where you at?

hi peeps,

we were on a pretty long delay – i apologize.  there were bunches of things that came up, but we’re hoping to be back pretty soon.  our goal is to do a pilot elective project with students in the fall, and we’ve lined up a pretty awesome group of contributers.

we’re excited to be back.  so, ummm, talk to you soon?


teacher data reports (school|life 20)

recently, the new york state supreme court ordered the state to release teacher data reports to the public.  the teacher reports attempt to measure the impact of individual teachers on student learning.  “value-added” assessments compare student demographics, student histories, and school norms to help project expected student achievement.  researchers evaluate teacher effectiveness in relation to student achievement on state standardized exams in math and english.  teachers receive high marks when students exceed original expectations, and they receive lower marks when students fail to achieve the original standards.

the teachers’ union has fought strongly against the release of the teacher data reports, and even bill gates wrote a recent opinion-editorial in the new york times against the public release of the reports.  gates and the teacher union are strange bedfellows: gates has argued strenuously for school and teacher accountability, often directly against local and state teachers’ unions.  however, in the times, he explains that simply “publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve learning.”

he’s probably right.  there’s certainly an analogue for gates’ position in the private sector.  employees are routined evaluated and reviewed; however, their accountability reviews are not released publicly or published in newspapers.

it should also be noted that there are clear challenges to the reliability of the data in the report.  there were consistent errors in early draft reports, including students and teachers listed in incorrect subject areas and classes, and student projections are inherently difficult to make accurately.  they ignore a host of “outside of school” factors and variables.  researchers try to balance this by analyzing more data to create more specific and more effective groups.  of course, triangulating bad data does not necessarily make it more effective data.  in fact, the group of university researchers that originally produced the ratings formula has publicly disavowed the current formula as an effective benchmark, and the city department of education has already stopped using the teacher data reports because they were not consistent or effective enough.

the reports are clearly problematic, and this is clearly a proxy war: education reform advocates like michelle rhee or joe williams take any opportunity to bash unions and debase teacher protections.  they believe that unions only exist to stall and stunt meaningful reform.  there are any amount of private sector examples to convince you they really believe what they believe.

that said, i also think we’re looking at this issue incorrectly.  teacher evaluation and teacher accountability are incredibly important.  we know that the single greatest in-school factor that influences learning is teacher quality.  we agree that good teachers matter.  instruction matters.  and i also believe that the union does teachers a disservice by arguing against teacher accountability and evaluation.  i believe in a strong union. . . but i also believe in strong education.

without the union, i wouldn’t be able to challenge students and parents in ways that i do.  i wouldn’t be able to share content and curriculum that exposes students to new and different ideas and texts.  and i wouldn’t be able to take risks . . . believing that i’ll be able to learn and reflect on and correct my mistakes.

where teacher protections help improve instruction, i stand side by side with my union.  still, where teacher protections interrupt a drive to improve instruction, i disagree with union leadership.  these reports are incredibly problematic, yes, but there’s also something bigger going on: a seeming resistance to any kind of real evaluation and accountability.  and that’s wrong.  teacher evaluation and student achievement can and should be more effectively measured.

teacher evaluations can be an incredibly important tool to promote student learning and student achievement.  some teachers believe that we have an inalienable right to teach how we’ve already been teaching . . . i don’t.  we always need to do better.  there’s just no doubt that some teachers are more effective and some teachers are less effective.  i’ve sat in on enough teachers and witnessed enough classes to know the difference.  and i’ve certainly experienced enough of my own effective and ineffective days to know that we’re not ever perfect.  still, the union’s consistent public resistance to evaluation and accountability reads horribly to the general public, and i think it opens the union for unfair criticism on other issues.

the teacher data reports are not helpful or effective, right now, but i think the more appropriate question is how can we develop more accurate measurements that more effectively measure our performance?  as opposed to being outflanked on this issue, i believe the union should lead the drive to establish more hollistic, more comprehensive, more just, and more accurate teacher evaluations.  can statistical evaluations on a flawed exam ever be an accurate base for teacher evaluations?  what would real accountability and real evaluation really look like?

let’s be first in the race next time.  let’s define the terms and lead the way.  why don’t we champion new and progressive and effective education reforms?  why doesn’t the union become synonymous with good teachers and effective instruction?  too often, we’re caught reacting to bad ideas and even worse policy.  too often, we lose credibility and we lose protections because we’re fighting to protect the wrong group.

i’m just sayin’.

a project update (02/21/12)

min and i have been working on the project for about 2 months, now, and we’ve learned a bunch so far.  i wanted to write a short post to give you a quick update on where the project is and where we’re going.  a special thanks to everyone who has jumped in early to support us, like samantha chan, dan greenberg, and bess cohen.


