Posts Tagged ‘schools’

Paranoia runs deep


So I was just over on the Badass Teachers Facebook page.  I love those crazy radicals, you know?  The fringe movement of 40,000 educators who think that all this testing is a very bad idea.   They claim that there are powerful corporate interests at work in the current insane push to implement the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC testing.

You know the interests I mean.  The ones who have created the standards.  The same ones who are selling the curriculum aligned to the standards and  who are also marketing the tests.  Those  corporate interests.  The ones with Bill Gates and Pearson Corp. in the lead.

So on the BATs page I was reading about a conference being held this weekend in Denver, including parents and teachers who oppose the imposition of all of these standards and tests.  The conference was being livestreamed on Ustream.   I guess the intention was to allow parents to make informed decisions about what kind of testing they allow their kids to participate in.

But guess what?

During the conference, the livestream site was hacked and the broadcasting was stopped.  At pretty much the same time, the Badass Teacher’s Association website was hacked and shut down.

Really.

I’m not often a conspiracy theorist, honest.  But this strains even my naivete.

Parents, teachers, administrators, freedom loving Americans everywhere, please, please, please do some research!

Who is behind the movement to have every American child take computer based tests every single year of public school life?  Bill Gates, that’s who.

Who is behind the push to have every single child in every single classroom learning the exact same lessons from the exact same shiny boxed curriculum kits? Pearson Corporation, that’s who.

Please remember: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you.

Go to United Opt Out and The Badass Teachers Association and Fair Test.

But wait a bit. They seem to be “down for maintenance” right now.

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Let’s get rigorous!


So I’m not all that up to date with all the latest Pearson Inspired Common Core Standards Based education.  Ya know? I’m old.  When I’m teaching math, I use words like “multiply” and “sum”.  When I teach reading, I use phrases like “Do you like the book?” and “What’s gonna happen next?”   So last decade. So uninformed.  I know nothing, I tell you, nothing.

But I’m a good sport!  I am studying a whole variety of shiny boxed kits that tell me how to teach.  These kits were written by people who obviously know WAY more than I do about teaching.  They’re being paid by Pearson Corporation! They MUST be brilliant!

So the other day when I was forced to sit through yet another workshop on how to teach reading and writing, lead by yet another perky little girly on the Pearson payroll, I did my best to Talk the Talk.  I want to fit in! I do! Just listen to how well I slung the shit… I mean “engaged in meaningful dialogue about the latest trends in enhancing literacy.”

Perky: ‘So, have you found that the rubric is helping you to guide students toward a more rigorous approach to the standards?’                                                                                                                                                                                      

Me: ‘Totally! I find that when I facilitate a close reading of the mentor text, the rubric gives me so much information about which student is approaching grade level on which strand of each standard!”                    

 Perky: ‘So don’t you find that when you confer using the guidance of the rubric and the checklist both you and the student can find common ground for generating next steps?’                                                                              

Me: (nodding wisely) “Well, naturally, we continually refer to the anchor charts generated during each mini-lesson to identify the key areas for continued growth.”                                                                                                    

Perky: So don’t you think that its imperative to continually develop more rigorous assessments to insure comprehensive student growth across all domains?”  (Perky seems to start every sentence with “So”.  I think its in the Perky Standards and noted on the Perky Rubric.)                                                                                                  

Me: “While I’m totally sure that you are right, I’m having a little bit of difficulty decoding the main idea of the body of your thesis, given that your supporting details were framed using non-specific word choice.  I mean, from the voice in your persuasive comments I can infer that you support the idea of more rigorous assessment, both formative and summative, to inform our teaching, but I am not sure that your transitional phrases led me toward the correct conclusion.”                                                                                                                      

Perky: (blinking rapidly): ‘I, ah……’                                                                                                                                                  

Me: (giving my most warm and engaging smile) “I’m sorry! What I meant to say is that I believe in the intrinsic value of self-reflection as students dig deeper into the texts to infer the author’s purpose, and I know that it is essential for me to adhere to the best practice of providing models of grade level comprehension strategies, but how do I maintain a focus on authentic assessment while attempting to integrate cross-curricular units while continually providing the correct individual reading level for each student? I mean, gosh! (I widen my eyes and grin) how many just right books on the Articles of Confederation can there possibly be in one classroom?”                                                                                                                                                    

Perky’s mouth opened and closed, but no sound emerged.

