PARCC Or Bust

The PARCC test simply will not die.

The state of NJ sits stubbornly on the list of the 6 states plus DC, out of the original 26, that grip the PARCC test like a dying wish.

Well, nearly 50 people stormed the State Board of Education meeting to pry that dying wish out of the State’s cold dead hands.

Blood is in the water here in NJ. The opt out movement far surpassed the Education Commissioner Hespe’s original prediction. Parents have now seen the effects of these ill-conceived tests and every single day someone new asks me about how they can opt their child out.

But the PARCC will not leave NJ quietly.

Not with Commissioner Hespe sitting on the PARCC Advisory Board. Not with Commissioner Hespe at the head of the Study Commisssion on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ. Not with that Commission recommending that the PARCC test, after only ONE year under its belt, become the sole test required for graduation.

Hespe went from confidently dismissing the opt out movement as a weak and misguided minority to treating the movement as a serious force to be reckoned with.

Hespe is sweating.

Now is not the time to back down.

The first threat Hespe doled out was that parents were not allowed to opt out. (Yet thousands of parents found a way to refuse.)

The second threat was that students whose parents refused to allow them to take the PARCC would have to sit and stare throughout the entire test. (Very few districts stuck to this policy and finally Hespe came out and discouraged sit and stare policies.)

The third threat was that opt outs would cause schools to lose funding. (Parents refused anyway and there has yet to be any evidence that ANY school district lost funding. See this video by, superintendent and opt out leader, Dr. Michael Hynes for more evidence.)

The threats weren’t working. Parents would not back down, and the numbers of parents opting out began to climb.

So Hespe and other test supporters tried a different tack. They reduced the testing time… a little.  See parents…we are listening to you. Now shut up and go away.

But the reduction in testing time only spoke to a tiny fraction of the criticisms of the PARCC. Then the test results came out and the vast majority of the state of NJ (one of the best performing states in education) FAILED.  Hmmm….looks a lot like what happened in NY and their opt out movement is at least 10 times that in NJ.

Don’t worry they said. It’s the first year of the test. The kids will get better, after all, these tests are rigorous…it will take time for little Johnny and Mary Lou to catch up. They need typing practice and time to learn how to navigate the testing tools like scroll bars and rulers on the screen. They need to learn how to engage in close reading and explain their math answers in explicit detail.

And if that isn’t enough encouragement….

Insert the fourth threat…

Your kid takes the test every year from 7th grade on or he can’t graduate.

You hear that parents! They won’t. We swear they won’t. Don’t you dare opt out. We hold your kids’ future in OUR hands not YOURS. We say PARCC or bust.

Well played Hespe, well played.

Well I say…

There is no wizard behind the curtain.

Call his bluff.

12736025_719521798183702_48885666_n

 

 

Stop Blaming, Start Acting

When schools became big business, they became political.

Everyone has a stake in the education game these days…something to gain (money and power) and something to lose (money and power).

In his book, manifesto really, “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling,” John Taylor Gatto exposes schools for the systemic prisons that they have become. Ask anyone in education and they will tell you that schools just aren’t what they used to be.

But my question is, whose fault is it?

Who is to blame?

A passionate education reformist and self-proclaimed activist, I have fought with, written to, and offered alternative solutions to every level I could gain access to from classroom teachers to supervisors to principals to superintendents to school boards to city council to the mayor to the State Commisioner of Education to the Governor to Senators to the Secretary of Education and even the President himself.

And I have come to one simple conclusion.

My husband says it often, that if you look to government to solve your problems then all you will get are more problems.

If we the people want education reform, then we the people need to demand it.

Period.

If we wait for the pendulum to swing, or the next president, or governor or superintendent or whatever…then it will be too late. Time stops for no one.  And our children cannot wait.

If you don’t like the way schools are being run, then find your voice. Find others and encourage them to find their voice and together you will become louder.

Speak from a place of knowledge and offer solutions rather than just critiques. Start small and find your confidence and then get bigger, tackle bigger and bigger goals until you see the change you want.

