Sunset Park Fifth Graders Hold a Human Rights Fundraiser

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“I have been through a lot in my life. This painting represents a time in my life when I changed and became a new person…It also represents when you are in your deepest pain you still have that place in your heart that tells you there is still HOPE and NEVER GIVE UP.”

As the 2015-2016 school year comes to a close, many students and educators nervously await the release of scores that, according to state and local education departments, tell us our worth as teachers and learners.

But these numbers do not rate us on our humanity and on our ability to love and add beauty to our troubled world.  Official data such as test scores and teacher evaluation ratings cannot capture the spirit of our classrooms. 

In celebrating our meaningful – and largely unsung – work, I wish to highlight an amazing project conceived by a fifth grade class in a Title I public elementary school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  Inspiration for the project, which is called From Artistic Inspiration to Education, came from two main sources: the students’ study of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and stories told to them by their teacher, Maria Diaz, who recently visited an impoverished village in the Dominican Republic.  In promoting Article 26 of the UDHR, which states that “everyone has the right to education,” Class 5-502 decided to raise money for the school in the village their teacher visited.

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Here’s what the students of class 502 wrote on their fundraising webpage:

We are so lucky to have a school that provides us with all the educational supplies we need. Buying school supplies and uniforms is a challenge for all of the 13 kids that attend that school and we want to be able to provide those basic supplies for them. 

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To date, the students have raised a little more than $1,375.00.  This week, class 502 is inviting the school community to visit their classroom, which they’ve converted into an art gallery to showcase their UDHR-inspired artwork as well as to provide more information about the school they are supporting.  On Thursday, June 16, the students of class 502 will auction off their paintings.  The silent auction will take place at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn from 3:30 – 7:00 pm (427 38th Street between 4th and 5th Aves.).  Please come (or donate online).  Witnessing the students’ enthusiasm and empathy will give you hope for the future.  Their words of wisdom – whether intentional or not – will also move you.  One student wrote this about her painting: “I enjoyed creating it even though it looks messy and a bunch of curvy lines.  That is what art is all about.  That is what education is all about.”

Here is a sampling of their creations.

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“I am from the Dominican Republic. A lot of people there are really poor. Ms. Diaz showed us a village called El Aguacate, there are mountains there. Article 25 states that you and your family are entitled to having basic necessities, like a house. This is why I chose to draw a house.”

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“I was inspired to paint Divided Colors because of my love for division in math. It represents how unfair life could be and how some people are divided. For example, children’s education is divided. In the Dominican Republic and in other parts of the world like Yemen kids don’t have the right to a proper education.”

horse

“My piece represents equality for all human beings and animals. If you only have an eye, you can still be friends with someone who has two eyes.”

flowers

“These flowers represent us helping a school in the Dominican Republic. I put the flowers far from each other because the Dominican Republic is another country.”

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bomb

“What inspired me to paint this is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because Article 3 says “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” In a lot of places people don’t have that. Also a lot of people suffer so much. BOOM represents the evils that destroy things and harm innocent people.”

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—”To me a parrot represents all the languages spoken in the world. The colors represent happiness and freedom. In Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it says that, “Everyone should live life with freedom.” Some people see a bird as a sign of freedom and we can all believe that someday we will all have world freedom.”

 

 

 

 

 

Recognizing Effective Teaching Without Danielson’s Rubric

Where in Charlotte Danielson’s 2013 Framework for Teaching rubric, which is currently being used throughout the United States to measure teacher practice, is the component for teaching empathy, for inspiring students and for giving them tools, as well as the motivation, to keep from giving up on life?

When I was in high school, as far as I know, administrators did not use a rubric to evaluate my teachers.  I became a college and graduate student of history, and a social justice educator, because of Dr. Rick Chase, my high school history teacher at the The Lovett School in Atlanta, Georgia. Through Dr. Chase, my interest in politics blossomed.  I discovered that I gravitated towards candidates who strived to be of service to the poor and working class. I felt deep compassion for Paul Tsongas whose dream of becoming U.S. president in 1992 was cut short due – in large part, as I recall – to his health problems.  Like Tsongas, I was a swimmer and took pride in my butterfly stroke.

