Be the Change!

 

I’m so tired. Tired of sending letters. Tired of making phone calls. Tired of advocating for common sense education. Tired of being forced to spend valuable time on things that have little meaning to me, my students and my children. I’m especially tired of feeling like I’m not being heard by the people who have the “power” to do the right things for schools. But I’m NOT too tired. I’m not going to stop until I am once again excited about putting my children on that big yellow bus each morning. I’m not going to stop until I know that my children and all of our children mean more than their test scores. I’m not going to stop until I am certain that our schools can accept children for who they are and get them where they need to be, with authentic, challenging, hands-on learning. I believe every child in our country deserves at least that. 

 I want to show you what I mean.  Some of you have probably heard me speak or write (often with frustration in my tone) about the lack of programs in public school for children like my son who need enrichment. In my opinion, No Child Left Behind was the beginning of the end for enrichment programs in public schools. Ironically, Race To The Top has exacerbated that situation. For the past few years, it’s been all about the students who “fail” tests, many of whom DO NOT need remediation yet DO need to be inspired.

When I realized a year and a half ago that my son seemed to be taking a lot of tests at school, I started asking for copies of ALL of the tests (Most of which I would not otherwise see).  Since then, I have taken a few of  those tests to the principal to point out that if my son has to take these tests, then the school owes it to him to provide what the tests consistently indicate he needs–“small group enrichment.” And every time, I have been told the same thing– “We just don’t have the resources right now.”

 In December, shortly after one of those meetings with the principal, I had what we now call an “aha” moment. The famous Ghandi quote, “You must BE THE CHANGE you wish to see in the world” had crossed my path three times that week. I have loved this quote since noticing it on a colleague’s classroom wall years ago. Heck, one year I even ordered a pair of TOMS shoes that sported the mantra. Yet, the power behind those words had never really spoken to me.

I made an appointment at school for the next afternoon, and I took a chance. I asked to start a book club.  The principal’s response? “That’s a great idea!” It would need to be sponsored by the family school organization for insurance purposes, and I would need to fill out paperwork to secure a room at the school. Students would need to have their own transportation as well as their own copies of the books, at least for now.  Check… check… check… and check. Reminds me of another mantra from the bible, “Ask and ye shall receive.”

 Talk about empowerment! What started four months ago as a book club for advanced readers in grades 3-5, has become a group of amazing children from every level of the reading spectrum. Parents of struggling readers have contacted me, hopeful that this might be just what their child needs to become a more confident reader after struggling with developmentally inappropriate curriculum this year.  And parents of advanced readers are telling me that their children are more excited about reading than ever. Most importantly, each week when I meet with these children, I am reminded that every child, no matter how he or she reads and comprehends, truly does have a genius inside.

There were seven children at our first meeting and four months later there are fourteen. The hour we spend together is the best hour of my week and I suspect theirs, too. They are reading 75-100 pages a week independently, and each week they greet me with excitement at the doors of the school with books and Kindles in hand. We truly hang on each other’s every word for that hour. Yesterday, as we finished the recent Newbery Medal winner, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, students asked if they could “chest beat” in unison to honor the story’s protagonist, IVAN. What a sight it was! Goose bumps covered my body, and tears of joy filled my eyes. The smiles on their faces were priceless. I was too busy taking it all in to snap a picture, but it is one that will be etched in my mind forever. These children will never forget that book or the important lessons they have learned from our reading and discussions. THIS IS SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THAN A TEST SCORE.

 This experience has affirmed for me that each of us truly do have the power to “BE THE CHANGE” we wish to see in the world. We can find it in the simplest of our passions. For me, that passion is books.

 

  Month 1- Wonder

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  Month 2- The Lemonade War

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Month 3- The One and Only Ivan

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*An Afterthought…

I continue to rigorously advocate for an authentic, fair school experience for our children. I will keep writing letters, making phone calls and disseminating information to other concerned parents and teachers as much as possible. In the meantime and until things change for the better, I encourage parents and teachers to seek out their PTA’s or FSO’s to help bring any kind of enrichment to your schools. Kids need this now more than ever. Of that, I am certain. You MUST be the change you wish to see… 🙂

P.S. That’s my little dude third in from left, front row. He and my daughter are my inspiration.

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The Letter I Meant to Read…

I was recently at an important gathering for educators where we were asked to share with constituents our feelings about the current education climate. Unfortunately, the one person that really needed to hear us, was absent due to “health issues”. I don’t think anyone in the room was surprised. After all, in my almost 20 years in the classroom, no one who holds power for change in education has ever shown up at school to ask me what is working, what isn’t working or how I feel about all of it. Though the audience was surely discouraged, we forged ahead, and for two hours we heard heartbreaking stories about schools, teachers and children that brought many of us to tears. The leaders sitting before us listened and responded in any way they knew how, yet it offered little solace when I realized we were truly “preaching to the choir”. Looking back, I wish I had stepped up to the microphone early on, but my fear of public speaking (yes, many teachers have it) forced me to stay seated for too long. About an hour into our forum, I realized that most of what I had prepared in my heartfelt letter had already been said in one way or another. Instead of stepping to the mic, I sat and listened some more, took notes and pondered what I could do to help the first grade children who took “Forty tests in the first thirty five days of school”, the child who vomited all over his state exam then watched as his teacher and principal ziplocked it to send back to the New York State Education Department because they were told via phone that “every test needs to be accounted for”, the developmentally disabled child who fiercely pinned his friend against the wall by her throat on their way back from a lengthy exam that obviously frustrated him to the point of violence, the teacher who steadfastly demanded that we stop allowing schools to be closed in poor districts where schools “are the community”. Nothing surprised me that evening, but I was inspired by my colleagues, and their personal accounts reaffirmed for me why educators and parents will continue to push back against the corporate takeover of public education, one of the most crucial, fundamental rights in our country.

