Songs help make kids smart

The power of story

Before I get to the meat, you need to know my three daughters are a little twisted. At fourteen my oldest, who is now nineteen and ready to start her second year of college, said to me:

“Dad, if I tell you a joke that’s pretty bad will you promise not to get mad?”

After I thought something like Pshh, If she only knew… I said “Sure, Honey, lay it on me.”

It went like this:

“How many dead hookers does it take to change a light bulb?”

Holy cow, I thought, and my eyes must have widened a little because she laughed.

“I don’t know, how many?” I said.

Now, see, I am going to make you wait for the punch line. If I’ve offended you already, that’s fine, you can check out. But if you want some ideas on how to use songs to create great thinkers then hang in there and the punch line will just be a bonus. Not because you are secretly twisted or because me and my kids are openly so, but because it is an additional illustration of how our brain works and why, and what you can do to take advantage of that.

The power of song

Like jokes, songs capture our brain-but they put it to work in a deeper and more complex way. Where a joke is a powerful and visceral way to microwave your thinker like a burrito, one that you can’t help but love and grab out of the freezer when the mood for a quick, sinful snack strikes, a good song is a slow cooker that creates a hearty stew. A classic and satisfying thought-meal.

Let’s start with bad, sad country music.

In terms of country music, I think I’ve only ever owned a Johnny Cash album. I am not a huge fan of the genre, especially the new stuff that tries to pretend it’s rock and roll. But there is something about a country song that tells a story. Especially those sappy old ones about some guy’s cheatin’ wife, some kid’s dead mamma… I think it was Red Sovine that had one where a guy drives his truck to a flower shop to send his mother flowers for her birthday (because he isn’t going to go and actually see her on his trip to party it up in Florida). He meets a kid buying flowers for his mamma’s birthday, cuz he hasn’t seen her in a year. Well, you know where the boy is taking those flowers, don’t you?

If you don’t, give it a listen. It’s called Roses for Mamma. It “gets me” every time.

And you know why? Because it told a story that held you soft and gentle, just wouldn’t let you go, and delivered in the end-and I loved that! But I’m the type that could hear a few of Harry Chapin’s songs (after having already heard them a thousand times) and still tear up and get a lump in my throat. I play a few on the guitar and sometimes singing them becomes tough because I fall victim to the story. I think about it, I embrace the characters and their situations, I celebrate their joy with them, and feel their pain… In the minutes it takes for the song to play you might live their lives with them. Chapin’s Dreams Go By is a great example. A song that follows a man from the courtship of his wife in their youth to the visits from their grandchildren, with wistful “what-if’s” at each stage. But it’s a lifetime of powerful love with no regrets, delivered in a few minutes with a rather jaunty tune and a beat. It’s a happy song, really, but I well up with sentimentality because the world suffers from a lack of love like this.

How the pedagogy works

One of a teacher’s most powerful tools is story, especially one told well. Fewer students are coming to school having been spoken to in a brain-building, productive way these days, let alone read to or told great stories by an adult role model that loves great stories. Now, even when the book fair comes to school, it’s all flashy covers, books about magic tricks, dinosaurs and Captain Underpants… Yeah, I get the whole “Well you gotta’ get ’em hooked somehow, then you can build on that.” But you know what? By the time they come to school too much time has been wasted already.

Too many burritos and not near enough stew, you feel me?

As a parent or a teacher, if you can feed their young brains great stories at an early age, they will start to become more independent with feeding their own brains. They begin to search out stories, to dig into the story, pull out it’s bits and develop a palette for the flavors: what it is that makes the story funny, sad, surprising, scary… What makes this character the hero, the villain… and later on-what makes this character complicated, and complicated how. These are cognitive skills that, as they develop, allow the listener to become the creator and teller.

It also helps create the type of mentality that leads a father to sing Mary Had a Little Lamb with this slight alteration:

the teacher made her lock it up

lock it up, lock it up

the teacher made her lock it up

and for lunch they had lamb stew

Yeah, this was for  Chloe, the daughter with the hooker joke. It was first  grade, if I remember correctly, but I had sung it to her that way all through her childhood. She came home and reported how her teacher looked at her stunned, and how a few classmates had looked a little puzzled. Of course the teacher had been a colleague for years and knew how it was in my home so there was no counseling recommendation or anything. She told me about it and we had a good laugh. I still think the way I lay out the story is better, and more memorable, but hey-to each his own.

The pedagogy is anchored to the power of the story and the enjoyment found in listening and telling and talking together as meaning is searched for and responses are shared, respected and honored.  And if it is wrapped in music it makes the experience deeper, even more memorable, and therefore more readily available for complex levels of thought.

I can even tell you the moment when my songs-can-be-great-stories world was first rocked. It had to be a country song, of course (it’s a real love/hate relationship). Still not a fan of the music, but this song did it so good I can even explain the stages my brain went through. A definite savory stew moment where my mind bit, tasted, and then went whoa! I was barely a teen, but I never listened to songs the same way again.

How it happened to me

I was probably 13 years old. My stepfather was a huge country fan, so it was playing all the time. George Jones, singing that very well-known He Stopped Loving Her Today came on. Now I had heard it a million times, and the whole story of the George and Tammy (Wynette) drama existed in my periphery, so I knew the song… But maybe this was the first time I had really listened because of…well, you know.

Girls. Once you get interested in them and you think your heart has been broken, you’re more receptive to all that $#!+ . This is how it went on that fateful day-lines of the song, followed by my thoughts.

He Stopped Loving Her Today (George Jones)

He said “I’ll love you till I die” (Hmmm…kinda sappy and sweet, but hey, it’s a country song.)

She told him “You’ll forget in time” (Ouch, buddy! The ol’ “it’s not you, it’s me,”…that’s gotta hurt.)

As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind (Yeah, okay, you miss her…I get it)

He kept her picture on his wall, went half-crazy now and then
He still loved her through it all, hoping she’d come back again (now it’s starting to feel a little loser-ish…c’mon guy)

Kept some letters by his bed dated nineteen sixty-two
He had underlined in red every single “I love you” (Uhhhh…now it’s a little weird, dude. You gotta move on.)

I went to see him just today, oh but I didn’t see no tears  (Yes- Finally he’s over it! I wonder what happened.)

All dressed up to go away, first time I’d seen him smile in years (A vacation-great idea! Go somewhere tropical, pick up a cute girl on the beach…You da man!)

He stopped loving her today (‘Bout freakin time!)

They placed a wreath upon his door (Huh?…I’d prank my buddy while he’s away too, but that’s weird- I don’t get the wreath joke.)

And soon they’ll carry him away (“Carry him awaaaaait a minute…)

He stopped loving her today (OHMIGOD…He said I’ll love you “til I die”! He loved her, she left him and he still loved her, and he’s all dressed up in the coffin with that embalmed peaceful grin and there’s a wreath on his door and the pall bearers will carry him away, and, and… He loved her til he died!)

The first time I really listened, I got what my girls call “the feels”. It happens anytime I hear a great song or read/hear a great story.

And now here’s how I’ve use it

When Chloe, my first-born (dead hooker joke girl), was itty biddy: singing songs, dancing, telling stories, doing the voices and making stuff up about the stories, talking about characters…all that was common. On top of that, Chloe had a touch of the performer in her. So one of my favorite things to do besides teach her naughty lyrics to kids songs was to teach her the real lyrics to great story songs.  It started with Cher’s Gypsies Tramps and Thieves and Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue. For Cher’s Gypsies, Chloe once asked

“Dad, why did the men ‘lay their money down’?”

