Department of Mis-Education

Nearly every morning I wake up with a sense of dread. The innumerable structural inadequacies that complicate my ability to teach overwhelm me to the point of despair. However, once I walk into the building and begin interacting with students, I feel a sense of belonging and peace. Then the adults show up and disturb that peace. Politics, bitterness, back stabbing, and gossip. Each day I begin with an earnest desire to provide my students with quality instruction, conversation, and relationship. Each day I am beaten down by the slew of bureaucratic inertia and toxicity that has infested the system at large. It has become clear to me at this tender point in my teaching career that authentic teaching rarely happens in the classroom—and is even less likely to happen during a formal observation.

This reflection is written from the confluence of fear (concerning formal observations), a new awareness of the social politics among teachers, and the deep sense of uncertainty about whether I should remain in my current position next fall—or within the profession itself. Although I am absolutely certain that I have made a tremendously positive impact on many students’ lives, very little—if any—of this is measurable by the instruments used to evaluate teachers. Is it possible to function in a system that is so broken, so malicious, and utterly inhumane? Each day I watch this archaic and mindless machine crush the souls of curious, creative, and intelligent young people. I see the talents and intellect of teachers overlooked, obstructed, and wasted. All of this destruction is in service of what? Indeed, at this point in my experience I do believe that Lauryn Hill’s voice captures the truth most succinctly and completely: This is the Department of Mis-education (D.O.M.).

Late in the school year I narrowly escaped the hostile grip of my first principal. Her irrational compulsion to destroy me was not dissolved by my departure. She made sure to follow me to my new school by going out of her way to contact the main office there and inform them that she would be sending my file, which was filled with her vitriol. It filled me with panic and I continued to feel as if I were on a sniper’s hit list. How can I learn? How can I grow when I am living in a shadow of fear while navigating a maze of structural violence?

This, I suppose, is precisely the danger that Parker Palmer warns against in the final chapter of The Courage to Teach.  Palmer recommends that in order to not only survive the institutional dysfunction but also to actively promote change we must not make the institution our center. He writes that we must find a community of like-minded people who are devoted to creating motion that will promote change and ground ourselves in that community and within that spirit of change. What tears at my equilibrium is the seeming duplicitousness that is required to function within such a system—one that marginalizes the essence of its charges. I’m still processing my position in this institution—the D.O.M.—and how I can work within or against it—or if it is worthwhile to do either.

I wish I could write that I feel rejuvenated and that looking back I see that I have grown. Unfortunately this is not the case. Indeed, I feel deflated, defeated, and consumed by an existential doubt that creates an echoing voice that asks “Why am I here?” A backlog of hostile exchanges, baffling absurdities, and the debris from the tsunami of blind and brute force that swells up from the belly of a terrific beast—the D.O.M.—fighting viciously to preserve its own existence…all of this has left me shipwrecked and seeking cover. My only intention, at this point, is to spend the summer writing. As for my philosophy of education?—by definition, it is something that must happen outside the diseased walls of the D.O.M.

Great Resources for Elementary Level English Language Learners

Sweet. New job, new students, and I’m happy to share some materials I made for my new students. Feel free to share these resources with your students and colleagues.

I’m in the process of building a wiki for my students. These days I am working with fourth and fifth graders at an awesome elementary school in Brooklyn. As testing season looms large many teachers and students are feeling stressed and overwhelmed about the “new” tests and looking for resources that will help students work on particular skills in need of strengthening. Many of my new students are struggling with mathematical language–they understand the concepts and are skilled in problem solving but they are often confused by the language used to describe the assigned task.

A colleague of mine found an excellent collection of resources on the Granite School District‘s website. Among those resources are printable flashcards of CCSS math terms by grade level. Each flashcard contains the term, definition, and an image demonstrating the term. I’ve digitized those lists for the fourth grade terms and created four sets of vocabulary cards on quizlet. You can also find all four sets on the class wiki I’m building. In the next few days I will also create a set that covers the terms in the fifth grade list.




Teaching Induction: Reflective Teaching and Video

The last Monday before the winter break I had my first formal observation by my principal and was also required to video-record a lesson for my practicum course. Now that I’ve officially made it ‘halfway’ through my first year as a public school teacher…I find myself engrossed in a stream of reflection that feels a lot like the deep and urgent breaths a person takes after being submerged for far too long. Here are my thoughts.

