What IS Important to Elementary Kids

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The Daily Five Tip of the Week had a wonderful cover story this week. In it, Lori Sabo writes about the lasting impact Joan Moser had on a former first grader, recent high school graduate. In the end, the former student describes her current self through the books she loves.

IMG_0190Beyond the well-deserved thanks that Joan received I think is a far more important message to all who work with elementary students. What matters to elementary kids, what they will take away, is a love of learning.

Clearly, Joan’s former student learned to love to read, not from the rigor of the Common Core (which was not part of our educational landscape 12 year ago), but through the nurturing environment created within the walls of the classroom. That environment included coaching this student through some reading challenges, instilling a sense of confidence and independence, and creating a safe and relaxing physical space to learn.

Planning for the upcoming year will inevitably include achievement data and plans for improvement. And there will be pressure to meet incredibly (ridiculously) rigorous curricula. But, hopefully, it will also include some serious thought given to what’s important – really important – to elementary students. A place and a space in which to learn to love learning.

A Chilling Story of Coaching Gone Wrong

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Have you read this tale of horrors published in Edushyster? Amy Berard’s post “I Am Not Tom Brady“, published on July 22, tells of how her school and school district contracted with a group of consultants to improve student engagement and teacher performance. Make that, mostly “improve” teacher performance.

Picture an experienced teacher being “coached” by 3 experts huddled around a walkie talkie in the back of the classroom. That’s right, this Handwriting the Listis coaching, school improvement style.  Because if your school or district is targeted for improvements, there must be money for consultants – you know, consultants who have never taught, or are trying out their latest graduate school theory or something they heard from the TV experts filling afternoon airwaves.

The group Ms. Berard posts about is from the Center for Transformational Teacher Training and the program – get this – is “No Nonsense Nurturing“.

I don’t know, nor do I care, what the qualifications of the three people “coaching” Ms. Berard might have been, but I know this. Lawrence, like Lowell, has a very high population of students for whom English is not their native language. A teacher  speaking in phrases and incomplete sentences with robotic monotone is poor practice and modeling for English acquisition. And what can “no nonsense nurturing” offer? Nurturing without nonsense? What can that possibly mean?

Because of high poverty levels, which, by the way, will not be fixed by employing teachers who speak like robots, urban school districts often are targets of these types of programs. Peter Greene writes of the dangers of using canned programs such as the  one described in Amy Berard’s post in the Human-Proof Classroom. (You may need to register with Education Week – free – to see the whole text). Is this the education that our urban students need or deserve? Since when is a teacher making an emotional connection with students, especially impoverished and difficult-to-reach kids, an undesired outcome?

There are so many wrongs here. The simple fact that private, money-scavaging “consultants” are empowered to find cash flow in urban districts by offering outrageous programs such as this one, should alarm everyone.

And if you think it can’t happen in your own school or district, think again. Amy Berard’s tale of coaching gone wrong hits pretty close to home – literally. Lawrence, MA, a school district under state receivership, is a quick 15 miles from where I live and where I taught in Lowell, MA. Be vigilant.

The Toyota Principle: Collaboration

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Educational leaders could take a page from one of the world’s leaders in the automotive industry.

Lately, educational leadership types keep trying to model education after industry. One of the problems with that idea is that some aspects of successful companies seems to be conveniently forgotten. For whatever reason, leaders at national and state, and sometimes local levels don’t trust highly skilled and trained professionals to know what to do.

Listening to “This American Life” on NPR this weekend, I learned about NUMMI which at the time of the original story was a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota. About 15 minutes in, we hear of the Toyota principle of teamwork.DSC_0447

Elena Aguilar, a contributor at Edutopia.com,  describes the following characteristics needed by education teams in this article posted on Edutopia, Five Characteristics of an Effective School Team:

  1. a common purpose or mission
  2. a safe place to take risks
  3. respectful disagreement
  4. trust and
  5. at least one strong leader

Forward to about the 15 minute mark in this link to the story of the Nummi Plant from This American Life. It is at this point in the story, that the lessons educational leaders need to take away from Toyota and the Toyota principle seem to intersect.