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from The Lovett School’s Fall 2015 magazine

Dr. Chase’s selection of My Enemy My Self by Yoram Binur pulled at my heartstrings as I read, in horror, Binur’s firsthand account of the mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories.  Fighting discrimination and hate became a mission for me. I sought to understand the origins of genocide and, as a 21-year-old, traveled alone to Poland to contemplate human history from the railroad tracks of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

Recently, the talented film editor Michael Elliot produced a four-minute-long film honoring Eileen Daniel Riddle and James Gilchrist, two retired theater arts teachers from Agoura Hills, California who changed his life and those of many of his classmates. 40 years later, we are moved by the testimonials of Riddle and Gilchrist’s former students.  “I love this man so much,” exclaims one woman as she hugs James Gilchrist.  “They were the spark that set my life in motion,” remarks Michael Elliot who also credited Eileen Daniel Riddle with helping students find beauty through pain.

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Film editor Michael Elliot with his former theater arts teacher, Eileen Daniel Riddle

Please share with Michael your story of a teacher who inspired you.  Visit shoot4education.com/teacherproject.  

While these lifelong teachers, now retired, had different teaching styles, interests and personalities, they all taught with passion and instinct, traits not measurable by a rubric. They also had freedom and autonomy, conditions that motivate teachers and boost their morale.  The current path that we are on – the standardization of teaching and learning and the narrowing of curriculum – is short-sighted and unsustainable.  It unfortunately deprives students of experiences that Michael Elliot touchingly describes in his short film.  Eileen Daniel Riddle, James Gilchrist and Dr. Rick Chase are teachers who not only inspired students to expand their learning but also created spaces in which students could feel alive.

What rubric measures that?

 

NYC Parents: Here’s the TRUTH about the 2016 NYS Tests

New York City parents may be hearing that the New York State (NYS) Common Core math and ELA (English-language arts) tests will be better this year and are of value to educators and students.

This does not tell the whole story.  Here’s the truth about the 2016 NYS tests. 

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  • Pearson created the 2016 tests.  Questar Assessment Inc., which, in 2015, was awarded a $44 million, five-year contract by the New York State Education Department (NYSED), is in the process of developing test questions for future tests.  However, their tests won’t be used until 2018. According to a January 2016 NYSED memo,”Questar Assessment, Inc. has replaced Pearson and is responsible for the construction of this year’s test forms and guidance materials.” Questar did not create the actual 2016 tests and test questions. 
  • The shortening of the 2016 NYS Common Core tests is insignificant. Students will still spend a total of six days taking the math and ELA tests (three days each).  The tests are untimed this year so students could potentially sit for an even longer period of time to complete the assessments.  The below comparison charts show how minimal the changes to the tests are.  Also, shaving off a few questions does nothing to improve the quality of the test questions.  The tests are still bad.
  • Using NYSED’s online test archive, Kemala Karmen, a NYC parent and co-founder of NYCpublic.org, “calculated how many more test items a NYS student in 2016 will be required to answer than a NYS student in the same grade had to answer in 2010” (Karmen, 2016).  In an email, Karmen wrote, “A 5th grader this April will be faced with 117 questions (combined math and ELA).  2010’s 5th grader? 61.  That’s 56 more questions, or an increase of 92%.”
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In addition to illustrating the sharp increase of test questions since 2010, this graph, created by NYC parent Amy Gropp Forbes, shows how insignificant the shortening of the 2016 is. 

