Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Power of Words

A couple weeks before Spring Break, one of my students won a prize in our monthly PBIS raffle.  Her prize was a popcorn and movie party for the class.  We picked a Friday and scheduled the time.  We all worked feverishly to get every lesson done so we could enjoy the prize.  I told her that she could pick a DVD from my limited selection.  She picked The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.  A perfect choice as it was his birthday that week.  Thinking back on that movie, I also realize that it was a perfect choice in other ways too.  The message of the movie is powerful as are some of Theodor Geisel's words:

A year ago, I wrote this post about standing up and speaking out.  Reading it again made me realize that not much has changed in a year.  Teachers are still bogged down in curriculum and mandates that are making it a true challenge to bring joy into the classroom.  In fact, it feels like there are even more  demands than ever.  Last year, we had some academic freedom with pacing and lessons that addressed concepts and standards.  This year, scripted ELA, math and NYS domains/modules dominate the day.  

The Common Core task force made recommendations concerning testing and teacher evaluations, but there has been no change in the law.  Call me a skeptic, but I just don't trust our Governor.  With that law in place, there can be no real lasting change.  The specter of punishing APPRs is still hanging over us as are meaningless tests for our students.  Our Commissioner of Education would like us to believe that the grades 3-8 tests have changed also.  But, I see little evidence of that considering that Pearson is still not only publishing the tests, but also collecting the data as well this year.  One change is that the tests are no longer timed.  That means that "as long as a student is working productively", the test can continue all day.  So, in reality, not much change there except that the test could go on all day.

In my own little microcosm, I am trying desperately to keep on pace with all the data collection, math lessons, domains and other mandates that leave little time for things like coloring, cutting, art projects and handwriting instruction.  There certainly is no time for actual play.  This is evident in the fine motor skills in our little ones.  Yes, they are very good at using iPads, but coloring in the lines and writing letters from top to bottom eludes them.  I want very much to reteach concepts and allow the children to draw their own conclusions from lessons, but the pacing guides and the learning targets keep us ever so focused on the task at hand.

My heart aches for the little ones who ask every day:  "Do we have time for Free Time?" and have to hear the answer of "No, Sweetiepie, no time for that today.  Maybe another day".  It is my fairly educated guess that next year's longer school day is not going to leave time for play or recess either.  You can be pretty sure that there will be even more ELA and math so we can continue to prep for the NYS tests.

I wrote about the impact of the tests on my little ones last year too.  While the actually monetary costs of the tests remains elusive it is even harder to quantify the human costs.  How do we begin to estimate the loss of Academic Intervention Services, Teacher Aide time and ESL services for students in the younger grades while those teachers are reassigned to help with the testing, make-ups, proctoring and scoring?  Who is keeping track of the cost of these tests, which are supposedly "meaningless"?  What about the loss of authentic learning that is developmentally appropriate?  What about the narrowing down of the curriculum so that science and social studies is almost an afterthought addressed through domains instead of through hands-on learning?

So, as we come full circle heading into yet another testing season, I can only say that it continues to be more important that ever to Speak Up and Speak Out.  One positive change this year is that NYSUT, along with our newly elected head of the Board of Regents has recognized that the Opt-Out movement has made a significant impact in our State. They have even gone so far as to encourage teachers to opt out their own children.  This is upsetting the EdReformers.  You can tell by the desperate measures that the Opt-in movement is making that we have made some headway:  Letters to editors attempting to discredit opting out, visits to high Opt-Out districts by the Commissioner, newspaper articles extolling the virtues of taking the tests, to name a few.  Opting out of the state tests is making a difference.  Myself, I can no longer opt my child out as she is too old.  So instead, I am continuing to advocate by writing, posting, tweeting and talking about the realities of what is happening in our classrooms.  I intend to make my voice heard.

