Back to School Supplies

I leisurely perused the Sunday paper today, and I was confronted by ads for back to school supplies from every major retailer you can imagine. There are some great deals out there. Here’s my pet peeve, though. How do I know what to get? No, really. Most schools don’t publish their lists. I cannot comprehend why a school would bother to have a web site and not use it for something as basic as communicating with parents about school supplies.

Most supply lists are very specific. I can buy my kindergartner a pack of 24 Rose Art crayons for 5¢, but what if her teacher wants her to have those fat crayons? There are all kinds of deals out there, but I would be angry if I took advantage of them and wasted money on supplies that teachers don’t want or had to go back and buy a bunch of stuff I wasn’t counting on.

Many schools publish lists to local department and grocery stores, which is very helpful, but for some reason, this seems to stop at middle school level. I have a seventh grader, and I don’t know what she’ll need. Her school’s website is more attractive and contains more information than the local elementary school site, but again, no school supply lists.

Georgia has an annual sales tax holiday for school supplies. This year, it will take place from August 3-6. My daughters don’t start back to school until August 14. School supply lists are not available for me to take advantage of this sales tax holiday.

I am almost certain that her teachers must know what supplies they plan to require. I already know. I know every year. The problem is, students of mine don’t know what they need for my class. They don’t know that they are going to be in my class. I don’t know who my daughters’ teachers will be. I don’t know that it would be possible in their case to ask schools to provide me with that information. They are likely still registering and creating schedules up until the week before school. It’s a bit simpler at my school, because we are still small enough at this point that we only have one teacher teaching every section. There is, for instance, only one college prep American literature course, only one Honors British literature course, and so on. As long as students know what section they will be in, they have a fairly good idea of which teacher (among the three of us) they will have.

I suppose what I will do this year in order to take advantage of sales and the sales tax holiday is buy supplies before I get the lists, but it bothers me. I can get what I think teachers will want and basic supplies that my kids will need, but I run the risk of getting the wrong thing or not getting something they need.

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English Journal

English Journal July 2006I received my complimentary author’s copies of English Journal, July 2006 (Vol. 95, No. 6) in the mail today. It was very exciting to see my writing, complete with pullout quotes and minibiography at the end. I must say that it is very exciting for me to be published in a journal. It makes me feel so professional!

When English Journal published a call for manuscripts related to how teaching in private, independent, or parochial schools impacted what or how we teach, I immediately thought of my “Moral Perfection” unit. I had already learned about tikkun olam, the Judaic concept of “repairing the world” through social justice — doing mitzvot, or good deeds. In his autobiography, Ben Franklin undertakes a self-improvement scheme. He applies typical Age of Reason ratiocination to the task and reports his findings with the accuracy of a true scientist. I have always been fascinated with this selection from his autobiography, which is frequently anthologized for high school American literature texts. Franklin’s quest reminded me of tikkun olam, with the focus on repairing the self rather than the world. I asked my colleague, Rabbi Marc Baker (who since, unfortunately for us, has taken a position at our sister school in Boston, Gann Academy) if there was a Judaic concept similar to tikkun olam, but more self-reflective, repairing one’s own self. He told me about cheshbon hanefesh, which translates as “accounting of the soul.”

Once I began doing research, I discovered that cheshbon hanefesh was a concept first elucidated by leaders of the Mussar movement, a 19th century ethics movement in Orthodox Judaism. In fact, I discovered that Mussar leaders had been influenced by reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography, and even suggested keeping the same sort of record Franklin kept in his “little book.” This discovery, I think, surprised Rabbi Baker, who didn’t realize Franklin actually influenced the concept of cheshbon hanefesh.

During the month of Elul, which leads up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, introspection and a sort of moral evaluation are encouraged in the Jewish faith. When teaching American literature chronologically, Franklin’s autobiography frequently falls during this time. In fact, this last year, I was able to have my students begin their “Moral Perfection” journals on the first day of Elul, which would be Rosh Chodesh Elul. During this month, it is important to self-reflect and repent in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Keeping a journal lends itself very well to religious requirements during this time. It is a perfect confluence of Jewish faith and curriculum.