My response was “I guess her mom musta been a real good dancer.”

It’s the story a young girl whose life story was molded through being an outcast of society, some unsafe sex with a drifter and the resulting daughter of her own, while at the same time being empowered by her personal and cultural identity. Chloe was very cute doing a Cher voice as a little girl. Way cuter than me doing it that’s for sure. I didn’t explain the sex with a drifter part-just the other stuff.

A Boy Named Sue is just a fun song. There’s a curse word at the end that I taught her, but I also taught it to her with the censorship “booop” near the end after the father-son brawl. With my children I teach them that part of demonstrating maturity in your learning is being judicious sometimes about how when and where to use what you’ve learned . Sue is a  song about a man looking back on the trials and tribulations in his life caused by a father and a name. Chloe was singing it half-sedated as she was wheeled away for heart surgery when she was ten years old.

The ability of a good story-song to draw you in, to keep you listening and help you learn is why I use songs whenever I can with my own children. We are constantly singing together. And because I’m no dummy- I choose songs a little more carefully for use in school. I can’t go warping other peoples’ children.

Other people’s children

First, let’s finish up with one of my own:

Q: How many dead hookers does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Must be more than five, because my basement’s still dark.

Sad songs about a dead guy who never got over his wife leaving, naughty gypsy girls and a cowboy beating up his estranged father in a saloon might not be as bad as dead hooker jokes, but they’re still not classroom ready. There are some much better choices that are great for incorporating into your instruction for essential aspects of literacy. One fine example is Right Field.

Written by Willy Welch, this song was brought to my attention first by Peter, Paul and Mary. After learning that Willy wrote it, and then reaching out to him about plans to teach my class the song and the story, he graciously sent me the sheet music with guitar chords that go with it. As far as I know Willy still performs and if I was near enough I’d get him to my school and my classroom. I am a poor substitute for the pros, but that class of clowns way back when did a pretty good job with it, and I’d bet this year’s class will do a great job.

I believe that because:

It’s a great story. Beyond the character/setting/sequence of events-type stuff, there are some deep thoughts wrapped up in it. The song is a story told from first person point of view about events in the singer/teller’s past. The first verse sets the stage in a couple of ways. It describes weekends during the summers of youth-a glorious time of life indeed.

Saturday summers, when I was a kid
We’d run to the schoolyard and here’s what we did
We’d pick out the captains and we’d choose up the teams
It was always a measure of my self esteem…

It also hints there at a matter most important to kids: self esteem. And this here is an awesome hook for pulling students into this song through the story it tells. Now I am not going to put down the lyrics in their entirety, but to support the self esteem take, the next verse goes:

Cause the fastest, the strongest, played shortstop and first
The last ones they picked were the worst
I never needed to ask, it was sealed,
I just took up my place in right field.

Now if you don’t know why that’s a self-esteem thing, the chorus tells you:

Playing…

Right field, it’s easy, you know.
You can be awkward and you can be slow
That’s why I’m here in right field
Just watching the dandelions grow

The singer is recalling being the kid that was always the last pick. The inept, awkward non-athlete picked last every time…so much so that he just goes way out to the spot where the useless ones on the team go-to watch the dandelions grow. But for the sake of story and reader skill-building, turning point and character change are story elements that are ripe for study in this song.

Because as the song progresses, the singer describes being lost in a daydream of making a fantastic catch on the run, but then “coming to” and praying that the ball never really comes out to him. During this mental break, if I were to have this song played out on stage, actors in full costume would enter on both sides: little cupie angels in baseball caps with bats over their shoulders would twinkle-toe across the stage, hotdog vendors would pirouette, and popcorn salesmen would prance-tossing popcorn like magical pixie dust. If I do it with my class this year, that’s how I want to do it.

But now…turning point!

It becomes clear that the singer has lost track of his game. He’s out in the field, he knows some stuff happened but he’s not sure exactly what…but he realizes that everyone is looking his way and shouting at him.

Then suddenly everyone’s looking at me
My mind has been wandering; what could it be?
They point at the sky and I look up above
And a baseball falls into my glove!

(And then character change!)

Here in right field, it’s important you know.
You gotta know how to catch, you gotta know how to throw,
That’s why I’m here in right field, just watching the dandelions grow!

There are other songs that I plan on using this year when they apply to the content we cover, and I’ll be writing more about them, but this is about story and Right Field is a song that kicks off the year in a great way. It’s about kids, how they interact and play, how they feel about themselves and each other, and how easy it is to slip into low self esteem and how easy we can make it to lift everyone’s self esteem- if we remember we’re all playing on the same team.

Use those good songs when you find them. Dig into the stories. Print out the lyrics and sing along. It is a fantastic way to inspire readers.

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Send Your Comments on N.Y.’s ESSA!

Send your comments to NYSED today – don’t punish schools for high opt out rates! Deadline for comments on the new ESSA regs Aug. 17. 

Mine is below, borrow what you’d like:

August 13th

To the Commissioner:

It is the job of schools to administer the test to all students, not sell parents on the value of tests at a time when the state’s true commitment to the education of their children is questionable. If you want “opt out rates” to decrease, and let’s be honest, “opt out” is weak, it is a refusal rate in New York, then you need to convince parents of your loyalty and commitment to better outcomes first-not to your own reputation and coerced and enforced testing requirements. That being said, the suggestion that Title I funding might be impacted by refusals is the wrong way to go at this time. It’s doubling down on a rushed and misguided course and an anti-public education mindset.
Instead, examine closely and expand on some of the promise there actually seems to be in the ESSA draft:
School Accountability Methodologies and Measurements
(Under “what will be different”):
-Inclusion of new indicators: college, career and civic readiness (detail what, other than  standardized test scores, these are)
-Data dashboards for transparent reporting of results and indicators not part of accountability/support system (use for collection of the “indicators” in an ongoing student portfolio, not for dissemination of private student data)
-Advisory group to examine different indicators of quality for accountability (Stakeholders on the ground who can guide content/scope/intent/use of the portfolio)

Supports and Improvement for Schools:
-Examination and addressing of resource inequities in low-performing schools
-Incentives for districts to promote diversity and reduce socioeconomic and racial isolation
-Parent voice in some budget decisions in low-performing schools
-Improving access to all programs for students who are homeless, in neglected facilities…migratory

Accountability seems to be the current priority, and I would agree that there needs to be more accountability for student outcomes, but be honest about testing as it exists: the quality of the tests has not been established following years of verifiable examples and concerns (content, level, vendor…) and during what may end up being state-wide shift to computer-administered tests. To draw a sword and threaten the schools of parents expecting more consistency and a demonstration of the state’s will to commit to creating better outcomes (not just demand and measure them) will not inspire parent participation. Instead, require tests as before, but push for more of a shared accountability for things described already in the ESSA:

IN THE NYS’s APPROACH TO ESSA PLANNING SECTION
-More equitable distribution of resources and student access to programs and “effective teachers”
-Build an accountability and support system that is based on multiple measures of college, career and civic readiness (use that “dashboard” to build a digital, developing citizen portfolio that belongs to and travels with the student)
-Recognize the effect of school environment on student academic performance and support efforts to improve climates of all schools

Dear Lane,

Below are a few excerpts from Lane Wright’s August 7th plea for help. Seems he experienced confusion over how teachers feel about standardized tests and school choice. He wrote in the form of an open letter to teachers, with a request for responses at the end, and I posted a few times in the response section of his article, but the more thorough reply disappeared while the short P.S. stuff remained. Here, I’ll try my best to redo my response, which I guess is good-it gives me a chance to flesh it out better than I could do at the crack of dawn in a hotel lobby.

