Sunday, September 27, 2015

Some Thoughts about the History of Opt Out

Right now there is a lot of discussion around the history of Opt Out. Ultimately Opt Out has been around for years. Here in Colorado, Don Perl refused to administer the test to his students in 2001- for starters! Also in 2001, Scarsdale, New York moms opted their 8th graders out of the state tests.

And while I appreciate the work and historical sharing of Opt Out via NPE it's important to recognize that Opt Out began long before any of us - including UOO. And, in actuality, New York Opt Out began as a result of NY folks attending UOO's Occupy the DOE - folks like Susan Schutt, Jean Schutt McTavish, Sara Wottawa, Gail DeBonis Richmond, Elizabeth Loizidis Lynch, Susan Horton Polos, and Kris Nielsen, all from NY came to Occupy DOE 2.0 and took Opt Out straight back to NY. They have always stated clearly that UOO's Occupy the DOE was the catalyst for Opt Out in NY. (my apologies if I forgot anyone  - see the schedule for additional folks from NY who also spoke!)

On March 2, 2013, Jeanette Deutermann (current LI Opt Out Leader) contacted me for support with Opt Out. Chris Cerrone, one of the UOO NY Opt Out Leaders, had already started Opt Out in upstate New York and I directed Jeanette to Chris Cerrone.  Sara Wottawa was the original LI Opt Out leader. So, NY Opt Out had already begun - I just think it's important to acknowledge the roots of this work. Chris Cerrone, Sara Wottawa and all the folks that attended Occupy DOE 2.0 were instrumental in getting NY Opt Out moving!

In addition, the launch of nationwide Opt Out occurred due to United Opt Out National supporting folks statewide in creating their own grassroots Opt Out groups - we created FB files for every state and eventually shifted this to our state guides at our website. We started UOO in August of 2011. And in 2011 our FB page was swamped with parents, students, teachers, and community members who utilized our resources and created their own local Opt Out groups (so many I can't list them - and many created without our support!). Many of the founders of UOO were also at the Save our Schools March in July of 2011 - which preceded the launch of UOO in August of 2011.

Another misconception is that only parents led Opt Out when it originated. UOO was created by six folks in 2011 - five of them teachers. And if you look just at Colorado - as I mentioned above, Don Perl refused to administer the test, and also - Angela Engel of Uniting 4 Kids (also a former teacher in CO) was sharing Opt Out information long before I joined in this important work! Also - of the NY folks I've listed - 7 out of 8 are teachers.

Teachers were very much leaders in the Opt Out movement - I think this is very important to share because teachers did step up and speak the truth. As a teacher, it's VERY important to me because I wouldn't want folks to think teachers have stayed silent during this nightmare. In addition, Ceresta Smith (UOO founder) opted her child out in 2011 as did Tim Slekar (UOO founder) and Michelle Gray from PA.  All of this is documented via blogs, emails and our book as well. No disrespect to anyone meant by this post - but it's just important to acknowledge folks who indeed were a part of the grassroots organizing to make this happen. This is the work of so many people - it truly is the people's movement - solidarity to all of you.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

This is NOT as Good as it Gets

I think what's really hard to stomach right now is that many children believe this is as good as it gets. Many don't know that they could receive more attention from teachers who have small class sizes. Many don't know that rooms plastered with data and standards ultimately mean nothing. Many don't know that their kindergarten classrooms should include blocks, painting, and kitchens (to name a few items). Many don't know that they deserve more recess. Many don't know that all these tests they take and all this test prep they do is actually a waste of time and robbing them of important learning time. Many don't know that the reason they feel wiggly is because they sit too long in their classrooms. Many don't know that they have a right to ALL of it - small class size, books, arts, librarians, counselors, nurses, REAL teachers, recess, play, portfolio assessment, delicious healthy lunches and more. Many don't know that they should have extracurricular activities AT their school FOR FREE. Many don't know that their learning should be planned and developed with their input. Many don't know that they've been targeted to serve the corporations in order to create a lot of profit for a few, by intentionally labeling these children as failures.

And I have to say, it's incredibly hard to face these children every day and smile and act like it's all going to be okay. This is not as good as it gets. And the silence is deafening. These are innocent children who have been thrown to the wolves. And they still show up every day, smiling, and being grateful for what they have, and I watch knowing that this is NOT as good as it gets. Not even close. The only way to stop this is an absolute uprising. The clock is ticking and this is probably what frustrates me the most. Politicians are okay with getting "a little" for kids when we know they deserve it all. Why do we stand by and allow this? Why? I am not okay with treating children this way. It's educational malpractice. And in some cases where no excuse models like KIPP exist to the fullest, it's absolutely criminal. Where is the uprising? ‪#‎revolt‬ ‪#‎optout‬

So Here We Stand: Opt Out in Dangerous Times

Four years ago they called us "Opt Out" folks crazy.  They laughed at us.

Then, at the UOO conference, over a year ago in Denver, our website was hacked and maliciously destroyed. At that point we clearly had become a threat.

Now, headed into year five we don't get hacked anymore, but everyone with loads of money and power is trying to ride the tails of Opt Out and/or co-opt it. Right now, in my opinion, is the most dangerous time for all of us. We are on the brink of winning, so they must try to appease us - this is where the whole "less testing" mantra comes in. Less testing is better than getting nothing right?? Wrong!!!! Remember - we must get all for all children. Do not negotiate and do not settle for less.

And then, they (corporate reformers) have to CLAIM the Opt Out message as their own because watching it come towards them like a stampede of wild stallions that is OUT OF THEIR CONTROL (yes, that's good), is honestly causing them to scurry in circles trying to figure out - how dear god - to rein us in!

