Sunday, April 26, 2015

"I Cried" by Robyn Brydalski

This post is from my friend and fellow teacher Robyn Brydalski.  Robyn teaches 3rd grade at the same school where I teach.  She is an outstanding educator.  Here are her words... right from her heart:

I cried today. Tears streamed down my face as I entered the sterile hallway to walk the dreaded tests to the secure return location. I cried for my students. For three solid days and over two hundred minutes, these bright eyed eight year olds gave it their all.

I cried for the teaching profession. In the fifteen years I have dedicated to this profession I have experienced many changes to curriculum, grading and assessing, but never in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined education could have evolved to this current state of disorder.

I cried tears of anger because had I been given the professional trust and freedom to implement units and lessons of days gone by, my students would have been far better prepared for the impossible tasks they were expected to complete this week. My Language Arts program would have incorporated a variety of genres and author studies, multiple ways to respond to reading, guided reading, Readers Theater and lessons designed on (gasp) student interests, all while interconnecting the arts, music and theater into a well-rounded learning experience.

I complied with district and state expectations by teaching a scripted module. These modules were supposed to prepare our students for the test. The over 50% focus on non-fiction text would better prepare our students for their futures. The scripted lessons were to create cohesiveness among a grade level, a district and a state. Instead, it set us further behind. NYSED knew exactly what it was doing when it presented ENGAGENY’s modules to districts. The modules that were written because of the Common Core would be a perfect, inexpensive way to cover our bases. We all ate the forbidden fruit and now we will suffer the consequences.

My blood boiled and anger seethed from the deepest parts of my heart when I saw the confusing passages and misleading questions. This test played on an eight year old mind taking advantage of these literal thinkers full knowing, on their own, very few students would be able to analyze, synthesize and evaluate an author’s message. The sheer volume of passages was exhausting. One of my brightest students was so confused by a question that she shut down and gave up. She looked at me and said, “I’m just stupid, I guess.” She is eight years old. No eight year old deserves to feel this way.

I cried tears of pain when many of my students looked to me for guidance and clarification. I encouraged them but I knew without a teacher guiding them, they would not be successful with the expected question and my students knew this. How is this right? How is this just? How is this a true measure of good teaching? My students persevered through day one, toughed it out for day two but by day three could not demonstrate any evidence of learning. They were academically beat, physically exhausted and morally defeated.

I am surrounded by amazing teachers who give their hearts and souls to this profession. These veteran teachers are the backbone of every building. They lead, they share, they guide, they teach and they love their students.

My final tear shed today was because I did a disservice to my students. Our children deserve only the best educational experiences. These tests will never show the tremendous strides each child can make over ten months.

It is with Robyn's permission that I share her words. 

Fighting for Finn

One Saturday morning I had the privilege of spending time with my three-year-old nephew, Finn.  Finn and I headed off to the “train store” which is really our local Barnes & Noble. For a good hour I watched him play with the trains, play with the Legos, listen to a story and look at books. He's a really independent little guy. He has an unbelievable spirit. He talks to everyone and he is quick to introduce himself. He kept up a running chatter the entire time were together, narrating and commenting on everything around us.

As I sat and watched him, I thought about all the things are going on today in education and how sometimes I am so upset I feel like I'm screaming inside my head. I thought about how I'm so angry at what's happening. I thought about why.  And I thought about my own kids. I thought about what is happening to them in this age of “reformy” education.

My son is almost 18 years old.   He will be out of high school in a few short months and for the most part, he will have escaped Common Core. He will get out just in time, although he is not unscathed. For you see he grew up during NCLB, which means that over the years the curriculum has become narrower and narrower due to the regulations, initiatives and budget cuts. Throughout his entire educational experience, the focus has been on ELA and Math and, as a result, he doesn't really see much beyond that. We have talked about college but he doesn't see that there is nobility and success in learning a trade.  In reality, he has not been exposed to anything other than reading and writing and math. Sure, there's some history and science in there but everything involves reading and writing. Even his gym class and his art classes have involved reading and writing. And while that's not a bad thing, in some ways it hasn't been a good thing either.

My daughter is 14. Because I am so enraged what is happening in education, my response has been to remove her from public school and enroll her in a private all-girls Catholic School.   I am hoping the private school experience will help mitigate some of the effects of common core.  There's nothing like a group of nuns to ensure excellence in education I guess. At least I hope so. However, her educational experience is even narrower than her brother’s as she is just that much younger. With the focus so heavily on non-fiction and on “rigor”, there is less opportunity for her to be as creative as she is naturally.  You see, my daughter is a poet, she's an artist and she expresses herself in ways that do not play well on standardized tests or really any tests for that matter. My daughter has a different way of looking at the world.  She is not a kid who performs well on tests although she is super smart and gets good grades. She works hard and I hate to see what common core is doing to her.  It's going to suck the love of learning out of her and that is so sad.

