Sunday in Church with Jimmy (Carter)

On Sunday, December 27, 2015 my family and I attended Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. We were in Atlanta visiting family for Christmas and we traveled from there to nearby Americus the evening before.  The church’s website advises visitors to arrive by 7:30 a.m. to ensure a seat in the sanctuary. Carter’s weekly lesson doesn’t begin until 10:00 a.m. but many people show up wanting to hear him. When we arrived at 7:45 a.m., there were an estimated 75 visitors already in line. Most were white Americans over the age of 50. They traveled to Plains from all over the United States.  However, a few visitors came from faraway countries like India and Sierra Leone.

For years, I had wanted to visit Plains for Jimmy Carter occupies a special place in my heart.  When I was seven-years-old, I wrote to then-president Carter from my dad’s office in Cleveland, Ohio.  In 1991, my dad, sister and I flew home to Atlanta – where we were living at the time – from New York City and Jimmy was on our Delta flight. He sat in first class but walked the aisles and greeted every passenger with a smile and a handshake.  My dad died seven and a half years ago – at the age of 69 – and now, whenever I see Jimmy Carter, I imagine my dad looking like Jimmy if my dad had lived longer.  Like Jimmy, my dad grew up in the south; he too was sensitive, intelligent and caring; a man of integrity.  The urge I have to hug Jimmy Carter and to ask him to adopt me is intense.  Like so many others, I’m also inspired by Carter’s dedication to helping folks who are suffering, notably women and girls.

With all the injustice and inhumanity in this world, including the oppression and despair I feel as a New York City public school teacher, I have been experiencing some form of soul loss.  I needed to be inspired and motivated by someone who keeps going in spite of life’s hardships.  What is Jimmy’s secret? How does he do it?  So I dragged my husband and six-year-old daughter to Plains to find out.

We managed to get seating in a pew towards the back of the sanctuary. But Maranatha Baptist Church is small so there are no bad seats.  It’s also an understated and intimate space.  Jimmy Carter himself crafted the church’s wooden cross and offering plates.  Beginning at 9:00 a.m., Jimmy’s no-nonsense friend and fellow congregant, Ms. Jan, went over the rules concerning photography and how to interact with President Carter.  She told the women to stand next to Jimmy during picture time.  According to Ms. Jan, Carter’s eyes “are good and he likes pretty ladies.” But then she reprimanded women who bring big handbags into the sanctuary, claiming said purses sully the photographs.

In the back of the church, children are welcome to attend Sunday school.  The kind Ms. Betty, another friend of Carter’s, made us feel at home in the nursery, which was full of vintage toys and books.  We chatted about the Plains community and our shared love for Jimmy.  She even showed me the selfie she had taken of herself with Carter.  I felt warm inside, at peace.  It was as if I had traveled back to my childhood and was sitting among Mema, my West Texas grandma, and her friends.  

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Ms. Jan’s DOs and DON’Ts, but mostly DON’Ts. For example, we were told that Jimmy doesn’t want any applause.  Rather, he wants us to apply his lesson to our everyday lives. 

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Uncharacteristically, my daughter was okay with not understanding the children’s Sunday school lesson with Ms. Christine. She didn’t know who any of the Bible characters were so she drew pictures of her cats instead. She now wants to go with our neighbors to Sunday school at a local Catholic church.

At exactly 10:00 a.m., Jimmy walked into the sanctuary with a smile on his face. Tears rolled down my face.  The Sunday before, he learned that his young grandson had died suddenly but Jimmy still managed to deliver his lesson on that day as well as on the 27th.  Jimmy started off by updating us on the good work that The Carter Center is doing (he is a key fundraiser for the organization).  Carter praised Merck , the pharmaceutical giant, for donating medicine to boost The Carter Center’s efforts to eradicate Guinea worm disease.  In his characteristic gentle manner, Jimmy detailed the horrors of this disease for us.  I sat in my pew transfixed, picturing a 30-inches-long worm taking 30 days to exit my body through my genitals.  According to Carter, presently only 14 cases of Guinea worm disease remain in the world.

