Posts Tagged ‘kids’

Scenes From an Insane Asylum


If you are a parent with school aged children in the United States, you might want to proceed with caution.  I swear that I am making none of this up. None of it. Not one word.

I’m not even exaggerating.

The following description of test days in an upper middle class suburban school district may make you panic and hyperventilate about your children and those who are in charge of their welfare during the school day.

On the other hand, the following description might make you decide that you absolutely MUST opt your children out of any further standardized testing in the future. In that case, I salute you, I thank you, and I promise you that you are doing the right thing.

Scene 1.  Teachers have been trained in maintaining security during the standardized testing days. We have been told that once we receive our giant tupperware box of testing materials, and have signed our names on the papers, we must NOT leave the boxes unattended for any reason.   This means that if we have to go to the bathroom before the testing starts, but after we have received our tupperware boxes, we have to take the boxes with us.   Yep.  We pee with the tupperware box full of high security tests at our feet.

Scene 2.   All of the kids are seated and ready.  Each has been given an official #2 pencil.  They wait expectantly, and nervously, for the testing to begin.  I hand out all of the test booklets, all of the answer sheets, all of the bright pink Math Reference Sheets, all of the rulers.  Because this is the second day of the math tests, I expected every ruler to still be inside every test booklet.  I had carefully placed them there the day before, and then I’d sealed up the giant Tupperware Box and returned it to the office.  I forgot that when I got to the office, I had to recount every item, as did the school secretary, and we both signed a sheet with the numbers recorded.  I forgot that we both had to do the same procedure again this morning.

Oops.

I was short two approved rulers. Now, I have to explain to you that the state of Massachusetts, in a fit of fiscal psychosis, buys and distributes hundreds of thousands of these EXACT same rulers every year.  My classroom is packed with them. However, the security rules of the test specify that we must use THIS year’s ruler.

I was faced with a dilemma.  I picked up one of this year’s rulers in my right hand, and one of last year’s in my left.  I frowned a bit.  Exactly, exactly the same clear plastic little ruler.  “I don’t think that inches have changed in a year”, quipped one of my boys.  I handed out two rule-breaking-but-indistinguishable last year’s rulers, and we began the test.

Scene 3.  The testing in the classroom is complete.  We have collected every test booklet, every answer booklet, every approved math reference sheet, every approved ruler.  We are supposed to pack up the giant tupperware box (can we just refer to it now as the GTB?) and carry it ourselves back to the school office, where it can be placed securely under lock and key.  However, one student is taking the test in a special education classroom, as specified in his IEP.  HIS official test administrator has his test booklet, his answer booklet, his approved reference sheet and his ruler.  She has to bring it back to the classroom (along with the student, but no one seems too concerned with that part).  Until we have this final test form, we can’t return the box to the office.  We wait.

Scene 4.  Given that the classroom full of antsy kids has now finished the testing, we’d like to go outside on this beautiful spring day.  But we are not allowed to remove any of the testing materials from the building. We are not allowed to leave the GTB unattended in the classroom.  We are not allowed to return it to the office without one of its tests.  We try to learn some science instead of going out to play.

Ha.

Scene 5.  I have a meeting to attend about one of my students.  They have all gone off to lunch, but my one student who is still testing with the special educator has not returned.  I cannot leave the GTB.  I hoist it up and haul it with me to my meeting, where it will sit on the floor for an extra hour.

In the meantime, of course, the special ed teacher has collected the finished test from her student, and is searching the building for me.  She can’t leave the test on my desk, nor can she return it to the office.  She MUST hand it to me. She goes to the office to find me, and has to interrupt my meeting in order to hand me the test, which I then insert into the TGB.

Scene 6.  Like any teaching in the world, I have become an expert at bladder control.  But the meeting finally ends, and I rush off to the ladies room.  Where I am confronted with the hilarious sight of three clear tupperware boxes filled with testing materials.  All in a row on the floor of the bathroom as their owners get some relief.

