The Endangered Curriculum

I was inspired to write this blog because of a moose mural in my classroom, the Italian Renaissance, and a literacy training I attended. It may all come together at the end. Or it may not.

I have this book called, Endangered Words. It is full of antiquated words that, at one point, were valuable in some vernacular, somewhere. I thought of this book the other day while I was sitting in an eight-hour literacy training.  We began discussing how to teach reading to very little people. The idea that we have the knowledge and ability to teach such a powerful tool, can be overwhelming. Words are broken down into sounds, and then sound-letter correlation is developed. Soon words are recognized and sorted into various structures called sentences. Then, like magic, or some amazing miracle, reading happens. If you have ever had the opportunity to watch a child read his/her first sentence or story (after you have taught the skills) you will experience a lucid moment where you know that you have chosen the right profession. If it does happen to you, keep the memory, because you will need to tap into it for the rest of your teaching career. You may even want to take a picture of the child to post it somewhere in your classroom. So when your project dealing with glitter and liquid glue goes awry, look at the picture and get some perspective.

When I came home from literacy training, I looked through my endangered word book. Some of my favorites are ataraxia “freedom from disturbance of mind or passion; stoical indifference”; bleezed: affected in the eyes as by alcoholic excitement; and logodaedalist: “inventor of words”. I thought of my linguistics classes where I learned about the origin of language and the varied sophistication in vocabulary from language to language. English-speaking people know about 20,000 words, but only use about 2,000. But, who wants to talk to someone who uses words like despiance and kumatage at a dinner party? These are the people from whom you scurry, then run to the corner and secretly Google the words on your Android. Or maybe that’s just me.

So, if words can appear and disappear from our dictionaries and daily usage, so can various components of the curriculum. I knew the world was in a bad place when fishes became an accepted plural form of fish. Just like the word moose-some people actually say meese or mooses. Luckily, I haven’t met a person who has used these irksome, fabricated plurals. But I’ll get back to the moose mural, because it is haunting me. If enough people continuously use a word incorrectly, it becomes part of the lexicon.  Ain’t that something?

During our training, we had a “guess the right answer with a partner” activity. We had moved on to teaching comprehension skills.

The question was:

During a readers’ theater, it is advised to encourage students to bring in props and costumes to enhance their engagement and participation.

Emphatically, YES!  That is a dead give away!  The acceptable response was no. It is not encouraged. Huh? What about our Midsummer Night’s Dream readers’ theater? What about the Macbeth unit we did I just got up, went to the snack table, and got an Almond Joy. The upside of this is that my name was picked twice for the $50 resource books that I REALLY wanted. I didn’t give a shout out to the arts in education, because apparently, it has little to do with reading instruction. And the arts have had no place in the curriculum through time. So why start now? I kept my snarky thoughts to myself, as I am learning they rarely received well in those of situations.  Again, where did the classics go? Did they get buried under the mountain of basal readers? If all it takes is plastic crowns and cardboard castles to encourage kids to show up and read classic works, then why would this be discouraged?

I have discussed how baffled I am that foreign language was taken out of the elementary and schools in our district. There is enough research that supports the efficacy of learning foreign languages for academic purposes. Also, this is crazy, and maybe pushing the envelope a bit, but there are people in the world who speak other languages. Global awareness anyone? I recently read an article, What we Can Learn From Foreign Language Teaching in Other Countries.   Basically, there is an emphasis on language education in other countries. There is also support from the school systems and governments to foster a respect and for language education. The governments also mandate a foreign language curriculum that begins in elementary school; not high school. Of course, this can work its way into how we aren’t globally competitive, since we are a mono-linguistic society. That rant can wait.

The important subjects are those that yield a higher income. Let me paint a fictitious world where the arts are prominent in our curriculum. Let’s just pretend that if someone earns a degree in sculpting or painting, that he or she would earn what is equivalent to um, maybe that of an athlete?  Parents would be signing their kids up for sculpting and painting classes. Instead of, “My child cannot do homework because there is a game”, we would hear, “My child cannot do homework because he/she is completing his sculpture and oil painting to be commissioned for the church down the street.” I’m not saying that sports are not important. I was an active athlete in high school, and I value the talents and determination of gifted athletes. But this is fictitious, like the idea that standardized testing will go away.

How is it that there were so may talented artists back in the time of the Renaissance? I know, only the wealthy families sent their kids to school, and girls got the short end of the education stick  But, artists were vying to be the commissioned artist for whomever, on a whim, needed a sculpture knocked out. My point is that the emphasis was put on ethics, poetry, literature, and art. Therefore, the focus was on refining those skills that were deemed essential and proper. To be a true erudite, one had to be well-versed in all aspects of the arts. I can just imagine the discussions of the mothers of Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti (who competed for the creation Baptistery doors).

