Data Obsession

In the 2011-12 school year, my school district was ranked #7 in the biggest 200 Texas Public School Districts, according to the Texas Education Agency’s Academic Excellence Indicator System (AEIS). If we had graduated 16 more students that year, we would have earned the #3 spot.

Take a moment to absorb that.

In our pre-school staff convocation, the information above was the main topic of discourse… obviously.  Because numbers never lie.

A few minutes ago, I got off the phone with another teacher in my district.  He informed me that this would be his last year teaching, and when I asked him why, he responded, “There is no success.”  He told me that, if you look at the numbers, he isn’t a very good teacher.

You see, a few years ago, he was certified as an AP English teacher.  His students did so well that year on their AP exam that in subsequent years, more and more students were added to his AP classes.  He told me that many of them don’t want to be in AP English.  That many of them don’t want to read books.  And if you know anything about AP English classes, you know how much more difficult they are when you hate to read.

Now comes the inevitable question: Why are those kids taking AP classes if they don’t want to do the work?

Well.  Let me tell you why.

Because it looks really good on paper.  “Oh! Forty percent of your students are taking AP classes?! That’s amazing!  How dedicated they must be!”  Not.

So, when he told me that he doesn’t think that he’s a good teacher, I disagreed with him.  I told him that the things that really matter can’t be counted.  The response I got was that as soon as I become an administrator, my views on that would change – I’d be brainwashed, just like the rest of them.

So, tell me… are data-driven administrators killing schools?

Khan Academy in the Classroom

So, I teach math…  Granted, I teach fundamentals of math classes for Special Education students, so when I say I “teach” math, I basically skim the surface of the major mathematical concepts and hope that nobody asks me too many in-depth questions.  Like “Why?”  I hate “Why?”s… they make my brain shrug.

Honestly, I’m not so modest that the above paragraph should not be taken at face value.  I made straight C’s in math in high school.  Except for Algebra II.  That one was a D… possibly a D-minus.  I think I only “passed” because my dad knew the teacher – two grumpy old men determined that I shouldn’t not graduate because I couldn’t solve advanced Algebraic equations.  Thank goodness.  Besides, I was going to major in English, so who cares about a D in my senior year math class?

If I could go back and smack my 17-year-old self upside the head… I probably wouldn’t.

When I was hired for my current position four years ago and found out that I would be teaching both math and English for 6th-12th grade Special Education students… I almost said “Yeah… no!?”

But three months into the job, I was thrilled that I hadn’t.  Not just because I love my delinquents, but because I was finally learning math.

In the education field, studies show that in order to truly learn a subject, you must be able to teach it, too.  Man, I could write a book on how true that statement is… The first few weeks, I was teaching 6th-, 7th-, 8th grade math, Algebra I, Geometry, and Mathematical Models (which was, at the time, a course designed to prepare students for the 11th grade math state test to determine whether they could graduate or not).  Oh, yeah… I was ALSO teaching English and reading at every secondary level, a couple of science classes, and world geography.

God, that paragraph sounds complain-y.

Was it difficult?  Yes.  Was it stressful?  You have no idea.

But it was worth it.

Every frantic minute taught me a lesson.  Every exhausted afternoon that left me nodding off on the couch before dark was a day that I made an impact.  Every “ummm… I have no idea what the answer to this word problem is…” made me a stronger teacher.

Okay, now ask me how I finally figured out not only how to do math, but how to teach it, too… C’mon, you know you want to know.

Two words:  the Internet.

So, a couple of years later, when I found out about Khan Academy, my first thought was “WHERE WERE YOU TWO YEARS AGO, SAL?!”  And my second thought was, “WHERE WERE YOU WHEN I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL, SAL?!”

Screen shot 2013-10-18 at 5.22.51 PM

And, you know, there are a lot of people in the education world who criticize Sal Khan and his online school.  I get it.  He’s not a teacher by education or training.  And he’s not always using the correct pedagogical explanations for his lessons.  But.


