Don’t Know Much About History

Is anyone else thinking that we should get over our obsession with job readiness and coding and start teaching civics, history and critical thinking again?

It is ironic that in an election year full to the brim with historical myth, deceit, ignorance and intolerance all anyone can say about education is “coding! More coding!” Remember when education used to be viewed as essential to democracy?

In the most elite private schools and liberal arts colleges students do more than math drills, ELA exercises and an hour of code. They learn how to think. They are empowered to express informed opinions. They are empowered to see themselves as agents of change, to think critically and engage in democracy.  But we continue to manage public schools like factories- with economic rather than human, democratic goals. Beneath this reality is an insidious assumption that only our elites should learn how to think and engage critically in the democratic process, and that all everyone else needs is vocational training.

But education should be about more than job readiness for everyone, not just the already privileged. If I’ve gained anything from watching this circus of an election cycle, its a powerful reminder of the importance of history, critical thinking and empowerment in education.

The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think — rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.- John Dewey

A democratic form of government, a democratic way of life, presupposes free public education over the long period; it presupposes also an education for personal responsibility that too often is neglected. -Eleanor Roosevelt

Kids are Amazing- When You Give Them a Chance

Recently I decided to teach my fourth graders about the Flint water disaster. I wanted to offer them information, let them come to their own conclusions and then decide together how to act. I learned that empowering children think critically and take action can be as simple as pausing the curriculum for a day, looking at the news and engaging in some real world problem solving.

My students were shocked and appalled by what they learned. They asked questions about lead, about how drinking water can get contaminated, about how many children were affected, about how could a government do that to people, and if the water looked so dirty why wasn’t it tested in the first place. After learning that GM managed to switch its water supply early on, and that state officials had access to clean water throughout the crisis, one student raised her hand and said,” I don’t understand. Government is supposed to help people and take care of them not make them sick. Their job is to protect people. Why would they do this?” Later, one of the girls said “when [yes, when] I run for president I would make sure that everyone gets clean water and people like Governor Snyder who just care about money are fired.”

After giving them time to explore their feelings and questions, I then asked what they thought we could do to help. They had so many ideas- from fundraising, to letter writing campaigns to teaching our school community about lead. In one 45 minute period, I saw critical thinking, creativity and problem solving- all those elusive 21st century skills that no amount of close reading will  produce.

Here is some of what they did.obama letter amelia

 

photo (35)

christine

I am so, so proud of them- of their questioning, their compassion and their determination to help. Not only were they thoughtful and empathetic in their responses to what they learned, but also, they went above and beyond anything I asked of them.

Over 30 fourth graders gave up their recess and lunch to continue working on these flyers, posters and letters. Many children took their letters and projects home to finish. One group of students independently collected 150 dollars at a school event. Whats more, multiple students in each class offered to send their allowance or birthday money to people in Flint. These are not kids with money to spare.

Hats off to them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reclaiming “Choice” for Progressive Education

In the world of education, school “choice” is a destructive illusion. Disenfranchising, underfunding and shutting down community public schools to pave the way for highly authoritarian charters does not offer a real choice for families. Do you want to eat or do you want to go hungry?  Choice is yet another word used to veil the real beneficiaries of school reform: charter networks, corporations and politicians. The concept of choice and charter schools is not inherently wrong, but it is a concept that has been coopted by the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

In fact, it is often the charter schools who really make the choices by excluding children with disabilities and weeding out other high need students. These children typically have the fewest choices already, and education reform only exacerbates the challenges families of children with disabilities face. I taught in a charter school and one of my students who in retrospect was probably on the autism spectrum, was “counseled out” of our school and into his zoned public school. What kind of choice is that?

I say we reclaim the word choice for progressive education. Picture this kind of choice- a school community in which parents, students, teachers and administrators are all empowered to make real choices. Teachers choose how to teach and choose and design meaningful, child centered curriculum. Families, teachers, and school leaders choose to include the arts, physical education and sciences in the school day and families choose from a menu of enriching after school programs and workshops for caregivers.  Teachers and students alike choose what and how to learn, instead of blindly adhering to top down test oriented directives.  Students, families and teachers choose whether or not to have homework and whether or not to take tests. Families choose from a wealth of services for students with disabilities. This is a school deeply rooted in the community, a school with resources and flexibility in how to use them, a school that empowers leaders, teachers, students and families to make choices that matter.

