Existentalism in Education

Last week, I presented a chapter from our weekly homework dealing with the philosophy of education. I was flatlining just thinking about dealing with this subject AGAIN. I realized that this subject in every conceivable curriculum for teacher education, because we need to think about how we approach our instruction. We are all influenced by our personal philosophies, whether we acknowledge them or not. I was that kid who wanted to know why were learning what we were learning. I was never the one with  correct answers, a flailing hand in the air, and the gleaming look of love and approval from the teacher.

“Yes, Kim. What is it?”

“How will algebra help me in life? I mean, when do people use algebra?”

“You may get a job that requires you to do algebra.”

“But, I want to be a writer.” ( I was obsessed with the V.C. Andrews series. I was sure she never had to do algebra.)

This is where I would get the silent brush off that made me feel like an outcast, or maybe a burgeoning existentialist.

As  I was presenting, I realized that I was a bit more excited about educational philosophy than the rest of the class. I was having an existential epiphany, and everyone else just wanted me to wrap it up, so they could go home. Again, I was THAT student who wanted to drag everyone through a mental maze of enlightenment. The Scream is usually one of the standard artworks that depicts the idea of existentialism. Although, it was about mental illness, volcanic eruptions, and  mummies, the solitary person with ‘volcanic’ thoughts is alone. I’m going into all of this because we have those children, in our classes, who seem way off track.  But, I believe that they may be so far down the track we started, that we can’t recognize it. BECAUSE WHAT THEY  ARE ASKING WON”T BE ON THE TEST. Just putting that out there.

They have already passed us, and are on to the next big idea. I know this because when I stop and ask the Woody Allens in the class to explain their thinking, I am usually surprised with the depth of their connections.  Then I feel like a big dummy for wanting to do the curriculum race to reach the end of the unit.

There are many philosophies that have influenced how we approach instruction. I learned, very early in my teaching career, that teaching requires metacognition. We need to think about how we think in regard to instruction. You know, the mental dialogue that occurs when we are teaching:

“Did that make sense?”

“Wow, they look like they understand, but the glaze in their eyes says something different.”

“Is this curriculum even developmentally appropriate?”

“I am I all alone?”

Yah, I’ve spent a bit of time, alone, researching. Thus, my existential self is becoming annoyingly vocal. Basically, the existentialist student asks about how what they are learning affects the world around them. These students rarely ask these overreaching questions at appropriate times.

This year, I have had the great opportunity to teach kindergarten through 5th grade. The innate questioning nature wanes as the students get older. I’m not saying, stop everything and address every anecdote that pops into each child’s mind. Remember the Eddie Murphy bit about having a child tell al story? We don’t want to go there. But, sometimes, their existentialism may inspire us to take the content into related, but unique directions.

Sometimes, I ask my class, “Why are we learning this?” If you teach, try this. You will need to sift through the “because it’s on the test” responses.

I completed my presentation with the fact that no educational philosophy is directly rooted in existentialism. I made the joke that there would only be one person teaching to one student who would be wondering why there are so many people in the room. I laughed. But, again I was alone.

If you are in a mood to question your life, here is a link to some though provoking films.

Existential Movies

I have an existential map. It has ‘You are here’ written all over it.
Steven Wright

Happy Thinking..

K

K

All in the Theater

For my tenth birthday, my dad took me to see Annie. I remember loving the play, somewhat for the catchy songs, but mostly because my dad took me. So, when my friend asked me to go to see Annie, I immediately said, yes. We took our girls, made it down town, and waited for the play to begin.

Theater etiquette is important.

Theater Etiquette

I didn’t think about this so vehemently, until tonight. The lights were down, and the play was about to begin. The people in front of us were standing and having a complicated conversation about where to sit. The logistics of the theater seats befuddled them. The teacher in me wanted to help them make a connection between the similarities between movie theater seating and theater seating. They needed context. I could have drawn a nice Venn diagram for a pictorial representation. I guess they were unable to match the numbers on their tickets with the numbers on the seats.

I figured they were a theater troupe planning to perform Annie in their small part of the universe. I won’t elaborate on how ill-advised it is to attempt replicate such a well-known play, because you like the song, The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow. Just sing it in your car or shower like the rest of the world, and save the twelve people in the audience (who are probably family of the actors) huge amounts of pain.

Sally Struthers plays Ms. Hannigan. For those who may not know who she is, she played in Gloria in All in the Family. She was also the spokesperson for “Feed the Children”. Google her if these references don’t ring bells. For whatever crazy reason, I like her. She is one of the 70’s sit com mavens still around. After the signature songs, and a few chuckles in the first act-the audience checked out.

