I’m Not Giving Up On You

Maybe you’ve seen this awesome YouTube video floating around. If not, take a listen to the PS22 Chorus led by Gregg Breinberg, singing with Andy Grammer.

Look at the faces on the students who are about as engaged as any child can be. These are fifth graders and they are not only having the time of their life, they are making a memory never to be forgotten. What would their school experience be if there were no music opportunities in their young lives?

The former music educator in me can certainly appreciate the skill and organization that propels this group of musicians. But I would argue that the connection made to an art like music is just as important.

As a high school freshman, when my Dad’s career took him to New England. it was music that made the culture shock of moving from the comfortable Midwestern community in which I had grown up more bearable. There were friendships that were made in the music room; it was a place where I had something in common with my otherwise foreign New England peers. It was the only place I felt less of a freak or outsider.

What if that safe place that my high school’s music program provided had not been available to me? Because I was different, I already felt a lot of teenaged alienation, and yet, the experience of practicing with other students in our orchestra and chorus helped me to belong. And by belonging, I had a pathway in as a student; it made me into an engaged learner which is something that has stayed with me throughout my life.

One of the impacts bothering me about the test-driven curriculum that we see today is that the arts are in increased danger of losing funding during tough budget times. The disciplines of music and art are often looked upon a frills. I would disagree.

While not every student will choose a career as an artist or musician, our schools should be places where students can experience and appreciate the arts in a personal way. Sometimes, as it was for me, that encounter with the arts may become the difference between a dismal and exceptional educational experience.

As the budget season gets underway in our public schools, Gateway communities in Massachusetts are faced decisions about which programs to keep and which will be cut. When municipal school budgets like we see in Gateway cities do not adequately provide for educational expenses, the temptation will always be to jettison the arts. That I believe is not only short-sighted, it is wrong.

The solution, however, is within our grasp. With 25-year-old Foundation Budget formulas driving which programs are funded and which are not, the answer lies with the Legislature’s capacity for adopting the Promise Act and for making progress toward fully and adequately funding all of our public schools.

So on May 16, I’ll be on the Boston Common rallying with my colleagues to demand our Legislature does the right thing for our students. Somewhere in that crowd might be a young person for whom the arts is a safe way to engage in learning, just as it was for me. I not only won’t give up on you. I cannot give up.

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?

 

Teacher

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.

 

Happy or Proficient?

IMG_0021Our good friend and UTL president Paul Georges shared this article with me this morning: “Is a good teacher one who makes kids happy or one who raises test scores“. If you read nothing else in this post, migrate to EdWeek and read that article.

For educators, this is the question above all questions because doing one thing does not necessarily compliment the other.  According to the EdWeek article, a recent study found that, on average, a teacher who managed to raise test scores was worse at making students happy. Here’s the study from David Blazar in MIT Press- read it and weep.

Over the course of my career, I have been an MCAS test administrator (admittedly only for the “legacy” version – whatever that descriptor means). I’ve felt the dichotomy of creating a positive and joyful learning environment for 3rd and 4th grade students and the pressure of removing high stakes testing monkey from our backs. Don’t forget the weeks of “preparation”.

I have no great love or respect for high stakes testing nor for the value of high stakes testing. It did not inform my teaching in a timely manner as the results from the Spring arrive on a teacher’s desk in October. How helpful is that?

What testing in the era of No Child Left Behind and its successors does accomplish is the creation of a toxic and stressful environment for everyone. The joy of learning and exploring is sucked right out of the room; curricula are narrowed and teachable moments left in the dust.

Of course in a perfect world teachers could just not worry about test scores. The reality, however, is far more harsh and possibly devastating.  Agree with it or not, state Departments of Education (including our own here  in Massachusetts), periodically attempt to tie student high-stakes test results to teacher evaluations. So far, thankfully, that effort in Massachusetts has failed.

Kids and teachers are more than a number. Isn’t it time schools used other measures beyond a test to evaluate learning and schools?

Two Tales in Education

Author collectionTwo stories from the education world caught my attention this week, and I feel that both are worth the time to read. The first story, Why Teachers Quit by Liz Riggs, is a cautionary tale from 2013 about teachers and burn-out. The second, Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues is by Natasha Singer of the New York Times. It is a warning for anyone who worries about the possible effects of corporate America’s influence in schools and school materials.

The Atlantic recently reposted Liz Riggs’ 2013 article Why Teachers Quit which was originally printed in October 2013. Even with a 4-year time gap, this is an article that is relevant and worth reading for anyone interested in retaining educators. The turn-over rate cited in the article, 40-50%, refers to the numbers of teachers leaving the education profession within the first five years of their career.  While I believe this attrition rate to be lower in 2017 thanks to strong induction and mentoring programs available to beginning educators, many beginning teachers continue to leave education for other fields.

Although many of the teachers Ms. Riggs interviewed were from charter schools, the conditions which lead to decisions to leave education are often some of the same expressions of discontent heard now from both novices and experienced teachers. The responsibilities of educators don’t end at the dismissal bell. Planning, assessing, writing reports – those workloads are often overwhelming and makes for an unhealthy and out-of-balance life.

Even when one goes into education for all the best reasons, the reality of the profession can become overwhelming. With all of the emphasis on teacher quality, there continues to be a need to ensure that the extracurricular demands on talented educators are not overpowering.