Why I might leave

Despite all research, despite all evidence, despite years of accumulated wisdom and experience on the part of actual educators who have dedicated their lives to helping low-income students and their families the myth persists- that the teachers are the problem, that we are failing.

This culture of blame and shame has been seeping into schools so that every day when I walk into school I feel on the brink of disaster. Despite working 12 hour days, despite knowing that my students love coming to my classroom, that parents value what I do, I still feel like a complete failure, that I can never be good enough, that my fate will be decided at random, that no matter how hard I work, my students will eventually become disenchanted with learning, and alienated from their school through years of brutal and degrading test-prep, that I will make mistake after mistake and always be told what I’m doing wrong. In what career other than teaching are practitioners expected to be perfect, to be superhuman, to have their every interaction scrutinized and criticized according to so many standards, to never stop for one minute to get to know the people they work with? No matter how hard I work there is always more to do, and even as I throw myself into my teaching, into working with colleagues, planning school wide events, assuming leadership roles, the message I keep getting is that it is not good enough, I am a failure.

But it is not us. It is segregation, poverty, housing insecurity and lack of healthcare. We know that it is not us, but we still feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, we still feel the blame and we work harder, and longer, and try to be everything- teacher, parent, social worker, data analyst, curriculum writer, coach, fundraiser, planner,  web designer, therapist, artist, mentor. We try to teach meaningfully while being compelled to adhere to inane curriculum and standards, we try to prepare our students for what lies ahead, to help them get through each day, to help them love learning, and all we hear is that it is not good enough because now tests will determine not only our children’s futures but our careers, there is always more we could do and we know it and we burn ourselves out.

Instead of encouragement or recognition, we are handed itemized analyses of our performance, and teaching feels more and more like a performance- something we pretend to do so that the right boxes will be checked off on each list. Just as our students are constantly being evaluated, we too are under constant scrutiny. Just as our students are given less and less choice, so too, we are given less and less opportunities to be creative, to be authentic, to be agents of change.

This is my fourth year teaching. No matter what, working in a low-income school is going to be hard. When your students are hungry, when they are tired and cold, or come from unstable or even abusive families, you can never do enough. There are days when you cry after school, when you cry during school. With experience, it is supposed to get a little easier. But each year, I feel more and more like I am failing, like I am neither important nor capable, like no matter what I do, no matter how much my students have learned and grown despite a million disadvantages, the system around me does not have my back.  The problem of poverty runs deep and teachers can’t be expected to face it alone. In this climate of teacher baiting, of blame and constant evaluation, I’m not sure I can face it at all.

If reformers succeed in implementing their full agenda, who will be left? I’m not sure I will.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/30/why-cuomos-school-reform-plans-would-make-teaching-a-very-high-risk-career-choice/

Trickle Down Test Prep and the Cultural Brutality of Ed Reform

High stakes testing and standardization is a cultural shift, not just a change in curriculum or teaching practices.  It pervades every aspect of school whether you are in a testing grade or in pre-k. Elementary school testing season has come to a close and for many parents and educators in NYC it is clear that high stakes testing causes undue trauma to our 3rd and 4th graders, that the tests are developmentally inappropriate and often obtuse, and that teacher and school evaluations should not be tied to test scores which consistently correlate to income in district after district. What people don’t realize is the effect that the culture of high stakes testing is having on early childhood- all the way down to pre-k.

This week, news broke of a kindergarten music performance that was canceled because as the principal wrote in her letter to families, “We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers.” There are so many things wrong with this scenario. This administrator not only lacks understanding of child development and the value of music, joy and community in building school culture, but also narrowly defines so called “lifelong skills” as testable ones. To think that  academic experiences like reading and writing are the only skills needed for college and career is foolish and a source of countless failures in our school systems. Study after study has shown that test scores do not predict success in life, rather, social emotional skills like resiliency, the ability to collaborate, creativity and self control are what actually predict success. Furthermore, to think that a music performance with the collaboration, practice, goal setting, confidence and community building it entails does not help build lifelong skills, is equally thoughtless. And of course, there is the fact that they are just kindergarteners- they are five, and the way five year olds learn is through play, through their senses and through art and music. It may sound crazy, but this kind of narrow focus on academic skills in early childhood is being pushed throughout public and charter schools. As the ethos and mythology of testing trickles down into the early years, and the pressure on test scores is so great it is not only changing what we teach but also, how we teach, ed reformers are fundamentally altering the culture of our schools.

