An Ode to Imperfection

Sometimes my imperfections get to me.

I nervously wipe the mud from around my 2 year old daughter’s face under the scrutinizing eye of another more well-kept mother.

I muse loudly about the state of my boys’ clothes, “I have no idea how you got them so filthy.”

I make a mental note to buy some new pants (or more likely find the next size bin of hand-me-downs), when I notice on the run that a pair has become too short.

I remark how pretty the bow or barrette is in the hair of other people’s little girls, while glancing self-consciously at my own little girl’s wild mane of frizzy curls dotted with bits of leaves and grass or colored with paint.

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Most of the time, I feel confident in our decision to homeschool, to get dirty, to learn beyond the confines of the classroom, and to live differently than most around me. Most of the time, I believe in the value of unstructured play and the power of just being outside and using what the Earth has to give as toys.

Most of the time I feel okay that my own hair is frizzy, my jeans torn, my face untouched by makeup for weeks and sometimes months at a time. Most of the time I can take people’s reaction to my family with pride. Yes they are all mine. Yes I am with them all day long. Yes I teach them too. Yes it is as crazy as it sounds, but also wonderful too (and stressful too).

But sometimes, I feel self-conscious. I feel jealous. I feel unsure of myself and the path that I have taken. I panic that maybe I haven’t been using a rigorous enough curriculum in math or that my kids are not better off with me than at school. I wonder if one day I will regret not taking the time to buy my baby girl beautiful dresses and brush her hair into pigtails of perfect banana curls.

Sometimes I just want to give up, run away, take a nap or do something other than this. Sometimes, if I am brutally honest with myself, I find that I judge others even as my mind is accusing them of judging me.

Most of the time all of us are imprefect. Sometimes we just need to remember exactly that and love each other (and ourselves) and our imperfections all the same.

 

 

 

“Hands On”

Hands on learning has been a buzz word as long as I have been in education.

Most educators sing its praises, though I know a few die-hard traditionalists that think way too much time is wasted on making learning “fun” and students need to just sit down, shut up and learn. I get that too. A little bit more of that would go a long way.

Just to learn your multiplication facts. Just to be able to diagram a sentence or spell basic words or know Greek and Latin roots even. Just to know the scientific method or the names of the 50 states.

With the emphasis on engaging students, teachers sometimes can feel like court jesters desperately performing to win the attention and praise of students, colleagues, supervisors and even themselves. Perhaps the onus has shifted too far away from the students thereby causing a deficit of responsibility, engagement, and creativity in spite of, or even because of, the brilliance of the show that so many teachers put on everyday in their classrooms.

Part of my resilience to the technology movement in schools stems from this idea of the students in a passive role. As testing has become a central, guiding (sometimes choking) force, technology has stepped in as a quick fix. Why wait for your students to read and take notes on a chapter? Instead the modern teacher can just show them a short video and digest the information for them in a snappy Powerpoint presentation with a corresponding note packet, and even review with a hands on game on the SMART Board.

But “hands on” means more than just having a student use their finger to drag and drop on a SMART Board screen. “Hands on” to me means so much more than an elementary student following textbook examples of base 10 models or snap cubes.

The point of hands on is to touch. To play an active role. To experience the learning. To feel. To experiment. To explore.

Take a look at your child’s textbooks, particularly at the elementary school level. You will see “Hands On Activity” every few pages. It is actually quite brilliant. It makes the textbook seem progressive and gives teachers an easy way to add collaborative work into their lesson plans, but is it really “hands on” learning? I would argue that often it isn’t more than lip service.

If the students were really doing “hands on” learning, then they would actually put their hands on more than just plastic manipulatives or computer screens. They would go where they could put their hands on real things. Teachers would fill their classrooms with interesting things for their students to put their hands on like artifacts, organisms, sticks, rocks, tools, old books with tattered yellowing pages, encyclopedias, and even people from different walks of life to share stories and shake hands.

With their hands on learning, students would be less distracted, frustrated, and disengaged. Learning is most powerful when it comes organically.

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So Sick of “Standards”

You pretty much have to live under a rock, and a really big one at that, to not have heard the term Common Core Standards.

Ok, well I have a new one for you, have you heard of the Next Generation Science Standards?

Sounds good, right?

I mean who doesn’t want to be a part of the “Next Generation”? What are the alternatives?

Time travel or death?

To be fair, I have not taken the time to really delve into the comprehensive website that has been compiled to explain the need, rationale, and support for these standards. But if you have the time, it looks like a great, albeit expensive to produce, read.

Here’s the link: http://www.nextgenscience.org/ 

Just think of all of the money the Common Core Standards cost. All of the new textbooks, materials, training, curriculum mapping, lesson planning, and resources. Not to mention all of the people paid to develop the standards, materials, and curriculum.

