Tuesday, November 1, 2011
It's not quite that bad really. There are lots of girls here who like me quite a bit. I think.
Here's what went down:
A teacher asked me to teach a series of lessons. I said yes. I suggested we give a practice assignment that asked students to read an article related to class and respond to it, using paraphrased passages from the source material and including in-text (parenthetical) citations. I offered to grade the papers too. I created a rubric for the students so they would know exactly what we expected. We read the article and discussed it. I taught a lesson on paraphrasing. I went over the grading criteria. Then, we gave them about 4-5 days to write their 1-3 paragraph responses to our writing prompt.
When I graded them, about 80% failed the assignment. Totally fell on their faces failed. Why? Perhaps they didn't ever (not one time!) refer to the article we read together. This meant, of course, that they didn't paraphrase a thing or practice using citations. That's a fail.
Perhaps they summarized the article and never wrote a single word responding to the prompt, that asked for some commentary/analysis. That's a fail.
Perhaps their writing was so bad, so riddled with errors, that it was clear they didn't even bother to spell check. That's a fail.
So, the teacher and I decided to give them another chance. Perhaps they didn't understand what I had taught them (although several students did, in fact, ace this assignment, so I don't know). Perhaps the instructions weren't clear (but I really, really think they were). We let them do it again. For full credit. We gave them another week.
This time around, almost all of the students who bothered to re-do the work got and A or a B. Why? Did I re-teach the content? Nope. Did I dumb it down? Nope. This time, the girls followed directions, took themselves seriously, and did the job they should have done in the first place.
But now. Now the little darlings have spread the word. The librarian is a hard grader. She's mean. She's unfair. She's too tough. We don't want her involved.
On Friday, the junior US History teacher and I are sitting down together to read 50-point research proposals that his students have had a month to write. We've team-taught a series of lessons, presented resources, given examples, and gone over the rubric. Today, they told him they are scared of me. They don't want me to see their papers. They heard this from the sophomores who failed the assignment that was grade by me. The sophomores didn't mention that they got to re-do it, or that they didn't complete the assignment the first time around. They just mentioned how uncool it is that the librarian has anything to do with anything.
Some of the girls like me. I know they do. They've told me.
Lots of the girls respect their tough teachers. I hear them talk about it. The toughest ones are the favorites.
It just takes time, I suppose. I have to get used to the fact that I'm in a new place where there's a status quo. Who am I to barge in and expect people to cite their sources? Who am I to waltz in here and think that college-preparatory students ought to be preparing for college level work?
I would have thought the same thing at their age. And it's not that it hurts my feelings exactly (I learned many, many years ago not to let students anywhere near hurting my feelings). It's just....what? It's frustrating to think that somewhere down the line they've gotten the impression that a job done should get the same credit as a job well done. When did that happen?
The US History in question just stopped in to tell me that he hopes I know how much he's looking forward to grading these proposals together. He says it's a good thing they're scared of me, because the girls are more motivated to do well on this paper than they have been on anything else he's assigned this year. He says that being afraid of me doesn't need to turn into disliking me. They'll get to know me and then they'll love me, like they love the other toughest graders.
I suppose he's right, and I appreciate that he said so. In the mean time, I'll try to smile a lot.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
This is what I found:
- 64% of students do not check out books from the school library
- 72% use the library's web page "rarely" or "almost never"
- the top 4 reasons for visiting the school library are: printing, photocopying, using a laptop, and working on homework
- the 2 least common reasons for visiting the library are to check out recreational reading material and to ask the Librarian for help
- only 38% of students say they use the library for their history classes, only 18% for science, only 6% for fine arts
- 32% say there are no books in the library that they want to check out
- 51% buy the books they want to read from a physical bookstore
- 34% spend ZERO time each week reading for pleasure
- students prefer to read romance, mystery, and realistic fiction
- 61% do not use a public library
- 85% turn to Google first when conducting any kind of academic research
So, there you have it. A VERY different scenario from my previous library setting, where tons of kids read avidly, almost no kids could purchase their own books (there is not a single bookstore in that part of South Central), and the Librarian was the first source of information for research.