  • The NYS Common Core ELA and math tests are not the only assessments administered this spring.  NYSED recently released the 2016 field test assignments for NYS schools.  Please click on this NYSED link to see if your school has been signed up to field test future math, science or ELA test questions.  The June 2016 administration of the field tests is of no value to teachers or students, the latter of which are being used as guinea pigs.
  • Similarly, many NYC parents are unaware of the excessive and developmentally inappropriate testing our English-language learners (ELLs) are subjected to. After only 12 months in the system, all ELLs in NYS must take the ELA test (ELLs are not exempt from the math test in their first year because translated versions of the assessment are available).  During the recent parent-teacher conferences, it pained me to share with parents my goal for second graders who were at the expanding (advanced) English-proficiency level: to test proficient on this year’s NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test). Administered each spring, the NYSESLAT is a grueling four-part test, now aligned to the Common Core, which assesses ELLs’ speaking, listening, reading and writing proficiency levels in English. It is a content-based assessment, not a true language test, and, in my professional opinion, it is wholly inappropriate to administer to ELLs at any grade level. Sentence writing, for example, is expected of ELLs in kindergarten. Spending my precious minutes discussing this highly flawed standardized test was bad enough, but my rationale for getting students to test out (test proficient or pass) tightened the knot in my stomach. If my expanding (advanced) ELLs do not pass the NYSESLAT this school year, in third grade they will have to take it again right after the widely discredited NYS Common Core ELA and math tests.  I signed up to be a teacher, not a tester.  
  • I can’t think of a single working NYC teacher who finds the NYS Common Core tests to be a “valuable experience for our students” (as per New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) chancellor Carmen Fariña’s 3/15/16 letter to parents). Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests are not teacher-created, nor do they accurately reflect the contextualized skills and knowledge that students gain in the classroom. The tests are developmentally inappropriate, poorly constructed and contain ambiguous questions. In 2014, 557 New York State principals signed this letter denouncing the tests. Despite the so-called changes to the 2016 tests, the content and the skills that are tested remain the same.

In painting a broader picture of the impact of NYS’s Common Core testing program on public education, it’s important to highlight that everything revolves around the highly flawed NYS Common Core tests.  Despite the NYCDOE’s argument that multiple measures are used to determine a child’s promotion to the next grade, the testing program is the sun around which all other aspects of public education orbit.  Schools with low test scores – due to poverty, high numbers of English-language learners and/or students with disabilities – are particularly vulnerable to scrutiny, micromanagement and excessive testing.  These schools face state reviews and pressure to adopt Common Core test prep curricula (ReadyGEN, GO Math! and Expeditionary Learning, for example), all at the expense of offering students an authentic and inspiring education that truly meets their social, emotional and academic needs.

I have spent the past 10 years in Title I elementary schools in New York City.  Our students go on fewer field trips, are exposed to a narrower range of books, and participate less in the arts.   In Title I schools, beginning in kindergarten, there exists such a strong sense of urgency to prepare students for the skills they will need in order to do well on the state tests that not a moment is to be “wasted.” Cutting and pasting in first grade is wrongly viewed as lacking rigor.  As a result, it’s not uncommon to find a second grader struggling to use glue and scissors.  Folding paper, I’m discovering, is an undeveloped skill nowadays.

In schools with low test scores, there is no free play and, for the most part, recess only happens at lunchtime (weather permitting).  Any classroom “play” must reinforce academic skills.  School days can be suffocating for students and teachers alike.  Curriculum pacing guides must be followed faithfully, which has killed spontaneity and deprives students of opportunities to learn about topics outside of the curriculum. I’ve even had to sneak in Martin Luther King, Jr. and Chinese New Year.  My rich author study units highlighting the important works of Ezra Jack Keats and Leo Lionni, among others, are collecting dust.  I mourn this loss of freedom every day I go to work.  Forget about using students’ interests to shape instruction.  “Choice” is only offered to students within the confines of the Common Core-aligned curricula.

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Andy Yung, a talented pre-K teacher in Queens, presented this slide at last weekend’s Jackson Heights People for Public Schools event. 

What is of chief importance to “struggling” schools is the raising of scores on poor quality tests that do not reflect how each student has grown in his or her own way.  As part of their test preparation program this year, a Bronx elementary school has already administered two NYS ELA and math test simulations: one in December 2015 and the other in March 2016.  Each simulation lasted six days (3 periods each day) and was harder than the real tests, according to a teacher.  While this is an extreme case – and arguably abusive – test prep is still occurring citywide even at schools with high test scores.

