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.

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.

A Highly Personal Decision

Politics.

Activism.

Social Change.

Since my high school days, these are the things that have excited and inspired me.

During my freshman year of high school, I read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by, Dee Brown and found the band Rage Against the Machine not long after. I was shocked by the accounts of how the American government dealt with Native American tribes and fascinated by the sheer anger in lead singer Zach de la Rocha’s voice. His lyrics told a story that ran against everything that I had learned and the rage to make me believe it had to be true.

I wrote a lot of poetry in my teenage years and read even more books. My parents were not really into traveling (the farthest we traveled was Florida every year to visit my grandparents), so I fed my wanderlust with books like The Dharma Bums by, Jack Kerouac and A Clockwork Orange by, Anthony Burgess.

In college, my world view continued to open up, though through literature instead of travel as my parents vetoed my desires to study abroad. I started taking classes in World Literature and minored in Politics all while pursuing my passion for photography in the darkroom at Rutgers that is now extinct.

Then I stumbled upon Bruce Robbins, a professor whose interest in the place where literature and politics collide fueled my own leanings in that direction. As a senior, Bruce served as my adviser for my Honors Thesis, which was an exploration into whether books could use text and photography to achieve real social change. This was not just a scholarly pursuit, but also a very personal one. I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do after graduation. I loved college. I loved the reading, the thinking, the arguing, and the writing. But would delving into issues of inequality and poverty intellectually be satisfying enough for me? Would I be able to change the world that way?

Well, my Honors Thesis took me into flophouses in Manhattan and led me to interview David Isay the creator of NPR’s StoryCorps, a project that records the amazing (and often lost) histories of everyday people. But it wasn’t my Thesis that led me to my next move. It was a poster. The poster was recruiting college graduates to apply to Teach for America. I read the statistic at the bottom about how children in poverty are reading an average of 2/3 grade levels behind their wealthier peers. But I think it was the photograph of a young African-American boy looking back at me with big eyes that drove me to head to the computer lab and find out how to apply. That poster, in an instant, achieved social change. My dream of getting a PhD. at Harvard fell dead on the ground behind me, and since then I have only glanced back at that dream a few times.

The story here gets more complicated, emotional, and well…long. So I will zoom ahead, past my 12 years of inner city and suburban teaching experience, through the births of my four children to this summer when I finally decided to turn my back on public school for awhile to homeschool my children.

Those of you who follow my blog know how hard I fought against testing and for quality, dynamic, and developmentally-stimulating education. You read my editorials, speeches, petitions, and pleas. You know I fought and fought hard.

My decision to homeschool was not a giving up on public schools as one teacher recently accused me of, but rather a giving in to my children and their needs and fulfillment. For many years, I worried about the world, now it is time for me to focus on my children. I believe that by giving them the best that they will in turn affect the world for the better. In just a short 10 years my oldest will be 18. And judging from what I hear from those parents who have gone through it, I too will wonder where the time went.

My decision to homeschool is a highly personal decision, not to give up on quality education for all, but to give in and commit myself to giving that gift to my own children while I can. There will be time to return to that bigger fight.

But for now, I will focus on them. I will honor my short time with them and give them every bit of what I want to give to all children. I will stop thinking about what I wish public schools would do and just do them without fight or argument. I will appreciate my opportunity to take this time with my children, knowing that one day (in the blink of an eye) it will be over, and then I can return to trying to solve the world’s problems.

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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.

Why Are Teachers So Afraid?

I am a teacher who was raised by teachers. I have always believed that once you become a teacher, you remain one for life. Though I resigned at the end of last year, I want to be clear that I would have had no problem at all publishing this blog under my name while teaching full-time. I am not afraid to speak my mind now, nor have I ever been.

Anyone who has ever taught with me, has witnessed me speaking up in team meetings, department meetings, and even board meetings, while employed as a teacher.

In my third year of teaching, non-tenured since I had just moved to Brooklyn from Baltimore, I spoke out against the widespread cheating that occurred during standardized tests in my school. Later in my career, I started and circulated a petition against our teacher’s union asking for information on the number of jobs that would be saved if teachers voted in favor of a salary freeze. When I was upset by how terribly our subgroup populations (special education, African-American, Hispanic, and low income) performed on the NJ ASK, I submitted a letter to the principal and superintendent with an attached list of 21 suggestions for improvement.

When my oldest started kindergarten in the same district where I was teaching, my principal (in good faith) cautioned me against speaking at board meetings. He said it was too political. To this, I replied that I was not afraid of politics. That year, I spoke at board meetings about everything from the lack to books in classrooms to the truth about connectivity woes that were not being honestly reported. I was quoted in the local newspaper speaking out against advertising on the side of our district school buses. In the end, my resignation speech was quoted in an Asbury Park Press article about teacher burnout. Here is the link.

My point here is not to wow you with my leadership skills or impress you with my bravery. It is to make the point that passionate, respected teachers who speak their mind rarely get fired for their actions. In fact, though I resigned from my previous district to relocate in search of a district that more closely embraced my ideals, I made more friends than foes. I still talk to the board members that at times I engaged in heated debates with. I still have the support and respect of many colleagues and parents I worked with over the years.

This is not to say that retribution doesn’t happen. In far too many schools it does. But what about the rest? I refuse to believe that the vast majority of teachers are so fearful of their administration that they will not speak up about the negative impact that PARCC and other standardized tests and reforms have had on their students, classroom, and schools. The children have had little to no voice in this whole debacle, and they need their teachers, who know them best, to advocate for them.

Tenure may look different in coming years (or extinct), but it was put in place to allow teachers the freedom to advocate for their students and teach in the way that they felt was best. Tenure protected teachers who taught evolution and tenure will protect teachers who speak out about the harmful effects of ill-conceived tests like the PARCC and the poorly designed Common Core Content Standards (CCCS) that are dominating curriculum and instruction across the nation. Tenure has been criticized for keeping bad teachers in classrooms, but I feel the biggest failure of tenure is that it has failed to empower the good ones. Teachers need to take advantage of it before it is taken away.

And if tenure is not enough to make teachers comfortable speaking out, then why don’t more teachers speak out who could stand to lose their job. Why don’t we hear more advocacy from teachers who have a strong second income or bread-winning spouse? Why don’t we hear more from teachers who are about to retire and have nothing to lose speaking out? Where are the young teachers who don’t have tenure but are still idealistic and fiery and want to speak out to ensure that they are not locked into a career dominated by the power of money instead of the needs of children?

There has been a precedent set. Superintendents like Dr. Joseph V. Rella and Dr. Michael Hynes from Long Island have spoken out openly in the media about the damaging effects of the new standardized tests. A Florida kindergarten teacher named Susan Bowles refused to give the state test to her students and was not fired. An 8th grade science teacher from  Long Island named Beth Dimino did the same and was not fired. In Seattle a few teachers got together and  refused to administer tests and their students were removed from their classes to take the test in the library. Yet, many of those students and their parents in turn refused to take the tests. Those teachers are now facing sanctions (unclear exactly what they are) but are not expected to lose their jobs.

I am not saying that every teacher should outright refuse to give the PARCC test or any test that they don’t believe in, though that would be nice. But I am saying that more teachers need to find their voices and enter into the public debate without fear.

America,” the land of the free and the home of the brave,” needs to take a long hard look at why so few teachers are willing to openly join an intellectual discussion about the validity of Common Core and the testing regimen that came with it.  We need to hear from them what is going on behind the classroom walls, not from politicians.

And if they are truly afraid to speak, then we have another bigger problem that needs to be addressed.

Teachers, we need to hear from more of you.

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