See?  I did my best!  I tried to sling the shit, but the truth is none of it actually means anything and no matter how I try to hide it, I know that.   Fifth graders fall in love with great books when teachers read them out loud with passion, and then talk about them with interest and knowledge.  They learn to write when they are inspired to say something.  Truth? They don’t need to be told what their reading level is: they need to be surrounded by books and they need to play around with them.  Truth? They don’t need a rubric to learn how to craft a story where “the dialogue moves the story forward on the story arc” (Seriously? Whoever wrote this crap never read Vonnegut).  They know that a story is good when their friends tell them, “This was great!”

I did my best with Perky Girly. I don’t know if she accepted my nonsense, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she did.  All you really have to do to appease these folks is to use all of the latest jargon from the latest shiny box of    up-to-date curriculae.

How sad is that?

H’mmmm. Something here sounds familiar….


I am such a history geek!   Over the past several years, as I have taught American History to my fifth grade students, I have learned more and more about the social and economic history of the United States, and what has lead us to where we are today.

A couple of summers ago, I took a graduate course with a bunch of other teachers.  We learned all about the Industrial Revolution, and we got to travel to the Lowell Textile museum and to the Tenement Museum in New York City.  We read “Triangle” and “Bread and Roses”.  Man, what an eye opener!

Did you know that at the time of the Industrial Revolution, at the turn of the twentieth century, the original mill owners were actually pretty socially progressive?  They built those big mills on the rivers, then they set up housing units for the young women workers.  The pay was pretty good for the time, and it included housing and food.  The original millworkers were offered educational opportunities, music, lectures and a chance to enjoy city life.  You know, come to Lowell, earn a living and “better yourself”.  What an amazing opportunity! The textile mills could improve the lives of Americans, support and improve the economy and make money for the mill owners all at once.  What a win-win situation.

Unfortunately, as I also learned, over time the mill owners faced so much competition from other entrepreneurs that they were forced to make some changes.  For example, they started to charge the workers for their housing.  They increased the hours of work while keeping the pay the same.  H’m.  Gradually, as more and more factories popped up all over the East Coast, the workers faced more and more hardships.  Wages declined, the housing got worse and worse, the work became more demanding. The mill owners were desperate for more cheap labor.  Enter the giant wave of immigrants, the tenements of the Lower East Side, the squalor, the poverty, the disease.

Workers were fired or jailed for even thinking about forming unions.

The original progressive ideas of the early mill owners were beaten down by the demands of capitalism. The profit motive trumped any social motive.  Factory workers were looked upon as the lowest rung on the social ladder.  Those in power cared nothing for their lives or well being.

As a teacher of history, I am always hoping that my students will learn valuable lessons from the past.  As a student of history, I am always hoping that my fellow humans will have learned from the lessons of the past.

So you can imagine my surprise and disappointment when I read this morning’s Boston Globe.  It featured an article titled

Some chafe at charter school’s low pay for tutors

Believe it or not, many Charter Schools around the country are hiring new college graduates to work as “tutors” for their students, to help them to raise their test scores.  The young people were hired at a low rate of pay, but were given free housing with other tutors, and offered the opportunity to train as teachers.  Unfortunately, over time the corporate owners of the Charter Mills……I mean “Schools”…..realized that it costs a lot to have a fleet of tutors available at all hours of the day and night to assist students with every possible academic question.  They kept the salaries intact, but asked for more and more hours of work.  They began to charge the tutors for housing.

Sound familiar?  It sure does to me.

So here is a newsflash for all of those “education reformers” out there who bow to the superiority of corporate Charter Schools.  When you treat teachers like factory workers, you aren’t actually improving education.  When you hire the cheapest possible laborers to provide a service, you aren’t exactly getting the most highly skilled work force.  When you claim that you are working to better the lives of teachers and students, you are full of shit.

We’ve been down this road before, folks.  Go out and research The Bread and Roses strike. Research the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  Read about the labor movement of the 1920’s.  Then read the article that I linked above.

The more things change, it seems, the more they remain the same.

Of Buffaloes and Rutabagas


I have found myself all caught up this year in the pressures of the Common Corpse.  I am teaching math strictly according to the CC workbooks (no matter what interesting side questions the kids may ask), and I am testing and then retesting.