People don’t understand intermission. It doesn’t mean go to Burger King, eat, and leisurely make your way back to the theater. Because that is what I believe happened to roughly twenty percent of the audience. WHILE THE ACTORS WERE PERFORMING the following events took place:

  • 5 people shuffled in front of us (backsides facing us).
  • Someone near us took flash photos. My nine-year old overheard the conversation about the flash not being on, so the person turned on the flash.
  • Cell phones illuminated the theater. People were texting. They spent $70+ to go to the theater, and they text.
  • Another cadre of late-comers bungled their way through the row in front of us. They fell on each other, into the seats, and laughed.
  • The woman behind me (who wasn’t there for the first act) was reprimanding whomever was behind her. She was saying how RUDE he was being. She was acting as if she were at home, in her barcalounger.
You would think people would show some respect. If not for the people around them, or performing arts- at least for Sally Struthers! Or maybe, the thought of the hundreds of hours it took to put the production together would have been enough to refrain from bad audience behavior.

I spend a lot of time in our community theater. When I work box office, I don’t even let audience members bring water into the theater. My friend told me that was militant. I want people to respect our theater. In my mind, banning water is a start. Our smaller audiences are infinitely more respectful than the hoards of people in the Annie audience.  I know, our audiences are comprised of actors, playwrights, board members, or family of the actors. But audiences have to start somewhere? Right?

We work with elementary-aged children. One of the first things we teach in camps is how to be a good audience member. When my friend and I teach our drama club at school, we don’t tolerate students talking while others perform. It isn’t a matter of being trained to be respectful during a performance (or any other like circumstance). It is the simple idea of respect. As a result, our drama club students are supporting one another by listening, and not talking during rehearsals.

I felt, for a passing moment, that my efforts to promote performing arts were futile. If adults can’t sit through Annie, then how am I to get them to come to a play written by a local playwright? I know, Annie isn’t everyone’s favorite play. But it is nostalgic, and that means something. And if you pay to go, it signifies you want to see the play.

Sitting through a play can be difficult. There is no touch screen to fast-forward to the next act. There is no playlist that lets you pick the songs you want to hear. There is no device to record the play for a later time. There is no app for any of that.

I think my friend was waiting for me to go all teacher on everyone. I wanted to, but then I would be adding to the demise of the theater. Plus, when Annie came out in the red wig and dress; I was transported to my tenth birthday. So, not much really mattered at that point. One note-they could update the wig.

K

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

Love That Writing. Hate That Writing

Two of my favorite books to use for mentor texts in teaching writing are: Love that Dog and Hate that Cat by Sharon Creech. Who, by the way, has written some beautiful children’s novels.

I love these books because they depict a boy’s experiences in writing. He says his teacher, “knows his brain”. This, by far is my favorite quote in any book that I have read to my students. Teaching can be boiled down to an A and B multiple choice answer:

(A)You understand your students’ brains.

(B) You do not understand your students’ brains.

This week, I had a few moments where I knew that my efforts, as a teacher, were not meaningless.

I am working with a precious student who has writer’s block. The debilitating experience that renders the mind void of words. This phenomenon only happens when there is some writing assignment due immediately. She talked to me about her thoughts and feelings about writing. I was floored with her candor. I was also kicking myself for assuming that writing is easy. It isn’t always easy for me, so why would I think it would be for a ten-year old? Again, the humbling smack in the face of teaching knocked me into an educational wasteland.

I had lent her the book, Love That Dog. I asked her what she thought of the book. I received a shoulder shrug. Of course, I asked again. She turned the book over and said, “This says it all”.

The quote on the back of the book read:

” I tried. I can’t do it. My brain is empty.”

So, of course, my eyes welled up-without my permission. Her eyes filled with tears. We stared at each other for a few seconds. I had nothing. Her brain was empty. How did it get that way?

I love writing. I never thought I was particularly good at the craft. But, there are times the words on the page express my inner workings more than my incessant ramblings. I have retreated to writing when all other forms of communication failed me.

In second grade, I was supposed to write a story about my summer. My summer sucked, so I made up a story. I put my brother on a raft, in women’s clothes, on the Chattahoochee River-never to be found. I remember standing in front of the class, making up the entire scenario. The ideas flooded my mind, and I couldn’t stop the madness. When my teacher realized that it was a fictional story, she reprimanded me and sent me to my seat. After that, I rarely spoke. Instead, I wrote.

I have had dark times where writing was my enemy. The words were absent. My thoughts were cliché  and I had nothing worth putting on paper. That is when I hate writing. Where do the words come from? How can my combination of words make any more meaning than someone else’s? I am writing this blog after spending uncountable hours writing essays for my reading class. There are nine. I have completed eight. Even Bon Iver and Cold Play couldn’t pull me from the depths literary Hades.

