Category Archives: Teacher Issues

Digital Storytelling: Final Project

This summer I took a PBS online course on digital storytelling and dynamic media. This is my final project:

First, let me say that it took all afternoon for me to figure out how to upload this on youtube. Second, I’m not sure why the pictures are so fuzzy on the youtube video; they aren’t when I play directly from windows media player. This may not look like much, but I’m pretty happy with it!

This is an example of a student project that I made into a digital story.

This  is a digital storytelling rubric that a teacher could use with an ESL or sheltered-content class.

For other information about digital storytelling and other rubrics click here.


A Poem about Virtual Schooling

This poem was inspired by an article about the life of a virtual classroom teacher and by Jonathan Franzen’s op ed in the New York Times.

Student/Teacher Lament: Online Learning

I miss your face,

I miss the wrinkles that tell me you’re older than me,

Or prove it anyway, I miss the rolling of your eyes beneath

The furrowed brow as we say the pledge of allegiance.

I miss you and your asking me a question because you see

Me slacking in the corner of the room

You decorated with movie posters and origami cranes

I miss your room.


I miss your face,

The face that makes me know I have to be on my toes

Because of the mischievous grin that always lurks just

Below the surface as you recite the Gettysburg Address

I miss you and your questions that distract from the

Assigned work on the corner of the desk

You inscribed with initials and swirls.

I miss your desk.


And the other things missed are funny things like

Church bells and reggaeton, a palpable mood,

Sandalwood, and birthday wishes,

A surprising rearrangement of chairs, a hug, a shrug,

And a pat on the back, a new piercing, a stolen smile,

Acceptance, and the blooming of love.

Dare I say it? Dare I say that love had dominion?

And that I miss non-virtual love?

Evaluation by the Numbers

Eight thousand eight hundred. That is my conservative guess for how many classes I have taught at Lowell High School in the past ten years.  180 days X 5 classes per day X 10 years. I then subtracted twenty classes a year that are missed due to assemblies, testing(!), and fire drills and ended up with the number eight thousand eight hundred. And so it does seem a bit odd or dare I say, daunting, that my evaluation would be based on my supervisor’s evaluation of only one of those eight thousand eight hundred classes.  I hadn’t been evaluated in ten years when SG told me he would like to come into my class. That’s cool, I thought. I mean I have been teaching 16  years and I have had all sorts of people watch me teach including student teachers, Cambodian interns, and deaf interpreters. I usually thrive on the audience; someone else to laugh at my jokes if you will.  Of course, none of them was evaluating me based on one class. But I wasn’t nervous.

I became a little passive aggressive about my evaluation and decided not to do the dog and pony show lesson plan trick.  I learned about this trick back at my job at Boston University (the eighties!) where I was told by colleagues that when the evaluator is scheduled to come into your classroom, you just pull out the dog and pony show lesson plan and knock his/her  academic socks off.  But everybody knows it is NOT really how you teach, because in a real classroom the teacher cannot plan an amazing lesson every day. And even if you did PLAN an amazing lesson every day, you couldn’t possibly DELIVER an amazing lesson every day because some days there is a technology malfunction, or you’re  interrupted by the loudspeaker four times, or you have a stuffy nose.  And so my passive aggressiveness came into play. I decided to show off my non-teaching strengths; one of which is to drum up $$$ to get materials and gadgets for my classroom without waiting for elusive school support. A year ago, I received funding through to purchase electronic jeopardy which costs about $600 and so I asked SG to come and observe my students playing JEOPARDY! electronic style. No dog and pony show for me!

The night before my evaluation,  I had a nightmare about a technology snafu during my evaluation (which btw, almost happened),  and had to admit that all the passive aggressive lesson planning in the world couldn’t prevent my real emotions from coming into play. I WAS nervous about my evaluation.  Although I didn’t believe my job was on the line, I did have that nagging insecurity, the demon that I have faced many times before.  The demon is fraud. And it sneaks up and tells me that I have been lucky so far that nobody has discovered the truth. That I’m not very good.

And so I understood the suicide a couple of weeks ago by Rigoberto Ruelas, a teacher in a tough school in LA who was labeled as ‘less effective’ in a published report ranking thousands of teachers in the LA Times.  Mr. Ruelas was a devoted teacher who reached out to troubled kids and spent weekends tutoring and making home visits. And yet what mattered, what became public, was a ranking based on standardized test scores.  The demon was in the data.  Right now, the data drives decisions and dredges up the demons.

Teacher evaluations are based on many sources of input. But there is always one source that seems to reign supreme and has the ability to bring us down and bring our demons up. In Mr. Ruelas’ case it was the published data based on test scores; in my case it was an observation of one class out of eight thousand eight hundred classes.

Rigoberto Ruelas may you rest in peace.