So......what do they do? They create their own pathetic little inaccurate Opt Out guides (by ECS and NASBE) that show that "some legal" Opt Out is allowed in some states - - mind you these groups are FUNDED BY PEARSON, GATES, among others. And then..these big money power players share these pathetic guides with well known educational reporters and union leaders, to mention a few - and this gets shared in social media as the "guides" for Opt Out. (Ummm... Opt Out is an act of civil disobedience - no legal mumbo jumbo needed, but thanks). These guides they have created could actually discourage Opt Out because it brings forward the mentality that it must be legal to do it. Again, NO. We do not need anyone's permission to refuse these tests.  And do not forget that United Opt Out has the real guides, written by the people for the people over two years ago FREE OF CHARGE. We created these guides in order to make Opt Out easier for parents and students who are trying to navigate legal waters and deal with the harassment that comes under these incredibly high stakes conditions. We also have over 70 Opt Out leaders who walk parents and students through the Opt Out process (by phone, email, and in person) - sometimes taking weeks per Opt Out situation. This support is provided free, by the people, for the people. We at UOO have no money, only passion, determination, and an absolute belief that all children deserve whole, fully resourced public schools and social policies in place to support communities. This is grassroots - we cannot let it be co-opted.

So here we stand. They've mocked us, they've tried to destroy us, they've tried to appease us, and now they are trying to co-opt us and claim the Opt Out message. None of them EVER mention that our ultimate demand requires getting ALL for ALL children while also demanding social policies to support communities. Why don't they mention this? Because they want to keep the message around the "test." They can control that false reality which attempts to keep privilege in place; they can make money by reinforcing this "system" which continues to state that our schools, teachers, and children are failing. Without the test/punish system they have NOTHING.  This "reform" is built on a fraudulent system used to prey on children and absolutely devour and destroy public schools in our neediest communities.  The test/punish system does not support student learning - it does not support learning for ANY of our children.  It is stripping our schools of resources and learning opportunities for our children. It is definitely destroying any opportunity for democratic thinking as our children, teachers and schools have been placed in a fear-based environment which requires them to bow down to the test/punish system. We must tear it down and force politicians and our society to acknowledge poverty and acknowledge the need for equitable funding in order to have fully-resourced neighborhood public schools for all children.

Don't let them co-opt the message. Eyes open and question everything. This is the people's movement and we will stand strong and steadfast with our demands for our children and our country. ‪

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Understanding Teach Like a Champion

I'm currently in the process of reading Teach Like a Champion 2.0.  I'm reading it because it is one of the "go to" books shared via Relay Graduate School of  NYC, and unfortunately, their work is being spread far and wide here in Colorado in many of our districts, including mine. We are at a very precarious time in public education - our work as educators is being stripped from our schools and replaced by non-educator think tanks who pride themselves on high test scores.  Teach Like a Champion 2.0 is written by Doug Lemov. I'll let you read more about him here. Ultimately he is not an educator, but has great experience within the world of charter schools. He has two degrees in English and one in business. He is a corporate education reformer. Period.

To be honest, after reading over 100 pages of the book (there will be a follow-up blog when I finish reading the entire book), I have to say it's incredibly shallow and simplistic - yet the scary part is the dictatorial demand to keep everything shallow, uniform and simplistic. And as mentioned above, Lemov's beliefs about "teaching like a champion" are beginning to co-opt what true educators really understand about teaching, child development, and engaging learners.  This book is a great primer for reducing learning to uniform and robotic student behavior which is easy to "track" (Lemov's word - not mine) and manage, in order to get the results that you want. And the results that they want are high test scores. Lemov is clear in stating that this work is gauged via state test scores.

True learning is incredibly messy, but with an inherent structure in place to support the messiness. Those of us with vast experience in public education know this. And we also know that in order for true learning to occur, we must embrace the messiness, while all along keeping a structure in place to allow for the ebb and flow of learning.  We create routines and structures, with student input, to foster an environment which supports student engagement, student learning styles and interests, all the while making certain that our teaching is developmentally appropriate and meeting the needs of each learner.  If we have the necessary resources, the autonomy to teach, and a class size that allows for us to address each child's needs - amazing things can happen. If children have food, healthcare and books in their home we can move mountains. However, in this day and age - having everything necessary for all public school children to thrive mentally, physically, academically and emotionally - is rare, if not non-existent.

My experience includes teaching almost all grades Pre-K - 6 (never got to teach third!), serving as a district literacy coordinator, serving as a literacy coach, and working as an educational consultant.  I have supported the development of principals and teacher leaders across Colorado and I have worked with teachers nationwide to support their understandings of literacy instruction. I am currently a literacy interventionist in my 19th year of teaching.

In the 90's I had great autonomy to teach. The inquiries and projects my students completed would not even be possible under today's testing conditions.  Several of my classes opened restaurants - we literally opened a restaurant in our classroom and charged for meals. We designed the restaurant, shopped for the ingredients at the grocery store, and we made the pasta from scratch in our classroom. Students applied for jobs at the restaurant. We took reservations for parents and district staff to come and eat! Another example was with a sixth grade class in which we created a partnership with a nursing home. Each sixth grader had a friend at the nursing home where we visited weekly to plant flowers, read, sing, and develop relationships with these women and men at the home. The sixth graders interviewed their friends, researched the corresponding time period, and wrote biographies.  I had a fourth grade class who researched activists across the country who were making changes in their communities. These students really wanted to know how they could give back to the community.  We created our own service learning project and gathered food for food banks and worked at the food banks and served at a soup kitchen. We canvassed the neighborhoods gathering canned goods and other items to support families in need. I had other classes who raised money to end landmines that were harming children - we researched these countries and read about the impact on children and created a public campaign to end the landmines. What is interesting about all of these inquiries and projects is that we could connect them to every facet of our day - math, science, social studies, language arts, music, art, and on and on. Those are just a few of the learning opportunities my students had. 

I share my experiences because they are important in understanding what education can and should look like. Teaching and learning should not be uniform and defined within a box. Education begins with the students in the classroom, and we then build our curriculum around the students' strengths, needs and interests. Teachers each have their own talents, their own quirkiness and their own passions which influence their teaching. Students also have their own talents, learning styles and interests which influence how a class takes shape over the year - if indeed we wish for education to be truly intrinsically engaging and purposeful for students. Every classroom is unique - if indeed we are focused on equity for our students and their learning. Education that is standardized and is top down ultimately is dumbed-down.