So, here is the letter I meant to read…

To Whom It May Concern,
I have been a public educator for almost 20 years. Although I have many things I’d like to say about the recent burdens that have been placed upon boards of education, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and children, I’m here today to be a voice for my 9 year old son and many other children like him. Forgive me if I get emotional, but I am VERY emotional about what he has encountered during his 3rd grade year at public school. Yet, I am probably more emotional about what he has NOT encountered, and that is hands-on, authentic learning. My son is a brilliant, piano-playing, baseball-loving, kind human being. He is a sponge who thrives on learning about the world around him, AND he reads at a 6th grade level. Early on in the school year, my husband and I started seeing some behaviors that were out of our son’s character. Tears fell on his math homework more than once. Worse yet, the Pearson Reading Streets tests, that come home EVERY SINGLE WEEK for corrections, have been a constant source of frustration for him and our whole family. Often, we will all sit down and look at the questions my son got “wrong” and none of us can figure out which answer is “right”. Every parent knows that it is extremely uncomfortable to be in that position where you cannot help your child as he or she searches your face for guidance and assurance. The questions and passages on these tests are worded so poorly, and they are so developmentally inappropriate, that even students like my son, who is instrisically motivated to always do his best, are constantly feeling inadequate to the point of breaking down. With the new “system”, it seems nothing is ever good enough. Of course, just as heart-breaking are the kids who read below grade level or have IEP’s and are lost from the start of most activities because they can’t read the text or move quickly enough to make even small gains. I even hear from parents who say their child is unaffected, yet because of my experiences with children over many years, I know this is not the case. Those student have simply chosen to accept that life at school means doing worksheets and taking tests. I worry about them, too, because they are the ones who will probably never love school even though they have the potential to become great learners. They are the kids who enter high school with a glazed look on their faces and do what they have to just to get by.

After several meetings and phone calls with my son’s teacher and principal and after much research on my part, I came to a startling conclusion a few weeks ago. My son and his 3rd grade classmates will take over 500 pages of tests this year. The number is shocking, I know. Unfortunately, I have no power to change this, and because I am an educator myself, I feel guilty for even challenging what another educator chooses to do in her classroom. After all, I know the challenges of being a teacher. Yet I also know that when I became a mom, I became a much better teacher. 

 
I have now accepted what I obviously cannot change, and I do everything in my power to counteract the negative effects that this kind of “textbook” education could have on my son. The narrow curriculum leaves little to no room for science or social studies, so when my son recently read a story about rocks in his Pearson text, I suggested we gather rocks and look at them under a microscope that a science teacher at my school kindly let me borrow. My son was excited and inspired, and my colleague was quick to gather more rocks for us because, as he admitted to me, his 2nd grade daughter is encountering the same thing- an education that focuses on ELA & Math only. Amazingly, my son had little anxiety that week for his Friday test and did really well in his writing about rocks. 
 
Even through all of this frustration, I have come to realize that my child is one of the fortunate ones. He has me to help supplement his textbook stories as well as a dedicated dad to make his often confusing math work more realistic and concrete. Yet what about the others? What about the child with the single mom who has no time each day to go through her son’s backpack and sit down with him to talk about his school day or what he needs to prepare for tomorrow? What about the child who is so poor that her mom and dad can’t afford to supplement with information from the computer or with novels they don’t have? What about the student that has an abusive father and desperately needs a connection at school that he may not make because his teacher is so overwhelmed and concerned with the tests that she does not notice his real needs? These questions bring us back to the foundation of what public education is supposed to do for children – provide a fair and well-rounded education to ALL.

I come from a family of educators. My father was a teacher for thirty five years, and my mother was a high school and college educator for twenty years before moving on to the business world. I was in school before I could walk or talk. I was the cute little mascot/cheerleader for the football team when I was four. I valued my education from the time I entered school, and I was taught that I was to respect all teachers and learn from them. My AP English teacher inspired me so much that I became one myself. To this day, Mr. Baines is the best teacher I have ever known. My high school basketball coach loved me unconditionally and showered me with awards that made me truly believe in myself for the first time. She made me a better basketball player, but more importantly, she made me a better person.

I am the product of public education. I have always been proud of the opportunities that have been afforded me. I have always been proud to be a teacher; however, in the last couple years my pride wavers. I am no longer proud of our public education system. Teachers everywhere are being forced to do things that go against everything we have been trained to do. Class sizes have grown, schools all over the country are being shut down as I write this, and students are being reduced to tears and test scores. Public schools are being sold out to businesses such as Pearson that do not have our children’s best interests at heart, and communities have little to no input in decisions that are being made for our children.

I believe every child is unique. I believe every child can learn. I believe every child has potential to do something great in life. I believe every child has a reasonable desire to learn reading, writing and arithmetic in an authentic way, not just through a text book. I believe that children are not learning when they are testing. I believe that I can and will continue to make a positive difference.

Sincerely…

An Afterword:

When I returned home from above mentioned forum the other night, I found on my facebook wall a picture/quote from a former student who was in my 9th grade English class twelve years ago. It read, “This  made me think of you”…. and the picture said, “Teachers who love teaching, teach children to love learning.” This thoughtful gesture was a heart-warming reminder of why I will always love teaching as long as I can do it in a way that works for my students and for.  More importantly, this reminded me why I need to keep pushing back.