Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Brief break

Gonna take a week or ten days off (revels in retirement). Have some cool family stuff going on that needs my attention. I'll pack the laptop so the dog can post if he has to...

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Super-Glued, or the Virtues of the Tube

Periodically, I have adventures, some of which start in my backyard and end in the hospital ER. The ones that don't end there are generally more fun, but today was not one of those.

Don't panic, friends. Nothing serious happened to me. Serious things happened in the ER, but my time there was more of the human stupidity sort than of the human tragedy sort. I can still type. I can't, however, play the piano or sing, so I'm disappointed. Except that I couldn't before either, so I've lost nothing except a chunk of my annual deductible.

I was unpacking the new patio furniture we had just picked up at a major competitor of Home Depot (sorry, HD - you just didn't have anything that tickled our fancy), taking the cast aluminum parts out of the case and cutting the plastic bands that bound them with my Swiss Army Knife (not the same as the Russian Army Knife).

At any rate, I managed to create a situation wherein I was happy that the blade of my knife was indeed surgical-quality stainless steel, but wished that it hadn't cut quite so deep as to suggest a trip to the ER might be appropriate. Only because I want to be able to drive by Wednesday, and don't like extra biohazards on the steering wheel. Seriously. If it weren't for the impending road trip I'd have just cursed and duct-taped the wadded-up paper towel to my palm and gone back to putting chairs together.

Now it has been a very long time since I visited the ER, a time measured in decades. It might even be 35 years since my last tetanus shot. In the meantime, I have toughed-out a number of injuries, all of them in a category with this one: mere flesh wounds. I remember breaking up a hall-fight between a couple of students, and having one of them come back later and apologize for having knocked the grapefruit-sized bandage from my thumb. We had a dean of students at the time who had been an RN in a previous life who said, "You should have had stiches in that, Al. Paper towel and white tape ain't getting it." She was wrong. That thumb is now numb, which means I can whack the space bar with impunity. I just get extra spaces sometimes, but I can go back and delete them. With the other thumb.

Be patient. I'm about to cut to the chase (I might have to say that again):

After the broken foot (that dude was in some serious pain, even with the ice gauzed to his foot), who was in line ahead of me, and the heart attack who came in while I was there (and I'll make light of my own injuries because they deserve it, but the hired care-giver/house-cleaner/chief-cook-and-bottle-washer who rode in along with this person in the ambulance is NOT to to be made light of. She was scared to death and functioning on adrenalin and did a helluva job answering the necessary questions with the necessary answers. When they asked her, "Does she want us to put a breathing tube down her throat, or does she want to go when she's called?" She said, "I don't know - we have to talk to her children." And I said to myself, "God save me please from ever walking in those shoes." I mean, I was there when my wife had a stroke. I was there when she later had something that hasn't to this day been identified to her satisfaction or mine but which left her with reduced functionality in some of the fingers in her left hand. She's otherwise fine, and right-handed anyway, and sings like a nightingale and is the best natural-born teacher I ever saw in my five decades.

But I knew the answers to those questions. We've talked about it. We've written it down. It's been notarized, and photocopied, and filed in all the right places, including the hospital whose ER I was waiting in.)<--That's for those of you who were waiting for me to close that parenthese.

...after that heart attack came in and was stablized, the nurse called me away from the TV. That was fine with me, as I was tired of watching super-modified Jeeps crawl up crevices in some super-modified-for-TV competition. I was reading a magazine. The doc came in and took a look. Said, "If it were fingers involved, or something else that flexes a bunch, I'd say stitches. In this case, down there in the palm of your hand, glue will work just fine."

I said, "Cool. Glue it up."

The nurse did exactly that.

Now this is the same nurse who did the triage on me when I came in. She took my temperature, my pulse, my blood pressure, and as she did those things, I said to her, "Joanne, I let the knife get away from me. That was my stupidity. I just need some of that surgical-quality, super-glue you guys have that's all sterile and stuff, to hold this together till it heals."

Between my diagnosis and the RN's work, we didn't need the doc for this at all. Oh, I'll get a bill for his words of wisdom, but his time would, in all seriousness, have been better spent sorting out either the broken foot-bone or the heart-attack. Instead of telling me, "This is not regular super-glue: it's a different formula, and it's sterile, but if you're out in the wilderness and can't get to a doctor, super-glu will work okay," instead of telling me that, he should have been doing something productive with one of those other patients. Or reassuring that care-giver as she waited for a chance to let go of the adrenalin and know everything would be okay.

