Posts Tagged ‘school’

So you think we’re exaggerating?

Dear Standardized Testing supporters,

I am writing this post after having spent the past two days administering the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System- Math, Grade 5.

I have a few little anecdotes and insights for you folks, given that you believe all this testing is actually useful.

Let me give you a very brief description of the absurdities of the educational testing world.  If you still believe that High Stakes testing is good for anyone who spends his/her day in a school, then you are either delusion of on the Pearson Payroll.

Scene 1.   As a public school teacher in my state, I had to participate in an “MCAS Security Training Session.”  I had to watch a Powerpoint presentation, and then sign my name on a document swearing that I had watched the presentation.

Scene 2.  On Day 1 of the testing, every teacher who was giving the test was required to come to the school office to pick up our materials.  Materials were available for pickup from 8:45 to 9:00 AM.   All 18 of us showed up in the office right on time.

Scene 3: Before we were allowed to take our Boxes of Test Materials, every teacher had to count every test booklet, answer booklet, MCAS Approved Reference Sheet and “any additional materials”.  We then had to sign a document where we recorded our counts. Then an office staff member had to repeat the process and write the same numbers, and sign.    This took a long time. To say the least.

Scene 4: We read the directions.  We are instructed to tell the children that the test session is scheduled to last for two hours, but that they will be given as much time as they need, up until the end of the school day.

Scene 5: We tell the children, our sweet, trusting eleven year old kids, that “cheating in any form is forbidden”.  We tell them that they are not allowed to use cell phones, game consoles, music players (?) or any other electronic devices.  We tell them that they can’t use scrap paper, but they can scribble all over their test booklets.

Scene 6: The test has begun.  A very bright, hardworking student raises her hand.  I signal for her to come to my desk.  She does not recognize one of the many words that mathematicians use for “number”.   I am forced to give the scripted and MCAS approved answer.  “I’m sorry. I can’t tell you what it means.  Use your best judgement.”

Scene 7: My wonderful, smart, exceptional Chinese student, who started the year with exactly one phrase of English is working very hard at her desk.  Uh, oh.  I notice that she is using her everyday Chinese-English dictionary, given to her by our ELE teacher.  She is supposed to be using the MCAS Chinese-English dictionary, given to her by our ELE teacher!  This could be a violation!  I hurry to her desk and crouch beside her.  Her beautiful dark eyes rise to meet mine. I can see by the flush in her cheeks that she is anxious.

“Honey,” I say, “I’m sorry, but you can’t use this dictionary.  You have to use THIS one.”   She frowned a bit.  “But this book doesn’t has the math words.  THIS book has.”                                                       “Yes, I know.” I say, “But you have to use this one.” I hold up the everyday dictionary.  The one with no academic vocabulary.

My student frowns harder.  She is a very diligent student.    She holds up the forbidden dictionary, given to her on the first day of school by her English Language teacher.

“This book has math words.  THIS book,” she holds up the official MCAS Approved dictionary, “THIS book no has this important words.”

My heart sinks.  “I know,” I say, as I take the forbidden dictionary away from her.

Scene 8: The room is silent.  22 kids have completed the test.   One is still working.  I have to keep the 22 silently in their seats, reading books.  No talking.  No walking around the room. No pulling out your unfinished work.  No writing in your journal. No drawing or sketching or painting.  Why not? No one can tell me.  This goes on for nearly an hour.

Scene 9:  My colleague and close friend texts me in the middle of the test.  Her husband has been taken to the hospital with chest pain!  She isn’t sure what to do!  The MCAS Security training has told her that she can’t leave the room while the kids are working.  But she wants to go to see her husband!! Luckily, our fifth grade assistant is in my room!  She has worked for this school for almost 25 years. She has subbed for us all, she has taught small groups, she has come on a hundred field trips.  She offers to stay in the classroom while the kids finish the test.  “Sorry”, she is told. “You haven’t taken the Security Training.  You haven’t signed the papers.”  She cannot monitor the test.  My friend and her husband must both wait.

Stay tuned for tomorrows set of “Scenes from an Insane Asylum”.  They are even crazier.


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.


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!”


My life is one endless string of highbrow events.

