Saturday, August 13, 2016

An open letter to Paul Ryan and conservatives who think that feeding children for free at school is wrong.

Paul Ryan, a young leader, who holds family values dear spoke at the CPAC convention this year and attacked the government's feeding programs at schools.  My district last year offered free breakfast to ALL students (one way to keep the stigma of being a free and reduced lunch program kid).  Here is what he said.

He repeated a story Eloise Anderson, who serves in the cabinet for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, had related.  She once met a young boy from a poor family. And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. But he told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch — one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids’. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him.
He went on to say that “the Left” doesn’t understand this desire for dignity, not just comfort.
He went on to say that “the Left” doesn’t understand this desire for dignity, not just comfort.

 Dear Mr. Ryan;
I don't like labels, but I confess, that you would label me as a liberal because I believe that working together (my civic understanding of government is just that) we can provide what a child needs which includes a full stomach.  I have worked with children all of my adult life, and I know that without a full stomach a child will have an empty brain. I acknowledge the idea that is expressed above, knowing all too well that a child desperately needs to feel that s/he is important to another living soul.  Mr. Ryan, stop suggesting that people who YOU label liberal do not understand dignity.  That statement only drives us further into camps that attack one another.  Teachers spend a lot of time focusing on a child's dignity whether they vote Republican or Democratic. The food is not intended to fill up the child's soul.  It is meant only to make the child comfortable enough to learn and find the support and friendship that is available in the school to fill his soul.

You see, Mr. Ryan, school is filled with people who's souls are overflowing. The child has to be open to receive that overflow.  Teachers, counselors, librarians, and others there have chosen a life of service to children.  They are conservatives, liberals, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and yes, even Atheists who know the value of love and offer opportunities to their young charges to grow in love and caring.  Children have a natural desire to help one another.  I have watched as they accommodate a child in the classroom who is homeless and acting out in destructive ways.  I have seen teachers and parents who bring clothing and caring to the school to support these children.

Mr. Ryan you are quite right.  A full stomach doesn't fill the soul.   That job happens after the child has a full stomach.  It happens when teachers, parents and children come together to provide the love that is missing in a young life.  NONE OF THAT WILL HAPPEN IF THE CHILD IS HUNGRY!  If we (the government-- we the people) feed hungry children it is not an evil, soul destroying event!  It is not a panacea for a societal problem.  It is an opportunity to intervene and offer hope.




Monday, May 30, 2016

An ear for truth, George Washington was the 8th president of the United States?

One of the joys of being an elementary librarian is awakening and nurturing the questioning skills that kids need to be good thinkers and good citizens. The  dark side of questioning is answering.  How can students obtain ACCURATE and UNBIASED information in today's technological information silos? 

This was the question when  my morning news team presented their Interesting Fact on the last day of school.  Neal  proudly announced that George Washington was not the first President, but rather the 8th. Usually, I see their script the day before broadcast, but in the chaos of the last days, I had not seen it until 5 minutes before air time.

I knew that Neal found this fact on the internet, (that is where all digital natives go) and so we looked together to check for veracity by googling his statement.  I did not believe it to be accurate.  I explained to him that during the time between the revolutionary war and the ratification of the constitution  (March 1, 1781, and April 30, 1789) we had the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION which meant that the 13 colonies in most ways operated idependently. I was not sure that the position of "president" even existed.  But cetainly, the leader during this time would have had very limited powers.

As so often is the case, digging into history is complicated and a simple answer does not exist. The google search brought up ten articles which all concurred with Neal.  Beginning with Wikipedia. So we went to air with his "fact."   It was only later when I had time to do MY 'due diligence" that the truth was clear.  This illustrates why teaching about research and sources is crucial!   We need to discuss the value of crowd sourced reserch like Wikipedia (I am a proponent and editor).  But we also need to acknowledge its limitations. Let me describe how I approached this question. 

As a librarian I eliminated any of the articles that were ".coms" from initial consideration.  There are perfectly good dot coms but I wanted scholarly, refereed sources as well as the actual document itself.  That left just two of the ten sources to be viewed.  One was the Constitution Society.  Before I read their article I nosed around to see if I could find out if they had a bias.  This usually means checking a statement about who the organization is, its purpose, and goals, and determining where their funding comes from.  This group's self-description included the fact that it educates, and also litigates.  For me, that elliminated them from my initial run through (I already knew that they concurred with Neal) so I moved on. 

