Monday, January 13, 2020

Top 2019 Reads...Today

I read…a lot. The last ten years of my teaching career, I read for a living, surrounded by high school students also reading. It was heaven.

Now, I read exclusively for myself, and my own goals. I used to try to choose a Top Ten, but like Nancy Flanagan, one of my favorite reading buddies, I decided to do something different this year. I gave out a lot of 5’s on Goodreads, where I keep track of my reading…so I pulled out the titles I really, really loved and made categories. Then, I went with my top several for each category…180 books in 2019, boiled down to these. And I’m keeping Nancy’s blog close for recommendations for my 2020.

Individual #1 Books – After Obama was elected, sales of guns spiked. After Trump, the sales of books increased. Books about this White House has become a cottage industry, and I’m an enthusiastic consumer of many. I keep the books together in their own shelf.

This year, I think the best, most horrifying, most infuriating, books that are pointing out the obvious are:

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow – the story of the Harvey Weinstein abuse stories being covered up, caught and killed. The book qualifies for this shelf, because Trump’s dalliances are also killed by the tabloid media. It’s almost Gonzo-journalism, because Farrow chronicles his own struggles to get this story written. I’m eager to read more from him.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder – a tiny, dry tome with 20 rules for living in hard times, based on the fact we’ve lived through tyranny before – be kind to our language, contribute to good causes, be as courageous as you can…I have never actually gotten a hard copy of this book, because it cannot be published fast enough. But I have the audible and the ebook editions

It’s Even Worse Than You Think by David Cay Johnson – Johnson is an expert on DJT…has been watching him for years…and he can connect the clues better than anyone. It IS worse than we think.
The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy by Michael Lewis – be afraid! Be very afraid. We are being governed by people who know very little and like it that way.

Mueller Report – yes! I read it. More than most in Congress. Read, annotated, highlighted. And wrote several bad words in the margins.

Fiction – Of course I read novels!!

Testaments by Margaret Atwood – The long awaited, and for me totally satisfying sequel to Handmaid’s Tale. It was the book I needed to read in these days when On Tyranny reminds us we are in hard times. I read with friends who pushed my thinking and made the book even richer.

Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky – another long-anticipated book…the second novel by Stephen Chbosky. Totally NOT Perks of Being a Wallflower…more early Stephen King – horror story reminding us children can save the world if we allow.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett -- Speaking of children saving the world: I love Gaiman, but had a bad experience with Pratchett, so I’d avoided it…but what a delightful book, and Armageddon is thwarted again!

Illiad by Homer – OK, so I never read Illiad, even though I taught The Odyssey. Yes, I knew the bare bones of the story…but to hear the words rolling over my ears was so moving. The ending…I was surprised by the abruptness.

Memoirthree total gems

Becoming by Michelle Obama – I listened to Michelle Obama reading her story to me. Honest, tender, loving.

Thick – essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom, an African American sociology professor. She writes a fascinating collection here…some searingly personal, some deeply academic, some funny…she makes us face inequity, and challenged me to follow more strong women of color on Twitter. Love the changes.

Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson – breathtaking memoir in verse by the author of Speak. This book gives us the back story to her amazing novel, and is a rallying cry for women and men who are victims of sexual assault. I cried buckets.

Education Nonfiction

The Privatization of American Institutions – written by my friend Lawrence Baines…how industry has taken over the military, prison system, K-12 education and higher education. Exhaustively researched (100+ sources for each chapter, y’all!!), every sentence is deep and frightening.

Lost At School by Ross Greene– an interesting look at behavior. Do kids (and adults) behave because they choose to, or because they don’t have the skills needed to mediate their words and actions? It reads like an advertisement for the author’s ‘system’, but still important for anyone who works with young people.

Nonfiction – Almost finished!

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Women by Caroline Criado-Perez – Oh, my gosh! All the ways women’s lives, bodies, and sexuality, are totally ignored by research. City planning. Snow removal, car safety. Men do the planning and arrange the world (NOT maliciously) to fit their bodies and their experiences. And that often makes the lives of women much harder.

Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean – The story of how MacLean found this story is fascinating, as is the rise of the libertarian millionaires who have used their money to quietly manipulate the levers of power. I did not know much of this started in the 50’s, with segregation in the South. Vouchers is not a new idea. Frightening, but we must read and learn.

Parkland by Dave Cullen – after Columbine, Cullen became the go-to author after any school shooting. In this book, he follows the Parkland survivors as they used their anger and grief to mobilize others for workable gun reform, and exciting young people to vote. This is the book Cullen needed after the horrors of Columbine, and frankly, I needed it too.

