Saturday, January 14, 2012

Teachers Committing Suicide: When Will The Bashing Stop?

For many reasons too lengthy and private to list here, I have been on a six-month hiatus from writing this blog. I knew, eventually, I would acquaint myself with my keyboard again. I needed to find something to write about that would really hit home. Something that not only pertains to the Future of America, but the fate of the nurturers that stand before them each day. Maybe something that makes my readers angry enough to actually do something, and speak up for those who cannot. And while lazily perusing Facebook last night, a luxury that Friday nights at home offer me, the only night free of fear and anxiety about facing the administrative monsters who call themselves human, I found it. I can't not write about this. So....I'm back!

On Thanksgiving, a grade-school gym teacher by the name of Mary Thorson parked on the shoulder of Interstate 80/94 in northwest Indiana, got out of her Mercury SUV and walked in front of a moving semi truck. First, I need to extend my deepest sympathy and prayers to 32-year old Mary's family. Her parents' loss is unfathomable. It is a mother's worst nightmare to lose a child. As a mom myself, just the thought makes my stomach turn. I cried when I read this article. I tear up now just thinking about it.

One might choose to interpret this event as just another person who snapped. Who couldn't deal with their life and chose to end it all. Many Christians would profess that her soul is in for a lot of trouble on the other side. I beg to differ, especially with the latter.

If you read the details of the article, (and I really hope you clicked on it...there is a lot of information there that I am not discussing, such as the nauseating reaction to Mary's death of the Ford Heights CSD administration and school board) and you examine the current climate of education today, you will see (if your mind is open, of course) that this is not just another suicide. Mary had no documented mental issues. She served in the Military but was not exposed to anything there that might prompt a suicide, she did not go abroad. She left a suicide note that clearly stated her reason: she had to bring attention to the embarrassment, intimidation, torment, and criticism that teachers face today.

In case you haven't noticed, we are the evil enemy, demonized as the most poignant problem that faces education today. On the radio in the morning on my way to work: "Mayor Bloomberg is at war with NYCs teachers." on the CBS News after work: "We need to remove ineffective teachers from the classrooms. Fire half the teachers at 'underpreforming' schools.'"  (Underpreforming? Really? If you want the truth on that one, click here. Oh, and by the way, "underpreforming" isn't even a real word.At work: "Your lesson was rated unsatisfactory." or, "What does your test data look like? You are not doing enough to 'move them up'."  If a student lies and accuses you of something you would never dream of doing (as in Mary's case): "You are GUILTY until proven innocent." Teachers, like most children bullied in the schoolyard, suffer in silence. We are outnumbered. We are here for the children, not for ourselves. We are expected to be completely selfless and subservient. We dare not speak up. We have to pay our rent and our bills and put food on the table.

The vast majority of us chose to teach because we love the company of children. We have the innate desire to be an intricate part of their growth into an intelligent, productive citizen. It is a calling, an art, a career that only a special kind of person can knowingly choose as their lifestyle. Put simply, we teach because we care. Deeply. Given our character, this kind of repeated defamation and bullying is like being kicked in the stomach ten times a day.

Some of us are more sensitive than others. Some of us have a greater capacity for compassion. These are not mental issues, they are variables of the human personality. These defining characteristics: kindness, sensitivity, compassion, are what makes amazing teachers. According to her loved ones and colleagues, Mary possessed these honorable qualities. Her colleagues claim that she was an extremely dedicated professional that loved her students. She spent her own money buying them clothing and supplies. No doubt she spent hours of her personal time preparing lessons and doing mountains upon mountains of bureaucratic paper work demanded by her superiors, as most of us do.

Mary Thorson is not just another suicide statistic. She is a hero. She taught in one of the most underfunded school districts in Illinois. Half of Ford Heights' population lives below the poverty line. Compiled with the hopeless feeling of being unable to truly help her impoverished students, and the bullying, fear and intimidation she was exposed to each and every day, Mary chose to take her own life. It was a cry for Ford Heights, for Chicago, for Illinois, for AMERICA to open their eyes and stop hating on their teachers, the very people that spend half of their waking hours with YOUR CHILDREN. And for that bravery, Mary went straight up to Heaven.

Remember James Borges? Jamey Rodemeyer? Homosexual teens who recently took their own lives? These also were not just 'another' suicide. In fact, Jamey even said, "What do I have to do so people will listen to me?" These young men were constantly taunted and bullied. They were demeaned. Embarrassed. Intimidated. Tormented. Criticized. These unfortunate events were a shameful representation of prejudice and fear among youngsters in the US. They both made national news, along with other teens who took their own lives because of bullying. They, too, died as heroes in their own right. As a matter of fact, their plight opened America's eyes to the detrimental affects of bullying on the human spirit. Anti-Bullying campaigns sprouted up in school districts all across the country. Posters with acronyms and cries of RESPECT! KINDNESS! FRIENDSHIP! are plastered in hallways and classrooms and cafeterias everywhere. In my NYC school, where staff bullying is so rampant it's palpable, the posters are displayed on every landing of every stairwell. Students who bully are now dealt with swiftly by administration, with real consequences. But behind the closed doors of the Principal's office, in the shadows that lurk in teachers' mailboxes and personnel files, there lies a dirty, hypocritical little secret. Students are worthy of protection from bullying. Their teachers are not.

