Forty Three and A White Christmas Tree

Sometimes, this blog veers from the education theme. This shows that I have a life and that I am not fully velcroed to my job. It has been a year since I began this endeavor. This year has been challenging, to say the least. I am dealing with many changes, some of which I have met with success, others became horrible failures. I will say that throughout this turbulent year, I am reminded of my blessings.

I have two beautiful daughters. They keep me on top of things because they are smart, and they question the world. We want our children to be independent, and detached from the storm clouds. I am honored to know them.

I have friends whom I consider family. They listen, console, make me laugh, travel with me, make me holiday meals, and trust me.

I love my job. Working with children humbles me. I say this often. But, I truly mean it. There is no room for pride or ego in front of children. Teaching is about relationships. It is also about the curriculum (and testing) and that will never go away. I spoke to many parents of former students today as I shuffled in and out of holiday parties. I had a few tell me that their children were doing well, but they miss me. Of course, I immediately discarded that notion. But, I thought that the reason they miss me, or the school, or 5th grade in general is because of the safety and trust they felt. It isn’t about the single teacher; it is about the way they felt when they made a mistake, or when they did something really cool. My epiphany today brought me to the big idea of education. Kids don’t leave elementary school with algorithms and impressive lists of literary devices. They leave with either a love of learning or a fear of it.  But that idea can be transferred to any other life experience and at any age.

Last Friday, I was teaching my first grade gifted class about complete circuits. The activity was supposed to be about light and spectrums, but like most Friday science explorations-it went to a very different place.  I was happy to see a tiny motor in the kit I purchased from Hobby Lobby. I attached the battery, the conductors, and a cardboard circle colored with the spectrum of the rainbow. I connected everything, and the motor spun the circle so that the colors blurred to white. There were fifteen children hovering over this tiny motor (and yes, they were in my bubble) squealing WHOAS and AHHS, because the motor worked. So, they requested that we make toy cars. I don’t know how to do this, but I said, “Yes, of course we can make toy cars!” I’ll figure it out. But, they inspired me to learn something new. I couldn’t get that in a cubicle.

The theater has given me a place to find refuge from this year’s remnants. I’m writing again. I performed for the first time in YEARS. Of course, I doubted every ability I ever had the days of the plays. I’ve never felt so sick or nervous. But in a twisted way, I enjoyed every minute.  Drama club is up and running, and we are performing: James and the Giant Peach, Sleeping Beauty (musical), and Macbeth Junior. We are in over our drama-club heads again. How will I create a giant peach? I will save that experience for its own blog post.

I’ll be forty-three in a day. I still round down to forty, so I’m good-for now. But, I see this as the page-turning year. We’ll see.

Last year, I talked about the white Christmas tree with which I was obsessed. It is up and glowing again. For some reason, it looks different.

Maybe, if our lives change, so should the artifacts in our lives? I usually dislike the word ‘artifact’ because it is overused in education discourse. We have to post artifacts to the incredibly horrible on-line portfolio system that rhymes with JIVE TEXT. Shouldn’t an artifact be old?  Or should it be an object that reflects a time and a purpose? Yoda will be here any moment to explain my artifacts to me. They are piled up everywhere. Do they disappear with the dropping of the Peach? We should be so lucky.

Happy Holidays.

K

Reed This.

I saw the cows who cannot spell as I was driving home from class. You know, the illiterate cows we see daily and just accept into our cultural norm? But somehow, it bothered me more than usual. I think my new label, Literacy Coach, makes me tuned into a multitude of literacy topics and issues.

Now, when I see the cows, I just want to pull over to the side of the road and teach them a few phonics lessons. I would suggest that they write in pencil before marker, and definitely before paint. I would ask: Is standing upright uncomfortable for a cow? Then I wonder if my personification lessons have gone too far.

I also noticed that they spelled EAT correctly. Why? Why not misspell all of the words? Why go half way? Or, two-thirds of the way?

I imagine the advertising team sitting at one of those long shiny tables talking about this great idea:

“Let’s make the cows tell people to eat more chicken.”

“YES! But, cows can’t read or spell. So…I know! We will misspell half of their words, because everyone knows that cows cannot read.”

“Great idea. But, we make them savvy enough to create this entire advertising campaign.”

I looked up the cow controversy. This happened because I was supposed to be doing my homework for grad school.

