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Common Core in Oklahoma: 7 Years Later

I was asked recently by a friend to reflect on where I think Oklahoma is in the aftermath of the Common Core debacle. I told her that would take some thought and thinking often happens best through writing, so this is my attempt to clarify my thinking on this topic. It may be a bit rambling, so hang on…

When the Common Core “State” Standards were adopted by the governor of Oklahoma, I had only been teaching at the university level for two and a half years. The first year of that time, I was still working on my dissertation, so it was head down and plow through; I paid little attention to what was going on at either the local or state level in Oklahoma K12 education. Once the Big D was done, I could begin to focus outside my little bubble, but initially my thrust was on building connections with local schools. 

Along about late 2010, our faculty was informed that PASS (the set of Oklahoma standards that were in place when I came) were “going away” and we would begin using Common Core Standards. I had never heard of these standards and thought it curious that I was completely unaware of any statewide effort to draft new standards. It seemed logical to me that if new standards were needed, there would have been committees formed to determine the framework and details of the standards, but when I asked about it, the response was usually a shake of the head or a shrug of the shoulder.

Nevertheless, as a good little soldier, in the fall of 2011 when I taught my emergent and primary literacy classes, I began to have my teacher candidates attempt to apply the new CC standards to the lesson plans they were required to write for 1st-3rd grade students. We began to discover that the standards components for these age groups and grade levels simply did not match the developmental concepts they were learning about in their textbooks. I became quite frustrated and began looking outside my institution, which seemed to have no answers, for an explanation. To be honest, I cannot remember whose article or whose blog I stumbled across that began to enlighten me as to the real source for these standards. I do clearly remember a video I watched of a woman whose name I do not remember but who had made a large floormap of the intricate relationships between and among the wealthy individuals, for-profit organizations, and political units who had collaborated to create the standards and pass them off as “state-initiated.”

 Call me naive, but I was shocked. But that was only the beginning. Later we learned that not only would there be new standards, but there would be new–and more–high-stakes standardized tests for our K-12 students to take and new more “rigorous” teacher evaluations that would be tied to the students’ results on those tests. And all of this would, of course, cost more money.

 Then came May 20, 2013, when an EF5 tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24, many of them children in a school that did not have a storm shelter. When I read that the board of the Moore schools had considered putting in a storm shelter in the new Plaza Towers School but had elected not to because of other costs including the rising costs of more testing for students, I think I lost it. I wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper asking why all schools in Tornado Alley were allowed to operate without adequate protection for students but money could be found for meaningless tests. I expected some blowback from the letter, but there was no response at all. Two months later I was in Walmart (In a small town like Idabel, you run into someone you know every time you go to Walmart!) and I met a lady I recognized from one of the local schools. I was just going to smile and say hello, but she stopped me. “I want to thank you,” she said, “for that letter you wrote.” 

 “Really?” I responded. “I didn’t think anyone even read it!”

 “Oh, no,” she said. “We’re all talking about it!”

 A couple of weeks later I received a call from a local teacher. She had been doing some research on the CC herself and had made contact with a group in the Oklahoma City area called ROPE, which then stood for Restore Oklahoma Public Education. ROPE was interested in coming to do a presentation on the true origins of the CC but wanted someone local to also present to provide credibility. I agreed to do it, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was involved in multiple presentations, mostly in Southeast Oklahoma, but one in Texas, was interviewed on the radio and by the newspaper, testified before a legislative Interim Study, wrote numerous blogs and Facebook posts, and spent a day at the State Capitol lobbying against the CC. I was so involved in it, that my campus coordinator was worried I might incur the wrath of the governor. He reminded me I didn’t have tenure yet. But even with all of my involvement, many sacrificed much more in the cause. The day when the legislature repealed the CC and set in place a requirement for “new and better” standards felt like a victory.

 Sadly, the victory seems hollow. The outgoing state superintendent made what appeared to be a good-faith effort to start the process of developing standards by inviting people across the state to apply. I applied to be a member of the committee. Her defeat at the polls that fall meant that the process was restarted by her successor and the process seemed much less transparent and more rushed. The result of the process–the new Oklahoma Academic Standards–aren’t awful, but they certainly aren’t great. I reviewed a preliminary portion of the first draft and suggested that there needed to be a standard for structured and unstructured play in the PK and K standards. That didn’t make it into the final draft. Interestingly I’m seeing more and more articles reporting studies that find play an absolute necessity for these children. One thought-provoking article following the Las Vegas tragedy has suggested that a common thread of male mass-shooters is play deprivation as a young child.

 Shortly after the legislature repealed CC, the superintendents of the two largest districts in the state announced that they would not give up Common Core. As far as I know they are still operating under those standards, which is incredibly sad, if not tragic, for the young people forced to “learn” under the pressure of standards that are too “rigorous” for their developmental level. One rationale for that decision was that the districts had invested too much in materials aligned with CC and they couldn’t afford to ditch them. And yet, there are studies that show that most of the publishing houses, rather than actually realigning their materials to the Common Core, simply slapped a “Common Core Aligned” sticker on their old stuff and kept selling it.

 I live in a very remote, isolated part of the state which is therefore quite rural. My impression is that the CC have not impacted the rural areas as much as the urban areas, but I have no data to support that, and I have only rare opportunities to visit other parts of the state or talk to educators in other sections. And around here, the subject of Common Core just doesn’t come up any more–except when I talk about in my classes, and I do talk about it.

 Although the laws adopted to establish CC in most states included an MOU that states that the CC is copyrighted by the CCSSO and cannot be changed, I get the impression that states do not feel threatened by this toothless assertion. I think they will make changes as they deem necessary. However, I am not aware of any specific state that has attempted to “amend” the standards to align them better with developmental continuums.  