The second article, Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues, was recently published in the New York Times and describes a new trend in education: recruiting teachers to promote edu-products. While understanding that obtaining “free stuff” is a way for classrooms and educators to afford enhancements and the latest in bells and whistles, I think this pathway is a very slippery slope. It makes me more than a bit skeptical about the motives of corporate American forming relationships with educators to obtain favorable product placements.

As a retired educator, I can still recall the disproportionate amounts of time spent each evening writing plans, pulling together materials, researching, contacting parents, and grading student work. I am not quite sure how Kayla Delzer, the third grade teacher chronicled in the Times article finds enough time to attend to teacher responsibilities; blog, tweet, and post on Facebook; and sleep. I wonder about the cost to her students.  Is her objectivity in evaluating appropriate materials compromised? Are her students missing out when their expert teacher is away to promote these materials?

Two tales for the week, both cautionary. Anyone out there listening?

 

Is STEM the only thing?

2016-Sep-10_FiddleBanjo2016_1362Is STEM the only thing? I’m asking for a friend.

It occurs to me that in the rush to turn out worker bees for business sectors, the focus in education is more than a little skewed in favor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yes, these are all important studies and part of a well-rounded balanced education. However, I am questioning that the focus on STEM has over-shadowed other content and curricula that, in my biased opinion, should be equally important.

Because I see education in terms of an avenue toward a pursuit, observing the march of the bureaucrats toward the next great crisis in education is equally frustrating and alarming. Our educational goal should be to “hook” students into becoming life-long students, to foster curiosity and questioning and the drive to know more.

And maybe that pathway toward becoming lifetime learners is through a STEM discipline, and perhaps it is not.

As a student, my personal pathway into learning was through something quite different. I was a more-than-adequate reader, not a particularly skilled writer, and a horribly incompetent math student.  What fired me up to become more disciplined about learning and more successful as a student, was a love and pursuit of music. The irony of this statement is that, as an adult, music has taken a backseat to the very disciplines that catch all the attention today – technology and mathematics.

To me, it is more important to teach students to think critically, to process logically and, yes, even scientifically. Science, math, and technology are important and great ways to get to those problem-solving and thinking skills. But other disciplines can be a means to this end – and toward the goal of fostering and enduring desire to learn – too. And for the student whose interest in learning lies in arts and humanities, exclusion of such pursuits leave them flat.

So while our education policy makers direct a refocus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, I hope there might also be a similar pursuit of arts and humanities. Because, in my opinion, there is a need to balance educational pursuits across all disciplines.

Meanwhile, back at the DOE

10012015FrenchStThis past Tuesday, June 6, 2017, Secretary Betsy DeVos gave testimony in front of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. An overview of Secretary DeVos’ testimony can be found on mlive here.

The presidential version of the 2018 budget details a whopping $10.6 Billion in cuts to programs supporting students of all levels.  Last week, I posted what the effect of cuts to three Federal grant programs might be on Lowell Public Schools. Using a back-of-the-envelope estimate based on the FY2018 school budget proposal, Lowell Public Schools would be out close to $3 Million in funding for 21st Century Schools, Title II (Teacher Quality) and Title III (ELL support).

Layering on the devastation caused by a (state) Foundation Budget that is severely out of whack and underfunded, the fiscal future for urban districts such as Lowell does not look very bright. Several superintendents ago, the Lowell Schools had a Superintendent who told staff that “less is more”. Well, in this case, less is actually less, and our students are going to bear the brunt.

During her testimony in front of that Senate subcommittee, Ms. DeVos stated the need to cut Title funding (i.e., nearly everything funded through the Department of Education with the exception (so far) of Title I).  As usual, making up facts that fit a narrative for redirecting federal funding was evident:

“This budget does so by putting an emphasis on programs that are proven to help students while taking a hard look at those that are well-intended, but haven’t yielded meaningful results,” she continued.

Where are the reports and research that back this up, Ms. DeVos?  Are we to believe that providing students from higher poverty/economic need districts such as Lowell with after school and summer activities doesn’t yield anything “meaningful”? What exactly does constitutes meaningful for you? A higher test score?

I most vehemently disagree with that statement by Secretary DeVos.  In a Gateway City, such as Lowell or Brockton, or any number of cities across the US, there are many families living in poverty and struggling. And despite many challenges, sometimes overwhelming challenges resulting from poverty and trauma, our Gateway cities strive to provide a comprehensive, adequate and free education to every student.

Allowing students the opportunity to participate in and explore activities beyond the school day gives these children a safe and supervised environment and their parents the peace of mind knowing that their child(ren) is well cared for during the time between the end of school and suppertime. I would call THAT meaningful, yet apparently Ms. DeVos would not.

But back to the federal budget that was the overarching topic of discussion during Ms. DeVos’ testimony.  As Michigan billionaire and school privatization champion Ms. DeVos, is okay with cutting or eliminating funding of some of the more substantial federal grants. Using the theme of giving parents “choice” of school settings, the Secretary of Education intends to funnel the funds eliminated or cutback into a voucher program. funding religious and private schools. DeVos intends to implement a voucher program without guarantees that would protect vulnerable students’ rights or ethical oversight of for-profit education management firms even when federal funding is involved.  For more on that, read Valerie Strauss’ June 6 Answer Sheet analysis. 

 

In place of “less is more”, I am more inclined to agree with this assessment of the federal education budget proposals from Senator Leahy:

“The Department of Education budget can summed up very quickly in one word: ‘abysmal,'” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Abysmal it is. And abysmal it will be for our students.