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Reading and Writing and Dancing as Long as the Music Plays

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…”

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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!

Counting the Guns

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Recently in a TV interview discussing the fall of Ramadi to ISIS and the statement of Secretary of Defense Carter to the effect that the Iraqis did not have the will to fight, General Stanley McChrystal made a comment that resonated with me and which I paraphrase here. “War isn’t math,” he said. “If it was, we’d just add up who has the most men and weapons and nobody would have to actually fight, but that’s not how it works.”

“Wow!” I thought. “If war isn’t math, why are we trying to make education nothing but math?” But that is exactly what is happening. The American public has been convinced that all that matters in education is what we can count. We administer scores of tests mandated by federal, state, and district entities to measure our kids and then use those tests to make decisions that are unwarranted by the types of tests being used because–DATA! DATA is the greatest good! I’m sure there are cultural and historical and social explanations for how we got to this place, but I’m not sure those explanations really matter. Here we are, and our kids are suffering as a result of the overpowering culture of test and test-prep. They are suffering because, as many have aptly said, “Our kids are more than a score!” And we are ignoring all those things we’re not testing in our rush to DATA. (This would be a good place to discuss the reasons so much data is being collected by entities that have no legitimate reason to have it and hope you won’t notice that they do, but we’ll save that for another post.)

General McChrystal was not saying that the number of weapons and men don’t matter, but he was pointing us to the idea that what truly matters is the hearts of the soldiers and the generals who lead them into battle. If that is true for war, how much more is it true for learning. Of course we need a limited amount of appropriate data (emphasis on the words “limited” and “appropriate”) to help us understand where our students are, but what is infinitely more necessary are classrooms where students feel safe enough to fail (because we learn from failure, more than from success). We need teachers who are allowed to design their instruction in such a way that they can ignite the curiosity and the commitment to learning within their students, instead of following numbing mandates and scripts handed down from “on high.” That cannot happen when teachers and students are required to do almost constant test-prep and testing. And, yes, that IS what is going on in many, if not most, schools in 2015.

The solution?
Stop the asinine testing. If your school won’t stop it, opt your children out.
Provide teachers with an adequate wage and safe working conditions. Expensive tests don’t teach kids; teachers do.
Give them adequate resources to work with–maybe it’s technology and maybe it isn’t. And teachers need intensive professional development to figure out which works best in any given situation.
Help teachers and students learn how to collaborate, how to inquire, how to set up and solve problems. These, by the way, are the specific things business leaders have been telling educators they need. Standardized tests cannot assess that, much less teach it.
Teach administrators to be coaches who support what teachers can do and help them to do the things they’re not doing yet, not policemen charged with enforcing the rules. Some administrators know how to do this, but many do not.

If we really want students to make progress in their learning, we will focus on these things, not on tests and the data. Dr. Walter Stroup of UT-Austin concluded from his studies that test results are essentially impervious to instruction and can’t tell us how well students are learning, only that they do or do not know how to take tests. Neither can they tell us how individual teachers are performing, as has been corroborated by multiple statistical studies. Other studies have shown repeatedly that the only reasonable conclusion to draw from these tests is that children who come from wealthier homes do better on them than students who don’t.

Pearson, the largest test publication company in the world, attempted to discredit Dr. Stroup’s research with a media campaign suggesting his research was flawed, rather than conducting a fair and open debate as to its accuracy. Dr. Stroup, a tenured professor, almost lost his job for reporting the results of his research, probably due to Pearson’s financial power at the university where he works. The kind of mean-spirited, deliberate campaign of misinformation and the lack of unbiased research of which Dr. Stroup’s experience is an example, is the normal way of doing business with testing companies and corporatista reformers. There is little evidence they care about the real education of children; the first group are out for bigger and bigger profits, while the second group are egotistical elitists who believe that because they have money, they know how to “fix” education. And we can’t forget the hangers-on who see “education reform through testing” as their path to success.

We must hold legislators who talk out of both sides of their mouths accountable. We must hold administrators who do not follow the law accountable. We must stop paying indecent amounts of money to huge testing corporations who do not want you to know what Dr. Stroup discovered and testified about.

Soldiers may know how to use a rifle, but if all they do is practice shooting, they will lack the confidence to face an equally well equipped enemy. They will not have the will to fight. If our students only know how to take tests, they are not likely to be able to demonstrate how to engage in real life, much less function in a democratic republic which requires collaboration, critical thinking, and real problem solving. Do we really want to keep counting the guns?

The Elleminnow Pea Effect

I haven’t felt inspired to do much blogging lately, but it seems my daughter, a “new” teacher, is feeling led to take up the mantle in my hiatus. I asked her if I could share this one with my readers since she doesn’t have her own active blog yet. I think you’ll enjoy its message.

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Bless us, O Lord,
And these Thy gifts
Which we are about to receive
From Thy bounty
Through Christ, Our Lord
Amen

is how the blessing is supposed to go.

All his life, Mike has been saying

Bless us, O Lord,
And these Thy guests
Which are about to receive Thy bounty…

Only when we began saying it together and realized that we were each saying something different, did he notice his error. Not being raised Catholic, I had to steal glances at the cross-stitched plaque in his mother’s kitchen and follow along during family blessings. He was just repeating what he had heard all his life. At that time, I could not convince him that he was saying the wrong words.

During the next family blessing at his mother’s, he followed along with the plaque, too. After it was over, he sighed, “Well, I’ll be damned.” He’d been saying it wrong his whole life. His whole life.

