Sunday, January 6, 2013

Chapter 35: Observing the Observer

Chapter 35:  Unsatisfactory

Response to “U” Observation
Jonathan Levin H.S. for Media and Communications (09x414)

Pre-observation date:            Sept. 13, 2012
Observation Date:                 Oct. 16, 2012
Post-observation date:          Dec. 7, 2012

Principal:                           Nasib Hoxha
Assistant Principal:            Erica Clarke
Teacher:                             David Haverstock

A negative times a negative equals a positive.
I was observed by A.P. Clarke while teaching a 9th grade English class in room B50A on Oct. 16, 2012.  I remember that she entered the room with her computer, sat in the back and spent most of the period typing furiously.  What I don’t remember is saying what she typed almost immediately in line 3 of her “transcript” (appended below with the names of “real” students removed):

T            All right, Daisy, look up.

Since there was no one named Daisy in this class – or in the school, for that matter – I surely would remember if I’d called on this imaginary student.  Perhaps Ms. Clarke simply typed the wrong name or misheard the name.  We all make mistakes.  However in line 9 she claims that I said:

T            Excuse me, Diane [FS4] please take your hat off? {sic}

Again, there was no “Diane” in that class and I know of none in the school although, according to line 10 of the transcript, Diane took off her hat.  Again, let’s give Ms. Clarke the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps she just misunderstood the name.   But then how do you explain line 54 of this transcript?

T            Everybody page 29.  John page 29.

No Daisy, no Diane, no John – three’s not always a charm. [1]  As I said, I remember that Ms. Clarke was in B50A that day.  I remember that she was typing away on her computer.  What she was typing, however, I never saw.  Maybe she was writing to her pen pal.  Maybe she was composing a sonnet.  Maybe she was tweeting something about Diane or Daisy.  Maybe she was trying to compose the complete works of Shakespeare on only one typewriter.  I don’t know what she was typing but maybe Ms. Clarke forgot what room she was in and was thinking of some other class, one where there might have been a John or a Diane.  Or maybe she attached the wrong transcript to my observation report.

[Click here if you can't believe this and figure that I must have ripped it from the pages of "The Onion": Observation Report - it's on page 2.]

A negative times a negative equals a positive.
If this were a court of law, I’d need go no further.  The witness would be excused, her hearsay testimony ruled inadmissible.  The jury would be instructed to ignore Ms. Clarke’s comments or more likely the judge would simply dismiss the case.  The defendant (me) would have his cuffs removed and walk out of the building a free man.  Unfortunately, the DOE doesn’t adhere to rules of order or even common sense.  Therefore Ms. Clarke was able to conclude, based on this faulty, specious document:

“The teaching I observed on Oct. 16, 2012 was unsatisfactory.”  (p. 6 below)

Ms. Clarke, the observation I observed on Oct. 16, 2012 was UNSATISFACTORY.
If identifying no less than 3 imaginary students isn’t enough to disqualify this “observation” as inaccurate, inadmissible and unfit to be used as any sort of evaluation tool, there are many other grounds for the impeachment of this “observation”.  I’ll begin with the time sequence.  The “pre-observation” took place more than a month before the “observation”.  The post-observation meeting took place almost 2 months after the “observation”.  Allowing such a length of time to elapse between the initial meeting and the observation defeats the purpose of the pre-observation meeting, which is meant to be a coordinated attempt to refine a teaching method or strategy.  Allowing such a length of time to elapse between the observation and the follow-up meeting renders serious discussion of the lesson impossible, particularly given the faulty nature of the alleged transcript.
This “pre-observation” was no such thing.  As admitted on page 1 of Ms. Clarke’s report below, that meeting concerned administrative and logistical details such as setting up a grade book, professional goals, accessing Prentice Hall on line, setting forth classroom rules and so forth.  Nothing was said about the lesson to be observed.
Clearly this process had nothing at all to do with teaching a lesson, which is the purpose of the entire observation process.  Teaching a lesson was never discussed and has never been discussed at any of these bogus “pre-observation” meetings in the 8 ½ years that I’ve been a teacher at Jonathan Levin H.S.
What, then, was the purpose of this “pre-observation” meeting?  I can only speculate.  Maybe it was just to remind us that she or she together with the principal (as has mostly been done in the past) would be popping in one of these days.  In fact, Ms. Clarke popped into room 115 where I was teaching on Sept. 24, 2012 and stayed from 10:50 a.m. until 11:15 a.m.   This was not an “observation”, I guess.  Later the same day she popped into room 117 where I was teaching with Desiree Anderson and stayed from 2:20 p.m. until 2:27 p.m.  As she left, she asked for my lesson plan for the earlier class in 115, which I emailed to her the next morning.  On Oct. 10, 2012 Ms. Clarke entered room B50B where I was teaching and stayed from 2:40 p.m. until 2:50 p.m.  Again she asked for my lesson plan, which I emailed the next day, but neither was this an “official” observation.  I wonder if she saw Diane or Daisy in any of these rooms.