Blowout by Rachel Maddow – Another book I listened to the author read to me. Maddow reading Maddow…a treat! She weaves the story of Putin’s rise to power with oil and gas internationally, and in my home state, Oklahoma! Chapters jump from Putin to events I know much better.

Picture Book Biographies – volunteering in a school library let me to so many wonderful biographies of women forgotten by history. These books inspired my videoed lesson for my National Board re-renewal. Gems, every one.

Dreamers by Yuyi Morales– a sweet memoir of a young woman who immigrates to the US with her small child, and both discover the beauty of books and libraries. Illustrated by the author! A beautiful book all around.

Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome – there are many good picture books about Harriet Tubman, but this one adds new information for children to learn, and the lovely pattern of the words would give teachers so many ways to use this as a mentor text for writing.

Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark – a brilliant woman whose work is partly responsible for the technology we use every day in our cell phones, but is remembered only as a Hollywood movie star. Loved learning more about her!

Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science by Diane Stanley – did you know Lord Byron had a daughter? And that she was a brilliant scientist helped invent the Analytical Engine that could do all kinds of mathematical functions…A mighty girl!  

Whew! 181 books, with lots of great ones I didn’t put on these final lists…Right now I’m running a FB group of readers, Yearly Reading Plan,  using this challenge for 2020 – Lots of discussions about ‘a book you read in school,’ and I love seeing what friends are choosing for each month. I’m rereading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott for my January book. Eager to see what books this year brings.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

School Report Cards CAN Have a Happy Ending

This year’s unveiling of the ‘new and improved’ school report cards always creates the same knot in my stomach it has for nearly a decade. I understand some kind of school measure is a federal requirement...but I hate all the metrics that rely on testing data. And now the attendance measure has hit a special nerve. 

As I’ve said, I have history with this process. March 19, 2012 found the Board Room at OSDE packed to the gills. I saw a sign-in sheet and dutifully signed, then found a seat. The Spring Break morning was blustery and we were there for public comments. Much smarter folks than I shared their concerns and frustrations as a tape recorder (I kid you not!) whirled. My name was called. Little did I know, the sign-in sheet was a speaker’s list. I had written a message that I’d delivered to the superintendent and any other office that was open, so I dragged up my last copy and read. I used the name of the ancient heroine Cassandra, who, according to Aeschulus, was cursed to forever tell the truth and to never be believed. And here I am, seven years later, stifling my ‘I told you so!!’

So, this year, before I even studied the data when it was released, I was upset. I wasn’t the only one. Responses from educator leaders started pouring in. Rob Miller, Superintendent of Bixby Schools and Dr. John Thompson, retired teacher and school historian, are much more analytic than I am, and spoke up. More response in this Daily Oklahoman article. I will quote Superintendent Joy Hofmeister below. 

Teachers are, indeed, the most influential factor of student learning IN SCHOOL. That still is a small percentage of student learning. But we use test scores a straight achievement number, and one a ‘growth’ number. From what I understand, at least the growth measures the same students’ scores. But graduation (for secondary) and postsecondary opportunities? Attendance? We cannot control those. I spent weeks calling one student every morning to wake him up and get him to school. It worked. Until it didn’t. And now my school would be graded on what? My efforts to get my student up and dressed and to school? 

So, in this seething state, I browsed FaceBook and saw a post by my friend, Sandra Valentine. I’d noticed her response was more nuanced than my unfocused anger. Her question: 

Sandra works with schools and teachers to finesse the data and make changes to their curriculum. I know from experience, she understands our state standards and education issues. I was interested in joining the conversation, sooo...

I unloaded (shocking, I know). “Full funding. A revamped report card that reflects those variables under schools' and teachers' control.” But, truly, that is my wish list. I’ve talked about accountability and what is and is not within the control of classroom teachers and schools before. Sandra, as is her practice, asked probing questions to get me past that first anger...we had a spirited back-and-forth until she wrote: 

“For example, if the community looked at the chronic absenteeism and decided to say, like we have in Shawnee, more “Mom Transits” that would be helpful.

Until then it looks like a big stain on our schools. It doesn’t serve the purpose of here’s a problem, oh I didn’t know this problem existed, let’s come up with ways to help instead of hinder, brainstorm, brainstorm, bam, what once was a blemish is now a community commitment to get things going in the right direction.”

For me that was the nudge I needed to totally pivot my thinking.” It came in a flash as I reflected on Sandra’s words...we need to flip the entire conversation about school grades. These descriptions reflect the community in which schools are embedded. Even test scores are a community matter...what can families do to raise achievement? What kind of community support do they need to accomplish it? Questions swirled in my head.

