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Reading and Writing and Dancing as Long as the Music Plays

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?

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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.

Memories of Decoration Day

 

imagesMy ancestors lie on a wind-swept hill just south of Billings in north central Oklahoma. My parents, one set of grandparents, three sets of great grandparents, and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins of varying degrees slumber there awaiting the final trumpet sound. This is hallowed ground to me, as you might imagine.

This time of year I think about that cemetery a great deal. Monday is Memorial Day, or as it was called when I was growing up, Decoration Day. The annual trek from Edmond to Billings on Memorial Day was a tradition in my family. My mother would get my brother and me up early to get there in time to help Grandma cut the flowers from her garden and place them in coffee cans filled with water. I vividly remember the smell of 122692804the lilacs and the dust on the road out to the cemetery. My grandmother already had a husband, a son, and parents buried there, and once we arrived, she and my mother carefully arranged the cans of flowers on the graves. Then Mother would take us around the cemetery showing us the graves of various family members, being very careful not to step on any of them. Perhaps it sounds a bit morbid, but it truly wasn’t.

If other family members weren’t already there, they would arrive soon. My grandmother was one of twelve, and the aunts, uncles, and cousins stood around in the cemetery chatting. They would be gathering later at Aunt Gladys’ or Aunt Lizzie’s for a family dinner, but the talk was always non-stop.

At some point (my memory is not clear on the exact hour), they would join the rest of the community who had gathered at the cemetery in observing a ceremony honoring the deceased veterans buried there. Back then, it was mostly veterans of World War I; my great uncle Wayne wouldn’t join their number for many more years, but he is there now. There were a few veterans of World War II who had died in the fighting; now there are many more, including my dad, my Uncle Holly, my mother’s cousin J.C., and others. The closing of the ceremony was always marked with the playing of taps and a 21-gun salute.

As a child, the noise of the guns frightened me. I didn’t understand much of what I was experiencing. It was only much later as I grew up and gained an appreciation for what the ceremony was about that it took on new meaning in my mind. This whole event was a way for the living to honor those who had been a part of their lives and were no more. Many of the dead in that cemetery were not veterans of wars, but were pioneers who had braved the elements to break the sod and establish homes and communities in a somewhat less than inviting landscape. They deserved to be honored and remembered for what they had done, and decorating the graves was how the community chose to do that. Moreover, this observance provided opportunities for the young to make connections with those of the past whom they would never know but who had impacted their lives in powerful ways. I know that the way the Billings community came together in this effort made a lasting impression on me.

So this Memorial Day, I will be in a cemetery, in part to honor the memory of those earlier Memorial/Decoration Days. As we have for the past two years, my DAR sisters and I will lay a wreath at the flagpole in the Veteran’s Section. 10294318_10152195724754611_3404137821886909062_nWe will say a prayer and sing the National Anthem. I wish there could be someone to play taps and offer a 21-gun salute.

And so my thoughts come to this: Maybe it’s time to become more mindful of our cemeteries and those who rest there, to restore them to their rightful place in our communal thinking. Maybe it’s time once again to pay homage for what the inhabitants of these cemeteries accomplished in their lifetimes, whether on the field of battle or simply the field of living, to express gratitude for the benefits that we enjoy now without a second thought. My wish for you this Memorial Day is that you spend some time in a cemetery.

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?

A Few Thoughts on Teacher Education

I noted today a letter in our local small-town newspaper, written by a teacher. I applaud her efforts to support teachers in very trying times and her regard for those who are committed to entering the teaching profession despite low pay and lack of respect on many sides. Her purpose was to encourage them to stay true to their calling despite the negativity, and I wholeheartedly support that.

One thing she said, however, made me cringe. Speaking to future teachers, she said, “You will definitely learn more your first year of teaching than you did in four years of college.” I don’t think she intended that as a slap at teacher education programs. Perhaps as a teacher educator in the 21st Century of Test, Rank, and Punish, I may be somewhat oversensitive; Teacher Education has its own set of “reformsters.” But here is what concerns me.

There is a current of thought among both teachers and the public that college classes for teacher candidates are ineffective, essentially useless. In some cases new teachers are even encouraged to “forget all that stuff you learned in college.” “Here’s how it really works,” they are told. I will be the first one to agree that reading about something or even watching a video about it is not anything like actually doing it. But to jump to “Forget it!” is selling me and a lot of other teacher educators, not to mention some truly valuable teacher education programs, very short.