Imagine a world in which everybody (everybody!) with internet access can learn whatever they want to learn.

Earlier today, I ran across a post on Facebook:

Screen shot 2013-10-18 at 4.56.19 PMFirst thought: “Jesus. That’s beautiful.  Khan Academy to Columbia… That’s the fucking American Dream, no?”

Second thought: “Maybe I want to work for Sal…”

Third thought: “Nahhhh…. I love my delinquents too much to leave.”

Okay, so regardless of my train of thought, I did a little Googling, and ran across a WaPo guest post criticizing Khan Academy…. not for what it is, but for how it’s done.

“We face very real challenges in K-12 education today, and they will not be solved with just a Wacom tablet and a YouTube account. Instead, they’ll be solved by teachers who understand their content; who understand how children learn; who walk into the classroom every day and think, ‘I know exactly what I’m going to say, because that’s what teaching means.’ -Karim Kai Ani, Washington Post guest blogger

And, in a lot of ways, I agree.  As Master in Education, I want the pedagogy to be correct… I want Sal to be a great teacher with the education and credibility to back up the hyperbolic pseudonyms the media is giving him.  But I want to believe that we can provide a free and equal education for the whole world. At least it’s a jumping-off point.

The argument can be made (and has been, on my Facebook page) that it’s not meant to be used as a sole source of education.  And I agree, it’s not meant to be used that way.  But it is being used that way, regardless of intentions.  Public school districts (mine included) are using Khan Academy’s video and lesson system to “supplement” classroom mathematics instruction.

My point isn’t that Khan Academy’s not good, but that if schools are going to try to use it to replace direct teaching (which they are currently doing in my district and several others nearby), to free up classroom time for other things (like investigation and experimentation), then it needs to be BETTER than it is currently.

Part of the problem is that a teacher with 100+ students and only one prep period will find that it’s so easy to fall into a pattern of using something like Khan Academy to teach for him/her. (It happens all the time already.)  There have got to be checks and balances in place to ensure that it’s used properly in classrooms before we start using it there. It’s free, and in the education world right now, that’s all that matters.

If it’s used as it’s intended to be used – as a resource for tutorials and practice – then there are magnificent possibilities in the time it can open for teachers and students in the classroom.  But if the instructional pedagogy isn’t embedded in the lessons, then it’s not enough to replace direct instruction.

There is a real opportunity here for world-wide collaboration and discussion.  If Khan Academy can be held to the standards of research-based practices and pedagogy that most universities are, there is no reason that it can’t one day evolve into an educational reform platform that changes the way we “do” education around the world.

But it has to be done correctly.  Methodically.  And without government interference.

And unfortunately, Sal, you’re not quite there yet.  Close, but no cigar.

So, I won’t be using it in my classroom as direct instruction.  As a resource? Sure.  As extra practice? Of course.  As a refresher? You bet.

For now, though, that’s all it will be inside my cinder block walls.

Book Update!! (among other things)

So, my debut novel, The Self-Destruction of Joey Martin, is due out in the fall.  This week, I’ve been busy working with the FABULOUS Sarah Hansen at Okay Creations on the cover design  (yeah, she works with authors like Coleen Hoover and Abbi Glines… ACK! *fangirling*) and on writing the cover blurb.  I’m so excited to see what she comes up with!  Should be ready in June, and I’ll post it here as soon as I get it.  :)

Here’s the Blurb:

“Seventeen-year-old Joey Martin knows all about loss.  His absentee father left when he was two.  He was there when his mother died.  He lost most of his friends when he was forced to move away from Texas, and he lost his soccer scholarship.  When cute-but-nerdy Jenna Maxwell is assigned as his partner for a class project, Joey does everything he can to keep her at a distance.  And now, when he’s got nothing left to lose, Jenna just may be the one to save him from himself.”

In other news, I only have one more week of school for this school year, and then it’s summertime.  This has probably been one of the most mentally and emotionally draining years since I began teaching.  I feel like I’ve had more “special cases” kids this year, and  I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to have been part of their lives – even for such a brief time.

