Current/Recent Reading List

26 February 2007

The Doldrums

That is precisely the term for the period on the educational calendar between mid-January (semester change for us) and Good Friday (start of spring break). The weeks stretch on endlessly, the weather vacillates between winter and proto-spring, and the kids and teachers feel under-energized. It is appropriate, I suppose, that the school doldrums fall during Lent.

Anyway, I have to attend a follow-up workshop one afternoon this week, and give my frickin' writing workshop again on Thursday. Want to guess how this week will go?

I do have one metaphysical question to ponder: why is it that the same kids (in this case, a little hispanic girl) who seem the most gung-ho to get in a fight end up looking the most confused, hurt, and miserable after the fight finally comes off? Didn't they get what they wanted all along?

24 February 2007

Latest on PLC's; Also, The Curse Continues

A couple of quick updates:

1. On the subject of Professional Learning Communities(PLC's), and the big faculty meeting from last week (which I was unable to attend), I have vague news to report. It seems that there was no unveiling of any new school-wide initiatives or programs (keep your fingers crossed). The main focus of our principal's message, centered around some quotes from the wretchedly written PLC newsletter, was that of teacher collegiality. Unfortunately, I don't have many details on what was said, but I still have two cents to put in: collegiality is a wonderful trait for a faculty to have, but what do you do with those who won't play along? The answer to that question is essential.

2. The Curse of '06/'07 continues unabated, and it has once again struck our department. Our senior-most senior English teacher, the woman who was department chair when I started, and whom I would most choose to be like if I was going to be like another teacher, is the latest victim. For some freakish reason, she decided to ride a four-wheeler with her grandson. Apparently the throttle in the thing stuck, and they went into a ditch, where (I guess) she was thrown off. Two of her vertebrae, one at the top and one at the bottom, were broken, and following surgery she now will be in a brace for a couple of months.

Now, she could have retired after last semester, but chose to stay out of the goodness of her heart because it was going to be so hard on us to replace two English teachers in the middle of the year. But, in our Greek Tragedy kind of year, there was no averting fate, apparently. So now we will have to find a new teacher anyway.

I hate this for her, because she is such a good soul, and I hate it for her students (mostly seniors), who needed a tough old school marm to pound on them one last semester before the real world comes calling.

Oh, and in case you think this a bizarre injury for a grandma, one of our over-sixty math teachers broke both her legs a couple of years ago in a sky-diving accident.

19 February 2007

Pretend you are principal for a minute:

Let's say that on a state End of Course test in a certain subject area (you make the choice), a school has been performing exceptionally well, considering the make-up of its student population, for four or five years in a row. The sections of this particular course were split among two to three teachers in the department, all of whom got almost identical results. If they had honors classes, their honors kids all did as expected. If they had college prep or general classes, the majority of their kids all passed, and even sometimes exceeded expectations. All three of these teachers usually expressed some surprise that the results were so good, and generally chalked it all up to the students actually putting forth real effort for once, and the test score formula being dumbed down a bit. But all three teachers also knew that they at least did their best to teach the course and get the kids prepared.

Oh, and let's say that the scores from this particular test go into the "report card" formula for the school's overall rating. And that potential bonuses are riding on this rating, as well as the school's safe haven from prying state Dept. of Education types.

Now, let's say that another teacher in this department has not been able to pass the Praxis exam for high school certification after a number of tries. Thus, this teacher is constrained, by the NCLB Act, in what he/she is supposed to teach. Through the past few years, this teacher has been given grade levels that don't have this End of Course test attached to them, but they are not the grade levels he/she is certified for. The one grade level that he/she is certified for, alas, is the level that does have the test attached to it. Sooooo...

Over the summer the new administration decides that, so as not to run afoul of NCLB, this teacher has to be given all the sections from the grade level he/she is certified for. Yes, this means that all the kids taking the End of Course test will be taught by this one person, and all their scores, rightly or wrongly, will be this one person's responsibility. Reports abound from students as to the past teaching methods, or lack thereof, of this teacher. The methods are reported to include spending great amounts of class time rumor-mongering, picking out the foibles of students and teachers, and leaving the class for smoke breaks or chats in the hallway. But apparently administration felt its hands were tied. Soooo... (bored yet?)