And, dear readers, it doesn't end there. Rigoberto Ruelas Jr., an elementary school teacher in inner-city L.A., suffered the same fate, where he taught in a poverty-ravaged suburb. Quite similar to Mary, he was known as a dedicated, compassionate teacher, loved by colleagues, parents and students. A lifelong educator who no doubt was born with the unique qualities only a teacher can possess. He took his own life shortly after his name was published in the LA times under the dreaded category of "Ineffective Teacher". A ranking crudely based on standardized test scores. Another set of parents now living without their child because of bullying.

Time and time again VAM (Value-Added-Measurement) has proven to be faulty, which researchers, mathematicians, and experts proclaim very inconsistent in providing solid proof that a teacher impacts students' lives. News flash: there is no way to prove our 'effectiveness'. Our children are not products and commodities that can be counted and categorized. You just have to trust us because this is the path we have chosen, and we're not in it for the money. If we wanted to be rich, we would have taken our intelligence elsewhere when we declared our majors in college. Rigoberto, God Rest His Soul, was demoralized to the point of suicide. Maybe he had other stresses occurring in his life that prompted this act. But isn't it possible that the L.A. times publication was the straw that broke the camel's back? He was publicly humiliated by politicians whose sole purpose is to dismantle America's Public Schools and bash teachers into submission. All he wanted to do was make a difference in the lives of the inner-city children he loved so much. He, too, is a hero.

Chicago. L.A. New York City. My city. Three densely-populated American cities with high poverty rates.   I can see this happening here in NYC. I can even see it happening at my school, where, as mentioned before, bullying by administration is the norm, blindly accepted by the faculty out of fear for their jobs and integrity, while we pass by several anti-bullying posters a day. I wonder how many teacher suicides in how many states, cities, towns, and counties have occurred since Teacher Bashing became the favorite pastime of politicians, corporations, and the media, and even the general population, whose children we nurture each day. I wonder...why don't these sad stories make national news? If we dig deep enough, we all know the answer to that question.

Fear is a prerequisite to silence. The only way to stop bullies is to expose them, and the silence must be broken.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Pearson's Turn to Profit from our Kids

New York State has found a new testing company to pay. Pearson is the lucky winner of a rather large profit, to the tune of $32 million over the next five years, with costs totaling a heaping $8 million for this year alone. McGraw-Hill, our previous publisher of torture-tests was much more affordable for the state, with costs totaling $26 million for the past eight years. Still quite a chunk of change, but about half of what the state plans on paying Pearson with taxpayer dollars, while class sizes are still expanding, teachers are threatened with layoffs, and millions of kids remain below the poverty level. Policymakers have made it quite obvious that those who profit from education will be the CEOs of publishing and testing companies, at the expense of the teachers on the front lines and the students who are filling in their bubbles.

In the eyes of a creative teacher or a disgruntled student, the Torture Tests are all interchangeable as long as they consist of multiple-choice questions. The "differences", however, are: Pearson will be eliminating tricky questions that include the words "which is not...",  (very common and frustrating)"all of the above", "none of the above", (although I haven't seen either of those answer choices on any McGraw-Hill test in years) and will be eliminating the use of bold and italic letters in questioning. I have no doubt, however, that Pearson will find innovative new ways to throw off our kids. After all, their job is to produce data, and as soon as there is either a sharp upward or downward trend, there will be revisions. The test will still be the test, even if written differently. Students will still be perceived as data points, and teachers will still be judged based on that data. Put a pig in a dress, it's still a pig. Take a politician or CEO out of his tailored business suit and silk tie, and put him in some Bananna Republic Khakis and a pink polo shirt, he's still a greedy little snake.

These are not the only changes in the testing content. Quoted from the above cited New York Times article:

"Tests next year will resemble those given last spring, but by 2013 they will reflect new national standards, (Gates-Funded Common Core) and include more difficult reading passages, more open-ended math questions, and writing assignments that ask children to focus not on their own experiences, but on interpreting information from texts."

You may have noticed that the last sentence is in italics. Yes, that was me. What education policymakers fail to understand is that children have a knowledge base that is comprised of their own experiences. These experiences include personal memories and literary content that they have learned in the past. This applies to the learning process of all human beings, not just children. For example, I fancy myself a decent writer. When I tap away at my keyboard writing this blog, my content is a combination of information I glean from articles and studies I have read and my own personal experiences as a teacher and a student, and the conclusions I reach using both knowledge bases. Without using both content and experience, my blog would suck, and you wouldn't be reading this right now. One cannot expect a student to correctly interpret information from a text without allowing them to draw upon their experiences. And we all know, because this will be the format of the writing section of the test, teachers will be expected to teach to that format, so the student data is pretty enough for our state to win The Race To The Top. We will continue to be forced to teach our students to interpret texts in a way that is completely irrelevant to their lives, thus hindering their ability to form unique opinions, and, yes, think independently. 

By now, I can conclude, based on the articles I have read and my experiences in the classroom, that the wealthy politicians and policymakers want our kids to become their servants, empty, unquestioning, and easily programmed.

