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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Common Kindergarten

Today I had a conference with my second oldest son’s kindergarten teacher.

On Back to School Night, when I first laid eyes on her, I knew she was a kindergarten teacher that I would like my son to have. Her warmth radiates from her like a little yellow sun in a child’s drawing. The sound of her voice singing, “Stop, Look, and Listen,” makes you want to stop wiggling in your chair and pay attention.

The conference went well. My boy knows his letters and numbers. He is a beginning reader. He has even started writing stories!  I was so happy to see his invented spellings describing penguins from the classic story Mr. Popper’s Penguins that we have just finished reading at home. The teacher readily explained how she was challenging him to grow even though he has progressed past what the class is learning as a whole.

I was a proud mother, but I had to ask about the testing. Had the PARCC test impacted the way kindergarten was being taught? She said, “No but the Common Core has.” She described how now the children were expected to learn so much more in such a short period of time (our district still has half day kindergarten).

Well, education reformers would see this as progress. They claim that kids need to start young preparing to be college and career ready. But when I mentioned science to my son’s teacher, she admitted that there just isn’t really time for it, nor for social studies either. (Do people not study these subjects in college or have careers in these fields?) These subjects have long been marginalized in elementary school, but with so much stress being put on children learning more and more reading and math skills earlier and earlier; these subjects are getting even less attention.

Curriculum companies know this and have started marketing “integrated” science and history literacy programs. This means that instead of a cohesive science or history curriculum these textbooks include a passage here and there of science and history-related topics. So if they read The Hungry Caterpillar by, Eric Carle, .they might then read an informational text about caterpillars. That ought to cover it, right?

Wrong.

The best part about science is inquiry. Experience, experiments, and observations pique a child’s imagination and sense of wonder. Those raw feelings are the most effective impetus of learning.  Let a child hold a worm, feel moss, or build a house of sticks. Those experiences lead to questions. They drive children towards books about nature. They give them something real to write about rather than the same canned prompts.

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The same is true for history. A love of history comes from experience and wonder about people and places. Map skills are best learned by following a map. And field trips and artifacts have the ability to transport children to other worlds in ways that a short informational text cannot.

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Am I unhappy with the job that my son’s teacher is doing? No, because given the pressures of time and the demands of the Common Core, she has managed to inject joy and authentic learning into her classroom. She said that she is grateful that she is still able to give the kids some time to play. But I have to wonder what will happen to the pockets of joy that she is able to create, if and when the PARCC testing begins in kindergarten. How long until the block corner becomes a long table of laptops and recess a stand and stretch break?

In the race to get ahead, America is only falling behind. The answer to how to get children to be critical thinkers and higher achievers is to get them excited about learning, not shut them down with tests and test prep.

When I see articles like this one about forest kindergartens, it makes me ashamed that I settle for sending my child to school everyday, knowing that his “trouble focusing” has little to do with his behavior, being a boy or even his maturity.

It is his body and mind crying out for more.

Give Me Literature or Give Me Death!

“Education is not the filling of a pail; but the lighting of a fire.”

-William Butler Yeats

I am a busy mom of four young kids.

I struggle to find time to manage the onslaught of daily redundancies, even with my new temporary stay-at-home-mom status.

The mountains of laundry.

The making of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.

The picking up.

The putting away.

The homework.

The meetings and school events.

My return to writing has fulfilled a part of me that felt like it was dying, since we relocated. Most people think me to be so strong and independent, which is flattering but lonely at times. But our choice to move was a planned one. Carefully, well… obsessively researched and calculated. It was a gamble, but not of the reckless sort.

So we have settled. I have found my voice again. I have spoken up about things that matter to me most. In a short time, I have developed a blog, that may not shatter any records or make any money….but it has a following of readers. It is encouraging to see the stats rise all day. The fact that 200-500 times on any given day, my words and thoughts are pulled up on someone’s computer or phone screen.

But my reading has become so shallow, that I feel my mind getting restless. For weeks, I have read and read and read on my phone and laptop. Article after article about high stakes testing, Pearson, the Common Core, child development theory, the opt out movement and anything remotely related. What I read was fueling my writing and my urge to educate others about the dangerous road down which education is headed. But all of this reading was giving me anxiety and making my brain feel like a rodent on a wheel.

