Undoing Unteaching of “Those Kids”

9 04 2009

I’ve been meaning to post a link to this article that really every educator, and every person whose tax dollars go into public education, should read. During my tenure as a teacher in a rural community where 12% of the adult population has a college degree and just over 65% have a high school degree (data taken from census.gov), I have often felt misunderstood by my colleagues and my peers. In this article, Kylene Beers, the president of NCTE, brilliantly (and succinctly) captures the cultural beliefs governing so many “underachieving” schools. The tricky thing about cultural beliefs, those because it is beliefs, is that they are usually taken for granted and thereby invisible. Beers stares down some pretty damning evidence of the kind of deficit thinking that has tainted the public educational system since its inception in the mid-1800s, when Horace Mann and his contemporary cronies established public education as a means of educating the poor. Please, please, please take a moment to read this. It’s short (only 4 pages), and it will rawk your brain!

The Genteel Unteaching of America’s Poor





Sprung

25 03 2009

Springtime is a teacher’s nightmare. The kids and I are currently engaged in a riveting unit that involves standardized testing and the systematic banging of our heads against the cement block walls that keep us from fresh cool spring air and delicious temps that, in Alabama, are fleeting. My solution to the bitterness that testing hath wrought? Practice testing with Blow Pops. Class time currently consists of bleary-eyed students (who, in recent weeks, have taken on a scary resemblance of actual sloths) taking practice tests for 30 minutes. At the end of 30 minutes, we stand up to stretch and then review the answers. Students are rewarded with Blow Pops, which I deliver using an underhanded pitch. As a fifth-year veteran teacher, I have come up with no greater reward for my students than time outside and/or candy. Despite the fact that public education deems sugar unsuitable for its students, I believe that sugar goes hand-in-hand with learning. Personally, I cannot endure any amount of studying without a bag of sweet tarts and Hershey Kisses.

Me, on a Sunday afternoon, tending to the garden in my best frock.

A first-class gardening gentlewoman bearing the fruits of her labor with a waist that would surely snap were she to exist in real life.

Along with standardized testing, spring also marks my annual yard analysis. Prognosis: not good. Both yards will not grow grass, and I, lacking even a green fingernail, can barely remember to water the pitiful fern that lives above the kitchen sink. This year, I am determined to make something of my nothing of a yard. I look across the street with longing each day. There, the grass grows thick and the young man who inhabit the right side of the brown stone duplex planted (successfully) tulips that have turned up beautifully. Meanwhile, I have three arbitrarily placed rose bushes that spike from the ground with their stubborn, stark thorns.

I’m writing this in hopes that someone, some gentle green reader, will be able to offer advice. I would like to put a flower box in Ruthie’s window where the yard gets sun from about 11:00 on. I’d also like to plant some kind of bush-ish thing beneath the window to cover the immense space between the dirt and the window (we have a crawl-space). Then, I want to plant GRASS. The problem with grass? Half the yard gets sun, half does not (I’ve got a magnolia tree). Lastly, there’s a little bitty square garden where my driveway intersects with the sidewalk and it gets nearly-full sun. I want to plant some cute flowers there as well. So, friends, please, please, PLEASE! tell me what to plant. What kind of grass? What kind of flowers? I prefer flowers and grass that will not die, but I know this might be over-reaching. Any suggestions would be welcome.





Something Missing

6 12 2008

"Schoolhouse on the Hill" by Diana Dignonis

 

Lately, I have felt ambushed. As a public educator, I am unesteemed in the world of the Academie, I am held hostage by standards that do not measure understanding, I am stretched across achievement gaps, I am passionate, I am outraged, I am desperate for social justice in my classroom, in the communities where I work and live. I am longing for a rhetoric about education that is not caustic, accusing, and defensive. I am frustrated, but not hopeless. 

A few months ago, I attended a cocktail party at the University. A Research Fellow, who had helped himself to a few drinks by the time of my arrival, had some suggestions for me as a public educator. “If you could just get these kids to write a sent-ence,” he spat. “You know, a subject, a verb, and a DOT on the end. I mean, a simple sentence. I mean, how hard could it be?” I was the only teacher at this gathering, and this sneering (supposed) intellectual’s remarks did not make me feel any less alien. Unfortunately, this is only one example of my instances where I have been on the receiving end of feedback like this about my professional field all the time. Teachers are criticized by everyone: parents, students, administrators, politicians, mechanics, engineers, researchers, doctors, lawyers, husbands and wives. The quality these critiques share is the smug arrogance of their delivery. I suppose that since nearly everyone has been a student at some time or another, the general public feels as though they have enough knowledge of the field to believe that they are themselves experts. 