Luckily for my son, these "revisions" in questioning will be in full force by 2013, the year he enters middle school. And by 2013, there may be such a sharp trend in data under the old model that the revisions will then be, well, revised.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Accountability: Test Prep vs. REAL Teaching

As we all know, the word "accountability" is thrown around like a baseball at a little league game. It's like this new mantra that we hear from the mouths of policy makers and common people quite often: "Educators must be held accountable each day for their students' performance." 

Because of this wave of test-based teacher evaluations (in some states 50%) Educators who are supporting a family can potentially lose their source of income based on numbers that do not reflect the variables that influence a child's learning, or the level of true teaching that has occurred throughout the year

For those of you who are wondering, this is what "teaching to the test" actually is (I am using English Language Arts as an example here) Let's take one passage in a test prep book with multiple-choice questions. I am used to the McGraw-Hill style, but I am thinking that testing companies all conspire together in their competitive, multi-billion dollar market, so in my eyes, they are all interchangeable. Let's take a non fiction text:

1. We are presented with a passage and between 6-8 multiple choice questions each with four answers to choose from.
2. I direct my kids to preview the title, the pictures (if any) the subheadings (if any) before they read the text. I tell them to "activate their prior knowledge on the subject".
3. Then, before reading the text, I tell them to preview the questions, because this will help them to find the answers more efficiently as they read. For example, if there is a main idea question, think while reading about the strategies you memorized about finding the main idea. If there is a vocabulary question, be sure to find the word presented in the question IN the story so you may choose the answer in the correct context.
4. Read the passage with ALL of these things stuffed into in your mind. (Leaves little room for the actual content of the text, huh?) Underline parts of the text that you think answers the questions, and label them with the corresponding question number.
5. Answer the MC questions using the following strategies: (some, not all, are listed)
     -go back to the text several times to make sure your answers are correct
     -use process of elimination. Usually there are two answers that are just silly, and usually there are two answers that appear to be right (or may actually both be right) If you are still not sure, guess between those two answers. Usually this applies to inference questions.
     -In context clues questions, replace all 4 answer choices in the sentence that presents the vocabulary word. (This does not require the child to actually use the word).

These are just some examples of test-prep strategies that are drilled into their heads all year. In an urban environment, ALL YEAR. It comes close to indoctrination. All that matters is the test. All that matters is the test. All that matters is the.....

Bored yet? 

Have you noticed that the child is interacting with the text on a very superficial level? The text is picked apart like a cadaver in an autopsy. The students are expected to make inferences, yet given four answers to choose from instead of forming conclusions in their own words. This is not reading instruction. This is test strategy instruction. The kids are not forming opinions about what they read. They are not making text connections, which is a great way to assess if a student has a deep understanding of a text. The instruction is COMPLETELY centered around the multiple-choice questions. This means that any part of the text that is not covered by these questions is not "worth" teaching, because time is of the essence. Remember, during the test, students are timed. Even if a student stops to ask a question or make a comment about a part of the text that is not included in the questions, we should "bring them back to task".

Of course, in my classroom, we discussed the whole text whenever we could, including my students' connections, opinions, and experiences, because that's how I roll. I believe that a student's unique perspective about is text is invaluable, and having the student verbalize (or write) this is a fantastic indicator of weather or not he/she has understood it beyond literal comprehension. Having rich text discussion is a very intricate part of my pedagogy. I refused to give it up. I dug my heels in. Teaching a text in a superficial manner was simply NOT AN OPTION. Don't worry, my door was closed and the call button under the speaker (squawk box) was on the "off" position. My principal was sitting in her air-conditioned office, doing the budget, I'm sure.

Now, this is ChalkDusters way:

Take any given non fiction text. No multiple choice questions. (I think this goes without saying). One similarity is, we preview the text. But instead of just activating Prior Knowledge, we make predictons, speculate, discuss, and explore the topic of the text. We may even have a full-fledged class discussion on the topic before even reading the text. I pull out vocabulary words from the text beforehand and ask for ideas on what these words may mean, using root word strategies and context, eliciting answers from the kids, and clarify the definitions before we start to read. I make sure this is written down and spoken, and I ask the students to synthesize, using the words in their own sentences. I tell my students to think while they read, to highlight points that seem important to them, to evaluate, and to draw at least one conclusion and form one opinion per paragraph. (I apologize for listing, but if I went into each one, we'd be here all day)

I take a small group of students who need support (I know this because I have observed my students, and assessed their level of understanding of non fiction texts through individual reading conferences)  and read the text aloud as they follow along, stopping to discuss whenever my students need to, I follow their lead. We form opinions together. We may draw a picture to represent our conclusions, or fill out a chart with different-colored markers. This is difficult because most inner city classrooms (middle school) have 30+ kids. My small group lesson is constantly interrupted by the rest of the class. "Can I go to the bathroom?" "He's bothering meeee!" "Can you help me? Can I join the group? Please please pleaaase?" This speaks to how important it is to have smaller class sizes, or a teaching assistant. It speaks to how my kids were thirsty for some individual attention, and weren't afraid to ask for it. It killed me to turn down the child who wanted to join Mrs. Chalkduster's group. But remember, the funds are going to.....the test. Not to the things that COMMON SENSE would tell us how to improve education.