For years I taught 7th grade English and motivated my students to read 20 books outside of class. I was alone in this. My colleagues didn’t require as many, in fact several did not require any reading outside of class at all. But it felt right to me. I didn’t want to “teach English”. I wanted to inspire the creation of life long readers.  I didn’t make my students write 20 book reports. Instead they kept journals full of sticky notes, where they wrote their thoughts as they read. Every 2 weeks we went to the school library, and while they chose a new book and read, I read their thoughts.

Did every child love the assignment? No.

Did every student read 20 books? No.

Did I give “reading detention” to a few kids over the years out of frustration and desperation? Yes.

Did I make my students with I.E.P.’s (special education) and ELL (English Language Learners) do it too? Yes.

Did I have parents complain? Yes.

Did I have parents read books and forge sticky notes for their kids? Yes.

Did I have parents write me letters thanking me for inspiring their whole family to read more? Yes.

The project became a big part of my legacy. From year to year, I would ask at Back to School Night how many parents heard about my book project, and many sheepishly raised their hands. I would have parents come up to me that same night and tell me that their child would never read one or two books, let alone 20!. Many of my students said the same thing. The number 20 seemed like torture.

But in my last year teaching, I created a bulletin board. Each student was given a paper hand, and they wrote their name in the center. Each time they read a book, they put a star sticker on it. The board was right near my classroom door, and it quickly became the hang out. Kids were talking about their progress. Talking about what they were reading. Egging each other on. And I couldn’t have been happier.

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I even put a hand up there with my name on it. I said I would read 20 books too. In fact for the 8 years that I taught 7th grade, I made the same promise. And for 8 years, evaded the few kids who asked me how many books I was up to. Each year I started strong, even posted notes just like the kids had to. But as the year wore on and my responsibilities and stress grew, I lost motivation and gained excuses.

I wouldn’t say I lied to the kids, but I certainly wasn’t honest. I told myself that my intentions were good, so it didn’t matter if I really finished. I had read more books in my life than most people. I already loved to read…life just got in the way. But that year with the bulletin board, I had a visual reminder of my failure, as the kids laughed at my hand with only 3 stars on it. I couldn’t bring myself to add stars for books I didn’t read.

So instead I talked to my students honestly about how lucky they were to have time to read. To not have the obligations and stress that adults have. I told them about the stacks of half read books on my nightstand with receipts as bookmarks sticking out from the pages. I told them that my idea of a vacation would be to lay in bed for days and read, like I used to before I had kids. I told them about how I read A Thousand Splendid Suns by, Khaled Hosseini, which is 384 pages long, in one night, because I just could not put it down. I described how I cried like a baby while reading to the point where my husband thought I was crazy. I told them that for the first time ever, I had shut the book and closed my eyes, because I couldn’t bear to “see” what would happen next. But as I told them these stories, I still couldn’t help but feel like I failed.

Tonight, I realized that the only person I failed in that situation was myself. For my guilty confessions showed my students what it meant to truly love to read. It showed them that reading could be like a dessert that you couldn’t eat, though you would love to. My words and emotion turned reading from a chore or an assignment into something more. Even if it wasn’t dessert for them, they could see how it could be for someone else and that was a step in the right direction.

I failed because, I didn’t make the time for myself to do what I love.

After being submersed in the politics of education reform, tonight I sat down to read one of the three books I received as gifts for Christmas (admittedly one of them I gave myself on a whim while in the book store shopping for my kids).

The first few pages of The Book Thief by, Markus Zusak made me realize all at once that I have been depriving myself of what I love most.  The narrative voice is incredible. I felt immediately grabbed and pulled into the book in a way so powerful and delicious. The most well-written article is nothing compared to a majestic literary voice. It is truly an art.

I had to pause my reading to write this, but I promised myself not to write another post until I finish the novel. I am anxious to go savor the book until I pass out from exhaustion or one of my kids wakes up with a nightmare or something.

You see the makers of the Common Core have placed such value on informational text, because it is what most adults read these days at work and for pleasure.

But I have to say that perhaps that is exactly what is wrong with adults these days. They are reading the wrong things.

If you fill your brain with information day in and day out, you become nothing more than a depository. Literature is thought, imagination, culture, and passion. Why would we want to deprive our children of these things? To make them career and college ready?

I would much rather have education light a fire than fill a pail.

PARCC Learning

PARCC is based on the core belief that assessment should work as a tool for enhancing teaching and learning.”

I like the sound of that.

I mean who can argue with a “core belief”?

And what neanderthal wouldn’t want to enhance teaching and learning?

Just like the Common Core ads on television (see my post Common Core Ads:Who Pays?), the language used on the PARCC website is compelling. It sounds like the answer to every teacher and parent’s prayers.

