I hate Open House

Or, at least I did.

Since 1995, I have stood in front of my students’ parents twenty-two times. Usually, in late September or early October, I have watched adults navigate their child’s confusing daily schedule as they go through a “typical” rotation of their son or daughter’s school routine.

Typically, I get about ten minutes to convey my personality, teaching philosophy, expectations, and classroom routines. I also offer a glimpse at the history curriculum that I am responsible for teaching. The night always feels rushed and false. Teaching is part acting and Open House is like a movie trailer for a film the parents will never see.

Open House Night often leaves me feeling unsatisfied.

Maybe it is my age or my perspective as a parent, but last night I actually enjoyed Open House for the first time. The parents were funny, engaging, and most importantly, involved in their children’s lives. Of course, many parents could not or chose not to attend, that is the perennial issue with Open House: teachers often feel like they are preaching to the choir. The parental participants are the parents who don’t always need to meet me.

I remember pleading with my own mother to attend my own Back to School Nights. Not formally educated herself, the mother of a high achieving kid, she did not always see the point of wasting an evening at my school. However, even as a teenager I sensed that “good” parents attended school events, especially Open House. As a reflection of myself, I wanted my mom to be perceived as an involved parent. I wanted to fit into the suburban schools that I attended.

Now I work in a large, suburban school. The families have diverse resources and varying needs. Many parents work evening hours. Other parents do not see the benefit of a high school curriculum night — viewing their adolescent as an independent young adult.

Last night felt different. There were laughter and smiles. It felt like a community. I shook hands of parents for whom I had taught all of their children. I called those parents legacies. I told one father that I loved having siblings because in a big school familiarity breeds connections.

I was different too. In an attempt to liven up the ten-minute “show” I had previously photographed my students holding signs declaring the places in the world where they wanted to travel. I teach Global History and I desperately want to put a pin in my students’ small bubble of experience. I was able to make a short video of the pictures — telling the parents that the kids were hoping that they might get a trip out of their cute pictures. I loved watching the adult’s expressions as they anticipated seeing their baby’s face appear. No matter their age, they are always your baby.

Ultimately what I realized last night is that Open House is an opportunity for teachers to be ambassadors for the survival of public schools. I showed my parents last night that I was a hometown girl, listing only one private institution on a slide of images of the public high school and college that I attended and the two public schools for which I have been employed. I wanted my students’ parents to know that public schools promote excellence and are filled with enthusiastic, compassionate teachers.

My activism and the march for public education this past July has renewed my faith in public schools and has given me a sense of purpose. Open House, although nerve-wracking and incredibly flawed, is an opportunity for teachers to spread the “good” word of public education.

Maybe next year I will actually look forward to Open House.

#whyweM4PE

https://www.marchforpubliced.org/

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Where is your map dot?

When will your death (or mine, or our children’s) be marked as a dot on the map of the United States?

That is what the gun violence debate comes down to, folks: when will your number be up? When will that mass shooter enter your kid’s school, your place of work, your local park, or your shopping mall? When will the end of your life be marked by a red dot on a map?

Or, do you believe that it won’t happen to you? Do you think that our national disease will not infect you and yours? Do you think your pistol that you wear so proudly will give you immunity?

My husband is a concealed carry pistol holder. He is not naive. He has no hero fantasies of saving innocent lives. He is a realist. He is a student of human nature. He carries because he appreciates his vulnerability, but he also has no ideas of grandeur. He does not feel the need to own an AK-47 or a silencer.

I ask my students: how does this end? They discuss with such intellect and analysis. They debate using the best of civic discourse. We are studying the Enlightenment and they point out that those historical philosophers were reformers.

The students brainstorm reforms. They are willing to do what our bought- and-paid-for-by-the-NRA-politicians are unwilling to do: discuss reasonable gun violence solutions.

Our children have inherited our sickness, and they are tasked to find the cure.

America’s penchant for violence (perpetuated disproportionately by white men) is a cancer.

Mass shootings are the symptoms.

The cause is fear.

Fear of losing control, power, prestige, wealth, face, life, liberty, and supremacy.

America’s cancer metastasizes as hate combine with fear and more weapons are bought and sold.

We are the disconnected states of America, slowly destroying the dream.

Our children are the victims, or they will be when they are located at the next red map dot.

Air and Dress Codes.

The lack of air conditioning in public schools, and the impact of dress codes on female students.

My daughter was “coded” yesterday. My husband, who is not an educator, demanded a definition of the word, saying: “I don’t know what that means.”

My daughter schooled my husband by informing him that as a seventh grader her shoulders have been deemed distracting. Mind you, not just her shoulders, but all shoulders are now considered inappropriate body parts in many school buildings. Girls’ hot weather apparel and their bodies, in general, are called out more than boys’. There are a few reasons for this double standard. One reason is that boys tend not to wear tank tops as much as girls. A second reason is that the female body, especially the developing adolescent female body, is one of the most overly sexualized images in the American culture. Who are my daughter’s shoulders distracting, exactly? Are the teachers distracted? Are the male students incapable of learning in the 85-degree heat because of my daughter’s body parts?

