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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Take a Small Step

All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

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All rights reserved for the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

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All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

Callandra S, Cook, or Callie as I always knew her, and I met in 2001. (I know the year because I still have my Teach for America t shirt that says 2001 corps member.) When we met, we both were recent college grads. We both were passionate. We both had signed on to do one of the most challenging jobs in the world: an inner city teacher.

But one thing I know now for certain is that we had not the slightest clue what we had gotten ourselves into nor how much it would change the very fabric of who we were. We had big hearts, sharp minds, and a sense of adventure.  TFA had chosen us well, but the choosing was only the beginning.

We sat on the campus of SUNY Maritime in the Bronx beneath the Throgs Neck Bridge in the sun. We stared at the water and chatted about where we had been, who we thought we were, and what might lie ahead. It didn’t matter that we were strangers. It didn’t matter that she was from Ohio and I from NY. It didn’t matter that we had different sexual orientation or racial background. Our paths crossed, and I still remember how fresh and new we were sitting on that concrete wall staring at the great blue expanse of water dotted with a million high rises of the city.

Callie and I did not end up teaching the same grade, or in the same school, or even living in the same neighborhood. Over our two year TFA commitment, we saw each other  quite a few times at various events, but our paths drifted apart. She stayed on after the two year commitment and my life took me to Brooklyn, where I continued to teach.

Callie and I stayed loosely connected through Facebook. I admired her dedication to the students of Baltimore from afar. Commenting on her beautiful daughter and her amazing photos of her family hiking in the woods. But most recently, I noticed her photography project and have been transfixed. I love her vision and her experience with inner city education that fuels it.

Right now education is like a minefield. A war that has polarized our country and pushed the argument far from what the children so desperately need from their schools and teachers.

Whether you love or hate TFA, charter schools, Common Core, testing, homeschoolers, public schools or private schools….I hope that you take a moment to consider supporting one amazingly dedicated and talented teacher’s project. For I believe that the only way education will get better is one visionary person at a time.  Callie is certainly a visionary.

If she does not meet her fundraising goal, she will not get any of the donations. So please check out her kickstarter site and consider taking a meaningful step in education reform.

Sure it is a small step in the face of all of the reforms, but every journey is made up of thousands of small steps.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1163253366/work

No Propaganda in the Classroom

My first year of teaching, I had no idea what a standard was. I was too busy trying to navigate an inner city classroom with 30 students who I could barely get to sit down.

As a member of Teach for America, I had only received 6 weeks or so of training prior to setting foot in the classroom. (I had been an English major, preparing to apply to Ph.D. programs. Then I saw a sign advertising TFA , and decided I wanted to help solve the problems that I had been thinking and writing about in my honor’s thesis.)

Many have criticized TFA for placing poorly prepared teachers into the most challenging environments and in a way they are right. They did. But no teacher preparation, and certainly not a national set of standards, would have been an adequate replacement for my deep desire to succeed and to help my students whom society had failed.

You see standards are just a set of learning goals. At the end of the day, week, year…what do the students need to be able to know and do. The rest is up to the teacher. Breaking the skills and knowledge into steps, formulating units and lessons, and choosing materials and tools to help the students achieve understanding. The standards are the end goal, but teaching happens on the journey there.

So you see, when I first heard about Common Core I got excited by the rhetoric. What teacher doesn’t like the buzz words they smartly attached to these standards such as “rigorous” and “evidence-based”? I loved the idea that all schools would be held to the same standard no matter where you lived in the country. It sounded so good that it nearly made me forget that a standard was …well, just a standard.  And it turns out that the designers exaggerated their powerhouse design.

http://www.aei.org/publication/common-cores-five-big-half-truths/

Despite what the ads claimed, standards can’t do what they claim that they can do. Only quality teaching can lead to better educational equity and more well-prepared students. I taught 7th grade English for a year, using the Common Core Standards before I went on maternity leave. That year it was annoying, because I had to learn to navigate new standards that were quite wordy, and frankly, with 3 children of my own and one on the way, time was limited to say the least.

