Support David, Slay Goliath

Americans love underdogs.

Underdogs are more American than an apple pie playing baseball on the 4th of July.

Underdogs founded this country. Underdogs won the fight to end slavery. Underdogs won the right to vote for women and for African-Americans. Underdogs are winning the battle for the right to gay marriage and adoption. Underdogs are fighting to change education reforms.

And let’s face it, underdogs make great protagonists in movies. Rocky, The Karate Kid, Hoosiers, Rudy, Hoop Dreams, Million Dollar Baby, Good Will Hunting, The Pursuit of Happyness, Slumdog Millionaire, and the list goes on and on. Americans can’t get enough of the little guy usurping “the man.”

Then why, in our day-to-day lives, do so many of us allow ourselves to excuse our complacency or refusal to act by pointing our finger at some form of “The Man” who is keeping us down.

“The Man” is the man of many faces, shape-shifting to keep individuals feeling powerless. “The Man” can be anything that stops individuals from acting such as state mandates, politics, administration, money, racism, corporations, or the law. But the truth is that none of these things are insurmountable by individuals. They were constructed by individuals, and they can be razed by individuals.

State mandates can be fought and revoked or altered.

Politicians can lose elections or individuals can run for office.

Administration can be persuaded or fired.

Money can be raised.

Racism can be fought with tolerance and love.

Corporations can lose money or go out of business, if their market dries up.

Laws can be amended.

Nothing is set in stone, but if it appears to be, even stone can be cracked by an individual. If you do not have the power, time, or knowledge to act, find ways to support those individuals who do.Those who fight back and dream big need that support after all, they aren’t superheroes.

Nothing is out of our hands until we let go. But you must support David or Goliath will never be slayed.

IMG_1592

On Top of the World

20150101_143039

Kids should feel like they are mighty.

Like the world belongs to them.

Like they can conquer anything….maybe even a fire-breathing dragon.

Kids should be free.

Free to explore.

Free to get dirty.

Free to make mistakes.

Adults (and let’s face it advertising) have created a world where stress easily rules families and in turn our children.

Stress about how clean our house is. Stress about owning the perfect car, house, or clothes. Stress about our landscaping. Stress about sports. Stress about development and grades. Stress about safety from car seats to child molesters. Stress about nutrition from bottles or breastmilk to organic or fast food. Stress about limiting screen time. Stress about prepping your child for the tests. Stress about yelling too much and stress about being to lenient. Stress about working too much and stress about earning too little.

Stress.

Stress.

Stress.

We even stress about stress and how it affects us, our health and our children.

But what if we let it go. Just for a minute, an hour, a day, a week, or maybe eventually a year or forever. Just let go of all of the expectations for ourselves and our children and just let them be.

Let them climb something a little too high. Let them stay out a little too long. Let the dishes sit unwashed or the bathrooms unbleached.Let their homework go unfinished. Let them yell a little too loud and run a little too fast. Let them wrestle. Let them watch television all day. Let them cook you dinner and make a mess. Let them dress themselves in ridiculous clothes and parade down the street. Let them be silly. Let them do nothing at all.

Let your phone go to voicemail and the text messages pile up and just watch them be kings (or queens). Let them feel like they rule the world.

And you just might feel like you do too.

No One Ever Promised

IMG_0088

My hand.

My father’s hand.

My baby son’s foot.

My father’s eyes locked on my baby son’s eyes.

My face in the gentle expression of a mother and a daughter all at once.

My father wouldn’t live much past that day, a few weeks or so, but no one knew that in that moment. Just as we couldn’t tell the future, many trusted to care for him could not see his past. They saw a sick man, maybe even a dying man, but not the life that he had lived for 70 years. They couldn’t see the vitality hidden deep within that hospital gown, the life that pushed air in and out of that  tracheostomy tube.

This was my father, a proud grandpa, just 2 years earlier with my second son.

dadsim

Life is funny how it can be taken for granted one moment then taken the next. Yet, no matter how closely death happens around us, we still can’t help but forget how precarious life is. Perhaps it is woven into the fabric of the nature of survival itself.

But it is worth it to try. To try to appreciate the time we have with our loved ones right now when they are being funny and sweet or ornery and frustrating. Because, life deals the good with the bad. Life finds the ultimate balance in death.

I wrote this poem for his prayer card and I carry it with me as a reminder to not just appreciate life but to appreciate those who are living it with me.

No one ever promised you tomorrow

So I will carry a heart full of yesterdays

To help me live and love each blessed day

Let the moments and pictures hold the sorrow at bay

So I can carry you with me

So with me you will stay.