While my experience is not the litmus test for this concept, I want to share it as an example of what I am talking about. The first time I attempted to become a teacher was back in the early 1960s. I spent time in the History of Education, Developing Curriculum, and other less than memorable courses that, quite honestly, did not teach me anything practical.  I did receive a degree in History, even though I did not complete the teacher education program. Over the next few years,I was invited to teach in one public school in another state and one private religious school. It was when I actually entered the classroom that I realized how little my coursework had given me in terms of practical preparation. I had to muddle through as best I could, inventing my own ways to cope and borrowing from other teachers who were willing to share.

Fast forward a few decades to the mid 1990s. Still wanting to teach, I enrolled in a post-bacc teacher education program at a local university. I took all the education courses that undergrad teacher education majors took, but this time, instead of being simply historical or theoretical, most of the classes were practical and hands-on. I learned so much about how to plan a lesson, how to manage the classroom, how to plan for special students, how to assess struggling readers, and much more that my first program had simply not addressed. I have thought a lot about what might explain the difference, and I suspect it was a literal explosion of research on education, and especially reading, that has provided a foundation to help teacher candidates understand not just the content they need to teach but how children learn and develop, and what techniques and strategies are most likely to be productive for learning. We now know so much more about these things than we did fifty years ago, and this knowledge has provided a solid base upon which to teach.

When I finally got my first classroom, yes, I found a few teachers, mostly older teachers, who were amused at my enthusiasm and looked askance at some of the “different” methods I had picked up in my college classes. But for the most part, I found a community of teachers who were supportive and willing to let me try new things I had learned and a school district that allowed me to go to professional development programs that continued to help me grow as a teacher. Yes, I learned a great deal that first year, but it was manageable because I had received a powerful foundation in my college classes.

Can teacher education programs be better than they currently are? Of course! One of the biggest drawbacks to most programs is the lack of what are called “clinical experiences,” that is opportunities for the teacher candidates to work directly with children and in schools. This is problematic on both ends. For example, college semesters do not mesh well with school calendars. Many teacher candidates take classes during the summer when public schools are in recess. As the pressure of high-stakes tests has risen, many teachers and administrators are reluctant to take chances with inexperienced teacher candidates in their classrooms, fearing it will reduce the amount of time children can spend in test-prep and/or result in lower test scores.

There is some research evidence that suggests teaching credentials should be given only to students who complete a 5-year program, rather than the traditional 4-year. In this program, the fifth year is generally a year of internship, where the student teacher essentially spends an entire year in a student teaching position, heavily supervised and supported by a mentor. This is indeed a wonderful idea, but again there are drawbacks. Such a program delays the student teacher’s graduation, requiring another year of tuition. It means that the student teacher is not able to work other jobs to defray expenses, and probably adds substantially to the debt the teacher leaves college with. Moreover, because certainly in our part of the country, teacher pay is so low, the student teacher will be unlikely to quickly recoup that expense and loss of potential income for a number of years, if ever.

Would we be graduating better teachers if we implemented a 5-year program? Undoubtedly, but until teacher pay justifies the investment and until state legislatures and the public understand this correlation, I don’t see anything changing. In the meantime, I will continue to do my best to give the teacher candidates who matriculate my classes the most practical and realistic teacher education I can within the limited time and resources at my disposal.

Where Is Education Headed?

Yesterday I was at a meeting of a service organization in which I am very active. As the meeting ended, another member of the group, who is aware of my activism regarding public education, approached me. “I want to ask you a question,” she said. “Where is education headed?”

I have to admit I was a little dumbfounded by the question. Surely this lady had not been under a rock for the last several years; surely she knows what I am about and why. Then she went on. “I have a daughter who has been teaching kindergarten for 28 years. I’m asking for her because she is wondering, if things aren’t going to get any better, maybe it’s time to quit.”

