Intellectualism, huh, what’s dat?

A recent article by Mark Morford in SF Gate, titled American kids, dumber than dirt
offers a dismal look at today’s digitalized students.   Morford obtains his information from an Oakland high school teacher, who has devoted his life to teaching, but believes, “We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults…”

I’d have to agree.  Where once I might have been able to inspire and guide my students through the art and love of learning, I now am told that I have to start each class session with a Word of the Day that someone else has decided upon, a bell-ringer to get my students focused, and must incorporate in my lessons college readiness skills (my students need to learn high school readiness skills first).  When I do some type of teaching, most of my students are unprepared for focusing on and processing information.

Turning Around

As I was getting ready to leave the building, one of my colleagues asked whether I had picked up my letter.  This is the letter that teachers received to inform them whether, after reapplying for their position for which they were summarily fired by the Board of Education at the beginning of the semester as part of the planned Reconstitution of Harper, they were rehired. 

 I find the entire process so insulting that I did not reapply at Harper, where I have devoted the past 19 years teaching, which included teaching English, running the school’s newspaper, chairing the English Department, and managing the computer network during my tenure.  But finding myself relegated this year, without my prior consent to the much diminished position of 9th grade classroom teacher and having to deal with constant verbal abuse, inappropriate and disrespectful behavior of my low achieving freshmen, I find that I don’t want to work in a ghetto school with ghetto children with ghetto attitudes anymore. 

After 32 years of teaching, I no longer want to fight every single day with counter-productive administrative policies and non academic attitudes of students, and I certainly don’t believe for a minute that this new administration with its minions of new teachers that will be hired, and the additional funds that for the past two decades were withheld from us, will be successful at turning Harper around.  They have already made more dumb, uninformed decisions in their first year than all the previous administrations put together.  Unless this year’s failures serve as lessons for the coming years, next year they will find themselves equally overwhelmed with the dysfunction that our students bring to the school, but added to the mix will be their own high level of inexperience as educators and administrators.  It’s a recipe for disaster that I am glad I won’t witness up close.

Welcome Back, You’re Fired!

I returned to Harper after 2 months of Family Medical Leave of Absence to the announcement from CEO Arne Duncan that the school is being reconstituted again (this happened before, 12 years ago). Only this time they will be calling Harper a “turnaround school”. Every staff member will be fired as of the last school day in June, and it is Duncan’s recommendation that the new principal, Kenyatta Butler, not retain anyone. She and her administrative team will be retained.

Rather than address the problems and issues that are germane to Harper and its community, CEO Duncan and his Central Office staff have decided to take the moral low road and scapegoat the teachers. It is so much easier than looking at the academically impoverished community that has spawned this dysfunctional neighborhood school. Surely, the proliferation of magnet school and academies, and charter schools, which recruit the most academically sound and motivated students from the feeder elementary schools, leaving the most academically challenged, at-risk and special needs students behind to attend the neighborhood school, Harper, might be the primary factor that has caused this .

While the other schools can set admission standards and keep lower achieving students from attending, Harper cannot. While the academies and magnet schools may enroll less than the average number of special needs students with their special problems, Harper generally has more than twice the systemwide average. Our special needs enrollment is usually 1/3 of our total enrollment. While the magnet schools and academies can close down enrollment when they are at their facility’s capacity, Harper must continue to enroll student all year long, maintaining one of the highest mobility rates in the public school system. We must use rooms that were built as storage rooms with poor ventilation as classroom, because we usually are 400 students over capacity. Then upon this uneven playing field, Harper teachers must teach the mandated college prep. curriculum, because Central Office closed down all but one shop class, and virtually gutted our vocational programs, so we can be assessed by the standardized tests.

To address these problems and inequities would require taking an honest and hard look at Harper’s ongoing “failures”, but it is much easier to scapegoat the staff. Mind you, many Harper teachers have had opportunities to teach at better high schools, but have chosen to stay at Harper, where good educators are needed. Within the context of this dysfunctional high school, we have built a successful community that has graduated successful students. Our CEO should have looked at the many successes that we have had over the years, including several very successful “small schools” that have placed graduates in jobs, winning Decathlon Teams, a computer network that last school year was at 94% network compliance, an award winning choir, an ROTC program that has won drill competitions, very successful sports teams, and numerous other notable successes, and congratulated us on our successes. Instead, he has chosen to look at our academic weakness, which for the most part is the result of Central Office policies, and blame the failure on the staff.

