Posts Tagged ‘# evaluate that’

Judging and being judged.

So I started thinking, as I reviewed the new descriptive writing rubric that I’d created to meet my mandated professional goal. I looked at the rubric. It was very detailed and very specific.  I have been told that kids need to see very clear guidelines so that they can judge for themselves whether their best efforts have earned a 1, 2, 3 or 4 in organization, word choice, detail and editing.  I was picturing my ten year old students, especially the ones who keep telling me how much they hate to write.  I started imagining myself in their shoes, knowing that every effort I made would be judged in minute detail, first by themselves, and then by me.

I thought about the Science Notebook Rubric that we use, and the Scientific Inquiry Rubric.  I imagined myself as a ten year old, trying to come up with a “focus question” and some “objective data” as I wondered what would happen if I put a bug in a tank with a frog.

That sort of got me thinking about the math open response rubrics.  And the history research paper rubrics.

And, Heaven help me, the “narrative writing rubric” that is in place in my classroom.

I tried to picture myself sitting down to write a story. Or a blog post.  I imagined my excitement as I thought about my wonderful new idea.  I pictured the little zing of adrenaline that I always get when I start to write.  I can just see myself, smiling and nodding as my fingers fly over the keys and one idea slips into the next.

Then I pictured myself being doused in ice cold water as I came to realization that despite my very best efforts, the dialogue between the main characters in my short story “did not move the story arc forward in a meaningful way”.  Would I be able or willing to rewrite, reframe, reshape my story in such a narrow way in order to raise my “2” to a “3”?  Would I ever dare to hit that “publish” button on my blog posts if I didn’t feel sure that my words would be worthy of a solid “4” in all of the rubric categories?

And it suddenly hit me: we keep reading about “education reform” and how the goal of all of this “Common Core” and “21st Century Learning” stuff is supposed to be about encouraging kids to take academic and intellectual leaps. It is supposed to be about freeing them to think in new and exciting way, to ask great questions, to dare to pursue their own answers.


How creative and innovative would YOU be if you thought that every single attempt you made in any area would be judged according to someone else’s idea of “the best” effort?  How many intellectual risks would you take if you knew that your supervisor would be measuring your work on a scale where the expectation is that most people will fail to meet the top score?

I thought about my lovely rubric, all crisp and clean and typed into its little boxes.  Then I thought of JRR Tolkein, and the courage it took to come up with “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”

I said a silent prayer of thanks than young JRR never saw a “narrative rubric” in his life.  Then I carefully clicked the button on my computer which placed my lovely rubric into my “professional goals” folder.

Where it will stay, unused, for the remainder of the year.


Kids today

I’ve been a teacher for about 25 years now.

That’s long enough for my first round of students to have become the parents of my latest round of students.

And the funny thing is, for all of those twenty five years, I have heard adults bemoaning the terrible shortcomings of “kids today”.

I have heard adults insisting that “kids today” are selfish.  They are undisciplined. They are demanding and whiny and defiant.

I’ve heard it all.

But the funny thing is, as a teacher who has actually spent the last twenty plus years in the company of real flesh-and-blood kids, I completely disagree.  For the past twenty five years, I have found children to be funny, sweet, unrepentantly honest, thoughtful and vulnerable.

And they really haven’t changed in all these years.

Let me give you a great example.

I am teaching two half day, weeklong summer camp classes this week. I have two groups of children, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  Each is a collection of kids between that ages of 8 and 14.  None of them know each other. The kids have signed up for a summer camp called ‘Drama, Start to Finish’.  We have created, written, produced and will perform a short play.  All in five half days.

In case you think this is an easy task, try to imagine yourself guiding children along a story line that includes Darth Vader, Barbie, Miley Cyrus and Harry Potter.  And then imagine yourself helping kids to write and act out a logical but funny story that includes all of them.


So we are now halfway through our week, and both my morning and afternoon plays are beginning to take shape. Neither one is completely lucid (Darth Vader bakes a pie and Barbie and Harry Potter steal it away? The children of Goldilocks, Snow White & Dopey, Sleeping Beauty & the Prince and Red Riding Hood have to fight of the child of Hades to save the world?).   There are costumes, props and very rudimentary sets.

All of this is pretty cool, and fairly impressive.  But none of it is the part that has me feeling so hopeful.

