One Year as a Librarian, and What a Year It Has Been

12/18/2011

On a late Friday afternoon about one year ago my principal told me I was going to be the school’s librarian starting the next week.

At the time I knew nothing about being a school librarian and was taking over a disaster of a library. 

Three weeks later I enrolled in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Queens College. This past week I completed my 21st, 24th and 27th credits in 11 months while working full time. I’m very tired.

I reorganized all the books in the library, twice. I began automating the library, a process of putting barcodes on all the books and scanning them into our now online catalog. Oh yeah, I had to learn that software (and thanks to Shannon McClintock Miller for turning me onto it).

Five unpaid Saturdays were spent in 7-hour long training sessions to learn more about my job, I won a small technology grant. I presented at the NYC school library system’s fall conference.

My library was selected to be part of a pilot program of having a shared catalog and other collaboration with the New York Public Library.

English: A panorama of a research room taken a...

That meant learning another system of library automation software.

Oh, I’ve also been teaching information fluency skills, trying out two different website development tools, finding and sharing resources with my colleagues in my school and in my district.

In my free time, I taught a class at SUNY Empire State College, helped organize and run EdCampNYC, and managed to lose the last half of a 60 lb. total loss that I’ve managed to keep off.

So much for this year.’

Next year?

English: 2012 Calendar, sized as A4 page

I’ve got a lot more work to do.

I need to improve my teaching, redecorate the library and try to find the money for a renovation.

I need to finish my degree. After 27 credits in 11 months, thanks to budget cuts it will take me another 11 months to complete the final nine required credits.

I need to continue to weed old, outdated and damaged books from our collection and finish the barcoding and cataloging.

I also need to purchase books, magazines and databases with the twin foci of providing quality recreational reading options and better aligning the collection to our curriculum.

I need to continue to learn my job and continue to be thankful to all the members of my PLN, including my colleagues in the NYC school library system who help me do so.

Yes, I still have a lot to do, but right now I need to rest, to get to know my wife and son again, to take some time for myself.

I’ve earned it. Haven’t I?

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School Choice? Sure, but don’t expect miracles.

07/12/2011
Shell Game

Some say that instead of automatically dumping money into public schools parents should be given the money and allowed to spend it on any school or other education facility that they think might work for their child or children.

Okay, but…

For many of my students there are no parents to make those choices.

For many of my students the parents are working two or three jobs to get by and don’t have the time to educate themselves about the options, much less attend meetings or other appointments.

For many students, some of them mine, the lack of transportation limits their choices more than the lack of options.

The parents of some of my students show up for every parent/teacher meeting…drunk…or stoned.

For many of my students their parental inability to read English, or in some cases any language, limits access to information necessary to know of options and make informed choices.

School choice does not help the student who comes to class hungry, abused or unloved.

School choice does not change the housing situation of students who can’t find a quiet room or flat space to do their homework on.

School choice does not help the student who goes home and has to care for infants or younger siblings because mom is working a night shift. Or out with her boyfriend.

School choice might be the answer for some people in some situations somewhere, but my students need a whole lot more than choice to make their lives succeed.

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Student Progress: Sometimes Its Not the Teacher

06/18/2010

Teacher accountability is all the rage.

March 6
Image by lorenabuena via Flickr

I don’t think there is anyone who would argue that teachers should not be accountable for what they do or fail to do, not even me.

The only argument is how to measure what teachers do.

Oh yeah, we also have to define what it is that teachers do.

Part of the problem is that part of what teachers do is not done in the classroom, part of what teachers do affects student development but has nothing to do with academics, and teachers are not the only ones in a school who help kids develop.

For one child in my school the teachers tried and tried, but it was the school secretary who made the difference.

And what a difference it is.

K came to our school three years ago as a hostile, extremely withdrawn and occasionally violent sixth grade girl.

Every day she wore this large black trench coat that she would pull up so that she could be totally hidden by it.

She was mute.

She ignored any teacher who tried to speak to her, no matter how gently.

