Sunday, September 29, 2013

Name that tune!

I’ve never really been an “in the box” kind of girl.  The thought of going off somewhere on my own is exciting, taking down a wall on my own to “surprise” the hubs is exhilarating (well, for me anyway!), tearing into yards of fabric to reupholster a chair for the first time is get the idea.  I guess I didn’t realize it or become okay with who I was until mid-thirties, but I have come to embrace who I am.  Different?  Yup.  Odd?  At times. March to (not just my own tune!) my own darn band?  Absolutely ... thank you very much!

While avoiding those obnoxious household demands meandering around the house this weekend I was thinking about my own learning history.  I distinctly remember getting in trouble in elementary school for “tapping” during Math – it was the best way I knew how to make sense of numbers.  There was another time when my teacher was FURIOUS that I was doing “some nonsense with numbers” and not doing “what I was told to do” on my paper – again with math.  Apparently I wasn’t thought of as a “numbers girl” and yet, thirty some years later what I did is now coined and widely encouraged as Touch Math and Base Ten or friendly numbers.  When, in middle school, we had to memorize the Preamble I decided to make up a tune to sing it to (and yes, I can still sing it today!).  But that wasn’t acceptable to that teacher and although I don’t remember my grade, I assure you it was a traumatic experience.  Musical ingenuity wasn’t valued over pure, rote memorization.  It struck me out of nowhere how inflexible my teachers were in finding out why I was doing things – all they knew is that it just “wasn’t THE right way”.  I wasn’t trying to push anyone’s button or be defiant (that came years later!!!!  ;-) I was simply doing what I had to do to learn what I was being asked to learn – it worked for me and made perfect sense to me, but that wasn’t considered, nor was it acceptable. 

As I shared my story of “tens” the other day, I showed the kids what I used to do when I added anything to a nine – if it was 9 + 7 I’d take a one from the 7 and “give it” to the 9 making the 9 into a 10, then I’d simply add the 6 remaining.  One of my kids literally jumped up from the rug and yelled “Oh my God, I D-O that!!!” – quickly mortified that he, a VERY quiet boy, had spoken out he slunk back on to the rug.  I praised him for speaking up and talking about his learning because it would help others see that there really are many more ways than one to do things.  He cautiously looked up at me and said, “But why did you get in trouble?  I just don’t get that.”  How do you explain to this 8 year old, with big doe eyes looking up at you with genuine concern & questioning, that you just don’t “get it” either?  Many days I’d like to pour a steamy cup of coffee, pull up a few cozy chairs, and talk with those teachers – for my own understanding and to become better in who I am for each little life I touch every day. Years of being told I was “wrong” sure took a toll on me.

I guess what strikes me even more is that in a way, so many things are the same in elementary schools some thirty years later – some classrooms continue to seem archaic, lines are really blurry between the two.  As the saying goes, “Would you want a doctor who still practiced the way she/he did thirty years ago?”  How often do we try to get into kids’ heads or do we just stay safely in our own?  How willing are we to listen to how kids learn and decipher information or is it easier to listen to the way we’ve always done it?  How “okay” are we with valuing kids working at their own ability level, producing in a variety of ways within given learning outcomes or are we only okay for them to produce the exactness of what we want?  Would noise and movement from kids constitute engagement & deeper understanding or would you rather encourage solitary learning forsaking depth?

Yes, my kids are 8, but already at week 3 they understand the value of learning with others, that there are many ways of learning, and that everyone has something of value to offer.  We began the year with the kids making up “essentials” for our room (not traditionally posted, teacher imposed rules) to function as a successful team, we are working to embrace the Swahili philosophy of Ubuntu (focusing on the importance of community, friendship, achieving together, sharing & that each of our actions affects the rest of the team), and I’ve worked to set up a safe learning space for every one of my learners.  It has taken time to teach my kids to rely on their own, as well as others’, understanding and abilities – we’ve become such a solitary society, but kids are resilient and have the power to make change.  They are working to share information, gain new ideas, and seeking more challenging ways to solve problems.  Yes, I do teach within the Common Core, regardless of my feelings for it, but I do it in a way that I know is developmentally appropriate and appropriately challenging for 8 year olds.  I do it in a way that allows kids to become intrinsically motivated to learn; usually gaining more understanding than I ever expected.  In third grade, we study communities of the world.  Why have every student study the same country?  If we need to find out geographical location, various features of a country, and cultural differences, why does every child need to get that information from the same country?  Is it wrong that we, as a learning community, learn so much more about many different countries and then share that information to help others gain understanding?  That is learning. 

