Recess: How can we not?

IMG_2565LEJA, a local grassroots collaborative of teachers, parents, students and community allies is hard at work here in Lowell to advocate for consistency in recess allocation across all elementary and middle schools in Lowell. One would think, logically, that fair and equitable recess would be a given, but it is not.

Recess time is a building based decision. Anecdotal evidence shows that in this test-crazed, performance based era of education, it is much too easy for a building administrative team to shave recess minutes away in favor of test preparation. Having recently retired from nearly 10 years as a 3rd and 4th grade teacher, I have personally experienced the pressure put on students and educators at test grades, and the response has generally been to increase test preparation time. That increase comes at a cost; the cost has historically been to reallocate recess minutes to academics and test preparation. When I tell you that more targeted test preparation does not yield higher test scores, you don’t have to believe me, but you should.

I empathize when schools try to carve out more test prep through less recess time. However, that doesn’t make less recess the right thing to do. Research notwithstanding, there should be an expectation that children will a) have recess AND b) have a minimum of 30 minutes to re-set. There is much research that supports the need for recess (LEJA Recess Policy Guideline Proposal) including the impact on a child’s brain and the manner in which children learn and the impact on executive function and social-emotional growth of children.

Here’s a personal story that I hope illustrates that cramming more information in without sufficient break time is a recipe for ineffective teaching:

Some years ago, I attempted to learn Italian. I felt doing so would serve several purposes,  not the least of which would be an experience similar to what the children I taught as ESL learners might experience.  The class was 3 hours long without a break and conducted completely in Italian. By Hour 2, I was no longer able to retain any of the important language learning that the class was engaging in; the instructor’s pace did not slow and mainly what I was hearing was nonsensical droning. By the end of Hour 3 I had a terrific headache and couldn’t tell you what I had been learning. What I can vividly recall is the rush of fresh air as I stepped outside of the building. My brain needed a break not only to refresh and be ready to learn, but also so that synapses could form that would allow the connections to what I already know grow to include new information.

Now apply this experience to a student in an elementary school where from 8:30 to 11:30 (3 hours) you are learning in YOUR second language English. In college we used to call this type of “learning” cramming; it was useful to varying degrees of success for retaining facts just long enough for a major exam. In an elementary or middle school it is just plain cruel.

Children who reach their frustration level often show us that frustration without verbalizing it. Could the impact of a longer recess allowance reduce the number of out-of-compliance incidences in schools and classroom? Eliminating and reducing behavioral interruptions certainly would make time-on-task academics more productive for all the learners in the classroom, would it not?

I challenge our school committee and local policy makers to make increased recess and priority for our children. We need to treat our children like children. When you hear someone say we cannot schedule 30 minutes of recess in our school schedules, ask them HOW can we not?

Interested parents, students, educators, and community members are encouraged to attend a Policy Subcommittee meeting scheduled for April 23, 2018 starting at 6:00 pm in the Public Schools Central Office Fifth Floor Television Studio (notice attached).

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Take the lead, kids

2018-Mar-24_MFOL-Boston_2002I was in Boston this past weekend to be an ally for the student organizers of March for Our Lives, Boston.

I feel as if my generation of Boomers has dropped the ball. Or maybe we never picked up the ball because when we were students in school, worry about an “active” shooter, one with an assault weapon, was not anything to be concerned with. The duck-under-desks drills were more about tornadoes or the Cold War threats from Russian Bombs.

Since Newtown and Sandy Hook, it hasn’t mattered how young the students, we practice

2018-Mar-24_MFOL-Boston_1990 responses to active shooters several times a year. The protocols and program acronyms, such as the ALICE or Options-Based responses, change a bit from year to year, but the routines are basically the same.

 

As a teacher, I resented having to configure my classroom in order to have heavy furniture nearest the classroom doors. I resented the mind shift from what was the best environment for learning, to figuring out what might be a good escape route during an active shooting.

