Saturday, April 30, 2016

Growing Learners

There is immense beauty in watching children learn.  Like a field of wildflowers, each one blooms in its own time and at its own pace.  You cannot rush the process.  To fully appreciate it, you need only to observe the intricate process unfold.  We are now eight full months into the school year.  It is Parent-Teacher conference time.  This week and next I have the opportunity to sit with parents and show them how much their child has grown this year.  For some, it is a tearful process as they realize that they need to set aside concerns and comparisons to fully appreciate that their child has gone from a tentative reader and writer to confident composer and literate child at their own pace.  I, too, find myself choked up showing them how much their child has progressed.  All the children have grown so much. Some have grown more "on paper" than others, but all have shown significant progress.  I assure parents that this is a journey that we have undertaken and not a race to finish at the front of the line.  Like Sunflowers, some of the children are still soaking in knowledge until the time and conditions are right for them to fully show what they know.  Others, like Snapdragons, bloom quickly and brightly, in a hurry to be noticed.

As the cultivator of these children, it is my purpose to enrich the soil, protect their growth during challenging times, and to provide space and sunlight which will allow them to fulfill their potential.  It is a much more complex process than just teaching curriculum.  Educating our students encompasses more than just presenting knowledge.  As teachers, we know that we are often surrogate parents to many of our students.  We are also confidantes, friends, mentors, guides, coaches and role models.  Our classrooms are biomes where the species and the environment work together to create a symbiotic relationship for children who are learning and discovering.

We have done much work this year on Learning Targets as part of our focus on the Common Core.  I have looked for research to show me why and how these are meant to improve student learning.  Most of what I have found centers on the work of one Education Reformer Robert Marzano.  The belief is that if you write and state a learning target for each lesson that is aligned to the standards where the students can view it, then the teacher and the students will start with the goal in mind and focus in on that goal.  I have an ongoing inner struggle with this as a primary grade teacher.  Over the past few years since Common Core arrived, the whole of my curriculum has essentially boiled down to learning targets for ELA and Math.  By narrowing this focus, we lose the opportunities for children to discover key learnings and understandings for themselves at a pace that is right for them.  We talk of differentiation but when the end goal is a single target for all, then diversity becomes a hindrance rather than an asset.  We tell the children what they will learn and when they will learn it.  We offer fewer and fewer opportunities for children who learn and grow differently than others. Creating a classroom that has balanced literacy, science, math and social studies curriculum that included hands-on learning allows children opportunities for self-discovery.  It allows them to look beyond the target and to find important learnings that are meaningful to them.

I long for the days when I had the academic freedom to create and implement curriculum based on a set of standards that were age appropriate.  Learning was more organic.  Although all my lessons were, and still are, planned with an objective in mind, often the students took the learning in a direction that allowed for more in- depth and spontaneous discovery.  There was room within the curriculum that allowed diversions based on student interest and inquiry that is lacking in the restrictive scripted mandates and modules that we see today in our classrooms.  Teachable moments were valued and cherished and professional judgment was respected and honored.  I still love those moments when the children's curiosity drives the learning.  The learning target pales in comparison to the insights that the children create.

At the end of the school day, I return to my desk to sift through the piles of love notes and drawings to locate my planbook.  These writings are a constant reminder of why I do what I do.  I save as many of these items as I can.  Looking back through the drawings I see the progress the children have made over the year.  The early notes and pictures from September and October usually say "I lik my tchr" and show me as a stick figure with huge eyes and no hair. April's drawings are more involved, with multiple detailed pictures of people, speech bubbles and words like "You are the best teacher ever.  I love you."  The handwriting is clearer, the spelling is better and there is even punctuation.  I now have hair and am fully clothed in the pictures.  They are heart-wrenchingly sweet in their innocence.  I have watched these children bloom before my very eyes, each in their own way and in their own time.  It is just as it is supposed to be.  As I prepare them to go on to the next grade level, my wish for them is that their future teachers continue to nurture the soil and appreciate each of them for their beauty so that they may bloom and be exactly who they are meant to be.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Reflecting on Respecting

Teaching First grade is like I imagine Puppy Class must be .... lots of bouncy little enthusiastic little beings vying for attention and treats.  They mean well and want to please, but need reminders on how to behave and get along in a civilized way.  We've come a long way since September, my Firsties and I.  They are a sweet loving group who are growing and maturing every day.  Every now and then, one will call me "Mom" and then blush.  They leave love notes on my desk,  have a new BFF every other minute, are growing taller, and love to read.  My quiet ones are now chatty.  My chatty ones know when to stay quiet.  Each one is unique and beautiful.