Shame on you, Mr. Duncan. Shame on you!

The Mission Was A Success

I have given 18 years to Harper High School, providing my students with the best education I could offer them. Besides my expertise as an English teacher, I brought to the classroom the belief that even in the inner-city, there are scholars waiting to be revealed to themselves.  I approached my teaching as if it were a mission.  I gave of myself.  I shared my vision.  I provided the same type of education to Harper students that I offered at college prep. schools.  So after almost two decades, I am declaring the “mission” a success.  It is time to move on and leave the charge to younger, more resilient teachers.

You see, I no longer have the energy or the desire to go into the classroom battlefield,   and my expertise and guidance is no longer wanted by my new administration.  Instead, they need a foot soldier, a certified English teacher, they can place in a most challenging position, the freshmen English classroom, a battlefield where you must fight your students to be heard, and where manners and the desire to learn are conspicuously missing. 

It’s early in the school year, and I am declaring the “mission” a success.  I also accept that I am a casualty of the classroom battlefield.  I no longer want to fight with students for the few minutes of attention allowed me, so I might teach them.  I no longer want to participate in the absurdity of having inexperienced and/or myopic administrators dictate how I am supposed to teach. And I don’t want to deal with the ignorance and violence of the culture that has spawned Harper High School.  I’ve had enough of it.  I am done with it.  Declaring my “mission” a success, I have taken a Leave of Absence from Harper.

Eating Humble Pie While Sitting on the Titanic

No doubt about it. After 18 years of devoted teaching at Harper High School, working with six principals, I am fairly certain that Central Office intends to see us crash into the iceberg and sink. A series of very bad decisions made Downtown without clear connection to Harper’s community of teachers, parents, and students leaves me with the distinct and sinking impression that we are going down for the count fairly soon. I have been deep sixed. As someone who has been devoted to academic growth at Harper, actively participating in leadership positions with 5 previous principals, I find myself shut out and unvalued, removed from managing the computer network and coordinating technology throughout the school, assigned to five 9th grade English classes with two or three functioning computers and a ten foot blackboard.

My expertise as an academic leader and a senior member of the Harper community has been ignored, because with a certificate in English, my body on the frontlines in the classroom battlefield is more important to this Administration of inexperienced leaders, than a master educator, who is the primary instructional technologist in the building. After building the Network to a level equal to corporate operations, we have been reduced to the inefficiency of being “managed” by a wannabe tech wiz-kid, who couldn’t manage his way around a motherboard. Last year, everyone had a network folder they could log into from any computer in the building; this new Administration has managed to remove that capability for no other reason than “we run it now.” Adding a level of inefficiency is not my idea of making improvements.

Harper has a history of neglect by Central Office (see Why Harper Is on Probation); it isn’t supposed to work. As one of the most challenging high schools in Chicago, if Central Office wanted success, it would seriously look at all of the school’s problems, and tackle them with expertise and resources. Instead, it sends us a young and inexperienced principal, who is eager, optimistic, but inexperienced, promising to provide her with support as she attempts to fashion Harper into the New Harper. She came in like a steamroller, making some drastic changes in personnel, in our daily program, and in some policies. Some of these changes made sense, but too many were repeats of the same old attitudes that hardly anyone, who worked for the previous Administration, knew very much, that they were, in fact, part of the problem. And thus, as many before her insisted on doing, to use an overworked phrase, she threw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Computer Lab, which I had managed for 5 years, is presently being used by students for ACT Test Prep. English. Unfortunately, the one qualified person to run that program was removed and given five 9th grade English classes. Students now use the lab with a substitute teacher overseeing their activities, which generally includes watching videos, playing games, checking email, and looking at ads for gym shoes.  These are the students who will take the standardized test in the Spring, and upon which our probationary standing continues to be established.

At one time, we used that lab so teachers, who wanted to use technology with an entire class, could develop and implement Internet and technology based projects, which should be integrated into 21st century educational lessons.  It has been my belief that technology could be used as the “hook” to draw our students into an enjoyment of their education.  That has been my goal for years, but unfortunately, at Harper, this does not occur, primarily because the technology has not been guided by an Administration that is tech savvy enough to understand what can be done. I had hoped that this new Administration would be different. Unfortunately, I have been sorely disappointed. Although, they grew up with technology (all are in their mid 30’s), they don’t seem to understand its value as an educational tool.  Instead, the only thing new about the new Harper is the people sitting in the offices issuing new directives.