Here is what makes me feel so proud and so humble.

My morning class consists of 9 children, aged 8 through 14.  None of them knew each other on Monday.  Two have significant learning disabilities, and one has a cognitive delay.  They came together knowing nothing about each other, but willing to take on the risk of performing together.   My afternoon class consists of one anxious and slightly awkward Caucasian boy and four Chinese children who are either acquaintances or siblings.  None of them has any experience with theater, and all were signed up by eager parents.

Both classes could easily have been disasters.

Neither one is.

What I have seen for the past three days are groups of kids who are open, kind, welcoming and warm.  I have seen socially savvy teenaged girls working calmly with hyperactive eight year old boys. I have seen older kids talking earnestly with younger ones about books, movies, games and music.  I have seen distracted little ones being gently refocused by older, more settled friends.

I have worked with thirteen children who don’t know me at all, who don’t go to my school and have to reason to think that they might ever be in my class.  They didn’t have to be nice to me.  But they were.

Now I don’t think that every child today is a perfect child.  I teach in a public school. I know better.

All I’m saying is that over the course of twenty five years, I can say with certainty that kids have not gotten worse. They are not crazier, angrier, more out of control, more inattentive or less intelligent.  They are kids.

And over the course of twenty five years, I haven’t found parents to be more demanding, less respectful, more overbearing or crazier than they were before.

Here is what I think:

Kids are all growing at different rates.  They all mean well, but they are as insecure as the rest of us. They do their best to please us, but they can sometimes get upset or frustrated or scared.  They are kids.  They are not perfect.

And parents all over really truly love their kids, in a way that no teacher ever can.  They want to protect those kids and do right by them, and be the best parents that they can manage to be.  They all mean well, but they are as insecure as the rest of us. They do their best to please us, but they can sometimes get upset or frustrated or scared.  They are young moms and dads. They are not perfect.

I think that anyone who thinks that “kids today” are worse than kids twenty or forty or ninety years ago is someone who doesn’t spend time in the company of real live kids.



Making it all worthwhile…..

…….There are a hundred times a week when I think, “I can’t deal with this crap any more!!!”  After twenty plus years, I am just getting really tired of the social dramas of children.  “He was being mean to me!”  and “She hurt my feelings!” Gah!

It’s at its worst when the children involved are able to clearly articulate what it is that they have done wrong.  Its incredibly frustrating when they tell you, with big eyes and serious faces, “I know it’s not acceptable to call people names just because they like Pokemon, but I did it anyway.”

Sometimes the only logical response seems to be, “Dude, are you SERIOUS?”

But every once in a while, you have that rare moment when you realize just how vital those conversations can be for the kids. Today I had one of those conversations, and the payoff was really sweet.

I have a little boy in my class who is a very good athlete.  He can be a little cocky about his soccer skills, and sometimes this leads to conflict with his peers.  Like when he says, “I could totally school you any time I want.” Or the times when he tries to make up the rules to the game as the game is being played, and has to come to terms with the fact that 20 kids agree that he is out, even though he insists that the ball was “on the line” and that he gets a do-over.

This boy is a confident jock. He is a powerful fifth grader. He is a leader.

But during the course of this school year, I have come to realize that he is also a gentle soul, a beautiful singer, a flirt, a boy who loves his Mom and a very sensitive child who is trying hard to find his place in a big scary world.

I have mediated at least ten conflicts this year in which this boy has been a major player.

So today, when a sixth grade colleague showed up and asked to speak to this student, I cringed a bit and expected him to have been the aggressor.  I let her bring him out into the hall for a conversation.  When he came back into the classroom, I glanced his way, only to find him absolutely ashen, sitting with his head down.

I was surprised and a little worried!  What on earth had happened?

I asked the recess assistant.  ‘What did he do?’, was how I phrased it.

So she told me that another student, a sixth grade big kid, had called my boy a “really inappropriate name” and that mine had reported it to an adult.  Now he was feeling worried about having started trouble.

So I asked him, “Hey, do you need me? Want to talk?”

At first he said no, but after a little while, he came up to me and said, “I might need to talk to you in a while.”   Just as the day was ending, he asked if we could talk.  So of course, we did!

