Dear Mr. Teacher Man

When I emailed you last week about the art project/book report, it was hard not to put my teacher hat on. I know I am not your regular parent, so I feel I owe you a better explanation.

There’s not much I know about teaching fourth graders. I have one, but he’s my first so I’m a rookie. When I called into question the project that seemed heavy on artsy and light on standard mastery, I wasn’t questioning the teaching.

I know you do what they tell you, mostly. So did I, mostly.

I’m not even questioning the status quo in education. I was there when it broke. I understand what went wrong.

Except for this one part.

What the heck happened to the boys?

Go look at a first grade classroom and you’ll see them. They’re bright eyed and excited. They can’t sit still because everything around them is SO. AMAZING. They leap out of their socks to answer questions, shouting over the quieter kids. At recess they explode out the door and barely make the grass before falling into a laughing, pushing, wrestling mass. They kick balls over the fence. They can’t wait for math after lunch. Adults say things about them like “He is so smart. If only we could bottle that energy.”

Ten years later, when they spilled through the doorway of my high school classroom like a pack of puppies headed for the food bowl, they were still bright-eyed. They still shouted over the quieter kids. They still kicked balls…over the fence. They wore uniforms on Friday nights in the Fall and letterman’s jackets through the Winter.

And learning was dead to them.

I always assumed that it was the black hole of middle school that did it.

But these last six months of fourth grade have made me wonder. It’s all become very feminine.

Cooperative learning, heavy in social interaction and emotional language skills. Gabriel told me how he had a right answer very quickly one day, but you made him conference two more times before you would accept it. I’m sure that you have a good reason, but here’s what he said: “I kept thinking I was wrong mom, every time he sent me back.”

(By the way, there was a time we used cooperative learning in high school. I stopped doing it in honors classes though, because a right answer is a right answer is a right answer and honors students will tell you to take your extra conference and stuff it. Just in case you ever think high school might be for you.)

Then there was Shelter Day. A fourth grade rite of passage: researching and building a replica shelter of a Native American tribe. But you made them do it for six hours. Six hours of popsicle sticks, glue guns and construction paper. Gabe was done by 10 am, and no wonder. When was the last time you crafted for six straight hours?

His grade reflected the fact that he “didn’t use his time wisely”.

At our parent conference you compared one of his lit circle posters to another student’s to show that his wasn’t as well-planned as hers. While you stayed on that point for more two minutes, I took a closer look at the content of the posters. Gabe’s demonstrated mastery of what he had been reading, a deep and rich understanding. Hers had half the words, half the depth and twice the pronouns.

But it sure was pretty to look at.

Which brings us to this particular project. The book report with the one pager and the list of very feminine art project choices to choose from. A poem. A collage. A mural. A video. A map.

He read the book in three days. He passed the test with 100%. The one pager took two days, with multiple drafts. You better believe Mama runs a Writer’s Workshop at home.

Everything that had to do with the book and the report, he nailed. But the map was a wall he crashed into at 75 miles per hour.

So I asked about a rubric. Maybe it was a unit on cartography masquerading as a book report. Or an art lesson on perspective and spacing and not a language arts assignment.

But there was no rubric. And all he kept saying was “it has to be neat, it has to be perfect”.

When he looked at me and said “I’m going to fail”, I sent you the email. Because it hit me like a punch to the gut: This is it. This is where we start to lose him.

From a collaborative point of view, I’m here to help. It’s as hard to come up with ideas to fit every child’s learning modality as it is to admit a long-time traditional assignment needs an overhaul.

From my mama’s heart though, I’m telling the collective educational environment this right now: You are not turning my joyful, self-motivated, sponge of a learner boy into those teenagers who used to explode through my door and settle for Cs. Upper elementary school will not teach him that just because he is coming into his physical maturity and is the very blessed opposite of quiet and patient, he isn’t “right” for school.

I know you work your butt off for these kids and that you believe in what you do and are called to it. Your work is sacred.

But I also know that sometimes, we stop seeing the edges.

So I’m shining a light there and showing you there’s something to look at, something to consider.

Thank you for all that you do. But maybe it’s time to do it differently.

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My Child Was Bullied And I’m Talking About It

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I need to talk to you about bullying and what you think you know.