But even better think of all of the money that was made. What better way to  boost to our economy than completely revamping the math and ELA standards on a national level? Sure the rhetoric was lovely. Common Core would achieve lofty goals.

  • Every student held to the same standard.
  • All students would have an equal opportunity to quality education.
  • Academic rigor would dominate.
  • The tests would determine career and college readiness from grade 3.
  • Data and resources could be shared across the country.

There is a whole Common Core website rich with resources, FAQ’s and explanations on a fabulously extensive website, one that was no doubt expensive to create.

Here is the link if you are interested in learning more: http://www.corestandards.org/

But the rhetoric failed to mention how incredibly profitable the whole endeavor was to companies like Pearson, who produced the majority of the new materials and tests. In fact, it was so profitable that they decided to tackle the science standards too!

It’s hard to compile how much the shift to Common Core cost the average school district. But as our local school district spent more money on curriculum, training, and materials and made more cuts to faculty, staff, and extra curriculars…I couldn’t help but wonder.

So many of the people in charge of making and approving school budgets have no clue what they are doing. They don’t read the new standards. They don’t think about the changes. They just act or trust that their superintendents know best. And that needs to stop.

Perhaps our school budgets wouldn’t be so strapped and so many teachers wouldn’t lose their jobs or stipends, if they would stymie the race to buy everything to keep up with the ever-changing, ever-shiny new standards.

The Next Generation Science Standards website makes me sick. I can see the waterfall of dollars beginning, even as the class time for science in elementary school is being reduced. The only good that may come of this is that the tide hemorrhaging of elementary science will take a turn for the better as science tests become more important in the upper grades.

But I can’t help but suggest that the way to improve science instruction and “rigor” is not expensive at all. And it doesn’t require new standards, curriculum, training, or a ton of new, expensive resources. Technology is not a requirement either.

I am even going to explain it without the help of a fancy,expensive website and staff of writers and researchers. Just me and my little cheap blog.

That’s right.

What if the Next Generation would be better off trying to look like the previous one?

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Examining birds while waiting for a monarch tagging workshop.

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Nature’s playground

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Playing with perspective

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At the American Museum of Natural History in New York City examining dinosaurs. How many field trips have been cut over the years?

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Learning about how soap works by experimenting with milk and food coloring.

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An oldie but goodie, making a water xylophone.

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Experimenting with different types of food and the effect on the activity of yeast. After filling we put balloons on top to capture and help us measure the gas produced.

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Observing

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What goes up….

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Play is work.

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Before we left, he built a shelter out of shells to protect his favorite crab from the scavenging seagulls overhead.

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Still wondering what animal this femur (?) came from.

A decomposing skate found in Cape May. We examined it's partially detached jaw bone.

A decomposing skate found in Cape May. We examined its partially detached jaw bone.

Learning to stop and take a deep breath to appreciate beauty.

Learning to stop and take a deep breath to appreciate beauty.

That Student

He was that student.

You know the type. He talked when the teacher said quiet. He stood up when the teacher said sit down. When it was time to work, he asked to go to the bathroom. When it was time to hand in homework, his rarely if ever made it into the collection pile.

On the bright side, he had a winning smile. He could make the teacher laugh on those days she wasn’t driven to want to cry. He had some great insights when novels were discussed, though he was loathe to write them down.

The difference was that his English teacher one year had just arrived at that suburban school from teaching in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the country. She didn’t buy his tough guy talk that he was from the “ghetto”, for she had seen the ghetto and that town didn’t have one. His shenanigans didn’t even shake her, for she had come from places where kids fought and cursed and came to school fueled with the kind of anger that drove third graders to throw over desks…sometimes at her.

When he brought a book to class to read, he claimed it was a great story. She recognized it as a piece of adult urban erotica she had seen in other places. She brought it to the teachers’ room and a colleague commented, “Well I bet that’s all your kids in Newark read, right?” His joke wasn’t funny. And it wasn’t funny when she asked the guidance counselor to schedule a meeting, and she said his mother probably wouldn’t come anyway. And it wasn’t funny when she did come and showed no parenting skills at all.

He was that student.

Back in 7th grade that year, he was crying out for help and probably had been for years. He couldn’t read well. He acted up to cover up for it, like so many other kids like him.

But back then he was just a pain in the neck to his teachers. It wasn’t until high school that he started really disrupting classes and making his teachers cry out to the administrators to “do something” with the kid.

An administrator had the sense and heart to go back and ask that 7th grade teacher what she had done to reach him. How had she handled his behavior? What advice could she give?

What could she say? Sure she remembered him. She remembered all of her students.