I didn’t realize the issues reached so many groups. Apparently, the cows do not like gay people. I found that the company supports literacy through giving free books away with the kids’ meals. ?????

Those same kids write in their daily journals about ‘reeding’, eating chikin, and wanting mor fries. No, it is true, I have had students spell like the cows.

Sadly, I didn’t find many articles from disgruntled educators and parents. I’m sure they are out there, but I stopped clicking at the third page. And if the article I’m looking for is to be found on any page other than the first one, it isn’t too important.

I am learning in my reading theory class that literacy has various definitions and criteria, depending on the community and on the culture. But, as I type these words, I have an advantage over many thousands of people, all over the world. I understand words. I speak words. I write words. I recognize words. I love words.

Illiteracy statistics vary. I believe this depends on the researcher’s definition of literacy. According to this map, the U.S. is less than 10% illiterate. For the resources we have in this country, that number is horrendous. I have worked with illiterate parents. They are savvy. They make their way through life, dodging words; but compensating with a myriad of techniques they have learned in order to hide their disability. Yes, I’m saying illiteracy is a disability. It is. I cannot imagine, living my life without understanding the words that saturate each and every experience I have.

This same theme has found me in various scenarios. Yesterday, in class, our professor had piles of children’s picture books for us to look through. We were to find passages that would lead to engaging writing activities.

I am fascinated with Eve Bunting, and I was glad when our group chose that pile of books. She is a topical author who writes picture books that deal with serious issues like: riots, homelessness, the Vietnam war, individualism, divorce, illiteracy, and many other relevant topics. Of course, my obsession with such heavy literature made me overlook a child copying the plot line to Corduroy during a writing conference, in one of my friend’s classrooms. Another humbling experience. Another story. Who has time for bears and kleptomaniac children when there are world issues to tackle?

The Wednesday Surprise, by Eve Bunting is a book about a child meeting with her grandmother each Wednesday. The nature of the meetings are kept secret until there is a birthday celebration for the girl’s father. He is floored when he hears his mother read, and learns that his daughter has been teaching her to read every Wednesday. I imagine in this fictional family, Grandma’s illiteracy was understood. Apparently, it took a small child to help fix this problem, while the parents looked the other way.

Lately, every spare moment of my time is consumed with labeling my “mentor texts”. These are the books I use to introduce writing lessons. It started slowly, then somehow, it has snowballed into stacks of picture and chapter books, piling up and surrounding me. I made bright pink labels for each book.

Some of the categories are:

  • word choice
  • sentence fluency
  • onomatopoeia
  • repetition
  • narrowing the focus
  • rhyme scheme
  • voice
  • conventions
  • figurative language (which can be further categorized, but I had to save myself)
  • developing ideas
  • coined words
By the way, not one of these books uses misspelled words as literary devices.
Another book that deals with illiteracy due to a disability, is written by another wonderful author: Patricia Polacco.

The girl in the story is brought up in a literacy-rich environment. But as she enters school, she finds that she is unable to read as easily as the other kids. She has dyslexia. She begins to hate school because of her reading difficulties, and the kids teasing her. She finally gets a teacher who cares, pays attention, and works with her. We find out that this is Patricia Polacco’s autobiography.

Every time I have read this story to a class, there is always at least one student who relates to the girl’s struggle. It is a powerful book. It reminds me that there is always the probability that there is a child, in my class, memorizing what they need to in order to “seem” literate.

So, what does this have to do with the cows?

I see the cow company using illiteracy as an advertising campaign. We don’t see other disabilities advertised in order to sell a product. What a horrible thought. Illiteracy is covert, the cows are cute, and there is no intended harm. I get that. But, when you have seen people struggle with those same words, it hits home more than it probably should.

Also, as a side note, the cows are everywhere. Ubiquity with the cows is overkill. Maybe, the next campaign could be the cows in school, overcoming their spelling issues. They can even put a smart cow teacher in there for good measure.

I’m not sure if I’m one of those, “EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON PEOPLE”, but I’m beginning to think that my hyper-awareness of people’s words can be a good thing. Maybe, the cow comparison is a stretch to some; but they still bother me.

Do you remember learning to read? Probably not, if you don’t have a reading disability.

K

Why Megamind Should Replace No Child Left Behind

Megamind: Could this be what I was destined for? A dream life filled with luxury? 
[Metro Man’s ship lands in a mansion, while Megamind’s ship lands in a prison
Megamind: Apparently not! Even fate chooses its favourites… 

I just read a rather lengthy article describing the faults of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB

Of course, my response, “no duh” isn’t appropriate for graduate school. But, “no duh” nonetheless.

