Posts Tagged ‘thoughts’


I am riveted by the TV news these days. I am horrified, shocked, angered, frustrated, immobilized by the images coming out of Gaza right now.

Poor little ones! Poor children!

I had a boy in my class this past year. He was ten years old. He was a “football” fanatic. Lionel Messi was his hero. He was the one child I could always find out on the playground, because he was either wearing his bright red “Messi” jersey or his bright orange “Messi” jersey.

This morning a little boy name Mohammed, a boy the same age as my football fanatic, was killed by a bomb that was most likely paid for with my very own tax dollars.

I am sickened by this fact.

I am angry beyond speech, and I am overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness.

I do not feel that I have a voice in this conflict, no matter how many of my hard earned dollars are used to carry it out.

And this is why I love to be a teacher: those 25 little ones who will greet me in the fall will be challenging, feisty, funny, amusing, angry, defiant, loving, joyful and sad. They will be thoughtful, impulsive, anxious and confident.

They will be mine, for a few short months.

They will love or hate Lionel Messi. They will admire or be bored with international soccer.  They will be young and alive and human.

They will be the embodiment of hope.

They will all make me think of little Mohammed, and the bomb that ended his tender young life. Their laughter and their struggles will help me to ease the guilt of having paid for the terrible weapon that murdered their young colleague, so far away on the Gaza strip.


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.



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.


Process or Product

We used to have a saying here in our school, “Learning is a process, not a product.” It was based on a quote about art, actually.

“Art is a process, not a product.”

We used to display student art as it was being created, not only when it was complete.  We displayed all of it; not only the best ones.  We didn’t let children throw away art and start over; we encouraged them to talk about the parts that didn’t go as planned, and to problem solve ways to make them better.

Back in the days of yore, we used to consider writing to be a process, too. We didn’t believe that the purpose of writing a story in the second grade was to generate a polished piece of work; we thought that the goal of writing was to learn how to write and to fall in love with the power of self expression.

I recently had two conversations that have left me yearning for those innocent days.

Both were discussions with young, talented, dedicated teachers who have a burning desire to do this job to the best of their ability. They are the products of current practices in teacher education.

One conversation was about a math unit.  We are moving very quickly through some very complex math concepts.  The state tests are looming and so we fly by the ideas, pushing the kids to master everything on the first or second go round.  My colleague had completed a unit on multiplying fractions, and had been working with her students for several days.  When she felt that they were ready, she gave them the unit test.

They did terribly, and she was really distressed. She was almost angry at them.  “What do I do?”, she asked me.  “What does it mean? Do you think they just didn’t take it seriously?  Should I make them retake it?”

“Why?” was my response.

“Well, because I KNOW that they can do this!”

“So what’s the point of testing again? Isn’t the point of testing supposed to be to show who still needs work and who has mastered it?”

We’ve lost our focus on the process, and are all about the product.

The second conversation was about reader’s notebooks.  I have used these notebooks for years, as a way for kids to jot down their reactions to books, to share thoughts, to start little stories themselves.  Kids used to draw in them to help them visualize and remember the characters.

My young colleague was upset that her students were producing journal entries that were not organized, long enough, grammatical enough or as polished as she expected.  She was planning to attach a writing rubric to the journals, with specific expectations about the number of lines required in each entry.

Her intentions were great!  We want to be teaching children to write well.

But here’s the question that I asked her: “What is the purpose of the reader’s notebooks?”

She wasn’t sure how to answer that, which was pretty telling.

“See, to me,” I began, “The purpose of the notebook is not to produce a notebook.  The purpose is to learn how to think deeply about books.  The purpose is to learn how to share your interesting questions and ideas and predictions about those books.”

She nodded her head.  “I get that.”

I smiled at her.  “You know what they say, right?  Education is a process, not a product.”


Sapping my strength

What do you do when you have one child who simply saps every bit of your energy?

One child who demands your constant attention, whose burning need to be special and different pulls you away from every other child all day long?

What do you do when you are faced with a vulnerable, needy, lost child whose parents have allowed her to think that she has the right and the power to control the actions, words, thoughts and opinions of every other child in your class?

I don’t know.

But I know that I am becoming increasingly angry and frustrated with this situation, and I know that my frustration and anger are fueling this child’s need to continually seek my assurance that she is, in fact, more special and deserving than anyone else in our community.

I am caught in a vicious cycle.  And I truly don’t know how to get out.

This little girl is so desperate for validation and attention that, quite literally, every time I call on her, she coughs/chokes/swallows her gum/trips on a word so that we are all left waiting for her to finally speak.  Every eye is trained on her, every ear is waiting for her words.

This girl manufactures injuries so that we can hold the door for her, get her some ice, ask if she is OK, dote on her. She drums up conflicts so that we can all process the differences of opinion.

She is the last to line up, pausing to tie her shoes and making the rest of the class wait for her. She asks if she can eat her lunch in the classroom because her head hurts. (“No, honey. You can go to the nurse, but you can’t stay in the classroom because I won’t be here the whole time to supervise you.”)

The entire grade is told that they must either choose one of the band instruments to play, or join the grade level chorus.

This child tells me that she plays the guitar, so she should be able to skip both band and chorus.  I repeat the school rules, and she answers, “Yes, but I play the guitar, so its different for me.”

I don’t mean to be harsh. I don’t mean to be heartless.  But every time this child finds a way to drain off my attention and my energy, I want to scream at her (and her equally entitled parents), “This class has a child with autism. It has a child from a third world country who has witnessed terrorism and war.  One of your classmates has a mental illness. One has witnessed violence in his own family.  You are so incredibly and overwhelmingly NOT special.  Not the way you want to be special.”   I resent the way she drains me. I resent the way that she tries to control every interaction in our classroom so that she is always cast in the very best light.

I resent her parents, and the time that they demand from me.

What do you do when one family just doesn’t understand that they are only one teeny tiny piece of the complex puzzle that makes up a school community?


More on Testing

Ah, jeez.

I just read an article in the Boston Sunday Globe that includes a description by the writer of the many weeks in which her nine year old daughter was “drilled” on how to pass the reading comprehension test on the MCAS, the Massachusetts test.  She interviewed a bunch of teachers in the town where I grew up, and asked them about the benefits of going to the Common Core and the soon to be enacted national test.

The article made me so sad!  As a parent, as a teacher, as a lover of literacy, it just made me feel so sad.

I am sad that Ms. Weiss finds it acceptable to put third graders, including her own daughter, through the “pressure” of “drilling for weeks” in order to insure that they pass one standardized test.  Ms. Weiss doesn’t seem to be aware of the fact that children can learn to read texts, understand them and answer open-ended questions about them without being “drilled” in these skills.  For years, before the onset of the standardized testing craze, children learned to do all of these things while also learning to love reading and writing.

The desperate effort to craft a single curriculum, a single test and a single measure of academic success has given us an education system which makes it abundantly clear to every nine year old that literacy is a chore, an onerous and stressful task that must be drilled and mastered.

Academic “success” no longer means learning to ask great questions or find creative solutions to problems.  “Successful learning” now means giving the right answers.  That is just plain sad.

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