And that brings us to this question...what if school report cards were straight descriptive, with no evaluative grades? Just statements of the needs of a particular school? And what if the next step was a community meeting with all investigate the needs and brainstorm ways they could address needs? Public transportation routes? Public library access? More Big Brothers Big Sisters? What do our schools need from their communities? What can communities offer to their schools? 

That changes the conversation from: Rotten schools. Rotten teachers.

Now the conversation could be: Here are the needs. How can we contribute to addressing those needs with the resources we have at hand?

Interestingly enough, we both saw a short op-ed in the
Daily Oklahoman by Mary Melon. She brings up in passing the same idea we’re batting around...what if report cards were descriptive instruments, not evaluative? “Educators and the community can use this tool as part of the evaluation, along with many other measures. Knowing where you are is a critical part of determining the plan to get where you want to be. Finding common ground and changing the narrative about public education is the only way to truly make progressive change for our kids.”

So. Let’s flip this conversation. There is descriptive data in the reports. Let’s use it...convene groups of stakeholders. Let’s dig into the data and see, first what those descriptions mean to us as a community, and then how can we bring resources to the conversation?

Let’s ignore the letter grade that is supposed to be so informative. It’s not. It’s pejorative. It’s inflammatory. It’s abused by uninformed critics and reformers with their own agenda.

Let’s bring students and parents and teachers and administrators, AND city council members, AND Chamber of Commerce representatives. Let’s bring business owners, higher education representatives, technology center educators. Let’s bring them together to discuss the descriptions in the data.

For example, one of my favorite schools, an alternative high school for students who are struggling with many issues in their lives, got an “F” on “Postsecondary Opportunities.” This is measured by the state of ‘beyond high school’ resources available to high school students: industry certification, college preparation coursework (including AP), dual/concurrent enrollment, or work-based internships. Dimensions Academy ‘earned’ .2 points out of a possible ten. My first thought was, “well, duh! Some of these kids are struggling to stay warm and fed. Some have extra jobs to support a family. Some are working to recover credits to graduate.” There are too many reasons Dimensions Academy students might not be focused on POST graduation opportunities. That is a description of the challenges...

But rather than rail against the unfairness of the grade, what if that group of stakeholders could look at the description: students at Dimensions Academy are surviving in the moment -- how can WE support them and welcome them into the community of post-high school? Could we offer job shadowing? Internships for credit? What resources do we have to help? 

What if the community looked at attendance data and pooled resources...public transportation? Car pooling? After school care? What other creative solutions could be discussed by experts in their own fields, looking at ways they could contribute to their neighborhood schools? One community discovered that installing washers and dryers at school actually improved student attendance. Kids didn’t have clean clothes to wear to school, so they stayed home. But one community looked at that information and together found a creative way to contribute!
That ought to be the conversation. How can we help? Where can we fit our skills into the needs of our community public schools? What do we, as a community, have to offer our schools and students and teachers? How can we successfully partner to lift our schools?

Each school’s story. Oklahoma’s indicators and grades help tell each school’s story. More importantly, I think the community needs to look at what those indicator scores tell in that story.”

Superintendent Joy Hofmeister says it right there...Report cards are detailed, nuanced stories of each school in Oklahoma. Its strengths, its needs. Not hammers to blame, judge, attack. 

But for many the happy ending is up to all of us working together.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Interim Curmudgeons

Yesterday I attended Interim Studies for the House Common Education Committee.

Today, I visited with a mother who lost her daughter, my former student.

Tomorrow, I will attend the funeral of that young woman I’ve loved for nearly half of her short life.

How are these all connected? They are.

One of the Interim Studies by Representative Chad Caldwell, (R, House District 40, Garfield County) looked at both the funding and the reforms of a landmark bill, HB1017, passed in 1990. The bill provided substantial raises for teachers, and required access to early childhood programs. It also created a mechanism for school consolidation, as well as requiring state standards for Oklahoma schools, reducing class sizes, K-12, and added more testing for accountability.

This bill was a bipartisan effort, signed by Henry Bellmon, R. Repeals were attempted, and failed. But the aftermath of HB1017 was a State Question that now requires a vote of ¾ of the House and Senate to raise any taxes. Since that time, our Legislature has repeatedly reduced taxes, but had not, since this bill, raised taxes for schools until 2018's Session’s funding (and Walk-Out) drama that resulted in raises and a small increase in our per-pupil expenditure. 

