Sunday, May 29, 2016

Ready or Not

As a result of love and possible lunacy, I am blessed with five children.  Two, a son and a daughter, are mine by birth.  Three stepdaughters are mine by marriage.   They range in age from 15-25 and in heights from 4’10’ to 6’2”, with the youngest two, ironically being the tallest.  All are very unique in personality, accomplishments, talents and interests.  As a result of the ages, we are beyond the stage of club sports, music lessons and school productions.  We are in the Age of Ceremonies now.  Every May/June finds us traveling to or planning a celebration of one kind or another.  Time is now marked by Commencements rather than tournaments or banquets.

Just last week, I attended the most recent of our Ceremonies.  This one was held in Boston, Massachusetts at none other than the oldest and most prestigious College in the country.  We went to Harvard to attend one of our daughters’ Commissioning and then Commencement ceremonies.  As a side note, I have noticed that the higher the cost of tuition, the more ceremonies are performed upon graduation.  I guess College administrators want to make sure we get our money’s worth! Thus, these events are often 2-3 day affairs.  As I sat through the reading of the names of the graduates on a very warm and sunny Thursday early afternoon, I thought about what makes a child “College and Career Ready”.  How were these bright, young adults considered ready to enter the “Real World”?  Are they truly “Career Ready”? Some of them definitely are.   Others will find that they are not and will retreat back into academia to pursue further education and stave off entering the responsibilities that come with adulthood.  Still others will forge forward only to wake up one day and ask themselves “How did I get here?”

This group of bright young minds were the last of the students who left high school before Common Core made its way forward.  Without the current curriculum and tests, how was it determined that these students were ready to enter college and careers?  I can only assume that potential school admissions officers and employers had to make that determination based on grades that were awarded on teacher made tests (Oh the horror!), teacher recommendations and involvement in clubs and activities.  Without the Pearson made tests, I can only guess by the number of outstanding youths, that this must have been an arduous task. 

Is a test or series of tests a true indicator of how College and Career Ready a student is?  I would argue that there is no way a test can predict something as esoteric as that.  As a parent of five, I can’t give much credence to it either.  College and career readiness is so much more than academic knowledge or the ability to perform well on a test.  To be truly ready for College and/or a career, one must possess a certain amount of maturity to be able to confidently handle the challenges of both situations.  Academic knowledge does not always indicate maturity and vice versa.  What determines success for one child is completely different than what determines success for another.  Studies are already showing that the tests that former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan lent so much credence to are failing to show validity.  In short, these outrageously expensive assessments aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. 

I don’t need a test to tell me if my children are College and Career ready.  I already know that.  One of mine is struggling his way into adulthood.  He is a great test taker but a poor student, a good employee but hates work.  He needs much more maturity before he will be ready to truly take on college or a career.  My other one is pole vaulting ahead with maturity.  She’s an excellent student, but performs marginally on standardized tests.  When it comes time to apply to college, our biggest obstacle will be distance as she is a homebody.  However, she will be ready to go to college and it will be bittersweet for us both.

With each class of students that I educate, I like to imagine where they will be when they reach adulthood.  I often wish I had a crystal ball so I could look ahead and see if my predictions were accurate.  I imagine them as architects, doctors, teachers, stylists, chefs, movie stars, writers, painters, mothers and more.  I like to think that they will all be happy in their chosen paths, even as I am fully aware that some will encounter obstacles too great to overcome.  This generation, the Children of the Core, I believe, will have to come to terms with what Education Reformers has stolen from them.  They will have to overcome the impulse to give the “right answer” to questions posed.  They will have to search deeply to find creativity and innovation.  They will have to learn to question and demand more for their own children.

Out of my own five children, four of them have escaped the Core.  The youngest is on the fringe.  It is with constant vigilance that I work to protect her from the damage done through close reading and the emphasis on informational text rather than quality literature.  Through encouragement, she is exploring her own natural artistic talents rather than being pulled into the demand of STEM curriculum.  She will be college and career ready in spite of the Common Core and the invalid and unreliable tests. 

Administrators love to throw around the words, College and Career Ready as though it is something that should be hallowed.  When teachers question the curriculum, the tests and the standards, we are met with an incredulous look and an accusatory remark, i.e. “Don’t you believe in high standards?” or “How could you not want our students to be college and career ready?” as though we teachers actually strive for mediocrity in our students.  Personally, I do not believe in putting the responsibility for making a child “College and Career Ready” on teachers or on students, especially in Elementary School.  That responsibility belongs elsewhere.  As a parent, it is my responsibility to ensure that my children are ready for what adulthood, college and careers bring to my children.  I don’t place that responsibility on my children’s teachers.  It is their responsibility to give them a broad based education, spark their curiosity and encourage their talents.  It is mine to ensure they are ready to face the challenges that will come with time and experience. 