It took me a while to sit down and watch this recording and another while to respond to my observations in writing because I am pinned beneath the weight of a looming and overwhelming inquiry: What am I teaching them? What should I be teaching them? And if I am to call in a ‘should’ then further inquiry storms my brain: ‘Should’ according to whom? The ‘should’of the Common Core? The ‘should’ of the NYCTF—as murky and unrealistic as it might be in light of my lack of experience  along with the lack of resources available to support new teachers? The competing voices declaring what ‘should’ are at once cacophonous and debilitating. At this point I am hoping to cordon off a cavern of solitude in which I will routinely reflect in order to unearth the ‘should’ of common sense. Death by philosophy will surely seize me when I begin to question: Common to whom?

Here’s the truth: I have no idea what will best prepare my students for coping with their present and preparing for their future. From what I can glean—during the limited amount of time I make to read articles by other educators—folks much more intelligent and experienced than I are similarly unsure which ‘should’ to place their bets on. Before becoming a teacher, I’d read many times about education being a “contested space” but for the love of mental peace, when will the storm subside?

A lot of time is spent corralling, soothing, organizing, and convincing—my students and myself. By the time we get to the lesson I am tired and, admittedly, at times, resentful. The lesson in this video was delivered to my most well-behaved and highest-performing class and much of the above is not as prevalent with this particular group of students as it is with the others. There seems to be a warmth in the classroom—even though one girl (directly before the camera—the student I reminded a few times, “Don’t whine. They won’t take you seriously if you whine…”) spent half the class disengaged because she was frustrated with her groupmates’ inaction. Am I exhausting myself because I am endeavoring to ensure that every last student is engaged, working, and moving forward? Isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing? Isn’t that what is morally sound? The more time I put in the more a sad truth unfolds into my slow grasp: I’m not going to reach every kid.

Aside from my maddening ambivalences and uncertainties, I notice a few things in this recording that are worth mentioning. Most are things I want to work on and one is recognition of something I appear to be doing well…at least during this particular lesson. First, the good news: as above, there is an evident warmth and safety in the classroom. When I talk to the students I sound patient and even kind. Unfortunately, I do not successfully strike this note every day or with every class. Moving forward I am going to pray as I enter the building that I will be successful in achieving this throughout each class and the day as a whole. In order to achieve this I know for certain that I must do two things: make strong boundaries in regard to the number of hours I put in each week; and maintain my meditation and workout schedule (reliant on my success in making boundaries). I cannot continue working eighty plus hours seven days a week. It’s simply not sustainable.

Now for the stuff I need to work on: entry routine (warm-up), closing, and not talking so much. “Not talking so much” includes creating more opportunities for meaningful talk among students (bonus points for this! It also happens to be a citywide and CFN-endorsed instructional expectation), providing students with more time and opportunity to respond and or participate verbally, and ‘loosening my grip.’ My sense is that I talk too much because I’m a novice and it’s a control thing. If I were to count how many times I say, “Hey guys, listen up” it might feel like a self-inflicted waterboarding, drowning on my own compulsive expressions of anxiety. Do I really need the students to “listen up” as frequently as I request them to do so? How can I rearrange the dynamic so I am less center-stage and their own conversation and learning drives the lesson and demands their focus? My challenge with this—or their challenge—is keeping them on task. The few times I have tried to have students turn to a partner or discuss something with their group it seems one of two things happens: they ignore my request and continue on as they were; or, they ignore my request, abandon what they were doing previously, and enter into a raucous few moments of open social conversation unrelated to the subject at hand. Yes, they are young, they are wild, and they resist my ridiculous efforts to channel their energies.

