Sunday, November 30, 2014

Chap. 82: ATR Advisory Coverage Observation

My Life as an NYC Teacher

Chapter 82: ATR Life

Advisory Coverage Observation Advisory:

When the Premise Is Faulty, All That Follows Is Nonsense

Response to Observation

To:    Annelisse Falzone
From:    Walter David Haverstock
CC:    Amy Arundell, UFT Representative
Re:    Formal Observation of W.D. Haverstock (file #7-----)
Date:    Nov. 29,  2014

    On Oct. 17, 2014 Annelisse Falzone, an ATR field supervisor, observed me in a classroom at Mott Hall Bronx H.S. and wrote a Formal Observation Report .  This report is entirely arbitrary, subjective and omits key facts about the class in question.


Circumstances of the Observation

    Nowhere does Ms. Falzone’s report state that this observation took place during a coverage.  Although she describes the class as “your class” (1st paragraph), I had never taught these students before.  I did not know any of them.  Although Ms. Falzone’s report states that this class was “Grades: 10 and 11,” I was under the impression that these were 10th grade students.

    Principal Kathryn Malloy refused Ms. Falzone’s attempts to arrange an observation in an ELA class.  On the last day of my assignment at Mott Hall Bronx, this observation took place.  I was covering a first period “advisory” class.  The teacher and most of the students were out of the building on a college trip.  I was not provided a list of the students who were going on the trip.  Therefore I asked the students to sign an Attendance Sheet.

    Three students were in the room at the start of the class (8:55 a.m.).  I informed them that I was there to teach them an English lesson.  They initially objected, saying that this was their “advisory” period during which they didn’t do any work.  I told them that I thought they would enjoy the lesson and asked them to participate.  All three of these students did participate in the lesson although there was no obligation to do so.

    I don’t know if students at Mott Hall Bronx receive grades for their “advisory” period or, if so, what those grades are based on.  It was clear that this lesson from this unknown teacher would not impact any of their grades.  Nevertheless, these 3 students participated although I repeatedly had to refocus their attention, particularly after the 4th student showed up at 9:08 a.m., 12 minutes into the period.  (See Attendance Sheet.)

    Note that a fifth student entered at 9:25 a.m.  This student turned out not to be on the official roster for this “advisory” class although I had no way of knowing that.

    To further highlight the absurdity of this situation, I would note that principal Malloy entered the classroom at about 9:15 a.m.  I won’t speculate on her purpose or motive but will only make the non-judgmental and low inference observation that she entered the room, looked around, and left after 30-45 seconds.  I will draw the conclusion that she was fully aware of the fact that she had sent me into an “advisory” class with students left off a class trip for my formal observation.

    In spite of the absurdity of the situation to which I was subjected by Ms. Falzone and Ms. Malloy, Ms. Falzone witnessed an effective lesson, as I will detail below.  In spite of the sheen of objectivity implied by Ms. Falzone’s log of events during the class and in spite of the pretense that observations can be non-judgmental and low inference, all of her conclusions are entirely subjective.


Effective Instructional Strategies

    Near the top of page 3 Ms. Falzone devotes one short paragraph to the positive elements of the lesson which include the use of “different modalities” and graphic organizers.  Both of these are clearly evident in the student work, which I will attach below.  She omits much, however, which I will supply in detail here.


Engages Students in Learning

    Ms Falzone states that the lesson “lacked rigor and did not challenge the students to analyze or discuss the poems ….” (p. 3)  She quotes me as admitting that there wasn’t as much analysis as I intended with the lesson.  (She fails to indicate where this quotation ends.)  Common core lessons, of course, are open ended to allow students to probe as deeply as their ability allows.  I would ask Ms. Falzone how she is able to make such a judgement concerning students she had never seen before.  How could anyone make such a judgement in those circumstances?

    The lesson plan included 3 questions meant to engage students in analysis.  These questions span the Depth of Knowledge levels - who, what and why.  The level of rigor is self-evident.

    I have found that copying short poems word for word and paying attention to spelling and punctuation is a useful activity for 10th grade students.  It focuses them on the details of the written language at the same time as they are reading the poem for content.

