Homeschool Year Two: post1

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This new homeschool year is bringing such unexpected delights. The book selections this year are every historical literature afficianado’s dream. While I’ve never been a huge fan of historical texts, the Medieval times and Renaissance period are both eras which produced a plethora of texts, both fiction and nonfiction, that really speak to the heart of humanity. Already I have had such great conversations, centered around this literature. What better way to teach a child about the moral and ethical paths to take in life, than through story? My 9 year old and (almost) 13 year old students are reading and discussing some of the same texts. It has been so encouraging to see them both fully understand the deeper meanings within these stories. While my younger student may see a king who has learned that ruling with compassion ensures more support, my older student hears the same story and concludes that the author is showing through her characters, that humility and forgiveness are two of the most important ways to share our humanity. The two boys have been able to learn from each other by sharing their own unique perspectives. Beowulf is next on the agenda. This has always been a favorite. But, I think I am mostly looking forward to reading and discussing The Canterbury Tales. I am sure teaching my bilingual 13 year old how to pronounce the prologue in Old English will be a hoot. Southern meets Colombia!!! Video of teacher and student soon to come. Stay tuned.

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CCSS (a blurb for Jackson Jumbalaya)

Common Core State Standards and high stakes testing are buzz words being discussed and debated across the nation currently. As a teacher and a mom of two elementary age children, I have done my research and have strong opinions.

I was first introduced to the prospect of CCSS in 2010. All I knew of these new standards were that they were approaching and I would be required to teach them. I wasn’t too concerned with them, simply because this is nothing new in education. After being an educator for twelve years, I have seen mandates come and go. I have been trained on the latest trend in education, it seems, just about every year that I’ve been teaching. This was old hat. I’ve always been one of those teachers who look at the state frameworks list of skills, and then go teach my students with those skills as a basic guideline, not a final checklist. I’ve always looked at my students as future leaders of this great nation, who are in front of me for a reason. My students have always been my priority, not the government mandates or latest educational reform programs. I teach with passion and with purpose. I understand and agree that as a teacher, my purpose is to ensure that my students gain the proper knowledge before moving on to the next grade. However, my passion pushes me to foster their creativity and unique learning style. More importantly though, my passion drives my desire to help my students grow from the process of learning, not just focus on the end result. When we as teachers focus on the end result rather than the process of learning, we teach our children to value test scores rather than individuality. We teach them to value a number more than a big picture.

When CCSS finally arrived, and it was my turn to teach it, I took the positive from it. I saw the good in it. There are many great things about these standards. They require a more analytical approach to learning through literature. I appreciated the language I saw within the standards. Words like complexity of text really enticed me, because I am a lover of literature. One of the things I enjoy most about teaching is sharing great literature with my students. I have always valued book discussions and deeply analyzing passages with my students. Now, Common Core State Standards were actually telling me that this is what was required. I was perfectly okay with that. I was more than thrilled to up my game in order to foster more academic growth in my students. I saw that growth too. For two years, teaching the “Common Core” way, was very telling. The students began seeing deep connections from one piece of literature to another. They began pointing out the similarities between stories by the same author, or finding recurring themes as they read a series of books. Deep thinking and analytical reasoning became almost a friendly competition within our classroom. Students were jumping out of their seats to point out the dramatic irony and how that irony led to the overall theme of the story. It was magnificent seeing this coming from elementary students. I was impressed. I was loving CCSS.

As I began doing more research though, I began seeing things I didn’t like. I found out that in order for our state to be eligible for a grant (Race to the Top grants), we had to adopt the CCSS. We also had to adopt new assessment benchmarks. This makes sense initially. But as with our government involvement, things always seem to go awry. While schools were already being held accountable for teaching the CCSS, we were still being assessed the old way. The MCTs were still being given while teachers were teaching from a different set of standards. That doesn’t make much sense to me. How about aligning the assessment with the implementation of the standards? CCSS have drawn much criticism from both liberals and conservatives. I believe this is because many are finally seeing that top down takeover is not how we want our educational system run. The plethora of problems we have in our educational system will not be fixed by Common Core State Standards. I’m not sure what the fix is, unless we can find a way to making sure that every classroom in America has a highly qualified teacher who is actually empowered to teach. And when I say “highly qualified” I don’t mean the type of degree they have, or whether they are nationally board certified. What I mean by highly qualified is that they are passionate about their purpose. Instead of initiative draining programs and one size fits all curriculum, we need creativity, autonomy, and passion.  There’s a lot to be said for teacher autonomy. Unfortunately, we now have a culture that has been molded to not trust. We have federal government policy makers not trusting state officials. We have state officials not trusting local school districts. We have districts not trusting principals.  We have parents and principals not really trusting teachers. I hate to be the pessimist here, when I am completely the opposite within a classroom. Inside the walls of my classroom I become an idealist. I believe that students can achieve, I believe that I can motivate them and inspire them to go change the world.  It’s funny to me though that these mandates come from the top, but it’s only the people at the bottom who are outspoken about the effects. Why would that be? Could it be that the ones on the bottom (teachers) are the ones who actually know what’s going on? I’d say so. Teachers can’t fight alone. We need our parents, principals, districts, and state officials fighting alongside us. My less than favorable opinions about our top down levels of trust aren’t widespread. I don’t intend to generalize all government officials, all superintendents, all principals, all parents. There are plenty of supportive people out there who will fight to the death for education reform.

