Archive for the ‘Schools’ Category

This isn’t about teachers being afraid that they’ll be knifed in class, or have their cars stolen in the bad neighborhoods where they teach. Nor are they worried that a disruptive student will threaten them, or that a disturbed gunman will invade their school. It’s not about being berated by an angry parent, or accused of being unfair—or something far worse—by a student.

It’s a different kind of fear. I only began to understand this fear after I started the series “Teachers in Their Own Words” that I’ve been running here on “Kids in The System.”

I follow the education reform debate closely. Over time I realized that most of the voices raised in this debate were those of people who had nothing to do with the classroom. The obvious question was, “What do politicians, business executives, clergy, academic researchers know about teaching?” The people who would know best—teachers—were rarely heard. Yet the ones I knew and came in contact with were eager to talk about what they did. It was a decidedly different conversation from the ones the pundits and critics were having. Yes, most teachers lamented mandated testing, the loss of classroom autonomy and a one-size-fits-all curriculum shaped by test results. But most were happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do, given the day).

So I decided to invite teachers from a variety of educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom.

Over the nine months that the series ran, I learned a lot. About what it was like teaching high school on a New Mexico reservation. About the challenges of teaching young offenders either still in prison or in a release program.  The Monday after the Sandy Hook shootings, a kindergarten teacher shared the joy she felt talking and singing and having an ordinary day with her very much alive little people.  Another teacher wrote about the difficulties of teaching English Language Learners and the burden that Common Core put on her and her students. I heard about the importance of community college as a stepping stone to success for new citizens, older learners and younger students making their way. One teacher told readers why she planned on spending a weekend in Washington DC for an “Occupy Education” event, while another explored the weaknesses of the Common Core curriculum and its far-reaching impact. There was the poignant “resignation letter” from a young teacher who had “had enough,” deciding to leave public education for a private school because she felt disloyal to all she believed teaching should be. And then there was the teacher who felt that the only way she could stay in education was to leave it, immersing herself in a student self-directed learning program.

In approaching teachers to write for the series I was surprised how many at first hesitated. It wasn’t because they were too busy or didn’t have anything to say. Some had even written drafts and then gotten cold feet about going public. None of the articles were vindictive or critical of their school administrations. None were personal attacks or a fault finding feast. If anything the pieces were warmhearted, funny, and insightful. What criticism there was was directed toward our national education policy and its harmful effect on students.  Still, in the end, a few teachers backed out altogether while others asked that their full name not be used or that their schools’ location be purposely vague.

And there’s the fear. Teachers were worried that somehow they would get in trouble with their school administrators. From what many teachers report there’s a strong message being given to teaching staffs: Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t ask questions. Don’t bring up the inconvenient truth, say, of a school policy implemented to meet a national mandate that contradicts current research or best practices.  In such an atmosphere of distrust, powerlessness, and alienation from what should be a culture of collegiality and collaboration what choices do teachers have but to hunker down and try to survive? After all, these days, teacher evaluations have become just as high stakes as student testing.

According to a MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, teacher satisfaction has slipped from 65% in 2008 to only 39% in 2012. Perhaps this fear of speaking out is contributing to that dissatisfaction. The sample of teachers that I encountered may seem small and therefore inconclusive. And maybe it’s just a coincidence that teachers from different schools and different parts of the country felt this fear, this need for caution. But it’s enough to make me wonder what is going on in our schools when teachers are afraid to engage in sincere democratic discourse, a process that we have always valued and that we teach our students is an essential ingredient of a healthy country.

Originally posted on Huffington Post

Although teachers spend their days surrounded by people— albeit little, and younger people—it’s still an isolating job. For many of us in the classroom, the vitality and the support to do our jobs comes from colleagues. Ideas exchanged, “problem students” talked over, “try this” suggestions for lessons are what keep teachers professional, motivated and, frankly, human. In the latest contribution to the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series, “The Coffee Crisis: Do Teachers Have to Feel Alone?” which originally appeared in Education Week, Hillary Greene writes in what at first appears to be a lighthearted way about the isolation and lack of collegiality that is taking over our schools.  What is missing, she writes, is not just free, decent coffee in the staff room but the space, time and freedom to share with each other. The current standardized curriculum leaves little room for children to be creative and to learn the art of community. This limited, locked-step model holds true for teachers as well, leading people like Hillary to worry, “that I’m losing my voice.” Hillary, who has taught middle school for three years in independent, public, and public charter settings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, need not worry. As you’ll see, her voice is strong, courageous, and wise.

The Coffee Crisis: Do Teachers Have to Feel Alone?

Everybody knows that a good house party, no matter how enticing the dining room, ends up in the kitchen. Surrounded by the comfort of food and drink, we relax and bond. We say things we wouldn’t say in the dining room.

Yet, in this nation that “runs on Dunkin’,” some schools appear to be cutting back on staff-room provisions as a budgetary precaution. So while Google generously—and shrewdly—provides copious amounts of first-class nourishment to its employees, teachers often can’t get a free cup of coffee.

And while a cut like this may seem relatively insignificant, I’m convinced it harms teaching and learning.

Without coffee to induce them to linger in the staff room, teachers have lost their kitchen space. And gone are the conversations that used to occur there, where the most productive (and completely unscheduled) meetings would often occur. Somehow, encounters in front of vending machines tucked in some tiny, darkened room do not produce the same effect.