What propelled me to continue searching something that seemed overwhelmingly correct was the simple question, "Why would all our history books list George Washington, as our first President if this weren't true?"  That is a question I am sure the conspiracy theorists have an arcane answer for.

A really good article from the Department of State outlines some of the debate surrounding the articles themselves.  It turns out that John Hanson, was President of the Continental Congress in 1781.  In this position he was not The President for his powers were so limited he could not even appoint the secretary of state.  At least I knew now where the term "President" had come from.  But I needed more.  Did the people of his time consider him the president of the United States?

The definitive article on this issue came from Digital History, a University of Houston website with valuable primary sourced information and commentary by scholars.  It clearly illustrates the difference between the kind of research real historians engage in and what I was doing.  (They go to  primary sources, discuss among colleagues the opinions they are forming about their meaning, and rigorously vet their information prior to publication).  Here is a part of the article:

"It The Articles of Confederation created a national government composed of a Congress, which had the power to declare war, appoint military officers, sign treaties, make alliances, appoint foreign ambassadors, and manage relations with Indians. All states were represented equally in Congress, and nine of the 13 states had to approve a bill before it became law."   

The Articles created an alliance of thirteen independent and sovereign states who agreed to "enter into a firm league of friendship with each other" This sounds more like NATO than the United States!  In fact, in the Articles,  at the beginning of almost all the statements issuing power to do anything come the words, "No State, without the Consent of the united States, in congress assembled..."   So it was not surprising to find that John Hanson held the office known officially as "President of the United States in Congress Assembled" In other words he was the president of the Congress or its presiding oficer.  He had none of the powers we associate with our president.

 The University of Houston article continues, "Under the Articles, the states, not Congress, had the power to tax. Congress could raise money only by asking the states for funds, borrowing from foreign governments, or selling western lands. In addition, Congress could not draft soldiers or regulate trade. There was no provision for national courts.  The Articles of Confederation did not include a president. The states feared another George III might threaten their liberties. The new framework of government also barred delegates from serving more than three years in any six year period."

Indeed, going between the original Articles and then reading scholarly analysis helped me understand where all the 10 articles that Neal found went awry.  With today's internet being a place where anyone can publish information and look official, we must be more vigilant. I was confident I had solved the question at hand.  I could say that George Washington was in fact the 1st president of the United States, and that John Hanson held the office  known officially as "President of the United States in Congress Assembled"    I then felt free to explore the internet to see what I could learn.

Googling the phrase "John Hanson president," I discovered one site that confused John Hanson with the African American and asserted that Barack Obama was not the first African American President!Upon googling "John Hanson, first black president" 830,000 articles appeared!  Some of these eve had photographs of John Hanson!  (Photographs only go back to about 1840)  I did not go too deeply into this absurdity --- because it was clearly in the realm of conspiracy theory, but it illustrates again the difficulty in getting good sources for our students.  The idea that whatever we perceive as truth is truth is a dangerous one and we need to help our students learn to ferret out facts while they are young, so that when it is time for them to vote they will have an ear for truth, but as we have an ear for good grammar.



Sunday, May 01, 2016

Commodifying Public Education: How did this happen?

Learn more about this here



A shout of jubilation went up as teachers heard the announcement that we would not administer the final part of the TN Ready test this year.  I did not join in the celebration. I will not celebrate until we defeat this culture that relentlessly continues the march toward the destruction of public education. 

Over the past 30 years I have watched as people use the words, of our founding documents (words that I believe in) to destroy the very things the documents set forth.  We could start with their edited version of the preamble ---they would turn that paragraph into two simple phrases: We the People of the United States in order to insure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense do ordain and establish this constitution of the United States. In their understanding this is the only purpose for government.   For a history of how this happened read this fine article by a Canadian, Dan Laitsch "Smacked by the invisible hand: the wrong debate, at the wrong time with the wrong people." 

While it focuses on education it exposes the subtle way in which words were manipulated by a group with an agenda.  Among the discarded ideals is that which states that everyone benefits from the success and education of all.  The idea which replaces it is that everyone must be accountable and responsible for themselves.  If they fail to get rich or get a good education or have access to healthcare or other services it is their fault because they made bad choices.  TRANSLATE everything that has happened in their lives is their fault.  I'm on board the personal responsibility train!  I spend a lot of my time as an educator helping kids become more responsible.  The problem comes for me when the interpretation is unrelenting and unforgiving.