Please tell me, someone, anyone, how in hell this craziness is really going to “improve student outcomes”?

I feel like I spent a week in One Flew Over the Coocoo’s Nest.

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They’re only little kids


I had an amazing and unexpected surprise yesterday.

I was cleaning up my classroom, after the kids had gone. I had turned the compost, recycled the history notes, written the next day’s schedule on the board. I was about to wash out a bunch of paintbrushes when I heard a tentative voice calling me,  softly saying both my first and my last names, with the gently rising intonation that indicates uncertainty and nerves.

I turned around, not sure of who to expect. Standing before me was a tall, beautiful young woman with a familiar shy smile. “Do you remember me?”, she asked.

And it hit me like a wave of sunshine.  I knew her! I knew those pretty blue eyes and that sweet smile!  But the last time I had seen them, they had been on the face of a fluffy haired, disorganized, learning disabled little girl with a serious speech disorder. Could this lovely, articulate young woman really be my former student, all grown up and all smoothed out?

I said her name, the name that I thought might belong to her. “Cara?”  Now it was my voice that was tentative and unsure.  Her face lit up, and she reached toward me.

We hugged, and I was swept with memories. I had known this girl when she was only 5, a tiny, cheerful sprite in kindergarten, needing my speech therapy services five days a week.  I remembered her in first grade, and in second, struggling to read, struggling to hold a pencil.  I remembered her in third grade and in fourth, working on improving her pronunciation, working on her writing, her organizational skills.  Working on how to be a student.

Mostly, though, I remembered her as a fifth grader in my classroom. I remembered how I needed to chase her every day for homework. I remembered how she struggled to express herself in speech or on writing.  I looked at her gently smiling face and I thought about how gently I had teased her, trying to find a way to get her to remember her homework every morning.

We chatted for a bit, and I learned that she is now a Junior in our very competitive, driven High School. I learned that she was “shadowing” my colleague in special education, because she herself would like to be a sped teacher one day.

She had come to say hello, and to thank me for our time together. I was incredibly touched and so pleased with her visit!  What a perfect and wonderful gift for a teacher! At a time when we are being asked to constantly prove that we are doing our job, that we are helping children to grow and learn, here was a living, breathing, beautiful example of what “success” means in the eyes of a teacher. We hugged, we smiled at each other, we hugged again.

It was only after she left that I thought about the real gift that I’d been given with her visit.

It is sweet that she thanks me for helping her, but that isn’t the most important lesson to be taken from our visit.

What really matters is this:

My beautiful young friend had been a disheveled, disorganized fifth grader who could barely write a single sentence. She struggled to spell, to capitalize, to understand what a sentence was.  She wasn’t able to remember the steps for long division or the way to find a common denominator.  She regularly worked with the Learning Center, the Speech/language team, the OT and the PT.

I know that she didn’t do well on her state testing that year.

And yet.

A mere 6 years later, she is polished, articulate, ambitious, successful in school.  She is lovely and she is mature.

And she has reminded me of two key points that I wish every public school educator could grasp.

1) Children are only children. They think like kids, they write like kids, they feel like kids.  No matter how hard we push them, how “rigorous” our instruction may be, they can’t write or learn or speak or do math like adults.

And that’s because they are kids.

2) They will come back to thank us and to hug us, not because we gave them the rubric for informational writing, but because we made them feel loved and supported.  Because we believed in them.

My lovely young friend told me, after she hugged me for the third time, “You always made me think I could do it.”

Thank you, dear Cara!  You’ve reminded me of exactly why I’m here every day.

I had a dream


Last night I had a dream.   It wasn’t a typical teacher dream (I was fully dressed and the kids weren’t screaming and ignoring me).

But it was a dream that embodies my teaching life right now.

I dreamed that I was in our school conference room (where I have been trapped far too often this year) with one of the “literacy coaches” who have been hired to train us in teaching kids to read and write.  Just like in real life, I was seated at the table, faced with a cheery, young, fresh faced woman who spoke to me in a high pitched voice with a distinct rise in intonation at the end of every statement.  You know what I mean, right? Like this, “Readers need to learn a variety of robust skills? Like learning to identify text features?”

