Dear Local Newspaper: Please stop ranking schools, teachers, and students.

The Syracuse, NY publication of the Post-Standard has been nicknamed, the Sub-Standard for good reason.

 

Do you want to know who are the best teachers in Upstate, NY? Well, the Syracuse Post-Standard has a list for you, dear reader. On September 19, 2017, the non-award winning paper listed twenty-five of the “best” teachers who are teaching in certain schools in Upstate New York based on the following criteria:

  • student-to-teacher ratio
  • teacher absenteeism
  • overall “academic grade” of the district
  • teacher salaries
  • “other” factors

So, just to be clear: the best teachers in Upstate New York have the following:

  • small class sizes (no bigger than 13:1)
  • healthy teachers
  • great standardized test scores
  • large tax bases; and
  • “other” factors (what ever that means).

This criterion means that any intelligent person can predict what kind of schools will have “great” teachers: schools in wealthy, suburban settings.

Three districts included in the list are located near where I live, including Baldwinsville, Fayetteville-Manlius, and Skaneateles. These three districts share distinct advantages over districts not making the list: a large tax base and a low number of students living in poverty.

I spent my first eight years of my career teaching in the Fayetteville-Manlius Central School District — you know, one of those schools with the “best” teachers. I have spent the last fifteen years as a teacher about twenty minutes northwest in the Liverpool Central School District. Did the quality of my pedagogy change when I changed districts? The answer is an emphatic YES! I became a much better teacher when I changed districts. Not only was I challenged by working with new, outstanding colleagues, but the Liverpool Central School District offered me greater professional development, a higher salary and compensation, more access to technology in my classroom, and opportunities to teach different topics.

I remember one of my relatives questioning my decision to take a job in the Liverpool Central School District. She wondered why I would leave such a fabulous school like Fayetteville-Manlius? It was a great district to teach in, but it does not own a monopoly on excellence. The competition and labeling of “best” schools and teachers feed into the false narrative of failing schools. Because if a few schools and teachers are the epitome of quality education and instruction, then every other district and teacher within those substandard districts are lacking. People choose their houses based on those perceptions.

I have attended the West Genesee, the Marcellus, the Jordan-Elbridge and the North Syracuse Central School Districts. Obviously, I was a kid who moved around quite a bit. I am now a parent of two children in the Cato-Meridian Central School District. In total, I have been a participant, either as a student, a teacher, or parent, in seven different public school districts in Central New York. Regrettably, none of these above-mentioned schools were listed in the Syracuse Post-Standard’s list of the twenty-five schools with the “best” teachers. However, I can attest that all of these districts have excellent teachers and students who are performing above expectations.

And, all of the twenty-five districts listed in the article have “bad” teachers too. Just like any profession, teaching has its share of non-examples. Unfortunately, teaching is so significant that “bad” teachers make such an impact on personal stories that examples of malpractice help fuel the narrative of failing public schools.

As consumers of media and taxpaying Americans, we must not believe the hype. This type of article is the epitome of “fake” news. It is not journalism — it is sensationalism and it is dangerous.

Unfortunately, the number of clicks and comments an article gets is often more important than substance to the bottom line of any publication. Thankfully, I was taught by the “best” teachers in Central New York, and these great professionals instilled in me the joy of critical thinking. I am confident that readers of Syracuse.com, the Post-Standard, any other news outlets, can distinguish between fluff and substance.

#whyweM4PE

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Just STOP testing children.

Standards-based testing is unfair, unreliable, untimely, cruel, and contributing to a nation-wide teacher shortage.

About once a month from June to August 2017, my oldest daughter and I engaged in the same dialogue:

Oldest Daughter: “Did I get my state scores yet?”

Mom: “No, not yet.”

After New York State finally released the tests results in late August 2017, the New York State Board of Regents approved the renaming of the Common Core Learning Standards to become the Next Generation Learning Standards.

So what?

Who cares?

The new standards will be phased in during the 2020 school year — the testing of students on those “new” standards commencing in 2021. Read the article below with the smiling quasi-politician’s face. There is no cause for jubilation. The testing of children, the standard-based system, and the New York State’s APPR teaching rating value-added model is educational malpractice. 

Bianca Tanis, an activist, and co-founder of the New York State Allies for Public Education writes in the article below about the travesty of re-branding the Common Core Standards.

 

In her article, Tanis rightfully points out the lack of one crucial word in the Pre-K-2 New York State Next Generation Standards: PLAY. Any child psychologist will tell you the necessity for play. And yet, research be damned. Tanis writes:

“Children are meant to move and explore, and sadly these standards ensure an increased focus on direct instruction and rug time.”