In the Toyota model, when a team member appears to be struggling, the other team members will ask if that struggling member needs help. This astounds the visiting GM workers. In their California plant, no one offered help; instead the line manager would scold, yell or take other punitive actions.

As the interviewees continue to tell the story, we learn about the collaborative nature of the Toyota assembly line.  If there is a problem, any member is expected to voice ideas for resolution. And the ideas are truly listened to; everyone is expected to be part of the solution. According to the interviewees, it was not unusual for a worker on the line to make a suggestion (based on their own observation) and a short time later, the suggested resolution would appear.  Imagine the power of that gesture: Your expertise and opinions are vital to our success.

Let’s compare that with top-down educational leadership today. Teachers are told what to teach, when to teach it, how to teach it, and how long to teach it. Not much room for listening or collaboration in that model.

As I listened to this transformational story, I couldn’t help but reflect on what happens in educational “teams” today. One must be very brave to let the schedules slip, even though the reason for missing a “deadline” (i.e., assessment) might have a basis in sound educational practice.

So called ed-reformers emboldened by their own monetary success from their time in private industry need to take a look at Toyota’s success and perhaps their own business models. Listen to the experts who are working on the front lines; be more of a partner and less of a boss. And let the educational workplace become an environment safer for innovation and solutions.

Urban Exploring

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A year ago, my patient spouse and I moved from an exurb to the city of Lowell, MA. Even though we lived in the center of this (formerly) small town, walking was not an easy activity. In fact the walk score for our former address was 24 – meaning most every errand requires a car.

In addition to the advantages of downsizing at this time of our life and letting go of an incredible accumulation of “stuff”, we are thoroughly enjoying the advantages of city dwelling. There are real sidewalks here! And the walk score is 94 out of 100.

This summer I’ve made walking around Lowell a priority. There are lots of good reasons for this, not the least of which is walking is good (and painless) exercise.

Armed with my iPhone, I try to notice and record at least one part of my walk each day. I’m certainly not a street photographer and an iPhone does not make me Henri Cartier-Bresson, but it’s kind of a fun reminder to look around and appreciate what surrounds me.

What follows is a compilation of walking around this historic and beautiful city. And we’re off to more places to explore.

It’s so easy, ANYone can do it

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Recently the New York Times published an article revealing some of the back story about standardized test scoring.  Read the story in entirety here.

Is there anyone else who finds the bar for test scorers a little low?DSC_0107

This year our grade level team struggled to standardize both on-demand and project writing samples. Trust me, there is no sheaf of papers with rubrics that can prepare anyone, let alone a non-educator, for scoring student work consistently – and fairly.

In the article, one scorer admitted that at the time of the interview – June 2015 – she was just beginning to get the hang of scoring a piece.  Consider that admission along side the window for test season. What does that statement mean for the other pieces that were scored ahead of this learning curve? Were the scores inflated or deflated?

In speaking about the vetting process for scorers, a PARCC spokesperson said

Parcc said that more than three-quarters of the scorers have at least one year of teaching experience, but that it does not have data on how many are currently working as classroom teachers. Some are retired teachers with extensive classroom experience, but one scorer in San Antonio, for example, had one year of teaching experience, 45 years ago.

With all respect, are we to believe that just a year of experience makes one an expert in standards? Or that a former educator with 1 year experience 45 years ago, understands and has unpacked the Common Core Standards?

So why not use experienced classroom teachers who presumably have expertise in the standards that are assessed? Well, our friends at Smarter Balance have an answer for that too.

Having classroom teachers engaged in scoring is a tremendous opportunity,” said Tony Alpert, executive director of Smarter Balanced. “But we don’t want to do it at the expense of their real work, which is teaching kids.”

So it’s okay for a classroom teacher to spend inordinate amounts of time doing test preparation or proctoring high stakes tests, but participating in scoring would take away from teaching time? Feigning false concern for how teachers use their time – and possibly having to pay for scorers with expertise and knowledge of the standards?

Oh right. Anyone should be able to do this.

Whose Property Is It?

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There’s a thought-provoking article in EdSurge this morning. Just who owns a teacher’s intellectual property? My husband, a former software engineer for several large tech companies, always had to sign over his rights to any ideas that he created as part of the hiring process. But educators do no such thing – at least until now.