The first semester's scores come back in, and fully one-third of this teacher's kids fail the test. The number of failures already exceeds, by more than a couple, the total number of test failures over any one year period from the last few school years. Let's also say that one of the other teachers in the department was at the county office for some business, and ran into the director of secondary schools, who was also the former principal of his particular school. This director immediately became animated about the large number of failures, and said he told the administration not to make the change, and that he hoped the change would be remanded for next year. All this confirmed the visiting teacher's suspicion that the score results were really, really bad, and were an eyesore for the school and the county.

Now - you are the principal. Assuming a non-topsy-turvy educational world (hah!), what would you do?

13 February 2007

Field Trip Highlights Part III

Friday, February 9th, 1:00 pm: We entered the confines of Davidson's beautiful campus minutes ago, and I was looking forward to hearing the responses from the kids upon seeing it. Unfortunately, half the girls were too preoccupied with who stank up the middle of the bus. Seriously. No, when I typed in girls, it wasn't a mistake, and frankly I don't know if my gentlemanly sensibilities will recover. Sigh. You would think this was the JV Football bus or something.

1:15 Country-come-to-town moment? We walked into the student center of "The Princeton of the South", and I hear, from the front of the line, "Where's the gift shop?" Double sigh.

5:00 Pericles is now over, and it was a magical performance, as befits a play containing magic in its plot. The Royal Shakespeare Company is known for its unique presentations of the plays, and being a traditional-leaning person, this is sometimes disconcerting. But much can be overlooked as long as "the play's the thing." The setting for this one was, more or less, that of war-torn Africa, but to tell the truth, as the play progressed the setting dissolved in my consciousness, and the wonder of the drama and the language was all that mattered.

What made this performance so special was the promenade stage area built for the audience and actors. Several rows of seats in the performance hall have temporarily disappeared beneath a large platform structure that can accomodate about 100 people in addition to the actors. At one end of the platform a wooden ramp walkway curves upward from the floor to the balcony, and at the other end there is a ladder to an open apartment box, and sliding doors below the box from which actors can emerge and disappear. Thus, the actors were at times walking around us (literally touching us at times), acting above us, descending to us, and even sneaking up on us. One of my students got invited to join a feast table and eat and drink while the performers sat around her and, well, performed the play.

I'll just make passing mention of the live musicians, a red light district set complete with pole dancers, and the wonderfully rendered recognition scenes at the end of the play when Pericles discovers first his long-lost daughter, and then his long-lost wife, who gets to really meet her daughter for the first time. This, of course left my chaperone parent in tears (pregnant mom, you know), but it left me, and a few students, misty-eyed as well. Absolutely brilliant, RSC. Oh, and Shakespeare - yeah, you're alright too.

10:55: We are about to roll into the school parking lot after our latest five hours on the road. Once again, we had to stop twice for bathroom breaks. On the second one, we took an exit that was more populated with shopping centers than service stations. Finally we said "what the hell" and pulled into a Borders Bookstore, which have nicer facilities in any case. Again, pajama pants have myteriously appeared, but apparently no one in Borders cared. The girls informed me, however, through giggles and mock disgust, that upon leaving the bathroom they saw some book called the "Kuma Satra" which was about sex positions, and when you open it up there were little stickers in it. "Did someone force you to open it?" "No." Then I told them that when I worked in a book store long ago, there weren't any such stickers. "Ahhh... that means you've looked at one before, Mr. P!" they said with shocked laughter. Score some cool points for the old man.

On the bus, the sleepers are stirring around a little. A couple of seats behind me two of the BFF's, who have been obnoxiously singing for an hour now, warble along with the Ataris' version of "The Boys of Summer", which they've found while scrolling through my iPod Nano (more cool points). The bus driver tells me how surprised he was that he loved the play so much. One girl tells me she has already decided to attend Davidson in two years (I hope so, but let her dream, either way). We are home safe, the same people, but hopefully changed just a little. Twelve happy kids, and three tired, but fortunate adults. It's rare, but sometimes things work exactly as they should.

