Refusing to PARCC in NJ

Wars are won one battle at a time.

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Yesterday nearly 100 people attended the State Board Meeting in Trenton, the overwhelming majority went to voice their concerns about the PARCC test slated to be administered in the Spring.

It may not seem like a large turnout, but it was. I have been attending local board meetings for two years now, and I can tell you that they are not well-attended events.

Many teachers do not feel comfortable going, because they worry about the consequences of voicing concerns. With teacher tenure now in jeopardy and evaluations tied to test scores, their fears are understandable, particularly since the test itself is riddled with problems.

Many parents don’t attend, because they don’t really know how much of an impact they can make by going, being educated, and voicing their opinions. Also, parents are tired; I get it. Many households have two working parents or if one parent stays home the other is working ridiculous hours. (And babysitters are expensive!) After a long day of work or caring for kids, there is homework,laundry, lunch boxes to clean, lunch to make, religious obligations, sports practices, talent shows, school concerts, and a million other things. Most board meetings start at 7:30/8pm on a weeknight, just when many parents are putting the kids to bed or getting a minute to actually relax a little. It takes dedication to make a cup of coffee and head out (especially in the dark, cold winter) to a school board meeting.

Therefore, the fact that nearly 100 people traveled to Trenton on a freezing cold weekday to attend a meeting that started at 10am was impressive. (The NJEA knew this and smartly offered free lunch to those registered to speak.) Those people waited for 4 hours until 2pm for the public comment portion to start, knowing that they would only be allowed to speak for 5 minutes.

Nearly 100 people!!!

This is IMPRESSIVE in this day and age where most business and even friendships are conducted from home via the computer. These people took time to write something and drive somewhere and speak publicly.

So many more people wanted to go, but couldn’t because they have jobs to go to and no ability to take a day off. Or like me they had children to take care of and to pick up from school and no one to fill in for them for the entire day. Or for a million other reasons, they couldn’t go. But they wanted to and that is important to recognize too.

There is a movement that is growing in numbers, and its collective voice will not be easily ignored. The PARCC test is not the answer to any of the problems in education; it IS the problem.

Yet as impressive as those nearly 100 people were to make the trip to speak out on behalf of our students and their teachers, many more will need to step up to the plate locally to keep the pressure on. Consider writing a refusal letter and attend your local meetings to voice your opinion and ask questions.

Please share this blog post with others on Twitter or your Facebook wall. I welcome comments as well.

Thank You!

Here’s an article about yesterday’s NJ State Board Meeting:

http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/15/01/07/anti-testing-turnout-puts-state-board-of-education-to-the-test/

This is an article about Sarah Blaine a former teacher and full-time practicing attorney in NJ, which includes her testimony from the Board meeting (a video link as well).

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/08/mom-spells-out-problems-with-parcc-common-core-test/

Here’s a link about Ohio’s decision to delay the PARCC:

http://wkbn.com/2015/01/07/educators-happy-with-delay-in-parcc-reading-exam/

My past PARCC-related posts:

PARCC Learning

PARCC Only Drives Instruction Into the Ground

PARCC Attrition

A Mixed Family Christmas

Christmas Eve.

Over my 35 years of life, Christmas Eve has transformed.

As a kid, it was a time of anticipation, excitement and wonder. A born lover of books (thanks to my mom who was always reading to me), my imagination came alive, as I lay in my bed straining to hear footsteps on the roof or a faint jingle of a bell.

My father used to love to tell me about how when we were really little, he did everything while we slept on Christmas Eve, even put up the tree. As we got older, it became our job to put together our fake Christmas tree. I can still picture the huge box with color-coded wire branches. But, my Dad was never far away. Lying on the couch, barking orders and breaking up arguments between my brothers and me.

He cherished the holiday. He would draw it out as much as possible. He would lay in bed forever with the door closed while we sat on the other side begging him to get up, so we could open the presents. In fact, it was the only day of the year he ever stayed in bed past 7am. We would be going crazy by the time he got up, then he would announce some crazy rule like we could only open one present an hour. His own presents, that we had so carefully chose, he would pile around him on the couch refusing to open them until the last possible minute. Even breakfast had to happen right in the middle of opening presents, much to our frustration. I was the pancake maker and my Dad of course was the taste-tester who had to eat nearly the whole first batch. Of course this was to ensure that they were not poisoned and safe for us all to eat.