The one who she walked home from school down the dangerous drug-infested streets of Baltimore to tell her parents about her disrespectful, disruptive behavior. They didn’t have a phone and she couldn’t bear to have her ruin another day. The one whose father answered the door strung out on drugs and offered to beat her right there in the street.

The one who was 14 years old with a mustache in the 6th grade. The one whose father abused him and called him stupid. The one who was a gang member and whose mother admitted to being one too. The one who had rival gang members try to break into her classroom to jump him, while she was teaching. The one who she would walk the streets on her lunch break to find and convince to come back to school. The one who came back to hug her when he heard she was moving, despite getting expelled days before she would get approval for skipping him ahead to the high school based on a portfolio she worked with him to create. An approval that was revoked when he set off fireworks in a school hallway.

The one on her basketball team who was barred from playing because the switchblade she carried to protect herself, on her ride home in the dark on the subway, fell out of her backpack in math class. The one who cried that basketball was her life and that she would never hurt anyone unless she had to.

What could she have said that would have saved him? What could have been done so that a few short years later she didn’t read his name in a police report, telling he was accused of drug distribution to a minor and the illegal possession of a weapon.

The drugs that are choking our society will never go away, if schools don’t step up and start trying to reach those kids. Teachers like her are flailing. pressured to show achievement in a system that is failing so many.

That student was failed by us all, even the teacher who cared so much.

She should have kept pushing. We all should.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.

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Children Will Learn What We Teach Them

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

-Albert Einstein

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

-Maya Angelou

I know, without a doubt, that years after being in my class that my students don’t remember the themes of the novels I so diligently taught. They don’t remember the exact words of the comments I wrote obsessively in purple pen all over their essays. But I know they remember feeling like my class was more than just reading and writing some words.

Standards.

Objectives.

Assessments

Data.

Evaluations.

Education in this country has become obsessed with trying to quantify learning. But learning is not an a+b=c kind of endeavor. The answer is not a formula to be derived.

The PARCC test has been heralded as being able to determine if a child is on the track to career and college readiness in as early as the third grade. This test, though abandoned by many states, is driving education in the state of NJ and a few other states late to the discovery that it is actually a poorly designed assessment.

Elementary curriculum continues to be narrowed (since NCLB) to focus solely on reading and math. Math is being narrowed to focus on one methodology of teaching (whether it is right or wrong is not the point). Reading is being narrowed by a focus on informational texts (despite cuts to time spent on history and science) and by an obsession with technology (to simulate the test, students are assigned keyboarding practice and shown video clips daily in lieu of being read to by their teachers).

These shifts may seem minor to the untrained eye, or even a sign of the times where the digital age now rules. But, this cannot be further from the truth.

If all we teach our children in school is to do math a specific way, read certain types of texts and answer certain types of questions, and a handful of technology “skills” like drag and drop, scroll and how to type quickly, then that is what our children will learn. If we drill these things hard enough and long enough, then test them on it….they will pass with flying colors. The problem is that we will be patting ourselves on the back with the same hand that has robbed a generation of a true education.

Training is not education.

Education is imitation borne of admiration.

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Education is exploration.

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Kids doing archaeology in the backyard to find buried objects.

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Kids exploring the Metropolitan Museum of Art after learning about Ancient Egypt.

Education is experience and explanation.

Kids learning about irrigation from a friend who is a farmer.

Kids learning about irrigation from a friend who is a farmer.

Learning about evolution from his Daddy.

Learning about evolution from his Daddy, who is a physician.

Education is hands-on and often messy.

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Education is best shared with a smile.

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When we teach children, we are teaching much more than how to read or write or compute.

We are teaching them how to think, to live, and to love…

Or else we are teaching them not to.

We Are All Individuals

The world gets dangerous when we start to think about people in terms of generalizations rather than individuals.

My father once told me that if you had told him as a teenager that one day he would marry a white woman, he would have told you that you were out of your mind.

Then look at how happy his love for a “white woman” made him.

My father once told me a story about something that happened to him and my mother in the mid 1970s just before I was born.

My parents were driving home from somewhere in the early evening. Not quite dark yet, but getting there I believe. My dad turned to my mom and said, “I think those ladies behind us are following us.” My mom didn’t believe him and said he was just being paranoid. But as they kept driving, it became evident that there were two “old ladies” following them.

My father turned down a few side streets and the car followed. So he turned into a gas station and they followed. After a few minutes of this game of cat and mouse, my mom said, “I am tired; let’s just go home.” So they drove home forgetting about the ladies.

My father sat down to watch television and my mother went upstairs to wash her face and change into her pajamas. After about 10-15 minutes, there was a knock at the door. My father went to answer it, and on the front porch stood a police officer. The police officer began questioning my Dad. Had he recently driven his car anywhere? Where had he gone? How long had he been home?