Thinking that if I received my Master of Science Degree with a Focus in Technology Integration in the Classroom, I would be a more valued member of the Harper faculty, I received that MS in Ed. last January. Since then, my expertise has been entirely ignored. The last principal advertised for my position a year ago, planning to dump me, and this new principal has me as a foot soldier in the classroom battlefield, fighting freshmen who do not value their education, certainly not delivered the way it is.  I have been experiencing daily fatigue from dealing with these undisciplined, not very academically sound students. I have greater empathy for my colleagues, who have had freshmen these past years, while I tinkered with technology day in and day out. Not that I didn’t work hard doing what I did, but I never came home and collapsed at 8 or 9pm, crawling into bed to recover for the next day, like I do now.

I am eating humble pie while sitting on the Titanic.

Not a Professional, Just a Puppet on a String

For the past week, I’ve been dealing with and accepting that I will be back in the classroom, as my new principal communicated to me by email. There was no discussion about this, no phone call asking me to come in for a meeting, just a 3 sentence email. So I spent a week mulling it around in my head, knowing that I had made a soul-searching decision 5 years ago to leave the classroom after 25 years. This 180 degree turn was nothing that I had decided to do, nor was I prepared for it; it was thrust on me two weeks before returning for the new semester. And it made me feel used, kind of like a puppet on a string.

After four or five days, I decided to make the best of it and made a few plans for what I would be teaching to the Creative Writing class, purchasing 50 notebooks at Jewels, and setting up the framework for a web site. I even downloaded ThinkWave, which is a grade keeper program. I figured I would do some additional preparation before school began, so I called our school’s programmer to find out how many and what classes I would be teaching.

She informed me that the Administration had changed its mind, and that I would be teaching a couple test prep. classes in the Computer Lab 220. I don’t know what else I’m expected to do. I feel very much like a puppet and am having a difficult time trusting the integrity of this new administration, even before I begin working with them.

It seems like all that comes to us from Central Office tends to ignore us, for after all what do we know? We’ve only been working at the school through its many incarnations for 1, 2, or 3 decades. How could we know anything? Why would anyone want to consult with seasoned professionals; none of the previous three principals placed in our school by Central Office considered that that might be beneficial, so why should Ms. Butler? It would take a bit of thinking outside the box.

Sands of Fortune Shift Again

I understand that from her perspective, Kenyatta Butler must have certified teachers in front of students when school begins, so the Technololgy Coordinator’s job has to be sacrificed. I am certified to teach English and had 25 successful years doing so. But for the past 5 years as we have grown our Network, and as Technology Coordinator, it has been my experience that day to day operations requires a tech person available to “put out fires”, not to mention all of the other duties and responsibilities that I assumed. I am afraid Ms. Butler will discover this.

On another note, a Harper colleague asked me whether I knew anything about the new Administration’s plans to dismantle our “small schools” and by way of reply, since I am not privy to any inside information, I say I don’t think they will dismantle the “small schools”, because I think it might have caused too many problems to entirely dismantle Harper’s educational structure. Because of their insecurity and need to assert their power, all new administrators reinvent the wheel, wasting an entire year to do so, and then at the end of the year, their new and improved wheel ends up looking remarkably just like the one they discarded. And during the year for this most ambitious endeavor, we waste any progress that we had been making, because this process is like discarding the baby with the bath water.

Anyway, after 5 previous principals at Harper, this is my subjective observation. Once again, regardless of what the new one tells us, it isn’t about improving Harper and giving the kids the best education possible, it’s about this new one’s career. Do you think Central Office, after all of the hoopla, is going to spend the money necessary and provide the resources necessary to improve Harper. Will we be able to screen our students? Will we be able to cut off enrollment when we hit our capacity, which, by the way, is around 1000 students? Will we be able to send special education students who exceed the systemwide average per school (12-15%) to other schools? I’d be willing to wager that my answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “No!” So what will be the look of the new Harper High School?

