Thursday, August 28, 2014

My Book Anniversary!

A year ago I launched myself on the beginning of what I hope will be a long journey. On August 28, 2013, my first book, It Wasn’t in the Lesson Plan, was published by Outskirts Press. I had been working on it for almost 2 years with a push from some Fun-A-Day show attendees in February 2011.

The project began when my son Nick asked me what I was doing for Fun-A-Day in January 2011. The concept behind Fun-A-Day is simple – for the month of January you promise yourself to do something fun every single day. It could be making your bed, cooking a different variety of pasta, taking a photo, painting, drawing, haiku writing, singing, pick something! After the month has expired, there is a show where you can share with people what you did. When I bound my writings about my students, people reading their stories at the show wrote little post-it notes, encouraging me to write and publish a book.

When I began the project, I didn’t think I’d have enough to write a different story every night after work. But I found there was a lot in that head of mine and I wanted to share it. Several of my family and friends proof-read for me as I went along, but the yeoman’s job of editing went to Tina Capalbo, whom I met online through the music of Great Big Sea. She had been a teacher and was a benevolent task master. Believe me when I tell you I had to revise and edit a lot after all the other edits! But the suggestions she gave made the book a much better set of stories. Her suggestions made it flow.

Another Great Big Sea connection is my illustrator, James Duncan. He lives in Montreal, but I met him and his wife Fran Courselle and their kids at a GBS concert in Lowell, MA. I sent him the stories I wanted illustrations for and he did a beautiful job. A couple of the drawings of kids whom he’s never seen, had an uncanny likeness to the real kids. And I was over the moon with his cover! It’s a real eye opener.

I’ve been writing a lot at home since the release of the book, and almost have enough for another book. This one will be me speaking my mind about recent education issues. Hopefully by next year, I’ll be crowdfunding once again.

I want to thank every person who’s encouraged me, contributed money for publishing, bought the book, read the book, passed it on to another person, shared the links, liked my It Wasn’t in the Lesson Plan Facebook page. I will continue to write in my blog and for later publishing as I think I have found my not-teaching niche now. I am a writer. Wow! That sounds good!

I am a writer.

Please tell me what story you liked or what struck a chord with you as you read. I’d like to hear. You could also tell me some education issues you'd like me to write about/address. 
You can read some of the book at -

Still learning!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Fight Has Just Begun

Ever since the publishing of A Nation at Risk during Reagan’s presidency, the teaching profession has come under increasing suspicion and scrutiny.  During the 30 plus years since his grave pronouncement, this mistrust has led to; No Child Left Behind; Race to the Top; PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College & Careers) and Smarter Balanced tests, Common Core State Standards; VAM (Value Added Model); decreased teacher training quality (Teach for America); vouchers; the outlaw of unions in some “right-to-work” states; increased importance of high-stakes standardized testing; a high rate of teacher “churn;” record-low morale among teachers; introduction of laws to eliminate tenure (due process) for teachers; and the closing and charterizing of hundreds of public community schools. This war is raging on many fronts at this time as political and corporate powers without much teaching experience attack teachers and their unions, especially teachers in highly urban or rural poverty-ridden communities.

The average teacher does their job of educating young minds no matter what the current “flavor” of reading or math teaching strategy is. We are so used to top-down management imposing programs and materials on us that may or may not have any educational value. We usually just accept the package and go on trying to reach growing minds.  In my 37 years of teaching in urban public schools, I have seen the preferred reading methods reach full-circle twice and the math has come ‘round once. Rarely do the people in authority even ask teachers how it’s working. Rarely do they consider that it will take upwards of 10 years to see whether a new method is truly working. They expect to see miracles within a 2 to 3 year period and when they don’t, it’s get on the carousel again to the next “best practices.” Indeed, it takes a good three years for a teacher to get used to a new program and use it well. When a teacher finally can implement the program easily, it is changed and the process repeats itself ad-nauseum.

Teachers have always just dealt with the war against administrators by doing our jobs and complaining when things didn’t work out for the better. Indeed, we have no say in the adoption of educational programs in the district, but have to use them anyway. Both teachers and our students have suffered through such horrible ideas as scripted lessons and no-phonics reading only because we were evaluated on using them “with fidelity.” Thank goodness our unions were eventually able to show the administrators that scripted lessons were NOT good for the education of ALL children, and that balanced literacy approach works for most children.