Is there one thing you might change to make learning different?  Is there a topic you’re studying that you might change the learning outcome or even allow student voice in that outcome?  Is there something you can differentiate so each learner is appropriately challenged at their level – maybe reading?  Possibly Math?

So, many states have signed on to the Common Core which is now being pushed hand in hand with high stakes testing.  Unfortunately, I see more and more people equating learning to prepping students for a test & achievement number rather than prepping them for navigating challenges that they will face as learners. 

As I think back to my own school career, I just don’t see many things that are different now than they were then.  In a time when we have the power to have a voice and make changes for our kids, it doesn’t seem that many people are willing to take that risk.  It WILL impact kids if we continue to teach in the same ways we were taught and they learn in the same ways we learned.

I’ve got a new tune stuck in my head ...... anyone interested???

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

please take a number......

For two weeks I’ve been watching my kids, waiting for the day when I see that glimmer that I can grab onto and run with.  Run to begin inquiry based learning.  So, I wait.  Please take a number. . . . 

After talking with a special area colleague about my observations and curiosities, which she is sharing as well, I’ve begun to consider things more closely.  In the past few years I’ve noticed changes in kids.  One thing I’ve seen is what appears to be a significant challenge in not only working with others toward a common goal/interest, but in being able to cooperatively produce a learning outcome.  Mrs. S. and I debated the causes; society has changed, community sports are more often encouraging elite performance, cuts in school-wide programs and health classes have minimized practice in collaborative teamwork.  I’m not so sure it’s any of those, but what if, instead, it’s right before our own eyes?  What if it’s education itself?  What if the cause is right in our own classrooms?

My nine year old niece has asked many times what she needs to do to move into my classroom because she’s going to lose her mind with the worksheets they have to do (ie: test prep).  Lola is one smart cookie and casually mentioned over the summer “I hate school and I hate to read”   W-H-O-A. . . . Houston?   This kid has always LOVED school, is incredibly bright, and now the sudden shift?                                                On our first PD day back, a colleague told me that her daughter spent weeks last year being “prepped”.  She felt that it may have produced better numbers, but lost her daughter significant “real” learning time, caused incredible stress for her and their family, increased illness, & sleepless nights for her child; none of which were worth the price said eight year old paid. 

I know I’m “odd man out” and the things I do in my classroom raise eyebrows, but as I’ve said before I’m NOT a test prep girl and no matter what the pressure or the potential cost it has on my career, I won’t do it.  I have heard of a huge increase in teachers spending weeks (and in some cases, the year!) on test prep, although they likely don’t realize how much they do.  What if teachers, subconsciously, are fostering and possibly encouraging the mindset of independent, scores driven, superficial learning? 
The other day I asked my kids to look at our tub (yes, THE bathtub that has a prominent place in our class Living Room!) and asked what they wondered.  <<insert cricket chirping>>  They s-a-t there.  You know that “dead” wait time?  Eternity?  After about 5 minutes one of the kids finally broke out with, “I wonder if Dr. D knows that’s in here?”  (Great job kiddo – make this about me!).  Thankfully, that question was the platform that others needed, although guardedly, to begin to wonder, but in the way they thought was “right”:  How heavy it is?  When did it get in here?  Did it fit through the door?   And finally, slowly, they moved toward “bigger” questions:  How big was the factory it was made in?  Was it made in this country? What kinds of tools did they use to make it? What type of metal was used to make it?

After cancelling out the dead noise of uncertainty with such great questions, I gave them a new task.  In a learning journal I showed them how they could draw a bag, rather large, in the center of a blank page.  I then placed a paper bag that was clipped shut in front of 7 different learning teams and asked them to record everything they wondered about it.  I didn’t keep track so I can’t tell you how long it took them to come up with something – wiggling, looking, searching.  Watching each face I could tell this was painful.  They wanted an answer, wanted me to tell them what to do, afraid of a blank journal page.  They - just - wanted – me – to – give – them – a - paper to fill in the right answer.  When I heard some questions from a few teams I stopped everyone, asked them to share “sample questions” from their teams, and returned them to their task.......and then, new questions began;  Can I write it here?  Does my answer have to go in a certain place?  Where do you want me to put it?  How should I write this?   I came to a sad realization:  these kids truly have lost the art of wonder, the art of questioning and discovering, the art of safely taking a risk of new thinking, the art of learning  independently.  An even bigger realization for me?  The fear of not gaining an “effective score” or the fear of not having a clear majority of class proficiency on a high stakes test may be to blame. 

