Election Promises and the Myth of “Grade Level”

Last week after Mayor De Blasio sailed into a second term, he made a lot of bold promises to New Yorkers, including repeating a vow to get ALL third grade public school students up to grade level standards.

SIGH.

I just finished my report cards so I can tell you Mayor De Blasio, there will never be a time where ALL NYC third graders will be on grade level. There are nearly 150,000 students with IEPs in NYC and the same number of English Language Learners. The whole point of an IEP (Individual Education Plan) is that it is INDIVIDUALIZED to that student’s abilities and needs, not based on arbitrary standards.  Unless you expel all students with disabilities and ban immigration to NYC, our public schools will always be full of students of all stripes and at all levels.

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, I will assume that you recognize that it would be bad pedagogy to hold students with IEPs and those just starting to learn English to the same standards as general education students. In that case, perhaps you meant to promise that a majority of third graders will reach grade level.

Not likely.

Why?

Well for one thing, not all children learn at the same pace.  Especially for students as young as third grade, even typically developing / gen-ed children may be below or above “grade level” with no cause for alarm. In fact, being on grade level has nothing to do with whether a child is learning, which should be what we prioritize.

Second, does POVERTY and increasing inequality ring a bell?

Because academic performance– particularly test scores– is linked directly to income levels (which also mostly correlate with race). NYC public schools right now are home to hundreds of thousands of students who live in poverty.  Many of these students move frequently, live in unstable conditions and lack support at home or outside school. Not a recipe for academic achievement.

Worse, as you may have noticed, NYC is only becoming more unequal as housing in neighborhood after neighborhood becomes prohibitively expensive. This year, nearly 1 in 7 of the city’s 1 million plus public school students is homeless. That is approximately 100,000 homeless CHILDREN in NYC alone.

In my school, record homelessness means multiple students commute to my school in Brooklyn from shelters in the Bronx. These 7, 8, and 9 year olds have to wake up at 4 in the morning to get to school and then it takes them two hours to get home at the end of a long day. They spend time outside of school doing things like cooking, cleaning and caring for younger siblings. They are often absent or late and when they do make it to school, they are frequently exhausted.

If you want these students to “perform” on grade level, Mr. Mayor, I suggest you set a different goal; Affordable, stable housing for ALL third graders. Then we can talk about academics and I can teach you about child development.

 

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De Blasio and Farina: Stop Worrying About Testing and Coding. Worry About Student Homelessness.

It’s time for NYC to make child homelessness a priority.

There were more than 100,000 homeless children enrolled in NYC public schools in the 2015-2016 school year. That is a small city’s worth of homeless children. And that number is expected to rise.

As a public school teacher, I know first hand the effects of homelessness on children’s well-being and achievement. Homeless students are much more likely to miss numerous school days, making it hard for them to stay on grade level. When they do make it to school, they are often hungry and exhausted- in need of rest and emotional support, not primed for academic challenges. Homeless students also often face long commutes from their shelters to get to school, and are more likely to be late for school. It goes without saying that homeless children also typically lack the support and stability needed to complete homework.

This high rate of homelessness is both unacceptable and unnecessary. New York City is one of the wealthiest cities in the entire world. As the city grows wealthier by the day, there is no reason- beyond skewed priorities– for such a high proportion of child homelessness.

The inequality is staggering. While hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live in shelters and on the streets, there are empty luxury condos in Manhattan owned by off-shore billionaires, high-rises going up every year, tax credits for developers who build drop-in the bucket numbers of barely affordable apartments and billions of dollars spent on vanity projects like the Hudson Yards path station. On the same block, brownstones sell for three million dollars right next to a bus station that shelters the homeless each night. In my classroom, my homeless students who commute from shelters in the Bronx are expect to perform as well as students who live in multi-million dollar lofts in gentrifying Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, the NYC DOE and State Education department spends an exorbitant amount of money on testing, curriculum development and technology every year. Some of these initiatives are beneficial- but nothing should take precedence over meeting the basic needs of every child. Teaching a child to code doesn’t help them find a place to sleep comfortably at night. Spending millions on new instructional standards and resources is all well and good, but if our students are hungry, scared and tired we might as well throw that money out the window. Similarly, there is no point in pouring money into testing and accountability measures when our students don’t have homes. In an era in which we’re obsessed with data and student achievement, it is astounding to me that we are able to virtually ignore the epidemic of homelessness among NYC school children.