Teach Like a Champion 2.0 is focused on uniformity. Lemov discusses the idea of standardized formatting for worksheets and note-taking. It is my experience that learners find that certain formats work for them and others don't.  I always share a variety of styles for note-taking with students and ultimately I let them pick what works for them as it's important that they are able to begin to discern how they learn best and what tools will best support their learning.  Classrooms must be equitable. In order to be equitable we must discern what is just and right for each student. We cannot demand all students use a tool if it does not meet their needs; this is why we have notebook paper with narrow lines, fat lines, no lines at all. This is why we have fat pencils, thin pencils, and pencil grips. This is why we want children to pick and choose their independent reading books. Uniformity ultimately destroys any chance of equity - again, considering what is fair and just for each individual student. At times do we all use a particular format - or process? Of course! But uniformity and standardization do not drive the learning - students do.

Lemov is very interested in teachers being able to quickly see the answers students are writing as they walk around the room - this is why he prefers standardization of note taking. Efficiency, mastery and getting it right is key.  On page 19 Lemov states that the purpose of order in the classroom is to promote academic learning.  I think the purpose of order in a classroom is to create a space which is safe and inviting for student's social, emotional, physical and academic learning.  Physically I want my students to be comfortable so that they can learn.  I want them to be able to move around the room as needed to meet their personal needs.  Of course, understand it's not a free for all, children aren't running willy nilly around the room - but they do stand if needed or cross their legs in their seats, and at times they spread their work out on the floor if that is the best space for their learning to occur.  Couches are a wonderful place for children to read and work. My students can have a very carefully articulated plan for the day as they maneuver around the classroom as needed to learn, as they get the necessary supplies, and or converse with the necessary people, to do their work at hand. We work as a community and develop spaces within the room to support our work as a whole group, small groups and as individuals. We trust one another. 

In contrast, Teach Like a Champion classrooms are typically rows of desks and the instruction videotaped is always whole group instruction, in which the teacher asks a question and a student answers.  So, if you were diagramming the conversation in the classroom on paper it would be straight lines from teacher to student - starting at focal point (the teacher) and spreading out like a fan.  Ultimately if you are wishing for a rich conversation that thrives on student talk you are looking for a diagram where the lines intersect. So, the teacher might talk, then a student, then another student responds, and another, and then back to the forth and so on. A classroom in which the teacher asks a question and pops from student to student is very dictatorial and ultimately lacks richness and depth of learning - if the teacher is continually directing the discussion then how do we know what the students are thinking and wondering?  Of the 46 videos I have watched so far the questions the teachers ask are pretty basic - questions about defining a word, a sentence starter - there are some deeper questions asked at the high school level, but the arrangement of the lesson and the classroom makes it truly difficult to really have a deep, rich conversation which builds and ultimately engages the learners in a way that develops student strengths and empowers their individual voices. There is definitely not space for individuals to come together to share and build a greater and bigger idea or thought as a result of student sharing.

I have yet to see any classrooms with tables. Tables are wonderful for classrooms where we value community, conversation, and working together. Out of the 46 videos I have watched so far I have seen only two tables for two small groups of children. I have 29 videos left to watch. 

Out of the 46 videos I've watched I've seen 12 teachers smile and/or laugh and 6 students smile and/or laugh.  Out of the six students who smiled or laughed 3 out of the 6 were due to a child having difficulty answering a question and/or making a mistake when answering.  In the videos, when a student talks in the classroom, it is only a result of the teacher allowing the student to talk.  In terms of what "talk" looks like, it takes form as a direct answer to a question from the teacher, popcorn reading (where the teacher calls on students to read a portion of a text - always a fun and relaxing strategy for readers who struggle), and 4 videos which showed a brief moment where children were allowed to partner talk (simply turning to the person next to you to converse). Another form of talk that takes place occurs when the teacher requires the entire class to repeat something in unison - there is a lot of parroting back what the teacher says.

There was one video - out of 46 that I have watched -  in which a child showed some emotion and said "Oh!" as he raised his hand in excitement to answer a question. There is very little, if any emotion displayed, within any of these videos.  When children are forced to comply with such great constraints and boundaries I can imagine that after awhile the emotion is beaten out of them. There are some teachers who exhibit some emotion and kindness, but the children are only allowed to exhibit any kindness to their peers in the form of hand signals or a statement of encouragement shouted in unison as a whole class. On page 11, Lemov points out that a child smiles in a video in which the teacher asks them to pass out papers faster. As Lemov explains how the students are passing out papers quickly in order to increase time for learning in the classroom he states, "The students, by the way, are happy as can be.  They love to be challenged and love to see themselves improving. They are smiling."

Students love to see themselves improving at passing out and collecting papers? *sigh* Such an insult to the children. But I'll move pass that and talk about papers for a minute.

The videos are full of papers. I get that there is a lot of paper in classrooms, but these papers in the videos typically come in the form of worksheets and packets - seat work. I found it interesting that when they read passages from a text they didn't have actual books in front of them (based on what I've seen so far) -they typically had a worksheet. 

On page 12 Lemov states, "Few schools of education stoop to teach aspiring teachers how to train their students to pass out papers, even though it is one of the most valuable things they could possibly do."

Wow.  I don't even know what to say to that. Perhaps the best thing to say is that that statement pretty much exemplifies the depth of the entire book. Honestly, reading the book and watching the videos is terribly depressing.

The sections I have read in the book so far deal with getting students to answer questions and making sure that the answer is (god I hate this word) "rigorous." Students must answer questions and if they can't answer the question they must repeat the answer after another student or the teacher gives the answer.  At one point in the book (p.92) he shares an example of a student who doesn't parrot back the answer and he states that the child will have to come in at recess because this is a "case of defiance."  So - not "parroting" back an answer is defiant?  Defiance is defined as a daring or bold resistance to authority or to any opposing force. I personally wouldn't parrot it back because I'd find it insulting. I'm not a dog who needs to repeat a trick in order to be "trained." If this is considered defiant I fear for the child who feels the need to scream and throw these worksheets in the trash.  

In regard to rigorous - there is much discussion about "rigorous" content. On page 84 Lemov discusses how it saddens him that Diary of a Wimpy Kid is one of the most read titles in sixth grade.  It is not considered rigorous enough. He obviously has not read the research on pleasure reading.  But again, he is not a true teacher, so that is to be expected.

