Gifts That Fight Back: Holiday Gifts for the Activist

Once again it feels frivolous to go holiday shopping this year with everything good under attack by the people (Republicans +Trump) who hold power. But I think my family will be less than pleased if all I give them this year are donations in their name, so I made an activist  gift giving plan. Here it is:

Gifts that Fight Back

To fight for civil rights:

To support a free and creditable press:

To support women’s reproductive health:

To support public education:

To fight climate change and stand for science:

Support public institutions:

If you have more ideas, organizations or links- please share via comments! I will keep adding as I find more. Spread the word: Give gifts that fight back this holiday season!

 

Calling All Science Educators

In the new, surreal and scary era we stumbled into on Tuesday being a science educator has taken on new meaning. Our new president, Voldemort, I mean Trump, plans to appoint a climate change denier to head the EPA, drill just about everywhere and cut all funding currently dedicated to addressing climate change.

I propose a broad coalition of science teachers, museums, non-profits, public gardens, schools, colleges and universities to come together and spend the next four years teaching about climate change and advocating for clean energy, conservation and climate solutions.  We are at a critical moment in hundreds of ways, but if we don’t take on climate change now we will lose our opportunity to do so at all. Trump is planning to do battle against the environment and we need to fight back.  If every museum, every school, every garden, every research institution pledges to take on and teach about climate change for the next four years maybe, just maybe we can stem the rising tides in our future.

We are the leaders that remain in the moral vacuum of a Trump white house. More than ever, public institutions that serve and educate the public need to band together and toil to promote diversity, tolerance, equity and sustainability for all. We need a broad alliance dedicated to protecting those most vulnerable to the hate Trump inspires. We need to come together to protect our democratic institutions and our civil, natural and reproductive rights. There is so much to do, and so much to fight for, and amidst all that we can’t forget our planet.

Please share widely.

 

 

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

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Testing Season and Why Everyone Should Opt Out

Testing season at my elementary school begins after February break and ends with the conclusion of the state math tests in mid-April. Like many schools, our students are subject to test prep “units” at this time of year that include practice tests, stamina building exercises and test taking skill “explorations.” It is the worst time of year for teachers, students and families, yet at my school, inexplicably, no one is speaking out and no one is opting out.

So to parents out there, here’s what really happens in testing season…

  1. No one teaches science or social studies for 3 months. The number of teachers who have told me ” Oh I’m only doing read alouds for science because of test prep” or “we’ll do that activity after testing” is disturbingly high. This time of year, its all about those 3 Rs. This is a reality across the board- whether schools do a test prep “unit” or do test prep all year- science and social studies always get cut. 30 years from now when we are faced with the next global warming like debate, we can thank high stakes testing for our ignorance.
  2. Reading, writing and math become exclusively pencil and paper tasks and last all day. Reading, writing and math can and should be engaging and meaningful, but in test prep season kids often don’t get to choose what they read or write about, and are fed poorly written passage after passage. Kids should be reading books! Not passages followed by short responses and multiple choice questions. Besides, what’s the point of writing if you’re not allowed to write about anything interesting? ( like STORIES! Remember when kids used to write stories?)
  3. No trips, no fun,  no emotional support. There is so much pressure on teachers to get high scores- so not only is the academic curriculum narrowed to ELA and math, but many teachers sacrifice all the things that keep kids motivated and foster social skills- like trips, games and opportunities for play. At my school we’re not allowed to go on trips with 3rd-5th graders for all of testing season. We all know that what children need to learn is uninterrupted practice with reading packets and multiple choice questions… Oh wait, is that it?
  4. Even students who have disabilities, or are English language learners have to test prep. Even if they can’t read. At all. They have to “practice”  too. I had a student cry for over 30 minutes the other day because his classroom teacher was going to make him finish his ELA packet. He is a smart and vivacious kid who is normally super excited to come to my class and always had great ideas. But he cried for the whole period. The whole period.
  5. The homework gets insane. Like packets on top of packets. Plus many schools have Saturday classes for extra test prep! Because every day and night is not enough!
  6. Everyone is grumpy.  This might not seem important, but you try teaching 30 grumpy, jittery, stressed out kids or leading a staff meeting with angry, sleep deprived teachers. Let me know how that goes.
  7. Finally, it trickles down. All this testing frenzy does absolutely trickle down to the younger grades. Especially in testing season. It is around this time of year that the administration “suggests” incorporating testing language and skills for kids as young as pre-k and we are told to plan ways for first graders to be more “test ready.”