This "neo-liberal economic philosophy" sees "Government" as an evil that should be limited whenever and wherever possible.  Government regulation is always bad because it decreases PROFIT. What would our world look like without government regulation and oversight?  Wealthy people whose money works to increase their wealth would fare well.  They would have access to everything they need in their gated communities.

For the rest of us, who "labor" for a salary or an hourly wage - not so much. HERE IS WHAT WE WOULD HAVE 

Food industry --- FOR PROFIT means --  no control over what is in the can you buy including pesticides and contaminants such as the little snake head in a recently opened can of green beans. 
Healthcare industry FOR PROFIT means -- continuing HMO-type care where you have less contact with a personal physician (who is limited to 15 minutes with you) and you are just a cog, a part, in a profit oriented system.
Insurance industry FOR PROFIT means -- they take your money BUT it is not pooled for your benefit, they will use it to hire people to deny your claims and keep you from getting money from the coverage for which you paid. This will increase their profit and pay their investors!
Education -- continued expenditures for publicly funded private schools - (charter schools) thousands of programs and software options over actual education expenditures.My school alone spends more than $12,000 a year on I-ready a software subscription which steals good education time and uses games to try to "improve" student performance on the test.  Thousands of tech companies eager to sell districts the latest and greatest gadgets (we have vendor fairs all the time so we can be exposed to the latest sales pitch)  Estimates of companies being able to garner billions in educational funds while my library languishes without proper space, furniture or computers for research is obscene!  Teachers should be replaced with programs which students can use to educate themselves -- gone is the common ground of what we as American's believe.....If you want to teach that the dinosaurs were put in the fossil record by Satan to confuse Christians --- you can do that in your private school -- but I resent my tax dollars going to that "education!"

Let's also think about some other areas where we traditionally share costs for mutual benefits -- Transportation - Museums---Parks and other public places are all headed for privatization with one goal in mind --  to make money --- We can stand by and watch the Disney-fication of our culture or we can elect people who are thinkers and who ferret out the truth rather than accept what the think tanks (propaganda mills) tell them!

If you want to understand how we got here and who has been driving the bus since the 1970's  read the article, It is long (25 pages) -- but some things cannot be said in 140 characters!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Bathrooms as Sacred Space where the Book of Common Prayer was the Readers Digest

We had one bathroom and next to the stool was a basket of reading material. I never questioned the oddity of that as a child. As an adult I do not think of the bathroom as the best place to read, but as a child I thought of this basket as a gateway to adult interests. There were always National Geographic magazines and Readers Digests. I liked the National Geographic very much, but it was big and the articles with pictures were long. Reader's Digest on the other hand was just the right size for a child, and it had jokes and puzzles in it! I adored Word Power and was delighted that it still exists.  It is where I built my vocabulary until I learned to write down and look up new words in the dictionary.  So despite the fact that my teachers eschewed the superficiality, light weight and skewed nature of the Readers Digest I was drawn to it. My brother and I often escaped to the haven of the bathroom at times when we were supposed to be engaged in our chores. Constipation was always a good rouse for avoiding the time of evening dishes.

This stalwart conservative-leaning publication was a cornerstone of my education. I had not read it for years, when it caught my eye as I waited in line at the checkout stand at my supermarket. Still Proclaiming itself in Times New Roman glory, with slightly altered format for the index, there it was with its intriguing articles. "35 extraordinary uses for ordinary things" was the title that caused me to purchase the once ubiquitous magazine. But what really snared my attention upon closer inspection was the article "The Darker Side of the American Lawn" It should be required reading this spring before anyone goes to the golf course, park or considers a trip to the local big-box purveyor for "lawn food!" Here are a few of the statistics from this venerable bastion of conservative thought ( in case you just thought this was another one of the tree-hugging, latte sucking articles).
  • Americans have become obsessed with grass.  When you add up the country's 80 million home lawns and over 16,000 golf courses you get close to 50 million acres of cultivated turf in the U.S.
  • Americans are spraying 67 million pounds of synthetic chemicals on their grass every year.
  • More that 170 Canadian cities have banned lawn pesticides -- especially on public spaces.
  • Denmark, Norway and Sweden have banned 2,4-D ( a common chemical -- often known as agent Orange in lawn herbicides)
  • In 2009, the European Parliament passed laws banning 22 pesticides that can cause cancer or disrupt human hormones or reproduction. 
  • Conservative estimates suggest that 72 million birds die in the U.S. of pesticide poisoning each year. 
  • Wood Thursh is down by 48%, Bobwhites by 80%, Bobolinks by 90% and we almost lost the Bluebirds -- but thanks to recent efforts by individuals to provide nesting boxes and assist them they are slowly coming back.  
 It is important to note that not only do these lawn chemicals kill "weeds" like clover which naturally sets nitrogen in the soil, but their use requires the addition of artificial sources of nitrogen to be added which in turn run off into the lakes and streams causing other problems like algae blooms that in turn suck the oxygen out of the water causing fish and plants to die and creating huge dead zones. All of these events have cascading effects which often cannot even be predicted.

