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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

A Child Opts Out

Yesterday was the first day of the state ELA test. I spent the morning in Pre-k with one 3rd grader who is opting out. Because of his struggles with attention, sitting still for two hours filling in multiple choice bubbles would have been torturous for him. Even so, he was a little embarrassed at first to have to hang out with the little kids while his peers were testing.

But that soon changed.

In pre-k, much of the day is spent in centers. Children choose what to do and who to play or work with and their options are multi-sensory, open ended and creative. Because of this, our pre-k classrooms are a learning wonderland. The kids are excited about everything- reading, building, sensory explorations, art, animals, singing, exploring shapes and counting at their “numberland” math center. Not only do they have agency over what and how they learn, but also, time in every day is devoted to cultivating valuable social-emotional skills. Which makes for some happy kids. So happy and motivated that they are  veritable learning sponges- absorbing and practicing new skills at an amazing rate.

So what did this third grader choose to do in Pre-k? He helped some students build a tall tower and explained to them how to make it sturdy.  Then, he observed bee and butterfly specimens and played with bug puppets.  I listened as he played and overheard a pretty high level conversation about insect bodies and how pollination works, reminding me that young children need time to internalize new concepts through play.

When it was time to go back upstairs to third grade he left reluctantly and said, “I wish third grade was more like pre-k. ”

Me too.

This is why we should all opt out. Because he’s right. 8 year olds also need play. They also need sensory experiences.  They also need choice. They need so much more than we are giving them. All kids, not just 4 year olds, deserve to be happy, motivated and engaged in developmentally appropriate learning.

 

 

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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Remember Class Size?

School districts don’t want small classes because that means more teachers, more space, and of course, more money.  Funding in public schools in in short supply these days between sky high consultant fees, expensive test prep programs and deliberate underfunding by state officials, so class size has slipped out of the conversation.

Moreover, for  top down reformer zealots, large class sizes are a-ok because they fit right in with military style, teacher centered classrooms in which students passively recite, chant and fill out the latest quiz.

Small classes, on the other hand, allow teachers to foster independence, freedom, community, and trust- all hallmarks of progressive education. In this way, class size has the power to shape the way we teach and the culture of our classrooms.

We educators know that authentic, meaningful teaching and learning happens in small communities of learners that know each other very well, in communities in which every child can feel heard, in which students can explore and experiment, and in which children can make decisions for themselves.

I see the difference class size can make every day. Last year, the first grade  classes at my school had between 18-22 students. We had a fabulous year. We were able to get messy and do amazing things. We built towers out of recycled materials,  we mixed liquids and made slime, we created animal puppets, we planted seeds in the school garden and designed roller coaster tracks for marbles.

This year, I am teaching many of the same students and I want everything we do to be as fun, hands-on and child friendly. The thing is, this year, the second grade classes all have between 27 and 30 students.  The difference is palpable. What felt calm now feels chaotic, and what felt manageable now feels utterly exhausting. Just getting through a greeting or transition takes an extraordinary amount of strategic management.

And the kids are suffering. Students who made tremendous progress last year are now falling behind, because in a class of 30, teachers don’t get to work with every student daily, or even weekly. Similarly, students with learning disabilities who were able to shine and fully participate last year are now struggling because there are so many more distractions around them. Because of these larger classes, many teachers  are trying autocratic management strategies like class dojo or forgoing hands on activities. I also know that some teachers are reluctant to go on trips because their classes are so big.

What’s more, 30 students puts quite a bit of pressure on space and materials.  30 little bodies doing hands-on exploration or experiments is very different than 20. For 30 kids to be able to all work together and do meaningful, multi-sensory, student driven work, you need children with exceptional self control, lots of space, extra funding for materials, and lots and lots of clean up time.

With 6 and 7 year olds, exceptional self control is hard to come by. Which is why I’m coming to the conclusion that large class sizes in early childhood are simply not developmentally appropriate. It is just too much. Too much distraction, too many bodies, too many materials, too many needs, and too many voices that don’t get heard. There is a reason class sizes in private schools are almost always no more than 20.

I know I’ll make it work this year with a combination of patience, station teaching, donors choose and lots of practice, and so will the fantastic teachers I work with each day.  But in the meantime, some of these kids are missing out and no amount of fancy new curricula,  consultant visits or new mandates from on high are going to help them. What they need is teachers- empowered, creative and nurturing teachers with enough time and resources to help every child thrive.

 

 

 

 

Why do teachers give students numbers?

“I don’t understand why so many of you cannot remember your student number.”

I heard this in a 3rd grade classroom last week in school. More and more teachers I know are assigning students individual numbers. I don’t understand it. Is this a charter school thing? If someone out there can explain the advantages of referring to students by number rather than name to me, please do. Especially considering that giving students numbers seems oddly mechanical and is certainly dehumanizing.

I even know kindergarten teachers who call students to line up or come into the room by number. Of course the 5 year olds sometimes forget to respond to their numbers, which leads to disapproving  chastisements from their teachers. Personally, I think getting mad at a 5 year old for forgetting to respond to a number is not only inappropriate, but also, a waste of energy.

