As A Teacher

Teachers Collect Moments

“Teachers get paid with love.”

I read that somewhere — maybe on a bumper sticker or poster — when I first started teaching. That turned out to be the truest statement I read that year. My first days of teaching were tumultuous. I juggled grading, lecturing, parent conferences and student crises that ranged from broken hearts to broken homes. I worked nonstop: at school, during lunch and at home.

And I loved it.

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Every teacher that I know collects notes, letters and trinkets that remind us why we get up and go to work each morning. These are the treasures that remind us that — despite changing standards and countless challenges — we can make a difference.

As the year came to an end, and the thank you letters and gifts — sketches, paintings, student-made figurines to place on my desk — my mentor, Mrs. Lawrence, gave me a box. “Put these in here. You’ll need this, especially on the bad days.”

And on days like today — when the weight of new standards, grades, tests, counseling, coaching, and all the responsibilities that we balance seem too heavy — I open that box. These are the moments that teachers collect.

 

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The College Essay: A Personal Story on the Common App

Common App

As more and more students apply to college, schools are looking to application essays to really know applicants.

School buses just started rolling out in Miami-Dade County, announcing sunrise and the beginning of a brand new school year, but already high school seniors are focused on college.  With early admission deadlines looming, students are beginning a new rite of passage: conquering the college application and, with it, the dreaded college application essay.

As competition for acceptance to top schools increases, students began applying to more and more schools.  So many now turn to the Common Application, a not-for-profit organization, developed in 1975 to help cut down on the number of separate applications and essays a student applying to numerous colleges and universities would have to complete.  This one application is accepted at nearly 500 colleges and universities across the country.

So when something changes on the application, it’s big news; it affects thousands of students, all hoping and competing for a seat at their dream school, but they may also indicate a changing tide, on college campuses and perhaps in society.

Last year’s new platform was plagued with glitches. Students had a difficult time paying fees and uploading documents. Schools also had trouble uploading transcripts.

As more and more students apply to college, the Common App’s biggest changes are in customer service. The site now has:

  • A comprehensive FAQ page and help center
  • An ask a question tab where students and parents can contact and leave a message for a Common App Support Team member
  • And live support for recommenders

The essay

The essay prompts, which underwent some big changes last year, are the same this year. Despite the rapid increase in abbreviations, emoticons and whole stories told in 140 characters or less, last year’s Common Application increased its word limit from 500 words to 650. That remains the same. But, many subscriber colleges and universities, such as Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania, are also requiring applicants to answer “Supplemental” questions.

In other words, colleges want to know more about their applicants.  And not more details, but rather a narrative with depth, insight, profundity.

And therein lays the conflict.  Students know what is at stake.  They need to be memorable, but honest; smart, but not pretentious; funny, but not silly.  And the indecision and insecurity can lead to bad essays.  Too often, applicants make the mistake of trying to write about every accomplishment – every medal, trophy and extra credit point they ever earned – or settle for a cliché topic, or avoid expressing an opinion or taking a stand.

Admissions officers read essays for up to twelve hours a day. They are looking, and probably wishing for, essays that are different, essays that stay with them.  So really, the best advice for someone sitting at a blank screen, suffering paralyzing self-doubt and writer’s block, is to relax and tell a story.

A personal story

Admission officers want to know the applicant.  They want to know who students are, how they think, and what they can bring to their school.  So students must distinguish themselves in their own voice. What do they want the person reviewing the application to know about them?  What makes you, you?  How are you different than the applicant before you? And the one before him?

The topics are personal, probing, direct.  Among the questions that the Common Application asks students to write, are how experiencing failure shaped them, about a moment that symbolized the beginning of adulthood, or a time that they challenged a belief or idea.

In other words, colleges and universities want to hear about a pivotal moment; they want to read about applicants’ personal, psychological and/or moral growth.  They want to know that the applicants themselves know that they are different.  Because in paradoxical era of oversharing – photos, intimate details, our whereabouts, etc. – while under-communicating, we actually know less about whom we are and what we think.  We spend a lot of time documenting our experiences and very little time considering how they shape us.  Perhaps the Common Application will help change that, if only for college application season.

 

 

 

Florida Prepaid College Savings Plan becomes more affordable

college savings

As the cost of college continues to soar, families are struggling to save for their children’s future education expenses.

Before Ashley had even garbled her first word or taken her first step, her mother began saving for her college education.  When Ashley was only six months old, her mother opened a Florida Prepaid college tuition plan.

“For a single mother, this was an affordable means of guaranteeing my children’s education,” said Yvette Rivera, Ashley’s mother. Today Ashley is a sophomore in college and feels lucky to have the safety net.