Today marked 136 days into the school year.  My Firsties and I have been together for nearly 8 full months.  And... just like siblings, they are pretty comfortable with each other and know how to push each others' buttons.  So, it was time for a class meeting and a discussion on respect and kindness.  Later, I reflected on our discussion.  In a child's world, the concept of respect is simple: listen, take turns, share, use kind words, keep your hands and feet to yourself, ask for help, say please and thank you, and do your best.  It should be the same in an adult's world too.

A couple months ago, I wrote a couple posts that have garnered more attention than I expected.  I wrote Crossroads after I found out that I would have to change grade levels next year.  It is within our union contract that a principal can change our grade level if he/she chooses.  I understand that, but was not, and am not, happy about that.  As a result, I was able to utilize another feature of our contract to transfer to another elementary building to continue teaching first grade.  Both my administrator and myself are within our rights.  I feel no animosity about that and our discussion was respectful.  In fact, I suspect the change will be a good thing for both of us.  I wrote Crossroads because I felt that not only am I at a crossroads in making the decision to pack up my classroom and say farewell to my fellow teachers and students in my current school, but that we are at a crossroads in education as a whole. You can read about that here.

The next post I wrote was Victim or Survivor.  I paralleled what is happening to teachers and sometimes to students, as emotional abuse.  I stand by that statement.  Teaching is increasingly becoming micromanaged.  Where there was once creativity, there is now standardization and rote instruction.  Where there was once discovery, there is now memorization and close reading.  Teachers are naturally creative people.  Our creativity is being stifled.  We are being monitored, questioned, tracked, observed, and scanned.  Our opinions and experience is being marginalized.  Our concerns are downplayed and even ignored. We are subjected to gaslighting and told that what we are experiencing is not the reality.  Our sanity is questioned and our reputations are being maligned and discredited.  We feel disrespected.  For teachers, their profession is their passion and their identity.  When that is attacked, they take it personally.  I take it personally.

Writing that post was not easy.  I drew on experience that is deep in my past.  It was long ago and it made me a stronger, more convicted, more confident person.  I am a better person and a better teacher because I have been able to put a challenging experience behind me and redefine my future.  I doubt there is a single person who knows me that would disagree.  My experiences changed me for the better.  I am a more empathetic teacher who understands what children experience when their parents separate or divorce.  I am a more understanding teacher when talking with single parents who are overwhelmed and trying to do their best for their children.  I am a more confident person who is passionate about advocating for children and families.

As a result of what I wrote, I am in the line of fire, so to speak.  My ethics, my ability to do my job, my personal opinions and even my "emotional state" have come under "investigation".   In my opinion, I believe that expressing yourself in writing is a very personal activity.  We teach children to write what they say as beginning writers.  I tell my students, "if you can say it, you can write it".  We teach them the importance of their words.  We teach them to express their thoughts with confidence.  I write to express my thoughts and to improve my writing.  Writing, like any other skill, takes practice to create improvement.  Blogging is my way of practicing.  I realize that my readers may agree or disagree with what I write.  That's ok.  Everyone has a right to their opinion.  If you don't like what I have written, you have the right to not read it.  Like I tell my students, "If someone is bothering you, put your blinders on and move away."