A negative times a negative equals a positive.
Pages 8 and 9 of the “observation” report concern the newly in vogue “gradual release” model, formerly called “scaffolding” and other pedantic terms.  In the 2nd recommendation on page 6 of the report she mentions this “gradual release” model and says, “I recommend you go to this link, again review this method of instruction and use it to plan, write and implement your lessons.”  (Last sentence)
As I tried to point out to Ms. Clarke during that Dec. 7 meeting, what she would have seen in the class if she had looked up from her typewrite or had discussed with me my method of using Prentice Hall Multiple Choice (MC) tests as a teaching tool to teach “text dependent writing” (another newly in vogue term), she might have realized that she was watching (if not observing) the gradual release model in action.  The 9th grade students I’ve taught at JLHS have not been in the habit of proving the answers they choose on MC tests.  I teach them to use the text for quotations and textbook for explanations so that they can explain why a correct answer is correct and an incorrect answer is wrong.  I insist that they write these explanations and quotations directly on the test paper – see examples here:

Student work.

[The student work at this link are the tests that the students were working on when A.P. Clarke observed their class in B50A.   These were done not by imaginary students Daisy, Diane and John  but by real students Stephanie, Laura and Christopher.]
At that Dec. 7th meeting Ms. Clarke said that students were to circle answers on tests and NOTHING MORE.  I am not to ask them to explain or prove their answers.  As I wrote previously, this amounts to using the test to gather data rather than to teach students how to study and write using references and sources.  For a more detailed discussion of this aspect of this unsatisfactory observation see chapter 34 of my memoir at “Teaching to the Data”.
Though she didn’t know it, Ms. Clarke was observing the very gradual release model she is recommending that I use.  Maybe Diane or John could have explained that to her.
This was the gradual release model in action but in long-term action.  My goal is for students to take these tests individually by the end of the semester.  But since they are used to just circling answers on MC test, I first have to “show” them how I want these tests done.  Therefore I begin by “modeling” for the entire class.  Once they see what I am asking them to do, I put them into groups and they do the next 2 or 3 tests in that way.  I was at that point of the “gradual release” by the time this Dec. 7th meeting rolled around.  Finally when I have observed them working well in groups, I ask them to take the tests individually.  By that time I want them all to be able to go into the text and use detail to support their answers for MC or any other kind of question.
Of course, one would have to observe the class taking one of these tests for the first time and then again for the 4th time and then again for about the 8th time in order to see this particular form of “gradual” release over the course of the semester.  More importantly, one would have to value the concept of using tests as teaching tools rather than as data management.
Therefore, as for the 2nd paragraph of the recommendation in this report (p. 6), I submit that not only do I frequently utilize the “gradual release” model in planning both long-term and short-term activities, I also submit that Ms. Clarke actually observed it in that classroom on Oct.16 but did not recognize it.  Had there been a proper pre-observation meeting, I could have outlined my use of the gradual release model for the purpose of teaching text-dependent writing and which stage of that process she would be observing.

A negative times a negative equals a positive.
The last 2 lines of Ms. Clarke’s ridiculous transcript have me attending to attendance.  In line 198 I (or perhaps MS2) allegedly asked a student to add “attendance data” to the chart that is kept on the wall of every classroom.  JLHS teachers have been mandated to spend a few minutes of every class putting up the number of students present, the percent present and a goal for the next day’s attendance, which surpringly isn’t necessarily 100% because 100% would not be a “SMART” goal.  (Since the SMART “r” stands for realistic, it is acceptable to set a goal below the ideal.)  We are supposed to talk about this each day with the students who are present, i.e., preach to the choir about attendance.  If five minutes of each of 8 classes is devoted to this repetitious inanity, 40 minutes of the instructional day is wasted.  That’s nearly a full class period.
The last 2 lines of Ms. Clarke’s “transcript” in which she “observed” attendance related behaviors illustrate the fact that there is no such thing as objective, non-inferential observation.  All observation is subjective.  We’ve been told that these “objective”, “low-inference” transcripts are not to be used for the purposes of evaluation.  We’ve had professional development classes in which we are told to do this very thing – write down what we see and hear – but then not to make any evaluative inferences from it.  As I said in chapter 34, however (which see), “… the only one who can truly observe objectively and non-judgmentally is the monkey who composed Hamlet.”
However, since Ms. Clarke has gone against protocol and used this as part of her unsatisfactory “observation” of my “unsatisfactory” lesson, I would like to draw my own inference from her last 2 lines, which read (p. 5):

MS2 198 Walked over to a student and asked him to add the attendance data to the board

         199 [moved the screen and wrote the attendance data then covered it back up with the projector screen.] {sic}

