The Road Not Taken

A lifetime ago, I was involved in music. Growing up, as I did, in the midwest – home of Friday night football and marching bands – I can’t even remember when music performance wasn’t on the radar. As an elementary school student we were prepared to be in the high school music program fairly early, fourth or fifth grade.  If the band director mentioned there was a need for saxophones in a couple of years, well everyone scrambled to rent a sax and take lessons the minute we were deemed old enough to take instrumental music lessons. By junior high, we were competing to be first chair in each section; as for me I belonged in the flute section.

I also was a semi-serious pianist. I could sight read music fairly easily. When I went to undergraduate school, I was a music education major. In between methods classes and exposure to all genres of music – you haven’t really lived until you’ve attempted a final music history exam complete with “drop the needle” listening tests (needle, as in phonograph records), I worked at becoming a better performer, not as a soloist, but as an accompanist. Probably not very hard though – I hate, hate, hate practicing and drilling. And without practice, without the drills and exercises, excellence in sight reading could only take me so far. Short fingers and less-than-optimal technique sealed my fate as a music has-been.

Do I miss being able to play? I may have left my music life behind, but I do miss playing for myself. Now when I sit at my piano – one that we bought when we were first married – I look at the music on the page, I can imagine how it is played and how it should sound, but my fingers don’t cooperate. The muscle memory that used to allow me to automatically reach from one key to another with precision has atrophied. When I reach for an octave, I sometimes get a seventh.

While I know that the career path I ultimately chose was the right one, there is something left unsatisfied. The demands on me leave  no time to seriously revitalize piano techniques that have long lapsed. Maybe maturity would allow the discipline to practice to kick in, but my dislike of practice would probably come roaring right back.

Yet, there is that feeling of something left unfinished. How different would life be had I stayed with music? It is the question that will remain unanswered.

Defining the term “furlough”

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.

What would be fair?

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.

Amazing Teachers Need Not Apply

If you have been reading the postings of the Massachusetts DESE, you may have noticed their new campaign for “Amazing Teachers”.  This appears to be a recruitment program to entice teachers to work in the Tier 4 Schools — those who are being carefully scrutinized because test scores haven’t moved out of the sub-basement.

So, let me understand this, DESE. You are going to stick with the notion that these 37 schools are under-performing because of the teachers on staff? Parent involvement – or parent uninvolvement – has no bearing in these students’ success? Presto,change-o with the change of the knowledgeable and dedicated teaching staffs, all will be well.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Have the politicians and educational leaders in our state become such political kiss-ups that they are afraid to do anything more than make teaching faculties scapegoats? Or do they truly believe that experienced teachers working their asses off  in urban, multi-lingual, traumatized, high poverty classrooms can be quickly replaced by successful teachers from exurbia? Seriously?

I get that there are teachers who should not be in a classroom — the Bell Curve makes that a no-brainer. But there are many, many, many others who are those “amazing teachers” the DESE is looking for:

Amazing teachers…

  • Are relentlessly committed to high achievement for all students. They demonstrate tenacity and persistence in pursuit of the goal of ensuring that every child develops the knowledge and skill necessary for college and career success.
  • Have demonstrated success in enabling students to make significant academic progress. They have a track record of results with students and are skilled at using data to analyze and improve student performance.
  • Build and value strong relationships with students, families and the community. They create a sense of community in the classroom that celebrates success, empower students with choice and responsibility and make content relevant and accessible to all.
  • Thrive in diverse, multicultural settings. They respect and support families and students of all backgrounds – regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language or ability – and actively engage them in achieving rigorous academic goals.
  • Work collaboratively with school leadership and their colleagues to help foster a culture of teamwork. They welcome and seek out opportunities to lead, plan, learn and collectively solve problems in pursuit of student achievement.
  • Have deep content and pedagogical knowledge and skills and constantly strive to improve their practice. They have a strong understanding of content and learning standards, maintain strong classroom management skills, and differentiate instructional strategies so that all students comprehend key information.  They reflect on their teaching performance and seek feedback and new learning to improve.

Most of the people I teach with have these very qualifications; they are amazing teachers. We cajole, inspire, and open our students’ eyes to the possibilities that effort and a great education can bring.

We celebrate our students milestones and achievements no matter how great or how small — our students are progressing. We would give our right arms for a partnership with parents. Sometimes that’s possible, sometimes it is not – but we still try no matter how many times our outreach is rejected because maybe the next time, we will not be turned away.

We are challenged by a multicultural society, and despite those challenges, we love teaching in a diverse classroom because more often than not, we learn as much from the children as they learn from us.

We work collaboratively; we know our content; and we keep growing.

So DESE, look no further. Those amazing teachers you are looking for? We are right here, right under your nose. What we need is a little respect, a lot of support, and less of the blame game.

History Around Us

I’m not sure I really appreciated Lowell’s place in history. We live immersed in the history of the Industrial Revolution here in Lowell, and oftentimes we don’t see or appreciate it.

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.