But this isn’t really about coffee. This is about teacher voice and collaboration.

An Isolating Profession

I decided to become a teacher four years ago, due to some combination of a desire to have an impact on others and indecision about what else to do. Also involved on some level were the collapse of the economy and an interest in heeding President Obama’s call for top students to pursue public service and teaching.

I learned to teach middle school humanities in an alternative-licensure program at an independent school in Cambridge, Mass. Around the seminar table, we soon-to-be teachers grappled with questions of equal access to great education while we swapped tales from teaching that day. Between classes and after school, the teachers’ staff room provided not only free coffee, but also free peanut butter and crackers, so people congregated. In that cozy space, I practiced an important aspect of teaching: bonding with colleagues. Another teacher’s “Patrick” sounded like “James” in my class, so we talked and shared experiences. We all laughed together when a stressed teacher ran in to get a coffee and exclaimed, “I have to remember I’m not running the Pentagon!”

I stepped into my first teaching job filled to the brim with ideas about teaching and learning. But I completely underestimated all it takes to be an effective teacher (and how infrequently bathroom breaks occur). Making matters worse, my school offered none of the opportunities for collaboration and informal conversation among teachers that I had experienced in my training program. I tried to figure out my next social studies unit during 30-second conversations in the copy room. A 20-minute conversation with a social worker seemed like a rare treat. I spent most hours at my computer, drowning alone.

Still hopeful, I stepped into my second dream job this past fall at a first-year public charter school, but it has proven to be no different. I find myself reflecting relentlessly: Does public school teaching really have to be this isolating?

Losing My Voice

The greatest disappointment for me as a teacher has been how little intellectual exchange there is among educators. On the way to a staff meeting, I still catch myself running through my dream agenda: First, we’ll reflect on the prevalence of ADHD and the implications for us, after which we’ll all step back and think about whether more—not fewer—music classes could improve our math scores and students’ experiences. Then we’ll think about the rapidly growing use of iPads in the classroom and what that might mean for instruction. Instead, in reality, I quietly enter the meeting room, sip my tea, and chime in when I must because perhaps my professional opinion matters on where recycling bins could be stored or maybe the department head just got to my students on her list of numbers—that is, students—not meeting assessment proficiency.

At these get-togethers, the party never moves out of the dining room.

I have occasionally worked up the nerve to ask kitchen questions in the dining room, but the results have not been good. During an IEP meeting, I brought up the issue of racial identity for a struggling African-American boy in a predominantly white, affluent school. For that, I was called a “loose cannon.” At another meeting, I divulged that I felt more like a proctor than a literature teacher due to the frequency of assessments. For that, I was made to feel as though I misunderstood the whole purpose of assessment. I have questioned many aspects of the way my school operates, and I have stated my views more directly as my experience as a teacher has grown. For that, I have been urged to be more “politically correct.”

It’s hard not to feel that I’m losing my voice. Or perhaps I’m saving it for something else.

We frequently hear the statistic that nearly half of teachers leave teaching within five years. I’m inclined to believe that politically incorrect loose cannons leave schools at a higher rate. Yet this is precisely the type of person you want teaching because he or she can inspire children to find their own voices.

Teachers are getting the message: Quiet down and behave. We need you, but we don’t value you.

If we want our public schools to create the next generation of thoughtful, engaged Americans, we need to support the people whose job it is to make an impact, and we need to work especially hard to retain the types of teachers who question the status quo and speak up even at the risk of being politically incorrect.

We could start by giving teachers free coffee—and how about decent coffee?—so that the party can move back to the kitchen. Otherwise, doors will close and the great ideas in education will be spoken separately and silently in lonely classrooms.

 

As Common Core curriculum moves closer to full implementation the discussion about its impact on students and teachers heats up. As you’ll read in today’s guest essay, “A Plain Little Thing” by Jeff Nguyen, the latest in the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series, there’s a “collision coming down the tracks.” The effects of these standards are far reaching and go beyond the obvious concerns of limiting teachers’ ability to tailor curriculum to the needs and interests of their current students. Some states are beginning to question the wisdom and feasibility of such a national course of studies. While Indiana has taken an even braver step and has “paused” its implementation of Common Core until those involved can fully study it. Jeff has long been involved in teaching. He has extensive experience working with a variety of K-12 students with special learning needs. Currently he is a kindergarten teacher in Florida and next year will be moving to first grade. Jeff is not only a practitioner but also a critical thinker when it comes to educational and social justice issues. Sounds pretty heavy, doesn’t it. But when you read Jeff’s piece you’ll see that he has a great blend of fact, insight, humor and Dr. Seuss wisdom—useful qualities for any teacher facing today’s crazy educational world. You can read more of Jeff’s writings at his blog http://deconstructingmyths.com .

“A Plain Little Thing”

I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,

But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”

Dr. Seuss

As another school year draws to a close in the land of milk and Honey Boo Boo, students across the land are looking forward to enjoying their summer break, whether it be learning to dance Gangnam Style, playing video games until their thumbs fall off or avoiding the outdoors like the cooties. For teachers, this stretch is looked forward to with equal anticipation. It is a time to catch one’s breath, eat a leisurely lunch with actual grown-ups and go to the bathroom whenever they gosh darned feel like it. However, when they return to school in the fall both students and teachers, alike, will have one thing to look forward to…the Common Core curriculum.

