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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Teacher Colleges Beneficial in Only in Theory?

I just read and interesting article in the New York Times debating the relevance of teacher colleges and education degrees. Sure, getting that Masters will raise your salary, but how much does that degree really help your kids? I am going to take the easy way out and let the article speak for itself, especially since my own school cohort leader peruses this blog from time to time.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Friday, August 28, 2009

Welcome to Westbrook Middle

My first day as an intern began with a district wide breakfast at the high school. I say "the" high school because there is only one of them. For some of you, this may be par for the course, but coming from where I grew up, it will take some getting used to. I lived in a suburban sprawl, where entire neighborhoods appeared overnight and new schools were always being unveiled. There were at least ten high schools in my district that I can recall offhand, and my graduating high school class was nearly 600 students. Here in New England, that numbers dwarfs the populations of many schools, including faculty and staff.

Even though it is sometimes surprising to me, and the administrative costs must be astronomical, I find that I really enjoy the tight-knit community structure. Already, I am on a first name basis with umpteen faculty and staff members, which certainly helps assuage any nervousness I may feel as the new guy on the block.

Also helping me gain confidence was the crisp new $20 bill I received courtesy of the state teachers' union. As part of her presentation, the union rep distributed raffle tickets to the audience. When she emphasized a benefit to union membership, she called out a number and rewarded the ticket holder with $20. Mine was the second number called. Frickin' sweet!

Next, there was a series of introductions and gifts for faculty members. The longer you had worked for the district, the better your gift. Five year tenure earned you a corsage; forty year tenure earned you a windbreaker and a totebag. So on your first day as an intern, you get twenty dollars to do with as you please. After 40 years, a totebag. Does anyone else see the irony?

By the end of the day, I was beginning to wonder why my mentor teacher signed on for this. The year is already packed with changes and transitions for her. She is implementing a new math program designed by the NSF. I believe it's called Connected Math. In December, the entire school moves across town to a new facility. With that move comes a new name. Wescott Junior High will become Westbrook Middle. And on top of all that, my mentor teacher announced to our team that she is pregnant and due in March.

I can't wait to find out what revelations today brings.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Gender Bender

There's a story emanating from the track and field World Championship in Berlin last week that I think has a lot of bearing on our classrooms. You may have heard about Usain Bolt's record-breaking sprints and his virtually uncontested gold medals. While Bolt held center stage on the field, the subject of this post is another athlete who remains in the news even after closing ceremonies.

South African runner Caster Semenya took the gold medal in the woman's 800 meter last week. As challenging as that competition must have been to her physically and emotionally, this week she must face a far greater challenge than she could possibly have imagined. As a reward for representing her country, Semenya must undergo gender testing. You see, she has sort of a deep voice and a lot of muscle mass. So instead of celebrating a hard-earned victory, she must submit herself to a barrage of demeaning tests designed push her firmly into a well-labeled little box.

I almost don't even know where to begin.

Semenya is not accused of trying to cheat, but of perhaps unknowingly having a
medical condition that blurs her gender and gives her an unfair advantage over
other female runners.


Maybe I don't understand what a "fair" advantage is. No one claims we ought to revoke Bolt's medals due to his unusual height. Don't his long legs give him an unfair advantage over shorter runners? Don't all great athletes have something that sets them apart from the rest? How do we decide when things are unfair? I recognize that I have an extremely unfair advantage in life as a white male. Should I give back all the awards or recognitions I have received?

For female athletes, the answer is always the same. Women from Babe Zaharias to the present have had to defend their abilities by defending their gender identities. Not so for men. They may have to submit to drug testing on occasion, but no one asks them to prove their manhood. Why do we continually ask this of women? What would we do to them if they started to win against men, instead of merely proving themselves against fellow women?