There is lots of discussion around errors. I always find this to be a fascinating pattern within books by non-educators. They focus on the negative. I have always used students' strengths to build on their attempts and next steps. However, in this book the focus is on creating a culture of error where students feel comfortable making errors and teachers scan for evidence of "incomplete mastery."  I agree that students should feel comfortable taking risks in a classroom, but his concept of error and getting it "right" are so different than mine.  In a democratic classroom we take risks continually, and when we  problem solve and figure it - often together - it's a process of learning versus this idea of searching for the errors and getting it right. I believe that the process of learning is full of risks and ultimately, NOT necessarily the right answer, but perhaps......another question?

Lemov uses the word "tracking" a lot. Teachers track students, rather than "watch" students and students must track the speaker. It really feels a bit like hunting when watching the teachers "track." They are looking for specific answers and they will hunt the answer down until they get it. There isn't a sense of students really ever working together to problem solve and/or determine some finite answer (this is very much about finite answers) - it's more that the teacher directs the hunt until he or she hears or sees the answer. It's very much whole group instruction with individual seatwork to determine "mastery" of the direct instruction. The definition of "tracking" is different for students. When the students track, they literally must shift their whole body to face the speaker - it's a rather robotic movement to observe. I think about sitting in meetings and how teachers respond when someone speaks - I don't believe I've ever seen an entire group of adults literally shift all their bodies to turn and listen to someone speak - and I definitely haven't seen it happen in unison.

There is a lot of unison in body movement and speech.  Some of the teachers snap their fingers to demand all students say a word at the same time. Teachers will ask all students to repeat something like, "adverbs end in -ly."  There were some moments where children were reprimanded and you could hear the teacher saying quietly "Laughing is ten dollars." or "I'll call your mother." If I were a child in one of those classrooms I would positively have exploded under the pressure of keeping my body still and my voice still. All students must be sitting up very straight. Many classrooms have the students folding their hands on the desk at all times - and if they raise their hand, they very quickly rush the hands back to folded position when they are done answering the question. When students raise their hand they are praised for how high and straight the arm is.  If they praise a student they will often ask the whole class to repeat a phrase like, "Way to go, you!"

I can't sit still for more than ten minutes in a meeting before I must shift my body. If I am required to sit still for too long I ultimately feel very agitated. I wonder how the children feel? And how does this impact how they act when they are finally able to leave school?

All the classes are mainly children of color in the 46 videos I have observed so far. Out of the 46 videos there was only one video in which the children did not wear uniforms. I wonder, where are the wealthy districts in suburbia in these videos? Has this been tried out at Sidwell? 

There are all sorts of whole group movements like banging on the desk or doing rock paper scissors all at once to determine an answer to a multiple choice question. Hand gestures are used continually to replace actual speech.

I have grave concerns about this book being used in any school as a model of techniques which support student learning. The fact that I have to explain this in a blog clearly signals a very sad period of time in the history of public education in our country. There is no room for student learning styles in terms of how students sit, talk, or process their learning using these techniques. There is no respect for culture  - some children come from cultures in which eye contact is actually disrespectful. There is no respect for specific learning needs of children - what about the child who does not process quickly, yet is required daily to participate in the gut wrenching practice of cold calling (in which a teacher rapid fires questions at random children with no think time for the child). These strategies are absolutely detrimental to the second language learner or the child with learning disabilities as there is no scaffolding or additional supports to meet their needs.  Children will simply become compliant or..... they will revolt, and then, they will be asked to leave the school. We must remember, few charter schools accept all children and these techniques come straight from charter schools. Charters are also excellent at counseling children out of the school. There is not a single video I have observed yet that shows children independently moving around the room. The children move like robots and the teachers dictate their every move. 

Lemov believes that all these techniques create efficiency and therefore better use of time for students to reach "mastery." What I observe is a large amount of time wasted parroting motions and words that require minimal thinking but 100% compliance. I do not observe any authentic learning. The children are expressionless. In a classroom of vibrant learning you can feel the buzz and hear the buzz of learning. These classrooms feel more like boot camp.

As an educator I have a vast array of approaches I use to support children.  My bachelor's is in Elementary Education and my master's is in English as a Second Language, so I understand clearly the many scaffolds and teaching methods that can be used to meet the needs of a diverse group of students. Yet, in these videos of diverse classrooms, the only approach I have observed is whole group direct instruction.

Where are the chatty children who are engaged in learning as they lean over a project or book? Where are the smiling children?  Where are the excited children who are bubbling over with information about their learning, their friends, their family and their school?  And where are the sad children who need the extra moment to talk quietly with the teacher about how they were up all night due to a parental fight?  The children have no emotion. After watching 46 videos of children with absolutely no expression on their faces - minus only six children who let out a brief smile or laugh - I literally wanted to cry.

There is a reason I am absolutely livid over this book. There is a reason I am angry that Colorado - and the rest of the country - is allowing this book and the Relay Graduate School to infiltrate their schools.  When I read the book and watch the videos, all I can think of is fascist, racist times in history in which children were harmed. Corporate education is devouring our children - specifically - our neediest children.  It is gut wrenching to watch the students in these videos.  I know what is possible in a school community - a school where vibrant learning occurs and students and teachers are engaged - with purpose, passion and humanity. Sadly, the strategies in this book adhere to very direct instruction and dictatorial behavior models which strip children of their identity and culture - all in the name of high stakes tests scores. There is no equity here. There is no justice for children. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Relay Graduate School Indoctrination

This blog, and many future blogs, are going to be focused on the Relay Graduate School indoctrination occurring in my school and many schools across the country this year, due to the Relay principal academy which occurred this past summer. Colorado folks should also know that Relay intends to set up a permanent campus here in Denver.  Relay Graduate School was created to support the needs of charter schools, specifically KIPP, Uncommon and Achievement First.  Many of the individuals who work with  Relay also publish books that detail scripted ways of teaching, disciplining and leading. If you start researching the leaders of Relay Graduate School you will see that they are ripe with all sorts of training and experience that ultimately does not equate to true experience within the field of education. And one cannot equate charter school experience (like KIPP for example) as teaching experience.  I'd call it school to prison pipeline training.