Just as the professional judgment and expertise of the teacher has been minimized through the widespread reliance on standardized testing scores as a measure of student achievement and teacher effectiveness, the Common Core takes matters to its logical conclusion by replacing state and locally developed educational standards with a national curriculum that all states who sought “Race to the Top” funding are expected to follow in lockstep fashion. By 2014, students in Kindergarten and up will take end-of-year assessments called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers) because, well, all 5 and 6 year-olds should be ready for college and careers before they can go to first grade.

Let me take just a minute to break down what life is like in a typical Kindergarten classroom, or at least in mine. Our day starts with 18 boys and girls, of varying backgrounds and abilities, who are all inclined to decide that they need to blow their noses, show me their loose tooth or new sneakers at the exact same time upon their arrival to the classroom. Invariably, before the morning announcements are over, half the students will need to use the bathroom or need a new pencil/eraser. Guaranteed, that by the end of the morning read-aloud, at least five students will inform me that a) they have a microscopic boo-boo, b) they’re hungry and/or c) they have to go to the bathroom again. As the day progresses and the stamina of the students begins to diminish, I remind them that they just need to pull themselves up by their untied bootstraps and finish their math problems or so help me, Bill Gates, himself, will descend from the heavens to reform their pint-sized, wayward selves.

In the past year, I have learned many things from my students. I have discovered that applesauce and ketchup mixed together are not gross but milk and peas are really yucky. I have found that 5 and 6 year-olds do not like to sit still for more than 1 minute and 43 seconds at a time but they do love to clap, sing and dance. I have ascertained that my students do not always like to talk about why Hansel felt conflicted when he was fed by the witch while Gretel was left to starve but they will gladly talk about their lunch, their baby sister, their pet hamster and pretty much anything else under the sun except how Hansel and Gretel can be compared to similar protagonists in the folk tale genre. I have also realized that children do love to learn, play and talk but it has to be within a context of authentic experiences that are carefully constructed so as to shape their thoughts and ideas in a meaningful way.

In my finite wisdom, I do foresee a collision coming down the tracks between the locomotive of Common Core and the caboose of poverty. I think special education students will feel the impact most heavily, a historically overrepresented population in the juvenile justice system who will find themselves increasingly alienated from the mainstream of school life. Eventually, though, all students and teachers are going to feel the burn. My lingering fear is that this is another “set the pins up to knock them down” initiative to widen the net of privatization and standardization of the curriculum at the expense of creativity, experiential and aesthetic learning as well as the minimizing of children’s literature as an agent of change and diversity.

I admit that I’m not too sure which Common Core standard was covered when my students learned in Social Studies one day about a brave turtle named Mack who was tired of being stepped on. One day he had had enough and he challenged Yertle, king of the turtles, who had built his kingdom on the backs of the unwashed turtles. When King Yertle refused to hear his plea and show compassion, Mack let loose the burp heard around the world. Mack’s burp caused Yertle to fall from his throne built high upon the backs of the other turtles and into the mud. It was a plain, little turtle doing a plain, little thing that brought liberation to the turtle citizenry. If only there were more Macks among us willing to make whatever burps, farts and sneezes are needed to bring the Yertles of the world back down to the mud with the rest of us so that our fellow turtles can be free to forage in peace.

It’s hard reading about the lockstep curriculum set out by Common Core with its emphasis on “informational readings,” and seeing all the hoops students and teachers have to jump through to meet its standards. Quite frankly, it makes me sad.

“Why sad?” you might wonder. Frustrated, maybe, or for that matter, mad. But sad?  Usually when the topic is education reform frustrated and mad come easily to me. But this is different. I’m a romantic (as I think many English teachers are) and I see literature—poetry, drama, fiction—and its power to change people’s lives as the heart of an English teacher’s job.

But the designers of Common Core don’t see it that way. They assert that students have been raised on an easy-read curriculum and because of this they are unable to analyze complex reports, studies and government documents. The administration’s solution is to have informational texts make up 50 percent of elementary school readings and 70 percent of 12th grade readings by 2014. Unfortunately, the burden of this solution will fall mostly on English teachers, leaving them little time to teach real literature.  Instead they will somehow have to figure out ways to get kids interested in such texts as “Fed Views” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) or “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental Energy, and Transportation Management” published by the General Services Administration.

So yes, it makes me sad to see the education of the heart —the real core of any worthwhile English curriculum—gutted for the sake of global competition, and to see teachers once again take the hit for “dummied down” education.

But I feel saddest for the kids who must struggle their way through this type of literal—not literary—education, especially those kids for whom school is already a difficult and alienating place.

I’ve worked with those students in both alternative high schools and a county prison, young men and women who have already had the heart taken out of their lives by poverty, racism, abandonment and neglect. They have very little interest in school because the traditional school setting has had very little interest in them. And now this latest roadblock makes success even harder to attain: a reading curriculum that has less to do with real life, their real life, and more to do with corporate America.

As an English teacher it’s never easy to get disaffected kids to pick up a book and read. I was constantly justifying my choices, answering the question every literature teacher (and author) is confronted with in one way or another, “What’s this got to do with me?”  But once we got past those hurdles and students gave a particular reading a chance, I have seen books—novels, plays, poetry, biography, memoir—save at-risk kids’ lives, if only for the time that they are reading them.