It is amazing how we hear what we expect to hear. For years, when I sang the alphabet song, I didn’t hear L, M, N, O, P. I heard Elleminnow Pea, like it was some special kind of pea. I knew the alphabet, but when singing the song, it became something else in my brain. It makes me wonder what else I’ve missed during my life, without even realizing it.

I recall experiments discussed in my Psychology classes where subjects’ noses were plugged so they could not smell, and then they were blindfolded and handed a round object to eat. Without their sense of sight and smell, they could not tell if they were eating an apple or an onion. They essentially lost their ability to taste.

What I am calling the Elleminnow Pea Effect is the absorption of knowledge through a single sense, or a limited number of senses. Our senses were designed to work together to help us learn about the world. When we use only hearing, only vision, only smell, only taste or only touch to experience the world, we lose vital pieces of information that help us interpret what we experience. This effect is magnified if the sense we are using happens to be faulty.

That is why it is critical for us to use as many of our senses as possible when learning, and it is essential for young children to do so. Young children were not designed to experience the world through hearing and vision only. They should be tasting, touching, and smelling as well, and moving while they do it. To deny them this opportunity is to create thousands of tiny gaps in their knowledge, thousands of missed connections. These missed connections then show up later as reading problems, writing problems, math problems, and I suspect, ADD and ADHD.

These are just my musings. I have no scientific proof of the Elleminnow Pea Effect. But there is researched-based support for multi-sensory learning, and it needs to be brought into our schools NOW.

What Exactly is Education For?

The concept of education and the procedures that we use to implement it are inherently both cultural and political. Many times in years past I have been lulled into believing that they are not, that education is acultural and apolitical; the last three years have convicted me of my error.

What awakened my new insight was the Common Core Initiative. In researching and studying this phenomenon, I learned a great deal, but one of the most important things I learned was that supporters of the Common Core Initiative have a radically different view of what education is supposed to be and do than I did. To those we have come to call the “corporate reformers,” education is how we sort students into jobs. Education is all about “helping” children, beginning as early as possible (certainly in Kindergarten, if not before), find their proper spot in the world of work. There are many things wrong with this point of view in my opinion, but mainly I think that directing students to their vocations is the most minor purpose of education, and one best left to parents and the students themselves, with the help and support of educators.

So if jobs should not be the focus of education, what should be? Recently, I have been reading (more correctly, listening to) David McCullough’s John Adams. In early 1776, Adams was probably the leading member of the Continental Congress. He was nursing the nervous representatives toward their inevitable vote for “independency.” One of the steps that helped the body move in that direction was a declaration passed by the Congress in May that announced that the colonies had the right and would move to initiate their own colonial governments, not answerable to Great Britain. In connection with this idea, one of the representatives asked Adams to write a sketch of what such a government should look like. The result was Adams Thoughts on Government, in which he outlined many ideas that later were incorporated into our Constitution.

nullJohn Adams

What you are asking, does that have to do with education? A great deal, I would suggest, as would McCullough. Adams was a firm believer that an education of all young people was an absolute necessity to maintain a free and independent government. Here are his words, which I found at the Online Library of Liberty: “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

Read those words again–“liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people”–“so extremely wise and useful”–“no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.” Here I submit is the true purpose of education in a republic such as ours. Adams believed such education, most especially provided to those who could not afford it on their own, was absolutely essential to preserve what he hoped the fight that was ahead of him–and the American people–would win. They did win it and it is left to us to keep it. We cannot do so if we allow those who would subvert education to their own ends to win in the current battle for American education.

Neither should we allow our state legislatures, encouraged by shadowy business/legislative partnerships, to starve our public educational institutions by failing to provide adequate funding for public education that Adams believed “no expense should be… [too] extravagant” for. Nor can we allow policymakers and uninformed “experts” without credentials to “test” our schools, their students and teachers, into contrived failure. I think it is past time for all of us to stand up to these forces that would seek to undermine what Adams and so many other patriots “sacrificed their lives and fortunes” for. Perhaps you think I am being overly dramatic, but I see this fight as a critical and pivotal point in our country’s history.

As some who are on the front lines of the current fight will tell you, there are costs to be paid, and many of the early education “patriots” have already paid them. The corporate reformers have a great deal of power and money. So did Great Britain. It took six long years to beat her. Are we in it for the long haul? Are we ready, not just to make loud noises on social media and organize demonstrations? Are we ready to do the hard work of electing to our legislatures those who understand Adams’ view of the purpose of education? I hope so; I don’t like to think about what the future will be like for our children if we are not.

The Testing Games: Know Your Odds, Know Your Options. #BeATribute – I Volunteer, Sir

The Hunger Games is one of my favorite recent series, both print and cinematic. Some of the correlations in this piece had occurred to me. Here a Florida teacher puts these correlations to the “test” and asks to volunteer.

Grassroots Mom

Here in Florida, our public school students are engaged in what I like to refer to as The Testing Games. Based upon the recent blockbuster, The Hunger Games, I have taken to making comparisons between the battlefield in the movie and the school environment that we have established for our students. The similarities are uncanny.

The obvious comparison is the idea that education is some form of competition. We know this concept is a popular one, just based upon the fact that our own US President named his education reform, The Race to the Top. In this race, states are encouraged to create education policies based on test scores. Student promotion, teacher evaluations, and school grades are all based on test scores. Funding is then tied to the student achievement. In simple terms, how well the students race decides how much money the schools get in funding.

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