 Close reading has become a touchstone issue for literacy educators. The insistence on close reading without the use of background knowledge, which the CC appear to require, has led to situations in which students are being asked to carry out an action that flies in the face of years of research on comprehension. In addition, the tendency to prepare students for tests by having them read mostly short passages and then answer multiple-choice questions discourages the development of silent reading stamina. In short, the Common Core Standards are a huge experiment taken to scale without evidence to support it and are leading to the shortchanging of the education of our students.

 Through all of this, my position on standards in general has changed. Whereas I used to feel that standards were a useful tool, the fact that they have been co-opted in the service high-stakes standardized tests makes their usefulness highly questionable. Standards, in the end, lead to standardization, which is fine for widgets, but not for children.

 It is amazing to me that we could have become the most advanced nation on the earth in most areas without educational standards, but we have swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, the notion that we can’t stay in that position without them. Maybe we aren’t as smart as we thought we were.

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My Diamond Jubilee


Well, it’s here: my 75th birthday. It’s been a long time coming—75 years to be exact. I would like to say I’ve enjoyed every one of them, but that would not be the truth. The truth is, I’ve enjoyed most of them and the ones that weren’t quite like-able were certainly educational and worthwhile.     

     The fact is, few people expected me to live this long. When I was born, the expectation for children with my disability was about 20 years. I certainly spent a lot of my first few years being sick, but, probably in part because I had a mother who would not let me feel sorry for myself or wallow in self pity (hat tip back to you, too, Grandma!), I kept a good attitude. In fact, it took the stares of other children to make me aware that I might be “different.” I didn’t feel “different” so I just got over the pneumonia or asthma or whatever, and got back to work being a kid. 

     There were a few people in my life who tried to discourage me, When I told the lady who did our hair occasionally, at about age 8 or 9, that I wanted to be a dancer when I grew up, I overheard her telling my mother that she should really discourage me from that dream. To my mother’s credit, she never did that.

     I think the driving force in my life may have been my father’s attitude, though. His philosophy about life was, “if you can do a lot of something, I can do a little of it.” He tackled projects most never would. He built his own buildings and campers (He loved traveling and camping.) and tools of all sorts. We still have an air compressor he built out of odd parts—it still works, too! The things he built rarely looked finished, but always functioned as they were expected to. It was this “can-do” attitude that, in part, drove me to compete and to stretch myself.

   I learned early on that one area I could not compete in was neighborhood sports. I was too small and too weak for anyone to want me on their team. So I turned to areas that seemed to be my strength to get the recognition all children crave—I wrote. I started my first novel at age 9 (no, I never finished it). I put together multiple copies of a neighborhood newsletter by copying articles from the real one and drawing “photos” to adorn the pages. Plagiarism, smagiarism—I had no clue about that. I wrote my first “editorial” at about age 12 or 13, at the height of the “sit-in” movement. It was not an assignment; it was something I wrote because I felt so strongly about it. Growing up in a highly segregated society, I couldn’t understand why black people were not allowed to eat at a lunch counter. My dad, who told racial jokes with the rest of his cronies in the oil field, read it and seemed genuinely surprised and pleased at what I had written. That was the beginning of a series of intense arguments we had throughout my high school years over various aspects of politics. My interest in both writing and politics continues to this day.

     So, after 75 years of living, what’s the take-away? Here’s where I bestow you with my accumulated wisdom. If you don’t need or want it, you can stop reading now.

  1.   What they told me about how the older you get, the faster time passes? It’s true! When I was a freshman in high school, my teacher assigned an essay on what we wished for. I don’t remember all I wrote, but I started it out by saying, “I wish I was already 21.” Her comment on that line was, “Don’t ever wish any part of your life away!” Although I didn’t accept that in the way it was meant at the time, I have come to realize the wisdom of it. Each moment is precious, even the uncomfortable and/or painful ones.

     2.  There’s a saying: what goes around, comes around. The Bible says, “you reap what you sow.” Both are saying the same thing. If I sow selfishness and bitterness into my life, I will reap selfishness and bitterness from others. We are all human, under the “curse” of original sin. My view of original sin is that it represents our innate nature for self protection. When others hurt me, I try to understand their actions in terms of how they see their need for self protection, more than as an attempt to specifically do me harm. This view makes forgiveness easier. I know that over the past 75 years, I’ve hurt others. Periodically those incidents come to mind, and I wish the people I hurt were still here so I could tell them I’m sorry. Often they are not, so my “penance” is to forgive others, in a kind of “pay-it-forward-and-backwards-at-the-same-time approach. But it’s really a “penance” that benefits me more than those I forgive. Lack of forgiveness is too heavy a load to carry for 75 years!

   3.  Never retire! Okay, let me rephrase that: only retire if it’s from something you’re tired of doing to do something you really want to do.The idea of retiring so you can take your retirement pension and go home and sit in front of the TV is an anathema to me! If you can no longer do the job you earned your retirement doing or the job has become something you don’t like anymore, then “retire” from that job. But don’t retire from life! In 1996, I was finally able to take on the job I knew I had wanted to do since fifth grade—teach. I taught for ten years in Texas; I loved it and I learned so much! In 2007, my husband’s job change forced me to take an “early retirement” from Texas. Long story short, six months later, I started a new career as a teacher educator at a regional university. This is, I believe, what I was meant to do all along, and I didn’t even get to start it until I was 65! Like I say, only retire if you’re going to something better.