“Where do you get your bronze?”

“At the market, it was on sale. You need my coupon?”

“No, we only buy the good stuff.. Maybe that is why Lorenzo, won.”

“Hmph!”

Soccer moms, sculpture moms-tomato, tomato…

This actually brings me to the moose mural. I changed classrooms, and I really like my new room. It has a courtyard (where I plan on planting a garden with my Kindergarten and 1st grade students). There is a large bathroom/closet where I can store drama club paraphernalia. And there is a nook where I can have kids read, work in small groups, and  I can develop my library. I spent a week unpacking boxes and setting up my room. Check-something accomplished.

The nook has a mural. The mural is of a large moose. I decided that I would paint over it. I bought the paint. The day after I bought the paint, my principal called me:

P: “Don’t paint anything yet. We may need to move you to another room.”

Me: “What? I just unpacked. What? I just bought paint.? What? Are you sure? ”

Panic consumed me. Then I realized that I was having an audible break down, over the phone, with my principal. He says I hung up on him. I don’t remember. Maybe I did. He won’t let it go. I went down to the school and he came to my room. He walked into the nook:

P: “That is a cool moose. You really want to paint over it? I can’t believe you want to paint over it. Kids love that moose.”

I realized that I was having a BGI (Blinding Glimpse of Insight). You see, we are reading the book, Sticks & Stones exposed: The Power of our Words, for our leadership book talk at school. The BGI is a stark realization through various modalities that you are, well…wrong about stuff. The book politely says it is a small bit of understanding about ourselves that we don’t like to face. Yah, it’s a moose mural. But it is really the fact that I was the only one who didn’t like the blasted thing. The eyes..  I didn’t think about the fact that it is appealing to some, and to small children, it will be downright adorable. I keep having to remind myself that I am now in the world of kindergarteners and 1st graders. The connection here is that just because something isn’t valuable or doesn’t serve a purpose to some, it is often thrown out, done away with, or replaced. The moose won.

I have these small tent cards that my students use to let me know how they are progressing in the learning process:

After my breakdown, I put the tent card on my desk-on RED. This says it all. Doesn’t it?

The end result is that my principal decided to let me stay in my room, as long as I kept the moose mural.

My tent card changed:

What exactly has been deleted from our curriculum? Why are we doing it? Have we digressed from honoring and encouraging refined artists to teaching brilliant students who fumble over glue sticks? Moderation is a sound concept. Since society doesn’t honor the arts in education, there is little focus on them. Whenever I show artwork to my students, they are fascinated. Two years ago, a colleague and I created an art exhibit project. Students did research reports on famous artists. Then they used any medium of their choice to re-create the art work. Students used leggos, water colors, sculptures, and multi-media representations. We created a museum of the artwork, with student interpretations of the works. Yes, we are weak in science and math, and I am in no way discounting this fact. But, why can’t kids have it all? What about a thematic unit on art and science? Poetry in math? Dramatic reenactments in social studies? Just some thoughts.

By the way, I filled in the blanks to my analogy from the last post:

Politics is to Education as Aliens are to Cowboys. 

I’ll see the movie, alone, since no one will go with me. I’m sure I’ll find some more unintended education references imbedded within the movie.

In the mean time, I’m hoping to change my tent card one more time:

Politics is to Education as _____ is to _____

The MAT is a graduate school entrance test composed of nothing but analogies. The key to this test is finding relationships among words, historical events, science, math, humanities, and social sciences.  Finding relationships among terms that otherwise have nothing in common. So, it seemed fitting to put the words politics and education in the form of an analogy. I cannot complete this analogy.  My thoughts were too metaphorical-like politics being a storm and education being the land about to be torn apart. So, I left it blank.

It took my educational politics discussions in class to get my learning mojo back.

Remember the John Travolta movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble?

Travolta plays the part of a young man whose immune system cannot be exposed to unfiltered air. He wants to live a normal life. So he wears all types of protective coverings to see the world. One day, his doctor tells him that he has built up his immunity. He steps outside, sans the bubble-and rides away on a horse. We assume he survived.

Admittedly, my plastic bubble has been my classroom. I won’t speak for other teachers, but I can safely bet that there are bubbles encapsulating classes and teachers all over the country. I keep hearing that we need to raise test scores, and that our school systems are not globally competitive. This is a direct result of the failing schools. So, like most teachers, I scramble to strengthen my craft until I’m a blubbering mess by the end of the year. Well, the blubbering usually begins in October when the first set of benchmark scores come back. This is when a colleague has to talk me out of resuming my job as a personal trainer. I believe in my bubble scenario, the politics serve as the unfiltered air. I have been impervious.