1) audio recording setup

2) website domain

3) design: logo

next steps:

1) pilot programs

2) advisory board

3) new website design

what we’ve done so far. . . 


it’s actually been quite complicated to find the best possible recording setup.  we’re so used to watching video, now, that we forget so many radio conventions.  we experimented with so many  different setups, but we’ve locked down our final recording equipment: an ipod nano 8gb with a chill pill/rap cap mini microphone.  it’s incredibly discrete and records surprisingly good sound.

we tested a wide range of different recorders, including digital audio recorders, field recorders, lavalier microphones, and even iphones.  every piece had different advantages, but there were always tradeoffs between memory storage, battery capacity, and ease of use.  in the end, the nano offers us the best combination of strong audio quality, complete portability, low intrusion, and usability.

website domain

over the past few weeks, i’ve actually accumulated more than 30 different website domains and variations for our project.  two l’s, one l, “a” before words, “the” before words, and different words altogether.  two weeks ago, we purchased our official project name at auction, and we’ve moved our site to a new primary domain: schoolife.com.  our tag line will remain, “a middle school magazine”, but we just felt like “schoolife” is a perfect match – our project and our website have the same name.  🙂

logo design

we’ve chosen a final logo design for our project.  we worked with more than 100 designers to choose ideas and samples that best fit our concept.  it was important to us that our logo represent both sides of our project: life in school and life outside of school.  it’s a beautiful design, and we’re excited to introduce it really soon.  i really think you’re gonna love it.

what’s next. . . 

website design

for now, our basic website is functional.  we’re able to include short audio pieces, at times, and people are able to navigate through the pages quite clearly.  still, it’s not a wonderful design, and it won’t be able to hold up as our project gets more complicated and dynamic.  we’ve started working with a professional design guru (and friend of the project), sandra quiles, to design and code a new wordpress template for our site.  we’ve completed a whole bunch of sketches and even a few mockups of the design.  i’m super excited about it.  our website is going to be the base of our whole program, and it really needs to be amazing.  i know it will be1

audio trailers

this is the most exciting.  over the past few weeks, we’ve been testing our audio equipment on me.  in my life and in my classroom.  we’ve learned some really important things about our audio, but we’ve also gotten a taste of what the project’s really gonna sound like when we get started.  it’s powerful.  as min has put together his first pieces, we’ve started to make important choices that move our ideas into real pieces.  how do we work without a controlling narrator?  how can we string different narrative moments together?  how will listeners be able to tag and follow different characters in their mind?

in the next few weeks, we’ll be recording different subjects and producing smaller pieces based on 1, 3, and 7 day segments.  we know it’s gonna be hard, but sometimes we get pretty geeked about how this all might play out.  we feel like it’s a new and interesting angle on the most powerful subject matter: real life.


look out for our kickstarter proposal in early to mid march.  we’ve outline a budget.  we’ve written a treatment.  we’re filming our intro next week.  and you’re gonna be a really, really important part of it.  when the time comes, will you help us get the word out?  we really, truly appreciate it.

School|Life Audio: on the bus

At her new, public middle school, my eleven year old sister has encountered all sorts of kids that her tiny private school had shielded her from, and she often tells us about her new friends and acquaintances at dinner. I asked her to recount one story from a few weeks ago.

For many middle school students, the journey to school is the first that they’re taking pretty much on their own. I was liberated by the middle school commute. It was this sacred 20 minute walk during which I could listen to my ipod shuffle and feel real cool and mature. If I could get to school on my own, I could get anywhere, right? You can tell that my sister’s sprint out to the bus each morning gives her a thrilling sense of responsibility.

But she was confused by this. How could someone do something like that? How was it resolved? Should she treat this kid differently because of what she had done?
I was confused too. Isn’t it a the crossing guard’s job to protect kids from others, not others from the kids? What would have happened had the crossing guard not seen?

My sister saw her busmate throw the bottle and watched the aftermath, and even she doesn’t know exactly what happened, if the girl had had a tough morning, a fight with her mom. And how did her mother react? Was it the first time she’d done something that bad? Is it the last?

What happens during a kid’s commute alone could reveal so much about their experience in the classroom. Can he handle himself around strangers? Is she scared of the city streets? Does mom hold his hand all the way there? No matter what stop on the bus ride you’re meeting a kid, there’s another stop and it’s hard to know what happened there. School|Life seeks to check in with kids (and parents and teachers) at every stop along the way, to illustrate how every little thing affects every other little thing. It hopes to pass on full stories, not just the fragments occasionally recounted at the dinner table.

are you nervous?

