TalesOutofSchool

….and they're all true

What Should Teachers Teach-and Why May 17, 2016

I’m retired now, but in the last years of teaching I was told to teach “critical thinking” and “higher order thinking” to students from K to 5. While this is a necessary and important part of education, I found it was inappropriate at some ages, and many students needed to be taught the discipline of thinking. In order to use critical thinking you need a base of knowledge with which to use; you need stuff to think about.
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When I was a social studies cluster teacher I was asked by a 4th grade class that thought of itself as “bright” why they had to learn about the American Revolution and other “boring” things about dead people and distant events. I put aside my lesson for the day (thank goodness I didn’t have an administrator walk in on me for one of those “informal” observations) and we had a conversation. What did they want to learn about, I asked? Some didn’t care, some had no idea; a few were interested in parts of history they vaguely knew about, especially slavery and WWII Germany. Because we taught so little of social studies, or kept it as part of reading via biographies, students have no overarching understanding of civics, government, and how systems work in society and how it affects their own lives. They have little concept of who their presidents were; they were amazed when I told them Barack Obama was the first and only black president and how historic it was. They were even more incredulous when I told them that other countries had woman leaders, but our country never did. We discussed the importance of learning about the American Revolution and the Constitution, and how this ties in with our right and responsibility to vote, and why it is so vital to make use of this right. And this was in 2014, before our current election cycle. I can only wonder what they are thinking now.

I remember a 5th grader asking (remember, this was 2014) that if a Republican became president will his family be deported. Now that is critical thinking.
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I remember the good old days when we taught grammar. And spelling. I know that dates me, but learning the parts of a sentence gives students a deeper understanding of language and how to use it, and enhances their ability to read and write. Learning spelling, even by (and especially by) writing the word a few times made the words more accessible to the students; we called it word study. We taught syllabication and affixes directly, not tangentially, and once they understood and identified the patterns, it increased their ability to parse meaning: it gave them tools to work with to increase their vocabulary, which exponentially helped reading and writing.Unknown  And let’s not forget penmanship, a lost art- and skill. I was never much good at it myself, but when I taught it to 3rd graders they soaked it up like sponges. It has been documented that writing promotes eye-hand coordination and brain-kinesthetic coordination (How Handwriting Trains the Brain  ). Everyone wanted to know how to sign their names in script, and the more artistically inclined naturally segued into calligraphy and graffiti-esque writing. And they wanted to write! Maybe it’s too slow for our fast-paced world, but maybe it’s just what today’s younger students need: something slow and repetitive that doesn’t require higher order thinking for a minute.

Children, especially in elementary school, need to have time to be creative, to use their imaginations and let their minds and bodies soar. We should be teaching them what it means to be good citizens, aware of their own bodies, appreciative of nature and the world around them, capable of observing phenomena and drawing their own conclusions, discerning fact from fiction and being able to appreciate both. Instead of teaching them to write essays to prove what they have learned, we should teach them to tell their own stories. Learning is work and requires discipline. Let’s give them the skills and background they need to navigate from where they are, while feeding their imaginations and giving them the space to run with it.

 

 

Shut Up and Test ‘Em March 28, 2016

Your-opinion-mattersEveryone has opinions of the New York State reading and math tests, given from grades 3 to 8,  five years of high stakes testing. Students dread or disassociate from them; parents complain, opt out, or accept the tests as necessary in the race to find  “good” schools for their children. Even Betty A. Rosa, New York State’s highest education official and newly elected chancellor of the state Board of Regents has an opinion: if she had a child of testing age, she would opt out of taking the tests (Teachers Are Warned About Criticizing New York State Tests).  Does she know something the rest of us don’t?

Principals, such as Elizabeth Phillips of PS 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, have opinions too: Ms. Phillips has opposed them, and over a third of the students required to test sat them out. Carmen Farina, the current New York City Chancellor of Schools,  used to be the superintendent of District 15, which includes PS 321.fact-andopinion-3-638

Everyone has opinions of the state testing regime. Even teachers. Especially teachers. Teachers have to prepare the students, give those exams, mark them. Time and resources are spent; the joys of learning and discovery are lost; tensions mount. Many teachers have to deal with crying students, some who become physically ill from the stress.

What about special needs students? For years I had to bolster the self-esteem of those third-graders with specific reading disabilities, who read at a first-or second-grade level but were required to take the 3rd-grade tests. They thought the tests were given to prove how stupid they were. Would you want to take that test?  What are we measuring here?

What do you say to a parent who asks you why you are giving their child a test that you both know s/he cannot pass?  I’m just following orders?