In an article published by Alfie Kohn, he gives 8 facts about “Standardized Tests and Its Victims” (well THAT’S a hard title to swallow!!!).  It amazes me that this article was published thirteen years ago and yet the fight is a much larger battle now and it’s obvious that not many listened to him.  I’m not sure which one of his facts that I love most, but #4 is incredibly thought provoking:
“Fact 4. Standardized-test scores often measure superficial thinking. In a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, elementary school students were classified as "actively" engaged in learning if they asked questions of themselves while they read and tried to connect what they were doing to past learning; and as "superficially" engaged if they just copied down answers, guessed a lot, and skipped the hard parts. It turned out that high scores on both the CTBS and the MAT were more likely to be found among students who exhibited the superficial approach to learning. …. But, as a rule, it appears that standardized-test results are positively correlated with a shallow approach to learning.Kohn, Education Week Sept. 27,2000

Kohn goes on to say that he knows he’ll be challenged on his research by defenders of high stakes standardized tests and adds five more points, including this one:

Far from improving education, high-stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy, from quality, and from equity." Here's why.    “*…Standardized tests tend to measure the temporary acquisition of facts and skills, including the skill of test-taking itself, more than genuine understanding”.  Kohn, Education Week Sept. 27,2000 

This reaffirmed my core beliefs of leading with inquiry, discovery, and reigniting that fire of intrinsic motivation to learn.  There’s NO WAY I can motivate ANY child to learn through test prep.  To acknowledge and affirm every child’s natural ability to learn I HAVE TO use active, student centered learning.  Yes, I’m still addressing the standards and am assessing along the way, but I’m doing it with the role of “lead learner”.  It’s a different role, it was uncomfortable at first, but I am RARELY at the center of the stage.  As one of my kids put it the other day, “So, you’re telling us you’re just like a chaperone along for the ride?”  Yes, my lil dear, that’s exactly what I’m telling you.

Imagine if we all held tight to the Kohn philosophy. 

Imagine if more people pushed back and teachers refused to “test prep”, but instead did “lifelong learning prep”.

Imagine if more parents pushed back and demanded an end to this nonsense and opted out, refusing to allow their children to be abused through these high stakes standardized tests.


Please excuse me, I think my kids are about to call my number . . .

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

s - - l - - o - - w

Have you slowed down yet?  No, really, how slow are you going? 

We just completed day 6 and there is cracking and breaking in the masks – the masks of self-protection and self-preservation, the masks of hesitation and wariness of 7 & 8 year olds who are terrified of third grade.  I’m starting to see things happening......not related to work, not to test prep, not to scores.  The kids are beginning to trust and put themselves out there, they’re beginning to take risks and to offer ideas, they're making decisions and giving direction. I must move carefully.

I’m keeping myself in the slow lane, bright orange triangle firmly attached, flashers blinking wildly – I am not keeping it a secret that I have yet to touch serious academics. I have to start slow now.  No worries, I’ll catch up and gain speed later.

My week has been full of starting off slowly, working on building a team and building trust.  The kids have worked together to come up with, refine, and define our “essentials”, not teacher imposed rules, but rather things we expect each other to live by in order to create & maintain our community of learning.  We have worked on routines and relying on self & one another, on pride in personal best. And we have worked together to be responsible for keeping our learning space pretty darned spectacular (Do you have ANY idea how much kids love carpet sweepers?!?!  Best purchase E-V-E-R!!).   

Each day we have spent a huge chunk of time on “team challenges”, with the sole purpose of building trust, teamwork, respect, and student choice & voice – there’s more in store for next week too!  In any situation where you have to rely on others & take risks you need to have the foundation of trust and the same is true for kids.  As high stakes testing and teacher evaluation gain momentum and the pressures mount on us daily, it’s pretty easy to lose sight of that.  But without a firm foundation of trust, learning, understanding, active engagement, and intrinsic motivation will be challenging to any child.  It’s “only” day 6......there are 176 more where those came from and in order for those days ahead to be incredibly successful I have to take it slow now.