Mayor De Blasio did the right thing in bringing breakfast to classroom last year and making school lunch free for all children this fall. Children can’t learn when they are hungry. And they can’t achieve their full potential when they don’t have a home to go to at the end of the day. The needs of children should take precedence over the needs of developers, finance and testing companies. 100,000 homeless children should be declared a state of emergency by the DOE, the Mayor and the Governor, not ignored or treated as an inevitability. If Mayor De Blasio and Governor Cuomo truly want to improve educational outcomes for all children, they must make ending child homelessness a priority in the coming year. If we pass the millionaire tax, close the LLC loophole and get our priorities straight we can  tackle the homelessness crisis in our city.  Every child needs and deserves a home. We have the means. We just need the will to change.

 

Ain’t Misbehaving- Class Size and Problematic Student Behaviors

Yet again, I was reminded this September of how much class size matters.

Last year, the second grade classes I taught each week all had 27-30 students and it felt like every class had numerous children with disruptive behavior challenges- fighting, calling out, pushing, extreme anger and frustration, lack of impulse control, distraction- there were a lot of kids who were neither motivated, nor engaged. I felt like I was constantly redirecting, problem solving and disciplining and it was impossible to make time to meaningfully resolve every issue or address every need.

This August, when I looked at a 3rd grade teacher’s class list, I thought oh man- this is going to be a rough class, because I saw so many of the kids who I had struggled with as second graders.

And then school started. And things were different- with those very same kids that I used to fall asleep worrying about. Suddenly, the behavior problems were gone.  Why?

Now that class only has 16 kids in it.  16. 16  kids who are focused and calm, respectful and excited to learn and share their ideas. No, they are not suddenly perfect kid-bots, thank goodness. They still are quirky, and wiggly but the behavior problems, the serious ones that I devoted huge amounts of time and energy to managing- those  are gone. And its the very same kids. 3 months later. The same teacher. Smaller class.  Hand wringing, constant redirecting gone.  It is dreamy.

What happened?

Well, in a class of 16 every child is getting what they need. No one needs to compete for attention. No one is forgotten. Conflicts get fully resolved. Parents build close relationships with teachers.  Every voice is heard. Students have physical and emotional space- more freedom to be independent and explore.  The room itself is quieter, safer and calmer. Most important, in a small class teachers can quickly build relationships that lay the foundation for meaningful learning and growth.

Imagine if all classes in public schools were this small. Certainly there would still be students who struggle.  But imagine how many of the misbehaviors that we address every day would disappear. How many suspensions and disciplinary actions we might avoid.

We need to ask ourselves- by having large classes in early childhood are we the ones creating so called “behavior problem kids”? How often do people say of misbehavior- oh he is just trying to get attention. She just wants attention.  As if that is not a valid need for a child to have. All children want and need attention! And love! And recognition! And a sense of significance!  And it is really hard to get those things in a class of thirty other 7 year olds.

This is why my friends who teach in private schools have 15 students and 2 teachers in a class. Because class size really does matter and everyone who has ever tried to teach a roomful of 32 children understands that beyond a doubt.

If only the DOE and powers above would invest in teachers instead of blowing money on testing, consultants and developmentally inappropriate and soon to be obsolete technology. If only this one small class wasn’t a fluke and classes of 32 became a thing of the past- especially in early childhood. Because every year as my classes shrink or expand, I see how much class size really does matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank You David Denby/ How I Stopped Worrying and Solved the Teacher Shortage

At the start of another school year, in which I am yet again thinking this is my last year in the classroom because I just don’t know if I can keep doing this crazy job, thank you David Denby for writing the article that says everything.

Here’s my favorite part:

If we seriously want to improve the over-all quality of teachers, we have to draw on more than idealism (in some cases) or desperation (in other cases). We have to make teaching the way to a decent middle-class life. And that means treating public-school teachers with the respect offered to good private-school teachers—treating them as distinguished members of the community, or at least as life-on-the-line public servants, like members of the military.

We also have to face the real problem, which, again, is persistent poverty. If we really want to improve scores and high-school-graduation rates and college readiness and the rest, we have to commit resources to helping poor parents raise their children by providing nutrition and health services, parenting support, a supply of books, and so on. We have to commit to universal pre-K and much more. And we have to stop blaming teachers for all of the ills and injustices of American society.

Yes please! Because it is seriously dispiriting to feel the weight of all the ills and injustices of American society on your shoulders when almost everything you’re held responsible for is completely out of your control. And yes, poverty (and inequitably funded schools) is the crisis in education, not teachers.