To any reading this, please read Lane’s piece for yourself first.

Now before I begin, let me say that I totally understand Lane’s confusion. He’s not an educator. He just studies schools from the outside. But with his letter he does far more to show some respect for educators than you’d generally find in the test-driven, data fed, well-funded, never taught but somehow become an edu-authority, reform crowd… so kudos to Lane. Curiosity is an important intellectual trait and inquiry is a vital, foundational skill for learners to have.

Here are those excerpts from Lane’s letter:

Dear Teachers,

-I just read some of the results of a survey and I’m confused. The good people over at Educators for Excellence asked a bunch of you how you feel about accountability and school choice and the answers seem to contradict each other.

-Now let me first say that I’m not an educator. I’m more like a professional student of our public school systems. I love getting insights like the kinds found in this E4E survey. So please take this letter in the spirit I’m writing it. Help me understand better what you’re thinking.

-A majority of you said that looking at student growth from the beginning to the end of the school year was the “most valuable” thing when it comes to measuring how effective you are as a teacher. It’s also the most valuable thing for judging the quality of a school…

-But then I had to scratch my head when I noticed, near the bottom of the list, standardized tests. It was second to last with only 10 percent of you thinking it was a good way to measure a teacher’s effectiveness or a school’s quality.

What I know for sure is that teachers have a bigger impact on the success of kids than anything else at school. I also know you’re closest to the problems, and are in a unique position to find ways to solve them. So please, if you have a chance, write me back and let me know what you have in mind.

Sincerely,

Lane

Here is my response. Again, please go and read Lane’s piece yourself. I am only taking excerpts in order to guide my attempt to help him.

Dear Lane,

I responded to your article in the response section, in an attempt to address your confusion. I was wrapping up a short vacation, away from home, on hotel wifi with my first cup of coffee…That response disappeared! The other short follow-ups are still there, but maybe my tech skills have a two-cup fuel requirement . In looking back, though, “write me back” was your request. It may be that I need to do exactly that. I am sometimes a do it first and apologize later rather than ask permission sort.

It seems that “accountability” and “choice” are you areas of confusion, and I will try to get to them both.

You may note the quotes. I do not like waggly finger air quotes, but you can imagine them if you’d like because like “reform”: “accountability” and “choice” often aren’t what they pretend to be. 

On your first source of confusion, you write:

So here’s my question: How do you measure student growth without a standardized test? It kind of feels like you want to eat your accountability cake and have it too.”

Not sure anyone suggests “without a standardized test”, and that is a little like “straw manning” the debate. Far right hero Ben Shapiro (I’m a poet and didn’t know it!) does the same sort of thing when he suggests “So if that’s the case, (i.e. raising taxes on the most wealthy will help the economy) why not tax everybody at 100 percent and we can have massive growth from here to eternity?” That’s intentionally misrepresenting the other side’s position as an unreasonable extreme in order to undermine that position and avoid a better conversation. But I get that you’re just confused and not doing that-it just risks seeming that way with that wording.

But “growth”, now, is a great place to start!

Back in 2015 I responded to a call from Peter Cunningham at Education Post for inspiring hopes for 2016. Coincidentally I sent in this standardized test-related hope:

I hope the focus for student achievement will steer away from the impersonal and generic standardized testing obsession, and turn instead towards a more holistic preparation of citizens. Empowering/enriching education will no longer be limited to those making rules for other people’s children.

But more important part was the story of inspiration that came last on that particular article. It had to do with my daughter and a sudden and alarming illness that… had it happened to some other child?

I can’t tell you how serious it might have been.

If you know or have heard anything about PANS or PANDAS, or saw a recent 20/20 show about it , you might be aware of far less fortunate parents and children who suffer tremendously. I actually have cried reading stories about parents whose little angels change overnight, say the most frightening things about harming themselves or others, go through destructive rages… In one of the parent groups I’m in, I just yesterday saw a post from a mom who was reduced to no other choice but to admit her 11 year old to a psych ward. She was probably up all night, or maybe more than just a night. Her post included a pic of some comfort food in the space between the front seats of her car (hostess cupcakes and a coke) probably eaten while she sat in the parking lot of the hospital.

Ever surrendered one of your children to involuntary inpatient psych treatment, Lane? I have. Now imagine a career filled with hundreds or more children, many whose struggles may not be so severe, but are either evident just through observation or verified through unfortunate and tragic events.

But I won’t get too far into that here. I would bet the world that your children are blessed with great parents, and I am blessed with an amazing wife who was on top of our situation quickly, and by access to medical professionals who believed us and cooperated with a course of treatment (unlike many less fortunate families). But the really inspiring part of my story was about my school and especially my daughter’s teacher, and the most pertinent part of my response that disappeared from your article was about the toolbox this teacher and any great teacher needs to brings to the job.

It goes way beyond a spread sheet, test scores, and a HEDI effectiveness rating.

Boiled down to a concrete concept, think of “growth”, or development,  like a wagon wheel- but one that expands over time. The center, the core or the hub is the primal, innate, reflexive stuff and the spokes are the reaching out from the core of experiences and learning. In the earliest stages it’s hunger, discomfort, human contact and attention, touch, communication…Then it’s conversation, self-determination, curiosity, exploration… Every time those things are experienced or there is a new experience: spokes are sent out or reinforced, and the wheel grows because the learners “world” (capabilities and cognitive understandings) reaches out farther .

In reality the brain is constructing a network or a web, and the conceptual image should be undulating more like a cloud as it expands, but I want to keep it simple for now because part of your confusion has to do with accountability. Schools are being held accountable for helping learners roll as smoothly as they can through their world, into the future and on to the places they want to go.

So if teachers are expected to be the wheelwrights: have the wheelwrights done a quality job when your wheels are like tiny tricycle wheels with two spokes? For the sake of expediency we can even name those two spokes…uhmmm, let’s call them “MATH” and “ELA”, just for kicks. Will your wagon travel well on these? How about if your wagon wheels are even a normal 4 foot-ish size and have just those two spokes? Who is responsible for all those missing spokes, Lane? If teachers are to embrace their responsibility for only the two, and put their reputations and career on the line for standardized, testable outcomes on just those two, how can teachers trust the wheels will come with all those other spokes in place?

Trust me, capable learners and future citizens need those other spokes, and as a parent I want my own children and my students to have them.

We both know the reality, I think. I am not sure any teacher would suggest dropping standardized tests as a vital measure in the growth wheel, any more than any parent wants their child to have voids or weaknesses where the vital spokes of responsibility, empathy, communication skills, creativity, work ethic, collaboration, initiative… should be. Great teachers know this, and so may like the standardized tests, but not the use of them to abuse children or educators.