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Jimmy Carter paced back and forth while delivering his lesson. Due to the current state of his health, he could not stand still for an extended period of time. He was seated during picture time. 

Jimmy then moved onto his Sunday school lesson, which centered on the messages of the five songs sung at Christmastime.  The prophet Isaiah, Jimmy told us, said to Jesus Christ “Go and be a light to ALL nations.” This was revolutionary in that Jesus was instructed to liberate everyone, not just the Hebrews.  To be Christian means to be a little Christ of love, compassion, grace and light.  Jimmy told us that we had the freedom to decide to what extent we wanted to emulate Christ.  Our success should be judged by God, not by humans.

Jimmy then asked if any of us were sinners.  We hesitantly raised our hands.  Jimmy called us a “large but mute crowd” because few people volunteered to answer his questions about the Bible.  Being largely ignorant of Bible stories, I didn’t know any of the answers.

According to Jimmy, another revolutionary idea came from Mary who said that anyone – sinners and common folk alike – could be a key person in the kingdom of God.  He cited Zechariah whose advice was not to worry about your profession.  Instead focus on what kind of person you will be.  “What kind of person am I?” Jimmy encouraged us to ask ourselves.  We should look at ourselves with courage.  What can we do about our flaws? It’s never too late to address our shortcomings; the best way is to copy the perfect life of Christ.  Through peace, humility, justice, compassion and service to others, Jesus Christ has set the standards for human behavior on Earth.  Jimmy’s shared reading with us was Simeon’s Song in Luke 2:25-35.

Afterwards, there was a 10-minute break followed by the 11:00 a.m. morning worship, which was led by guest preacher David Snell, President of The Fuller Center for Housing.  Snell talked about joy as a profound concept; it’s greater than pleasure and happiness, which are temporal. He encouraged us to rethink our new year’s resolutions in order to experience joy.  “Resolve to show an act of love and kindness that support the poor.  Share the gift of time.  Get involved in things that are bigger than we are.” Both Jimmy and Rosalynn attended the 11:00 am service – participating from a front pew – however only Jimmy was present for picture-taking at 12:00.

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I was about Norah’s age when I wrote to Jimmy Carter. I hope that this photograph will help me to raise her as a compassionate and peaceful human being, one who fills the world with light.  May Jimmy Carter’s life inspire her as much as he has inspired me. 

Because I have been suffering at work, I took to heart the message of focusing on what kind of person I want to be as opposed to what kind of profession I wish to have.  The politics, rigidity and ego-driven decisions within the New York City Department of Education fill me with rage and resentment.  As a teacher, I do feel that I am being of service to my students and their families, and as an activist, I am grateful to be involved in initiatives that are greater than myself. But how do I weather the storms of everyday life?  How do I accept a rating of “developing” because, according to someone’s interpretation of the Danielson rubric, the pacing of my lesson was “uneven”?  How do I administer developmentally inappropriate and highly flawed assessments to my English-language learners?  How do I support students who are given boring and uninspiring curriculum?  I’ll start by asking myself everyday What kind of person am I? What kind of person do I wish to be?, and when I falter, I will strive to do the next right thing.  Whether or not that brings me closer to joy, it will hopefully keep me going.

Thank you, Jimmy, for being a great teacher.

Testifying Before Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force in Queens, NYC

Last night I testified at one of NYS Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force (aka Farce) sessions. The New York City event took place at LaGuardia Community College in a hard-to-reach section of Long Island City, Queens. Incongruously, it was held in the cramped Poolside Café, located deep inside the college building. Afforded to us, while signing in, were glimpses of swim team practice. It was as if Cuomo’s team deliberately chose an inconvenient time and location for the event in order to deter people from attending. To the best of my knowledge, there was no media presence at LaGuardia Community College. Unlike the Long Island session, which was covered in today’s news, I saw nothing reported about the NYC session.  Therefore, I will try to be as comprehensive as possible, but my six-year-old was with me so, unfortunately, I was unable to give all the speakers my full attention.