But there’s just one more thing. Yes, we need and crave respect- and with that increased autonomy in our classrooms and schools. But I think many teachers are craving something else- something that is fast disappearing from too many classrooms. What is it? Well for me its something that captures a healthy deference toward what it means to be a child. Joy. We need to bring joy back into the classroom.

Teaching should be just a little bit fun. It should be just a little bit happy. A little bit silly. And infused with love. And yes, I am an adult and I know jobs are not about fun, or love or happiness, but in the age of tech companies encouraging employees to skateboard through the office and be best friends with everyone how ironic is it that the professionals who actually work with children, children who have an evolutionary drive to play- those professionals are sentenced to mindless hours of punishing, scripted work as we watch recess, PE, art, science, games, and songs disappear more and more each year.

I became a teacher because I love children and I love learning. I’m not in it for the glory or the riches. (I can barely afford my rent)  And no I’m not a union shill just in it for the sweet health benefits (they stink) and pension (not counting on it existing in 20 years).  No, I became a teacher because I love – I mean really love kids. I love how quirky and bizarre they are, I love how hilarious they are, I love how eager they are to learn and explore, how loving they can be, the sense of wonder they bring to any new experience and I love sharing my own awe and delight in learning with them. I love the way that even children who have survived trauma too scary to describe can light up with a smile at the smallest provocation.

More respect and higher pay would be great, don’t get me wrong.  But what makes teaching actually worth it is so much more intangible than that. It’s joy. Love.  It’s seeing children excited and delighted, it’s the kids who invite you to sleep overs at their house because they don’t want to miss you over the weekend, it’s the random stories kids tell you about their imaginary pets, it’s finding out that your students are obsessed with bugs and watching them jump up and down when you release butterflies, it’s hearing kids cheer because today they get to write whatever they want, it’s finally, finally teaching something that isn’t scripted, and, above all, it’s about forging relationships with your most difficult students and then crying in June when you have to say goodbye to them.

Childhood should be happy and full of love, not a sisyphean slog. The same goes for teaching.  If we want people to commit to many years of real teaching- developmentally appropriate, thoughtful, serious teaching, we need to bring joy back into the classroom and into the profession. Let kids be kids and let teachers be people who love kids. Teacher shortage solved.

 

Why isn’t Kindergarten like Pre-k?

From what I’ve seen, pre-k is a success- developmentally appropriate, nurturing classrooms with lots of exploration, play, growth and joy. Why should kindergarten be any different?

When I walk into the pre-k classrooms at my school I enter a veritable learning and happiness wonderland.

Picture this: While some students count or match shapes and patterns, others build a city out of  blocks. More explore foam at a sensory table and 4 eager, smiling kids observe insects and worms at a science center. In dramatic play, a circle of friends dress up in butterfly wings and pretend to pollinate flowers, and a few more draw, write and paint to their hearts’ contents at an art table.

Later that day, they will sing, dance, listen to a story and play outside. Outside they can choose to dig in the dirt, run around, blow bubbles, slide, jump, ride tricycles, build with stones or draw with chalk.

They eagerly discuss letter sounds over lunch, and are excited to choose books or math games during the short “center time” before dismissal. Some of them have started to read picture books on their own. Whenever I visit, they teach me about plants and seasons, animals and neighborhood features. They say please and thank you and independently solve problems among friends. There is a class “comforter”who makes sure that when a student is sad, they get a hug or pat on the back. There are 2 caring adults in each class, and only 18 students so everyone gets the attention they need.

Sounds pretty idyllic right?

And they are learning so much- socially, academically and physically. Students who didn’t know the letters in their own names are now spelling and reading words. A student who couldn’t throw a ball at the beginning of the year can play baseball. One little girl who did not speak a word of English in September is completely fluent and a leader in the class. Last time I visited, she explained a bee’s life cycle to me in detail, using vocabulary like pupa, larva, hive, nectar, pollinator and drone. 

At this point in the year, the pre-k students are four or five years old. Many will still be four when they enter kindergarten in September. Some of them will not turn five until December of next school year. Which begs the question- if students are the same age or just a few months older than pre-k students, why on earth is kindergarten so different from pre-k? Is the experience of being four and a half really so different from being four?