It’s not the Teachers!

“more than any other variable in education—more than schools or curriculum—teachers matter”. (“WhatMakes a Great Teacher”,The Atlantic, 2010)

Teachers are in the news. We don’t work enough hours, we don’t provide effective instruction, we haven’t solved every problem in American society.

But what I see in the proverbial ‘trenches’ is not what I read about in the news and on the blogs. In the trenches  I see is a bunch of teachers, both young and old,  trying their hardest to provide good learning experiences and good school experiences for students. For every lousy teacher we keep hearing about – the put  your feet up on the desk kind of teacher – I can show you dozens of teachers who go home at night and cry because they’re not sure they’re getting through or because of frustration with the system.

Last Monday, at teacher orientation, the director of curriculum and development repeated a line I had heard her use before: we can’t control what goes on in our students’ lives outside the classroom, so we need to focus on good instruction in the classroom.

It seems to make sense, doesn’t it? I mean we can’t control what kids eat for breakfast, we can’t control their parental supervision, and we certainly can’t control the amount of time they spend texting, watching TV, or gaming.  We can only manage the time they spend with us. For me, this means 45 minutes a day, 5 times a week.  And yet those 45 minutes, 5 times a week are not something I can  control either.  I can’t control scheduling issues, teacher shortages that leave class sizes unwieldy, technology failures, loudspeaker interruptions, and 90+ degree classrooms.  While it is pretty convenient for administrators, education officials, Arne Duncan, President Obama, and the American public to say if only the teachers were great, then our education system would be top notch, it is not the whole truth.

With over 3 million teachers in the United States, not all of us can be above average.  There are going to be some exceptional teachers and a lot of average teachers and a few clunkers. And just like in any workplace, those who are not performing should be let go (it can be done, it just takes administrator diligence.) But to rest the failures of the American education system and the achievement gap on teachers’ shoulders is capricious scapegoating.

These are not excuses for poor teaching; many educators are able to find ways to be effective and creative in spite of poor working conditions. But it is the reality of school and this reality does not promote or support effective instruction.

When a colleague and I spoke about some of these problems yesterday, she asked me why I stayed. And without a moment’ s hesitation, I replied, “Because I love my job.” I look at the teachers in my school and I see dedicated, concerned, hardworking people trying to cope within a flawed system. They have a genuine passion for education and helping young people succeed.

It is [simplistic to place] the total burden of providing effective teaching on individual teachers, rather than on society as a whole.” (Raymond A. Horn, Jr) Most of us just want to do our jobs and teach kids. We just wish the things outside of our control didn’t make teaching so damned difficult.

A Berlin Memorial and a Philosophy of Education

Why do we teach? I thought about this question while reading a blog by a newer teacher describing the oppressive nature of some school systems and the teacher oversight ala Michell Rhee and other ‘rock star reformers’ .  Teaching in some urban schools  has become so prescriptive that the human side of teaching, the reason most of us went into the profession, has been eliminated.

While in Berlin, I asked my two fellow study tour participants, why and if it was important to teach about the Holocaust. More specifically, I asked if it was worthwhile to teach a detailed unit on the Holocaust to secondary school students. We didn’t immediately say yes. We grappled with this as we visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Wannsee (where Heydrich and other Nazis finalized the plans for the ‘final solution’), and Gestapo headquarters. When we visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe the question became philosophical. The memorial consists of 2711 concrete pillars or stelae  of varying heights. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman the memorial is large and open to the Berlin streets; it beckons the visitor to walk through the stelae. “One of Germany’s preeminent architectural critics, Heinrich Wefing [describes the memorial as] …a beautiful abstraction that does not dictate what its observer should think or experience, but is nonetheless thoughtful and moving.” ( When I entered the memorial, I felt off-balanced and calm, but soon I saw a child and a father chasing each other through the pillars, a couple of teenagers hanging out on top of a lower concrete slab, and a girl having some glamour shots taken against the pillar. My calm was gone and my discomfort began. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this much freedom.  Peter Eisenman, when talking about the uses of the memorial says “that is something I have no control over. When you turn a project over to clients, they do with it what they want — it’s theirs and they occupy your work. You can’t tell them what to do with it.” The German government has not been as free as the architect. They have covered the stelae with an anti-graffiti coating and posted rules such as no running or yelling; enforcing the rules is a bit harder. Still, the memorial is open to individual interpretation and the visitor is largely responsible for his or her own behavior within the 2711 pillars. There is no script for how a visitor should feel about the memorial or about the Holocaust. The architect has created a place of memory, but the individual must decide ‘what to do with it’.