So, back to this morning, sitting and playing trains with my nephew.  Finn personalizes this fight for better education for me. Because he is four, if Common Core is allowed to continue he will be the one who is most affected by it. He makes this personal for me. Finn has a spirit like no other kid I've seen and common core will make his educational experience at best, boring for him. At worst, it will make it painful. Finn is not the kind of child who will be able to deal with the rigor of Common Core (read: sit silently and do worksheets). Finn is a boy. He's ALL boy. Finn experiences the world physically.  He likes to dance his way through his day. Finn will not do well with common core. It will take his learning down to such a narrow scope that it saddens me. 

So, it is for Finn that I fight. It is for Finn that I want to see education be developmentally appropriate and creative and diverse. It is for Finn, that I don’t want education to be common.  It is for Finn that I want to see the world be a better place. Because no one should have creativity stifled or their spirit quelled. No one should have to do an art project and then write an essay about it.  No child should have to read an essay with no background knowledge and then try to figure it out what it means. No eight-year-old should have to sit for 90 minutes at a time doing a test that means nothing to him or her. No six-year-old should have to practice filling in bubbles. No 13-year-old should have to read the same literature passage over and over and over again line-by-line for no reason. That's not reading. That's not writing. That's not learning. I'm sure that everyone has a little Finn in their life or at least I hope they do. And for that reason alone everyone should get educated about what's going on, get informed and start fighting back. Americans are complacent in a lot of ways. We have short attention spans and the news cycle is very short. We believe a lot of what we read and a lot of what we see. And we don't stand up, at least not for long. But we can't afford to be complacent here, as the so-called “reformers” are counting on that. They are counting on the fact that we will get bored or that we won't inform ourselves and we won't keep up the fight long enough. They think we are going to get bored and go away. 

Guess what?  I'm not going away, I'm not going to stop fighting. I'm not going to back down. I’m staying strong.  For Finn.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Grit & Rigor

The past two days have caused me to reflect on my own experience in Elementary School.  I realized that after all this time, I remember very little of the content I was taught.  What I do remember is some of the teachers that touched my life by helping me develop the love of reading and encouraging my curiosity and thirst for knowledge, both of which are still a strong part of my life today.  I don't remember learning to write paragraphs, opinion pieces or narratives in the primary grades, but I do remember practicing my handwriting and being very proud when my penmanship was praised.  I learned early on that the first step to becoming a writer was to learn to be legible so others could read what I wrote.  I recall reading insatiably and being allowed to "work" in the library shelving books as a reward for my good grades and behavior.  

As I sat in, yet another, meeting where teachers are treated as children and more and more regulations, initiative and procedures are handed down to us as though our years of experience and master's degrees mean nothing, I thought of how we are truly doing the profession and our students a grave disservice.  The words "grit","rigor","college and career ready" and "learning targets" are thrown around like they are the most important adjectives ever.  In reality, why is it so important to be college and career ready?  What about beyond college?  How about life outside a career?  Why aren't we preparing our students to be citizens of this world (not global economy) by giving them time to be children, learn to share, take turns, take pride in neat handwriting, love to read and learn to always be curious and kind?  How can they learn to be compassionate, empathetic, charitable and giving if most of what they read and write is informational?  How can they learn to be kind souls if they are not given opportunities to interact in an unstructured way?

These thoughts were all intensified today around 1:00 p.m. when one of our butterflies emerged from one of the 5 chrysalids in the habitat in our classroom.  The kids were super excited by this and were fascinated to watch the Painted Lady dry her wings and attempt to fly for the first time.  Obviously, my lesson plans for the afternoon were tossed out and we used the opportunity to watch the wonders of nature before our very eyes.  Unable to choral them back into the math lesson, I quickly decided to give them some much desired "free time".  My one little guy who is an English Language Learner (his family moved here from Jordan about 1 1/2 years ago) wanted me to teach him how to play checkers.  I soon realized that not one of my kids knew how to play the game so we formed teams with me helping and teaching them the strategy of the game.  I find it amazing to think that none of these children know how to play board games, but I really should not be so surprised.  Who has time for that anymore in this age of "grit" and "rigor" and "playdates" and afterschool organized sports and classes?  The hardest part of the game for my students was learning to take turns and wait for the other team to decide on a move and execute it because they are so used to being "self-directed" (another of my hated buzzwords).