And now I know how people who bitch about teachers feel: Jeez. I could have done something constructive instead of just venting.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Remodeling can be tricky

The Science Goddess talked yesterday about bursting bubbles of expectation for a science department she's working closely with, and reminded me of what happened when my classroom was remodeled to accomodate thirty computers.

That she can say this:

The science group did end up lowering their expectations a bit (no ice-maker), but the total was still around $1 million.

tells me that they're at least getting some input into what happens, which is more than I had, but when she says this:

Further discussions were had about reusing more of the HVAC and electrical systems, along with some other possible cuts.

I REALLY start remembering how my retrofit shook out.

It seems that the specs for a computer lab (which my room was, in effect, becoming) called for a separate HVAC unit. To avoid that expense, the district engineering team called it simply a lab, as in science lab or reading lab or whatever, which let them leave the AC as it was.

Now I'm not about to start complaining about being an English teacher in what amounts to a dedicated writing/multimedia/internet research lab. That part of it was magical.

The magic disappeared, though, as soon as air-conditioning season started, which, in southern Nevada, is almost here again. Oh, it was possible to set the thermostat low enough to get my room and the adjacent newly-retrofitted computer classroom comfortable. But there were three additional classrooms on the same original HVAC unit, so if the labs were comfortable, the other three teachers had to wear sweaters and jackets to teach while it was in the 80-110 degree range outside. Net result? We sweated and/or dozed in the labs. We got tubs of ice from the kind kitchen manager to set in front of industrial fans that precluded lecture or discussion. We improvised every way we could think of to approach comfort.

It took four years of bitching from me, my students and their parents, and the principal(s) to get the district to pony up for a $7000 (installed) auxiliary heat pump , which (barely) took the edge off and leaked oil on the counter below it. Because of the oil leak, our building engineer shut the unit off at the breaker, so we were back to square one for another year until the powers that be decided that maybe the room needed its own completely separate unit after all.

As much in favor as I am of reusing what can be retained, for reasons beyond simple cost-cutting, I'd add my cautionary note: be careful of what you expect the old hardware to do if you make substantial changes to the loads placed upon it.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

I don't often get excited.

But right this minute I am. And it's something as simple as following moron-proof instructions that has my soul dancing. As I mentioned yesterday, Darren, up there in the frozen North at A Difference was discussing multi-lingual blogging through the use of one-click translation tools.

He, the kind man and wonderfully tech-savvy saint that he is, emailed me such fine instructions that it took me about six seconds each to make my blog and my dog's blog speak nine (count 'em. NINE) different languages at the click of a mouse.

Now, I stand by what I said yesterday: the translations are a little rough in places, but that's only because we haven't put enough pressure on the crafters of the tools. The more of us who do this, the more pressure there will be, and the more accurate the results will become.

Of course, arguing on the behalf of "foreign" or "modern" language teachers everywhere, I don't necessarily want all the roughness gone, as long as an intelligent reader can intuit the translation of metaphors. Besides, part of me says that it provides us enough insight into another culture - into the way they do or DON'T say things, to leave the rough spots alone.

Now I have to go back into my template and figure out how to make it say, right above the line of flags, "Darren taught me how to do this...

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Multilingual Blog

Darren Kuropatwa, at A Difference has this conversation going with Regina Nabais (a Portugese educator and blogger), about his recent discovery of a tool that lets him add to his blog instant translation into several languages. They're gearing up to participate in a "Blog Translation Carnival."

Any blogging teacher who flirts with the idea of classroom blogs should visit Darren's site anyway: if a math teacher can get kids to discuss algebra and calculus with each other outside of school hours, then the rest of us should have no problem getting them to discuss other things as well. His is a carefully-designed, well-implemented approach that serves his students' education as an extention of the classroom, a place to think and learn.

Part of Darren's interest in multi-lingual capacity stems from the fact that he has an increasing number of Philipino students whose parents struggle with English. By providing translation to Tagalog, he includes them in his educational community, just by adding a line of code to his blogs. Such a simple process, with such potential for dramatic results. Now if I can figure out where to put that line of code, I'll do it too. I'm working on it. When I get it working, you'll know.