My daughter’s great teacher, myself as a teacher, most every teacher I know are accountable every day in every way in real time for all of the spokes whenever a need or a weakness is revealed. And it really seems that those comfortably riding around in gated and guarded communities, in fancy wagons rolling around on sweet wheels with lots of sturdy spokes, with children in “high performing” schools… neither want to share those communities or schools, nor admit that “high performing” “success” and “failure” are about far more than teachers, schools, grit, rigor, and standardized test scores.

As an aside:

Before my kids started refusing the tests I loved them for the information they provided. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about my own children, but it’s nice to see shady test-metrics verify it, and results informed the academic priorities moving forward for my students. But it’s more about how tests became the measure instead of a measure. And it’s more about the demeaning and dismissing of people who actually exemplify the brass ring of critical thought so highly praised in education today (a.k.a. special interests that show up with concerns for short-lived “listening tours” that end because edu-fakers don’t like to be challenged, and white suburban moms who find out their child isn’t brilliant…you know, professionals and parents).

Hopefully that helps clear up the issue of why teachers like the tests but not so much for the brand of accountability being marketed by those who really don’t seem to be putting children first. At the very end I  might either do a “what can we do about that” or link you to part one of a series I am doing on that very topic. First, I need coffee.

Okay, I am back. On to “choice”.

From you:

As I mentioned earlier, accountability isn’t my only conundrum. You also seem to want it both ways when it comes to school choice. You say you support choice, but only when it doesn’t “drain resources” from other schools. Three-quarters of you said that was your biggest condition for accepting school choice.

How might that work, exactly? I’m not asking rhetorically—I really want to know.”

Great questions begging for that “better conversation”! Again, points for not being an educator, but thinking like one.

Unfortunately, “choice” is market speak-representing with words an ideal that is ephemeral at its worst and an inconsistent reality at its best. Like “American Exceptionalism”, which ranges in it’s execution from standing for the anthem to starting ill-conceived and undeclared wars, “choice” can mean a bunch of different things with varying degrees of honesty, although the sales pitch is almost unwavering:

  • Parents are entitled to…
  • Parents have a right to…
  • Your zip code shouldn’t…

These are just three ways the argument for “choice” may begin, but they all largely focus on the rights and entitlements of parents to choose an educational path and approach for their children, while what they really mean is that parents should have access to choose a different, and better school from a market of school options. Here again I feel your confusion, but that might be because you maybe haven’t been exposed much to the original educator-and-social-fabric-driven concept of choice, and have been infused instead with the gigged-economy, piece-it-out-for profit-and-efficiency concept. Like you are a “student of our public school systems”, I am a student of political rhetoric and policy shenanigans and idealistic political B.S. that camouflages hidden agendas.

My fire was lit when, at the age of 13, I saw an actor demean a true public servant in a presidential campaign debate. I don’t mean Trump and Clinton, who neither fit into either category satisfactorily. Reagan was the beginning of the end for both integrity and a real Democrat party. “Trickle down“, “plausible deniability“, “A Nation At Risk“… Don’t get me wrong, I never wanted to be a politician, but accountability starts there, and there is where the “blame schools and the public commons, but empower private enterprise and the rich to make us all better” mindset really took hold in both parties.

Teachers and parents who know better might understand the wagon wheel concept. Or have heard of “choice” and about the rights of parents, but know the stories of children pressured out of the choice school, parents compelled to sign non-disclosure agreements or contracts to participate in political rallies, the promotion to near celebrity status of characters like Michelle “Broomrider” Rhee, Capital Prep’s Steve “Cockroach” Perry, and Eva “The Martyr” Moskowitz…

Trust me, you aren’t the only one confused. It’s the same sort of thing when a hope and change president leaves you with little hope and no appreciable change, or when a non-educator with a lack of respect for critical thought, truth, teachers and parents gets put in charge of the education of an entire nation. Talk about confusion-eh?

But hey, I have what I think is a straight-forward question you might be able to help me with. Whenever I ask it, I am immediately accused of being white, teaching in a white school, having taught very few children of color, not being willing to put my child in a “failing” school, risking aligning myself against parents (sorta like the NAACP supposedly did when they took the position of wanting charters of more verifiable quality) …a bunch of things not even related to the question, but I never get an answer.

Do supposed “choice” schools benefit in performance and reputation by only enrolling the children of actively involved parents who value education enough to effectively seek out a “choice”?

Help me, if you would. I think the closest thing to a response I could respect came from Chris Stewart who said something like:

“I don’t care about the politics of choice I want better schools…”.

(Chris, if you read this and I’m getting it wrong please correct me. Just know that is the kind of honest response and commitment to a real agenda I respect, so I am not trying to use this against your position. “Better schools” is a great position. How that needs to happen and who deserves praise/criticism for what might be where we frequently diverge).

But towards a wrap-up: Where I, as a parent and a teacher start to back away from “choice” is when it becomes clear that not all parents and choices are welcome if they don’t promote/protect the “choice” narrative. I once posted a piece about a parent whose child struggled with the same condition my daughter did, and was being threatened, persecuted, almost prosecuted by the “high-performing” Florida charter her child was in because the school didn’t want to provide that child services.

A champion of parents rights and choice schools asked “Did you contact the school for their side, or just take the parents word on faith?” A fair standard if equitably applied.

But Lane, while you are one of the few who has attempted to do this honest sort of reach out-the stories of parents not served in their public schools, who then fled to a charter that provided the support/programming that helped their children thrive, are used intentionally and ubiquitously. The silence on “choice” inconsistencies, even if unintentional, is the tell.

Teachers, like parents, know that it all starts with the child, the learner, and their needs. And if a student has a need, then their school should be empowered to provide for it. The choices for pathways and programming and resources and equipment should be available, not “accessible” (like the GOP “health care” vision). In their schools, provided by professionals, all supported by the community, all stakeholders held accountable…

It starts with the children and their needs. Any deflection from that is the real “dodge”, not questioning the lame diversionary system of reform through testing and choice being pushed.

I’ve got Dad stuff to do, and might do more later. For now, check this out and consider the facets of that wagon wheel as the framework for honest accountability and the starting point for a better conversation.

Sincerely,

Dan

 

Holding Schools Accountable

While sorting through some old, old stuff, I came across a hard copy of this. I think it predated flash drives, I’m not really sure. Thank god I have a beautiful young typist that will ask for little more than a burger and maybe a few bucks. About 16 years ago, I think it was, and yet it could be today. 

 

National Standards:

Holding Schools Accountable

by

Daniel McConnell, Jr.

State University of New York

Cortland, 2002

 

Introduction

            While on the surface educational standards appear to be merely a logical move to provide cohesive instruction, the forces behind their origin and the pairing of standards with a call for “accountability” reveal other motives. Historically, the United States has taken great efforts to achieve and maintain a dominant world presence, much through advances in military technology (which are closely linked to the math and science fields). Most notably since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, when the former USSR beat the United States into space, policy makers have demanded that schools prepare students to be an active part in the US- led future. When “A Nation At Risk” was published in 1983, warning of pending failure in the competitive world market, the cry for school reform was renewed with a focus on curriculum standards, and accountability for schools not demonstrating student achievement of those standards. While doing this, policy makers ignore their own accountability in helping to nurture capable students and productive future citizens.