On a local level, speaking up is essential.  We have seen what happens when we don't speak up for ourselves.  We also see what happens when we do .  As teachers, we must speak up for ourselves and our children, for they cannot speak for themselves.  It is our duty to speak up to protect their childhoods and the learning environment that they are in every day.  Our working environment is their learning environment.  Our academic freedom to create and structure lessons and to pace our instruction helps to give voice to their interests and experiences as learners.  We can all take a lesson from Dr. Seuss's The Lorax:


Friday, March 18, 2016

Playing the Game

Elementary Teachers on the whole are lovely people, but we are strange creatures.  We hoard office supplies.  Scented markers and colorful paperclips can make us swoon.  We get excited for the one time a year that we get to have a whole hour for lunch.  This is because we have a career which, by design, isolates us from other adults for hours at a time.  Often times, our only human contact is with people who are significantly shorter than us.  It's sort of like working in a cubicle with 25 gremlins in it with you.  Those little people demand 100% of our attention for the entire time that we are with them.  As a result, we do not have access to news or information outside of our classrooms until the end of the school day.  We often have little energy left when we leave school. Essentially, we live in a bubble.

In addition to that semi self-made bubble, over the past few years the ever increasing curriculum and testing demands have made it so that we are all in survival mode.   We are becoming ever more isolated as the demands have increased along with the class sizes and the assessments.
Moreover, we are now being pitted against each other as data walls are shared like some bizarre academic version of an immunity challenge (Teacher A, you have over 75% of students on level this month... you get an immunity necklace...for now).  For some, survival is measured by how they disconnect and go home to their families.  They have little left to give, if anything, to activities outside of the school day.  Others survive by closing their doors.  For me, survival hinges on finding outlets for my frustrations, like writing and yoga, so I can go back each day and give myself 100% to the children.

I have been a teacher for over 20 years.  I have seen many things come and go over time.  I have seen the full pendulum swing from Whole Language to Scripted Phonics lessons and everything in between.  Through it all, myself and my fellow teachers have worked to perfect our craft.  Teaching is an art form that is rapidly being lost to "facilitating" and constant assessment.  Good teaching cannot be replaced by technology.  Nor can it be replaced by continuous assessment and data collection.  Good teaching can transcend poor curriculum as long as we are allowed the academic freedom to make improvements to it.  Good teaching can, and will, help our students be successful.

Unfortunately, all the good teaching in the world cannot make up for the crap that teachers are now being mandated to teach.  Common Core Standards and the testing and data craze have given birth to this ugly two headed monster that is the current curriculum.  It is so poorly written and so poorly formulated that all the good teaching in the world will not make it better.  It is obvious to any teacher worth his or her salt that this curriculum was written without the input of experienced teachers, without research, without being piloted and without any regard to the children.  It was cobbled together and put in a (semi) pretty package and rushed to market in order to make a profit and appease the data gods.

Along the way, the public was told that the teachers were slackers and that our current standards were no good.  Parents were told that their schools were failing and that there is no way to know if the teachers were teaching unless the children weren't being continually assessed.  Taxpayers were told that teachers were a drain on the community.  Salaries were published and teachers were shamed for demanding a wage that reflected both their advanced degrees and their years of experience.  When that wasn't enough, data was manipulated to create the message that our children were underperforming.  The cherry on top was the budget cuts, property tax caps and the give backs that all resulted in layoffs, program cuts and higher class sizes.   Meanwhile, new curriculum was purchased, tests were purchased, computers were purchased and consultants and coaches were contracted.

This is where we find ourselves now.  We are playing the game of Survivor.  We are struggling through every day to try win the next immunity challenge.  We are working overtime and beyond to try to preserve the art of teaching while still meeting the mandates.  We are overwhelmed and overtired and sick of being stuck on this island.  We are given expectations that are not reachable and when we try (very nicely) to express our concerns and frustrations, we are threatened with being voted off the island.  We are given more challenges, not less.  We are given more student contact time, more curriculum, more expectations.  We will have less planning time, less ability to be creative, less time to reteach (keep on pace people!) and less opportunities to advocate for kids who need more.  When we speak up, we are told that we are not in the majority and that we obviously do not care about our kids or our jobs.

The time has come to take back our schools and our profession.  It is time to burst that bubble.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Victim or Survivor?