When They Grow Up

From a young age, children are asked what they want to be when they grow up. The answers are rarely based in knowledge of the economic times, income potential, or the current or projected job market. The answers come from their heart and imagination.

A firefighter.

An astronaut.

A doctor.

A garbage man.

An animal doctor (or veterinarian for the precocious).

A dancer.

A basketball player.

A chef.

A singer.

A pilot.

The adult who asks usually listens with a smile and offers a word or two of praise or encouragement, but rarely do they stop and ask themselves the same thing. Or if they do, they are not nearly as apt to consult their heart or imagination.

This divide between a child’s world and an adult’s world may seem to be the difference between an imagined world and the real one, but this is not true. The world seen through a child’s eyes is the same world that adults see, there is simply just less obstructing their view.

Many teachers and parents who spend an exorbitant amount of time with children realize that their status as “in charge” has more to do with safety than anything. Children almost always have more to teach us than we them. Children almost always see more than we do or look at things differently with fresh eyes.

When education ignores these truths, bad things happen.Children can become frustrated, disengage, or engage in power struggles. They do not have the words to express how they are feeling and are praised when they obey and punished when they do not. Children are being trained to ignore their hearts and imaginations at a young age.

Many schools are racing to catch up with the new standards of achievement that have recently been set. These schools and the administrators that run them are armed with rhetoric to guard against any criticism that they should slow down and look at the repercussions of the rushed reforms. Perhaps more children will read early or acquire math skills at an accelerated pace, but these are measurable gains that do not show the whole picture. There is no spreadsheet of data to show what is being lost.

On the other hand, there are other schools that see the damage being done. They try their best to work around these reforms and shaking their heads during conversations about the direction that education is heading. There are teachers who try to make test prep fun and salvage as much of the dwindling classroom time as they can for more engaging projects and lessons. Still others are thankful that they do not teach a tested grade or subject (yet). There are administrators that must bite their tongues and hope that the pendulum swings sooner than later. Even a few administrators have been bold enough to speak out.

How can we turn the tide, and support these schools that feel like they want to put the breaks on this runaway train?

If not…

One day when you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, they will reply with a test score.

IMG_0544

Bittersweet Birthdays

Birthdays are bittersweet reminders of ….

…who we are.

…who we were.

…who we want to be.

Birthdays are bittersweet reminders of…

….time that has passed.

…time that is left.

Birthdays are beautiful reminders of the human experience that we all share. No matter who we are, birthdays come and keep coming, marking out increments of our short time here on Earth.

Perhaps all of the attention that we lavish on our children on their special day has something to do with our own sense of time. We can hardly believe that our babies are turning 1 or 10 or 18, or 35 or even 50…for in our eyes they are exactly that: our babies.

But in the glow of those candles and in the soft silence of that inhale before they are blown out, we should pause in the light and celebrate life.

Life will be bitter. Life will be sweet.

No matter what you wish for.

IMG_3676

Hands On Science Not Keyboards

20141115_150926

“Outside In” a permanent hands on children’s exhibit at The Academy of Natural Science of Drexel University

When I hear anyone say that computer skills are necessary in life, so we must prepare our children early….I cringe.

There is not a computer program that exists now or that will EVER be created that will trump the kind of learning that happens in the real world. Children need to touch to understand. Sure the computer is a great resource for research and it supports discovery, but let’s get it straight that a YouTube video is a poor replacement for experience.

We are members of the The Academy of Natural Science of Drexel University pictured above. Every time I set foot in that room (only a small portion is pictured above), I think, “This is what schools should look like.” The wood floors are clean and attractive as is the wall color and design. Books are a centerpiece not an afterthought. Technology is hands on and supports inquiry-based learning, rather than testing objectives. (My husband is helping the kids examine various objects under a microscope that is hooked up to a television display.)

A few parents I have chatted with in the past few weeks have mentioned to me that they thought about refusing the PARCC test, but decided that it is good practice. In fact, many administrators have taken to saying this to parents in one-on-one conferences to discourage opt outs. Pearson is slated to take over the SAT and the ACT, so why not get our kids ready now?

I wanted to scream.

School should not be about getting kids ready for a test….any test….not even the SAT or ACT. For with a solid education, any student can read a test prep book or take a prep class in their junior year and score well. (Heck, I managed a respectable score without doing either of those things.)  A solid education is what will prepare our children for life and above that a love of learning will take them even farther.

