.

Full disclosure: I am a member of AFT Local 66, the Boston Teachers Union. In the mayoral race, I absolutely supported Walsh over Connolly. It wasn’t so much that I liked Walsh and his policies, but that I was vehemently opposed to Connolly’s corporate-influenced agenda for education reform.

Better the “able steward of the status quo” as the Globe painted Walsh, than a pro-charter, pro-standardization, “reform” candidate like Connolly. So, in the absence of any of my preferred candidates (Arroyo, Barros, and Golar-Richie all lost in the preliminaries), I decided to hold my nose and vote for Walsh.

Part of me wonders if I actually managed to pick the lesser of two evils. I am adamantly opposed to money having an outsized influence on politics, especially national money on local politics, and especially especially money that forces a false choice between two distasteful alternatives.

No single entity — union or corporate — should be able to unilaterally influence public policy in this way, especially with such a lack of transparency.

And at least Connolly called for a moratorium on outside money (an offer that Walsh refused).  So I can’t say I approve of where my dues are going or how I am being represented (not that I really have a choice… membership is mandatory).

On the other hand, what is AFT to do? Since Citizens United, so much money is now flowing into races around the country, much of it from sources that are seeking to control public policy for private (and corporate) gain. Should the defenders of public education, flawed as they may be, simply stand by and watch as Boston becomes the next bloody front in the national reform war… like Chicago, New York, DC, and New Orleans? I reluctantly see ground for AFT to argue “how could we not”.

As a broad generalization, I think I’d rather have union (ergo middle/working class) control over policy than corporate (ergo wealthy) control over policy. But what kind of choice is that?  At the root, I think what most disgusts me is the frustration of knowing that political process, from local to federal, is no longer truly accountable to the people. Why should I have to hold my nose when voting between two ugly alternatives in the first place?

Restoring faith in government, and by extension faith in the social contract, is going to be a long road if we are to recover ourselves. I’m for making that long march, but it’s not going to be easy.



Chiles Secos

Image  Comment
Dried chiles for sale in Grand Central Market, Los Angeles. (C)2013 Nalin A. Ratnayake
Dried chiles for sale in Grand Central Market, Los Angeles. (C)2013 Nalin A. Ratnayake

Many people claim to have seen LA, when they think of Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Newport, Malibu, Hollywood, and Disneyland — none of which are actually in Los Angeles.

The real heart of LA, I think, is in places like the old Jewelry District, Union Station, the Bradbury Building, fifties diners that never changed the decor, the La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora, $3 margaritas from a guy who doesn’t speak English, and, like this photo, Grand Central Market.

Earlier this week, I found myself unexpectedly back in Los Angeles. My brother had been waitlisted for a west coast location to take his clinical board exam for medical school, and the LA opportunity came up on two days notice. While he was in his day-long clinical, I got a chance to show my parents around my favorite places in Los Angeles, including Grand Central.

Grand Central Market is a place of fresh produce, specialty merchants, and the tantalizing mix of smells from a diverse array of Latin and Asian food vendors.

I chose to share the dried chili stand because I think it captures the vibrancy of color, mercantile feel, and earthy mix of the familiar and exotic that epitomize how I feel about the Market.




Resolutions Unresolved

So much for last year’s resolutions. Let’s check in one-by-one.

RESOLUTIONS:

Write something everyday. I gave myself the options of journal, letter, blog, or fiction. This was going very well actually, until a mysterious event in late August seems to have thrown me off track. My journal entries are regular until August 17th, after which the next entry is… November 18th. And my letters fell off the map, and I didn’t update this blog at all (or even tweet really), and yeah I didn’t write any fiction after the first day of school.
FAIL.

Meditate regularly. I set a target of 20 minutes per day, at least three days a week. My Meditation Helper app shows a great record until, oh, mid-August. The record doesn’t pick up again until early December. FAIL.

Become conversant in Spanish. I have made lot of progress on this front, though I would rate myself short of “conversant.” The need is huge. Not only for my work in a public school (I wish I knew Spanish roughly once a week at least), but also my side interests in politics and community engagement. Ongoing, but short of the goal. FAIL.

Deactivate my Facebook account. I reactivated my Facebook account on April 15th, in the immediate wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. Once I made sure all of my friends and colleagues had checked in ok, I deleted the account permanently. (I did make a new account with zero friends, likes, or apps, solely to remain in the BTR Cohort X Facebook group for social event notifications.) I call that a win. SUCCESS.

DELIVERABLES:

Jamaica Pond, Month by Month. Now this would have been cool. A photo diary, month by month, of Jamaica Pond as it changed throughout the year. Too bad the project was mysteriously aborted in… August. (Actually, to be fair, finishing up my BTR residency year took a toll on this one too… late spring was sketchy). FAIL.

