Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Best Pizza of My Life

I only had time to nab a couple of quick pictures, but I am in love with this pizza.  Truly in love.  And how could I not be?  Fresh tomatoes and basil from the garden, sauteed mushrooms, caramalized onions, spicy sausage, and mozerella, all on artisan crust...Perfection, I tell you! 

The crust recipe is from the book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I have a major crush on that book.  You should check it out from your local library, or just buy it.  I've been using their basic bread recipe for years, but now I'm branching out.  Next up is cinnamon rolls.  But, oh! the pizza.   

The dough (which makes enough for 3-4 pizzas) contains 2-3/4 C. lukewarm water, 1-1/2 T. yeast, 1-1/2 T. salt, 1 T. sugar, 1/4 C. olive oil, and 6-1/2 C. unbleached all purpose flour.  Mix it up in a 2-quart container with a lid (cover with the lid, but don't make it air-tight) and let the dough stand on the counter for 2 hours.  Refrigerate.  When you use the dough, pull off a grapefruit-sized chunk and form it into a ball.  Roll it flat on a floured piece of parchment paper.  Then use your hands to stretch it even thinner.  Replace the dough on the parchment and add your toppings.  Use a lipless cookie sheet as a pizza peel and slide it onto your 550 degree pre-heated pizza stone.  Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until it is brown. Slice and enjoy!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Summer Fun

Do you know that for the first 28 years of my life I thought that summer ended in the third week of August?  Oh, public school, how many lies you tell!  We have been seriously loving the Indian Summer and trying to pack in as many good times as possible. 

Swinging at the Park.

Hiking.  Well, riding the gondola most of the way and then hiking. :)

And spending time at the reservoir, where Hunter (the 5-year-old LABRADOR) has finally learned to swim.  The water level is so low at this point that it just feels like one giant, very muddy bathtub.  Eden adores it. 

During our last trip we had some awesometastic friends along.  Shout out to Mikelle, who looks amazing in sunglasses. Her husband Dave always loves to issue challenges, and here you see me competing in the log roll. I lost.  So did Kris, who also participated in the two-feet-deep swim challenge, the boulder toss, and the javelin log throw. 

I will have y'all know, though, that I ran a marathon in under 3 hours that weekend, easily winning it.  And I'm not Paul Ryan. But... it was on the Nintendo 64.  Oh, yeah!  Now that's summer. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Evaluations: Good, Bad, Ugly

The Union and the District couldn’t come up with an agreement regarding salary schedules, insurance benefits, and merit-based pay.  Because there was no consensus, there was also no contract.  What would happen?  For three of my six years of teaching, this was the case.  Thankfully, a compromise was made in each of those years to allow teachers to teach without contracts (keeping whatever pay we had the previous year) while the negotiators continued to slog it out.  School went on as usual, and by Thanksgiving we had contracts and retroactive adjustments to our paychecks. It was only my last year of teaching, when the strike was threatened, that no agreement could be reached until January.  But the dispute was eventually resolved, and NOT ONE STUDENT WAS HARMED.  I’m wondering why Chicago can’t follow a similar model.  School, like the show, must go on! 

Now, what about the reasons for Chicago’s strike?  I wish that the news coverage was more detailed on this point, but I understand that a primary reason is the role of student assessment results in teacher evaluations.  That’s one sticky wicket.  I’ll try to give you a brief overview of some arguments for and against this model, and then I’ll give you my take.
·         Currently, most educators in my state are evaluated on nothing more than principal observation.  What a joke.  I had evaluations from three different principles.  The most in-touch principle to evaluate me was in my classroom maybe four times during the school year and required me to demonstrate how my curriculum was designed to improve adolescent literacy.  The least in-touch had never observed me teaching and required me to demonstrate nothing.  All of my evaluations cluelessly read like I was the perfected patron saint of teaching.  All except for one, wherein my principal complained that not enough of my students were receiving A’s (the only grade handed out by the basketball coach I was there to replace).   This is a system that can’t be relied upon to make things better.

·         People like to boil things down to numbers in an attempt to make things less subjective.  Basing teacher evaluations on student test scores feels fair and righteous.

·         The USA is behind in test scores when compared to other developed nations.  If changing that dynamic is your goal, it only makes sense to tie your teachers to those test scores.  Every part of the education machine has to serve your goal. 

·         In many cases, students are not held accountable for their own test scores.  In effect, there is no real incentive for them to take the tests seriously or perform well.  As a student myself, I NEVER took the math portion of any standardized test until the ACT.  I merely bubbled my way through and resumed reading whatever mystery novel I was currently into.  Pitty the teacher held responsible for that score!  When Colorado’s CSAP test first came out during my senior year of high school, I was also aware of groups of students ganging up on unpopular teachers, deliberately throwing test results to make their teacher look bad.   