“I am able to concentrate on school and not worry about taking out loans just to cover the cost of books,” she said. She has reason to feel grateful. The cost of college tuition continues to skyrocket, and the amount of outstanding student loan debt is soaring along with it. So parents are beginning to prepare early, and 529 plans are an excellent saving tool because investments into them grow tax-free and as long as the proceeds are used to pay for education related expenses, the withdrawals are tax-free as well.

And now, beginning with this year’s open enrollment period, the price of a four-year Florida Prepaid college tuition plan is going down to $35,000 from $54,000 after a new law passed the state legislature in March. Now, families will pay $250 per month instead of $350. And some families may even receive refunds. The Florida Prepaid Plan is very popular. Thousands of families buy into the program every year; but, it is not the only option. There are two types of 529 plans: prepaid or savings plans. ·

Prepaid Plans – like the Florida Prepaid plan that Rivera selected — let you pre-pay all or part of the costs of an in-state public college education. They may also be converted for use at private and out-of-state colleges.  ·

Savings Plans work much like a 401K or IRA. They invest your contributions in mutual funds or similar investments. The plan will offer you several investment options and the account will go up or down in value based on the performance of the particular option you select.

Savings plans will earn more money, but also carry more risks.

“I opened Florida Prepaid accounts for both of my children because it was safe and froze the cost of tuition. Financial aid is no longer the safety net it used to be.”

Teacher, given two years to live, fighting cancer eight years later

We all piled into the school gym wearing our new, originally designed t-shirts, made in our school colors, teal and white.  The sound system was on, the bleachers were down and the photographer was set up and snapping away.

Only, this was not an average pep rally.  This one was special.  This one was for Ms. Susi.  Jennie Susi has stage four ovarian cancer.

When Jenni Susi was diagnosed with cancer, doctors said she had two years left to live

When Jenni Susi was diagnosed with cancer, doctors said she had two years left to live

According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is the fifth deadliest cancer in women, partially because the symptoms are so common to other illnesses — they include swelling or bloating ,and  pain in the belly— that it often goes undiagnosed far too long.  Something that Jennie knows from firsthand experience.  Four different doctors told her that she was fine.  It was the fifth doctor that finally diagnosed her cancer.  He instructed her to get her affairs in order because she’d have, at most, two years left to live.

That was eight and a half years ago.

Jennie decided that “statistics are just statistics. I’m going to be one of the positive statistics.”  And, in so many ways, she is.  She has fought this disease and undergone several surgeries, chemotherapy and all of the physical and emotional ups and downs that accompany treatment.

And cancer is not the only hardship she’s faced.  Her husband has Multiple Sclerosis.  Her parents both passed away, within a year of one another.  Each of these alone is enough to break someone’s spirit; but, not Jennie.  Through it all, she’s never lost her zeal for life.

“People always ask me ‘How do you do it?’” she says.  “And of course, there are days and times when I’m upset, but what good is that going to do? How is that going to help me?”  So, in her weakest moments, she allows herself a “one-hour pity party.”  Then, she chooses to get up and look on the bright side of things again because no matter how bad things are, she says, life is a gift.

Jennie credits her family for her inherent optimism.  Her parents who taught her to be positive, even in the face of adversity, and her brother who taught her how to be happy.

“I have an older brother who has Down Syndrome and he’s just SO happy, and pure in his joy. He was my greatest teacher. I try not to be wasteful of the gift I’ve been given – the gift of life. His purity radiates to me so I can be happy with my life, just the way it is.”

These are the lessons that she brings into the classroom.  She teaches American History, but she goes above and beyond – not only to prepare them for the End of Course Exams (EOCs) – but for life.  She went to school on the days that she was scheduled for chemotherapy and – if she was able to pull herself out of bed – was back at school the next morning.

So when Jennie didn’t come back to school, it was difficult for her students, friends and colleagues.  Doctors found more tumors and she had to have surgery to remove them and resection her colon, forcing her to take a leave of absence.

But even then, she did not forget her students.  She assured them that she was okay and would “stay calm and chemo on.”

“Ms. Susi is one of the most inspiring women I have ever met… even though she wasn’t able to come to school, she made sure that we were in good hands and she always sent us updates on her health and surprise emails to encourage us and tell us that she believed in us; it’s like she was always thinking about us,” said Carl Hughes, who was a student in Susi’s American History course and has kept in touch with her ever since.  Carl’s own mother lost her own battle with cancer, which made Susi’s struggle feel even more personal for him.

She made sure that he and all of her MLEC family knew that she was alive and recovering, and that she was thinking about them.

