2014-11-25-lincoln-024I started reading Meditations from the Mat this weekend. The writings are daily practices in mindful meditation written by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison and had come highly recommended by a group of yogis I’ve encountered in an online group.

In explaining his own yoga journey, from a weekend retreat at Kripalu to yoga teacher training, Rolf Gates relayed a story about an encounter with Baron Baptiste, renowned yoga teacher and author.

…”Are you a teacher?” I said I was, but the words didn’t ring true. I taught classes, but I was not a teacher.

For a while I puzzled over how that could be true; if one taught, one must be a teacher, right?

As Rolf explained, the act of teaching is the act of drawing out. In yoga, that means drawing out what the student may already know about breath, alignments, and postures.

In education today, do we have the flexibility to draw out of our students what they already know and can connect to? Can we lead them to knowledge without having to force it in before the students are ready for it?

Standards in a general sense, are good end-goals for education and educators. Where standards and standards-based education go awry is when those end points are unreasonable or developmentally inappropriate or, in some cases, designed to foster failure. The purpose of early childhood education should not be a dress rehearsal for intermediate grade level standardized testing. Yet it sometimes is.

As an example, I have heard from participants in the graduate level literacy class I led tell of kindergarten students writing or keyboarding.  This is wrong. Forcing young learners toward skills that are outside what is developmentally appropriate for them is a disservice to them.

Teachers want to teach, to draw out, what their students know to make connections. We want learning to be relevant, to spark curiosity and to stay with our students. We want to teach.


Adventures in Oxymorons

DSC_0107Say what you will about living in these political times, snaps go to the marketeers coming up with the names. Why if you didn’t actually spend a large portion of your reading time being skeptical and following up with questions and queries, you might just miss out on some really fun oxymorons.

Let’s take the group, Families for Excellent Schools as an example. Or Students First. Or Great Schools or Building Excellent Schools.

Is there a single person on the planet who is NOT for excellent schools or excellent opportunities for students and children?

Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy (FESA), a close cousin of Families for Excellent Schools, recently was fined more than $450K and banned from campaigning in Massachusetts for 4 years. Why? Because in an effort to win over a ballot question that would expand charter school networks unnecessarily, the FESA group attempted to hide large donors, including Paul Sagan (Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2015)  from campaign finance reporting.  Not cool, FESA. Not cool Mr. Sagan. Link to Maurice Cunningham’s piece on this published on the WGBH website here.

What these names, knee-deep in oxymoronic descriptors, demonstrates to me is the never-ending need to question and check on “advocacy” groups for their true mission and purpose. Marketers are expert manipulators of vocabulary. They know which word combinations may cause unsuspecting audiences to be lulled into endorsement of groups which may, or may not, be supportive of their own beliefs. Exhibit A: Democrats for Ed. Reform (DFER) which endorses expanded charter schools, rigorous high-stakes testing, and top-down school structures particularly in the areas of “accountability”.  Building Excellent Schools apparently believes the only way to make a school “excellent” is to partner with a charter group.

It always is a good policy to learn about groups purporting to advocate, especially those involved in or attempting to be involved in public education. What you may find out can be surprising.



Square Peg, Round Hole

newbasketsHuffington Post published a blog entry by Gay Groover Christmus recently that resonated with me as a retired educator who taught pre-NCLB. The article, “4 Things Worse Than Not Learning to Read in Kindergarten” is well worth the read time for anyone wondering about the current state of education policy, and I would encourage you to do so.

Think about the absurd notion that every child leaving Kindergarten must be able to read at a particular, and I would call it arbitrary, level. And if the child does not, there is a “problem” that needs to be addressed immediately.

If your family is like mine, you can recall some family member who disliked and/or struggled with reading throughout K-12 schooling, yet, in adulthood achieved career and academic success. What would have happened had that family member had to endure the current state of early childhood “no exceptions” education?

I believe each child is different and comes to any academic task with different background, different motivation, different readiness levels. Yet, here we are in the 21st century attempting to industrialize and mechanize reading (and math and writing) so children don’t “fall behind”. Fall behind what? If a child doesn’t read F&P Level C by the end of Kindergarten, does that really mean the child needs to be labeled as academically failing for the next 12 years and beyond? I say no.

The collective and public “we” has a lack of trust in educators’ judgement and our public schools that didn’t exist when I started my career. Political expedience is reversing the narrative that our schools provide excellence in education for all students to a mantra-like chant of  a “failing” public education system (a post or two for another time, perhaps).

To me, this change in mindset which morphed over my career as an educator and my days as a parent of a school-aged child is most distressing. The narrative of failure and fear of failing to “effectively” educate students – even when the educational demands are inappropriate – is manufactured by ed-reformers with an obvious agenda.  Children, particularly early education students, are suffering for it. They are being taught academics before they are ready to retain and use them; we are forcing a square peg into a round hole.

What happens to those children when they are forced to perform academically before they are  ready and prepared to acquire academic skills like reading? Resentment, frustration, aversion to learning, and a missed opportunity to foster a love for the act of reading (or math, or writing) and discovering literature as that child matures. What learning is left to the side because there is no time to explore?

Yes, of course, there are some children who are ready to read as kindergarten students, and a skilled educator not only recognizes that readiness, but designs instruction to meet that child’s needs. Should a child need more support, or when there is a learning challenge, trust that the same educator will seek out solutions and work with parents to ensure that child receives that support that is needed.

What Ms. Christmus’ article reminds us is that unrealistic expectations and demands really should have no place in a child’s education.

A Vicious Cycle

10082015TryAgainSo, what would you say an unexpected by-product of ed reform might be?  With loss of autonomy in what to teach when, emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing and little control over just about anything else in the educational day, teachers are leaving some districts for transfers to more affluent schools and for other careers.