I think maybe some of the debate stems from our mistaken notion that gender and sex are synonyms. Gender simply means kind or type. So although our species has but two sexes, it has many different genders. By confusing the two terms, we invite these kind of arguments. I wonder what this might lead to in the classroom. As girls make steady gains in stereotypically male subjects like math and science, should we be expected to call their gender identity into question?

"Great job on the math test, Sarah. Now please pee in this cup. What's that? No, we don't think you cheated, per se. We just think that your brain might be wired differently than the other girls. You may have an unfair advantage."

Maybe some of my readers can point to the flaws in my reasoning, but it seems to me that a persons identity is their own business. We ought to be celebrating the triumph of the human spirit, whether on the track or in the classroom. No one ought to be punished for excellence, and certainly not by a committee with DNA tests.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ropes Courses and Rain Checks

The funny thing about experiential learning is that you never know exactly what kind of experience you're going to get. I am currently sitting on my couch when I had fully intended to be enjoying s'mores around the campfire with my ETEP cohort. Unfortunately, impending thunderstorms and threats of tornadoes sent us scurrying for the cars.

Before the sudden exodus, we had been enjoying a fun filled day of low ropes courses and team building type activities. Some I enjoyed more than others and the high ropes course whispered seductively to me throughout the day, but despite that disappointment, I really do feel as though I got a lot out of the exercises. The lessons we learned could probably have been presented as easily through an in class video or a Powerpoint slide show, but I suspect that what we learned today will be more fluidly transferred to other contexts. Often times, epiphanies made in the classroom never filter out to other environments. I really think the ripples of today's lesson will continue for some time.

Still, I really would have enjoyed a good zip line.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Praxis Makes Perfect Part II

Well, according to the education professionals over at ETS, I am officially qualified to teach. I passed both my math and science content tests with flying colors.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

In Defense of Blogging

I go to bed early. I do my homework. I read ahead in the assigned text. I sit at the front of the class.

And I blog.

These are all things that a younger version of me would have found terribly amusing. I used to stay up late for no particular reason, aimlessly flipping channels from one TV movie to another. I used to coast by on my innate intelligence, ignoring those homework assignments that weren't graded and procrastinating on the ones that were, knowing that my exam scores would save me.

And I used to mock and berate anyone self-involved enough to think the Internet community wanted or cared to read their quaint little journal entries. Even using the word blog was enough to illicit a sneer.

After two and a half years and roughly 250 blog posts, I will now explain with perfect clarity why I am glad I changed my tune.

As a teacher, I can not afford to stagnate. Just as I chastise my mother for not being able to program the VCR (or for still owning a VCR,) my students will mock anyone who isn't on Facebook or Twitter. One of our first assignments in grad school has been to build a wikispace. While many of my peers have been stumped by issues of formatting and functionality, I have breezed through, having experienced this process already. I am not bragging, but I am thankful for having anticipated the role technology would play in my classroom ahead of time.

In another week, I will be assigned to my mentor teacher. I can only hope that he or she is as influential in my life as the edubloggers that have guided my development for these past two years. I hope he or she is as innovative as Dan or as supportive as Jackie. Thanks to blogging, I have mentor teachers all over the world.

Admittedly, i have a long way to go. I still don't tweet and I text in complete sentences with full punctuation. I will never be able to completely keep technologic pace with my students. But as long as I can stay just a few steps behind, I ought to be able to communicate with them at the times when I really need to.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hula Hoops and Bovine Poops: Day One of Grad School

Today I began the nine month boot camp that will shed the intellectual flab and give me the superior training that will transform me into a secondary educator. As first days go, it was pretty much what you would expect from a classroom experience, regardless of whether your role as teacher or student. You plan and plan and brainstorm every possible question or expectation, and just when you think you have all your bases covered, reality knocks to firmly on your ass.

I arrived on time and in style, sporting the first of some fancy new digs that my lovely wife Sarah helped me to pick out. She has been lecturing me about my total lack of style for years now, and with a shiny new ring on my finger and grad school teachers to impress, she figured this was the perfect time for a much needed make-over. As I donned my black sweater vest and stylish Chuck Taylors, I thought to myself, I'm glad I will be in an air-conditioned classroom or this would be a really bad idea. Note the not-to-subtle foreshadowing.

