Memorial Day 2011

For many, or maybe for most people, Memorial Day means picnics and the start of the summer season.

Yesterday, with the first summer-like weekend since, well since last summer, we went in to Boston to walk around and soak up some sun. As we usually do when we don’t have a specific agenda, we drove in to the City and parked in the underground Common garage.

Looking to to right as we emerged, I couldn’t help notice a crowd gathering at the foot of the rise that starts mid-Common. And then we saw why.

If you have ever been to Boston Common on a weekend – a good weather weekend – it is teeming with people. Families on the carousel, splashing in the frog pond, softball and baseball leagues playing. It is not a quiet place. But on this day, in this place, hundreds of people walked to the perimeter of this memorial Flag Garden without speaking a word.

The 20,000 flags placed on this hill are in memory of those who served and died in every war since World War I. The Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund began this project in 2010. Hopefully will continue it each year.

Cleaning Out

This June, with just 3 years  — or maybe 4 if the stock market takes a nose dive — left of my teaching career, I’ve started the process of streamlining.  It seems like a good idea. I certainly don’t have an delusions that all that stuff I’ve been saving “just in case” is going to be manna from heaven for my replacement. But more importantly, we are going to begin using the new Common Core Standards here in Massachusetts.  So this seems like as good a time as any to clean closets and really look at what is useful, may be useful, and should have been in the circular file years ago.

I find it difficult to let go of those things with which I’ve found some measure of success, even when those “things” have outlived usefulness. For example, I have entire units of author studies that my old grade level team and I developed when we had to use a particular basal for Reading First. Reading First has long expired and I no longer teach second grade, why I couldn’t let go of that remains a mystery. I’m not sure it’s much use to second grade teachers I know — it is so outmoded… as it should be. Our teaching should change over time; to continue to hammer at instruction from viewpoints held long ago is to be stale and not responsive to the kids in front of us.

So along with the frenzy of record keeping and end-of-year to-do lists, I am taking some time to reflect on what is in my classroom, to finally get rid of the things that are just taking up space, and to redesign the feel of the room.  I want it to be more welcoming and friendly and not so focused on function.  The Daily Cafe has some great information on classroom design, but there are others who have shared their passion for creating spaces that are welcoming to students.

Lots to think about and consider over the summer. But for now, I can be found next to the recycling bin.

Endurance

This must be the word of the week as it has come up so frequently.

I think of my earnest third graders enduring the grueling high stakes mathematics testing that we concluded this week. Their reactions ran the gamut from just filling in any random test bubble to get the thing over with to painstakingly writing and justifying each and every answer with back up calculations.

One of my behaviorally challenged students endures those days when the medication he relies upon is unavailable.  This student endures a health care system that doesn’t allow for alternative medication or treatment. Take a pill. You can endure the day.

Another student endures the daily stress and uncertainty of a gravely ill parent. The student endures the day’s lesson until, arriving home, the child breaks down into inconsolable tears. This child no longer wants to be in school; it is too frightening to think that her parent may not be there when she arrives home.

We endure those things mandated by folks who do not know who we are or what we are capable of achieving if we are just given a chance to linger until we can know. We endure an educational system that does not allow for students who learn differently unless the numbers add up. We endure a social structure that blames us when our families come from other places, or speak other languages.

Sad to say, I feel I am enduring this year too. The challenge of teaching in a highly volatile impoverished environment is wearing and this year more than ever. My own self-worth can not driven by what others think of me,that I understand. But the constant harping on “poor results” by those with ulterior motive – be it winning elective office or selling a consultation service – on the backs of hard-working educators worms its way into my very being and causes me to doubt.

With 19 days left to this academic year, we are all enduring.

Educating Workers or Leaders?

Today’s Boston Globe carried a thought-provoking article by Renee Loth, titled “A Needed Lesson in Citizenship”.  The current emphasis on stripped down, regurgitation of facts that is necessitated by preparing students (and now teachers) to deal with high-stakes testing has quite the trickle down effect: science, critical thinking, social studies…. all of these highly needed learning experiences have been given the short shift for years.

Loth quotes Charles Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civics in Education saying

 country is “focused more and more upon developing the worker at the expense of developing the citizen.’’ The result, he said, is a group of “vulnerable, less-empowered’’ Americans at the mercy of political spin.

By vulnerable and less-empowered,  Loth goes on to point out

Informed citizenship should not become a luxury reserved only for those with elite educations. But with so much emphasis on teaching marketable skills, subjects like civics get shortchanged in most public schools. The danger is a bifurcated society with a “labor class’’ and a “leader class’’ that is inimical to the very idea of democracy.

Marketable skill. Labor class/Leader class. Education for the benefit of corporate America. Disengagement of citizens when their participation in our democracy is so essential.

Frightening?  Click the Globe link above and read and decide for yourself.

The challenge of teaching science topics

So many years ago I don’t even remember the exact year, I participated in a summer institute in Boston. That’s where I learned a lot about engaging kids through thematic science teaching; one of the best things I learned about was 321 Contact. Sadly this show’s run ended in the early 90s.

It was at the institute that I first saw a 321 Contact Special about the rain forest and biodiversity.   It was so impressive that I bought the video and boy, am I ever happy that I did.  I’ve shown this video in my classroom nearly every academic year and it never, ever has lost the ability to engage kids in learning about biodiversity and the importance of preserving earth’s resources.

Yesterday, as I watched the video with my students, there was another, even more relevant segment on the video — the impact of excessive carbon dioxide on our planet and the resulting warming. That’s right…. a video from the 1990s explaining Global Warming. I don’t know whether to be excited or frightened.

Or maybe saddened. Our students don’t get enough exposure to science. Including science activities in the day becomes more of an afterthought and time for something more than superficial background knowledge has to be carved out of a thoroughly packed day of mathematics and language arts.

This is wrong. Somehow incorporating science into my curriculum needs to be rethought and refocused on. Science is more than (as one superintendent wanted us to do) reading about it through small group instruction.

Power of verbal language

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of head bobbing in place of actual vocabulary with my students – and not just with second language learners.  It’s got me second guessing whether or not I’ve been as focused on oral language as I should be.

My current crop of students are really quite chatty. I don’t think they’ve ever encountered a moment topic, social or academic, that did not trigger commentary 🙂 — quite a bit of it off topic.  At least it seems that way to me – maybe I’m getting tired and ready to cut the apron strings.

I find myself saying “use your words” more often lately and I’m wondering why.

The way I look at it, the use of oral language has a huge impact on students’ written communication. I often ask the students to tell me orally what it is that they mean to say in written form.  And then, instead of words flowing out of their lips, I ask them to make those words come out of their pencil. This is not a new and unique strategy — I know teachers do this all of the time.

What is troubling to me is that when my students resort to head bobbing, that oral language piece is, well, languishing and the proof often shows up in writing. Sentences are developmentally simpler than more verbal peers.

There can be no let up. Even with just 7 weeks to go, there will be a renewed effort to insist on using verbal language on Monday.