I recently had a conversation with a parent about the impending state tests. This is a parent who has told me that she is thinking about withdrawing both her children from our school and sending them to a progressive private school because, as she put it,  “they’re bored.”

She said that she wasn’t planning on opting out her children because they hadn’t expressed any specific anxieties about taking the tests. Then she told me that they don’t like school anymore and that is why she is thinking about transferring to a private school.

Parents out there- if your child is bored at this time of year, it is because of testing. If your child is especially frustrated and emotional at this time of year, it is because of testing. If your child has suddenly stopped going on trips or learning anything in science and social studies, it is because of testing. If your child is coming home with boatloads of homework that make no sense to you, it is because of testing. If your child hates school and finds it all too hard and confusing, that’s probably in some part because of testing too. If any of this sounds all too familiar- you should OPT YOUR KID OUT.

Send a message that a narrowed, autocratic, undifferentiated, and developmentally inappropriate curriculum is not OK for any child!

There are some lucky schools out there where the administration eschews test prep and almost all the students opt out. And you know what they do at those schools?  They teach. And learn. Real stuff. Projects. Science. Social Studies. Critical thinking. Art.

All children deserve real learning. All children deserve differentiated teaching that meets their needs, not the agendas of corporate reformers. All children deserve to be engaged, respected and inspired at school.  Even during testing season. OPT OUT.

 

 

 

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The Myth of College Readiness

Just because children have to do something when they grow up does not mean it is appropriate for elementary school students. 6 year olds are not college students. Not yet.

I am so tired of “college readiness” being used to justify innumerable teaching mandates that are not developmentally appropriate. For instance- the common core shift to non-fiction in writing and reading, or there was that time my principal told us to use testing language with first graders, and then of course, the pages of homework being sent home starting in kindergarten. I don’t care what they have to do in college- 5 and 6 year olds should be writing stories, not essays, using language that makes sense for them and playing, not filling out worksheets after school.

You know what else college students should probably be prepared for? Sex. But no one has mandated that teachers introduce kindergarteners to details of STD prevention. Because it is not appropriate! They are not ready!

One teacher at my school recently told me that she thought taking tests in 3rd grade was important practice for the SATs. Wait. A. Second. So we need to be preparing kids for the SATs almost 10 years before they take them? Taking a 3 hour test might be developmentally appropriate for 17 year olds. But make no mistake, no matter what anyone tells you, any seated task that lasts more than 40 minutes is not developmentally appropriate for a typical 8 year old.

If we really want our elementary school kids to be “college ready”, we can…

a. Make college affordable so they actually have the option of going.

b. Offer them rich, sensory, creative and meaningful learning experiences so that they love school and develop some of the non-academic skills that actually matter in college – self motivation and self control, executive functioning and organization, independence and the ability to problem solve and communicate.

c. Meet kids’ needs in the here and now. Stop worrying about what they need to do when they are 18. You know what they need to do right now? Eat breakfast every day. Button their coats. Make friends. Solve problems. Feel emotionally and physically safe. Read books they love. Write stories. Do experiments. Play outside. Dig in the dirt.

Imagine if doctors started telling parents that their babies should practice walking immediately upon emergence from the womb. We have to prepare them now for the walking they’ll do later in life, they might say. Make sure you stand them up on 2 feet right after they are born so that they get a head start. And then just let go, they’ll be just fine.

That is what we’re doing to our children in far too many schools, all for the sake of college readiness. Enough.

 

Why Teachers and Parents Should Vote for Bernie

K-12 education has not been a topic in the democratic primaries, leaving public school educators and parents wondering who would be most likely to scale down federal and state education “reform.”

So why should public school teachers, opt-out parents and anyone who believes in public education support Bernie Sanders?