As a second grade teacher, the culture around high stakes testing poses daily obstacles. After the ELA test this year, suddenly we were told to make sure our students could write in paragraphs and write full persuasive essays, never mind if that isn’t appropriate for second graders, even if it is expected of third graders a year later. One second grade teacher at my school received high praise at a staff meeting for sending home ELA test prep ( that’s for the third grade test) for second grade homework all year. Meanwhile, our Go Math curriculum, actually has questions labeled test prep with a star, and was chosen by the DOE to align with the third grade math test, no matter how obtuse or deliberately confusing that test may be. Having struggled against it for a year, I can safely say that Go Math is a weak curriculum. The student workbooks are visually overwhelming and rote, the teacher resources are overly complex and not truly differentiated, and there are a whopping three days of assessment for every unit. That’s 27 days a year where instead of teaching math, we’re testing. And of course, the curriculum was never tested or researched with actual children before it was implemented last year. It’s not just upper elementary school students who are subjected to test prep, its 2nd and 1st graders, and yes even kindergarteners.

Not only does our curriculum suffer due to the trickle down effects of testing, but our school culture, how the school feels, whether it is nurturing and empowering or punishing and cruel, suffers as well. During the math tests this past week I overheard an administrator shouting at a third grade boy in the hallway. This boy is learning disabled, an ELL and struggles with school. He often comes into my classroom to take a break from his own and you can see how alienated he feels when he sits sullenly in the corner. He is an unhappy kid who is forced to do things day in and day out that he is simply not capable of. She yelled, “NOW, ARE YOU READY TO GET IN THERE AND TAKE THIS TEST LIKE A GROWN UP?” Like a grown up. I doubt she realized what she was saying to this 9 year old, who looked defeated and hostile all at once. How is he going to make it through school when there is nothing of value to him in his school day, and he is expected to do things he can’t do to please the stressed out adult who happens to be berating him at a given moment. These kids are not grown ups. Kindergardeners are not grown ups. There is more to education than preparation, and true learning, the kind of learning that empowers and engages, happens slowly across years through layers of experiences that touch the heart and mind.

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” 
― John Dewey

Project based learning; Making science and social studies count

Amid the whirlwind that is education reform, many educators lose sight of the parts of the day that make school meaningful and fun- art, music, P.E. , social studies, and science. These are the projects, games and studies that are getting pushed more and more to the margins of the school day because of high-stakes testing in ELA and Math. Even at my school, with an administration that is pushing project based learning, the third grade skims the science and social studies content, because the bulk of the day is dedicated toward teaching toward the tests.  At the same time, since there aren’t standardized tests in these these subjects yet, there is a tiny bit more freedom for both teachers and students. In that vein, for this post I thought I would take a break from criticism and share something positive- something that can happen when teachers are allowed to ditch the script and get creative.

We teach science and social studies because we want kids to learn about themselves, their natural, cultural and physical environment and understand basic features and processes that are a part or their lives. Perhaps more important, we want them to develop habits of inquiry, problem solving, discovery, and collaboration. It’s not whether they remember who built which landmark in NYC, but whether they know how to pose questions to clarify and challenge, how to plan and work with peers, to listen, respond, critique, investigate and how to solve problems by testing out multiple possibilities. Yes we do want them to acquire knowledge- but remembering that they will only hold on to what they can relate to and what they will continue to use: if we want them to remember the 6 plant parts, we need to instill a love of plants and gardening in them through tangible experiences so that the knowledge remains relevant. If we want them to remember structures of government- we have to give them a sense that they are powerful and have a responsibility to vote in elections, that their lives are influenced by unseen forces. If we want them to remember details about New Amsterdam; we have to instill a love of history and a love of their city- so that they come back to it again and again as they grow.

In my classroom, against the odds, we are engaged in a purposeful, interdisciplinary science and social studies project. Although I’ve always been a project lover, this year was my first introduction to project based learning. In project based learning, long term projects stem from real-world problems, needs, or questions. Many progressive schools engage in amazing interdisciplinary thematic units and projects: Brooklyn bridge studies, Hudson river, the Lenape. These units include trips, art, writing, collaborative work, model making. Project based learning does all that but with a real life purpose, whether it is creating signage for a museum exhibit, re-purposing an empty lot or figuring out the best way to get from here to there.