For the assignment, students read the “Moral Perfection” selection from Franklin’s autobiography. Students choose a virtue they would like to cultivate or a vice they would like to eliminate and for one week, they write reflectively at the end of the day about their success and failure. Students have the opportunity to be creative. Students have turned in some beautiful artwork and created professional-looking journals along with this assignment. I have even had one student (much to my excitement) do the assignment in a blog. I encouraged him to continue blogging, and I hope he has — I don’t think he felt comfortable continuing in that spot where his teacher could read it (and I can’t blame him for that).

There is nothing terribly novel about the assignment. I’m sure a lot of other teachers have done similar assignments with Franklin’s autobiography. What is novel is the close connection to Judaism. When I saw the call for manuscripts, I decided to write an article about the assignment because I felt it had a good chance of being published. Not, as I said, because my idea was so fresh, but because the concentration on how teaching this assignment, for me, was different in a Jewish school. Truthfully, it occurred to me that English Journal might receive few submissions centering on Jewish schools because there are simply fewer Jewish high schools than Catholic or other parochial schools. I admit that I felt English Journal‘s propensity for publishing articles connected with diversity and multiculturalism was in my favor, as well.

So there you have it — the story of how my English Journal article was born. If you want to purchase copies of this issue, visit this link. Look for me on p. 33.

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Microsoft Word Alternatives

I posted this at my classroom blog, but I thought it might be useful to fellow educators, so I am cross-posting it here.

Some of you don’t have Microsoft Office or Microsoft Word at home. That doesn’t mean you have no option aside from Word Pad if you want to write papers. All of you have MS Word at school, but it isn’t always possible to type all of your work at school. What are you supposed to do, then?

There are some good online word processing programs that allow you to write and save your work online so you can edit it from anywhere — school, home, grandma’s house, the library, wherever!

Writely allows you to decide who can see your work. For instance, you can allow friends to see your documents so they can help you edit. You can edit your documents from anywhere — all you need is an Internet connection and a browser. You can store your documents online. No more hunting for documents only to remember you saved them on your home computer when you’re at school or vice versa. It is also compatible with Word. You can post Writely documents to your blog — thus, if it’s your turn to write for the student blog, you can write your post in Writely first to make it easier to proofread. Writely also allows you to save documents to your own computer. Writely is owned by Google, who purchased it in March.

Like Writely, Zoho Writer also allows you to edit from anywhere. It also boasts collaborative editing of documents, which allows friends to write and edit with you at the same time. You can import and edit Word documents, Open Office documents, and many other types of files. Also, Zoho Writer allows you to save your documents in many different formats, including MS Word .doc files and PDF’s. Like Writely, you can use Zoho to post to your blog. It also allows you to save different versions of the same document, which should be really valuable for editing. Zoho Show allows you to create presentations, including uploading and editing Power Point presentations. It is also integrated with Flickr, so if you have an account, it will be easy to move your photographs into your Zoho Show presentation. Zoho Sheet is a spreadsheet program, like MS Excel.

Finally, there is gOFFICE, which is an entire office suite, including a word processor, desktop publishing (cards, newsletters, etc.), and spreadsheets (like Excel). Soon, gOFFICE plans to add presentations (like Power Point).

As all of these online word processors are web-based, they should work on Macs, but you may not be able to use the Safari browser to work with them. Try Firefox.

Finally, if you are looking for a free program to download to your computer instead of an online word processor, try Open Office. Open Office is open source software, which allows users to study, change, and improve the software. This is different from MS Office, for example, which does not allow users access to source code — users must wait for updates and purchase them. Open Office includes the following applications:

  • Writer — a word processor
  • Calc — a spreadsheet program
  • Impress — presentation software
  • Draw — illustration software

I do not believe that Open Office will work with Macs unless you port it, but that additional step should get you started.

Update: Robert reminds us that it is a good idea not to send folks MS Word documents as attachments.  Here’s why.

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English Journal Article

My article, “Toward “Moral Perfection”: Integrating Judiac Concepts and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography,” is now available to subscribers of English Journal online.  If you are not a subscriber, you may purchase the article here.  If you subscribe to the print edition, you should be receiving your copy in the next week or so.

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Why We Teach

I think moments like this are why we teach.  Make sure you let those who inspired you in your life — teachers, parents, grandparents, whoever they are — actually know how they impacted you.  There is no greater gift that you can give a teacher.  Having been the recipient of this only on a small scale, I can tell it must be an incredible feeling, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope to experience it one day.