But our holidays were never religious.

I grew up with a father from a religious Baptist family and a mother from a non-religious Jewish family. My Dad was the only one of his siblings that was not religious, and I never found out why. I guess my parents decided that the best solution was to just leave the religion topic alone and let us figure it out for ourselves. I didn’t realize how unique that was until I took a religion class in college, and the professor looked at me like I was some strange exotic bird. “What do you mean you were raised without religion?!” My parents weren’t rebelling against religion; it was just a non-issue. We had a Christmas tree and lit a menorah and that was that.

When my husband, a Catholic, and I started dating, I was introduced to the Italian Christmas Eve tradition of the 7 fishes. Well, that was great, but I was a vegetarian and had been since the 7th grade. But once we were married, I decided that I wanted to eat all 7 fishes. I wanted to embrace the traditions of his family, as much as I wanted to preserve my own.  Again Christmas Eve changed. We opened presents, drank wine, and ate more fish in one night than I had eaten in my whole life!

Then we started having children. We had so many traditions and cultures that it was overwhelming to think about. With our first child I tried so hard. I read up on Jewish heritage and questioned my husband about Catholic beliefs. I bought books to read to him and craft projects to go along with them. We went to a few churches trying to find the right fit, but I got too nervous to try a synagogue, because I had only ever been to one for funerals.

But the more we thought about religion and tradition the more complicated it got, so for now we just focus on teaching our children to be kind, appreciative and to care about others. And once again, Christmas Eve became about anticipation, excitement and wonder, only this time those feelings centered around our children. Now it was my turn to buy the gifts and hide them carefully. My turn to read my favorite books to them and watch their eyes fill with wonder. My job wrap those gifts late at night while drinking wine and listening to Christmas carols.

And with a new generation came new traditions with the old. Unlike my parents, I had an elf to remember to move. I had reindeer food to make with them and sprinkle across the lawn at night. I had a blog post to compose, while everyone was snoring.

Christmas Eve has changed over the years, but some things remain the same. My love for traditions new and old has endured. A gift that my parents gave me that never needed to be wrapped.

The last Christmas I spent with my father, he didn’t want to leave my house. It was time for me to put the kids to bed, and my parents and brothers were driving back to NY that night. But my father sat on the couch and refused to budge. It got later and later. I put the kids to bed finally, and I was exhausted. I was nearly 9 months pregnant and had 2 little boys.  I was annoyed that he wouldn’t leave until the basketball game on TV was over. My brothers paced in the kitchen with their coats on. My husband glared at me with annoyance. My mom kept sneaking me apologetic glances and saying to my Dad, “Alright Michael, let’s go.”

I didn’t know that less than 2 months later that he would slip on ice in the driveway of our childhood home, the only home we ever lived in. I didn’t know he would hit his head and suffer a subdural hematoma and never recover. I didn’t know it would be the last Christmas for him. But I believe that he did.

People get so caught up in race, religion, tradition, cooking, cleaning, buying, wrapping….but it’s all just on the surface of the memories that we create.

Because tomorrow, at Christmas dinner, my Dad’s absence will be overpowered by his presence. People who give to this world can never really leave it.

A Love Deficit

Just 5 minutes ago, I held my 14-month-old daughter, while my 3-year-old son clung to my leg. We waved goodbye to my kindergartener and second grader, before the school bus pulled away.

There was something about the way their faces were framed in the glass. A simple gesture, my oldest pressed his palm flat against the glass, but it took my breath away. All of the stress of the morning rush drained out of me, and I was filled by an overwhelming sense of love.

This morning my husband had the TV news on, which is not the norm in our house. I read the printed newspaper, and then get most of my news online. I prefer it that way. So that I can pick and choose the amount of negativity I want to let into my brain.

But my son’s palm….pure love. So different from the news, where protesters were chanting about wanting dead cops.