The first Study, hosted by member Caldwell, one of the few non-educators on the Common Education Committee, purported to investigate the reforms of 1017 – consolidation and class sizes among other issues. In a far-ranging Study, speakers touched on the reforms required by the bill. They talked about a provision of the bill that never were fully implemented that dealt with incentive payment to teachers for professional development and leadership.

We learned that the number of applications for emergency certified teachers continues to grow every year. This year’s data is only one month old, and right now, shows fewer applications than by the end of last school year. Rep. Caldwell suggested that showed the recent teacher pay raise was working, and that there will be fewer emergency certified teachers this year. Other members pointed out that today’s State School Board meeting had hundreds of requests for emergency teachers on the agenda. I have taught in two states under emergency certification; but in both states, I had to have a traditional teaching certificate. Since I couldn’t find a position in my certificate area, I took other jobs, and had to secure an emergency certificate in the meantime. In Oklahoma, though, emergency-certified teachers are required to have a college degree, but not a degree in the area they will be teaching. Alternatively certified teachers are required to have an undergraduate major that will complement their teaching assignments…a history major teaching history, for example.

Rep. Caldwell does not seem to be a fan of traditional teacher programs. He inspired others to drag out calculators to add the current number of emergencies to the number we had heard would be approved today by the Oklahoma State School Board. The argument ended in a draw. But he berated traditional teacher preparation with a story. He talked about a dinner he had recently attended with “7 or 8 teachers.” He asked how many of them felt their teacher preparation programs really prepared them to teach. He told us, with great solemnity, that not one said their training prepared them.

Which brings me to today and tomorrow. No, teacher preparation did not prepare me to hug a grieving mother, a stunned brother this morning. No, teacher preparation did not train me to attend funerals for young adult former students, gone too soon. You’re right, Rep. Caldwell. I wasn’t prepared.

Neither did teacher preparation really get me ready for being the sole responsibility, in 1967, of the health, welfare, and learning of 24 sixth-graders all day. Or how to learn from a principal who didn’t care about anything but his own reputation. Or how to teach geography out of books that highlighted countries that no longer existed the year I taught. Or how to respond when one of my farm-reared students brought a pet white rat to class. Or, later in the spring when someone else brought a snake in a Mason jar. On-the-job learning went into high gear that year, and every year since.

NO academic training could adequately prepare me. And I knew that. I knew the academics gave me the foundation. Academics gave me resources, and the basics of what to do. I learned strategies to use. I learned that I was expected that I would continue to learn and ask questions.

Does a doctor’s academic training adequately prepare them for every patient they will meet in a career? Every emergency? Does an architect’s academic training prepare them for every problem they will face in a long career? Why is it only teacher preparation is questioned?

So, Representative Caldwell used this anecdote to dismiss the necessity of a trained educator in each classroom…because he asked several teachers if their academic training totally prepared them. This story served his purpose.

Later in the same study, the focus shifted to class size, one of the jewels of HB1017. Before deregulations by subsequent legislatures, my high school classes were to be capped at 120 students a day. Not at all unreasonable for five sections a day. Limits were even more strict at early childhood and elementary levels. We were so proud of those limits. We saw them as acknowledgement of the professionalism and effectiveness of educators. When I retired in 2013, long after these deregulations had become the norm, I saw 160 students a day.

Representative Caldwell expressed his frustration with all the anecdotal stories about how smaller class sizes are beneficial to learning, and suggested that larger classes could lead to students learning more from each other. He dismissed the ‘one study’ ‘everyone’ quotes to support smaller class sizes, and waxed poetic about other studies that showed no benefits for smaller classes. Made me think of Bill Gates’ suggestion that ‘master teachers’ could teach huge classes because…they were masters.

So stories when they support his own opinions, and dismissal of stories and demands for studies (and dismissal of research that conflicts with his opinions) when that fits his point of view. The about-face was frustrating to watch and not have an opportunity to comment. While Rep. Caldwell appeared curmudgeonly at his own Study, I was feeling decidedly grumpy sitting and listening.

I find Interim Studies informative.  I learn what legislation might be coming, or what legislation might face strong opposition. I can predict, based on yesterday’s meeting, that Rep. Caldwell will fight any legislation that would require traditional teacher training and halt our state’s reliance on emergency certification. He will not be a fan of any incentivization of traditional teacher preparation (the subject of a later Interim Study). I can predict he will fight any legislation that would reinstate smaller class sizes. He wants longer school days. He appears happy with out Reading Sufficiency Act, which requires all third graders to read ‘at level’ to become fourth graders. All this information is good to know.  

