Who’s voice should raise up?

Last night we talked with a small group of parents and staff about issues at school. There were conversations about daily mundane challenges like staff parking and critical issues like understaffing. All of the teachers there also happen to be city residents, one of them is also a parent of a student at our school.

In short, we are invested in this school’s success.

So, when a parent suggested going straight to the School Committee with some issues, I was taken aback when the principal patiently explained that the district has to take the big picture and that, though our issues feel very personal, the folks at central office need to look differently.

My reaction to that was, I don’t care.

That’s not quite right (nor is it what I said in response). It’s not that I don’t care, but rather that it doesn’t change my feelings or my right and responsibility to speak up. As a teacher at this school, as a citizen of this city, I have a voice. If we, those who know what’s happening at our school, those of us directly impacted, don’t speak up, then those folks at central won’t understand the problem. Yes, they have many more schools than ours to think about. Does that mean we shouldn’t demand they give us the attentional and time we need? Of course not.

I hope the parents, students, and staff at every public school in the state use their power to voice concern. And if every person from every school raised their voice to the School Committee it could mean that they hear none of us in the cacophony. But it could also inspire them to join in the chorus. And really, that’s what I would expect from them. 

The members of the School Committee put themselves up for election because, I think, they would agree with me. Every one of them says publicly that they believe in our schools and want the best for our students. Because the best for our students results in the best for our city. Shouldn’t we believe them? And, taking them at their word, shouldn’t we try to help them?

I appreciate every person in my city who puts themselves up for election to any post. I appreciate the time and energy and vulnerability they give to my city. I’m here to work with them, as a citizen and as an employee. 

 

What does good PD look like? (Hint: it’s not this)

I just spent 2 ½ hours of our PD time at the local bowling lanes. On the face of it, that sounds like a great thing. What a cool boss to give time to bowl. 

Yeah, but. 

I mean, you know there has to be a yeah, but. 

What school staff can really afford to spend 2 ½ hours of limited PD time at the local bowling lanes? Not ours. Our staff needed time to learn about the plan to park their cars given that we have lost several parking spots at the same time we gained several staff members. Our staff needed time to discuss our approach to tomorrow’s active shooter drills that we are required to do with students. Our staff needed some time to discuss student behavior and the creation of school-wide values. Our staff needed time to discuss STEM curriculum and initiatives, given that we are the STEM school for the district.

We did none of these things.

Here’s what we did:

We waited almost 15 minutes for our principal to arrive after the rest of the staff gathered in the cafeteria for our “hard start time.” (Where, by the way, I helped arrange tables since our admin hadn’t prepared the space.)

We got a jumbled explanation of a “Data Wise” plan, with no visuals, no framework for the learning before we were sent off to fill in a template for an hour. (The template was emailed to us 20 minutes before we were scheduled to move to the next activity.) Fortunately, I work with a great team, so we made good use of this time to discuss a concern we have noticed by looking at our Math data. We made some concrete plans to address the issue and track student progress. The template was busy work. There is no plan that we can see of how this will be used for a school-wide effort so we focused on trying to strengthen our own teaching.

We got our next assignments 10 minutes before we were to arrive at our next activity, making it really difficult to deal with the problems in the assignments. For example, ¾ of the 4th grade team was assigned to the same committee. The same happened to the 2nd and 3rd grade teams. When my colleague and I went down to ask that this be changed, we got a lame response about how “I put you where you asked to be put.” Well, we were sent a survey asking for our top 3 committee choices. Our understanding was that we would be placed in one of those choices, based on interests and needs. (Else, why have a top 3 rather than just one choice?) Putting an entire team on the same committee is less valuable than spreading them out, since it would give no grade level representation in many areas.

Screen Shot 2019-11-06 at 5.28.09 AMSo, with our concerns and requests rejected, we went to our assigned spots (well, mostly) where we actively engaged with our teams because we’re professionals. Then, halfway through the committee meeting, we were emailed an agenda to fill out, an agenda that our principal must have spent the prior twenty minutes creating when she was supposed to be actively engaged in her group. Or, I should say, “finding”, because it was clearly cut and pasted from some other organization (or did she intend for us to include an opening prayer at our public school?). 

 

Then we got a surprise that we were having off site PD at the bowling lanes. (Surprise, get in your car and drive to a bowling alley. I hope you dressed appropriately!) This announcement was given 15 minutes after our lunch hour started where folks were encouraged to leave the building to enjoy one of the many restaurants that we never have time to visit. (That was nice, but then, with the travel time to the bowling alley, no one was really able to stay and enjoy their lunch.) Timing is everything. Several teachers walked quickly to the building union rep’s classroom to ask if we really needed to go. I wish I had been on that phone call. The union lawyer used a curse word that I swear he has never used before. 