Finally, my father said, “Officer, is there a problem? It is late, and I would like to go to bed.” Finally the officer asked, “Was there a white woman with you in the car?” My Dad, an elementary school physical education teacher (not that that really should matter here) turned and yelled up the stairs, “Paula, would you please come down here.”

My mother joined him at the front door and my father put his arm around her and said, “Officer, this white woman is my wife.”

It is hard for many to imagine that a black man just driving in a car with a white woman can be suspicious to some people. Our media and society tell us repeatedly that racism is a thing of the past, but the reality is that it thrives now probably stronger than ever.

Does that mean that #blacklivesmatter is an essential and productive rallying cry? Or that whites need to be schooled in the pitfalls of #whiteprivilege?

No. I don’t think hashtags have anything to do with it.

The hate will stop when we start seeing people as individuals, not as a race, a religion, a socioeconomic status, a gender, a sexuality, or even a profession.

The notion that police officers are power-hungry racist pigs is just as damaging to our collective psyche as racial slurs. These days there is so little respect and reverence given to those in what were once considered prestigious positions: police officers, teachers, doctors, and even the president. Just as so little respect is given to young black men in particular as the world seems to approach them as guilty until proven innocent.

Why?

Why did we as a society let a few bad apples spoil the bunch when it comes to these generalizations?

Why are we raising children to think that most police officers are not driven to protect and serve, that teachers are only in it for the pension and summers off, that the internet knows better than most doctors, and that most presidents are figureheads that only push corporate agendas?

There’s more to life and more to people than these generalizations.

Most terrifying to me is that police officers now have to walk with the added fear that much of the public they serve is skeptical at best.  But if you turn off the television, radio, and computers and just look around, you will find goodness in these people, in all people even.

I was so deeply moved looking at the photographs again from that horrific moment in American History: September 11, 2001. But this time, after 14 years, I was most captured by the first responders. I saw a photograph of a member of the NYPD comforting a bleeding ash-covered woman. His care and concern amidst the chaos was so beautiful.

We, as a country, continue to heal from the September 11 attacks and from the train of questionable police killings. Yet it is important to remember that as we work to root out police officers, who do not deserve the uniform that they wear, that there are far more police officers that serve with pride and deserve our respect for the sacrifices they make for others.

I want to thank Sergeant Tim Devine from the Linwood Police department in Linwood, NJ for giving my four children the royal treatment this week during a tour that I scheduled just for my four children, whom I now homeschool. Sgt. Devine and the other members of the Linwood police did not blink an eye showing a 2,4,6, and 8-year-old the fingerprinting machine, offices, holding cell, and even a very dangerous reindeer Christmas decoration rescued from the town bike path.

He popped his hat on the kids and let them sit in the police cruiser, while I took photos. They didn’t just see the radar gun, but got the chance to use it to clock the speed of an officer who drove in a circle 6-8 times to give everyone a turn, including me. The kids went home with a smile and a copy of their fingerprints to boot!

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I don’t write this to belittle the cases of Eric Garner,Freddie Gray or Michael Brown or any other black man or woman treated unjustly by police officers. (Everyone deserves just treatment under the law.)

I write this as a reminder that we are all individuals.

Maybe too if we stopped scaring our urban youth straight as teenagers and showed them this kind of care and attention at a young age…things could be different…for everyone.

Career and College Ready?

From the first moment I heard the catchphrase “career and college ready”, it bothered me, though I couldn’t easily put my finger on why.  The notion that school is a place to prepare students for life beyond school is certainly not revolutionary.

We teach children how to add and subtract so that one day they can work a cash register or balance their checkbooks. We teach children how to read so that they can fill out applications and follow written instructions or directions. We teach children about the world around them so that they can understand how things work and why people act the way that they do.

The now of education is inextricable from the later. Right?

Well, consider this quote:

“Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” -John Dewey

Perhaps, in focusing so much on preparing them for later, education has missed the boat in capitalizing on the now of the process of learning. Setting benchmarks and piling on assessments to make certain that children are on a track that will guarantee success might actually be derailing students from ever reaching that success.

If we teach children to enjoy learning, the process of it (the reading, the computing, the exploring, the writing, the thinking, the creating, the debating) they will learn more than if we teach children to be focused on the measurable results of learning. If we excite children about the act of learning, the pursuit of knowledge will become a self-propelled race rather than a proscribed march through pre-determined checkpoints.

Ask a college professor or an employer, what makes a great student or employee.

I am certain that they will not answer with a list of skills and knowledge, but rather a type of character.

Successful people excel in careers and college because they can think, they like to think, and they have within them the desire and fire to achieve.

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The kids completing observation journals after a nature walk at Huber Woods. Ages 3,5, and 7 learning together.