public schools

#oneword for 2015

Share #yourEdustory, week 1: What is your #oneword for 2015?

In spite of the ongoing attacks on public schools and teachers; in spite of too many students in my room; in spite of too many papers to grade; in spite of never enough time or resources, my one word for 2015 is this:


There are so many factors beyond my control that affect my work as a middle school teacher, that it is easy to whine, complain and be negative. But what good would that do? I’m not a Pollyanna, but I do know that each morning when I walk into my classroom, I have the choice to focus on what makes me smile or I can dwell on what makes my job difficult. And here’s the thing: if I am smiling and finding the joy in my days, there is a better chance that my students will also smile and find their joy, and that translates into a POSITIVE classroom environment, which means more fun and learning for all of us.

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 11.34.36 AMMy #1 reason for staying POSITIVE in 2015 is my students: they are 8th graders, full of all that 8th grade brings, which means mood swings, enthusiasm, questioning authority, goofy giddiness and deep compassion. They can be hooked into a lesson by a silly grammar video just as easily as by one that exposes life’s tragic injustices. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and they need my POSITIVITY every day.

So how will I stay POSITIVE this year? One area of challenge for me is including lots of POSITIVE Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 11.35.00 AMfeedback on my students’ writing. With 160 students who need to do a lot of writing and who need lots of help strengthening their writing, it’s easy to fall into the habit of marking what needs improvement and ignoring what was done well. This year I aim to amp up my POSITIVE comments on my students’ work, building their confidence and boosting their self-esteem by honoring their successes, even those as seemingly tiny as one excellent word or brilliant sentence in an essay.

How do you stay POSITIVE in the classroom? What aspect of teaching challenges you the most to stay POSITIVE? Share below and let’s make 2015 a year of POSITIVITY!

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.

Rallying from the kitchen table

Today is the perfect day to take a drive down to San Francisco: the sky is blue, the air is crisp, and a tiny bit of snow (the first in 30 years) dusted the City this morning. But while my friends and colleagues rally today in San Francisco (and across the country) for our fellow workers in Wisconsin, I am at home, working.  I would rather be in San Francisco — I am an activist and protestor at heart — but my work, as it so often does, has crept into my weekend.  And so this is what I will be doing today as I rally from my kitchen table:

1. Grading papers. No, I don’t mean the “right/wrong,” “true/false,” “noun/verb” kind of grading.  Instead of “grading papers,” I really should say “responding to papers,” but most people wouldn’t know what that means.  I teach English, which translates to reading and writing.  And although the state assesses my students’ reading and writing with multiple choice tests, I know that the best work and assessments I can have my students do is read, read, read (a lot), write about what they read (a lot), and then write, write, write (a lot).  And my role?  To read their writing and give them thoughtful, constructive, questioning, prodding feedback.  And that takes time.  While I might attempt to do some of this work during the school week, my best responding calls for a clear head and alert mind, which I rarely have after a day of working with 8th graders.

2. Working on my master’s degree.  I am in the fourth semester of a master’s degree program in Education (Curriculum, Teaching and Learning), which means that most of my weekends are spent reading research and writing papers.  There are some who think teachers with master’s degrees should no longer receive a bonus (they question whether or not a master’s degree has any impact on the teacher’s students), so why am I spending all this extra time and money going back to school?

  • It’s not the money, that’s for sure.  My school district offers teachers a small stipend ($1100./year) for a master’s degree. While the recognition (tiny that it is) is nice, it won’t make a change in our lifestyle, nor come close to paying back what it cost me to earn the degree.
  • It’s the kids. Effectively teaching writing and literature to 150 8th graders each year, adolescents who represent a wide range of cultures, abilities, gifts, struggles and dreams, is a challenge of magnificent proportion.  This challenge has taken me on a career-long journey to identify, adopt and hone the strategies, methods and curriculum that will bring the most success to my students.  This ongoing professional endeavor has led to certification from the California Association for the Gifted, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Bay Area Writing Project, plus nearly 20 years of reading books and participating in conferences and workshops, and now working towards a master’s degree.  While “data” may not confirm the value of this degree, I can certainly speak to the significant impact this work has already had on my classroom and my students.
  • It’s the teaching.  My degree emphasis is Educational Technology, which means I have been reading research on the tremendous impact that new technologies are having on today’s youth, as well as the profound effect they can have in our classrooms.  Integrating blogging into my 8th graders’ curriculum has already opened my eyes to the powerful potential that new technologies can bring to my students, and since then e-mail and Google docs (and soon digital storytelling) have revolutionized my classroom, my teaching and the potential for my students to learn 21st century media and new technology skills in schools that too often look like the 20th century.  Without the research and work associated with my master’s program, I am sure that my students would still be writing with pencil and paper, wondering when their tech-savvy lives would be reflected in their classrooms.