Tomorrow I will attend the funeral of a former student and hope I can comfort her mother and her brothers, never having been trained in my traditional teacher preparation program to do that. Tomorrow my friends in classrooms will hear stories of neglect and abuse. They will deal with behavior stemming from adverse childhood experiences and trauma. They will find a way to connect Macbeth with their students’ lives. They will defuse violent outbursts by students who have no coping strategies. They will sponsor co-curricular clubs and activities. They will consult and collaborate. They will participate in meetings where they create relevant curriculum. All these were never covered in modules of our traditional teacher training. But that training taught us to be responsive, creative, collaborative. That training gave us tools and resources and allies in our work.

As frustrated as I was in that Study yesterday, I felt sorry for Rep Caldwell, showing his disdain and antipathy for educators and our world. He doesn’t get it. He could, if he opened himself to doing more than talk to teachers at dinner. If he combined empirical research with observations and insights. If he trusted educators as the professionals we are. If he spent a day, a week, shadowing a teacher in his district. Did cafeteria and recess duty, went with a teacher to a football game, attended an advisory meeting. Came with me to the funeral I’m attending tomorrow.

He could learn a lot…by watching us learn, day-by-day, to do this job. Always learning.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Privatization of America's Public Institutions...a hopping-mad review

I seem to be using #FFS a lot recently...Well, if you know me, I am screaming it, with my face crimson, smoke coming out of my ears. We are in deep...doodoo. Buy this book and give it to every policy maker you know. Stand over them while they read it. And demand a book report. 

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Our public life is being eroded by privatizers right under our noses.

Lawrence is a friend, a fierce advocate for public schools, their students and teachers. He can research a topic to get to the very essence of the issue. This book is organized around four insidious efforts to privatize American institutions…cornerstones of our democracy: the military, the corrections system, PreK-12 schools, and higher education. Each chapter is exhaustively researched, with over 100 citations for each chapter. Every statement in this book is backed up by research!

What are the dangers to a democracy when our institutions are privatized? Turned over to people with questionable motives beyond making as much money as possible? Turns out the dangers are real, and they are here…looking us in the eye.

A privatized military has no ultimate loyalty to our country, to our elected leaders. Military contractors owe allegiance to their bosses…the corporations taking over services in the military, to ‘free up’ our soldiers to do the dirty work…for less money than the contractors who are cooking and doing the laundry. These corporations raid the ranks of the military, hoping to buy not only the expertise of these trained military, but also their secrets. ROTC is now privatized. HALF of the military allocations our Congress sends off go to PRIVATE CONTRACTORS. These corporations are under no obligation to train their workers, to share intelligence, to offer the benefits available from the military (this is a common thread through the book…these privatizers do not offer job security, living wages, or benefits to their workers…that means more profits for the stockholders, and questionable service to the public).

Private prisons and juvenile facilities and facilities currently holding immigrants have been privatized for a while…on the cheap…with no effort to provide a safe workplace for employees or for the detainees. When a private prison contracts with a state to build a facility, part of the ‘deal’ is a occupancy guarantee. Usually 90% -- the state is obligated to pay for 90% occupancy, whether or not the number of inmates equals that. Sweet deal for contractors…Workers get less training, fewer benefits, and lower wages. Injuries and abuse of both workers and inmates is not unknown. Baines points out that crime rates are falling, but the number of private prisons and incarceration at these facilities is rising. He discusses the specific dangers to young people in these facilities…and says 21% of young inmates have committed no crime, but they find themselves in the system.

PreK-12 schools have been fighting the effects of privatization for a long time, and this was the chapter that I understood the best, since the information was not new, but the facts, the research, the figures, were astounding. Baines discusses various for-profit charters that have been all the rage, and points out the appeal for parents: less bureaucracy, self-segregation from ‘those kids (my words),’ and having the state help pay for their religious education…must be nice! He explains the difference between Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), which send state money as vouchers directly to parents, and Tax Credit Scholarships (TCSs) which send money to a partner institution that administers the funds…for a cut! The opportunities for fraud and abuse when for-profits try to teach our children is sickening.

I attended the Save Our Schools March and Rally in DC years ago, and met two teacher-prep professors from a nearby college…we all agreed that when reformers and privatizers where finished picking the bones of public education clean, they’d be coming after higher education. Privatizers didn’t wait. They are now outsourcing services at universities, and outsourcing DEGREES. All of this is made possible, as with public education, by the fact that state legislatures have systematically cut funding to state and land-grant institutions. My state is right there near the top of the culprits who cut funds, requiring colleges to raise fees and tuition…The use of adjuncts who receive no benefits (I know…I am one), reduction of major choices as departments are closed down, a de-emphasis on services, and a de-emphasis on the ‘community of learners” that on-campus college experience allows, all are results of the privatization of our public higher education institutions.