This poor little guy, the child of an upper middle class family, was so horrified by the bad language that he couldn’t even get himself to repeat it to me. He hemmed and hawed but finally admitted (using spelling and gestures) that the other kid had called him a “fucking dick”.   He was so aghast at the profanity that he had gone to an adult.  Now he was having second thoughts. “I’m afraid I’ve made an enemy”, he told me gravely.  “Maybe I should have just stayed quiet.”

“So why did you speak up?”, I asked.   He wasn’t sure, but with a little prompting, he finally murmured “It just isn’t right to talk that way.”  We chatted for about ten minutes.  I asked him what he thought would have happened if he hadn’t spoken up.  With some guidance, he came to the realization that “He would have kept saying those bad things. Maybe to a really little kid, or to someone who’d be more upset than me!” I asked him what message the cursing boy would get if he had remained silent. “I guess he’d think that I like that kind of language.”  I did my best to reassure him, but mostly I just let him talk and come to his own conclusions.

Finally, the day was over, and it was time for me to send the students home.  As he grabbed his backpack and headed out the door, my sensitive little jock hung back from the crowd.  He waited until he was the last one in the classroom.  “Karen?”, he called.  I turned to smile at him. “Karen, thanks.”  He nodded his head toward me and walked out the door.

For the first time in a while, I truly didn’t regret the time I had spent on childhood drama.

A brief time out

I know that I recently committed to writing positive, uplifting stories from my classroom.  I continue to believe that we need those stories to carry us forward.

The very best part of writing about those moments, when I know that I have changed the life of a child, is the realization that I am nothing special.

ALL teachers have the same impact. We all change lives. Every single day.

But today I need to take a side trip, back to the frustrations and anger that come from the current push toward the Common Core and the PARCC tests.

This morning I watched Fareed Zakaria on CNN.  I generally avoid all of CNN’s programming, given that I don’t want to watch wall to wall coverage of bad weather, ignorant celebrities and missing planes.

But I have always found Mr. Zakaria to be thoughtful, knowledgeable and interesting.   I turned on his show this morning expecting to see a good discussion of the impending civil war in Ukraine.  Instead, I was shocked and saddened to hear Mr. Z talking about the problem with American education.

To be fair, I did agree with him when he said that the key issue in the US is the increasing income disparity and the large number of children being raised in poverty. But then he started to talk about those damned test scores; the ones that attempt to compare “The US” to other countries.  The ones that fail to take into account the fact that it is the poorest states that drag down our national scores. The one that fails to report that states which adequately support funds for public education (Mass, NY, Conn) score well above the world average.

He went on to talk about the “misguided” push back against the Common Core, which he called “a tragedy”.

You can find Mr. Z’s comments on the Washington Post, dated May 1st.

When I heard his comments, I put aside the giant stack of essays that I was planning to correct and I grabbed my laptop to reply.  This is the email that I sent.  I would love it if others would join me!

Dear Mr. Zakaria,

I am a long time viewer and have always been impressed with your thoughtfulness and your careful research.  I am in general agreement with most of your views, and will continue to read and watch your work.

However,I have been left  feeling angry, hurt and enormously demoralized  by your comments this morning on CNN, and your recent article in the Washington Post .

I teach fifth grade in an upper middle class public school in Massachusetts.  I have been teaching for more than 20 years, and have been ranked as a “Highly Qualified” educator.

I oppose the Common Core State Standards and the upcoming PARCC tests for several reasons, none of which you have considered in your opinion.

First: The standards no doubt are an attempt to create a uniform set of expectations for all students in the United States.   While I applaud the idea of setting standards for our children, I disagree strongly with the idea that all students in all places MUST reach them on a given day. The current system punishes schools and teachers for each child who fails to reach the standards, disregarding issues of ability/disability, native language and (most crucially) poverty.  The standards are being used as a bludgeon, rather than a goal.

Second: The CCSS were created without the input of a single elementary school teacher. Not ONE. Instead, representatives of major corporations (Pearson, Microsoft, Apple, to name a few) were part of the original consortium.  

Third: The CCSS and PARCC are funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to the above named corporations.  Dollars that could have been spent on decreasing class sizes, training teachers, building safer, cleaner, new schools or providing services to children who live in poverty.

