What Reformers Avoid

Our students need to come loved first.

This post comes from the original, written by me about five years ago. My oldest, mentioned below, is now hours away, recovering from her second heart surgery.

My first daughter was born five weeks early.

I remember that night clearly: we had just got back from some shopping and my wife had sent me out for a Burger King cheeseburger (one of those pregnancy cravings that had to be satisfied occasionally). When I got home, not too many minutes later, I found her in our bedroom on the floor-laying on her side with a stopwatch in one hand, and the book “What to Expect When Expecting” next to her. It was one of those “triple-take” moments…my wife…the stopwatch…the book. Later I was to find out she had sent me out on purpose, and that she had felt “something” was happening.           

Before long we were in the car,

… and on our way to the hospital, which was maybe 3 small village blocks away (a five minute walk). I was driving like she might give birth in the car and she had to let me know that I could slow down…that the baby wouldn’t come in three minutes, but I had many memories of TV shows and movies where babies were delivered in the backseat of cars by husbands, cab drivers, firefighters, or some other random good Samaritan. It always happened quick with some yelling, screaming, crying, then smiling. Painful, messy, happy…and scary.  Needless to say, my wife was right and we had plenty of time-but I was right too-it was scary. Not just because it appeared that the moment may have arrived-but because it was five weeks early (at that stage, complications are more likely).

Even though there was no backseat birth or waiting room delivery,

…it became clear that our first baby was coming when they could do nothing to stop the contractions with medication and decided instead to induce labor. The worry was that if birth-weight was too low, our baby would be whisked away to a hospital more than a half hour away, and my wife would remain.            I’m pretty sure someone had their thumb on the scale-she was so tiny! But she was able to stay in Cortland, close to us. Jen was in recovery, Chloe was taken to the newborn observation room, under a hood with oxygen being pumped into it and being monitored. I went back and forth between Jen and Baby Chloe. Sometimes I would sing softly to Chloe, leaning down close to do “You are my Sunshine”, the same way I did while she was in Jen’s belly and I would sing with my mouth pretty much on her.

I can’t remember how long I did this back-and-forth between rooms,

…singing/ talking/ comforting… But I finally went to one of the nurses on duty and asked if they could bring Chloe to Jen. Jen had just given birth to her first child, prematurely,  and was stressed. Chloe hadn’t really spent any time with her mother and was in a bright impersonal room under a plastic hood. It had probably been a few hours-but time gets warped in situations like this. It was almost as soon as Chloe was in Jen’s arms that both seemed to be better. 

Chloe is 15 years old now,

…one of three sisters, one of four of the loves of my life. Parenthood is an amazing, painful, wonderful, awe-inspiring responsibility, and as I write this, I am seeing my wife’s post on Facebook. She is home with her own father and family right now. I won’t share details, but home with her father is where she needs to be. There isn’t much time left for that. I am home with our daughters. Jen’s  connection with her father is a powerful one-recognized and respected by everyone in her family (and me). She knows that she’s his favorite, (so does everyone else), and while he isn’t in the mood for much right now-she is the one he wants with him.

Her FB post:

Me: Dad, remember when you used to take me fishing?
Dad: Yeah, Beansie (her younger sister’s nickname, Jen’s is “Ding-Ding”…don’t know where these came from) went a lot too.
Me: How did we ever catch any fish? We sure did talk alot……… I guess is wasn’t about the fishing was it???
Dad: I guess not…
Me: Thanks Dad. 
*****sniff sniff*****

Chloe is sleeping right now. She’s a teen, but gives us virtually no trouble. She is bright, beautiful, creative. Brenna, 13, could be described pretty much the same (in addition to the sleeping thing)-but is already taller and “leggier” than her mother and Chloe…a fact she enjoys razzing Chloe (and Jen) with. Our youngest, Ella (8), sits on the couch with the journal of letters Jen and I wrote to her when she was only “Little Fetus McConnell”. There are too many great moments to remember, too many awesome things these kids do every day…We have from day one loved them, held them, supported them, encouraged them, and made it clear we love them unconditionally. And I think you can tell. If you are familiar with them, know them, or have seen any of the crazy stuff they do-you can probably get it.

I’m not trying to brag, I think we’ve merely fulfilled a minimum requirement that many others do as well.

