Monday, August 19, 2013

summer vacation's gotta go


Recently, I was cruising along a country road on a gorgeous, sunshiny day to visit a friend. It was a Monday. And just when I was feeling smug about experiencing so much mirth on a Monday, NPR began interviewing Matthew Yglesias, author of a recent Slate column entitled, “Summer Vacation is Evil.”
 
Despite the sublime weather, the rollicking afternoon I was about to enjoy with my friend, and the fact that, as a teacher, summer vacation is sometimes one of my job’s few saving graces (settle down—I said sometimes), I agreed with everything he said.
 
The learning loss that occurs when students are out of school from mid-June to September is discomfiting, to put it mildly: according to a 2011 RAND report, average students lose about a month of learning during the break. As any teacher can attest—and this was Yglesias’ main point—this lost ground primarily affects low-income students, who are often behind as it is. Worse, the Slate article cites a Johns Hopkins finding that the effect of learning loss over summer break is cumulative, meaning that kids fall further behind with each passing summer, some to the point where school, when it’s in session, is unable to shrink their achievement gaps.
 
This is why so many educators end up filling Septembers with review. But in an era of high-stakes testing and, now, new Common Core standards, we simply cannot afford to spend what little time we have teaching concepts that were washed out of students’ brains at the water park.
 
Yglesias cites a couple reasons that the public largely ignores this issue. Nostalgia is one of them: fond summer memories make us hesitant to slash such an ingrained part of our culture. The summers of some children I know are sprinkled with camps, lessons, and family trips. Many of my honors-level students have told me, in regard to this issue, that summer is crucial for family time as well as engaging in interests that improve their odds of getting into college, like internships or community service.
 
One couple I know, a pair of busy educators, continues sending their girls to preschool throughout the summer because, as the mother puts it, “They can learn more there than we can ever do for them at home.” Their girls’ skills are improving all summer long as they brush up on letters, numbers, and insect species. They might actually greet September ahead of where they left off.
 
However, these valuable experiences are not the reality for many students at my school, and certainly not for most students nationally. The cost of camps and summer programs can be astoundingly expensive; they’re out of the question for families without money to spare. And in the absence of those or other structured activities for months on end, kids languish. When fall rolls around and I ask about summer break goings-on, I get several replies of “Nothing” or “I played lots of video games.” This is why Yglesias says that “summer vacation is a disaster for poor children…creating massive avoidable inequities.”
 
Another prominent reason for maintaining the status quo is (surprise, surprise) money. Yglesias points out that schools would have to buy air conditioners and pay higher utility bills. He also says teachers would have to be paid more; however, if school days were reorganized (rather than the school year lengthened), that would reallocate the break throughout the year, offering it in smaller chunks that would be less likely to lead to brain drain, and teacher salaries could stay put. Many districts have shuffled their traditional calendars and found pleasing results.
 
But what grabbed my attention most—perhaps because I’ve railed about it so many times—is the hypocrisy that Yglesias highlights. “The contrast,” he writes, “between America’s rhetorical obsession with the bad educational outcomes of poor children and its blasé attitude toward summer vacation is striking.” He points out that we don’t close down any other public services for months at a time, for “[t]o have no Army in February…or the police vacationing en masse in December would be absurd.” Indeed.
 
I won’t ask education leaders to put their money where their mouth is, because I know they can’t—their yappers will always be bigger than the budget. But the way we’re continually undermining students with this outmoded tradition is unacceptable.

Photo by Dinah Brooks.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

just say "lunch" (a petty rant)