Most heartbreaking was the discussion of how teacher preparation is now outsourced…online classes that require NO field experience, no internship…NO face-to-face work with young people at all. Just ‘write us a check and click your mouse to your way to a teaching certificate.’ Texas, ABCTE, and now in OK, Tulsa Schools, can ‘credential their own.’ For $5K-$10K, you too, can become a teacher, sometimes without ever having to set eyes on a real child until you're hired. This will lead to more churn in our PreK-12 classes, more calls for charters and Tax Credits and Ed Savings Accounts. More privatization.

If we don’t wake up NOW, our children and grandchildren will be facing a world where soldiers-for-hire take orders from corporations, where our prisons create the overcrowding, recidivism, self-fulfilling prophesy of failure, where our children are taught by less-and-less qualified teachers coming out of poor-quality but profitable teacher preparation companies whose entire goal is profit.

We are selling not only our own souls…we are selling our children’s future.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

2018 -- My Top Ten --With Some Major Cheating

I read a lot. For most of my career, I read for a living. For the last ten years of that career, my bosses paid me to sit in a room, surrounded by teen, and READ. Books covered every wall, and many horizontal surfaces. Kids read. I read. It was grand. 

Now since I've retired, ironically, there is less time to read! I keep track of my books on a great website called My students called it 'FaceBook for book nerds," and it is. On Goodreads, I'm connected to some of my favorite authors, my favorite teacher friends and favorite former students. If you're a reader, join and find me.

Goodreads allows you to keep track of your reading, set annual goals, create bookshelves that are searchable. I can 'shelve' books as I'm reading, and when I finish. I write reviews (left over from my teaching days when I tried to model how to talk about books), and keep count. 

My 2018 goal  was 152 books. A strange number, I know...Just a tad down from the 155 from the previous year, when I didn't make my goal.

My first book of 2018 was The Alchemist, a reread of a favorite, and the last book of the year was Dear Martin, a gritty young adult.

My friend and I do a summer classics project, and this year we went for South American magic realism. We bailed on 100 Years of Solitude...might have actually been the edition of the book...print too tiny and mashed together. Paper too thin. I revisited Shadow of the Wind and Marina, and found a book, new for me, that made my list.

I try to do a Top Ten, but I always cheat. This year, I saw patterns in my favorite reads. I found international authors and books, I found amazing YAL from some of my favorite authors. I read great literary fiction, found new nonfiction, and read the entire Alphabet series by the late Sue Grafton. 

Inspired by my friend and long-distance reading buddy, Nancy Flanagan, who always gets her list out super early, here is my, in no particular order, favorite reads of 2018.

YAL -- I revisited two favorites, friends, and life-saving authors.

People Kill People by Ellen Hopkins -- the 'biography' of a handgun and the havoc it wreaks. Hopkins actually writes in prose and poetry here, in the multiple voices that make her work so rich. Yes, people kill people....but...

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher -- a reread, companion piece in my mind to Crutcher's new book, Losers Bracket, which is just as good and could easily be in my top ten...but I've loved Sarah for years so she got the nod.


Fear by Bob Woodward -- that man can write and dig into a story. I'm beginning to amass a full book shelf of 'books about Trump by people who see through the bluff

Dear White Americans by Tim Wise -- subtitle: "Letter to a new minority." We can do better and must do better. This short book can help

Almost Everything by Ann Lamott -- I needed hope and she gave it to me. “Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope.”

Alphabet Mysteries

My mom and I started reading Sue Grafton's mysteries together in the 1980's. But along the way I stopped reading, maybe because Mom wasn't there to talk to. Grafton was not a fast writer, and I just moved on to other books and other series. She recently died, just having published Y is for Yesterday. In her will she made it clear, no one...NO ONE...would write Z. So, I knew I was going to be able to read (with my ears) all of the books and find a kind of closure. I believe Grafton knew Y would be her last. She dedicated the book to her grandchildren, one named Kinsey!! So. I read them all, and cried listening to the last one, knowing that smart-mouth Kinsey Milhone would never make me laugh again. I miss Mom and Grafton and Kinsey. And I'm counting these 25 books as one of my Top Ten. Try and stop me!

International authors new to me

Dona Barbara, by , a Venezulan politician and terrific novelist...This was the surprise of my summer reading. It was on the list of 100 best novels compiled by PBS. So glad I found it.magic, revenge, love, hate...and a beautiful, young country as the backdrop. I was dazzled.

Freshwater by  was breathtaking...and I couldn't begin to tell you much about the plot...the book was about letting a culture wash over me and simply experience. I read this with my ears, and Emezi narrated it. She read it to me individually. 