Schools and classrooms are also guided by a philosophy. There are schools such as Waldorf Schools which try to develop the whole child. Similar schools try to create an open learning environment where students can engage freely with classmates, develop skills  at their own pace, and pursue their own interests. On the other hand, we have the prescriptive learning of programs such as Balanced Literacy or Success for All, with a script for teachers to follow. Perhaps the analogy between democracy and fascism is too obvious. I’m not sure if it is too strong. I do know that the children who attend Waldorf Schools and other open learning schools are from progressive, free thinking families, where the parents take an active role in their child’s education (think the Obama and Clinton family).  I also know that the students in balanced literacy classes and other prescriptive programs are overwhelmingly poor and minority. Trust and respect are the key philosophical underpinnings of private schools and wealthier public schools. The school trusts that the student and his or her family will take an active role in the educational process. The school’s role is to foster an environment that encourages intellectual exploration, open discussion, and analysis of information. In many urban schools, the students, families, and teachers are not to be trusted. Instead an administrator or more and more often a politician decides what children will learn and how they will learn it.

This philosophy is antithetical to a course on the Holocaust or any course that explores human behavior. In these classrooms there can be no script. The topic is human behavior.  The difficult issues and the uncomfortable ideas are grappled with and brought to the forefront. The education belongs to the students and they do with it what they want.

Summer Reading

Purposeful or purposeless?

Ah, summer. I cannot deny that you make me love my job. You give me time to clean my closets (2 bags of clothes and shoes to goodwill) and the leisure to have 4 hour lunches with friends (Heng Heng II in Lowell; cheap and highly recommended). And best of all you give me time to read.

A couple of weeks ago, I planned my summer reading kickoff and bought The Girl Who Played with Fire. And now, as summer vacation begins but  still not having checked my teacher hat at the door, I find myself putting TGWPWF aside and reading Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the way they learn. According to the author, schooling and education must change to appeal to the new   iGeneration; young people raised on technology and multi-tasking. (To read an NPR interview with the author click here.) A new era of schooling fueled by rapidly developing and changing technology is popping up in all sorts of journals and books. The new schooling may take many forms including virtual classrooms and constant availability and use of technology. According to Harvard Professor Paul E. Peterson, teachers will no longer be teachers, but coaches for students as we “customize learning to the needs of each student.”

As a member of the baby boom generation (the tail-end, thank you very much) I need to keep current with the kids to do my job. A few of my former colleagues question teachers who use facebook, have twitter accounts, and email with their students. By doing all those things, I am not trying to be one of the teenagers, but I am trying to understand them. My experience tells me that understanding or the desire to understand is what all teenagers, maybe even all people, are after.

I am hoping that as I continue reading Rewired I will gain some insights into how best to incorporate WMDs (no, not those WMDs, but wireless mobile devices) and other teencentric technology into my practice.

But now, Day 5 into summer vacation, I can hear purposeless reading calling my name. I’ll be there as soon as I can.

Mellow Discipline?

Discipline in the classroom has never been my forte. In the beginning of my high school teaching career, I used to get angry at the class. I would yell once in a while, but usually I would just get red  in the face and say something like “I refuse to teach you anymore” and go sit at my desk. My students, not used to seeing me angry, would usually be quiet until the bell rang. The next day I would come in with a lecture or stern admonition about their unruliness. I’ve mellowed a lot in the last few years; it might be maturity or the practice of yoga. In school, I think of myself as patient and understanding. This  year, I only had to become stern a few times, and  that sternness was only accompanied by anger once or twice.

Halloween 2009 - Jorge graduated this year and I'm still trying to figure things out!

Sarcasm as a form of discipline is fairly ineffectual. I try not to use it for that purpose.

All that being said, I am still perplexed about how to handle poor behavior. I’m not talking about egregiously poor or malicious behavior. That is easier to handle. Instead, I’m talking about the little stuff that happens with students who are generally good OR who have some overwhelming issues with which they are dealing.

I’ll give a couple of case studies:

A) Student A is mouthy. He criticizes you during class, often under his breath. He talks in a disrespectful manner. But this same student usually pays attention, cares about grades, and always does homework. You know that culturally you are worlds apart. When you call him on his behavior(privately); he denies it and says that you just don’t like him.

B) Student B is a good student, an interested learner, and an avid class participant. This same student though, sometimes decides she is not interested in what the class is doing. This happens when the work is a little more demanding. At this point, the student will disengage from the class by putting her head down or acting bored.

What is difficult about this is that my style of teaching is very open and collaborative; I see students as my partners in learning. I want discussion, grappling with problems, and freedom to explore. My students often don’t have the maturity to do this.  The Mark Strand poem “Wherever I am I am what is missing” comes to mind. They are neither here nor there. They are texting, they are packing up for the next class, they are doing math in English class.

I know real disciplinarians will talk about establishing rules early and sticking to them. I get it, but in my mind class rules are always made to be broken; while rules of common decency and etiquette are not.