Basically, it outlines the reasons that one academic program for every student in the country isn’t feasible. The notion that all children can learn has morphed into all children can learn the same skills, in the same way. This, of course, is regardless of academic proclivities, social experiences, and cultural norms. I remember when the NCLB posters wallpapered the cinderblock walls  (back in the day). I was a paraprofessional at the time. I hadn’t even started school to become a highly qualified educator. I felt the pressure then, about all children reading-at the same exact moment in time.

I know I reflect quite a bit on movies and their unintended associations with education. But, this is how I make complicated issues reasonably applicable to our schema.

However, Megamind is clearly a movie about education. Even if no one knows it.

At the beginning of the movie, there are two babies randomly rocketed into the atmosphere. They are different ethnicities. Their final destinations are contingent on pure luck and destiny. Metro Baby lands in suburbia, and Megamind Baby lands in a prison. Megamind Baby is raised by the inmates, whereas Metrobaby has all he needs to be successful in life.   Yes, they are the extremes, but this is a kids’ movie. Right?

Flash forward to elementary school. We see both Metroman and Megamind in the same school. NCLB-all children can learn.

 Metroman boy dazzles everyone with his honed skills and super powers. Then we see Megamind boy trying to do the right thing until he is bullied and shunned. Eventually, he resumes his life of  crime, because that is what he “knows”. He pronounces school as shool.  I take this as a literacy issue since he didn’t have the same academic opportunities as Metroman. The inmates shooled him the best way they knew.

These two children landed haphazardly into their lives. They had nothing to do with it. We cannot say that we don’t “see” their differences. Megamind is inherently good. Metroman just can’t keep up the persona that he has developed. But, these revelations aren’t discovered until they are adults.

What if all students walked into the classroom baskets of life experiences on their heads? Each basket is filled with different items that represent the things they know and the things they understand. None of the baskets look alike, or contain the exact same contents. We ask them to place their “baskets” to the side. As the year progresses, some of their items become dusty or lost. Other items are overused and worn out. Then the missing items are seldom replenished. The metaphor is obvious. But by testing time, all baskets are emptied and filled with identical items. Do we perpetuate individualism, or do we encourage Stepford-like education?

I think one of the most valuable lessons I have learned as an educator is that the life experiences of a child affect the delivery of my instruction. The curriculum is not a snow covering of equity in all US schools. Picture a random classroom anywhere in the United States. That classroom will have some who speak another language at home. Others have struggled to read since they started attending school. Then there are the gifted and high achieving children. Don’t forget about the kids who have learning disabilities. But, at the end of the day, thanks to NCLB, all of these children are assessed with the same test. That test score is branded on their records for the rest of their academic careers.  A child is deemed successful (or not) based on a set of scores.

I believe data is essential for educators. We need to comprehend academic strengths and weaknesses in order to improve instruction. However, how can we know what they know, without giving assessments that meet learning styles? WHOA! What? Differentiated assessments?

Yah, I know, this would mean that each child would have a different test. It would mean that they wouldn’t be standardized. It would mean that we were giving kids a chance to succeed. Maybe, those who “fail” portions of a test could be re-tested within their learning style?  None of these ideas are viable in the hermetically sealed testing environment. I wonder how many students failed a portion of a written test, but could answer the questions in a different way?

What did we do before this type of standardized testing? Do you remember? I don’t.

I do remember getting kicked out of the gifted program because I talked too much. I remember the strawberry crunch ice cream bars. Track. Cross Country. Learning to type. Marine Biology. I remember walking around the halls before school started with my Flashdance sweatshirt, Nikes, Levis, comb in pocket, and perfectly coiffed ‘wings’.   Standardized testing?  I’m sure I took some type of test that required the infamous bubbling. But, it wasn’t on my radar.

Would Megamind had changed his ways with some acknowledgement of his experiences? And with guidance and re-direction, would he use his powers for good and not evil when he was younger?

I spent my last reading class discussing the issues of the National Reading Panel Report and NCLB. I had to discuss the positive aspects of the NCLB. Of course, I was reminded that there were some sound philosophies in the planning and intentions of the program. Just like in a character analysis, it is very rare for a villain to be pure evil, without a hint here and there of normalcy, or a history of a bad childhood.