Anyway, in my dream, just like in life, I felt my frustration mounting.  In my dream, I sat there as reading was described as a series of discrete, separate skills to be taught in isolation.  I started to steam as I heard that I was supposed to teach kids the most complex task of their young lives by cramming a lesson into ten minutes and then making them practice what I had preached.

But here is where the dream diverged from reality.

In my dream, I sat up straight and I asked to see the research behind the method.  In my dream, I spoke eloquently and clearly.  I talked about my background in speech and language development and my 30 years of teaching children to communicate.  I expressed my feeling that young children learn best when they are allowed to wonder, to inquire, to test out their own theories.  In my dream, I asked how it could be the best practice to tell the children exactly what skill to practice as they read. I pointed out the fact that it seemed forced and inauthentic to assign children a partner to talk to, and then to impose a topic on them.  I questioned the value of those conversations.

In my dream, I expressed my belief that children need to try things out, including books. I talked about the fact that I never, ever tell children their “Guided Reading Level” because in my experience, children take labels very much to heart.  They hold themselves back when I tell them that a book is “above their level”.  I talked, in this dream, about my experiences with children who challenge themselves and who read wonderful books that capture their hearts and minds, even if they don’t understand every word or phrase. Even if they don’t full grasp every nuance.

In this wonderful dream, I told the “coach” or “facilitator” that reading is the most neurologically complex task that my students are attempting. I tell her that I can’t parse it down into separate tiny skills.  I also tell her, somewhat firmly, that I find it nauseating when I hear the cute phrases and buzzwords going around our classrooms. “Jots” instead of notes? “Wonderings” instead of questions? “Noticings” instead of observations?

What did the English language ever do to you, I asked in my dream. Why torture it this way? How can it help children to encourage them to use inaccurate, made up words to describe their thinking?

Furthermore, I said in my dream, it seems completely ridiculous to me to have us teach the exact same minute skills in every single grade from k to 6.  How efficient is our teaching if we have to do the same lesson seven times in seven years?  And how on earth could it be useful for us to all use the exact same “mentor text” for every lesson?  “I believe,” I said in my firm, assured dream voice, “that it is supremely disrespectful of children to act as if they need to see the same book five years in a row.  And I think its wrong to limit kids exposure to good books. There are a million books out there that could teach us to notice the story arc. I refuse to pull out the same book they’ve seen in the past two years.”

And here is where my dream really differed from reality.

In my dream, the cheery coach and my school administrator allowed me to express my thoughts.  And in this fanciful dream, they listened.

This Old Teacher


Sometimes it gets a little bit tiring to be an old teacher. Sometimes you look at the pile of math papers, the writers’ notebooks, the science journals, the 57 emails, the field trip forms, the Puberty Movie letters and the Lost and Found socks, and you just want to give it all up and go sit on a beach in a muumuu.

Sometimes it just seems so futile. And relentless. And so incredibly frustrating. You think you’re done.  You can’t go on.

But sometimes you get to work, and you see your colleagues.  And you look at how much energy they still have. You see the one who is really excited by a new art project, and you remember when you used to feel that way. You see the one who is carefully planning an amazing science lesson, and you feel a little buzz of excitement.

Sometimes you get to school, and you peek into the classroom next door, where the colleague-who-is-younger-than-your-children is getting ready for her day.  And you look at her for a minute.  You see her bright spirit, her love of learning, her crackling joyful energy.

And you feel a little bit renewed.

Sometimes, just when you feel like all of this hard work is a big farce and nothing much is going to change for anyone, you spend a few minutes listening to your young team-mates as they plan the next writing unit.  And you smile inside, thinking of what a huge difference these two will make in the lives of dozens and dozens of kids in the future. And you give yourself a tiny little hug, way down in your heart, because you know that you are watching two teachers, two honest-to-God teachers, as they spin the silken spider web threads that will weave themselves into a love of learning for the little ones in these classrooms.  And you’re happy just to be there, watching. And you remind yourself of all the faces and names and hearts that you have touched over all these years.