I leave you today with a powerful message from Shane Koyczan: “Instructions for a Bad Day.”  (Although, I sincerely hope you’re all having GOOD days.)

“Every child needs a Champion”

This video, which I’ve now shared with all of my co-workers, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers, moved me so much, that I want to share it with the rest of the world as well.  Rita Pearson, long-time educator, discusses the impact that building relationships with students has on their lives.  Teachers who care truly are champions for their students.


Let’s Discuss AD(H)D

I have an issue I’d like to get your opinions on… I’ve had a handful of students over the years with diagnosed ADD or ADHD (okay… more than a handful…).  I know there’s a lot of concern in the education world right now about overidentification of students with ADD/ADHD.  For a while, it seemed like every kid had it and that parents knew what doctor to take their kid to to get him/her put on Ritalin.  My district has recently put some stricter mandates in place to keep this from causing us to have so many Special Ed. students who qualify only for this Other Health Impairment (OHI), and that should help with the overwhelming number of these kiddos receiving Special Ed. services when a 504 placement would suffice.  But that’s not the issue that concerns me today…

What I want to hear your thoughts on are students who probably have AD(H)D, but whose parents either can’t or won’t do anything about it.  As a teacher, I’ve witnessed many cases over the years of students who I knew were on medication and how they function with and without it.  I have had students who refused to take their medicine for a day or two, and once the effects wore off, they were an entirely different child.  While I understand that many parents are fearful of over-medicating or needless medicating, I can testify to the fact that some people in this world NEED these medicines.  And if the parent is averse to medications in general, how about trying to find other ways to help the child be successful?

Some studies suggest changes in diet can help

I have seen both extremes: 1) a student who needs it, but can’t get it or won’t use it, and 2) students who have such high doses that they become zombies.

At what point does it become parental neglect to allow your student to be unable to progress academically because he/she cannot focus in class?

Hear me correctly… this is not the “woe is me” frustrated teacher rant that you may hear elsewhere.  This is genuine concern for students.  I’ve seen kids get so frustrated while trying to learn with severe and untreated cases of AD(H)D.  I’ve had parents tell me that they don’t see a problem at home, so the problem must be at school and we should fix it.  Which means the child suffers.

Teachers need as much support from home as possible.  We understand that parents are busy and that the problems at home may not be the same as the ones we face at school.  And we know that there are other things going on in your lives.  But, for your child’s sake, take the time to work WITH the school to find a way for your student to be successful.

So, what are your thoughts on this?  Have you had an related experiences as a teacher, as a child or as a parent?

Lol, txt me l8r. Slash language rocks

So, being an English teacher, and having studied grammar a LOT in high school and college, I have a soft spot for it. There have been days in class that I’ve gone off on ranting tangents about why my students are killing me with their use of “txt talk” in essays or short stories.

As it turns out, I’ve been wrong. I know, right?! Me? Wrong?! LOL….

Here, watch this…

So, you see… As readers, writers and teachers, English teachers especially, while we have a passionate affection for our beloved language, we cannot be so profane in our hatred of the emergence of what is an ever-changing, ever-evolving organism… Language.

Dear Administrator,

Sometimes, as an administrator, it’s easy to forget what it’s like in a classroom. We’re focusing so much on the “bigger” picture and worrying about how to accomplish all of the seemingly infinite tasks required. It’s important to remember where the term Principal comes from: Principal Teacher. The head teacher, overseeing all other teachers. Never neglect that.

“I’ll Fight You For the Library” by Taylor Mali

Dear Simone Elkeles,

When I tweeted that my students (the delinquents) are digging your books, I wasn’t expecting anything from you.  So your offer of bookmarks for my students is wonderful, and yes, I would love some. Thank you.

perfect chemistryJust so you know, though, and please don’t take it personally, but they will probably tag them, or tear them up to throw the pieces at one another.  And any faces on the bookmarks will be branded with gang numbers across the forehead. It’s not you, it’s them.  They’re not used to gifts.  Besides, what’s a kid who only reads once or twice a year going to do with a bookmark?