I suppose I didn't really use my high school library for much either. It was pretty outdated, and I don't have any memory of the Librarian, so I don't think she was a very dynamic member of the school community. I got my books from my parents or the public library. Perhaps I don't need to lament the low circulation here. Perhaps I should focus my attentions on the research skills the girls are lacking and the need to get them college-ready in terms of seeking information. If course, I want to cry when I hear that so many of them spend no time at all reading for pleasure. That, to me, is sad. That I want to change.
Next up, surveying the teachers. I am very curious about those results.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
My new school has a Forensic Science class. How cool is that? This morning when I got out of my car, I noticed that a hideous and brutal crime had taken place right outside the school's entrance. Luckily, our students are on the case. What do you think happened?
It may be hard to see in this picture, but right above the chalk outline of the head is a long string of pearls, and to the right of that is a tiara. Clearly this murdered young woman was on her way somewhere special. The rose petals make me think she was possibly involved in the Rose Court for the Rose Parade, as are many young women in this part of the LA area. The one thing that really confuses me is how the car that ran over her made it out of the parking lot. If it was coming from the left of this picture, surely it would have crashed into the building after running her over. Unless the driver was so skilled that s/he was able to brake and reverse within inches of the stucco. And why is some of the rubber from the tire on the pavement? What can it mean?
This is what school is all about. Every student in the school is encouraged to submit her theories about the crime. I can't wait to hear the results. I'm a happy librarian.
Monday, September 19, 2011
True, I still didn't know what my job would be.
True, my principal refused to allow me to transfer to another school where I might have had more job security.
True, when summer started my future was one big mystery.
True, the image of that weasel attorney swam through my thoughts more frequently than I would have liked.
But I hung in there, with the help of my many supporters. And then I made a decision that changed my life dramatically. I decided that there was life outside of LAUSD. It was a radical thought, one that had occurred to me only vaguely before, as something abstract and unattainable. Life outside of LAUSD had never existed for me in Los Angeles. I worked for that school district from the moment I stepped foot in this here town, and I never stopped. Why, I now asked myself, didn't I ever just stop?
So, I began to look elsewhere. In July, most public school districts aren't ready yet to publicly post their job listings for the fall. I would not apply at a charter on principle. So I looked at independent (or private) schools. I looked at non-profits related to education. I just looked elsewhere. And wouldn't you know it, I found a place. A great place. A professional, nurturing, rigorous place where I'm not only challenged, but valued. How 'bout them apples? Valued! Now, I know I was valued to a certain extent in my old position. There were teachers who adored me, and I adored them. It was not a thankless job. But this job. Well, let's just say that it's something of a relief. That's a large part of what I feel. Relieved. It's just a breath of fresh air.
The day I submitted my resignation to LAUSD was both terrifying and exhilarating. To detach from such a formidable employer is not easy. I was advised by fellow educators that leaving LAUSD was foolish, that there are so many advantages to staying that it's worth the mild level of daily torture. But you know, I think they were wrong. I would trade some crazy seniority level for a day of happiness any time. I am perfectly capable of planning for my retirement without CalSTRS. I mean, c'mon. Millions and millions of other people out there don't work of LAUSD either. I know! It's crazy! I didn't realize that either! I began to feel even more at ease with my departure when I went to visit a dear friend and teacher who has not worked for LAUSD for about three years. What I discovered was this. She's fine! In fact, she's better than fine. She doesn't regret leaving one bit.
All of this is just to say that it was a really, very, terribly difficult decision for me to leave. But it was the right one. I love my students, all of them, old and new. I love my old school (and my other old school). I love the wonderful people I've met in LAUSD. And now I love my new school. So this blog will change a little, since now I am in an independent high school for girls. What will I say about them, about this? It remains to be seen.