Afterwards, I assess my students' understanding by asking the entire class to write an opinion piece based on the text, using an evaluative question. I expect my students to support their opinions with text evidence and their life experiences if it relates to the topic. This also allows me to assess their writing skills (ie grammar, spelling, punctuation, clarity.) I also ask some to illustrate. Sometimes I throw them the option of writing a poem, especially if the text is political or humanitarian in nature. 

So does this tie into accountability? You bet your sweet a$$ it does! 

I do not need to teach to a stupid, superficial standardized test to be held accountable. The level of understanding my students reach while reading and responding to a text is MY RESPONSIBILITY. Therefore, if I taught to the test as policy makers are demanding, i would not be fulfilling my responsibility towards my kids. Guess what? I actually ENJOY TEACHING!!! Amazing, huh? Not surprising to me, considering that when I was five I played "school" with my Cabbage Patch Kids. 

Unfortunately for Ed Deformers, Chalk Duster's way of teaching is not EASILY measurable, because you can't run the results through a machine. It's expensive and time-consuming because competent, EXPERIENCED administrators need to be hired. I was wondering...would Bill Gates be willing to fund this with his billions, instead of standardized testing companies? Of course not, because no one except THE STUDENTS are profiting from it! 

This student-centered, whole-child, in-depth style of teaching can only be observed through.....wait for it.....the eyes of an ADMINISTRATOR (and peer teachers, of course)! Principals need to be held accountable for the manner in which THEY evaluate THEIR staff. They did the hiring, after all.  It is their responsibility to observe their staff carefully, give suggestions, and, to use "deformer" language, "weed out the baaaaad ones". I have a sneaking suspicion that if there was more emphasis placed on this much more sensible method of assessing teachers, and there was no emphasis whatsoever on boring, superficial tests, not too many "bad teachers" would be found. We would be free to educate our students how we see fit, because we are the ones who know them best (in school) and spend the most time with them. This level of autonomy would cause us to excel even further. We would feel trusted, and our confidence would be contagious to our students. What a concept.

Many educators, especially those who work in low-income areas are forced to teach to a test all year. Even the units that are not labeled as "test prep", are still test prep. 

I have no problem accepting accountability for results that I have complete control over. Unfortunately, High-Stakes Test Scores to do not reflect numbers that truly represent the level of dedication a teacher has towards her students.  They do not reflect the refinement of her philosophy or her craft, they do not reflect the level of understanding she has of each individual student, the relationship she has with her class, her ability to effectively differentiate, her work ethic, or her creativity.  Test scores do not reflect her students' ability to think on a high level, form an opinion about at text, and back their claim up with real-life examples.

If you want to hold me "accountable", then hold me accountable for the things that really matter, do it fairly, and please, stop blaming me for our country's troubles. I have enough on my plate. I came here because I love, love, love teaching, as most of us did.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Lillie and the Snakes

Usually my blog is focused on the students. Today my focus is on an 80 year old NYC teacher by the name of Ms. Lillie Leon. Below is a link to an article which discusses the firing of Ms. Leon:,sb=940060,b=facebook

Ms. Leon was fired by the DOE for insubordination after 32 years of service to NYCs children. Her termination, as it stands now, has nothing to do with her teaching practices or classroom management. I am not going to repeat the facts stated in the above article. I will only say that she was exposed to conditions in her school that did not honor the fact that she has a disability. She walks with a cane, and was placed in a kindergarten classroom on the third floor, with no adjoining bathroom. She was not given a teacher's aide, so every time the little ones had to use the potty, she had to walk her entire class of 25 to the bathroom, which was down the hall and through the cafeteria. She appealed to the administration, asking for accommodations, explaining that all this walking back and forth cut into her instructional time, and even requested to teach first grade, because they can go to the bathroom unaccompanied by a teacher. Every request was denied, and then she was fired, basically for requesting of the administration to respect her rights not only as a person with a disability, but an employee of the city of NY.

Here is a woman who has devoted her life to children. I saw her on the CBS news last night. She is soft-spoken and intelligent. She dresses with style and has a warm smile and soft, kind eyes. Instead of applauding her dedication to her students, she is disrespected, abused, and discriminated against. I got the impression from the interview that nothing made her happier than spending each day with her students, and she is disappointed not to be able to return to her school in September. Apparently, she chose not to retire because she'd rather be in the classroom teaching than move to Boca Raton. And yet, Ms. Leon will be easily replaced by a young, cheap, inexperienced teacher who will answer to every whim of the administration. Bit by bit, Bloomburg is finding a way to drive away experienced veteran teachers, who are the backbone of this system. I have witnessed it firsthand in my school. I have seen grown women reduced to tears because of the abuse bestowed upon them, when all they want is respect for their experience and credentials, and the opportunity to grow as a professional.

Every paycheck, for 32 years, (that's 768 paychecks) Ms. Leon contributed to her own pension so when she did choose to retire, she would be able to live somewhat comfortably. Now, might have no pension. Apparently, if someone is terminated at the DOE, they lose their retirement. What will happen to Ms. Leon? How will she survive without her retirement fund?? Why did they perceive her as someone so disposable?