Indeed, no one method will work for all children to learn. Hence our opposition to the Common Core State Standards. The premise behind the standards is good, but each state already had standards which they used throughout the grades and subjects. The states, for the most part, had employed teachers to examine, write, adapt, and test the standards’ viability in the classroom. It is the states’ responsibility according to the constitution to educate their citizenry and federal interference is not allowed in the impostion of curriculum. The name Common Core STATE Standards belies the process by which they were birthed and adopted.  Neither the states’ education departments themselves nor their teachers have much to do with writing them. There were two college professors on the committee which first examined the standards, both of which refused to support the final versions in math and reading. There were no early childhood teachers whose students are the most impacted by the developmentally inappropriate standards. Most of the writers of the common core were employed by corporate educational testing companies or other non-teaching industries. Pearson, which is involved in writing the tests for the standards, should not have been given a seat at the birthing table. And the adoption of the standards was somehow done before they had been written and diseminated. I don’t know how to account for the states’ “approval” if the governors voting to implement them had never seen them, nor had they been field-tested prior to approval. 

Attackers from another front are charter schools, supposedly public schools who have the liberty to “do their own thing.”  Many charters have selective enrollment processes which prohibit or deter English Language Learners (ELL) and Special Ed (IEP) kids from applying because of their application process and/or lack of programs. Many charters counsel out students with learning or emotional disablities through no excuses discipline and one-size-fits-all educational practices. Charters were originally established to help the very students they are counseling out, those that can’t make it in the public school system. Instead, charters have managed to skim the cream from the public schools, leaving disproportionate numbers of  ELL and IEP students. All this for what? The majority of charters here in Pennsylvania do no better than public schools when standardized tests are used to compare. Some do achieve better, but many more do worse than the local public schools, cyber charters in particular. Not one cyber charter made AYP. In addition,  the school district ends up paying for all the charter school kids regardless of where they transfer from. In Philadelphia, a significant number of charter students come from Catholic schools, not public schools, but the public school district has to pay for them, too. Teachers and parents here have had it with closing schools, laying off familiar experienced teachers and hiring Teach for America recruits for the charters, most of whom stay 2 years and leave. Both teachers and parents are sick of the closing-schools battles in this war and the constant churn of new, inexperienced teachers.

Even Bill Gates, who has given millions of dollars to fund his ideas for education has admitted that the current so-called reform models have done little to improve educational outcomes. He keeps his hand in the educationally profitable computerized testing industry which will not be responsible to create, test and evaluate standardized tests that will be used to judge student, teacher, and district. PAARC and Smarter Balamced tests made for the Common Core will be given solely on computers that run Windows 8. Who’s the winner there? Certainly not the school districts that have to purchase new computers and upgrade existing one, leaving less money for actual instruction.

Computers may be wonderful, but teachers know that not every student is able to show what they know on the computer. Students require assessments that are as varied as they are to be able to judge whether they have acquired the knowledge they need to be successful. There are 7  Intelligences according to Howard Gardiner and teachers are required to differentiate their instruction to reach as many as possible. Computer skills and visual methods used on the computerized tests are but 14% of the skills that should be used to test children. Even if the computer tests include audio, that’s only 22% of the assessments that should be used in order to assess fairly. Teachers are still fighting the battle of teaching to a child’s strength but testing only one facet of learning.

Then there is the unseen enemy, that is, the behind-the-scenes corporate and political influences that shape the laws, even up to the higher levels of the federal courts. Politics plays way too large a role in how education works in our nation.  Every two-four years the elected governor or legislators seem to decide whatever the previous guy did for education needs to be changed. These changes have nothing to do with the needs of public schools, but with political atmosphere at the time. Unfortunately, these political changes have taken on a national agenda, with so many states challenging tenure, changing work rules for teachers, requiring evaluations tied into test scores, promoting charters and vouchers, and reducing budgets and pensions. It is the same all across the country, too much to be a coincidence. Schools need to be far removed from the political or corporate influences. It’s an ongoing battle we are currently losing.

One of the latest battles teachers are waging now is against our right to due process, our right to know what we are accused of and be able to mount our defense. Most of the people in the United States misunderstand the way due process, or tenure works for teachers in grades Kindergarten through 12th grade. Although it’s commonly known as “tenure,” it is not what tenure is in higher education. In universities, tenure allows professors to study, experiment with, and challenge widely held views in order to get to the truth about an issue. They can tackle controversial issues without worry of being fired because the department head disagrees. Tenure in K to 12 circles only means a teacher cannot be fired without good reason.

