Fighting for the dream, continued

This was my very first blog post, written in 2011, in response to my growing frustrations and fears over NCLB.  I had met and spoken with Stephen Krashen, who encouraged me to start blogging, to get my voice of experience out there for others to hear.  Although our ongoing battles in education may not compare to the historic (and ongoing) struggles for civil rights, we do know that inequality in the schools contributes a great deal to inequality in opportunities: opportunities for higher education, income, job security, health care, etc.  While NCLB may be on its way out, the Common Core and its Smarter Balanced Assessments are on their way in.  And so the struggle  continues…

Ten years ago [now 13], President George W. Bush, in whose symbolic shadow our children now shiver, signed the No Child Left Behind legislation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of children who had been seared in the flames of educational injustice. It promised a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their inferior education.

But ten years later, many children have indeed been left behind. Ten years later, many children’s minds are still sadly crippled by the manacles of under-funded schools and the chains of standardized tests. Ten years later, many children still live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Ten years later, many children still languish in the corners of American schools and find themselves an exile in their own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

When the architects of our education system wrote the magnificent words of every state standard and the questions and multiple-choice answers on every state test, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all children, yes, all children of America, would be offered a quality, rigorous education. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her children and schools and teachers are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its children and schools and teachers a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of education is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of learning and the security of education.

I know that not all of my students come from homes where parents have read to them, fed them nutritious meals, engaged them in healthy activities, sat together at the dinner table and spoken with them.  I know that many of my students come to my classroom from places of great trials, homes that are cold, kitchens that are lacking family meals, walls that do not hold shelves of books, conversations wanting in warmth, support and a rich and varied vocabulary.  But I continue to work with the faith that I, a middle school teacher, have the power to make a difference in the lives of my students.

Let us not wallow in the valley of No Child Left Behind.  And even though we face the difficulties of mandated textbooks and standardized tests, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the dream of the American school system.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that although all children are created equal, and although all children have the right to a quality education, this does not mean that all children should have the exact same books and the exact same lessons and the exact same assessments.”

I have a dream that one day children will learn to read by reading literature of great variety; that teachers will read to them from great books; that children will choose books to read that ignite great passion and that inspire them to read even more; that reading will be made a pleasure for all children, not a task, not a race, not a recitation of meaningless sounds and chunks of meaning.

I have a dream that all of my students will one day attend a school where they will not be judged by the bubbling of a test answer but by the unique demonstration of their talents and abilities, of their knowledge and understanding.

I have a dream that one day even the state of California, a state sweltering with the heat of overflowing classes, sweltering with the heat of one-size-fits-all curriculum, sweltering with the heat of annual assessments that tell more about a child’s parents’ income than about the child’s learning or the teacher’s teaching, yes even the sorry state of California will be transformed into an oasis of authentic assessments and project-based learning, a refuge of writing workshop and reading for pleasure, a sanctuary of art, music, woodshop, cooking, theater, languages, film making, journalism and life-long learning.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, in Washington, D.C., with Education Secretary Arne Duncan having his lips dripping with the words of “merit pay” and “data-driven” — one day right there in Washington, D.C. teachers will be able to join hands with one another as sisters and brothers working together to build the best schools for America’s students based on the knowledge and experience and wisdom and practice of the teachers who know children and curriculum better than any fly-by-night CEO whose only education experience is playing basketball with the students of his mother’s after-school tutoring program.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every child’s accomplishments shall be exalted, and every so-called-researched-based scripted curriculum shall be made low, the cash-strapped schools will be fully funded, and every library will be staffed with a credentialed librarian where the shelves will overflow with books; and the glory of a quality education for all shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is my hope, and this is the faith that I go back to my classroom with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the benchmarks of despair a student-designed project of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of API and AYP into a beautiful symphony of respect for the teaching profession. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to read together, to write together, to experiment together, to design, build, create, perform together, to stand up for education together, knowing that all children will have the opportunity to learn one day in classrooms fully funded where respected professionals are empowered to do their work.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of America’s children will be able to learn with new meaning, to write for understanding, to read for personal growth, to explore their interests and feed their curiosities.  This will be the day that my dream of enthusiastic, joyful schoolchildren taught by empowered, professional educators in classrooms stocked with books and paper and technology and dreams and opportunities and joy will become a reality for all.

