Tuesday, October 28, 2014

These are the days of our.......oh, nevemind!

Teenagers are interesting creatures.  Beez has this lovely come back for many of my comments, “And you wonder why people are afraid of you?”  It has become a well-known family joke, but I think about this often. 

I come from a long line of strong women and I won’t apologize; truthfully, I’m proud to carry on their legacy.  I want my girls to someday realize that they had a strong Momma who fought for justice and equality.  But, I guess the thing that is most concerning is NOT that I “scare” people, but that people generally don’t like a strong woman with an opinion or one that questions.   I’m not easily led, with a hook in my mouth, to “jump on the latest bandwagon”, but I’m afraid that’s where I’m being forced to go.  As a teacher I'm angry, as a mom I'm outraged.

It’s clear that education is under attack like never before.  We’re under attack from the wealthy, the politicians, the profiteers, and sadly some within our own, local districts and it is our responsibility to speak up for justice, for what’s developmentally appropriate for children.  I recently met with parents who are “well aware” that their child is struggling.  When the mom told me, “It’s really clear <child> is struggling.  That’s all we hear.”  I was disheartened.  She went on to tell me that she was grateful to talk about the progress the child was making, no matter how slow and below grade level they are.  A dad recently told me, “I sell cars.  I read spreadsheets and numbers every day.  THAT’S where numbers should matter, NOT with my kid’s education.”  Wow, incredible, honest insight from people who love their children more than anything. 

But it left me with the nagging question, “What are we doing?”

I am someone who has always questioned, for information and to better myself and my practice, and I have come to realize, with a new school year under way, that even “closer to home” it is no longer okay to ask questions, to bring up an opposing view – no matter how grounded in research, no matter how level headed those questions may be.  I used to be in a situation where I could have dialogue about research and ideas and wrestle through questions WITH leadership rather than be marked for it.  For most of my career, I've been in situations where I didn’t have to be afraid to try a new approach in my classroom, to think differently, to take a unique stance on a topic, to take risks so that my students could think, learn, and challenge each other.  I was respected for finding several ways around a problem instead of avoiding it and doing almost everything I could to help a child learn, no matter how odd it seemed from the outside looking in. 

Now, I find myself criticized, scrutinized, and talked about for moving off the script, for using my professional judgment, for meeting standards differently than others, and for having autonomy in teaching.  I won’t hide my opinions or the differences in the way I approach education and for that I have paid the price of becoming a “person of interest”.  I am told that the choice administration has made is “non-negotiable and that will not be sabotaged”.  I’m not a lock step girl, but believe firmly in the practice of differentiating lessons and learning because it’s grounded in research & best for children and I believe firmly in fostering the love of learning to allow children to make progress and grow that intrinsic desire to learn rather than be locked in that same marching order step as everyone else – what I affectionately call the “minionization of education”.  The “culture of learning” in so many classrooms has been stripped away and become an oxymoron; there are no longer “clear demonstrations of intellectual achievement regarded collectively” – many classrooms have become places of regurgitation; scripted sit and listen lessons, and answer the same exact questions for several different stories.  Many of us have been minimized to teaching data, not children and children are paying the ultimate price - they're losing out on a strong education and the gifts of excellent teachers.  And I'm not just speaking for "those children", I'm speaking for MY children.

Although I’m being held in a box, not by my choosing, I’ll continue to march to my own band and make lots of noise from my box.  I’ll continue on my path, no matter how grown over it is, no matter the obstacles that are placed in my way.  I won't let the box fall in on me.

I’ll continue to read the books that the script says I have to read, and I’ll meet the standards that the script says I have to meet so as to not be “disciplined for not doing what I’m told”.  But you better believe that inside this box there’ll be some serious learning going on. 

We’ll meet standards that “aren’t supposed to be taught” until later in the year and we’ll take on challenges that push my kids’ minds to the very limits; ones that a script couldn’t dream of.  But I’ll still be in the box. 

I’ll do art projects and use iPad apps that promote deep understanding and honor learning differences.  I will link each to standards to “prove I’m teaching”, our classroom will foster risk and respect mistakes, I’ll continue to push my kids to think critically and question themselves & others, and most of all we’ll work to build each other up, continually encouraging our teammates.  But we’ll be inside that box. 

I will continue to set aside everything each Friday afternoon to do team challenges to build strength within our team, to learn to value each other’s abilities, and successfully use differences as strength in our team.   Because no matter what the “work force” will be for my current eight year olds, working with others will NEVER change as the climate in education will.

The box is waiting .... and it’s about to get noisy!
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Sunday, October 5, 2014

DaVinci? Or the average Joe?

One of my summer adventures was my first trip flying off to Vegas with my mom to see dear friends; east coast transplants.  Of course we wandered from their home to the Strip and I was a COMPLETE tourist – you know, “that” person that the diehard gamblers wished would go away! 

We made our way to the Venetian – it just didn’t seem right that this second generation Italian-American would miss it!  I roamed the casino, mouth gaping, bumping into things and people as I looked everywhere but where I was going!  My eyes were wide in awe of the imaginations that made this place happen, the art and mastery of the craftsmen who created such a beautiful place – something got under my skin in this place.  Perhaps it was that we had master masons in our family, perhaps it was simply the creativity, heart and soul that was obviously poured into this place.  As we roamed the floors and endless hallways I stumbled, completely by accident, into a DaVinci gallery – I was in awe.  I wandered speechlessly (yes, a miracle in itself!) from invention to invention, idea to idea, the art, the mathematics, the mind.  As I strolled slowly along, I was even more struck by DaVinci’s brilliance and wisdom, well before his time......although he was incredibly disorganized, had his hand in so many projects, he was deemed a master of art and invention, of innovation and foresight.