And we are teaching their children. John Taylor Gatto, New York’s Teacher of the Year, says that we (schools) “adopt” students, we are “entrusted” to take on a parenting role for other people’s children. Passion does often override reason, especially when it comes to parenting. When parents argue with me about the way that my classroom operates, I try to remember the many occasions when I have (tentatively) argued with my child’s doctor over a diagnosis, informed by my feverish midnight reading of Web M.D. 

Despite my (attempted) understanding, I can’t help but yearn for a time when educators might be treated as professional experts in their field. The mountains of meaningless paperwork alone is insulting, but the even worse are the public’s unsolicited knee-jerk reactions to the educational system and the complex dilemmas, issues, problems it faces. Everyone thinks s/he’s got the answer. Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. There is a wide range of possibilities for improving the complex and diverse set of problems with education. 

So where to begin?

Last week, I stumbled across this reading for the Composition class I’ve been taking this fall. In 1996, Mike Rose wrote “What We Talk about When We Talk about School.” You can find this article in the September 25, 1996 edition of Education Week. After a heated “conversation” about education around the Thanksgiving dinner table that left me reeling, I was relieved to read Rose’s perspectives on the issue(s) facing public education and the rhetoric we use to discuss them. 

For three years in the early  90s, Mike Rose travelled across the country, visiting successful public school classrooms in an attempt to “fashion a response to the national discussion about public schools, a discussion that, [Rose] believed, had gone terribly wrong.” He analyzes the rhetoric of the conversation about public education, which he describes as being “flooded… with alarms and bad news, with crisis talk and prescriptions for remedy.” 

When asked about standardized test scores and school failures, he admits the problems with public education, but he also recognizes “the problem with assessing our schools through a few reductive or inaccurate measures.” Ultimately, he claims that “we need to think in richer ways about what we want from our schools.” Of course, he was received with “vehemence,” a response that he describes as “angry, disbelieving, assured and articulate, and terribly upset.”

What follows is his vision of “what’s missing” in our thinking about schools, schooling, and what we can expect from public education:

It is, of course, legitimate to worry about the relation between education and teh economy, and national and state goals, frameworks, and standards can play a role in improving the quality of schooling. But there is something missing here.

As I sat in those good classrooms in Los Angeles and Chicago, Missoula and Tucson, Wheelwright, Ky., and Indianola, Miss., a richer vocabulary of schooling began to shape itself. To be sure, there was concern about the economy and attempts to prepare students for it. But I also heard talk of safety and respect. A commitment to create sage public space and a respectful regard for the backgrounds and capabilities of the people in it. I saw the effect of high expectations: teachers taking students seriously as intellectual and social beings. I saw what happens when teachers distribute responsibility through a classroom, create opportunities for students to venture opinion, follow a hunch, make something new. I saw the power of bringing students together around common problems and projects – the intellectual and social energy that resulted, creating vital public space. And I saw what happens to young people, 1st graders through 12th, when they come to feel that those who represent an institution have their best interests at heart.

Safety, respect, expectation, opportunity, vitality, the intersection of heart and mind, the creation of civic space – this should be our public vocabulary of schooling – for that fact, of a number of our public institutions. By virtue of our citizenship in an democratic state, we are more than economic and corporate beings. 

If we are a nation divided, we are also a nation yearning for new ways to frame old issues, for a fresh language of civic life. The last year [spent “documenting excellence” in American classrooms for his book Possible Lives] has deepened my belief in the strength of this yearning. To generate this language for public education, we need to move a bit from the boardroom and the athletic field and closer to the good classroom – that miniature civic space – to find a more compelling language of school reform and of public education in a democracy.

I can’t imagine that many people would disagree with Rose’s depiction of public education in a democracy. I can’t imagine a parent who wouldn’t want her child in a classroom like the ones Rose documented. What is perhaps the most frustrating piece to this puzzling puzzle is that we all, everyone–rich, poor, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, American– we all want this for our children. And we want it so badly, and so desperately, that we have to cling to oversimplified solutions in order to believe the possibility of “the good classroom.” Unfortunately, the solution is not singular and it is not simple. 

