On Homework

10012015FrenchStThis morning, the New York Times carried the story of the decision by several Public Schools in New York City to suspend traditional homework. The disagreements that have ensued have largely been by parents of students with very different viewpoints on this topic.  This is definitely worth a read if only to broaden the lens with which one views this topic because, as I read, two things came to mind:

  • in some families, providing meaningful after school activities is frequently limited by economics, time and money/resources, and
  • parent input into broad ideas is a key to change.

As a parent, I would have loved the idea of no homework for my own child, who by the end of a school day had had just about enough with sitting still and completing paperwork. One assignment, burned in my memory, is of him sitting at our dining room table attempting to fill in the remaining (empty) pages of a spelling workbook, assigned for the night’s homework ostensibly because it was the end of a school year and all pages must be completed. Did anyone “learn” anything from that exercise?

In the Times article, the attempts to move away from mindless drill-and-kill worksheets is something I would applaud. Suggested replacements for traditional homework include reading and finding other exploratory pursuits.  These are all great ideas. Most students have library books from school or the public library that can be accessed if a personal library is not within reach.

However, I would suggest that the ability to find and fund those “other” resources for explorations – mentioned were additional software products or for-fee activities and programs – is problematic for parents who don’t have the same monetary resources found in privileged, middle-class homes.  Yes, Khan Academy is a free resource, but if your family doesn’t have internet access or a workable computer device, that free resource is not available. I worry that under the current federal administration how long programs like 21st Century School grants will continue. How this impacts a community with a large number of students from lower socio-economic means remains to be seen.

The “quality” of homework is cited in the article. This, too, needs investigation. What are the elements that constitute “quality” homework?  I know how I would answer that, but maybe I don’t know how a parent who is working 2 consecutive shifts and still living below poverty would answer.

Which brings me to Point 2. Parents need to be a big part of this conversation. Schools and Districts considering the change from a traditional homework model to something else, whatever that might be, have to engage all – and I mean all – the parents, not just those who find it convenient to come to meetings and presentations between 8:30 am and 3 pm. The educators have the expertise to make these changes, but the parents bring viewpoints to the discussion that not only need to be considered, those views must be considered.

Read the article. Learn from it. And let’s move forward in making homework something more than a mindless and epic after school battle.

You have to show up

Yoga serves.

But you have to show up.

-Adriene Mishler Yoga with Adriene

There is something both beautifully simple and truthful in that statement.


What are you invested in? Physically, mentally, intellectually. Show up for that. It really is that simple.

After a year of some minor, mainly annoying, challenges that come with the advancement of growing older, I decided that I now had the time to invest in my own well-being. And so I embarked on some physical training (who starts a running program after age 60?) and an exploration of centering myself through yoga. I’ve been well-served by both running and yoga. But in order to reap the benefits of not running out of breath by simply walking uphill or a more steady, balanced foundation, the commitment to doing one or both of these on a daily basis has been a challenge. It is easy to become distracted or to allow appointments and meetings to become an excuse to skip.

As a former educator, I think the act of showing up has to apply as well, particularly in times when public education is under daily attack. Purposeful underfunding of the Commonwealth’s obligation to fund schools, over-reliance on high-stakes testing, an education that is at once developmentally appropriate and flexible, valuing humanities as well as science and technology.

These are just a few of the issues that I feel strongly about. This is why I worry that educational opportunity, that great equalizer, may not be much of an opportunity for our young citizens.

And this is why I will continue to show up – because just like yoga, education serves. But you have to show up.


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.

And Now…. In-Your-Face Prejudice

img_0794Within the past week, our United Teachers of Lowell organized and hosted a FirstBook “Books on Wheels” event where over 2000 students and their families received free books. As we sorted and organized 40,000+ books, we heard about a fire in a near-by Lawrence school, the Bruce School, and the impact of the loss on students, teachers and classrooms. What could we do to help? 