Carol Burris, in an article for The Answer Sheet states:

At the Relay Graduate School of Education (RGSE), teacher education that balances research, theory and practice has been replaced by ‘filling the pail’ training. Designed to serve the needs of three charter school chains — KIPP, Achievement First and Uncommon Schools— RGSE has no university affiliation, yet awards masters degrees in New York State.

In order to enroll in their program, one must teach, uncertified, in an affiliated school. Traditional public school teachers need not apply. Degrees are earned by online video and reading modules, attending discussion groups and by the uncertified teacher’s students’ test scores. If the test scores are not up to snuff, the teacher does not earn her degree. There are no classes in educational theory or history, nor any indication that the candidate must complete a masters thesis requiring research and reflection. It is cookie-cutter training grounded in one vision of instruction — the charter school vision. Each candidate’s pail is filled with the same techniques.

Doug Lemov, a Relay "teacher",  and the author of Teach Like a Champion, has a doctorate in business from Harvard and two degrees in English. As far as I can tell from digging through articles and bios on Mr. Lemov, he has four years teaching experience. Three of those years were in a private school in New Jersey where he taught English grades 9 -12, in addition to being a counselor of admissions. He taught one year of intro. to composition at Indiana University. He's ultimately never taught in a public school, but he has plenty of experience leading and shaping charter schools.

If you are familiar with my blog you will know that I spend a great proportion of my time discussing opt out and various facets of how to tear down corporate education reform.  Tearing down these faux graduate schools will be a new venture for me and one that I must pursue simply for selfish reasons - it is inside of my school, infesting our democratic inquiry-based school with all sorts of propaganda - and sadly, we are just beginning. We are in year one of a three year grant.

You probably are wondering - how did this happen? My school is in "turnaround" status. We have a very diverse population of students within a high poverty community. At last count we had approximately 40 languages represented in our school and approximately 75% of our students on free and reduced lunch.  Our state passed legislation to create a school "turnaround" leaders program.  My school is one of the unlucky recipients of this program.  Our Colorado Department of Education then picked so-called graduate school programs to assist in "training" school leaders/principals, within this program. Relay was picked as one of the providers. As you keep digging and researching you'll discover all sorts of ugliness to be found in terms of money wasted on Relay in lieu of more resources and small class size for our urban diverse districts.  There's been several articles written on Relay in terms of the training - see here and here .  I also recommend checking out this blog titled School Finance 101.  JerseyJazzman has a great takedown of North Star, a charter school that Relay uses as a "model" for all schools to follow.

The following was my first attempt to explain what I'm experiencing at our beautiful elementary school where we have worked incredibly hard for the last few years to represent the culture and beliefs of an inquiry-based democratic school and community.

I wrote on FB:

Okay - so now that I'm getting indoctrinated with charter school rhetoric (even though I'm not IN a charter school) I am utterly in awe of how absolutely mind-numbing and surface level thinking absolutely everything is - from the discipline to instruction to data collecting to greeting students. Seriously. These folks lack any understandings of child development, instruction or an understanding of how to relate to children and build relationships, not only with children, but adults. They prefer barking orders and demanding compliance to scripts. Everybody gets a script - whether you are the coach, the teacher, the principal or the student. Orders barked and children parrot back all sorts of stupid crap. No thinking. Stupid posters everywhere that demand compliance about something. And stupid phrases folks are suppose to say to demand compliance - and they seriously request that the less words you say (as you bark orders) the better. Pretty much it's all about raising test scores and learning nothing about anything. All about a "controlled" environment. And "aggressive" monitoring. No learning. For anybody. And definitely no learning about one's self as a learner and future literate problem-solving citizen. It's a combination of prison environment and some bizarro robotic world with a definite connection to the Native American boarding schools. It's clear who will maintain the privilege here as they cash in on urban diverse schools such as mine. There's definitely nothing about being human and caring about humans within a lovely community. That's out the window. Kinda hard to stomach in a school that is striving to be a democratic inquiry-based school. I'd say it's really like a serious punch in the gut. The more I read from the Relay Graduate School script the more I can't fathom that there is any educator out there that would tolerate this bullshit. The fact that there is - and the fact that school districts and CO dept of ed HIRE these non-educators to "support" (I mean beat down until you comply) their schools - signals to me a clear step towards the end of the teaching profession as I know it and knew it. How anyone could believe that there is anything in this scripted process that is actually about meeting the needs of children I'll never know. How to get it out and shut it down? That is the question.

So, I've spent this three day weekend researching Relay - researching their beliefs, their dog training, and the folks who are behind this - not only at Relay but here in Colorado - where certain legislators passed this bill and our Colorado Dept. of Ed. brought in Relay to provide these services.

My head has been spinning since the launch of our staff development where we received a quick outline of the fun headed our way via Relay.  It's hard to talk about what goes on in your school without revealing personal details - and I wish no harm to come to anyone in my school, but I do feel a responsibility to share what's happening, as everyone across the country should do, in an effort to protect children, save our profession, and our public schools. The silence is what is killing us.

Which is why I wrote this on FB: As education activists, it is our job to expose the evils of corporate education - but specifically we must expose the nuanced ways in which non-educators and testing are destroying our public schools and ultimately the lives of children. These fascist methods for forcing us into compliance to scripts which demand obedience to the test are becoming increasingly present in our urban diverse schools. The strangle hold is becoming greater by the day as schools in turnaround face the looming devastation which will occur as PARCC, or whatever test you must take, reaches its ultimate goal of shutting down public schools and creating great profit for corporations. In the final stages of this process it appears that many across the country are turning to those who embody everything we oppose - in a desperate attempt to keep a school from being shut down due to test scores. It's a rather sickening process to watch. A bit of the Stockholm Syndrome twisted up with some strange process in which educators either fight back, or become one of them. It's so important that educators do their research as these folks infiltrate their schools. Be prepared and know what's coming. I'm devouring everything I can find on Relay Graduate School and their buddies at KIPP, etc. What scares me is that there is not a lot out there exposing Relay for what it is - which means, some are joining and becoming one of them. I will expose this nightmare every step of the way this year. We must take them down.

I want to dig a bit further into this idea of nuanced ways in which non-educators and their propaganda can infiltrate a public school. And please remember, one doesn't have to be in a chain charter school to be the recipient of these militant practices - it could happen to anyone. I can assure you, never in a million years did I think they would make their way into my school, and now - here I am.