A few years ago, my well-intentioned mother called during 2nd period and asked if I wanted to meet up during my lunch hour. Initially, I suppressed my indignation. But then, like “God bless yous” after a sneeze, I began hearing those words constantly. And just like post-sneeze blessings, the aim is innocent, but in this case, that didn’t stop the phrase from morphing into a well-established peeve.
It is a misnomer in my field. Please stop saying it. If you insist upon calling the joke of a time period I have to eat my midday meal a lunch hour, I can’t guarantee you won’t end up dodging a stapler.
Yeah, right.
In my building, we have 30 minutes from one bell to the other. Typically, students clear out pretty quickly, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they have questions or concerns or sad or funny stories to tell me. Let’s say that process of clearing the room takes, on average, three minutes. Since I haven’t peed since I left my house, I need to visit the restroom. But the nearest one is full of girls, some in stalls and others who have plugged in appliances and are restyling their hair. So my best bet—and the only place likely to have both soap and paper towels—is the staff bathroom on the opposite side of the building. I quickly trek there and back, walking amidst a gauntlet of noshing teenagers sitting along the walls, avoiding dollops of ketchup on the floor, brusquely acknowledging those with whom I would otherwise stop and chat, scurry back to my desk, and poke the microwave buttons. Two minutes to heat. Stir, blow, eat.
I’ve never been one of those teachers who can saunter back to class after the bell rings, still chewing, weaving through a waiting pack of students to unlock my door. I wish I was, but I fear that this is a result of my type-A-ness (which sounds dirty when said aloud, no?). For me, the bell ringing means I’m “on stage.”
I once worked at a grocery store that drilled us at staff orientation with descriptions of on-stage and off-stage behavior. We were on stage when we wore the aprons, when we walked the sales floor, even when we swept up cigarette butts in the far corner of the parking lot in the torrential rain at 6:13 AM. (Some employees rebelled against all the on-stage demands by taking off-stage to a whole new level in the walk-in coolers. The moral? Always wash your produce, and fight your curiosity when you want to peek through the milk jugs into the back room.)
The on-stage idea stuck with me. Students won’t see me picking my teeth or finishing my phone call. They walk in and see a classroom ready to go. The message to them: lunch is over! Time to learn! Or at least pretend to! But this means wrapping up my meal, on average, about three minutes early, depending upon the complexity of the upcoming lesson.
So, not counting the two minutes for my food to heat (that was just added for dramatic flair), I have about 17 minutes to eat. That is nothing close to an hour. That is just enough time to ensure acid reflux. And to those who gripe that teachers get a “paid lunch”—I’ve seen acerbic comments about this, of all things, on online forums—yes, we do. However, we don’t have break periods; many jobs allow two 15-minute breaks on either side of lunch.
Just to clarify, the objective of this post was not to arouse pity about the plight of our petite lunch periods but to take a stand against the phrase lunch hour when it doesn’t apply. Just as you wouldn’t walk onto the playground and start talking loudly about the weapons cache you forgot to remove from your trunk after robbing the liquor store last Thursday, please be mindful of your audience.
Photo by Getty Images.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

snapshots of day's end


Photographer and former Boston teacher Aliza Eliazarov visited New York City classrooms last spring to capture “a poignant time in a teacher’s day”—the end, after students have left.
 
Much is evident in these images: that it isn’t, in fact, the end when students depart; that many teachers are exhausted (their words, though the pictures reveal it); that many find kids inspiring and challenging, and they must process those thoughts.
 
What a fascinating idea. This made me want to grab my camera and walk around the building after hours next November (we’re pretty haggard by then).
 
My classroom after the last bell is seldom empty, an aspect that I sometimes appreciate and sometimes bemoan. In my first year, my room sat at the end of a hallway by the gym, and no one really knew me—an ideal situation for getting work done, but I felt isolated. Now I’m in a highly-trafficked hallway and much of the student body are veterans of my class or know who I am; this means my classroom after school contains between one and seventeen kids long after the busses have pulled away. (Their presence seems to be directly proportionate to the number of time-sensitive tasks requiring extreme focus that I have.)
 
Even when I secretly wish they’d mosey out and allow me some productivity, I never say so. Aside from appreciating the company, I want them to feel welcome and safe somewhere. If they couldn’t be in my room, where would they go? Maybe they’d head over to their science classroom or to the park, but they might not have those options. Other teachers could be in meetings and have locked doors; perhaps they don’t have friends to meet up with; perhaps they want to delay going home.
 
Last year, there was a regular who came in to sit beside me and chat, confide, or just do her homework. There were also unexpectedly crowded days: a few times, I had entire film crews show up—complete with light screens, microphones, props, and extras—using my space to make student-produced films. Both scenarios were pleasant surprises, but when having to leave meant having to scoop up piles of untouched work spread across my desk and take it home, there were heavy sighs. In this job, “day's end” is rarely the end of the day.
 
Photo by Aliza Eliazarov.