As I continued to stare at each piece brilliantly worked, I contemplated what folks thought of him at the time – I doubt he had the respect and awe that he has today.  According to Helen Gardner, art historian, DaVinci is known today as a man of "unquenchable curiosity" and "feverishly inventive imagination" - which made me wonder if his genius was honored and respected then or seen simply as eccentric and a dreamer.  No matter, DaVinci continued to push through, ignore the nay-sayers and disbelievers and quietly go about dreaming with forward thinking – tough in any circumstance or time, but I kept wondering how challenging this was and how he kept pushing forward.

My wander continued and I kept wondering how many of us are willing to continue our push forward to do what’s best for our children, to go against “popular opinion”, to honor their own DaVinci?  How many of us will continue to work to push forward on issues and ideas that are rooted in research, that are intuitive and creative?  Are we willing to risk being a DaVinci, perhaps not popular at the time, but a true master at our craft?  Or are we happy settling for teaching from scripts, from something that anyone off the street could use to “teach”?  As I walked, I began to wonder where DaVinci would have fallen in today’s education system.  Perhaps he wasn’t as eccentric as believed, but saw great possibility in everything around him.  But would he “fit” in this rigid mold our kids are now facing?  Would he have continued to dream if he had been forced into scripted education?    

I have incredible respect for the people currently in education fighting this battle at the forefront.  The people who are standing up for what is developmentally appropriate for children, but who stand for those who see things more globally than what is on a script.  My hat is off to those who see more challenging options of allowing voice of teachers and honoring the knowledge of their educators, of facing the challenging road to “playing the game” using their own rules. 

My concerns about scripted modules and education are rooted in research by credible, known experts in the field and not in those looking to make a profit.  My concerns are rooted in reading a script that uses morally inappropriate “mentor texts” for young children, broaching topics and opinions on war and destruction by planes flying over, fear of stereotypical soldiers bearing rifles outside of schools and libraries.   They’ve grown from the faces staring off, unengaged because the text is boring to them, too challenging, or too easy, or simply sitting for forty-five minutes listening to a teacher talk at them has caused them to go on a mind trip to save their sanity.  It comes from the place where I can’t differentiate the text we use because it’s not in the script – it doesn’t matter the place the child is at, it matters what’s in the script.  My concerns stem from walking by a classroom of a wonderful teacher who is now, to her dismay, being a “good little soldier” reading from a script perched neatly in her lap while children are required to repeat back to her exactly what is first spoken by her:  “This is a heating system” – how insulting to this teacher or these brilliant little minds capable of so much more than robotic repeating. They grow from concern that we are teaching in depth about world religions where seven year old children need to know the number of Hindu gods and describe what they look like, the name of the Holy book, and explain reincarnation – we are crossing the line from respecting family values and beliefs to imposing new ones.

Believe me, I have NO PROBLEM with my children learning about world cultures – personally, my children are very familiar with the culture of our family’s “homelands” and their religions, cultures and beliefs.  They know, in depth, of my niece’s birth family – their culture and history and their Buddhist beliefs.  We speak of a friend’s family member who served in Germany under Hitler’s reign.  But that’s MY right to teach MY children what I believe is appropriate for them. 

In my grade level, we (used to) have a great depth of understanding of cultures around the world – all throughout the year learning about their schools, homes, food, transportation, families, clothing, traditions, etc and (used to) celebrate that in an end of the year Travel Expo extravaganza where students show incredible mastery of their understanding.  THEIR understanding, THEIR ownership, not what I am forced to impose.  The joy, the excitement, the brilliance of this day was incredible – all honoring cultures from around the world WITHOUT disrespecting families’ values and beliefs.   Call me crazy, but I can’t seem to see that same excitement from young children reciting back to teachers.  The boredom, the disengagement of children is palpable.  This hasn’t even touched on the quickly declining morale of master teachers, of those who have devoted themselves and their careers to engaging and honoring students.  The conversation of “my profession has left me” and looking on to what they could do if they left it is continual and makes me furious.

It’s concerning to me that we have DaVinci’s sitting in front of us, as we read scripted lessons, that will be destroyed and dishonored.  My fear is that we will label children the “problem child” for not completing work because they see things more broadly than the expected, specific answers provided in our neat little scripts.  That child who desperately wants to do things a different way than is on the script will become disengaged.  For having so many interests in many different things that aren’t included in the recitation, a student will be penalized.

In 1967, Liana Bortolon said: "Man is as uncomfortable today, faced with a genius, as he was in the 16th century. Five centuries have passed, yet we still view Leonardo with awe."  

How will you give voice to your DaVincis?

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Saturday, September 20, 2014

My beacon

It feels cathartic to write today.

I’ve been on a self-imposed exile from all things education.  It was a rough end to the school year and unfortunately a rough start – amazing to me that in education, the “issues” are never the kids.  Loved them last year, love them already this year.
This summer has been one filled with emotion and the next few blogs will be connected to those times and moments that smacked me into the reality that what I do STILL isn’t a job.....it’s a passion, a gift, my calling in this life.