At the end of the day, I am going to continue to do my job to the best of my ability, including teaching my little ones to be curious, love books, be amazed at the wonders of nature, learn to take turns, accept each others' differences, share and be kind souls.  None of them will remember that I taught them to add and subtract or that we wrote paragraphs and "identified the main idea and key details" of a story.  Hopefully, they will look back someday and vaguely remember that they learned to love reading and books, played checkers, had Lunch Bunch and danced to "Happy" by Pharrell Williams on Fridays.  If they are kind souls and good citizens, whether they go to college or not, well, then I did my job.

(Un) Intended Consequences

(Un)Intended Consequences

Today was the first day of the NYS ELA tests.  I must state right from the outset that my students do not take these tests.  Not yet.  But in two short years, they will.  And yet, these tests had an effect on my students today and will continue to do so in the days to come.  You see, these tests have a ripple effect.  The immediate effect is that my students who receive services such as reading and resource will not receive these services for the next TWO WEEKS since the teachers who provide these services are proctoring the state tests.  They will also lose services when some of these same teachers are pulled out to score the tests in the subsequent weeks. (They will lose out again when we begin the SLO testing in May, but that is for another post).  The longer term effects are more devastating.  You see, their education has been hijacked by these tests.  Although my "Firsties" are not taking these tests yet, they are preparing for them and will continue to do so throughout their Elementary years. 

When I started teaching oh so many years ago, we focused on thematic instruction and integrating all subject areas so that our students had opportunities to make connections.  We taught in ways that honored many learning styles, student's individual differences and developmental stages, along with their individual needs.  We understood (and still do) that each child has different intelligences and learning styles.  My walls and windows of my classroom were covered with songs and poems, student artwork and artifacts of student learning.  My little ones sang and read and played.  We taught using literature with rich language and focused on building background knowledge.  Children were encouraged to synthesize knowledge and draw conclusions using what they knew and what they were learning.  We used a tremendous amount of glitter and paper and encouraged children to express themselves in ways that played to their strengths.  We did projects and had lots of hands-on learning with manipulatives.  I assessed through observation and working directly with students.

Over the years, we have had to move away from what we know is right for kids to what we are told we must do in order to prepare students for the tests.  At first, teachers knew that we could use those tests to help identify areas where students needed further instruction and where we could improve our teaching.  We accepted that our 4th and 8th grade students would be tested and we knew how to prepare them.  We focused on those areas and we saw growth.  We didn't like "No Child Left Behind" but we could work within it.  Fast forward to "Race To The Top" and Common Core and the use of the tests to evaluate teachers.  Without going into all that is wrong with this, let me just say how it has effected my little ones:  My walls are no longer covered with songs and poems and artwork.  That has been replaced with "anchor charts", "I can statements" and "Learning targets".  We barely use construction paper and I have not purchased glitter in 3 years.  There is no time for art projects or creative expression.  Children can no longer choose their learning.  They write to prompts and must write different genres at certain times.  Math is done on paper and manipulatives are few and far between (except when I pull out the old stuff).  Reading is "close reading" and answers to questions are to be solely based on the text, without synthesis of prior knowledge.  Assessment is daily and must be documented along with being scripted (because Big Brother is watching).  Modules are scripted, teacher led and boring for little ones.  We have to have 50% of text presented as informational text.  Students have to write essays before they even have automaticity of letter formation.  ALL THIS IS DONE SO THEY CAN PREP FOR THE TESTS.  My students will take keyboarding in 3rd grade so they can take the tests online...BEFORE SOME OF THEM EVEN HAVE THE PHYSICAL HAND SPAN TO USE A KEYBOARD. 

Our littlest learners are preparing for these tests as soon as they enter school.  We know that.  We know that our colleagues in grades 3-8 depend on us to lay the foundation.  We know that our little ones are being used as weapons to help destroy public education.  We know that they cannot possibly do well on these tests as they are written 2-3 grade levels above their current grade level and that an arbitrary "cut score" will be determined AFTER the tests are scored to manipulate the data.  We know that we cannot discuss these tests and that they cannot be used to inform instruction nor to inform us of our students' progress.  These tests are solely being used to create false data about our students and our schools.  They are being used to make our public schools look as though they are "failing" and that our teachers are incompetent.  They are creating a pressure cooker atmosphere. 

Our Bully of a governor wants to turn our public schools into For-profit Charter schools (which are little more than test prep factories that do NOT have transparency of finances). He is beholden to his hedge fund donors and his big $ donors. In addition, he has publicly stated that he wants to break the teacher's union.  Our children's education has been hijacked.  Our teachers are being abused by an agenda that puts money over what is right for kids.  Our society's future is being manipulated to create a country where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, both in terms of dollars and education and opportunities.  The simple fact that the private schools where the children of the elite attend do not have to participate in these tests or this curriculum, is very telling. 

