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Dear Former Students,
What do I hope you remember about me?
Our Special Learning Space
I hope you remember our room. Bright, colorful, creative, inspirational. Most years, our room and our studies focused on a theme which varied from year to year. It might have been dinosaurs or space or animals. Maybe you were with me when we explored the rainforest. Whatever the topic, it was real; it didn’t just provide decorations. It was the springboard for learning—reading, math, language, science, social studies, art and music. We did it all centered around our theme. Sometimes we jumped outside the theme and that was OK. Creativity, learning, and children—none of them belong in a box.
I spent the summer vacation dreaming, planning, and creating for our learning base for the coming year. Until the Testing Monster emerged to swallow up the joy and adventure of learning. After that I spent summers investigating Common Core State Standards. I learned that first graders should be ready to do what had always been expected of second graders. I learned that a Kindergartener was a failure if he or she was not reading by the end of the year. I had nightmares of angry administrators and nonsense posters and charts. I tried to make sense of a disjointed melange, a mishmash of portions of reading programs, books, and plans stuck together by an “expert” to create a hideous and unworkable mess. BUT even then, I tried to create a warm and welcoming place to learn with a fun reading corner and an area for some messy art and forbidden science.
I know you must have felt my efforts. You would come into the room before school (and again at lunch) when you should have been on the playground.
You wanted to put your things away.
You wanted to say hello, to find out what we were going to be doing that day, not from the required posted chart, but from your teacher who had big plans for you.
You wanted to be reassured that despite your problems at home, you were safe at school and could have a good day.
Then after a hug or a smile or a moment to chat, I shooed you outside and we were both happy and ready to begin the adventure.
I have an enviable viewpoint: I am retired after 34 years as an educator. I loved being in the classroom, but then I received an incredible opportunity to work with the entire student body. I spent 14 years as a computer lab teacher. That job began as the ultimate in creativity and technology curriculum development and disintegrated into the role of babysitter so teachers could attend their Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings and the role of proctor for the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) exams. Then I ($$$$$) was replaced by an assistant ($) and offered a job in the classroom again. The enviable part is that I only put in three years as a classroom teacher during the current epoch of Testing and Tears. At that point, I had more than enough time in the system to say, “I will not do this to kids or to myself anymore.” I walked away at the end of the school year. Since I am blogging about education issues, it is obvious I have not stopped caring.
I recently read a blog post written by a colleague who teaches reading to sixth graders in New York state. She has to teach using modules aligned with CCSS and to subject her students yearly to the NYS high stakes test. Those tests sound comparable to the PARCC exams. Her post “I Am That Teacher” (https://standingupforthefuture.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/I-am-that-teacher/) describes how she wants to be thought of by her students as “that teacher.” Her post is the inspiration for my thoughts on how I hope my students remember me and my time with them. I will be writing from an Early Childhood perspective with a touch of PreK-6th grade computer instruction. I will be addressing my thoughts to my students as I used to do in a daily letter to them, but I hope that current teachers will get some ideas of what a classroom can be like without CCSS. Perhaps, if you are a renegade, you will feel support as you try to sneak in real instruction. Hats off to the blogger of STANDINGUPFORTHEFUTURE! You are a kindred spirit, and I know your students will remember you with smiles.
The information I want to share is much too long for one blog post, so I have divided it into sections (letters). I hope you will follow me and return to read these letters. Also, I encourage you to read the original post of “I Am That Teacher” for more inspiration.
I just finished reading Anne of Avonlea in which Anne (of Green Gables fame) becomes a teacher. At the age of 16. Teaching students she went to school with. She has been to school for teacher preparation. Before the year begins, she and two other first year teachers discuss their planned approaches to discipline and disagree on which method will be most effective. Anne’s plan works in general, but she has to deviate for a student who just doesn’t fit the mold.
As her second year of teaching begins, the author, L.M. Montgomery, says “School opened and Anne returned to her work, with fewer theories but considerably more experience.” As soon as I read that line, I knew that L.M. Montgomery must have had teaching experience. She had. Her statement reflects the importance of opportunities to explore and try out new things in the classroom. Certainly for the first year, but also for every year after that. Every class of students is different. Even if you take the same class and loop grade levels with them, there will be differences. And not just because there will be a few students who are new, but because life has happened to these students during the year, they are a year older, and the curriculum and expectations have changed. Every class is different. Every teacher needs the professional and academic freedom to try out new variations every year. Is this experimentation going to happen with CCSS and excessive testing? Is this experimentation going to happen with the evaluation of teachers based on test scores, teachers marching lockstep with their grade level colleagues, or with administrators scripting manically on iPads while missing the important things that are happening in the classroom?
Another issue that arises from “fewer theories but considerably more experience” is that our policy makers have lots of theories but little or no teaching experience. Current teachers should be included in the decision-making process. Instead they are disrespectfully treated as incompetents. Teachers and children are being set up for failure. We must fight back for academic freedom accompanied by a healthy dose of creativity.
One of the strongest arguments seems to be that if fewer than 95% of the students take the test, then the school’s grade will be low. For example, according to the Zannesville Times Recorder, “The consequences, however, mean the district and child’s teacher will not be given credit for progress that is made, affecting the school’s department of education report card and educators’ individual evaluations.”