If your child cries and fights you over homework. Say something. Don’t let it ruin your night, week, year, relationship.

If your child hates to read or write, make time for the library and journal together. Talk to the school about what reading and writing looks like in the classroom and start a discussion about how it could be done differently.

If the math doesn’t make sense, ask the district to run a parent academy and explain it. If it still doesn’t make sense start a discussion about how it could be done differently.

Small steps.

Local change.

That is the real power that we the people have.

These are OUR children, OUR schools, and OUR responsibility.

One block at a time we can rebuild and stop waiting for others to do the work for us.

IMG_3983.JPG

 

 

 

 

Students Like the PARCC Test?!

Recently I had a converstaion with a third grade teacher about the PARCC test, and I just can’t get it out of my head.

She told me that her students like the test. They love to show what they know and want more tests. She said that she thought that all of the stress related to the test came from the nervous adults.  She claimed that adults are just not comfortable with change. Though she did admit that maybe some of the enthusiasm for the test came from the treats and special things the school did to encourage the kids to do their best on the test last year.

Here is one example of a test day treat that some schools use (not necessary this particular teacher).

But, I wanted to listen to hear the other side.

My newsfeed is full of fellow activists against the PARCC test. This teacher felt very strongly that the test was a good thing for her students. She teaches in a district known for their excellent schools. Maybe she knows something I don’t.

So I listened, when usually my modus operandi is to argue.

I listened, but when she finished. I asked a question.

What about the fact that the majority of students in NJ scored below grade level on the PARCC test last year? How did the students feel when the report came home telling them that they failed?

I can honestly say that this teacher’s response shocked me.

She replied that she knows that many parents just didn’t show their children their scores. My face probably gave away my thoughts, so she continued to say that the students don’t really know what the colors or levels mean.

I guess she has a point. Most third graders cannot comprehend the most likely wordy score report that arrived home this year way after their third grade year ended (certainly too late to drive instruction as the test advocates promised).

But what about the kids in all of the other tested grades? Do they know they failed? Should their parents hide the score reports too and maybe the newspaper reports that the majority of NJ students scored below grade level?

http://www.nj.com/education/2015/10/nj_parcc_scores.html

Should parents and teachers make them feel better by telling them that a couple of years ago the vast majority of NY students failed too (prompting their powerful opt out movement)?

Should failing be no big deal when so much time and money is devoted to the PARCC?

What kind of children are we raising if we teach them to try their best on a test that might soon count for graduation, but in the same breath tell them that failing is no big deal?

What kind of education reform relies on this kind of bait and switch? Not one that I want for the children of NJ. Not one that I will tolerate for my children.

If my children return to school next year, I will compose their opt out letter in September and explain to my children why I wrote it.

I do not believe in the carrot-and-stick approach to learning. I do not believe in anyone exciting my children to perform academically for anyone except themselves. I do not believe that deceiving children is a productive way to educate them.

And I do not believe there is any value in the PARCC test.

Even if the students are excited to take it.

They should be excited about learning. Period.

 

IMG_2019

My third grader trying his hand at cuneiform during a homeschool unit about Mesopotamia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not One Boy

This is a photo of my little boy standing in the snow at age 4.

clarksnow

Four years have already passed since this picture.

In four more he will be the same age, age 12,  as Tamir Rice was when he was shot and killed by a police officer. Tamir was only armed with a pellet gun.

Many might find it weird for me to read an Op-Ed about Tamir Rice, a black  inner city Chicago youth, and connect it to my son.

But why not?

Because my son is only a quarter black?

Because my son doesn’t live in inner city Chicago or an area with similar levels of violence?

Because my son isn’t even allowed to play with guns and won’t be allowed to have even a pellet gun even at age 12?

Because my son is not in danger?

But I still see the the connection.

Because if I can’t read the Op-Ed piece in the New York Times today, and imagine my son laying there bleeding for four minutes after being shot without apparent cause, while two police officers did nothing to help him…then I am part of the problem.

Tamir was a boy.

My son is a boy.

No boy should die like Tamir did.

