End of a crushing school year

It is a relief to put this school year behind me. I felt more like a tester and paper-pusher than a teacher. However, I did get the opportunity to work with some dynamic kids.

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During my subway commute this morning, I read the following in a book called Gandhi Speaks: The Mahatma’s Words for Children (Penguin Books India, 2009):

“Teachers should have a very close relationship with their students, and touch the hearts of their pupils…Gandhi viewed teachers as trustees of the minds of pupils, helping them build character, not just imparting dry facts.” (pg. 14).

I’d like to think that by celebrating my students’ talents, they now feel more inspired. I hope they left school today feeling more confident and motivated to find meaning in their lives.

My students touched my heart, and the joy and amusement I felt in their presence countered my testing and data fatigue.

Katie

Recognition for Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates

Dear all,

Susan and I so appreciate Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post┬áprofile of our website as well as Diane Ravitch’s strong endorsement on her blog. We also appreciate Anthony Cody’s recognition on his blog.

We recognize the healing powers of providing teachers with a space where they can share with one another stories about their struggles. Corporate education reform has been devastating to our profession, and it is our hope that teachers will find insight and inspiration through these pages.

Mr. Gates – we also hope you read our letters with an open mind and will respond to us in an authentic, meaningful way. We strongly urge you to spend as much time as possible in the “trenches,” in public schools, working directly with kids and dialoguing with educators. It’s the only way you’ll truly understand and appreciate what we dedicated, caring teachers are up against. We are teachers to the core – we feel it in every fiber of our being – but the Common Core together with its assessment, curriculum and teacher evaluation plans, are gutting us and our students.

Diane’s endorsement: http://dianeravitch.net/2013/06/19/an-amazing-website-teachers-letters-to-bill-gates/

Valerie’s article in the Washington Post:
http://m.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/06/14/teachers-letters-to-bill-gates/

Anthony’s blog:
http://mobile.edweek.org/c.jsp?DISPATCHED=true&cid=25983841&item=http%3A%2F%2Fblogs.edweek.org%2Fteachers%2Fliving-in-dialogue%2F2013%2F06%2Fbill_gates_discovers_money_can.html

Bill Lapham – One of the Good Guys

The year my father was dying of cancer, the company he was on the board of established an award in his name. It’s called the William V. Lapham Award for Extraordinary Integrity and it’s given “to individuals who clearly demonstrate an exceptional commitment to the highest standards of personal or financial integrity for the benefit of the Company.”

Growing up, I was conflicted about my dad’s job in corporate America. I was grateful for the comfortable lifestyle he provided us with, including financing my high school and college tuitions, but I also indulged in trying to get a rise out of him by challenging the existence of capitalism. Like many students of liberal arts, particularly history, I flirted with Marxist ideology and even named my cat Trotsky. My dad adored the cat, but changed her name to Trotty after I left home for college.

As a corporate auditor, my father disdained mismanagement and waste and, in decision-making, always asked himself ‘does this make sense’? He was a thoughtful and self-reflective man, and very thorough in his investigations. Both of us – at one point – aspired to be FBI agents.

Now, as I spend my free time educating myself on market-driven educational policies and Bill Gates’ influence in public education, I imagine my dad and myself engaged in a respectful dialogue about this topic. He’d probably tell me that I needed to be realistic and practical, but at the same time I know that he would listen – with an open mind – to my stories about what’s really happening in our nation’s classrooms as a result of privatization. In addition to being a man of integrity in the business world, he was sensitive and had a big heart.

To UFT – Please endorse John Liu for mayor of NYC

Dear Michael Mulgrew,

I am writing to strongly urge the UFT to endorse John Liu for mayor of New York City.

I heard Liu address education issues at two different mayoral forums: one at the Brooklyn UFT office, and last night at a forum on education for parents.

Having a son in a New York City public school, John Liu sees firsthand the struggles and burdens of our city’s teachers. Unlike the current administration, he does not believe in high-stakes testing and he feels that we should be “running schools, not marketing firms.” In addition, John Liu is in the unique position of having audited the Department of Education as Comptroller of New York City. He’s identified the areas of wasteful spending, and he will reduce the Department’s pet projects which enrich outside consultants, not students.

John Liu comes across as authentic and genuine and he trusts teachers to teach. I truly believe that as mayor he will engage with teachers in an open dialogue to brainstorm real education reform for New York City schools.

Kind regards,
Katie Lapham
NYC public school teacher

My letter to a 5th grader despondent over ELA score

Hi Mr. Gates,

Were you a good test-taker? I wasn’t and neither is one of my 5th grade ELLs. In fact, he isn’t a true ELL but he hasn’t yet tested proficient on the NYSESLAT (you know about this standardized test from my previous letters to you), which is the only way out of ESL.

He is despondent after learning that his ELA cut score isn’t high enough for automatic promotion to the 6th grade. In my letter to him, I reveal my own struggles with standardized testing. -K

Dear ________,

I know you are feeling down about your ELA score. I have been in your shoes many times before, and know what a struggle it is – how so very hard it is – to lift yourself up from the crushing disappointment.

________, I was a terrible standardized test-taker. It was very hard for me to concentrate and focus on reading passages, especially when faced with so many long ones. The time limit also distracted me and made me nervous. I felt rushed. As a result, I would panic and freeze; my mind would go blank. I couldn’t seem to remember anything I had read and re-read. The information got mixed up in my head and the multiple choice answers confused me. It was such a painful experience for me that I simply selected the best-sounding answer just to be done with it. Is that what it’s like for you?

Have you heard of the SAT? It’s the test that high school kids take in order to get into college. My SAT scores in math and ELA were low. Even though I had a tutor and pushed myself to take the test five times, my scores never improved. In spite of this, I was accepted to every college I applied to, and I thrived as a history major. The universities saw that I was talented in other ways. After college I went on to get a Master’s degree in Latin American studies, but I went to England for this. I prefer their essay-based assessments. I never once had to take a multiple choice test over there.