To summarize, for the 6 ½ hour PD day, an annual day that principals know they have to plan, a day the school department uses to make valuable use of the day off from school students get for election day, our staff had 2 ½ hours of scheduled time. The principal leading the PD arrived 15 minutes late, so now we are down to 2 ¼ hours. There was 15 minutes scheduled in between the two activities, so now we are down to 2 hours. 

Later that night, I saw social media posts about the PD that happened at other schools. They did fun, team building things like a light show in the gym and crafty STEM themed activities. They also went into workshops targeted toward interests and teaching needs. Many of the workshops were designed and presented by fellow teachers and included both an understanding of the research and theory behind ideas and the practical implementation of learning activities in the classroom.

All of the ideas behind the Professional Development at my school were good. We need to carefully think about data and how it can inform our teaching and help make a strategic plan for our school. Staff should certainly work in teams on focused topics that will continue to move our school forward. Spending fun time with the larger staff and mixing in with colleagues you don’t usually work with is absolutely a valuable use of time. However, the implementation of all of these ideas was poor. There was no clear plan or purpose. There was no team reflection on the benefits and potential problems with planned activities. The day felt thrown together.

The teachers I work with put in long hours to become better teachers. We take time away from our families, we work through lunches, we squeeze productivity out of limited hours at school. Our PD day activities felt like they were made up on the fly, with no thought as to how it may benefit us as professionals. It is disrespectful. And, after only 47 days of school, we are already tired of it.

 

Elementary Identity

Screen Shot 2019-07-16 at 4.44.04 PMI’m participating in a FaceBook book club this summer for teachers. We are currently discussing Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan’s It’s All About the Books, a text designed to help teachers think about how we organize collections to make books accessible and enticing for students. 

The innocuous (I thought) prompt was about the books that serve as windows and mirrors for the kids in our classroom. If you are unfamiliar with the phrase, window books help us to see others in the world while mirror books help us to see ourselves. The book club was asked to think about the sorts of gaps we identified once we started looking at our libraries. My response told a little about the process I went through last year, realizing the gap in my library based off a conversation with a parent who told about the experience of transgender family members. This was my truthful response, not trying to get a rise out of anyone, honestly not expecting a rise out of anyone. The conversation pushed me to explore the internet resources for reviews of books that include LGBTQ characters, particularly characters who are exploring or who have embraced a different gender than that assigned on their birth certificate. My first priority was to make sure my student saw familiar characters in our book selection, my second was to give examples of transgender people to readers without first hand experience. It was a reminder for me to think about how fourth graders might be questioning their own identity in all sorts of ways. 

Because kids questions their identities all the time, always have, always will. 

For me, in elementary school, I questioned whether I was really a Lamarre. I didn’t feel like one. I felt like the rest of my family knew one way to live and I was stumbling through in another direction. Despite being the youngest of ten and a near clone of my siblings, I felt sure I had been adopted, taken in to help out a friend. I questioned my assigned identity as a Lamarre. 

For most adults, that sounds both ridiculous and trivial. But I promise you, for my fourth grade self, it was neither. I needed to see that the person I was, and the things I was not, were not only okay but exactly right. I needed to see some mirrors to help me really look at myself. And I needed to see some windows to help me better understand the people around me.

My identity crisis was far less difficult to deal with in the long run than questioning assigned gender. Kids who are wondering if they are losing their minds or if the doctor in the delivery room has made a colossal mistake need to see how others have dealt with the same thing. They need characters to fall in love with, to look up to, even to hate. Those same characters are windows into different lives for the majority of kids who are quite content in their genders. 

After reading that initial comment by a teacher, I wanted to cry. I thought of the several boys who have arrived at school with painted nails, or eye liner, or sparkles, trying to find the look that worked for who they thought they wanted to be. I agree, in second and fourth grade many of these kids are nowhere near ready to commit to a full identity. Who among was? But they felt that the narrow construct of boy wasn’t enough, and their families gave them some space to explore. What does this teacher say to boys with purple sparkly nail polish? And, how would she react to the girls who dress in the middle school boy uniform of basketball shorts and black sports socks every day? 


Screen Shot 2019-07-18 at 3.22.31 PMThe conversation continued. At first I was super annoyed that she was linking gender identity with an exploration of fantastical characters but that’s what got me thinking about my Lamarre identity crisis and pushed me to think of identity in a bigger way. Kids naturally are thinking about who they are, who they want to be, who people tell them they are. I’ve had students who were trying to figure out what it meant to be black or Khmer or Latinex. They proudly latched on to ethic descriptors, or tried to throw those descriptors off in favor of some other identity they felt had more cache or spoke to them more personally. I want our classroom to be a safe place to explore all of these questions about gender, ethnicity, and every trait that we are assigned or decide to adopt for ourselves. 