The organized opt-out movement here in NYC is led by local parents and educators who spend an inordinate amount of time researching the NYS Common Core testing program and educating themselves on developmentally appropriate pedagogy.  Change the Stakes and NYC Opt Out, among others, report the truth through social media and through testing meetings that are being held all over NYC.  While some NYC parents may have initially gravitated to this movement in order to protect their own children from educational malpractice, a growing number of opponents of the state testing program are opting-out for justice.  Boycotting the tests and depriving the state of data is seen as the only way to effect change in our schools, and to curb the further privatization of public education (see what’s happening right now in the United Kingdom).

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These parents and educators envision a different educational experience for all children of New York State.  Bronx principal Jamaal Bowman  speaks out against the current NYS Common Core testing program.  As reported in this November 2015 Huffington Post article, “Jamaal Bowman knows his kids and with the research to back up his approach, he makes it clear that by empowering teachers and inspiring children toward their passions, in an atmosphere that embraces our diversity, we have the capacity to realize the goals that the current reforms are failing to produce.”  I also appreciate Brooklyn New School principal Anna Allanbrook’s weekly letters to parents , which showcase her school’s whole child approach and contrast sharply with NYS’s test-based education reform initiatives.  In Allanbrook’s March 7 letter, she links to a speech delivered by principal Bowman and writes, “Jamaal suggests that all parents exercise their right to opt out of high stakes testing, advising parents to demand more holistic assessment of their children. Jamaal’s words remind us of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” These are brave, ethical NYC school leaders whom I greatly admire.

What about all the thoughtful and experienced NYC classroom teachers who find fault with these tests and don’t view them as a valuable teaching tool?  The teachers of the MORE caucus of the UFT (United Federation of Teachers) support opt-out and oppose Common Core, Danielson teacher evaluations and high-stakes testing. MORE candidates, such as Jia Lee, who testified against high-stakes testing in a U.S. senate hearing last year, are running in this year’s UFT election. Teachers of Conscience refuse to administer both state and local standardized assessments.  Teachers’ legitimate concerns, based on years of experience and knowledge of developmentally appropriate pedagogy, are absent from the official story that’s being told to NYC parents. In fact, NYC educators are being silenced and, as a result, are afraid to speak out.  This is an attack on our democracy and goes against the so-called critical thinking that the NYCDOE purports to be promoting through Common Core.

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This is just a glimpse of what’s really going on in NYC public schools.  There is, of course, more to the story.   Here is a link to view the March 2016 NYCDOE’s Student Participation in Grades 3-8 New York State Tests Parent Guide.  Regardless of your child’s performance level, it is a parent’s right to opt out.

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The NYCDOE 2016 guide states, if, after consulting with the principal, the parents still want to opt their child out of the exams, the principal should respect the parents’ decision and let them know that the school will work to the best of their ability to provide the child with an alternate educational activity (e.g., reading) during testing times.”  

For more information about opting out, please visit these sites:

Ten Reasons Why NO Child Should Take the NYS Common Core Tests

www.optoutnyc.com

changethestakes.wordpress.com

morecaucusnyc.org

NYS Allies for Public Education 

Long Island Opt-Out Info

unitedoptout.com

Defending the Early Years – deyproject.org

networkforpubliceducation.org

badassteacher.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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

 

Dear Carmen Fariña: NYC Schools Need Joy and Democracy

Dear Chancellor Fariña,

Welcome back! I am encouraged by your message of bringing back joy into the classrooms. But what about democracy? Here in New York City, curriculum and pedagogy are narrowing in order to prepare students for high-stakes tests that, in my professional opinion, are invalid. The Common Core (CCSS) state tests do not accurately measure what students know and how they have grown both academically and socially/emotionally. In my opinion, the corporate education reform agenda, together with its Common Core package of standards, curriculum and testing, is whittling down the purpose of public education to “college and career readiness,” with a focus on English-language arts and math instruction. At the NYS Senate’s January 23, 2014 Common Core hearing, NYSED Commissioner John King reiterated that the Common Core is needed for the US economy, arguing that it’s what US corporations want. However, any teacher will tell you that they are in this job to make a difference in the lives of children, to show students how to avoid the mistakes made by our predecessors in the hopes of improving the state of the world. We see the critical importance of helping students develop life skills, such as civic-mindedness, empathy and resilience, in addition to teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic.