So, it’s always good to ask yourself, “what is the worst thing that could happen?” In this case if fewer than 95% of the students take the test, across the board, then the affected districts and state departments of education would have to admit defeat and develop a new plan. And that sounds like a great plan to me!
Who seriously thinks a state is going to give a rating of “F” to all of its schools?
High school students, teachers, and parents are being told that instead of civil disobedience, they should take their concerns to school administrators, school boards, state legislators, the governor, and the Department of Education. That advice sounds really good except for the fact that people have already written letters and made phone calls to the appropriate people and their concerns have been ignored. School districts publish official statements provided by state departments of education that attempt to explain why they are wasting so much instructional time on testing and contributing so much to Pearson’s coffers. Pearson constructed the PARCC tests and the test preparation materials that support the test. They are also the ones that mandate a blackout on test discussions. The people who need to make changes, from the district level all the way up to the political powers in each state, are ignoring the real problems in the name of better education for our children and are lining their pockets at student expense.
Opting-out is not an easy decision. Parents receive a lot pressure from school districts to “do the right thing.” Students are putting themselves at risk for a variety of unspecified punishments. Since the decision makers obviously underestimated the anger of the people, they have not yet decided what the consequences of this civil disobedience will be. Threats have included not being allowed to graduate and suspension. Teachers are caught in the middle between a system that financially supports their families and a career that focuses on doing the right thing for students.
Opting-out has certainly gotten the attention of policy makers at all levels. Now what will they do about it?
Common Core Answer: YES! Otherwise he or she is a failure and needs “intervention.”
Common Sense Answer: Maybe. It depends on the child and his or her readiness for reading.
To most teachers, the common sense answer seems like a no-brainer. The creators and enthusiasts of Common Core State Standards are either ignorant of the concept of “readiness” or have chosen to ignore it.
As a reading specialist with thirty-four years of teaching with a focus on literacy, I will gladly proclaim what most teachers know. There is such a thing as readiness for various academic, physical, and social skills. Readiness for those apparently disparate skills are often tied together. You can teach children who are not ready for a certain activity how to do it, but until they are actually ready to learn it they will not master the skill. Mastery means being able to apply it in new situations and store it in long term memory. Additionally the learning process for that skill is much harder than it needs to be. Depending on the teacher and the process, it may result in negative views on learning that skill and subject, on school in general, and even on his or her own self-worth.
Reading instruction is very important in Kindergarten and the other Early Childhood grades (1-3), but it should not look like or feel like reading instruction in the upper elementary grades (4-6). Literacy activities should be so much fun that children are begging for reading time. Students should be immersed in stories, rhythm, and rhyme. They should read chorally and use predictable texts. They should have read alouds and silent reading, time to devour books in groups, in pairs, and by themselves. They should express their ideas in art, drama, music, movement, and writing. Students should learn thematically so that science and social studies are an integral part of the day with exciting projects. Reading should be taught all day in whatever students are engaged in. It should be as natural as breathing.
Surrounding students with these opportunities is giving them the gift of reading. They will learn how to read when they are ready and they will love to read.
The following posts are recommended reading for those who are looking for the best in education. Decide for yourself which is right for your classroom or your child. According to one grandparent speaking of her previously happy grandchild when subjected to the Common Core: “On the fifth day of kindergarten he refused to go to school, locked himself in his bedroom, and hid under his bed!” Perhaps you would rather be the parent who said to me: “Thank you so much for being our child’s teacher. Because of you, she loves to read.” Believe me, that did not happen under Common Core State Standards.
Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a small rural area which had some barren land and some lush pastures. The local people had a lot of cows to raise. They hired some experienced business managers to oversee the cow production. The managers developed a business plan and set about implementing it. First they hired some motivated ranchers who loved cows and tasked them with the care and growth of the cows. The cows were fenced in so they could not leave the dusty patch they inhabited. With little to eat, the cows did not gain weight. In fact the cows were becoming agitated for on the other side of the fence the grass was green. The well-meaning business managers did everything they could think of to improve the situation. They went across the country to learn new ways of making the cows gain weight. They came back and told the ranchers to weigh the cows every week, every day if necessary, to look for weight gain. Surely that would help! Unfortunately no weight gain followed, but the ranchers had less time to bring in hay for the cows who, in fact, lost more weight! The business managers declared that there would be twice weekly meetings (Producing Cow Lessons) in which supervisors would berate the overworked ranchers and make them say hurtful things about themselves and the other ranchers. Soon the exhausted ranchers were also depressed. The business managers next brought in experts to teach the ranchers new tricks for making cows gain weight—steroids and lots of water. The cows temporarily gained a little weight but it dropped off when they returned to their regular meager rations.
Then, one day a very frustrated, very overworked, and formerly very successful rancher went berserk. He knew the answer. He had been telling the business managers the answer, but they wouldn’t listen because he was just a rancher. So, the rancher cut the fence allowing the cows to enter the grassy area they longed for so much. The cows became fat and happy. The ranchers were elated to be productive ranchers again. And the business managers? They all received promotions and bonuses for the great work they had (not) done.