So, I’m reading my assigned chapters, like a good little graduate student.  No Child Left Behind was renamed from a section of an educational program in the 60’s-War on Poverty Program. Eisenhower thought the American school system didn’t prepare students as well as the Soviet schools. You see, they launched Sputnik first, and that was a travesty (to the U.S.) during the Cold War. Because there was a need to build better missiles and strengthen our military, our schools were failing, and the Soviets were better than us. Therefore, the onus was on the educational system in America. So if NCLB is the grandchild of a program that was created to combat the Soviet challenge (space race and arms race)  and the Cold War is over….?????  Have you filled in the blanks to my analogy yet?

The interesting issue is that there was no hard evidence that supported the claim that American schools were failing. You see, it wasn’t the students of the 50’s who were behind, it had to have been the students of the previous three decades who were to “blame”-because they were the ones in the work force at the time. Plus, the American education system was culpable for poverty during that era. But it has never been proven that a stronger educational system, will  improve the economy resulting in the alleviation of poverty. In fact, the work force doesn’t have enough jobs to support the number of college graduates as it is.

One theory is that the education crisis has been “manufactured”.  I’m still looking into this, but it is quite intriguing.  The book, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, claims that U.S. students are taking commensurate courses to that Japan and Germany. Additionally, U.S. students are faring as well if not better than the other countries.

Outrage over perceived scapegoating of educators by legislators and other voluble critics of American public schools fuels the authors’ efforts to expose what they consider the real problems. While deploring the campaign of criticism they view as “manufactured,” based on misleading data and leading to questionable reforms, they marshal impressive evidence to counter such assertions as that SAT scores have declined and other, similar charges. The real problems of our schools, they suggest, are societal and economic; they point out, for example, that “family incomes and financial support for schools are much more poorly distributed in our country than in other industrialized nations. This means that… large numbers of students who are truly disadvantaged attend public schools whose support is far below that permitted in other Western democracies.” ( The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle & Publishers Weekly)

The other influence on how we perceive American education is the media. When I graduated from high school, I wanted to be a journalist. When I began the journalism courses, I decided that I would focus on political journalism.  My first political science teacher loved Jimmy Carter, and this was the inspiration for the next ten years of my democratic political convictions. I remember an economic study that I did about why the prices at grocery stores were higher in lower socio-economic districts than in more affluent ones. I actually did the field work and visited the same chain of stores in various areas. It was true. The prices were much higher in the poorer sections of town. Why? The assumption was that there was more government assistance, so the prices could be inflated. I remember writing, “The government is charging itself more at these stores. Who is running the country and where is the logic in this?”  Then we learned about putting a “spin” on a story. Who is paying us to cover a story, and how do they want it portrayed?

Apparently, only 1.4 percent of the national news is devoted to covering education topics. Really? I know I’m in a bubble, but everyone has a connection to education. Either you have, at one point been in school, have a child or sibling in school, or you are an educator. So, only 1.4 percent? Plus, the coverage that we do get is usually negative. Which brings me to the movie, Bad Teacher.

Yes, I openly admit that I saw the movie. My 81-year-old father was even surprised. Plus, I would guess that at least half of the movie goers were teachers. We asked the people next to us and they were teachers. It is our sick sense of curiosity. What? A movie about teaching? So, here we are, in a middle school where Cameron Diaz plays a teacher who commits every possible immoral act as an educator. There is a “good teacher” across the hall who is basically the most annoying cheery teacher archetype. We see her with a captain’s hat and microphone the first day of school acting like a tour guide through the curriculum. Yikes. She eventually loses all control while Diaz comes out ahead in the end. The sick part, is that I saw a part of myself in the cheery teacher with the cute room and engaging activities. Her focus in life was to take down the “bad teacher”.  Diaz only showed movies for instruction, drank during the school day, did drugs, and stole testing materials. Seriously? No wonder the cheery teacher loses it in the end.

The public is influenced by the media. So, this influence has affected the platforms of political candidates, which in effect, begins the cyclical process of reform.  I won’t discuss Bill Gates’ influence on our school reform at this point. I will say that the ones making the reform mandates and changes are not educators, but the financially sound institutions and foundations. When the reform initiatives don’t work, then the teachers are accountable for  the failed programs for which they had no voice.