If we want to save our planet, its pollinators and ultimately ourselves we need to start putting in native plants that will make your yard a haven for caterpillars, butterflies and birds.  For us in Tennessee that means plant joe-pye weed, rudbeckia and other species like Black-eyed Susans that bloom all summer long, Button-bush, Butterfly Weed and swamp milkweed.  We need to put in vegetable gardens and experience the joy of fresh natural organic vegetables.  Consider feeding the birds until we get enough native plants for them to live on again.   Their populations have been decimated over the past decades of habitat destruction and poisoning. Don't eradicate a weed until you are sure that it doesn't happen to be the one plant a single species of butterfly relies on.

Read the rest of the article and learn how to bring back beneficial insects, plants and animals into our environment.  Read the article and let its information change your behavior.  and if you really must kill a weed -- skip the Round Up and use this natural formula.  


1gallon of vinegar
1 cup of salt
1 Tbsp. of soap

This simple spray works as well as the toxic versions -- just be sure to spray it on a dry day when it will have time to work -- if it rains it can become to dilute to have effect!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

PicLit from PicLits.com
See the full PicLit at PicLits.com This is a great application for teaching kids parts of speech in a fun and creative way. Especially during poetry month, this would be a fun to let kids work on both poetry, parts of speech and imagery! They will love it. You do have to have an account to generate an embed code or save it and email it to someone. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Unpacking the TN READY Communication from the TN DOE

Commissioner McQueen has published two pieces to try to calm the wave of bad publicity that is washing over the DOE on the basis of what parents are seeing and hearing from students and teachers about the paper TN READY test which replaced the failed computer administered version.

I first read her blog for parents: Classroom Chronicles which is an explanation for parents about the failure of TN Ready an attempt to calm fears about the paper tests.  She says, "We too are frustrated and disappointed by our inability to provide students with an online test this year and by the logistical difficulties. We have been working tirelessly to provide a positive testing experience as much as is within our control and to reduce anxiety."  Really?  Will the DOE have their salaries cut or be fired because of their failure on the testing front?  They tie teachers success and failure every day to things that are beyond that teacher's control! Why not apply the same standard to yourselves?

Then  Dr. McQueen provides a form for parents to give them a sense of significant participation.  The form however only asks how the parent would like to receive their child's test scores.   Parents are asked to weigh in on crucial issues such as whether to report data in smiley faces, arrows, or symbols!  This appears to be a simple way to make people feel that they are part of a process.  In truth, it is like asking a man on trial for familial abuse, "when did you stop beating your kids."

What I DO KNOW is this:  I know NO teachers who:
  1.  think this test is a good measure of student learning 
  2. participated in its formation. 
  3. have ever felt free to participate in a frank conversation it with any forum where their names and places of employment are readily seen. 

The second Classroom Chronicles blog post is supposed to dispell any of the issues raised by students, parents and teachers.

She addresses the issues raised by a number of concerned educators that the content was not appropriate for the students.  The following is a quote which further illustrates just how far removed the people who designed the test are from children!

"A very small number of questions on Part I require students to have had exposure to other mathematical content that may not actually count toward their score. For example, students may have seen a word problem that mentions a concept that they will learn more about later – like angles or ounces– but students will not be scored on their knowledge of this content. These concepts may just be used to provide context for a computational skill (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). Additional questions may require students to pull from previously learned content knowledge. As this is content that is below grade level, it would not appear on the grade level specific blueprint."