   4.  Be a lifelong learner. This is a phrase I picked up in grad school, but the fact is, I was living by it long before I heard the phrase. When I was a kid, my parents bought a set of the World Book of Knowledge from a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. That was absolutely one of the best investments they ever made, at least for me. When I had nothing else to do, I would pour over these books, studying the photos and graphs when I couldn’t understand the text. My experience is a testament to the research that shows that the availability of books in the home is critical to create young readers. The fact is, reading those encyclopedias, I discovered that the world is unbelievably interesting and fascinating! There is always something new to learn about, and every piece of information we take in helps form our world perspective. It is essential that our world perspective be at least as broad and deep as the world itself.

     In 75 years, I have been a lot of places, done a lot of things, and made a lot of wonderful friends. I have a family I am inordinately proud of. I have tried to raise my children and grandchildren to be their own persons and I think they have/are. Most of all I’ve tried to let them know that there is always forgiveness and always hope. And that’s the message I will leave with you, dear reader.

Prescription for Discouragement in the Battle for Public Education

     After the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education in the Trump Administration, I admit to a strong temptation to just give up the struggle for public education. In the name of public education, I have written blogs, spoken to multiple groups in two states, contacted state legislators and U.S. Congressmen, given testimony before a committee of the state legislature, and posted almost daily on Facebook and/or Twitter for several years. Apparently my voice, and those of thousands of others, could not be heard. I continued sharing an occasional post on Facebook, monitoring the situation, and commiserating with nearby folks who shared my concerns. But I was truly discouraged.

     This past weekend I attended the state conference of an apolitical patriotic organization to which I belong. As I was checking in at the hotel desk, a friend saw me and made a beeline, calling my name. “I have learned so much from your posts on Facebook,” she cried. “I had no idea!” We visited for a moment about the threats to public education before I checked in at the Registrar’s table for the Conference. But that was just the beginning. That night at dinner, without my bringing it up, people around me were sharing their concerns for education and teachers. Of course, I chimed in and added my two cents, and people wanted to hear what I had to say. At almost every event where conference attendees were engaged in conversations of which I was a part, the issue of the pitiful state of education brought about by over-utilized standardized testing and lack of adequate funding came up. I didn’t start it–others did. I came away from the Conference thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, the message is beginning to get through.

     So, I will not give up. I will probably pace myself a little better, and I will certainly pick my battles. I still sincerely believe that public education is a foundational pillar of a constitutional democratic republic, not simply a one-way ticket into the labor force or a stepping stone toward a career. I will fight for it until my keyboard is silenced.  

Words I Long to Hear: “You’re Fired!”

Recently Peter Greene, who writes the pithy Curmudgication blog, has posted two pieces—one here more or less explaining why “Progressives” oppose Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and one here with the down-low on the “Conservative” rationale for opposing her. None of his points will you find anywhere on the mainstream news outlets; believe me, I’ve looked for them there.

Greene does an excellent job of summing up the arguments against DeVos from both camps, but one thing he doesn’t address directly is how the candidate who promised to “get rid of Common Core” has appointed one its biggest supporters to the catbird seat. (Yes, I know she has eschewed her earlier intense support for the Core, but I attribute that to the pragmatics of jumping off a sinking ship. She still hasn’t given up on “high standards” and “accountability.”) So what led Trump to this seeming contradiction?

I’m certainly not privy to all the machinations and conversations that have taken place among those who are putting together the Trump team, but if we look at Trump himself and how he operates, a likely explanation emerges: DeVos is the quid-quo-pro to buy the support of the reluctant Republican “elite,” the money men who have been scared to death that Trump will mess up their charter school, hedge fund playpen. Trump needs the support of these players, whether he is willing to admit it publicly or not. I have no clue whose idea it actually was to suggest that DeVos might be the key, but it was a brilliant stroke in keeping with Trump’s own tactics in deal-making.

When it comes to education, Trump is simply ignorant. He is a businessman who thinks like a businessman. Like most Americans, he feels he is an expert on education because he went to school. He put in his twelve years as “an apprentice” so he “knows” education. But education—especially public education—is a highly complex, nuanced entity, peopled by humans—students, teachers, and administrators—who do not respond like widgets on an assembly line. Education must address issues such as who is taught, what they are to be taught, who gets to teach them, what assurances do we need/have that students are learning, and how it can be done on the cheap—because the American public doesn’t like to give money to schools.

To all of this, Trump is issue-blind but consummately confident in his ignorance. Thus, I’m sure that when the emissary for those hedge-fund-happy Republican donors suggested someone (DeVos) who had an exemplary reputation in “making schools great again” (through charter schools) and who doesn’t like Common Core (now), Trump felt quite comfortable that he was making a great deal, if by appointing her to the Department of Education, he gained the loyalty of the Republican Old Guard. “I give a little, you give a lot, and we both walk away happy, right?” One wonders who gave more. And public education is once again the sacrificial lamb on the altar of politics-as-usual.

So what do those of us who are opposed to DeVos from either progressive or conservative perspectives do? Do we sit back and wait for this too to pass? I say, no; we did that when the accountability movement started, knowing where it would lead. We as educators protested and groused a little, but for the most part we bit the bullet and tried to do our jobs. The result has been that when accountability didn’t work, the reformers failed to see the error of their ways; they just double-down on accountability and shift it off to the states through ESSA. We cannot afford to continue on the “Do Nothing” path if we want to salvage public education—and I am of the opinion that the future of our democratic republic really does hinge on its survival.