This is a serious question and one that many teachers in our neck of the woods and across the nation are asking themselves. I’m not sure I gave my friend a very satisfactory answer. I briefly reviewed where we are with the reauthorization of ESEA in light of Boehner’s resignation, which is unclear. I told her that there was both good and bad in the drafts I had read before Boehner’s announcement–the good being that the drafts scaled back the amount of influence the USDOE can exert on the states regarding education, the bad being that legislators are still in love with standardized tests and charter schools. But now it was not clear that any of the proposed drafts will be passed and that is discouraging. I told her that I had been monitoring an interim study being conducted by some state legislators last week that heard many experts testify as to the invalidity and harm being done by using student test scores to evaluate teachers as required by a waiver from the effects of the current version of ESEA (otherwise known as NCLB) according to the USDOE. I told her that representatives of Washington State, which had lost its waiver two years ago, testified that they were trucking along just fine without it, so why couldn’t we? That was somewhat encouraging.

But I don’t think any of that caused my friend to leave with any less concern for her daughter. And to be honest, I don’t think anyone can answer her question at this point. It is absolutely clear to those who pay attention that public education has been under attack from many quarters for an extended period of time. The results have been cataclysmic in some areas, just inconvenient in others, but no one has yet been able to point to any lasting positive results. Those who are the enemies of public education (and some of these do not see themselves as enemies, but they are) have spent much time and money to shield what they are doing from the public, and what is most discouraging is the naiveté and placid acceptance of their efforts by many of the stakeholders most affected–parents and teachers. Teachers I understand to some degree, because their jobs are on the line and it is risky to challenge. Common Core, which has received the most public attention, is/was only the most visible piece of the program for dismantling public education, and there are many more prongs to the attack–overuse of standardized tests; collection of inordinate amounts of data on our children that are unreasonable and insecure; the institution of an A-F grading system for schools that ignores the nuances of what success really means in a given community; the use of standardized tests to rank, punish, and eliminate local schools and their boards, students, and teachers; the push to replace these “failing” schools with unregulated charter schools that feed at the public trough.

But wherever I go, I learn that so many parents simply are blind to what is happening and don’t want to believe me when I tell them. I am convinced that the only way to foil the plans of the enemies of public education is to keep fighting, keep up the efforts to make parents aware, not just of what is happening, but of their POWER to stop it. It is definitely an uphill battle, but I for one cannot quit. To quit is to say that what I have devoted my life to is a waste. But more than that, it is to give up on the children of this country and on our very democracy. I won’t quit. That’s the most positive thing I could tell my friend yesterday.

An Experience with Age Discrimination

Recently Nancy Bailey has drawn attention to the issue of age discrimination against teachers as it relates to the almost national teacher shortage. Reading this blog, I was reminded of a situation I experienced in my own life and career.

To tell this story, I probably need to go back further than the event itself. Although I always wanted and planned to be a teacher, life intervened. Consequently, I didn’t get to start my teaching career until I was in my mid-fifties, when many people are looking to retire. Having received my state credentials, I found it very difficult to “break in.” I realize that having secondary history as my initial certification and not being able to coach put me in a difficult position to start with. At the time I didn’t think about my age being that much of a hindrance, but now I wonder.

Finally, a week before school started, I was hired by a school in deep East Texas–and hour and a half drive one way from my home–and I took it. I had to go back and get a Special Education endorsement, but I was fine with that. That started me on a ten-year career in Special Education and, for the most part, I loved it. The next year I was able to move to a school closer to my home–only a 35-minute drive–and stayed for eight years. However, this position required me to teach resource reading and English to Special Ed students in 6th through 8th grades. English was no problem since that had been my minor in college, but I discovered I knew NOTHING about teaching reading. After struggling for a year, I began to look around for some help and found it in a Master’s program at a nearby (euphemistically speaking) university. As I took courses in the program, I started trying out what I was learning in my classroom, and–lo and behold!–it worked! I began having some success with my reading students.

As part of my coursework, I learned about the Reading Recovery Program, which has a proven record of helping struggling first graders be successful in learning to read. By this time I had earned all-level certification in Special Education and English as a Second Language, and had met the requirements for Master Reading Teacher. I had come to love teaching reading and wanted to devote my efforts to younger students in an effort to prevent so many older students from winding up in resource or remedial classes–in other words, catch them early. I learned that the Reading Recovery Program at a large suburban district in North Texas was looking for applicants for their program. I decided to apply. The process of applying for this program was extensive and intensive. It involved several interviews and an elaborate application. Being accepted by the program, however, did not mean that you had a job; it just meant that you had been approved to apply for a job at an individual school. The schools called in the individuals they wanted to interview from the pool approved by the directors of the Reading Recovery Program.