Drop the phrase, “standardized testing” in a room of teachers, and you will find that the kind, politically correct, docile natures slough off, and dragon wings sprout violently from their backs. This isn’t just one or two people. This is everyone. So that might mean something.

I truly believe that in every school, or even classroom, there is a Megamind and Metroman story.

I can honestly say that the few children I felt unable to reach had a history that devastated me, and I was ashamed for not delving more. They are the children with the cumbersome files that take two hands to carry. They have had such horrible experiences that they couldn’t begin to trust a new person. They can be the ones who disrupt the class, making our days challenging. But it really just take a few minutes to attempt to see what they see, and to spend time acknowledging their importance in the world. This means we have to shut off the ‘auto-pilot’ of the day, and work with the humanity in our classrooms. I didn’t see that part in NCLB.

Perspectives change when we understand people. I worry that the children left behind may not have had a chance at all, depending on how they landed in the world.

Think, Walk, Stray

One night this summer, I was in a particularly nostalgic mood. I opened the box of post cards and letters people have sent me through the years. I sat down and proceeded to read through them all. There was one gleaming theme throughout the lot. They were all postcards people had sent to ME from various parts of the world.

I spread the postcards out on the floor. The sea of landscapes suddenly became a conglomeration. Sunsets, oceans, trees of various sorts, people wearing hand-woven clothes, mountains, small cities, large towns, neon signs, and markets faced me. And tiny scratches of words depicting world adventures hid underneath the mural.

So, in July, I decided to take a break from life, and escape to Italy. I didn’t tell many people, because they would judge me and ask me questions that I couldn’t answer. Was it Julia Roberts lamenting that she wanted to “marvel” at something? Or was it me, needing to be a random member of humanity, roaming the cobbled streets of Florence? I went by myself which caused many odd looks and comments like:

“What are you thinking?”

“Who does that?”‘

“Are you ok?”

I guess at 42, I don’t feel that I need to explain myself. So, this is my clandestine trip being outed.

I hadn’t been to Italy in over ten years. But, somehow I knew it was the place for me to go. I got to the point where I had heard myself talk so much, that I needed the silence in my brain. I taught all year as if each day were the most important. I had to reply in graduate class with moderately intelligent commentaries. I had to be “on” during drama camp. I struggled to say all of the right things to my teenager. I was out of words. It was time to go.

I will admit that Elizabeth Gilbert described the Italian language well. Each Italian word floats on a musical note. You cannot speak Italian without sending each syllable off with a tiny bit of your spirit. Each word is a firework that escapes palate like powdered sugar. I knew my Italian would be rusty, but I also knew the Italians wouldn’t mind.

Too many words saturate the intended message. Not enough words leave people wondering. I always obsess over my words and how my thoughts are conveyed. Did I mumble? Did I ramble? Is the other person wanting me to stop talking? Did I unintentionally change the subject? Am I taking the focus off of them and on to me? So, it is best to just listen-something my life had not afforded me time to do.

I arrived in Italy on a rainy afternoon. The trip was difficult. I made it to the hotel. I immediately changed and headed out. I had limited time, and each moment was precious. I found a quaint restaurant that charged 15 EURO for an entire meal, including wine. I was transformed to an ambiguous entity. I owed no one, any words.

The next morning, I walked silently along the Arno. I was glad I wore the sandals instead of the wedges that looked better with my dress. The reality of my surroundings was more than my mind could take in. I walked. I watched people. Still, no words. I breathed in, and felt my heart swell with the realization that I actually did it. I made it. Italy.

I booked a trip to Cinque Terre. The day that I was to meet the rest of the tour group came quickly. There were two couples, the tour guide, and me.

One lady asked me, “Aren’t you scared to be alone?”

I responded, “No, why should I be?”

I hopped in the back of the tour van. I put the iPod ear plugs in, and commenced losing myself in scenery and music. I think they spoke to me, but soon realized I was tuning them out.  To my middle-aged surprise, the plastic surgeon lady asked me which college I attended, and she asked me what my major was.  It took a minute for me to decide whether or not to tell her a Winona Rider, Mermaids story. She steals the car, gets lost, finds suburbia and an ideal family who makes her dinner and listens to her tall tales.

I told her my age. I explained that I was traveling alone. She proceeded to tell me the what the wonders of plastic surgery could do for my face. A minute ago, I was a college student. Now, I was in desperate need of plastic surgery.

iPod-on.