Literary Fiction -- both in Audible

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders blew me away. In the audible version, there were over 50 voices, each portraying one'd get a voice you recognized and you'd just settle in...I was so intrigued by the voices and the multi-genre elements of the narration that I bought the hardback, just to see the words on the pages. A tour de force. 

Circe by Madeline Miller -- I read this one and then immediately read Song of Achilles...but Circe claimed my mythology-loving heart.  I loved how Miller made Circe a witness to so many mythical events. And the ending? I did not know her story circled around to the characters in The Odyssey. If you twisted my arm behind my back and demanded I name my FAVORITE, I think this is the one I'd name.

So, that's ten...or ten plus 24, but who's counting?

So many great books also earned five stars (I have always been a generous grader) -- Neal Shusterman's new series Sythe...The Alchemist, Losers Bracket, Marina, Braving the Wilderness. The Tao of Pooh...

So many books. So little time. 

Dare I ask you to suggest your favorite from last year?

Friday, January 11, 2019

Time for the Hard Work

WE emailed. We wrote. We phoned. We visited.

We walked. We chanted. We visited. We emailed. We wrote. We phoned. We told our stories, and we advocated for our classrooms.

We voted.

AND NOW, if you haven't already, it's time for the hard part: building a lasting relationship with your legislators...whether you agree on every point or not.

A positive relationship. One built on a sliver of agreement, on common values, common goals.

Even if we fundamentally disagree with policymakers' stances on the issues we care about, we must FIRST create a space where we can smile, shake hands, and yes, even hug occasionally.

And lucky for us, we teachers are masters of building positive, cordial relationships with people. People we sometimes deeply disagree with. People over whom we have the power of the grade, people over whom we have no power.

Teachers are experts at creating positive, working relationships...with students (some of whom do not want to cooperate), with parents (some of whom are neglectful, disinterested, overwhelmed, defeated...some of whom are aggressive, interfering, meddling, pushy...some of whom are grateful, receptive, cooperative, helpful.), colleagues (some of whom...**see above), and administrators (some of whom are beaten down, fearful for their jobs, confused, overwhelmed, helpful, responsive, and just as confused as we often are). This is what we do. This is who we are.

Now, it's time to work to create that same cordial, working relationship with your State Representative and Senator.

To reach out. To introduce yourself. To share your issues, interests, goals.

Now, it's time to find the time to LISTEN to your lawmakers' concerns, issues, interests, goals. Find out what their legislative passions are...their expertise. Find ways to find the intersections between your passions and goals, and theirs.

But this is what we do every day, for a living. We use our skills to build community. We find ways to make misunderstandings and disagreements into opportunities for more talk, more listening. We find ways to ultimately put aside some of those disagreements for a time to find other common ground.

We use our skills to confront disagreements when that's important to confront with respect and assertiveness. We state our case with facts and, yes, stories. But we listen as well.

For some, the experience during the Walk Out was the first time we'd actively advocated. We found there was a lot we had to learn...but we're teachers! We are life-long learners. We learned to navigate the OK Legislature site...we learned about deadlines and how to get to the Gallery. We learned that the Sergeants at Arms are friendly but firm. We learned how to find legislator's offices. We learned about Legislative Assistants and their power. We learned where the bathrooms were. We learned where to park. We learned about the power of our votes.

We voted in the primary, and Platform Caucus members fell.

We voted in the run-offs, and Platform Caucus members fell.

We voted in the general election, and elected 57 new legislators.'s time to turn from campaigning to advocacy. To informing and learning. To sharing and listening. To informing...and learning and listening.

How to start?

Do you know the names of your State Rep and Senator? Do they know your name?

Have you ever met (outside the halls of the Capitol) face to face? Have you sat down in a coffee shop, or in their office in the district? Just to share and to learn?

Do you know their Legislative Assistant? Have you introduced yourself to these gatekeepers? Think, 'principal's secretary' and you see the power of these devoted public servants. They are loyal to their bosses, and they know and understand the issues as well as many of their bosses. If we're rude to their bosses, they remember. They take that personally.

Have you sent an email, congratulating your lawmakers on their election? Have you asked for a short meeting one weekend, or a Friday afternoon when they're not in session?

Have you called their office?

Have you sent a personal, snail-mail letter? 

If you haven't, could you find time between now and February when Session begins to make that first contact...low key, low-emotion. Just a friendly gesture.

Remind them you'll be paying attention during the'll be watching education bills. You'll be contacting them to advocate for or against certain legislation. Volunteer to be a contact for education policies and how they play out in the classroom...share your stories.