2018-Mar-24_MFOL-Boston_1894

My goal in creating classroom space was to design a place that supported learning cooperatively, encouraged students to be independent,  and was welcoming. Instead, I would start the school year thinking about which furniture should be near the hallway door and how 9-year olds might be able to move it in front of the door. Depending on the students’ physical limitations, it was necessary to carve out space for hiding. Teachers made plans for another adult to watch over students in a safe meeting spot in case the worst possible situation presented itself. Teacher might not be with the students and might need to stay back in the classroom hiding with a child for whom running was made impossible by physical disability.

2018-Mar-24_MFOL-Boston_1959I am abundantly aware of the ridiculous response to keeping students safe from an intruder carrying an assault weapon into a school building.  The response in such situations might mean a lock down. It might mean running. It might mean creating  a barricade by piling furniture at the egresses. If the shooter enters the classroom, we teach students to run around, scream, or throw items such as staplers and books in an attempt to distract the intruder.

T2018-Mar-24_MFOL-Boston_1969he students know that safety from an intruder armed with an assault weapon is not just an issue for schools. It can happen in nightclubs. It can happen in outdoor concerts. It can happen in churches. An assault rifle can penetrate your skin and shatter your internal organs without consideration of race or ethnicity. 2018-Mar-24_MFOL-Boston_1993

I have yet to hear a cogent argument for allowing the general population to purchase an assault weapon. Assault weapons have no purpose in the hands of the general public. They kill and maim quickly whether one is sitting on a front step or in a park or at a desk in class.

Listen to the kids.

In a (more) perfect world

pexels-photo-220320.jpegIn case you weren’t paying attention, it is budget season here in Lowell, Massachusetts. The Superintendent’s proposed budget is based on funds coming from Chapter 70 (state aide) and funds allocated by the City of Lowell. There are lots of moving parts to this process, including budget hearings which are generally open to the public and to public participation. The result is a financial roadmap for the coming fiscal year. This document links to the dates currently proposed for school budget presentations. Keep your eyes and ears open though, our New England weather may play a large role in adjustments to this meeting schedule.

What is clear to me even as a retired educator, is that our school budgets are quite lean. I know this from personal experience: throughout my career, I spent in EXCESS of $1,000 – and often closer to $2,000 – of my family’s funds to supply my classroom with a classroom library, paper, pencils, folders and much more. I know that I was not alone and I know this “tradition” continues today.

Each time I’ve led a literacy class here in Lowell, I’ve asked the participants what would appear on their classroom wishlist if there was no limitation to funding their classrooms.   I encourage them to not self-limit: if one’s opinion is that more staff would make things better for students, write that down.

As Lowell goes through the process of funding schools and school programs, this too is interesting information that should inform decision-makers. These are some of the items educators, those who work closest with students, would like to see in the budget.

Here is what the Fall participants put on their lists:

PerfectMiddleHigh

Middle/High School

PerfectGr3and4

Grades 3 & 4

Perfect2

Grade 2

PerfectKand1a

K/1 page 1 of 3

PerfectKand1b

K/1 Page 2 of 3

PerfectKand1c

K/1 Page 3 of 3

And here are the wishlists from the Summer participants

 

 

 

 

Here’s the thing

pexels-photo-626165.jpegDid you happen upon KQED’s interview with San Francisco educator, Michael Essien, principal of MLK Middle School? If not, here’s the report which includes an audio of the story.

So many of us in education feel the pressure to keep teaching the prescribed curriculum even when our students, our kids, are telegraphing their emotional response to the curricular pressures they are experiencing. Could it be possible that the children are telling us “this is not working for me?”

I believe this to be the case when so many kids have escalating behaviors that disrupt the flow of the classroom. Just as an infant wails when it is hungry, tired or bored, our students are also wailing in the form of noncompliant behaviors.

As a classroom teacher, I was fortunate to have some really supportive push-in help when a child’s behavior was, let’s use the education-ese term, “off the wall”. I can picture Liz Higgins, a now-retired social worker who was assigned to my last school, talking in the calmest of voices to one of my students who was under my desk after having up-ended her own. The child eventually returned to the class activity, and the day continued.

I was fortunate to experience the power of push-in reconnections with traumatized and frustrated students many times over the course of 30 years. I hope over time I learned from these education mentors. Fred and Sandy and Sharon, Mary Ann and Maria, I don’t believe I properly thanked you for that. You taught me that when a child acts out, it is important to reconnect and re-establish our relationship. What has always impressed me about these six educators is that none of them ever seem to have lost touch with their roots in education. They may have been (or may now be) administrators, but they never forgot about their own experiences in classrooms or with students.