About 25 people testified; a balance, more or less, of Common Core opponents and supporters. I was speaker 18. MORE-UFT and Change the Stakes members shared the front row with pro-Common Core Educators4Excellence (EFE) teachers, including its founder Evan Stone. High Achievement NY, a coalition of businesses and education deform organizations such as E4E, was represented by its executive director, Stephen Sigmund. The main message of the Common Core supporters was that the standards are good but the tests need to be tweaked. They repeatedly used the term “opt-in” and recommended computer adaptive testing for students with special needs.

As a critic of the Common Core package, I was happy to see so many MORE-UFT and Change the Stakes allies (and friends!) who had shown up despite the challenges of getting there on time: David Dobosz, Fred Smith, Jane Maisel, Alliance for Quality Education‘s Zakiyah Ansari, blogger Peter Goodman, a Class Size Matters representative who read a statement by Leonie Haimson, and sociologist/public school parent/blogger Nancy Cauthen all testified. My apologies if I inadvertently omitted someone.

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Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, and Kishayna Hazlewood, 3rd grade teacher at P.S. 156 in Brooklyn, chaired the event. Hazlewood was mostly stoic while Nolan shared with us – from time to time – her personal views, citing a recent conversation she had with Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education Fund. Nolan seems to get it. NYC City Council member Danny Dromm opened the event with a statement that was critical of Common Core.

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Dromm in foreground listens to David Dobosz’s testimony; seated at the table are Nolan (on left) and Hazlewood (on right). Photo by me. 

As was the case when John King came to NYC in 2013 on his “listening” tour, StudentsFirstNY bussed in a large group of charter school parents who sat in the back as audience members – not speakers. This time, it seemed StudentsFirstNY wanted Educators4Excellence teachers, not parents, to do the testifying. Interestingly, after corporate education deform critics Dromm, Smith and Dobosz spoke, the StudentsFirstNY parents all rose and left the poolside café en masse. I asked four parents why they were leaving, but not one had any idea what was going on. Finally, a woman told me, “This isn’t for us. We support Common Core.”

FullSizeRender-28The quick and confusing departure of StudentsFirstNY parents. Photo by me. 

Once it became clear that well-informed, dissenting voices were being heard, StudentsFirstNY organizers instructed the parents to leave immediately. Presumably they didn’t want their brainwashed parents to be contaminated by the opposition. The exodus puzzled the young Cuomo staffers so I told them what was going on. One of them, David Contreras Turley, director of Constituency Affairs, gave me his card and told me that the governor’s office was neutral on Common Core. I challenged him by pointing out Cuomo’s support for education deform and charters. David did not respond. I was grateful to Cuomo’s representatives, though, because they were very accommodating of my restless daughter and the dozens of math manipulatives strewn all over the floor.
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After the departure of the charter school parents, a Queens mother passionately testified that the Common Core had brought anguish and frustration to her home and that her son had gone from a level 3 to a level 1 student in math. Immediately after her testimony, Assemblywoman Nolan reminded the audience to be respectful. Apparently, an Educators4Excellence teacher had laughed at and/or made faces at the mother while she was delivering her moving testimony. Nolan even got out of her seat and confronted the teacher who denied out loud that she was misbehaving. Nolan also gave High Achievement NY’s Stephen Sigmund a look that said “watch it, Buster.” I did not witness their alleged crimes.

Here is my testimony, which I also intend to submit online. If you were unable to attend one of these task force sessions, consider sending your statement to the task force via their website. Let’s inundate them with our message.

November 6, 2015

I’m a NYC parent but today I’m speaking to you as a NYC teacher. I stood before John King in 2013 and got no reaction from him. I am more hopeful today and feel compelled – once again – to speak up on behalf of NYC educators and students who are suffering under corporate education deform.

