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 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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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Dear teacher...

Day 9 of a 10 day break from school.....

Coffee in hand, blankets piled around; snow falling, and me getting my fix of my favorite blogs.  Today’s was a bit different.....I almost leaped up cheering for the writer.  One of today’s education posts was a letter from a parent to her child’s beloved teacher, one she fully supports and appreciates......although the teacher may have been surprised by the content.

The letter started off thanking the teacher for all of their hard work, congratulating her on getting the children so far in what is almost the half year mark, but then quickly moved on to explain why her child would NOT be completing the assigned vacation packet chuck full of, what I’m sure was incredibly stimulating (insert immense sarcasm!), rote, test prep work.  The parent went on to explain what real world learning the family had done on the break (making gingerbread houses from scratch using all sorts of fractions and math, vacationing on an island and naming land features they encountered, using imaginative play, reading for nothing more than pleasure) and how much more beneficial the connections and wonders the child made was to him than turning page after page of rote, mundane, unengaging busy work.  In my giddy little mind I jumped up an applauded wildly (all while staying firmly planted in my blankets.....didn’t want to sacrifice the coffee!) – first, that the parent respectfully stood up to the nonsense that education has become in the quest to attain a high test score and second that she was taking such an active role in her child’s learning – providing opportunities and encouraging him to make connections in the real world.  She then very kindly shared this link in the email:   The letter was very kind and did not slam the teacher or education at all, just gave insight into what is truly valued in that home and I applaud her for her genuine honesty.

Last night I, unexpectedly, caught up with a friend that I haven’t seen in 25 years (gasp!), but it was like we were 17 all over again!  We howled at our own teenage ordeals and laughed at our parenting fiascos and how we deal with our own kids.  She had thought of pursuing teaching and wasn’t surprised that I had become one (or that in my classroom I have a bathtub....or a coffee table.....or an overstuffed chair.....). Our conversation quickly turned to our kids’ school experiences and her son’s terrible third grade one.  Every time I hear a story like this, it just breaks my heart – school shouldn’t be this way; yes learning can be hard (and truthfully should be challenging to some degree for all children), but it’s our job to reroute, to constantly help find a detour, to guide a struggling child, and acknowledge success which wasn’t done for her son.  Similar to mine, her son is also a very bright boy who had been very defeated early in his schooling.  Since her mom and sister are both teachers and she is an incredibly involved mom our conversation turned to what’s so broken in education.  

We both agreed that in our over focused, futile focus on high stakes testing, we are sacrificing true, meaningful, inspiring learning for packets and papers and basals.   My kids have all experienced that mundane, test prep, fill in the blank worksheet, answer rote questions nonsense – t o o    m a n y    t i m e s – where clearly the kids’ only motivation is to get it done, to put anything down to fill the empty black hole, to satisfy the teacher.  They weren’t inspired, they didn’t care, they didn’t learn from it.  In fairness, there were a few teachers who did inspire – my daughter’s passion for Nelson Mandela and the work he did for human kind & to discover more than was required, for my son’s quest to taking the opposing view from his entire class on a major event in history and dig as deeply as he could to prove his case.

My job is NOT to keep kids busy at home, ESPECIALLY over a break, and it’s certainly not to send packet after packet and sheet after sheet to complete rote, mundane, non-stimulating busy work home.  I don’t have time to provide feedback on work that I don’t value, that is uninspired or not intrinsically motivating for kids.   I don’t want kids sitting for any time at all filling in papers or providing “the right answer” just to have something scratched in a blank space.  I completely get that some parents either can’t or choose not to engage their kids in learning – but it’s not my place to interfere at home or place judgment on what is or isn’t done and then hold a child accountable for what they can’t control.  My job isn’t to provide blanks to be filled in with the right answer.

My job is to spark intrinsic motivation.

My job is to inspire learning. 

My job is to ignite passion.

My job is to encourage kids to take on challenges. 

My job is to get kids so fired up about learning and questioning and wondering that each day they discover something new.

My job is to get kids asking questions that don’t have clear answers and to be okay with facing such ambiguity. 

My job is to get kids to build things, to figure out how something works. 

My job is to improve on something they believed was “okay” and make it even better.

It’s never too early to inspire and it’s certainly NEVER too late to start, but we MUST think more differently about it than we ever have before.  Worksheets, busy work, fill in the right answers/bubbles, test “prep” work do NOT inspire learning and deeper understanding – ask open questions, ask for an opinion, ask to make something better, ask to improve an old idea, ask simply to discover.

Dear “Mom of the Year”,
Thank you for speaking so beautifully on behalf of your child and in doing so, speaking for all children who don’t have a voice. 
children everywhere

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