After many trials and tribulations, Dear Boy has moved to Portland, Oregon to earn his Bachelor’s degree – more on him in the weeks to come.  As we flew out I was amazed by the landscape of our beautiful country - at 40 something, I’ve done the first trips of my life west the Mississippi this summer, just a sheltered East Coast girl I guess!  We flew over beautiful cities, plains and vast farms that were just amazing in their squareness and breadth.  As we went farther and farther on our journey I realized that even though I kind of knew where I was, I really didn’t have any idea at all.  I’m the kind of girl that needs to know where I am and where I’m going, but I was baffled by where we were.  As we flew further west, I was amazed at the jaggedness of mountains and how brown everything was.  But, I was in desperate search for a beacon to guide me, to make sense of where we were.   Thankfully for Southwest wifi I’d occasionally I’d see something I thought I’d recognize from the map – lights of Chicago, the plains over Minnesota and the Dakotas, jagged, brown mountains and ruddy, deep crevices.  Finally, as I was about to lose my mind, the landmark that told me there was hope – the unexpected, magnificent beauty, providing optimism - rising out of nowhere, Mt. Hood.

We spent several days touring Portland and southern Washington, while Dear Boy, settled in to his new life as a “west coaster”, we saw Multnomah Falls (breathtaking!), drove along the edge of the Columbia River gorge, crossed the Bridge of the Gods (I’m guessing the name is because you pray so hard when crossing!), and down the scenic coast of Washington.  It was just a spectacular trip and can’t wait to get back out there – new, exciting, and amazing.

After a few tearful nights, we said our farewells to our first born, knowing we were about to give him those well-earned wings and let him fly like never before.  Perhaps it was the exhaustion from not sleeping, the emotion of knowing that my boy had fought and clawed his way through school to earn this wonderful new world, the reality that 3,000 miles is farther than any Momma should have to get used to, but on our flight home, in complete darkness out our plane window, it struck me. 

Trying to make sense of the landscape out the window was just like trying to make sense of the current landscape in education.  We’re being pushed around by high stakes testing, high powered executives and millionaires believing they know more about children than we do, for profit companies are more willing than ever to do what they can to buy education, some of us are being forced into using scripted “education”, teachers are being pit against one another, numbers and data have taken over whole child education and developmentally appropriate learning.  The vision of the barren, harsh, jagged landscape of the west keeps playing over and over in my mind.  Yes, it’s beautiful and breathtaking when you fly over and you could be easily convinced by those “over us” of how wonderfully, awesome, and amazing it is.  But being dropped into the middle of that landscape, surviving on your own, responsible for 20 or 30 children’s well-being and education in that setting is detrimental, to say the least.  It starves creativity, it’s dangerous for developmentally appropriate learning, and it wears down one’s ability to see clearly.  So, yes, this has been heavy on my mind.  I’m living it now and hate every minute of the political posturing, of the top down mandates, of the insanity over testing.

At Open House the other night, I assured parents that through this insanity - locally, statewide, and federally - I would do everything in my power to do what was educationally and developmentally sound to protect and progress their children.  That high stakes data doesn’t reflect who their child is and I will work my hardest so each child makes their own progress – not what is “expected” by people who don’t know them.   I reassured them that I would do everything in my power to protect their child from the unsound education practices that are being forced on children and educators today.   

And then, just like Mt. Hood rising up out of nowhere, I found my beacon – my center, my hope. 

Following the presentation, I had parents thank me for what I do – that my comfortable, non-traditional classroom and my philosophy reflect my passion for education.  I had another parent tell me her disgust that we have moved to adopting the NYS modules for “education”, while another was rather vocal about the standards - both assuring me they too are fighting for education.  Another parent noticed my comment that my students use my own personal iPad to update our classroom Twitter page and offered to try and get iPads donated to my classroom.  It was such a moving, amazing, emotional night and it was then that I knew I had found my beacons.  The next day, exhausted, but honored by the support I have, I received two emails from parents – one thanking me over and over for using sensory integration in my classroom, and thanking me for honoring, accepting, and acknowledging the importance of educating the whole child and not just being focused on the mandates and the heavy handed, unsound, pressures in education. 

The other parent apologized for not being able to think of enough items to fill the section of the “getting to know your child” student sheet that asked about things to celebrate about their child.  Very humbly I share, she went on to say that she and her husband had thought about it later that night and it hit them that I was one of the things they were celebrating – they were thrilled that I was willing to get to know him and not just curriculum, they were thrilled that my focus is on building the kids up so they know they are an expert on themselves and own their learning, they were thrilled when I told them that my focus was not on high stakes data, but on their child making progress and moving each child forward from where they are now.   

I promised the parents that night, and I mean it with every fiber of my being, that above anything else, I would do everything in my power to protect their children, to move them forward, to help them understand that they are in charge of their own learning and are smart and capable in their own way.  I promised to continue to read accurate, competent, reliable research, not manipulated information, and to do what I would for my own children. 

I found my beacon in this insane world of education. 
We must make sure we are centered on our children and what is truly best for them. 

Mt. Hood has never had more meaning in my life.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Scars into Strength

I kept staring at them. 
.all different.
.some broken.
.others stained. 
.a few had scars showing years of experience.
.some pretty damaged beyond repair.
.all sitting there just waiting for my next move.

As I cut each of those thirty pallets apart, I couldn’t help but continue to draw parallels to kids whose path has crossed mine over eighteen years.  Each had a story and none were more important than others. 

There were the cracked, broken, seemingly “unsalvageable” boards - those kids who came from broken, struggling homes – I kept wondering, almost obsessively, where that one boy was – I worried about him each day after he left my classroom, seeming so lost, but I wouldn’t give up hope, not even after all these years. 

There were those who were perfectly straight and narrow – the kids who knew exactly where they were headed even in third grade.  Nothing shocking me about their drive, their plan for their future.

There were some marked and scarred – the kids I found fascinating because they used those scars and turned them to strength.   Those silent fighters who turned turmoil into triumph.  Maybe I was most fascinated because they are the ones I see in my own school experience.