Hearing that the destruction impacted 7th and 8th grade classrooms, we set aside over 500 books from our event to donate to the Bruce School. The books were selected by Lowell middle-school teachers working to unpack pallets, boxed up by students and educators who were volunteering at our event, and picked up on Saturday – our event’s distribution day – by the Principal of the Bruce School and the Lawrence Schools COO. One would think this would be a feel-good moment. Not so fast.

We sent a press release (link here) to the Lawrence Eagle Tribune and other news outlets in the Merrimack Valley. However, the report in the Lawrence Eagle Tribune was not accurate  (I refer to paragraph 3) and stated that all the donated books were in Spanish. This is simply untrue.

As a co-chair of the event, our concern in Lowell was that the diversity of the donated materials from FirstBook (and the Disney Publishing house) would not be reflective of our LOWELL community, and as a Lowell community, we raised funds to supplement the FirstBook truck with many linguistic and culturally diverse books. Those supplemental books, meant for our Lowell families, were not included in the donation to Bruce School.

And so, with inaccurate reporting, the caller to the United Teachers of Lowell based her outburst on misinformation. 


Dear Anonymous Caller to the UTL Office,

I regret that I was not there to take your phone call. In what can only be characterized as boorish and rude behavior, I understand you are angry and upset that the United Teachers of Lowell donated books to the Bruce School. You seem to be upset that “we” shouldn’t be giving Spanish language books to “those people”. In fact, how dare we do so?

As I understand it, your objections seem to be focused on the linguistic quality of the books because they were not “American”. Madam, I am not sure which language you consider “American” as most of us are immigrants to this continent, unless you intend for everyone to learn and speak the language of indigenous people.

You are, of course, aware that America is a very large land area which includes countries in both Northern and Southern hemispheres. Just considering the North American continent would encompass at least two other languages, including a very large country to our south where the citizens speak the language you object to, Spanish.

As an acquaintance of mine said to me, recent political posturing appears to have given people a microphone to spout hate and ugliness. So let me be perfectly clear that I do understand the unstated purpose for your telephone call. Racism and intolerance.

Regardless of what the language make up of the donated books, you have boldly allowed your prejudices and bias to reach the point at which you feel free to blast away at an act of generosity from one organization to another without regard to tolerance of differences. Your ignorance is on display.

Unfortunately, the climate of tolerance in our country is being challenged, and an atmosphere of intolerance may become more accepted, even in progressive states such as Massachusetts.

This cannot stand. Your comments were out of line, hateful and intolerant of our communities.


First Days

IMG_1586 (1)It is back-to-school time here in the City in which I taught for nearly 30 years. You can sense the anticipation in the  breezes that flow down the Merrimack. There is  an almost unidentifiable change to the air. We are changing seasons; we are changing routines.

I loved the first day of school when I was teaching. Make no mistake about it, those first days – and oftentimes weeks – are exhausting as teachers and their new students work to find common ground and to build a community. The first day, the day when everyone wears a little vulnerability in anticipation of new things, the first day is special. And for every teacher who starts rebuilding a new community of learners today, I wish you the best.

My mind floods with the memories of some of those wonderfully special students who made the 30 first days that I was privileged to be part of special. So many unique personalities! You kids have enriched my life in ways I could never have imagined.

In 1990, I was returning to the classroom after a summer of health crises. I remember the exhaustion that year was not from teaching, but from treatments. Dragging my sorry self into a classroom filled with second graders was not only teacher-exhausting, it was physically and mentally exhausting. Yet every single morning, one of my bubbly, precious second graders, Anita, would throw her arms into the air and tell me “Mrs. Bisson, you look mahvelous today!” Now I know the reality was, I didn’t look even close to passable most days. Some mornings, Anita’s greeting was the one thing that kept me moving forward. A few years later, this special girl lost her own battle with cancer – and took a piece of my heart with her to heaven.

All of “my” kids whether you are grown with your own children or still in the middle of schooling, I am grateful to every single one of you. You challenged me to do better, to figure it out, and yet, every day you taught me something about making the most of our time here in our classroom community and on this earth. All those times when you thought I was teaching you, you were really teaching me.

