Sunday, October 27, 2013

It's electric! (Nope, not the popular dance!)

Hello, my name is Melissa and I have a strong personality.

There, I said me or leave me, it’s who I am.  Lots choose “leave me” – it’s easier there. 
I don’t give up, I don’t walk away, I fight for what I believe in and that can be a lot to take.  I’ve put blood, sweat, and tears into becoming a strong, confident woman & educator and won’t apologize about who I am (insert pity for my parents, kids, hubs, and colleagues here!).   

I have incredibly strong feelings about test prep.
I have incredibly strong feelings about homework and packets.
I have incredibly strong feelings about superficial learning.
I have incredibly strong feelings about every classroom looking the same way.
I have incredibly strong feelings about high stakes testing and truthfully most tests. 
I have incredibly strong feelings about being encouraged to use a script to teach from. 

Although there weren't many, I did have some incredible teachers who took the role of lead learner and provided remarkable, thought provoking, challenging classes – unfortunately it was at the college level.  Most of my elementary and high school years consisted of worksheets, rote learning, spit it out on a test; I remember most teachers’ names or a humiliating experience I had in their room, but that’s about all.  I won’t be that teacher.   

Since we, in New York, are now being encouraged to use state provided scripts (teacher says this, students do this) to teach from I feel like we’re in a bigger battle that we ever imagined and it terrifies me that many will sit back and accept it. Recently, I sat through hours of a PD meeting being talked at about how wonderful these things were, being shown videos of “exemplar teachers” teaching, etc.  I was floored how basic these ideas were, but even more how “rote” the lessons and videos were.  There wasn’t much innovation, nothing that I haven’t seen somewhere in my building or district.  But we have minimized education to watching videos and being handed scripts from state ed (did I mention the ELA are written by a “for profit”, education reform company?) and being coerced to believe that our kids are failing miserably because of scores on tests. 

We have minimized and demoralized public education and the knight in shining armor has become rote scripts, test prep, and scores.  If I may.....we are entering dangerous territory.

Administrators worry about how their building may look or are quick to compare building scores and put on bravado, the childish armor of confidence, when comparing their test scores to others rather than discussing and sharing how well their kids can solve problems, find solutions, or come up with their own intriguing questions.  Better yet, they could encourage conversation and provide time for professional sharing in classrooms. This “my scores are better than your scores” mentality serves only to compare, divide, and fragment our children’s education.  When scores are so heavily leaned upon they pit colleague against colleague; sharing and valuing ideas is diminished, and safety within collegial teams is destroyed.  After reading some work of Michael Fullan, I was struck by his quote, The four ‘wrong’ drivers (a policy and related strategies) are compelling on the surface, and have a lot of face-value appeal for people with urgent problems. They will be hard to dislodge. The politics will be fierce because leaders want immediate results, and are susceptible to what look like plausible solutions but turn out to be silver bullets.

When encouraging test prep and sameness, students lose out on an intrinsically motivating education, a place that encourages life learning, in and out of the classroom.  I have yet to meet a child who wakes up each morning excited to go to a classroom where it is scripted, test prep focused, and a superficial learning experience.  I was blown away a few weeks ago on the soccer field when a mom approached me and we continued what seems to be our weekly education talk.  She told me how things have changed so drastically with her kids in 5th and 2nd grade – they used to leap out of bed to get ready for school and bound off the bus at the end of the day to tell her of their packed, exciting days.  Now, they won’t get up in the morning and cry when they do, they beg her not to “force them” to go to school, and plead for her to home school them.....because school “used to be fun” and they hate being there now.  After school they’re packed down with hours of required rote reading, responding, and completing worksheets instead of being encouraged to create, build, explore, find out, and ask; in my opinion, all for the sake of a score.  My heart broke; it completely shattered to know that at 7 and 10 these kids think so little of themselves or of learning.  Kids who used to be so excited about school that they didn’t want to have weekends so they could learn more, kids who couldn’t wait to get back into the classroom to see what was next, now are begging their parents to keep them away from it.

Again, Michael Fullan addresses successful schools:  "Thus intrinsic motivation, instructional improvement, teamwork, and ‘allness’ are the crucial elements for whole system reform. Many systems not only fail to feature these components but choose drivers that actually make matters worse.

I will be the first to admit, I’m incredibly lucky to have the building administrator I have.  Believe me, it makes a huge difference to have the kind of support that I have.  I can whole heartedly tell you though, that when we no longer have him I still will be who I am.  I won’t change who I am for the wishes of those I work for if they’re unfounded or not based on reliable research – and yes, I will risk having a massive file of insubordination letters or disciplinary action, but I won’t sacrifice a child’s education or belief in themselves as a successful learner.  I am also incredibly blessed to have teammates that I trust completely; we are able to safely encourage each other to do what we know is best, share ideas and projects, support each other’s ideas and insights – they are invaluable to who I am as an educator.