As our children go forward into the world and the Age of Ceremonies evolves from Commencements into Marriages and Baptisms, and celebrations move from parties and into showers, there will be no tests to determine readiness, only Life.  No test can prepare them for that which truly matters.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Out of Context

Writers and readers love words.  We collect them. We hoard them.  We savor them on our tongues. We dole them out like tiny treasures.  While I have always viewed myself as a reader, I have never viewed myself as a writer.   A few short years ago, I took a class on teaching writing from a gifted teacher and poet.  At the beginning of the course, she handed out paper and told us to write for fifteen minutes.  Truly, it was the longest fifteen minutes of my life.  I told her that I could not write.  I stated that I was there to learn to teach writing, not to learn how to write.  She was wonderful and by the end of the course, I felt that I had made a new friend.  She gently encouraged me to try writing on my own.  For the first time, I started to understand the connection between being a writer and teaching writing.  When my first piece of writing was published I sent it to her immediately.  I was so excited and proud to share it with her.

Since then, I have started to write in earnest.  I find it cathartic.  I write and revise often.  I choose words carefully knowing that my words are being read by others.  Often when a blog post is finished, I feel exhausted, drained and exhilarated all at the same time.  Publishing a blog post feels a bit like watching your child hop on the bus for Kindergarten for the first time.  You are thrilled to see them go, but sad at the same time because you realize that a little piece of your heart just went with them.  As a teacher, every day I pour my heart and soul into my classroom. When the frustrations or the joy spills over, it often ends up becoming a piece of writing.  Teaching writing to my students has become better as a result.  I understand their challenges and accomplishments on a different level.

Teachers know the power of words.  We know that our choice of words and our tone can have tremendous impact.  We know how important it is to verbally praise a child, choosing words that will create lasting change.  Teaching children to write as a form of self-expression is crucial to their success in school.  We instruct vocabulary to help increase and expand a child's language.  Lessons on word choice and contextual framework are integral parts of writing instruction.  Additionally, Teachers understand that our words are often used by children as they play, experiment with writing and converse with others.

However, as I am learning, once you publish your words, they are no longer your own.  Adversaries attempt to parse your words, turning and twisting them, taking them out of context as a strategy to embarrass, control or silence the writer.  Those same words, meant to convey a message of hope or joy or awareness, become a landmine of hurt.  Your words are intentionally misinterpreted to fit a narrative that was not of your own creation.  This is nothing new, as it is tactic that has been used for centuries.  Recently, I discovered there is a special name for this when it pertains to blogging.  It is called Gap Hunting.  According to the author of this blog post:

Unfortunately, Gap Hunting is becoming a very common phenomenon in the world of blogging. Often, “The Gap Hunter” will twist your words, and therefore your message, and will do so by letting you know this in public (usually in your comments section). Gap Hunting is usually not a typical, respectful disagreement between bloggers, but it is more of a systematic, personal attack on you, using your own words, so that The Gap Hunter cannot be disproved.  Often, there is no other point or purpose behind “gap hunting” other than to grab attention and to discredit you.

Gap Hunting is not just limited to the comment section, but also to having a blog combed over to find reasons to paint the writer in a different and often negative light.  Gap Hunting is being used by more than just internet trolls.  It is being used by anyone who wants to find a reason to discredit, bully, harass or menace someone whose opinion is different than theirs.

Teachers, as we all know, are often held to a higher standard.  It is a common perception amongst many that teachers should be okay with lower pay and challenging work environments because what we do is a "higher calling" and we are "in it for the kids".  Elementary teachers are portrayed as a bizarre combination of June Cleaver, Mary Poppins and the weird hostess from Romper Room.  God forbid we enjoy an adult beverage or swear outside the workplace on our own time.  Having an opinion, or being sarcastic is not tolerated.  Because we spend our working hours with children, we are often treated like we are the age of the children we teach.  Like our students, we are given more and more to do and less and less control over how we do it.  We are told how to behave and called out when our behavior is not to someone else's liking.  When we express strong opinions, we are told that our words, or even facial expressions, are "aggressive", "disruptive" and "upsetting".  Amusingly, this often does not happen to middle or high school teachers.  Certainly not to college professors.

In reality,  those of us who teach Elementary School have held our tongues for too long.  We have watched our words.  We've played nice.  We've been polite.  We've been quiet.  We've closed our doors.  We've kept saying, "It can't get worse." and "the pendulum will swing back".  We buried our heads in the sand.  We didn't want to upset anyone, much less parents, colleagues and students.  All the while, our rights were being chipped away and our workload was being increased.  Still, we stayed silent.  We did more with less.  We followed the rules.  We were careful not to be controversial out of a combination of fear and our dedication to our students.  We still are.  This is how and why we have found ourselves in the situation we are now in as educators.

I, for one, am not staying silent.  I refuse to allow my words to be used against me.  I refuse to pretend that it will get better, when it is not.  I won't accept promises.  I won't bury my head in the sand.  We are making gains by making noise.  I apologize if I have offended some by my words, but I will not take them back.  I believe in the right to free speech.  I believe that we need to stand up and speak out so that our voices may be heard.  I believe that the only way we will create change is to demand it.  I will continue to choose my words.  They are powerful.  They are important.  They are mine.