Background

            “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” (A Nation At Risk, 1983)

After a brief statement of educational philosophy, A Nation At Risk begins with this ominous warning. It does not warn against a pending invasion by a foreign power, or a nuclear attack, or even an anonymous biological threat. The threat, it seems, is economic: based on the ability of the US to compete and profit (to a greater degree than other nations of the world) in the global market. But the insinuation, if it could even be considered as subtle as that, is that the threat is just as dire: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” (p.1). The tone of A Nation demonstrates a shift in perspective regarding the nature of America’s “world leader” role, and the responsibilities of schools to support that role. Once in the business of promoting the rights of citizens by educating those citizens to exercise them in a responsible manner, schools have gradually found their role shifting from responsibility to protect the nation from tyranny to supporting the near-tyrannical forces of a corporate driven system. This system places monetary profit and domination of the world market high on the priority list, while subjugating the needs and desires of present and future citizens (i.e. the students themselves). With current US policy funded, advised and driven largely by leaders in the corporate world, legislation tends to favor the already wealthy and powerful minority at the cost of the less wealthy majority of Americans. This legislation includes the educational standards, and the standards-based reform movement that began largely as a result of A Nation At Risk. While staying competitive in the fields of math and science (which are cornerstones of the tech market and essential in maintaining military dominance) is important for the economic health of the nation, current efforts to impose standards and high-stakes standardized tests should be closely evaluated to determine whose needs they truly serve.

The History of Reform: Sputnik and the Science Scare

“Unless future generations appreciate the role of science in modern society and understand the conditions under which science thrives”, he (Dr. Elmer Hutchisson, Director of the American Institute of Physics) said, “our way of life is, I am certain, doomed to rapid extinction.” (New York Times, Oct. 8, 1957)

America’s public school system has, since its inception, been a source of hope and a focus of criticism. It has been given the responsibility for shaping society at times, blamed for not doing so (or doing so in a misguided fashion) at other times. One time from our not so distant history that many believed revealed a weakness in our education system was in 1957, the year Russia launched the first space vehicle, Sputnik. At a time when the nations of the world were just beginning to consider the possibilities of space exploration, and most believed that the US would lead the way with its Vanguard program, the Soviets caught the world off guard when it launched a satellite weighing eight times that of the one the US intended to launch. The possibility that the Soviets had outmatched the United States in its ability to not only launch a satellite, but to launch a significantly heavier one gave rise to two fears: 1) the capitalist beacon of hope that was the US was technologically inferior to the other world power- the communist threat that was the USSR, and 2) If the Soviets could launch a satellite into space, they could launch a nuclear missile that could reach the United States.

Dr. Elmer Hutchisson, director of the American Institute of Physics at the time Sputnik was launched, gave the statement at the beginning of this section. In addition to the accusations from others that the Eisenhower administration was under-funding satellite research, Dr. Hutchisson added a warning about the science education students were receiving

 ..the United States must distinguish carefully between ‘highly accumulative’             scientific knowledge that can be taught by rigorous discipline and the namby-                pamby kind of learning’ that seeks to protect children against inhibition of their              individuality or their laziness

According to James Rutherford, former director of Project 2061, the American Association for Advancement of Science’s program for revamping K-12 science education, the efforts to improve science curriculum and training throughout the educational system began shortly after Sputnik, but then halted after the United States put the first man on the moon (Harvard Educational Letter: Research Online, Sept/Oct, 1998).

Not surprisingly, this article states, results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, 1997) showed that US students scored lower than half of the students in other developed countries by the eighth grade, and “dead last” by the final year of secondary school. Despite the call for creation of standards across subject areas by the first President Bush in 1989, America’s schools are still having difficulty meeting the high expectations implicit in the new standardized assessments.

The Confounds Regarding Success in Reaching the Standards

“The average grade for all the standards he [L. Lerner] appraised is C-minus…In fact, we can only be confident from this analysis that six of our fifty states have first-rate science standards.” (The Fordham Foundation, 1998)

While students are apparently not performing as well as those calling for standards and accountability suggest they should, other influences confounding those goals exist. Once source blocking student success is the standards themselves. Vague and/or poorly written for many states, teachers with standards that are not clear are left unsure of what to teach and how best to teach it. Another source of poor student performance is the “baggage” that students bring to school with them. An issue highly stressed in the current reform movement is the “achievement gap” between the high and low socioeconomic groups.

Schools have been called upon to reduce this gap, with the hope that it can be eliminated, but research shows what teachers know: students that come from stable, nurturing and supporting homes are more likely to succeed academically (Pianta, 2002). Instead of pushing policy that would enable lower class families to lead more enriched lives, devoting more time to bestowing the school readiness skills that are associated with future success for students, policy makers choose to make schools the repair shops- charged with fixing the damage done to the family unit by corporate-centered policy.

That the standards themselves need fixing is an ongoing issue. With individual states being responsible for their own, variance in style and quality of those standards is to be expected, and so then is variance in what is taught and how students perform. The Fordham Foundation is one organization involved in the education reform movement, and in 1998 they published a report on the progress states were making in their effort to write science standards. An excerpt from that report reads like a scolding:

            “Among the thirty-six jurisdictions with elementary/secondary science standards fit  for appraisal, he found six that deserve “A” grades and seven that earn “B’s”. Good grades for more than a third of the states! Yet that sounds good mostly because our expectations in such matters have fallen so low. Here’s another way to look at the  results: Dr. Lerner conferred nine failing grades and seven “D’s”: three more than won honors. Seven states earned “C’s.” (New York was among the “C’s”)”

This repost goes through each of the thirty-six states evaluated and thoroughly analyzes the quality and substance of the standards the state has developed for science, as well as the examples of properly achieving them. Without arguing the foundation’s qualifications to do so, one could suggest that the nation’s leaders have given little support for this monumental task, merely directives. If, after all, a standardized result were the expectation, then a more centralized and standard approach would be the best from the beginning. Rather than having fifty different sets of standards and exemplars with the hopes of reaching a similar achievement goal, one set for all to follow would be a more sensible approach.

In addition to standards that provide little help in reaching lofty new goals, administration officials have lumped in a healthy scoop of criticism- as well as a call for “accountability”. Unfortunately, they overlook their own accountability in helping students reach their true potential, and fail to notice that very early in A Nation At Risk, the authors admit as much:

            “That we have compromised this commitment is, upon reflecting, hardly surprising, given the multitude of often conflicting demands we have placed on our nation’s schools and  colleges. They are routinely called on to provide solutions to personal, social, and political problems that the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve. We must understand that these demands on our schools and colleges often exact an educational cost as well as a financial one.” (p.6)

Rather  than overhaul policy that has served the desires of the wealthy few (campaign finance, corporate reform, foreign trade initiatives) at the expense of working families, the finger has been pointed in another direction. More recently, the attack has turned ugly: Following in his father’s school reform footsteps, President George W. Bush has lent his straightforward approach to the reform movement. Consider his words as he addresses the audience at the signing of the Education Bill in Hamilton, Ohio (Jan. 8, 2002):

            “If we’ve learned anything over the last generations, money alone doesn’t make a good  school. It certainly helps. But as John mentioned, we’ve spent billions of dollars with lousy results. So now it’s time to spend billions of dollars and get good results.