It’s a New Day in the Neighborhood

While on vacation, actually out of town in the mountains for a long needed Rocky Mountain high, I received good news that the Board of Education has decided to replace our principal, Ronn Gibbs with Kenyatta Butler-Stansberry. I realized that an administrative shakeup has its downside, not the least of which is usually spending a year re-inventing the wheel, but Dr. Gibbs and Co. had no clear vision for educational progress at Harper beyond voicing the prevailing Central Office goals of improving standardized test scores, graduation rate, and daily attendance. Discussion of the methods by which these goals were to be achieved seemed not to include the staff. At least, I don’t remember participating in any discussion, nor was any credence given to my suggestions.

After having worked with four principals before Dr. Gibbs, logic would suggest that I have some degree of prior knowledge and experience concerning what worked and didn’t work. My counsel was never sought. Bottom line is that for the past 4 years, there was a bad fit between administration and teachers. I am hoping (ever hopeful as September approaches) 1) that Ms. Butler realizes immediately that she has been given an uneven playing field with very limited support from Central Office, and consequently success will be measured by day to day management, and incremental growth, 2) that she has the foresight to defer to, or at least take under consideration, the professional experience and counsel of her staff, 3) Ms. Butler understands that as she moves to imprint her style she need not “toss out the baby with the bath water” nor “re-invent the wheel”, and 4) that educational progress will not occur without an honest vision and methodology by which to make it happen.

Please note: I could not imagine how destructive this change in Administrations would be. It was the Year from Hell at Harper High! (May 23, 2008) 

History of Computer Use in My Classroom

It was during the school year of 1994-95, while I was newspaper advisor and teaching 11th and 12th grade English that I wrote up a small grant that allowed me to purchase a modem and a Compuserve account, thereby connecting my classroom, which because I was the newspaper advisor had a phone, to the Internet. The e-rate had not yet provided wiring for schools and libraries nationwide, except where individuals wrote up extremely complicated grants for their schools. In any case, Harper had no Internet access, Windows 3.1 had recently been released, and the computer in my classroom and those across the hall in a computer lab, required a 5 ½ inch floppy DOS disk to boot up the computer and program disk to run PFS Write, a writing program, that my reporters used to type up their articles for the newspaper, and which I used to type up tests and quizzes for my other English classes. Our Tandy computers had no operating systems, just two 5 ½ inch floppy A and B drives.

When I obtained my 9600 baud rate modem and the Compuserve account (Chicago Public Schools had not yet developed an extensive school network either) there was no World Wide Web graphic user interface (GUI). Information was obtained from the internet by way of BBS, Telnet, or Lynx, which was text only WWW. The Chicago Board of Education provided CPSnet email accounts upon request. And so I requested accounts for several of my best students. And then we embarked on our first Internet Project, the Santa Project. Several of my students played email Santa to a group of elementary school children in another state. Their teacher and I coordinated the letter writing and response activity first by discussing the project with each other by email. Thus, I learned how to connect with another school in another state for a minor, yet very progressive project through the very new type of disruptive technology. It peaked my interests and as I continued to teach English, my pedagogical thinking moved from print based and blackboard teacher centered education to utilizing this new technology through the development of projects that would require the use of word processing and Internet research.

By 1996-97, I moved to a larger classroom, was no longer the newspaper advisor, but the English Department Chair, and was provided four Acer computers using Windows 95 for my classroom. We used the computers mostly for research based projects, web sites where I created content, and for a few side projects I was experimenting with. By 2000, I had discovered Blogger, one of the first web sites to utilize weblogging. It occurred to me that anyone could have their own web site where they could record personal thoughts, place their poetry, or respond to curricular content. By taking ownership of a space on the web, students could showcase their writing. They could share their thoughts, ideas, and reflections with others.

High Level Network, Low Level Technology Integration

When I became the Technology Coordinator five years ago, Harper was at 5% Network Compliance with CPS Network Standards.  Through much hard work, diligence, and perseverance, my small team, which initially included my technology engineer, our LSC president, and a few students, upgraded our network of computers and continued to manage them.    Much to my dismay, two years ago, my Technology Engineer was sent on his way, our LSC Chairman’s son graduated, so he was no longer on the LSC.  And both he and my Tech Engineer were told by the principal that they were no longer welcomed at Harper.  This left me and one student tech assistant to keep things running.  By the end of this school year, we had reached 92.4% Network Compliance.  I, also, had our network merged with the Instructional (INSTR) Domain.  Now every staff member and student has a personal username and password to log into the INSTR domain, as well as a folder for storing work.  This folder can be accessed from any computer in the building, eliminating the need for carrying around a floppy disk or flash drive.

