Author Archive

Open letter to the CEO of Baltimore City Schools

Posted: March 23, 2017 by teachkirsch in Uncategorized

Good morning Dr. Santelises,

I hope this finds you well. I teach 12th grade English at Patterson High School. When you were CAO, I deeply appreciated your commitment to academic excellence and rigor. In your brief tenure as CEO, I have seen that several of your initiatives make more sense academically than some initiatives I have seen in my 11 years with BCPSS.

However, the trend this year to close the grading window on the date the quarter ends is antithetical to rigor and high standards.

My students are writing 2-4 page research papers on Hamlet. In order for me to grade these carefully, I need more than an hour and a half, which is the time I have between the end of Quarter 3 and the close of the grade posting window. If I make the essays due before the quarter ends, I don’t have the authentic deadline of the quarter’s end to enforce the reality of deadlines. Moreover, if I make the paper due before the end of the quarter, I have to waste several instructional days with “filler” work that won’t take very long to grade.

Please extend the posting windows to give teachers at least a full weekend after the end of each quarter to carefully grade our students’ work.


Iris Kirsch


The Battle of Mondawmin

Posted: May 4, 2015 by teachkirsch in Uncategorized

We will post some thoughts on this whole situation from room 201 itself this week, but I thought I’d add this important piece of truthtelling to the conversation.

The Baltimore Eclipse

Caution: this post contains some graphic images & videos of organized police violence against black youth.

Most of the injuries, arrests, looting, arson, and property destruction occurring during the so-called Baltimore Riots took place (so far) on the night of Monday, April 27. They followed a confrontation between heavily armed police and school-age children which took place at Mondawmin Mall, starting at 3PM. This event should be considered a critical moment in the unfolding of the “Riots” because it marked the beginning of organized police action and was narratively linked to the wave of mayhem which moved, from 3PM to midnight, along North Avenue, and south-eastward down Pennsylvania Avenue. With blame still flowing freely in the commentary on this incident, it is crucial to understand how things began. Juvenile delinquency? Political rage? Police provocation? Where is the evidence? Who else played a role? We know that the citizens of Baltimore are justifiably angry, and…

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This did not come out of Room 201. Kate Drabinski is a local professor. But I think this is an important time to hear some truth about this situation.

What I Saw Riding My Bike Around Today

Cops in Riot Gear at Mondawmin Mall at Liberty Heights and Reisterstown RoadHere’s what I saw on my bike today. I saw my dentist in Waverly, people waiting for the bus at 33rd, the quick shift of neighborhoods from Greenmount to Barclay to Guilford, Calvert, and St. Paul. I saw the last round of flower trees by the art museum and Hopkins, and the bright greens of Gwynns Falls. I saw some guys playing basketball in Druid Hill Park, and three joggers making their way around the reservoir. I followed the sound of the police helicopter around the park, past the conservatory, and up to Liberty Heights Avenue where I took a left.

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March Madness usually means Basketball, but what’s making teachers in Baltimore crazy this month is SLOs!

SLOs, or Student Learning Objectives are the new, softer way to attempt to quantify what happens in classrooms. The idea is relatively simple: set some goals for what you want your students to learn, and then see if they’ve met them.

As with most of what is proposed in education, the basic idea is good. But it’s also far more complicated than it seems. My wonderful former principal, Karen Lawrence used to say “we’re not making cars here, these are human beings.” It’s easy to see if you’ve welded the car door on correctly. It’s much harder to tell if a young person has been well educated.

Now to the actual business of the SLO. The idea is that each teacher selects one goal we have for our students for the year, measures student ability at the beginning of the year, sets specific targets for how much students will improve over the course of the year, and then measures what students know by the end of the year.

Even if that system worked perfectly, we’d have the obvious problem of teaching “to the SLO” rather than “to the test.” But this is Baltimore City Public Schools, so we don’t have to worry about any problems that can only arise if the system works perfectly.