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More on AYP

I have been following with interest AJC’s education blog Get Schooled today, as Georgia released the results of schools’ performance for AYP.  Sometimes the comments on that blog get fairly nasty, which, let’s face it, is entertaining if it isn’t directed at you and takes place on someone else’s blog — I have had to teach myself to try as hard as I can to ignore negative stuff written about me elsewhere or comments in my blog, because I get my feelings hurt too easily — not really a good trait for a blogger if you are trying to incite discussion, is it? :)  Anyway, I came across this comment on Get Schooled that really made some wheels in my head turn.  Here it is:

I thank my lucky stars every day that we are in our own school system with only one middle and one high school so we do not have to face the transfer chaos that Tucker and Shamrock faced. I am absolutely amazed that Shamrock made AYP after what it went through. Congratulations!!!!! It must be a kick butt school!

When will everyone realize that NCLB is designed to destroy public schools (I am sure that Mr. Liberty is thrilled). First the low performing schools fall… then it is only a matter of time before all schools fail because of taking transfers of gobs and gobs of low performing students and because by 2014 – all measured groups must have 100% meets/exceeds rates.

What will happen when the Walton Highs, Chamblee Middles and Vanderlyn Elementaries of the world don’t make AYP (and they won’t by 2014). Where will those kids transfer? – to private school? – you guessed it! Vouchers here we come. Bush has tried to get vouchers into NCLB for years, but Congress kept dropping it from the bill.

No neighborhood schools, no kids learning and growing with their buddies up the street, no critical thinking, no creativity, no recess, no summer vacation, no arts. Just a bunch of fat kids who play video games alone at home and practice bubbling in sheets with factoid questions all day at school but can’t answer a question requiring anything but the most linear thinking. … and we will just go ahead and hand over our economy to the Indians and Chinese.

Brave New World Indeed.

If you don’t like NCLB, do your darn research and do something about it – quit complaining on these boards and write your politicians. There is a lot of big business power behind NCLB (all the testing and tutoring companies) but they do not have nearly as much money/power as the businesses that used illegal labor – so we still have a chance to turn this ship around – at least at this point.

I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads, “No Child Left Behind… from the folks who brought you the Iraq War.”

…. and I’m a Republican (at least I used to be).

Ugh! This NCLB stuff gets me so burned up I could spit.

My question is, what do you think about what this commenter said?

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No AYP for My Former Employer… Again

For the third year in a row, my former school has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress. It’s a real shame, because there are some good teachers there (if they haven’t all bailed). The administration, unfortunately, doesn’t support the teachers so that they can effectively do their jobs. The constant discipline problems at the school prevent students from learning much of anything. I was once called out on the carpet for having expectations that were too high. Now the students are reaping what the administration has sown. It’s very sad for the students, as Ms. Ris reminded me in my comments last time I was perhaps too smug about the results, when they are zoned for a failing school. Because this is the third year my former school has failed to make AYP, they must now offer free tutoring to their students. I hope for the sake of the teachers and students at that school that something will be done about the administration at long last. Sometimes, money talks. I checked, and the high school that all of my former middle school’s students feed into met AYP. Furthermore, all three of the feeder elementary schools also met AYP. Seeing as how the schools have the same “raw material with which to work,” what does that say?

The good news is that my daughter’s school made AYP, as did the elementary school my younger daughter will attend starting in August.

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The Trouble With Rubrics

I was poking around English Journal‘s web site to see if I could figure out when the July issue (containing my article) was coming out, and I found Alfie Kohn’s article “The Trouble with Rubrics” (PDF).

On one point, I agree with Kohn — I wish we didn’t have to assign letter grades to students, because they focus on the grade instead of on what I said was good and what needed to be improved in their writing. Grades aren’t going anywhere, however, and reformers who espouse the position that we should have no grades are generally viewed as crackpots who don’t want to be held accountable for what their students learn (or don’t want students to be held accountable). For what it’s worth, I don’t agree with that assessment, but our society is standardized-test driven.

What I don’t agree with is that Kohn sees rubrics as ineffective. Kohn argues the whole in assessment is often more than the sum of its parts. Often, students meet the criteria of rubrics, but their writing is still not good. I think when this happens, the problem is with the rubric. Rubrics should be written in such a way that they measure performance in a meaningful way. Teachers need to write rubrics that measure exactly what they seek to measure. I fully believe that many teachers don’t know how to create a good rubric. I sometimes have trouble myself. I know what I’m looking for, but how do I parse it out into different levels of achievement? Then, since I still need to give it a grade, how do I grade it?