Walking amongst us every day there are survivors and victims.   There are men and women, children and adults that have been abused.  I know because I am one of them. Abuse can take many forms.  There is physical, financial, sexual, psychological and emotional to name a few.  Some forms of abuse leave obvious marks on the abused.  You can see the bruises.  You can witness the scars.  Other forms are not as obvious.  Emotional abuse is one of those forms.  Many people are unaware that they are even being emotionally abused until the abuse becomes too much to bear. 

Kali Munro, a pyschotherapist defines emotional abuse as the following:

Let's say that slowly:  Emotional abuse is a series of repeated incidents that insult, threaten, isolate, degrade, humiliate, and/or control another person.  Hmmmmm......  It includes:  insults, criticisms, aggressive demands or expectations, threats, rejection, neglect, BLAME, emotional manipulation and control, ISOLATION, punishment, terrorizing, ignoring or teasing.

Emotional abuse chips away at your soul.  It leaves scars that no one can see and never truly leave you.  Emotional abuse makes you question yourself.  It makes you feel as though you are not smart enough, not skilled enough, not good enough.  Emotional abuse can shake your confidence.  It can affect your relationships and can change your future.
As a survivor, I can look back and understand the slow and insidious way that emotional abuse changed my life.  I still vividly recall how I felt and how much I questioned myself.  I remember placing the blame on myself for the abuse.  I remember being isolated.  I remember worrying that if I spoke up, that others would not believe me.
I guess this is why I am so incensed at what I see happening in our schools.  It is truly nothing short of emotional abuse.  Our children and our teachers are being emotionally abused.  Worse yet, they are being gaslighted to believe that they are the problem.  The assessments are designed to show failure, not success.  We are testing our children using instruments that are clearly not appropriate, intentionally written above their grade level and maturity level, requiring them to sit for long periods of time and creating a situation where they feel poorly about themselves.  Our children are being emotionally manipulated to believe that these tests are normal, even good for them.  Parents are being emotionally manipulated into believing that these tests actually tell them something about their children and their schools.  Teachers are being manipulated into administering these tests under secure conditions that rival the security at the Pentagon.  Additionally are then coerced into signing affidavits that state that if they discuss the tests that they are required to score, they could be subjected to job loss and prosecution.   These aggressive demands have become so commonplace that we are even subjected to test protocol meetings as part of a regular faculty meeting.  
The teachers in our public schools are being emotionally abused every day.  We are living in a climate of fear.  We fear for our jobs.  We fear for our ratings.  We fear for our students.  We fear that at any moment someone may walk in and rate us based upon an unrealistic expectation.  We are isolated from colleagues and friends.  Our concerns are ignored and at times ridiculed.  Our words are twisted and used against us.  We are portrayed as "entitled" and "whiners" when we advocate for children and the academic freedom that is part of our contractual rights.
Fighting against emotional abuse is hard.  It is a game that is best played by experts.  Abusers tend to hone their skills.  Victims are often so oppressed that they spend much of their time fending off attacks and simply surviving. It is difficult to get out on the offensive.  It takes courage.  It takes a support system.  It takes resources.  I know, because it took every ounce of strength I had to break out of the abuse.  I had to learn to trust my support system and bravely defend myself.  It took time and it took every ounce of resources that I had.  Today, I am a different person.  Although I bear no physical scars, I carry them deep inside my heart.  I choose to be a survivor and not a victim.  I use my experience to remind me that no one has the right to make me feel less about myself and who I am.  I will never again believe that I am not smart enough, or skilled enough or good enough.  I will never allow myself to be abused again.

Teachers, we must choose to fight against this abuse.  We must lean on each other and we must trust each other.  We must be united in our support of our fellow educators.  We must not let others define us.  We can define ourselves.  It is time to take back what was always ours:  Education.  We are educators.  We are skilled enough.  We are good enough.  We are smart enough.  Scripts and packaged curriculum do not teach.  WE DO.   We will always carry the scars; we need them to remind us of where we were and who we are.   But, we must choose to be survivors, not victims.  The time is now.