I wish to draw your attention to the issues in our public schools that currently are most troubling to me. I am a push-in ESL teacher at a Title I elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn, however I started out, in 2006, as a bilingual classroom teacher.

1.) Over-testing – English-language learners (ELLs) in grades 3-8 are particularly encumbered with standardized testing. The NYSESLAT (NYS English as a Second Language Achievement Test) is administered to ELLs right after the grueling Common Core ELA and math state assessments. The NYSESLAT is a lengthy, four-part assessment that tests students’ proficiency levels in the speaking, reading, writing and listening of English. Contrary to what the NYS Board of Regents says, students in grades K-2 are indeed taking standardized tests. For the listening, reading and writing sections of the NYSESLAT, ELLs in grades K-2 are required to answer multiple choice questions by bubbling their answers directly into student test booklets. As an out-of-classroom ESL teacher, my instructional program is, for the most part, cancelled for two months in the spring. From April to June, my days are spent preparing, administering and scoring state assessments.

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In addition to April’s Common Core ELA and math high-stakes tests, NYC students are currently taking ELA and math baseline assessments that resemble the content and format of the actual CCSS state tests. Two weeks ago, my 5th grade English-language learners (ELLs) used over four class periods to complete the math baseline. One boy shut down in the middle of the assessment and a girl broke down in tears and ended up in the nurse’s office. While change must occur at both the federal and state levels, you and Bill de Blasio have the power to lower the stakes of these burdensome tests in New York City. A recent Teachers Talk Testing petition asked the mayor to:

1. End promotion tied to test scores.
2. End middle and high school admissions tied exclusively to test scores.
3. End school report cards based primarily on student test scores.

In fact, on December 10, 2013, the City Council unanimously passed Resolution 1394, which calls upon the state of New York to replace high-stakes testing with multiple forms of assessment. Fred Smith, a statistician who worked for the NYC Board of Education as an administrative staff analyst until 2001, is a wealth of knowledge on NYS’s flawed standardized testing program. In a letter to Diane Ravitch, Smith called the 2013 NYS Common Core assessments “…failed, unreliable instruments incapable of serving as a baseline or foundation.” Smith currently advises Change the Stakes, a local group that opposes high-stakes testing, and is an excellent resource.

2.) Undemocratic learning climate – Our freedom to teach is eroding. Teachers had little (if any) meaningful participation in the development and review of the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core package was imposed on us in top-down fashion, and in many NYC public schools, particularly those receiving Title I funding, there’s little wiggle room in applying the standards to learning. In other words, we cannot simply use the standards as we see fit. They are tied to an accountability system (testing) and scripted curricula that ostensibly address the so-called instructional shifts. Teachers increasingly lament that they feel they aren’t giving students what they really need and deserve.

Similarly, many NYC teachers feel they had little input in selecting the new Common Core-aligned curriculum. Pearson’s ReadyGEN ELA Core Curriculum program is particularly unpopular, not because of its disastrous rollout, but because it’s an uninspiring and developmentally inappropriate test prep program. While I mostly like the 5th grade anchor texts – the only part of the program my 5th grade co-teacher and I currently use – I had no say in choosing the books. When will my co-teacher and I squeeze in Rickshaw Girl, a culturally relevant chapter book we read every year that explores the struggles of a young girl in Bangladesh? Also, the ReadyGEN-selected texts are challenging for my ESL students, and from what I can tell the program offers no differentiation in terms of materials. Pearson instructs teachers to expose all students, regardless of reading level and English-language proficiency, to the same rigorous text.

Here’s a sample page from Coming to America: The Story of Immigration, a text that’s being used in the ReadyGEN ELA first grade program.