Also needed (I suppose), an entry routine and a meaningful closing. Here’s what I’ve noticed with my students: They are very slow starters but once they start they do not want to stop. If I attempt to transition from the ‘meat’ of the lesson to some sort of closing or reflection they either ignore me or behave as if class is over completely. Now that I’m reflecting on and writing about it I realize my own feeling: good for them for ignoring me—they’ve spirit and aren’t so easily conditioned. Thank God. Imagine if my students took a newbie like me so seriously. However, I know that I am expected to begin each class with a warm-up and that I need to have some kind of meaningful closing. Too, many of my colleagues and I have noticed that a number of our students do much better when there is more structure. Indeed, I think that the number of students who prefer structure is greater than those who flourish when there is less. Although I am not experienced or educated enough to determine whether I agree that pedagogically this is the soundest approach (highly structured, clear beginning, middle, and end), I need to start somewhere. This last unit overturned our routines because we were working with computers most days, which meant (or at least turned into) not completing a writing exercise as a warm up then losing track of time because we were so into our work (score!) and closing by rushing to collect the computers. In short, I need to reestablish our warm up routine in a way that inspires buy-in from the kids—and me—and determine what kind of closing routine to implement. It must be meaningful.

I’m currently blind to all other weaknesses in my teaching because a person can only take so much self-scrutiny.

Letter from a New York City Teaching Fellow

The atmosphere was eerie when I slid my front window open and peered into the night. Sandy was due in about 24 hours. Sadly, yet notably, many of my colleagues in the New York City Teaching Fellows were praying that school would be canceled. Nearly everyone, it seems, is overwhelmed to the point of saturation. Personally, I wave in and out of that sensation only because I’ve been fortunate enough to land a job in a school that is staffed by an incredibly kind, supportive, and compassionate teachers–they have helped me slowly get my bearings as a first year teacher.

There has been little time for reflection since June, when the fellowship kicked off. Throughout June, July, and the first few days of August the fellowship wasted our time and energy by pushing us through a summer training program that was irrelevant at best and utterly ill-conceived and damaging at worst (I should say “more realistically” rather than “at worst”!). The entire summer was spent focused on a militaristic approach to classroom management. There was NOT ONE bit of training related to unit and lesson planning, instructional strategies, assessments, and so on. Just a bunch of clapping for attention and demanding eye contact.
Well, now that all eyes are on me, what shall I do? This is the burning question driving most fellows to absolute sleep deprivation and edging them toward emotional collapse.

Many folks find my blog after searching for information about the New York City Teaching Fellows. For you folks who are interested in the program and considering applying to the fellowship a colleague of mine agreed to allow me to publish a recent email she wrote to me about her experience up to this point.

Hey there Kelly-

How is my most beautiful, justice-seeking, freedom-fighting friend? I hope this week off was productive for you in the sense of rest, rejuvenation, and empowerment. For me, on the other hand, I found that the week off further encouraged my growing discomfort with this program. I could not bring myself to think about work this entire week… I managed to squeeze out some writing for Hunter, but only by a hair, and now facing work tomorrow I am filled with dread.

The job I am being asked to do (and now pressured by my principal to do more effectively) is simply impossible. It is impossible…. I am finding that I am not a solution to the systematic inadequacies within the DOE, but rather I am adding to the problem. Not to mention that this job effectively took a bright-eyed, children-loving, socially active woman and turned her… me… into a morose, angry, impatient, grump who dreads waking up in the mornings.

I am fairly certain that I am going to quit. I do not feel affective, I just feel affected. But, the upside is that my eyes have been opened to the gross corruption, inadequacies, and maltreatment being imposed by the New York City education system and I want to be part of that change.

Can you please refer me to organizations, schools, and/or activists who are actively challenging this system and working towards a fair and just solution? I cannot sit idly by knowing that these things are happening, but I also cannot work under such oppression anymore. It would be great to get involved with some groups who are standing on the frontline with these teachers and students and supporting them in their fight for justice.

Again, I truly hope you found some peace during this week and that your home and family are safe. Let me know how you are doing and I am eager to see you next week in the instance that I am still enrolled in the program.