…and then life happened

I had planned a follow-up to my recent Power of Positive Technology post… but then life happened.  The new school year started on a Wednesday, and Thursday night my father died.  He and my mom had been living with us for about five months, waiting to move into their new house.  Dad had been sick for a long time, and we knew the end was near, but I was still (and continue to be) blindsided by grief.  It comes in waves, rolls over me, recedes for awhile, and then – BAM – it’s back.

As I struggled to focus on my work, I thought of how hard it must be for my students to focus and learn new concepts and complete homework and study for tests… when their lives are in chaos.  In my own fog of grief, I would leave work and drive towards the grocery store, knowing we needed food for dinner, but as I approached the parking lot, I would just keep driving toward home.  “I’ll order pizza,” I would think.  I didn’t have the energy to park the car and go into the store.

My students are probably not suffering grief on a regular basis, but from what I read in their journals, there is plenty of chaos in their lives: parents in the throes of divorce, siblings in the angst of adolescence, friends in the midst of middle school drama.  And every year I have a student or two who have recently lost a parent or who lose a parent during the school year.

I want to teach my students to persevere in the face of adversity.  I know that life is hard and they need to learn to keep plugging through the most difficult times.  But I also know that there are days when it’s all we can do to get dressed and make it to class on time.  And my own bout with grief makes me wonder: if all we care about is test scores, what do we expect our children to become?  Are we neglecting their emotional selves?  Are we asking them to be robots?

I don’t have an answer.  But I do know that when grief strikes, it’s all we can do to face the day, not to mention learn a new concept, demonstrate proficiency, perform on demand.

They’re kids, not Olympians

We work hard all year, writing and reading and analyzing and discussing and reading and writing some more.  And then, all of our hard work and learning are testevaluated and assessed in two days of state exams.  Multiple-choice exams, mind you, no writing necessary.

So we also work hard to create a testing environment that supports our students.  We keep our daily routine the same.  We schedule the tests so that students take them in the same classroom, with the same teacher, where they have learned the content that year.  Students are tested in only one subject each week, so that their other classes are kept on a familiar routine.  And we encourage our students to approach the tests as an opportunity to show everyone what they know, what they have learned.

And then this happens: a beloved 2nd grade teacher is gunned down by her husband, who then kills himself.  Their 18-month-old twins are left orphaned and her two teen daughters from a previous marriage lose their mother.  Many of our students were in this teacher’s class.  One of her daughters is a student at our school.  The victim was a local girl, attending high school here with many of us.  Her mother was our teacher when we were in junior high.  The ripple effects of this horrific tragedy continue to splash against the hearts of so many lives here in our tight-knit Northern California community. We are devastated, in shock, angry, grieving.

flowersThe day after the shooting my 8th grade students were scheduled to take the first half of their state exams in English language arts.  Wisely, our administration postponed that day’s testing.  So that Monday back to school we did the other kind of work so common to teachers: we acted more as counselors, walking our students through grief, giving them time to write, draw, talk, share.  We let them leave class to go to counseling rooms.  We ignored the mandated curriculum because we knew that nothing was as important as acknowledging their grief, allowing time for healing.  Some needed to cry; some needed to get back to a normal routine, whatever “normal” might be.  We straddled that precarious line, offering solace to those in need, some semblance of regular “school” to those who wanted it.  The first day was exhausting, the second, a little better.

By Thursday of that week, we needed to be back on track.  We have little flexibility in the timing of the state tests, so four days after the shooting, my students took the first 90-minute portion of their English language arts exam.  I watched them as they read, contemplated, and bubbled, and I thought, does it make sense to anyone that all the work we have done this year is assessed in this one sitting?

This is not about the horrors of domestic violence, and in no way am I suggesting sadthat issues with state testing can compare to the losses faced by this family and their community.  But as we reeled from the shock of this tragedy, the absurdity of our situation was magnified.  We all have good days and bad days, we all have struggles and tragedies and life’s curve balls thrown at us, but over the course of the school year, we do a lot of good work.  Why, then, must we perform in a one-shot, high-stakes testing scenario?

Maybe it makes sense for law students taking the bar exam.  Maybe it makes sense for Olympic athletes competing for gold.  But does it make sense for 13-year-old students?  And what about their 7-year-old siblings?  Seven. Years. Old.