I will leave you today with a humorous little anecdote about LAUSD, one of the last I hope to tell on this blog (although the scathing expose in book form is still somewhere in me).
Even though I resigned from LAUSD in plenty of time, the necessary documents were not signed and processed by the right people and the right time, and I was paid on August 5th for work I had not yet done (and would not do) for the 2011-2012 school year. Since then, I have spoken to Payroll Services FOUR TIMES, trying to determine how and when and where to give this money back so that I'm free and clear.
One woman told me simply to put a check in the mail, but didn't tell me where to send it (Um, this is a bureaucracy people. I am not doing that!). I explained to her that a portion of the money was mine to keep (hours worked in June) and that I needed payroll to calculate the exact amount owed. She said I should just do it myself and it would probably be fine. She also asked me if I had spent the money already, and then advised me against doing so. Thanks. I hadn't thought of that.
Another person "opened a ticket" for me so that the issue would get addresses promptly. That was two weeks ago.
A third woman told me that the ticket was opened incorrectly and so hadn't even been assigned to anyone yet. That was last week.
Today I was told that I could receive a letter about the overpayment "at any time" and that overpayment issues take "a loooong time" (emphasis attributed to speaker).
Don't they want their money back? I want to give it back!!!! Why don't they want it back?
Now, here, in this new wonderland, if there's a problem with my paycheck, all I have to do is walk out of the library, down a little hill, into another building, and talk to so-and-so (whose first and last names I know, and with whom I have shared a potluck meal). She will probably take care of it by the end of the day. Sweet relief. That's all I'm sayin'.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
In a recent blog post, I wrote that my employer had become my enemy. That was re-posted on The Washington Post's educational blog, The Answer Sheet, and I suppose my employer really took it to heart. At my RIF hearing yesterday, the LAUSD lawyers were armed and ready to take me down.
After an hour of testimony and an hour lunch break, I returned to the stand feeling pretty good. I had answered well and was confident that I would continue to do so. That was until my entire personal blog, 90 pages of posts dating back to 2007, was brought out in printed form and submitted to the court. The lawyers had scoured my musings for ammo, and they found some key posts that did, in fact, make me look like a bit of an idiot for a moment or two. Taken so far out of the context of a school, and particularly my school, some of these posts made it seem as if I was full of it when I testified that I am a competent and active teacher. I wrote about days when I didn't feel much like teaching, or days when I didn't feel that I had taught very much. I wrote about the nature of my job in the library and its clerical demands, and how on some days I felt like I did nothing but shelve books. I wrote about allowing students to watch a movie trailer for Twilight. I wrote about having a slow day in the library. I wrote about times when my teaching practice seemed to be eroding slowly because of the cuts in clerical staff, meetings, etc. I wrote about times when kids worked collaboratively as I stood back and observed, therefore not directly 'teaching'. I wrote about feeling frustrated over the struggle to teach certain content. I wrote honestly and emotionally, reflectively, as one does on one's personal blog.
So, yes, I wrote about times when I wasn't delivering direct instruction, and they claimed this evidence impeached my testimony that I 'constantly' teach. Well, obviously I used the word 'constantly' in the widely accepted usage meaning very frequently (I constantly go to the gym. I constantly go to the movies.) No teacher, not one, constantly teaches in the literal sense of the word. We use the bathroom, we eat lunch, we chat with other teachers, we file papers, we clean the classroom, and yes, we do make personal phone calls sometimes or even, god forbid, answer a personal email between classes.
I failed to mention at the hearing, and I'm still kicking myself for it, that as the librarian, I am at school about 2.5-3 months more per year than the classroom teachers due to our year-round schedule. So even if I did nothing but shelve books or even read the paper for the equivalent of 2.5 months of the year (which I most certainly do not!), I would STILL be meeting the district's requirement of teaching at least 75% of the time in order to return to classroom teaching. Like I said, I didn't think of that zinger until later, so it's now a moot point. So it goes.