We detest what the Common Core package has done to instruction. This July 21, 2009 quote from Bill Gates will clarify what I mean by package:

Bill Gates said, “We’ll know we’ve succeeded when the curriculum and the tests are aligned to these standards. Arne Duncan recently announced that $350 million of the stimulus package will be used to create just these kinds of tests–next generation assessments aligned to the common core. When the tests are aligned to common standards, the curriculum will line up as well–and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better…”

We are given poor quality, scripted curriculum that is not developmentally appropriate. Education deformers have turned critical thinking and rigor into an extreme sport, frustrating and boring teachers and students to the point where – for example – a large number of us dread teaching math. Close reading has become tedious and is killing the joy of reading. The chief purpose of schooling nowadays is to teach skills that kids will need to know for the Common Core tests. Independent reading, through which students experience joy in having the freedom to discover a wide range of books regardless of level, is now viewed chiefly as a tactic to build students’ stamina for the absurdly long Common Core tests.

Our freedom to teach and to facilitate the development of whole child is curtailed. Due to the high-stakes nature of testing, those of us who work in a Title I school face immense pressure to raise test scores. Virtually every decision made at the school level is done with testing in mind.

No educator I know finds any value in the Common Core ELA and math tests. They are poorly constructed, developmentally inappropriate, decontextualized, confusing and deliberately tricky. Equally flawed is the new Common Core-aligned NYSESLAT, which is an ELA & content assessment, not a language test. Not only does the NYSESLAT fail to consider cognitive development stages but it also disregards what we know about second language learning. Our English-language learners, in particular, are being subjected to excessive testing that does not accurately measure what they can do. These bad tests are an insult to our intelligence.

Parents – please know that teachers – like myself (and there are many of us) – support your right to opt-out. We would opt-out of administering these tests if we could. In fact, a few bold teachers have. We hope that in 2016, opt-out numbers will reach 500,000.

Nothing short of a revolution is needed if we want true education reform. The Common Core package – all of it – has got to go. Revisit the lost standards, have teachers create diagnostic standardized assessments, stop using test scores to evaluate teachers and to punish schools, invest more in social services for our school communities.

Be brave and stand up to corporate education deformers. Let’s all stop being complicit in this costly, wrong-headed experiment that’s designed – in large part – to weed out so-called “bad teachers” and so-called “failing” schools. There are more effective and humane ways to improve our schools and to support the diverse needs of the children of New York State. Start by asking a teacher.

-Katie Lapham, NYC public school teacher 

Who’s Afraid of the Project Kids?: The Struggle to Integrate NYC Public Schools

In March, I wrote a blog post that detailed 10 reasons why no student in New York State should take the Common Core English-language arts (ELA) and math tests.  On reflection, I should have added that so-called low test scores are being used by many to label largely minority and Title I schools* as “failing” and therefore undesirable.  Some of these schools are located in gentrifying areas and a number of white and/or relatively affluent, professional parents are rejecting them.  The proposed rezoning of schools in the Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo area has been in the local news lately.  Here’s what one parent at P.S. 8, with a 15% poverty rate, had to say about P.S. 307 (85% poverty rate), which is located across the street from the Farragut Houses public housing complex in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood.  This quote is from an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 9/22/15.

People who moved into Dumbo and Vinegar Hill “trusted they had an education strategy at least through primary school,” said Teresa Hohl, a P.S. 8 parent. “All of a sudden…they’re now going to be pushed into 307, which is completely underperforming in comparison.” “Rezoning Plan for Two Brooklyn Schools Riles Up Parents,” The Wall Street Journal, 9/22/15.

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IMG_9015Top left photograph is of P.S. 307.  The top right photograph is of the Farragut Houses opposite P.S. 307. The bottom photo shows P.S. 8’s main entrance.  All photos were taken by me. 

I know that not all Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo parents feel this way.  However, quite a few do and it’s problematic for area schools.  Not only does it hinder efforts to desegregate our schools but such comments imply that the lives of black, brown and low-income students hold less value.  They perpetuate a socioeconomic hierarchy in which white and/or affluent and professional individuals put themselves at the top.  Do they not think that their children could learn from black and Hispanic students? Did this parent ever visit P.S. 307? Did she talk with P.S. 307 parents and educators? Is her assessment of the school based solely on NYS Common Core ELA and math scores, which – as we know – come from highly flawed, unreliable tests that do not come close to painting an accurate picture of how a school functions.  What’s even more troubling is that some of these parents support the opt-out movement.  Yet, they are using the very same test scores they denounce to justify not wanting to send their kids to a school with a large number of low-income students of color.