I contribute the mafia-type diatribe to my math class to my exhaustive writing experience. It went something like this:

“Remember, don’t leave your simplified fractions in the form of an improper fraction.”

“To nameless student: What did you get for number so and so?”

“11/7”

I felt my eye twitch. I closed the door to my room. (Swift yet powerful move). I heard myself discussing fractions as if they were small children whom we were neglecting.

Later that morning, during math:

STUDENT: “I’m confused.”

ME: “What part do we need to review?”

STUDENT: “All of it.”

So, I reviewed it all. I also gave out guilt candy.

Writing is the ambiguous, murky skill that comes from a part of us that is intangible and unquantifiable.  Ask a five-year old to describe a pumpkin and you might get:

“pmkn rng hlwn”

Ask a ten-year old to describe a pumpkin and you might get:

“The blistering orange pumpkin glowed from the front step of my house. It eyes blinked from the flickering candle inside.”

Ask me to describe a pumpkin right now:

“It’s orange and rotting on my doorstep. What more do you want?”

This blog is an attempt for me to come back to reality with my teaching. I have bad days with writing, but I value the craft. I am lucky to know some brilliant writers. I aspire to write something meaningful. But, I really just want the kids to enjoy extracting the words and images from their minds, and carefully placing them on the paper.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my gifted first grade class. I was talking about my professor and my reading class. They asked me:

“Do you live there?”

“Do you go home?”

“Who is your teacher?”

“Does she live there too?”

Again, the lesson went in a direction that was not anticipated. I encouraged them to write my professor (profecr) letters.

They did.

She wrote back. On college letterhead. With sketches of herself and pictures of her dog.

I brought the typed letters back to the class. We spent time reading them, and talking about what she said. Then the class began writing her letters, independently. Apparently, she hadn’t answered all of their inquires. But, I was happy to see how writing had made its way to my first graders-without them knowing it. My professor is passionate about what she does. She wants us to respect literacy instruction. Really, she wants us to do it right, and not mess up another generation of kids. And, I have fourteen first-graders who think she is Athena. (They relate everything to the gods and goddesses, after our mythology unit.)

I chose this portion of a child’s letter, because it is the same question I have been asking myself since the summer. Also, anyone I know who is in graduate school, for education, has verbalized these same questions. I particularly enjoy how my professor changed her “discourse” to match the level of the student. Oh…I just used a term from class. (I won the fight with the white-out bottle as I covered the names of my student and professor.)

I liken my reading class to running. There is a moment during a long run that you realize that you have over-extended yourself.  This usually occurs when you are half way to your destination. The thought of running further paralyzes the body, while the notions of making it back in one piece-is unfathomable. I’m at the unfathomable stage. I sat down to write my essays for class, the other night. I thought of my student and I typed:

“I can’t do it. My brain is empty. I hate writing.”

My friend who helped me teach playwriting, to my 5th grade class last year, told the kids to write, I don’t know what to write about on their papers when they didn’t know what to write.” The freedom this gave them was amazing. It worked. I am continually reminded of the temperamental nature of writing. This strategy makes it o.k. to having nothing to write about.

My reading class is over in a few weeks. My essays will be done. My odd poster project will be completed. Then I’ll sign up for more classes that will prepare me to be a better teacher. For now, no more peer-reviewed articles. No more essays.

When my brain isn’t empty, I’m going to try to complete two personal writing projects. Or read a book. Or sit and stare at leaves. Maybe, I’ll just be thankful to know that, eventually -I will LOVE THAT WRITING again.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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

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

Wigwams, Portals, and The Bermuda Triangle

Have you ever been hit suddenly with the absurdity of your situation?  This happened today, as I was carrying a wigwam prop down the hall (in wedges), stuffing it in between the useless doorways in the school hallway. I broke out in a sweat by the third doorway. Everyone is gone, and I am carrying a wigwam.  It just seemed a bit surreal.  I did panic when I saw the custodian-so I begged him not to lock me in the school, again.

Now there is a wigwam in my classroom.

One of the parents of my students stayed after school, for hours, building the wigwam.  She was so happy to do it, and I was so thankful for the help.  My cynical funk began to dissipate-a tad.

Before the wigwam transport, I had just cleaned up after our Independent Study Open House.   You see, I felt the need to instill in the kids that learning should be motivated by intrinsic rewards-you know just because you want to know more about stuff.  I explained that there would be NO GRADES given, just feedback, from me on a regular basis.  They would have to pick a topic of interest, do a full on research paper (including citations), and a visual display. Eleven kids signed up to do the I.S. project! This was above and beyond their  regular assignments and assessments.  That alone restored my faith in the world.