I read several articles on Ed Deform every day, and boy do they get my blood boiling, but none of them have affected me emotionally the way this one has. These are the people I work for. The level of inhumanity is appalling. The mayor, the chancellor, and his cronies are disgustingly rich men who will literally steal a job from an elderly person who has shown them nothing but commitment. These men have no business leading one of the greatest cities in the world, because they are driving the very soul of it to the ground. It is shameful and heartbreaking to me, because I am a New Yorker to the very core. The people running the NYC DOE (the whole system) are a bunch of snakes. The principal of Ms. Leon's school is obviously one too. He/she did not defend her. Instead, he jumped on the political bandwagon and exposed Ms. Leon to embarrassing psychological tests, and later in the year, condemned her to teaching in the cafeteria. Then, he moved ahead with the city’s heartless corporate agenda and fired her.

Ms. Leon is suing the DOE for age discrimination. This is an opportunity for her to expose the corrupt nature of the entire system. I hope she fights and fights till she wins. If she must leave her valued post as a teacher, I hope she leaves kicking and screaming. She has nothing but my respect, support, and deep admiration.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Brick by brick, callused hand by callused hand...." And We are Left Crestfallen.

I was unable to attend the SOS March. I am not proud of this. I refuse to spout excuses, and hold myself fully responsible.

Yet, even from my computer screen, following the march obsessively on Saturday using Twitter and Facebook, I felt the solidarity and unbending determination of citizens such as myself who refuse to accept this outright assault on the children of the USA. NOTHING will prevent me from marching next summer, and I'll come with my entourage of Bronx Teacher Yentas wearing flashy red spaghetti-strap tank tops.

When I read that the president would not take 10 minutes of his time on Saturday to step out onto his front lawn and communicate with, or even acknowledge the thousands of people who were exercising their right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in defense of our nation's public schools, my stomach dropped. His hypocrisy burned me.

At election time, I understood that this man did not come from a past privileged with material things, raised by a single mom, and his grandparents. He was different from the white, rich, power-hungry presidents that preceded him. At the time, I was a single mom, and through my own child, I identified with him as a human being. I hung on to every word of each campaign speech, especially those about education. My eyes filled with tears when he promised:

"I will listen to you... I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation... Block by block, brick by brick, callused hand by callused hand."

The day after he was elected, we (my dear friend and literacy coach was joining us, we had co-taught this class politics-based ELA lessons for a month before the elections, ironically creating multiple-choice questions on articles about the ineffectiveness NCLB) purchased plastic champagne flutes and some Martinelli's (alcohol-free) bubbly and toasted his victory with my 34 6th graders. Our eyes shone with hope, silently saying:

"Finally, a president who will help us. Who will understand OUR plight. Who will listen to the concerns of the poor, the parents, the teachers, the middle class, the laborers, the soldiers who risk their lives, those working 60 hours a week with calloused hands, those with heavy loads upon their backs and their minds. There is light at the end of this sad, dark tunnel. We have HOPE."

Well, as he has proven on Saturday, he is not listening. His hands, have they ever seen a callous? Has he lifted even one lousy brick? What, exactly, has he re-built? Nothing. Instead, he has taken the power away from the backbone of this country: the public sector. He has placed our children’s' futures in the hands of selfish, ignorant, rich businessmen. A well-rounded education is only good enough for his daughters and the kids of his millionaire and billionaire cronies.

Mr. Obama, what has become of you? I think it's time to revisit your childhood. And your victory speech.

While you're at it, grab a copy of the multiple choice section of the NYS ELA exam, time yourself for 60 minutes, grab a #2 pencil, and start reading those mind-numbing, emotionally-void texts and start filling in those bubbles. Tell me you did not come across at least ten questions that were there just to trick a middle-schooler. Tell me your brain didn't feel like it was just squeezed through a pasta-maker. Then, tell me that a child's worth as a student and a teacher's worth as an educator should be based on that test.

Then, give the test to Milea. She might throw it back at you and say, "DAD, this is stupid and boring and confusing."

THEN, rethink the TRILLIONS of taxpayers' hard-earned dollars, many earned by minimum wage employees with calloused hands that YOU (and Arne) SPENT on high-stakes tests, data collection, and test prep materials. And don't give me any bullshit that you are "changing these tests". Standardized tests used to evaluate students and teachers can be dressed up in any pretty format you like, it's still completely inequitable until you address the problem of poverty.

I am crestfallen by your deceit and outright hypocrisy. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Common Core Crime

So, I have been thinking a lot recently about our children becoming independent thinkers with the ability to relate their own experiences to what they are learning in school. When it comes to the teaching of literacy, the life experience that students bring to the table is crucial when it comes to learning how to draw conclusions and make solid inferences. Because each child's life experiences are vastly different, teaching them how to tap into their prior knowledge not only helps the individual student to acquire an in-depth understanding of a text, it enriches the literary experience of the other students as well. In a group setting, students can share their previous knowledge on a topic and actually teach one another to make solid inferences using this skill. In addition, tapping into a student's emotions and opinions is also extremely important, when teaching both fiction and nonfiction. Wow. I am boring myself. I'm not going to go on with this educational jargon--let's make it real:

Let's go back to my much beloved and very challenging sixth grade homeroom of last year. Rewind back to March. At this time, we were in a fiction unit. I was instructed to look at the test data from the previous fiction unit back in October, and see which skills my students were lacking the most, and focus on those skills. Data-driven instruction. We actually had to break down each students' progress (or lack thereof) into Performance Indicators (as dictated by NY State) or skills, which makes the teaching of something as lovely and imaginative as reading into a task that, well, just sucks the magic right out of a story.