Here are 6 reasons.

  1. Sanders voted against No Child Left Behind, the grandfather of Ed reform. .
  2. Sanders is skeptical of “alternative routes” to certification: ex: TFA, Relay, Teacher U= replacing lifetime educators with short lived script followers.
  3. He said this: “Something is very wrong when, last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers. We have to get our priorities right.” He also has talked about investing more $ in public schools and replacing the use of property taxes to raise money for schools because of the inequality that system creates.
  4. Vermont is one of the few states that does not allow charter schools. Rather they allow for school choice within the public school system. This brings a valuable perspective to the table.
  5. Sanders is the only real pro-labor major candidate in recent history. If anyone is going to support unionized teachers- at public schools or unionized charters, it is Bernie.
  6. Neoliberalism has been very bad for education. Hillary is the quintessential neoliberal. Think the punitive test and punish/ test and underfund of Race to the Top, think school closures, think corporate consultants invading schools, think Bill Gates and his campaign for testing and the common core, think the de-professionalization of teaching and the feds buddying up to tech companies and big business to “reform” schools. Think about what has been like to be a teacher for the last 8 years- punishingly demoralizing and frustrating. While Hillary has managed to make statements both for and against public schools, and for and against unions, it is likely she’ll ride the Obama/ Duncan/ King train to fully “reformed” schools.  We don’t want that.
  7. And finally- Reformers would have you believe that education is in crisis because of teachers and their unions, but want to know the real crisis in education today? POVERTY. Bernie Sanders has been fighting for equality and against corporate greed for his entire life, and is the only candidate truly seeking to address the rapidly increasing inequality in this country. If we really want to do what’s right for children, we’ll choose the candidate who is fighting for their futures and their families- free college tuition, a living wage, affordable housing and free healthcare.

Forget the NEA, AFT endorsements. Bernie Sanders is a better bet for teachers.

 

http://prospect.org/article/what-would-sanders-administration-do-k-12-education

http://edexcellence.net/articles/bernie-sanders-quotes-about-education

http://www.aft.org/election2016/candidate-questionnaire-bernie-sanders

 

Let’s Be Real: Testing Is All Year Long

People are arguing about whether testing in NY state conforms to Obama’s theoretical 2% cap on testing time.

But let’s be real. At most schools testing takes time away from real learning all year long. Test prep starts on day 1, with jam packed, common core test aligned, “rigorous” ELA and math curricula. This includes test prep oriented curricula and actual testing. Starting in the first week of school, students take formative assessments, summative assessments, benchmark assessments and more on a weekly basis. And of course, from September through May, art, science, social studies and anything creative is relegated to the back burner- taught at most once a week.

And then testing season comes. At my school, starting in February, test prep takes over completely and suddenly the 3rd and 4th graders are anxious, frustrated and bursting in to tears at random moments. This is two months of explicit test practice almost all day every single day. Two months of no field trips, no science, no social studies and lots and lots of practice tests.

To be clear, I do not blame any of this on the teachers I work with. They kick ass and do everything within their power to make learning fun and meaningful for their kids. The power of testing over schools comes entirely from on high- from Cuomo, from Obama, from Gates and the other rich people who think they are experts at everything.

But if you ask a teacher how much time testing and test prep really takes from their teaching, you won’t hear 2%. If we’re being honest, at a typical school- without a strong opt out culture- testing takes around 60% percent of instructional time. If we were to talk about student learning time- including homework and weekend test prep boot camps, that number would go even higher. And then if you consider that nowadays, art teachers, PE teachers, science teachers and early childhood teachers are often asked to integrate the language and values of tests into their teaching every day, the number rises again. I would put my money on this statistic: In most schools,  75% of all learning time is devoted to, guided by, or limited by testing.

If we’re being real, bringing that percentage down to 1 or 2% means tossing out the the whole system. Testing will never occupy such a small portion of the school year when test scores are tied to teacher evaluations and student promotion and the tests themselves are wholly inappropriate. So, please, powerful people out there, either stop pandering to voters with these mythical tiny percentages or actually do something to fix the system you destroyed.

WaPo article on testing time in schools