On some plane of understanding, I eventually realized that when one of my students was acting disruptively, that was a signal that, for that student at least, the demands of the classroom were too much. The times that I was able to keep that student with us in the classroom were, for the most part, successful outcomes. They did not happen all the time and they certainly did not happen as often as they should have.

Principal Essien’s experience as a teacher and in special education informed his decisions. He demonstrated to his staff that he could be trusted as an administrator because he still remembered what it is like to be in a classroom. Mr. Essien recognized that adding one more thing to a classroom teacher’s responsibilities was unworkable, that there needed to be a collaboration between administration and classrooms in order to best serve the students.

His push-in model is working because the collective focus is on what the students need in today’s education pressure-cooker.

Shouldn’t this be the goal for every child?

 

When More (Time On Task) is Less (Effective)

2013fielddaybSome years ago, I enrolled in an Italian language class at Boston Language Institute. The class met for 3 hours – no break – several times each week. The instructor only spoke my “new” language, Italian, for the entirety of the three hours. We had some written materials, some listening resources, but mainly we were expected to immerse ourselves in Italian. If this sounds like what happens in a classroom, I would agree.

The first thing I learned from this experience was how utterly frustrating it is for a learner to function outside of his or her native language. But one of the larger experiences for me was the chance to experience what it must feel like for a student to attempt to sustain concentration and focus for extended stretches of time without a break.

By Hour 2 of my 3-hour class, I felt hopeless and defeated. I could no longer take another idea into my brain. I left the class with a dull and aching head and lots of questions as to what the goal of that instruction was. If this was my experience with sustained time-on-task learning as an adult, it wasn’t hard to imagine the same sense of frustration and defeat applying to the young learners in my classroom.

Regardless of whether or not the student is learning in a non-native language, as many of my former students were, extended periods of concentration does not necessarily yield higher academic achievement. Whether adult or child, the brain needs what the brain needs. And in learning new things, the brain needs some time off to make connections and absorb learning.

Since the inception of education reform, standardized curriculum, and high-stakes testing, educators have been pressured to prove that students are learning. The proof has, to date, been in the form of high stakes testing. Students, teachers, and schools who do not achieve arbitrary scores indicating that the prescribed curriculum has been mastered are called out. The trickle down response to test scores that are less than stellar has been toward reducing or eliminating children’s recess time.

Why? Because when test scores look bad, the first response is that the students need “more time” to learn the material. That time has to come from somewhere, so shaving minutes away from recess is the first response. To me, this sounds a lot like what I did as an unprepared college student studying for a final in Western Civilization: cramming.

Reducing or eliminating students’ active time does not mean better test results. The brain needs some time to process and absorb new learning. Kids who fidget less, focus more.

So what our kids need is similar to what my experience as a student proved for me: more recess. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a statement from a recent Time Magazine article from October 23, 2017:

… a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found positive associations between recess and academic performance. “There is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores,” the report said.

More time-on-task does not equate to more learning.

 

The Elephant in the Classroom

Another mass shooting, another set of knee-jerk responses.

Once again, there is a call to arm educators and school staff in an effort to thwart an active shooter in a school building. It is yet another measure that has been proposed to protect students while in school, but certainly not the first.

At first we practiced soft- and hard-lockdown procedures. Which morphed into active shooter drills employing ALICE (Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate) and other options-based practices. Read more about ALICE here.

While I was glad that a protocol had been worked out by people far more expert in such situations than I would ever be, these protocols can make adults and children very anxious.  ALICE and options-based responses are not a 100% guarantee of success.

Schools sometimes have resource officers stationed within them. At Stoneman-Douglas in Parkland, FL, there has been wide-spread criticism of the resource officers who did not enter the building as the gunman was shooting. The officers, I believe, were armed with pistols which would have been no match for the AR-15 assault weapon the shooter was carrying.  Would a resource office shooting a pistol have saved lives and prevented injuries in the Parkland incident? Were those officers slow in assessing the situation and their response to it, or were they incompetent? Either way, the officers must now live with their decisions and the consequences for the rest of their lives.