I don’t want to “be careful” about this. What is there to agree about? People of all sorts exist in the world. People, even as young as 5, make decisions about how they want to present themselves.

If I have a student who identifies as Superman, I won’t let her jump off the roof but I’ll certainly defend her right to wear a cape at school. 

 

 

Nature field trips for city kids

Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 11.23.16 AMStephanie was already waiting for us when we pulled into the parking lot at the trailhead. Three members of our teaching team (plus one pre-schooler) had agreed to meet up at the Lowell – Dracut – Tyngsboro State Forest to check it out as a possible field trip site for our fourth graders. The fact that the the preschooler said he had to pee alerted us to the absence of restrooms or outhouses. Could we bring 100 nine-year-olds to a place with no restrooms? We could let Ollie pee in the woods, but that would not be prudent for students on a field trip. 

We had been talking about the difficulties of our past trips to Pack Monadnock in New Hampshire. One of the biggest issues, besides the long bus ride that ate into our time to hike, was the challenge of the hike itself. On the one hand, we gave the kids a sense of accomplishment. We climbed a mountain! That was no small thing and the first year we did it, I referred back to that accomplishment whenever things got rough. “Yes, this problem is hard, but you’ve done hard things before, mountain climber.” But the first year we climbed that mountain felt like an accomplishment because we were able to rest at the top and revel in it. Kids grabbed binoculars to take in the view, they rambled over the boulders, they chatted with friends over lunch (which a volunteer was able to drive up the access road). Then, after gathering for that celebratory rest, we walked down the road, a steep slope but without the challenging trail and all boarded the bus at the same time and went back to school. This past year, the timing of the buses was wrong and before half of us even made it to the top of the mountain, we started hearing the panicked pressure to pick up the pace and get back to the bus. There was no pause for celebration at the top, only rush and frustration. Faster kids ended up sitting on the buses, waiting for the rest of us, bored, restless, annoyed. I did not often refer to that trip when the going got tough in class.

So, that experience, and our aging teacher knees, have inspired us to look elsewhere for a shared experience. Our team identified a few spots we knew of that would be close enough to avoid the rush for the bus, that would give an opportunity for connections to the life science unit, and that would include good examples of weathering and erosion to help launch the next unit on Earth science. Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsboro State Forest was the first on the list. What first attracted us was the local nature. Not just that the bus would be able to travel there quickly, but that we would introduce a lot of kids to this great resource within easy reach that they might be able to return to with their families. I was attracted to the wide pathway, even though it was 

 

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paved, because it would allow the kids to travel in big groups with ease. But Stephanie quickly noted poison ivy at the pathway’s edges and we knew that we would end up returning to school with a lot of itchy students, no matter how much preparation work we did to teach them to look for the “leaves of three” and to stay on trails.

As we chatted, Mariana mentioned Drumlin Farm, part of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, Stephanie talked about Hawk Valley Farm, conservation land managed by the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, and I repeated, for probably the 100th time, my admiration for the Riverwalk and Northern Canal Walkway right downtown. Other team members, who couldn’t join us this week, advocated for Great Brook Farm in Carlisle and East Boston Camps in Westford. We’ll take trips to these places together when possible. 

On this day, Mariana veered off with Ollie for a walk more appropriate for his four year old legs and Stephanie and I drove over to check out Hawk Valley Farm. It’s a smaller property but immediately more interesting than the state forest. We were bombarded with bird song and a jungle of green. It was also immediately clear that this property has not been as diligently maintained as it had been the last time Stephanie visited. Many trails were overgrown, likely maintained only by passing deer and other wildlife. Vines were trailing up the trees and creeping into the few mown trails and we couldn’t get to the stone wall she wanted to show me. But we could see the potential. There were opportunities to talk about how plants are structured to ensure their survival, and how those structures fail. There were small gathering places where we might group for a learning station. Still, there was one lone porta-potty and the space would demand that we split our grade into at least two smaller groups, arriving on different days. We’re still thinking of this spot, and I’ll reach out to the Conservation Trust for more information, but we’ll definitely pursue other options.

Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 11.09.24 AMIn fact, we pursued one more option later that same day. Since one of our goals with the trip was to introduce kids to resources available in our city, we wondered about the possibility of a walking field trip. Stephanie and I drove over and parked at the school then mapped out a walk through downtown to the head of the Concord River Greenway, another space managed by the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust. It’s not a long walk, though it does require crossing some pretty heavy intersections. We can cut through the canal walkway to avoid some streets and get a view of the retaining walls of the Pawtucket Canal and the workings of the Lower Locks. The Concord River Greenway Park itself is quite small, not yet connected to the other phases of the greenway (that is between 2 and 5 years away) but half of the field trip is the walk there itself. The Greenway is a great spot to see the Concord River at its end, just before it dumps into the Merrimack. It had long been a gathering spot for Native American families to fish during the Spring rush and locals continue to bring their poles and high hopes. It was also, because of the elevation drop, the site of the first mill, well before the Industrial Revolution that created Lowell. The spot is frequented by a good variety of birds and there is evidence of some small mammals. The trees and plants show great adaptation to the rising and falling river levels and the impacts of the urban environment. And of course, the rocks in the river are wonderful examples of weathering and erosion, the water constantly shaping and reshaping the land. 