Imagine back to your eight-year-old self.  Much of what your teacher is teaching is just not too interesting to you, but you know there is this TEST coming up and you really should care about learning this stuff because it is on the test and your teacher is stressed about how you are going to do and your parents talk about how if you don't do well on the tests it will ruin your life.  Imagine for a moment that you are now reading a test question in which something right there in the midddle of it suddenly looks like a foreign language.   Do you have the intellectual ability to read the rest of the question and calm yourself sufficiently to determine that the question is not about the DNA helix but is a simple addition problem?  You get my point.  Yes if it is asking you to use cm instead of inches to measure and you have in the standard learned to use inches and you are an adult looking at the picture of a little ruler next to the question in cm you will understand how to solve the simple problem.  BUT THESE ARE CHILDREN!!

Most of them do not have the experience in solving problems to know how to approach this.  They will feel a sense of panic and collapse under the weight of the foreign words "angles" alone!  Add to that that nowhere does it say in the directions we heard read to the children (remember the administrator can only read the directions --- they cannot offer explanations because that might taint the test) to help children understand the question is considered leading the child to the right answer. NOWHERE IN THOSE DIRECTIONS DOES IT TELL CHILDREN THAT, "Hey, some of these questions may be on stuff you haven't had and those won't even count or be graded!"  How reasonable is it to assume that when you cover your classroom walls to hide every possible thing a kid might use to do well on the test -- and everyone is in a lock-down version of life (guarding test booklets, pencils and answer books as though they were radioactive) Does anyone think that a child is going to consider for a moment that some of the questions won't even count?  REALLY?

Dr. McQueen goes on to explain how reasonable the actual test was.  NEVER mind that the answer document (they called it a document, in the directions- now that is a word kids use every day, right?) looked almost identical to the test document! The whole thing was confusing to children from beginning to end.  MOST especially the vocabulary used in the directions..From an adult point of view Dr. McQueen is quite right --- it would be difficult to get mixed up about what answer went with what question.  These are CHILDREN not adults and I, as a proctor, can attest to the fact that the 3rd graders I was with were confused.  My last point is simple.  WHAT ARE THE TESTS designed to do?  If it is to help us see where to improve our instruction fine I'm good with that, but tests are misused to judge children and teachers everyday. 

They discourage educational innovation and good practice because my colleagues are always worrying about the specific things that must be covered on the test.  So with the garden in full grow mode, with the wild creatures and native plants that inhabit the perimeter of my campus budding and growing, with the night sky waiting, and the life bursting forth all around, we will be in the classroom drilling instead of out in the world writing, reading poetry, planting, wondering, exploring, and asking those impossible childhood questions.

 I AM CALLING FOR AN OVERHAUL in how we hold PUBLIC SCHOOLS accountable.  I AM CALLING FOR AN OVERHAUL that lets teachers be teachers so they are able to do what they do best with children.  Yes, that may even look different from one teacher to another teacher!  YES, teachers are as individual as students. They don't all teach the same way, understand the same way or participate in the universe in a monolithic pattern of teacher behavior!    PLEASE Dr. McQueen, I know you are young and you think you have these things down --- but listen to some seasoned educators on this topic!  Are you listening!! 

Sunday, March 06, 2016

What is a hero?

Third Grade wanted to merge two concepts for Black History Month.  Students could research famous African Americans and then measure them against a rubric of what makes a hero. I could not in good conscience do a simple webpage with the people on their list. So instead I tried to accommodate by broadening the site and creating a Good Citizen Rubric as well as a Hero RubricHeroes come in all colors was the result as was the accompanying Symbaloo for African American History Month

In our current culture we conflate the hero with celebrity. We carelessly toss this word around and in so doing we we weaken its meaning and message. When we call everyone who has served in the military a hero we risk including skin heads, bigots and those who have committed war crimes on the same list with those selfless souls who have given their lives and bodies in the service of humanity.

If, as Campbell suggests, the hero myth is designed to lead us to our better selves then the hero returns home carrying something of  the treasure.  It is the  "treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed."

This is why we yearn to teach the hero story to our children.  We want the world to be a place where power is distributed and the well being of all creation is the ultimate arbiter of our actions.   Sometimes in a world where kids pick Beyonce, and Kanye West as their heroes I tremble.....