So, for the last four months, these eleven students studied the following topics: Extreme Architecture, Black Holes, The Eagle Nebula, Falling Water, Greek Sports and Entertainment, Greek Mythology, Dinosaur Extinction, Broadway, Famous Landmarks in Dubai (no joke), Michael Jordan, Lighthouses , and The Bermuda Triangle.  Each child came to class with questionnaires regarding their project, a visual display, and a research paper.  They dressed up, presented these amazing projects, and made me know the world is in good hands.  I asked the kids what inspired them for their subjects.  They answered with responses such as:

“I want to be an oceanographer.”

“I want to be an architect.”

“The Greeks inspired so many new ideas that we use today.”

“I read The Lightening Thief, and decided that mythology was cool.”

“Lighthouses have saved sailors for years and years.”

“One day, I will be on Broadway.”

The great-grandmother of one of my students was there.  This was the first time I had met her. The school air-conditioning was turned off, and I was beginning to melt. She came up to me and said:

“Do you know why I like you?”

I couldn’t be snarky and say, “People usually don’t like me when they first meet me.”

But instead, I just looked into her eyes.

“I like you because every time one of the kids got stuck, you jumped in and got them back on track.”

I replied, “Really? I did that? Well, it is very difficult to present to a large crowd, they are just kids.”

She had her hand on my arm, and I didn’t even mind that she was in my “bubble”.

Right now, I’m suppose to be completing the play my home room is writing. The basic idea is that literary characters fall into portals that bring them to Wonderland.  I have enjoyed this project immensely.  We are discussing the plausibility of events and situations given the understood demeanor of the characters.  My mind is racing, and the day is re-playing, over and over.  I am refraining from making all of the characters end up in the Bermuda Triangle.

It was a good day.  I guess my pie-in-the-sky idealism has settled to an appreciation of a wigwam builder, kind words from a stranger, and creative kids who question EVERYTHING.

K

What Now?

The email blasted all the teacher laptops: TESTING IS OVER!!!!  The tubs have been turned in and amazingly enough, I had all the materials that I started with-counted, over and over-and in front of people.  They will all be shipped off to some grading warehouse. I imagine it looks like the one in Reservoir Dogs, but with scantron machines set up in rows, while retired teachers, wearing rubber shoes, scan-in unison. My imagination runs away with me if I don’t have visuals.

I look at my calendar to see that I have five weeks of school left. Seriously?  I see my class, staring back at me as if to say, “What now?”

So if you don’t know, these last weeks of school are “review” weeks. Translated, this could mean movie-watching-a-palooza.  In the ten years I have taught, I have had little to no success in watching a movie in the classroom.  I keep thinking, “I could do this at home, in my pink sweat pants.”  The kids start talking, and soon-no one is watching the movie-except for the ONE kid sprawled out in front of the screen, annoyed with the rest of us.

So, like all other O.C. teachers, I ATTEMPT to plan things that will affect change in the lives of the students.  Because, this is how all this teaching career stuff got started.  But this year seems different.  Did testing suck the life out of me?  Do I still have a pulse? Did the Greg Mortenson news contribute to my creative flatline?  Did I lose my powers like Samantha often did? WHAT IS HAPPENING?!

In our last planning period, we were discussing what academic activities we had planned for the end of the year.  It was my turn. Oh, yah-that.  Things are…forth coming.  Forth coming-a polite phrase to say, “I got nothing, and don’t know when I will have something.”  I mumbled about a time-machine project that I have been tossing around in my brain for years.

I think I want to do more than create an engaging project. I want to do something that is far-reaching-that has a global perspective. At the end of the curriculum, there has to be something more-Oz, Wonderland, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory?????  What can I do to make the kids continue to love school?  Because, I’m beginning to believe that this is a critical time to sell them on the idea that learning is fun.

So, we are writing a play.  Not world-changing, but not a coma-inducing activity either.  As always, the imagination pouring from my class makes me want to keep going back to work.

We could have done a readers’ theater, or pull a play from somewhere  But, we have been there and done that.  It is tIme to spark those synapses a bit after hours of testing has dulled our  senses.  The end of the year also means that  the phrase “simple activities” is not part of my end-of-the-year-engage-the-kids vernacular.  I’m still working on the Global Project, because it needs to be done. Performing arts, global awareness, and small children…oh the possibilities.

I also know that the 5th grade field trip is looming.  Just think, hundreds of 5th graders, in a narrow cave-a mile under the earth, followed by a river boat ride.  This is what dreams are made of.  You never know who has claustrophobia, until it is too late.

For the next five weeks, I will be embroiled in Odysseus’s and Robin Hood’s journey to Wonderland.  Maybe, I’ll find my mojo somewhere between the tea party and the battle with the Cyclops.

K