But fewer parents can or do these days-cut loose to the free market and investment wind as well as policy makers and the silent hands that guide them.There is our real achievement gap problem. Education reformers avoid this conversation like the plague, because it is impacting factor numero-uno on student outcomes. Finding someone in school to blame (not something outside of school they might have to help fix) is the current agenda because it holds opportunities in a new “education reform” market. But what reformers won’t engage with is a meaningful discussion regarding the quality of the bond that parents and children share, and how significant that is in determining a student’s ability to focus and achieve in school. If their basic needs are met, if they are emotionally secure, they are more likely to succeed.  

Reform stars would probably say that they too understand and feel this love,

…this unbelievably strong bond that begins even before the moment you see and hold your baby in your arms. The feeling that parenting is the most important thing you can ever do-to unconditionally love; to put the needs of another first; to give the world the best possible future by laying a loving foundation in your family world first.
            They would say they feel the same way, and that they know lots of others who do as well. Of course they do. That’s likely how they were raised, that’s the world they live in: where families have the resources and background to form these secure and loving bonds.

For the sake of public relations, reformers cherry-pick just that type of family to put out front for their lawsuits or enroll in their semi-exclusive schools.

What they are NOT getting, or willfully avoiding, is the fact that more children are coming to public school classrooms without that quality family foundation in place. They are unfamiliar with and/or unwilling to discuss a different type of family and dynamic that leads to a different sort of student coming to many public school classrooms. And more of them are coming as we sacrifice real life truths to the demands of market perspectives.
The arrogance of enjoying a gated sort of existence and undeserved influence over others, then using outcomes of inequity as criticisms of those combating inequity is aggravating. Using influence from within those gates of inequity to decide on and enforce a brand of generic education for the masses outside is wrong. All kids should have the connections I see in my family, in many families I know, and that those driving reform likely have.

But fewer and fewer do.

No amount of testing, no exclusive “public” charter school, no amount of arrogant rhetoric from those who will not take on the real burdens, no posturing from someone who themselves enjoys a gated sort of existence can do it. It is time for honestly “shared sacrifice”. Those who already have sacrificed are being asked for more by those who continue to avoid it.

Think reformers will agree?

Some Socialism is Bad

Do you think crony capitalism, oligarchy disguised as two-party rule, and trickle-down economics is destroying stable employment opportunities and families, and that now more children come to school not prepared to learn? You may have noticed the changing students, and families. Some teachers are lucky to teach in wealthy districts or may work in schools that engineer their enrollment, and therefore see little or none of this. But most know that kids are coming with needs far deeper and more often now healing has to come before teaching.

Some socialism is bad. The type that allows the government (aka Wall St & corporations) and super wealthy to skip out on debts, evade taxes, buy policy and politicians, bail out big banks, maintain a revolving door between these criminal enterprises and Washington, fund endless war and terrorist organizations who will be temporary allies but future enemies…bad socialism for sure. The type that supports the working class and families that are the producers/consumers and lifeblood of the economy and nation? Good.

The system that is has not earned the right to judge me, my students, my own children or my school with tests that determine how well we can all be hammered into their failing system.

Time to Fight

Why should educators, as professionals, be expected to willingly participate in the destruction of society-in the end making their jobs as educators even more difficult? The demands of so-called “education reform” that ignore childhood-development norms lead to practices that further that destruction.

To begin with, it’s not good pedagogy, and regardless of how much “grit and rigor” and “raised bars” rhetoric you infuse it with, it does more harm than good. No matter how many new-fangled games and technological gadgets are inserted into the daily school routine, there is no making up for the losses we suffer when our strategies move away from the foundational practices that were once the norm, and we need to vigorously fight back as a profession to insist on the respect we deserve for the value we have always brought and still bring.

A little preachy maybe, but to give a simple example of where we can be led or pushed astray:

Have you caught yourself wondering why student handwriting looks so terrible these days?

Maybe it’s because finger-paintin’ and clay-squeezin’ are now things of a distant kindergarten past. Students spend less time developing the hand strength, muscle-memory and fine-motor coordination that once led to good, legible handwriting. But Common Core, and “college and career-ready” demands mean that efforts in instruction and accountability target skills that demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests rather than some antiquated concept of handwriting and its importance.

Thinking gets delivered digitally these days anyways, and figuring that the loss of hand strength and dexterity would make it hard to hold a book and turn pages-let alone grip a pencil: we need to inject more software, screens and keyboards into the classroom  to redesign that ancient paradigm of kids writing with pencils and reading actual books and whatnot.

See how technology can fill the gaps where humanity once was?

But (you might ask) if the strength, dexterity and coordination to grip a pencil and make it write with one hand isn’t there, how can we realistically expect our little learners being whipped over our raised bars to use both hands, find and hold that home row, and execute the equivalent of tickling the QWERTY ivories to express their thoughts in writing?