People-gone.

Somehow, when I travel, the fruit stands fascinate me. This one in particular was robust and popping with color. I wanted to jump in and roll around in it, but I was with a tour group; and they were rushing me. I soon dodged them, because I didn’t go to Italy to explain my whereabouts. I finally caught up with the group and the tour guide. He spoke to me in Italian. I understood. I was happy.

On the boat tour of the towns, one of the people with whom I was traveling asked me,  “Which stop is ours?”

“I don’t know”, I replied.

“But, what will we do?”

I said, “The tour group won’t leave us. Worst case scenario, we’re stuck in Cinque Terre. There are five towns. We are on number four. Odds are we could be in the right place. I’m getting off here. It is time for lunch.”

I sat, alone with the fish eyes staring. I cut off the head, put it on another plate so the mental montage of my experience wouldn’t end. Ocean to my right. Piercing blue sky above. Slight breeze. Bread. Wine. Some Italian words escaped my mouth. But that was all. I saw the people on my tour group walk by. Apparently, they weren’t vying to eat lunch with me. Maybe, the traveling alone bit confused them. Maybe, the decapitated fish head stared them down with its dead fish eyes.  I don’t know. I was lost in the grilled fish plate, soft bread, and the echoing water sounds. I stared at the water-color canvas of pink edifices, perched in layers, on the rocky cliffs.

How is it that this unbelievable beauty is right here in front of me? It was one of those “hard drive” moments. I use this term with my students when I want them to remember something, forever. Our “C” drive at school allegedly gets erased at the close of the school day, like the fine details that clog our brains. Anyway, I knew that I would revisit this scene in this microsecond of my life. It would come in handy, when Italy felt like a wrinkle in time. I sat there for a while. Probably a long while.  I couldn’t remember the last time I was able to sit still.

I had scheduled a trip to Chianti for wine tasting. I made it to the bus station. No tour bus. So, I pouted all the way back to the hotel. The man behind the desk asked me where I had been because he was on the phone with Chianti guy. They left. I got my money back.

I had to reprimand myself for pouting in Italy. I was being a brat. So, I decided to go to the Uffizi gallery, as if it were just down the street. Wait….it was.

I paid a bit extra to go to the short line after I spent time with the fascinating statue people.

I believe the security in the Uffizi is more intense than at the air port, where they wave and say CIAO as you walk through security. The group in front of me didn’t see the huge red circle marked-out signs for cameras, phones, and all electronics. Security guy was yelling in Italian. Tourists-snapping back in Chinese. I just wanted to get inside already. The teacher in me came out as if I were Sybil, and I had no control. I pointed, slowly to the signs, then to the extreme electronic paraphernalia attached to their bodies. The animated security man waved them in. I motioned to my self, showing that I had no banned electronic devices on my person, and that I had followed directions. Gold star.

I found the Botticelli room. I stood in front of Primavera. My eyes welled up, and  I felt as if my feet were rooted in the floor. I had always heard about people becoming emotional over art. But, now it was me. I stood there, just staring at something bigger then everyone in the room. I guess this was my marvel time. I looked around and saw other people staring, tearing up, motionless-and a few minutes ago I had been pouting about a missed Chianti bus. Shame…shame.

The last day in Florence, I sat on the Ponte Vecchio, listening to an Italian band cover American songs. People walked by. Kids danced. New tourists came, dragging luggage behind them. My words were coming back. I could start again. I had not been alone, in my thoughts for years. I hadn’t worried about a thing, except for the next best restaurant.

The minute the plane hit home, Italy became a memory. It is amazing how the mind can be emptied and re-filled in a mere moment.

But, I have a piece of Florence with me. Perhaps the string of lucid moments, gave me a distinct perception of my small place in the world. Even if it is in the silence of my own mind, without words.

K

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

Ants, Rubber Tree Plants, and a Shrew

I have seven literacy coaching books, an APA manual, and a grant writing book watching me-and at any moment, they may just flap their pages to tell me to get to work.  It must be time to write a new blog.

I’m distracted by my environment. The other night was my friend’s going away party.  I had made him a playlist of songs, because we are a bit socially awkward around each other, and  the songs represented my thoughts about saying good-bye. He, in return, made me a playlist-as this seems to be a great way for us to communicate.  The last song, #20, is High Hopes by Frank Sinatra.

