Archive for June, 2011

Mission Statement

Jun 15 2011 Published by under education

Chris Lehmann’s Graduation Speech has the ring of a mission statement for all of us working in schools and struggling to keep our eyes on the prize:

And after you have forgotten the granular details of the periodic table of elements, continue to honor the scientific spirit of inquiry, always asking powerful questions and seeking out complex answers.

That is, we hope, what you have learned from us. That inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are not just words in a mission statement but an iterative process of learning that can and will serve you the rest of your life if you let it. And perhaps above all else, remember that throughout that process, there are those in your life who have been there, who have cared about you, who have mentored you, and in doing so, hope that you will pay that forward. That you will care for those around you. That you will understand that the intersection of that ethic of care and that spirit of inquiry starts with asking the question, "œWhat do you think?" caring about the answer, and then taking action.

Congratulations, Chris, and to SLA’s class of 2011 as well. I agree; it’s more than just words. Take care.

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Hearts and Minds

Jun 04 2011 Published by under borderland,education

Going NowhereIn this end-of-year reflection, I’m tackling the “no excuses” dictum. Based on this year’s test scores, it appears we may at last have reached terminal status as a Level 5 (failing) school. Officially this means,

The district is required to prepare a plan to carry out one of the following alternative governance arrangements:

  • reopen the school as a public charter school,
  • replace all or most of the staff who are relevant to the school not demonstrating AYP,
  • enter into a contract with a private management company,
  • transfer operation of the school to the department, if agreed to by the department,
  • or any other major restructuring of the school"™s governance arrangement.

It sounds bad. Yet…

  • Our principal was chosen by the Alaska Association of Elementary Schoool Principals as the National Distinguished Principal for 2011;
  • We have a strong school community, with a significant number of students coming from outside our attendance area boundary because they appreciate the work we do with their kids;
  • Parent input surveys were 99.9% supportive of our efforts this year;
  • Our average rate of proficient-level test scores for sixth grade consistently exceeds the district and statewide rates;
  • We passed our Title I audit and site inspection last year, with a complement from one of the monitors who said, “When I return to teaching, this is the type of school I want to become a part of.”

So, unofficially at this point, we may be nothing more than just another example of school policy roadkill, a perhaps-unintended casualty of what amounts to little more than a numbers game, and we’re left to wonder what will happen to us under our new special status – a status that nearly all schools will eventually attain as the demand for 100% passing rates by 2014 draws ever nearer. Hoping that none of those mandated “alternative governance” measures will kick in, we know that sentiment in Alaska runs from cool to openly hostile toward federal interventions in just about any area you look at. So we’ll wait and see.

As for me, I am done caring about reformist nonsense. At a staff meeting earlier this year we were discussing our AimsWeb Data Boards put up around the room to show how many students in each grade level are below proficient, at risk, or proficient based on how well they handled an oral one-minute timed reading. To me, this was a disgusting display of a brain-dead method to evaluate reading. We were asked to say what we planned to do to improve our students’ scores. Since the data showed lots of kids scoring “below proficient” in first and second grade and very few in that category by the time they got to sixth, I observed that the trend was positive, and that at least as far as word-calling skills go, we seem to be doing all right. Teachers at each grade level announced what they planned to do, like focus on comprehension, vocabulary, decoding – the usual. When it was my turn, I said I’d be going with the happiness plan. What’s that? It’s getting the kids to enjoy reading so that they do it on their own. How does it work? Easy. Give them choices and time to read every day, and then celebrate their accomplishments. I got a round of applause. Kind of sad, really, when I think about what that might mean.

People say that testing narrows the curriculum. Pressure to make the cut does worse than that; kids with the greatest needs tend to get trampled. Diane Ravitch points out that the one sure way to succeed in this environment is to stop enrolling poor kids, or kids with language limitations, homeless kids, or those with learning disabilities:

Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible, given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on academic performance. Nevertheless, some politicians believe that the right combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement. Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an excuse for low expectations and bad teachers.

To prove that poverty doesn"™t matter, political leaders point to schools that have achieved stunning results in only a few years despite the poverty around them. But the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny. Usually, they are the result of statistical legerdemain.