I’m pretty certain that one of the Federalist Papers, a Common Core selection, wouldn’t have kept fifteen-year-old Warren out of trouble on the cell block and coming to my jailhouse classroom. But Manchild in the Promised Land did. As Warren put it, “I’ve never ever read a whole book before,” but once he got his hands on Claude Brown’s memoir that changed. Slowly, he got lost in a book that not only reflected Warren’s own troubled life but also did something else—showed him a young man much like himself deciding that life on the streets was no life at all. That book helped keep Warren out of trouble and coming to school long after he’d read the last page.

The way poetry did for ‘Nor. A seventeen-year-old single mom who worked the 3-11 shift at Sears, ‘Nor never missed a day of school because of the poets she read in class like Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Rilke, Luis Rodriguez, and her favorite, the enigmatic Emily Dickinson. She didn’t always understand what she read but those words helped her survive life in the projects where too often words had nothing to do with poetry.

And it’s hard to imagine that George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language would have had Tanya, a real cut-up with a long suspension record from her home school, jumping off the school bus and running towards me yelling, “Mr. C., Mr. C, I finished 1984! I can’t believe what they did to Winston!”

Given the way this country is going, haunted by one tragedy after another, maybe it’s time to re-examine what we want our true Common Core to be. Maybe it’s time to worry more about the heart of America, and about all America’s children and less about the bankrolls of corporate America. Let’s design a reading curriculum that keeps kids connected to their schools, to their communities and to their best selves.

Originally appeared on Huffington Post

 

We all want schools to be welcoming places. What better way for students to learn than when they feel comfortable and safe. But schools have become less welcoming as education gets more mired in the mandates of Common Core curriculum and high stakes testing. The pressure is on for everyone–students, teachers, administrators, even parents–to meet these requirements or risk severe consequences (such as being labeled a “failing school.”) Although schools, especially in the higher grades, in one way or another have always had a culture of competition and conformity, things seem worse these days. Catherine Gobron, today’s contributor, knows all about young people’s reactions to that culture. She is the program director for North Star,  a center of “self-directed learning for teens.” I love their slogan, “Learning is natural. School is optional.” It says it all. Just because a kid stops going to school doesn’t mean that she or he isn’t interested in learning, isn’t curious about the world. As Catherine explains in her piece, teens say “no” to school for a variety of reasons. Many are just looking for a few adults who have the courage to listen to them and to guide them wherever their interests take them. Catherine is one of those adults and North Star is one of those places. You can read more of Catherine’s writings on Huffington Post.

“Learning is Natural. School is Optional”

I left high school when I was 17. My GPA was 3.9, but I was failing due to excessive absences. I had friends who were content and thriving, but I hated to be there. I felt constrained, disrespected, and uninvolved. My discontent was a negative experience for everyone who had to deal with me.

I eventually found my way to a diploma and college degrees and decided on a career in teaching. I wanted to be the teacher I didn’t have, the one who would see me through my anger and believe in me despite my negative relationship to school. But one semester into my standard track Masters in Education program and I was exhausted by frustrations similar to those that drove me from school as a student so many years earlier. Rubrics, standards, testing…these suffocated me as a youth, and as it turned out, I still felt that way as an adult.

I changed programs to Creative Arts in Learning and set about finding ways to serve students outside of  traditional school.

I now direct a program where teens who are unhappy in school are supported to leave school to pursue self-directed learning. We tell teens that not thriving in school is not indicative of anything. It’s just a bad match. There are other routes to happy and successful futures, and we support each of our students to pursue his or her unique path.

Every day is an adventure in our strange, new universe, and every day something beautiful happens. Kindnesses occur between students who would not have spoken to each other in school. Students re-imagine themselves as artists, or readers, or public speakers in ways that seemed unthinkable before.

Two years ago Jacqueline arrived fresh from school, shut down and incredibly small for such a tall young woman. She had various mental health diagnoses and was taking several prescription medications. Our environment is safe, welcoming, and accepting, and Jacqueline spent the first six months alone in our comfortable library, reading, sitting, thinking. At some point she became interested in dancing and confident enough to join a community dance class. Some time after she began comfortably spending social time in the noisy common room downstairs. She also stopped taking and stopped needing her medications. By the end of the year, Jacqueline identified herself as a dancer and at 17 she moved on to a dance program at a local community college, where she is now thriving.

A few years ago we gained a student who was a passionate activist, concerned about human rights. School was dominating his time and schedule, and keeping him from what he already knew was his life’s work. The stability of our program helped convince his parents that he could and would continue his education outside of school. He did. He also began writing for various publications and working on several committees with adults on human rights issues. He has been accepted to prestigious universities, but is currently choosing to live in a city away from home, interning for an established human rights organization. Our program helped set him free and allowed him to focus on his life’s work.

My job is not easy, of course.  But nine years in, it still feels like a gift.

A parent of one of the teens in our program once said to me, “It’s like he is a little sapling that was crushed by a boulder. Now that boulder has been removed, and slowly he is looking up again at the sun.”

I seem to have become the teacher I didn’t have after all. What a joy it is to remove boulders from little saplings.