As I dulled blade after blade, the Hubs rolled his eyes and wasn’t thrilled in the least with my latest adventure.  Life with me is like riding the Bullet train ...... on the OUTSIDE!!!! I like things interesting and I don’t mind change.  Him? Keep things the same, no changes please.  He couldn’t see what I saw in those boards, couldn’t see my vision for the end product of creating a “feature wall”.  He just waited - and I’m sure somewhere secretly hoped that just once, one of my crazy plans would fail enough for me to quit coming up with the next one!  He seems to forget there’s a driven, crazy woman in the person he married!

After each board was cut, I piled them neatly in the corner, waiting to bring each to its new home.  There’s something about the drone of a Saws All – there’s so much time to think, to ponder, to create, to wonder.  I felt so connected to this project because as I worked I went through dozens of names in my head, kids that were mine, kids that I fought to help them to their potential.  I knew I had a huge job to get each onto a twenty foot long wall and make something beautiful.  I was determined and fierce about this job.  I knew I had to work carefully and change the plan as I worked in order to get the most from every board – I became more determined and passionate as I placed each board.

Section after section, I stepped back to look carefully at what was forming; changing the plan as I went.  Some I needed to take off and rework, while others needed a little nudging or bending to work themselves.  Some were where they needed to be, some had to be worked differently.  And then it hit me – this is more like education than I even realized.  I had one job to do; cover that wall with wood and have amazing things happen in the process to produce a beautiful end product.  How I got there wasn’t the focus.  I used a little skill and some talent, love for art, a careful eye, and craft to get to the end product.  Sometimes it was easier than others, sometimes it got messy, but in the end there was something beautiful. 

Isn’t that the job we face each day?  We walk into a room filled with kids that carry some mark and it’s up to us to find the beauty and prove they will succeed, no matter the standard, no matter the module or lesson – KIDS are why we’re there.  And just like putting that wall together piece by piece, step by step, that’s what we do for kids, we build them up and help them to see the worth and beauty in themselves, to see themselves as lifelong learners. 

We are given different children, at different places, with different stories.
We are expected to help them make progress no matter the place they’re at, the baggage they bring.

What scares me about education right now is “sameness” or my current thorn: “similar”. 
Similar scores
Similar experience
Similar books
Similar worksheets
Similar scripts

At what point does this sameness become harmful rather than helpful?
At what point will be able to respect who kids are and the stories that are theirs?  Bring kids farther on their journeys while honoring who they are and how they learn?  Giving each a unique experience that will help them move further on their path to becoming lifelong learners.

I grew up in a time where the way I learned wasn’t okay.  My story was pretty average; middle class “intact” family, two income family, two siblings, a dog and a cat. 
But that’s where it ended. 
School was hard for me – I vividly remember getting in trouble for doing Math a certain way by tapping on the numbers (that I should have made a fortune off of – known now as Touch Math) and was made to feel like a fool while adding numbers by making tens (hmmm, thanks in advance Singapore for sending me royalties).  Drawing what I learned was something I did in secret; I’d make up songs to remember things like the Preamble and prepositions, but did all not chancing a teacher finding out. 
Left brained students were encouraged and did exceedingly well; they sat in their rows or spots and listened intently, they crossed all their t’s and dotted each and every i, they scored exceedingly well on standardized tests; it worked for them because that’s the audience teachers taught to. 

My right brain and I were left floundering; believing that I wasn’t smart enough because I could NOT sit there for hours on end and “just be quiet and listen” – I thought things through and took them in so many directions, making my own connections, that I missed facts in between.

I believed that I was a dumb kid.

I believed that I wasn’t good enough – to whom? I don’t know, but I was a kid and all I knew was that the experience of school was painful.

I believed I was irreparably damaged.....until I was strong enough to push through and not let people hold me back.   I’m so sorry to say that the best day of my own school life was when I walked out of public education, well-earned diploma in hand.

No one cared about my story.

No one looked at my scars, that school itself had caused, and saw strength and triumph, but only damage and defeat.  And I still see this with my own kids; the “sameness” continues although we don’t want to see it that way.

And that’s what scares me now heading into a world of modules and sameness.  The way I learned, the things I had to do to make sense of my learning were just not okay within the parameters and script my teacher was using.   Whole groups and teacher droning just about caused me to lose my mind.

We need to move carefully in this time of such quick change.  As my great grandmother used to say – The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’m not the same. 
My kids are not the same.  Most, not even similar.  
Each is unique, each with a story to tell ...... and I feel passionate and responsible and driven to keep pounding away and advocating for each of them. 

There are too many stories that have no voice but mine.

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Monday, May 26, 2014

It's time.

Five minutes in a room with me and you’ll have full view of my “right brain” – my love of art and music, the way I see things in pictures.  I could easily drive someone crazy with my endless perspective on passing clouds or objects in the branches of trees.

I’m that person who gets a song stuck in their head and not only hums and sings the tune, but digs deeper for the meaning and connection to me and my life.  So, lately it’s been a tune by artist Matthew West.  The chorus is really catchy.....
“If not us, then who?
If not me and you?
Right now, it’s time for us to do something.”

Matthew wrote this story after being inspired by a young, incredibly courageous college student, Andrea, who stood up to the Ugandan government over travesties at an orphanage.    Not happy with so many children being homeless after the orphanage WAS shut down, she decided to create a safe place for these children and has gone on to start Musana orphanage in Iganga, Uganda.

This young woman is so inspirational and her story incredible.  While I haven’t left the country to begin an orphanage or approached foreign government, I believe some of the things I’ve done have impacted others. 

