In-House Field Trip

We had an in-house field trip today at the O.K. Corral.  We’d been working for a while on doing some kind of trip before the end of school.  Our original plan was to go to Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter.  The problem with that was that the fee per child was $4.50, then we would have had to tack on another $3.00 to pay for the bus, bringing the total to $7.50, which is really too much to ask from our Title I families.

Enter Bee Understanding, a local non-profit organization that educates people about the importance of honey bees to our food supply.  According to their website, “bees account for thirty percent of the food we eat…”  We received an email from Al and Keely Salopek stating that they are an approved vendor for the school district and explaining what they do.  For $3.50 per child (for a guaranteed 100 students) Mr. Al comes to your school and does an entertaining and interactive hour-long presentation explaining the various types of bees in a hive and the roles that they play.  Following the whole-group presentation, he meets with individual classes for 15 minute sessions where he answers questions and lets kids view his observation hive up close and personal.  Each kid is given a straw of honey to taste and an “I learned about honey bees today.” sticker to wear home.

We ran into a couple of unforeseen problems when we sent home permission slips for this in-house field trip.  For some of our parents, whose children come to school every day and are given free breakfast and free lunch, it was incomprehensible that they should have to pay money for a trip in which the kids don’t actually go anywhere.  Another problem was that many of our kids are scared shitless of animals, period, let alone bees.  I had five kids who resisted three rounds of permission slips and opted to be farmed out to some of our third-grade friends rather than attend the presentation.

But it was their loss, because the session was terrific.  Mr. Al was enthusiastic and entertaining, keeping the nearly 100 first graders enthralled for a whole hour.  He brought costumes and props and invited kids to come onstage to portray the various bee jobs.  By the end of the hour, the kids knew all sorts of things about how a bee hive operates and why bees are essential to our world.

I would highly recommend Bee Understanding as an affordable alternative to a field trip away from school.  If you’re not local to Palm Beach County, check with your local Backyard Beekeepers’ Association to see if this type of program is available in your area.

All For One And One For All

appleStandardized testing.  We all love it, right?  Because who needs to be educated, thoughtful, creative, or literate?  What we need is the ability to take tests.  Proponents of high-stakes testing insist that it provides accountability.  How can you tell the bad teachers and bad schools from the good teachers and good schools?  By their test scores, of course.  If sarcasm was lethal, you’d all be dead now.

Unfortunately, it’s the reality we all have to live with, like it or not.  Schools and teachers are evaluated based on the results of their most recent tests.  Our Title I school has struggled to raise our scores.  Two years ago, based on a complex algorithm that takes into account gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, our students didn’t show enough growth and so our school received a grade of D.  We were placed on a list of the lowest performing schools in the district and were overrun with clipboard holders who visited regularly to hem and haw and cluck their tongues, coming up with all kinds of interventions.  “You know, if you move your rug from here to over there…”

With a great deal of hard work and an hour added to the instructional day, we were able to move from a D to a C at the end of that year.  Clipboard holders came to pour on the attaboys, but frankly, nobody was satisfied with a grade of C.  Who wants to work your ass off to be average?  We followed that up with second year of the added instructional hour of literacy and we were able to make the gains necessary to become a B rated school.  This year, as a B school, we no longer have the extra instructional hour.  They tried to tell us it’s because we did so well, but the truth is that they need that money to pay for an extra hour at some other school.

With raising the school grade comes bonus money for the staff.  And the staff votes for how the bonus money should be allocated.  In the eleven years I’ve been at my school, we’ve received the bonus three times.  Each time we’ve voted to split the money equally among all staff members, instructional and non-instructional.  So teachers receive the same cut as cafeteria workers, office clerks, and custodians.

This year some people had different ideas.  The notion was put forth that teachers in testing grades should receive 70% of the bonus while teachers of kindergarten, first, and second grades should receive 30%.  After all, they said, it was their students who raised the school grade.

You can imagine how that went over.  Because here’s the thing.  Forty percent of my annual evaluation is based on the ingenious invention called the VAM score.  The Value Added Model takes the results of administrative observations of my teaching and adds the test scores of the older students I did not have in my class, melding it all together to form the judgement of whether or not I’m an effective educator.  Obviously, it’s in my best interest to make sure that the first graders in my charge are ready for the upper grades.