There are approximately 400 desktop computers in four full labs, four mini-math labs, and two mini-reading labs. Most classrooms have three to five working computers, and all of these connect to the Internet. We also have three mobile lab carts, two of them containing thirty laptops and one with twenty-four. These connect to our wi-fi network, which is available everywhere in the building.

Considering that Harper is a Probation school with some of the lowest standardized test scores of all the Chicago Public High Schools, the high level of network compliance and maintenance doesn’t match up with the low level of academic performance. For years I have maintained that computers and the Internet can be used as the hook to capture our students and greatly assist with their academic advancement.

This would require that technology be integrated at all levels and infused throughout lessons that were mostly project based. Besides all of the other factors previously mentioned that keep us weighed down, one very important factor must be addressed, and that is the low level of understanding and subsequent support of technology integration of the administrators at Harper.  Those who should be establishing and guiding the policies and organizing the plans for implementing and training for integration of technology in the classroom are the primary barriers to technology integration at Harper High School.

During my first year with the present administration, the principal preferred having no communication directly with me.  He established a hierarchy through which one had to travel to reach him.  I had to go through our always overwhelmed, too-busy Business Manager. Even recommendations that came to me directly from the Office of Technology Services had to go through the Business Manager, as the principal’s management style kept him fairly well insulated from receiving information directly. This might be fine for a corporate bureaucracy, where you don’t want workers on the assembly line to waltz into the CEO’s Office whenever they felt the need. But managing a school, an environment where information needs to be shared and transferred up and down the food chain quickly and efficiently certainly does not require a top down bureaucratic chain of command. 

I don’t want to use this space for griping, but more for sharing information.  About my principal, I can only say that in four years he hasn’t learned to sit down and discuss and learn from the professionals that he works with.  The prevailing attitude is that we work for him, that we are his subordinates.  Some of us have taught for more years than he has and have remained in the classroom by choice.  We share on this journey of educating our students at Harper.  We need a principal, who is a co-worker.  A good leader would allow these sage educators to guide the curriculum.  Perhaps even seek out the advise of those educators in the school who have been very instrumental in bringing innovation to the curriculum, including the instructional technologist.  For the past four years, the person who was expected to guide the school’s curriculum was someone who would fall into deep yawns when technology integration was discussed.  Too much chalk dust dulls a brain. 

Recently, we stepped up our use of technology for preparing for the standardized test.  But even this simple exercise in skill drill was implemented inefficiently.  Let me explain.  KeyTrain, one software application used for test drill has built in data generators. These, if used correctly, could guide the curriculum for 11th grade math, social studies, science, and English.  But this would require that 11th grade teachers focus exclusively on the test prep. application, evaluate the weekly results, provide the 11th grade teachers with the ongoing training and time to work with the data and make adjustments to their lessons based on this ongoing flow of data.  Freshmen and sophomores could practice sections of this work taken from the print manuals for each type of test.  But use of lab time should be reserved for juniors.  This was not done.

Instead of approaching it in such a focused and instructional manner, very valuable lab time was taken up by including 9th and 10th grade classes in the schedule.  Some of these classes left their computer labs, where they could have used the applications throughout the school year integrated into their curriculum, to come to the school’s general lab.  This made absolutely no sense and when I inquired about this, the response was that this was done for monitoring purposes. But there was no monitoring done, except to check to see whether classes showed up.  What occurred while classes were in the lab varied at all levels from completely wasting time socializing, while clicking on any answer without reading (my monitoring software allows me to observe individual work stations) to a few teachers actually working with their students and keeping them focused. But most teachers did not know how to look at the data or where it was located and what it meant.  They were not trained until the beginning of March, a little more than one month before the test was to be taken, and five months after Test Prep. began.  Why wait until the beginning of March to train teachers and allow them time to look at the data?

At this point, many students were all over the place, some skipping easier levels to completely fail more difficult levels four times.  Data must be looked at from the very beginning and adjustments made. There was absolutely no direction provided. 

 Recently, there was an interview with our principal on local Fox television news.  He seemed surprised that test scores had dropped the year before.  I don’t know why, I’ve been telling him for several years that we are approaching the process without using the software as it was designed.  

This is directly related to leadership that absolutely ignores those who are considered subordinates.