Recently, I organized a Science Fair at my sons’ elementary school. It was hard work, but I had run them before and knew the payoff was worth every bit of effort. But what struck me the most was the contrast between the type of thinking and writing my kindergartener and second grader were doing while working on their projects compared to the majority of the homework and the worksheets that come home completed from school. (Granted that as a teacher I know that most of their best writing is saved at school for portfolios, which is another issue I will tackle one day.)

11179978_10206651204183293_567683790920144986_n

10523320_10206651201823234_457009329931621605_n

11070601_10206651206023339_7378980987900455235_n

My second grader’s teacher was quick to say, “Of course,” when I asked that he hand in his reading comprehension packet on Monday instead of Friday, because he was working on his project. Even though she assigned the packet, the fact that the work we were doing was more valuable was a given to her. So, if teachers know what quality work looks like, why should they feel forced into assigning work that falls so short of enriching, student-centered education?

If the goal is to prepare kids for tests, I still contend that the best way is inquiry-based learning not typing practice or SMART Board games and videos or endless skills-based worksheets and computer programs.

We as parents need to demand this, because I know for a fact that the overwhelming majority teachers would support spending more time planning guided inquiry assignments than wasting time on test prep activities and racing to ensure that all of the tested skills are covered in time.

And if we demand and the powers that be comply (Ha!), you can call me if your kid bombs the SAT or ACT and hold me accountable!

What I See Is Not What They See

20150313_122637

When we first send our children to school, many go with trepidation.

Looking back at us for reassurance that it is going to be okay.

For years, we were their protectors, their compass, their rock in this big, big world.

We are certain that this is the right thing to do. A rite of passage if you will.

We wave. We shed a tear, or two thousand, and then go on about our day, wondering aloud to anyone who will listen, “Where does the time go?”  And each day, each week, each year, it gets easier. School becomes another part of the routine. We pack the lunches, check the homework, and hang their artwork and spelling tests on the refrigerator.  We mark the special events on the calendar, flipping the pages as the year goes by.

But what happens when school stops being what you imagined when you first waved goodbye? What if your compass is pointing a different way? What if slowly but surely pieces of that light you hoped would fill your child with the love of learning slowly but surely became eclipsed by shadow.

Would you keep sending your child down that path?

We are our children’s protectors, their compass, their rock.

We must demand the light.

The powers that are at work controlling our schools from above don’t see children the way that we do. They are not precious to them. They are not the pride and joy that we know them to be. To them, our children’s education is a spreadsheet of numbers rather than a sea of beautiful faces. It is a profit margin, a political platform, a marketing plan.

When we send out children to school, we must do so with trepidation. For education is no longer controlled by the teachers and principals that know our children as we do….as individuals traveling the most important path of their lives.

E

Let Me Tell You A Little Something About Sacrifice

Today I traveled 45 minutes to Camden County Community College to testify before the State Commission on the Use of Assessments in NJ headed by the State Commissioner of Education David Hespe.

I left my house at 8:15 am and just walked in the door at 2:15 pm to one casualty of this war I have been fighting against the implementation of the PARCC test.

Exhibit A: My Kitchen Counter

20150219_141407

I took this picture when I walked in the door at 2:15 pm from Camden. I have until the bus comes at 3:40 to write.

This picture of just one area of my kitchen, is a microcosm of my struggle to continue to be the best mom to my children that I can be, while I advocate for change in education. The wine I drowned my nerves in last night, the last board book I read to my daughter, a full yet abandoned lunchbox from my son who stayed home sick today, a baby bottle empty except some curdled drops, multiple coffee cups, saline nasal spray, washed dishes, unwashed dishes, a glove without a match, and even an unopened mushroom growing kit.

So many people have remarked, “I don’t know how you do it!”  They mean raise 4 kids and have time for anything else. Well the path that I have chosen may be noble, but it sure ain’t pretty (see Exhibit A).

I started working on writing my testimony only a couple of days ago, after much procrastination and deliberation. Finding time was nearly impossible. Our two big kids had a 4 day weekend that became 5 days with a snow day. Then a pipe burst yesterday in our old house that we were in negotiations to sell to a very interested buyer (who knows how they feel about our house now that the whole kitchen is in pieces). Our kindergartner woke up with croup this morning, and it didn’t look likely that I would make it to Camden, but my gut insisted that I find a way.

So my darling husband, against his better judgment packed up my (sick) 5-year-old, 4-year-old, and 16-month old and drove the whole crew an hour and 15 minutes to survey the damage in the old house and talk to a contractor. After dropping off my oldest at school at 8:15 am, I was feeling guilty and almost drove straight home, but instead I kept going to Camden.