Remember when we were in school, and the bullies were big and tough and loud? They pushed people around and stuffed them in trashcans. When they ran their mouths they knew it could mean a fight and they were ready. Stuff went down after school in the allies and parks all over town.

This was no good, so schools instituted zero tolerance policies for fighting. And then they instituted no self defense policies. Which meant that everyone who threw a punch, in aggression or self-defense, got a mini-vacation.

When this went down at the high school level, it was completely ineffective. If you swing on somebody in high school—and probably middle school—you better dig in because the only thing that’s breaking it up is Mo, the lunchroom monitor. And she’s not going to be nice when she does it.

But in elementary school, the no self-defense policy translated more uniquely.

Up until about second grade, kids will tattle on each other to the extent that nothing bad ever really has a chance to happen.

But then things change and tattling becomes ratting, or snitching, so kids don’t do it anymore.

In this atmosphere, verbal aggression has rooted in and exploded. Kids with fast mouths no longer have to worry about their classmates knocking their teeth out, so they sit quietly in the back of classrooms and pick and pick and pick. They follow other kids around in the lunchroom and on the playground and they snark and needle and push. They know that if someone calls them out, it’s tough to prove and easy to lie.

Three weeks ago we sat down with Gabriel’s principal to tell him our son had been bullied for months. The behavior was aggressive, repeated and based on a power imbalance—three main elements of bullying behavior.

We had given Gabe all the traditional ways to handle it: walk away, tell an adult, ignore it. We spoke to his classroom teacher who confirmed he was a target and that she had followed the classroom discipline progression. We were not the first parents to complain about these kids.

We told the principal that Gabriel did not feel safe at school, emotionally or psychologically. He lived in constant fear that every wrong answer, every trip or dropped pencil, would earn him attention. He stopped eating lunch, because they called him fat every day. They mocked his athletic ability, telling him that he sucked at everything he did. When he challenged them, they told him that no one liked him because he was always complaining.

After he exploded one afternoon, and his heart and mine were in tiny little pieces on the floor, I asked him why he had waited so long to tell us.

“I thought they would stop” he said. “If I could just show them I was good enough, they would stop.”

Our first meeting with the principal was unsatisfactory. We know there’s a problem, we’ve decided to implement a program, just give us a chance.

I made sure he understood that he had an obligation to keep Gabe safe and if he didn’t, we had told Gabe that he could keep himself safe. I told him that we would not hesitate to remove Gabe from the school and if we went, we would go loudly.

For three weeks, Gabriel reported every day that things were better.

And then Tuesday I got a phone call after lunch.

Gabriel has been involved in an altercation.

When I picked him up, again the truth exploded out of him—he’d been lying to us, nothing had gotten better, the constant harassment had continued. He didn’t tell us because he was controlling it. When I asked him what that meant, he said he was “controlling his anger”.

Tuesday he listened to an argument over who was going to get “stuck” with him on their team, and then endured a chant of “you’re it, you’re it” until finally, he’d had enough. He punched one of the kids in the face, hard.

He got suspended.

I wanted to know what happened to the bully. We can’t tell you, that’s private information.

But people talk. The bully was not suspended. Maybe he was counseled. Again.

At our re-admit conference the morning Gabriel came back to school, I backed the principal off when he tried to tell me it was an inexact science, one kid’s word against another’s.

This particular child has a long history of treating others poorly. The teacher supports Gabe’s version of their relationship. We were not the first parents to complain about this child.

What about progressive discipline? What about fair and equitable treatment? What about the school’s policy against bullying?

We cannot divulge another child’s discipline status.

Then how do I know you are keeping my son safe?

Before we left, I told the principal that the first day back would be the best opportunity for harassment. The bully would feel like he had free rein, since Gabe had already been suspended, to try and push Gabe over the edge to expulsion.

Oh no, we’ve talked to him. We think he got the message. Plus we will be extra vigilant.

All day long, the bully followed Gabe around asking “Why’d you hit me? Why’d you hit me? Why’d you hit me?”

In the classroom.

On the playground.

So much for vigilance.

There are only two options here: The principal failed to discipline the bully at all, or the discipline fell on deaf ears.

Either way, Gabe is not safe there.

My anger is beyond words. This is a school run by people of my faith and they have utterly failed my son, ignoring a serious issue by hiding behind a curtain of humility and prayer. Compassion for the bullies and their troubled behavior overruled the concern for Gabe’s well-being.