Although Pre-K-2 students do not take the New York State tests, there is, of course, enormous pressure on those Pre-K-2 teachers to prepare their students for future rigor. Kindergarten now resembles first grade — making Pre-K the new Kindergarten. Our children are being forced to race to the top, with developmentally inappropriate standards. Furthermore, when tested from third to eighth grade, students must be reading and demonstrating mathematical skills above these new definitions of grade level expectations to ever hope to earn a score of a “4,” the highest rating. The fact is below twenty percent of students in any cohort, statewide, have ever earned “4s” on these state exams. The results are not stellar. Our children are not learning more and performing at a higher level. Instead, they are learning to bubble answer sheets in a futile attempt to earn a “2,” or above, on an unreliable measure of their knowledge and intellect.

My daughters were in the Grade 3 and Grade 6 cohort scores in the graph above. My oldest daughter, for whom Common Core was thrusted on her beginning in third grade, has not scored above a “2” on the two ELA tests she took or a “3” on the two Math tests. She opted-out of the tests during her fourth and fifth grade years — so I have no data for those years. However, what does the data really demonstrate? When she did take the ELA exam (in third and sixth grades) she earned a high “2” each time. According to the assessment results she is struggling to meet grade-level expectations in ELA. What? According to the graph above, 38% of current seventh graders scored a “2.” Does this mean that they need remediation? According to these assessments, my honor roll student is not meeting grade-level expectations? My daughter, who earned a 98% on her sixth grade social studies final exam, is not able to earn a “4” on her ELA exam? More importantly, my daughter will feel incredibly hurt when she learns her score of a “2,” again. Although I will tell her to disregard the results, she will define herself by that score. I cannot hide her score from my oldest daughter — it is on her School Tools account, which she checks regularly. As educators and parents we are sending our children a mixed message: “Do your best kid, but don’t worry about the results.”

Not only is it cruel that students sat for eight days of testing (which has been reduced to six days this school year), the test results were not reported until September. Teachers and students have no way to inform instruction or learn anything of value from these results. What did these tests give New York State’s students except six to eight days of lost instruction for a testing system that has no benefit to education? Taxpayers should be outraged at the wasted resources.

Moreover, teachers do not enter the profession to give tests, especially standardized assessments. Steven Singer, teacher, writer, and BAT activist, writes about the torture of administering useless state assessments in the state of Pennsylvania in his piece, “A Teacher’s Dilemma: Take a Stand Against Testing or Keep Abusing Children,” linked below:

 

Singer actually had to administer a Pennsylvania state assessment during the first month of school! Like the New York State ELA and Math tests given in the spring, Singer notes that the Pennsylvania tests offer no beneficial data. In his piece, he juxtaposes a dynamic lesson to a day of testing — there is no comparison. Ultimately, Singer demonstrates an extremely frustrating and demoralizing layer of “teacher life” that is due to the reliance on standardized testing. Singer writes the truth, when he states:

“And every year the mandates get more restrictive, the teaching gets a little less and the testing a bit more….I feel so alone here.”

You are not alone Steven Singer. There are 3.1 million public school teachers in America, most of whom face the challenges of crafting lessons in the midst of ridiculous standards and standard-based tests. We must resist — individually and collectively. The standard-based movement was built on a false narrative — one that claims teachers and public schools are failing. The state test results confirm that failure. But is not a true story. Schools are not failing. America is not ruined. If we stop believing the rhetoric of politicians who just want reelection, and the false promises of corporate reformers who only seek money, we can return to teaching and learning. Stop the testing! Change the conversation.

Furthermore, the reliance on teacher evaluations based on a standardized test results is not only cruel and unusual punishment for a false narrative, the reliance on the test and punish model is encouraging teachers to leave the profession and discouraging young people from entering teaching. Judy Tabor Smizik, writes in “On Programs, Broken Promises and Why We Aren’t Finland,”

“Not investing in teachers’ professional capacities — which means giving them the time, resources and supports to collaboratively learn and deepen their understanding of both content and pedagogical craft, not training them to implement a program — flies right in the face of what top-rated systems, like Finland’s, have done to produce change. Those systems all used what Canadian educator and writer Michael Fullan calls “effective drivers” for whole system reform. These include a commitment to develop the entire teaching profession, a belief in teacher ownership, and trust and respect for teachers. Accountability, on the other hand, which he defines as “using test results and teacher appraisal to reward or punish teachers and schools” is at the top of his list of “wrong drivers.”

 

To borrow Smizik’s words, standardized testing does not invest in teacher’s professional capacities. The craft of teaching is lost to the demands of helping students meet the test requirements. The loss of dynamic pedagogy is appalling. The use of modules and worksheets to discuss novels lacks creativity and leads to student disinterest. The disregard for the mastery of multiplication facts causes students to lack fluency in mathematics. (These are just two examples — teachers in every grade level can offer more.) New York and other states can change the name of the standards, but it does not change the outcome: students are overly tested using developmentally inappropriate standards with substandard outcomes.