Students are meeting their teachers once again today. May you all have a year filled with precious moments and memory-making. Cherish each moment as you build a lifetime of memories.

School Committee Meeting, 17 August 2016

School Committee Meeting, 17 August 2016

IMG_0794All present

This was a lengthy (2-3/4 hours) meeting due to not only the summer schedule of monthly meetings, but the financial topics that became the focus of discussion. Apologies in advance for the delay in getting notes out; I also presented information about First Book to the Committee (separate post to follow).

Permissions to Enter

Contract ratifications for the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendents were deferred to Executive Session, which followed the public portion this meeting.

Subcommittee Reports:

Mr. Gendron shared findings from the Facilities Subcommittee meeting of 8/11. The recommendation, followed by full School Committee approval, to name the Butler School Auditorium in honor of former administrator Mary Alice Foley was made. (Approved). Additionally Skanska, the Project Manager for the Lowell High School Building Project, presented a quarterly report of the work thus far and listed deadlines and timeline for the projected planning work needed to be accomplished ahead of a May 31, 2017 Mass. School Building Deadline.

While I understood this to be a huge construction project for the City of Lowell, I was unaware that the LHS Building Project is the largest school building project in the Commonwealth. There is a need to get the design “right” (sustainable with adaptability for future needs projected 20-30 years out) and to ensure that the costs are under control throughout all phases of the project.  The Project Manager, Skanska, is charged with this task and will work with the design team.  To view the timeline for the work that is envisioned, Sanska has provided details beginning around page 73 of the School Committee Packet.

Reports of the Superintendent

The Superintendent offered 12 reports to the Committee.  The ones receiving the closest scrutiny were financial in nature, but attention also was given to a facilities report by Mr. Rick Underwood. The Doors Open Lowell Public Schools announcement has been covered in detail by both Amelia Pak-Harvey of the Lowell Sun and through the LPS Website.  I was also wearing my “other hat”, co-coordinator of the Lowell First Book Truck Event in October, and will detail that event this week as we kick-off efforts to bring 40,000 free books to our Lowell Public Schools families.  Sharon LaGasse and Kristina Webber presented an end-of-year report on Food Services and the CEP program in Lowell.

The Purchase Order Report (2016/311), received extended discussion as it addressed some of the expenditures and encumbrances made at the end of the fiscal year. Mr. Gignac requested clarification some June 30 Purchase Orders including rental of the Tsongas Center (graduation) as well as hardware (Apple Laptops and carts).

Further in the discussion was the proposal for how to make up the last-minute loss of Kindergarten Grant Funding.  The Kindergarten Grant in Lowell is used in part or in whole to support the services of instructional paraprofessionals at the Kindergartens across the City.  On July 17, Governor Baker’s veto during the Commonwealth’s Budget process created a loss of funding for the Kindergarten Grant – and other budget items as well.  The Lowell School Administration  in attempting to find ways to maintain the paraprofessional positions, has resorted to what I liken to rearranging the deck chairs.  LPS had a budget surplus which seems to have some connection to the “fifth” quarterly circuit breaker payment accounted for in the 2015-16 budget of $2.8 million.  The carryover to 2016-17 is restricted by law to $2.3 million which leaves $548,000 to be returned to the City of Lowell.

Noting the amount needed to make up for the loss of funds triggered by the Governor’s veto, the LPS would request $527,642 once the books are certified by the Commonwealth (December 2016?). The City Manager had been alerted that there might be need for up to $600,000 in supplemental requests to make up for the loss. The trail of transactions as I understand it, would be this:

  • Funds in excess of $2.3 Million returned to City (approximately $547,000)
  • School Committee will request $527,642 supplemental from City Council
  • $527,642 will be placed by City in a Suspense Account (and eventually transferred to the line item needed to pay the salaries of Kindergarten paraprofessionals).

While there is an aversion to using one-time funding sources/payments for on-going expenditures, the Superintendent posited that these transactions will give the LPS a year to plan for how to fund the monies lost by the Governor’s veto on a more permanent basis.  In the end the Committee approved both the motion to request supplemental funding from the City Council and to place such funds in a Suspense Account (6 yeas, 1 absent – Mayor Kennedy).