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First grade close reading – ReadyGEN

Will a first grader find joy in closely reading this text and in answering questions in ReadyGEN’s bland Reader’s and Writer’s Journal which, to me, is nothing more than a test prep workbook? What about my special needs ELL who still doesn’t know all of his sounds and letters but is expected to follow along in the text while the teacher reads it aloud? The ReadyGEN first grade journal asks students to write sentences using vocabulary such as gazes, barrier, blended and unique. It also instructs students to explain in writing why America is called a “melting pot” and to rewrite sentences from the text in order to replace proper nouns and nouns with pronouns. In a reading analysis lesson, the written response directions in the first grade journal are worded as follows: What is the central message of A Picnic in October? and Retell three details that teach the central message.

The ReadyGEN ELA program has yielded so few moments of joy in our first grade ESL class that my co-teacher and I have decided to take a break from it during our literacy block. We are currently teaching an ELA unit on monsters, and the classroom has come alive. We selected a variety of engaging monster books, and each day students complete a writing and/or art activity. Why are the monsters called Wild Things? What does it mean to be ‘wild’? Describe the setting of the book. Describe the nightmare in your closet. What makes it scary? How does the mouse trick the forest animals in The Gruffalo? Are all monsters bad? What are the different names (synonyms) for monsters in the books we’ve read? Create your own monster and use adjectives to describe its features. From this, I envision a social emotional learning unit in which we discuss our fears and students describe a time when they were brave. I’m doing something similar with my 5th grade newcomer ELLs who are currently studying the Underground Railroad.

3.) Misuse of funds and inequity– While we are using what we can of ReadyGEN, the student journals are largely being unused. How much money did the NYCDOE spend on this program? NYC Title I public schools, in particular, feel they have no choice but to adopt the subsidized NYCDOE Core Curriculum programs and “free” NYSED engageny.org lessons. Doing so spares them from having to use their limited funds to create and/or to justify the use of alternative Common Core-aligned programs. Also, schools with low test scores find comfort in reasoning that the content and tasks in these programs might appear on the actual CCSS tests. It should be noted that Pearson is the publisher of both ReadyGEN and the NYS ELA CCSS assessment.

Harris Lirtzman recently penned an eye-opening opinion piece on NYCDOE spending for WNYC’s SchoolBook. He called the DOE under Michael Bloomberg “a sinkhole of wasted money.” My understanding of the NYCDOE’s budget is not as deep as Lirtzman’s, but I can think of so many other ways to use the funds. Class sizes are rising, AIS services are being cut and after school test prep sessions have replaced enrichment programs. Wraparound services are also in demand. We need more initiatives to genuinely fight poverty and to provide students who are hurting with counseling. So many of our kids don’t have a safety net and look to school for emotional support. With the emphasis currently on addressing  “instructional shifts” and on preparing students for high-stakes testing, the needs of at-risk students are not being met.

4.) Lack of meaningful professional development (PD)Why is Pearson telling us how to teach? Teachers report that the ReadyGEN PD sessions they regularly attend are ineffective. In addition, teachers are being asked to analyze tests that they themselves didn’t create, and collaborative planning time is being sacrificed so that teachers in grades 3-5 can score the above-mentioned baseline assessments using a non-teacher created rubric. I have lost count of the number of PD sessions I’ve attended on Danielson’s Framework and on the Common Core State Standards.

Teachers would rather spend time working together to create lessons, gather materials and share resources. We learn best from one another. Outside of my school, I look at Boston’s Mission Hill School, which was founded by Deborah Meier in 1997, for alternative techniques to the ones imposed on us. After watching the inspirational video series A Year at Mission Hill, I started writing a column on teachersletterstobillgates.com in which I showcase the school’s rich project-based, collaborative curriculum and inclusive community-building practices. I call my project Freedom to Teach, Freedom to Learn: A Year at Mission Hill.

Here in New York City, I recently attended the More than a Score: Talk back to Testing forum that was organized by Change the Stakes and the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) of the UFT. I left feeling inspired and hopeful. Participants feeling demoralized by high-stakes testing found the day to be soul-cleansing; one even declared that we should “…walk out of here and start a new school system.” Jia Lee, a teacher/parent at Manhattan’s Earth School, shared with us the 4th/5th grade immigrant study curriculum that she and her colleagues designed. I learned from Jia that through socially and culturally relevant pedagogy, her school, which is part of the Children First Network 102, creates their own project-based curricula and portfolio-based assessments. The Earth School has also effectively eliminated the ranking and sorting of kids by using written narrative reports to convey student performance rather than traditional report cards.