A common failing of faith-based schools.

He will not be the first student to leave the class because of issues like this.

For well-meaning and understandable reasons, we have given too much power to the mean kids with fast mouths and they have figured out that words are hard to hear, hard to prove, hard to corroborate. Administrators are flummoxed by this dilemma, terrified of lawsuits and in way over their heads. Companies are hawking anti-bullying programs that promote non-violent solutions to bullying problems or focus on positive behavior reinforcement, and schools buy them to be able to tell parents Yes, we have a program in place.

The program doesn’t help anyone hear better. The principal was astonished to hear that the bully had engaged Gabriel. But I watched them all day.

As a society of parents, we tell our children that it is not ok for them to defend themselves. Don’t hit. Don’t yell. Don’t confront.

Ask.

Compromise.

Yield.

What are we doing? Enough is enough.

 

Why My Kids Will Never Win A Perfect Attendance Award

I've had this one in my home in some form or fashion for almost twenty years. This MOVES me.

Look. The perfect attendance award at school is a sham. It is. There is no real accomplishment attached to being at school Every. Single. Day.

First of all, the probability of your kid making it through the school year without some kind of significant illness is akin to lottery odds. Therefore, a kid with perfect attendance in June will have literally poisoned the competition.

His or her teacher does not thank you. Trust me. I have met dripping snot students at the door of my classroom and refused them admittance. Especially the years when I was pregnant and cough syrup and Sudafed were out of my reach.

Oh no. You are not bringing that in here. To the nurse you go.

SARS aside, there is no real reason for kids to be at school every single day. After all, adults don’t go to work every single day, and school is waaaay more taxing for a kid’s brain than work is for an adult’s.

You think I’m crazy?

Kids don’t buy shoes online at school, and retirees and SAHMs are not the only reason that Cyber Monday has become the busiest shopping day of the year.

Just saying.

I come from a long line of skipping school for good reasons. Like Disneyland. Disneyland is the perfect reason to skip school. No one in their right mind goes to DLand on the weekends, or during the summer, so once or twice a year my brothers and I would wake up late to the smell of pancakes on a school day.

It could only mean one thing: Mickey shaped pretzels in our immediate future.

Vacation is another solid reason to miss school. One of Kate’s friends is in Maui this week. Her parents are brilliant. It’s the perfect time to hit Maui. Who wants to go to Hawaii in the summer? What would be the point of that?

Your kids’ teachers will only care if 1) It’s state testing time—but you know where we stand on that; opting out of testing to hit Washington DC makes all kinds of sense or 2) It’s finals time—and we agree there: DO NOT miss finals. It messes with the grading.

Sometimes, I keep my kids home just because. A few weeks ago we missed the Jog-A-Thon, which is a big deal at our school. Seriously—a lot of kids run ten miles or more at this thing. They raised $63,000.

It happened to fall on the same day as my dad’s 70th birthday, and he was in town. There was no way my kids were going to school that day, not when there was a birthday picnic to be had.

They will be checking out early the next two Fridays so that we can attend football games, one at Oregon State and one at Oregon. Gabe happens to be playing in the one at Oregon. That’s a great reason to miss school.

Come June, my kids will sit quietly while the Perfect Attendance kids are called up at the awards assembly. They’ll turn to find me in the crowd, like Gabe did last year, to give me a shrug and a smile. Or tell their friends, like Kate did, “That will never be me. I will never get perfect attendance. We have to miss school. It’s like a rule in our family.”

Yep. There are adventures to be had and we will be having them. No certificates required.

 

For the Rookies, on the First Day of School

For the rookies in 2015-2016!

There's nothing better than brand new school supplies!
There’s nothing better than brand new school supplies!

At the very core of education, in your own classroom, there is nothing like the magic of educating kids. Nothing. You see moments in a kid’s life, flashes of brilliance and frustration; you hear them laugh, you see them cry. You are mom, friend, sister; you are at once the coolest cat and the biggest bitch; you will love them, and have days where you could climb a mountain; you will hate them and have days where you wish it was still legal to smack them.