I know teachers at P.S. 307 and have visited the school. I have heard great things about it under the strong leadership of the former principal, Roberta Davenport. A teacher not affiliated with the school recently told me that she would work for Davenport in a heartbeat.  P.S. 307 is an innovative STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) magnet school.  Each classroom has a living environment, and discovery learning is stressed through hands-on experiences.  Additionally, P.S. 307 has partnered with reputable organizations such as the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility and Lutheran Hospital.  SEL (social and emotional learning) topics are included in the school’s curriculum, and a school-based health center is available for students in need of counseling and other services.  P.S. 307 also offers instruction in Mandarin, and violin classes.

As a NYC public school teacher who has only worked in Title I schools, I can tell you that the vast majority of teachers try their best to give each student what he or she needs to grow academically and emotionally. It is not an easy job, and we face many hurdles, but we want to challenge each student at his or her own level regardless of the school’s status (Title I or otherwise).  In my 10 years in the system, I have not witnessed this so-called culture of low expectations.  Therefore, I don’t buy this argument that by enrolling in P.S. 307, which offers a wide range of quality programs and opportunities, the children of white and/or affluent, professional parents will receive a compromised education. Indeed the school’s test scores will remain lower than those at P.S. 8, but didn’t we already establish that the scores are meaningless? In no way should these Common Core test scores be used to judge a school.  Parents need to visit the school, observe the teaching going on in the classroom, talk to parents, and find out how the principal runs the school.

Resistance to the city’s rezoning plan for this part of Brooklyn also include some current P.S. 307 parents who – among other concerns – express fear that the school’s Title I funding will vanish as more higher-income students enroll in the school.  This happened at P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights.  No longer a Title I school, the PTO (parent teacher organization), which is comprised largely of white, professional parents, has developed an ambitious fundraising plan to make up for the loss of this funding source.  Initiatives such as the annual fall carnival and Friday movie nights also help to bring the community together.

The tragic ordeal that Manhattan’s P.S. 191 faced over the summer is another example of flawed official data being used by white and/or affluent, professional parents to argue against enrolling in a neighborhood Title I school.  On August 20, Emily Frost of DNAinfo reported that this Upper West Side school was mislabeled “persistently dangerous” by the New York State Education Department.  The story is complex; incident reports were miscoded, for example, and the case was mishandled by the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE).  You can read more about it here. In fact, the most egregious incident – involving rape and sexual assault by a 22-year-old after-school program staffer- occurred after hours at P.S. 191’s middle school.  For the purposes of this piece, however, I wish to point out that P.S. 191, which draws many low-income students of color from the Amsterdam Houses public housing complex, has been fighting a reputation stigma for years and this recent mislabeling adds another roadblock to filling seats at this dynamic elementary school.

I have visited P.S. 191 and know teachers there.  They are dedicated and hard-working and some have enrolled their own kids in the school.  P.S. 191 is a museum magnet school.  It boasts a new technology lab and strong partnerships with local museums.  The arts are prioritized as is project-based learning.  Like P.S. 307, there’s a lot of good things happening at P.S. 191 and official data falls short of telling the whole story.

What I predict will happen in the Brooklyn Height/Dumbo area is that a larger number of white and/or affluent, professional parents will choose to send their children to area charter schools like the International Charter School of New York in downtown Brooklyn and nearby Success Academy Fort Greene.  While minority students attend these charter schools, the perception is that unruly and undesirable behavior that might be exhibited by project kids at local public schools is not an issue at schools like Success Academy that also boast high test scores.  At P.S. 191, for example, there has been a white flight to  Success Academy Upper West.  If, over the next few years, P.S. 307 experiences an influx of higher income students due to the rezoning of Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo, what will happen to the kids who live at the Farragut Houses directly across the street? Will they be rezoned to nearby P.S. 287, which is 90% Hispanic and black? Will the under-enrolled P.S. 287 be seen as a dumping ground for poor students of color while P.S. 307 turns into a largely white, affluent P.S. 8-type school?