Next week, we’ll visit one of the other spots on our list. And maybe one more the week after that. We are determined to provide our students with more than a learning opportunity to link to our science curriculum. We want to give them an experience, a chance to learn about resources in our city they may not have known were there, to hear birds and maybe catch a sight of a blue heron, to see the land for themselves and be the experts when walking with their families. 

Maybe we’ll convince our principal to let us bring the kids to all the sites. 

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Another great spot in Lowell. Not a mountain, but the slope will add challenge to the walk!

 

On bias and where to get coffee

I’m reading through Sara K. Ahmed’s book Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension as I work to plan lessons for next year’s fourth graders. Yesterday, I was using her section on seeing our own biases and dealing with the bias of others. I took a break and flipped to my Facebook feed to find a friend suggesting that she will not go to Starbucks anymore and I thought, oh, if only we were in school right now, this would be a great example to use with the kids.

Last week, a customer told a barista at an Arizona Starbucks that the group of six uniformed police officers chatting over their coffee made her uncomfortable. The barista, who has not been described in the news articles I’ve read but who I can only imagine was a young person, walked over to the officers, one of whom she knew as a regular, and told them about the customer’s discomfort and asked if they could move to another spot or leave the cafe. The disheartened officers left, posted about the event online, and Fox News and company started calling for a boycott of Starbucks. A boycott of all Starbucks, not just this location.

IMG_1885Now, I go to Starbucks (though the venti iced coffee in this picture was made at home this morning). There have been times when I really relied on them. It was my spot to wait while my daughter took riding lessons. I treated the Starbucks cafe in the Barnes & Noble as my personal office where I could escape the house and get some writing done. When the kids were little, that’s where one of us sat with a coffee and a book while the other parent circled the mall trying to get them to fall asleep in the carriage. I feel fortunate to live close to better, locally owned cafes now, but I’d still walk into a Starbucks if that was my best option and I needed a latte or wifi.

As the description of my cafe visits makes clear, I have some privilege. I have the money to buy espresso drinks, I have the leisure time to sip them while I use the cafe’s wifi, I have a spouse to tag team parent with so that I could do these things. And, I’m a white woman, dressed in clean clothes, with no visible disability, and so no one ever questioned my right to linger at a table.

In 2018, two black men were arrested because they sat at a table in the cafe without ordering. The barista called the police because the men were “refusing to make a purchase or leave.” Ultimately, six police officers were called in and the two men were arrested for trespassing. Never mind, as they tried to explain, that they were waiting to order until the third member of their party arrived. The arrest, caught on video and posted online immediately, led to protests against the cafe, a string of other complaints traded online, and then to Starbucks corporate shutting down all locations for a day of bias training for all employees. 

Six police officers in to arrest two men waiting for a friend. Six police officers chatting over coffee.  The connection is stronger than the coincidence of the number six.

Since 2015, news stories telling of police shooting people of color appear regularly. In fact the week before the latest Starbucks incident, police in that same town had shot a 14 year old Mexican-American boy while he ran away from them. This, on top of the national news stories, might put a few folks on edge.

The reports I’ve read have not identified the ethnicity of the uncomfortable customer.

I get that police officers have a more-than-stressful job. They put themselves in potential danger every time they go to work. They interact with people who are strung out on drugs, who are desperate. They see people on the worst days of their lives. The stress they bring home, the tension that lives in their shoulders all the time, must be brutal. I can’t even imagine.

As a teacher, I have a stressful job. It’s a very different kind of stress, of course, but I only mention it because, in my stress, I sometimes lose my cool. I yell and ball up my fists and say things I shouldn’t say. It happens, we’re human. And, knowing this, the district tries to offer opportunities to help. We talk about ways to help each other when we feel things getting out of control, we watch each other’s classrooms so we can take a calming walk, we organize weekly yoga classes and book clubs and drink-ups as ways to regain balance. 

If I were told that my presence at school was making someone uncomfortable, I’d be annoyed at first. I’d be angry and hurt. But then I hope I’d take some time to reflect.

I’d like the police force to take some time to reflect, too. What is happening in the world, in their state, in their town that would make someone feel uncomfortable at the presence of six police officers? How has the police force interacted with the public lately? How are they going to do their job of protecting the public if the public is afraid of them? 

