Sunday, September 9, 2012

On the Eve of the Strike: Thank you CTU

As a former public school teacher who has been out of the system for six years, who feels as though no large body of people have ever – ever - stood up for educators –  for me - for public schools – for students – in my professional lifetime – I just want to say thank you.

For all of the professionals – teachers – who are out there tonight – remember who you are – while I remember who I am.  CTU is making sure I remember.

We are professionals with high expertise in a field of study that our nation must have in order to keep our democracy thriving.

We are professionals who are required to wear many different hats due to the nature of our job and the inability of our government and our society to recognize and take responsibility for the disgraceful poverty in our wealthy nation.

We know best practices and we have heart – none of which add up to a number.

We are the protectors of America's children.

We are the catalyst for the creativity, brilliance and problem solving found in the leaders across our country.

We help create beauty, bravery and confidence found in the citizens who can save our country from its current pending fall.

We are teachers.

I look to CTU.

I look to CTU and expect the nation to follow. While our public schools are dismantled, while children are abused by the policies of corporate education reformers, while teachers work in environments full of fear, while communities are torn apart, I have great hope that the rebuilding will occur as CTU lays the foundation.

Teachers across the nation, be proud tonight, you are valued and you are not replaceable, no matter what the media, politicians, billionaires or your community says.

Chin up. Stand with CTU, smile tonight and send them immense amounts of good energy. Midnight is the deadline.  CTU stands up for me.  I am a teacher.

Thank you CTU.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

SpringBoard: Common Core Crap

I recently had the unfortunate opportunity to examine a SpringBoard assignment, sent to me by a concerned parent with a child in seventh grade.  SpringBoard is the latest and greatest curriculum creation of The College Board which is led by no less than David Coleman, the well known architect of the Common Core. 

Their website states, "SpringBoard is fully aligned to the Common Core State Standards and helps all students and teachers reach the goals of the Common Core Initiative. The Common Core Standards provide the “what” in the form of required achievements for students. Curriculum materials must provide the “how” to help students achieve the standards outlined." 

Ch Ching.

This particular assignment from SpringBoard was titled Writing Workshop. I found this to be highly intriguing as I spent my entire teaching career using Writer's Workshop with my students, and finally supporting teachers in implementing the many fine nuances found within this complex teaching practice. Writer's Workshop allows for authentic writing as the students engage in the writing process and culminates in publication for a real audience. To the observer who knows little about Writer's Workshop, it may appear as an extremely messy process, but the highly skilled teacher understands the incredible organization that is needed to implement such a workshop successfully. Let's just say - it ain't easy. The process is full of writing, reading, talking, brainstorming, sharing and giving feedback, within a room that has a constant buzz filled with the energy of ideas and the empowerment of the student voice.  All in all, it is beautiful. The high level of engagement is contagious – the urgency and excitement with which ideas are expressed – the smiles, the struggles and the support of the learners as they work together in groups to revise their writing pieces - it is authentic learning. One minute the teacher is sharing her own writing by thinking aloud as she writes on chart paper, the next she is with a small group, then she is roving, and finally she is conferencing with individual students. The children are fluid – they move from space to space – they have command of their work, their resources - and they know what they need to do to in order to meet their own personal writing goals.


Those were the days…

Please see the following screen shots from SpringBoard, a new college and career ready curriculum that is followed lockstep by teachers. Students at home can log in and print out assignments and get their questions addressed online. Needless to say, this is unlike any Writer's Workshop I have ever seen. Best practices, such as Writer's Workshop, will be destroyed at the hands of Common Core because it simply will not fit into the mold needed to create measurable data.

In this first screen shot the children are asked to create a graphic of the writing process. I am unsure why this is necessary, if they are indeed engaged in their own authentic writing process, which - call me crazy - would indeed be its own graphic, now wouldn't it? I am sure that struggling readers will be hell bent on addressing the "recursive" nature.

Here, the student is asked to explore his/her topic further. Notice the language such as "persona." Notice the word "mode."  I am wondering how second language learners and struggling readers might do on this assignment - let alone the typical 7th grader?!!?  I am wondering how this graphic will create scripted writing as students fill it out, plugging in strong verbs as demanded, simply to be done with this as quickly as possible. In addition, children plan differently as they consider their writing. Often a child has a killer writing idea and the format comes later. Writing is messy. It cannot be contained in a worksheet. The "role of the writer" is really beyond me - should they take on a new identity or something in order to "establish a connection with your readers?" And "establish a connection" - talk about a buzz kill if you even fathomed having a good writing idea.

Now see the fill in the blank - I can promise you that my students never filled in a blank in their draftbooks let alone on a god forsaken worksheet like this one. Throwing plates yet?

Don Murray would cringe to see his name on this. Of course he is correct - often writing does bounce along - fast -  and there is nothing better than a scripted worksheet such as this to shut down that momentum. Note the last line - "Write a draft to develop points in the preliminary organizational structure?"  What??? What is this language? Do they know who their audience is? These are seventh grade students!! Not business men planning a power point for a board meeting!

And last but not least, directions for meeting in writing groups - I simply can't imagine being able to speak a coherent sentence on my own after being given this lockstep process for participating in a group. But you see, that is the goal here - teacher proof curriculum with all teachers on the same page every day, complete with a lockstep process for students to follow rather than think. Follow, don't think. 

As I said earlier, Writer's Workshop is a messy yet highly organized teaching process. It cannot be jammed into a curriculum nor can it be force fed to children. The results of this assignment are easy to anticipate - children will treat this like any other good worksheet. They will do what they need to do in order to get the grade and they will not engage (how could they?) and then they will run as quickly as they can from any mention of future writing experiences. 