What I’m not doing is asking myself why I am testing and retesting. Its just what we do now, you know?

I am teaching science using the new, updated CC structure.  You know, instead of getting kids to investigate real organisms in real ecosystems, we’re giving them book to read about those organisms.  Leveled books, of course, so that every child is able to read at exactly his or her perfect reading level.  No challenges, no excitement, just reading about nice predictable science at a nice predictable level.

Yuck.

I have also found myself struggling this year, for the first time ever in my entire career, to find a way to really like the kids in my classroom. I am overwhelmed by the social conflicts, the arguments about fairness, the neediness, the oppositional reactions, the enabling parents.

Yuck again.

It has all really gotten me down. So the other day I was absolutely delighted when one of last year’s kids appeared in my classroom door, giggling and blushing and carrying a brown paper bag.  “Its a gift for your new class,” he chortled, placing the bag carefully on my desk.  “Give it a good name!”

My current students broke away from their little cliques and circled around me.  I reached into the bag, smiling.  I pulled out a big white rutabaga, and I burst into laughter.

For some strange reason, last year I had often used the term “rutabaga” in my math lessons.  You know, like, “If I have 3,452 rutabagas and I eat 1, 426 of them, how many rutabagas will I have?”   The rutabaga had become a symbol of our classroom and we had laughed about it all year long.

And here was a rutabaga.

This year it doesn’t seem so easy, so effortless to find a classroom joke around which we can all rally.  This year I am working hard to make them smile.

But the other day, during math, I made a reference to a water buffalo, and one of my quiet, shy, disorganized little boys raised his hand.  When I called on him, he quirked an eyebrow in a totally unexpected way and commented drily, “You certainly seem to have a fascination with water buffaloes.”

For perhaps the first time all year, the children all burst uniformly into laughter, and I joined them happily.

It was fun. It was unifying.  It was slightly silly and more than a little bit liberating.

So this week, instead of practicing to take a test, taking the test, reviewing the test and retaking the godforsaken test, my class is going to come together in order to name our classroom waterbuffalo mascot.  We are going to laugh, giggle, kid each other and come to some group consensus.

And if all of my wishes come true, the children will vote unanimously to name the waterbuffalo “Rutabaga”.

Giving up the fight


When state mandated testing first appeared in our school, every single teacher on our staff was appalled.  We were a progressive, child centered school in an upper middle class Boston suburb.  Our school had been created by parents twenty years earlier because they were unhappy with the traditional schooling that had been leaving their children without a place to succeed.  We were a school where the visual arts were integrated throughout the curriculum, where children were encouraged to identify areas of interest and to investigate/create/inquire.  We were enormously popular in town; of the five elementary schools in the District, we were the most requested by parents who were looking to place their children.

We loved our school.  We were so proud of what we did every day.  We helped children to become thinkers, to ask good questions, to pursue the answers to interesting problems.  Kids loved coming to school; parents loved sending their kids to us. Our Principal was our leader, our guide, our constant supporter.

We were not “broken”.  We did not need to be “fixed” or “reformed” in any way.  As I recall, a full 98% of our students went on to four year colleges. We were awesome.

Nevertheless, when the Education Reform Act of 1993 went into effect in Massachusetts, we were caught up in the national desire to “fix our broken schools”.  For reasons which never quite made sense to us, our school was lumped in with poor urban districts where 50% of students dropped out before earning a diploma. It was bewildering at best and horrifying at worst.

We were successful by any measure, and yet they wanted us to change.

We were swept up in the testing craze, in spite of our desire to refuse.  Everyone had to be tested, it seemed, and everybody had to do well.  We had no choice, so we administered the tests.  I will never forget the first administration of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.  I was in a fourth grade classroom where the children had been taught to always ask questions, to make sure that they fully understood all directions before proceeding with any academic task. I remember a little girl raising her hand and asking me what one word meant on her math test.  She was pretty sure that she understood the meaning, but she wanted to double check.  “I’m sorry honey”, I said, “I can’t tell you that.”  She looked at me for a moment, her blue eyes clear and direct.  “I know”, she said calmly, “I don’t want the answer. I just want to make sure that I know what this one word means.”  I shifted a bit, then shook my head. “I can’t tell you that.”