This week has been emotional. I have become increasingly passionate and motivated about educating people on the impacts of high-stakes testing on schools. I have been excited by the connections I have made to like-minded people. I have been encouraged by the growing readership of this blog.

On the other hand, I have been touched by tragedies. A few days ago, I looked up my most influential college professor, to share my blog with him, only to find that his son recently went missing in NYC.

http://town-village.com/2014/12/08/missing-stuy-town-mans-family-says-he-may-have-left-the-city/

Suddenly, it didn’t matter to me that I had 300 views on my blog. My heart ached. I tried to imagine missing one of my own children. That night I closed my computer and took a rest from my obsessive writing, because I just wanted to hold my kids and pray for Andreas Robbins’s safety.

Then it happened again. I bumped into an old friend at the mall. I went to give her a big hug, and she shied away. Her husband quickly said, “She can’t hug you.” Then she said three words, “”It came back.” She meant her cancer. Out of respect for her privacy, I won’t detail the tragedies she has faced in her life, but know they are of the most painful imaginable.

On the car ride home from the mall, I heard that it was the anniversary of the Newtown massacre. When that tragedy happened, I had just returned to teaching after a 1 and a half year maternity leave, and my father had just passed away. I remember sitting in Barnes and Noble with the People magazine cover in front of me. Something about all of those faces. No one knows this, but I bought that magazine and carried it in my work bag for the rest of the school year with all of the papers I had to grade.

I didn’t really analyze why at the time. But today when I saw my son’s palm pressed against the glass, I knew why.  The grief was too much to comprehend. At the time, I had lost my father, whom I was so close to, and the grief I felt was crushing. But I could not imagine the grief those people felt having their loved ones shot and killed in a horrific act of violence in an elementary school. That shook me. It still does.

Perhaps I carried that magazine, so close to the work of my students, to remind myself that teaching is more than just lesson plans, grading papers, and delivering instruction. It is more than just ensuring that students learn. It is more than inspiring them to think and to be excited about learning. It is about love.

I guess that’s why the new direction of reform is so upsetting to me. The idea that education is something that can be “data-driven”, “standards-based”, or “rigorous”.  The fact that teachers should be held accountable. Yeah all of that sounds good. But when the corporations and politicians dictate education policy, it is the love that gets lost.

Children growing up in today’s society are inheriting a world with a deficit of love. Perhaps to be career and college ready, what our children need most….is love.

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An Email from My Father: Positivity, Love, and a Call to Action

I asked my Mom, a retired kindergarten teacher, if I could interview her for this blog. In typical “tough mom” fashion, she said she would think about it. Stay tuned…

So as a I sit here, encouraged by the fact that so many people are reading my writing, I was trying to figure out what else to write. There are so many thoughts and emotions running through me that tonight I can’t seem to focus. (Or maybe it’s all the text messages asking me for my new address for Christmas cards that people are sending, when I have yet to give Christmas cards a minute’s consideration.)

I have been reading a lot about race relations in the wake of the Michael Brown case and Eric Garner. But in my current sleep deprived state, I am going to choose to defer to my dad’s thoughts and message.  Tonight I came across an email from my Dad that I had shared over a year ago on Facebook. My father was a leader and a fiery independent thinker.  So even though he died before he knew what a blog was, his story will shine here, as it has in my classroom over years as I told stories to my students about his life experiences.

Dear Paula, Matthew, Paige and Gregory.

I have some special feelings about what has happened on November 4th 2008.  I would like to let all of you know a little about why I have such feeling by telling you a brief history about my life and what I had to deal with as a young person growing up in the small town on Carlisle Pennsylvania.

I was born in 1941 the year Pearl Harbor was attacked. In Carlisle I went to kindergarden and first grade in segrated schools and I went to second grade in my first  interegrated school.  The remainder of my schooling in Carlisle was done in such schools.

My graduating class of 1959 there were eight black students.  I used the term black because there was no such thing at that time as an African-American.  We were known as Negros and not blacks.  I remember reading a article about my basketball ability which was that I was a “negro with gazelle like skills.”

