Friday, October 31, 2008


By Caitlin Corrigan | Lesson Plans/NTTimes Ed Blog

October 20, 2008, 9:00 pm - As part of our professional development sessions at the start of this school year, the faculty at my school participated in a team-building exercise to learn more about our leadership styles. Each corner of the room was labeled for one of the four compass points, and included a brief description of a guiding personality style — action, care, detail, and, the corner I chose, speculation: “likes to look at the big picture before acting.”

Unsurprisingly in a room full of teachers, the corners representing care and attention to detail quickly filled, but us big-picture-speculators numbered only four. We spent most of our time together discussing what we planned to write on our chart paper, completely fulfilling our role as the visionary thinkers who ask good questions, but take a minute to get down to business.

I thought about this activity this week, the last of our first quarter. A last-minute schedule change granted us two half-days for students at the end of the week, which our administration thankfully allowed us to use at our professional discretion, for grading, planning, and, in my case, standing in the middle of my room trying to picture how in the heck I could make things better for my students and me in the coming quarter.

Last year, my first as a classroom teacher in New Orleans, was spent in with the oldest students in our elementary school, the eighth graders. It was a challenging year to be sure — top-heavy district bureaucracy, teacher turnover, and a potent combination of low literacy skills and overage students — but when I turned in the last cumulative folder, I felt proud of what my students and I had accomplished.

This year, armed with new confidence from a year’s experience, I moved down to fourth grade, which proved more challenging than I ever imagined. As I watched students struggle with my oral and written directions, ignore my posted rules and slog through assignments, it seemed that what I learned last year was totally inapplicable. In addition, The Recovery School District, which I wrote about in my last post, “Starting Over (Again) in New Orleans, has adopted an extended school day from 7:45-4:30. This includes a 90-minute planning period, but I still spent the first month of the year feeling as if I was treading water, with never enough time or energy to make all the parent calls, organize all the binders, or grade all the crinkled homework packets on my desk.

I recently came across a comment from a fellow teacher on a New Orleans education forum, who wrote that teaching in extended day must be like “driving on a four lane metro highway with cars whirling around you for nine hours.” I thought the comparison was pretty spot on.

An average day begins around 7:00, when I arrive and take care of any prep work I can before the students begin arriving from the buses at 7:30. At 7:45, I escort my class to the cafeteria for breakfast — nearly 100 percent of our students qualify for federal free lunch programs, so breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks are provided. By 8:00, I’ve already won or lost several battles — the battle of the straight line, the tucked in shirt, the assigned seat. I teach my homeroom for two 90-minute blocks before lunch — Scholastic’s Reading Intervention program, Read 180, followed by a core curriculum of English Language Arts. During the course of these three literacy-focused hours, which repeat with my second class after lunch, my students and I have to make hundreds of decisions that all affect the tone and progress of our classroom. In a usual class period, my teaching is driven by the demands of the class — who’s getting it, who’s ready to move on, who’s saying unkind things about whom, not to mention the broken computer and the lost permission slip — with occasional detours for an impromptu parent conference, a question from the school counselor, or, worst case scenario, a fight or chaotic outburst.

It’s not that my students, my New Orleans public school students, are incapable of positive behavior or quality academics. During a recent state assembly which honored Craig’s own Lynn Foy, a recipient of the prestigious Milken Foundation Educator Award, the 450 students of Craig School were attentive and respectful, proudly raising their hands and calling out answers when prompted from the podium by R.S.D. Superintendent Paul Vallas and State Superintendent Paul Pastorek. The minor misbehaviors are the stuff of any teacher’s busy day, no matter where or who they teach. It’s the major problems — the grudge-fueled fights, the students who come to me at nine or 10 years old who cannot read the word “read” — that signal long-standing deficits in a culture not known for valuing traditional education for poor children.

These are problems that require careful thought and vision, sometimes more than I seem to have on hand. How, for instance, do you manage a child’s violent behavior when the child is being told to fight by their own parents? How do you prepare students for a rigorous state assessment when even the directions are above their current reading level?

I returned to questions like these during those two half days in my room. It was a chance to get off the highway and refocus my vision on the big picture, on what I was here to do — raise student achievement — and how to do it better. As I paged through my student’s binders to give them a notebook grade, I came up with an idea to explicitly teach them to organize their work. It was a little thing, but I hadn’t been able to see it through the daily traffic of instruction, feedback, management, and administration.

I decided to teach in New Orleans because it’s a city I love living in. Born, reborn, and born again by visionaries — New Orleans is that rare American place that looks like an entirely different place to different people, depending on what you’re looking for. In my New Orleans — in my school — my speculative-thinking self sees great potential in high expectations and positive school culture. The challenge lies in keeping that vision alive and making it tangible for my students — minute by minute and day by day, but also year to year as they connect elementary school to high school to higher education.

We are creating our own maps as we rebuild here in New Orleans. My hope is that the students we teach will soon lead the way.

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