She ignored any teacher who tried to speak to her, no matter how insistently.

She ignored students who tried to speak to her. If they got too close she would lash out with the sharpened pencil always ready in her hand. More than once a student would get stabbed. K just missed piercing one girl’s eye.

K did not like school.

K especially did not like the school lunchroom, a near toxic blend of cacophonous sounds near manic energy.

K was not at all manic.

K seemed to be an empty shell of a girl.

Our school secretary is a dour, efficient woman who does not tolerate teachers or other fools well.

But she has a heart a mile wide and twice as deep when it comes to kids.

Ann invited K to spend the lunch period in the office with her.  K accepted wordlessly by showing up.

Ann would continue to work while K sat there.

Eventually K began to draw.

#2 Pencils, A Lot of Them

Image by alex.ragone via Flickr

And draw.

And draw.

The first positive thing we learned about K is that she is a talented artist who, with only a #2 pencil, created pictures filled with texture and emotion.

Eventually we heard from K’s father who lives overseas. He told us some of what K had been through and we began to understand why she behaved as she did.

It was not a pretty picture, especially when K eventually drew it sitting at a desk in the office eating lunch with Ann.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

In 7th grade K travelled with the rest of her class to their different subject teachers. K still wore her trench coat but she didn’t hide in it as much.

And she stopped stabbing people.

Every time I saw K I’d say hello and smile at her.

Eventually she would look up at my face as I did that.

One day I got a crooked, shy smile back.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

The black trench coat was replaced with a very large sweater.

K continued to communicate with drawings. Sometimes we got what she was saying, usually not.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

K did very little schoolwork. But she started to give other people that shy, crooked smile.

One day K whispered something to me.

She asked to go to the office to see Ann.

It wasn’t lunchtime, but I let her go. She spent the rest of the day there.

K started talking more.

And more.

She continued to draw, and she continued to eat lunch with Ann every day.

This year K is in 8th grade.

The sweater is gone.

K smiles and talks to anyone who will listen or smile back.

K made a few friends.

And there were even days when K did not eat with Ann because she wanted to be with her friends. She went to the lunchroom.

But most of the time you could find K in the office where she would sit opposite Ann drawing or helping out at odd tasks.

Now K holds her head up high and her bright blue eyes sparkle.

K is confident, relaxed and even kids around a bit.

K went to the prom! And had a good time. I know because she told me.

Last night I went to a retirement dinner for four colleagues. Ann is retiring in a week when our school years ends.

Last night was the first time I saw Ann smile and laugh.

Her work is done.

On Monday K will graduate with the rest of our 8th graders, all of whom have grown tremendously since they came into this school three years ago.

But none has grown and developed as much as K.

Today K will have her last lunch with Ann.

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Better Students? Not My Job!

06/08/2010
Dr Kildare 002
Image by Tinker*Tailor via Flickr

Can You Name Five Famous Teachers? Four? Three?

I bet you’d have no trouble naming five famous lawyers.

Go ahead. Try.

Easy, wasn’t it?

Naming five famous doctors is a breeze, too.

I bet you can even name five famous living economists.

Teachers?

Famous teachers are hard to come by.

Is it because teaching is thought of as women’s work? Perhaps.

Is it because teachers don’t toot their own horns? That, too.

The problem with not tooting our horns is it makes us easy to ignore, easy to disregard.

How many teachers are at the table when education policy is being formulated and debated?

How is it that all the decisions about teaching and learning are being made by people who are not teachers?

I recently asked my teacher groups on Twitter to tell me how they’ve made a difference in the lives of children and their families.

I was looking for examples of the sorts of things that teachers do that don’t show up on those infernal standardized tests.

I got a few of those:

But mostly teachers told me the 140-character-or-fewer stories of how teachers made a difference in their lives.

There are few famous teachers but we all have teachers who affected us deeply, not necessarily academically. They got to us in ways that helped us grow, helped us become better people.

Much of the talk about education these days is about how America is falling behind, how students in Kansas can’t compete with kids from kids from Korea, Kenya or Katmandu.