This, you see, is the new world of the Common Core. We must oppose it, refuse it, deny it, defy it, f$#@ing expose it for what it is whenever we can by educating parents and teachers about the profit to be made through the creation of nonthinking, soul destroying worksheets such as these. This is not simply a set of standards - it is a set of standards designed to allow corporations the ability to create common children via common curriculum and common assessments which will be used to drain our public schools of money as they attempt to abide by the guidelines of Race to the Top. There will be more tests - many more tests - as Common Core infiltrates our schools and profits billionaires while privatizing public education. The expense will be immense and will assist in the profiteers' plans to starve the public schools while using our tax dollars to dismantle what is left. Their goal is to move as quickly as they can, take as much as they can, before we wake up and realize we've been screwed. SpringBoard is simply one example of many more to follow.

And the casualties? The children of course. Always, the children.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Sitting Ducks in Suburbia

I attended my son’s middle school Back to School Night this past week; you may recall that this is Sam’s first year in a public school.  I especially enjoy these events because as a former public school teacher, I enjoy hearing teachers speak, I love being in their classrooms and I most definitely want to let them know I appreciate their talents, education, dedication and time spent working with our children.

During my fifteen years of teaching my last five were spent teaching teachers and administrators in the public schools. A few of my responsibilities included training teacher leaders in the classroom, supporting administrators in classroom observation as well as providing professional development for districts.  Of course the more I learned the less I knew – but that is how it is with good teaching.  I have now been out of teaching for almost seven years and last night it fed my soul to hear our teachers speak. And because I know what to look for and listen for in a classroom, I have a different take on Back to School Night, as my fellow teacher readers will understand.

What is most fascinating about my child’s school is that I have been told it is not a good school – that it is simply mediocre.  I have actually been discouraged from sending my child there by some in my community, even in the light of their high test scores. Yet, what I heard and saw last night was seven exceptional teachers that my child is incredibly lucky to have. My child has a teacher with decades of teaching experience who said that his goal every day is to learn something new. His science teacher understands that science is best experienced hands-on and that his students – including my lucky son – should be in the laboratory nonstop. My son has a teacher who understands brain-based learning. He knows that stress and fear shut down any opportunity to retain or comprehend new learning. My son has an art teacher who has them keep art journals and hangs the following Picasso quote on her wall, “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.” She also understands that small class size is essential to student focus. His language arts teacher values the importance of silent reading and writer’s workshop. Sam is the lucky recipient of a real P.E. class – unlike many children across this country - none of it is online (yes the absurdity of online P.E. does exist). Sam’s social studies teacher has already had them do a project which involved research and writing that connected Sam personally to history by focusing on the day he was born.  These projects will be displayed in the school’s hallways. Sam is in the school orchestra. Sam tells me that his principal is funny and is always smiling. These are the first impressions I have of my son's school.

I worry about our district. They are fairly sheltered from the storm that surrounds them.  I have already put up my umbrella in anticipation and have opted Sam out of 3 tests: Reading Counts, MAP and TCAP.  I opt out because I support public schools – I will not fill the pockets of profiteers who attempt to devour my tax dollars and our children. I opt out because I understand that a focus on high stakes tests narrows curriculum and authentic learning and teaching.  I opt out because children living in urban and high poverty areas are being abused at the hands of corporate education reform.

I already see extrinsic rewards at the school; I am keeping my fingers crossed that I will not see any connected to high stakes testing. I heard rumblings on Back to School Night regarding our country’s inability to compete with China – some obviously don’t know Dr. Yong Zhao’s work and the fact that China is desperately attempting to rid itself of high stakes testing which has created a country in which their graduates cannot think or innovate. Educators in China are in shock as they watch us destroy our country at the hands of high stakes testing. We have some of the highest test scores in the world - when we account for poverty. 

The Back to School newsletter included the following message: Our T-CAP scores are in and we did great. Our math status according to the state moved from the Meets category to Exceeds! Our reading held steady in the Meets category and our writing went from Approaching last year to Meets this year.

Of course this is very troublesome as it is sending a message that TCAP scores mean something; I know many of my fellow readers recognize that these tests do nothing to improve student achievement.  Decisions in the district are data driven using TCAP and MAP – neither of which improve student achievement.  Improved tests scores do not mean students can problem solve, create or think conceptually or critically. These test scores tell us we have good test takers and many children that are well fed and have access to books. And....if these tests are the prized assessments we know that there is most certainly teaching to the test occurring in the school.

Budget cuts are also rocking the boat. We have no librarian.  We are very lucky to have a library - many schools across the country do not - and the evidence connecting access to books and increased student reading scores on the NAEP is clear. It is our job to share research and educate. Suburbia is not immune.

My school district is also not immune to the teacher bashing that our country continues to spout. The teachers that are still in these buildings and have not yet jumped ship are a force to be reckoned with – we must support them by continually focusing on best practices and the authentic assessments they share.  We must help to change the narrative by turning away from high stakes testing and leaning forward proudly to share real learning and real teaching.  Our school district is piloting a teacher evaluation program this year – we must watch it closely.

What my school does NOT have is the following - my son does not have to share our building with a charter school – or 6 or 7 for that matter as we see in the Bronx. There are no metal detectors, no children required to follow SLANT.  None of my son’s teachers are TFAs. Our school is not housed in a basement. The students are not required to walk in straight lines wearing orange prison type shirts while the teacher yells, “Boys pick up those feet!”

Is this something to protect? You bet it is. And we can’t protect it by simply continuing to allow our children to take the state test – that is the kiss of death for the public schools. Suburbia is a sitting duck surrounded by casualties that they continue to ignore.