School segregation has been a hot topic not just here in New York City, but nationally too.  There has been much discussion of This American Life’s episode 562: The Problem We All Live With (July 31, 2015) in which Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times Magazine, argues that integration is the key to closing the achieving gap but since 1988, re-segregation has been the trend in U.S. public schools.  In fleshing this out, Hannah-Jones details the accidental and short-lasting integration of Francis Howell High School, a mostly white public school in St. Charles, Missouri.  When Francis Howell parents found out that black students from Normandy High School in St. Louis would be allowed to transfer to their school, they were upset.  Thousands packed into Francis Howell’s gym to hear arguments against the plan.  Francis Howell parents argued that Normandy kids were dangerous and would make the school unsafe and drug-infested. They worried that Normandy kids would lower Francis Howell’s test scores. Had any of these parents been to Normandy High School? Did they know any Normandy parents or teachers? If the Francis Howell parents had gotten to know the Normandy community, would they have been welcoming? Their fears, not surprisingly, proved unwarranted. I wonder how many affluent Brooklyn and Manhattan parents listened to this public radio program and called into question their own prejudices?

Here in New York City, Hannah-Jones – together with Brad Lander, NYC councilman – appeared on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on August 20 to discuss school integration initiatives, specifically “controlled choice,” which is detailed in this New York City Council School Diversity Accountability Act.  More recently, on September 16, Hannah-Jones participated in a panel on school diversity at the Brooklyn Historical Society.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend but I look forward to watching the video of the discussion, which will be posted soon on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Vimeo page.

Education, especially at the elementary school level, is not just about academics.  It is irresponsible of policymakers to distill it down to data such as ELA and math scores and flawed school safety reports.  The goal of educators is to make the world a better place, which includes heightening students’ awareness of the injustices of life. Segregation does a disservice to our students.  Despite growing up in diverse New York City, how many white and/or affluent kids truly know and appreciate what it’s like to live in poverty and to face racism on a daily basis? We live in silos and fail to deeply get to know one another.  How can we create innovative, effective strategies to solve societal ills if we rely on superficial data, preconceived notions and our own self-interests to drive our decision-making?

*Title I, Part A (Title I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards. -U.S. Department of Education

NYC Parents – Refuse the MOSL Assessments!

Dear NYC parents,

Did you know that test refusal is not limited to the NYS Common Core ELA (English-language Arts) and math assessments that are administered to students in grades 3-8?  My daughter will be entering first grade this year and I refuse to allow her to take the NYC local assessments, which are used solely for teacher evaluation purposes.

In NYC, these tests – administered to students in K-12 – are referred to as MOSLs (Measures of Student Learning). You can read more about them here and here. Ask your child’s teacher for more information about the MOSLs, specifically which assessment is being used at his/her school (there are various NYCDOE-approved assessments). Below is a copy of my refusal letter in case you wish to use it. I borrowed some of the language from NYS Allies for Public Education’s (NYSAPE) 2015-2016 Refusal Letter, which you can access here. Please also visit Change the Stake’s website for sample opt-out letters that are specific to NYC public schools.

Thanks,
Katie

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Dear ____________,

I am writing to inform you that I refuse to allow my daughter, _______________, to participate in any local/benchmark assessment used in the New York State teacher evaluation system administered in the fall, winter, and spring of the 2015-2016 school year. Specific to New York City is the MOSL testing program, which includes the NYC Performance Tasks for math and ELA (English-language Arts).