Many people do not know that teachers have to submit online lesson plans every week and each lesson must be tied to a standard. Lesson planning software has come a long way, so teachers now just have to click on the applicable standards for each lesson. Sounds easy, but I taught Reading and Language Arts and an advanced class as well. So I was clicking 3-5 standards for 4 lessons a day. Then I had to compose more specific learning objectives that were based on the standard for each individual lesson.

Once I finished all of that, then I could start gathering materials for the lessons whether it be finding articles, video clips or websites, or creating my own worksheets, projects, homework assignments etc. (And I won’t even mention the amount of time spent grading quizzes, tests, homework, journals, and essays.) The point is that the standards are really not that big of a deal. Even the shift from a focus on novels to more informational text didn’t bother me, because I had been teaching tons of informational text for years. Plus in my classroom, I had the flexibility to address the standards my own way despite what the curriculum map said.

For instance, the NJ ASK (the old standardized test being replaced by the PARCC) required a persuasive writing piece. So I designed an invention unit where my students learned and analyzed advertising techniques then applied them to market their own inventions. My students had a blast creating prototypes or actual inventions in some cases. They created posters, videos, and put on presentations in addition to writing a persuasive essay. It covered reading, writing, speaking, listening, and media literacy standards both on the old NJ standards and the new Common Core. I taught that unit for 8 years. Ask any student who was in my class during that time, and I guarantee you that they remember their invention. It was a month of fun….rigorous fun.

So before all of these buzz words, acronyms “STEM”, and drastic standard changes, I was already doing it. And, I am sure that I was not the only one.

The problem came when the new standards became a political soapbox and a money-making scheme for testing and tech companies.

The new test was online, so districts needed to purchase costly technology and improve their bandwith and connectivity. Cha-ching!

The new test focused on new standards and new ways to solve math problems and ask questions. So, schools would need to purchase new “Common Core Aligned” textbooks.  Cha-ching!

The new test required typing and computer skills. So, schools and parents need to buy more computer-based games and programs. Cha-ching!

Then the Common Core became inextricable from the curriculum. Heck, even teachers were to be evaluated based on the scores their students received. Finally teachers would be held accountable for ensuring that their kids learn and score well. (This one is funny, because not every teacher teaches reading and math or teaches in the tested grades.)

Then the propaganda got heated. Common Core was either the nation’s savior or our president’s attempt to socialize the nation. Just Google Common Core ads and see how far the propaganda has gone on both sides. But love them or hate them, the Common Core Standards really aren’t the biggest problem.

The whole debate has lost sight of the children as they are moved like pawns in a political and money-grubbing game. I am tired of seeing propaganda. Tired of stupid memes. Tired of seeing happy kids leaning over computers

http://theweek.com/article/index/252851/forget-cursive-teach-kids-how-to-code

I just want our kids to be left out of it and in the hands of good, caring teachers, who feel valued for the essential and hard work that they do.

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Baltimore Memoir: Excerpt #1

The blurb of a bio that I wrote, describes a list of my experiences in black and white. But those experiences are etched in my memory in a vivid rainbow of colors. But those early years I spent in Teach for America in Baltimore , changed me the most.  Once you know the truth about poverty in America , it is not something easily forgotten.

Teach for America has been in the spotlight lately, most recently with an huge piece on NPR , which I will most likely read once I finish this post.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/12/01/366343324/teach-for-america-at-25-with-maturity-new-pressure-to-change

But whether you love what TFA does or hate it, those who have done it will tell you that it was one of the most influential experiences in their lives. Part of understanding me and the drive behind this blog is understanding what I have seen. Back in 2003 when I completed my 2 year service, I started writing a memoir about it. I never finished, because now my memories are tainted by who I am and what I think as a 35 year old experienced teacher and mother.

This is one in a series of posts that I will share from that memoir. The names have been changed, but the stories are true. They are told by me at age 22 or 23.

(This first piece I have been reading to my middle school students for years. It still gives me chills to read it aloud. I think of “Calik” often.)