Having passed the first hurdle–approval by the Reading Recovery directors–I was interviewed by a couple of schools. Neither called me back for a second interview. Toward the end of summer, I received a phone call from one of the directors. All the Reading Recovery positions for that year had been filled, she said, but they really wanted to get me into the system. Would I consider applying for a Special Education position for the current year, and then I would be in a good position to get a Reading Recovery position for the following year. I said sure! I can’t remember if I interviewed at two schools or just one, but at any rate, one principal called and asked for a second interview with her committee. She said it had come down to me and one other candidate. I met with the committee and thought I had done well. I heard nothing for several days, and when I called one morning to check on things, the principal said she would have an answer for me that afternoon. The afternoon came and went–no phone call. She finally called that night at 10:00 p.m. She informed me that the committee had chosen the other candidate. She could have dropped it at that and I would have accepted it and not given it much more thought. However, she seemed nervous and kept talking, as if she were making some sort of apology. Then she said the words that have stuck in my brain: “The committee just thought that the other candidate was younger and more energetic.” I was too shocked to say anything. I thanked her for the call and hung up.

I have no idea what kind of discussions took place in reaching the decision that the committee reached. I am sure that the principal was uncomfortable with communicating to me the reason for the decision, a reason that is completely illegal. I don’t think she intended to say what she said. But as I thought about my experience with this district, I remembered that at every school at which I interviewed, I didn’t remember seeing a teacher or administrator who was beyond middle age. Was age discrimination pervasive in this district? I can’t say, but I am quite sure I experienced it.

I now teach at the university level, helping pre-service teachers learn the ropes. My duty station, however, is at a branch campus, a hundred miles from the main campus, and in a deeply rural area. Many of my students are non-traditional, coming back to school in middle age. They often make the best students, having years of wisdom to bring to the task. They are often nervous and wondering if they have made the right decision. I tell them that if they are truly called to teach, they will not be happy doing anything else.

I do believe teaching is a calling, but one that takes learning to develop the skill and knowledge base required to be a successful teacher. That skill and knowledge rarely come naturally. What a shame if these future teachers, after making a wrenching mid-life change and putting in the time, effort, and money to reach that level of skill and knowledge cannot find the jobs they deserve because they are not perceived as “young and energetic.” Looking back I now think that this may have been playing a role in my struggle to find a job as I began my teaching career.

Nancy Bailey pointed to other issues in age discrimination such as efforts to force older teachers out because they are more “expensive.” I have personally talked to many teachers who have retired or are planning to retire earlier than they would have otherwise were it not for the level of stress that has risen for teachers over the last 15 years. Think about the loss of experience any kind of age discrimination means for our schools and our children. In no case can we afford it!

Essay on Becoming a “Real Author”

This is to announce that I am now an official “real author.” By that I mean that I have a book that will be published on June 30 with an ISBN number that can be found on Amazon.com here and Barnes and Noble here. Woohoo! It only took me 63 years!

You see, I’ve actually been writing for a very long time. I began my first novel when I was nine. It was about a cowboy named Joe and I had no real idea how to develop a plot, so I quickly abandoned it—but the urge was definitely there. Then I turned to journalism. I created a neighborhood newspaper when I was about eleven, hand-copying articles I liked onto notebook paper in columnar form, drawing pictures and captioning them. I discovered all that copying was exceedingly tedious and time consuming, so the newspaper went out of business pretty quickly. In high school, I turned to poetry. I wrote several very bad poems and put them together in my own poetry collection (which I still have, by the way.) I also began writing short stories. That’s when things went rather badly.

I had written a short story about a loving dog whose master died and was taken in by a little girl. My English teacher thought it showed potential, so she asked me if I would be willing to take it to the regional UIL competition. Highly flattered, of course I said yes! So one Saturday morning my teacher and another teacher friend headed off to Midland for the UIL meet. Never having been to a UIL competition, I had no idea what to expect. When the time came for the judge to read my short story, I sat there expectantly waiting for the praise that did not come. Instead the judge told me all the things that were wrong with my story. She did not mention one thing that she liked. I was crushed. My natural reaction to that was to conclude that I was not a good writer and I would not expose myself to that kind of criticism ever again. (Sadly, I fear many other budding writers have experienced similar repudiation at the hands of well-meaning teachers who see it as their job simply to fix the things that are wrong with a piece of writing rather than to find things that encourage the writer.)