Frustrated with public education in America? Your name is Legion. For God’s sake, please have a bit of compassion on those of us who are sweating it out on the front lines. Just like our students, we need patience, understanding, open-mindedness, and support. 

If you’re interested in reading more of Mike Rose’s stuff, check out his blog

Antique School House Room Box & Antique Bisque Dolls, circa 1900





testing, testing: 1, 2, 3

18 03 2008

It’s that time of year–– again. The time when teaching becomes a bore, the students become hostile, and my life has lost any semblance of fruitful creativity. I spend the day trying to get my students to care about a test that is meaningless to them. These tests that the state designs and employs to hold everyone “accountable” are arbitrary enough as it is. Expecting a bunch of 8th graders to be responsible about taking a test that carries no consequences or incentives for their performance is ridiculous to say the very least. To use those test scores (which couldn’t possibly be accurate measures of the child’s knowledge if he/she isn’t even trying) to justify my ability as a teacher is just disgusting. I don’t believe that the answer is to raise the stakes; rather, we should be using alternative modes of assessing that are not forced-choice tests to determine whether or not a student is learning. A student’s ability to “pick the best answer” is limited by the answers that they are choosing from. How can you ask a student to choose a tone of a poem from four answer choices? To be honest, there are questions on the practice tests that I’ve been giving my students that I have to really stretch to find evidence for, and I have a graduate degree!!

A sample sentence from one of the passages: “Snow is fluffy when it falls, but when it accumulates without melting, it becomes granular and eventually compacts into solid ice.”This is a test for eighth graders. Accumulates? Becomes granular? Eventually compacts? I think this test designer thought that perhaps if the sentence started with something really dumbed down like “snow is fluffy,” ending the sentence with scientific terminology would be somehow justifiable. It’s not that these words are too hard for the kids. It’s that these kinds of technical terms are embedded in every sentence of a two-column page-long writing sample about something random… like glaciers.

Some context: It took me the entire first semester to get my students to read something, anything. I allowed them to pick out their own books and told them to get rid of the book if they didn’t find it interesting any longer. These kids are smart, but they are not prepared for the kind of testing that the state imposes on them. Their academic background is spotty when it comes to reading. Our culture is becoming markedly less textual: we simply don’t read anymore. Most of us get out news online (I get mine from the radio). We expect our kids to enjoy reading, but how many teachers are reading with their kids? How many classrooms are stocked with fun books? Kids become better readers by reading more. Period. It doesn’t matter what they read––they just need to read.Here’s what I know about the kids who perform well on these kinds of tests:

  1. They come from homes that have books in them.
  2. They will do an assignment “because the teacher said so.”
  3. They usually do their best work even when you don’t ask them to, no matter how meaningless it is to them.

I was not one of these students. When we took the writing assessment, I just wrote something down. When I took my AP exams, I half-assed them because I knew I was going to retake the class in college for an easy A. Now, the ACT? I took that one 3 times and studied for it. I didn’t sleep through that one. I was wide awake and rested for it. Same with the GRE. Why? Because I cared about the results because I knew that they would have a dramatic effect on my own personal interests (which happened to be going to college).

Bottom line: Testing is stupid. I wish I could articulate it in a more profound way, but when it comes down to it, everyone’s pissed off about the testing because it’s stupid. Today I happen to be pissed off about the testing because I’m working my ass off to get my kids to care about something that I don’t care about. The students’ scores are more mine than theirs. At the end of the year, those scores will come back to me. Being evaluated by something you don’t believe in makes about as much sense as an atheist giving all of his money to a church in hopes that he will be let into a Heaven that doesn’t exist.

Margaret Spellings makes about as much sense as Brenda Dickson.





Thoughts on Writing (and other products of my procrastination)

8 12 2007

In the past three days, I have spent a total of 20 hours in the library with my nose in some fascinating and not-so-fascinating 19th century material. First off, I think we need to give at least the second half of the 19th century some serious props for doing some serious work in terms of education, philosophy, writing, lecturing (lots of lecturing), having riots about who was more awesome: Catholics or Calvinists. I’ve been focusing on the educational movement that took place under the leadership of Horace Mann (the man to whom we owe much thanks for the beginnings of No Child Left Behind). Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father) was a tasty piece of Transcendental ass–he was in the philosophical bed with the big boys like Emerson (who called him a “world builder”) and Thoreau (whom Louisa supposedly had the hots for). If you’re interested in the Alcotts, check out Eden’s Outcasts. It’s really interesting, it’s like looking through the Marches in Little Women–add a Transcendental commune, a few (brilliant) failed schools, lots of lectures, a few more deaths and you’ve got the Alcotts.