The follow article originally appeared in the Washington Post. In this piece  Amy Rothschild,  a prekindergarten teacher in a public school in New England, tells why she decided to join with other teachers, parents, researchers and activists  in the “Occupy Ed Department” in Washington DC this past weekend (April 4th through the 7th), an event sponsored by United Opt Out, “an organization dedicated to the elimination of high-stakes standardized testing in public schools.” Although Amy describes herself as a “new teacher” she has the passion, conviction and wisdom of someone who has spent years in the classroom and who knows what education is really all about. Reading her article gives me hope that with people like her, teachers can reclaim a voice and presence in this essential debate.

Why renowned educators — and new teachers — are ‘occupying’ Ed Dept

From Thursday through Sunday, education activists, including Diane Ravitch, will “occupy” the Department of Education.

Ravitch, of course, has occupied the Department of Education before, but in a different sense: From 1991 to 1993, she served as Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush. She is standing outside the building gates as part of “Occupy 2.0, a Battle for the Public Schools.”

In 1991, her years of scholarship on school reform made her an attractive choice for the role of Assistant Secretary for Education Research and Improvement. Fast-forward two decades. She is leading the fight against corporate-based reform after the evidence persuaded her that it didn’t work. And now, the person serving in an analogous role at the department has experience not in the classroom or in public school leadership or in scholarship on school transformation, but, rather, from McKinsey & Company, and as founder of a for-profit school management company.

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on who is attending the Occupy DOE 2.0 event. Where Occupy Wall Street was considered leaderless, Occupy 2.0 features leading scholars and teachers, who have decades of classroom, school, and university leadership guiding them. They are demonstrating in front of the Education Department because the people working inside have ignored their message.

In education today, voicelessness is widely and generously shared.  It is shared among students marched through scripted curriculum, among parents whose neighborhood schools are closing, among educators told we do not know how to assess our students, among education professors once tasked with crafting policy.

I am traveling from New England, where I teach prekindergarten in a public school.  It is not lost on me that the event’s tagline—“Battle for the Public Schools”— is a war cry, that the posters are hand-drawn, that the website features poor formatting. I will feel uncomfortable and maybe even embarrassed to participate in group chants—they’re not really my thing. But I will chant anyway because the drive for data has made it so that faculty meetings and the teachers’ lounge no longer exist as a space for having the conversation about big issues in regular tones. I will go, as much as anything, to hear my role models speak, individuals who have created networks of public schools, who have thoughtfully analyzed a century of school reform, who have corresponded with thousands of teachers and students and compiled their voices into terrific books.

“Reform” has become a kind of code word, referring to a specific agenda of high-stakes testing, weakened collective bargaining, and school closings that have generated massive instability for American children, particularly low-income people of color.

Now, Duncan, who was never an educator, is education secretary. His deputy, Anthony Wilder Miller, worked at Silver Lake Equity and LRN Corporation, a compliance software and eLearning company.  We are supposed to believe that these leaders have the skill and insight to guide a generation of children and families—yet they have never guided a classroom. These individuals have never shared their lives with young people in our schools.

It is hard to picture another field where individuals as qualified as Ravitch and Meier feel that they must “occupy.” Meier is a MacArthur Fellow, writer, educator and school reformer with 45 years of experience making classrooms and schools more democratic.

Educators today are being punished for decades of growing income inequality, an eroding social welfare system, and an economy brought to its knees by lack of regulation—factors which make work in building supportive, democratic schools and classrooms that much more important.

As an early childhood educator deeply committed to leading an equitable classroom, I see the road ahead as a long one. Witnessing my role models standing out in the cold this spring will serve as a stark reminder of that distance.

 

 

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

As the academic year moves along, there is a lot of discussion about the demands and impact of Common Core (the Obama Administration’s effort to establish a nationwide curriculum for all grade levels) on schools, students and teachers. To many teachers and parents, Common Core misses the mark as to what real education is all about. As one Chicago teacher lamented in the journal, American Teacher, “I find it demoralizing. This is damaging to teaching and to learning.” Louisa, a kindergarten teacher in a magnet school in New England and a former contributor to this series, shares that same lament and concern about a national standardized curriculum and its over-testing of young children. In her piece, Common Core, Common Sense: What Should Kindergarten be About?, Louisa writes about the conflicting demands of the Common Core curriculum  with the more common sense needs of the very young children she teaches. As you read her essay, her moral dilemma as well as her understated anger and frustration at what this country is doing to its students becomes clear. She articulates the struggle that most teachers experience every day as they try to balance student needs with the demands of an unresponsive state-mandated educational system.

It’s assessment time in Kindergarten. What that means is that I sit down with one child at a time and check on their progress in (mostly) literacy skills. Of course this means that I have less time for actual teaching, and I have to admit that a tension builds up for me, like the feeling that I have something cooking on the stove but can’t quite get to the kitchen.

There is a sense of pressure too about keeping up with the pacing guides for Math, Literacy, Social Studies and Science. Are my children (“students”) meeting the Common Core standards? Will they meet the benchmarks: Will they read by the end of Kindergarten? Will they be able to add 7 to 10? Will they be able to read ‘“Where is my hat? It is not here,” Ben said. Ben looked in the closet. He looked behind the chair.’” by May?

Another question: Will I be able to demonstrate to my principal that my lessons are based on  Common Core standards and best practices? Will I be able to stay out of hot water?