The lesson I’m working on for my students, based on Ahmed’s book, asks them to move beyond the first reactions they might have to people. So, if they see a police officer and get angry or scared, I want them to be able to stop and look at the reasons why. What biases are they bringing to the situation? Can we admit that the sensational stories make the news and that a large percentage of police officers will not take their stress out on your brown-skinned son? Can we give this group the benefit of the doubt? 

Maybe the answer to that last question will be no. Remembering that privilege I have, I know that I have never been pulled over or questioned or followed or asked to leave a public place because of the color of my skin or my gender or my appearance. It’s easy for me to assume the best in people. I get to see their best more often. 

There is a fear in our country of brown skinned people. There is a fear of poor people. There is a fear of rich people. There is fear of police officers. There is fear of government. There is a fear of young people. There is a fear of difference. And we are all acting on that fear. The Starbucks customer acted on that fear. The police officers who posted about the incident acted on that fear. 

How do I teach a room full of fourth graders, their skin every imaginable shade of brown and beige and pink, to move past that fear and try to really see people with empathy and compassion? 

 

Starting the STEM year

I have been working on the Life Science unit that will open my fourth grade STEM work this
year. The life science standards for our grade are deceptively simple. Students need to be able t o “Construct an argument that animals and plants have internal and external structures that support their survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.” The science here, I think is simple and easily within the grasp of every fourth grader. The construction of a sound, evidence-based argument at the start of the year, now that is where the complexity comes in.

There are two important projects I want my students to be able to present at the end of this unit. One is a plan to improve our pollinator garden at the school using what we know about the visible structures of the plants and the pollinators we hope to support. In order to design, students will have to have an understanding of the roots, stem, and flowering structures of plants that are now growing in the garden. This gives us an opportunity to begin with observation skills and practice technical drawing so that we can show the important structures. We’ll also need to know how the climate, and changes in the climate, impact the growth of these plants. In particular, what is positive and negative about the habitat along the side of the school building? We might need to monitor sunlight and rainfall. Perhaps they will compare the temperature near the building to the temperature farther our in the grass. And, what does that mean for the plants? Some students might decide to investigate the phenomenon of flowers blooming earlier in the spring than usual and how the impacts the garden.

Once we know about the plants that are there and why they flourish, we can begin to think about plants we might want to add to the habitat. For this, we need to have an understanding of the pollinators who visit the garden. What kinds of plants are missing? Do we have what they need throughout the year? And, for that matter, is there a plant we should consider removing from the garden? We need to know how the structures of bees and butterflies and other pollinators allow them to interact with the plants. We also need to 

have a serious conversation about the desirable and undesirable creatures we might see in the garden. Are all bees good? Should we encourage worms? How about snails? What kinds of birds would we like to see visit? 

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There are a lot of observations that will lead to research questions that will inspire experiments that will ultimately result in a new garden plan. Making and defending these plans will satisfy the life science standards.

But, earlier this year, NPR reported that 65% of teachers say they are not teaching students about climate change and I realized that I was adding to that statistic. The life science unit is a good time to remedy this mistake. So, the next project I want them to take on is to create an ad campaign to encourage our community members to examine our habits that might be impacting the pollinator garden, and to make changes. For example, they might find out that warmer springs mean plants flowering earlier and therefore not available to butterflies when they migrate north. So, they could give that fact as part of a campaign to encourage parents not to let their car engines idle since that contributes to global warming. They might make a connection between pollution in the Merrimack River and the threat to dragonfly habitat and mount a campaign to keep trash out of our rivers and canals. Whatever project they choose, students will base their arguments on the scientific evidence about the plants and animals in our garden that they learned about throughout the unit.

And, they will do this in the first 6 weeks of school this fall.

As I typed that last sentence, the butterflies left the pollinator garden and fluttered in the pit of my stomach. What am I thinking? How am I supposed to complete such an ambitious project while still getting to know these kids? Why am I spending so much time and energy on one of the smallest science standards in our curriculum? And how am I going to learn enough about creating solid interdisciplinary project based lessons that will support a class with significant learning challenges? And that’s where I take a big breath, release those butterflies back into the wild, and ready myself for the work. It is precisely because of the large number of English Language Learners and struggling readers in the class that I started down this garden path. I want to open the year with attainable science. I want to prove to kids who are one or two grade levels behind in their reading skills that they are intelligent, observant, caring students who have a lot to contribute to our community. I want them to trust me and see that I trust them. 

So, we could read some chapters in our textbook and do some simple observations of meal worms and sow bugs and meet the basic requirements of our state standards. But my goal is bigger than that. At the end of our unit, I want to see students confidently pursuing questions about the world, deciding on the best way to communicate their information in a way that will inspire others to act. I want to see kids push themselves to read complex text because they want to learn about something. I want them to understand that the purpose of writing is to inspire, inform, or entertain their readers, and that, as writers, we make choices with those readers in mind. I want kids to know they are part of a larger community and that their actions have consequences, both positive and negative. And, I want them to understand that living organisms have structures that support their survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.