What is my point?

My point is that people like me make it look easy. It looks like I have it all together. Many of my friends jokingly call me supermom, but really I have no magical powers. My kitchen surely attests to that. The truth is that being involved, reading, writing, and advocating for change looks romantic, but it is hard.

I hardly ever get to read books (my most favorite thing to do in the world) or watch television. Keeping up with the laundry for this family of 6 is impossible. The dishes to wash are endless. Groceries vanish faster than I can buy them. The toys are all over the floor and there are a million papers stuffed into drawers and heaped into piles. I don’t have a cleaning service or even a babysitter (except my in-laws who pitch in once a week or so travelling from 75 minutes away).

So when I post my testimony from today, I want you to remember that first and foremost that I am a mom. A mom who has a million responsibilities and a never-ending to do list that goes on for days. I am also a human being with fears and insecurities. I may have spoken today with confidence and passion, yet  I have been too intimidated to hand out business cards at my sons’ school during pick-up or drop-off to promote this blog that has become so dear to me.

I look at the numbers of people who are reading, and I am encouraged. I try not to get caught up in how few people share my posts or comment (whether publicly or privately). I force myself to smile and appreciate even the smallest of victories. And when I need motivation, I look at my children.

I would much rather help sculpt a better world for them than agonize over the fact that I have lost my kitchen counter once again.

Thank you to all of those who came out today to speak in Camden, and to all of those who were there in spirit. I am proud to be fighting alongside so many great minds and passionate activists. It is a shame that Commissioner Hespe left at the beak for lunch and did not give all of the speakers today the respect that they deserved. He should have at the very least offered his apologies.

Dear Star Ledger Editorial Board, Dial Yourselves Down

For many years, I did not read the newspaper. I was busy balancing a teaching career and a new, growing family. All a newspaper subscription was to me was more stuff that I had to squeeze into our overflowing recycling can.

I am also stubborn and literally pay for nothing that I read or do online. No iTunes. (I use free Pandora, ads and all.) No extra lives or power-ups on Candy Crush. No book downloads unless they are free, which is part of the reason why I am reading Oliver Twist. No online news subscriptions. Okay fine, we do pay for Netflix, but I feel like that doesn’t count since we have been members since the days of mailing the DVD’s back in those little red envelopes.

But in October we moved to a town in a different county in NJ, and I wanted to get to know our new area. I ordered daily delivery and at least skim the Atlantic City Press every day.  Overall, I find it a great way to get to know local politics, businesses, and events. However, the more I get involved in education reform, the more I become infuriated with the lack of balance in reporting both locally and across the state. Few reporters ever question those they interview with any questions that challenge their views or politics. Therefore, the media becomes a platform that allows them to stand upon and control the message that reaches the public. This is exactly how Education Commissioner David Hespe got away with spreading his pro-PARCC message just days after he walked out in the middle of a public hearing.

The last straw for me though was an editorial published by the Star Ledger Editorial Board yesterday telling the public in reference to the “collective freakout” about the PARCC test, “Let’s try to dial it down.” Should the public really be taking advice about how to feel about education from the editorial board of a newspaper? What sort of authority or education do they have regarding education?

The editorial begins by saying, “…Of course, no kid should be forced to sit for hours and stare at a blank computer screen while other students take it.” Well, clearly the Editorial Board missed the fact that before parents started to fight back, many school districts were implementing sit and stare policies. The “of course” was not so obvious to many school administrators and school boards across the state of NJ.

Secondly, yes, it was a bit rash to call Pearson’s surveillance of social media “spying” but the hysteria that surrounded that discovery should not downplay real legitimate questions about transparency, the internet, and our children. The public has a right to know what their tax dollars are paying for, what exactly these companies are looking for and in turn doing with the information that they collect.

Finally, the most ridiculous claim of the entire editorial came late in the article.

Remember that there is a broader public purpose here, one much more important than taking pot shots at the PARCC. One of the main reasons we need this standardized test is for parents in struggling districts like Camden or Newark, who would otherwise have no way of knowing whether their kids are in a failing school.

“Pot shots”? Yes, that is why so many people traveled to Jackson and Camden to present testimony to Commissioner Hespe…to take a pot shot. That is why thousands of people refused the test for their children…to take a pot shot. That is why 500 early childhood experts signed a statement calling the Common Core Standards, upon which the PARCC test is based, developmentally inappropriate for young learners…to take a pot shot. That is why so many parents and teachers are concerned about the impact on learning time the PARCC creates by requiring two full testing periods a month apart….to take a pot shot.