    Ms. Falzone suggests that I should have read the poem and should have asked the students to “write or draw a description of the images ….”  Such a vague instruction would have been meaningless to the students.

    Instead I attempted to engage them in the idea of sensory images by using their own prior knowledge.  As noted on p. 2 of Ms. Falzone’s report, I asked them to close their eyes and visualize sensory images with which they were all very familiar - the sights and sounds and smells of a deli.  I would argue that this was a far more effective way of engaging students in the aim of the lesson.

    Ms. Falzone’s judgement is entirely subjective.


Promotes Positive Student Learning Outcomes

    Ms. Falzone devotes a lengthy paragraph on page 3 of her report to the alleged lack of a “formative and summative assessment.”  The lesson centered around the academic language of imagery.  The notes taken by Student 1 clearly show the focus on the terms “visual,” “olfactory,” “auditory,” “gustatory,” and “tactile.  He copied the William Carlos Williams poem that I displayed at the start of the lesson as I instructed.  He then made his own drawing of a face.  I instructed the students to sketch a face in order to associate images in the form of words on the page with their actual physical senses.  This they did.  These are the different modalities mentioned earlier, meant to engage students visually.  The relationship between words on a page and physical senses was further reinforced with the graphic organizer I asked them to make.  (See class notes of Student 1, Student 2  and Student 3.)

    Note: Student 4  came in 12 minutes late and spent much of the period distracting the other three students with social conversation.  He only took a few class notes and yet was able to orally recite 4 of the 5 academic terms at the end of the lesson.

    Ms. Falzone felt that asking the students to use the academic terms orally was insufficient as an assessment tool.  She acknowledges that I asked them, “Who thinks they know the five words?” at 9:33 a.m.  She describes this question as “vague.”  In fact, all four students could recite 4 or 5 of the words by the end of the lesson.  Oral assessments are commonly used and are valuable teaching tools.  In fact, in many ways oral assessments are superior to written ones because they force the student to rely on their own learning.

    Ms. Falzone’s judgement is entirely arbitrary and subjective.


Demonstrates Classroom Management Skills

    Ms. Falzone states that the “pace of the lesson was slow and lagging resulting in students not having enough time to complete and review the learning activity.” (p. 3)

    Neither Ms. Falzone nor I had ever seen these students before.  I knew nothing about their work habits, skill levels, or their ability to focus in the classroom.  All I knew about them was that these were the students who were not going on the college trip.  I won’t speculate on the reasons for that.

    The lesson as written and taught was deliberately open ended in order to allow students to work at their own pace.  This is differentiation.  By the end of the class Student 1 was working on the second of the 4 poems on the green handout (“A Drinking Song” by W.B. Yeats).  Student 2 was working on the first (“The Red Wheelbarrow”).  Student 2 was working on the second poem.  Student 4 was working on the first.  This was done during the small group portion of the lesson, which I monitored to see that they were relating the images in written form to their drawings of the physical senses.  They were not meant to finish all four poems.  Part of the homework for the lesson was to complete all four poems in this fashion.

    Ms. Falzone’s description of the pacing of this lesson is purely speculative.  As I said, neither she nor I knew anything about these students.  This was not an ELA class but an “advisory” period.  To pretend to know how quickly these students might have worked through the activity is at best disingenuous.

    Ms. Falzone’s judgement is entirely arbitrary, subjective and does not accurately reflect what happened in the classroom.


A Curious Question

    During the post-observation discussion that took place that same day, Ms. Falzone asked why I hadn’t left the student work with the students.  I told her that I’d collected it because I thought it would be useful to her in writing her report on the lesson.  This was my last day at Mott Hall Bronx.  I was never going to see these students again.  The lesson was taught in an “advisory” period with no impact on student grades.  Had I been their actual teacher, they would have filed their work in their folder, a system that I use to ensure the creation of a portfolio.  Knowing nothing of how their English class was conducted, I determined that their work was of more value to Ms. Falzone than to them.

    Now it seems to be of most value to me.

    The student work is the best evidence of what actually happened during the lesson.  I include it here as evidence to support my assertion that this was an effective lesson taught under very difficult circumstances and that Ms. Falzone grossly misrepresents the effectiveness of the lesson in her “Formal Observation Report.”