You see, the only reason they read while they’re in my class is that I’m part saleswoman.  I can sell the heck* out of a book like Perfect Chemistry because I teach Alexes and Carloses and Luises.  At least, I teach them before they become who they are by the end of your novels.  And, though they would never admit this, they are suckers for the love story.

They read when they’re with me because it’s one step up from jail and one step removed from real life.  Their homeboys aren’t around to give them shit** about reading a book in general, and a love story in particular.  These kids don’t go to the library unless they’re forced.  They don’t pick bookshelfup a book in the real world unless they’re going to make fun of it.  But I’ve built a classroom library that meets their unique tastes.  Made up primarily of realistic fiction that revolves around tough issues, like guns and gangs, death and abuse.

Simone, your books are at eye level.  That’s because I want them to read something that they can not only relate to, but that they can aspire to.  If I could turn all my kids into post-high school Alex, or get them into the military like Carlos, I would do just that.  I believe in product placement almost as much as I believe that these kids can change their destiny if they really want to.  Most of them will have to do it alone, though.  They won’t have Brittany to push them out of the gang life and into college.  And most of them don’t have Luis’ mind, so they have to rely on something else to get them out of their predetermined fate.

That’s us.  You and I together.

So, yeah, send me some bookmarks if you want.  But if you want to go bigger, do more… send me a book just for Colton or Jose or Jesus or Daniel.  Address each one and tell them, “Yes, kid, you CAN do this, too.  You CAN be like Alex. Or Carlos.”  They’ll hide it in their binder, carry it home and stash it somewhere that their friends won’t see it.  But it’d be theirs.

If not, though, that’s okay, too.  They aren’t very good with gifts.

Yours sincerely,



there’s no such thing as good enough

As a veteran teacher and future principal, one of my favorite mottos is “when you lose heart, quit teaching.” A teacher who doesn’t have the desire to continue growing, learning, and caring for his/her students is the most damaging force in a classroom and a school. It can take years to get it right, but even beyond that, it takes a lifetime of learning and improving right along with the ever-changing student population. In teaching, there’s no such thing as “good enough.”

As with any job, it’s easy to get comfortable. To get into a groove and forget why you even started to begin with. So, in teaching, it’s important to constantly reevaluate and reflect. I can remember vividly my first couple of years and picture the glaring mistakes I made. But I can also remember the things I learned from those mistakes. The moment that a teacher stops learning from those mistakes is the moment that they should leave teaching behind. That’s the moment they can either become hypocritical and disillusioned, or can make the choice to go in a different direction with their lives.

I don’t care if you’ve been teaching for five years or fifteen, if you have just lost your passion for teaching or never had any to begin with… if you don’t care, why should your students?

When I’m the Principal…

This is something I’m working on. If you’ve been following for a while, you’ll know that I just finished my Master’s degree in Education with the end goal of someday being a principal. While I don’t see that on the very close horizon, I have been thinking a lot about my personal philosophy as a leader in education, as well as my beliefs regarding whole-child education… Because it really isn’t enough just to teach their minds. We also have to reach their hearts.

Please let me know what you think.


First official Principal speech to staff (sometime in the not-too-distant future)

“When I was working on my Master’s degree, a lot of emphasis was placed on Mission and Vision statements. Which sort of makes sense, because running a school these days is like running a business in a lot of ways. What really bothered me about what everyone else in my classes found to be fitting vision statements revolved only around the progress of the students. Sure, that’s the most important part of teaching and administering students, but is it really the only thing involved in creating and maintaining a successful school? I don’t think so. Let me share my mission and vision with you…

First, I want your students to learn from you. Each and every one of you brings into this building a unique set of personal experiences. You are as different from one another as each of your students is from his or her peers. The difference, however, is that your life map – the route that got you from the place that you were born to the seat you occupy right now – is filled with more experiences. You’ve simply lived longer.