2014-11-25-lincoln-024Advancing technology is going to make this an essential question for every school district to grapple with. Our lesson plans, reviewed regularly, are shared electronically not only with administrators but with colleagues. Documents and resources geared toward teaching, in fact, the teaching guides themselves, are often created by groups of teachers. It may be just a matter of time before enterprising schools, looking for new sources of revenue, want to monetize lesson plans or other teaching ideas developed by teaching staff.

An example of this is sharing classroom plans with Special Education inclusion partners who need to know what the classroom language and content goals are in order to make learning accessible to students on individual education plans. This past year, I’ve had my lesson plans copied into another teacher’s plan book without permission or attribution. When asked to stop, the person did; however, she continued to copy my “I can” or language/content goals again without permission. Was this a violation of my intellectual property?

In the age of Teachers-Pay-Teachers, intellectual property is about to become a huge factor. Pay attention.

Becoming Good Neighbors

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Our Fourth Graders were charged this year with finding and executing a community service project. Luckily, we needed to look no farther than a small City park about a block from our school. Lincoln Square Park honors our 16th president with a IMG_0148monument erected by Lowell school children in the early 1900s and a small and pleasant green space in a neighborhood surrounded by businesses and multi-family houses right off one of the main roads in and out of the City of Lowell.

Several weeks ago, students cleaned the park of a winter’s worth of trash and planted a few flowers that we were able to purchase through a student penny collection. It was a great experience for our kids. That day they became park overseers – they are quite passionate when they go back to the park and find a dropped cup or wrapper.

One of our community partners, Washington Savings Bank and Vichtcha Kong, learned of our project and gifted the students with a generous donation. This week, we put that donation to use. We re-stained the 6 park benches and added more annuals to the monument area. And the result?
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Well, the neighbors surrounding the Park are also getting into the excitement of restoring Lincoln Square Park into a slice of green community space.  Yes, there is still trash but it unofficially seems less.

As we were staining benches, cars on nearby Chelmsford Street honked and  shouted encouragement to our students. A nearby business owner came over to help me open a container of stain and when the two of us didn’t have the right tool to get the lid off, she involved the “guys” from a nearby car repair shop.  Grandparents wheeling babies stopped to ask us what we were doing and thanked us.  Sometimes we just got a smile or a nod, but the appreciation was loud and clear. And for the first time in my memory, we saw several folks just sitting in the park enjoying being outdoors on a pleasant mid-June day. It made me wonder: isn’t this what the Park’s designers intended?

When a school becomes collaborator with the community, just look at what can happen! In addition to being centers for learning, schools must be good neighbors.

What Is Missing In This Era of Teaching

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I am a retiring teaching and I am worried. Why?

DSC_0447Well, not because of wondering what I’m going to do with myself. I don’t know yet, but  that’s okay.

What I AM worried about is what will happen to our most needy of student populations. Will a public education be available to those kids? Is our education system  morphing into a place where education will not be the great equalizer. A place of opportunity.

Recently, the New Orleans Public Schools shuttered the last five of its traditional public schools. That’s right, New Orleans schoolchildren will be attending privately run charter schools. Parents must apply to the schools, negotiate school lottery procedures, arrange transportation, and hope against hope that the entity overseeing their child’s education is not just in it for profit.

Originally conceived as places of educational innovation – education laboratories – 20 years ago when the first charter opened in Minnesota, corporate America has discovered a new profit center. Corporations running charters, such as SABIS, do a disservice not only to the independently-run charters who do encourage innovation, but to students and families.

The reasons for corporate American upping their involvement in education have nothing much to do with altruism. Read here about tax incentives and profit center opportunities that have made support of education a less-than-noble effort by corporations looking for a new way to make money.

Public education has been my passion for the last 20 years. From where I sit, public schools are the opportunity center for anyone who wants to take advantage of it. Call me naive.

Without an equalizing opportunity afforded to everyone, our society as a whole will suffer. Will the rest of education go the way of New Orleans? Time will tell, but the increased influence of corporations over education and education policy do not make me very hopeful.  We test our (human) students over and over and look at the data as if they are widgets on an assembly line. Education power brokers expect results no matter whether the student is hungry, or has been witness to domestic violence that morning.  Quality control, people.

