This is the longer version of Adrien’s short documentary about an extraordinary group of young people and the United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) here in Lowell. Take a moment to see what overcoming adversity to hope and to dream about a future really look like. And then,if you are so inspired, support UTEC’s programs and efforts by going to their website.
It was at the end of our school day yesterday when one of my students matter-of-factly asked if I had heard about “the shooting”. Knowing about the violent incident this past weekend on a street near my elementary school, I waited for her to continue. Which she did. As if it weren’t something out of the ordinary, this 8-year-old described how her mother brought my students and her sibling to an upstairs bedroom where they would be safe from further gunfire. And this revelation led another student to share that he lived on the next street and also heard gunshots.
Can I just be on the record that no 8-year-old should have to deal with this?
A few years ago, one of my students was nearly hit when a stray bullet went through the front window of her family’s apartment on the same street. When I asked what she did next, she told me she just got on the floor. Simple as that as if a bullet going through the front window was not that unusual.
So yesterday, when I heard about a walk, a community response event sponsored by several city neighborhood groups and UTEC (United Teen Equality Center), I felt the need to walk in support of my students, many of whom are exposed to violence and trauma in ways that are normally quite easy to shut out.
As the walkers traveled from City Hall in silence, I realized how easy it is to detach from the violence my own students deal with. This simple act, made it real – as one speaker said, tonight we would not be driving by, we would stop and reflect on the recent city violence.
I don’t have many answers for my students; they live in an environment that I, a product of white, middle-class upbringing, can hardly begin to imagine.
Eight-year-old or eighty-eight years old, violence is never an answer. Walking with those whose lives are highly impacted by such events made turning away impossible.
The weather has been unseasonably warm for the last several days. Yesterday was no exception. Even though yesterday was the City of Lights Parade and Holiday Stroll here in Lowell, no one seemed to mind that temperatures were in the 60s — people were dressed in flipflops and shorts while waiting for their moment with Santa.
When asked, Adrien shoots for Cultural Organization of Lowell, the organizer of this and other wonderful events in the City. Yesterday while he was on assignment, I walked around too, making a record of the Mill City on an unusual late-November afternoon:
- Boarding House Park, Lowell MA
- Gatehouse Reflection, Lowell MA
Too often, I find the curriculum focus in writing is disconnected and segmented from the rest of the curriculum. Perhaps that is a hazard of attempting to cram in so many genres of writing – all urgently needed – into one school year. Is it any wonder that, from time to time, a genre of writing such as functional letter writing is quickly forgotten after it seemed to be “mastered”. Yes, I do get the ridiculousness of that last statement.
This year, my grade level team has taken a second or could that be a third, look at our Writing Calendars – what we call a curriculum map. With the Common Core looming in our very near future, it seemed wise to do so. We’ve filled some gaps in our writing curriculum and revised when we teach particular writing genres. We’ve also moved away from more strictly adhered to requirements: our previous report writing focused on writing biographies of famous citizens of the Commonwealth.
This year, when the report project came up, I decided that I would tie it to the previously taught letter writing format and also use the reports as a jigsaw study of Massachusetts and Lowell, both of which are part of our Social Studies curriculum in Grade 3. Each student has been assigned a topic, will be expected to research and provide information about the topic, and will share that information in a classroom/student published book. As an example, students will discover and explain what each of the three branches of Massachusetts government do, or will find out about some of the cultural and natural resources available to us in Lowell. To my thinking, this is a greater bang-for-the-buck than the biography reports. It has taken some effort for me to convince students that they live in the CITY of Lowell in the STATE of Massachusetts (no, not the state of Lawrence or Boston).
The first step toward researching each topic was for students to write a business format letter to the agency that may be able to provide information about their topic. I have possibly spent about 4 hours gathering mailing addresses for each of the 25 topics that were generated.
Writing those letters, I have to admit was painful. Despite writing friendly letters weekly in Readers’ Response notebooks, when I conferenced with the students after they drafted their business letters, the basic letter format was hardly recognizable. Added to the friendly letter format was the inside address, the generalized greeting used in a business letter, and the more formal language of requesting information. Some of the students’ letters were very sincere and at times amusing, particularly the promises to do a good job of reporting if only the student could please be sent some information.
I hope the recipients of these requests find them amusing enough to send a brochure back. Next week, we’ll begin using text and Internet resources for research.