In the second of Regina's comments, she acknowledges that translation tools can sometimes make us laugh with their results. (Go ahead. Go to Babelfish. Translate "sweet" from English to Spanish and then back again. Not funny-haha, and you can even see how it could happen, but it demonstrates what can happen with any translation tool currently available.) Actually, translation tools have brought tears to the eyes of language teachers for years, either of laughter or of frustration. Because they imply accuracy, kids think they're accurate, even as they say, "My aunt is candy." A teaching moment of a higher order than rote memorization is created, yes, if you can get the kid to believe that the teacher is right and the internet is wrong.

Seated at a community theatre dinner-and-play event a few days ago, I was reminded of the how-to-translate dilemma when my father-in-law apparently shared his pride in my bilinguality with the lady seated next to him. Down the table came a program with the request that I write "Sweet Dreams" on the back in French. First of all, I didn't know the lady, and wasn't at all sure she merited such a wish (not that she'd have known if I had instead wished her unspeakable nightmares), and second, the only people with whom I've shared that particular wish are mono-lingual English speakers, so I've never had to construct that phrase in French.

In American English, we can speak of a sweet person, and generally we mean someone who is kind and gentle. We can speak of a sweet dessert, and mean something in which we can taste sugar. Or we can speak of sweet dreams, and mean neither of those, but rather something comforting and easing. And what about a sweet revenge? Or a sweet victory? Or...?

The translation tools cannot make those distinctions yet (though they will, probably sooner than I think). They work on words in isolation rather than in context, from all I can tell (I haven't seen the code and wouldn't understand it if I did). Yes, they recognize that a possessive pronoun has to change form depending on the gender of the noun it describes, at least in the Romance languages (mon oncle/ma tante), but that's about as far as they've come in recognizing context. They have yet to tackle idiom, and not every culture on the planet recognizes "it's raining cats and dogs" for the figure of speech it is. Nor do the translation tools.

In a sense, we're relying on a four-pound hammer to reshape fine jewelry. If we tap it once, we'll probably still be able to recognize what we started with, but repeating the process rapidly renders the product useless.

Having said so much that could be taken as negative about translation tools, let me return to an earlier statement: as soon as I figure out where exactly to place that line of code in my template, you'll see a row of flags across the bottom of each of my posts which will give you a quick, one-touch translation of the post into the language of your choice (as long as your choice is a fairly common one). The tool isn't perfect, but the more pressure we put on it, the better it will become.

And so, my friends (and the lady at the other end of the table), rĂªves doux.

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Carnival Time!

The Education Wonks have Week 55 of the Education Carnival up and running. Stroll the midway, take a ride or two.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

More on retaining the good ones

From the Contra Costa (CA) Times:

Posted on Wed, Feb. 15, 2006
Higher pay no longer enough to make new teachers stay
By Juliet Williams

SACRAMENTO - A moderate salary raise for a new teacher boosts the chances they'll stay in the profession, but mentoring programs and training are even more effective, according to a report to be released today.

(Thanks, Angela, for the link.)

The Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program, sponsored by the (California) Commission on Teacher Credentialing, is credited in this study with increasing teacher retention by 26%, more than half again what a $4K raise did (17%).

Commission Director Mike McKibbon says, "It makes an enormous difference in setting up the first two years as place to learn and grow and get better, rather than the way we used to do it, which was kind of a rite of passage."

When I started, back before everyone and his brother could claim grandparents who walked upright, the first couple years were where you either sank or learned to swim, and what McKibbon refers to as a "rite of passage" meant that you were thrown to the wolves that no one else wanted and either survived by developing your skills or were devoured.

That worked for many of us: the majority of the people I entered the profession with are still at it, or, like me, retired after years of productive service. Some didn't make it, though: there's the one who decided to run a string of snack machines, another who went to wait tables, another who used a math background to move into accounting, yet another who became a marriage counselor.