I am in a public school built on the ideas of community, inquiry, democracy, and love and respect for children. Yet, when I walked into school this year the language had changed.  Language shapes a reality. And when the language no longer matches what you see with your eyes, it is unsettling and creates fear and instability. Our reality shifts as the language shifts. I'm thinking democracy yet I'm hearing achievement and college career ready. I'm thinking community yet I'm hearing 100% compliance. And then, you begin to see it visually - the signage, the weekly staff bulletins, the "professional development" books. You begin to see it emotionally in the faces of those around you - the denial, the sadness, the anger and the appearance of "acting" because it's not really who we are. Every time one of those words - corporate words - militant words - fills the air - it's like a stab in the heart of our school. 

Please understand that those at my school are not caving to this nightmare.....but regardless, its presence takes its toll.

Words/phrases like: infraction, acronyms for rules (H.A.L.L., S.H.I.N.E., F.L.U.S.H.), bite-size targets, controlled atmosphere, unpacking standards, accelerate achievement, proficiency - these words -  begin to become common place. We are encouraged to use economy of language - the less words the better when asking children to follow directions ( this is directly from one of the many Relay scripts).

Relay has scripts for everything. They have videos to show you second by second how to maneuver within these regimented practices. Within this system, the key to high test scores is compliance. When teachers are dealing with children who are traumatized, children who lack food and healthcare, children who are attempting to learn a second language, children who have no books in the home - when we are attempting to do all of this in a class size of, let's say, 28 - the only way to keep a focus on the mind-numbing test skills (which is Relay's goal) is to demand compliance while ignoring the realities in our classrooms.  Google "Uncommon Schools:" on YouTube to see the very regimented practices that they demand of their teachers and their students. Here is an example: 

These (practices in video above) are not in my school - but it does show you how far the compliance will go if folks buy into this militant training. One person who watched the video on Facebook said....Hitler Youth???

What scares me about Relay Graduate School and their propaganda is that folks are willing to sift through all of it to find the good. I've been watching this happen for several years now. A perfect example is the book by Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion.  As stated earlier, Lemov is not an experienced teacher. He's really a charter school king who is raking in the money by preying on urban diverse children. Yet, folks will look at Lemov's book and find something good in it that they can use.  I've literally heard folks say, "But there's a few good things in that book!"  Folks will also go to Relay training, or sift through Uncommon School videos and find something good. This is how the conditioning to comply begins. This is how little things - like a poster that says H.A.L.L. begins to create an atmosphere void of democracy and thinking human beings.  It may seem perfectly innocent at first - but it's not.  Folks might say, structure is good! Remember this - structure and compliance are two very different things. I can create a safe structure/environment with my students that allows us time to think, talk, move, share, and work quietly as well as loudly!!! I can have a conversation with children before we walk into the hallway to help remind all of us (including myself) to talk quietly so we do not disturb the other classes.  There is nothing democratic about compliance, which is what Relay Graduate School scripts demand. Finding a few good things in something that folks compare to Hitler's Youth or Native American boarding schools - in terms of the big picture - is honestly, terrifying.

Ultimately, these practices are racist, classist and serve one purpose - protecting the privilege of a few while cashing in on our neediest children. These practices strip children of their culture, their ability to think, and they fuel the school to prison pipeline.  Schools like North Star, which Relay uses as an exemplar, have only 50% of their children from the fifth grade class still attending in the 12th grade.   They also serve far fewer children of poverty and/or those with disabilities.  Check out their attrition rates here and that will tell you everything you need to know.

Another thought to consider - as Opt Out moves forward this year, schools like Relay will fall by the wayside if Opt Out indeed wins.  Without a focus on test scores Relay has nothing - there would be no reason to demand such severe compliance of principals, teachers, and children, if indeed there was no need to bow down to high stakes testing. Schools in turnaround, such as mine,  could return their focus to community building, student and teacher inquiry, democratic thinking, all in an effort to make the world a better place - a place where children walk down the school hallway talking and smiling. A place where children can share their thinking without being required to sit in their chair with hands folded - do you sit with your hands folded when in a meeting?  A place where names like "Relay" for a "school" wouldn't even exist - because in a relay there are winners and losers. We know how this is going to end if we keep playing this game - we will lose - we must stop playing. Stop giving the corporations, the faux educators and the pretend graduate schools what they want  - we must quit giving them our children. Our children deserve it all - yet, we continue to sacrifice them to the corporations and those who dictate the corporate agenda. As educators, we cannot be silent as they experiment on our neediest children - we cannot be silent as they inflict practices on children which are meant to beat them down until they comply. To be silent - well, it's simply a crime against humanity. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

I'm Not Grateful for Compromise

But I am grateful for every activist out there who is pushing hard - in their own way - to save our public schools. Truly I am grateful for that and I want to make that clear before I jump into this blog.

This is my first blog of the summer.  I couldn't blog due to fatigue and I wouldn't let myself blog because I knew that the demands of activism take their toll - and the reformers would like that to happen - they would like me to be tired. Instead, I spent the summer thinking, resting, and simply enjoying being home with my boys. Activism honestly made my stomach churn in June.  I guarded my time like a hawk. I said "no" many many times  - sometimes we have to do that in this world of activism where we work - for free - simply to do the right thing, nothing more. In July, I began to feel myself come out of the fog of fatigue.

But then something interesting happened in July as I sat and watched the days go by. I saw compromise and co-optation occurring within this revolution currently afoot. This revolution has the potential to tear down the test and punish system. It has the potential to demand and get equitable funding for fully resourced schools - as well as social policies set in place to protect children and communities from poverty while lifting them up. This revolution is powerful. It is dangerous. Attempts to redirect the revolution or shut it down will continue to come forward and smack us in the face - but we have to be ready to shake it off with a clear head -  void of compromise and negotiation.

Compromise could potentially kill this revolution.  The energy and time it takes to negotiate a compromise deprives activists of the time and energy needed to push forward a revolution.
Compromise also does something to the soul I think. It changes it. It creates a false sense of peace and success and it's very seductive - if I allowed it in, I could sit back and say, well - we did get that.