So while my heart is with those across the country who are standing tall and proud for our embattled colleagues in Wisconsin, the rest of my body is here in my kitchen, working to provide my students with the best education I can possibly give them.

I {heart} public schools!

When I met my husband, he was teaching at a small, private school. On more than OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAone occasion I joked that if he wanted to marry me, he had to get a job at a “real” school. There was nothing wrong with his school, but I just didn’t see private schools in our future. I had always assumed that my teacher/coach husband would join me in the world of public school education. By the time we were married, we had both started our journeys as public school teachers. Now, 25 years later, I can say with all honesty and enthusiasm that I love public schools! And this is why:

  • Equal Opportunity: Although our country holds to the ideal that “all are created equal,” we know that any semblance of equality disappears as early as preschool. But our public school system strives to provide every child, no matter where they come from or what they do or do not have, equal opportunities to earn a quality education. And that makes me proud.
  • Diversity:  Since public schools welcome all students, it means that our classrooms mirror the population of our communities. My students’ parents are construction workers, chefs, writers, grape harvesters, business people, artists, teachers, domestic workers, winery owners, bus drivers, Pixar animators, university professors, prison guards, secretaries and unemployed adults searching for their next job. And their children sit together in class, study together in the library, eat together in the cafeteria and now blog together online. And while birds of a feather do tend to flock together, our students have the opportunity to chill with a different bird every day in our diverse public schools. And that makes me proud.
  • Democracy: Dating clear back to the founding fathers, a public school system has been considered one of the most critical elements necessary for the success of America. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. . . . the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected,” and, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” I am part of a system that endeavors to provide the knowledge and skills for all students to actively and wisely participate in their communities and government. And that makes me proud.
  • Parents: When the parents in my school volunteer and donate, I know that they do it because they believe in our school, they care about the system and they want to do their part to make it even better. They aren’t obligated by a system that “strongly encourages” (i.e., requires) parents to give of their time, talents and money; they do it because they know that their child’s school is a village — a village that is made stronger when all of its residents contribute. Parents of my students have generously given of their time, their resources (copy paper, boxes of tissue, Staples gift cards) and – best of all – their homemade goodies at the holidays.  They give because they care, and that makes me grateful.
  • Loyalty: The town I live in is neatly divided, at one time by railroad tracks, but now by the freeway, east and west. Each side of town has a sprinkling of elementary schools, plus a middle school and high school of its own. We have a traditional cross-town rivalry that is bandied about in grocery stores, churches, soccer games and the local newspaper. My middle-school students wear their east side school colors and mascot with pride, and they look forward to the day they promote from our school and don the colors of the high school down the street.  But navigating adolescence takes a toll on even the coolest of kids; our public schools provide a community of support that teaches them that they are cared for by their entire town… well, the east side of town anyway.
  • My students: After two decades in middle school classrooms, I continue to be amazed by my students. They are 13 years old, battling adolescent hormones, self-consciousness, and the humiliation of parents, yet every day they make me laugh. They inspire me, challenge me, test me and reward me. They write, illustrate and bind books for children in Uganda. They pen poetry honoring parents, grandparents, pets and friends. They publish magazines filled with writing on topics that matter to them: fashion, friendship, cars, music, video games, dogs, books, movies and food. They would rather be hanging with their friends, yet they give me their best. They say they don’t like school, yet they laugh and write and read and teach me what matters. I raise the bar, and they jump. I say I’m sad, and they get quiet. I say well done, and they smile. They act too cool to care, yet when June comes, they bring their grandma over to meet me, they sign my yearbook, and they hug me. And eventually they friend me on Facebook. They invite me to their graduation, they contact me from college, they remember me even when school fades from their memory.  They make me so very proud.

In this season of bash the public schools and throw the teachers under the bus, I am especially proud to be a public school teacher. I know that in times of devastated school budgets and rhetoric of blame, my students and my colleagues and my school and I continue to do professional, inspirational work. And thanks to groups like Save our Schools, America’s public schools will continue to strive to be the ideal system envisioned by Horace Mann, the father of public education:  “a school that would be available and equal for all, part of the birth-right of every American child, for rich and poor alike.” Through public schools, poverty and crime would decline and social harmony would be attained. If we are ever to see that vision realized, it will be through the fully funded, nationally supported, public education system that I do love.