On the stand, the fact that the vast majority of what I do is really teaching wasn't apparant to anyone but me, so I looked the fool. Luckily, my lawyer objected to the admission of my personal, emotional, reflective blog into evidence and the judge sustained his objection, admitting only the pages discussed prior to the objection (possibly quite damaging already), and leaving the other eighty-plus pages out. Other than this blog, it didn't feel like they really had much to go on. Well, except for the fact that they suggested I forged a dozen or so letters of recommendation, but the judge didn't buy it. (Can you believe?) I don't know what the judge will rule, and after Friday, I'm not sure it will make a difference to me anymore.
The thing about this that stings is how I feel now, after the fact. I may feel worse than I have ever felt about anything that didn't involve death. They were clearly ticked off at me. I spoke out, wrote an editorial, called the lawyer a weasel in my blog (oops, and I am sorry. That wasn't nice. It really wasn't.), and they brought in the big guns. A top dog from the district (at least, he looked like it) was even there to watch. And maybe they won here, because the way I feel, I just want to get away from them as fast as possible and never look back. I spoke out and I got crucified for it. I'm not sorry I wrote what I wrote, but I am sorry I insisted on having a hearing for a job with a district that is so dead set against having me work for them. I'm sorry I put myself through that particular wringer for the sake of completing a process. I am scared, somehow, about retribution and payback, because that's what that hearing felt like. Like they were going to crush me into a pulp.
So, even though I think I answered the best anyone could under those circumstances, I keep going over it in my head again and again, and I keep experiencing waves of terror that maybe they were right, that I am no good, that I am not fit to work for one of the worst school districts in the land.
Then I remember that I am a great teacher, a really great one, and that they are the ones who are losing here. The children love me and I love them. Teachers love me and I love them. I belong in a school.
Then I have another wave of terror and I just don't know. That they did this to me, made me feel like this, is the worst part of all.
I have less than twenty days left at my school, in my library, with LAUSD. This morning, I don't even want to go back for a single one of those days. Of course, at the same time, I want to go back and work in that school forever. Nine years of my life have been spent there. I've taught whole families of kids there. In my days remaining, I hope to enjoy my students and my library and to prepare that spacious, well-stocked room for whatever comes next, be it clerks or kiosks. And then I will bid LAUSD a fond farewell.
LAUSD, your message was received loud and clear. You are through with me, and you have no interest in working with someone who speaks the truth, and those who speak against you will pay the consequences. However, I would like to take a moment here to sincerely thank you. Thank you for teaching me how to be a teacher. Thank you for coaching me, training me, and guiding me through the world of middle school. Thank you for giving me great evaluations, a few awards, and hiring me for three different, wonderful positions in your schools. Thank you for the eleven challenging, difficult, heartbreaking, mind-altering, life-changing, rewarding, and exhilarating years that make up my professional life thus far. Thank you for all the great teachers you employ who I have had the honor of knowing, and all the great kids who walk the halls of your schools and have changed me forever, for the better. And finally, I suppose, though it's difficult to be sure at this moment, thank you for the opportunity to change my life and grow even more as an educator as I leave your district and find my way in others, or in private institutions, or in non-profits, or pre-schools, or who knows where. I am sure it will be a demanding change, and if there is one thing I have learned as an LAUSD teacher, it's the ability to accept change, to roll with it, to grow with it, and to be better for it. I will not wallow in your rejection LAUSD, and I will not even hate you for your cruelty (for I was unkind to you as well). Instead I will be happy for our time together and think of you (certainly your students and schools) fondly in the future.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
- over 15, 000 people have read my blog on this matter, so people care
- there are 2, 200 students at my school who care
- I am extremely qualified to teach, so says the State of California
- Libraries are essential to the propagation of educated societies
- Information, and the freedom, access, and understanding of that information, are at the heart of our democratic principles as a society
- Librarians are the guardians of that information
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
In the spring of 2001, I found myself at a crossroads after finishing my first year as a teacher in a South LA middle school. Brought in on an emergency credential, I had been placed in my position with little experience and no formal training. As I struggled with whether I was truly meant to teach, I sought the advice of a mentor, who plainly told me in a fatherly way, “If you can do this, and not very many people can, you must. And you can.”