Today's refusal numbers are encouraging.  This is a lesson in civil rights and civil disobedience.  We are teaching our children that they have a way of changing what is wrong in our government and our society through nonviolent means.  We are teaching them that they have a voice.  We are showing them that we can all create change.  We are also showing them how to stand up to Bullies.  And THAT is a great lesson that no amount of test prep can compare to. 

Update:  This post was reblogged on Diane Ravitch

Stay in the Fight

Today was the final day of the NYS ELA and Math tests.  As a first grade teacher, I was not privy to the tests so I only have 2nd and 3rd hand information to go on.  From what I heard, the tests were confusing, way too long, pointless at times, included topics that were above the maturity level of students, contained reading passages that were several grade levels above and contained errors. 

The conclusion of the NYS tests doesn’t bring an end to our mission as teachers and advocates for children.  We need to continue to bring to light what is happening in education.  The tests are just one piece of the War on Public Education.  For three years, we have seen the mess that Pearson and NY State Ed have made of assessment.  We know the EngageNY modules are poorly written and flawed.  We know that the CCSS are not developmentally appropriate and that they were not written by educators, not field-tested and are a thinly veiled attempt to gain federal control of education while making huge profits for big business.  We also know that it is our children and the teachers who dedicate their lives to educating our children are the ones who are taking the brunt of this attack on public education.  

NYS has a $32 million contract with Pearson and this is the third year in a row that the tests were a general hot mess.  Sad.  What a waste of money that could have gone into helping children rather than punishing them and their teachers.  Think of what that money could have done for our public schools and our students:  books, teaching materials, Academic Intervention Services providers, smaller class sizes, enrichment, equipment, and on and on.  Instead, NYSED chose to give that money to a gigantic publishing company that makes crappy tests that make our kids and our teachers and our schools look as though they are failing.  It is like we are teaching with a blindfold on and our hands tied behind our backs and then asked to somehow hit a moving target. 

This is not even the end of the testing frenzy.  In the next few weeks our students have to participate in the “local measures” of assessment.  These tests are taken online and teachers do not know what will be on the tests.  They contain moving benchmarks that we do not know about and were somehow supposed to magically predict back in October using advanced reasoning skills and data (think Crystal Ball and a Pin the Score on the Student Game).  These tests, along with the NYS tests are a significant portion of our yearly review, and in the upcoming year will weigh even more heavily.  As teachers, we know that this doesn’t really mean anything because we know that what we do can’t actually be quantified.  However, as teachers, we want to get that elusive high score and be considered “highly qualified”.  That’s why we are teachers.  If we weren’t highly qualified, we wouldn’t be doing what we do.

To say that we aren’t all feeling the stress is an understatement.  We all are.  The teachers are stressed.  The kids are stressed.  Teachers are tired and are working overtime to accomplish the impossible.  The expectations are unrealistic.  The kids are frustrated and acting out.  Nobody is happy.  Everyone is clawing their way to the finish line.  I am watching it and living it all at the same time.  And it is breaking my heart.  I miss the joy of first grade.  I miss the play and the fun.  I miss the feeling of knowing that my students are growing just as they should.  With the new standards and district expectations, children who would have been considered at grade level just a few years ago are now considered below grade level, even though they have come so far.  Instead of celebrating growth in our children, we are wondering why they are not reaching the arbitrary and unrealistic goals that someone (not a teacher) set.  Administrators are concerned that so many children are "below grade level".  Fingers are being pointed, just not in the right direction.    

To those of you who are fighting, please keep up the fight.  The tests may be over, but the real battle has begun.  To those on the fence, now is the time to take a side and jump in.  To those who think that this does not affect you… it does.  If we lose our public schools and our gifted and dedicated teachers, we lose one of the essential elements of what makes our society so wonderful and diverse.  If we lose the creativity and uniqueness of our children and our future generations in an attempt to make us all “Common”, we all lose.  I, for one, intend to continue to fight for public education, for teachers and for children.  I believe our future depends on it.

#evaluate that

This morning, I went to school. Notice I say “I went to school”, not “I went to work”. I rarely say, “I went/go to work”. I go to school. I go to school because I am a learner. I learn something new every day. I go to school, where I am a teacher, a learner, a helper, a coach, a guide, a supporter, a role model, a symbol of security and yes, a mother. I help my children to learn. And yes, they are my children. I never say, “They are my students”. They are my children. From the moment they enter my classroom, they are my children… even when they come back 20 years later. They are my kids. I help them, love them, guide them, coach them, cheer them, encourage them, and correct them. They are my children.