That was my introduction to the utter stupidity of the testing. It never got better. Those first few years, our district scored in the top five in the state, but we were always lagging behind the more traditional schools in town.  We joked about being “The worst of the best.”

When the “No Child Left Behind” law came into effect, and the tests gained new importance, I did my best to hold onto what I believed was in the best interests of the children in our school.  Along with many of my colleagues, I began to work toward an end to the “one size fits all” tests. I wrote to the Department of Ed in my state and in Washington. I met with educational leaders here in Massachusetts.  I attended lectures and seminars.  I served on my local School Committee and advocated for an end to the single test requirement for receiving a High School Diploma.

And each time I was forced to administer the test, I spoke to the children about how much faith I had in them, how silly it all was, and how I knew that they were smart kids and good students without needing to put them through the testing.

But the years have gone on, and the testing has only gained in power and importance. Parents have begun to focus on test results rather than student satisfaction.  Our creative school went from being the most sought after in town to the least. We began to analyze test data every year.  We have frantically adjusted our curriculum to try to fix our areas of weakness. I remember the year when our fifth graders did poorly on the “open response” math questions.  Oh, they clearly understood the actual math concepts, but they were weak when it came to writing about those concepts.  And so as part of the fifth grade teaching team, I shifted the way I taught math, focusing more on “writing to explain” than on math calculations.

I’m sure you can predict the outcome: the scores improved on those writing questions, but the math calculation problems declined.

The years have gone by, and our school has changed right along with the educational philosophy of the nation.  We teach only what the “Curriculum Frameworks” tell us to teach.  We use the appropriate, official books and materials.  We practice test taking.  We use scoring rubrics that match the state tests.

Gone are the interesting questions, the creative projects, the asking of deep questions.

And through it all, I have remained as true as I could possibly remain to those beliefs that I once held so dear.  I have continued to work hard to encourage the children to be creative, to be inquisitive, to wonder about the world around them.  I have continued to think that it was important to make children feel comfortable in making guesses, in taking intellectual risks.  I have continued to have fun in my classroom, and I have continued to believe that one test on one day is not an adequate measure of the progress that my students make in one year with me.

But last Friday everything changed, and I am preparing to give up the fight.

Last Friday last year’s test scores came out.  Fully half of my class failed to achieve the coveted “Proficient label.”  Some of those children have learning disabilities.  Some are emotionally disturbed.  One is struggling to learn English.

But a lot of them are just happy, average American kids with no issues.  They showed me all year that they understand math, but they did poorly on the test.

What does it mean?  In reality, it means nothing.  They rushed, or they were hungry, or they got nervous or they made some mistakes.

Or they took my message to heart, and took the testing lightly.

It doesn’t matter.

I spent all day Friday in tears.

There will be repercussions for the failure of my math teaching.  I will be assigned a math coach.  I will have to answer to last year’s parents.  I will need to review each individual test item and try to identify what it was that I failed to teach.

And very soon, within a year or so, my salary will be directly linked to scores just like these.

And so I am giving up the fight.  I will give up all pretenses of trying to facilitate creativity.  I will no longer encourage children to ask me for help or clarification.  I won’t try to make math interesting or fun or intriguing.  Instead, I will drill, repeat, reteach, drill some more and make everyone correct every problem. I will use math rubrics and practice tests and I will no longer feel proud of what I do, or happy to be a part of my school, or satisfied with what it that I am able to give to children.

This is the saddest day of my 32 year career.

My own kids


I just had a very sad and very shocking thought.

If my own three kids were still school aged, I don’t think that I would leave them in public school.

Wow.

My kids grew up in a town that was struggling socially, economically and educationally.  I was the Chairperson of our local school committee when the district was labelled as the first “underperforming” district in the state.  We had low test scores and not enough up to date technology or books.  There was no doubt that we had many needs.

But the schools were vibrant places, where my kids were encouraged to try new things, to write stories, to paint, to make pottery, to join teams, to learn the clarinet.  I remember when my youngest learned idioms by participating in a full day “wax museum” where the entire grade level was turned into a wonderful maze of interesting phrases.  Of course, given that Tim was allergic to his station (He was looking for the “needle in a haystack”) it was a day that stuck in my mind.  But the point is that the kids were active, creative, involved, engaged.