And you realize that it doesn’t really matter which curriculum is used in which year. It really doesn’t matter if you teach the 6 + 1 traits or the Lucy Calkins kit or the “Write Out Loud” book.  As long as you love the kids, and share your joy and passion with them, as long as you keep telling them that you believe in them, they WILL learn to write.  And read. And calculate those damn fractions.

And you understand that the art of teaching is just that: it is an art.  Just like children, it cannot be measured or quantified or reduced to a data point. Teaching is an art.

And you are pleased with yourself, because you understand that fact.

Even if those in positions of power don’t.

Teaching is an art.  And you suddenly realize how lucky you are to be one of the artists, and to be in the presence of the artists who will both follow and surpass you.

 

Snow Day as Validation


Well here we are, all safe and sound after the “Historic Storm” of 2015.  I mean, I get it. If I lived on Nantucket (God……in my dreams………) I’d be thinking this was a huge deal.  But for the rest of us, it was a fun and awesome storm and we were happy to have a day at home.

I baked.  I got some math lessons ready and found a few great sites of math games and science activities.   I responded to 22 reading response journals, and I wrote a report for a student who is being evaluated for special education.  Thank goodness for this extra time!

To be honest, I also did laundry, walked my dogs in the woods and spent a couple of hours with a very hot…….um……very interesting novel.   I perused Facebook more than I should have, and texted my teaching pals a whole bunch.  We were being silly.  It was FUN.

But here’s the best part.

Late in the day today, I got an email from the mom of one of my students. He is a pretty anxious guy, with a long history of school troubles and oppositional behaviors.  He and I have formed a great friendship this year, and I know that he is having a really good year.

So the Mom of my student sent me an email today, to tell me that he was very anxious this afternoon. He is afraid that there will be no school again tomorrow, given the 30 inches of snow on the ground.  He told his Mom, “Karen will be really mad if there’s no school tomorrow!  She hates for us to get behind, and she misses us!”  The Mom told me that she tried very hard to reassure him, to tell him that I wouldn’t be upset to be home.  She told me that he looked up at her then, and said, “I know. But, Mom, I hate the days when I don’t see her!”

What more validation could a person ever have than that?  If ever I feel down, if I let the teacher evaluation system get to me, or let my administrators make me feel down, all I have to do is think about this little boy, with his bright eyes and his mischievous smile, telling his mother that he wants school to be open so that he can see me.

Wow.

Well, if we want reform, let’s really reform!


I just read an article in the Boston Globe saying that Boston Public Elementary and Middle Schools will be adding an additional 40 minutes to each school day.  The article was pretty positive about the cooperation between the Education Reformers and the Teacher’s Union. Both sides seemed to feel that the extra time will help the kids.

But I watched local Boston news tonight, and you know what?

Those news guys are furious that the day is only being increased by 40 minutes.  They are all upset about the fact that the changes are “incremental”. Education “Reformers” around the state are saying that we should be adding at least an additional hour and a half to two hours each day.

Well.

I for one have had enough of these tiny, incremental, baby step changes to education. I mean, in the last fifteen years, all that we have managed to achieve is to create and apply one set of curriculum standards for every kid in every school in every town in our great nation.  We have only managed to develop and administer standardized tests to kids in grades 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. How incredibly ineffective!

I want REAL education “reform”, dammit!

I say that if we are truly committed to reforming our education system, we should increase the school day to a minimum of 8 hours per day.  If parents need to work 8 hours a day, then why shouldn’t kindergarteners put in the same time? More minutes of learning will OBVIOUSLY lead to more successful students.

And if we are committed to insuring accountability at all ages, then we need to be testing children every year of school. Kindergarten through Grade 12.  Come to think of it, since we all now believe that rigorous testing equals academic success, I propose that we test every child every four months, all year long. Let’s prove once and for all that summer is time wasted, and that we should be eliminating the unproductive habit of “summer vacation.”