As I look at these issues from a grain of sand at the beach perspective, I feel powerless. However, the collective awareness of these issues is a start. Like Travolta, I’m stepping out of my bubble-don’t know about riding off on a horse just yet.

If you can create an analogy to complete the title to this post, send it in.

K

Oh, the Places I Found Goetze’s Caramel Candies

At the beginning of the school year, I filled out a form of “my favorite things” for my room mom. I love Twizzlers and those soft caramel candies with the white, sugary goo in the middle. This list was sent  out to my home room students, and throughout the year, the kids brought me loads of Twizzlers. Wednesday was the last day of school. One of my drama club students brought me a decorative cup filled with the caramels, and a bag of Twizzlers. Her mom had contacted a parent from my home room to find out what my favorite candy is. This might seem like a small, almost insignificant event, but the care and thoughtfulness of that gift has stayed with me. That cup of candy beamed from the school year remnants like Bilbo’s golden ring.

This week, we had a huge 5th grade celebration, a FUN DAY outside with jumpy houses, packed our rooms, completed check lists, and dragged our bedraggled selves out of the school building. Ten years of my teaching career is boxed up, and has been sent down the hallway to commence the summer hibernation. My former classroom is stripped clean of the learning whirlwind that encompassed our days.

All week, I kept thinking of the book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go, by Dr. Seuss.  We gave each 5th grader this book as a “graduation” gift. I have always admired its profound message. There are few books that can relate to all age groups.

…you have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
(Dr. Seuss)

Dr. Seuss, or Theodore Seuss Geisel, was an interesting character. I think my favorite story about him is when he threw a drinking party (during prohibition) at Dartmouth. He was soon released from his job as the editor-in-chief of the humor magazine, Jack-O-Lantern. This is where he began using the pseudonym, Seuss, so that he could continue to contribute to the magazine. During World War 2, he created political cartoons for the liberal magazine, PM. I guess I was relieved to see that his rhyming madness was a result of his contract with a publishing company that asked him to use 225 of the early learning vocabulary words. I had not thought about the man behind, The Cat in the Hat, until now.

Think of the story, Horton Hears a Who. Was Dr. Seuss implying that there are other worlds out there? Or was he simply trying to raise our awareness of the how important all people are, regardless of size, color, faith, or political views? It is interesting that he had Horton, the elephant, protect the tiny spec of a city, on a clover. The kangaroo doesn’t believe in Horton’s story about the city. She causes the town to turn against him, because she decided he is a threat to the children. If we review history, how many global events could easily be plugged into this story?

My point is (yes, there is one) that there is a back story to people and events that we may have erroneously judged. We all do it. We see a situation and make inferences. Who has the time to figure out the reasons for everything? Gregory Maguire has done well with focusing on why the antagonists in world-famous stories are misunderstood. Of course, he is best known for Wicked, where he weaves some guilt pangs through the pages, as we find out that the witch (Elphaba) has a skin condition. In Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, the Cinderella story is seen through the eyes of one of the step sisters.

A couple of years ago, I had my class take famous fairy-tale characters to court. It was a fun way to learn about the court system and how trials work. I remember the one child who was the defense attorney for Cinderella’s stepsisters. He discussed how Cinderella got all of the attention and made the stepsisters feel badly about themselves. He kept saying, “Has anyone thought about how they feel?” He used a few picture books to illustrate that Cinderella was actually smiling in many of the pictures where she was working and singing in the house. He also said that Cinderella could have just said, “no” to all of the work. The stepsisters won that case.

Yesterday, I sat through a retirement celebration for three teachers. They are educational icons who had set the instructional culture of the school. I have worked along side them for three years. But, when I heard their back stories, of what motivated them to keep going; I wished I had taken the time to get to know them more.  They calculated that one of the teachers (in her forty-two year career) had taught over 4,000 children. What more can be said about that? I imagine that each teacher in that room thought: What will I say at my retirement? What will I have contributed to the educational universe by the end of my career?

When I was packing my room, I thought:

“Ten years down, twenty more to go.”

“How can I possibly do all of this again, willingly?”

“Just a few more weeks, and I’ll have to unpack everything.”

Then a parent dropped of my end-of-the-year gift; a memory book from my class. I realized that the letters written by my students revealed their back stories. The silent thoughts, they held throughout the year were now in the form of loving prose. One student thanked me for sitting next to him and for giving him extra help. Other students thanked me for the projects and for the writing activities. They were all appreciative of the play that we wrote and performed. I knew, without a doubt, that the endless hours devoted to this year, were worth it. I am also grateful to the person who took the time to find my backstory-even if it is just about the types of candy I like.

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away! (Dr. Seuss)

K