However, no one has the right to take away my voice, just because they don't like what I have to say.  They also have no right to twist my words and reinterpret them to fit their narrative.  I teach my students to treat each other the way they would like to be treated.  I teach them to respect each other, use kind words when speaking and listen when someone is talking.  I teach them to solve problems respectfully. Essentially, we all want our children to be happy and successful.  We want them to have good relationships, take responsibility for themselves, be kind in their words and actions, be supportive of others and be respectful.  I teach them through direct instruction and by modeling for I know that they are watching and listening to everything I do.  Maybe, our "leaders" need to return to First grade and learn how to be better people.  Maybe, instead of consultants and business conferences, a few months living and working within the confines of an elementary classroom would help remind them of how important it is to create and maintain an atmosphere of respect.

The testing culture that has invaded our schools across the nation has changed the climate of education, and not for the better.  Thanks to Data Walls and data meetings, collaboration has given way to competition and blame. The definition of what constitutes a "good" school is based on ELA and Math scores rather than on the quality of the staff, the sense of community in the building and the outreach programs that help to encompass and engage families.  There is a distinct lack of respect for the teachers who work with students on a daily basis.  Experience is no longer seen as valuable, but rather as a hindrance to change.  Speaking about concerns is viewed as being disrespectful rather than advocacy for students based on expertise and knowledge.  Professional judgment is looked upon as not implementing with fidelity.  When, exactly, did teachers become the problem rather than the solution?

Currently, there is a "temporary moratorium" on the use of the scores to evaluate students and teachers, but everyone knows that scores will still be used in evaluating teachers and schools, one way or another.  As a result, we continue to have to prep our students for tests, collect more and more data, and try to quantify the unquantifiable.  When you evaluate and rate teachers and schools based on a numerical rating system, you are disrespecting the intricate and complicated process of educating children. You are not treating the most important people in a child's life with respect.  How can we teach children to value each other and their relationships, if we do not model that within the profession of education?

Personally, I do not believe that a test score, or really any numerical value, can measure a person's worth or even their knowledge.  The true measure of a person's worth is how they treat others and the relationships they build.  At the end of the day, no one writes a eulogy that says that so-and-so scored a 4 on a NYS test.  They speak about how that person treated others.  They talk about that person's impact on their family and their community.  They reminisce about their relationships.  No one cares what your average was in high school or what you scored on the SAT.  No one cares about your GPA.  No one can convince me that numbers mean more than people.  What ultimately matters is that you are kind, you are respectful and that you stand up for your convictions.  I hope that someday, someone can say all that about me.

In the end, it simply comes down to respect.  We can respectfully agree to disagree.  We can respect each other's opinions.  We can respect the processes of teaching and learning.  We can respect our schools, our teachers, and our children.  Remember, those little people are watching everything we say and everything we do.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Speak and You Shall be Heard

Tonight was a perfect example of how important it is for parents and teachers to take back their schools.  We had 39 well spoken teachers, parents and even one student speak on behalf of the need to change direction.  These men and women were truly amazing.  They were eloquent.  They were knowledgeable.  They were impassioned.  They love their children, their schools and their community and it shows.  Remember, School Boards are locally elected, they can also be voted in and voted out.  I hope that we sent a loud and clear message.  If not, well, then they weren't listening.  Please, if you spoke tonight, feel free to add your comments or email them to me to have them posted.  Our comments are public record.  We need to make sure we are heard.

The following is my 3 minutes.  I have intentionally left out the name of the district.

Good Evening.  My name is Kate Sacco.  I have been a  teacher [in this district] for more than 20 years.   I have been consistently rated as Highly Effective.  This is the first time that I have ever felt compelled to speak at a board meeting.  But I am here tonight to speak to you as a teacher who is very concerned about what I see happening in our district.   I am here knowing that my voice represents many other teachers who are afraid to speak for fear of reprisal… myself included.  Our credibility and our mental state are investigated when we ask questions or speak out. 

I want you to know that I grew up in this District. I attended [a local elementary] from Kindergarten to 8th grade.  I have taught in [this district] since 1992, first as a student teacher, next as a substitute, then as a gifted and talented teacher and have been a full time teacher since 1994.  I purchased my first house in [this district] and my oldest son attended [one of the Elementary schools] as a kindergartner.