You will love their parents. You will hate their parents. You will see some beautiful souls and some souls bound for the deepest parts of hell. You will hear stories that make you believe in the human spirit, and stories that give you nightmares. Students will lie to your face; parents will lie to your face. One day, a student will tell you a truth so terrible that you will wish they had lied. You will help them while your heart is breaking inside.

You will want to save them. Then you will learn that some kids are not meant to be saved by you. And you will cry.

You will know you are on the right track when the question of your reputation results in fierce debate between the kids who love you and the kids who hate you. Change is hard for teenagers, just like for grown ups. When you push them, they’ll push back. Stay strong. I once had a student named Jerome revise a paper 9 times to get a B and when he did, he hung that thing proudly on the fridge. And didn’t speak to me for two weeks.

I was so proud of him.

You will make mistakes. Tons. There’s no way to talk to 200 kids a day and not say something stupid on a fairly regular basis. When you do, just apologize. They will respect you forever because no one ever apologizes to teenagers. Let them learn from you that apologies don’t make you weak, they make you honorable.

The kids–they will strip you down and make you see who you really are. Then, if you let them, they will make you better, even the ones who make you crazy first.

Maybe them most of all.

So best of luck. You’ll need it between principals trying to make quotas and veteran teachers with an ax to grind and an entire political system that likes to demonize your profession. But it’s not cliche that you are in charge of the future so you have to find a way to manage. You’ll want to quit. All of us wanted to quit sometime in that first year, usually in January or February.

But hang on.  I promise that by May you will feel much better.

In Favor of Opting Out

 

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Do you know about this Common Core testing?

Do you really know?

I listened to two third grade teachers explain tonight that there are TWENTY 45 minute blocks of testing. TWENTY. For third graders. All on a computer, reading text and answering questions about the text while scrolling through and trying to keep track of where they are. And then having to read two pieces of text and then write a 2-3 paragraph essay where they CITE from the two pieces of text. Typing on a computer, while scrolling back and forth.

Can you do that???

Let me tell you what we will learn from this type of testing.

We will learn that if we’re going to test third graders on computers, we had better spend more time teaching them how to use a computer. Some schools have already started assigning 40 minutes of keyboard homework a week.

Don’t look now, but what happens if a student doesn’t have a lap top at home?

And we’ll learn that we need to make sure the directions are written at grade level and aren’t so long that the kids have to scroll through them.

That’s right–directions so long that they don’t fit in the screen and require third graders to scroll. Rule number one in the blogging world is to keep your posts short enough that people don’t have to scroll. So they don’t, you know, LOSE INTEREST. And that’s for grown-ups.

And also that the text pieces need to be grade level texts.

You might think that would be a given.  But then, copyrights cost money, and things aren’t public domain until they are 100 years old. I learned this lesson when I asked why on earth we were testing 11th graders with Thoreau. Thoreau. “Because he’s free”.  And those are the kind of solid, research based answers upon which  these tests are built.

And also that if a third grader has to navigate six feet of scrolling screen to read two pieces of text, then type a two paragraph essay in which they are required to cite the afore-mentioned texts–at some point a lot of them will say the third grade version of “F*ck it” (which for some of them will be “F*ck it” and really, who can blame them)–and just hit “Enter”.

We will not learn what the child actually knows or how effective their teacher is in the classroom.

Elementary schools are producing children who excel at one thing: reading directions.  You think I’m exaggerating? Watch this: in the Fall, the school districts will make teachers sit down with their data and try to figure out how they can be more “effective”. Teachers aren’t stupid, they know that too many Americans believe that low test scores equal shoddy teachers who drink coffee and read the Sports page while their students run amuck. So they will generate action plans that look something like this: Spend more time on keyboarding. Practice scrolling. Familiarize students with academic direction language. Practice these skills every six weeks and re-evaluate.

I do not believe in conspiracy theories. The Bad Guys In Washington are not purposefully trying to create a whole generation of worker bees.

But they are creating a whole generation of worker bees. Standardized testing was a nice dream. In practice it has been a disaster that will require decades of recovery in the US.

Maybe you are a college educated stay at home parent who has time to fill in the gaps of your child’s education. Maybe you can afford private school, which looks nothing like this.

But if you aren’t and you can’t, then what?

There’s only one thing to do: opt out. Not because the test can hurt your child.

Because the test is hurting the quality of your child’s education. That’s a BIG and DANGEROUS difference.