Calik

Squinting into the bright May Baltimore sun, I stood ringing my little bell.  It was time to go in; across the street I saw a crowd of classes waiting to cross the street to the playground.  My goal was to get my class off of the playground before it turned into a mob scene making it impossible to extract my sneaky ones from the melee of arms and legs. Today was a good day, most of my children lined up except for three boys who clung to the swings.  I was too tired to argue so I yelled, “We’re leaving without you. I’ll just report you missing.” I began to lead the class towards the crosswalk when I heard the heavy footsteps of two of the boys running to catch up.  When we reached the crosswalk, I heard the voice of the final boy shouting, “Look at me.”  My head turned in sync with the rest of my class to find Calik standing on the top bar of the swing set.

My first thought was of motherly panic, to run and coax him down like a kitten from a tree.  However, 8 months in Baltimore had numbed me.  Instead I shouted back, “You got yourself up there, now it’s up to you to get yourself down.”  He smiled at me a wide sinister smile then, jumped gracefully -arcing into a forward flip.  It seemed like an image shot in slow motion, for my heart leapt into the arms of my brain, which was churning out images of carnage and gory headlines.  Luckily, Calik landed on his feet with the skill of a professional gymnast and ran to get on line. The children all cheered.  After a quiet sigh of relief, I turned to glare at him with my best teacher look and simply stated, “I will be calling your mother.”  (That night I did call her to inform her about her son’s dangerous stunt.  She promptly informed me that he does them backwards too.  I had no choice but to suggest that she look into gymnastics camp for him.)

*             *              *                *              *

I never believed in giving my students candy as a reward, even before America formally acknowledged its obesity problem. I know that all of the horror stories that I have about that first year teaching, would scare any novice teacher into becoming something less agonizing. However, I loved them instantaneously and it didn’t matter that I yelled at them every day. At the time, all of that seemed normal to me, because I was surrounded by it.

Anyway, on one occasion, I bought the class apples as a reward.  I had enough for every student and two or three leftover.  At the end of the day, Calik hung back, which was weird because he usually sprinted out of class before I could yell at him to slow down.  What wasn’t unusual was the fact that Darnell, his inseparable best friend, was hanging at the door screaming, “Calik, I’m leaving without you.”

“Ms. Washington, can I get another apple?”

“No, Calik, I don’t have enough for everyone to get another one. So, I am going to take these three home.”

“But, I never get to eat apples at home, and I really want another one.”

“I said no.”

“Please, I do good tomorrow.”

There was something about the urgency in his eyes that softened my weary soul, and I handed him the apple. “Just don’t tell anyone,” I said but he was already off and running before the sentence left my lips.  I went back to straightening up my room thinking about how badly he wanted the apple. Not more than five minutes passed when Calik came tearing back into the room.

“I thought you guys went home.  I am busy, and I’m not giving you any more so don’t even ask.”

“There are rocks in this apple,” he said in a muffled voice.

“Rocks? Boy you really done lost ya mind… go home, okay, I am tired.”

” Rocks, Ms. Washington, look. See? Rocks!”

Calik spit something into his hand and shoved it toward me in a jerking motion, now he was yelling, “Look! Look!”  I looked at his hand and sure enough there were five small rocks in his hand covered in blood.  Only, they weren’t rocks.  I leaned forward and he shoved his hand up closer to my face. Squinting at the crimson colored lumps, understanding sunk my heart into the pit of my stomach. Rocks would’ve made more sense.  Instead, I was eye to eye with pieces of his rotten teeth that had shattered on the firm flesh of the apple.  The healthy apple, I thought, in morbid dismay.

I remember my second phone call to Calik’s mom.  I informed her of the apple incident, awkwardly apologizing for my role in the final demise of his teeth.  I stammered to explain my logic in giving the kids apples, suddenly unsure of even that simple gesture.  His mother took the news in stride, not nearly the reaction I expected.  “That boy does nothin’ but eat that candy all day. No wonder the boy teeth done dropped out of his head.” I grasped the phone with numb fingers as I urged her to take him to the dentist.  She laughed and said they didn’t go to the dentist and that he’d get over it.  She thanked me for calling and that was that.

I went to bed that night with Calik’s words echoing in my head.  “Rocks!”