Highly-visible lawyers, former journalists, and movie stars all seem to have opinions on tenure which they have put out there with much ado in recent weeks. These non-educators misrepresent our profession and our unions when they complain we can’t get rid of bad teachers because there is tenure. But that is patently false. Our unions do not fight for bad teachers, but they do fight for an accused teachers right mount a defense against arbitrary and capricious accusations. It is not the unions obligation to get rid of the “bad” teachers, but the responsibility of the administrator at the school level. There aren’t that many “bad” teachers in schools, though, and no techer worth their salt wants to teach with one. In fact, the union frequently counsels out teachers who need to leave because they don’t improve after having been found ineffective.  If there are bad teachers in a school, it is the school district’ responsibility to prove it and to go through the process of firing. Despite research that shows that teachers only account for 1% to 20% of a child’s school success, false information keeps being spread by these political influences to discredit teachers and their unions.

Pension reform is the latest attack on teachers. Many teachers stayed in their positions long-term because of the promise of a good pension upon retirement. No one goes into teaching because of the salary. In most school districts in the nation, neither salaries nor pensions are commensurate with the level of proficiency and professionalism required by the job. For most teachers, it’s not a job but a career, a calling if you will. How else could you justify those tenacious instructors who stay in the ghetto, year after year, trying to better serve the students in their charge? Those teachers fight battles every day that the average citizen can’t imagine. The ravages of poverty and violence that plague the inner city make it very hard to reach and teach the students who live there. But they stay, and teach, and counsel, and listen, and cajole, and comfort children who have seen more violence than many soldiers. They buy personal items and school supplies for their students. They work within the confines of the untreated PTSD their children experience daily. After 30-40 years of teaching within these conditions, teachers deserve to bring home a pension they have contributed to their whole working lives. Many states have laws where teachers can’t collect both their pension and Social Security. We all know that living on a Social Security check keeps one at the poverty level or close to it. Is this what we want for those to whom we entrust our most valuable resource, our children?

Again, the pension question seems to be on the political agenda to destroy public education and is a nationwide issue. In my state of Pennsylvania, funds desperately needed by the Philadelphia School District and being held up because the Governor insists on pension reform. One has nothing to do with the other. Our governor insists it is the public employees pension funds that are bleeding the state. What he doesn’t tell anyone is that state has elected not to contribute to the pension fund for at least a decade, the state “borrowing” the money and using it for something else so they don’t have to raise taxes. Our no-tax governor has decreased corporate taxes as well as not tax the fracking industry in order to claim that the money it now owes to the pension fund is bringing the state down. It’s a debt the state is planning to renege on without paying any penalties and in the process, not fulfilling an obligation to its workers. An obligation that was a contract with the workers who gave up salary increases and reductions in workforce to save the state money. Ken Previti says it best in his blog, Reclaim Reform. Even though he speaks about Illinois, the battle is being waged in many states.

Not many people realize that the state legislature is required by law to fund, as earned compensation, teacher pensions. The pensions are further protected by the Illinois constitution. State legislators have intentionally not fully funded pensions, preferring to use the money for pet projects that profit political cronies and campaign contributors. Legislators don’t want to be considered the thieves that they are, so the procedure is euphemistically called underfunding. This type of theft became so popular that R. Eden Martin and his cohorts have encouraged legislators to shift money in order to put the money elsewhere into more “worthy” areas. This used to be called misappropriation of funds. Now, it is called saving the state.

Well, the teachers have been trying to work for decades with curriculum changes, evaluations based on test scores of students they may never have taught, reductions in both federal and state budgets for education, charter schools taking over their traditional public school and removing their union rights, increased standardized testing whose practice tests and formative tests eat up a whole month’s worth of reading lessons each year, being demeaned by parents, administrators, television, radio, and movies. The attacks on tenure, pensions and common sense practices has awakened the beast within. Both the NEA and AFT have called for the Department of Education Secretary to change his ways or resign, teachers have refused to give tests that count for nothing, parents, teachers and principals have protested the incessant test-taking, and an organization of teachers, 51,000 strong, dedicated to taking back our profession, has been born- the Badass Teachers Association.