I learned a new system this year that I will share with you. I use the Greece, NY rubrics that Jay McTighe introduced to us at a professional development session this spring. These rubrics measure five dimensions — Meaning, Development, Organization, Language, and Conventions — across six different levels of achievement. I personally think the rubrics are great. One of the problems I ran into with rubrics is math. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you work in a system that requires you to give numerical grades. The Greece rubrics allow for a maximum of 30 points (5 dimensions X 6 levels = 30). The problem comes when you have a student who, say, earns 25 points. We’ll say for the purposes of illustration that the student earned five 5′s — 5 X 5 = 25. However, 25/30 = 83. Wait a minute! The student scored very well on that rubric! A low B is an OK grade, but not reflective of the student’s true score. Jay McTighe showed us how to adapt rubric scores so that they are a more accurate reflection of the grade.

What you need to do is decide what the absolute lowest grade on a piece of writing should be. Most of us would not assign a score of zero to an essay. I decided that the lowest grade, if a student received five ones (the lowest level of achievement on the rubric) should be a 50. That seems fair to me — that is an F, which is indicative of the achievement of a student who received ones across the board. What this means is that the absolute zero on the assignment is not 0 points but 40 points. The difference between 100 and 40 is 60 points. As the rubric has 30 points, that means that each rubric point is worth two grade points. From there, I developed this scale:

  • 30=100
  • 29=98
  • 28=96
  • 27=94
  • 26=92
  • 25=90
  • 24=88
  • 23=86
  • 22=84
  • 21=82
  • 20=80
  • 19=78
  • 18=76
  • 17=74
  • 16=72
  • 15=70
  • 14=68
  • 13=66
  • 12=64
  • 11=62
  • 10=60
  • 9=58
  • 8=56
  • 7=54
  • 6=52
  • 5=50

So that means that student who earned 25 points on that rubric actually earned a 90 — much more indicative of the performance level of fives across the board.

The trick is to decide what your own absolute zero is on writing assignments and work from there. I have decided 40 is mine, so no matter how many points my rubric has, I can figure out how many grade percentage points each rubric point is worth. For instance, if I have a rubric with three dimensions and four levels of achievement, that’s a twelve point rubric. Sixty divided by 12 is five, so each rubric point is worth five points.

I think perhaps if rubrics are used in a way in which absolute zero is, indeed, zero, then perhaps Kohn has a point — they do seem punitive. But they don’t have to be used that way. I remember feeling like the proverbial light went on when Jay McTighe showed us how this could be done. Contrary to what Kohn says in his article, I think rubrics can be fair and can help students improve. I do not see them as a crutch — they are a way of demystifying something that is fairly complex — how to grade writing.

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Weber in the News

Some of you may recall our school’s construction made the news last September due to a threat by Fulton County’s BOE to seize our property through eminent domain. The school system backed down, and construction has continued. Along with a small contingent of our faculty, I toured our new building in June. I was surprised to open the paper this morning to see a story about the contruction, along with picture of our group. Unfortunately, the picture wasn’t reprinted in the online edition of the article, but you can read it here (use Bug Me Not to bypass registration). I couldn’t find the picture at our school’s web site either, but if you have access to the print edition that includes the NorthSide supplement for residents of North Fulton and Cherokee Counties, you can see pictures of our group and building on p. ZH9. I am the one in the cuffed jeans and black sweater with my hands in my back pockets.

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What Would You Do With $300K?

In his recent editorial on the book banning lawsuit currently brewing in Miami-Dade schools, Leonard Pitts bemoans the school system’s waste of $300,000 on a lawsuit that the school board’s own lawyer said, according to Pitts, “violated the board’s own rules, not to mention multiple legal precedents.”  In order to make his point, he asked two teachers what they would purchase for their classrooms if they were given $300K.

It made me think, though.  What would I get for my classroom if I was given $300K?  Here’s a list of things I could think of:

  • A laptop for my use
  • Laptops for all of my students
  • SMART technology, including a SMART board
  • Funds for guest speakers, including published authors
  • Professional development that will enable me to be a more effective teacher
  • My own copy machine and a ton of paper
  • Consumable books, including paperback novels, so my school could save some money

I’m sure given time to do more research on products, I could think of more, but this is what I came up with off the top of my head.  What would you do with $300K for your classroom?

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