Its another “do over”

This is why I love to teach.

Every year is a “do over”.  The mistakes of last year are gone. The slate is clean, the pencils are sharp, the bulletin board paper is unscathed.

I can look back on last year, and every year before it, and I can see how much I have grown as a teacher, as an adult, as a Mom, as a human.

I love this back to school tension.

But it makes me sad, too.

I envy those Moms who are setting out the new backpacks and new sneakers.  The ones who bought juice boxes and Goldfish crackers and string cheese.  I envy them the slightly clinging embraces of their children this week, as they contemplate the time apart.

I miss those first days of school as a Mommy, I do.  I miss the rush and the bustle and the last big dinner before we all head back into the fray.

If I cast my mind back even farther, I miss the days when my sister Liz and I would carefully hang up our new wool skirts and our new fall colored sweaters, ready for the next morning. I miss the feeling of seeing my friends again after the horrible long stretch of summer days without them.

I am lucky. I am a teacher.  I don’t have to miss those clean new notebooks and those shiny new pens. I have them! I don’t have to miss the night-before butterflies or the headache that invariably comes with the confusion of the very first day.

I find myself perched with tingling anticipation this year.  I miss the start of the year for my own little ones, but I am so incredibly eager to find myself surrounded once again by all the energy and optimism and laughter of a new batch of kids who I can happily call “mine” for the next nine months.

Happy First Day of School, to all the kids, Moms, Dads and teachers out there!

First day nerves

Oh, my God.

What should I wear?

I have a nice new purple dress, summery and embroidered.  Maybe I should wear that? But I look sort of fat in it. And its kind of hippyish.  And sort of old ladyish.

But its so pretty!

And I have my new Etsy purple earrings.

OK. Purple dress it is.

What should I bring for snack? I don’t want to eat a banana, because no one in the world can look non-monkylike while eating a banana.

Maybe an apple? I can’t bring nuts; two kids are allergic. And no cookies, for sure! I want to set the tone, let them know that we are trying to be healthy.  OK. An apple. Or some fresh carrots.  Not those stupid little nubbins of slimy orange things they call “Baby carrots”.  Nope.  Some fresh, crisp, farm stand, pulled-right-out-of-the-ground carrots.

And what should we do in our first morning meeting?  I want it to be fun, but organized. I don’t want it to feel like its too chaotic. I want it to be engaging.  No singing; that would be so. lame.   No goofy games with hand holding.

Dude, this is fifth grade. We need to be very cool.

Word games are always fun, but I do have one student who doesn’t speak any English at all.

So maybe no word games.

Maybe….a cooperative game? Lava challenge?  Human Knot?


I gotta admit.

I’m nervous!

It’s almost the first day of school.

What if the kids don’t like me? What if they think I’m kind of lame and old and stupid?  What if they won’t do what I say?


It’s almost the first day of school.

Trust me. It isn’t only the kids who are nervous.

Happy New Year, to every teacher and student in the world!  Have a good one!

It happens every August.


It happens every year.

As the perennial flowers turn from pink to gold, as the very tips of the maples begin to darken toward red, everything changes.

My love of the long empty days begins to wane, and I start to feel just a little bit itchy.  The garden is set for the year; it will either produce or it won’t.  Too late to worry.  All of the postponed doctor visits have been done. The basement is clean, the closets are organized, the indoor plants have had a nice bath to wash off the dust of the past year.  I’ve even taken apart and cleaned all of the window fans!

The days are growing slowly but inexorably shorter.  Summer is past its peak.

And inside of me, another shift is taking place. Slowly but just as surely as summer fades away, my heart starts to look forward to being with children again.

I start to notice groups of kids laughing at the library.  I start to dream of last years’ kids, and kids from years ago.  I start to wonder about who will be in my class this year.  I start to look forward to morning meeting, and to recess.  Memories of reading aloud on rainy days come back to me, feeling so safe and comfortable and warm.

How lucky am I, huh?  I get to have two months off to rest and recharge my batteries, and that’s a real gift. But what is even better, I think, is that even after all these years, I still look forward to each new year with real excitement.

Bring on the fall colors!  I’m ready!

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