Stop. Testing. Children. 

When we do, real learning can return.

#whyweM4PE

What if we forget? Teaching September 11, 2001, as a history lesson.

Many of my current sophomores were not alive on the day the world stopped turning.

September 11, 2017, marked the sixteen-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Most sophomores are fifteen-years-old — these adolescents are the post-911 generation. They know no other reality than the war on terror. And yet, they really know so little about the events of that tragic day.

For example, when asked many of my students did not know:

How many planes were hijacked.

That the Pentagon was attacked.

That a plane went down in that Pennsylvania field.

The difference between Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

The location of Iraq and Afghanistan.

When and why the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

To combat my sophomore’s ignorance, I gave them an assignment that I have given every year since that infamous date. They were tasked with interviewing their friends and family members concerning the events and lessons of 9–11–2001.

The students interviewed three people who were of various ages on September 11, 2001. The following were the interview questions:

1. Where were you when you heard of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

2. What do you remember were your feelings and reactions to hearing of the attacks?

3. What was happening in the world, in the nation, and/or in your personal life at the time of the attacks?

4. Who did you think was responsible for the attacks (then)? Were you correct?

5. Why do you think the United States was attacked?

6. How do you think life in general, life for Americans, and your life specifically, has changed since the attacks?

7. What are your feelings about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

8. What would be the lesson you would like children in the future to take away from the attacks of September 11, 2001?

Students then analyzed the three responses to each question and wrote their evaluations based on the following inquiries:

  • How are the responses similar?
  • Were the people you interviewed mostly in agreement, or do they disagree in terms of their feelings and perceptions? Explain how and why.
  • What can you learn about history by completing these interviews?
  • Did the age of the person you interviewed have any impact on the type of responses you received? Why or why not?
  • What do you think these responses tell you about the future of the United States in general, and future United States foreign policy?

The students’ analysis included some remarkable insight into the common person’s psyche and these responses may help all Americans realize that the events of September 11, 2001, were a dynamic turning point — a pivot point into fear, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and protectionism that permeates our political, economic, and social interactions sixteen years later.

The student’s action research yielded quotes from their interviewees like:

“I hyperventilate whenever I see an Arab person on an airplane. I know he’s probably not a bad person, but I can’t stop it even if I wanted to.”

When asked to predict future foreign policy, some students responded with statements about xenophobia:

“After hearing these responses, I think the United States will continue to limit the amount of foreigners in our country”

or

“I think the foreign policy will become air tight, shutting out nearly all foreigners. However this causes problems because not all foreign people are terrorists. In fact many are people trying to escape the horrors they face in their country be coming to the United States.”

Many students commented on how the nation was united after the attacks, stating the common statement:

“ Our country came together after and made us stronger.”

After discussing their interviews, I began to lay down the facts of that day. I showed the students video of Diane Sawyer and Peter Jennings. I played them songs by Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and Bruce Springsteen. Many students acknowledged that they had not seen the footage of September 11, 2001, before.

By the end of today, I began to wonder if students across our nation — our post-911 generation — are learning about September 11, 2001? Are we collectively forgetting? Are we failing a generation?

But then I drive home. My phone notifies me that I have a Remind App notification — my youngest daughter’s fourth-grade teacher informs the parents that the class learned about 9/11/2001 and made Patriot paper chains. The message is complete with a picture of adorable eight and nine-year-olds holding their paper chains. When I return home, my seventh grade daughter tells me that today was the first year a teacher discussed the events of September 11, 2001. Both of my daughters give me their versions of the classroom discussions.

I am hopeful that maybe we are ready to face our history. Maybe enough time has passed to begin to place the anniversary of September 11, 2001, into our social studies curriculums. I shudder to think about what my grandparents would think about my students not being taught about December 7, 1941. Both my grandfather’s and grandfather-in-laws’ sacrificed for our country and became known as the greatest generation. Furthermore, military service people and their families have been sacrificing for our country since September 11, 2001. Any Social Studies teacher that ignores this anniversary is doing a disservice to those military families, to the people who died on that September day, and to our post-911 generation.

Our students need the details. They need to learn the stories. They must never forget.

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

I watched XQ Super Schools Live, so you don’t need to. You’re welcome.


 

I didn’t choose to watch the live show funded by the Apple-founder Steve Job’s billionaire widow, Lauren Powell Jobs. It found me.