So here’s what we do: we turn DeVos into a huge liability, one that Trump can no longer afford to hang onto. The thing that is more valuable to Trump than the moneyed Republicans whose support he bought with her nomination is the opinions of those who voted him into office. As Peter Greene states, we need to be calling and writing our senators, especially those of the Republican variety to let them know why we think making DeVos the Secretary of Education is a betrayal of Trump’s campaign promises. We must convince enough senators to publicly announce their lack of confidence in DeVos, to the point that Trump understands he is losing the support of those who put him in office. Trump is a pragmatist; if we mount such a campaign and the senators respond as we hope, my guess is Trump’s rejoinder will be, “Betsy, you’re fired!” and rescind her nomination.

We are the only ones who can make that happen. Call, email, write your senators, and then call, email, and write some more—and we must do it quickly as the confirmation hearings will begin very soon. The Network for Public Education offers a “Stop Betsy DeVos Toolkit” with lots of suggestions. A grassroots campaign of social media, letters, calls, and emails to legislators worked in Oklahoma to lay the groundwork to get rid of the Core. Let’s take this spirit of grassroots resistance national!

Elections: Lessons from a Great Great Grandmother

Most of my friends know I’m a genealogy “nut.” I can’t think of anything that’s much more fun than tracking down an elusive ancestor or finding a confirming document or digging up some long-hidden family “dirt.” As a case in point, when I asked my father-in-law some questions about his grandparents and great grandparents, he quickly lost patience with me. “What do you want to know about them for?” he demanded testily. “They were just a bunch of horse thieves and cattle rustlers!” Oh, my, if you think that didn’t get me started! It took a lot of digging, but thirty years later I turned it into a 500 page historical novel!

But every now and then, you run across a little gem, a little story that makes you laugh and cry at the same time. I found one of those today. I’ve known for a long time that I descend from a line of smart, opinionated, outspoken, stubborn women, who were almost always right, by the way. I just didn’t know how far back it went. Meet my great great grandmother. fe801721-5b46-4700-9258-2f33bfaabcecHer name is Julia Anna Pfaff. She was born near Barbourville, Kentucky, in 1839, to a family of German stock that had settled north-central North Carolina as missionaries. In 1857 she married William Wyatt Gibson, youngest son of a Valentine Gibson, whose ancestors of that surname first set foot on this continent in the 1600s at Jamestown. Shortly after their marriage, William moved his little family to northwestern Missouri where he farmed and she raised their eight children. To be honest, I hadn’t known much about Julia or her personal character until today, but what I learned, I recognized because I have seen it in my mother and my grandmother.

The “gem” is actually a news article that was published in 1995 in the DeKalb County [MO] Record Herald. Apparently the community was preparing to celebrate its Sesquicentennial and had set up a committee to plan the occasion. The article first announces an upcoming meeting and then explains that the author of the article had been asked if the Historical Society had information on the first woman voter in the county. In response, the author provided the following entry which she found in the DeKalb County Herald dated November 4, 1920. Here is the article as it must have appeared.

MRS. JULIA  A. GIBSON CASTS HER FIRST VOTE AT 81 YEARS OLD

Mrs. Julia A. Gibson walked down Main Street Tuesday about 1:00 p.m. She had a firm step. In fact there did not seem to no[sic] any feebleness at all about the way she walked. And when she got to the middle of the south side of the square, she turned north and went up to the circuit court room to the place where the election was being held. And as she moved up the street there was not anything feeble, either, about her voice, as she let it be known that she was a Democrat and on her way to vote the Democratic ticket.

As the author of the 1995 article points out, Mrs. Gibson was probably not the first woman to vote that day in DeKalb County, since the episode is reported as occurring in the afternoon. And in the 1920 election between Harding and Cox, Mrs. Gibson’s candidate lost. But the author goes on to quote another article that appeared in the same issue of the Herald, which opined that “The women vote has about doubled the work of handling an election” and called for more polling places in the county to avoid the long lines for voting and having clerks counting into the wee hours. Well, yes! I wonder if the male election officials really hadn’t considered that women might actually avail themselves of their newly won right to vote. Go figure!

I think the reason this little episode speaks so strongly to me is because it brings home the fact that the right to vote, especially for those of the female persuasion, was won after a hard-fought and often bloody campaign that too many of us have either forgotten about or never learned about. My great great grandmother understood what a privilege was now offered her, even at the ripe old age of 81 and she did not hesitate to avail herself of it with all the aplomb she could muster. I don’t think she regretted voting even though her candidate lost.

I am also reminded that for men too the right to vote was won and has been maintained with “the lives and fortunes” of those who were willing to stand up for what they believed in, the right of all men to decide their own fate. The reality of the death and destruction suffered by the former colonists in the Revolutionary War has been muted in our own time, but it was nonetheless real. Thousands died over the six years of that war and many lost all they had.

I have talked to a number of people recently who are suggesting that they are going to just “sit this one out.” Looking forward to the election this November, they don’t like either candidate and so they think they just won’t vote. To be honest, I’m disappointed in the selection of candidates myself, but I have determined that I WILL vote. I refuse to give up what my Revolutionary patriots fought for, what my great great grandmother did with such obvious pride. I will vote, because to stay home is to deny what our patriots stood for and fought for. I will vote, because I want to live up to the example Julia Ann Pfaff Gibson lived out for me.

The Quilt

My grandmother had six sisters. They all loved to do handwork–embroidery, crocheting, quilting–and although they would never have admitted it, they were always engaged in an unspoken competition to see who could do the most interesting stitch or who could come up with the prettiest design. I still have many examples of the work they did, but I have to say that I believe my grandmother was the champion quilter. Not only did she piece the quilts (sew the quilt tops together), she did the actual quilting (the sewing together of the quilt back to the quilt top with a batting in between). This required a quilt frame which stretched the quilt tight so that the quilter could make the tiniest stitches in a delightful pattern through all thicknesses. Nobody could accomplish this better than my grandmother. Her work was well known in her community and people would bring her their finished quilt tops for her to quilt.