I have high expectations for this upcoming school year. I’m ready for it to begin. I have many hopes for this year. I hope that parents and teachers will come together as a team. I hope that parents will review their child’s test scores, which will come home soon after school begins, with a grain of salt. I hope that as a nation, we can begin to realize that our children are much smarter than these tests reveal, simply because these tests only reveal one corner of that 1000 piece puzzle. I hope that teachers will be driven by passion. I hope that children will be motivated and inspired by their teacher to dream big. Go change the world.

 

A Call to Action, Get Angry!

About a month ago, I began writing what I felt like might manifest itself into a book. I was working on a book about teaching skills through literature. I had been encouraged by my dad, husband, and principal to attempt this. So I began. Chapter 1 that I posted last week was actually my introduction. I was prepared to post Chapter 2 this week. The following words you read are part of what I wrote for chapter 2…but then something happened. I got a call from Mississippi. There was a discussion about standardized test scores. A discussion I cannot divulge, but can say that rage kicked in. Steam blew from both ears and my face turned red hot. Not because I’m above failure….but because I’m perceived a failure because of how a child bubbled in a standardized test. Granted, I do not know my individual students’ scores, there was still an overall tone of displeasure within the conversation.  So please forgive this post….it’s a bit longwinded and a bit sporadic with staying on topic. I revisited my draft of Chapter 2 and vented. This is a teacher’s rage.

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 “It is very risky. But each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere.” ― Lois Lowry     

From very early on, even my first year of teaching, my idealism was never outweighed by the realities of my profession. I won’t say I have always been an expert teacher. I’m not an expert now, either.  I have made many blunders in the classroom. But I can say with every ounce of confidence in my bones, that I have always seen the big picture of what I wanted my students to walk away with. I have never felt overwhelmed with the tasks of school paperwork or making sure our test scores result in perceptions of intelligence, simply because my main objective as a teacher is to teach. Novel concept, huh?  In fact, I was such an idealist and naïve beginner that I didn’t even know about state standardized tests. I taught for the pure joy of passing on knowledge to a child. In today’s educational culture, red tape and test scores are the name of the game, though. From my experience, however, building a love of learning accomplishes much more than checking items off of the state frameworks list.  I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are years where “my” test scores were less than what my principal probably wanted. There have been years where there just weren’t enough “advanced’ students on my list when the scores were calculated. But I refer back to a post I wrote once. I see with my eyes and hear with my ears on a daily basis what these students have within them. It is such a grave injustice that our educational policies force negative perceptions on these students, schools, and teachers for less than great test scores.

 My first teaching experience was in Los Angeles, California. I was unaware and bewildered by my new surroundings. I was a small town girl who had moved to the big city. I was terrified. I was given a position in sixth grade language arts. Both of my student teaching experiences were in lower grades, and certainly did not prepare me for what I imagined to be a huge city school with drugs and gangs. Were these things prevalent? I don’t know. I just perceived them to be, because of my insecurities and fear. Even through the midst of this fear, I was excited and anxious to get started. I knew immediately that I needed to create an experience for my students. Every school is going to have their own ways of accomplishing the same goals. Every school will have their own programs and curriculum ideas. As a teacher, though, we ultimately have the power to determine how our children receive the message. This is what I loved about teaching, when I first began. Having that feeling that you are integral to the academic, social, and emotional advancement of the crowd in front of you every day. It can be overwhelming or it can be exhilarating.