Don’t sweat it. We can start formal keyboarding instruction in the primary years. Where to fit it into the school day, or how we can  expect classroom teachers being pounded into HEDI scale slots (who may or may not be typists themselves) to eke out time in the day to teach typing are questions we needn’t bother with. There are plenty of software programs available that can lead students through typing lessons. No teacher required-just give them a laptop, a pair of headphones, and let the hunting and pecking begin!

I’m being a bit snarky here, but my point is that what should be a primarily human endeavor (i.e., helping our youngest learners mature and grow into capable young citizens) is being dehumanized by that thing called “reform” and all the gadgetry (in hardware, software, approaches and assessments) that has ensued.  The demand for data to feed the reform monster has led to participation in and compliance with programs and practices that will efficiently generate that data and this pushes us further from the societal goals that build and strengthen an informed citizenry, and towards serving economic interests that care little about the realities faced in the schools and classrooms of our neediest communities.

We are being driven to place artificial, statistical value on human beings, and it’s no wonder that the consequences include us now having to spend more and more time on social/emotional/psychological issues- to instituting anti-bullying and social media awareness programs, teaching character education in school because outside of school there’s less character to be found. We are scrambling to find ways to insert more humanity wherever and whenever we can.

 I have written in the past about what education reform has looked like, what it apparently means to those who have imposed it upon the children of others and those who serve them, and what it really should mean-what it needs to mean, if we are going to reclaim our educational souls and reverse this societal decay. The demand that more and more data be produced, that this data be statistically normed so that it can take the place of individual children and what we know about their needs, and that we call this “value added” exemplifies where we have been misled.  

I would argue that the more time we spend pouring in this way over spreadsheets and assessment data, the more technology and gadgets we put between us and young learners, the less time we spend looking at and connecting with the actual children right there in front of us. That’s where dedicated teachers demonstrate real value and true values,  when and where value is needed most.

Teaching to Combat Systemic Injustice

A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic

The concept  behind the proposition is that when a name and a face can be attached to an injustice, oppression, disease, death… the argument against those negative forces becomes more powerful, personal and visceral. A story can be told about the individual. You can find ways to connect to the person and can relate to their suffering. It could be you or someone you love after all. But as teachers, how do we get our students to understand and identify greater injustices, not just the individual ones-whether they be ones weighing on they themselves or those close to them? How do we prepare today’s children and soon-to-be citizens to grapple with today’s notions that are likely be tomorrow’s problems?

When casualties reach into the millions, real understanding tends to disappear. Maybe numbers like that cognitively become labeled as some ephemeral generic mass instead of being understood as revelatory of a significantly greater issue. For example, one child suffering from exposure to lead in their environment can have tragic consequences, and that tragedy hits us in our heart when we see the face or know the name. But it’s difficult to imagine tens of thousands or more!

Lead causes irreversible damage to a developing brain, so it is especially harmful to children 5 or younger. Symptoms include developmental delays, dyslexia and behavioral problems. Thus lead exposure adds one more serious adversity to the multiple challenges associated with urban poverty, including nutritional deficiencies, reduced access to quality medical care, community violence and poor-performing public schools. (Washington Post, March 7, 2018)

Maybe it’s hard to believe that our leaders here in the land of the free and home of the brave could perpetrate or allow such things on that scale. I mean, so many people being injured, impaired intentionally or through negligence or apathy-advanced societies wouldn’t allow such things, right? Is that the sort of American Exceptionalism™ they want to lay claim to? You do have to wonder why, in what is more or less a two-party duopoly, neither the righteously proud pro-life party nor a supposed party-of-the-working class would address this sort of glaring, life-destroying oppression.

While so many here at home suffer, they instead cooperate in spending tens of billions of American dollars overseas- funding siege war campaigns, and supporting rebel groups seeking to overthrow leaders of sovereign nations (with no formal declaration of war, and despite both the campaign declarations of pre-President Trump and the unpopularity of endless war amongst the population).

Education should aim for better than test proficiency

A sound, basic public education needs to prepare students to grapple with deeper questions once the world becomes theirs. In addition, as part of an increased focus on civics and civic engagement, educators have a responsibility to help students be fully informed about the mechanisms of the government and condition of the world they will inherit in order for them to make the smartest decisions about how to protect their best interests. But back to the essential question:

Today’s leaders wouldn’t act out of such self interested inhumanity as to shirk their obligations to future generations, would they?