And for that we should be grateful.


I'm not grateful.  I'm not grateful that folks pushed hard to get ECAA through with a few bells and whistles that are supposed to make me jump for joy.

And sadly, many pushing it forward and telling me how pleased  I should be are union leaders and activists - many with great power - many who have never taught in a public school.

So let me talk a bit about my school and how ECAA will help us.

I work in a high poverty district with a diverse group of children - at one point we counted over 40 languages represented in our school.

ECAA  - if it goes through as is - has handed over to the states the power to manage and determine how testing will impact our school communities. Nothing new. States already had  been seduced into taking this power thanks to NCLB and RTTT. Colorado loves it - they drool over ways to punish students, teachers and communities as they hand down ALEC legislation and force feed it to our schools.

Next - now that the states have this so-called "new" power to alleviate us from the test/punish system  - they also have - within ECAA - a big new push for charters that our state can use when they decide to finally shut down these turnaround schools, such as mine.

Next, we keep testing. Forever testing. Forever updating infrastructure to support the testing and forever upholding the LIE that the test/punish system keeps schools accountable. They say that there is now an opt out provision in both the house and senate version. True, but what it really means is that the bluff (lie) about losing federal funding can no longer be used. So, it's like saying the bullying tactic that the federal and state departments of education used  - which was already a lie - no longer can be used. Okay.  Perhaps that makes some folks happy.  A bone.

ECAA won't protect my students from poverty. There will no food, books, or healthcare support via ECAA. There will be no librarians, counselors, nurses added to our staff. There will be no small class size, no additional support for our children who suffer from emotional, mental health issues and special learning needs.

ECAA won't help the parents at my school who work hard, sometimes two and three jobs, to provide for their families. It won't provide any additional services to support them in making a living wage. They will continue to work hours upon hours, just to get by and hope that something better awaits their children in the future.

To be honest, to be able to support and analyze ECAA is a privilege.  This is not a slam to anyone, but truly, if we have time to analyze ECAA, watch the senate debate on livestream, and discuss it via social media, we obviously have time and the resources to do so.  I myself watched the senate from my cozy kitchen table while sipping coffee and posting updates on my FB page.   It's a privilege to be able to watch and support getting only "a little" for our children.

However, many of us who push for revolution via Opt Out have a perspective that those senators debating ECAA don't have.  We suffer at the hands of the test/punish system that inflicts pain and harm on all who step in the doors of a public school. We feel it very acutely as we know clearly where it's headed; every month there is an additional layer of compliance and punitive measures that somehow find their way into our schools. Those of us who see it clearly find it more difficult every day to come up for air as we are the ones who are forced to navigate this horrific system that continues to survive and be treated as "credible".  I can't support something that only gets a little for our children - this does nothing to help me in 2015-2016. It does nothing for our students.  ECAA is a recipe for destroying the community I work in - it's only a matter of time. So, to watch people support it, knowing the depth of the nightmare I'm headed into in about a week, is not only difficult, I'd say it's rather enraging. It's enraging to watch children get a little - and then watch folks applaud it -  when I know they deserve it all. It's enraging when I know how easily we could destroy the test/punish system and demand all for all children. Once revolution takes hold, their system will unravel very quickly. We can indeed get all for all children - if we funnel our energy carefully.

Politicians, activists, and citizens who push forward compromise are truly making it more difficult for us in the test/punish system to breathe - especially those of us - who wish for revolution .  When you wish for revolution it's because you know what's possible - and you believe it with every bone in your body. It makes it difficult to sit by with patience. It's like being a wild horse forced into a small fenced area where the owner watches it daily in attempts to tame it and figure out what makes the horse "tick". We revolutionaries cannot be tamed no matter what methods are used in an attempt to tame us. And we know we are watched carefully in an effort to find our trigger - our breaking point. But we cannot be broken - it's just not possible - as long as we are very careful in funneling our energy with our end goal always ever present in our mind.

Those who compromise may have good intentions.  However, I fear some do not - there is much money, ego, and status to be gained by supporting ECAA.  Those of us who have wished for revolution have been silenced in many ways this summer.  Revolution can be squelched simply by ignoring us. Why do they ignore us? Because we are dangerous. They know we will break free and we will be heard again.

Revolutionaries know what is possible.  We would never settle for less for our children because we know they deserve it all.  We see the crimes against childhood, public education, our communities, our learners, and our democracy everywhere we look. ECAA is one more such crime. It's inhumane. It's educational malpractice. It does nothing to create equity and everything to support corporate gain and status for many as they privatize our public schools and destroy the teaching profession and the lives of children.

My focus, as a revolutionary, is very clear. It's never faltered and I'm ready to move forward again this fall. And I am stating that I am a revolutionary simply to make it clear where I stand. The Opt Out Revolution is where the power is to be found. Period.

I go back to school next week. A beautiful school with children who deserve it all - a school with amazing teachers - where we will be drowned once again in corporate reform with additional layers set in place this year to further our goal to raise test scores in an attempt not to "fail". It's all lies. And ECAA is just one more lie that supports failing my school and our children.

What will I do? I'll continue to push forward the revolution. I'll continue to push Opt Out. I'll continue to attempt to balance work, activism, and my family while ignoring the many distractions of compromise that are set in place to keep us off the mark - to keep us away from the big win - the absolute destruction of the test/punish system that will make obsolete many corporate and government entities who are feeding off the public schools. The big win will also take down many political and corporate careers as well as those with aspirations for those careers. The big win will truly place fear in the hearts (if they had a heart) of those who ignored us, laughed at us, and fought us. Who will be slaughtered?  Who will win? We'll see. But I can tell you right now that throwing bones to me and other revolutionaries will never be good enough - and I won't sit back and be grateful. I'll continue to work for free - as an activist (those who profit from activism often lose their way - pay attention to this).