I mention this because it is challenging to teach in a gateway – or as the Pioneer Institute referred to it last week “middle” – city. And because the Lowell Schools are making an effort to diversify faculty and staff.

This article addresses this very issue and was published by In These Times last August. It clearly points to the challenge of hiring and retaining teaching staff in these times of education reform. As you read the article, consider the challenge of attracting teaching candidates who are impassioned to work as educators with a diverse and challenging student population.

The by-product of education reform is fall-out of professional teaching staff. As professional educators reach their limits of stress, do they move to a less challenging district? Or do they leave for a career in another field, perhaps related, where the environment is less toxic?

So what does happens as a result of corporate reforms overtaking the education landscape?  Is there a reliance on Teach for America trained (and I use that term loosely) or alternative certification?

Here’s Kevin Posen’s take from the In These Times article:

In order to fill the gaps, licensure rules are relaxed and “supports” are provided for an increasingly amateur workforce—through prefabricated curriculum and assessments. And the cycle starts all over again. The demoralization of the American teacher is leading to the deskilling of their profession, which leads to teacher resignations, which leads to more demoralization, ad infinitum.

In other words – a vicious cycle for educators and education.


A New Voice for Education Reform

A colleague and friend shared this article from the Washington Post this week.

James Meredith, a hero of the Civil Rights Movement, is proposing another kind of education reform – one that is based on equity, on the idea that everyone – not just those who can parse the vagaries of charter school or private school lotteries and applications or financial good-standing – is entitled to a quality education.

Notice that high-stakes, one shot tests aimed at further alienating the haves and the have-nots is not on the list of the America Child’s Bill of Education Rights.  Of the 12 points – and I agree with them all – Number 12 is, for me, the most critical:

12.  A 21st Century Education: A school and a nation where children and teachers are supported, cherished and challenged, and where teachers are left alone to the maximum extent possible by politicians and bureaucrats to do their jobs – – which is to prepare children for life, citizenship, and careers with true 21st century skills: not by drilling them for standardized tests or forcing a culture of stress, overwork and fear upon them, but by helping them fall in love with authentic learning for the rest of their lives, inspiring them with joy, fun, passion, diligence, critical thinking and collaboration, new discoveries and excitement, and having the highest academic expectations of them.

Are you listening Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan?

Cooking and the Zen of Teaching

Since it is a vacation week, I find I have time to do a little cooking. Cooking is something I enjoy, but for 10 months of the year (and you can draw your own conclusions about which 10), I have little time to do it well. Hence the lack of posting on my other blog.

One of my less endearing habits is that I tend to latch on to the latest and greatest cooking gadgets. Oh how I love getting a catalog from William Sonoma, Sur la Table or Crate and Barrel.  I could spend significant time (and money) in those stores.

So what does this all have to do with education? Well, as I was chopping up some parsley this evening, I pulled out a kitchen gadget that I haven’t used in years – a parsley chopper.

As I started to roll my rediscovered gadget on a handful of beautifully fresh Italian parsley, the darn thing just would not cut. It mangled, it left cut marks, but it did not do the job anytwotoolswhere near as efficiently or as well as if I had just simply used a knife and chopped by hand; which is exactly what I ended up doing minutes. later.

This seems like a metaphor for the current state of education. Teachers all are given – and forced to use – some new gadgets or tools to improve their “performance”: a data collection program, a new curriculum.

New ideas aren’t all bad, but with increasing frequency it seems that a lot of the new gadgets meant to help educators might just be meant to help some corporation bottom line first. Those are the ideas – and gadgets – we need to be wary of.

This week I heard a fantastic quote by one of my education heroes, Richard Allington. The quote said “if your teachers need a test to tell them how their kids are doing, then you hired the wrong teachers.”

To which I’d like to add and if you need a gadget to teach, then perhaps you’ve hired the wrong teacher as well.

What do you want?

A friend of ours posted this article from the Washington Post yesterday. The Post article largely relies on a piece by Arthur H. Camins, and in my opinion rightly so.  Mr. Camins explores two essential questions that should be driving the dialogue about education and teaching: when do you persist to do your best and what kind of experience do you want for children in school?

It’s that second question that has been on my mind. And the experiences that my students – “my” children – have today is nothing even close to what I’d want them to experience.  In the last 10 days, 17 of the 23 have endured 2 days of standardized English Language Learner (ELL) ACCESS testing in reading, listening, and writing PLUS an additional one-to-one test session to assess their speaking skills. When we finished up last Thursday, even the native speaking kids applauded!

We’ve also had to test all of our students using Scholastic Math Inventory, District Benchmark, Unit post-testing, next unit pre-testing, and Scholastic Reading Inventory.

Lately it seems that if we’re not actually taking a test, we’re getting ready for one.  This is definitely NOT what I’d like my students to experience. Can we put the No. 2 pencils down now?

What would I like?

More time to play at recess. Social skills and executive function notwithstanding, such little time at recess means kids don’t have a chance to blow off some of that pent-up energy.

Opportunities to teach inquiry based science and social studies.  With all due respect to a former superintendent of schools, no, children do not learn science by reading a textbook.  They need to discover it.

A chance for a do-over when it is needed. Not every one “gets” a concept the first or even second time around. Lock-step learning is dumb on so many levels. When the children have a natural curiosity about exploring a topic we are in the midst of, we should be able to continue down that path without fear of falling behind.

Accountability is here to stay. I get that. But between the constant assessing, distrust of teachers as professionals who know how to do their job and the climate of privatization of education, have we allowed the bean counters to take all the joy out of learning?

I want my students to learn love learning and to question. That is what I want for “my” students.