The Magic of Childhood

Discovery

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Cooperation

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Safety

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Wonder

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Adventure

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Imagination

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Love

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Sadness

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These are just some of the ingredients that make up the incredible magic of childhood. This magic is something to be revered and respected, like the power of an ancient sorcerer. It is a recipe that mere mortals cannot follow like a recipe from Pinterest. It is more than measurements and arithmetic. It has a life of its own.

When this magic is free, it is like nothing else on earth, boundless in what it can give. Far too much time is spent trying to contain it, train it, and mold it into what we adults want it to be, or think it should be.

But no, childhood is not a composite of please and thank yous and inside voices and pushed in chairs and sharing and good report cards and goals scored and homework completed and vegetables eaten before dessert is even considered.

Childhood is not a series of milestones completed and tracked on some sort of unwritten scorecard judging parents and teachers alike.

No, childhood is magic.

Period.

And we should learn to let it be and watch it color our world with joy.

Does This Make Me Happy?

Sometimes I think that life would be easier if we all realized just how easy life could be.

Recently, while browsing Facebook, which I sadly admit to doing way, way, WAY too much… I came across an article that I am sure was hand-picked for me by some combination of a genius computer algorithm and an invasion of privacy.  Whatever brought it to my eyes, I am glad that it made it there, because I needed it.

The article was about decluttering your life. Trust me when I say that if you have ever been anywhere near my house, my car, my classroom, my head….you know I have a propensity towards, well an addiction to clutter. I don’t think of it as a flaw, so much as a character trait.

Well, the line that caught me in the article said that we should pick up things one at a time and ask ourselves, “Does this make me happy?” If not, throw it out.

Imagine if we all did that for everything. Not necessarily throw everything out that doesn’t induce joy (I mean hey who screams in ecstasy at the thought of cleaning the blender, but it is kind of nice to have.)  I just mean do more of what makes us happy and less of what doesn’t. Sounds simple but is it?

I got to thinking that what makes me happy is deeply rooted in making others happy. I am a giver. I give and give and give and often forget myself. But maybe I can find more joy by very simply turning the focus from what I don’t do for myself (or don’t have time to do for myself) and instead do good for others.

Say yes more.

Compliment people more.

Support their causes.

Give them that little push they need.

Help them up.

Bake them some cookies or bring a bunch of parsley from my garden.

Tell them it will be okay.

Send them a joke or an article they might like.

Call someone to hear their voice instead of the impersonal text or even stop by!

Since I started doing this there has been a subtle yet profound shift within….and I like it.

So give it a try tomorrow and see how you do. Come back and let me know.

My oldest and I

My oldest and I

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.

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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.

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The Importance of Being “SOOPR MOM”

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The more involved I get in education reform, the deeper I get into politics and the further I see schools getting away from the best interests of children.

My son, who is in kindergarten, made this for me the other day in school. In fact nearly everyday, he comes home and pulls out a small squarish folded up piece of paper with a picture for me. It usually says, “SIMONMOM,” but he is coming along with his writing abilities. It shows how even at school, in the middle of all of the hustle and bustle, he is thinking about me.

I guess this is a perfect metaphor for why I have been relentless in fighting back against the PARCC and against people in positions of power that have clearly forgotten what it is like to be a parent of a young child. Truly education reform and the people driving it have lost touch with the wonder of childhood.

The children, for the most part, have no idea that the adults are fighting around them (except maybe those fortunate few whose parents have turned this fight into a civics lesson for them). They have no idea that when they enter their name into a computer that some company is collecting data about them that one day will turn into a profit.They have no idea that the test their teachers are proctoring was not made by those teachers, will not be graded by those teachers, and are in many cases not supported by those teachers. The very same teachers who are with them day in and day out taking care of them academically, socially, emotionally and more. They have no idea that their parents and grandparents did not have the pressures in school that are now the norm today. They have no idea that there may very well be a better way to learn.

Why?

Because they trust us.

The other day I watched my 5 year-old son run ahead of me and into the street. Thankfully no cars were coming, but I still pulled him aside and explained how dangerous it was to run out like that without looking both ways at least. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Well I knew you were watching, so I didn’t have to look.”  But what if I wasn’t watching and luck wasn’t in our favor?