If anything, our work this year will become more targeted and more strategic in this next round of taking down the corporate machine.  The end goal is to make the rich panic, as Chris Hedges says. We've only scratched the surface and it didn't hurt too badly -  but it did cause them to look up and pay attention. It did cause everyone to rally and consider where Opt Out will lead us.  This question can only be answered by the people - will we allow our message to get co-opted or redirected? Or - will we develop a thick skin and slap away the nay sayers and those who ignore us? Will we push for revolution - the absolute decimation of the test/punish system and the demand for democratic equitable public schools and social policies to support communities?   Remember, they ignore us because we have the power.  I know where I stand. I'm not swaying.  I'm simply planning my strategic moments to come up for air.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My Comment on PBS NewsHour's Opt Out Coverage

William Brangham,

Thank you for covering Opt Out tonight. I'd like to clarify a few things that I truly wish would be made known to the public. First, Opt Out has been around for quite some time. My own personal involvement began over four years ago when I founded United Opt Out National along with five other individuals. United Opt Out National recognized back then that it was necessary to refuse these tests in order to stop the privatization of public schools. No data = no profit.

Now, the stakes have become much higher as there are so many tests tied to various levels of legislation (early childhood legislation, 3rd grade retention legislation, high school graduation, etc.). Opt out has become essential if we are to halt the test and punish system that is permeating every level of public education. Opt Out is essential if we wish to save the cornerstone of our democracy, our public schools. Currently, I watch children in kindergarten get labeled as failures at the age of five; it's hard to believe that our society has become conditioned to accept such punitive measures. We watch third grade students get held back due to one test. We watch charters kick out students who do not test well. Now, the testing is so extreme that we never stop testing. This year I counted three weeks at my elementary school in which my work with children was not interrupted by tests. Only three weeks. From January to May we did nothing but test.

The year was essentially over in Jan. due to the many tests and the exhausting interruptions that made it impossible to create any continuity whatsoever in my district. See here:  My school has a free/reduced lunch rate of approximately 78% and over 40 languages represented among our students. The children at my school are tested more than children in affluent areas due to language and due to lacking food, healthcare, and literacy rich environments at home. We struggle weekly to provide 180 food bags to our children who do not have enough food to eat over the weekend. When our school year came to a close last week the anxiety among many children was apparent as they saw their routine and their safety net coming to a close for the next two and a half months. And no one can answer my question: Why do we have money for chrome books and high stakes tests, yet we have no money for wrap around services, small class size, counselors, nurses, and more? They just continue to feed our children tests as that is where the profit is highest.

Regarding your question, was this led by teachers? It has very much been led by teachers and parents. Now, we have students leading too. I am a teacher in my 18th year of teaching and it was clear to me four years ago that United Opt Out National, our grassroots group, must have Opt Out guides for every state in order to support parents, students and teachers in reclaiming our public schools. When UOO started, 5 out of 6 of us were teachers. Our Opt Out guides were created by the people for the people. And when things cost money we dug into our own pockets. The unions were no where to be seen until just recently in re: to Opt Out. We now have approximately 80 Opt Out leaders supporting folks across the country as parents and students move forward with refusing the tests. We also help teachers who wish to refuse to administer the tests.

Finally, I do wish that someone would point out the following regarding Opt Out because this is by far the most important point: Opt Out is not an anti-testing movement. It is a movement to reclaim public schools and to demand that our schools receive equitable funding and a whole and developmentally appropriate education for all children. At UOO we state: We serve as a focused point of unyielding resistance to corporate ed. reform. We demand an equitably funded, democratically based, anti-racist, desegregated public school system for all Americans that prepares students to exercise compassionate and critical decision making with civic virtue. We demand that social policies be put in place to support communities and lift them up so that children are not hungry, tired and sick.

Mainstream media continues to focus on the testing as the issue - it is so much more than that. The test and punish system continues to point to an achievement gap (actually it's a resource gap) that no one wishes to actually do anything about; it's more profitable to continue to use test and punish to privatize our public schools. Quite honestly, all we need is zipcode to know how to support our public schools. The test and punish system keeps the propaganda of "bad teachers" and "failing schools" and "failing students" in place. What really needs to happen is that the test & punish system must be destroyed and legislators must be held responsible for creating policies which protect children from poverty and allow our students to learn and allow our teachers to teach - with support.

Opt Out is not new. Opt out has been around for quite some time and those of us working night and day for free to save public schools are rarely given a voice in mainstream media. Many thanks to you and John Merrow for allowing us to be heard. I hope this clarifies and helps answer some of your questions tonight. Thank you for covering Opt Out.

United Opt Out National has occupied the Dept of Ed. in DC twice which helped spark Opt Out across the East Coast. We then followed up with two years of conferences, one in Denver and one in Fort Lauderdale this year. We helped support the organizing of local activists during our two DC occupations and our two conferences. Chicago activists have always worked closely with UOO. Karen Lewis was one of our speakers at our last occupation of the Dept. of Ed. in DC. All the states you highlighted are states where UOO has worked closely with activists; grassroots organizing at its finest!

I do however wish you would have shown this map: . We have had folks entering opt out numbers onto our map as "pins." They can add one child as a pin, a whole school or even a whole district; our goal is to get the numbers as quickly and as easily as possible. We hope to have concrete data when testing is finally over this year. We have some states still testing at this point. What I find fascinating about Opt Out is that it's much more than the "hard data" that the media always wants. Opt Out requires forming relationships with parents in order to create a successful Opt Out for a child. Sometimes I will spend an entire month talking with a parent to see Opt Out reach complete success. And guess what happens next? That same parent helps ten parents opt out in her community. Next, she creates an FB for her school district...and then it spreads like wildfire and we at UOO simply help when needed.

If you look at the posts on our website you can see where folks have reached out and we have responded to assist by posting advice. Currently we are assisting Kentucky where students are facing a sit/stare policy tomorrow morning. We have been tweeting all day to stop this policy. Again, grassroots organizing. Building relationships. And next year - Kentucky will be stronger! Also, next year our conference will be in Philly. Opt Out truly is a movement for the people by the people - that makes us quite dangerous. We have no funding minus the GoFundMe account we set up every year before our conference. And most of our Opt Out leaders work full-time jobs. Opt Out is not going away. We knew this year would be the tipping point and now Opt Out has become a part of family dinner conversation.

Our goal is to bring the test and punish system to its knees so that we may completely decimate a system that does nothing to support our children, our schools and our democracy. And when we destroy it, we expect our demands to be met. For the people by the people. See here:

Many thanks again.
Peggy Robertson,