My hope for the future? That our leaders grow a backbone and with some conviction, somewhere, somehow stop this nonsense before the disenfranchised of our society have less hope of achieving the American Dream.

Best Teacher on Earth?

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One of the joys of teaching elementary-aged students is receiving a card emblazoned with #1 Teacher or similar sentiments.  A few weeks ago, one of my students wrote out a card telling me I was “the best teacher on Earth.”

I’m not sure I feel about how deserved that honor is. You see, lately I think I might better be called a test proctor, not a teacher.

Since we administered our first state test in the March Round – an 18 hour test extravaganza spread over 3 days – our students have endured a 40-question Math Benchmark, Math Module tests (3!), Fountas/Pinnell Reading Assessments  (administered individually), and SRI computerized reading tests. In the middle of all this testing, students also completed 2 days of state testing in mathematics.

Now with 11 days until school ends, instead of enjoying a more relaxed class atmosphere, students are completing yet another Module test, a computerized assessment for a CAI program, and a progress monitoring Math test.

With all this testing going on, when do we actually teach? I’m not sure I can tell you that exactly. In between?

Take a look at all the time lost to testing in the last 2 months.  Staggering and concerning, isn’t it?  And what does the assessment show? It shows we can give lots of tests and that the kids have a good level of stamina for testing. Beyond that, we’re often so busy administering assessments that taking a thoughtful look at results and what they mean for instruction never seems to get done. If we can’t learn anything about what is working or not working for our students, what is the point?

This week, my colleagues across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are attempting to raise public awareness. We don’t need all the time taken away from instruction to complete assessments show us what students need.

We need #lesstesting.

We Need To Make Time for This!

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I’ve been privileged to teach in a school that embraced the tenets of Responsive Classroom. If you’ve never been exposed to this program, explore this link. There is a calm sense of purposefulness in Responsive Classroom schools; it begins right from the first days of school when students are explicitly taught expectations for their own behaviors and treatment of other members of the community of learners, but also for the materials and equipment that we use in our classroom. Kids learn to manage conflicts and to care about each other.

Unfortunately, much of what we used to do had to be let go. As it stands, the time demands in classrooms exceed the number of minutes in a school day. Something is always slipping out of reach. Unfortunately over the last few years, working through Responsive Classroom has nearly disappeared.

2013fieldday3legsThe end of a school year is a time when many children feel stressed and worried. They are concerned, naturally, about leaving the comfort of their familiar classroom and teacher and sometimes their school. This is especially true for children of poverty or trauma. Any teacher who has experienced the end of the year with students with socio-economic challenges has seen the Two-Weeks-To-Go meltdowns. It is the overwhelming unknowns that create behavior challenges just when we’d all like to sit back and glide toward a finish line.

I have had a challenging group of mainly girls this year. This last week they seem to be unable to stop themselves from being in each other’s business. The final tip-off that things were about to blow came this afternoon when one of my students voiced that she didn’t think anyone was her friend anymore and a nearby eavesdropper commented, “Well, I don’t like you!”. Wow! Even I was taken aback by this lack of a filter!

So, we stopped what we were working on (Literary Essays), as Writing Workshop was no longer the most important thing to be accomplished. We had to fix our community so that everyone felt they were being treated civilly. We had to resolve those conflicts.

Back when we “had the time” for Morning Meetings and community building, our days seemed to go better. Oh there were times when we needed to talk it out – my favorite conflict resolution activity has always been Ruth Sidney Charney’s Pretzel activity – but mainly our days started and ended with warmth, calm, and a feeling that together we could accomplish most anything. What has been lost in our high-pressure, inanely over-scheduled days where we hit the ground running and don’t stop until dismissal is the chance to work on interpersonal skills.

Today was simply the point when students, already feeling a bit overwhelmed and unsure, let me know in no uncertain terms that they need something else. We used some of those principles that Ruth Sidney Charney advocates and cleared the air. My favorite part of today was at the end when one student asked if we could all try to “say something nice” about each other. I knew we were on our way to healing!

Even if there are only two weeks left in our school year, we are going to pass on those mandated must-dos and find a way to become a community again. Every child in that class deserves to feel safe and welcomed.

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