The state of education today is a direct result of parents not watching. The more I watch the more I notice how so many others are not. It is not that parents don’t care, because I believe that the vast majority of parents want nothing but the best for their children. Yet, caring is not the same as watching and holding administrators, board members, city council members, local, state, and national politicians accountable. The Open Public Records Act is a powerful law, but only if people use it. Public hearings are pointless if the public is not informed. Politicians and other leaders will not listen if they know that no one is watching.

Every time I read an article about the PARCC test failing I think about how it NEVER should have been implemented across the entire state in the first year. The amount of money spent on this test is truly revolting as a recent article estimated that NJ will spend 22.1 million dollars on the PARCC test just this year. This doesn’t count the technology and training expenses that happened prior to the start of this test.

There will be no winners. Even if the anti-PARCC movement succeeds (as I believe that it will), there are still many people who will walk away from it with fatter pockets. Though in my heart of hearts I want to demand that the companies hand as much of that money as possible back to our schools and for those politicians who refused to listen to the criticisms of the public who elects them to lose their jobs, I will be satisfied if parents learn one lesson.

We need to be the superheroes our children trust us to be. We must constantly remain vigilant about what we allow to occur in education. For when we do not watch for villains, our children suffer. The PARCC is just one episode of an ongoing saga of good against evil playing out in our public schools.

Who Isn’t Refusing the PARCC?

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This image might look familiar to you. Many have been changing their profile picture to show solidarity in the grassroots movement to refuse the high stakes PARCC test. This simple act will empower many to have the courage to compose and submit their refusal letter, even if they feel like they are the only ones in their town. There is power in numbers . This is an easy way to visually show the number of supporters and to increase their reach and power.

The refusal movement is growing and with the PARCC set to start tomorrow, the numbers will only rise. Though many of us have been working tirelessly to get the word out, many parents remain uninformed. Of course there are some who are informed and will choose not to refuse the test for their children.Perhaps they feel that the test is just another test. Or maybe they know their child will do well, and therefore it doesn’t bother them. Or even they may think the test is good practice for life. My goal is not to diminish their reasons, but to point out that their choice is an informed choice.

What about the overwhelming number of parents out there who are just simply not informed or misinformed?

Many school districts across the state have held information nights to present the parents with all of the wonderful benefits of the revolutionary PARCC test. If a parent does not have an education background and has faith in their schools, it would be easy after sitting through such a presentation to feel good about this new test. Who wouldn’t want a test that can really help the teachers and parents understand the needs of their children and get every child to be career and college read? Sounds great! And what’s more modern than a Chromebook? Technology is the way of the future, so why not prepare students for the future?

But let’s face it, the PARCC test, or any test standardized or not, does not have the power to do what supporters claim it can do.

Tests don’t level playing fields. Tests don’t make anyone ready for any career or college. Tests don’t tell parents or teachers what a child needs or doesn’t need. To achieve those goals you need human interaction by way of teaching, listening, conversing, and working.

However the PARCC test has:

  • reduced the amount of time and resources spent on science and social studies in the elementary school.
  • strained local school budgets to allow for the purchase of technology (namely Chromebooks) and PARCC-related training.
  • caused physical damage by requiring students as young as 8 years old to type and stare into computer screens for extended amounts of time.
  • caused anxiety in students and teachers by placing increased stress on testing.
  • caused schools to cancel meaningful and relevant assessments such as midterms and finals in high school and authentic assessments in lower grades.
  • reduced the time teachers have to teach yet increased the amount and pace of learning.
  • given many students an unwarranted feeling of failure.
  • caused schools to cancel field trips.

I could go on, but I won’t. Instead consider that if even half of this is true, then why aren’t droves of parents refusing? Well, if you set aside those who truly are informed and have decided to push ahead with the test, there are many others to consider.

Let’s face it. The most parent participation in school happens at the kindergarten level. Then it slowly tapers off until junior year of high school when parents become worried about the college application process. Perhaps one problem this whole mess has revealed is that the days of just blindly trusting schools to do what is right for our children are over. We all need to be active, informed participants in our schools, even if that means giving up some of the time suckers that we all know and love (Netflix, stupid video games on our phones, Facebook, Pintrest, Instagram, etc.)  Because a distracted populace is one that is easily manipulated.

Secondly, consider the fact that the obsession with high stakes testing started way back in 2001 with the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The majority of schools escaped feeling any pressure because the threshold for achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) was so low. What this means is that if a school had a subgroup population such as special education or Hispanic not meet the required mark, all the school had to do was show that group improved marginally the next year. It became okay that they failed, so long as they just failed a little less. I have sat through presentations where our principal broke down exactly how many kids had to pass to make AYP, and it was shocking how few.