My own children have heard my new mantra:  “If not you, then who?”  (Even my “school kids” have heard me say this!)  I let them know that they must act on situations they want to change.  I encourage my kids each day to “do something” no matter how small.  Whether it’s sticking up for someone else, doing the right thing when others ignore it, going the “extra mile” when you really want to sit down and rest, when you need to just dig a little deeper but would rather sit on the side. 

For many years I often kept my opinions on education changes to myself.  Silently I went along with decisions, fiercely disagreeing, but kept quiet because I was never asked my opinion.  I’d do my job and would continue to “do something” within the walls of my classroom.  Decisions would be made and the perception was that I agreed, but I’d research and be sure decisions and policies were created from sound research before I’d ever “jump on”.  I guess it’s as I’ve gotten older and more secure in who I am that I now act on the injustice I see, I have taken on more of an activist role – not always popular, but what I know I have to do to stand up for what is right and "do something".

I often share with my kids the things I have fought for – for them and their education, for what’s right in life situations, for what’s best for kids in classrooms, when I question a decision being made, etc.  I tell them the good, the bad, the ugly.  I share even when I’m not most popular, looked down on, disregarded, even ignored, and when I feel like I’ve taken on something I’ll never win – I want them to understand the importance of doing something even when you may not come out on top.    I also share the things I’ve successfully advocated for –humbly keeping the focus on others and the act of doing what’s right.

These days I find myself pondering Matthew’s chorus and asking myself:
  • At what point in education do you stir the pot to question a decision? 
  • At what point is it okay to head directly into conflict when you disagree with a decision that will impact children?
  • At what point is it okay to speak up when kids are part of the equation?
  • At what point is it okay to have the strength to take the less traveled road to be an advocate for children’s futures?
  • At what point do we gain the courage to stand up, as activists, to assure sound decisions are made for our kids and education?

“Right now. 

It’s time for us to do something.”
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Sunday, April 27, 2014

High stakes testing? No, thanks.

“Standardized testing has swelled and mutated, like a creature in one of those old horror movies, to the point that it now threatens to swallow our schools whole.” Kohn, Education Week, 9/27/00

Imagine that!  Alfie Kohn made this statement FOURTEEN years ago and it may be truer today than it was then.  This is one heated topic right now and I’m not sure if I should go about it as a parent or as a teacher.  I can tell you one thing, no matter which side I come from I can tell you with every fiber of my being, as mom and teacher, my daughter will NOT take part in high stakes testing; E-V-E-R.

I’ll start from “the mom side”.  The hubs and I know our daughter better than anyone; her strengths, her challenges, her gifts and talents, and her downfalls.  There is no “test” on Earth that will ever be able to accurately evaluate her and give me any feedback worth putting her through the testing to begin with.  Although I’m insanely slightly, sorta competitive in nature, I do NOT need to see how high her three digit number is, or if she gets a “perfect” score in order to tell whether or not my daughter will succeed in life – I put more faith in my ability as a mom than that.  Doodle Bug is a pleaser and if she thought for one minute that she wouldn’t do as well as she “should” or she’d let people down or she “should” get them all right, it would greatly affect her and I will NOT put my child through something like that for a worthless score.  I do have to say that my “big kids” DID take state assessments when they weren’t so grueling; what a difference 10 years makes!  Even still, every time the scores were mailed home I promptly fed them to my woodstove......not important and I would NOT let them define who my kids were.  That truly is the value I placed on those tests – NONE.  My child’s life is not up for use in the political posturing, teacher bashing state we’re in – not happening.  But in the end I TRUST the teachers my kids have to teach my kids, to move them forward, to push them as far as they can – to LEARN for life, NOT to prep for a test that is used solely to score teachers, play political games, and “earn money” from the government.    

It hasn’t been a secret that I DESPISE “test prep” and high stakes testing in general.  In my own little, civil disobedience sort of way I hope that my decision, and any other parent who makes this choice, will send the message that the tests are invalid to us and we want our kids to LEARN, not be subject to hours of skill and drill.  Imagine the things teachers could do if they didn’t feel the pressure to “stop teaching and just prep” for weeks before the test – S O O O much quality instructional time is lost and in depth, challenging opportunities are wasted because of the pressures some feel with high stakes testing.

        It was not a decision I took lightly when I devoted the time I did,  earning several degrees in education, and becoming a teacher – it’s something I’m passionate about, have conversations and debates about, and continue to read current research about.  There was never a class in all of my years in college that taught me to beat children down over the course of six days, four hundred twenty minutes to be exact and there is NO WAY to convince me it was for any benefit to my classroom, and certainly not to my students.  I’m the type of person who assesses day in and day out – formal and informal, making kids prove their understanding, pushing them with questioning, and posing situations that force them to grapple with ideas and report back.  Testing is the LAST thing I’d turn to to evaluate my kids’ strengths and struggles.  I always let them know that no grade can define them, that perseverance through difficult situations and their personal best CANNOT be numbered and those qualities are invaluable; it’s what life is about.

        So, during the three days, 210 minutes to be exact, of testing recently, what was the opportunity to learn?  You’ve got me on this one – in my opinion there was none, it was time my kids were robbed of.  What I witnessed over those days was brutal.  We started the week with me playing my “fake cheerleader” role; use strategies you know, do the best you can, you’ve got this, etc – I felt like a fraud.  During the first day, kids looked up at me with doe eyes, tears lurking on the edge of their lashes, but went right back to work trying their best as they were encouraged.  Yes, I was proud of their perseverance, but wanted to rip the tests away from them and tear them to shreds.  The second day the poor kids were so confused with having to answer multiple choice, short answer, and long answers they started to show wear; again I put on the cheerleader persona and did my own best to persevere.  On the third day I just about lost it.  The number of sighs I heard, the number of kids looking at me, eyes screaming, kids crossing out questions because the way they were worded was so baffling.   Even I had to read many questions three times to understand them and there was not a damned thing I could do.  What beat many down even more than the insane testing they had been through was that more than a third couldn’t finish; their body language was devastating and I was FURIOUS. 