12 February 2007

Field Trip Highlights Part II

(Not much time tonight, so here is a short part II of III)

Friday, February 9, 9:00 a.m.: Those of us who awoke on time ate from the continental breakfast at the hotel. No great shakes, but it did the job for me. Not so for one of the girls who sat with me. She attempted to make her own "waffle in a cup" and failed miserably, then gave up, then got back up and tried again, then brought her perfectly good waffle to the table, dipped it in syrup for one measly bite, and declared that she needed McDonald's ASAP. Is that something anyone should ever need ASAP?

Also, I was stopped by a friendly woman who wanted to know if we were real North Carolinians. Turns out she was from Vermont, and loved listening to our dialects as we were breakfasting. "One of them just said 'hisself', and I thought it was so cute," she enthusiastically told me. I agree with her, but would never tell the kids that, being an English teacher and all. And don't let them try that "hisself" or "theirselves" stuff out in a paper just because the nice Yankee woman liked it.

11:30: We are eating at the mall, the glorious mall. There was almost a revolt over this mall as we left the hotel. The morning manager told me we did not want to get involved in the traffic at South Park mall, the finest such establishment in nearby Charlotte, if we wanted to make the play on time. So I told the kids we were going to the big mall that was a little closer by, even if it wasn't as chic. Wailing and gnashing ensued for a few moments, but they soon accustomed themselves to the change. "As long as they have two of my three favorite stores [Hollister, American Eagle, and something else], I'll be o.k.," earnestly announced one of the freshmen. Yes, wars, pestilence, poverty, cruddy hotel coffee -these things we can survive. But imagine the horror if they didn't have two of those three stores...

(Tomorrow, I promise, I will blog on the actual play, which was our reason for going, after all)

11 February 2007

Field Trip Highlights, Part I

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Then are dreamt of in your shopping malls."
- Hamlet (sort of)

O.k., I made that last part up, but to prove a point. If you want to lure a few more teenagers onto a Shakespeare field trip halfway across the state, promise them the trip will include a stop at a shopping mall, one bigger than any near their homes. Works every time.

We made it back, and in one piece, from our whirlwind trip, which included about 11 total hours on the bus, innumerable bathroom stops, and the kind of teenage girl silliness that mad scientists can only dream of replicating in a lab. Since I didn't have my laptop with me, I couldn't do several logs a day, as I wished I could. So, instead, I've decided to do some blog re-enacting, if you will. Hope you enjoy the highlights:

Thursday, Feb. 8th - 4:15 p.m.: We are on the road on our Magic Bus. The final count includes 9 girls, three boys, a 42 year-old parent (who is pregnant, much to her surprise, with kidlet #4!), a mildly balding bus driver/teacher aide, and a rapidly balding me. Sounds like that Ruby Tuesday's about thirty minutes away is in for some trouble, don't you think?

6:30: You know, it takes a long time to feed, and take payments from, fifteen people. Most amusing, during this waitress-induced interregnum, is to hear so many of the kids exclaim in dismay about how much their bills were. One fast-forwards to the pleasures of hearing such from one's own know-it-all 18 year-old after his first week at college.

7:10: "Mr. P, I've got to pee." "Are you sure?" "Yes." (brilliant question I had, no?)

8:45: We've just had another bathroom stop, this time at a Burger King. As I walked toward the building, I saw the manager and another worker, who were taking a break outside, quickly get inside to their posts. This was only to watch us all come in and use the restrooms, or stand around inside just, you know, because. I wasn't hungry myself, but I felt for the guys, who probably expected some good business. Two of the girls finally, mercifully, bought drinks; however, this may just come across as an insult to the BK Lounge staff. Oh, and those soft drinks ought to help cut down on the pee stops.

9:40: We are getting close, and are now on a two-lane highway, which is bad news for my parent chaperone, because from her seat, she nervously watches the bus driver hugging those yellow lines. She has indicated her anxiety in polite, but unsubtle ways. But there is no stopping a bus driver once he's in the zone.