Schools even went so far as to cater to kids who fit into more than one subgroup population (African-American and special education, or low-income and Hispanic) and make sure that they had priority for any special extra help classes.

However, schools in high poverty areas were hit the hardest. They were threatened by state takeovers. Administrators were afraid to lose their jobs, which too often came with lucrative opportunities for easy corruption. Inner city children have been suffering in schools dominated by test preparation for years. Sure the PARCC test takes it to a new level, but the damaging effects of high stakes testing have a long track record in this country.

Where was this movement in 2001, 2005, 2008?

One teacher reached out to me and asked me to write about the kids whose parents have no idea that they can refuse the test. In her diverse elementary class, the kids refusing come from affluent, educated families.The kids in her class from families with low socioeconomic status, uneducated parents, or recent immigrants are left to suffer through the test, while the other half of the class gets to go hang out in the library and read books. The worst part is that the teacher feels pressure not to encourage test refusal, so when the test begins she will have to bite her tongue and watch her lowest performing students suffer through a test that many believe has been proven developmentally inappropriate.

So while we celebrate the success of this grassroots movement, we should remember those children who must suffer through this test not because their parents chose for them to take it or because their teacher thinks it is a good idea. They will do so because their parents are uninformed or misinformed, and once again they will be left behind.

In the Blink of an Eye

I remember the moment when I first looked into the eyes of of my first baby. His eyes black as night peered at me from under the blanket draped over us, Barely wiped down from the messy miracle of birth, he was placed against my bare chest. We could have been anywhere at all. In a cab. In a meadow. On the moon. Those eyes were all that I saw, the only things in the world, besides his soft heartbeat against my chest.

It’s easy to forget the wonder of that moment in the rush of everyday life. The lunchboxes to pack. The homework to complete. The papers to sign and return. The toys on the floor. The dishes in the sink. The laundry, the laundry, the laundry. But yet it is a wonder that we adults should never take for granted.

When I was pregnant with my first baby, the first ultrasound was incredible. I had never seen anything like it. The grossness of a transvaginal ultrasound (sorry fellas but reading those words is much easier than going through one) suddenly didn’t matter when the little flicker of the heartbeat came into focus on the screen. That was my baby growing inside of me.

By the third ultrasound, I was obsessed with them. I carried the pictures with me everywhere and stared at them in awe. Ultrasounds were the coolest things in the world. I remarked once to the technician, at the 6 month ultrasound for my second baby, that she must have one of the best jobs in the world. To which she replied, “Yes, when the baby is healthy.” I felt my heart drop into the pit of my stomach.

My first pregnancy and delivery had gone without a hitch. I had no reason to think about complications. I was so lucky, and I never even thought twice about it. Of course the technician’s job wasn’t all declaring with glee, “It’s a boy”, or “It’s a girl.” Sometimes there was no heartbeat. No heartbeat. I couldn’t imagine, but in that moment of awkward silence I was forced to.

I had no way of knowing that that baby inside me that day would be born prematurely. I had no idea that I would be rushed for an emergency C-section and that I wouldn’t hear him cry when he was born, because he had trouble breathing and was rushed from the room. I had no idea that I wouldn’t hold him for over 24 hours after birth, or that I would learn to nurse him with an IV sticking out of his scalp.

Thankfully, he was okay after a few days in the NICU and was able to come home with us from the hospital. Though, I met many parents that were not so fortunate.

Now my first baby is 7 years old and my second is 5. I don’t know where the time goes, but I know it goes quickly. Just talk to any parent of a child about to graduate high school, and they will tell you that it feels like just yesterday that they were putting their child on the bus to kindergarten.

Testing starts on Monday in our town and across much of New Jersey. And I think what bothers me the most is the precious time that is being wasted. Ask parents what they want for their children more than anything in the world and few will reply high test scores, but many will say that they want their children to be happy.

Why make school feel like work?

Children are in school a fleeting 13 years (not counting college, if they attend). The current life expectancy in the U.S. is 79 years old. They will spend the vast majority of their lives working. Of course we all hope our children love their occupations, but the reality is that many adults do not.

Why not invest the time, energy, and money wasted on testing our children to death and spend it on making the 13 years of school more inspiring, engaging, and full of learning driven by discovery and doing instead of receiving? The test makers claim that their tests make education more rigorous and prepare children for college and careers. Well, I think rigor comes from teaching, thinking,and applying knowledge to actual tasks and projects not from tests.