What makes it all the more complicated (and more stressful) is that while my children are coming along alright in Reading, several still don’t have bladder control. This makes classroom life challenging as when a child has an accident during a Math lesson and needs help finding clothes and changing. Of course we have many such interruptions.  A child has a meltdown because her muffin has crumbled in her book bag and loudly and angrily mourns for half an hour, so that we are all under siege from her disappointment. Quarrels, secrets and longings fill the room all day, and each one needs to be addressed.

These complications are actually a blessing. They bring me back to my senses.  I remember that my children have only been on this earth for five years. They are just learning how to handle their bodies. Friendships are exciting and sometimes hazardous. Being part of a group is also a fairly new experience. I remember that learning is joyful when it doesn’t require too much sitting and listening. Anything involving music and the senses is mesmerizing. Play is paramount. To me this is the real curriculum. I encourage a small group to build a city in the blocks, complete with signs in invented spelling. We sing and dance together, and I feel a deep gladness at the smiles and laughter, along with the natural cooperation and self-control that emerges.

Of course, this doesn’t really resolve the tension. I am still asking children to write when many of them haven’t yet gained the fine motor control to hold the pencil well. I am still pushing them to read and meet standards that are clearly inappropriate in other academic areas as well. I obey the dictates of those so much more prosperous and powerful than I, making education policy in the far reaches of the educational bureaucracy and the government. What I see is that pressure is put on the very youngest children to accomplish tasks they are not ready for.  It is hard to accept and admit that I am complicit in an institution that seems so detrimental to many children.

Maybe it’s just time for more of us to speak up.

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

I’ve written in the past about what I call “teachers in tough places”—men and women who spend their days teaching in the inner city, psych units, prisons and detention centers; schools that are often ill equipped, understaffed, and in some cases, dangerous. For those folks, teaching is a daily challenge. Today’s contributor, Joan Edwards-Acuna knows about challenge. She teaches high school students serving time in a New York adult county jail. Others in this series have written about the difficulties (and rewards) they’ve encountered working in a similar environment. But Joan’s challenge is compounded by the fact that most of her students are English Language Learners (ELL). According to the Center for American Progress, in the decade between 1997-98 and 2008-09, the number of ELLs in public schools has increased by more than 50%. Unfortunately studies also indicate that ELLs have the highest dropout rate among ethnic groups. With the Common Core curriculum in place the stakes are even higher for these students as well as for their teachers. What is refreshing and inspiring about Joan’s piece is how she not only doesn’t lament the difficulty of her job (some of her locked up students aren’t even literate in their native language), she outright welcomes it as an opportunity to, as she writes, “step up her game.” And as you’ll see, she not only steps up, she strides to success, bringing her students along with her as they all “race to the top.”

“Stepping Up My Game”

The year 2000 marked a turning point in my career as a high school ESL/ English teacher. Not only had I been downsized to half time, but the only opportunity to maintain a full time position was a transfer to an alternative program for incarcerated youth at the local adult county jail. The twenty first century had brought an onerous dilemma—or so I thought at the time. I soon discovered it had delivered a new opportunity to hone my skills and to reevaluate my teaching style. This transition forced me to step up my game.

English Language Learners (ELLs) who become incarcerated, experience unique challenges that no other students I serve encounter. They are usually “students with interrupted formal education” (SIFE), a term established by some state education departments to define immigrant students who face certain academic limitations.

My students did not stop going to school by choice, but by design. They were forced by economic hardship to interrupt what is considered routine to support not just themselves, but an entire family. They have risked their lives at great expense, to set foot on US soil to earn money the hard way—washing dishes, waiting tables, cooking, mowing lawns, painting and building houses—not just to feed the extended family south of the border, but also to pay off a debt. As a result in almost thirteen years, I have met few who are matriculated students, en route to a high school diploma.

Teaching in incarcerated education demands a kind of resilience and flexibility that only those of us in the trenches can appreciate. The “revolving door” phenomenon derails the best lesson plans. To have any real impact in the classroom requires an awareness of the emotional backlash of incarceration on adolescents. However, working with ELL’s forces a particular discernment. Despite their predicament, these students hold the teacher in high esteem, are respectful and conscientious, usually demonstrating an eagerness to master English as a second language (ESL).

As class rosters change with daily additions and deletions, my most immediate challenge is to create a community of learners in a classroom where students feel safe to take risks. English is a confusing language after all, with many exceptions to the rules, but getting to know their unique interests and abilities is a bridge to acculturation. I never penalize students for using native language, especially for the purpose of clarification. As students with interrupted education, literacy or a lack thereof, is a huge deficit that can not be ignored.

I remember well Jose, a nineteen year old from South America who was not literate even in Spanish. He had dropped out of school at an early age out of sheer frustration. I discovered he was dyslexic, but he had never been diagnosed. He saw no point in attending classes. It wasn’t until he revealed his love of horses that we had a breakthrough. I tapped into this passion, even though I had to adapt a bilingual approach to most of the assignments he completed.

I teach in a program flush with resources – a smart board in every classroom, access to desktops, laptops, the most up to date software, even the traditional standards such as picture dictionaries, flashcards and manipulatives are abundant.

I feel fortunate to have these supports in place; however, these tools are not what I use to measure how effective I am or what forced me to raise the bar for myself. Rather it’s recognizing the discrepancy between the formal diagnostic assessment and an authentic evaluation of students’ literacy skills. It’s meeting the challenge of creating a language-rich environment, and planning lessons that adapt to different learning styles and reading levels.  Differentiated teaching/learning becomes second nature in incarcerated education if you want to survive. It’s about maintaining consistency in an environment in which change is the only constant. Ultimately, it’s being able to encourage students to want to tell their stories because in my opinion, they need to be told. They are amazing stories of courage, determination and perseverance that all students, regardless of their background, can appreciate.