But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes
He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes

I know that he added this song because a while back, he sarcastically quoted back to me, from one of my blog posts, about my “pie-in-the-sky idealism”. When I heard this song I laughed because it is such the teachers’ anthem. Then I realized, that it has ultimately been the driving theme of my personal life.

Just what makes that little ole ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant?
Anyone knows an ant can’t
Move a rubber tree plant

So, if you have ever taken a class where the text is analyzed, battered, manipulated, and squeezed into meaning that may or may not be accurate; you will understand the following. Teachers are the ants, the rubber trees are the kids, the system, and the bureaucracy of educational politics. There is a spark of cynicism to say things can’t be accomplished. But, with Rocky-like drive, we move one rubber tree plant, turn around to high-five anyone who cares, then look back  to find an infinite number of plants challenging us to move them as well. Our little ant hands can only handle so much.

I forgot how much I used to listen to this song. I was so glad that Daniel was inspired to add this to the wonderful mix he created. I know that the theme of the song will be an integral part of my classroom culture-maybe we will make a huge rubber tree, and I’ll have the kids move it around when they need a mental boost. I don’t know, it is June and my ideas are still liquid.

Yesterday morning, when I walked into the kitchen, the remnants of his Star Wars cake made me sad. It was as if its purpose was over, and its presence on my counter made me wish for a few more hours with my friend.  So, I texted my dear neighbor and friend, Kate, and I asked her if she wanted chocolate cake for breakfast. She came over, and brightened my day by giving a new purpose to the cake. See, my high hopes worked because my heavy heart was elated to see her enjoying the cake, while listening to me ramble.

The Dancing Goat Theater has been running, The Taming of the Shrew. I know this is like literary whiplash, since I abruptly changed topics. But, there will be a connection-even if it is only in my mind.

The last scene has been bothering me. This is where you may want to look up the Spark Notes online, or try to remember your junior year lit class.

And place your hands below your husband’s foot, In token of which duty, if he please, My hand is ready, may it do him ease. (Taming of the Shrew-William Shakespeare)

AHHHH!  I have seen this play many times now. I have read the monologue. My insides recoil as she speaks these words. I keep wondering:

Did Kate lose her voice?

Did she give up the fight for independence?

Was she beat down by the patriarchal system? 

Was she just playing along so that she could eat?

Was she saying what Petruchio wanted to hear so that she could get through the day?

Was she truly tamed?

Can a person’s spirit be tamed?

Maybe, this was the only way Kate (from Shrew, not my neighbor) could move her Rubber Tree Plant.

I know, the degree in Italian has made it difficult to take text for face value. I belabor most decisions which is socially debilitating, and most annoying to those around me. I’ll blame it on the years of the agonizing search for hidden meanings in Dante and Petrarch. I remember getting in trouble for saying, “Maybe it just means what it says.”

So, while I was watching Kate’s final speech, I had to create a more palatable meaning connected to education. Have we lost our way and are we putting our core values under the feet of the national and state mandates? Are we succumbing to the system, while valuing differing philosophies? Kate went against her intrinsic understanding of who she was. Was it a conscious choice, or did her fortitude erode with a lack of support? Of course, this comparison puts teachers in the role of the Shrew, which poses a semantic challenge. A strong-willed teacher is a shrew to some, and a super hero wearing a jetpack to others.

One of my class assignments is to write an article about educational change. I’m sure any references to High Hopes or Taming of the Shrew might be lost, but it might be worth a try. Since change is such a bitter-sweet circumstance in life, yet the foundation of all we do in education; I cannot help but make personal connections.  The word change is often disguised as “reform” in the world of education. Who are they kidding? Kate wasn’t “reformed”-she was completely changed, or as they say, tamed. The bottom line is that Kate didn’t need to be changed, reformed, or tamed. Teachers unite! Fight the taming!

I am coming to the understanding that dealing with change gracefully is art. Art defined is: Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature. So when life swoops down and hurls us into the eye of the storm, all we can do is learn from it, lament, or make some big changes in our understanding of ourselves. We exert more energy when we change then we do in standing still.

We will always be expected to change, but hopefully without losing the drive of the tiny ant, or relinquishing our grasp on what is true.

It is time to get rid of the last of the cake. In its place, is the memory of  sharing a change with one friend, and another friend patiently watching me move the rubber trees, so I can see what is ahead of me.

K