When I was about nine, I decided I wanted to make a quilt. I picked a pattern that was much too hard for a beginner. It had many tiny pieces to each section and I had not yet gained my grandmother’s dexterity with a needle. Although I kept at it long enough to finish nine blocks, eventually I laid it aside, packing it away for decades until I recently retrieved it and gave to my daughter who said she wanted to finish it. We’ll see…
I started thinking about quilts today as a metaphor of our American society. Throughout my graduate school experience, we read much about the heterogenous character of our nation, how in the past it was referred to as a melting pot, but perhaps in our time the salad bowl metaphor may be more appropriate. Of course, I understand why these metaphors are suggested, but to me they fall short. I think perhaps the quilt metaphor is better.

Originally, the idea of quilt making stems from need. Back in the times when cloth was woven by hand or purchased at a high price, every scrap was valuable. When a garment was worn past wearing or if there were scraps left over from sewing a new garment, the pieces were salvaged and hoarded until enough were garnered to sew the pieces together to make a large covering. Initially, function was most important, so what the quilt looked like was not a major concern. Humans being what they are, however, some began choosing the pieces and colors to make designs. Some quilts were just aesthetically pleasing, but the map quilts which provided guides to escaping slaves are well known, yet another way to combine artistry and function.

So why is a quilt a metaphor for our nation? As the pieces are chosen for the quilt, the pieces come from different types and colors of cloth to make a single covering, just as people of many languages, cultures, races, and religions have come together to create one country. They have to be sewed together to create seams that join the pieces. This is where the salad bowl metaphor breaks down; in a salad the pieces stand on their own–they have no connection to each other.

The quilter knows the pattern she wants to create and thus has a design in mind, and for me the framework for our “national quilt” must be our Constitution. Each piece, though unique, has a specific role to play in the overall design. This is where the melting pot metaphor breaks down; in the past, Americans felt it was necessary for all immigrants to become like “them” or they couldn’t be “real Americans.” That idea runs counter to the deeper meaning of the Constitution, which does not designate a “right” way to be American other than to follow its tenets.

So in a quilt, what keeps the whole thing together is the seams, the places where two or three or four different pieces are joined. This is what frightens me about where we are as a nation right now. We have never been a perfect nation. There have always been ways in which the design of the quilt has been thwarted and abused. But for the most part, the seams have held. Now, I fear that our quilt is coming apart at the seams. If we don’t figure out a way to reconnect the pieces, to sew it back together, its very design is threatened.

As I write this, one more police shooting is being reported on the news. The news anchors are talking about a “madness” that has spread over our country. Is it madness, or have we forgotten our sewing skills? Each individual piece of the quilt must ask, where is the seam I need to be repairing?

Some Roots of Patriotism

I have been looking for a different way to celebrate the birthday of the Uni13 star flagted States of America this year. After 74 years, it’s a bit hard to come up with something innovative. I wanted something a little more profound than fireworks and flag-waving, although I enjoy and appreciate those activities as much as any American. What could I do, I asked myself, that would be truly meaningful and a little different?

fireworksThen I remembered a great nephew who has been separated from his father’s side of the family almost since birth. I recently made contact with him on Facebook and realized that  he doesn’t know the stories, traditions, and legends that were a part of my growing up; I feel bad that he has not had the benefit of that. So, in honor of him and the Fourth of July, I have written a piece that provides a brief summary of some of the Patriots from which we both descend. I know many Americans have similar roots in the patriotism of their ancestors. As I share mine, perhaps others will recall or decide to seek out their own deep roots in this country, whether they are old or relatively new. Like most Americans, I have some of both. So…here are some of my patriots. The introductory line for each person indicates how I descend from each one.

Barbara Moelling McClanahan — Melvin Moelling

Melvin MoellingMelvin Kenneth Moelling was born Dec 18, 1918, in Billings, Oklahoma. He graduated from high school in Billings and attended one year at the University of Oklahoma. He left school to follow his father in the oil field in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, fields that were just opening up in the 1930s. When the war broke out on December 7, 1941, he was married and expecting his first child (me). Within the first few months, he went to a military recruiting station and volunteered for service. He was told he wasn’t needed; they would call him when and if they needed him.

He decided to take a job at the new ship building facility that had been quickly established in Evansville, Indiana, to support the American war effort. He worked for about two years in the shipyard as a boilermaker, feeling strongly that he was still “doing his part.” In the meantime, a second child (Kenneth) was born. In 1944, the draft board sent word that now they needed him. He volunteered for the Navy, but he told the enrolling officer that he did not want to serve on a submarine, He went through basic training as the oldest man in his group; the others called him “Dad.” He eventually was assigned as a gunner on a convoy ship escorting fleets of supply ships mainly across the Atlantic. There were other assignments, however, because I heard him brag many times that he only lacked the Suez Canal going all the way around the world. He served until the end of the war, being discharged in late 1945 at San Diego.

Like many veterans, Dad never talked about the fighting he did, but he was very proud of his naval service. It was hard on him and on his family, but he never complained. Once when we visited the Battleship Texas, he pointed out the huge guns like the ones that he had manned, the kind you have to sit in to operate. One of the most severe dressing-downs I ever got from him was when Kenneth and I, as clueless early teenagers might, began singing the national anthem in a very silly and disrespectful way as we did the dishes one evening. He came rushing into the kitchen shouting that he fought for that flag and we should never disrespect it like that again. I never have.