·         The equation is not as simple as Student+Teacher=Learning.  In the idealistic world that assumes this equation, Teacher is supposed to be a variable with enough elasticity that no matter the value of Student, the equation always equals 100 Percent Learning.  Now I’m not too great at math (see above), but it doesn’t add up.  As the teachers in Chicago are pointing out, students come to their teacher each year with a wide variety of skill levels, socioeconomic  status, family support, personal motivation, and knowledge gaps.  What they know and demonstrate on at a test at the end of the year has to do with each of these factors, not just the teacher of their last nine months. It feels unfair to hold teachers accountable for factors beyond their control. 

·         Speaking of factors beyond your control as a teacher, other teachers count there too.  What happens if there is a 6th grade teacher who follows the once-a-week movie and Friday game day method of English instruction?  When these kids are passed on to 7th grade, they arrive with skills somewhere around the 5th grade level.  So the poor 7th grade teacher, whose job will depend on these students testing at 7th grade level at the end of the year, has to find a way to cram two years’ worth of learning into one year.  A nearly insurmountable task, for even the elite in the teaching ranks.  And hideously unfair.  And an all-too-real scenario.  (Also, perhaps, a reason in support of tying test scores to evaluations: If the new system worked and actually eliminated those poor excuses for teachers in the first place, teachers down the line wouldn’t be stuck trying to make up for their deficiencies…)
So what do we do?  In Chicago the proposal from the district is to use a sliding scale so that by five years’ end, student test results will account for 40% of teacher evaluations.  Good idea?  Bad idea?  I think it all depends on the finer details of how test results would be used.  In order for such a system to be fair, I think that the District would need to do the following:
·         Evaluate the teacher based on the year’s growth for the individual students in that teacher’s class.  In effect, it’s not fair to look at my class and say, “You’re fired because only a third or your students were proficient but other teachers in the District had half of their students at the proficient level.”  That accounts for too many factors beyond the teacher’s control.  It is fair to say, “A quarter of your students came to you proficient and only a quarter of your students left that way, so you will need to make changes to improve your efficiency and yield greater student growth.” Realistic benchmarks (developed based on actual growth in effective classrooms) could be set for how much students in each tier of ability could reasonably be expected to improve under a solid teacher’s guidance. 

·         A meaningful system should also be set into place to help teachers make the necessary improvements, and there should be a clear path for underperforming teachers to take before termination is considered or implemented. 

·          Students need to be held accountable for their own test scores.  I’m honestly not sure of the best way to go about this, but it needs to happen.  In fact, I could hold a whole soapbox (and maybe someday I will) about the woeful state of student and parent accountability in education.  For now, suffice it to say that the people who truly hold the highest stakes in the education system need to be made to feel that somehow. 

·         The remaining sixty percent of teacher evaluations needs to carefully account for teaching qualities that aren’t directly expressed in test scores.  How do you quantify the ability to forge meaningful relationships with students?  Passionate delivery of subject matter?  Innovative curriculum development?  Synergistic collaboration with colleagues?  Caring contacts with parents? I’m not sure.  But then, I’m no great education reformer.  These people need to figure out a way to let teacher qualities count beyond test scores. 
Oh, goodness, this is LONG.  Sorry.  But maybe some of you who are in education can make some sense of it.  Or you parents out there: this stuff matters to your kids.  I certainly don’t have all of the answers.  But it’s pretty clear to me that the current methods for evaluating teachers are ineffective at best and downright harmful at worst.  Although the vast majority of teachers I know are good folks with their students’ best interest at heart, not every teacher is equally skillful.  And there are some who manage to build whole careers around doing nothing.  I think we have to do something to better train the former and let go of the latter.  It’s pretty ironic that the teachers’ unions, those great liberal bastions, are acting like such a bunch of balky conservatives about education reform.  Fixing things is going to be messy, and we’re going to get it wrong some of the time.  But we have to start somewhere, and we have to start soon.         

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Blue Flu

On my first day of teaching at my second and final school, two older teachers dropped by to see how things had gone.  Adjusting to seventh grade after concurrent enrollment was taking its toll and I was so touched to know that someone was there to listen and help.  My tired smile and grateful relief took all of one minute to turn sour.  Why?  Because our whole conversation went like this:

Old Crones: So how did it go today?  We understand you taught for a few years before moving here, so of course you’re an old hat.  But first days are still tough.

Me: Thanks!  I taught for four years at Blah Blah High School, and I loved it.  I know I’ll love it here too, but changing grade levels so dramatically is a challenge.   

Old Crones:  Four years, huh?  Did the District give those to you on the salary scale here?