Then, I want you to learn from your students. We will have have students who are smarter than we are, we have students who are more worldly, more complex, and perhaps even more jaded. So what gives us the right to speak with authority on any topic? Simply that we have experienced more. We have experienced college courses, sure, but we’ve also experienced failure and relationships, death and grief, joy and pain. That is not to say that our students have not experienced any of those things, but by merely being present on this Earth for a longer period of time, we have experienced… more.

Why does this even matter? It matters because my vision for our school is that we, collectively as a staff, a faculty WITH our students, share a narrative. Storytelling is, in my opinion, the most meaningful form of communication. I can stand before you here and give you a long list of statistics – 70% of our students come from this demographic or 4 out of every 7 students will engage in this illegal activity this year… and so on. But what does that accomplish? What do you – even as adults – learn from that? That our kids come from rough neighborhoods and have trouble reading? Did you not already know that? The point is that statistics and rules and procedures have their place in this world, but within the brick and mortar of this school building, what will create a connection among us and between us and those children we are given the opportunity to teach.

Here is my vision: Don’t just teach them; REACH them.

This is a funny time we live in. There is a very visible cultural shift happening right before our eyes. We are seeing parents change in how they approach us as educators. We are seeing children grow up far too quickly. We are seeing political dynamics at work within the very walls surrounding us right now. And I think everyone is just a little bit scared. Freshmen are scared to be at a new school. Seniors are scared of what comes after graduation. Probationary teachers are scared of contract non-renewal. Veteran teachers are scared that they will be forced out early. Bullying and prejudice are still, in the 21st century, running rampant. So, what’s your story? What is your fear? Your wish? Your Achilles heel? We all have one. I’m afraid that I may not be as good a leader as I think I am…

Your students come to you with their own fears, wishes, dreams, and challenges. They can be so strong sometimes that trying to get the math or history or science into the space between them can be difficult.

I’ve learned many different theories about how to teach students – some say ignore anything that does not pertain to your subject matter. Some say allow class time to discuss and nurture them. It’s such a tricky pendulum, and each individual teacher has their own method, whether it’s just happened over time, or it’s been molded and planned out. In my own experience in the classroom, I’ve been on both sides of the pendulum. And what I can tell you from those experiences is this: Ignoring the issues that block learning does not foster as good a rapport with students as fostering and nurturing them does.

Is it important that they learn the subject matter that you’re teaching them? Of course. Does it matter more than developing the human being? No.

‘It is vital that when educating our children’s brains that we do not neglect to educate their hearts.’ – Dali Lama

If you do some research, many of history’s “bad guys” were very well educated. Hitler, Mussolini, Jack The Ripper, etc.
The other things they had in common were selfishness, extreme prejudice, and social disorders. Just being well-educated – being good at math or logic or knowing a lot of facts about history – is not enough to create a well-rounded person. My hope for us is that we can, together, mold these young people into empathetic, compassionate adults.

You may be thinking that by 15 or 16 they’ve already developed their personality. It’s too late to change them. But you see, the point isn’t to CHANGE them. No one can change another. All we can do – all we can ever hope to do – in this life for others is to help them change themselves. We need to give them the experiences and the tools to be capable of recognizing their shortcomings and to correct their own paths. It is not enough to quote famous lines to them like “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it” or “every journey begins with a single step”…. we have to help them look at their own history – their own journey up to the present – and help them see the way. I know, I know… that sounds awfully preachy. But isn’t that part of teaching, too?

Don’t just teach them. Reach them.

But also let them reach you.

Buddhism teaches that in lighting a lamp for someone else not only shows them the way, but also lights the way for ourselves. By reaching your students and teaching them not only how to calculate or debate or create, but also how to feel and grow, we also learn about ourselves, causing a chain reaction of growth and compassion.

If we work together, we can create a ripple effect of change that reaches not only the students in your classrooms, but their parents and siblings, their neighbors, perhaps someday even their children.

It’s a heavy weight we carry. They may not remember everything you teach them in your classrooms, but they will certainly remember how you treated them.