Barbara Moelling — Bertha Bernice Holroyd — George Leroy Holroyd — Edwin Holroyd — William G. Holroyd

William HolroydWilliam G. Holroyd was born in Tinsley, Yorkshire, England, on October 11, 1829. Little is known about his early life, but he lived near Sheffield, which is well known as a steel town. It appears that he gained some knowledge and experience in the steel industry before coming to America with his wife and daughter in 1852. He appears to have settled initially in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a town also known for steel, and apparently worked there briefly before moving to eastern Nebraska, where he settled on a farm and began farming operations. His son Edward was born there in 1858.

The Civil War broke out in 1861. Anticipating such an eventuality, the steel mills in Pittsburgh began revving up production of military weapons, especially cannons. William, in Nebraska, received a communication from the steel mill he had worked at, asking him to return to help with the increased production. I think it is fair to assume that they would not have gone to such effort to call him back, had William not had a level of skill and expertise that they needed. He moved his family back to Pittsburgh for the duration of the war. By 1866, however, he was back in Nebraska, doing the farming he had apparently dreamed about doing year before in smoky Sheffield, an activity he could only realize by coming to America and then helping the Union secure a victory with materiel he helped make. He died in 1915, having spent the bulk of his life enjoying the freedom he could not in England.

Barbara Moelling — Bertha Bernice Holroyd — Mollie Ellen Kirk — Coleman Benton Kirk — William Grandon Kirk

William G. Kirk was born May 6, 1826, in Fleming County, Kentucky, the youngest of eleven children born to William Francis Kirk and Elizabeth Jordan. Four days after his twentieth birthday in 1846, William enlisted at Mt. Sterling, Kentucky for a term of one year, and was sent to serve in the Mexican War. One can only guess at his motivation for joining up to fight in this war, but he was indeed sent to Mexico, where he spent about three months hauling goods from Camargo to Buena Vista. He is also reported to have served as a wagon master during the Civil War. In 1887, he applied for a pension at the age of 61, claiming that because of his war service he was unable to William G. Kirk“make a living.” As physical disabilities, he listed “Rheumatism, Deaf in Right Ear and hearing Bad in the Left, enlargement of the Liver, Kidney Disease and Piles and a general Physical Reck.” Despite all of these alleged disabilities, in 1848 he had eloped with the young
daughter of a prominent Estill County, Kentucky, pioneer and fathered 13 children with her. The family story of his penchant for alcohol may have contributed to some of his ailments, but his service should still be remembered with honor.

Barbara Moelling — Bertha Bernice Holroyd — Mollie Ellen Kirk — Coleman Benton Kirk — William Grandon Kirk — William Francis Kirk — Joseph Kirk

Joseph KirkJoseph Kirk was born July 25,1747, near where the borders of Pennsylvania and Maryland join. He belonged to a Quaker sect in the area, a group known for their pacifism. He was married at the Nottingham Meeting House in Calvert, Maryland, on June 8, 1769, to Judith Knight. A farmer, he appears on the muster roll of the West Nottingham Company of a Pennsylvania militia under the command of Captain Ephraim Blackburn. Little is known of the particulars of his service. However, in 1787 when Joseph and Judith later moved further west to Crawford County, Pennsylvania, the minister of their home meeting wrote a letter of commendation for the family to the receiving meeting, noting that Joseph’s war service would require some remediation.

Barbara Moelling — Melvin Moelling — Lida Ethel Hawkins — Grace Hellen Cannon — Nancy Kelly — Bartley (Bartholomew) Carroll — Bartholomew L. Carroll — Bartholomew Carroll

Bartholomew Carrol gravestoneBartholomew Carroll, the eldest, was born in 1719 somewhere in Virginia. He married Catherine Zumwalt in Shenandoah County, Virginia, in 1772. It is not known if he was married before Catherine; we do know that many of Catherine’s Zumwalt kin went on to fight for the Texas Revolution. According to his pension records, Bartholomew signed up at New London, Virginia, on June 1, 1780, as a private. He would have been 61 years old. He was in the battles of Camden, Guildford Court House, and Eutaw Springs. He was discharged January 1, 1782, and given a pension in 1818 at the age of 96. At the time, he was living with some of his children in Johnson County, Indiana. His was the first will probated in Johnson County.

Barbara Moelling — Bertha Bernice Holroyd — Mollie Ellen Kirk — China Ann Gibson — William Wyatt Gibson — Mary Wyatt — Samuel Wyatt

wyatt-coat-of-armsLittle is known about Samuel Wyatt, a likely descendant of the Rev. Haute Wyatt, chaplain to his brother Sir Francis Wyatt, an early governor of Virginia. He was born about 1755 in Virginia, but was living in  the Morgan District of North Carolina during the Revolutionary War; by 1805, he had moved to Knox County, Kentucky.  His service to the Revolutionary cause appears officially to have been the signing of an Oath of Allegiance to the United States, “as prescribed by the law of the state.” Although that seems to be a somewhat simple, less demanding evidence of patriotism, it must be considered that signing such an oath was considered treason by the Loyalists, of whom there were many in North Carolina.

These are not all of the patriots in my direct line and certainly not all in the larger family that includes uncles, cousins, and even a few aunts. We have family members who took part in virtually every conflict America has been faced with. For the most part, they did so because they believed in the country they helped found or maintain and what it stands for. Now it’s our turn to do what we can to make sure America continues to be the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Remembering the long forgotten members of our family and the sacrifices they made is a beginning point.