My daughter was wearing a Nike sports tank top. It fit her well. I actually told her at breakfast that she looked cute. I had no idea that her attire was inappropriate. Rules are part of school and life. I get it. I appreciate most rules. However, dress code rules, especially when schools lack air conditioning and the humidity increases, seem to disproportionately target the bodies of young women.

My daughter attends a rural public middle school in an aged building lacking great ventilation. She learns in classrooms without air conditioning, some rooms without even a fan blowing for relief. My younger daughter attends the adjoining elementary school, where the heat in her classroom caused her to be sick to her stomach for the majority of yesterday. Of course, the administration offices, the library, and the computer lab have air conditioning, but it is too expensive to make the classrooms more comfortable. In fact, that is the reason school leaders give when temperatures rise: “Putting air conditioning in the classrooms is too cost prohibitive.”

For the last several weeks of September, Central New York has been experiencing “Indian Summer.” The record temperatures have reached the high eighties and low nineties, with heat indexes close to 100 degrees. Although many school leaders claim that heat waves are infrequent, especially in Central New York, I can attest that my summer wardrobe frequently is worn during the months of April, May, June, and September. I don’t know if it is Global Warming, or not, I just know that my classroom and the classrooms in my daughters’ district are very stagnant and uncomfortable, especially when the temperatures rise.

I have written about the lack of air conditioning before in a humorous manner. That post is linked below. I am not finding the topic so funny lately. I am fortunate to teach on the first floor of a high school that houses over 1,800 people a day. My colleagues and the students teaching and learning on the upper floors are hot and distracted. Some rooms in the high school where I teach have the blessed cool air — including the library, some science laboratories, the cafeteria, the auditorium, and the administrative and guidance offices — appropriate places for a/c. An even more appropriate location would be classrooms! 

 

Educational reforms come and go, but the regulation of classroom temperatures, especially in places like Central New York continues to be neglected. Taxpayers should be demanding equitable educational environments — that begins with HVAC. By Friday, the meteorologists predict that the heat wave will end, and classrooms will return to “normal.” However, I know that another string of high temperatures will make classrooms feel like furnaces again, and those in power will not concern themselves with conditions that affect students and “those complaining teachers.” Until schools have parity and equity, more attention will be placed on my daughters’ shoulders than on classroom conditions.

Taking a Knee for Public Education

Call me a son of a bitch, I don’t care. The national anthem is not sacred. The United States is not about one single person, belief system, or song from the war of 1812. Nothing is sacrosanct and that is why the United States will endure.

What can students learn about the NFL controversy and President Trump’s remarks? The biggest lesson to gain from this is that we can disagree and survive. To quote the 18th Century French Enlightenment thinker Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire, who raged against the Catholic Church, promoting crushing that infamous thing, would definitely be on my side of this argument.

First a caveat: I am not a “sports fan.” I don’t watch football and I don’t care about the sport. I have often thought that some Americans take it too seriously, and I would much rather play any sport than watch it. This post is not about football.

Second caveat: I love the U.S.A. I am a patriot. I proudly stand for the pledge of allegiance every school day. I teach social studies with respect for American law and institutions. I am neither a communist nor a member of ANTIFA. I am not radical. I am a white, middle-aged (sorry, my friend, Jen, said I can’t describe myself like that). I am a white, mature, middle-class woman living on 40 acres in Upstate New York. I am related to many war veterans and I greatly appreciate their sacrifice. This post is about patriotism and how dissenting is a form of patriotism.

So, why do I connect the NFL with public education? Where is patriotism instilled? In public schools, every day when we stand, put our little hands on our hearts and pledge our allegiance to the U.S. of A. Because every American is entitled to NOT stand when the national anthem or the pledge of allegiance is recited. Dissent is liberty. Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy — it is a form of action.

By not standing for the anthem, or for the pledge, individuals are sending a message. Our country is bent — not broken, but bent — and is in need of repair. The knee represents the need for dialogue and collective introspection. Blind loyalty is not patriotism, it is a form of vapid nationalism.

Public education is my “knee” issue. If President Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy “Amway” Devos, is able to dismantle public education further, I will take a knee. Every time that I have stood for the anthem, and the pledge, since the 2016 election, I have reflected on the state of my country. Since the election, I have grown more and more aware of the savage inequalities that permeate our schools, our communities — all threats to the American dream.

Jose Vilson, in his recent post entitled “A Note On Teaching as Activism,” writes about this issue with more clarity. He points out:

“It’s little wonder that less than 20% of the entire teaching force is of color. It’s even less curious that the schools with higher percentages of educators of color are more subject to scripted lessons, standardized testing, crooked teacher ratings, and oppressive staffing decisions — including suspension and expulsion for frivolous reasons.”

 

So, stand if you believe our country is a great place and deserves praise. Kneel if you don’t. Maybe you have a “knee” issue, maybe you don’t. Transparency, discussion, and dissent are “the way home through Baghdad.” Change happens with resistance, not stasis. We will never embody the message of Francis Scott Key, or the words in the Pledge of Allegiance if we don’t have a country that values every resident and gives everyone a voice.

#whyweM4PE

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

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