Watch out! The members of the Badass Teacher Association are mad and we’re not going to take it anymore. The group is for "every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning. " At first I was put off by the name, but after watching the continuing dismantling of the Philadelphia public schools, I felt I had to do something I was not able to do until I retired. That is, speak out loud and strong for the teachers who were left struggling to perform the miracles the system requires without the proper materials to do it. I joined the ranks of those who refuse to be blamed for the general inequalities of society and refuse to accept the assessments required by those who have no knowledge of proper educational methods and strategies.

Others have joined the fight against the Common Core, standardized testing, and the dismantling of teachers' work protections and pensions. This is the turning point in the battle that we will win. We will vanquish our enemies. The fight has just begun.
The Badass Teacher Association -

Tenure on The View –

 Peter Greene's A Field Guide to Anti-Teacher Trolls -
Still learning!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Love & Politics Don't Mix

Stuart McLean’s Vinyl CafĂ© always makes me laugh. Today it made me reminisce and reflect on political differences. As the saying goes, “Love and politics don’t mix.”

The story was about the 50’s-type life of Morley and her mother’s finally feeling empowered enough to express a political opinion that just happened to be the opposite of her husband’s. There was much fussing about who needed to take the sign down and whose was bigger. After some fuming and sign-size besting on the front lawn, the campaign was over with the election of the incumbent, and everything calmed down. But it never went back to the Father Knows Best atmosphere in the house. Mama had found her voice.

Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, my house wasn’t exactly Leave It to Beaver. We were on the cusp of the feminist movement but at that time, women didn’t leave any footprints in the job force, newsroom or politics. Fathers went off to work and mother stayed home to take care of the kids. Exceptions to this were few and far between.

Politics was my father’s realm. In my memory he had always been a Democratic committeeman, the workhorse of the party. A committeeman knew everyone in the neighborhood and frequently knew more gossip than the women did. They knew who to call for street repairs, traffic tickets, bail money and other pressing problems. When they got help from a committeeman, the neighbors felt an obligation to the ruling party in elections. In Philadelphia, the victors were usually Democrats and the committeemen and Ward leaders worked hard before elections, visiting every house in their division, encouraging them to get out to vote for the Democratic candidate.

Enter JFK, MLK, the Hippie Age of peace and love, anti-war, civil rights marches.

I had seen candidate Kennedy with my own eyes as he rode down Roosevelt Blvd in his convertible, waving to the thousands of people who would eventually vote for him. The nation’s first Catholic president, he was huge in our overwhelmingly Catholic neighborhood. My father got to meet him in his capacity of committeeman and I thought that was magical. It was then I became interested in politics. Or at least I was more aware of the workings of politics in our community than most kids.

My awareness of politics piqued my interest in the civil rights movement and the anti-war protestors. I was inextricably connected via the folksongs touting peace. Songs from Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Simon & Garfunkel became the soundtrack of my life. I sang the songs, attended the rallies, picketed for Cesar Chavez and the grape pickers and generally subscribed to the politics of the anti-war movement. During this turbulent period, my father was elected to the State Legislature for our piece of Philadelphia. I gave out campaign literature, made phone calls, and got well acquainted with campaign maneuvers and politics in general. So when Frank Rizzo ran for mayor on the Democratic side in the 70’s, I figured the only reason he switched parties was that he knew a Republican would not stand a chance as a Mayoral candidate. Many saw through his political move. Rizzo had been the Philadelphia Police Commissioner and was notorious for his bullying, his racism, his brashness, and schmoozing of the city’s high-ranking politicians. I was not going to vote for him no matter what.

I managed to procure a Thatcher Longstreth sign (his opponent) and placed in proudly in my bedroom window. My father was not too pleased but once I explained my reasons for supporting Longstreth, he relented. Dad was all about the debate. He wanted to make you think about your positions and opinions. The poster was highly visible as my bedroom windows were facing 2 of the available 3 sides of the house, the sides where the most people would see them as they walked home from the bus stop or playground or corner store. The ward leader saw them too.

He gave my dad a hard time for supporting Rizzo’s opponent. Dad informed him that it was not he, but his daughter who was in favor of the Republican candidate. Dad listened to the ward leaders ranting, but when Mr. M. told him to take it down, Dad said NO. He was in favor of freedom of choice and that applied to his daughter’s vote as well as his. I was forever grateful and impressed that he took that stance.

So if you had walked by the house during that election season, you would have noticed a big RIZZO sign downstairs in the kitchen window where it was highly visible, and above it, on the second floor, an equally large LONGSTRETH sign.

For this was the house that compromise built. At least for that voting season, love and politics did mix!

 Still learning!