As we worked on Friday on a student inspired unit on owls, grown from Poppy our current read aloud, the kids shared found information with each other.  While staying in given parameters, they were to come up with their own focus of study, some incredibly intriguing, ones that I couldn't have dreamed they’d come up with, let alone tackle; comparing size, location, and habitats of owls across the world, determine various speeds of flight and diving capabilities, in depth study of one specific owl, and anatomy of owls. (yep, I'm proud to say they're 8!)  I haven’t given a worksheet or a pre-printed anything – simply a pile of books, parameters they will have to work within, and a whole bunch of encouragement and excitement for learning.  The atmosphere has been electric and exciting.  They have “boo-ed” me when it has been time to go to recess and have come running around the corner at me in the morning to show me the map they printed or facts they learned at home – which weren't required.   I am teaching within the standards, but not within a bubble.  Will they “ace” the state assessments?  Maybe, maybe not.  But I won’t sacrifice the love and excitement of learning that happens every day in my room for a score earned over a few days.

As one student cleaned up on Friday, she turned, looked up at me with her big, beautiful eyes and said, “Learning is magical!”

“Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform”  Michael Fullan  2011 Centre for Strategic Education Seminar Series Paper No. 204, May 2011

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

The power of one...

I’ll admit I was pretty bummed that Malala Yousafzai was not chosen in winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I think we missed a huge opportunity to teach young people the power of one – the power of one young woman standing up and fighting for others' educations.  She’s not a corporation, she’s not in it for the fame, and she’s certainly not in it for the money....just one young woman out to save as many as she can.  I wanted Malala Yousafazai to win for my son, and for my daughters, and for the over 300 kids who have been part of my classroom family and will always be part of my life.

But something happened last night that made me turn Malala’s mission around for some self-reflection in my own classroom.  The district that Dear Hubby and I work for played our high school Alma Mater in a Friday night “under the lights” game lastnight – purple and gold runs deep in our families – my mom and dad, sister and brother, and Dear Hubs wore multiple Varsity letters (I know you’re shocked I’m not in that list!) and lined the field clad in purple and gold.  For years the hubs would go to high school games, sometimes with old teammates & lifelong friends, and each time I’d ask, “Did you talk to Coach B?  It would mean a lot to him if you’d talk to him and maybe let him know what he meant to you.”  Answer has always been “No” or “He’s too busy for me”, “too focused on the game” or other more technical “football-ese” that I completely don’t understand (and he proudly takes advantage of!).  You see, the coach/teacher that Hubs played all four years for is still producing winning seasons at dear old THS.   After begging and badgering for years I gave up.

Last night, was different.  Bea raced into my room while Hubs was still unpacking the truck and said, “Mom, Dad went to the fence and waited for him!  He finally talked to Coach!”   Hubs came in shortly after and said, “Did Bea tell you I saw Jack?”  (me:  nodded, grinned)  “His kids are good you know.  They’re grown and ....” and proceeded to tell me every detail about the conversation including the things that he “can’t believe he remembered”.  This coach was a favorite teacher at our inner city high school; it was hard to get into his classes and I’m proud to tell you that it was t-h-e  o-n-l-y  A  I ever earned in high school and it was NOT due to my athletic prowess!  ((insert roaring giggle))  Coach B, one of Hubs’ two favorites, didn’t have to talk to him, didn’t have to make time to catch up, didn’t have to make time to talk to our daughter and ask questions, but he did – he was the one.   The thing that makes this more special is that football and these coaches were Hubs’ lighthouse in a pretty rough teenaged life.  There were so many things the coaches didn’t know he was going through.  He always brought his A game, but in turn the support they gave him got him through those tough struggles they had no clue about - he couldn’t afford a coveted gold banded, purple Varsity jacket to put his hard-earned Varsity letters on and although he was desperate to make his coaches proud and accept that football scholarship to Rutgers he was devastated that he couldn’t for reasons that were out of his control.  He went on to face adversity and I often wonder how many of their life lessons he continued to carry to get him through losing his dad unexpectedly, in his arms, at 23 and his mom not long ago, that proving himself his whole life has been a battle that he has proudly taken on; mindful of each struggling step.  And in one turn, one conversation, Coach B has no idea the impact that he once again made on my dear Hubs’ life – because he was the one, the one who was there then and the one who was here now.  He took just a few moments.  He retaught and rehashed and reaffirmed every life lesson he taught my guy some (gulp) thirty years ago.  And he doesn’t even know the power his words and his integrity have.

As I crawled into bed, Hubs fast asleep with what seemed a small smile on his face, I wondered if I have made that kind of difference to the kids who have crossed my path.  Do “my” kids get together with old classmates and tell stories and share memories about my classroom?  Does that child who has moved on know that I’d do anything for them?  Did I teach each day with such integrity and strength that my kids KNOW that I will always have time, that they will always matter?  Does each of my kids know with their entire being that their self-esteem, self-worth, their view of themselves as learners is WAY more important to me than a test score? 

I truly believe we’re about to make a huge mis-step.  I truly believe that we need to take back control of what we know is best for kids and best for their learning.  That it’s about WAY more than an effectiveness rating.  That it’s about WAY more than how the education department and media portray me in the news.  That it’s about intrinsic, real world lessons and not about modules made by an education reform corporation.  That it’s about me getting down and dirty to make a difference for one child in my room.  That it’s about me making a difference on the day that a child is at their worst.  That it’s about me standing up for what’s right for my kids & classroom when others just want me to sit down and be quiet. 

As Malala Yousafazai said, "I speak not for myself but for those without voice ...”  Thanks Malala, I’m going to be that one and thank you for being that strong, young woman to stand up and show the world strength & power & courage and the difference one can make.

And thanks Coach B, from all who have crossed your path (and for my only A!), but especially for what you've done for my’ll just never know your power of one.

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