My refusal should in no way reflect on the hard work and talents of the teachers and staff at P.S. ______. As both a parent and an educator, I see these tests as harmful, expensive, and a waste of time and valuable resources. The Grade 1 NYC Performance Tasks, in particular, are poorly constructed and developmentally inappropriate. I object to the fact that my daughter’s teachers had no input in creating the tests and rubrics. Assessments should be teacher-created, not written by a testing company or central education department office.

I also refuse to allow any data to be used for purposes other than the individual teacher’s own formative or cumulative assessment. I am opposed to assessments whose data is used to determine school ranking and teacher effectiveness, or is used for any other purpose other than for the individual classroom teacher’s own use to inform his or her instruction.

My family and I are very fond of the P.S. ______community.  I appreciate the school’s commitment to educating the whole child, particularly through the arts, and feel that the city and state’s insidious testing programs take away from this.

Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.  I understand the demands of your job and am grateful for your dedication to the students of P.S. ______.

Kind regards,

Katie Lapham

No Longer Silent: NYC Teachers of Conscience Speak Out Against High-Stakes Testing and Corporate Education Reform

On the afternoon of Tuesday, May 5, 2015, a group of concerned NYC public school teachers and parents – representing the Movement of Rank and File Educators (the MORE Caucus of the UFT), Teachers of Conscience and Change the Stakes – convened in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park to demonstrate against corporate education reform and its destructive and secretive high-stakes testing program.  We displayed posters and spoke from the heart about our individual experiences.  For the first time in months (years?), I felt truly appreciated for the work I do in the trenches.

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Rosalie Friend, a member of Save our Schools and Change the Stakes as well as an educational psychologist, declared that she was standing up for us and our professional standards. Film editor Michael Elliot has been an unsung hero as a public school parent activist.  From Chicago to New Jersey to the boroughs of New York City, Michael has been documenting our work, which includes the burgeoning grassroots opt-out movement. Please watch Michael’s other videos on shoot4education.  They include the May 5 speeches given by NYC Teachers of Conscience Jia Lee, Marcus McArthur, Eunice Eun and Chen Lin, Alexandra Alves, Megan Moskop, Lauren Cohen, Holly Spinelli and Colin Schumacher (in absentia). A group of teachers also sang a clever song If Cuomo Had A Heart – that highlighted Governor Cuomo’s wrong-headed educational plan for our state.

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Michael Elliot and Rosalie Friend 

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Prior to speaking, Teachers of Conscience wore tape over their mouths to convey to the public the lack of transparency with regards to these tests. We are not allowed to divulge any test content.  

Here is the transcript of my speech.  You can also view it here on YouTube.

This week, our youngest learners – students in kindergarten, first and second grades – are taking NYC Performance Assessments in English-language arts (ELA) as measures of student learning (MOSLs).  They are for teacher evaluation purposes only. Scores from these tests count towards 20% of our overall rating.

What our students are being asked to do is developmentally inappropriate.  The task fails to consider early childhood studies, which show that “the average age at which children learn to read independently is 6.5 years.” Some don’t read independently until age seven and THIS is normal. (Please see Defending the Early Years for more information).

What is NOT normal is bombarding first graders with information from two different science texts and expecting them to judiciously select relevant facts to answer two written response questions.  What is NOT normal is expecting first grade students to independently read and to gather facts/evidence from a non-fiction text that is two grade levels above their reading level. My first grade students are being asked to independently read a 3rd grade text – level M – without my support.  And they are to use facts from that book to answer questions independently.  In addition, this text contains errors.  The wrong photograph is used to describe a key fact, but I cannot go into more detail about this, unfortunately.  Now my struggling readers can’t use the photographs to help them answer the questions.

What is WRONG is that my students are losing valuable instructional time to take these flawed tests.  What is WRONG is that my “professional development” time is being used to score these tests.  What is WRONG is that working first grade teachers played no part in creating these tests that are being used to rate us.  What is WRONG is that the New York City Department of Education did NOT correct the errors that were pointed out the them.

As a Teacher of Conscience, I have a moral imperative to know my students well and to understand their learning.  I am discerning when considering the reliability and validity of assessment methods.  I speak out to correct the wrongs.  