But the lowest of the low is the assumption that the poorest communities of NJ desperately need the  PARCC test, because without it they can’t figure out that their kids are failing.

WHAT?!

Seriously, has anyone on the Star Ledger Editorial Board ever been to Newark or Camden? I would love to take a field trip to one of these cities with the Editorial Board. I would ask them to find one single parent that has no idea that their kid is failing or that more importantly that their schools are failing their kids. All they hear is about failure. They know the graduation rate is low. They know the incarceration rate is high. They know that crime, violence, and drugs threaten their children at every turn. They know that their schools are nothing like the schools that their Governor went to in Livingston, NJ. Every test has come back that the schools in these areas are riddled with failure and the PARCC test will be no different.

These communities do not need a test. They need learning. They need their schools to be safer. They need to use funding for quality, engaging curriculum and support services rather than meeting the expensive demands that an online test puts on the budget through technology and training requirements. They need lessons that inspire students rather than prep them for tests. They need gardens, playgrounds, field trips, science experiments, and after school clubs and sports. They need mentors. They need love, patience, and an understanding that poverty is a real influence on education and can not be cured by a test.

The Star Ledger Editorial Board has some of their own improving to do. Maybe they should ask Pearson to design a test for editorial boards so that maybe they can look around and see that they are not doing anyone any good by writing editorials like this.

In My Crazy Mind

Let me start with a true story (at least as true as I remember).

When I was about 10 years old, my family went to Sea World. I was quite the animal lover, and seals were my favorite. We bought some little sardines and threw them to the seals who barked happily. Well, even at that age, I had an overactive sense of justice. So I decided that I would save the cutest seal with the long eyelashes from being trapped in that unnatural place.

I leaned way too far over the edge, far in the corner hoping that no one would see me. I dangled the sardine, luring the seal closer to me, then tried to grab the seal by the neck at the same time. My plan was to pull it up from the tank and set it free. I am not really sure what I was going to do with a full-grown seal. I can imagine me with my puffy 80’s afro and cutoff jean shorts trying to run, dragging a barking seal. Of course I never got that far, but I still think it would have been a pretty awesome feat…at least until I got to my getaway car and realized I didn’t have the keys or know how to drive.

Okay, humor me….one more.

In 7th grade, at about age 13, my mom took us to the Ecology Site where we had been going since birth to see the animals. It’s a neat place with a wide variety of animals from bald eagles to bunnies and bears. I take my own children there to this day, when I go home to visit.

Well, that summer, the Ecology Site had a dairy cow visiting. I was a Long Island girl. I had never really had a close encounter with a light brown and white cow as beautiful and sweet as that one (or with any cow at all for that matter). I looked at her, and she looked at me with big brown eyes. It was love at first sight.

In all my teenage glory, I shrieked and cooed and proclaimed that it was the most beautiful creature in the world. (Did I mention that I have always had a penchant for drama?) Well, this went on and on and on. My mother was getting tired of my swoon fest and was ready to head home. I wasn’t having it. I wanted to stay and pet her forever. Those eyes! She even let me pet the short soft fur between her eyes. She didn’t belong at that horrible Ecology Site. She deserved to be free, I proclaimed.

Once again, I found myself concocting a plan where I could take the cow home with me. My mom had heard enough. No the cow is not that cute. No you can’t take her home. No I don’t want to hear about how cute she is again. Don’t be fooled by the fact that my mom is a kindergarten teacher. Her sarcasm is hardly elementary.

So, my mother started to walk away, and over her shoulder she nonchalantly quipped, “Yeah, well we will see how much you love that cow the next time you eat a hamburger.”

My jaw dropped. Her words hung in the air like smog, polluting my altruistic thoughts. Yet it only took me a second to retort, in full teenage rage, “I will NEVER eat meat again.”

Much to my mother’s dismay, I held true to my word. I have been a vegetarian ever since.

*                     *                        *                      *                   *                     *

Tomorrow PARCC testing starts for the 3rd and 4th graders in my sons’ school. Thankfully, my two older boys are in kindergarten and 2nd grade, so they won’t be impacted this year, for the most part. However, I have never been one to only care about my own children.

My heart has this fantasy where I just run into the school tomorrow, round-up all of the kids and lead them from their Chromebooks and the PARCC test and set them free into the field. Maybe the kids would all hold protest signs or maybe they would do science experiments or maybe write creative stories under the clouds or maybe they would just be.

Anything is possible….at least in my crazy mind.

IMG_1152