When I was hired over 20 years ago, [our District] prided itself on hiring “the best and the brightest”.  [This District] was a school district that other districts emulated.  At that time, Interview committees looked for creativity in teachers and the ability to understand children and their diverse needs. Those same teachers who were hired for those qualities are now given scripted lessons to teach and spend inordinate amounts of time collecting and inputting what amounts to meaningless data. 

I am concerned that the heavy focus on this data is derailing our children’s experience in school.  The numbers are taking precedence over teacher observation and interactions with children.  I am concerned that teachers are not valued and that our experience, expertise and opinions are ignored and minimalized.  I am concerned that growing poverty and our increasing ELL population is not being addressed in the best way possible for the success of our students.  This has nothing to do with achieving higher standards, rather it has to do with  acknowledging that we need to have realistic expectations.  Larger class sizes, the increasing difficulty to obtain services for students who need intervention, the lack of substitute teachers and the constant message that what we are doing is not good enough is contributing to extremely low morale. 

I am extremely concerned that we are laying off people who work with students,  and instead purchasing curriculum aligned to tests and not aligned to children.  I am concerned that we have narrowed our focus to ELA and math at the neglect of other subject areas.  I am concerned that we are lengthening the day for our youngest learners with no consideration for their stamina, their families and for the teachers who work with them.  I am concerned that we are losing families in this district because they feel that, although they love their child’s teachers, moving to another district gives them hope that their child will have a more well-rounded education.

I grew up here.  I chose to make my career here.  I choose to speak to you tonight, at great risk to my career, because I want you to know that it is not a vocal minority that is concerned.  It is many of us.  In fact, it is most of us. 

Thank you.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

What Do We Want for Our Children?

At the beginning of this school year, a parent approached me after my Open House presentation and said, "I have a bone to pick with you.  You are ruining my child".  Taken aback, I asked her what her concern was.  She said, "Since my daughter could speak she has always said she wants to be a Marine Biologist.  Yesterday she came home and said she wants to be a Teacher, like you.  I don't want her to be a Teacher."  She explained that teachers are not well paid nor are they well respected.   She went on to say that her daughter loves school and is excited to come see me every day.  I told her that it was never my intention to "ruin" her child.  I said that we both know that her child is six years old and her interests and intentions will change as she grows.

Ask any class of first graders what they would like to be when they grow up and you will hear some interesting answers.  My JA volunteer asked that question yesterday.  The answers were adorable:  "An astronaut."  "An ice cream guy."  "A cooker."  "A hockey player."  "A rocket scientist." "A teacher."  Most of my little ones, both girls and boys, say they want to be a teacher when they grow up.  This is more a reflection of their limited experience than a true desire to be a teacher.  I always take it as a compliment.  It shows me that they love school and my classroom and they want to emulate it.  My Firsties sense how much I love teaching and how happy I am doing what I love to do.

It is important to ask children what they want to do when they grow up because, for a moment, it allows them to think and dream about their own futures.  In contrast, by constantly emphasizing "college and career readiness" beginning in PreK we are not only asking the question, "what do you want to be when you grow up" but we are also answering the question for them.  Yes, we want our children to grow up to be productive citizens of our nation.  Yes, we would like them to be prepared for college.  But let's prepare them for Life.  

We need to allow children to experience childhood, in all its messy glory.  Let's allow them to dream  and to be creative.  Let's give our children time to play, to be active, to explore, to imagine, and to fall and get back up again.  Children need opportunities to experience "playground justice".  They need to learn to write in cursive, cut with scissors, color in the lines and color outside the lines.  They need to learn how to have relationships with others, solve problems and resolve conflicts productively. 

Telling children and parents that we are preparing our students to be "college and career ready" presumes that all children either desire to go on to college or a career training program, have the aptitude to do so, and can afford the monetary costs associated with continuing education.  Placing the emphasis on the first word "college", while noble, unintentionally sets so many up for failure.  If a child desires to be a song writer, a dancer, a mechanic, a plumber or another other profession, why should we make them feel that their dream isn't a success?  Training and education beyond high school is costly, as student loans have higher interest rates than mortgage rates, and student aide is drying up. Some students do not desire to go further in school and some have circumstances that will prevent them from ever doing so.  A child who does not learn life skills will not be successful no matter what path they choose.  Without social skills, problem solving skills and an ability to be self-directed, our children will be unhappy as adults and will always struggle with their own self image.