Being scapegoated for not being miracle workers, teachers and teacher unions should remind these critics that there is no excuse for child poverty, now running close to 21% in the U.S. If poor kids don’t do well in school, then let’s address the real problem and take care of them. Knowing that sick kids don’t do well in athletics do we blame coaches for not making them winners? People would ridicule the idea.

Ignoring what we know about the effects of poverty on families and children creates the impression that schools are somehow the cause of a social condition rooted in economic policy. William Mathis, director of the National Education Policy Center, explains the harm done to kids and to all of us when reformers “shine the light only on schools and leave the greater void in darkness”:

There is great harm in this myth, that schools can do it all. It provides the excuse for politicians, vested interests and advocates to wrongly declare schools "œfailures." It gives a false justification for firing the principals and teachers who work with our neediest. It tells us a complex society does not need to invest in its skills or its children. It serves as a moral cloak for actions that are technically unjustified — as well as just plain wrong.

I’ve seen enough “data”. Next year my classroom is going to be about creativity, projects, and having fun with ideas. The way I look at it now, every year may be my last, and I don’t want to go out playing a numbers game that was rigged against me and my students from the start. Rigidly applied standards will fail the kids; that’s not my job.

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Areas of Smoke

Jun 02 2011 Published by under borderland,education

School is out. We’ve been off for a week, and summer has reached out and grabbed us by the throat this year.

Green-up, that amazing day when the whole forest leafs-out at once, came along in mid-May, as usual.
Green-up 2011

Just a couple of days later on a bright, beautiful Friday afternoon, I saw this on my way home from work.

I watched it develop for most of my 20 mile bike ride that afternoon. It was eerie – beautiful and terrible at the same time. No emergency vehicles or helicopters, but lots of people stopped along the road looking at it, taking pictures and talking on cell phones. A few forestry trucks passed by me after I got up closer to it. I turned up the road to our house and rode another 8 miles away from it, and the day continued as if nothing out of the ordinary was taking place behind me, over my right shoulder. When I got home, though, my kids gave me an up-to-the-minute report on exactly where the fire was; they were texting everyone they knew who lived near it.

Fortunately, it rained a bit, and the fire calmed down.

Then came record heat for a few days, and a new situation developed just north of where we live. This is what it looked like the night before last, from our deck:
Hastings fire

This one is bigger – and closer. The Chatanika River and a fire line along Old Murphy Dome Rd. are the only things that stand between us and it. Cooler weather and a favorable wind today has helped. Yesterday I choked on smoke while planting broccoli and listening to low-flying helicopters pass over. The weather for today says, “… Mostly cloudy. Isolated showers in the morning. Areas of smoke. Highs around 70. Northeast winds 5 to 15 mph in the morning. Northeast winds 10 to 20 mph with…local gusts to 30 mph developing by late afternoon.” Rain, good. Wind, not. Nothing short of a major rain is going to stop this one.

Lots of things are competing for my attention now. Our school year ended with the news that we likely did not make the cut for our testing targets this year for our special needs kids, and the school will likely fall to Level 5 in AYP hell/purgatory. It is my heartfelt wish that Arne Duncan and President Obama could join us there! They should see for themselves how many of us are willing to chase rainbows or twist ourselves into knots to pass tests that tell us nothing that isn’t obvious from just talking to the kids. One thing for sure, I’m done caring at all about whether anyone passes or not. I won’t even look at test scores anymore. We’re fucked no matter what, since working hard to pass the damn things means taking all the joy out of learning stuff.

Until this year, I thought that the tests themselves weren’t so bad, and that the damage came from the uses they were put to. But I see things a little differently now, after going through some practice items with my students this year. I overheard one of my students with limited language skills say to himself, “I’m so stupid!” Ouch! Test prep is more educational for me than for them. Some changes are due. I’m going to kick my evil plan up a notch or two next year. More on that later.

In the middle of all this travail, life goes on. Fourteen years ago we planted a tiny little bare-root, siberian crabapple twig in the yard behind our house. Now it’s a magnificent tree, and full of tiger swallowtail butterflies this year.
Tiger Swallowtail

Seem like a good time for some music (if the embed code works.) This cover of Gimme Shelter seems to suit the moment. It just came out from the amazing Playing for Change project.

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