The message from The White House seems clear (if not unsettling): a lot of money has been wasted, and now it’s time to all the public school system to the carpet and make it do its job. But what does the president mean by “lousy results” and “billions of dollars”? The “No Child Left Behind Act” fact sheet released by The White House on the day of its signing by the President conveniently arranges the reform position in a problem/solution format. In regards to money spent and the results that have gone unrealized, it says:

 -Since the original Elementary and Early Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was                    signed into law in 1965, the federal government has spent more than $130 billion               to improve public schools.

 -Unfortunately, this investment in education has not reduced the achievement                     gap between the well-off and lower-income students or between minority and                     non-minority students (p.2).

The evidence is neatly laid out, but goes unexamined. Although $130 billion sounds like a lot of money, if you do the math and divide it across the years it was spent, it comes to a mere pittance when matched against other national budgeting priorities. Thirty-seven years passed while that $130 billion was spent, which raised two interesting questions: 1) If The White House wants to insist that this amount of money spent on the public school system should have been sufficient to close the achievement gap between the well-off and lower-income students, then why have they failed to consider some other source for failure in closing this gap other than schools- mainly, some function of the inequitable class system which creates “well-off” and “lower-income” students? And 2) With military spending far outpacing any developed country in the world many times greater than the money allocated to public schools (not to mention the hundreds of billions being allocated into new “homeland security” measures) how can the White House justify this indignant attitude of having spent “billions of dollars with lousy results”? If the future of our country was to truly be invested in and protected, it would be reflected in a national budget that better funded schools, and made it possible for struggling families to spend more time at home building the skills and experiences that foster school success.

The Issue Of Accountability

“You know, a huge percentage of children in poverty can’t read at grade level. That’s not right in America.” (George W. Bush)

According to New York University’s Edward Wolff, and expert on the wealth gap, a wealth tax starting at one-twentieth of one percent on net worths of $1 million, and rising to one percent on the super rich, would yield about $50 billion per year. Imagine earmarking this for, say, the education of poor kids.

As a teacher, I can accept that I am responsible for helping my students achieve the educational standards set for my students. It is, after all, my job. I resent, though, the treatment of my profession as if it were some magical machine that can turn the star-bellied sneeches and the ones with no stars upon thars (apologies to Dr. Seuss) into standardized products with equal potential and opportunity. Children come to my classroom from vastly different homes and those differences manifest themselves in all sorts of measures of behavior and achievement. It is a difficult thing to do, and has historically come with its own drawbacks, but I think the best way is to treat children as individuals- helping children meet their own goals to the best of their abilities. True, a sound set of standards that reinforce necessary basic skills is needed. But we have to avoid turning students into numbers within a statistical framework, and expect them to become “standardized”. Human beings, with their wide variety in desires, abilities and learning styles- not to mention home environments, just don’t work that way. Children are coming to school every morning from all sorts of family situations and it is reflected in what they are ready to do. At the end of the day, they go back to that home again. The connections are logical, even without hard evidence. More stable homes generally display stability across economic resources and family configuration. Families with two parents making a decent living wage have more time to be involved and supportive, have some history with and/or appreciation for education, and pass these values on to their children. They often are less stressed by the demands felt by lower income families who may not have the time to spend fostering the “readiness” skills (mostly communication, listening, and language skills). which are valuable to students (and the teachers who have them in their classes). Despite this, teachers must accept the responsibility for helping all children meet tough academic goals, with the expectations and demands continually rising.

Conclusion

While teachers, on the one hand, must accept accountability for their results, there is only avoidance of accountability from those imposing standards upon schools and students. District report cards outlining in detail how schools perform on high-stakes standardized tests appear in huge spreads in local newspapers. How our elected officials are voting on specific legislation and specifically whose agenda is being forwarded on Capitol Hill is information that requires extensive searching and investigation to uncover. Having clearly acknowledged the achievement gap between classes, our elected officials have chosen to avoid the issue of inequity in wealth and resources (including a parents’ ability to spend quality time with their children) between the classes. Instead, “leaders” have chosen to subject the public schools to accountability for making up for this inequity. But if a standardized product is expected, then the materials that go into making that product must be standardized, as well.

The demand for standardization needs to be turned around and slid back across the table to the policy makers of America. If they will spend the time and resources to close the gap between the classes, they may see the achievement gap start to close, as well.

References

Harvard Educational Letter: Research Online (Sept/Oct, 1998). From Sputnik to TIMSS: Reforms in Science Education Make Headway Despite Setbacks. More time is needed for widespread classroom changes, By Naomi Freundlich. (http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/1998-so/sputnik.shtml)

Lawrence S. Lerner (March, 1998) An appraisal of science standards in 36 states. Fordham Report; Vol 2, 4

National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A nation at risk: The imperatives for educational reform. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education

Pianta, Robert (2002). School readiness: A focus on children, families, communities and schools. Educational Research Service, Arlington, VA.

Schmeck, Harlold M. (October, 1957). Nation is warned to stress science. Times looks back: Sputnik. The New York Times learning network. (http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/specials/sputnik/sput-15.html)

The White House (January 8, 2002). Remarks by the president at education bill signing. Office of the Press Secretary (Boston, Massachusetts). Hamilton High School Hamilton, OH.

The White House (April 4, 2002). Fact sheet: No child left behind. (On-line). (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020108.html)

So… you want to be a teacher.

You need to really, really think about this.

I’m not trying to scare you away; I’m just trying to prepare you. You can’t go thinking that liking kids, that kids liking you, that believing you can make a difference, that wanting to make a difference, that being smart…you can’t think that any of that is enough. It’s prerequisite, sure. But it isn’t nearly enough.

Not even close.

You need to be ready to pretty much give up a chunk of your life.

Once you have been teaching for a while, you’ll find yourself strategizing ways to carve out time for yourself, your family, your own health…because that time will mostly be taken by other people’s children and by other families. Planning, correcting papers, grading, and just decompressing can eat into your home life-the “you being you” for your family.  Challenging days will dry up your well of patience, and then what happens when you get home? What is left for your children? Your spouse?

If you decide to be more involved, in coaching, running clubs or activities, taking a leadership role in your union…be prepared for even more sacrifice. Attending board meetings or participating in the PTA, lending a hand for special events…deciding to be an educator, if you really take it on rather than just going through the motions, means time given to the endeavor and taken out of your life.

You need to prepare to have your heart broken.

Again, and again and again, in a hundred different ways. You will see kids beaten down psychologically and emotionally by the lives they live and the families their losing-life lottery dumped them into. Don’t think I’m being “judgy”, there is not enough time for me to share all the mothers who leave, fathers who return after getting out of jail, live-in boyfriend, custodial non-related “grandmother”, busted for meth and heroine stories I know. What I can tell you is that children come to school bearing this weight and you will have to try and shoulder some of it to help them get through the day and what you are told you have to do. The grit, the rigor, the “raised bars”, the tests and whatnot.

You will likely see girls having babies far too young, boys unable to take responsibility even if they are willing to try, and that custodial grandparent cycle will come back around for another generation. You could very well end up teaching the grandchildren of your former students. You could also see former students die. In war, by overdose, and in the most heartbreaking ways. You may hear of a sweet, funny, freckle-faced boy from your very first real elementary classroom who, for whatever reason, made it through high school but then took his own life.

You need to be prepared to have your profession both revered and reviled.