Complete a First Draft Novel. This one could still be possible… I made it up to 36,o00 words over the summer before the school year hit. The word count hasn’t moved up a single word since. However, now that I am back home and rested, with a full week and a half left of break… could I hit 50,000 words and cross into novel territory? PENDING.

Yeah so, lesson learned: Don’t assume you can do anything else but try to stay alive during your first fall teaching. It seems better now, but I am still very busy. I’ll have to think about my next steps before posting 2014’s goals…



Feeling Teachery

I have survived.

September and October were pretty grim months. After a honeymoon period that lasted a little less than a week, I began a steady slide into some of the hardest weeks of my life. As my freshmen felt their high school jitters wear off and my juniors had finished scoping out my weaknesses, the real battle for sanity began.

It wasn’t until the last couple of weeks before the winter recess that I truly felt like things were approaching a modicum of stability. I’m still tired, but I think that’s normal. I have no idea how the rest of the year is going to go, but I can at least reflect on the last four months.

Looking back on it, I think I can reconstruct a few lessons learned for any future new teachers.

1. Nothing else matters if you cannot control your classroom.

I know, you’re a stubborn idealist and waiting to get started reforming education for a future enlightened democracy. But take the high-minded ideals about liberating education and democratic classrooms, the bold plans for discussion-based inquiry, and your folder brimming with ideas for weekly project-based learning, and set it aside. At least for the first few months of teaching full time.

Instead, attend to the basics and make sure you have them down pat: Clear rules and expectations, with ready short responses for the inevitable “why?”. A posted chain of consequences that you will stick to with no exceptions. A plan for how you will hit your educator evaluation targets. The first two weeks of lessons planned (not just bulleted, PLANNED TO THE DETAIL) in advance.

And, critically, an airtight system for organizing paperwork by graded/not-graded, which block, handout-and-keep, handout-and-return, late work (and associated penalties), late work due to excused absence, makeup work, makeup exams, answer keys, advisory, notices to students from administration, extra credit, extracurriculars, and every other type of document you can think of… because the paperwork will come in a flood and it will never let up. Ever.

Once you have a consistently safe environment for learning that doesn’t make you feel like you are drowning, then you can move on to bigger and better things like those inquiry-based project discussions.

My residency year was spent at a great school with great students that taught me a lot about many things except what I now believe is the single most important skill: solo classroom management under constantly adversarial circumstances, all day every day week after week.

If you are unsure how to get started, I recommend Rick Smith’s Conscious Classroom Management as a reference that helped me out immensely.

I’ll say again: NOTHING ELSE WILL WORK if you cannot control your classroom. It has only been quite recently that I’ve felt confident enough to move much beyond making sure that basic goal is met.

2. Steal everything.

I still haven’t quite internalized that I really do not need to homeroll every little part of my curriculum and logistics. Stop reinventing the wheel, use what’s already out there, and ramp up your own style slowly over time. I’ve got years and years to hone my own style and invent my own methods. I don’t need to do that in the hardest phase of my teaching career.

As a first year teacher, it will not be resources you need. There are hundreds, if not thousands of great resources on teaching, education, science, inquiry, labs, etc. People still keep trying to give me workbooks, websites, curricula, and lab equipment that I will put in my back closet and not look at again until next summer. What you will really need is time, which is the one thing no one can give you more of. You need to make more of it yourself (where possible) by choosing how you will approach your work.

3. Families are your best allies.

Even my most difficult alpha-males, the ones who seemed to be hell-bent on locking horns day after day, were just looking for evidence that I will provide a safe and secure environment. Getting families on board with that plan is a good way to convince those students that a) you care, and b) you will not be letting them off the hook. Further, calling home with compliments gives them positive incentive to perform well. Deep down, all kids want to succeed and be seen as successful, even if they do not want to admit it.

4. Make time for your support network.

They say the first year of teaching is the hardest year, and the first quarter of any teaching year is the hardest quarter. It stands to reason then, that the first quarter of the first year of teaching is a double dose of difficult. There is absolutely no reason to go it alone.

I went through Boston Teacher Residency. Its cohort model of training meant that I went into teaching with a strong corps of friends and colleagues that I could call on for support and collaboration, which is one of the great benefits of the residency model. Even if you didn’t go through such a program and feel like you don’t have allies, find them. In your school, in other schools, or on the web.

5. A supportive administration and staff change everything. My colleagues at my school have been amazing — offering ideas, support, solid backup on discipline, and even offering to help grade. Compared to the horror stories I have heard from some other schools, I count myself very lucky in this regard. Teachers don’t often have much of a choice in the character of their colleagues and supervisors, but if it is at all possible, trade whatever you can for good people on your side.

That’s the top five reflections so far. I definitely don’t have it all figured out yet — in fact, one thing I enjoy about this profession is that the opportunities to improve seem endless. But it’s getting better. Especially now that I’ve had a few days to rest, I am looking forward to seeing how the rest of the year plays out.




top