Anyways, I looked at the precious, all-knowing Data Report (sound effect: aaa-aaahh---visual---ray of heavenly light) and noticed that, according to the numbers, my kids really did not understand how to identify the theme of a story. Well, of course they didn't. I had to jam so much material into that fiction unit in October that I was only able to teach Theme for a few days, and Theme is the most difficult literary concept to grasp. Why? Because the kids need to place themselves in the story to understand it. They need to make inferences about the characters. They need to bring the lessons THEY have learned in life in order to identify with what the characters are learning, and thus lead themselves to a theme.

So, here I was faced with a quite a challenge. (Picture Chalkduster rubbing her hands together over a pile of Data Reports). I knew the ONLY way the kids would grasp this difficult concept would be to give them a text that they could REALLY identify with, that we could sink our teeth into for an entire week.

I chose "On the Sidewalk Bleeding", a short story by Evan Hunter. In a nutshell, it's about a boy who joined a gang called The Royals and proudly wore a royal purple jacket representing his solidarity. He was stabbed in the stomach one rainy night in an alleyway by members of an opposing gang. The story begins with him lying on the sidewalk, dying and bleeding in the rain. The story ends with him using every ounce of strength he had left before he dies to wriggle out of that jacket. It's really, really sad.

I'm sure you can all see why I chose that story! Gang activity is a way of life for some of my kids. Not to say they are members of gangs, but many of their neighborhoods are permeated by them. When I gave the story to all of my kids to read independently you could hear a pin drop in room 113. A delicious stillness filled the air, and all I could hear was the occasional squeak of a desk, the soft patter of early-spring rain, and the tinkling of little Juanita's bracelets as she constantly flipped her impossibly long, wavy hair. She read intently, brows furrowed, her huge brown eyes focused, her mouth forming the shape of the words. (I can really visualize her now, and it's actually making me miss her.) Juanita reads almost on a fourth-grade level. I know this text is way above her "level". But I also know that Juanita has lived in homeless shelters and has witnessed her father beating her mother. (One day we had lunch together and she disclosed this information to me earnestly, but then reassured me she was safe. She produced a tiny, dog-eared picture of a young man with her brown eyes and said, "He's in jail now.") I know that even now, her living situation is not stable. I know by looking at her tiny, lithe frame that she definitely could use a few good meals, although she is entitled free breakfast and lunch at school. I know she has an older brother somewhere, and she's not even sure where he is.

I watched little Juanita closely and waited for her attention to the text to wane as it usually does after reading for five minutes. It did not. With much wriggling, hair-flipping, and bracelet-clinking, she finished with a flourish and let a few tears leak out. I approached her desk with a little smile. She stared up at me from her small, crossed arms. "Miss! Why you give us such sad stuff to read?? That poor boy! He never shoulda joined them Royals!" I gently shushed her and reminded her that many kids had not yet finished reading. This is not the first time she has cried over something she read. She cried a lot during the Poetry Unit. When we analyzed the lyrics of The Beatles "She's Leaving Home", Juanita had to go to the girls' room and splash cold water on her face. I then leaned down and whispered in her ear, "I give you sad stories to read on purpose so you can feel for the characters. It helps you to understand the story and make good inferences. I'm sorry that you feel sad, but that was my intention. Now I know that you understood the text."

Freddy shot us an annoyed glare. He was still on the second page, a careful, systematic, deliberate reader. Only when reading something engaging did he NOT welcome distractions. "Shut UP, Juanita, I'm trying to read!" I know he wanted to tell ME to shut up, but he knew better.

Once all of the kids finished the story, it was time to drop the bomb that we had to pick it apart, make inferences, and find the theme. We had to answer multiple choice questions. And essay questions. Groans ensued. I looked at my kids. I had their full, undivided attention. Even Fred, although standing next to his chair at this point, about to protest, held his crinkled copy of the story in front of him protectively, as if my manner of teaching was going to completely destroy it to smithereens. I just couldn't do this to them. They were hungry, starving for debate and discussion, dying to express to me, and each other, the emotions this story awakened inside of them.

Suddenly, I 86’Ed the multiple choice and essay questions I had written about the story. I slapped my typed, workshop-model lesson plan face down on my desk. Instead, I simply asked, "So, what did you all think?" I offered them a winning smile that told them their opinions and experiences were welcome. A passionate class discussion about gangs began:

"I got the BLOODS on my block!"

"Yeah, I got the Latin Kings. My ma said never to join a gang."

"My cousin is dead a ‘cause of a gang."

"My mom doesn't let me go outside after dinner. She say I could get hurt by a stray bullet."

"He got stabbed, yo! COOL. So much blood." (that was Freddy again. He has a morbid personality and he thinks it makes him likeable, but no one really takes his bad-ass attitude seriously. He's the smallest kid in the class by far.)

"Why he didn't fight harder?"

"Why he take off that jacket before he died?"

"He wanted to be himself."

"He didn't want to die as a Royal. He didn't want to leave that impression on the world. He wanted people to remember him as Andy." (That, from Sashaya. I wanted to hug her.)