Because the assessments are aligned with the new, more rigorous Common Core State Standards (CCSS), they ensure that every child is on a path to college and career readiness by measuring what students should know at each grade level.

This sounds good too.

Wow! A set of standards that can actually ensure that every child is on the right path. Man, if the standards can do that, what do we need teachers for? Just hand the kids the standards, then give them the test. Presto! Career and college ready!

Educators are not stupid enough to believe this hyperbole, so then for whom is the PARCC website made for? I can’t quite figure it out. In the top right corner of the homepage, it says in bold “Stay Informed!” and provides a place for you to enter your email address. But perhaps the people who update their website should enter their own email, since the FAQ sheet contains information that conflicts with their homepage.

On the homepage, they list the names of the states who make up the PARCC. There are 13 states listed and Pennsylvania as a “participating state”. That makes 14 total.

The FAQ states, “… (PARCC) is a group of 19 states working together to develop a common set of computer-based K–12 assessments in English language arts/Literacy and math linked to the new,more rigorous Common Core State Standards (CCSS).”

Where did those other 5 states go?

If the PARCC website can’t even keep track of how many states are part of their own organization, how can they be trusted to grade rigorous math problems that require critical thinking skills?

It may seem like just a silly, minor mistake, but when you entrust a company like Pearson (who has historically made A LOT of mistakes Pearson Testing Problems)…little problems quickly become big ones.

These PARCC tests have been replacing midterms and final exams in some districts like Glen Ridge. These tests take a lot of time (a combined testing time of 9 hours and 45 minutes in 3rd grade and the time increases from there). The computerization of testing has cost districts a lot of money, which was spent often under the assumption that districts would receive reimbursement through Race To The Top (RTTT) funds. Well if RTTT is defunded, then what?

But most importantly the PARCC has impacted education, as I have written about before PARCC Data Drives Instruction. Even if the anti-testing movement succeeds, some of what was lost cannot be immediately regained.

Revolving door education reform has left many teachers exhausted, cynical and burned out. My mother retired from teaching kindergarten years ago, when they took her doll corner away. (As if the importance of play and all of the research supporting it suddenly didn’t matter.) How many dedicated teachers were driven into retirement or out of the profession because of the increasing focus on testing? How many students have already been turned off to learning?

The PARCC doesn’t want to stop at twice a year assessments. They have developed a whole battery of testing resources for teachers to implement all year long. That is if states agree to purchase and implement them. They rushed to buy Chromebooks, typing software, and increased connectivity…so why wouldn’t they?

According to their website there is an entire “PARCC Assessment System”.  That includes:

  • Diagnostic assessments in reading, writing and mathematics.
  • Mid-year assessments in ELA/literacy and mathematics
  • Performance-based assessments (PBA) in ELA/literacy and mathematics.
  • End-of-year assessments (EOY) in ELA/literacy and math.
  • Speaking and listening component (ELA/literacy only).

Each is described in great detail. Why? because these, my friends are all big moneymakers. Why just cash in on the tests? Why not make a backdoor deal with tech companies? (Sorry that’s not proven yet, but the investigation is underway LA School iPad Scandal.) Why not develop and sell a whole assessment system that makes money all year long?

I have read extensively about the dangers of high stakes testing and about the PARCC, but nowhere have I seen anyone mention this assessment system. The doubling of the testing time from one week to two weeks already had my teacher head spinning. But if states start adopting other components of this assessment system, I am not sure when students will actually learn anything, They will be assessed too often to learn anything with any depth and certainly with any creativity.

PARCC is based on the core belief that assessment should work as a tool for enhancing teaching and learning.”

It appears to me as if they used the wrong word.

The PARCC doesn’t aim to enhance teaching and learning.

It aims to replace it.

And boy will that make some corporate big wigs a whole lot of money!

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All quotes come from the official PARCC website:

http://www.parcconline.org/about-parcc

“Facts Are Stubborn.” – John Adams

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“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclination, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

-John Adams  in Defense of the British Soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre, December 4, 1770 http://www.foundingfatherquotes.com/father/id/1#section=quotes

John Adams, one of our founding fathers, spoke fiercely, intelligently, and eloquently in defense of American freedoms. But no matter how well he spoke, the one spark that colonists needed to support the American Revolution was facts. Once the people knew the facts, the fire was inevitable.