Measuring gain at this level of literacy is very tangible, sometimes even remarkable because it’s not just about improved reading and math scores. It’s also about a new found confidence or self-worth demonstrated in a more relaxed affect, or the desire to borrow a book from my mobile library—the “unquantifiables” that peep through the gloom of the status of court cases, depression and/or a lack of familial support.

As exhausting and demanding as the experience continues to be, the rewards of teaching literacy to incarcerated adolescents have made me a better teacher. The possibility to impact change in my students far outweighs the challenges of meeting state mandates and token administrative support.

Recently I ran into a former student who had struggled to master English in class. He proudly introduced his family without hesitation and shared that he had remained gainfully employed. By some standards, this may not represent success, but for him, I knew this feat symbolized a hard fought battle. I encourage teachers to continue to see the glass half full. Your advocacy and passion won’t go unnoticed by the people who matter most – your students.

 

 

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

The teachers who have shared their experiences have taught in a variety of school settings: One at a reservation school, another in a community based program for ex-offenders and the last, in a magnet school’s kindergarten. Continuing the series Lauren Norton Carson contributes two pieces about her teaching in juvenile detention. In Boys and Books in Juvenile Lockup: It’s Magic she writes about the struggle of bringing together two seemingly contradictory forces—locked up teenagers and books. As she puts it, “Getting a teenage boy to read a book takes determination. Getting a teenage boy in lockup to read a book takes alchemy.” But that’s exactly what she does in this funny and warm narrative, and what she has done for the past 11 years teaching in juvenile corrections settings near Boston. When people ask her how she’s managed to teach so long in such  challenging settings she says, “Working with these boys is the most rewarding work I’ve done in all of my 25 years of teaching, and the most important.”  Paraphrasing Mark Twain, Lauren also says about her students, “They give me a great deal of trouble, and I enjoy it very much.” From that you get a feeling for the kind of spirit—a pioneer spirit, actually—that Lauren brings to her work and her classroom. In a second piece, a poem simply titled Reflection, Lauren poignantly describes a young man’s first shave—regrettably “celebrated” behind bars. What I love about this poem is that moment when “teacher” becomes “parent”. It’s a moment that many of us teachers have experienced, a moment, I suspect, that very few “education reformers” have ever had.

Boys and Books in Juvenile Lockup: It’s Magic!

I teach literacy skills to boys in juvenile corrections settings. They range in age from thirteen to eighteen and have usually skipped, dropped out of, or been expelled from school. For them, school “sucks” and so does reading. They’re not thrilled to be in my class, considering they’ve lost their freedom and are forced to go to school—where they have to read a book.

“Yo, Miss!” says Pete*, a thirteen-year-old who can’t seem to stop twitching in front of the bookcase. “I’m not reading no book!”

But sustained silent reading is a requirement of the school day, and even Perpetual Motion Pete has to comply. I pull Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key from the shelf.

“You might like this one, Pete. It’s about a kid who’s got wicked ADHD and gets in trouble all the time. His parents are whacked, too, and his grandmother’s worse than he is. It’s really funny. Joey’s a good kid and doesn’t mean to cause trouble. So he tries medication and all kinds of crazy things happen.”

I pause for a minute. I turn to put the book back on the shelf.

“Wait,” Pete mumbles. “Let me see.”

I hand the book to him and start walking away, then throw a few well-aimed words over my shoulder.

“Oh, yeah. And the guy who wrote that book, Jack Gantos, did time when he was 19. He went to jail for smuggling dope, but after he got out he became a children’s book writer. He even wrote a book about his jail time.” I turn around and resume walking.

Pete’s hooked. “He did? Where’s that one?”

I go back and pull out Gantos’s autobiographical Hole in My Life, knowing the text is too difficult for Pete to read independently. He reads at a fourth-grade level. But Pete knows a mug shot when he sees one and compares young Gantos on that book cover to the photo of dapper adult-author Gantos on Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.

“We’re going to read Hole in My Life later in class, so why don’t you try Joey Pigza now?” I say. I don’t tell him that there are two other books in the Joey Pigza series, each one as funny and poignant as the first. I’ll play that card later.

A pinch of mystery here, a dash of drama there, feigned indifference sprinkled in. Stir well and wait.  Pete nods and walks off, reading the book jacket as he goes.

I spend a lot of time buying and reading young adult and mid-grade books, trying to land such winning titles. When I found the fifteen-book Bluford High series, I knew I’d hit the juvenile detention jackpot. Written by Anne Schraff, Paul Langan, and various authors, the series is set in a contemporary California high school.

The characters are teenagers who flow in and out of one another’s stories: Ben and his no-good stepfather; Martin, who seeks revenge for his brother’s death; Darrell, who’s bullied; and Tyray, the bully.

My students relate readily to the teen characters’ conflicts of peer pressure, faltering parents, falling in love. Some also relate to the occasional violence and abuse. So they devour the Bluford High books. I even had to buy a second copy of each book because they started stealing them from one another.