The pushback against the Common Core is hardly a “tragedy”.  It is, in fact, a reasoned, thoughtful, powerful reaction to the corporate takeover of our public schools and the government’s failure to address the true needs of our students.

I would encourage you to research ACHIEVE, Pearson Corporation,, Diane Ravitch and the true story of the Common Core State Standards


Read Aloud

My favorite time of the day, hands down, is our ‘read aloud’ time.  

With the push for the “common core” (gag), we are asked now to read picture books instead of novels when we read to our kids. We’re supposed to model comprehension and all that stuff.

I haven’t gone there yet.  

I keep reading really great novels.   I love them. The kids love them.  And this is a story of how that practice has helped a child.

I had a girl in my class last year who was a “reluctant reader”.  This child was smart and capable.  But she was the only child of a Harvard librarian and a museum curator.  They are “READERS”, if you know what I mean.  These wonderfully devoted parents were absolutely determined to make a “READER” out of their girl.  They were absolutely in despair when she reached the fifth grade and continued to resist all of the great books that they brought to her.

I tried to advise them to back off.  I tried to explain that a confident, secure young woman would like very much to choose her own areas of interest.  I tried to suggest that if they backed off, she might find her way to books on her own.  

They politely ignored my suggestion.

Then came the day when one of my strong readers recommended a book for me to read aloud.  The book is called “Out of My Mind”. It’s beautiful.   The strong reader who recommended it told me that she had gotten the suggestion to read the book from my reluctant reader.

Oh, really?

As I began the book, I would refer once in a while “Those of you who have already read this book” and my reluctant reader would beam.  Gradually, over the course of the four weeks that it took me to read the book, this little girl began to think of herself as an expert on this book.  She engaged in, and even lead, several discussions about the writing, the themes, the author’s thoughts. 

It was fabulous.

As this child went on to sixth grade, I hoped that she would keep her confidence and her love of literature.

Sure enough, her sixth grade ELA teacher told me that she considers this girl to be a “very strong” reader.  She was surprised that I had ever had concerns.



I had a student a year or so ago.  She was sweet, pretty, funny, creative, shy, warm and wonderful.  She was a kid.

This girl’s heart was in creative arts.  She wanted to be a fashion designer.  She came to school every day in the most inexplicably adorable combination of leggings, colorful shoes, off the shoulder sweaters and hair bands.  As a person with absolutely no fashion sense whatsoever, I was intrigued and impressed every time she walked into my classroom.

This girl was not a strong math student.  Her mom was in a panic, fearing that her child was showing a learning disability or a lack of motivation or a character flaw of some kind. I did my best, all year long, to reassure the mom.  I told her that I found her daughter to be absolutely cognitively and mathematically competent, in spite of her shaky test grades.  I thought that the little girl was slightly intimidated by the math, but I also told her, honestly, that her daughter just didn’t consider fifth grade math to be a huge priority.

I told the mom, as I told the girl, “Math isn’t a goal in itself. It’s just a tool.  If you want to be able to figure out the cost of clothes on sale, you’ll need math. If you want to calculate how much you will pay every month for a new computer, you’ll need math.”  The child began to relax, and the mom seemed to take a deep breath.

It was at the very last conference of the year when I realized that this traditionally very anxious Momma had begun to trust my judgement.  As I finished my description of her child’s academic achievements for the year, she leaned forward and smiled.  “Lily learned so much this year!”, she said, putting her hand on my wrist. “She taught me so much!”

I wasn’t sure where she was going with this thought, but I smiled in return. She seemed pleased, so I was happy!

“I love what you told her about mistakes!”, she said.

I frantically searched my memory, trying to recall what I could have said.  I knew that as a “big picture” learner myself, I often overlooked little details like the operation sign or the carried digits.  As a child, I was often accused of making “careless mistakes”. I found this to be enormously frustrating: it didn’t seem to matter how much I “cared”, my mistakes were still considered “careless”. I wondered if I had passed on the same message to my  not so mathematical student.  I waited with some trepidation as the mom leaned back in her seat.

“She told me what you said about math mistakes!  You said, ‘ There are no careless mistakes. There are only mistakes that you know how to correct’.  She feels so good about her math skills now!”

She beamed at me as I sat there, my jaw agape, my mind a blank.  Did I really say that?  Jeez, I hope I did!  What a wonderful thought to pass on to a kid!