Teachers are blamed and exhorted to create better students.

Sorry, that’s not my job.

Better students come from homes with parents who around to read to and talk with their children instead of having to work three jobs to feed and clothe them.

Better students come from better communities that are able to support libraries and where the development of children is everyone’s concern and a kid may have only one mother and one father but is blessed with a dozen or more ‘parents.’

If it is not my job or any teacher’s job to create better students, what is it that we do?

In all honesty, as much as I love history, it is not important to me that every student knows how the enmity the American revolutionaries felt towards King George III affects our lives today (do you know?).

What’s important to me is that every student knows how to tell fact from fiction, not confuse opinion with authority.

It is important to me that all my students can wade through the pervasive media environment and know how to form and communicate a reasoned opinion and cast an informed vote.

No, we don’t want to create better students.

We want to create better adults.

Better adults become better parents. Better adults create better, more caring and supportive communities.

All those critics who want America to have better students, you’re setting your sights far too low.

We all know, low expectations cause poor performance.

Need proof?

Just look at our politicians.

We don’t expect much from them.

And when it comes to education policy, not much is exactly what we get.

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Never Let Go, Never Give Up

04/30/2010
Clinging Vines
Image by TexasEagle via Flickr

“Once I am your teacher I never let go.”

That is one of the first things I tell my students at the beginning of the school year.

I started saying that in my third year of teaching when I finally got my own class. They were twelve sixth-grade special education students and they didn’t believe me.

Those kids are freshmen in high school now. I still have the phone

A gang sign of the Bloods

Image via Wikipedia

numbers of their parents or guardians in my cell phone’s directory.

Every now and then I call one of them to see how the boy or girl I taught is doing.

Some are thriving, some having a harder time.

One has dropped out and joined a gang.

I ran into him the other day after school.

He was wearing his colors so I didn’t have to ask him what was going on in his life.

We made small talk for a while before I asked him what happened, why had he given up on school.

He is a smart boy who has raging hormones and is easily distracted. He is also a very good basketball player.

He told me that his school doesn’t let freshmen play on the varsity and that students must maintain passing grades to be on a team.

He is capable of it, but he didn’t have to work too hard in middle school because, as a special education student, he had modified requirements for passing from grade to grade.

Those modifications disappear in high school

In high school all students are required to meet the same standard.

We warn them, but it still comes as a shock when it happens.

This boy realized around midterm, right around the time this HS basketball season ended, that he would not become a tenth grade student. He would not be on the varsity next year.

He has always had problems at home and those problems had worsened.

That’s why the gang is so attractive. It is a new family.

They don’t let go easily either.

This is where the corollary to I Never Let Go comes in.

I also never give up on a kid.

I reminded the boy of what I had told him four years ago and he laughed.

“I didn’t believe you then, but you tracked me in 7th and 8th grade and always checked in with me and my teachers.”

“I thought that was over when I graduated.”

I smiled.

“I never let go, and I never give up on a kid,” I told him.

“And the best thing about never is that never never comes.”

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Echoes of the Ancient and Tomorrow

03/28/2010
Seder Plate
Image by Daniel Greene via Flickr

It’s been this way for years

Monday night I’m participating in a Seder at my best friend’s apartment and the following night he and his wife will do the same at my house.

My first Seder was 40 years ago when a group of socially aware and politically active teenagers gather to celebrate the “Freedom Seder.”

Although my grand parents were all Jewish, I was not raised in the Jewish tradition.

dying easter eggs
Image by PaperNest via Flickr

My family did not celebrate the rites of any religion, but we adopted the symbols of many.

At this time of year we would dye Easter eggs that my parents would put into little baskets along with fake grass, jelly beans, a chocolate bunny and, often, a dreidel. There would be a box of matzah in the house.