 

Failing in the midst of success

This weekend, I have planned my Math lessons for the week, created lessons to adapt the science curriculum to the constraints of my resources, and begun scoring 24 historical narratives.

But I’m not here today to complain about the work. I actually have a lot of fun with some of it. (Well, not so much reading 4th grade narratives.) After all, I chose this profession because I love both learning and teaching, because I thrive in the creative task of figuring out how to engage ten year olds in the science of energy transfer or the joys of character development.

It would be easier, though, to put in the 10 – 40 hours of additional work that teachers all over the country put in every week (above the 6 ½ hours they might be required to be in the school building) if we had safe, healthy classrooms with all of the materials necessary to teach and updated software on up-to-date computers, and maybe one or two more opportunities to pee during the day.

Our state legislature is making some important decisions about funding public schools. Massachusetts schools are among the highest ranked in the nation, recognized through several different metrics as graduating students ready for the world. (Here’s a link to the US Today article) However, we also have one of the largest achievement gaps between economically privileged and economically disadvantaged students in the nation. (This is what Citizens for Public Schools says about that.)

The Promise Act aims to implement suggestions from the Foundation Budget Review Commission with the goal of shrinking this gap. The Promise Act puts in place specific funding for low income students, English language learners, and students in need of Special Education services. Urban areas like Lowell, where I teach, or rural districts like Pittsfield struggle to supplement the state’s contribution which was calculated by a critically out of date formula.

One result of this chronic underfunding is money siphoned from building maintenance to cover the cost of staffing, not just this year but over the past ten years which means many buildings are now in dire need of repair. Roofs leak, mold blooms, rodents move in, plaster crumbles. I heard from one teacher in Springfield who said they put up caution tape around one side of the building to keep kids from getting hurt by falling pieces of the building.

Another result is diminishing resources for teaching. Subscriptions to learning sites we used to rely on have been cancelled so we spend more hours after school searching for good, reliable, free alternatives or pay for access out of our own pockets. Science kits aren’t replenished after consumable materials are used one year so that teachers have to do without, or come up with alternatives, or buy their own supplies.

Even in good financial years, teachers spend more hours working than the ones that show up on our paychecks. Now, in addition to all that time, we are working in a crumbling system. And, we’re being blamed for the crumbling.

Our schools are falling apart as a direct result of state neglect, but their disintegration is used as an excuse to move to private options. Governor Baker supports diverting public school funds to privately run charter schools in a false offer of “choice” to Massachusetts families. What choice have you given when your policies contribute to the demise of entire school districts?

We need our representatives to represent us. We need the state to recognize the responsibility to fund public education in a way that provides an equal opportunity to the kids in Lowell and Lexington and Leverett.

Public schools are not failing our kids, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is.

If you haven’t yet, or if you have but your Representative still is not convinced, please call or email and urge, hell, demand, that the Commonwealth fully and equitably fund public schools. Let’s pass the Promise Act (H586 and S238) this year.

Find out more at FundOurFuturema.org

 

End of year blues

I’ve been off this week. Today, it seems to be coming to a head and I just want to sit and cry. There’s nothing in particular wrong, no reason to cry. I was thinking that this was just one of those bouts with depression that sneak up on me every now and then and that just has to be lived through, but it’s hanging on, and it’s heavy, and I was starting to slump under the weight when I realized what the trouble was.

There’s only 12 days of school left.

No, I’m not sad to see the year end. I love summer break. What’s bothering me, what bothers me at this time every year, is a sense of failure. I wasn’t fully the teacher I wanted to be. I’ve never fully been the teacher I want to be.

There are the kids I never completely connected with, the kids I wished I had approached differently. There are readers I feel like could have made more progress toward reaching grade level if I had worked with them differently. There are mathematicians I feel like I should have focused on more. There are science lessons I would have organized differently, and software I would have liked to have used more effectively. I have a dozen writing lessons I would have liked to have given, a dozen more I’d like to give differently. There are still many books in my class “to read” pile that I could never fit into the last 12 days.

Too much this time of year I look at all the mistakes, all the missed opportunities, all the lack. In some ways, it’s good. I reflect on what worked and what didn’t and start making plans to do better next year. And every year I’ve improved in some way.

But the negativity is too much this year. And it’s weird because I had a super great class of kids, worked with a fabulous team, finished a CAGS in Reading with one of my favorite colleagues, participated in civic action to improve public education, and even started writing again. By all accounts, it was a great year, and that’s not even including all the wonderful days with my family.

Maybe, because it felt like such a good year and yet I still see students that are not where I wish they were academically that I really feel the sting of failure.