Our current education system is robbing our children of their childhoods.  We are in danger of taking away what little time they have to be children and to learn skills that will serve them well as adults.  Schools are increasingly becoming test-prep factories rather than safe environments of learning.  Our students are being used as child labor for the publishing and testing industry that is profiting heavily from the data these tests generate.  Our public schools are being starved of much needed funding and autonomy to create and execute curriculum that is developmentally appropriate for children.  Just this week, our government in NYS gave more money to schools.  However, they reinforced our punishing teacher evaluation systems by linking the funding to testing students.  Teachers will have 50% of their yearly evaluation based on the test scores of their students, even though it is has been proven again and again that VAM is junk science.  It does not take a rocket scientist or a marine biologist to connect the dots and realize that this will only further narrow the curriculum and create a pressure cooker atmosphere in our schools.  The legislature also gave more money to the creation of charter schools.  By creating a situation that defines public schools and public school teachers as unsuccessful, we are allowing charter schools to be the only place for our students to be educated if their parents cannot afford private school tuition.  Anyone who thinks that that is a better situation for the youth of our nation, doesn't understand the facts.  

To date, the only thing that has made an impact has been the grassroots OptOut movement.  Many myths have surrounded the movement, including that the opposition to the tests and the resulting opting out of students has been fueled by teachers who don't want to be evaluated and by the teacher unions who represent them.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, as this has been a parent led movement from Day 1. The teachers have had their hands tied about even discussing the issue openly.  Only recently has NYSUT stated that teachers should opt out their own children and that we could discuss the impacts of the tests.  We are still not allowed to speak to our students' parents about it.  Teachers are being threatened with their jobs for taking a stand on the issue.  My feeling is that all the negative publicity and the hard push by lawmakers and education department officials to ensure that students take the tests shows just how concerned they are about the OptOut movement.  Opting out is making an impact.  It is truly the best way to get our public education system returned to where it belongs:  back in the hands of teachers, parents and locally elected school boards.  It sends the message that test scores on meaningless corporate developed tests are not what our students should be preparing for.  Parents are redefining what it means for schools and teachers to be considered successful, and it has nothing to do with tests and everything to do with children and life beyond the classroom. 

Many days, I feel like our public schools are playing the game of Limbo.  Every time we dance our way under the bar, the bar gets moved, making it increasingly challenging to be successful.  Our flexibility is truly amazing, as so far, we seem to be able to meet the challenge.  If not, then the bar wouldn't get moved so often.  However, at some point, so many of us will simply just give up.  That will be a great loss to our students.  Children will no longer have the role models that they need in classrooms.  Rather, they will have temporary help (TFA) and "facilitators" who keep them focused on the screen in front of them.  Children will no longer desire to be a teacher because they will not see it for what it truly is:  a profession, a career,  a way to be happy and successful doing something you love. 

On Fridays, before the dismissal bell rings, my students and I dance to the song "Happy" by Pharell Williams.  We sing and we dance because we are happy that we have had a successful week full of love and learning.  I want them to go home on Friday with the thought that school is a happy place where they can be their best selves.  I believe that the best gift we can give our children is an education that allows them to grow to be happy and successful adults, however they choose to define that. When children say they want to grow up to be a teacher it shows that their experience in the classroom is a positive and loving experience.  It shows that they value their teacher, their classroom and their school. It shows that they feel successful and happy in their learning environment.  

Essentially, isn't this what we really want for our children?  Don't we simply want them to be happy as adults?  Don't we want them to decide what they want to be, on what makes them happy?  If they are happy, then they will be successful, both in their chosen profession and in their relationships with others.  The best we can hope for is that our children will live a happy life.