I won’t say I never wrote again, but for the most part, I laid writing aside. Once in awhile, I would feel inspired to write a piece for the church newsletter or for a genealogy book in which I had an interest, but those moments were seldom. I mostly focused on other things, like genealogy, for instance.

Then at the tender age of 57, I went back to get a master’s degree in reading, and who knew that meant I would be required to take a course in writing? The instructor ignited that long-slumbering desire to write. She didn’t just assign the writing; she made us write IN CLASS and then share our writing with our classmates. She had us reading books on writing by Lucy Calkins and others that provided guidance in writing, revising, editing, and encouraging budding writers to write about things they were “experts” on to get them going. Writing really opened up for me in a way it never had before, and I began to do more writing—mostly about family events and amusing stories that happened to us—but I was actually writing again on a fairly regular basis.

A glutton for punishment, I subsequently started a doctoral program, and—guess what—it required two more writing classes! These classes were primarily intended to teach us academic writing, but the professor for them was a writer of children’s books, and he wanted to broaden our writing skills. One of his assignments was to write a children’s story. That, I was not prepared for. I racked my brain trying to come up with some cute little story he would be happy with. No luck.

Then I remembered something. Years earlier, before my grandmother passed away, I had asked her to sit down with me and let me record (on paper, not with a recorder, sadly) a story I had heard her tell before, about her journey with her mother and sisters on the train from St. Joseph, Missouri, to the Cherokee Strip in Oklahoma in the mid-1890s. What, I thought, if I told that story through the eyes of my grandmother, who had been six years old at the time? I decided to give it a try. It was hard because, although Grandma had provided a few interesting details, I had to put myself in her shoes and think like she would have thought at that age, adding details she did not mention in her rendition as an adult. When I was done, I was pleased with the result, and so was my professor. He suggested I might want to try to get it published.

With his encouragement—and my own bravado—I began to research publishing for children’s books. I had no idea how difficult it is to break into this market! But I quickly found out. I read the Writer’s Market book, found potential publishers, catered my manuscript to the requirements of each one I submitted it to, one at a time, and waited for the inevitable rejection letter. I lost track of how many times I actually submitted it; only one editor responded with any kind of positive feedback—“nice family story”—along with the rejection. After several years and several attempts, I pretty much gave up sending it to major publishers. I toyed with the idea of self-publishing just to preserve it for the family, but the cost of that would have been prohibitive because it would require illustration. And so I left it.

Fast forward a good ten years. My work as a teacher educator at the branch campus of a regional university made me keenly aware of the pressures being visited on public education by “uneducated” policy makers and the new crop of billionaire philanthropists; I became involved with a local grassroots effort to make the public aware of what was going on. As a local activist teacher and I were meeting to plan strategy, she happened to mention that she had published some children’s books. My ears picked up. I asked her how she had been able to do that and asked her to read my story. After reading it, she was enthusiastic. “You must get this published!” she said, and suggested a couple of publishers that might be interested. With her encouragement, I decided to try one more time. The publisher I chose to submit the story to, with positive results at last, represents a sort-of blend between traditional publishers and self-publishing. I did have to put up a retainer, but nowhere near the $25,000 I was told it would cost to bring the project to completion. It took almost a year and a half to get to the point where I now have actual books in my hands, but I am finally there.

I’ve learned a lot through this experience. I’ve learned it’s never too late to do what you are meant to do. I’ve learned that you have to be willing to try one more time. I’ve learned that working with a publisher can be a very frustrating and slow process. But I’ve learned that one of the most fulfilling things in the world is to read your own book to a group of children who hang on your every word. There are no words to describe my feelings the first time I was able to do this. And every “next time” is just as rewarding. I think I would rather read my book to children than sell a boatload of them.

I think that’s the good thing about being a “real” author. Writers write ultimately to be read, and children can be a tough audience. When you connect with them through your writing, it is true joy. A couple of days ago, a friend of mine told me that he had read my book to his three nieces. Afterward, he said, he watched them round up a neighbor girl to make the four sisters in the story so they could act it out. Yes! Real author!

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