Day 1 of the 2015 NYS Common Core ELA Test

I’m not administering the tests this year, but I did receive feedback from NYC teachers and it’s not pretty.

The 3rd grade ELA (English-language arts) test contained FIVE long and dense reading passages – one teacher called them “impossible”- and 30 multiple choice questions. Third graders without testing accommodations had just 70 minutes to complete the test. Many students either didn’t finish or rushed to finish with seconds remaining. One child repeatedly hit the side of his head with the palm of his hand. Others shed tears and some felt ill.

The 5th grade test contained SIX reading passages (no poems) and 42 multiple choice questions. The passages were long and cumbersome and students without testing accommodations had 90 minutes to complete the test.

Tomorrow the students will take day two of the NYS ELA test followed by day three on Thursday.

I told my first graders that for homework they had to be nice to their older, test-taking siblings and that they had to tell their sibling (s) something that he or she is good at.

Prioritizing Social & Emotional Learning at C.A.S.A. Middle School in the Bronx

Sanise Lebron, an 8th grader at Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (C.A.S.A.) Middle School in the Bronx, stands poised and confident before her peers, teachers and principal as she tearfully shares with them the pain she experiences as a fatherless teenager. Watching her in this video by Brooklyn film editor Michael Elliot, I was reminded of one of my first grade girls who – in the middle of a lesson – put her head down and cried.  I do not know what triggered my student’s feelings of despair.  Although I work in a rigid environment that stresses the importance of maximizing instructional time, at the expense of social and emotional learning and snack time, for example, we took a break so that I could address her emotional needs.  Without my prompting, the classroom became quiet and two boys tried to comfort her by offering her their snack.  It turned out that my student was upset because she had no relationship with her father who lived in a different country. Her classmates  – six and seven-years-old – were compassionate and respectful, and I felt successful as a teacher.

There have been other moments when we’ve had to suspend instruction to address an accusation or incident where the majority of students felt an injustice had occurred. Yes, my first graders know the meaning of the word injustice.  It is not part of the ReadyGEN curriculum; it is part of my own curriculum to improve humanity.  During the shares, there’s only one voice.  Whoever is holding Pete the Cat (I learned this from another teacher) gets to talk.  Pete is then passed on to the next individual who wishes to talk.

PeteTheCat

Pete the Cat is an important member of our classroom community.  He’s perched atop the SmartBoard along with models of the Watts Towers that my first graders created collaboratively during a unit on public art (not part of ReadyGEN). 

I recently spoke with Michael Elliot about the good work C.A.S.A.’s principal, Jamaal A. Bowman, is doing to cultivate a school community in which middle school students feel valued and safe to express themselves; their fears, their triumphs, their regrets, their joy. In his principal’s message, Bowman writes,

Our student and staff culture is rooted in love, support, being responsible, and improving what we do each and every day. We have counseling and mediation services for students, and follow a progressive discipline model to support students behaviorally. We have a community circle meeting every Friday in which we reinforce our positive school culture through inspirational videos and speeches, public apologies, and student-to-student and staff-to-student shout outs.

Michael Elliot had the opportunity to observe one of C.A.S.A.’s community circles and he wrote about the powerful experience in You Can’t Measure This, an article co-authored by Kemala Karmen, Deputy Director and Co-founder of NYCpublic.org, which appeared on Huffpost Education’s The Blog on April 7, 2015.  Elliot writes,

I recorded many of the student testimonies given on that initial trip to C.A.S.A., but for me the testimony of Sanise Lebron, an 8th grade student, best revealed the depth and power of what is happening at this Bronx middle school. She shared her story with her entire school. They watched her deliver the anguish in her life with such grace and beauty. Jamaal and his staff, and the students themselves, have created a compassionate space for children, fully aware that real learning cannot happen in the absence of empathy.

Please watch the amazing Sanise Lebron.  In this era of standardization and excessive testing and accountability, Jamaal Bowman’s commitment to teaching the whole child is laudable.  His work restores my faith in the true meaning of public education.

-Katie