So when I haven’t been reading or writing, I’ve been finding ways to procrastinate. Here’s what happens every two hours or so: Check email, make playlists, get on facebook (send a few hatching presents, chuck a book or two), check email, read my friends’ blogs, check my phone (no messages), ask someone to watch my stuff so I can go pee (and possibly smoke a cigarette, depending on how late it is and how desperate I am), get some water, settle in and check email/facebook one last time. Sometimes the sequence of events varies, but it stays more or less the same. I have found that the more I write, the more painful it gets–writing never gets “easy” because it’s never done. In every paper I write, there is a point at which I feel as though I simply cannot, will not pull it off. Grad school is the marines of academic writing. Right now, I feel as though I am living the scene in G.I. Jane where they’ve been doing whatever kind of hellish training they do all day and they’re made to sit and write all night long with sleepytime classical music playing. Oh, and they’re cold and wet. At least I’m not cold and wet.

I have found that music is key because it’s the only thing that keeps your brain alive during the long haul to a paper’s due date. Playing on my ipod right now: George Winston (December and Summer), Enya (Shepherd Moons), Miles Davis and Coltrain (I don’t know what the albums are–it’s a collection I put together in college), some French music, and a few soundtracks (Finding Neverland, Meet Joe Black, Braveheart, Upside of Anger, Piano).





Drinking from a Fire Hydrant

4 12 2007

There is a quiet moment following the all-call for the last bus. Despite the papers that are strewn across my desk, the water bottles that litter the various surfaces of my classroom, the empty Coke cans and energy drinks that align my window sill, out of sight from the students’ hungry eyes, there is a peace, a moment of stillness. Generally, I take all of the papers and sweep them into a stack somewhere on my desk. Today, there is no room for another stack. If I were to take a picture of the catastrophe that is my December desk, you would certainly be aghast with the horror. There are notes to myself squeezed in the margins, on curled up corners of student work, on the back of my hand. Where did this chaos come from and how will I ever, ever begin to make my way to the bottom?

Fortunately, there is the promise of a fresh start with the New Year. Unfortunately, the new year feels as though it is eons away. Those eons will consist of one 30 page “article manuscript” (in which I will historicize the novel Little Women within the trajectory of the systemization of education in the late 19th century), 10 school days, 5 sets of final exams, 145 writing portfolios, an oil change, Christmas presents, Christmas cards, countless cups of coffee, one family reunion, 2 gift exchanges, at least 3 presents which will require assembly, and a new pair of shoes for Ruthie.

Last year, there was an autistic student in the 8th grade here who was out sick for several days. When he came back, he responded to inquiries about his health with, “Are you drowning in a sea of debt?” (Apparently, he had watched a lot of television during his time at home and the commercials about debt made a lasting impression on him.) Personally, I am drowning in a sea of to-do lists.





gaaaaaahhhh!

26 09 2007

Currently, I am being held captive by my Foundations of Education professor who has decided to go off on a tangent about her penchant for speaking Turkish and her regrets at not having learned Japanese (though she argues that she should have become a linguist since she has Japanese books at her house). While this tangent is tangentially related to cultural diversity, it is boring and we are still 22 pages from finishing our discussion of the chapter. She is now telling us what she is going to ask us a questions about on the final exam, which is multiple choice. Now, I have some issues with multiple choice tests that have to do with the fact that they are stupid and I am in grad school. So instead of marking the information that she is prompting us to note, I am going to make (yet another) list of the exciting things that have happened to me this week:

1. I had eggplant parmesian last night, followed by tira misu

2. Last night, Ruthie thought it would be awesome to take off her diaper in the middle of the night and pee all over her crib, so I will need to finish washing her sheets whenever my professor decides to let us go.

3. Yesterday, I got to run errands and get ice cream with Ruthie and a friend, which made it way more fun (especially when Ruthie made up her mind that she had enough as we approached the fabric softeners, leading a loud and dramatic scene which I was proud to be the center of).

I have to stop with my list now because my professor is persecuting me for saying that race is a social construct. She’s now saying that she’s “comfortable with race.” It makes me physically sick to think about what they are paying this woman to be a full professor at Auburn University. She is now promoting the genetic model as a credible one. Jesus.