But for some kids, even these high-interest novels are too difficult to read. So I hook them up to the CD player with headphones, an audiobook, and the text to go with it.  Some fight me at first, as Mario does when I try to entice him to listen to an abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo.

“Who cares about some dude named Crisco? I don’t want to listen to that!”

Mario spends the first day trying to switch from the audiobook to the radio while I’m not looking. But by the next afternoon, the count’s story of betrayal and revenge wins out. Mario forgets about the radio.

Then there are the boys who really surprise me, who go beyond the standard urban teen fiction to books I never think they’ll enjoy. There’s Shaquille, who at 6’3” almost mirrors his NBA namesake in size. He reads the unabridged Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales and declares them more “official” than the watered-down Disney versions.

Or tiny, eighteen-year-old Savhon, a gangbanger who’s never read any book before—in his native Khmer or in English. Savhon picks up a Danielle Steel novel that someone donated and is entranced. Six months and many yard sales later, I’ve brought him ten Steel novels, and he’s read every one.

“I didn’t know things could work out good for people,” he says. “They get happy. I like that.”

Harry Potter, the Twilight series, Lemony Snicket, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—these teenage boys wouldn’t touch such books “on the out.” Here, in the safety and security of a supportive, small-group environment, they do.

But unlike the enchanted Sorting Hat at Hogwarts, the books don’t just find the boys and declare themselves a match. They need a little assistance, which is where I come in.  Helping the boys improve their reading skills is my job. Yet that’s not why I peddle books, why I do the mixing and matching to find just the right one for each boy, no matter how unwilling he is. I do it because I love to read—to be transported from my world into the heart and fabric of another.

And it’s magic. Nothing gives me greater joy than to see a boy—especially one of these boys—lost in a book. Because I know that’s where he’ll find himself, maybe for the first time ever.

* All the boys’ names have been changed in this piece. 

Boys and Books in Juvenile Lockup: It’s Magic! originally appeared in Talking Writing, an online publication.

Reflection

“Yo, Miss!  Come here!”

His voice echoes down the cinder-block hallway,

bouncing off metal doors that clank shut

as others click open,

powered by an invisible electric hand.

“I’m shavin’!”

He’s shaving.

A fourteen-year-old whose coffee–dark skin

overshadows the few hairs clamoring to be cut.

A wiry boy in uniform greens standing at a hallway sink,

face lathered thick with prison-issue cream,

razor in hand.

A guard stands next to him, alert and uninterested.

“I’m shavin’,” he says again when I round the corner into view,

his voice high with excitement.

“It’s my first time!”

I wince,

a teacher-mother-mentor cringe.

He is a boy.

He is a gangbanger

who cut the skin of another with a blade so long

it pierced the kid’s heart—

another boy

who had no chance to shave off

the few seconds it would have taken to dodge death.

I see my own boy at fourteen

and the downy hairs that clung like amber milk

to his upper lip

and the ceremony we made of it all–

the water, the blade, the cream.

“Hurry up,” the officer says,

shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“Back to your cell in five.  Head count.”

My eyes fill up and I blink hard.

“Manny,” I say,

ignoring the guard ignoring me,

“I’m going to stand right here.

Because every boy should have a

witness

to his first shave.”

Manny turns back to the metal mirror,

slides the razor across his skin

and smiles.

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

Louisa, a kindergarten teacher in a magnet school in New England, is today’s guest contributor.  I know from our conversations and correspondences that Louisa feels strongly about the politics of education and how it effects what happens in the classroom. We’ve talked about some of the things she’d like to say in this forum, and she has promised to explore those issues in the future, but what Louisa writes about today could never have entered our imagination during those discussions. She wrote “A Kindergarten Teacher Rethinks Her Job” when she got home on Monday, her first day in the classroom after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is a short but powerful piece.

In the Wake of Sandy Hook a Kindergarten Teacher Rethinks Her Job

I am a kindergarten teacher. I have been working in early childhood environments for thirty years. My unofficial job description covers a wide variety of responsibilities. They range from writing curriculum and teaching reading (more about that another time) to helping children when they have bathroom accidents. I assess kids thoroughly (more about this another time). I spend weekends writing report cards (like teachers everywhere) and meet and talk with parents frequently. I jump through bureaucratic hoops.

I keep an eye out for families that don’t have coats or money for Christmas presents, and my school, to its credit, finds a way to come through for families going through hard times. I sing and laugh with kids. I teach cooperative games. Math, social studies and science. I help kids get their coats on, and I teach them how to tie their shoes. I teach them how to plant things and how to observe the world carefully. I teach them to stand up for themselves and how to solve conflicts.

There is, however, an essential part of my job that I have not performed. The terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown have shown me this. What I now see that is a part of my job is to be an active advocate for gun control and for a viable mental health system in our country.  It is so clear to me that the children who died in Sandy Hook could have easily been my students (and I’m sure every other teacher in the country feels this).  Other people have said it better than I can, Barack Obama and Michael Bloomberg among them: Our country needs to change. Allowing our small children to be murdered is intolerable. (And why did we stand so long for anybody being murdered?)

Monday morning I didn’t cry the way I feared I would as school started. Instead it was a lovely day because we were all alive and just living together, singing, dancing, reading, eating, pooping in our pants. So let’s do this thing. Let’s free ourselves from a scourge. Sign the petitions, march in the streets, call our representatives, the White House. By making our children safer, we can make a world that is worth growing up into.