My co-teacher and I were so excited about this idea and we quickly found our issue. We decided that we should try to figure out the best way to protect New York city from storms and flooding, so we mapped out a loose progression for our project, found a friend from Red-Hook to help us launch and got started. In order to address this problem, our class decided we needed to learn about NYC geography and neighborhoods, flooding, storms, buildings, landforms,and coastal ecosystems. Here’s what it looks like at the moment- during writing, the kids are researching topics of their choice to write information books about low-elevation neighborhoods in the city. in science, we are learning about landforms, weathering and coastal erosion. In social studies, we are visiting neighborhoods around the city and will begin constructing a map of NYC that highlights elevation and the neighborhoods we’re studying. We’re not covering material, we’re not checking bullet points off a list. We don’t know exactly where the project will head, which solution we will settle on or how we will present our findings. We’re not transmitting information.  What we are doing is collaborating, asking questions, making plans, solving problems- in short we’re offering our students an experience that will stick with them whether they remember the facts they learn along the way or not. We’re empowering children by letting their interests and ideas guide the project, and by allowing them to tackle a problem in the real world- a problem they can all understand and relate to. And we’re having a blast.

The kids meanwhile, are all about it. They bring in books from home about neighborhoods and hurricanes. They casually use the word elevation or erosion as they make connections to our project throughout the day. And all the kids are into it- from the four students reading at a third grade level to the ones who are just beginning to read at a kindergarten level.  The quiet kids who never raise their hands, some of whom have pretty sever learning disabilities, are suddenly jumping out of their seats wanting to share their observations and original thoughts. My over-energetic boys are sitting still and examining maps of NYC and hurricane footage. And then of course- the real reason I love social studies- our students are learning a lot about working together. Each afternoon we devote to our project, they practice taking turns, listening to each other, making a plan before diving in, making sure that everyone has a role to play, respecting each others ideas and abilities. My co-teacher and I are learning along the way as well, thinking about how to better plan our next project, how to make sure all the loose ends come together.  I’m amazed by the growth we’ve seen already, and can’t keep from dreaming up projects for the rest of the year.

How did this happen? Well, first, we hid all our science and social studies textbooks in the back of our closet. The thought of using textbooks in either of those subjects appalls me. We also used the scope and sequence as a starting point rather than a bible. We quietly compressed much of  the first social studies unit- rules, rights and responsibilities, ( a developmentally inappropriate unit on government) and thus were able to launch our project in early October.

This kind of learning should be happening daily. I know this makes me sound a little doomsday-ish- but I truly believe that in the age of climate change, drone warfare, stem cells, smart phones, and decreasing bio-diversity among other countless scientific phenomenon that impact our lives, kids should be engaging with science materials and concepts daily. Not to mention that kids love it- nothing is more developmentally appropriate in early childhood than digging in the dirt, building a shelter, planting veggies or learning about animals- science gets kids outside, boosts happiness and cements their connection to the natural world, all while fostering habits of inquiry and wonder. Likewise, in an age of societal instability and diversity, social studies, with an emphasis on collaborative problem solving, community building inside and outside of school, critical thinking and social justice should be woven into each school day and each discipline. This is the kind of learning that helps us fully become ourselves, that helps us find meaning and even helps us survive whatever life throws at us. This is the kind of learning that does more than prepare children for the future- it fully engages them in the present.

On that note, some Dewey before I go:  “We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.”

There is, in fact, no teaching without learning. ~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom

It’s been a week, and such a relief to be able to worry about children instead of politics. I am never so focused as I am in the first weeks of a new school year. I put everything else in my life aside, because I know I will be working 12 or 13 hour days and forget to do anything that is unrelated to my classroom. This year, my first week was lovely.  For the first time I felt calm and confident in what needed to happen. Its only been a few years, but I feel I am at least at the point where I know what I need to work on, whereas in previous years I was trying to survive.  I was able to actually enjoy the kids, to delight in getting to know the strange and wonderful little people I am going to spend my year with. It already feels like we have a little community and we’re in a groove. Of course, I can already anticipate a multitude of challenges; in my second grade class we have students who don’t even know the alphabet, and students reading at a third grade level. We have students with supportive parents and a student whose mother seems to forget to bring her to school every few days. But so far, its been nice.