The evening of Friday, September 8, 2017, began with amazing sub sandwiches from a local eatery, a Guinness beer, and the watching of the ABC news coverage of Hurricane Irma. Being the first Friday evening of the 2017–2018 school year, I was tired. I wanted to settle in for some couch time. After my husband and I marveled over mother nature, four familiar faces appeared on our television screen: David Muir’s, Gale King’s, Chris Wallace’s, and Al Roker’s.

These familiar commentators were talking my language: education. I was curious. I thought I was watching a serious documentary that might be interesting. I was wrong. 

The next scene cut to an unknown face (an actor pretending to be a journalist?). He had an announcer’s voice and a canned sit-com quality to his demeanor. I turned to my husband, saying: “Oh, this is a spoof.” I was wrong, again.

My husband giggled as he shuffled the remote through ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX — all four networks were airing the same production. My mouth was agape, and I had trouble shutting it for an entire hour. I was flabbergasted. I was confused. I was entranced. It was kind of like watching an educational train wreck.

And then music from the movie The Breakfast Club began and adolescents began to sing the familiar song by Simple Minds “Don’t You Forget About Me.” I wonder if my generation was the target audience? The show had me wondering the demographics of the targeted audience all hour.

Next, we see Chance The Rapper appear on stage. I turn to my husband again. He giggles again. The only feeling to describe watching is one of discomfort. Education is not flashy. Schools are not filled with actors and celebrities. Reform had never been presented to me in such a way. My anxiety and interest were piqued.

Chance’s message: the world has changed, but schools have not. All students deserve an education that fosters their talents and aspirations. He calls for communities across the nation to come together to create education that: “honors the potential of every child.”

Cut to a kid playing the drums and choreographed adolescent dancers in primary colored tops and bottoms. The energy is high. The smiles are huge. The time rehearsing is apparent. Screens on stage present celebrity names in colorful cartoonish graphics. Five minutes in, and I realize this is a show. This is a production with celebrities promoting educational reform? This is a very expensive hour-long, four network time bought, a show on how Americans can come together and create “super” high schools. I really want to look away. I should tell my husband to turn the channel. But I can’t. I teach high school. I write about education. I care about reform. The kids keep dancing — I continue watching.

Actress Viola Davis leads the discussion of how the days of waiting for others to change schools is over and we, as Americans, must come together to change high schools. I am starting to get why this over-priced production is happening: XQ wants me and my fellow Americans to join them to make our high schools the best in the world (again?).

XQ had me at the topic of education, but then Viola Davis introduces a montage of the history of schools. My interest is piqued again. The video portion of this brief historical journey has a key message: students sitting in rows, moving from class to class every day directed by bells, for four years, is outdated. Students need, XQ contends, to be enrolled in schools that are modern, innovative, project-based in order to be able to hold jobs not yet envisioned.

Viola Davis informs the viewers: “Tonight is not a telethon, it is a call to action.” Powerful.

How do you join this action? Text XQLIVE to 22568. My husband and I both dared each other to do it. Neither of us did.

Cue the dancing, again. XQ employs cool camera angles, music, a little dancing to have the viewer imagine redesigned high schools where the “love of learning and teaching collide.” It is a call for “individualized learning, less sitting and more doing, less memorizing and more thinking, every student ready for the 21st century, deeply prepared to succeed in college, career, and life, community-business-school partnerships and collaboration, for every kid in America regardless of gender, race, or zip code.” I have never heard so many educational buzz words at one time!

Justin Timberlake enters the stage and gives love to the hurricane survivors in Texas and hope to the people in Florida while demonstrating one of the “Super Schools” that have adopted the XQ model. He asks the viewers to text XQLIVE to 22568. I dare my husband, again. He is a wimp.

Timberlake’s fades and the cutest principal in the world is singing “Good Morning.” She runs a “Super School” near Houston, TX. The school is student-centered, hands-on, connected to local businesses, and dynamic. The school is clean, appears well-funded, and has a community garden. The adorable principal describes her school’s transformation from a “dropout factory” to a success story all because of XQ’s super school program.

Kelly Clarkson sings. I am not sure why.

Actress Maria Bello tells the viewers the reason why XQ has chosen to focus on transforming high schools. After reading the XQ website, she basically reads from their script — saying the high school is a crucial pivot point. This is where I get a bit angry when Maria Bello says: “If we change high schools so that they truly guide and support students…” Wait a minute, Maria. What do you do? You act? You are a mother? Are you a teacher? Oh, your mother was a teacher (I learn this from the chalkboard icon graphic that keeps popping up on the screen).

In the next video segment, Lin Manuel Miranda, star of the hit Broadway musical, Hamilton, enters a school auditorium and hugs his theatre teacher. He thanks her for teaching him and tells her that lessons learned from her have been crucial to his success. I think, but wait, did he go to an XQ Super School, or did Lin Manuel Miranda attend a traditional school? 