    Could it be that Ms. Falzone didn’t want any evidence to contradict her subjective and arbitrary evaluation of my performance?  Could it be that her “unsatisfactory” rating of my lesson was pre-determined?  Could this be the reason for her lack of objectivity?  I simply ask the questions.  I know as little about these matters as I did about the students I taught for this “observation.”  Nothing at all.

Signed:                                Date: Nov 29, 2014


     When the premise is fauty, all that follows is nonsense.  The various plans for improvement that Ms. Falzone has given me are based on a faulty premise, the rating of an effective lesson as "unsatisfactory."  But when a bureaucrat is handed a formula, that formula has to be followed, no matter how absurd.
     Unlike Ms. Falzone, however, I'm no bureaucrat.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Chap. 91: Where “Restorative Justice” Runs the Asylum

My Life as an NYC Teacher

Chapter 91: Where "Restorative Justice" Rules

Mott Hall Bronx High. School
Kathryn Malloy, Principal

    I spent my first 6 ATR weeks from Sept. 2 to Oct. 17, 2014 at Mott Hall Bronx High School.  If you want to see the natural outcome of applying “restorative justice” as an alternative to conventional discipline to an entire school, Mott Hall is the place to look.  The inmates there have full control of the asylum.
    The original principal of this small high school must have seen the writing on the wall when he took a lucrative contract to administrate a school on the Saudi peninsula.  Maybe he saw restorative justice on the horizon and knew that his odds of survival were better in the Middle East.  Maybe the same applies to his long time A.P., who took a similar deal this year, leaving principal Kathryn Malloy in charge with only one assistant.  The writing on the wall must have been in perfectly legible graffiti.
    I was there for the parent teacher evening that took place on Wed., Sept. 17, 2014.  The faculty gathered for pasta in room 263 between 4 and 5 o’clock to fortify themselves before the parents’ arrival.  Ms. Malloy took this opportunity with most of the teachers present to deliver her message about parent-teacher conferences.  She apologized for not addressing the issue sooner but said that she wanted this message to go out: “We are raising these kids together.”  If anyone objected, it wasn’t vocalized.
    “Restorative justice” is defined as a method of “repairing harm” caused by criminal behavior.  See, for instance, Restorative Justice Online .  This is proposed for public education as an alternative to traditional discipline, which revolved around detention and suspension.  Coincidentally, the number of detentions and suspensions a school reports now adversely affects a school’s rating.  Therefore it is in the interest of the school to lower the number of detentions and suspensions meted out.  Eureka!  A rationale.
    But is it in the interest of education?  Is it in the interest of the students and is it in the interest of the teachers?  Professional development in schools is now being done around this concept.  Of course, it isn’t really anything new.  The first steps in the “ladder of referral” always have been to try to mediate situations by talking them out first as teacher-student, then as teacher-parent-student, and then as teacher-counselor-student.  This was never called “restorative,” although it was certainly justice.
    Now there is a euphemistic name for it that can be implemented as school policy - not as a means of improving the environment in the classroom but as a means of reducing detentions and suspensions in order to raise a school’s rating..  In a New York Times article published April 3, 2013 and titled “Opening Up, Students Transform a Vicious Cycle,” Patricia Leigh Brown discusses the implementation of restorative justice in Oakland schools.  Leigh Brown writes:

A body of research indicates that lost class time due to suspension and expulsion results in alienation and often early involvement with the juvenile justice system, said Nancy Riestenberg, of the Minnesota Department of Education, an early adopter of restorative justice. Being on “high alert” for violence is not conducive to learning, she added.