 I began that summer pouring over the language arts text book. I read each story and made many notes. I began feeling quite overwhelmed seeing all I needed to teach. So rather than creating a checklist of skills I needed to teach, I began looking at what life lessons do I want my students to get. I began diving into and researching particular themes that would lend themselves to the emotional aspects for middle school children. I certainly did not start my teaching career as progressive and effective as my most recent year of teaching. It was by accident really, that I discovered that my love of sharing great literature could benefit my delivery of instruction.   By my third year of teaching in California, I had moved from language arts to ancient civilizations. This was a milestone year for me, because I learned through teaching a subject not particularly inundated with literature, that literature could be added to create a better experience. So the summer prior to teaching ancient civilizations I created a calendar. It was a calendar of all the literature that would accompany my historical topics. We started with, of course, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, moved into They Egypt Game, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and many Greek and Roman myths. By the end of the year, I had an experience that turned a light bulb on for me. A parent requested a conference. As I gathered my things after school to meet with her, I was prepared. I had her child’s grades and portfolio of work from the year. I was sure this parent wanted to speak to me about their academic progress during the year. What I found at that conference was not merely insightful, but poignant to the remainder of my teaching career. She walked into my classroom, sat at my small round conference table, and looked at me with a somewhat confused look. After our cordial greetings and small talk, she revealed to me why she had requested the meeting. She looked at me with such heartfelt sincerity and said, “Mrs. DuBose, I have never met a history teacher that reads so much to her students.” She then went on to explain that her child had become a reader because of a history class. She called the meeting to thank me, but it was I who thanked her. I thanked her for sharing with me an aspect of my work with children that actually worked. Her child did not make straight A’s. Her child didn’t perform particularly well on tests. But her child had become a reader. That was it for me. Once a teacher feels the fruits of her labor taking root and blooming, there is no stopping her. From that year on, I have taught my skills, whatever subject I was appointed, through literature. 

 If I were to tell you that every skill on your state frameworks can be taught through a connected yearlong study of great literature, would you believe me? Some would, but there are usually more critics and pessimists than idealists. There will always be excuses, critics, and pessimists. A teacher might say that their principal makes them use a textbook and stick to it. Other excuses may be that there is a curriculum guideline to stick to. And of course, some of those excuses might just have something to do with needing to teach test prep to ensure better test scores than last year. Disgusting! It infuriates me to know that there are schools and teachers feeling less than valued, less than appreciated, and less than effective because they didn’t produce the right number. Good teachers are going to leave the profession. Our children need teachers who are willing to forget what the state department says about “quality education.” Harder said than done, right?  It can be done though. Here’s the catch though. You have to jump on the bandwagon of idealism, and you have to love what you do.. You can’t pretend. Children see through that. Students need to leave for the summer seeing that each book read was a piece to a puzzle that led to the overall picture. Each day in your class should reveal a bit more along the path. That’s how you’ll see their light bulbs turn on. That’s when you’ll find a ha moments. That’s where you’ll see children become immersed in what they are learning. Our students’ academic experience doesn’t have to be simply learning the list of items we are instructed to teach them. Their school years do not have to be filled with just facts and statistics. When a person can walk away from an experience having had an emotional connection of some sort, doesn’t that make for better learning? I can tell you what an emotional experience encourages. It encourages students to independently search for more. Students will leave your class, wanting mom or dad to drive them to Barnes and Noble to get a book that is similar to the one their teacher talked about and cried over. It will encourage them to go home and Google a YouTube video of the famous baseball sketch “Who’s on First” because their teacher read a funny story about Abbot and Costello.  Think back to your years as a student. There are years we remember, years we don’t, and years we wish we could forget.  Don’t we, as teachers, want our students to remember us? Don’t we all aspire to leave our students with knowledge and inspiration they can use throughout their lives? That’s why we teach. At least, that’s why we should teach.

                      My most recent year of teaching was a year where I felt most rewarded. It was such a rewarding year because I saw clearly that my students were becoming immersed in a world of books. They were loving literature. They were discussing highly advanced topics with me on a daily basis, they were growing academically right before my eyes in such a profound way. They were motivated and motivating. They were inspired and inspiring. As a team, my partner and I were amazed at the progress our students were showing us. Honestly, my team teacher and I were blown away some days by the intellect our students showed. But guess what? Our test scores would lead an outsider to think either we didn’t do our job as  teacher, or that the students were not capable of learning what we “tried” to teach them.  Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not teaching next year. Because honestly, if I had to teach after hearing that what I felt was my most effective year yet was less than acceptable, I just might feel a bit defeated. That’s what will happen to great teachers. Eventually our public schools will be left with only a handful of dedicated passionate teachers with hearts full of spunk to pass on to children, DESPITE what the state tests say. But there will be a great number of teachers who opt out. Feeling defeated, overwhelmed, confused, mad, and sad, these teachers who have so much heart, will opt out. Shame on our government. Shame!