The next segment of the production is ridiculous. Melissa Rivers pretends to be on the red carpet introducing “super star teachers” while students hold hand-lettered poster board signs and cheer. It was corny and awkward.

Viola Davis goes live again and climbs the stage to introduce her sister, Delores, a twenty-five-year veteran teacher. Everyone claps. Davis asks the viewers to text, again.

The next video segment is inspiring. It demonstrates an attempt to bring equity to areas where students struggle with homelessness, poverty, and high drop-out rates. This alternative school seems like it serves a small, extremely needy population with the use of technology to fulfill graduation requirements. The video shows a success story. Andra Day sings “Rise Up” beautifully.

Next, a bevy of actors and celebrities make cameos by finishing the statement, “I wish I learned…” Some of their answers are banal, some are funny, and most left me wondering if they were good students? Did they pay attention? Their answers seem more like old people giving young people life lessons.

My husband and I authentically laughed at the School Bus Karaoke led by Tom Hanks and James Corden. Maybe the lack of commercial breaks thirty minutes into the show made us punchy. Maybe Corden and Hanks are just hilarious. For me, this was the highlight of the show. It didn’t add any meaning. I was still confused and baffled, but at least I laughed.


Okay, about thirty minutes into the show, I begin to take notes. I refused to be confused any longer. (I am a life-long learner, dammit. I can figure this out.) I begin to analyze what XQ is and is not. I begin to assess and evaluate their message and agenda. The following is the run-down:

21 Century Learning

The creators of Youtube channel “ASAP Science” talk how they applied what they learned in a traditional high school to create “ASAP Science,” but they call on Americans to create schools that will help students be prepared for jobs that have yet to be envisioned. Their premise is that we need to change schools to prepare students for the unknown.

Just as the creator of Mad Robot is speaking about transforming schools in order to create “creative problem-solvers,” the camera highlights the presence of Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Her presence seems to demonstrate the endorsement of the AFT of XQ? Interesting.

Tech, Tech, Tech…

The next video segment focuses on a “tech-forward school,” which shows minority students’ success in technology. In fact, many segments in XQ’s production promote technology as the medium for which students will be prepared for the 21st century. Hmmm….Steve Jobs’ widow promoting technology? I am sure there is no coincidence.

Student led, Student Centered…

Nashville students are recognized next in the program and country singer, Hunter Hayes performs. Everybody smiles and claps.

Samuel L. Jackson speaks next by showing the viewers that students are working the cameras, are writing for the production, and are helping to direct the show. Again, it is a bit forced.

The show goes on to call on businesses to offer students internships and apprentice opportunities. One example shown in a video segment is the Iowa Big School. It is a program where students in three area high schools spent part of the day in a traditional setting and then the remainder in a problem-based environment. Community involvement is emphasized. Student efficacy is the goal.

Join Your Local School Board…

Want to volunteer? Serve on a school board. XQ has a beautiful folder to send you if you would like to learn more about volunteering on your local school board. Interesting that they think school boards have such power to transform schools?

XQ Super Schools…

Eighteen super schools and counting…I learned that there have been schools applying to become super schools since 2015. Interesting? Do these schools face standardized state tests? Do their teachers face value-added evaluation rating systems? Are these schools well funded? Does XQ help to fund these schools? Do these super schools use Apple products?

Glitz, Celebrities, Music, Money…

Overall the production of XQ Super Schools Live was pretty. The videos were extremely well made. The celebrities were entertaining. The student performances were top-notch and interesting. Although I shook my head the entire hour, I am not professionally opposed to what XQ is proposing, but I am extremely wary of the founder’s purpose and integrity.


One thing is certain, they peaked my interest. I will be following, assessing and evaluating their premise that schools are failing and need to be transformed. It is a tired narrative, however. The Washington Post’s recent article does an incredible job of speaking about this in the linked article below.

Ultimately, I am glad they were discussing public schools and not privatization.  I am happy that they were asking for community and business participation.  Although I may never text them, I will continue to pay attention.

For the love of God, let the students sleep!

This post and videos can be viewed better on medium at:  For the love of God, let the students sleep.

 


There are many things adults can agree on about teenagers. The most important acknowledgment is that they are a tired group. The research, the data, and the science all confirm that sleep matters. Bottom line: we need to start schools later — no earlier than 8:30 am.

