Thursday, May 29, 2008

My Old Brown Earth; lament in joy

A dear friend died this month, far too young. It was not unexpected. She had cervical cancer years ago and the radiation had left a great deal of scar tissue that damaged her digestive system making it increasingly difficult to process food for her own nourishment. As I looked at her picture, it was hard to imagine a world without that infectious smile and those sparkling eyes. She was beautiful in every respect of the word with a spirit that welcomed, accepted, and encouraged her students and friends. I was deeply mourning the fact that her memorial occurs when I have a commitment at the opposite end of the country....and cannot attend.

Then, tonight, I was listening to a PBS tribute to Pete Seeger. It ended with his song...

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I'll now give these last few molecules of "I."
And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry.
Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.
And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I'm yours
And you are also mine.
Farewell dearest Sue. Your molecules are now scattered to the old brown earth and the old blue are indeed you were golden.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Another year gone....

Each new school year comes to us unsoiled and fresh - new binders filled with pristine white paper waiting the touch of colorful ink from marvelous new glitter gel pens! Think back to those years when you were a school child getting ready for the excitement of a new school year. There was the organization of your underware and brand new socks that matched your wardrobe. Your clothes meticulously laid out and waiting the dawn. Maybe you loved getting everything organized – ready for that first morning when you arrived and found your name outside of one of the classrooms on a roster….REMEMBER?

It was for me always the idea of a fresh start – what I had failed to accomplish last year could be placed on this year’s to- do list. It was a time to acknowledge connections with the wider community of learners, A time to welcome another year, forgetting what was past and looking hopefully toward the future. It was a time to take stock of things. A time to celebrate all that was possible! All that lay ahead!

As we begin the year, I hear "There is so much to be done! We don't have time to do in depth planning now. It's a bad time of year. " Then by the time December rolls around I hear, " We really have to push for the TCAP (state mandated tests) at the moment. There are so many skills that must be mastered, we just don't have time right now to work on something that isn't directly related to testing." As the end of the year approaches I hear, "We are all so exhausted and all is so unsettled. We are not even sure what assignments we will have next year. It is not a good time to look ahead and plan for next year right now. ."

And so it goes, days pass, years vanish....and we walk sightless among the miracles. Change grinds so slowly, and in a world that values small discrete skills over creativity, imagination, and curiosity there is little incentive for the kind of shift that must take place. The state education agency which has taken over many of our schools because we are not meeting NCLB deadlines says innovation should be set aside until we master the basics --- but I wonder if this approach isn't entirely wrong headed.

When my daughter was in 1st grade and I eagerly attended my first parent teacher conference. I was stunned to learn that while others in her class were in readers, she was not. In my surprise I spoke candidly. "Noelle reads to me each night from the books I used as a second grade reading teacher."

"That's not possible." replied the astonished teacher."She is still having difficulty with diphthongs and ending blends." She pulled out some examples of phonics worksheets. Again in my surprise and candor, I said, "But she is reading fluently. Isn't phonics utilized to help children learn to read? Why would you insist on these phonics worksheets if a child is already reading?" I realized that I had crossed a line. Her demeanor altered and she stiffened noticeably. "All students must have a working knowledge of phonics if they are to succeed in reading" was her response.

It is still the same. Students must demonstrate that they know their letter sounds even if they arrive reading! We seem mired in formulas. There is lip service in technology to reform and using authentic learning experiences where children participate in their education in a more direct way, but this philosophy flies in the face of the back to basics, linear, one size fits all approach that happens in most skills instruction.

Everything we know says children are unique and learn via different modalities. Their learning is paced not by age or grade, but by the interaction of experience, support, and other variables. Students must interact and create meaningful connections with their understanding and new information. How long will it be before teachers receive the kind of support they need to change this teaching model?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

We measure what we value?

We have just completed our spring standardized testing rituals at school, and once again I am left with that empty feeling that what we measure is not what we need to be measuring. Many people have warned us about this over the years of the 20th century.

We measure I.Q. and assign vast importance to this figure. Yet, as I grow older I wonder just what it really measures. We force students to take SATs and ACTs and GREs to predict if they can succeed in college. I wonder if these tests really predict success? Here is an amazingly important challenge issued to what we test for during the 1968 presidential election by Robert Kennedy.