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Jenni Susi’s MLEC family sits for a portrait, urging her to ‘Stay Calm, Chemo On’

And all of her school family was thinking about her.  So when her students created a design for her catch-phrase, “keep calm – chemo on,” Helena Castro, the school activities director and Jennie’s friend of 17 years, had an idea.  She had the design printed on t-shirts.  Teal and white, our school colors, are also the colors for ovarian cancer awareness.  She also included #teamjenniesusi, the hashtag trending on Twitter while Jennie was in surgery.

Hundreds of shirts were purchased and all of the proceeds went to the Ovarian Cancer Society.  Then, once Jennie was well enough, her school family surprised her with a pep rally in her honor.  She walked into the gym to find us all wearing our shirts, and we posed for a big MLEC family portrait.

“Too often we honor and immortalize posthumously,” said Castro.  “Jennie lives life fully and demonstrates compassion and resiliency and it is that zest for life that has served as a source of hope and inspiration to so many.”

originally published on July 2, 2013 on wlrn.org

 

Millennials: Super Students, Super Humans

Gabriella Nuňez graduated near the top of her high school class.  Her resume rivals that of many college graduates.  She juggled rigorous courses with part-time work, myriad extracurricular activities and a thousand hours of community service.  She held various leadership positions ranging from class president to design editor of her newspaper and she began her college career this summer with over 24 college credits under her belt.

And, she is not alone.  The 21st century teenager is increasingly dynamic, and they have to be.  Although the Millennial Generation, usually defined as people born between 1981 and 2000, is often criticized for their narcissism and sense of entitlement, new research shows that this generation is actually much more complex than what they’re given credit for.

class of 2013

Millennial face an insecure and increasingly competitive job market; but, they are amazingly optimistic

Yes, today’s young people do seem to “grow up” later, as they put off traditional rites of passage such as marriage, family and home-ownership.  And they also have shorter attention spans.  Both are, at least partially, due to technology and the Great Recession.

Today’s teens and young adults are more confident and connected than ever before.  And they have reason to be.  Whereas teens growing up in the late 60s believed that anything was possible after witnessing Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, this generation very much believes that they can know all there is to know.  This is a generation that does not know a world without computers.  Moreover, they don’t remember a time before Google and graphing calculators.  So, are they spoiled?  Perhaps.  Are they a little self-centered?  Probably.  But, in their world, the President of the United States is only a Tweet away.

And the Great Recession taught them to have less faith in the “grown-ups” and traditional measures of adulthood. They watched their parents endure the real estate melt-down and double-digit unemployment. The Federal Reserve reports that between 2007 and 2010, the median net worth of American families plunged 39 percent.

And the news gets worse.  Although this generation is generally more educated than ever before, with more Americans holding college degrees than ever, Millennials are disproportionately unemployed or underemployed.  At the height of Great Recession, the unemployment rate among 15 to 24 year-olds was over 20 percent.

And although those numbers have improved, a 2009 Yale University study indicates that students who graduate during a recession earn 10 percent less, even after a decade of work.

According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, inflation-adjusted wages for young high school graduates declined by 11.1 percent between 2000 and 2011, and the real wages of young college graduates declined by 5.4 percent.

But the news does not seem to discourage them.  In fact, it seems to motivate some students to work even harder.

“When I got to high school, taking rigorous classes meant sacrificing a social life and sleep for study time to fulfill my various duties and responsibilities,” said Lisabet Esperon, who graduated this June and will begin school at the University of Florida as a sophomore, pursuing a degree in accounting.

Sacrifice is not usually the first word that people associate with the Millennial Generation; however, they are saving more and spending less.  Millenials are driving less and, increasingly, living within their means, carrying less credit card debt than their parents did.

Despite facing grim employment prospects, mounting tuition costs and rising student loan interest rates, today’s young people remain optimistic.  According to a Pew Research Study, 41 percent of them are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, compared to only 26 percent of those 30 and older who feel the same.

And they’d have to be optimistic as they graduate high school to find that being top of your class does not guarantee admission to their school of choice at a time when college applications are at an all-time high.  Then they graduate from college to enter an incredibly competitive work force.

So, it’s not that Millennial are lazy.  They are used to the competition, the stress and the hard work.  They just expect to see results for it.  And they don’t necessarily measure success in dollars.

Nuňez was often incredibly stressed in high school.  “There were tears and hair pulling and late nights with piles of homework” she said.  But she doesn’t expect a huge paycheck at the end.  “I want a meaningful career.  I want to give back.  I want to feel fulfilled.  Really, I just want to be happy.”