The AMA, AAP, and the CDC are in agreement with the benefits of later school times. These health organizations cite many benefits to wellness including weight control, mood quality, motivation, less risk taking behaviors, etc. Now, a recent Washington Post article has reported that the RAND Corporation’s research demonstrates another benefit: an economic benefit! In his article, “Letting teens sleep in would save the country roughly $9 billion a year.” Christopher Ingraham writes:

“The economic benefits would come primarily from two sources: greater academic performance (and hence, lifetime earnings) among more well-rested students, and reduced rates of car crashes among sleepy adolescent drivers.”

Key findings from the Rand Corporation’s research:

“The study suggested that delaying school start times to 8:30 a.m. is a cost-effective, population-level strategy which could have a significant impact on public health and the U.S. economy.

The study suggested that the benefits of later start times far out-weigh the immediate costs. Even after just two years, the study projects an economic gain of $8.6 billion to the U.S. economy, which would already outweigh the costs per student from delaying school start times to 8:30 a.m.

After a decade, the study showed that delaying schools start times would contribute $83 billion to the U.S. economy, with this increasing to $140 billion after 15 years. During the 15 year period examined by the study, the average annual gain to the U.S. economy would about $9.3 billion each year.

Throughout the study’s cost-benefit projections, a conservative approach was undertaken which did not include other effects from insufficient sleep, such as higher suicide rates, increased obesity and mental health issues — all of which are difficult to quantify precisely. Therefore, it is likely that the reported economic benefits from delaying school start times could be even higher across many U.S. states.”


Furthermore, the RAND Corporation predicts that later school start times would benefit the economy in just two short years! Yes, they do take into consideration the costs of more buses, bus drivers, and increased lighting of athletic fields. However, they cite the cost benefit analysis in the positive direction.

Many teachers have been investigating the issue of sleep recently. Teachers in the Liverpool Central School District, north of Syracuse, NY took on sleep for a leadership project. In the following video, they make a compelling case:

 

Start with sleep video.

When I tell adults the time I awaken (5:15 am), they cringe. Sure I have a self-imposed 3o minute commute, but my middle-school-aged daughter is also up at that same time, in order to walk to her bus stop by 7:10 am. My youngest daughter, still in elementary school, meets her bus at 8:10 am. One child begins the day in the dark and the other the sun, which child is more rested? Which child is more alert in school?

For the past two years during fifth and sixth grades, my oldest daughter’s day has begun at 5:15 am, followed by classes from 8 to 2:25, then she has returned home for a snack and homework, participated in swim practice from 4:30–6pm, and then dinner, chores and bed by 9:00 pm every night. This year as a seventh grader will be more challenging for her because her body has changed. Even with a long day of school and strenuous athletics, biology will keep her up. She will not be allowed devices in her bedroom, but she will stay awake and the sleep deprivation will have a cumulative effect. She will grow more and more tired and she will be less and less able to fall asleep before 11:00 pm. It will frustrate her because she will recognize her need for more sleep, but it will be out of her control. She will be tired.

The students that I teach begin their day at 7:45 am. Many arrive in the building by 7:20 am. Most catch their bus between 6:45 and 7:00 am. What do they forfeit the most besides sleep? Breakfast. The district offers free breakfast for all students, but many students lament that they are just not that hungry at that early hour.

Again, the teachers involved in the leadership project at Liverpool Central Schools demonstrate the reality for Liverpool adolescents, and teenagers across the United States:

Student’s reality video.

I live and teach in snowy Central New York. Some of my most productive days have been on a two-hour delay schedule. The day begins at 9:45, the classes are shorter and stuff gets done. Everyone is simply more alert. Now, 9:45 is probably too late to begin school regularly, but those delay days demonstrate an alternative reality that is both productive and healthy.

I know what some of you are thinking…adolescents need to toughen up. They will not choose their work schedule. They need to get off their devices and go to sleep. They are going to be sleepy no matter the start time. Hogwash. The research supports the benefits of later school start times. If you want to continue to deny science (like Climate Change), go ahead, but don’t complain about those “teenagers,” while placing a huge biological obstacle in their way.

My colleagues at Liverpool Central Schools present counter-arguments to the nay-sayers while offering real-world solutions:

 

The time to implement later school start times is now. The benefits are physical, psychological, social, academic and financial. Instead of focusing on pseudo-educational research concerning learning styles, or attacking teachers through value-added models of evaluation, real change in achievement and well-being can literally be seen by changing the clock.

Teaching in a time of hate and hurricanes…

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Establishing a classroom environment through challenging questions.

In January 2017 I began to publish my writing. Clicking the publish button creates a mixture of apprehension and elation. Every time. Today as I write this post, it is heavy with thoughts from my previous pieces of writing. The journey of writing and being vulnerable to an audience has both humbled and released me. My involvement in activism in public education with the March for Public Education Blog and the Bad Ass Teacher’s Association (BATs) has both enlightened and inspired me professionally. The role of teachers and public education has never been more integral to a democracy. Ultimately, this journey has solidified my resolve: I don’t just teach in the United States, I teach America.