NOTHING I could have taught them would have helped them run through this gauntlet, used as the sacrificial cow for teacher bashing and political posturing, in the name of saving education.  And there is NO WAY I will put my daughter in this situation.  Day in and day out I push my kids to work hard, they take on each challenge that is given to them, and beg for just one more minute to dig deeper and research more.  But those same, hardworking kids at the end of the testing said:
  • ·         “What kind of teacher makes a test like that?”  (Can I tell you, sweet child, that NO teacher made that test???)
  • ·        “I hate the feeling knowing there’s only one right answer & three wrong ones and chances are that I’m probably going to choose a wrong one.”
  • ·        “There’s a difference between challenging kids and tricking them.  You challenge us every day and that was trying to trick us. It’s just not nice.”

As someone who has devoted their life to education it is simply sickening, that after a day of high stakes tests, it takes hours to calm the anxiety and encourage the souls of those kids, MY kids.

        Then, there’s the false information that the scores of these high stakes test are used as “feedback to inform instruction”.  Frankly, that’s a crock.  First of all, teachers generally get preliminary scores back in the SUMMER following the testing,   Hmmmm, any of my professors would cringe had I ever suggested that type of effective feedback which has ALWAYS been defined as “immediate and specific”.  Second, when we are given the scores, we are handed the same number as parents; we are NOT given any sort of item analysis to nor a copy of the test to be informed on what areas need work - period; there is absolutely NOTHING diagnostic about getting a three digit number.   If high stakes testing is to see where the kids are at, why don’t we get the scores for weeks after students leave us?  

        Of course we can bring up the battle about teacher evaluation.  I’m evaluated continually; through my own reflection (and happen to be my own worst critic), through peer coaching, through the students, parents and administration.  To use a developmentally inappropriate test, with absurd questions and time on task and put my kids under that kind of stress only to determine if I’m effective is LUDICROUS!  Last year, on state measures only two of my students passed ELA and two passed Math state assessments.  However, looking at district measures (non-invasive, brief assessments) that are not only continual throughout the year, but are scored and feedback returned to me almost immediately,very thoroughly & diagnostically, all BUT two of my students met proficiency or higher in BOTH ELA and Math.  Hmmmm, too much of a disconnect on MANY levels for me.   

        Bottom line:
        ~My child is NOT FOR SALE.     
        ~My child is worth more to me than an irrelevant score.
        ~My child has more to offer than being held to the standard of superficial learning.

To read more from Kohn on testing:  Standardized Testing and Its Victims : Kohn, Education Week 9/27/00 http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/staiv.htm

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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Silver Lining

I apologize that I’ve been “missing”.........public education is under attack and frankly it has dried me out.  I’m not sure people understand what is happening and how children are being used as the sacrificial cow. 

I’d like to think I am the kind of person that tries desperately to find the silver lining or the “what’s meant to be” in things.  And so it was, this past week, the biggest test, not of standards, but something much more important in life; a test of my core beliefs.  As I found myself getting angrier and angrier as the test went on, almost to the point of being physically ill, I realized I had to own that last of three grueling days, not let them be robbed from us any longer, and choose the way I looked at things. 

I roamed the classroom, feeling like I had stepped foot in a foreign land; dividers separating learners, three perfectly sharpened pencils placed carefully in front of each student, completely silent except for the frantic page turning drowning out the classical music playing softly in the background.  Certainly not the usual collaboration or communication, it was obviously void of the questioning and challenges from teammates, missing the wondering and digging for answers, absent of the awe I’m in most days from the kids who have become so intrinsically motivated to learn, to discover, to better themselves.  Motivation was replaced by terror and feeling defeated, questioning and digging for answers swapped with a prescribed expectation for an answer.   As I felt myself begin to boil that our learning space, our community of teammates, the love of learning had been stolen from us – completely out of our control, I did what I could do to get through and not show my anger; I shifted my focus on to my kiddos.

The first one I spotted from across the room; the one who has come so far out of their shell – anxiety and stress are gone replaced with joy of life and learning shining through; I’m beaming with pride.  I turn to stare at the child who has had so much sadness and has been a classic symbol of strength and endurance; each day I’m in awe.  Another little person who has worked so hard to push through adversity, just discovered a new strategy for multiplying four digit numbers by one in their head - teaching them self twice to make the pieces of learning come together - that smile, that pride; I’m amazed by the daily perseverance.  There’s that child who wouldn’t say a word, often rolled eyes when I tried to be funny – now funnier than me and can’t wait to find humor in random places; makes me giggle every single day.  Still roaming I find that sweet child who struggles with every breath of their being, but has worked so hard and simply beams when they makes progress or understands a really tough concept; that face makes me want to cry with joy.  Standing back I spot that child who each day seems disengaged in so many things, but always manages to amaze me with the understanding, knowledge, and connections that are shared; I silently apologize for underestimating what’s tucked away inside that sweet little head.  It wasn’t until I turn around from my lengthy trip down “Proud Teacher Lane” that I discover my little kiddo who just yesterday multiplied four digits by one, holding their head, hands placed gently on their temples.  My eyes drop to the paper below that precious face to see a perfectly round, wet dimple on the page.  At that moment I am slapped across the face, as hard as they were, by the reality of what’s being done to our kids.  I knew, that instead of rescuing that child and ripping that book to shreds, I had to walk away and for a few minutes abandon this trip of progress and pride, do what I had to do to finish those endless minutes of the gauntlet my kids were forced to run - one that will NEVER be able to truly assess the progress and abilities of my kids. 