10:00: We've arrived, after overshooting the hotel once and having to turn around, little by little, in a cul-de-sac. Somehow a couple of the girls are now in their pajamas. No sooner do I have the room assignments finalized than the kids are off, not stopping for a millisecond to find out what room their fearless leader, stalwart guide, and valued mentor will be staying in. I guess they figure I'll be somewhere on their floor, and they can always just go around banging on doors if they need me. It feels great to be valued.

11:30: Curse that bus trip! Since I've been away from t.v/radio/computers for six hours, I've had no idea that Anna Nicole Smith passed away! I'm going to ask the school system to install XM Radio on the buses immediately. It is intolerable not to know about the latest C-list celebrity drug overdoses!

Before turning out I have watched the news, and, flipping around, a bizarre segment on HBO's "Real Sex" about middle-aged women who take dildos around to housewife parties and train said housewives in how to do hand jobs. I mention this only because, I'll bet, no account of a school field trip has ever mentioned anything like this. With good reason, I might add.

(Part II soon to come, with details on the actual play, the mall trip, another pee story, and probably some lapses into sentimentality)

07 February 2007

A-Barding We Go

Tomorrow afternoon we set sail (well, set bus engine) - my barbarous crew of middle-class white girls, a couple of geeky boys, two chaperones, and I - for Davidson College, where we will get to watch a full dress rehearsal of Pericles, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This is the next to last year of the RSC's residency at Davidson, so we are taking advantage while we can. Unlike last year, my kids will not get to act, since last year's trainers are now this year's performers. However, we do get to sit on stage, as the plays are being done in promenade style, meaning we will be like movie extras, with the action going on all around us - even in our faces from time to time (only we don't exactly know what is coming). The reviews have been tremendous, and I can't wait.

I will have much to report, I'm sure, upon our return over the weekend.

02 February 2007


Principal Goldberg (who, btw, I love as a boss more and more all the time - so this pains me a little) is working on his Phd., and apparently he drank some sort of Kool-Aid during his last "cohort" session at one of our state universities. He returned talking about being a more "instructionally-focused" leader, and about reprioritizing "90% of the way I spend my time and energy" as the principal. One of the first things he was going to change, he said, was the way we run faculty meetings, and there was some mention of the faculty reading a book together (yikes).

Well, this was all very heady sounding, but also gauzy. So since hearing this I've been most curious to learn of something concrete that was going to result from his epiphany. Today we received a copy of a professional development newsletter article from our DPI entitled "Leadership and Professional Learning Communities". We were asked to read it before our next faculty meeting on the 14th (which I won't be able to attend, darn the luck).

I've read it twice, and I hate to go negatore, but I need to have fun every now and then, so here goes. Strike one is that, while one gets little sense as to what kind of monster is hiding behind the dense "professional" prose of the article, one definitely gets the sense there is such a beast. Strike two against the article is that by sentence three these Professional Learning Communities are thereafter referred to as PLC's. Acronyms = Evil, my friends. Add to this the recurrence of the following words througout the article: vision, mission, empowering, collaboration, data, data, data, and data. Corporate Speak = Evil's Twin Brother.

(As an aside, one wonders how Shakespeare and his acting companies ever made it without formulating a mission statement.)

And then, strike three is constituted by the sheer fatuity of sentences and phrases like: "Change in PLC is an interconnected process, weaving faculty and staff together by design in webs of teams."; "But when we draw on what Brown and Lauder (2001) call 'collective intelligence,' that is infinite rather than fixed, multi-faceted rather than singular, and that belongs to everyone... the capacity for learning and improvement is magnified many times over." (me - I left out a syntax error from that one!); "This leadership is a combination of facilitative, transformational, visionary, and instructional." (me - instructional what, exactly?); "Leaders who create PLCs know that there is an urgent need for immediate results, but authentic, lasting and widespread change is a journey."

There is more from the article I could mock, but let me save some powder for the report I get after the faculty meeting in a couple of weeks. It is still unclear what all this really means, but I can give you one last bad omen. The picture that accompanies the last page of the article shows six people, sitting around a desk, having a freakin' meeting.

No doubt it is a collaborative one.