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Those of us saddled with test prep curriculum, like ReadyGEN, and the NYC Performance Assessments, which exist solely to satisfy the Measures of Student Learning (MOSL) component of the new teacher evaluation system, do not have sufficient space in which to collaborate in authentic, meaningful ways. We have fewer opportunities to put our own stamp on the learning taking place in our classrooms. It breaks my heart that students in my district are not getting the same kinds of educational experiences that have existed long before the reign of the Common Core era at the Earth School and at other CFN 102 schools like the Brooklyn New School (P.S. 146) and Park Slope’s P.S. 321.  Many NYC educators are unaware of the autonomy that these NYC public elementary schools enjoy.  In designing quality curriculum and assessments that address the whole child, we should reject what corporate education reform is peddling and instead draw from our most valuable resource: our schools.

Kind regards,

Katie Lapham, NYC public school teacher

Testifying at John King’s Common Core Forum in Brooklyn 12/10/13

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NYSED Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch brought their Common Core “listening” tour to New York City last night. Tisch was stationed in the Bronx while John King attended the Brooklyn forum at Medgar Evers College.  Tonight (12/11/13) the two will appear together at Spruce Street School/P.S. 397 (12 Spruce Street) in Manhattan from 5-7 pm.

Unlike previous Common Core forums held in New York State, the Brooklyn forum was dominated by Common Core supporters, namely representatives of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst movement, including teachers, and members of Families for Excellent Schools.  Former CNN correspondent Campbell Brown, whose husband, Dan Senor, is a board member of StudentsFirstNY, was there as well.  What was most striking to me was hearing parents praise high-stakes testing.

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Specials interests descend on Brooklyn’s Common Core forum 

I arrived at the Medgar Evers auditorium shortly after 4:30 pm.  I wanted to get there early to get a speaking slot and to edit and practice my speech.  In fact, I was the first speaker to sign up.  While I was working in a different location, the Common Core supporters showed up en masse and secured the remaining 44 speaking slots.  Even though a significant number of Common Core and high-stakes standardized testing critics were in the audience, I ended up being the only critic who spoke.

Here is a copy of my speech, which I had to deliver in two minutes.

The Common Core is undemocratic and has been implemented in top-down fashion. The Common Core puts corporations, not children, first. It was written secretively by 60 individuals representing a variety of non-profits funded by the Gates Foundation. Only one participant in the entire writing process was a teacher. Not only has the Gates Foundation spent nearly $200 million on the Common Core, but it sent consultants to Washington, DC to help Arne Duncan draft Race to the Top legislation. Here In New York, the Regents Research Fund, which supports the controversial Regents Fellows think tank, received $3.3 million from the Gates Foundation.

Furthermore, teachers did not play a decision-making role in reviewing the standards. A Florida teacher recently said the following about the process:

“As the review unfolded, it became apparent that we were not working with a holistic, integrated application of standards… It began to look instead like a checklist forming a platform for standardized testing” (Florida Teacher: “I Was Among Those Who Reviewed the Common Core in 2009” by Anthony Cody, 11/6/13)

As you’ve “heard” again and again, the Common Core has led to scripted curricula that do little more than prepare students – beginning in kindergarten – for high-stakes Common Core standardized tests. The content, format, and length of the exams, combined with instructional and enrichment time lost to test prep, constitute child abuse and deprive students of a meaningful education.

Do the right thing. End high-stakes testing. Look at model schools – like Mission Hill in Boston – that have experienced great success in teaching the whole child and in using authentic, portfolio-based assessments. Invest in smaller class sizes, especially in Title I schools like mine that have a high number of English-language learners and students with disabilities. We need educated teaching assistants, not an influx of technology, in our overcrowded classrooms. We need autonomy and the freedom to use the standards as we see fit, to best meet the needs of our diverse learners. The Common Core, in my professional opinion, will NOT close the achievement gap.