I didn't have to say a word. In the discussion alone, they were approaching the theme and a deeper understanding of the text. I guess this is why education intellectuals say good teaching is really just facilitating. They made inferences about characters: "The cop at the end of the story acted like he didn't care cuz he sees this stuff all the time, He's ---numb---is that right, Miss? He don't feel it because he used to it."

The-new-goal of the lesson, which actually lasted three days, was to act out parts of the story in front of the class and fill out a graphic organizer with different levels of questions from Bloom's Taxonomy. This would eventually lead to the groups of students creating a colorful poster brandishing proudly the Theme of the story: What lesson about life does the reader learn from the story? Of course they had to use evidence from the text to back it up. But they also could use their prior knowledge on the topic of gangs. Those posters were proudly displayed on the bulletin board in the hallway for quite a while. I was so proud of them, but more importantly, they were proud of themselves for grasping a concept they had constantly fumbled on.

During the course of that week, they were in heterogeneous groups (different abilities) of four or five. I did not have to do anything but wander about the room, and eavesdrop, or ask a few leading questions to strugglers. All in all, the lesson was an enormous success. Every child was engaged and having a great time. There were no essay questions or dreaded multiple choice questions. And, on the next unit test, (multiple choice, modeled after the State Exam) their proficiency level for finding Theme rose a whopping 62%.

The reason why I chose to enlighten you all with this heart-warming story is that I wanted to give you perspective on the matter of using students' prior knowledge while teaching high-level literacy skills. I have serious concerns with how the new Common Core Standards approaches Literacy Education. They speak for themselves. Cited from Ed Week:

**Side note: I apologize for not placing a tag to the link here. For some reason, since BlogSpot decided to change their publishing layout, I have been unable to use bold, italics, and underline, and I am not presented with the option of placing a link inside my text. There is no spell-check available. If any of my blogger friends can help me with this irritating situation, I'd appreciate it. So, for those who are interested, here is the link to the article I am referring to:

This article offers a link to a PDF document of the actual Common Core Standards.

“Eighty to 90 percent of the reading standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis; accordingly, aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions,” say the criteria for grades 3-12.

Ok. Fair enough. A deep understanding of the text is always our goal. But here is where it makes me want to hurl my breakfast, because the murder of independent thought begins in Kindergarten, when children will be conditioned, by the time they are in 3rd grade:

“Materials should be sparing in offering activities that are not text dependent,” say the criteria for grades K-2. “Whether written or spoken, responses based on students’ background knowledge and the experiences they bring to school are not sufficient.”

Whoa. Hold on a minute. What our clueless common-core writers are TELLING us absolutely disgusted public school teachers to do is dismiss the educational value of a student's prior knowledge in drawing conclusions, making inferences, and yes, figuring out the theme of a story. I which case, I'd really LOVE to know how we are expected to teach higher-level thinking skills while reading. For example, evaluating a text is on top of the triangle of Bloom's Taxonomy. How is a child going to successfully evaluate a text when she is not encouraged to think about it in the context of HER world, her individual reality? Our students do not come to us as empty vessels. Quite the contrary, they wander into my classroom brimming with experiences and stories and opinions. They are excited to share these experiences and CONNECT their knowledge to what they read. The first and most popular "text connection" they use in their Reading Journals is the "text-to-self" connection, closely followed by "text-to-world", "text-to-media", and "text-to-text". What will happen to the teaching of text-connections? Will I be fired if my principal walks in and I am teaching the kids to make a text-to-world connection during my Non Fiction unit? Oh, NO.

We cannot, WILL NOT, take this away from them. If we did, they SIMPLY would not learn. It would be like taking their foundation of knowledge right out from underneath them and telling them, "Read this text, but only think about this text. Any prior knowledge you may have about anything in here is irrelevant. What you think does not, and will never matter." This approach is not only demoralizing to the students in the way that they are being told their life experience and previous book knowledge is completely worthless, but it is designed to transform creative, opinionated, independent-thinking citizens into complacent consumers, not questioning any ideas that are thrown into their intellectual path. That, my friends, is Government Control at its very ugliest. Once every public school (if public schools even survive the next decade) implements this abomination of our constitutional rights, we will be finished. Hitler kept his masses uneducated. He did not want his citizens to be independent thinkers. As a result, millions turned their heads out of fear and ignorance while an entire race (and any naysayers) was almost eradicated. Americans need to wake up!!!!

One may think my manner of denouncing the Common Core Standards is extreme, but I want my readers to realize just how DANGEROUS this is to our kids, and the future of our country. The implementation of Common Core Standards is only on SMALL example of the right-wing, corporate stronghold that has sickened my beloved America. Call me crazy, call me paranoid, and call me an over-the-top conspiracy theorist. But at least I've got my eyes open, and I am exercising my rights while I still have them.

"Some commentaries from the Left doubt that idealism has ever been much more than a cloak for darker purposes in educational reform, such as the production of a tranquilized work force that would learn enough--but not too much--in school." Exactly. This quote is from "Among Schoolchildren" , by Tracy Kidder, published in 1989...written over twenty years ago, it scarily holds more truth than ever, today. I highly recommend this book.