Now Mr. Trump and others are raising the idea of arming educators, or to be more precise, arming some educators. That elite group of people would be reward by a bonus for their skill and willingness to take on an active shooter within a school building using a concealed weapon. And while teachers carrying weapons is allowed in some state and schools already, this horrifying proposal – horrifying to anyone who has ever worked in an elementary, middle, or even high school classroom with impulsive children – is being touted as the magical solution to make our schools safer.

I don’t know why anyone would think school safety would be enhanced by an educator carrying a weapon. Here’s a statistic from a 2007 NYTimes article.  In New York City, police officers, trained in weaponry and in responding to tense shooter situations:

In 2005, officers fired 472 times in the same circumstances, hitting their mark 82 times, for a 17.4 percent hit rate. They shot and killed nine people that year.

Maureen Downey reaffirms this statistic and more in this Atlanta Journal Constitution article, “Cops face hard time hitting targets in gunfire“. Law enforcement officers who train extensively know that hitting the “target” in a tense situation happens less than 20% of the time. How does that translate to educators? What will the collateral damage be in such a situation?

To me, it seems the path of least resistance is to come up with more protocols and reactions to armed shooters. The hard route? That would be having the courage to eliminate the types of weapons used most frequently in mass shootings: assault weapons. Is a weapon that obliterates everything in its path, that causes such massive and total damage to human life (see “What I learned from treating the victims from Parkland“) necessary for civilians to protect themselves?

The elephant in the classroom is that, despite all the protocols and proposals for protecting schools and churches and other venues, mass shooters, some with some very severe mental issues, continue to get access to some very powerful weapons. And unless we are willing to say that this style of weapon has no place in civilian society, until our lawmakers are willing to walk away from lobbyists who protect the manufacturers of these weapons, until access to such high-powered guns is taken away, no amount of hiding in a classroom or arming staff members will save anyone.

Carrying any kind of gun would never be for me: I had no intention of using it whether in a classroom or anyplace else. But I understand that is not everyone’s feeling. I think Emma Gonzalez expresses it best:

Screenshot 2018-02-26 06.30.45

 

 

 

In the Land of Missed Opportunities

pexels-photo-619636.jpegWhat will it take to break through the glass ceiling of education leadership in Massachusetts? The answer to that is still to be uncovered.

On Monday, the Board of Education met to make a final candidate selection for Massachusetts’ next Commissioner of Education. There were three candidates: Penny Schwinn, Angelica Infante-Green, and Jeffrey Riley.  Two of the candidates, both women, were from “out-of-state”; Mr. Riley is a known quantity who has most recently been the Receiver of the Lawrence Public Schools.

One would think that with two women in the final three, there would be a fairly decent chance that the next Commissioner might be a woman, but that would mean ignoring what seems to be an unspoken qualification for education commissioner: “known local quantity”.  Mr. Riley currently holds the position of Receiver in Lawrence Public Schools and has since that city’s schools were put under state receivership. He recently resigned the Receiver’s position and one wonders if that were serendipitous or by design.

By many accounts, Ms. Infante-Green’s interview was quite remarkable; she is a strong advocate of both bilingual and special education. As a parent of two bilingual children, one diagnosed with autism, she understands these two important issues intimately. While I disagree with some of her positions, she would have been a formidable advocate for bilingual students and for the differently-abled. To my thinking, the BESE members’ failure to select her as Masachusetts’ next Commissioner of Education is a lost opportunity: the opportunity to select the first woman to head the Commonwealth’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the first Latina to head Massachusetts’ education.

From each board members commentary, I think many of them supported Ms. Infante-Green’s candidacy, but could not, in the end make that selection. It felt as if many of the eight who selected Mr. Riley did so based on a perception of “earning” the position after his tenure in Lawrence. It was safer. So what we seem to have here is a safe, unimaginative selection; hopefully I will be proven incorrect about that last part.

Instead of breaking that glass ceiling, Massachusetts’ Board of Elementary and Secondary Education chose the safe, known, local candidate. In doing so, have state policy-makers missed an opportunity for greatness? I believe so. Missed opportunity indeed.