Forget the hashtags and the debates.

No boy should die like Tamir did.

Not mine, not yours, not Tamir’s mother’s.

Not one.

 

 

 

 

 

An Ode to Imperfection

Sometimes my imperfections get to me.

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

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

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

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

IMG_3695

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

“Hands On”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2928 IMG_2681 IMG_2684 IMG_2701 IMG_2730 IMG_2747 IMG_2774 IMG_2139 IMG_2143 IMG_2204 IMG_2587 IMG_2650

Happy Birthday, Daddy!

409161_2519977891378_33178289_n

June 26.

Today my Dad would have turned 74.

I had to go back and check the math. It couldn’t have really been four years ago that I got that phone call from my brother at 5 am and collapsed on the back porch uttering sounds of sorrow that until that moment I had no idea my body was capable of making.

With that memory, I can still feel the old splintered wood against my face as I cried there, emptying myself of every ounce of grief only to take a breath and feel myself fill back up.

Four years.

You know, my Dad was right about a lot of things, but even he was wrong about some things.

Once, when I was going through some hard times at the school where I was teaching, I called him as I often did to have a heart-to-heart. My ear would get red and sweaty at the end of one of our long conversations. I talk to my mother once a day, well sometimes five times, but with my Dad it was different. When we did talk, we talked.

Well, I don’t even remember why I was so stressed about work at the time, but his advice was not to worry about it. He said as much as it may seem that you are irreplaceable at work, you aren’t. Sure you may be great at your job, but if you drop dead tomorrow, you better believe that they will have someone else in there to take your place.

His words stuck with me.

I remembered them when I invited my colleagues to come to a board meeting to hear my passionate resignation speech and only a handful showed up. I remembered them when I packed my classroom and nobody wanted to take my binders full of ideas from 8 years of teaching 7th grade English with creativity, heart, and soul. I remembered when no one wanted my invention project packet that had become my legacy. I remembered when no one had any use for my witch’s cauldron that I would use for various games or for the stacks of charts that I made the old school way with chart paper and colorful markers (before and after Powerpoint and SmartBoards became a staple).

One day someone will find a book of mine, labeled “Vaccaro” in obnoxious red Sharpie ink in the dusty corner of the book room and not know who that is and toss it in the trash. In a lot of ways, he was right. I have only been gone from my school for two years and so much has already faded.

But, a teacher is not your typical kind of worker that comes and goes and the company keeps on functioning as it always did.

You see my Dad is missed, though his replacement probably doesn’t know his name or what it still means to so many of his former students and colleagues. For as education becomes more and more results based, so much is being lost. You can replace a body, but you can’t replace the heart and soul that he brought to school every day and poured into his students.

This is not to say that today’s generation of teachers doesn’t care or have heart and soul. But, what I mean is that there is no longer a sense of reverence for those who came before. The policymakers from the state level down to the local school boards have lost a sense of what it really means to teach. They don’t understand that there isn’t a test, spreadsheet, or rubric that can capture the value of a true teacher nor assess the quality of learning that is being delivered. They don’t know that the kids need their physical education teacher down on the floor playing Duck, Duck, Goose with them (like my Dad did) a lot more than they need to take a benchmark to determine the value of that teacher.

The policymakers think that new ways are better than old ways and that the more technology the better, because it makes our lives easier. But have they really gotten easier? I am pretty sure that my Dad wouldn’t think so. Their new ways have done nothing but drive up spending on curriculum, professional development, and technology while devaluing the human capital right before their eyes in their teachers.

So, Happy Birthday, Daddy!

I hope that you have a cake where you are and that before you blow out those 74 candles, that you make a wish.

Wish that schools, administrators, school boards, and government officials can learn to do more than just replace and instead honor the value of those who came before and those who are there now trying to survive during a difficult time to teach, one of the most important professions in the world.

My Dad’s smile lives on in the hearts of so many of his students from over 40 years of teaching and that is irreplaceable.

I should know, because it lives on in mine.

11150844_10153087461372891_8650372588337724582_n

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.