After finishing we regrouped and debriefed.  I reassured the kids that I know they tried their personal best and I’m proud of how they persevered through something that was so grueling, but it was time to take back what was ours; wonder, learning, excitement, questioning, grappling, digging, and most important - pride. 

Although it may not have been my best choice, before setting them off on an intense inquiry in Science I asked, “Anything else?”.....It took every ounce of strength in my being to stay strong for the next three seconds of a question I never saw coming. 

The most revealing look into what these little heads were focused on and were consumed with:  “Mrs. W.?  Will you get fired if I didn’t do well?”

I quickly reassured, “That is NOT your worry because I only care that you did your personal best and you did.  And besides, if I do, I’ll go work at Wal-Mart and we can see each other all the time!”

Learning space: reclaimed.
Joy in learning and in making each day better: regained.
Understanding that a mistake is a chance to improve ourselves: salvaged.
Feelings of being defeated: destroyed.
And we all move on knowing that every single one of us has improved and made progress this year. 

Giggles abound.......and the silver lining comes busting through the dark once again.  

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Sunday, February 2, 2014

There is no beauty in grief.

Please bear with me as I ramble.
It’s been two months. 
It’s also been almost six years. 
No matter the time gone by, no matter the person, no matter the circumstance, there’s pain.

Two months ago today, my brother-in-law died very unexpectedly.  Fifty one is too young.  Too young when you have a child.....an only child, who already lost her mother.

Almost six years ago I sat at my sister-in-law’s bedside.  I was with her when those unbearable words were spoken: “There’s nothing more we can do”.  I had to call her brother to come, I witnessed her dad, lean from his wheelchair, kiss his only daughter on the cheek and tell her to “kiss your mom for me”.  For days I comforted her as her body slowed, she said her goodbyes, and passed from this world.  But that wasn’t the worst of it - it wasn’t sharing secrets that we had never told anyone, it wasn’t talking about what Heaven would be like, it wasn’t sitting with my brother-in-law, talking him through this tragedy, while she slowly slipped from us........it was sending dear Hubs and a cherished friend to get my niece from school and hearing her innocent footsteps approach the hospital room as my sister-in-law took her final breath.  No twelve year old girl should have to see her mom’s body for the very last time ...... and then, only five years later to witness her dad dying before her eyes. 

And no child, no matter how great or small the world perceives their loss, should EVER have to worry about their return to school.  To worry about telling other people, to worry about how much work they “have to” make up, to worry about .... anything.  We, as educators, bear a massive responsibility in how this is handled.  Inside the walls of our classroom WE ultimately are responsible for what happens – and I’m not talking about the progress students show on paper or the score they receive on a state test or the work they missed.  I’m talking about the responsibility we have in ensuring that every child is emotionally cared for and genuinely knows that and never questions their emotional safety within those walls.  I know I was not the favorite aunt when I showed up at her school – during my sister-in-law’s final weeks or after her passing.  But I didn’t care – it wasn’t about them, it was about ensuring the emotional safety of my niece and all of the kids around her.  And that was my priority, in her classroom and in mine.

I wish I could say that my fierceness in protecting my niece was baseless, but unfortunately nine years ago I was that teacher.  I had a student that year whose sister died very unexpectedly – there was more tragedy around it than you can imagine.  He was out for over a week which gave me lots of time to just spend with my other kids, the “one year family” for this child.  I will never forget, as long as I live, telling my other students about this tragedy.  The staff had “the plan” of what we would say and who would be with me in the room in case they were needed, but we NEVER could have been prepared for the impact on these kids.  This may have been the turning point in my attitude shift in my role as “teacher”. 

I am very aware that I can be an administrator’s nightmare.  You have to be a pretty confident person to be “in charge” of me (dear Hubs, I’m sure, would aggressively shake his head in agreement!).  I don’t march to my own drummer, I have my own unconventional band – yup, I’m one of “those” kinds of girls that make people nervous.  But, most everything I do is backed up with research.  And in all of the research I read on grief, it NEVER said anything about test scores, it NEVER said anything about the urgency of showing progress and in improving data, it NEVER said anything about pounding the pavement with academics, it NEVER mentioned meeting standards, and it NEVER mentioned all the work they “had” to make up. 

It was at that point that I realized that in 10 years this student wouldn’t remember third grade for the score he received on any assessment or how much academic progress he made or the work that he wasn’t able to make up or how quickly he assimilated back into our room the way other people expected him to.   
It was at that point that I realized more than I ever had, that the community I worked tirelessly all year to build would be one of the most important supports for him.

We were prepared to do whatever he needed us to do, but when he returned it was quiet, uneventful. 
He just needed us “to be.......”.
He needed us to be there for him without saying anything.
He needed us to support him by leaving him alone.
He needed us to know we loved him by respecting him enough to let him sit in our class bathtub for almost a week and stare at nothing. 
He needed me to be completely okay with his world stopping.
He needed me to accept the fact that nothing mattered to him except the loss of his beloved sister.
He needed me to be strong enough to fiercely defend my decisions and my actions on his behalf.
He needed us to be okay with him rejoining the team on his own terms.
He needed us to “be” whatever it was that he needed in each moment.
And so it was then that I realized how critical it is that, from day one, we work on the community we choose to have in our classrooms – no matter what our year may bring. 