I played football, basketball, baseball and my senior year I ran on the mile relay team in the district finals.  I chose to go to Tennesee State to college because my brother Clyde went to Prudue University and told me that he had a very rough time there with traveling and being with the team so I took his advice and went to an predomently black school in the south.

The city of Nashville was segrated during the sit-ins. Of the 60’s I personally couldn’t allow myself to be subjected to some of the things that blacks had to go to at that time.  We traveled by bus and it wasn’t good.  There were signs telling Negros where to eat written on the floor.

I seem to have to tell you guys so much I realize that It would take reams of paper to do so.  I want to say some other things about my family that I want you to know however, I will stop this part and tell you to look for Part 2 of this e-mail.  I love all of you and I am proud of all of you and I cherish the life that we’ve had and still do have I will always support all of you and particularly my wife, your mother.

I will send you the next part soon.

                                     I Love Everyone

                                     Daddy

This is a historic time in our lives so remember you can achieve anything in life. Yes we can.

Racism did not end in my father’s lifetime, and it probably won’t in mine either. But perhaps, if we as a nation come together and admit that our current education system is broken, then maybe we can start to heal the racial divide whose open wounds taint the lives of us all.

What happened to Michael Brown and Eric Garner was tragic and incidents of police brutality must be investigated and prevented. But thousands of children, not just black children, suffer everyday in schools that are failing to meet their needs. Why not start with the children? When a school is failing, let’s not abandon it to be inherited by those not fortunate enough to be able to move or afford private school. In every neighborhood there are born leaders, but what is missing is the public support.

When the protests are over, and the media moves on to something else….will those protestors get up off the ground and do the long, hard work that will really and truly prove that they believe that “Black Lives Matter”? Because if they do matter, then, Common Core and high-stakes testing are not going fix anything. The solution must come from the people.

As I look at more and more “Stop Common Core” Facebook pages, I find almost as much insulting propaganda as was in the pro Common Core commercials I posted yesterday. Hate only breeds hate.

My Dad never got a chance to send us part two of the email. So it’s a good thing he ended with positivity, love, and a call to action.

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Typing Homework: The New Key to Success in Elementary School?

Homework.

Ask any teacher, student, or parent and they are certain to have an opinion about it.

Teachers:

  • “It’s necessary reinforcement of skills learned in class.”
  • “Oh really, your dog ate it? I have never heard that one before.”
  • “It gives students a chance to do what we don’t have time for in class.”
  • “It’s an easy way to raise your grades, if you do it on time!”

Students:

  • “It’s a waste of time.”
  • “I love fun projects.”
  • “I don’t have time because of my other after school activities.”
  • “It’s a good way to raise your average.”
  • “Wait! We had homework?!”

Parents:

  • “It keeps my kids busy and out of my hair.”
  • “The projects are more work for me than my kids.”
  • “It is a struggle to squeeze it in with everything else we have to do after school.”
  • “It’s busy work. I doubt the teacher even reads it!”

Having taught both elementary and middle school, I can say with confidence that homework is much more time-consuming and onerous in middle school. The fact that students have 6-8 different teachers makes it difficult for teachers to balance the amount of homework and projects due at once. Once you factor in quizzes and tests, it can get even more complicated.

I used to give tons of homework as a new middle school English teacher, but over the years I cut back considerably. I realized how many of my students were overbooked after school between religious commitments, sports practices, music lessons, tutoring, etc. I lived in town with my students and saw few of them riding bikes, raking leaves, playing games like I did as a kid.  Few were reading books or pleasure either, because they were just too busy with structured homework and activities.

I started limiting homework as much as I could and shifted to encourage independent reading as much as possible. My students kept journals and recorded their thoughts as they read on sticky notes. I created a culture of reading in a more relaxed way and found much more authentic learning and thinking was happening than when they were doing nightly vocabulary assignments, for example.

Now, with the new PARCC assessment coming in the spring, students will be tested completely on the computer starting in the 3rd grade (and as early as kindergarten next year). These tests come with stakes higher than ever as the schools will use the data to evaluate teachers and administrators and to determine funding and graduation. It has been said over and over that online testing will revolutionize education and they are right. But it won’t be in a good way.