I hardly remember any worksheets.

School these days is an entirely different proposition. I should know: I am teaching in one.

Now, idioms would be taught from one of the shiny workbooks in the big shiny box.  There would be a “mini lesson” and an “anchor chart” and then kids would read carefully leveled books before they answered the carefully chosen worksheets.

No one would need an inhaler, but I bet no one would remember much either.

When my kids were in school, math was often accomplished using little blocks and counters and plastic rods. Sometimes there was real money or an actual clock.  They practiced the concepts by working in teams and by solving problems on the board.

Now, of course, they would be taught in leveled groups, using the shiny workbooks from the shiny boxes.  They would have an on-line video of an unbearably boring character talking to them as if they had an IQ of 30.  Then they would complete the worksheets in class before bringing home the worksheets for homework.

My kids felt smart because they made the teacher laugh.  They felt successful because they made big messy art projects.  My oldest child wrote a chapter book in the second grade called “The Mystery of the Screeching Cave”.  It was rambling, misspelled and not particularly well developed as a piece of literature goes.   But she felt brilliant.  She began to think of herself as a writer the moment her teacher praised her for her work.

Now, of course, my daughter would have been handed a “graphic organizer” so that her story would have had a topic sentence, 3-5 supporting details and a clincher.  She would have been told to edit, to revise and to answer the Big 5 questions before turning it in.   It would never have been finished, and it sure as hell wouldn’t have become a chapter book.

If my children were school aged now, I would be either teaching them at home, or looking for an Innovation Charter School.

As a public school teacher, I can’t think of a sadder statement than that one.

A Prayer to Gods of the School Year


It’s that time of year once again.  Time to peel the names of last year’s kids off of the mailboxes and attach the names of the new kids.  Time to unpack 8 boxes of books and vow to keep the classroom library more organized this year.  Time to review the new……well, the new everything.  August is the month of new curriculum, new standards, new tests, new evaluation procedures, new technology, new policies, new materials and new local/state and federal mandates.

August is also the time of the annual Prayer to the Gods of the School Year. I offer this prayer now, on this lovely sunny morning, on what may well be my last chance to be well rested until Christmas vacation rolls around.

“Dear Great Educational Spirits,   

Hear the plea of this, your most humble servant.  

Please grant me and my students a happy, healthy school year. Please keep us all safe.

I pray that you give me the patience to calmly explain why it is not a good choice to jump over your desk when you are asked to line up for recess.  Please give me the sense of humor to laugh at myself when I forget how to do a math problem involving probability.

 I pray that you grant me full control of my facial muscles, so that my internal reactions to “Owww!  I just whacked my nutsack!” and “Wait, where do we put the homework?” both look the same .  Oh, and I pray that those facial muscles convey total calm and serenity. All day.

Oh, Great Spirit, 

May the copy machine remain my friend; may it refrain from eating the 5 page research assignment of which I need 25 copies.  May it hold onto its toner when I am in the middle of running off 80 copies of the permission slip that has to go out today.

May my SmartBoard light stay lit, and may my contact with Tech Support be limited.

May our annual three day nature campout in the mountains be free of rain, snow, ice pellets and swine flu (you remember THAT year, don’t you?)

May the parents in my class understand that I am just a tired middle aged lady who is giving it my best, and may they not expect me to reply to every email within an hour.  

May the pencil supply last all year!  May the math books arrive on time and the history texts be right where I put them in June.

May my aging desk chair retain its wheels.

May our science experiments thrive, but not with mold.  

May the heat in the room remain somewhere between 60 and 80 degrees, at least on most days.

Great spirit, I pray that you will grant me a group of kids who are curious enough to get me thinking, mischievous enough to keep me on my toes, comical enough to have us all laughing as we learn, active enough to make sure that we go outside a lot and just cute enough for me to overlook all of the little things.  

Actually, oh God of Public School, that last part was probably not necessary.  It seems to me that you always send me a group fitting that description, which is why I always come back in the fall.

So instead let me pray that you give me the physical, mental and emotional strength to give each one of my students my very best, every day. May you surprise me with joy when I look at them, and may you fill me up with a little extra love so that I won’t run out before next June.

Amen.

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