Imagine if you went to work every day and your supervisors referred to you by number.” Number 14, 15, and 16 come to my office.” I know I would never choose to work in an environment like that.

Even if it helps teachers stay slightly more organized, what is numbering teaching students about how to treat others and how we view them as individuals? Is it so hard to label your files and checklists by name each year? It’s the kids we should be worried about, each and every one with their own unique names and needs, not  how easy it is to keep track of our spreadsheets and student data.

Report Cards Should be About Kids Not Data

Did you know that for the New York City report cards you can enter a comment code in lieu of an actual personalized comment?

These codes are aligned to the comment core and produce comments like the following:

“Struggles to meet deadlines”

“Low scores on assessments”

“Requires academic assistance”

“Demonstrates satisfactory skill in analyzing, interpreting and evaluating master works and own works of art”

“Far below standards in following a standard format for citations”

These are options for a first grade report card. If my first grader was sent home with comments like this I would storm the school. While comment codes may be good for aggregating data, they are not necessarily good for children. Some of these comments are so clearly impersonal and inappropriate that they either fail to communicate anything useful or they serve only make children feel bad for not meeting expectations that are unreasonable to begin with.

Teaching is a human act. It is a process of forming and building learning relationships. At no point should selecting from a drop down menu be part of how we communicate with students and families. Especially with choices like these. We are not robots.

Class Dojo and Other Ways We’re Preparing our Children to Live in a Surveillance State

I hate class dojo. I hate it and all the other apps, and monitoring systems, and zero tolerance policies and discipline ladders- they all make me queasy.

For the uninitiated, Class Dojo is an app that teachers can use to monitor student behavior through a point and demerit system. Parents get notified daily with how many points students earned throughout the day and for what. And yes, many teachers were doing this same thing before the app, and I too have concocted incentives and point earning systems out of desperation. But I knew then and certainly know now that that was not good teaching. And now Class Dojo is rampant and it all makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Why?

Well first off, we’re quantifying behaviors and habits of mind that really can’t be quantified- yet another way we’re turning our children into data that is often meaningless but can still follow them forever.  And of course, there are many privacy issues when data about a young child is tracked by a large tech company and made public to an entire class, often without parental consent.

Second, fear should not be a daily teaching strategy, neither should complete surveillance and disempowerment. Children will not learn to be good, thoughtful, creative and critical people by getting negative points when they talk out of turn or fidget in their chairs. Instead of empowering children to make choices, instead of creating community and building trust, all of these apps and systems shift the emphasis away from the children toward teacher centered control, as if control= learning.

Although organization, clear expectations, and routines are a part of learning, controlling children is not the same as teaching them. So many of us, especially Reformers, buy in to the myth that the quietest classroom is the best- even though deep down we know and research has shown that that is FALSE. Rather, real learning is noisy, messy,playful, circuitous, involves mistakes and is highly social. Keeping kids quiet and sitting still does not equal good teaching, nor does it actually give students practice with authentic self control and compassion- which are the real end goals of behavior management.

Being scared into silence does not breed empathy, nor does constant monitoring from above. When these kids graduate from high school, is there going to be someone to monitor their every choice? Who will give and take away their points? Who is taking away points after school? We need students to be self aware, to self monitor their actions, to be reflective, to understand that they have a role in a community which comes with certain considerations and responsibilities- that they have a responsibility to themselves. We want them to be engaged, to love learning, and to be motivated to learn from something deeper than a desire to hear an app ping.  Control via app is not engagement and it is not learning.

What’s more, the worst thing about class dojo is that it is often public- students are getting points removed or earned in front of a whole class. All that teaches is shame and resentment, two feelings already enjoying a renaissance in public schools thanks to the culture of education reform and high stakes testing.

It makes me queasy every time I hear another teacher tell me they are trying class dojo, because it “works.” If by “works”, you mean that your students are quiet, maybe it does. But are they engaged? Are they empowered? And most important, what exactly are they learning? If children learn by doing, all they learn from Class Dojo is fear and obedience, two qualities valued by the powerful and useless to everyone else.

And that is why, I will never, ever, ever use class Dojo.

…. the NY Times seems to agree with me Class Dojo Times,

and Alfie Kohn : “This is just a flashy digital update of programs that have long been used to treat children like pets, bribing or threatening them into compliance,”

Homework: To Give or Not to Give?

Research has shown that homework has no academic benefit for elementary school students, plus parents and kids hate it. So why are our kids saddled with up to an hour a night starting as early as kindergarten?

This is just another example of knowing how children actually learn but ignoring what we know. On the very first day of school last week, students at my school were sent home with pages of math drills.  Some argue this teaches responsibility, and yes remembering to bring something back to school in the morning does require a degree of executive functioning skill. But aren’t there better, more meaningful ways to teach responsibility?

Learning should continue at home, but as reading, drawing, playing, building, exploring outside and talking. Instead of homework, let’s provide high quality after school programs and send every kid home with a lego set, books and a big box of crayons every September. For once, let’s listen to the research and do what we know is right for kids.  Let’s give less homework this year.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-10-24/study-finds-homework-has-limited-value/4330514

http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/rethinking-homework/