In a related report, the update to Purchasing Policy (2016/321), an effort to bring the language in the current LPS Purchasing Policy in alignment with both City and DESE/State practice, was referred to the Finance Subcommittee for review.

The updated Hiring Policies (2016/331) giving qualified and certified Lowell residents an interview was passed.

A report on the status of Facilities (2016/326) was made by Mr. Rick Underwood,.  The enormity of maintaining facilities and the near-term end of lifecycle for building components of those schools built during the 1991-1993 school building boom is something for which the LPSD needs to plan. Many of the HVAC plants are reaching the end of life expectancy and are becoming difficult to keep in service. The custodial staff has an enormous amount of work to complete throughout the summer:  thoroughly cleaning buildings, floors, and performing other maintenance tasks (often with community programs in the building AND when temperatures are extremely hot) that are needed while the students and teachers are out of the building. During crunch times, the outside of the building – the landscaping – may not receive the same level of attention.

Mainly what I learned through this discussion is that the custodial staff have performed yeoman’s work to get all the facilities clean and ready for a new academic year. I know that  in the past, when I returned to set up my own classroom, the floors had been stripped, waxed, minor repairs performed – sometimes a new coat of paint, the the overhead lights cleaned. Any surface I didn’t have covered with packed boxes of materials was wiped down. The lockers outside the classroom were cleaned, the halls stripped and waxed and the community spaces maintained as well.

Maintaining the grounds at schools is also a huge undertaking, and of course, the grounds are what the neighbors and public see as they drive by a school building.  Adding landscaping to a custodian’s punch list is sometimes impossible, yet the grounds do need to be taken care of. Mr. Underwood seems quite open to seeking outside-the-box solutions for this, perhaps involving local landscapers in regular maintenance for a courtesy sign or involving community service groups as suggested by Mr. Gendron.

Before moving to Motions, Mayor Kennedy requested an update on when to expect reports for four motions submitted during the July 2016 School Committee meeting. A Report on Graduation Rates  and one on the STEM Program, specific to the High School is expected at the first meeting in September.  The LHS Curriculum Review in light of the building project is expected before December and the Suspension/Expulsion Policy is pending input and action by DESE.

New Business

There were four items under New Business:

  • 2016/310: Update on Business Office Reorganization & District HiringMr. Frisch confirms that the number of bodies remains the same; however, report was very difficult to follow. An Organizational Chart with names would go a long way to clarify what positions are filled and which remain unfilled.
  • 2016/318 Accept a grant award of $2,000 for Wang School
  • 2016/322 Expenditure transfer request (see page 165-172 of Meeting Packet)
  • 2016/325 Budget Transfers (see page 172-211  of Meeting packet). These appear to be the detailed transfers of monies to balance accounts from 2015-16.

All passed.

Meeting adjourned from Executive Session. Meeting Packet can be found here.

Rigor is not what you think it is

An English vocabulary word tossed around education today is “rigor”. As the Common Core standards became de rigueur, teachers were told to teach with rigor. We’ve been encouraged to raise our expectations of our students by raising the “rigor”.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 7.04.46 AM

“Rigor.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 25 July 2016.

I’m not sure edu-experts know exactly what rigor is. Harsh inflexibility, strict precision, rigidity, severity? These words are not what I would want to guide my own child’s education, and they are certainly not something I feel comfortable aspiring to as an educator.

If the standards call for inflexibility then how can we, as educators, say we meet our students where they are and move forward? Some child is getting left behind.

What would I want? I would want a standard that allows me to differentiate for students who are challenged linguistically, intellectually, and experientially. I would like those same standards to be appropriate to the development of a child. Perhaps in place of teaching for rigor, we should aspire to teaching for responsiveness to how our children learn? Or flexibility of thought? Or inclusiveness?

How about trusting the professional judgement of educators and allowing teachers who know their students best determine how and when to push children up to and beyond what is expected?