But aside from rhetoric, back then, the facts were not manipulated as thoroughly as they are today. In today’s society, the facts are so obscured and people seem satisfied to live in a maelstrom of bias. Their televisions, computers, phones, newspapers, and radios exist in a realm dominated by bias and special interest. Not only do people not know the facts, they don’t even understand their own rights anymore.

Since the beginning of the PARCC test, I have been asking why don’t we just say no. The argument I most often heard was that we can’t, because it comes from the state. Oh, so if it comes from the state, then we must do it? Is that how it works? Really? I thought the state was made up of elected officials? If we as educators, parents, administrators, board members, mayors, etc. do not like what the state says (or even worse think the state’s policies are detrimental to our children) then are we not obligated to inform them of such? Anyone could write a letter,place a phone call, organize a meeting expressing their views.

No one had to tell Superintendent Dr. Joseph Rella of Comsewogue School District his right to speak up, because he took it upon himself to speak up. He wrote an open public letter to the State Education Department and even robo-called all of the families in his district to invite them to a rally against high-stakes testing.  http://truthinamericaneducation.com/common-core-state-standards/ny-school-superintendent-on-common-core-stop-it-scrap-it-or-fix-it/

Dr. Rella’s letter went viral and should be revered as an example of what we need more superintendents to be. We need leaders not administrators content to collect a large paycheck for towing the line and complying with every changing mandate that comes down the line.

“Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom.”

John Adams: Defense of the Constitutions, 1787

Well, how can we educate our children on the principles of freedom, if we as adults do not even understand or exercise them? Why don’t we see more teachers voicing their concerns at school board meetings. I was told by an administrator that speaking at a board meeting is just too political for a teacher. Really? Well, if it is then it shouldn’t be. Teacher tenure was designed to protect teachers’ freedom in the classroom.

         Though tenure doesn’t guarantee lifetime employment, it does make firing teachers a difficult and costly process, one          that involves the union, the school board, the principal, the judicial system and thousands of dollars in legal fees. In              most states, a tenured teacher can’t be dismissed until charges are filed and months of evaluations, hearings and              appeals have occurred. Meanwhile, school districts must shell out thousands of dollars for paid leave and substitute              instructors. The system is deliberately slow and cumbersome, in order to dissuade school boards and parents from              ousting a teacher for personal or political motives. http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1859505,00.html

Tenure has been cited for the reason many bad teachers are still in classrooms, which I have certainly seen to be the case at times over the years. But the bigger problem I see is that more teachers do not use the power of tenure to advocate for what they know is right for their students. There is no reason a teacher should be afraid to stand up at a board meeting and speak. Though I realize not every teacher has the guts to refuse to administer a standardized test like this teacher from Florida did.  http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/09/11/florida-kindergarten-teacher-refuses-to-give-standardized-tests/ The fact is that she kept her job. Her passion and sincerity was acknowledged and respected.

The fate of high stakes tests tied to the Common Core standards is at this point uncertain, but I can tell you that the pressure is on. The evidence against the value of these tests is mounting quickly. See this article for an excellent synopsis of the arguments in favor of opting out of testing.

http://www.parents.com/blogs/parents-perspective/2014/12/19/education/im-saying-no-to-high-stakes-testing-and-you-may-want-to-too/

Facts are stubborn.

We need to be too.

PARCC Data Only Drives Instruction Into the Ground

I am not a big believer in the catch phrase “data-driven” instruction.

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A bulletin board from my 7th grade Reading and Language Arts Class that tracked books read on hand cutouts. The bottom papers are signed parent pledges to help their children meet reading goals.

 

 

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These posters were made by my students to sell impossible products such as a foul-smelling deodorant.

First of all, instruction cannot be driven by a test given in March and May, because by the time the results come in, the school year is over. So instead the school year is driven by test prep. In my previous school, this meant that 5th graders were taking practice PARCC tests on the computer every Friday. This was not to gauge their progress towards mastery of the standards so much as it was to get them familiar with the technology and format of the test.

Taking so much time to practice disrupts instruction, yet the acquisition of these computer skills is being sold as critical for college and career readiness. But I bet you that any employer would be willing to pay for a typing class for a potential employee who was a well-spoken, intellectually sound writer.