Amazon, Data Points, and The Train to Perry

I have had an account at Amazon.com for at least ten years, so I am not naïve when it comes to understanding that they have collected a pile of data points about my buying habits. I’m used to having my inbox cluttered with recommendations for other items related to things I have bought in the past. Now it’s not just what I buy, but what I search for. Amazon must have an army of computer programmers skilled at writing algorithms to analyze the online activity of all of the millions of people who frequent their website. And now they’re partnering up with credit card companies to share my reward points. It won’t just be what I buy on Amazon’s site that they will have access to; they’ll have the data trail for anything I use my credit card for!

I understand that this loss of my privacy is the price I pay for the convenience of buying online. I don’t like it, but to this point I’ve been willing to tolerate it in order to make my life easier. I guess I’ve come to accept that those sophisticated computer algorithms will just know everything there is to know about me—but maybe not. I began to suspect that maybe those algorithms were not as sophisticated as I thought when I received a typical Amazon recommendation last week. It was a recommendation to buy my own book. “Yes, Barbara McClanahan, based on your previous buying choices, we thought you might like The Train to Perry by Barbara McClanahan.”

At first I laughed. And then I decided, maybe it isn’t so funny after all. In fact, this email has come to symbolize for me everything that’s wrong with the expectations for Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Pearson’s version of personalized learning. Peter Greene posted a great blog on this subject a few days ago, so I won’t rehash it here. But let me explain why I think this email exemplifies the fallacy of AI and adaptive computer programs to teach our children.

Whatever computer program was written that reviewed my purchases of children’s historical fiction was not skilled enough to figure out that the person they were recommending my book to had the same name as the author of the book. If a human being had been asked to check this recommendation, that person would have taken a second look, noting the unlikelihood that the author and potential buyer would have the same name. A human being would likely have caught the “coincidence,” but the computer didn’t because the human who wrote its program had never anticipated this possibility.

Humans are both the limitation of AI and their power over it. No one human programmer—or even a group of them—can possibly think of all the possible eventualities that their computer will face as its programs run. But one human being, by virtue of the way humans think, i.e., looking for unexpected patterns, will eventually “out-think” a computer. Computers can never be any greater than the programs that are written for them. And the programs that are being written to teach our children through “personalized” learning will be based on one perspective and one perspective only—that of the designers of the program. Children will be “processed” through the system without opportunity to think outside the box. Yes, that can happen in any school that has a highly scripted, proscribed curriculum, but with “personalized learning,” it’s a done deal. Critical and creative thinking cannot survive in such a thinking-starved environment.

So, Amazon, no, I do not wish to purchase a copy of my own book; I have several already. And you don’t really need to keep sending me those recommendations; I’ll do my own thinking, thank you very much. By the way, are you related to Pearson?

A Christmas Story–of Sorts–for 2015

Last week our local newspaper headlined the story of an eight-year-old boy who collapsed in the breakfast line at a local school. When teachers went to his aid, they discovered he was covered with bruises and lacerations. Of course, CPS was called, and the story the boy told was beyond horrific. He reported that his father, angry with his absent mother, had taken out his belt and beat the boy mercilessly with the buckle end of it, sent him to bed without supper, then came back into the bedroom to beat him some more. The next morning, with the returned mother asleep in her bed, the boy awoke, got himself dressed, and went to school. Thankfully, by his collapsing in the cafeteria line, attention was drawn to this dreadful situation, the boy and his siblings were removed from the home, and the father is now in jail, where he clearly belongs.
That won’t be the end of it for this young boy. Even though he and his siblings may be in a safer place for the time being, he will carry the emotional scars of this traumatic event with him for the rest of his life. He will have to deal with the anguish of realizing that those who are supposed to care for him are the ones who hurt him. He must try to process how and why this happened without concluding that it was his fault. This child will need extensive psychotherapy to be able to come out on the other side of this a healthy and confident human being. Sadly, the chances of his having access to this kind of support are small, and the chances of his being returned to the same situation are high. But he will go to school and he will be expected to learn the same things and at the same rate as everyone else in his class, because those are the rules of school these days.