    Being on “high alert” for violence certainly isn’t conducive to learning but this is the state that well-behaved students find themselves in when the violent offenders are not removed from the classroom.  I wouldn’t disparage a body of research with which I’m not familiar any more than I would question lies, damned lies, statistics and double blind studies.  But no doubt there is a correlation between disciplining misbehaving students and early involvement with the juvenile justice system.  Disciplining misbehaving juveniles is the purpose of the juvenile justice system.  It is not the purpose of the educational system.
    Restorative justice is appropriate within a family group where forgiveness is essential.  That’s why Principal Malloy is trying to create the illusion that teachers are surrogate parents.  Parents don’t suspend their kids although the temptation is often great.  She wants her staff not to educate but to nurture their charges.  These surrogate sons and daughters, by the way, are the very students on whose performance the surrogate parents are now being evaluated. 
    Teachers are not parents.  Teaching is not parenting.  Students should receive the help they need but within the appropriate forum.  Schools exist for the purpose of educating pupils and there are many pupils who are in need of education rather than restorative justice.  These students don’t need surrogate parents.  They need teachers and classroom environments where criminal behavior doesn’t have to be mediated.  That means applying conventional discipline, removing, that is, to those who cannot or will not function in a conventional classroom.
    In another New York Times Article, this one by Paul Tullis and published Jan. 4, 2013, the concept of restorative justice is discussed in relation to the criminal justice system:

Most modern justice systems focus on a crime, a lawbreaker and a punishment. But a concept called “restorative justice” considers harm done and strives for agreement from all concerned — the victims, the offender and the community — on making amends. And it allows victims, who often feel shut out of the prosecutorial process, a way to be heard and participate.

    What is the purpose of applying “restorative justice,” a concept developed through and for criminal justice, to the public education system?  Is this a tacit admission that the public education system is nothing more than a penal colony?  I’ve often lamented the fact that in many of the large, old public school buildings in the Bronx, room numbers are stenciled on the walls.  Stenciled.  It feels like a prison on many of those buildings.  Maybe there is more to it than symbol.
    It’s time to admit the truth about many urban classrooms: the percentage of dysfunctional students makes them unteachable.  No amount of differentiation, grouping and restorative justice is going to change that.  I’ve spent 14 years in Bronx classrooms in 6 different schools and the story is always the same.  They are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  By focusing on the lower 1/3, the upper 1/3, which is the percentage that deserves to be “career and college ready,” are being neglected and the neglect is blamed on the teacher rather than on a system and a society that won’t admit the truth about itself.
    Teachers are being scapegoated, pure and simple.  The failure of the student is blamed on the teacher’s supposed inability to differentiate or engage or group or plan.  In the vast majority of cases, however, the failure of the student is the result of the student’s inability to perform to standard.  There are as many reasons for this as there are poorly performing students but an ineffective teacher or lesson is rarely the cause.

    Getting back to the Mott Hall Bronx restorative experiment.  During my six weeks there I personally witnessed two students taken out during the school day in handcuffs by NYPD.  (I am aware of a third but didn’t see it personally.)  I witnessed a near riot in the gym when the Phys. Ed. teacher was absent.  Students refused to stop playing sports even when directed to stop by the deans.  A rim was torn from a backboard in front of these deans.  A bench was torn out of the locker room.  Principal Malloy showed up and moved everyone out of the gym and into the cafeteria for the remainder of the period.  There were no consequences, restorative or otherwise, for the blatant insubordination.
    Restorative justice is making many schools an unsafe environments for students and teachers alike.  Applying a concept designed for criminal justice is an insidious and invidious tacit admission that the purpose of public schools in major urban areas is as much to incarcerate and prepare for incarceration as to educate.  But these two goals are mutually exclusive.
    Traditional discipline is meant to facilitate the education of the well-behaved, functioning students by removing from the classroom those who disrupt lessons.  It is meant to be a punishment for those who disrupt class and to be an incentive to change disruptive behave so that those not in need of restorative justice or traditional punishment can learn.
    As bad it is to neglect the education of the top one-third, it is worse to create an environment where misbehaving and criminal-minded students can wreak their own brand of justice on students and teachers alike with no concern for the consequences of their actions.  For many students, this is a license to continue their delinquent antics with nothing to fear other than a cuddly mediation with surrogate parents, i.e., teachers, and misguided principals who have swallowed hook, line and sinker the DOE scam that if they are disciplining their misbehaving students, they are doing something wrong.
    Columnist Thomas Sowell published some cautionary thoughts on this latest trend in educational reform.  Although he looks at the discipline issue from a racial perspective, his comments about education and discipline are relevant.  I give him the last word: Thomas Sowell NY Post