My own daughter, entering into second grade, reminds me daily that numbers placed on children are not only unfair, but also insulting. My child doesn’t score as high as her peers. I know this only because I was a teacher inside her school and was privy to this information. Her scores, if I were to take them into account, would indicate that she might even have a  slight learning disability. But I have seen her every day this summer sit on her bed for hours reading books to herself, laughing at the funny parts, understanding them. These aren’t first grade level books either. So am I going to believe a number or am I going to trust what I see? I am grateful for teachers like Mrs. Williams, who taught Emerson based on what she believed she could do rather than what the numbers said on MAP tests. I am grateful that my daughter had a teacher who pushed her based on her potential, and nurtured that love of reading.

That’s the problem with standardized tests. Parents, district staff, interventionists, new prospects researching schools for their children, and yes even principals do not see what teachers see. The teacher has the ultimate honor of seeing and hearing and KNOWING her students. I’ve been apart of four schools over the span of 12 years. Out of those schools, I have honestly only seen maybe three teachers that weren’t there for the right reasons. Most teachers are HIGHLY effective and COMPLETELY dedicated to ensuring that their students walk away with a positive experience and with more academic knowledge.  How insulting to throw a number on a website or a newspaper to associate a school with a grade, or a teacher with a grade for her efforts. How absolutely, unequivocally, downright disgusting. I walked into my beloved school every day feeling blessed to be apart of a staff who loved learning and loved children even more. I saw daily adults who nurtured children, pushed children to reach their potential, protected children from harm, cried with children over heartaches, laughed with children over joys, played kickball with them on the recess field, and taught their hearts out to ensure that those precious children would become world changers.

Can you tell I’m mad? I’m mad! And all teachers should be. Not just the teachers who “scored low” but every teacher in every public school in America. Unless teachers stand up and fight, there will be no change. What if every teacher, in every public school, in every city, in every state wrote or called their local representatives? What if we were heard? What if something changed… for the better? What if?

Teachers are feeling defeated, and children are feeling anxious for all the wrong reasons. Personally, I may just have to keep my own children home this school year during state testing. What are we teaching anyone if we don’t take a stand? Every year during state tests, I think how great it would be if every parent kept their child home that day. Our children are not numbers. Our teachers are not numbers. We are heart and soul. That should be protected!

It’s summer. State testing is a long way off… but let’s start thinking about it now! Teachers, go get “em! Take your passion and teach your hearts out this year. I love you ALL, even those of you I don’t know. You are who determine how our children receive the message.

 

TRUE LEARNING

The students brought in their “silent film strip” photo assignments today. They were assigned the task of transforming themselves into a character from WWI, the Roaring 20s, or the Great Depression. We will begin our discussion of WWII tomorrow, and used this assignment to remind us of the events leading up to that war. The students went above and beyond the call to action not only with creativity, but also with historical content. Their stories were told as a silent film would tell a story. They took ten photos of themselves with a sign in front of them with the words telling their tale. Some students even included family members in their photos/stories. I could tell as I read them today that the students really put forth full effort into researching these historical eras. I am confident that they learned more from this one assignment than from a week’s worth of reading from a textbook. They were so proud of their work and also wanted to see their friends’ stories. So, we took a little time today to view all of the “silent films” and learn from our peers. Who says hard work can’t be fun? Not us! Stay tuned for our next project. This week the students are taking these characters from their stories and giving them an extensive list, via collage design, of character traits. We will use this project to dive further into our discussions of an author’s use of characterization. Art, creativity, problem solving, language arts, reading skills, and history all come together as we progress through this unit of study. In the midst of all this FUN learning, we are taking MAP tests in our computer labs. There has been much talk and discussion, even boycots and strikes in regards to high stakes testing during a school year. There has been much debate on how disruptive it is to real learning. In my humble opinion, the only classroom interrupted from such tests, are classrooms that allow that to happen. I am all for accountability…teacher accountability, at that. But I will not allow standardized tests to stand in the way of REAL learning. We don’t focus much in my classroom on test prep. I usually give my students a “pep talk” before we enter into the computer lab to begin our tests, but I cannot and will not disrupt our creative juices to prep for tests. There’s a famous movie quote that says, “If you build it, he will come.” I think about that line often in my classroom. If we, as teachers, build foundations and learning skills with motivation and inspiration as our guide, then test scores will come. I’m not worried about what a test score says about my students. I see with my eyes. I hear with my ears. Everyday, these students impress me with their intellect…intellect that is far beyond what a standardized test measures. WAY TO GO TEAM DUBOSE!