2005-02-11 / Columnists

School Scope

Educational Potpourri
By Norman Scott


Balanced literacy, the UFT, and “Success for All”

Lisa North, a member of ICE, an alternative caucus in the UFT, and an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, writes:

“The recent issue of the UFT publication – The Home Team – aimed at parents, dealt with Literacy. In discussing balanced literacy on page 2, under the heading: Does Balanced Literacy Work? it indicates there are some problems with the program. Offering an alternative, it praises the highly scripted ‘Success for All’ as a great program that works. So the UFT, who has been complaining about micromanagement and chanting, ‘Let teachers teach,’ is pushing a program that is the height of micromanagement.

“I do think that the DOE brought in balanced literacy too fast. Teachers thought they were supposed to throw out phonics and phonemic awareness. Schools with a very large population of at risk students, like mine, do need a systematic phonics and phonemic awareness program. You can do that in 15 minutes a day and still do Month-by-Month phonics (which teaches word families and spelling patterns).

“Lucy Calkins [one of the leaders of the balanced literacy movement] dropped in to talk to us at a recent workshop. She said the workshop model was not to be used for all teaching and thought it was crazy to teach a social studies lesson in 10 minutes. She also restated that balanced literacy is based on teachers making their own decisions about what their students need. The suggested mini-lessons were only meant to help teachers until they learned the balanced literacy methods.

“In the long run balanced literacy depends on teachers having a deep knowledge about how students learn to read and write and use that information to plan instruction for a whole class, small group and individual lessons. Would you want your children to learn that way or would you prefer that a teacher follow a script? Which one is more ‘professional’?”

Lisa raises some important issues. Lucy Calkins’ name is mud to many NYC teachers because of the rigid and mindless ways her theories have been implemented by the DOE. But I wouldn’t let her off the hook so easily, as she has been part of the chorus of criticism of “the way things were.” Remember, it was Diana Lam and her successor Carmen Farina, both very close to Calkins, who were behind the entire implementation. Farina recently bashed teachers after they protested micromanagement with the slogan “Let teachers teach,” saying they used to be allowed to teach and look at the terrible results. Of course, Farina spent most of her career on the tony east side of Manhattan.

On SUCKCESS FOR ALL , which is the way I refer to it, Lisa is right on the button. The UFT was instrumental in getting the program implemented in all schools officially listed as “failing” – the SURR schools. As a mentor to teaching fellows I got to observe a number of SFA lessons. While some teachers liked the rigid structure, others felt the script was a straight jacket. They all complained about the fact that they did not teach their own children, as children are sent all over their building and the entire school is turned into a military operation with music blared throughout the halls at the start and end of the lessons. (I was thinking of putting out a CD called “The Best of Suckcess for All”). The reason SFA had any success was because the entire staff of a school is mobilized for an hour and a half each day to do reading, in essence reducing the size of every group of children. In addition, class sizes in SURR schools were already lower to begin with. Duh! – reduce class size and you get results. For the UFT to tout SFA without talking about the small group/class size aspect, as if there’s something inherent in the scripted program, while concurrently screaming about micromanagement, is the height of hypocrisy.

Robotic Event

I recently wrote about my work as a volunteer with NYCFIRST LEGO League, an organization that organizes robotic events. Schools, community organizations and parent groups all over the world take part in these events for children aged 9-14 which includes teams from elementary, middle and 9th graders from high schools as teams build and program a robot using LEGO blocks. This year’s theme was called “No Limits” based on the idea of building a robot that can assist people who are physically challenged. Some of the tasks include serving food, feeding pets, picking up fallen eyeglasses, etc. They have two and half minutes to complete as many tasks as possible, earning points along the way. One of the components is a 4-5 minute research project presentation in front of judges. Another is a technical presentation in which students explain the functioning of their robot and the programming behind it.

The NYC tournaments took place on Saturday Feb. 5th and Sunday Feb. 6th at Riverbank State Park as 120 teams, mostly from NYC public schools, took part. But we also had private schools and community-based organizations represented. One team came from near the Canadian border and two others from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. There were almost 300 volunteers from the educational, and corporate worlds, and most impressively, high school and college students. Readers of this column know how defensive of teachers I have been and this teacher-driven event makes me prouder than ever to be associated with NYC teachers for almost 40 years. So many of them came over to say how thrilled they were and how happy they and their kids were to be there – happy to give up a day on their weekend. Eric Greene, a teacher from IS 192 in Queens, brought his team on Saturday and came back to be a judge on Sunday. I could tell pages of stories and one day I will. Unfortunately, other than a team from John Adams HS, Region 5 had no representation at all.

Non-teaching evolution

Reports have surfaced that teachers are afraid to teach evolution theory because of potential criticism from religious organizations. We have read about attempts in Kansas, Georgia and Pennsylvania to force teachers to teach “Intelligent Design” (even putting stickers in texts proclaiming evolution is not a proven theory) as an alternative.

We should do that with all theories. Let’s give kids the choice of deciding whether to believe the earth is round or flat. Put stickers on all pictures purporting to show the earth is round. Just because a few astronauts say they saw a round earth from space, it is still a theory until I can actually see if for myself. I also believe we should put stickers on every water faucet since a report that water contains two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen is just a theory. Don’t believe it until you see the whites of the eyes of those little buggers actually coming out of the faucet.

Teacher at PS 43 praises Assistant Principals

Liz Graham’s letter to The Wave regarding my challenge to teachers to “say nice things about the people running their schools” focused on the support the assistant principals (Debbie Otto, Sara Trezza, and Cindy Lee) have given teachers, while not mentioning the leader of the school, principal John Quattrocchi who, as we reported in the Dec. 31, ’04 column, told teachers “...Every day when I drive home I curse each and every one of you out...” By all reports, the AP’s at PS 43 have generally been supportive in a difficult situation. Liz’s statement that they “truly make life bearable” draws us a picture worth a thousand words – maybe a couple of thousand. Our sources tell us she has been under some attack from Quattrocchi for relatively minor things.

Good for her for not caving in by heaping meaningless praise to curry favor. Here’s hoping the AP’s at PS 43 (“they are not mean-spirited people” one of our sources says) continue to support her and other teachers.

In my work in various regions in NYC in setting up robotics programs at many middle schools, I have been running into heroic assistant principals who have been so important in making the program work, despite having little time.

Thanks Liz for reminding us that there are some good folks in administration.

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