Well, do you remember Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondents Dinner performance-the one that had all the right-wing nancy-boys and Fox News snowflakes rethinking their brave stance on the first amendment (brave at least when it comes to the rights of speed-talking morons like Ben Shapiro to go to college campuses to show off how offensive and smug he’s willing to be). So many people wrongly interpreted Wolf’s comments to be about Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her appearance, when in fact they were aimed at her aversion to the truth. I couldn’t honestly believe there was that much ignorance or hearing impairment in pundit-land, but then I heard a comment on an alternative news source that basically pointed out how no one is even mentioning the last words Wolf spoke as she stepped away from the mic:

Flint still doesn’t have clean water.

So hell yeah, the powerful could, would and do allow atrocities on a massive scale.

Not only do they allow it, they are sometimes supportive and/or complicit and our leaders on both sides of the aisle are exhibit A in that particular shit show. They understand how to perpetuate and brush systemic injustice aside when it  benefits them and their wealthy and powerful allies. Of course individual cases are highlighted for slogans, rallies and all-around exploitation of a political agenda, but mass inequity, injustice and inhumanity are topics to be avoided.

Mainstream media news outlets are no better, allowing for the powerful suctioning away of greater truths to create a vacuum that is then filled with the latest in-the-moment palace intrigue, drama and distraction. The show put on rarely allows for reflection, because just when you lift your head above the waves to snatch a breath, the next wave of bullshit hits.

Our students need to be prepared in a way that only shows bias towards verified truths, not partisan ones.

Being “political” doesn’t have to be the same as being partisan if your continual mission is seeking the truth on any side of an issue and finding a way to engage the issues and others on those issues, putting your thoughts and findings into words. So listening, hearing, analyzing and discussing events and issues all need to be a part of the civic engagement of students. But having them think well means teachers standing in front of them need to also think well. And getting there requires practice.

Think Justice Kavanaugh was simply a hapless and pleasant virgin pray-boy who went to Yale, maybe had a couple beers once in a while, went to church on Sundays and then was suddenly attacked out of the blue by schemers, connivers and rabble-rousers on the left?

Think Chuck Grassley’s sense of justice and decorum was so offended that he just became angered at the behavior coming from the Democrats? Maybe he is just a recent player in politics and is unfamiliar with the game?

Think Lindsey Graham just forgot about defending the sanctity of higher office which he so proudly spoke up for and stood by when hunting down Bill Clinton for an adulterous (but consensual) relationship?

Think that Mitch McConnell repeatedly reaches back to the 1800’s to defend his open obstructionism of Merrick Garland’s appointment to the Supreme Court because he is a purist when it comes to history and tradition in regards to nominations?

Then you have definitely been infected by the right.

Alternatively, do you think that any of the crusty, dusty old establishment leaders on the left really feel bad about tilting the Supreme Court to the right, allowing for a defensive fortification of well-moneyed and corporate influence over policy?

Then you have been infected by the fake left. Probably a more dangerous condition because you’ve been tricked into believing you are “left” when you’re actually just left-ish of where crazy-right is. You might not even be on the side of the activated true-left. Those willing to spend their time speaking truth to power, or even a little time in jail for doing so.

You know, those advocates of “mob rule”

Now the Republicans are running around afraid, talking about the threat of “mob rule”. These rich white men whose pockets get well-lined by other rich white men are shameless hypocrites, not patriots. They have no honor because their political positions  and loyalty are taken out of convenience and to match the agenda of the day. I won’t even comment on morality because elevating their understanding of morals would require a trip to meet them in Bizarro World where they live by some strange code of moral convenience and equivalence.

For example, referring to concerned citizens exercising their first amendment rights as a “mob” intentionally loses the human and familiar face. This makes you forget that Christine Ford could very well have been or be your own daughter, mother, wife, sister… Somebody you care about brushed aside does not inspire you to spontaneously join a “mob”, but instead it lights a fire under you in regards to a specific issue and for a cause near and dear to you. The freedoms of this nation and it’s citizens have been hard won by the masses inspired in this manner, not through the masses obediently complying with the wishes of the fewest and the wealthiest. The arrogance of Chuck Grassley, the staged bluster of Lindsey Graham, and the desperation of Mitch McConnell begs for this kind of response to these elite, privileged old men.

The ineptitude of the leaders on that fake left have only made that mob’s presence and it’s voice that much more necessary. Once upon a time they were called patriots, and their presence reveals the tyranny and cowardice of leaders.

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.

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 this 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 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 fled to a charter that provided the support/programming that helped their children thrive), are used intentionally and ubiquitously. It’s the silence on “choice” inconsistencies, even if unintentional, that 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