Despite all you will have dumped onto your lap and into your life, there will be rewards. When children are thrilled to see you, either in school or out in public, when you get notes of appreciation from them or from parents, it lifts a little of that weight and helps to keep the heartbreaks patched together.  Notes that say “[Enter student name here] never liked reading until he had you,” or “[Some other student] wants to come to school now because of you,”  are little pieces of treasure to keep safely tucked away to be pulled out and reread on those days you wonder why the hell you went into teaching.  Your students will know, and their parents will know how important you are, and you’ll see the “aha” moments in the classroom (where students get excited about learning something new);  when their work shows that they grasp a concept and gain some skills…those are the times that make a teacher keep coming back to brave the bad days.

At the same time, you will have to suffer the deliberate attacks on the profession you chose. Education “reformers” will look to reduce your worth to test scores, and the value of education to empty slogans like “college and career ready”. They have been and will continue to campaign to dismiss the parts of the job you have no choice but to do, while they promote schools that avoid those parts. They will paint you as greedy, because you expect a living wage and the deferred pay you contribute to a pension fund once you retire. You will be lumped into the “lazy” category because you get holiday and summer breaks that others don’t get (never admitting that if it were such a wonderful gig, it would pay more and more people would be doing it). You will see these “reformers” look to cheapen and de-professionalize teachers, reducing them to gigged, at will hires to fuel the education market they want to profit from.

They stake proud claim to agendas called “school choice”, and “the rights of parents”, while avoiding the essential truths behind what those slogans mean in practice and why more communities and schools and students are struggling to achieve better outcomes.

Good news is: despite reformer attacks on communities, schools, educators and students: parents overwhelmingly support public education and teachers, and want to see it funded and supported.

You will be confronted with your own old age.

Through the advancing lives of your students, you will see the truth in “Days crawl, but the years fly.” It is exhilarating, scary, and inspirational. One of my early career students is now substitute teaching in my school. She was in the staff room eating lunch and I noticed an engagement ring. Her fiance was a student in my homeroom two years before her. He has been working in the school also. Two of the sweetest kids ever…But holy cow! Where did the time go??? My oldest daughter just went to college, and many students I taught have as well.

I guess that must mean I’m getting older, right? I mean, that’s how time works…if it passes for them, it passes for me too. You don’t really feel it happen, but one day it hits you. After that day the hits keep coming. My god, the time has flown. But I am so happy I chose to do what I do.

Just be prepared to be reminded one day of how old you are getting.

So…do you still want to be a teacher?

If so, you are the type of person I want doing it. The type of teacher I would have wanted for my own, the type I want my someday grand-kids to have, the type I know kids desperately need.

And I hope I get to work with you before I’m done.

Teaching is to Serve Stubbornly (Part I)

I guess my real resolution is to be stubborn.

Tomorrow begins a new year. That means goals, plans, hopes…etc. Maybe a “resolution” or two -which I had previously sworn off of. Resolutions, that is. Not because I think I’m so great, but because I think change isn’t isolated to starting or stopping on a particular date, and I don’t like being controlled by artifices like time, space, gravity… So when I want to start something I start, when I want to stop I stop. Maybe it’s a control thing. I don’t want some day on the calendar deciding my self-improvement plan for me. Also, I have a “when I think you’re attempting to shape me, I will resist” sort of thing. That’s one of the reasons I made what I think is my first actual New Year Resolution. It’s sorta about being stubborn.

Why would a guy resolve to be stubborn? Is that even a resolution?

Did I do that right? Is it New Years, New Year’s…I know it’s not New Ears, though my wife would swear I need a new pair. Whatever it is, I have resolved to limit myself to 100 characters or less on how twitty I am in 2018. And I have been a big-ass twit from time to time, believe me. I know many already do. But there are some who seriously, seriously have it coming. And believe me, that won’t stop.

You see, Twitter upped it’s character limit, there’s now some new wheelie thing that ticks down your remaining characters; I’m not even sure what the limit is now, but I do know that in the beginning I enjoyed playing Polonius and that more words means time wasted and wit wanting. I suspect twitter is trying to lure more in and keep more on, but I take the offer of more laziness and less rigor of thought as a challenge. So I’ll yang the yin and go in the opposite direction-less than 120 characters.

Is a stubborn teacher a good thing?

With teaching it’s different. I’m stubborn about teaching because I know why it’s important and what it’s like. I do it, and I communicate quite regularly with others that do it; those around me in my school, in schools nearby, in schools far away…It’s important to communicate, mediate, alleviate, try not to hate

Whoa. Sorry, that was a flashback.

Anyways, teaching is one of the roles that lies at an intersection where many roles cross. I was a student once. I am a parent-three times over (though some psychic my wife saw before we were married said I had a secret family, they have yet to reveal themselves), and now I’m a teacher. Being dedicated to a profession and a community can be a little restricting if you believe that history and wisdom are bad things (I don’t), and it can mean less understanding of the communities of others, the people in them, their collective history and the wisdom they can share. That’s why I communicate with avarice. I have and will continue to reach out and find out…and I will continue to point out.

There’s a difference between wisdom and shit you think you know.

I think that policy wonks and politicians, university folk, lobbyists, seed investors, non-profit activists, foundation “think-tank” people, community organizers and activists, town council folk…I could go on and on. They are trying to do right, in most cases. They mean well and know their job(s), I hope. But they don’t know teaching. I see a lot of writing and opinion from them on what they think about the results of what others do, what we should do to schools and to kids, but few have done the job to an extent that should get much respect from the people they target. Yes, we need reform in Education Town, but we need it on a lot of those highways that lead to and cross through as well. Driving by on the overpass and tossing a bag of your shit down on my folks and what we do just ain’t gonna fly. What type of reform and why, what do we hope to get as a result, and who best to shape and drive the endeavor are matters for discussion and the discussion has been sadly dominated by those eager to blame and stake a claim.

So I am resolving to use my stubborn for stubbornly sharing with those who seem to not know teaching, and to defend what teachers and schools do as well as what parents and children need.

In that spirit, I am gearing up for the second part of this post. It’s pretty much ready-this sucker was going well over a couple thousand words.

 

 

 

 

Stop Whining About Teacher Sick Days

My daughter just told me that one of her teachers had wanted to come in to work today, but a friend of hers (another teacher at our school) stopped her.

The former has just started chemotherapy because of a recent diagnosis. She is a seasoned teacher, a leader, well known and loved. I have had two of her children as students in my classroom. The latter is a very good friend of hers and likely felt compelled to push for a focus on self-care and recovery instead of committing (because of sheer dedication and love for teaching) to “the daily grind”.

I think my daughter’s teacher wanted to be in school, engaging students in excellent thinking, great work and taking her mental focus off of the battling cancer stuff. Also, she knows that the difference a great teacher can make is increased along with the time they are with their students. She knows this, like all great ones do, and despite the haters and all their moaning about how little teachers work, their summers off and banker’s hours: most teachers want to be in school for their students than they want to be away from their students. But people get sick. even teachers, even the great ones. So do the very good ones, the pretty good ones, the fair ones…and yes, even the bad teachers get sick. People get sick. They can’t plan when sick, why sick, how sick, or how long sick. Everybody gets sick at some point. People get sick.