Today, in our classroom, we learned about the importance of water on our planet, we learned how to access information online (Thanks Jill!), we learned about fractions and symmetry, we learned about being kind to each other, we learned to accept differences and we learned about being 6. Today, we read, we wrote, we danced and we played. We learned. Today, 16 of 18 students that came to school today, chose “Lunch Bunch” (Lunch with me) over any other prize on the cart or in the room. Today, we put on Pharell Williams and danced for 4 and half minutes straight to “Happy” just because we are kids. Today we had “free time” During that time, 2 of my boys wrote a story because “We are GREAT writers”, my ELL student practiced telling time, my speech student practiced her sounds with my phonics cards and other students either “played school” or read to each other. Today we were a family.

My children are more than a score. They are more than a number on a test. They are more than what a test can evaluate. Honestly, I could care less if they can “close read” or “use multiple strategies to add or subtract”. I am growing people here. What teachers do is so complex; it cannot be quantified into a number. Neither can people, especially children.

At the end of every day, I take my “walkers” to their parents and then walk back down the hall to my bus line. I am always in awe of the amount of children coming down the hall. There are literally hundreds of them. Usually there are less than 50 adults to monitor what is happening. Children are laughing and happy. Parents have entrusted their children to us. It is awe-inspiring. THEY ENTRUSTED THEIR BABIES TO US. And those babies are growing. They may not be growing as fast or in the way NYS would like them to, but they ARE GROWING. It is amazing. We are growing people. Not numbers. Not test scores. Not data points. If that is not humbling, then I don’t know what is.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Stand up. Speak Out. Fight Back

I know I have flooded my friends' facebook newsfeed with many articles and links about Common Core and Standardized Testing. I'm sure I have worn out my welcome with many of you. However, I must say that this is an issue that I feel very passionate about. I entered teaching in my mid-late 20's after working in a few other professions (retail, volunteer coordinator, restaurant, etc). I was passionate about my "calling" as I felt that I was meant to be a teacher. 

My first years were spent in Second Grade and then I was placed in a First Grade. I have made First Grade my home since 1996. In the 18+ years that I have taught First grade, I have seen many changes. Early on, we taught Whole Language, then came a more balanced thematic approach. My students and I explored learning through themes, hands-on activities, and play balanced with developmentally appropriate school assignments and a lot of joy. 

Then came NCLB. That seemed more targeted to 4th-8th grade and still we enjoyed learning and creating in a developmentally appropriate way. We used reams of construction paper, gallons of paint and glue, glitter, paper with red & blue lines so we knew where to write, sentence strips, big books, and free play. NCLB demanded "disaggregation" of scores and we had literacy blocks and math blocks and writing workshops. And yet, we played on and learned and laughed and smiled. First grade was fun and I loved everyday of my job. 

Next came Race to the Top... also known as NCLB on steroids. And curriculum became more and more demanding. Free play was now only 3 days a week, student behaviors became more challenging as developmentally inappropriate demands and expectations were placed on my students by people who had no business writing curriculum, standards and policies. 

Now, we have APPR, which ties students scores to teacher evaluations, developmentally inappropriate curriculum and expectations, multi-lingual classrooms, high poverty rates and stressed out kids and teachers. I no longer go through reams of construction paper as there is no time for crafts. I haven't bought glitter in 3 years, nor glitter glue. My first graders are expected to write essays that support their opinions (without handwriting instruction -- no time for that), create research projects and work out complicated word problems. I spend hours searching the internet for activities that align to common core that will bridge the gap between the outrageous garbage that is EngageNY and CC and what I know works with kids. Free play is once a week on a Friday afternoon. Everyday, we try to find moments of joy (cosmic yoga, 30 second dance parties, funny stories in place of non-fiction text...shhhh... don't tell). 

And what is the point of this rant, you ask? The point is that our Federal Gov't and State Gov't and Big Corporations (Pearson, Microsoft, Wal-mart, et al) are systematically destroying public education. And we are letting them. By being silent, we are being complacent. By not fighting back, we are allowing them to dismantle one of the best things about our country... Public education for all children. We are allowing them to destroy childhood by not valuing developmentally appropriate instruction and expectations. So even if you don't have children in school, please take the time to read and to become aware of what is happening in our country. It is not on the news. The propaganda is strong, so don't be swayed. STAND UP. SPEAK OUT. FIGHT BACK. For our children and our childrens' children. Thank you.