Some of my favorite memories of professional development are the times when great friends & colleagues and I would pack up and trek off to New Hampshire for SDE conferences.  For years the motto of founder Jim Grant has been “Childhood should be a journey, not a race”.  I’m teaching more like that now than ever before. 

I’ll see you along the journey.  
And for now, I’ll be the one with my flashers on.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

I did it....okay, I did it again....

I did it.  Okay, wait.....I did it – AGAIN.  I stood up, I spoke out.....happily dragged in by two amazing teachers.

I first helped an awesome friend bring her vision to life to create a video promoting the March on Albany back in June.  It was a state wide, NYSUT led initiative to rally for public education and against high stakes testing.  It was so darn cool!  Neither of us will profess to be Carly Rae Jepsen, but her popular tune sure was a catchy way for Awesome Colleague to express her thoughts about the nonsense and government corruption in education.  It was tremendously empowering and was the first time during this whole mess that I’ve felt I had a voice – hers was much larger in this project, and it was inspiring.  The best part of this rally was that only 10,000 teachers, students, and families were expected, but it was estimated that about 20,000 showed up!  We were honored, and humbled that we were asked by NYSUT to allow them to show the video during the rally.  Here’s the link, but I warn you, I no longer sing Jepsen’s lyrics the way she wrote them!  

Came down from "Never Land" two weeks ago and when I got cell service (yes, I’m serious, there are still places in North America where there is no coverage) my phone was exploding about a new opportunity to speak out....and yes, I took it.  Last week I did an interview, with a super colleague from a neighboring district, at a local NBC television station about high stakes testing.  The intention was to talk about the impact on teachers and teaching.  We talked about the lowest morale I’ve seen in 17 years, the fact that phenomenal teachers are seriously looking into other career options, many who, out of fear of a low HEDI score, are turning to packets, workbooks, and constant test prep for the sake of a high score, and the fact that the atmosphere is incredibly morbid leading up to and especially during the assessments.  We also talked about how little there is to gain, educationally (of course there’s plenty of scandal to gain!), from the test score that is just that, a number, with NO OPPORTUNITY for diagnostic information from them nor item analysis since the tests are never seen again, we are forbidden (by the state) to talk about or share information about them, and there is never a chance to have a clear explanation of how the scores were arrived at.  But, our largest portion of the interview was about the kids......

Ah, the kids...we quickly turned the conversation to them, after all they're the reason we’re here.  Interviewer asked us about how these tests impact our relationships with the kids...this hit a nerve, so I unloaded.  Strong relationships are built on that my kids can take a risk and know that they are safe to make a mistake because that is an opportunity to learn, trust that no matter the depth or complexity of a learning path they take that I will be there to swoop down and help them to develop strategies to recover and move forward, trust that there is NO dumb question and we can always find an answer, trust that I am on their team and their side NO MATTER WHAT, trust that they can take a chance and believe that they won’t fail because everything they do is another opportunity to learn.  

As a professor once told me, “Trust is like a house of cards.  It takes patience, hard work, and perseverance to build, but it can be easily destroyed, in a short time, if not cared for” I spent hours, days, WEEKS building trust with my kids and with one felled swoop, the assessments shattered that house of cards that took weeks more to try to rebuild.  When interviewer looked at me curiously I told her to imagine being just 8 and telling your teacher that for every question that had four answers you KNEW three were wrong, you were likely to choose one of those, and you couldn't get any help for success – yep, direct quote from one of my kiddos.  In that moment, I let him down because I felt I was bound and gagged against my best judgment.   Imagine being 8, under immense pressure, struggling to make sense of something that is developmentally inappropriate and that same person who promised that you could trust her can no longer help, can no longer give you strategies, can no longer encourage you to look at a certain thing a bit more closely, can no longer promise you that you won't fail.  It’s gone.  I let them down, the trust was shattered....and I had no choice.  

When do we put our foot down and decide that we will NOT do test prep, but will instead do “life prep” and provide rigor every day?  When do we decide that WE are the trained professionals who know what’s best for kids?  When do we stand up against government that is trying to convince the public that all schools are failing?

When do we, teachers AND parents, stand up?  When do we, teachers AND parents, question and push back at the state level?   When do we begin to demand answers about these tests? 

And we decide that enough is enough and realize that what we do every day, day in and day out, each hour, each minute, impacts young lives and self-confidence – FOREVER.


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