I spend almost two weeks to start the year on team building, community building, relying on others, and emotional safety.  I literally do NOT touch anything academic for 7-10 days.  In my opinion, these lessons, this time spent has been more critical than any math fact, any close reading, any fact or reading fluency rate, any research or learning we do and each year I am prepared to defend my decisions if needed.   It’s the old saying of “start slow to go fast”, but it’s more than that.  Yes, we start slow and move much more quickly with academics as the year goes on, but it’s also giving yourself permission to completely come to a standstill when it’s needed, academically OR emotionally.

Whether it’s a parent, grandparent, sibling, friend, a family pet, a divorce - loss is loss and grief is grief and it’s critical that we honor and respect that – no matter how uncomfortable for us, we need to honor our kids’ emotional well-being.  I’m so fearful that we are quickly moving to a place in education where we don’t stop everything to respect each other’s feelings and emotions, but instead quickly brush it under the rug and shift our focus almost entirely on achievement.  We need to grab hold, dig deep, and put our foot down.  No child can achieve, great or small, without validating their emotions.   

The other day I witnessed the most beautiful thing.  A dear friend and teammate (same band as me!) had a seven year old student whose dog died.  She stopped the world of “school” to wholly focus on his grief, on his pain, on supporting and loving him.  She allowed him to tell the class and be completely okay with what happened next.......through her actions and her incredible love, each student felt safe enough to one by one come to him and hug him.  He cried, she cried, many of the classmates cried .... and they all grieved together.  And it was okay and it was safe because she has worked so hard to create that team, that family in her classroom.

And it hit me this morning....
There is no beauty in grief. 
The beauty lies in the relationships with the people who help you through that grief.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sausage maker? Not this girl.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”                           
~Nelson Mandela

I believe if you listened carefully enough, you could hear the collective gasp of the world when news was shared that Nelson Mandela had passed.  Such a wise man and this quote, one of my all-time favorites, was so simple, yet incredibly brilliant. 

Funny, with so many recognizing Mandela’s insight on the world, no one ever seems to take note that he never said that robotic teaching with rote, scripted lessons is a powerful weapon; never a mention that test prep simply to improve scores, solely for use against teachers & schools, is the way to go if we are to change the world.  

Recently, I read a letter written by the head of schools at the Montessori school where the children of a certain leader in New York State education attend  (hmmm, thought provoking that the Commissioner believes so much in public education that his children attend a Montessori school).  She spoke of attending a conference where Dr. Yong Zhao, (professor at the College of Education, University of Oregon) spoke and compared schools in China, his native homeland, to schools in the U.S.  Zhao is quoted as saying, “In U.S. schools we attempt to take curiosity, passion and creativity, multiple intelligences, cultural diversity and individual differences and squash them through a “sausage maker” school system, zapping these qualities into what we think will be an employable worker.” 

So, I began to wonder just how we change people’s minds...how do we get people to understand that we are heading into incredibly dangerous territory by providing modules and manuscripts for teachers to spit out at kids, where there’s a right and a wrong, where you just “do” and not think.  We not only do NOT encourage creativity in kids, but it is rare to see in teachers.  Zhao spoke of how China “out tests” the U.S. (for the past 50 years or more) because their kids are trained to take tests (hmmmmm....this is sounding eerily familiar), but how the Chinese are very concerned that the United States puts out more innovators than them, so much so that the Ministry of Education in China has recently taken steps to “reduce the academic burden of primary school students”.

He asked the question, “What is the best way to kill curiosity in students?” Answer: “Give them all of the answers. Cramming and covering vast quantities of information kills curiosity.”  I’m always intrigued when researchers, in education, say these things and yet, no one seems to listen.  I find myself becoming more and more frustrated with education, the mandates, and the “Kool Aid” – where we drink up every bit of propaganda we hear.....I’m floored when I hear people I once respected as innovators in education begin to spew out nonsense, “It’s good that we all do the same thing” or “they have to be ready to take these tests”.  I have never felt more different, as a teacher, than ever – yes, I march to my own dang band, but I feel like I’m living in a foreign land.  Kids begin school as creative little beings, bursting with the gift of discovery, full of wonder, asking “why?” more than any other time in their lives and little by little that joy, the wonder is stripped away.  I’ve seen it with my own kids and it kills me to watch – joy dissipates, burden sets in, disinterest follows, and soon they’re completely disengaged in the ownership of their learning.  Although the “youngers” aren’t able to express this, my son, now a high school graduate, is a master at calling it – like his Momma, he won’t be confined to a box and I am impressed with the degree he understands what is happening in education – because he was the victim of it and I’m sad to say that the other kids experience it too.  Learning is not connected, depth of understanding is out of focus, questioning of ideas doesn't happen; wondering “what if” is obsolete.

Do we really want to raise a generation of test taking minions? Unrelated fact spewers?  Does it really matter most who earns the highest score on a test where norms and numbers and cut scores are changed on a whim from year to year?  Where NOTHING diagnostic comes out of a test that some spend hours, days, weeks, months preparing for?  Are we happy with being so focused on teaching from a module that tells you what to say and when that we miss those teachable moments?  Or do our kids deserve more? 

The head of school ended her letter with a final quote by Zhao, Test scores are a poor reflection of what our students could be learning and distract teachers from the real work of helping students to discover, be curious, work collaboratively and interact with each other in meaningful ways.”  Perhaps the Commissioner and those "who know best" should take a big dose of Zhao's advice.

I won’t apologize; I have NOT poured my heart, soul, passion, and love into being a sausage maker.

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