Be True to Your School?

28 December 2009

Members of the Minneapolis Board of Education,

I live in Minneapolis Park Board District 6, as do some of the Board members. I attend caucuses and I support candidates who are trustworthy and work for the people of this city where I have lived for 33 years and taught for 28. I have dedicated my life to the young people of this city. In the past few years, I have been sadly disappointed in the decisions of the Minneapolis School Board to ignore promises it has made to its citizens and its employees. Has this board taken its lead from the Wall Street scammers, to promise great things it never intended to honor? How does this help the children? What is your word worth?

I struggle every day to improve the chances and lives of some of the city’s most neglected students at Edison High School. Mine are students who need hours of individual help and small group, interactive time to get caught up with their age-mates elsewhere. Yet day after day, I lose the time to meet individually with students or parents, because I am in meetings intended to improve my performance. The meetings are keeping me from performing at all. And while my performance scores are more than proficient, I am denied the pay increases my good work was contracted to earn through TAP and ATPPS, pay structures for which the district receives millions of additional state dollars.

“The School Board now refuses to pay teachers what was rightfully earned through traditional means as well as the through the ATPPS MOA and supported through the continuing contract language in Article I, Section C.1 of the MFT 2007-09 Teachers Contract which states ‘This Agreement shall remain in full force and effect. . . until a new agreement is reached,’”  states a recent teachers’ union petition.  Business as usual? Promises never meant?

A similar conflict between teachers’ learning and students’ learning surrounds the time spent learning AVID—the same skills but with different names, the adoption of which brings more money to the school. This conflict hobbles us with the days we are pulled out of class to learn the very same skills again in IB training, and again in IFL Disciplinary Literacy training. Small wonder the students leave. They see what’s happening. For many whole days, students are deprived of their teachers. Their education suffers because the District pays millions of dollars to hire reserve teachers, while “training” the regular teachers to be better educators in a vacated school building.

Students do not learn in the absence of their regular teachers. Meetings, training and testing pull me away from my students more than ten percent of the time. MPS policy is depriving its students by “improving” its teachers.

Yet the focused training teachers get on their own, often at their own expense, that meets the real and everyday needs of teaching the students in their rooms –students who may be the first in their family to graduate high school, students who are taking college prep classes with three and four years of English experience—this training that we know helps goes unrewarded, in fact uncompensated.

If you see no need to compensate me for improvement, I see no need to improve, especially since the MPS model of improvement hinders our teaching and our students learning. Are your interests politics and public finance, or Minneapolis children and their education?

Break with the past; be true to your word.

Jay Ritterson
Edison High School, English Dept.
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Pride over reason

US governance has become a battle of winning and losing; the politicians are winning and the American people are losing. This is not the democracy the world needs. This sort of piloting will put America’s ship of state on the reef. Where are our leaders? These people are a mockery of leadership.

Diogenes never did find his man in the home of western democracy. Why would I expect better. Is Athens’ America’s fate, capitulating to the modern Roman giant across the western sea?

In education, broke or not, fix it different

All right. I know it’s another rant, but hey! this is edumacation……  It’s really part of my individual growth plan for the year—a bastardization of merit pay where they withhold the pay part. Well, whaddaya know?

In trying to advance the reading of my students, I have taken to heart the writing of Frank Smith, the research of the Institute for Learning and the concepts of using existing knowledge and understandings to comprehend what is being read and expanding that foundation through guided effort.

Reading is a cognitive process, the visible manifestations of which are measurable–factual recall and recognition of text, inferential conclusions, and even stylistic connections between text and some notion of author’s intent. But in this last manifestation, I see questions of the validity of these “measurables”.  As I write this, I am vague in my own mind about the intent–certainly to complete a task for TAP, probably to clarify my own thoughts about a lingering conflict, and possibly to take a stand in opposition to authority, thinly veiled as recommendation. In sum, my conclusion is to use the manifestations to reveal the areas of process that need development.

If identifying factual matter in the text is not happening, then I need to determine what lexical knowledge and syntactical habits need development and redirection. Both of these are slow to happen, but respond well to direct instruction and multiple repetitions. Many poor readers are in this predicament.

If inferring conclusions is flawed or absent, then the neural patterns that carry this process can be developed, again with well structured direct instruction–modeling leading to frequent, applied practice–learn it from a worksheet and immediately begin applying it to reading. At least once a week throughout the year, year after year. And this is easy to apply to all the reading that is going on in rooms.  Verbally annotated read alouds help students understand how to understand texts in discipline-specific ways.

If stylistic features are as yet unlearned, they need to be taught and demonstrated and the students need then to practice finding examples. Formal style is the realm of criticism, not composition. Personal style is the coloring (and clarity) of composition and may not yet have been codified by the scholars. Certainly, our students’ styles have not been identified. This is all by the book learning, and only appropriate in preparing students for post-secondary literature studies. Realistically, we’re wasting our students’ time if we are trying to teach them all to be English majors.

Author’s intent is most often questionable and seldom clear enough to be apprehended by the vast majority of readers. How many of us simply avoid the discussion of this point, much like the discussion about the definition of a sentence, leaving it to others to believe they understand? Probably much more important (to the reader at least) is a impact the piece or writing has on the reader, and that is what is actually most often tested for in our dumb-data driven education culture.

And herein is the conflict I have with the current trends in education policy: the powers, driven by politics and public finance, measured in votes and dollars, have the desire of raising the numbers of “passing” students on large scale tests. All very measurable. A who’s-better-than-whom competition that will always have a top and a bottom. And all tied tightly to public dollars–taxes. We have pit the common good against common greed, and in this, I am on the wrong side of winning.

I am not interested in raising a number; I do not care so much how many pass a test devised to further divide people into haves and have-nots. I care about every student who passes through my room, even those that our leaders, national, state and district, are willing to consign to penury and hopelessness. I don’t want to manage them or control them or change them; I just want to give them enough to have hope and the ability to scramble over that line into a life worth having happened. Am I not obligated as a fellow human being to serve “even the least of these my brethren”?

So what I’ve learned again is that someone will tell me to stop what I’m doing even if it’s working, and do what they want because they know better and have a well-made package to show it, and I will agree as faintly as possible, and keep doing the best I can for the students who need my help.