An online test requires typing skills for the students to be able to complete the test in a reasonable time frame. (These time frames can be seen here: http://parcconline.org/update-session-times. The test duration is 60-75 minutes a day for each ELA and Math for 4 days TWICE a year.)

The demand for typing skills has led many districts to purchase typing programs and even to begin assigning weekly typing homework. I have even heard educators and administrators discuss ways to help your child build stamina for these long tests by playing online games or reading on a Kindle or other type of device.

Recently the Atlantic City Press ran an article about the new emphasis on typing classes and to be honest it made my stomach lurch. Particularly this section,

“While most students can text up a storm or race through video games, they rarely have to use more than two fingers to do it. Slusarski teaches keyboarding to show them how they can use all of their fingers to be more efficient. She said it can be difficult for younger students, whose hands may not yet be big enough to spread across the keyboard, but they try.”

http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/education/teachers-hope-typing-classes-hold-keys-to-test-success/article_54ccaaf8-74ea-11e4-9bb3-0fa656cb1179.html

The article went on to praise the a child who was recognized for achieving the fastest typing record in his school. He attributes his success to playing computer games at home.

Why is it that a student’s typing speed is suddenly a marker of success in fifth grade,  as if school were a vocational school? Suddenly, instead of limiting screen time for my children as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, I should be worried that since my kids don’t play video games and stare at screens that they will be at a disadvantage in school? Should I start finger stretching exercises prior to kindergarten to help my children’s fingers “spread across the keyboard”?

This is insane. I send my children to school to learn, not to be trained. Not only will my children not take these developmentally inappropriate tests, but they will not be participating in typing homework as young as third grade. In fact, I am starting to wonder exactly how much screen time my children are getting in school.

The real question is why hasn’t the American Academy of Pediatrics come out against the national push toward online testing. Their stance on limiting screen time is clear.

“Today’s children are spending an average of seven hours a day on                                entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and                            other electronic devices. …Studies have shown that excessive media use  can            lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders,                  and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can  provide platforms            for illicit and risky behaviors.”

– See more at: http://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/Pages/Media-and-Children.aspx#sthash.hAyoJto7.dpuf

But I can show you what my children were doing this week after school. You tell me if you think I should stop them and start typing practice and online games instead.

My oldest drew about 15 pictures and was teaching his brothers all he has been learning in school about Native Americans.

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My kindergartener made a painting for his Winter-themed Show-and-Tell.

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All three played with shaving cream, homemade play dough, and helped to paint a castle created from the recycling bin.

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It is time to start advocating for what is best for our children.

Womb to the Classroom?

The second that second line showed up on the pee stick, I started reading anything and everything I could get my hands on (starting with the paper insert from that pregnancy test box and the 4 other boxes I had purchased just in case).

With motherhood looking at me down the barrel of the pregnancy gun, I felt unprepared. So reading seemed a natural reaction, it had always worked for me before.

So before the pee stick dried, I was at Barnes and Noble buying books. Well I pretended to consider buying books, while sipping  bottled water in the cafe and browsing a towering stack of books.  I read everything from the classic What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff to the sassy A Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy by Vicki Iovine to the hysterical Belly Laughs by Jenny McCarthy to the earthy practical A Vegetarian Mother’s Cookbook by Cathe Olson, to the extremely natural midwife Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. I also read medical journals through my doctor husband’s subscription and watched endless television shows depicting various types of birth experiences.

I was suffering from  information overload well before I even sat down at a computer and started googling stuff. My doctors most likely sighed when they saw my name on the schedule, because I came with questions, studies, research, and a birth plan of 2-3 typed detailed pages.

The point was that I didn’t take pregnancy lightly.  Like many other new mothers, I wanted to be informed, but more importantly I didn’t want to screw it up. I wanted to do everything in my power to keep that little growing life inside of me as healthy as possible.

And if that meant…

no sushi, no fish with even a trace of mercury, not too many nuts or peanut butter (just in case it causes allergies), no caffeine (not even decaf coffee just in case), no harsh cleaning chemicals, no artificial sweeteners, no contact sports, not laying on my back to sleep, getting a flu shot and endless blood work, changing over to organic dairy and produce, and of course giving up wine despite that fact that European women somehow found a way to drink some without dying of guilt…

then I would do it.