Over the next several years, as I gained confidence and competence as a teacher, I found myself inspired by Teacher Librarians (TLs), whose libraries were the centers of student and teacher learning. More than once, these librarians guided me towards better, more effective teaching practices that profoundly improved my students’ abilities to achieve.
When I taught 7th grade English, I knew without a doubt it was critical that my students read. A lot. I knew they needed to check out library books and read them at home, that we should read and discuss books in class. What I didn’t fully understand, until a Teacher Librarian taught me, was that I could also discover why students didn’t like reading and then change that. I could read what my students read, and show them how to find challenging, mind-boggling material on related topics. I could do more than plod through classics; I could create lovers of literature. It was a Teacher Librarian who showed me a way to analyze a student’s reading history, to question him on his reading habits, and to pair him with the perfect book that would send him on a quest for more.
I once taught a class of highly gifted students whose curiosity and abilities stretched my limits as an educator. My Teacher Librarian suggested reading with them a memoir, Finding Fish, the story of a boy who overcomes insurmountable obstacles to create a life he has chosen for himself. As we read this powerful book, each student found his or her own inspiration, and we worked with the Teacher Librarian to transform this experience into an exploration of social issues, ethics, and family, until finally the students crafted their own profoundly personal memoirs. These children learned to read beyond the stories presented by authors and saw their own stories within. I could not have done this without my librarian.
It occurred to me then that the librarian is a person who works closely with every single person on campus. This person can improve a teacher’s craft and help students tackle difficult, academic questions. Upon reflection, I found that I wanted to be that person too, so back to school I went, earning a Library Media Services credential and Masters degree.
At that point, my classroom changed from a small, cramped space where 150 kids tramped in and out each day, to a spacious library where I got to interact with up to 500 people every single day, students, teachers, and parents alike. My conversations with students began to include shipwrecks and electric eels, World War II, origami, post-apocalyptic fiction and Captain Underpants. I spend time helping students read difficult passages for their research, helping them select reading material, and teaching them to navigate complicated technology and intellectual property issues. They come individually, in small groups, and as whole classes where I team-teach alongside content-area teachers. I became the queen of all content. As my predecessor often said, “Librarians don’t know everything, but they know how to find everything.” I had the best job on campus, but by no means the easiest. TLs sprint all day long trying to meet the needs of an entire school community. It is wonderfully exhausting.
Soon after I began my work in the library, a teacher came to me about Mario, an 8th grader who said he had never read an entire book in his life. Mario was a struggling reader, an English Learner, and he needed my help. I recommended a title that I had learned about from one of my mentors, a short, funny, mysterious book that appeals to reluctant boy readers of that age. Mario took it home, read it in a week, and came back with a horde of his friends to check out the remaining titles in the series. When he was ready to tackle more challenging content, I started him on a program of listening to audio books while following along in the text, a strategy helpful for building fluency and comprehension. Mario would come to library while on breaks from school (we are a year-round school) and sit for hours, headphones on, reading. I was able to work closely with him to develop techniques for tackling difficult passages and muddling through the strange vocabulary, later transitioning him back into reading the books on his own, no help from the audio. By the end of that one school year, Mario had read 42 books, meeting the Million Word goal set by the state of California for all 8th graders. From zero to forty-two in one short year; Mario was ready for high school. This is the power of the school library.