Children best prepared for the world spend time in it from a young age. You want to prepare children for college and careers, improve the foreign language programs in America that are grossly lacking compared to other countries. Take the children on more trips to see their town, state, country, and world. Sure, have the children analyze text, but then instead of answering questions on the computer, ask them to take what they learned and DO something with that knowledge.

They could write and deliver a persuasive speech. Participate in a debate. Create an advertisement. Draw a comic strip. Design a lesson about what they read and teach it to the class. Write and illustrate a children’s book about it. Research other points of view and compare and contrast them. Start a service learning project to make real progress towards solving a problem they read about.

Those activities require higher order thinking skills and demonstrate rigor much more than a test with multiple choice, short answers or even a complex essay. Yet those activities are being cut from teacher lesson plans in favor of more and more worksheets to “get through” the demands of the Common Core and more and more test prep to prepare for tests that are tied to teachers’ livelihood.

On Monday, the test will begin and the clock will keep ticking. Ticking off the minutes they have to complete each section. Ticking off minutes for short breaks. Ticking off the minutes until school is over and they can finally run free. Ticking off minutes of their childhood that they will not get back, even if the PARCC test is thrown out in a year or two.

In the blink of an eye, a piece of their precious childhood will be wasted.

And all of us are to blame.

My parents and I with my second son in the NICU.

My parents and I with my second son in the NICU.

Bittersweet Victories

So I have officially been procrastinating for two and a half hours. I am supposed to be writing my testimony for the public hearing in Camden on Thursday before the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ.

During the public hearings in Jackson, I was so fired up and inspired by the testimonies. The evidence against the use of the PARCC test was staggering. Victory over the test seemed inevitable, which felt encouraging, until I really started to think about it.

How dare they just impose this test on the entire state without any regard for its validity or impact on student achievement? The more the evidence mounted up around the Study Commission’s table, the harder it became to see them and the lies that they represent. As I drove the long drive home, the buzz of energy from the night fell away and in the coming days I was left not with the sweet taste of victory, but with the bitterness of anger.

Several speakers spoke about how they will not allow our children to be guinea pigs, but really that is all they are to these education reformers. Commissioner David Hespe came out of the testimony with nothing but more spin doctoring in the media, when really he should have been apologizing for wasting all of our time with this ill-conceived test.

The opt out movement, or refusal here in NJ, truly shows that the people are never powerless against the state. That alone is an important message that parents, teachers, administrators, and school boards needed to hear. No it is not enough to just simply say, “The state made us do it.” That mentality has been dominating education for far too long.

I also have to add that it makes me angry that a parent’s right to refuse was ever an issue. But what makes me even angrier is that so many schools initially said that students would have to”sit and stare”. Really? They design a terrible test that takes twice the amount of time and then expect students to sit through the whole test silently doing nothing. What part of this is in the interest of the child? Not the test, nor the refusal policy.

My oldest of 4 children is in second grade this year, so next year he will be in a tested grade. There is no way that I will accept him sitting and staring for the ridiculously long PARCC test. In fact, I won’t even tolerate him having to sit and read a book for the entire time or even do work quietly in the library independently.

I send my children to school to learn in a supportive, enriching environment. A standardized test does not teach anything. It does not help drive instruction. It does not give parents nor teachers a better understanding of their child’s achievement. It does not make children career and college ready. All it does is waste time that would be better spent learning.

So, I sit here struggling to write my testimony. I struggle because I know that whatever the Study Commission comes up with to appease the angry public, will not be good enough for me. Maybe I am an idealist. Maybe my expectations are too high for public schools. Maybe it was a match that would never make it to heaven. But, I am okay with that.

Change is slow, particularly when special interests drive change in the wrong direction. But in this case I cannot afford to be patient. I will continue to fight. However, if the PARCC stays next year, I will most likely be fighting as a homeschooling mom, who still cares about what happens to public education.

This long weekend, I had all of my children home with me. I watched them playing together and learning together. I am getting tired of trying to convince people in positions of power to care about my children. This whole debacle has shown how little respect our department of education and those who work under it  have for children. They have no business meddling in education, if they can’t shown any compassion for the students from all walks of life that are affected by their rash and selfish decisions.

So as the test refusal movement grows, celebrate the power of civil disobedience. But remember that these victories are only bittersweet.

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