#IgniteTheFight  #Speaktruthtopower #StandupSpeakout 

Saturday, March 5, 2016


Miracles happen every day in classrooms.  Big miracles and small miracles.  Miracles that are obvious and miracles that are not.  In my classroom, I see miracles happen that are not measurable on paper all the time.  Just yesterday, one of my little girls sat with me and read 6 words.  Six.  In her life, that was a miracle.  This little angel has been with me a total of 5 weeks.  She arrived at my door in September with just over 2 months of kindergarten in the US.  She stayed with me for 3 weeks and then returned to Iraq with her family.  She came back 2 weeks before our February break.  In September, she could not name letters or write her name.  Just yesterday, she was able to name most letters and read 6 words.  I cried I was so happy.  She beamed as she hugged me and then skipped back to her desk.

That morning I had to sit in on another of our data meetings with our "Reading Coach".  She showed lots of charts and graphs to show how poorly our students are doing.  50% of our kids are reading at grade level.  X amount of student students are "at risk" and x amount are "emergency".  My little sweetie who read 6 words is an "emergency" according to the Coach's statistics.  My jaw nearly dropped when she actually said "Data doesn't lie".  Yes, Reading Lady, data does lie.  It lies when you turn a child into a number and label her an emergency.  That child is not an emergency.  She has less than 4 months of schooling in a new country and a new language and she is reading words.  She is pointing at words and trying to figure them out even without much of a working English vocabulary.  She is not an emergency.  She is a success.  The data lies.

Disclaimer:  I am going to brag here.... In my class, I have 80% of my students reading at or above grade level according to the metrics.  One third of my class consists of English Language Learners.  I have 4 students receiving speech, one student who has a personal aide for a medical reason, and 3 that receive OT services.  Five of my students joined me after the start of the school year.  If the data doesn't lie, then I guess I have a better than average success rate with my students.  All of my ELL's are speaking English to some degree, most of my students are strong in math (despite Eureka Math's attempt to totally mess them up) and every one of them can write at least a paragraph to state their opinion, support it and add a conclusion.  Not bad.  The best metric of all is the joy and the smiles on their faces every day.  They love school.  We dance, we sing, we read and we laugh together.

And yet, despite the success of my class and many previous classes, I have been marked down on my latest informal observation.  It was a set up and I knew it.  Without going into details, I know that the powers that be are trying to silence my voice.  I have been vocal about my opposition to testing and to common core.  I have pointed out the flaws in the Eureka Math and the district assessments.  I have written about it and I have spoken about it.  I have stood up for what I believe in and I have made some waves.  As a result, I feel that I am now a target.  In spite of the obvious success of my teaching, I am fairly confident that I will not be rated "Highly Effective" as I have always been in the past.  I have refused to shut up so now I have been told that I must move grade levels next year.  This is not because I am a good teacher or "would be an anchor" at that grade level.  It is because it will shut me up.  I will be so overwhelmed at learning yet another new curriculum that I will not be able to write or speak anymore.  I will be new at the grade level and my concerns about the curriculum will be brushed off as inexperience.  I will be set up to be rated poorly.  The only other alternative is to leave and to switch to a school with a first grade available.  That means leaving behind the families I have grown to love and the students who I see daily for hugs and read alouds.  It means leaving a place where I felt like I made an impact.

So I find myself at a crossroads.  I can stay or I can go.  I can be silenced or I can tell them all to go f* themselves.  I can acquiesce, or I can fight.  I feel that we are at this crossroads in so many ways right now.  We are standing at a crossroads in Education.  We can continue down this path of testing our students for no other reason to gather data and make a profit or we can choose to refuse.  We can continue to allow the common core to make our children common or we can fight for the academic freedom to actually teach children to be unique and grow at their own pace.  We can allow our schools to be starved of needed funding or we can demand equitable funding for our children's education.  Lastly, we call allow public schools to languish and charter schools to take over or we can fight for public education in our community.

When standing at a crossroads, we must make a choice as we cannot go directly forward.  We must choose one direction or the other.  I choose to fight.  I choose to keep speaking.  I choose to be heard.  I choose not to be silenced or intimidated.  I choose to believe in miracles, big and small.

Update:  Meme by BadAssTeachers Association!  Thank you!!!