Since then, I have had students share with me astounding truths about the crucial nature of the library program. Recently one 8th grade girl told me that she would never have learned to love reading if it hadn’t been for a book I recommended to her in 6th grade. She is now on her way to a prestigious college preparatory high school with a nearly full scholarship. Others tell me the library is their favorite place on campus, a place where they feel at home and safe to explore their own, blossoming interests. Some alumni of the school, now attending charter high schools without libraries, come back regularly to ask for recommendations and to beg me to loan them books.
During the 2008-09 school year, LAUSD started a massive layoff process that has finally weaseled its way down to the TLs. Thousands of educators have received RIFs (Reduction-in-Force notices). Some leave LAUSD for the purportedly greener pastures of charter schools and others become subs; some RIFs get rescinded at the last minute. This year, Teacher Librarians with seniority stretching far into the past (in one case, to the 1970s) also got RIFs.
Not only that, it seems that we are barred from returning to a traditional classroom setting as well, even if we ultimately fail to protect our libraries. A new recency rule (or a newly enforced one) states that educators who’ve been out of the traditional classroom for five years or more can no longer return to their original posts. This is in reaction to the utter failure of last year’s attempt to acclimatize teachers who’d been in an cubicle setting for a decade. Returning to the classroom after that long is difficult and should be considered very carefully. But Teacher Librarians have not been in cubicles, but in schools, working with students day in and day out.
I received a RIF last year, only to have it rescinded at the last minute. This year, I was RIFed again, and the recency rule is threatening to take me down for good. Even if my RIF is rescinded and I am able to return to the classroom, there is no indication that the library at my school, or any school, will stay open for the students next year.
I have spent three full days at the hearings in the last two weeks (and my library has been closed, the weeks just before state testing begins). Finally, today, I was meant to give my testimony, but a paperwork snafu caused the court to delay my hearing, if I am to be given one at all.
So, in the basement of the California Mart building downtown, hearings for RIFed educators have been taking place every day since April 25th, undetected by the bustling world above ground. Teachers come to these hearings to defend their qualifications in front of a judge, hoping that someone in the legal system will understand what the students of this city need. Union lawyers attempt to show that we (TLs) teach on a daily basis, that we are defined by our contracts with LAUSD as (implied by the title) Teachers. In these hearings, the burden of proof seems to be on the librarians, although our credentials are valid in every way.
LAUSD’s lawyers, our employer’s lawyers, do everything they can to prove otherwise. They say that using the Dewey Decimal System requires so much math that we are no longer practiced in the teaching of English. They ask us to recite PE standards for 2nd graders, implying that if we cannot, we should not be allowed near elementary schools. One teacher is asked to duplicate a history lecture in order to prove he knows the content. This, in spite of the fact that his teaching credential from the State of California indicates definitively that he has met competency requirements for the subject matter. Is LAUSD challenging the validity of the State of California’s measures for qualifying teachers? If so, it seems that a different conversation needs to be had, and without us on the stand.
If the RIFs stand and the recency rule stands, 87 Teacher Librarians will be forced to leave LAUSD entirely. 87 school libraries will close completely, or schools will be forced to knowingly violate state Education Code to keep them open with only clerical staff , no credentialed Teacher Librarian in sight. My school’s library is home to nearly forty thousand items, from books to DVDs to art prints. A million dollar value serving over two thousand students, this space may go unattended for years. Or worse, it may be slowly destroyed as well-intentioned teachers and students use it without the help of a TL to oversee, curate, and organize the collection.
There is not only the risk of a financial loss here, but an ideological one. Librarians are the keepers of knowledge and defenders of the right to access that knowledge. Without libraries, our students’ access to accurate, quality information, as well as current, compelling reading material, practically disappears. Without Teacher Librarians, our schools are left further behind the curve and behind the times. We should give our children what we know that they need, not just what we can afford, or what we feel like giving them at the time. In a state that ranks in the bottom half nationwide when it comes to student achievement, can LAUSD really afford to ignore what research has proven to be effective time and again?
During this process, I cannot help but reflect on the words of my earliest mentor. I can do this. I must do this. I am being told that I am no longer allowed to do this.