My maternal grandmother would come over to cook a meal featuring homemade gefilte fish, and chicken (bones and all) in a soup filled with carrots, celery and onion. She would also make a peppery, oniony potato kugel so dense it did not dissolve even when Grandma served it sitting in the middle of the soup bowl. (I have never found anyone else whose relatives put the kugel in the soup. If yours did please let me know)

P1040074.JPG

Image by PlaysWithFood via Flickr

While my father was still living with us we’d also have a happy Buddha or two somewhere nearby.

My parents had largely rejected the religion of their parents. That’s why we annually had a beautiful Christmas tree with hand-blown glass ornaments from in front of which we open presents before eating our Chanukah gelt, chocolate coins with Hebrew lettering on them.

There were symbols all over the place, but no one ever told us what they meant or connected them to any particular religion. If we wanted to know we were directed to several of the hundreds of books in living room.

Instead of deities, doctrine, ritual, and the other accoutrements of religions, we saw models of compassion, sharing, brotherhood, acceptance, and what I have come to identify as an echo of the ancient Hebrew sense of tikkun olam, acting to heal the world.

Earth
Image by Satoru Kikuchi via Flickr

Despite the lack of notions of God or Gods of any kind in our upbringing, our home rituals, such as they were, carried echoes of their ancient origins even if they lacked their rigor.

What we do as parents and teachers also echoes through generations.

When we teach our children, as parents and in our work in schools, our actions carry more weight than our words.

The same applies to our learning as adults. We act the ways we see modeled by others.

Collaborative principals create collaborative teachers.

School leaders who rule by coercion and threat get teachers who do the same.

Tomorrow night, and for the following eight days, I will celebrate freedom even more than I do on all days. Others will celebrate the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

When I return to work I will model leadership, collaboration, trust, ethics, taking responsibility for my actions and responsibility to heal the world.

I wish I could be around to see how that echoes through my students’ lives.

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Parents, Parents and More Parents!

03/07/2010
Parents
Image by mohammadali via Flickr

I think I’ve finally recovered from Thursday night.

Thursday night we had our snow-delayed evening session of parent-teacher conferences.

A couple of years ago, when I was a special education classroom teacher with twelve students it was considered a major victory if the parents of half showed up.

I spend a total of five hours split evenly between day and evening sessions, talking to a total of three or four parents.

I’d get all my paperwork filed. I’d read. I’d socialize with parents waiting to see the general ed teachers.

Now I’m teaching two general ed classes social studies and three special ed classes reading, a total of about 95 students.

Thursday night I met with 31 sets of parents. In two and one-half hours.

That averages to about five minutes per child.

Averages lie.

I spent less than two minutes with the parents of my sixth grade students.

“Your son/daughter is very bright, a pleasure to teach. Do you know about the 6th grade year-end trip? Excellent! Do you have any questions? No? Well, it’s been a pleasure to see you again.”

Out the door.

Next!

Eighth grade parents took longer, a lot longer.

“No, I couldn’t give your son/daughter a passing grade when he/she scored below 50 on the midterm exam.”

“No, I don’t know why your child did so poorly on the midterm. Perhaps because while I was teaching the material, and again when I was reviewing it, he/she was throwing pencils across the room or shouting out the window,”

No, it doesn’t mean he/she will fail the year. Right now the students are working on their exit projects. These require a well researched written report, a visual presentation like a slide show, and an oral presentation that includes the visual. Ii is a big deal, the students get dressed up for their presentations.”

“No, I didn’t assign topics. I wanted each student to choose something he or she is interested in. Something they feel passionate about.”

“His/her topic? I’ve lost track of what he/she is doing the project on. It started out being one thing, but he/she’s changed her/his mind several times.”

“This is the first you’re hearing about it. We chose topics in January and the written report is due next Wednesday.”

“Yes, this is a graduation requirement. No project, no graduation.”

“Yes, I told the class that. The principal told the class that. I told them again. Several times.”

“Yes, I keep asking about it, and I required a draft by President’s Day weekend, but only six students gave me one and your child was not one of them.”

And so on.

Then there was the parent who complained that the 90 I gave her son lowered his average to 93.75.

“Count your blessings, ma’am.”

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