Millenials then, are a paradox.  They want more: more free time, more travel, more experiences; they want more out of life than a house with white picket fence and a two-car garage.  And, at least for now, they are willing to trade immediate financial success, getting by with less money, to achieve more happiness. How idealistic.

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Originally published on WLRN in July 2013

Hashtag in the Classroom: Can Social Media Improve Education?

kids and social media

Seventy-eight percent of teens have a cell phone. Let’s meet kids where they are and use technology to create learning opportunities.

Thirty years ago parents had to tell their kids to turn of the television and go to sleep.  Today, it’s their cellphone.  Teenagers are more socially activethan ever before, at least virtually.

A Pew Institute Research Study on Teens, Social Media, and Privacy indicates that 95% of teenagers use the internet and eight in ten of them use some kind of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter.

It isn’t just teenagers who are avid users.  Social media is shaping society.  More and more sites like Facebook and Twitter are influencing not only how we talk, but what we talk about.  Television programming, legislative bills, fashion, protests and parties are planned, discussed and critiqued online.

So, what is next?  Education, of course.

This is a scary thought for teachers, administrators and educators, and with good reason.  For decades experts have argued the effectiveness of technology on student learning.  And the results were not always positive.

According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, there may even be a correlation between the rise in ADHD and the increasing prevalence of mobile devices since 78% of teens now have a cell phone, and almost half of them own smartphones.

A May study from The National Bureau of Economic Research found that providing a computer to sixth through tenth grade students who did not have one at home had “no effects on any educational outcomes, including grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance and disciplinary actions” at the end of a school year.  While a similar project conducted by the Texas Center for Educational Research found, after a technology immersion program that “there was no evidence linking technology immersion with student self-directed learning or their general satisfaction with their schoolwork.”

And just ask any high school English teacher how internet acronyms—OMG, LOL, smh, ty – have seeped not only into teen vernacular, but also into their writing.  Clearly, incorporating social media in the classroom may seem fruitless and counterproductive to many veteran educators.

However, when used carefully, cellphones, tablets and social media can be a very powerful tool.  Kids have more access to information than ever before.  They no longer have to get up and pick up a dictionary to search for a word’s definition; they don’t need to buy the most recent edition of an atlas to find China’s gross domestic product.  All of that information is available to them on their most prized possession, their smart phone.

The challenge is to help them see the power that they have at their fingertips.  Teachers and parents have to help them see that smartphones are not just for texting and updating Facebook profiles and that Twitter is useful for more than posting jokes and song lyrics.

Anyone who doubts the potential world-changing power of social media just has to turn on the evening news.  Remember the Arab Spring?  Most accounts of the political upheaval in Egypt leaked through Twitter and YouTube.  The winner of our most recent presidential debates were partially measured by Twitter activity.  Diane Sawyer recently used the term “selfie” on ABC World News and social media had a huge influence on the recent Zimmerman trial.

Ninety-five percent of teens use the Internet. 8 in 10 regularly use social media. Can educators harness that energy?

Ninety-five percent of teens use the Internet. 8 in 10 regularly use social media. Can educators harness that energy?

In a discussion about how networks are increasingly using social media not only to promote shows, but to drive content, Anne Sweeney, the co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group said that “whether it’s Twitter or Facebook, those technologies, those platforms have given them even more say. Because they have come into the conversation in a much more powerful way, it’s even more important we pay attention to it.”

The same applies to education.  The Florida legislature has required that schools deliver half of classroom instruction digitally by the fall of 2015. Already the state requires high school students to take one online course in order to graduate, and many are taking several as schools struggle to offer electives such as foreign language that students need to get accepted to college. And students already take computerized versions the FCAT and end of course exams, not pencil and paper tests.

So technology is definitely here to stay.  And teachers have the opportunity to develop how it is used.  Facebook has over 500 million users, Twitter over 200 million.  Both communities get larger every minute. And students are engrossed in them.

A small study of students at Lockhaven University in Pennsylvania tested whether Twitter could be used effectively in learning.  At the end of the semester, students enrolled in classes where they were assigned to continue class discussions and complete assignments using Twitter were more engaged in their classwork than students who did not and earned a higher grade point average.

Technology alone cannot improve learning and social media can be distracting and even dangerous.  But, today’s teenagers are more tech-savvy than any other generation.  One of the challenges facing educators is learning how we can harness the power of social media in the classroom to keep students engaged and excited about learning so that they begin to see the awesome power of having so much knowledge at their fingertips.

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Originally published in July, 2013 on WLRN: http://bit.ly/1zDXQHk

 

 

Will Tying Teacher Raises To Test Results Improve Education in Florida?

merit pay

Teachers’ salaries will now be based, in part, on their students’ performance on state tests.