The public hearings on the 2010-2011 school budgets begin tonight in Lowell. No one thinks that there is any way the schools will be able to get through the next fiscal year without massive cuts of programs, services and teachers. The last several years the budgets have been decreased and belt-tightening measures have been put in place. Optional services and programs have already been cut or consolidated so that, for this next massive round of cutting – or more accurately, unfunding – the cuts are to the bone. Teachers and paraprofessional staff have been hearing about the possibility of job loss for the last month and now those murmurs are reality.
One idea being floated is the idea of teachers taking “furlough” days – unpaid leave. As you can imagine, the unthinking masses who hate spending a dime on educating “those people” are frothing at the thought of those “lazy teachers” who work only part of a full day (see my previous posting) earning less money.
Hold on here folks. If you assign a particular day to me as a “furlough” does that mean you expect me to still show up for work because that seems to be the popular belief?
When a public works employee takes a furlough day, he or she stays home and the work just does not get done. If I stay home from work, the plans for the day and the preparation to implement those plans, still get done – on my own time – and the City hires a sub at the tune of $75-$90 per day. The school day just doesn’t disappear because I’m present or not. How is that a budget saver?
Here’s what I would be willing to do: I would be willing to work partial days at strategic times throughout the school year. For example, the first 3 days of school and/or the Friday before a vacation week. In return, the students would be dismissed at lunch time similar to what happens on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving break. The day would count as a school day so that would not impact the state’s requirement for 180 school days, the afternoon would be left to my discretion, and the City would not have to pay anyone for the balance of the day.
And in return? If I’m willing to reduce my pay and potentially impact my retirement, I’d like to see some of those 90 teaching positions restored. Our students get little enough without massively cutting technology teachers, music teachers, tutors, or paraprofessionals who are essential in helping teachers reach every student.
And if you have a better idea? Attend the budget meetings. Call your School Committee. Call the City Council. Our children’s futures depend on you.
This week I was asked at a Team Meeting what I thought about particular student’s participation in MCAS (this student has serious health issues which limit school participation). Was there an alternate way to assess this student that would enable us to know what had been achieved?
And that got me thinking about what I really feel about MCAS, this 4-day brain drain.
I get that standardized testing and MCAS is a part of teaching now. I get that teachers need to be help accountable for teaching the state (and now federal) standards. Honestly, watching my student navigate the Mathematics tests this past week made me realize that there are some weaknesses in the curriculum that was delivered. My teaching will be informed by my students’ performance on the test — a test which, by the way, I thought was reasonable.
What I don’t understand is how one high-stakes test can serve as the ultimate measure of my students’ achievement, particularly when more than half of my students are English Language Learners. Six and a quarter hours of correctly spoken and written English each day can only go so far – the vocabulary that English speakers take for granted is daunting for many of my students.
And before anyone’s shorts are tied in a knot about second languages, let me say that I wish those who disparage people whose first language is not English tried to take that test in another language that they were in the process of learning. My experience in learning a second language, a Romance and therefore related language, was and is one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever encountered. I think if you attempted an important reading/writing task in a second language, you too might be hanging onto new vocabulary by the tips of your fingernails. I’m not advocating for abandoning the goal of performing in English — that is the language of business in this country and therefore, the way to economic success — I’m just saying cut these English speaking/writing “toddlers” a little slack on the high stakes tests.
What would be fair? Well for one thing, look at my students’ growth over the year. We have data for that – Fountas Pinnell Benchmarks, SRI Reading tests, Writing Portfolios, and district-wide Math assessments. Consider these as well as the MCAS when commenting on my students’ achievement. Look at the Massachusetts Growth data — are we making progress? Is it just at a slower rate than the students in more affluent, parent-involved suburbs?
We need to look at a more complete picture of our students before pointing fingers of blame at educators. Nothing in education is black and white – we aren’t producing widgets on an assembly line. To know what students know and don’t know, we need to dig deeply. Standardized state testing should be just one item to consider.
Carved out of Chelmsford, Lowell traces its beginnings to the 1820s. Lowell was a planned manufacturing center for textiles.
This week, my third graders visited the Tsongas Industrial History Center and the Boott Mills as part of our third grade study of the community. The program we participated in, Change in the Making, chronicles Lowell’s development from its beginnings as East Chelmsford to the development of the textile mills.
We started in the Boott Mills Weave Room – where although only 6 looms were operating the noise of the looms was nearly unbearable. Climbing five flights of stairs to the class rooms was a chore for my third graders – but something Mill workers did numerous times each day, and in record time.
As tempting as it might be to romanticize the past, there was much that made life as a Lowell Mill girl (or boy) hard. Long regimented hours, dangerous machinery, unreasonable mill overseers, and an often unhealthy environment caused by the cotton fibers in the airless weave rooms. I’m not sure many of my students thought they would enjoy being part of the good old days.