Today, for example. Today did not go as planned. The chemical reaction I planned as part of Science Stations wasn’t quite as dramatic as I had hoped. Mikey and Jose got mad at something in Music class and they were in a fiery state when I came to pick them up. And Chrissy was in tears when we were lining up after lunch.

But also today: Ivan, who had a very bad, no good, rotten sort of day yesterday started out this morning by telling me he was going to do his work today. And he did. He had a fantastic day. And the group of kids in that disappointing station gave good ideas for improving it for the next group (and Ivan told me it was super cool anyway). And Jose took the long way back to class from Music so he could calm down and Mikey gave himself a time out to get back on track. And so many caring classmates came over to help with Chrissy’s problem that we were able to come up with a solution in short order.

Mikey is still not able to independently apply his understanding of multiplication and division to new problems. But at the beginning of the year, there is no way he would have been able to get control of his strong emotions so quickly. That’s progress.

Chrissy still struggles to write in organized sentences,  But the social worker was worried that Chrissy wasn’t making connections with other students at all. Her peer groups with the social worker and carefully chosen work partners in class has really helped.

Ivan has yet to complete a writing assignment this school year. But, a month ago, his rotten day would have colored his entire week. Today, he worked on his historical fiction story for twenty minutes. No, it’s nowhere near done, but there’s progress.

If I just look at Mikey’s Math test scores or Ivan’s writing portfolio, I can convince myself that I failed. But if I look at things a little differently, I can see their growth.

I still want to find better ways to conference with students about their writing to push them to the next level. I want to craft better mini-lessons designed to get students reflective about their own work. I want to . . . there is a long list of what I want to do differently next year. But writing about today, writing about the progress in these uniquely brilliant student has improved my mood, improved my outlook.

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Not all the Science Stations went as planned, but the kids at the Glow Stick station were able to explain the conversion of chemical energy to light energy. So, there’s that.

I’m not perfect. I wasn’t a perfect teacher this year. My students aren’t perfect either. But we’re all working on getting better.

 

to homework, or not to homework

I’m assigning homework this week. Maybe that sounds normal to you, but it’s not to me. I hate homework. I begrudgingly assign math problems throughout the year, and now that we are in the final weeks of school I’m ready to completely call it quits. The weather is finally nice and kids should be spending every available minute outside.

So, why am I assigning homework? The answer is not easy. Here’s a bit of the map of my thinking.

While at the start of the year 180 days of learning seems adequate to cover all of the learning standards, we don’t really have 180 days. We have field trips, standardized testing, and school events that take up our days. And then there are the days where enough of us are “off” that little learning actually happens and we have to slow the pace or backtrack. Here, at the end of May, I find myself with a few concepts left that I want the kids to have time to explore in Math. These are important concepts, the sort of thing that helps them apply their mathematical understanding to real life situations. This is where they can use equations to calculate elapsed time or for doubling a recipe or to plan a trip. It’s an introduction, not a deep dive, but it’s an introduction that is necessary to move forward with the next units of math in 5th grade. So, I’m giving them homework to practice.

We are also deep into spring (summer) fever where the kids are having a hard time focusing on the work. I get it and I try to make our May and June days as physically active as possible. I’m doing that while also trying to stay in a routine since it is so easy to lose an entire day when we shift something. There seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that pushes kids to move more after the vernal equinox. We keep that instinct in check (sort of) when we keep with the routine of the school year. Their muscle memory is still at work, inspiring them to grab their math materials at 9:40. Homework is a part of that routine. I just feel like I need to help the kids stay in school mode.

But, I don’t like homework and I question the value of it. I always tell the kids (and their families) that they should read for twenty minutes or more every day, but I don’t assign a reading log or any writing connected to their reading. I just want them to read. I think reading everyday does, in fact, help all students. The more we read, the better readers we become. The more we read, the wider our vocabularies. The more we read, the more schema we build and connections we make in our brains. I wish every student would read for twenty minutes or more every day.

Throughout the year, I also assign Math homework from our math program. I almost never ask them to do all the problems on the premade sheets. It seems a bit unreasonable to ask for two or more pages. So, I skim the homework ahead and  have them circle 3 to 5 problems that seem worth doing and that seem manageable in 15 minutes or less.

And, when it comes right down to it, the main reason I assign homework is that my district requires homework. The suggested amount is 40-60 minutes per night, a minimum of four nights weekly. At 20 minutes of reading plus about 15 minutes of Math, I guess I’m out of compliance.

As I assign homework for these last weeks, and look ahead to how I might deal with the homework conundrum next year, I find myself revisiting articles on the value of homework. There seems to be no definitive answer to the question of homework’s effectiveness. Research has indicated that homework can both help students develop self-regulation and time-management skills and that it mostly serves as a point of conflict between parents and children. Since the choice of whether to assign homework has been made at the district level, well above my pay grade, I might as well focus my inquiry into the what of homework rather than the whether.