(Heck if they told me I should sit in a bubble for 9 months or my baby wouldn’t be healthy; I would have done it.)

I will spare you my 4 birth stories, but with every childbirth I made tremendous sacrifices in the interest of my babies. I switched practices a week before my due date with my first baby, because I just couldn’t trust the doctor I had been seeing. I tried to go without pain medication for my first 2 births (the other 2 were planned c sections). I took no medication after the birth of all of my children c-sections or not, because I wanted to be alert and to keep my breastmilk pure. I traveled to the NICU every 45 minutes starting less than 24 hours after my 2nd baby was born prematurely to make sure he got as much of my milk as possible and no formula. I blamed myself for his early arrival, because I had been working too hard.  I roomed in with all of my babies and wouldn’t let the nursery take them away even when I was up all night alone when my husband went home to take care of our other children.

I was the same way with my babies as infants. Holding them all of the time, reading to them several times a day (I even read to them all while in utero), wearing them in baby wraps, feeding them organic baby food (feeling guilty for not making my own), nursing as long as I could, not showing them television until age 2, rocking them to sleep, letting them sleep with me, constantly worrying about SIDS and checking them obessively…..

You get the idea. From the second I peed on the stick, I was 100% dedicated to being not just a good mother, but one that met impossible levels of perfection. Sure I relaxed a little with each of my 4 children, as I became more confident in my parenting abilities. But still, I worked damn hard to give all of them the best start in life.

But why am I writing all of this?

To brag?

No, I believe that no matter what choices we make as mothers that by nature we want the best for our babies. We may not all breastfeed, or try natural childbirth or even buy organic baby food (gasp!). But, those choices don’t define us. What defines us as mothers is our instinct. The instinct to care for our babies with every ounce of our being regardless of how many boxes we can check off on the perfect mother checklist.

Do I hope to make other mothers feel in adequate?

No, the media does this all of the time, especially to mothers. We never feel like we are good enough. We feel like everything we do is constantly judged and stressed.

  • Are the kids’ car seats installed properly?
  • Are they getting too much BPA?
  • Are their vaccinations saving their lives or infecting?
  • Are their baby blankets silent killing machines?
  • Will I be able to pull off everything I pinned for baby’s first birthday on Pintrest?

I don’t want to add more stress.But I do want to ask why do we as mothers hold ourselves to such impossibly high standards when our children are babies, but then let go so easily once our children become school age?

Shouldn’t we expect our schools to respect all of the time, effort, stress, and love that we put into our pregnancies and babies and to show the same amount of dedication to our children once they arrive at school?

Why do so many mothers stop researching and reading when their children turn 5? Does our job only include the time from the womb to the classroom? Or are we missing something by trusting our schools blindly to finish the job that we worked so hard at for all of those years?

Yes, I know we are tired, but all it takes is a little bit of time. Carve a few minutes from the DVR, or Facebook, or Pintrest and look into what is best for your school age child’s development. Then look into whether those needs are being met at school.

  • Do your kids feel safe and happy?
  • Are they excited about learning and going to school?
  • How much screen time are they getting at school?
  • Is the work too hard or too easy?
  • Is the work interesting or boring?
  • Are there enough field trips and other curriculum-enriching activities?
  • Are your board members and administrators informed and working for positive changes?

Education reform is happening right now. The schools, curriculum, instruction, and tests are changing. We work hard to give our children the best in life. And only WE can make sure that the schools are furthering those efforts. Please join so many of us who are already finding our voices on blogs, on Facebook, at school board meetings and PTA/PTO meetings.

(And I want to give a shout out to the fathers too. This post focused a lot on my experience as a mother, but dad’s have the same instincts too. Historically PTA/PTO meetings have been mom-centric, but it does not need to stay that way. Fathers bring a unique perspective to the table and are a hugely untapped resource in many school districts outside of sports.)

How have you impacted education in your school district or state? I would love to hear about it!