A mentoring and support program of the sort discussed here might, might, have kept one or two of those in education. That sort of program, though, could certainly have helped me hit my stride earlier. The "rite of passage" process left me feeling as if I had been abandoned to my own devices, when it would have made far more sense to have someone show me some of the already-invented wheels that might have fit the rig I was driving. As it is, I feel as though it took closer to five years for me to come to my senses and look outside myself for answers, and I don't honestly believe there was ever much support from above for that, either (consider that I had to get "sick" and pay for it myself to go to the NCTE convention and indulge myself in workshops that were actually worthwhile...).

Yes, I'm entirely in favor of paying all teachers more. If we start doing that, I'll get irritated that I can't reap the benefits anymore, but we'll keep more good teachers in the classroom longer (and maybe avoid some of this sort of conversation). But even more, I'm in favor of support and mentoring that brings earlier success to beginning teachers. The difference between a veteran and a novice doesn't have to loom as large as it does.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

If we kept the good ones...

Like Miss Dennis, I called John Stossell to task a few posts ago. She revisits her fury again in yesterday's post, and compares him unfavorably to CNN's Anderson Cooper and the NYT's Michael Winerip. She includes a quote from the later, which I think relates to my last post:

"By far, the issue getting the most ink is the need to reduce the time it takes to dismiss bad teachers - a pet peeve of the mayor's. While this is clearly a problem, the far bigger problem is holding on to good teachers. Last year New York City had 3,567 "regular" teachers leave, the most in memory, 936 more than the year before, and 1,100 above the previous three-year average. These are not retirees or troubled teachers - they're certified teachers in good standing."

Winerip is right: the problem of getting rid of bad teachers gets far more coverage than does the problem of retaining good ones.

What no one I've read comes to terms with, though, is that getting rid of bad teachers is easy. The trick lies in recognizing them before they have tenure. You'll have a difficult time convincing me that a teacher can fake being "good" for the one or two or five or ten years it takes to achieve tenured status, and then suddenly flush those abilities down the nearest sewer.

A couple of examples, one from each extreme of my teaching career. There were many others in between:

First, my eighth-grade math teacher. There one year, gone the next. That's forty years ago (Ouch-who knew it would take turning so many calendar pages to finally hit my prime? Or have I?).

Second, a science teacher at the school I last taught at. There one year, gone the next (and not to another school, not with the evals she had). That was two years ago, so it's still just as easy.

So how in the world do we end up with bad teachers holding tenure, and thus protected by the easy-to-bash, easy-to-hate unions?

Part of it is irresponsible administrators, who, for whichever of myriad reasons, look the other way. Or human resources people who practice an inexact science (or art, or whatever it is), and inflict less-than-sure-choices on building admins who prefer not to second-guess their superiors.

But part of it is also the pressure to fill the vacancies created when good teachers leave. Look at the NYC numbers that Winerip cites: over 3500 "certified teachers in good standing" must be replaced. Why?

Some of them, I suppose, retired, as I did. But honestly? I retired two years earlier than I had originally planned. I got tired of the politics and the bureaucracy, got tired of the writing on the wall that said that no matter how good you are, you're going to fail in or around the year 2014 and it's going to be a slow, miserable slide until then, and so I juggled some accounts, rolled some into others, sold a house, and bought my way to a different life. But when so many analyses show that close to half of all teachers leave within the first five years, I don't believe the problem is the three percent or so who complete long careers and move on.

Part of it might well be psychological. Not everyone can handle administrators who make superficial observations (thank you, Fellow-ette).

I think NYC Educator also makes a valid point in his post about teacher pay: if we want the good ones, we have to pay them. That will remain difficult as long as we refuse to accept that some of the money to do that has to come out of our own pockets.

Some truly excellent teachers, having burned the candle at both ends (and the middle)for a few years, find they can no longer do it. That problem won't be solved with more money, but it might be alleviated with more time (which of course costs more money, but not as obviously as salary).

And Joanne Jacobs references the unwillingness of Millenials to tolerate busywork, which much of day-to-day educational paperwork is. Now don't waste too much time looking over your shoulders, but guess who the new young teachers are? If it's busywork you hand them, they'd rather do surveys on MySpace. You want attendance recorded two or three different places? Ummm... No. Unless you find a way to integrate it so they only have to do it once. Same with grades.

And please be careful about those staff-development "opportunities." Darren said it very concisely here:
I know what might help make me a better teacher. And it's probably not the same thing as the two teachers on either side of me need to help make them better teachers.

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