But unlike most people: teachers of all stripes and locations within the artifice of a HEDI scale are exposed daily to pukers, coughers, snot-wipers, close-huggers, every-thing-touchers…Every cold and virus that goes through a family that has children goes into school with those children. Now multiply that by all the families and all the children going into school. And then consider that lots of teachers and children are in buildings that generously share a little of the rain and snow/heat and cold on the outside with some of the places and people on the inside. Drop-ceiling tiles show gross, brown stains and sags where roof-tar water has dripped and pooled. Musty, dusty smells in some places indicate that it is the kind of situation that runs a risk for mold and other air-borne contaminants.

Staff members might describe being chronically sick during the school year (not during summer) and parents describe increases in symptoms (coughing, sneezing, throat-clearing…) during the school year and/or in some specific homerooms. Many, many school buildings and facilities across the country are older buildings in need of continual repair. The roofs leak, the paint chips, the ventilation systems don’t work the way they should. Too hot, too cold, infested with vermin …and so on.

And yet some reformers take a perverse pride in choosing to ignore the conditions the poorest have to live and learn in…

…and that educators have to try to teach them in, and preach school “choice”  instead. That is disrespectful of teachers and neglectful of students who spend entire school years and extended hours daily in those buildings and with all those kids and all those other people. Some of those teachers do this for thirty years or more! Is it any wonder that a teacher gets sick once in a while?

It’s understandable that the drooling human rats looking to nibble away at true public education want to point to things like the “sick-out” in Detroit, as a perfect example of teachers abusing their benefit time. But beyond the fact that the time is theirs, and that something was likely given up in negotiations to get those sick days in their contract (they are not just a gift benevolently given): when teachers act together to advocate for better conditions to teach in, they are also advocating for better conditions for children to learn in. This is why teachers banding together against a lack of political and economic will is a good thing.

“Considering the average teacher salary in DPS is $63,716, this means that funds that could have paid nearly five people’s salaries went towards legal fees to sue teachers who were fighting this winter, when the suit was filed, against deplorable working conditions…” (Allie Gross, July 2016)

Interestingly: the self-righteous, editorialized lamenting over the children whose futures are sacrificed when teachers take sick days is generally not matched with columns of concern for children perpetually sacrificed to unsafe neighborhoods, lead-tainted drinking water, lack of access to sound nutrition and proper health care, absence of stable and gainful employment that sustains families and communities, programs that encourage the conditions and skills within families that prepare children for school success…

It saddens me as a teacher to see a “reform”campaign that proudly advocates driving parents towards the open arms of a market that actively separates, divides…

…and only serves to the extent that the market is served. Civil rights and civics get wrapped into the propaganda with talk of “parent rights” along with publicity stunts and slogans like “don’t steal possible”– the whole time denying the when, where, and how the stealing is actually happening; why so many children are coming to school unprepared and why some of the most high profile “choice” schools unashamedly refuse to serve them. The conditions in their communities, homes and families impacts their readiness to learn,  and we would do better by the children to take the goal off of the market and put it back on the people.

“Learning begins at birth. By the time children turn three, they have already begun laying the foundation for life-long learning and success.”

So why no real concern for communities, children or their families-the foundation of good outcomes?

Because it costs money to address the real systemic and endemic evils policymakers enthusiastically sacrifice our children to daily, and to get that money you may have to spend less on bombs, war, corporate subsidies, etc…But you can save or even make money gutting the middle class, labor protections, teachers’ pensions and benefits (like sick days, remember sick days? This is a piece about sick days. I’m bringin’ it around I swear, but I think and write like Arlo Guthrie doing Alice’s Restaurant), the public commons of schools and taxpayer dollars meant to maintain that commons for the good of all…

This can no longer be pinned to typical Republican evil, because despite the current scary right-wing agenda being driven-the Democrats have helped slow-walk us to where we are today. They might be the “lesser evil” but are complicit in bringing the greater evils. The reformer response to their lack of will in addressing those greater evils is usually the typical dodge: “We are in a crisis! We can’t waste time addressing the decaying communities, destabilized families, crony capitalism, political dishonesty that backs our agenda-we just need to focus  on pumping out propaganda on the evils of unions and the promise of an edu-market of ‘choices’.” Or it may be continued promotion of alternative certification for teachers (de-stabilize, de-professionalize the profession), cheap disposable TFA teachers who’ll work a few years and then move on to some political action, non-profit organizing, charter-school creating, uber-driving…whatever. As long as salaries, unions, benefits and pensions can be reduced, eliminated and/or side-stepped. It’s that exciting new transient, insecure, lack of commitment to people, families and children economy and job market that “choice” proponents seem to crave. Choose-em, use-em and lose em I guess.

But, back to sick days (I told you I’d bring it around).

With so much that really needs reforming how can reformers effectively whine about career teachers, their salaries, their benefits, their sick days? “Most people only get two sick days a year…”, “Most people don’t get a pension…, “The days of careers that last 30 years are in the past…” It’s all language intended to sow resentment and discord among the lower classes and encourage acceptance of on-the-job exploitation by the wealthiest (through the government and economy they own) who themselves enjoy the revolving door of never-ending, high-paying opportunities to fail outward, upward or away. This is the paradigm, by the way, that gives birth to a Trump presidency-where those who enjoy position, privilege, protection and pay believe they have earned it, and that their millions or even billions should entitle them to more respect than your average worker, or family, or child…

So back to here, returning  home after my psychedelic journey of a rant.

It is, about 8PM, and my 16 year old daughter is absorbed in some school work, typing and sending some questions to this very teacher at home, by email, regarding the writing of the constitution. How/why was Madison chosen to do the writing and not Bartlett and Dickinson (the writers of The Articles of Confederation, the predecessor to The Constitution)? Interesting question. Even though I’m an elementary teacher, I’m a history buff and have a feel for the tenor of those times (and love to weave history into stories I tell) when leaders sought to make a more unified and powerful (but clearly defined and “checked”) central government. The Articles empowered states in their own interests while the “founding fathers” looked for a more unifying document the put more power in a central government, I know that much but can’t help my daughter with this one.

That’s my daughter, any of my three girls, really.

…wondering about the people and personalities of revolutionary times, and how they were involved and intertwined, not crying over a boy, complaining about a mean girl…She wants to communicate with her teacher. I almost tell my daughter not to bother her, but then I know (or I think I know) that a serious student who is a serious thinker and has a serious question has some healing value. So she sends this teacher, my colleague, the woman beginning a battle with cancer and staying home, her question.

Within 10 minutes my daughter gets a response. It is a mix of admiration for a “great question from a great writer”, an admission of not knowing too much about the specifics of how the decision to choose Madison to write The Constitution was made, a direction to seek out a real history buff teacher at the high school, and (get this)…some seeming enthusiasm for a homework assignment my daughter inspired for her as a teacher.

And I bet she will actually use her sick days to do that homework.

I get that it bothers those looking to exploit others that groups can organize to resist exploitation. But the whining about the sick days teachers have and take has to stop, okay? The resentment wealthy strategists want to sow for what little is left of job security and respect for workers will not reap the benefits anyone wants, and making comparisons to other disrespected workers is not a license to spread that disrespect.

It’s time for any describing themselves as a “reformer” to reflect on who they serve, what it is they are really trying to reform and what they are and are not willing to push for. Whining about sick days in not helpful.