As educators, teachers have a duty to educate; to present both sides of an issue and let students–and–parents decide. When Ms. Farina says “I don’t think that the teachers’ putting themselves in the middle of it is a good idea,”she asking teachers to be good soldiers in service to the state. Teachers are in the middle of it. Their opinions, when asked, deserve to be heard.
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Standardized Testing is Like Baby Formula June 8, 2015

091914A_CG_BRU_FurnitureSale_Verson2I just finished reading the four articles on opting out of standardized tests from Education Week. One writer puts forth that opting out of taking standardized tests gives a message that if you find something challenging or unpleasant you don’t have to do it (What the Opt-Out Movement Teaches Students). And yet, what IS the reason for taking those tests? Everyone agrees that they don’t measure what it purports to measure, that they are developmentally inappropriate, and that their high-stakes nature create anxiety and eliminate creativity for students and teachers. If you had to take tests all the time for your job, you’d quit and find something less stressful to do.

So why do we put children through this? Especially 8 year-olds? Alfie Kohn explores the argument often given, that it’s done to prepare students for more of the same in the future; in other words, BGUTI (Better Get Used to It). (Getting-Hit-on-the-Head Lessons) That’s IT? Because I said so? It’s gotten to the point that rational, caring parents are engaging in civil disobedience and keeping their kids home. Which, to me, sends the message that one shouldn’t blindly follow oppressive policies.

os-ed-standardized-testing-front-burner-intro-001Standardized testing is like baby formula. Everyone intuitively knows it’s bad for kids. Studies have been done decrying its ineffectiveness.  We gather information and anecdotes from others. We can see the results with our very own eyes. Yet we are told it’s good for children, and even serves some kind of purpose.

As far as I can see, the only purpose it serves it to line the pockets of the companies that make it.  That’s you, Pearson.

I know the world won’t end if we discontinue standardized testing. We will always be sold a bill of goods by those who stand to profit. I know many educators and parents would agree: let’s have less testing and  more recess time. At least we all know that that serves a purpose, and it’s good for children.

 

To Test (A) or Not to Test (B). That is the Question. Circle the Best Answer April 15, 2015

Tuesday was the first day of three days of the New York State English Language Arts Exam, and my heart goes out to each and every kid in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 who are taking this test. UnknownThe following week will be another 3 day extravaganza in math. (High schoolers will get their turn with the Regents exams in June.) I remember it well: the ritual rearranging of the desks into rows (though everyone still thinks that teachers do this regularly, when it occurs only during testing season). Taking down all student work and covering every bulletin board with garbage bags or butcher paper. In the beginning we used newspaper, but had to discontinue it because there were LETTERS on the newsprint, and it might help with reading or spelling, as if it was large enough for the students to read anyway. As if the students could read the New York Times. Then there was the year I surveyed the class: white or black garbage bags? White made the room too bright for some students so we opted for black, which made everything dark and depressing. It stayed up for weeks, until the math exams were finished. I remember the moving of students to different rooms so that the kids with testing modifications based on language or disability (or both) can get their mandates (extra time, different location, attention prompts, and so on). Keeping the students in the room with nothing to do when they finish before the rest of the class (and believe me, if they couldn’t read the exam because of disability or the fact that they just learned English a year ago, they got done rather quickly). Yes, they are not allowed to draw, read a book quietly or work on a puzzle, they just have to sit there.  What you say to the students is scripted, humanity is lost as everyone tries to play their part. It’s all very robotic. I’ve had kids freak out on me. Once, a little 3rd grader was so traumatized he sat for the entire test without entering anything.  Not one Unknown1single bubble filled in. The following year, when we approached this time again, I told him, “just circle a letter. Some of them may even be correct.” He laughed. He could only read at the first grade level, so we both knew of the absurdity of the situation. But he got through it. (He eventually went into a program at another school for seriously delayed children.)

This is the reality of test-taking for some. It is disruptive, it creates tension for students, teachers, parents, administrators. I’ve seen really bright students reduced to tears and shut down completely.  I’ve seen kids try their best, only to run out of time at the end, and begin guessing. I’ve seen kids do well for 2 days and peter out by the third day. Acting out behaviors increase.