Me:  Yeah, actually, and I was so—

Old Crones: You know the Union did that for you? We’re here to take your pledge.

I think I stared at them for a couple of minutes before explaining (politely or not) that I had work to do and there was the door. Seriously?  Come to my classroom like you’re there for me, when in fact you’re there for my Union dues and to make sure I’ll tow your line?  I don’t think so. 

And I didn’t join the teacher’s union.  In fact, during six years of teaching, I never did.  For a lot of reasons.  Like a complete abhorrence of their recruitment tactics. As far as my experiences in two school districts can take me, there are two primary ways that the teacher’s unions garner members: 1) small scale bribery and 2) fear. 

It goes like this, a lunch provided for new teachers during pre-service contract days, wherein every new Union member gets a swag bag (you know, really fancy things like pencil sharpeners, highlighters, maybe even a notepad with an apple on it!).  The happy gathering begins with a soapbox about the wonderful food (the Union did that for you) and ends with some speech about innocent old Teacher X who lost his home, savings, family, and career because he wasn’t a member of the Union and no one would stand up for him when false accusations came his way. Do you want that to be you?  Good old Teacher Z is happily living out her retirement in Belize because when the evil schemers of this world tried to tear her down, THE UNION stepped in and put Batman to shame with its bad-guy fighting super powers!  Before you know it, every wide-eyed, fresh-faced newbie with a healthy fight-or-flight response is signing on the Union line and tossing away nearly a third of that first paycheck they’ve been so desperately anticipating.

Except for the few who don’t.  The few like me.  We get dirty looks and nasty comments about “those teachers who are content to sit back and let everyone else carry the burden of protecting their contracts,” and “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”  Then there’s always the yearly fall Union rush, when a few of the holdouts eventually give in because they have reached a place in life with families and assets they don’t want to lose and the Union’s carefully stoked fear overcomes resistance.  

Call me a rebel, but I’m not in to joining an organization because it will give me a goodie bag and a bagel sandwich.  Nor because it will bully me if I don’t.  And no, not even because the Big Bad Wolf will get me without its protection.  If you want my support, you’re gonna need more substance than that. 

But I’d better pause a moment here and acknowledge some things.  First, I have many friends who are involved, card-carrying Union members.  These same friends are really excellent teachers and human beings.  Second, there are genuine examples of hapless teachers whose lives have been ruined by spurious accusations, and other teachers who (in the same circumstances) have come through due to support from the Union.  I’m not saying the Union has no value as an insurance against false claims, but as far as I can tell that value is greatly overstated as a stick for beating teachers into the ranks.  Third, the Union does negotiate with school districts regarding contracts, and I thoroughly enjoyed some of those perks.  This post isn’t saying that the Union benefits no one.  Any discussion of teachers’ unions and education as a whole is far more complicated than “bad union, good union.”  I’m also not saying that school districts are worthy of explicit trust because they would never try to take advantage of teachers.  This discussion is also more complicated than that.  And (for the sake of the miniscule readership this blog has) I’ll refrain from getting too far into all of those complexities.   

Let’s cut to the chase.  All irritation at Union tactics aside, there is one big reason why I never joined.  One little word that’s rocking Chicago right now: STRIKE.   Whatever a strike gives to teachers, it hurts kids.  Period.  No matter the mumbo jumbo about “if it’s good for teachers it will be good for students.” Even if that’s true in the long run, that’s not good enough for now.  Right now, this instant, every student is either gaining or losing academically, and if they aren’t in the classroom…well, you do the math.  And once a student is behind, the aftershocks are often permanent.  So when the Union in our district started talking strike over contract issues two years ago, I looked our representative in the eyes and told her to count me out.  She was incredulous.  “You mean to tell me that you would cross our picket line?”  Um, yeah lady, if your line stands between me and the students I promised to teach, I’ll cross that sucker like it’s the Golden Gate.  But—why I would never be one—Union members don’t have that option.  Once you’re in, you’re in, and you give away all immunity to the Blue Flu. 

I guess you can tell that I’m not the Union’s biggest fan.  I feel like they use fear to swell their ranks and are so focused on protecting teachers that they allow the ends to justify some ugly means.  And I’m a little afraid to say so online.  I mean, what if I retire from motherhood one day and want to go back to public education?  Once I hit publish on this thing it’s public.  And permanent.  And bound to be unpopular amongst the educators on any future hiring committees if they read it (paranoid, right?).  But even though I haven’t worked in education since Eden was born, I still care about it passionately.  I guess I just want to weigh in a little on what’s happening.  So the Union members in Chicago are on strike because the bosses said so.  Who knows how long it will last?  In my next post I’ll give you my take on the issues over which they are striking.  I know, I know, you can hardly wait!