All of that to say this: If the VAM score is good enough for my public-record evaluation, it’s good enough for my bonus.  Third graders don’t just walk in knowing how to read.  The fact that they can read is the direct result of years of blood, sweat, and tears in the lower grades.  And I’m prepared to bitch-slap anyone who says any different.

Needless to say, staff unity has taken a bit of a hit.  I’m sure we’ll get past the drama.  The aforementioned option did not appear on the final version of the ballot.  You know, it’s true.  Love of money is the root of all evil.

I’m not Miss Beadle.

More Thoughts on ‘So This Happened Today’

This post generated a bit of conversation and some considered opinions were expressed.  I feel compelled to flesh out the situation a bit more.  While I didn’t know the little dudes involved in this specific incident, I’ve been doing this a while and I have some guesses about the anger displayed.   

First, a little data.  What are we educators without our data?  As mentioned in the About section of this blog, I teach at a K-5 Title I school.  This designation is given to a school wherein at least 40% of its population is from low-income families, as defined by the U.S. Census.  The designation comes with some funding and lots of mandates, which is not my focus right now.

Our school has over 700 students.  In addition to our ‘regular’ classrooms, we have several EBD classes, that is, Emotional Behavioral Disorder.  We have kids who wear ankle monitors mandated by the courts (remember, this is K-5).   According to the most recent statistics from the state Department of Education website, 94% of students at our school come from low-income families.  It also says that 94% of our students are considered minorities.  There are studies showing that statistically, these students begin kindergarten two years behind their counterparts at more affluent schools.  I heard an employee at our school remark once that she didn’t teach her child to write her name, her letters, or her numbers.  “That’s the teacher’s job,” she commented.

Here’s what the data doesn’t show.  Many of our students come from homes where violence, crime, neglect, addiction, and abuse are the norm.   There are kids in every classroom who have significant adults in their lives who are incarcerated for violent crimes.  I once had a student whose older brother was in prison for murder.  He’d killed their father.  There are kids in every classroom who know someone who died violently.  Drive-by and revenge shootings are commonplace in the neighborhoods where these babies have to go home every afternoon.  The parents who care don’t allow the kids to play outside. 

Then there are the parent who don’t care.  It’s business as usual for parents to give false phone numbers to the school.  They don’t want to hear from the teachers or administrators.  Which is all well and good until you have a kid in the clinic who needs to be transported to the hospital and you can’t get in touch with a parent.  Some parents seem to fear that their children will do better than they did, and these parents actually give their kids a hard time about doing homework or behaving in school.  You can’t make that up.

Our students worry about things that would never cross the mind of the average kid in a ‘white-bread’ school.  For example, I read aloud a Junie B. Jones story where she got locked in the school and called 911.  One of my friends observed, “She’s gonna go into foster care,” shaking her head sadly. 

Another kid was worried that mom was going to go to jail for leaving her and her siblings home alone.  Why was she worried about that?  Because that’s what the cops threatened last time they were called out to the home. 

I have found myself normalizing unacceptable situations.  “You’re going to out of town to visit your dad in prison?  Awesome!”  “Your daddy’s dead?  I’m so sorry.  Let’s try to work on our math now.”

So they come to us tired.  When dad and his homies are up all night with their dog-fighting, it’s hard to sleep.  They come to us hungry.  Last year, one little girl wrote very matter-of-factly in her journal that over the weekend they’d eaten popcorn and watermelon because “we didn’t have any food.”  We feed every kid free breakfast and most kids free lunch every school day, but there are those pesky Saturdays and Sundays.  Every so often we send home a bag of food with each kid, provided by some ‘feed kids’ charity. 

And they come to us angry, emulating behavior they see modeled by the grown-ups in their world.  Several years ago, an intermediate student began organizing fights for money.  She’d arrange fights, sell tickets, and take bets on who would win.  Enterprising and exceedingly scary, all at the same time.  A bit of insight into the culture tells us that power is the ultimate necessity.  Vengeance must be had or one is considered weak.  I once removed a sharp kitchen knife from a first grader.  “I wasn’t really going to use it,” he told me. 

So when little headbanger assumed that someone was looking at him wrong, he flew into a rage.  I’d be hard-put to place the blame on the teacher or the school culture for his outburst.  He came to us like an angry knot.  Somehow, we’re supposed to unravel him. 

It’s a complex problem to which there is no simple answer.  To propose otherwise is both elitist and naive.  I’m not Miss Beadle.