Lucky for me, the school I work at endorses the responsive classroom approach to the beginning of the school year; heavy on community building and teaching routines and social skills, rather than diving into academics. Instead of addressing behaviors as they arise due to frustration, stress, or attention seeking throughout the year, we work proactively to at once create a learning community in collaboration with the students, while also explicitly teaching all the non-cognitive skills that our students will need to handle the challenges that academics will bring.( For example: how to be a good partner, what to do when you feel upset, what kind of voice to use to help a friend)  We’re learning what they’re good at and what they are excited about- whether it is sharks, sunflowers, animals, field trips, the forest, jet planes, trains, singing or dancing. We’re making them feel important and heard, so they know they belong and can loosen up and take risks.   I am all about it. Of course, their are many policy makers who would rather I stand in the front of the classroom on day 1, give a variety of commands and have my students copy something off the board.  And in fact amidst this first week honeymoon, impacts of the inanity of New York education politics have managed to rudely tarnish my excitement about a new class and a new year. We found out yet another absurd manifestation of the new teacher evaluation system, and I voted in a mayoral primary election with a dearth of meaningful education platforms.  But before I eventually tackle the absurdity of the new teacher evaluation system, I need to lay a little groundwork.

This week as I was thinking about how to create a productive community in my classroom, while meeting my students and already seeing their strengths and where they need support, I thought about what students and teachers share. Teaching is a learning profession. Freire again- “Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.”  No matter how experienced you are, you can always get better, no matter how much you know, you can always know more, no matter how many students you’ve worked with, they should all feel brand new and revelatory. Kids’ and teachers’ needs are not all that different. And sadly, the new teacher evaluation system in New York  is a mirror image of what ED reform is imposing on our kids- top down, narrow, inappropriate and arbitrary assessments to as a way to improve “performance.” When really, teaching and learning is not a performance, but a process. Nor is it something that improves merely by virtue of being assessed, ( particularly when the assessments are developmentally inappropriate and only serve to breed frustration, dissatisfaction, and disengagement on the part of both teachers and students.) We are all learners. We are all in process. We learn through each other, we learn by being supported and empowered, by having colleagues or friends we respect notice what we do well and offer suggestions for what we find hard.

Teachers don’t need to be evaluated, they need to be cultivated. Any good teacher knows that when a student is struggling, you don’t put them on probation, and you certainly don’t do so when they’re actually doing great, but had a hard time with one test.  Good teachers, good learners and good colleagues are reflective, they consider the whole person in context, they problem solve, they offer encouragement and support.  The new teacher evaluation system does the opposite. And of course, the people it will hurt the most will be children, especially, as with this whole movement, low-income and minority children. Who’s going to want to teach them? Either you spend years adhering to mind numbing and developmentally inappropriate test prep curriculum, or you strive to inspire and cultivate and you get booted and diminished when your students struggle with the dense 10 hours of testing they are forced to endure each year.

In the new system, every teacher gets a rating that is based on a score out of 100. PE, Art, Music and Science teachers get their rating in part based on 3rd-5th graders scores on the ELA test. So, even though they don’t teach ELA, a part of their rating derives from those scores. There’s more. Early childhood teachers, ( pre-K to 2) also are rated in part based on performance on the 3rd grade test. I know. Fortunately for the advocates for this system, the monster they’ve created is so weighted with jargon and provision within provision, that no one understands the process enough to oppose it. I’m going to do some research and then present a fuller picture soon. How does this thoughtless means of evaluation serve teachers and learners? How does it help teachers to be reflective and critical, to grow professionally?

I hate to end with negativity so here is a counter snapshot: A guided discovery in my classroom of plants and natural objects like shells, feathers, pine cones etc. One special needs student with memory and aggression issues, sitting quietly by herself and petting a blue rabbits foot fern while quietly singing to it to help it grow. At another table, a student who didn’t realize until the boy sitting next to him mentioned it, that pine cones originated in trees. The huge smiles on my kids’ faces as they jumped up and down when we sang the popcorn song for the first time during morning meeting. POP!

That’s all for now.