All the best,

It’s true–the person who wrote this message is by nature a bright-eyed, children loving, socially active individual. The last time I saw her she appeared to be on the cusp of a breakdown. It broke my heart to see her so depleted and distressed. We have lost quite a few fellows already. Surely some readers will be further encouraged by this news. They might think, “I have the chutzpah to soldier through it!” Perhaps you do. The bottom line is this: Each year the NYCTF sends about 1,000 unqualified and untrained individuals into the highest need schools in the city. Every fellow I know is bright, has an impressive academic pedigree, and is committed to the point of insanity BUT we are not qualified for this work yet. WHY not subsidize the training and pair fellows with mentor teachers–similar to the model used by the Teaching Residents @ Teachers College program? Yes it would be more expensive but it will likely result in higher quality instruction and higher teacher retention rates.
I feel called to teach. I love teaching, I love my students, I love my colleagues, I love my school….which is precisely why I am arguing for a different model. Yes, I am infinitely grateful to have been given the opportunity to become a teacher but I feel strongly that the NYCTF program is an irresponsible one–it is unfair to our students, young teachers, and our communities. Yeah…and I hear that Teach for America makes the NYCTF shite storm look look a sun shower.

Learning to Access the Deep Heart

They are the walking wounded. The poorest most vulnerable young people among us. Do we want to forget about them or pretend that they deserve what they are (not) being given? How is it we can stand ourselves–living in this so-called developed nation–knowing full well that we routinely abandon our youth–especially those who are living in poverty and on the increasingly thick margins of privilege. What can we do today and moving forward to reach and teach these young people so that they have the skills they need to not only read, write, and reason but also to access their deep hearts and connect with others in this world? To not only read the world but also to respond to it.

On Thursday I visited a Title 1 school situated in a working poor neighborhood in Brooklyn. The kids walk through security gates each morning before heading to school. They place their book bags on conveyor belts leading to the x-ray examination. Dear kids, come to school and we will remind you each morning that we think of you as accomplished criminals or criminals in training. Dear kids, come join us in the pipeline. Schools starts with a bag search, a body search, and a direct expression of our lack of trust. (As a visitor, I was also required to go through the ‘security’ procedures.)

Many of the young people simply don’t show up to school on time. During the first period class I observed–which was supposed to begin at 8:00am–the majority of the class was absent. As students trickled in, there was no apparent consequence presented or communicated regarding their tardiness. I wondered to myself if this is a case of ‘choosing one’s battles.’

Throughout the day I observed an ongoing detachment among the students–they simply  (there were a few exceptions) weren’t really paying attention or doing work. The phrase “walking wounded” kept appearing in my own mind as I observed young people staring into space, ignoring their assigned tasks, wandering into class late. There appeared to be lots of “assertions of toughness”…that type of affected “you can’t get to me” swagger that I saw from a deeply traumatized young man (12 years old) I worked with in St. Louis. (He kept that up until one day–after months of one-on-one work together–I told him “You know, you’re safe here.”) I wonder, how many of the young people in this school feel safe and settled enough to learn? How many of them are getting their basic needs met?

I was given the opportunity to sit in on a teachers meeting. The teachers were all absolutely lovely and apparently committed. It was clear that they knew the students well: their progress (or lack of) and their particular situations. Too, their was a notable collegiality but also a sort of fatigue–but not cynicism–which was managed by what I perceived to be a healthy sense of humor. As the teachers discussed the upcoming graduation and worked to come up with names for recognition, scholarships, etcetera, I repeatedly heard: “She’s not going to make it. [graduate] She’s on the two-day plan.” And, “He’s not going to make it. He needs credits and regents and he’s on the one-day plan.” These “plans” aren’t plans-they refer to students’ chronic absenteeism.

Each class I observed was taught by a high quality teacher–the lessons were interesting and well planned and presented. The geometry teacher in particular was a brilliant educator. In another class, I was sitting alongside two students who were reading an overview of the Democratic of Congo’s “resource curse.” I engaged them in conversation about the reading assignment and looked at the graphic organizers they were completing in order to prepare for a debate. It soon became clear to me that one of the two students was reading at a very low level. She was able to decode the words but had extremely limited comprehension. My guess is that she was reading at about a third grade level. When I asked her if she understands the phrase “resource curse” she looked at me with the most heartbreaking expression it ripped into my soul–she looked scared, lost, helpless, sad when she said “I know curse is a bad thing so I think it means something bad.” She is in the tenth grade. My heart is breaking and I do not know how we can begin to heal all the damage that has been done. When will me make that change come?

Girls Can! But you knew that, right?