Last year was the first time SLOs were implemented in Baltimore, but mid-year it was decided that our scores would not count towards our evaluations, so it was something of a practice run. Then, at the end of last school year, the School Board decided to change the rating scale by which they rate our performance. This is convoluted to explain, so I’ll let you read more here if you’re interested. Similarly, I’ll send you here for an overview of our merit-pay contract, and suffice to tell you that the last-minute changes made by the school board cost many teachers significant raises. The Baltimore Teacher’s Union’s negotiating committee filed a grievance on our behalf. This allowed the school board to tell us nothing about how evaluations would be calculated this year, because they claimed they could not tell us anything until the grievance was settled.

So all this year, teachers in Baltimore have known that our pay would be linked to our evaluations, but have not known what our evaluations would be based on. When we grade our students, we’re expected to use rubrics with which the students are familiar. Yet we do not get the same courtesy.

In mid-January I started to hear a rumble that SLOs were coming. Eyebrows were raised around town: how could something that was supposed to be a year-long process be implemented half way through the year? But we were in for an even bigger surprise. The final data, demonstrating student learning, had to be collected and reported before the end of March! So somehow, teachers were supposed to write SLOs in February, submit them by February 26th, get them approved by administrators by March 9th, and still collect the END data by March 31st.

Even if we had no snowdays during that time period, and even if every school in the district weren’t implementing Common Core aligned PARCC testing for the first time ever during that same time, this would be a charade. Rating teachers based on what we can impart on our students in a month? Come on! It feels like we’ve been written into a bad movie against our will. The next few months will tell if it’s a comedy or a tragedy.

In which I will argue that it is impossible to tell how much of what a teenager knows is attributable to any one teacher, or even one year of schooling.

The buzz right now is about teacher accountability. So here’s a quick and dirty comparison of two students. What do you think? How should we hold their teachers accountable?

When I was a kid, my parents made my brother and I do math any time we went out to eat. Granted, that wasn’t that often, but every week or two we’d be handed a check with a long tabulation of numbers and be told they wouldn’t pay until we had checked the restaurant’s addition. Not to mention the fact that my mom is a math teacher, and my friends would often come to my house to do our math homework together so that she could answer any questions we had. So when I did well in high school math, was that because I had learned a lot that year, or because I had a rock-solid foundation in math from my parents? Should my teacher be congratulated on my high scores, or censured for not pushing me into calculus?

Flip side: one of my dear friends is hopeless at math. We’re in our mid-thirties and he still asks me to check over simple arithmetic for him (if he doesn’t have access to a calculator, that is). His parents are good, loving people. They told him school was important and sat with him while he did his homework whenever they could. But neither of them uses much math at work, so they couldn’t help him much when he didn’t understand. And from the time he was in 3rd grade until he was in 7th grade, they both worked in the evenings, so he came home to a grandmother who spoke mostly Dutch and had not had much formal schooling. So if, in high school math, he learned a little more than he knew but was still woefully behind his peers, should the teacher be congratulated for moving him along or censured for his imperfect understanding?


Posted: March 7, 2015 by teachkirsch in Uncategorized
A view from rm201

A view from rm201

Come into rm 201. It’s a little messy.  Have a seat at one of these comically small desks, where you can hardly open your book, let alone your mind. Is there a book already on your desk? Pick it up and feel it. Smell it. Read a few lines.

In fact, why don’t you read it to me? Or I’ll read it to you. We can talk about ideas, quotes, events. You ask your questions. I’ll ask mine. Next week we’ll ask each others’.

We can learn a lot by writing. We can learn about ourselves, about books, about each other. In this room, we help each other become better writers. We’re not afraid of rough drafts, or revisions, or even The Editing Process, because we know that all of the great writing we read has gone through the same basic steps–that nothing comes out sounding perfect. We’re not afraid of tough questions, because we know that no answers are absolute– that there’s always room for debate. We know that writing is a journey of discovery. We’ve decided to share some of our writing here, on a variety of topics, because we want to open our discovery process. We want to understand, and to share the understandings we have gained.

At some point, the bell will ring. There will be other places to go. But you’re always welcome back to rm 201.