I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have.
Last night, WCVB TV in Boston, featured three artists’ communities in Massachusetts. The one that I am most familiar with is Western Avenue Studios where my husband Adrien has studio space. Western Avenue Studios is a unique and wonderfully diverse collection of over 250 artists who work in almost any medium you can imagine. So much talent! And even more impressive, so much collegiality. It is truly a unique community.
The video, features several of the talented artisans, including Adrien, and it was broadcast last night, April 14th on the locally produced show, Chronicle. Here is the video segment featuring Western Avenue from that broadcast.
As Adrien and I watched the video for the first time last night so many things ran through my mind. First of all, when Adrien first started to talk seriously about working as a photographer, I wondered about his sanity in quitting his software job — partially two years ago and completely last August. When he purchased his first pro equipment, I actually thought he was in the middle of a mid-life crisis — how wrong I was! Over the next months, with determination and purpose, he updated his skills as a photographer, invested in the time to explore what kinds of subjects he found fascinating, and worked at refining a portfolio of work that today blows my mind. As he says in his interview, he tries to capture the subject through the eyes — and oftentimes it is as if he has looked deep into a person’s soul and captured the person’s very essence.
Taking a chance on leaving a sure money-maker that allowed us to live quite comfortably over 25 years was a giant leap of faith. Building a service business is not easy and doing so in the wake of one of the worst economic crises in our recent history is even more difficult.
But I don’t think either of us would have traded one minute of uncertainty for the reward of following your heart into an art that you not only enjoy but you love. Last night’s Chronicle segment completed and affirmed this transformation.
To do what you love and to do it well is awesome. The eloquence of the talented artists at Western Avenue and on this broadcast simply takes one’s breath away.
My husband, Adrien, is a photographer. He actually has been a photographer for most of his life, having started out in high school, but was sidetracked by a career in music and in software. A couple of years ago, he started renting studio space in a revitalized textile mill building in Lowell, MA, Western Avenue Studios, and has been building his photography business ever since.
If you’ve never had a career in the arts, it is quite different from the 9 to 5 corporate world. First of all, as I am always fond of pointing out, unlike my career, you can use the bathroom whenever you want Just kidding, Adrien!
What really takes some perseverance is staying focused throughout the cyclical nature of getting commissions and jobs. For example, from the week before Christmas through some time in late January, not many corporations are interested in scheduling corporate head shot appointments. This creates some down time, which allows Adrien to think about self assignments: photography projects that he works on to develop as a photographer and as an artist.
In addition to working on a portfolio for an upcoming show at the Loading Dock Gallery in Lowell next November, Adrien has been working with a friend of his, Melissa, to create a video of what happens during a professional photo shoot. Here is a link to the stop-action video he created called 396 Square Feet. I think you’ll find it amazing.
Having finally completed leveling, documenting, and labeling the classroom library, this week finds me in between projects. What would life be like without a project? I don’t know because it’s never been tested!
The students are on their way now using their reading bag bookmarks as a guideline for finding just right books in the library. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few weeks as the book exchanges are more independent.
One of our activities this week was a trip to the Tsongas Industrial History Center in the Boott Mills. We are so fortunate to have this terrific resource in our community! The docents and Park Rangers are both knowlegeable and entertaining and students learn much about the Industrial Revolution as well as the history of Lowell. The Boott Mill is also open to the public as park of the Lowell National Historic Parks.
This trip was as outstanding as the others I’ve been on with my
Third Graders. The program we participated in – Change in the Making – enabled students to learn about how this area of Massachusetts changed from farmlands to factories over a period of about 100 years. The black and white photograph is an image of one of the looms outside of the weave room. Only a few looms inside the room were running on the day we visited, but the clatter was nearly unbearable. Imagine having to work in such an environment for 10 to 12 hours each day.
One of the most (un)popular parts of the tour was the climb to the fifth floor activity rooms using the spiraling staircase that the Mill Girls would use. As our guide pointed out, the Mill Girls made several trips up and down the stairs throughout the day.
In addition to the climbing, students used a cotton gin to remove seeds from the cotton — and also attempted to invent a tool that would do the same. They observed the living conditions at the Boarding Houses, and learned how Mill workers were recruited to leave farm and family to come to Lowell.
It is always amazing how much the students learn on this trip. It’s a perfect blend of information sharing and hands-on learning and generally ends up being the event students write about when they reflect on the school year.
No matter if you travel to Lowell with students in tow or on your own, visiting the Mills and learning about the history of Lowell is highly recommended.