In just four days I will meet my new crop of sophomores. They will be anxious about getting lost in their new, big high school. They will not want to stand out too much or be perceived as weird. They will struggle with their lockers, and then realize lockers were so ninth grade. They will fuss over their outfits and their hair styles. They will enter room 811 and hope that Mrs. Brown is not a mean, nasty teacher. Some of them will arrive having previously enjoyed history, others will have been bored by it. My job is to offer them a safe place to explore the best and the worst of the human story — a story of which they are a character.

In teaching them Global History I am teaching these sophomores about their place in this world. A world of hate and hurricanes. A place of extreme polarization and incredible humanity. Every seventy-five-minute teaching block has really only one objective: to make the students give a fuck about the world in which they are a member. Sure, they will learn about words, places, people, and events — that is just the materials that make up the plate on which I serve the food. The “food” I serve them is the analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and evidence-based discussion that I will force the students to undertake. In a time of hate and hurricanes, that “food” must be served every damn day. This new bunch of sophomores will be eligible to vote in 2020. These adolescents must begin to fill their minds with diverse opinions, creative solutions, and large amounts of historical knowledge connected to current world issues. In a time of hate and hurricanes, the social sciences have never been more relevant.

In a time of hate and hurricanes, I will scrap my usual opening day activities of corny ice breakers and rule recitation. No, I will not waste our collective time. Instead, I will prepare tough questions where I can observe my new students’ responses. I will write these challenging questions on large, neon pink paper and they will write their responses on their own sticky-notes to answer quasi-anonymously. As they travel around the room reading these difficult questions, I will listen to their chatter and notice their body language. I will begin the process of getting to know them as humans and as learners. Although they might not think they have answers due to their limited life experiences, I will push them to have efficacy — hoping to show them that their voice matters.

In a time of hate and hurricanes, these seven challenging questions will kick off our journey this school year:

  1. What are the issues concerning North Korea? What should be done about North Korea’s aggression?
  2. What did Hurricane Harvey demonstrate to you about your country?
  3. Which two countries celebrate their 70th anniversary this year? How does their shared story cause problems and create opportunities?
  4. Should monuments of Confederate leaders be removed? If no, why? If yes, what should happen to them?
  5. Is the news fake? Which media source do you turn to when you want to know about news or information?
  6. Where else in the world experienced intense flooding, destruction, and death at the same time Hurricane Harvey was impacting Texas? If you didn’t know about this world event, why do you think you are ignorant?
  7. And, then just for fun (we will need some levity): Did you attend the New York State Fair this year? If so, what is your favorite fair food, ride, and or attraction?. (The New York State Fair is located in our city.)

Teaching the humanities in a time of hate and hurricanes can be daunting. However, as I wrote in my earlier post, “I can’t even get my tomatoes to line up straight,” one of my goals in my last ten years of teaching is to make every teaching moment meaningful. The individual students and their stories are the most important component. I want to teach them about the past, but I must also show them their place in the future.

I can’t even get my tomatoes to line up straight…


My window.  My tomatoes.

10 Years. 10 Goals.

How am I going to be ready for September 7, 2017? Every new school year gets me nervous. I always worry that the upcoming year will be the year my luck runs out. Because, seriously, I have been a lucky teacher. But what if this year I just suck? What if everyone (students, colleagues, parents, administrators) acknowledge that I don’t know what the hell I am doing? This fear both paralyzes and motivates. Simultaneous paralyzing motivation defines back to school jitters. To reduce my anxiety, I need a game plan, a mission, goals.


Besides being my niece’s 27th birthday, September 7, 2017, is the day that my tenth year of teaching begins. If you have followed my writing (thank you my three faithful followers), you might be scratching your heads as to the number ten. I am constantly going on about how I have been teaching for 23 years. I am a veteran teacher. Blah, blah, blah. What does professing my experience really matter to anyone else? It doesn’t offer any insight into my state of mind, nor does it enlighten anyone as to my teaching philosophy.

No, from now on, instead of stating how long I have been teaching, I am going to count down to retirement. Not because I want to retire. Not because I look forward to stress-free Sundays and stress-free months of August (the Sunday of the summer month). No, I am going to count down to retirement to remind myself that time is short and I better do a great job of “seeing” my students, imparting some words of wisdom, and teaching students significant historical lessons. I am a short timer and I need to be my best self.

Although my life and my garden vegetables are often unruly, I am going to attempt to outline my goals for my last ten years. Even though it might take all of the time I have left to achieve my goals, the following is my ten-year to-do list:

1.To “learn” my students.