When my husband was studying for the CPA exams, he prepared for months.  He memorized laws and rules and exceptions to those rules.  He used flashcards, watched lectures and took simulated exams.  He answered thousands of sample test questions.

Preparing for exams is as much about tactic as it is about knowledge.  To conquer an exam, people learn to beat the test.  They learn strategies.  They take courses designed specifically to prepare them for these exams or they study on their own, for the tests.

For my husband, the hours of studying paid off.  He passed all four parts on his first attempt.  But, were these tests measuring what he learned in school?  Did it measure the knowledge that he gained during his undergraduate and graduate college career?  Are any of these professional exams (The Florida Bar Exam, Professional Engineering Exams, MCAT, LSAT, GRE, etc.) used to measure the effectiveness of a university or a professor?

testing

Data-based analysis of teacher performance is here to stay. Florida won a $700 million federal Race To The Top grant to design a statewide evaluation system that includes student test results in teachers’ evaluations.

No.  However, we do use tests to determine the quality of our schools and, as of July 1st, also our teachers’ performance.  Senate Bill 1664 requires that at least 50 percent of a classroom teacher’s performance evaluation, and pay, be based on the growth or achievement of the students.

And I understand why.  It is important to gage what students know.  We need to measure what they have learned throughout the school year.  And teachers also need an objective way to measure whether a particular method or lesson is effective.  It is equally important for schools and school districts to have a quantitative way to measure their teachers’ performance.

There are plenty of concerns about the fairness of teacher merit pay and whether test scores alone truly reflect a teacher’s effectiveness.  However, it is also fair to say that the only way to measure if a student has learned something, is to test him.  This is why there has always been a test.  And, more often than not, our test results determine a large portion of our future.  Passing a midterm and final in college was essential to passing a course.  Earning the right SAT score was crucial to get into college.  Passing those professional exams is the only way for doctors, lawyers, engineers and CPAs to obtain licensure.

However, since the introduction of No Child Left Behind we have entered an era of constant testing.  We’ve evolved from the High School Competency Test (HSCT) to the FCAT to the FCAT 2.0 to the End of Course Exams, the PERT and soon the PARCC, and so many other letters and abbreviations that I’ve left off of this list.

There are baseline exams, Fall Exams, Winter Exams, Interim Assessments, and on and on and on.  If your child attends a public high school in Miami-Dade County, he or she was probably testing from April through the end of the school year, especially if they were also enrolled in Advanced Placement courses.

Kids today are testing all the time.  And teachers are forced to adapt to that environment.  As much as teachers resist “teaching to the test,” I wonder how long they can continue to.  If a school’s success and a teacher’s efficacy is measured and determined by how her students perform on those tests, how long before the emphasis becomes beating that test?

The argument is not far-fetched.  For all of the school reforms that public education has undergone over the last ten years, for all the data and statistical analysis, high school students are not any better today than they were forty years ago.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics review, 17-year-olds’ average math and reading scores have not improved.  The tests have not changed at all in 40 years.  But, unlike the tests used to determine school grades and teacher effectiveness, “Nobody teaches to the NAEP exam,” said Kati Haycock president of the Education Trust, “which is why it’s such a useful measure to what our kids can actually do.”

And while our students are, according to the FCAT, constantly improving, the average SAT score for the high school class of 2012 dropped, again.  The reading and writing scores were the lowest since the company began releasing the data in 1972, which is part of what fuels the movement towards the common core and college readiness.  But those movements also include more tests.

Students deserve the best possible opportunities.  They need to be prepared to face the world, to enter college and/or the work force.  They deserve good schools and effective teachers to help them get there.  That requires local school districts and legislatures to figure out ways to ensure that tax dollars are doing just that.  That all requires tests.

I just hope that as we develop these tests and exams and figure out a way to use statistical analysis to interpret all of that data, I hope that we do not lose sight of the importance of a well-rounded education.  I hope that we don’t sacrifice creativity and class discussion and critical thinking.

When I was in high school, there was one test: the HSCT.  There were hundreds of electives.  I took ceramics and creative writing and photography.  I learned about Sigmund Freud and how he influenced Salvador Dali’s art as well as Ernest Hemingway’s writing style.  I learned about existentialism and Kant’s moral imperatives and how those ideas manifested themselves in literature, government and architecture. The high school that I attended no longer offers those courses.  And although I do my best to incorporate art and news and history and philosophy in my daily lessons, I’m not sure how many other teachers do.  And I don’t know how many other teachers will.  Those things are not on the test.

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Originally posted on WLRN in July, 2013: http://bit.ly/1novSWT