I believe, as a true education reformer, that children should begin as early as possible to practice those key critical thinking skills that will make them successful workers when they reach their twenties.  We want 21st century thinkers and learners! No more lagging behind those pesky Chinese workers.

I propose that we begin to enforce mandatory pre-natal academic training, in which babies in utero must be exposed to a minimum of four hours per day of classical musical, basic math skills, and early literacy activities.  Why should we waste these valuable learning times, while the brain is forming? I’m sure that someone out there could develop a rubric for intra-uterine math performance.

It is way past time for us to let go of outdated beliefs that “play” and “social interactions” are meaningful uses of time in childhood. American children should begin to engage in rigorous, standards based educational activities as soon as they have progressed to a sippy cup.  No more “stacking rings” in the playpen: I propose that we have children write persuasive essays to their mothers when they are requesting a diaper change or a bowl of Cheerios.  I propose that even the youngest babies should be required to demonstrate mastery of math facts before getting any “more” animal crackers.

We must stop these slow, incremental, gradual changes to our education system.  It is time for the American people to demand action.  Teachers should be on-call for 22 hours per day in order to answer questions about how to apply the receptive language rubric when the baby is able to “show me your nose”.  Parents should be held accountable for providing ongoing teaching of reading and writing skills from the moment of conception until the first day of college.

I’m sure that if we really apply ourselves, we’ll be able to come up with a comprehensive evaluation system for even the youngest learners.  I’m sure that if we ask for it, Pearson Corporation can put that evaluation system on the market by next week.

A day in the life


It started with a delivery from “Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.”  A bright green bag filled with peat moss and 500 lively red worms.

I gathered my 23 ten year olds around me, and opened the big pink compost box in our classroom.  “See,” I told them, pointing with my trowel. “These apple cores are sitting on top of the soil.  That isn’t going to allow them to be composted.”  This comment was greeted by a cloud of fruit flies, zooming up from the box. I tried to brush them away from my face, and ended up getting compost in my left eye.  Blinking furiously, (well, winking furiously, to be more accurate), I explained the need to always cover our fruit and veggie parts with soil before closing the box.  But before I could finish, the giant knot of worms that was lying on the soil in front of me decided to react to the bright lights of the classroom.

The result was a huge wriggling mass of desperate worms, climbing and writhing over each other  in a panicked attempt to dig into the damp black soil beneath them.

Cries of “EEEEEEEEEWWWWWWW!”  and “Awesome!!!” filled the air, and the idea of teaching anything for the next twenty minutes was immediately abandoned.

As the day went on, things only got more interesting.  I was fighting a creeping case of laryngitis, and was trying hard to preserve my voice. This proved to be harder than usual, given the fact that we had six tanks of guppies, snails, elodea and daphnia sitting under the grow lights on our counter. One of the fish went belly up, and was floating around in his tank.

And there we went again.

“EEEEEEEEEWWWWWWW!”  and “Awesome!!!” in equal measure. Followed by “You’re gross!” “You’re a wimp!” and “Get him out of there!” and “Let’s see if the other fish eat him!”

I croaked and squeaked and finally restored order.  And flushed the dead guy down the drain.

The day went on, with the usual math lessons, recess, reading, spelling and lunch.  Finally it was time for our end of the day meeting.

“Can I turn over the compost?”, one little boy asked.  “No”, I told him. “We got everything all covered up nicely.”   He squirmed a little bit. “Well, yeah,” he said, looking up at me with big blue eyes. “But we sorta dug up the worms a while ago.  You know,” he shrugged, “We wanted to see them all squirm around again.”

I sighed. “Sure.  Go bury the worms and the apple cores.”  He looked at his buddy, who had hopped up to help him.

“This is the best day ever!” my worm loving young friend enthused. “Dead fish and a huge pile of worm poop!”

Yep.

My life is one endless string of highbrow events.

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