I will have approximately 1,200 students enter room 811 in the next ten years. I want to help them be successful and overcome any challenges they face. Socrates said: “Know thyself.” I must know my students. I must see them, listen to them and meet them where they are. In the same manner that I need to accept my daughters for who they are, I must greet my students with kindness and respect. I need to value their experiences.

2. To teach and embrace different classes.

One of the reasons that I changed districts, was to have the opportunity to teach different classes. If I had stayed at my first teaching position, I most likely would have taught eighth grade United States History for thirty-four years. After only eight years, it already felt stale. At my current district, I have been fortunate to teach many topics, usually in elective classes. In my last ten years of teaching, I will embrace opportunities to teach diverse students and take on the challenge of teaching new classes. I will not allow myself stagnation and comfort.

3. To be more of a student myself.

I have been fortunate to teach education courses at the college level. However, the commitment to teaching one night a week has left no time for me to pursue taking courses. Unfortunately, enrollment in the college education programs has decreased significantly, leaving me unemployed as an adjunct. If that trend continues, I will look for courses that engage me as a learner.

4. To continue to collaborate, often.

I work with amazing, creative people. Through past collaboration, I have been allowed a window into their classrooms. Although I will continue to reach out to my allies, I will also attempt to bravely connect with colleagues that I have yet to connect. I need to trust to collaborate, but I trust a teacher more once we have worked together successfully. It is a sort of Catch-22. I will look for avenues of connection with the professionals in my district. I will remind myself that my students always benefit from my efforts at co-teaching.

5. To open my mind to new things.

I cannot predict all of the new things that will enter my classroom. I am sure technology will change. I am confident that students’ needs and demographics will shift. I can assure myself that district administration will push new initiatives. Regardless, I must open my mind and challenge myself to examine the benefits of such changes.

6. To see the other side of the other side of the teacher’s desk (ie. administration).

I would not make an effective administrator. I can inspire adolescents, but I am often befuddled by adults. Students are simply more honest and raw. Adult relationships take more time to establish rapport and trust. However, I want to understand administrators’ roles, challenges, and victories. A dear friend of mine declared how much she enjoyed interning as an administrator this summer. Her insight into the world of administration will inform her teaching. I seek to be better educated.

7. To connect with families.

In the past, I have connected with families formally through email, monthly letters, and at the obligatory open house night (which I hate). I have avoided difficult conversations, but I have gained great insight from the hour long phone calls. I need to be better. Even though I teach high school, parents of students at that level deserve (and probably crave) communication. I pledge to communicate more meaningfully with the parents of my students.

8. To attend more school events.

I am a mom of two competitive swimmers, with busy evening schedules. I try (and fail) to juggle motherhood and teacher-hood (it is my new word). Every time a doe-eyed student asks me if I will attend their game and wear their jersey to school, I cringe. I want to attend their games. I want to know my students outside of the classroom. I am honored to be asked. I am also conflicted. After 3:30 pm, any teaching obligations collide with my parental duties. Last school year I was able to attend three students’ special games. My goal is to increase that frequency, but also to allow myself a balance. My own children deserve my time as well.

9. To teach fiercely about historical connections to current events.

The 2016–2017 school year knocked me out. I was unprepared for how the frequency and intensity of current events would impact my teaching of Global History. By the end of the 2016–2017 school year, however, I was proud of the journey traveled with my students. We had some very difficult discussions on race, gender, equity, religion, and freedoms. I did not cover all of my content. When the New York State Global Regents Exam was passed out on June 15, 2017, I held my breath, hoping that the content I omitted was forgotten on the assessment — it was. I got lucky, again. In my last ten years, I will continue to draw connections to current events. It is my responsibility to give my students a safe place to explore opposing views and more importantly, to connect historic legacies to modern topics.

10. To ditch the stress of the New York State Regents and the AP Exam.

I am going to give myself permission to acknowledge that after a certain point in the school year, I have given all that I can give. I have stayed late to run review sessions, I have made review videos, and I have tutored individual students. “I have done all I can.” That phrase must be my new motto in the Spring. The tests are only snapshots of what my students have learned. The teacher evaluation process is ridiculous. The value-added model is outdated. The test and punish structure needs to end. Entering summer as an empty vessel is not productive. Raising my blood pressure and cortisol levels is not healthy. This will be my most difficult challenge because it is really an internal fight. This struggle returns me to the beginning of this post — my fear of being an incompetent teacher. I fear my own failure because it never feels like mine alone. I always fear that I did not reach a student when they needed a teacher most. I will no longer believe the lie that it is all my responsibility.

2017–2018 begins my tenth year of teaching. Wish me luck.