images1I happened upon the MSNBC show All In with Chris Hayes, and saw a segment on the tests, featuring Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the NYS Board of Regents, and Diane Ravitch, former US Assistant Secretary of Education and author of many books criticizing education policy in this country.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMw5ivMZtzo . I knew something was amiss when Ms. Tisch said that parents are opting out because they “misunderstand the intent of the tests”, which is to give a “snapshot” of how a child is doing. (Couldn’t the teacher tell them that, without a high-stakes exam?)  She said that the tests were a “diagnostic tool” and that curriculum is designed around the information from these tests. But as Ms. Ravitch pointed out, by the time the test results are in, the kid has another teacher. (I remember waiting for my students’ results, but they came so late in the year, that basically we were just told whether they passed or not, so we could make decisions about promotion. The analysis of the results had to be done by the next year’s teacher, who didn’t know the kid and would have to start all over.) She said kids are tested for more hours than taking a bar exam.  Ms. Tisch had the nerve to say that “if we had not linked, through policy, the evaluation of teachers to the tests, more kids would be showing up” for the tests….huh? So teachers are lobbying for kids not to take the tests? I don’t think she gives the parents any credit for being aware of how

sallypeanuts testing season affects their children.

It’s obvious that the Board of Regents has a stake in keeping this game going. A lot of money was spent on these tests; someone is benefiting, just not the students. But in case you were wondering if schools will lose Title I money because of all the opt-outs, the answer is no.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/02/will-schools-lose-federal-funds-if-kids-dont-take-mandated-tests-fact-vs-threat/5/?postshare

So, good luck to the students who are taking the tests in the next few days, and to their teachers and parents. May the day come when state testing becomes more infrequent and less relevant to the education and well-being of our children.  At least it’ll all be over by the end of the month.

 

Textbooks and History March 25, 2015

Recently I read an article about the history that is not taught in schools, regarding the Irish potato famine. Growing up, I remember the political cartoons depicting them as ape-like, and a little blurb about the famine as the cause for Irish immigration to America in the 1840s. But that was it.00034223

The Real Irish-American Story Not Taught in Schools

 

Teachers are told to cover a certain amount of curriculum over the course of a year or semester. Using a textbook as a resource was expedient, but could be supplemented with readings from literature or articles gotten from microfiche at the library. It was much harder to amass information to present to students who had no interest in the subject; those who did just picked it up. When a teacher had a particular interest in history they conveyed it with their enthusiasm, encouraging debate backed up with examples from history gleaned from various sources. In the volatile 60s, when we students fought for, and won, the right to request a particular field of study, Mr. Zornberg, a short, pudgy, unassuming history teacher fashioned a course in Black History (attended by only a few students, mostly white!). It was a new field, and no textbooks were available. It was here I learned about the Kung! Dynasty, and other great African civilizations, challenging us to revise what we knew and were being taught by the existing curricula and media.

 

Sometimes the drama of the historical situation lured us fickle teenagers into its story. What could be more romantic than the story of England’s Henry VIII, who was responsible for making Catholic England into a Protestant nation by creating and heading his own religion in response to the Pope’s refusal to nullify his marriage to Catherine and allow him to marry the woman he loved (at the time), Anne Boleyn. History can be studied as literature, or even soap opera.

 

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Columbus’ first voyage

But, as we know, there is always more than one side to a story. Columbus didn’t “discover America” in 1492, but rather, Watling’s Island in the Bahamas. (Later that year he “discovered” Cuba, not America. Great from the European perspective, not so great for the Tainos.) So when I read the above article about Irish immigration and learned, for the first time, that the potato was the only crop that failed, and that, in the midst of plenty, Irish farmers starved because their Protestant landlords exported all that food, I was amazed at what was left out of my education. Because that tidbit of information added another layer to the story, deepening and changing it.

Which got me thinking: what else was left out of textbooks, and to what purpose? We know that textbooks are a business, and the business of textbooks is to make money for the publishers. Who decides what events are important enough, what to include about an event, and how much? To what end? By whose agenda? Already we see evidence of certain groups trying to “control the narrative” by deleting references to evolution in science texts and including creationism, or by downplaying the horrors of the Holocaust in WWII (and not including other examples of determined extinction of targeted groups, of which the 1840s Irish poor was one). This leads to the larger question of how much of our world view has already been distorted by the information that gets disseminated, that adds to or exacerbates existing prejudices and stereotypes of other cultures, further demonizing them and separating us as human beings on this planet.

 

Events are only a collection of names, dates and occurrences; it is the context of larger ideas, patterns and questions that these events come alive and mean something. The wise–and courageous–educator would do well to present an objective, many-sided view of a particular event and hold it up for examination. We live in a world where it’s easy to get information, but not easy to get to the truth.

 

Don’t believe everything you read.

 

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.  Guatama Buddha

 

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.     Mark Twain

 

Ken Robinson, Creativity and Education March 13, 2015

Recently my daughter sent me a link to part of a TED talk by Ken Robinson, who is known for his humorous and insightful take on creativity, education and learning. It was provided by RSA Animate, called Changing Education Paradigms (http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms).  I had seen Mr. Robinson in the flesh at a WNET Education Conference awhile back, and found him engaging, thought provoking, and inspirational. I bought his book, The Element, about finding your passion. Obviously, I’m a fan.