In kindergarten, there can be 25 students and only one teacher. That is a huge jump from 18 kids and 2 adults.  In kindergarten, students are expected to sit, read, write, put pencil to paper to meet common core standards, and yet we know that many kindergarteners lack the fine motor skills to hold a pencil.  In kindergarten, outdoor play and sensory exploration become secondary to “real learning” aka academics, as does social emotional and physical development. Although in some lucky classrooms students still do get “extra” play time- is is thought of as distinct from learning rather than essential to it.  In kindergarten, kids sit through tests that they often can’t even read.Why is this transition so abrupt?  The kids are virtually the same and no person in their right mind would put a pre-k student in front of a bubble test. ( although I know it happens)

Kindergarten is still very much part of early childhood. Four and five year olds cannot learn or function without movement, sensory stimulation, singing, joy, play, choice and time outdoors. We have a structure for pre-k that has produced at least a few fabulous, developmentally appropriate classrooms.

Kindergarten needs to get on board. In fact, maybe all grade levels should be more like pre-k. Choice, play and happiness for all.

 

 

 

 

Chuck the Tests- Project Based Learning is Better

We have effective, research based models for assessing student learning that do not rely on standardized testing. So why aren’t we using them?

A friend of mine recently got hired at one of the city’s performance assessment consortium schools. What is unique about these schools is that the students only take 1 test- yes that’s right, just 1 standardized test in four years of high school. So, instead of wasting valuable time on tests and test prep, portfolios of authentic student projects are used to assess learning and determine eligibility for graduation.

Also unique about these schools- Despite a population comprised of high numbers of English language learners and low-income families, these schools have far higher graduation rates than traditional high schools and an 91% college attendance rate.

How do they do it?

Teacher autonomy and “in depth” project based learning. That’s how.

I met a teacher from Brooklyn International High School at a workshop recently and wistfully listened as she described the year long  history and ecology project about water pollution she had designed with her students.  Meanwhile, in depth, interdisciplinary projects with real life relevance are few and far between in my elementary school because testing and data take priority over everything else.

Which begs the question: why can’t we have portfolio assessed middle and elementary schools too? Why can’t elementary schools apply for the same waiver these schools receive and use performance based assessment instead of torturous tests?  Especially when excellent progressive schools like Central Park East are under threat, why not use these successful alternative high schools as a model and give all schools the opportunity to choose project based learning over testing?

We know skipping standardized tests in favor of deeper learning works with our neediest high school students. And we know testing is far more cumbersome and developmentally inappropriate for young children than it is for teens. So there is no reason not to bring this successful model down to our youngest students.

If we really want to offer parents “school choice” we need elementary, middle and high schools that go beyond data factories. Alternatives like portfolios, project based learning and performance assessment should be an option for children of all ages- not just high school students.

The Power of Play

Friday was the last day of testing. Day 3 of the math was brutal by all accounts and after 3 days of standardized sitting, it was clear to everyone who was paying attention that our kids needed to get outdoors.

So on Friday afternoon, I brought my class to the yard for some extra outdoor play time and discovered at least 6 other classes already at play. There were 2nd graders, 3rd, graders, 4th graders and 5th graders all outside in our giant schoolyard together.

It was pretty magical. There were mixed age games of kickball and football. There were races and climbing. There were kids acting out stories and kids running through the yard, holding hands in a chain.

One 7 year old leapt by me, exclaiming, “It is just such a beautiful day!” Another student ran up to me in the midst of a very intense soccer game to ask me if I knew who had discovered the earth’s magnetic field. “William Gilbert!” he told me, and then dashed back to his game.

A third grade girl quietly sitting by herself told me that her favorite thing to do during recess is to imagine fantastical creatures and then write poems about them in her head. Another girl ran up to me and said, “I figured out why we came outside instead of doing science- it’s because we’re using kinetic energy and sound energy when we’re outside and because of motion!”

Very little instruction happens during testing because the exams exhaust children’s reserves of stamina and attention. This particular day, all I did was monitor a hallway, and take 2 classes out to play. Initially, I had dismissed the day as a waste of time  because “I wasn’t teaching anything.” But it wasn’t a waste of time. Not because the test was worthwhile in any way. It was not. But because we played.

Kids need play. It is how they learn. It is how they process new ideas and become themselves. This is something study after study has shown- that children learn best through play, through social interaction, through exploration, through movement- yet we continue to insist that real learning happens silently at desks in front of “rigorous” worksheets.

Getting outside last week was a powerful reminder that play is not separate from learning- play is learning. We should be doing everything we can to make our teaching more play based, not cutting recess and choice time out of our schedules. And we should remember that play is never, ever a waste of time. Rather, the best teaching happens when students explore, make choices, use their imaginations, build and move- in short, when we finally let kids put their packets down, get out of their seats, and play to their hearts’ contents.