Note: Ms. Clarke has “MS2” walking to a student and asking him to add attendance data to the board.  Again after so many months I don’t remember how this happened, but it is highly unlikely that a student performed this act.
This “objective description” greatly distorts what actually happened.  Although it is not clear who actually performs this act, the reader might logically draw the inference that the student “MS2” in the previous line is the perp.  The distortion creeps in through the words “covered it back up”.  I don’t remember this specifically months after the alleged event, but if it happened, the student did no such thing.  In room B50A where this “observation” took place, when pulled down, the screen conceals the attendance chart.  I and many other teachers routinely project our lessons onto this screen.  That is what it is there for.  The screen was down for the entire class.  If the student did write something on the attendance chart, he would have had to pull back the screen to do that.  Allowing the screen to fall back into place in no way covers up anything at all.  The “observer’s” bias is clearly evident in her choice of words.  She wanted to fabricate evidence that I was not following school policy on discussion of attendance during class, suggesting that the data was “covered … up”.  While it is true that I consider this attention to attendance a waste of precious classroom time, I certainly didn’t and don’t attempt to cover it up.  In fact, I publish this in order to expose this ludicrous policy.

A negative times a negative equals a positive.
I could point out many such distortions in this alleged transcription of my classroom.  But why waste time on such an inaccurate, incoherent document that is nothing more than hearsay anyway?  I would like to make one or two final points, however, about the first paragraph of the “recommendations” (p. 6).  I refer to the 2nd and 3rd lines of this paragraph:

“Your aim, ‘How do I use text to support MC answers?’ suggested you would address questions with multiple responses, however {sic} none of the questions you addressed had more than one correct answer.”

Ms. Clarke spent the first 10 minutes or so of that Dec. 7th meeting trying to explain to me what she meant by this statement.  I never got it.  While holding the Prentice Hall test in her hand, she asked me if I were giving a test or a survey.  Surveys, she explained, can have multiple answers.  It was then that I realized that I ought to have been using the “gradual release” model during this meeting.  Evidently after spending 45 minutes observing students working on a standard multiple choice test, a test that had the heading “Selection Test” stamped clearly at the top, Ms. Clarke was unable to determine if the students were working on a test or a survey.  No student, however, asked if they were working on a survey.  They all knew that the test was a test.
Finally, as if to confirm my charge that I have been directed to use tests not for teaching but for data gathering, Ms. Clarke includes in this same paragraph the Pearson chart that purports to describe what each question is supposed to reveal about the test taker:

Questions 1,3, 4            Literary Analysis
Questions 2, 9, 11            Interpretation
Questions 5, 7, 8            Comprehension
Questions 6, 10            “Reading” [2]
Questions 12, 13            Vocabulary           
Questions 14, 15            Grammar           

I was directed never to ask students to use the text to support their answers to MC questions.  I was directed to use this chart to gather data on which questions were answered correctly or incorrectly by each student.  How well a student reads therefore is not as important as the statistics derived from tests.

A negative times a negative equals a positive.
In the current Bloomberg-esque, data driven corporate mentality in which education is an industry and students merely “product”, there is a move to evaluate teachers based on “data”, a euphemism for meaningless statistics.  Michael Mulgrew and the UFT in New York City are rightly contesting this mindless pretension that teaching is akin to manufacturing.  Education is social interaction at a very intimate level.  It cannot be depicted by graduation rates, test scores or any other data.
Therefore, in spite of the fact that I have been rated “unsatisfactory” by an administrator, I nevertheless believe that the only way to evaluate teachers is for administrators to make admittedly very subjective evaluations based primarily on the social interaction in the classroom, the relevance of the lesson presented and on the attempt to reach the students at a level on which they can receive it rather than on statistics.  An honest, competent administrator should be in a position to know his/her students, know what they need and evaluate the performance of a teacher based on the needs of that population.  The needs of any group of students vary drastically from neighborhood to neighborhood, school to school, even classroom to classroom.  Just as you cannot take the human aspect out of teaching, neither can you take it out of administrating.  Administrators who merely parrot the latest fashions in education will overlook or even ignore the reality before them.  This is what teachers are now up against.

A negative times a negative equals a positive.
An unsatisfactory observation that rates a lesson “unsatisfactory” = an excellent lesson.

I’m tempted to sign my name “Franz Kafka” but must resist that urge.

NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the entire book.

[1] I have attached the class roster to the copy of this response going to my official DOE file.  However, I withhold the names of what might have been “real” students for the purposes of this blog – though I feel free to name the imaginary ones.
[2] Stop laughing and look at the document below.  It really says “reading”!  Obviously every question is a reading question.


  1. Did you actually send this to your administrator? If you did, you're my hero! It's total insanity.

    1. I handed a physical copy of it to her personally today with the link to the blog right there at the top. I also gave a copy to the principal to put into my file. When I told her that everyone I've shown this to just laughs and asks if an assistant principal really wrote it," she responded with a straight face, "Thank you for sharing that."

  2. That is hilarious! I love it. Thanks for relieving some administrator-induced stress. You rock!