Teachers always want to find how to reach a child, how to tap the wellsprings of what makes him/her tick, so they can “get” what the teacher wants to impart. We want to engage our students, or at least fit the new learning with what they already know. Many of the students I worked with were closed off to new information, finding it pointless, boring, or believing it was beyond their ability to understand it (and therefore, pointless and boring). Mr. Robinson says,“Curiosity is the engine of achievement,”  and I found many students to be uncurious, if that’s a word. Indeed, I found if I could pique some curiosity about a topic in a kid, that kid would want to get into it; s/he might need some help in researching it (now we’re getting into talents and collaboration here) but it would bring them to life. There has to be a reason to learn something and use what you’ve learned, and not because “the teacher said so”.  The teacher, as an agent of authority/society, often has to “say so” due to the prevailing school culture or the constraints of standardized testing.  One year, my co-teacher and I created a “Natural Disasters” project, voted on by the students, where they would pick a disaster (hurricane, volcanic eruption, tornado, etc.), research how it was created and its effect on the environment, and work within a group to present the information, in their own way (diorama, poster, powerpoint, etc.) Much class time was devoted to the project, providing hands on guidance and focus (and encouragement; they give up easily) They-and we- had a blast for 6 weeks, and the project included research, writing, drawing, brainstorming, organizing information, collaborating….all the academic, social/emotional, and presentation skills needed for the workplace.  In the process, we encouraged students to try new things, to see where their talents lie, and to see where they could contribute.

But this project was the exception, not the norm. We’d all like it to be the norm, but with baseline testing, standardized testing, post-testing, etc. there is no time. Testing used to measure what a kid learned, and you’d create a test to measure that skill or concept. Remember spelling tests? You learned more than spelling; you learned vocabulary, word usage, verb tense, and you applied it in reading and writing. Now testing measures how good the teacher is.

Public education is in disrepair, It has to grow with the times, which includes preparing students of all abilities, talents and development, from all kinds of environments (which affect the abilities, talents and development) for jobs as yet unknown, amid a technological explosion of possibility. I can’t believe repairing it involves dismantling it in favor of private schools, charters, vouchers and on-line courses, all of which should be another option, not a replacement (you can tell by where the money gets spent). I can’t believe there are so many “bad” teachers that we have to keep tabs on them with high stakes testing, and seek to disband the unions that serve to get them decent wages and protect their right to teach. (The above project had nothing to do with testing; what would have happened if the principal found it irrelevant?) Perhaps Ken Robinson said it best:

“We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”

We need to remember that the purpose of education is “not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”                     William Butler Yeats

 

 

 

A New Year of Changes February 3, 2015

Has it really been so long between blog posts? Has time gone by so quickly? The last post was at the start of the 2013-14 school year, a year that was very intense for me, with a complex assignment. I was the Special Ed “Cluster” Teacher, which is an interesting choice of word, since cluster means, according to Dictionary.com, “a group of things or persons close together”, yet I was the only teacher doing this. Hey, I’m my own group! I was also the de facto social studies cluster teacher for all the special ed classes and various regular ed classes, grades k, 1, 3, 4 and 5. As a special ed teacher for Integrated Collaboration Teaching (2 teacher-classes) classes I worked with science, music and computer teachers in grades k,1,2,3 and 4, and provided small group instruction in reading and math. Whew.

If it sounds confusing, don’t worry. Many people don’t know what teachers do. Except that, somehow, they are not doing enough.

Meanwhile, teachers have to negotiate the Common Core requirements, the new Danielson rubric (which has since been simplified), and need for sleep and sustenance. There is the usual lesson planning, professional development, and now, data entry, as well as creating, gathering and maintaining “artifacts” to prove that we are actually teaching, assessing, reflecting, having meetings, attending seminars, contacting parents, and making exciting projects for the following month. When was there time to write a blog?

I’m not the only one who feels this way.  Diane Ravitch recently posted an entry from another exhausted teacher who is burning out on all the mandates and requirements of being a teacher (http://dianeravitch.net/2014/12/30/susan-dufresne-a-teacher-living-on-the-edge/), who said she was “dying slowly.”  In addition, there are still people out there who think teaching is a “part-time job” (as seen in a comment regarding Pres. Obama’s State of the Union address). Despite all our hard work and never-ending “initiatives,” we are still being denigrated as lazy slackers who take the money (huh?) and run.

So it’s time to get back to blogging!