Adults learn to set aside whatever is going on in their lives in order to perform in a high-stakes situation, but children? No, it doesn’t make sense.  And this is why some of us are trying to fight back.  Join us?

OMG Mrs. B!

Sometimes you just gotta’ laugh…getwellsoon

Pushing open my classroom door, I sighed at the mess that greeted me.  After battling the flu for a week, I had finally returned to my classroom to face the music: as hard as I worked to establish a daily routine for my students and leave detailed lesson plans for my substitute, I knew I would be lucky if a week away didn’t turn my classroom into a zoo.  On the way to my desk, I grabbed a Starbucks cup from the windowsill, wads of paper from the file crates and a Pepsi can from the bookshelf.  Although the custodian had swept in my absence, he had missed these little gifts tucked away by my students.  I dropped them in the trash, then faced my desk, which was covered with the remains of too many days without me: memos from my mailbox, stacks of student work, (to be graded) and a note from the sub: “No problems, Mrs. B.  All went fine.”   Sure, fine, I thought, knowing otherwise.  If they had stashed their trash all around the room, I can be pretty certain that all was not fine.  But this was typical of 8th graders who felt abandoned by a teacher.  In their mind, I wasn’t home nursing the flu; I was sunning myself on a beach somewhere while they slaved away in the classroom.  They communicated resentment with each crumpled soda can and wad of paper.  But 8th graders are fickle, and I knew they would be back on track once they saw me back in the classroom.

I glanced at the clock, and with only 10 minutes before the first bell, did a quick triage of my desk.  Ungraded papers into one daunting stack, office memos into another, and my mug of tea safely off to the side. Buried under the mess was my lesson plan book.  I grabbed it and a whiteboard pen, and jotted an agenda on the board.  The bell rang as I stepped behind my desk to retrieve the day’s journal prompt.  Sliding open my desk drawer, I pulled out a file and felt the familiar tickle of a cough dance up my throat.  I stood up, hoping that an upright posture might push the cough back down.  My classroom door flew open and students bounded in.

“Mrs. B!  Oh my God, you’re back!  I can’t believe you gave us that sub!  He was, like, such a loser!”  Sarah’s dimples showed her delight at both slamming the sub and seeing her teacher again.

“Mrs. B., dude, where were you?”  Anthony’s tone accused me of welching on my responsibility to live in my classroom for his convenience.

“I was sick,” I started to say, but before I could finish, the cough that started as a tickle turned aggressive.  I put my hand to my mouth, cleared my throat, and tried again to speak.  By now a crowd of students had gathered around my desk.

MrsBradley“Did I miss anything?  I wasn’t here last time,” Tommy said.

“I wasn’t here either,” I said.  “Did you check the homework file?” I coughed again, and fluids began to seep out of my eyes and nose.  I grabbed a tissue, dabbed my face, and reached for my tea.  Before I could take a sip, another student clamored for my attention.

“Mrs. B., my printer is all messed up; look what it did,” Ashley said, shoving a crumpled document in my face.

“What are we doing today?” another student asked.

“Is our homework due now?  Should I staple it?”

“Why were you gone?  You can’t do that again!  That sub was so lame!”

I raised my hand toward the students, a traffic cop in an intersection signaling the cars to stop, but the gesture went unnoticed.

“Is anything due today?”

“I have to change seats, Mrs. B.  Jessica is like totally harassing me on Facebook and my mom said you have to move me.  So can I sit next to Shawna?”

“I don’t have my homework.  I was at my dad’s and my book’s at my mom’s and she’s out of town and I’m going to my gramma’s after school.  So, like, is it late?”

Their voices melded into one as I lost my battle with the cough.  Tears streamed from my eyes as I struggled to get the tea to my mouth.  A quick swallow, though, only aggravated the situation.  I grabbed for the side of my desk, gasping for air at the same time that my lungs expelled it.  Ignoring my students, I felt for my chair, fell backwards and surrendered.  The faces around my desk blurred, their voices muffled, and just as I slid out of my chair and onto the floor, I heard, “OMG, Mrs. B., are you OK?  You look awful!”

Finally!  A student who saw my distress!  A student who understood that I too, am human!  A student who could see past his own immediate needs …

“So, Mrs. B., is there, like, any homework due today?”