I don’t know if I was really that wise, or if this lovely little girl simply interpreted my words this way. I don’t actually care! She went on to sixth grade, and did very well in math.  


Feel good stories

About twenty years ago a very wise colleague of mine advised me to keep a “Feel Good File”.  She said that I should keep notes from parents, students, colleagues or administrators if they were complimentary and if they made me smile. She told me to keep any item that touched my heart, that made me feel proud of my work or of myself.  So I did.

I’ve had a lot of need for that file this school year, and I eternally grateful to my friend.  I have some of those thank you cards on display on my desk right now.

As this year has gone on, I have found myself truly struggling to stay positive about my work.  Five years ago, every day at school was a joy.  A year ago, the thought of retiring made me cry.

This year, I find myself wondering how much longer I can hold on.  I feel marginalized, disregarded, outdated, obsolete.  I question my expertise every day, and sometimes I even feel sorry for the colleagues who have to deal with me, and for the kids who have to endure a year of my crabby old fashioned teaching methods.

So I’ve decided to use this blog as a place to record some of my “Feel Good” stories.  I’ll try to write one every few days, just so that I can reassure myself that I have done some good.

My first story took place 18 years ago.  I had a little boy on my speech/language caseload who was very, very special.  He had been born prematurely.  His lungs were severely compromised, so he dragged around an oxygen tank all day.  He was profoundly hearing impaired (which is where I came into his life) and had fine motor deficits.  But he was the most cheerful, upbeat, funny little guy in the world, and he never, ever complained.

This little one came to our school when he was in kindergarten.  I worked with him five times a week, helping him to speak, to eat, to understand.  He was a joy.  Toward the end of that year, his audiology team recommended that we get an FM transmitter unit for him.  He would wear a little receiver on each hearing aid, and his teacher would wear a small microphone around her next, attached to a battery powered transmitter.

I spent weeks ordering the unit, learning to use it, meeting with the audiologists to insure that I knew how to use it correctly. My job, in addition to teaching my student and his teacher how to use the system, was to trouble shoot and maintain the parts. All went smoothly until about a week before the start of first grade.  The first grade teacher was a veteran of the classroom.  She seemed like a great match for the little guy when he was placed with her.  But when she found out that she would be required to wear the transmitter pack all day long, and to turn the microphone on and off during the day, she immediately resisted.

“The district can’t mandate that I wear a piece of electronic equipment!!!  I never wear anything around my neck!  I will need to buy clothes with pockets, because I don’t want that thing clipped to my waistband!”

Even when I weighed the unit in front of her (8 oz), showed her how easy it was to switch on and off, reassured her that I would be there to help her, she out and out refused.  She filed a grievance with the union.  She complained to everyone on staff about the pressure that she was feeling.

I knew this woman. I knew her as kind and loving.  A very good teacher.  A pro.   I knew that she was scared of this new technology, and I suspected that her fear of failure was the real issue.  I worked with her for hours, pending the grievance meeting, and convinced her to give it a try.

At this point it was about the third week of September.  My little student, with his hearing aids and his oxygen tank, had been a member of her first grade class for about three weeks.  On the morning in question, I had put on his FM receivers, adjusted the settings on his hearing aids, and helped the teacher to put on her transmitter. As usual at this time of the morning, the children were seated in a circle on the rug, gathered around the teacher.  I watched as the teacher carefully turned on the microphone and began to speak.

“Good morning, boys and girls, today we are going start with……”

Her voice was interrupted by a loud shout, and a crash.  “KAREN!!!!”  It was my little student, jumping to his feet as he called my name, his oxygen tank crashing over behind him.  I turned back into the room, imagining the worst.  “What is it?!”, I asked, rushing to his side.

He looked up at me, his face glowing with amazed joy.  “Karen!!! I can hear my teacher!!”

I gave him a hug and sat him back down with his friends.  I looked at my teacher friend. The tears on her cheeks matched the ones on mine. I left her to her lessons, and walked back to my office.

The grievance was withdrawn that day, and the FM stayed with us for the rest of the student’s elementary school life.


The little boy is now 24 years old.  Six months ago he had a double lung transplant and took his first walk without pulling a tank.  The other day he sent me a message, telling me that he had signed up for a zumba class, and was hoping to get his first job.

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