Experts here suggest teachers ask themselves a few questions. The one on most all of their lists is, “Is every student capable of completing the homework?” That’s the question I’ve been asking myself as I think about digital homework for next year. Most of my students this year have access to the internet, but that is not always the case. And, even this year I have a few who have no easy access. That means putting writing assignments on Google Drive or asking students to upload a photograph of an example of erosion could be a problem. But, as I look at our science units, having students look around for examples in their world seems like a really good way to reinforce the learning. I’m going to keep exploring ways to do this so that all students can participate.

Then of course, we should always ask ourselves, “What learning will result from this assignment?” Some people declare that no new learning should be a part of elementary homework, but rather a review of concepts covered in class. Review usually means practice math problems or fill in the blank sentence stems. But, what I want to come closer to is application or synthesis of concepts, rather than review. So, if we are studying energy conversion then students can look around at home for examples to share. Did their mom grill burgers for supper? That uses gas as a fuel (the potential energy) which is then converted into heat energy. Their bodies use the chemical energy stored in the food to be able to move. I’d love a short video posted to SeeSaw describing how their evening meal showed all of this energy conversion rather than a few words copied from a word bank to complete bland sentences.

A more thoughtful homework plan is on my list of things to work on for next year. But, in the meantime I’m giving homework this week. They still need to read at least twenty minutes, every day. And tonight, they need todo two math problems. I hope the photo I put up with the assignment shows that I empathize with their feelings about this.

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Unsustainable super teacher

Screen Shot 2019-05-22 at 6.42.48 AMThis post, inspired by my 7am to 9pm work day (interrupted by a leisurely dinner with the family), began an interesting conversation.

From teachers, there was agreement that the work is long and hard, that we neglect our families too often; that the demands are unreasonable and yet we continue to meet them. From non-teachers, there was praise for my efforts, as if they were unusual in the world of teaching, as if I were somehow saintly.

And that’s a problem. People tend to have a high opinion of teachers that they know – their family members, friends, their children’s teachers. Despite that high opinion, there persists a general distrust and disregard for teachers as a group. You can see that in the first response to my post. “Unfortunately, not all are like you.” There is an accepted negativity there. The cultural narrative is that teachers are getting away with taxpayers’ money as they sit back lazily insulting children all day.

We have to change this perception. If we don’t, it’s going to continue to be difficult to get the funding that schools need because our elected officials hold this view as well. Recently, when talking with a Massachusetts Representative about the need to increase the Foundation Budget to support public schools, a colleague was asked for assurances that the added money wouldn’t “just go into teacher salaries.”  She was flabbergasted, because she’s not a teacher. She wasn’t used to that derisive tone.

Now, as a Lowell Public Schools teacher, I’m actually one of the lucky ones. We have a strong union who has fought for us for years and secured decent salaries. While city support for health care benefits has taken a hit, we are still in a better situation than many of our colleagues in other districts. I would not begrudge any of those folks from putting some of the funding into teacher salaries. (That elected official represents my city, though, and I think his comment was more about his dislike of our strong union than any real understanding of teacher salaries, but that’s just my gut reaction; I wasn’t there to look for his half-hidden sneer.)

In my city, I think most teachers would want the money put into salaries by way of hiring more people. When I asked teachers in my building what they would want to support their work, if money were no object, almost all of them said more people. They wanted to see more classroom teachers so class sizes were more manageable and allowed for better differentiation. They wished for more Special Education teachers so that students had more than the minimum time with them and we could collaborate better. They wanted to see paraprofessionals who could support learning in smaller groups. They wanted a larger staff dedicated to social-emotional learning and who could support the many students we have struggling with mental health, with behavior problems, and with trauma.

After the addition of more staff, many people wanted to see an investment in the school buildings. We want safe spaces that are well maintained which would mean putting back the $10 million dollars we are underfunded in the maintenance department, and then adding more to make up for the chronic neglect of the past ten years. We want crumbling stairs repaired, playgrounds resurfaced, rodent infestations dealt with, additional classroom spaces built. We want our learning spaces to be designed to accommodate the learning that is expected there so art rooms would have the equipment and storage to support exploration of a variety of materials. We want science labs that allow for safe investigations into all aspects of the STEM curriculum. We want music rooms where kids can be loud, even on MCAS days. We want spaces where we can gather the whole school together to help build community and share in success.

If people think that most teachers aren’t doing their job then we will never get them to agree to more school funding. If people think that teachers ought to put in regular 10 hour days, while getting paid for six, then we will never get them to agree to more school funding. If people think that it is normal for kids to learn in spaces with mice, “it’s an old building” they say, then we will never get them to agree to more school funding. We have to speak out about these conditions. It is not normal. It is not sustainable. It has to change.