In middle school, my friends and I played this game where we’d slowly move a hand up someone’s leg and ask “Are you nervous?” Every time I read a newspaper, I feel like I’m playing that game. This weekend, I read this article, and yes, I’m nervous.


The hand started around my knee and at each of the following lines, it moved up:

“New York City is changing tactics and concentrating on improving reading and writing skills.”

Sorry, what? Were we not already concentrating on reading and writing skills?

“Because of the way we license middle-school teachers,” [Josh Thomases, deputy chief academic officer for the Education Department]  said, “none of the teachers colleges actually train secondary teachers in how to teach kids how to read.”

This one surprised me. I’ve always attributed my reading and writing abilities to my middle school teachers. We had extensive libraries in our English classrooms and got at least a period each week to explore it. Even if we weren’t particularly strong readers, our teachers at least encouraged us to enjoy reading. They taught us strict essay formats and once we’d mastered them, we were encouraged to make them more personal. We had occasional grammar lessons and got extensive feedback on our writing. Are teachers not doing this elsewhere? Are they lacking training? Resources? Both?

“Of the original 51 schools, [in a 2008 initiative to to bolster student performance at 51 of the lowest-performing middle schools] only 4 remain in the initiative, and 8 of them have been closed or are being phased out because of poor performance. Although a few appear to be improving, many of the middle schools that participated are still foundering.”

So these efforts have been made and haven’t worked. Looks like it’s time for a new tactic. Maybe the funding and restructuring of schools are not where we must focus. Maybe reading and comprehension needn’t fall solely on schools. Maybe we should be looking at the reading going on (or not going on) at home. A 2010 study that looked at students in 27 countries concluded that “Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class” (Evans, et al.) Reading should be the least of our worries. Once a person learns how to do it, he or she can do it anywhere, anytime, with anyone, with a book, with a comic, with an iPad. But they’ve got to learn first.

Finally, Christine Quinn says that, “…[middle schools] are the part of our system that’s still the weakest…”

I think that one speaks for itself.

School|Life Audio: On a Scale of One to Five…

We’re continuing our efforts to bring you sounds from the classroom, so here’s a clip from an actual lesson.  Unedited and unmixed.

To introduce a new poetry unit, Andrew takes stock of what he’s up against, in getting his students excited about poetry. And the students are on all different sides of the issue.  One student says, “I don’t really like poetry that much.  I mean, I do it ’cause I have to, but I don’t really like it.”  Another student says, “I like poetry because it doesn’t have to be in any format.  You can just put out your thoughts without being judged.”  And everywhere else in between.

It’s not in the clip, but Andrew goes on to say that his goal, his big goal by the end of the unit is to get every single person at a 4 or a 5.  Because poetry in middle school can be pretty amazing, all around.

We’ll keep you posted, but for now, by our count, we have:

5 stars – Live and breathe poetry: 6

4 stars – Like poetry: 5

3 stars – Poetry’s aiite: 8

2 stars – Poetry sucks: 8

1 star – Poetry murders people: 2

**NOTE: “Jeffrey” is a fictional character in a book they are reading at the moment, called Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie.

can you hear me? (School|Life 19)

an interesting new article in slate features a law in illinois that prohibits recording on-duty police officers.  in fact, in several states it’s a felony to record any state officials, including law enforcement officers, judges, and state’s attorneys, “in the performance of his or her duties”.

it’s an interesting question, for sure.  on the one hand, citizen recordings have dramatically increased pressure on state officials to perform justly.  police officers have been caught physically beating suspects, and recently, a handheld recording even helped suspend an overzealous cop at the occupy wall street protests in lower manhattan.  photographers, cameraman, and journalists rely on recording devices to interview stakeholders and record audio from live events, and a free press helps insure fair and free disclosure of information.  certainly, we all have an interest in freedom, liberty, and justice.

at the same time, courts have consistently upheld an individual’s right to privacy.  we have the right to our own material and intellectual property.  what’s ours is ours, and we have the right to believe that what’s said privately between two people exists only in the context.  at some level, guerrilla recordings are a complete affront to traditional discourse.  of course, it’s easy to forget that people tell stories about other people all the time.  is that different than a recording?  is there an inherent subjectivity that makes us value that differently?  is there an apparent objectivity that differentiates a recording from a report?

i wonder if teachers, including me, have a right to privacy in our classrooms?  do i have the right to safeguard what i say and do inside the closed walls of my classroom?  or do parents have a more convincing right to know what i say and do?

i think it’s likely that consent is key for us.  teachers and students should be consulted every step of the way.  a quick sidenote: we have sent out permission slips to all parents, teachers, and staff involved in our project, and we have received permission to use the student and teacher voices you’ll hear.  and i’m certain that’s the right thing in our situation.  for cops?  i’m not as sure.