So, come September, I will take up my new position as Kindergarten Teacher ( was time for a change) and I will keep you all posted on how the Common Core affects Early Childhood Education. After all, little, cute five year olds come to school armed mostly with their life experiences, and this knowledge means the world to them at that age. Who doesn't know a five year old who loves to tell stories about themselves? For example:

"Um um um yesterday, I went to the park, and my daddy was being so silly, and and and he ran in the spwinkers, and got all wet, and then and then there was HUGE bug on his head, and it looked sooo cool, and I wanna find a book with bug pictures, I wanna find that same bug, do you have any bug books?"

Taking away the importance of a child's life experiences is an educational crime.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Test Data vs. Report Card Grades...and the Winner is....

So I am sure some of you are wondering how some of my students fared on the Torture Tests this year. Five out of my fifty-seven students did not pass the ELA exam, but all seven of my hold-overs did. And what does this tell us? That I did an OK job teaching Test Prep this year.

Yay for me.

You see, one might think that I feel proud, and in a strange sense I do. I feel proud that my students showed the discipline and respect to listen to me and apply the test-taking strategies I was blackmailed into teaching this year, regardless of that fact that it bored them to tears. This really speaks to their growth as the type of students our Deformers wanted them to become: robotic, complacent little drones, learning to read by picking apart small details in a text, viewing poetry as just a bunch of similes and metaphors and imagery, and reading a nonfiction text not for the purpose of learning and applying the content to their lives, but reading it to see if they have "reading skills".

So, I guess, in that sense, I do harbor a guilty feeling of accomplishment.

When the "pass/fail" scores came in in June (We haven't received actual numbers yet, yet they can tell us who passed and who failed? Sounds fishy to me...) I had the glorious job of telling five of my students that they had to go to Summer School, and if they did not pass the re-take in August, that they would have to repeat the entire grade. No Child Left Behind, unless she fails our unfair and subpar test twice in a row.

One of the boys knew he failed because he stopped taking the test halfway through the Multiple Choice portion (See post far below: Bubble Torture for the Kiddies). His mother claimed that she sent him to school with a fever on the day of the test. He shrugged the idea of Summer School off like it was No Big Deal. OK, he was lazy all year and failed my class anyway because he hardly did a lick of work, despite the fact that I kept him for detention, called his mother twice a month, and recommended appropriate and interesting books to him. So if it had actually been my decision, the verdict would have been the same.

Two of my girls passed my class with grades in the 80s. They came into my class reading on a 4th grade level and left reading on a 6th grade level. (See explanation of Running Records: one of my earlier posts entitled, High Stakes Testing: The Measurement of our Worth....)They worked hard all year to overcome the many challenges they faced in the journey of Literacy Education. Yes, they had attitudes and their behavior sometimes left much to be desired. But on the whole, these girls deserved a nice pat on the back for persevering all year long despite the many obstacles they faced living in the inner-city.  They both failed the test and have to go to Summer School, and were devastated. Never mind the grade I gave them. This sends them the message that no matter how hard they work, no matter what good grade their teacher gives them as a result, if they fail this test, they are DOOMED to spend the month of July in a sweltering classroom, faced with all the mundane tasks associated with Test Torture, which they were forced to do all year. In that case, what's the point in trying in class? "I worked hard, my teacher passed me, but I failed this impossible test. What's the point of even trying if I'm going to fail anyways?" Can you see how a twelve year old would arrive at this rationalization?

One girl's family had plans to travel to their native country this summer, and because they were not informed about this until Mid-June, I can imagine that must have compounded what was already a very difficult situation for that family. So now her parents have to choose between leaving her behind with a relative, not sending their family at all, or keeping her from Summer School and forcing her to repeat the sixth grade...WHEN I PASSED HER!!!!!

The final example of this display of mistrust for and disregard of the dedicated folks in my profession I will offer you is that of a student who did pass the test. He was a hold-over. He, too, refused to work all year. He never did his homework, failed many of my tests, and his attendance was terrible, despite my efforts to help him. His mother showed up to talk to me one week before school ended. I had never met her before that day because she never showed up to conferences, and her phone was always disconnected, so it was nearly impossible to reach out to her. I failed him for EVERY marking period. He simply did not, WOULD not earn a passing grade, despite the fact he reads ABOVE grade level. But....he passed the NYS ELA exam, so he MUST be ready to move on, right? He does not have to go to Summer School, gets to pass GO, and collect his passing test scores with no consequences.

Once again, the issue of consistency comes up. The students' test scores are not always consistent with the grades they actually EARN all year. What does this tell us about the measure of assessment that is being utilized in this system? That is is worth less than a square of toilet paper, and holds as much weight to me as the puffs of fur that fly out of my dog's tail in the summertime. It says next to NOTHING about what a child has REALLY learned all year, except that they know how to use process of elimination and fill in the bubble that McGraw-Hill claims to be the right one. And of course, these scores, the DATA has much more weight. About as much weight as a dumbell, or Andre The Giant. But it holds absolutley no value to me as a professional.

So....why am I here? Why do I write report cards? The grades my students earn on report cards are based on essays, class participation, behavior, homeowrk, quizzes, and unit tests. These grades reflect the hard work (or lack thereof) that my students put into my English class all year.  If the grades that I give my students on their report cards are not taken into consideration when deciding to send them to summer school or hold them back, then why am I even WRITING REPORT CARDS?