Please know that you are not alone. We all demonstrate our intelligence and knowledge differently. I had the pleasure of teaching you in 2nd grade and again in 5th grade. Like me, you are a careful, thoughtful worker. You work best when you are given enough time to think about what you want to say. You are a strong writer and you have excellent ideas. You just need to complete your work in your own time.

I want you to know that in my free time I am working hard to speak out on behalf of learners like you and me. It’s not right that so much importance is placed on tests like the ELA and math, which don’t accurately reflect all that we have learned. Most – if not all – teachers believe this.

Hang in there. Ms. ________ and I believe in you. You have so much to contribute to class _______ and beyond. Feel free to reach out to me next year. I am here for you and will always be your advocate.

All best,
Ms. Lapham

They Ask Me Why I Teach

A friend emailed this poem to me and I thought I’d share. It’s dated but the message resonates with me. It is a privilege being able to spend my days with young minds who challenge my thinking and lighten my mood (most of the time).

They Ask Me Why I Teach

They ask me why I teach,

And I reply,

Where could I find more splendid company?

There sits a statesman,

Strong, unbiased, wise,

Another later Webster,

Silver-tongued,

And there a doctor

Whose quick, steady hand

Can mend a bone,

Or stem the lifeblood’s flow.

A builder sits beside him-

Upward rise

The arches of a church he builds, wherein

That minister will speak the word of God,

And lead a stumbling soul to toach the Christ.

And all about

A lesser gathering

Of farmer, merchants, teachers,

Laborers, men

Who work and vote and build

And plan and pray

Into a great tomorrow

And I say,

“I may not see the church,

Or hear the word,

Or eat the food their hands will grow.”

And yet- I may.

And later I may say,

“I knew the lad,

And he was strong,

Or weak, or kind, or proud,

Or bold, or gay.

I knew him once,

But then he was a boy.”

They ask me why I teach, and I reply,

“Where could I find more splendid company?”

*They Ask Me Why I Teach,” by Glennice L. Harmon, in NEA Journal 37, no. 1 (September 1948): 375

A nuanced look at the “No excuses” slogan

6/3/13

Dear Mr. Bill Gates,

I recently read an online dialogue between Education Week’s Anthony Cody and the Gates Foundation. In it, Irvin Scott of the Foundation states, “Simply, I believe all children can learn. I believe low-income children of color can learn when they have great teachers who believe in them, and treat them with the same passion, enthusiasm and intellectual rigor that they would treat their own children.” This got me thinking about the “No Excuses … All Students Will Learn” slogan, which has always bothered me, and I think I now know why.

I absolutely agree that all children can learn, however I wish to add nuance to these statements by pointing out that kids learn at different rates and they demonstrate their knowledge in different ways. The multiple intelligences theory was one of the first concepts taught to us in teacher training. Not only is the one-size-fits-all, Common Core-fortified testing program educationally unsound, but it does little – if anything – to accommodate and honor these varying learning styles.

Is Irwin Scott using standardized test scores alone to measure student learning? One of the most dynamic, hard-working teachers at my Title I public school in Brooklyn, NY teaches challenging and thought-provoking material to a small group of students in a 3rd grade self-contained special ed class. Her kids are learning an enormous amount both academically and socially/emotionally. She gardens with them, takes them to Chinatown, runs laps around the school with them and teaches them high-level, content-related vocabulary through New York Times articles, among many other enriching activities.

However, her three ELLs (English-language learners) will not test proficient on this year’s NYSESLAT and will remain in ESL indefinitely, at-risk of becoming long-term ELLs, a status that reflects poorly on a school. This is due to a learning disability, not an English-language deficiency. Also, few students in her class – if any- will receive a score of 3 (so-called grade level performance) on the Common Core state tests that were administered in New York in April. Looking at test scores alone, will these students be viewed as not having learned this year? Will their test scores reflect poorly on this singular teacher? She is the kind of instructor I aspire to be. What’s also remarkable about her is that she doesn’t allow the demands of the state tests, specifically the pressures to engage in mind numbing test prep, to rattle her or to affect her high quality of teaching. Test prep, a result of high-stakes testing, actually lowers the quality of instruction.

The state does make testing accommodations for students with disabilities and for English-language learners (extended time, questions read, for example), however the length and content of the tests remain the same. Furthermore, ELLs (English-language learners) are required to take the English-language arts exam after just 12 months in the system. If the “official” learning of these students is judged solely by test scores, imagine the impact this can have on the students’ feelings of self- worth. On the one hand their minds are expanding in the classroom (test prep aside), but coming from the other direction is a crushing force telling them that their learning is deficient.

In officially measuring learning, will the judgement of individual schools and teachers in the US ever be trusted and respected enough to instead consider other, more meaningful assessments? Ironically, it has been drilled into us – by the same people who force oppressive standardized testing programs upon us – to differentiate instruction in order to meet the needs of all students. So who is really being measured by these tests?

Next up: how “No excuses” doesn’t allow room for the consideration of poverty and the level of parent involvement as major factors influencing student performance. Teachers aren’t making excuses. We are being realistic.

Sincerely,
Katie Lapham
#TeachersLetters2Gates
On Facebook/TeachersLetters2Gates

P.S. Sorry for the messy link. I am not ready for a career in computer science.

Dialogue between Anthony Cody and the Gates Foundation: http://mobile.edweek.org/c.jsp?DISPATCHED=true&cid=25983841&item=http%3A%2F%2Fblogs.edweek.org%2Fteachers%2Fliving-in dialogue%2F2012%2F09%2Fa_teacher_in_dialogue_with_the.html