For the first hour, our cohort leader laid out the plans for the coming weeks. After some standard Q and A, she turned the reigns over to our exceptionality instructor. Our first week was going to be devoted to special needs learners, a topic which has always intrigued me. I benefited greatly from a TAG pull-out program myself, but it always struck me as odd to remove students from a mainstream class instead of allowing the varied skill levels and learning styles to augment one another.

Within minutes, and much to my chagrin, we were outside. Several games ensued, including one in which we linked hands and passed a hula hoop from person to person without unlinking. It was an excerise in learning, as the latter half of the circle watched the techniques of the first. Before I was completely drenched in sweat, we escaped back to the AC.

Our next and most substantial portion of our day consisted of reading about the former state-run facility at Pineland, ME. Before a person can truly understand where they are or where they might be going, they must appreciate where they have been. When the topic is exceptionality and special needs education in the state of Maine, looking backward means learning a little something about Pineland. The bulk of today’s activity was devoted to reading about the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, a politically incorrect reminder of eugenics past.

As a relatively new arrival to Maine, I had never heard of the facility or what went on there. Sadly, I suspect the story is far from unique. While I believe it is important to judge men’s actions by the standard of the times in which they lived, it is hard to believe how quickly the road to hell is paved with good and superficially scientific intentions. It is both surprising and unsettling that this institution lasted as long as it did. In the future, should I ever feel hamstrung by exceptionality regulations or frustrated by special needs students, I will remember the shameful mission statement of Pineland and with that will come the empathy and understanding required.

As a demonstration of how things can change, we ventured the 45 minutes northward to visit the Pineland campus. While dining and socializing in the shiny new building atop the hill known as the Commons, it was hard to reconcile the history of atrocities of which we had read with the elegantly manicured landscaping and attractive architecture surrounding us.

After lunch, we meandered down to the Pineland Farm, a working dairy farm adjacent to the main campus. In addition to caring for a herd of show quality cows and numerous other livestock, the staff at the farm maintains a thriving education program. It is precisely the type of program that allows exceptional students to engage in learning activities alongside of their mainstream peers. The variety of sensory experiences and depths of understanding possible make lesson plan differentiation much easier than traditional classroom settings.

And there I was...ninety degree heat, a brand new sweater vest and Chuck Taylors...standing scant inches from streaming cow excrement. A hell of a first day.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Married....with Children?

Now that Sarah and I have tied the knot, our discussions about the future seem to carry more weight. The topics are the same, but somehow the air around us seems thicker. Still enjoying our honeymoon, we have already begun discussing the pitter patter of little feet. My position on that issue has become cloudier than it used to be.

I have always wanted to become a father. Maybe it’s because divorce robbed me of a traditional relationship with my own dad, or maybe it’s just the strong pull of genetics. Regardless, I have long thought of hiking trips and bedtime stories with sons and daughters. But now that I am about to become a teacher, I wonder how I could possibly balance my passion for education with the family I intended to have.

One of my favorite things about attending school at USM is that class demographics are so non-traditional. Students range in age for 18 to 80, which makes for interesting group dynamics. As much as I love collaborating with the older students, I have noticed that they seem to be much less competitive than their younger classmates. It isn’t that they are less intelligent or less capable; it’s a matter of time. Most of them are parents who simply don’t have any time. Between force feeding recommended daily allowances of green vegetables, parent-teacher conferences, and shuttles to hockey games and dance recitals, there isn’t much time left for writing papers and studying for exams.

I know the kind of teacher I want to be. I know that I will spend as much time outside of class preparing and perfecting as I do in class with students. How can I possibly juggle fatherhood with that? How can I be the kind of teacher my students deserve while being the world’s greatest dad?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009