Doin’ Core Curriculum Our Way (cue the Laverne & Shirley theme song)

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The purpose of this reflection (Danielson 4a) is to further highlight the maddening waste of resources and lack of common sense that I’m seeing on a daily basis as a result of corporate education reform and its Common Core troika of nationalized learning standards, scripted curriculum and high-stakes testing.  Last week, Pearson’s ReadyGEN program, a “recommended” NYC Department of Education ELA (English-language arts) curriculum, particularly irked me.

In complying with the ReadyGEN script, my 5th grade co-teacher and I were instructed to read to students chapter seven of Rachel Carson: Pioneer of Ecology. I am an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor and push-in to my colleague’s class during the literacy block.  The chapter’s title – Fourteen Dead Robins – intrigued me. Rubbing my hands together in excitement, I imagined a powerful, real world conversation we’d have with our students about the health effects of DDT and people’s unwillingness – due to fear – to speak out against injustices.

Instead, the ReadyGEN reading skill assigned to chapter seven was craft and structure, specifically analyzing figurative language and word choice.  We did attempt to practice this skill with our students using the ReadyGEN Student Materials workbook, but quickly decided to pull the plug on the task because we found few examples of figurative language, and we felt that the chosen ReadyGEN skill was ill-fitting in light of the chapter’s content.  It was as if the people who created ReadyGEN had randomly selected reading skills without first considering the content of the individual chapters. Chapter four’s reading skill was main idea and details while in chapter six – the previous day’s lesson – the students practiced cause and effect. Shockingly – given the NYC DOE’s constant use of Common Core-aligned – the standards themselves are not even cited in the ReadyGEN Teacher’s Guide, which is still in the pre-publication stage.

Below are the alternative questions that my colleague created midway into ReadyGEN’s chapter seven lesson. The students first discussed the questions in small groups, while we circulated, and then worked individually to respond to them in writing. We felt that this was a more suitable (and more meaningful) task that better reflected the main idea of chapter seven.

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The next day, ReadyGEN never saw the light of day.  Instead, I led a lesson about cancer clusters that are appearing in farming regions of Argentina as a result of the country’s increased use of pesticides and herbicides.  I was inspired by a Mother Jones article I saw recently on Twitter.  The high-interest, real world content in this article tied in nicely with Rachel’s reaction to the effects of DDT as seen in chapter seven. The SmartBoard presentation I created included many visuals – photographs, graphs, charts – to aide students in digesting the challenging content. Genetically-modified and Monsanto’s Roundup Ready were among the vocabulary terms in the lesson.  Students were engaged and moved by the topic.  Below is one English-language learner’s wondering about pesticides.

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I know of no teacher – including one in Ohio – who is satisfied with ReadyGEN’s ELA program.  The anchor texts (literature) may be authentic, but the reading and writing tasks are not.  Pearson’s ReadyGEN is a poorly and hastily designed test prep program to get students ready for next year’s high-stakes Common Core ELA assessment.  The NYC DOE could have saved a lot of money if they had instead provided schools with just the copies of the anchor texts, class sets of titles such as Rachel Carson: Pioneer of Ecology. Sample reading and writing questions and suggested performance tasks could have been posted online. From what I’ve observed, the Student Materials workbook (see below photo) is being used minimally.

I don’t know how much the NYC DOE has spent on producing this program and on providing professional development to teachers.  However, I’m outraged that ReadyGEN has priority over other, more pressing initiatives like ensuring smaller class sizes and providing AIS services to students. The Common Core standards, unfortunately, do not stand alone. As I am experiencing, they are not an innocuous set of student learning objectives that teachers can use to shape their own instruction.  Here in New York State, the adoption of the Common Core has led to the wasteful spending of millions of dollars on the development of inferior math and ELA programs that are scripted and threaten teacher autonomy.  The overarching goal of such curricula is not to inspire students or to address their individual needs, but instead to train them for meaningless high-stakes tests.