Yes, I sense your skepticism. You’re thinking, that’s terrible all right, but that’s just an isolated case. That’s not what it’s like for most students, certainly not the majority of students.
Yes, it is where I live.
When I moved to this community as a brand new, idealistic teacher educator eight years ago, I knew it was a rural area and I knew it was the lowest in the state economically. What I did not expect was the brutal nature of rural poverty. Early on I sat down with the principal of one of the primary schools. She shared with me how low the students in her building were academically. She took me to her “war room” where she and the teachers kept constant tabs on every student, using color codes on a large board to indicate where each student ranked at any given moment. Green was for students who were on track to succeed, yellow for students who were at risk of not being on track, and red was for students who were definitely not on track. As I surveyed the board, I saw many more yellow and red students than green. Then the principal explained that the reason these students were all so low had to do with their backgrounds. Not only were they poor, they came from homes steeped in alcohol, meth and other drugs, and domestic abuse of all sorts. Many students had an incarcerated parent or parents. Some were being raised by grandparents because the parents were strung out on meth. They had little stability in their lives and rarely was there anyone to read them a bedtime story before they went to sleep, often hungry.
I guess I looked at her, mouth open in disbelief. Finally, I said, “What you’re describing is an inner city school!”
“Yes,” she said. “There’s really very little difference. And that’s why we have to work so hard to help these kids get where they need to be to pass the tests [emphasis added]. And some of them are so far behind they may never catch up.”
I came away with a new understanding of the challenges teachers of poor students are facing in rural areas, which are really the same as teachers in urban areas. Teachers are being asked to make up for four to five years of cognitive, and usually also physical, neglect these children have endured during THE most formative period in their lives, and they must do it in a few hours of school five days a week for nine months out of the year for three to four years. It is simply an impossible task.
When I defended my dissertation, I quoted the research that says that, of all the influences in school, the teacher has the greatest impact on student learning. I still believe that is true, even though one of my committee members kept challenging me on it. Now I think I understand why. What I have come to see is that the impact of the teacher is often dulled by forces outside his or her control. Sometimes the tidal wave of external factors simply overwhelms all that a teacher can bring to the table.
Let’s suppose the boy in the opening scenario hadn’t collapsed in the breakfast line. Let’s suppose that the boy had enough stamina left to get his breakfast eaten and go on to class. Does anybody think he would have been ready to learn that day? Does anybody think he would have been able to focus on his school work? Is it just possible he might have been more focused on what might happen to him when he had to go home that afternoon? I think so, and given my conversation with the principal, I must assume that there are several other students much like him in the class he returns to. Their scars just aren’t as obvious.
But the policy makers, think-tankers, and legislators who create “rigorous standards” and high stakes tests designed to assess them tell us all of that is just an excuse. Students are just lazy and don’t want to do the hard work of learning. If teachers were good teachers, they claim, they would be able to overcome these kinds of distractions and get about the business of making sure this child, these children are ready to take the reading test at the end of third grade. This is insanity! We must stop setting up impossible standards that ALL students are required to meet because, purely and simply, ALL students can’t meet them, at least not on the arbitrary schedule that policy makers demand.
Under the passage of ESSA, the reauthorization of the federal education law, responsibility for standards and testing of those standards is being “returned” to the states. If that is so, the buck will stop with our state legislatures. They will lose the excuse of blaming the federal government for the disasters that their policies cause. However, as Joanne Yatvin points out, since the new bill is based on the same flawed theories of NCLB, convincing the states to move out of that “accountability” mindset will be a monumental challenge. The law still requires annual testing in third through eighth grades. But surely the legislatures can figure out ways to make these tests less damaging! Smart legislators should be able to come up with ways to support teachers in the overwhelming challenges they are facing with students such as I have described above, rather than simply demanding success and punishing failure. Carrots and sticks do not work, and research is full of evidence on that premise.
Yatvin fears “[w]e are not done with judging our students, teachers, and schools mainly by test scores, or believing that comparisons with other countries’ scores on international tests are meaningful.” She sees the only solution to be for “parents, teachers, and informed citizens to strengthen their efforts to support our public schools. We need to put pressure on state legislatures to use their funds and power to make intelligent decisions for our schools. If we are silent, thinking that all is well now that NCLB is dead, the future will be no better than the past.”

Parents, grandparents, teachers, VOTERS, it’s time to hold the legislators accountable. We must scream at the top of our lungs until we are heard. Recent statistics tell us that almost one-fourth of American children live in the kind of poverty I have been talking about! These children need nurture and support, not unreasonable pressure and demands that they accomplish what they are not emotionally, developmentally, or cognitively ready to do.
Let’s find a better way! There’s a bruised and broken eight-year-old in my town who needs it desperately. Yatvin’s words are ringing in my ears: “If we are silent…”

Head, Tail, or Middle? Does It Matter Anymore?

If worthless men sometimes are at the head of affairs, it is I believe because worthless men are at the tail end and the middle. – John Adams
So, is this where we are? When a school administrator can look a group of teachers in the eye and tell them their job is to collect data over teaching children, this is indeed where we are. Well, okay, what he actually said was that despite the fact that they were excellent teachers, they weren’t all teaching the same way. Because of that, data about their teaching couldn’t be collected. When a teacher in the audience countered with “My job is to teach children, not collect data,” the administrator’s response was “No!”
This then is the outcome of the intense pressure of “Test and Punish.” In the beginning, some of us really thought it was about the children–helping children who weren’t getting the help they needed get it. And maybe for some involved in developing it, it really was that. But somewhere along the way, the object became testing and data, so this is where we are. The small group of individuals spearheading this thrust are doing it for their own reasons, mostly money. I won’t rehearse here the well-documented litany of the various ways these people profit from testing your children over and over and over and over. I am focusing on how this thirst for data has permeated the administration of even the smallest school districts in our country. The event cited above occurred at a very rural school. Administrators like this one have swallowed hook, line, and sinker, the false mantra that data is the savior of our school systems. Either that, or they mouth it in for fear for their jobs. Teachers who know this is inherently wrong, look at each other as if to say, “Hear we go again–another education pendulum swing.” Unfortunately, this “pendulum” is not like all the others. This one is in the process of changing everything we know public education to be and everything it has been for most of our country’s history.

Sadly, the anticipated reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESSA) does not change any of this. If anything, it exacerbates it. This 1,061 page document which is being pushed through Congress without time for reasonable debate, leaves the “Test and Punish” System fully in place. It gives lip-service to state control of education, while giving the federal Secretary of Education essential veto power over how the states implement testing and accountability. States are still required to test 95% of their students, and the document leaves the issue of parental right of opt-out cloudy, and according to Mercedes Schneider, ripe for law suits. Some of the sections promote charters, while others smooth the way for future teachers to bypass traditional teacher education. In the end it is about continuing the standardization of children and their teachers and is designed, perhaps intentionally, to deepen the re-segregation of American schools. This is a bill that keeps corporate reform in place, despite a rising tide of evidence that the American people are done with it. How far will we allow it to go? HOW FAR WILL WE ALLOW IT TO GO?

Or was John Adams right?

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