Theresa is rich—not so much with money or material assets—but certainly with intelligence, imagination, and a relentless commitment to share. She is my older sister—by adoption, that is; I decided that she should play that role in my life and true to her own character she readily and happily agreed. We met through an ad, which she had written and published on craigslist, calling for volunteers to donate their time to an organization called ByteWorks. The ad, like Theresa, expressed an openness that encouraged anyone, anywhere, of various shapes, skill-sets, and sizes to join in the fun. We’re a community, after all. Let’s join together and collaborate!

Theresa describes herself in less romantic terms. When I asked her what motivates her to spend a substantial amount of time and energy working on grass-roots informal education programs she explained, “I’m a total butthead and can’t work within the system and deal with politics.” She added, “The only way I can know I’m making a difference is to go out and make it.” The thing is though…these days Theresa isn’t just donating her time and energy by joining an already existing program, she is actually in the midst of developing and piloting a program for girls that is designed to give them the opportunity to practically experience their own abilities to explore, tinker, and problem solve. The program: Girls Can!

What is Girls Can!? It’s not about telling girls they are smart and capable, it’s about creating a space in which girls are given the opportunity—including access to mentors—to experience their own abilities. The Girls Can! program links high school girls between the ages of 14 and 18 with adult mentors, who with a very light touch provide the girls with guidance and support as they build their own computers from scratch. Yup, from scratch.

Since its inception in November seven girls have joined the program at St. Elizabeth Academy, where Girls Can! is being piloted. The girls participate when they can—some join for an hour and a half during time allotted for elective studies or study hall, others join after school, and now—Theresa just initiated Saturday hours—some join twice a month on Saturdays. Essentially, despite the girls busy schedules and the limited amount of time they are able to attend Girls Can! sessions, all seven girls have already collaborated to build one computer—which they jointly agreed to raffle off to raise funds to be used to purchase more components—and four girls have built themselves computers. More components were recently delivered and the other three girls in the program will soon build themselves their own computers.

What does this mean? It means that the girls in the program—in a very short time indeed—go from “looking at a box of expensive electronic components thinking ‘I can’t touch that’” to digging into the box of components, tinkering with various parts, and building an operational computer. Most importantly, the girls are developing learning attitudes that enable them to transfer the skills they’re developing to other topics of inquiry. Theresa has noticed this shift in the girls’ thinking, and states that they are learning “the skills to take a good look at it [any problem] and figure it out, get rid of that ‘I can’t do it’ fear. Once they get that it will benefit them wherever they go.”

Any other results? Well, at a time—adolescence—that is infamous for dramatically altering girls’ relationships with their fathers, the girls in the program have reported that “my dad wants to know how I’m building this.” Older girls have told Theresa that their “boyfriend wants to know all about it.” In short, Theresa laughs, “Dads want to know [the computer’s] specs and the boyfriends are jealous.” This is an empowering lesson for girls at a time that is too often marked by a loss of power, as the pressure to be cute and not too smart is pressed onto them. They are learning that “you can be confident, you can be smart, and people aren’t going to think less of you for that, in fact, they may even think more of you.”

One participant told Theresa during her first Girls Can! session that when she is older she plans on being a nurse or working in a hotel. These days her goals have changed substantially. In the short-term she is applying for a part-time job at a local computer center because “she feels confident to deal with and talk about technology.” In the future she plans to attend Washington University, where she intends to study bio-informatics. Eh?! Girls Can!!!!!

Other folks have noticed the tremendous and positive influence the program has had on participants: the school’s teachers and administrators. The principal is so impressed by the difference she has recognized in the participants’ learning attitudes that she is currently working to establish Girls Can! as a for-credit elective course in order to provide more girls with the opportunity to attend the sessions on a regular basis. The program has also caught the attention of another community-based organization that has expressed interest in linking up with Girls Can! to build computers for a women’s shelter in St. Louis.

Telling them “you’re smart” isn’t enough, says Theresa. “I’m not telling them anything. They are learning by doing” and as a result they independently recognize that they are capable, smart, and interested.

If you are interested in establishing a Girls Can! chapter in your school, community center, or living room, or would like to contact Theresa to learn more about the program, feel free to contact her via email at


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