Secondly, the data, which the PARCC provides, only covers a subset of the knowledge and skills required by the Common Core Standards. (One test cannot test every single aspect of every standard. For instance, there are speaking standards that are not tested.)  By their very nature, a cumulative test has to be less than thorough. So when a teacher sees the test data in September for his or her new students, even the breakdown of strengths and weaknesses will not be enough to “drive instruction.” That teacher will still have to their own assessments. This is particularly true in Reading and Language Arts where there are so many subskills behind the reading and writing done on the test. The PARCC does not even give a reading level that would help guide a teacher to suggest appropriate independent reading books.

Thirdly, every teacher takes a course on assessments. While earning my M.A.T. at Johns Hopkins, we discussed, administered, and analyzed data from various types of standardized tests and teacher-made assessments. We learned about formative and summative assessments. The PARCC is a summative assessment that claims to be able to do what a formative assessment does, but it cannot.

The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. More specifically, formative assessments:

  • help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work
  • help faculty recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately

Formative assessments are generally low stakes, which means that they have low or no point value. Examples of formative assessments include asking students to:

  • draw a concept map in class to represent their understanding of a topic
  • submit one or two sentences identifying the main point of a lecture
  • turn in a research proposal for early feedback

http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/basics/formative-summative.html

The PARCC is not filling some void in education. It is replacing sound educational philosophy and practice. The students who the school districts deem in need of better scores, will be subjected to more PARCC-like practice (presumably from PARCC prep books that Pearson is gearing up to crank out and profit from or test prep programs like Study Island). But in reality those students are not getting any closer to better reading comprehension or writing skills. They are just going to be even more turned off by learning and school.

Finally, I don’t know about you, but I do not want data to drive the instruction of my children. I would much prefer sound education research and known best practices to drive instruction. Or better yet, well-trained happy professionals who feel fulfilled by their job and have enough energy and freedom to infuse their lessons with creativity. I want instruction driven by innovation. Or by the interests of the students. Or by current events. Or by the students themselves, as they are given tasks that make them think, create, and perform in ways that make them prepared for the challenges they will face not only in college or careers, but in life.

The phrase “data-driven instruction” is thrown around as if teachers have been wandering around aimlessly with no clue how to plan lessons. But the fact is that teachers are masters of assessment, all kinds of assessment. We devise our grading policies and in the end calculate the grades. We can often assess a student’s level of understanding by the expression on their face or their body language.

Now with the new software available, parents can see the individual assignment and test grades of their children as they are entered by the teacher. They get a running average throughout the marking period from the comfort of their own home.

We do not need any more data.

We know the United States is behind. We know there is an inexcusable divide in the quality of education that children get based on their race or socioeconomic status.

We have the data.

What we need are leaders that are not bound by the purse strings of lobbyists. We need local leaders to step up and take education back from the greedy hands of corporations and politicians and take it upon ourselves to ensure our children get the quality education they deserve. That means parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, and board members.

Let’s stop letting others do the thinking for us. Because they are getting it wrong. Gravely wrong.

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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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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!”

10 Things My Father Taught Me About Teaching

This is my dad.

dad swing

The picture shows how I choose to remember him most…smiling. That smile lit up the lives of thousands of children that passed through his gym over the nearly 40 years that he taught physical education and coached many teams. At his wake, the room overflowed with people of all ages. Many I knew, but so many I had never met or even heard about, yet my father’s death moved every single one of them to tears.

Here is just some of what I learned from him about being a teacher.

1. You can’t fool kids. If you don’t care or don’t like them, they will know right away.

2. There’s nothing wrong with getting down on the floor to play a game of duck, duck goose with a bunch of kindergarteners. (Not even if you are a 65 year old, 6 foot 3 inch tall black man.)

3. Not everyone is going to work as hard or care as much as you do. But you shouldn’t let that slow you down.

4. Murphy’s always working, so you might as well not sweat the small stuff.

*Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.

5. Always have fun, but set the bar of expectations high.

6. A custodian is not any less of a person than a principal. Treat everyone with respect.

7. Have zero tolerance for bullying or any sort of put downs in your classroom.

8. Never be afraid to speak your mind at faculty meetings, board meetings, union meetings, or anywhere.

9. If you have a good idea, work hard to make it a reality no matter who or what stands in your way.

10. Don’t be in a hurry to retire.

When my dad kept teaching past retirement age, colleagues constantly asked him when he was going to retire. He used to hate that. He loved his job. Once he retired, he said no one would call him Mr. Washington anymore, he would just be Mike.

Well, there he was wrong. He never was just Mike, or “just” anything….and he never will be.

Teaching is not a job that ends at the end of the day or at the end of the school year. It is a job that keeps working long after the teacher is gone and the students have moved on and grown up.