But do it now, before the Session revs up and there's little time for relationship-building. Think about the beginning of the year or semester...we invest time into creating the climate of our classroom, because we KNOW it will pay dividends in the future. We can count on those relationships when feelings are hurt, or misunderstandings arise. We've got that foundation of trust. This is what we do for a living.

All I'm suggesting to you now, is to turn your skills and talents and experience into the climate-building with your lawmakers.

Talk to them about what you care about...but listen. Listen to understand, not to refute or disagree, or to educate. Listen to start building the next conversation, and the next, and the next. Listen. Take notes.

Follow up.

And assure them you will be paying attention and you'll be in contact with them.

Aren't registered to vote? Shhh, don't tell me, and go to the OK Election Board and take care of that right now. Lawmakers have access to voters rolls...NOT HOW we vote, but if we're registered. will let them (and all of us) know IF we vote, NOT HOW we vote. Lawmakers check to see if constituents who contact them are registered voters, and if we're regular voters. That makes sense, and it hurts our credibility if we aren't registered, or if we don't vote. SO, take care of that! Right away!

Don't know your lawmakers? That's OK...for now. Shhh, don't tell me you don't know, and quick, check this site...type in your address and you'll find your Senator and Rep...right at the bottom of the page.

Click on their picture, and you'll go to their page. You'll find their office number, and a link to email. You'll see a link to their page...and on that page you'll find a biography and other information that will help you find those commonalities.

Call. Email.

Introduce yourself...ask for a quick meeting. Tell them your only agenda is to have the two of you get to know each other.

Then follow up with a quick note.

Check to see if they have a social media presence...FaceBook? Twitter? Follow them, like their pages. Some lawmakers are active on social media; some are not. But check.

Then, stay involved...Know you'll never agree on everything. But know your influence is more likely to matter if you've built that foundation first.

The work you've put in, to reaching out, to creating a relationship, to extending respect, to sharing your issues, will pay off.

Need an example? Here's a note my friend, Christie, is sending to her legislators...Quick, positive, sharing something she values highly.  Opening up the conversation...inviting participation.

We've got this.

We're teachers and we build relationships for a living.

Monday, September 24, 2018

What Schools Could Be – if politicians and reformers and profiteers didn’t get in the middle…schools could be student-driven, teacher-constructed.

What if colleges didn’t set high school curriculum and legislators didn’t set required classes? What if the experts were given free rein to reinvent schools?

This is the premise of Dintersmith’s book…all from the point-of-view of the outsider…someone who’s got more money and time than most of us, and the means to travel and learn. He traveled to every state in the nation, and visited exemplary schools. He saw innovations in action, and he watched…

He is enamored with tech and STEM, and occasionally STEAM. He loves him some cool whiz-bang stuff. I tried to find myself in some of his enthusiasm and I seldom did. He mentioned literacy once, and literature once, I think. One school in North Carolina organized itself into fields of study:
o   Biology, Health, Public Administration
o   Executive Leadership, Entrepreneurship
o   Technology, Advanced Manufacturing
o   Math, Engineering, Technology, Science
o   School of Arts and Technology.
I looked at his examples, and I could not find myself in this organization…And that made me sad.

I appreciated his disdain for tests and test scores…he reminded his readers that American schools teach that which is easy to test and to measure, not what’s important to learn. I was cheering him along in these sections of the book…He’s quick to point out that high school curriculum leads to admissions tests for colleges, not for any life-long passions for learning and doing, and we both mourn that. “College-ready content in our schools has grown like Kudzu, with AP courses leading the way.” He wonders why our K12 experience is only to get us ready for the tests to get into college…and he seriously questions the burdens many of us carry for our college experiences…he says 2.8 million adults aged 60 or older are still paying off their college loans. Does anyone need a college degree that badly? Truly?

So, it’s time for something new…something daring. Something counter-intuitive. Like trusting students with their own learning. Letting their passions lead learning. Trusting creativity. Finding internships and mentorships, apprenticeships, job-shadowing. Finding passion in learning, not just filling in the blanks.

As someone outside of education, he can be outrageous…he asks WHY we need calculus? Especially when our cell phones have the technology to solve calculus problems faster than we can.

As someone outside of education, he can rake leaders over the coals: Kansas’s Brownback, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Michelle Rhee…he is not impressed with drill-and-test, or cut your way to prosperity schemes. Not a fan of AP courses or tests. He wants real investments in education…but man, does he love him some fancy technology.

In his visit to OK, he visits what he calls, Creative Oklahoma,…a friend pointed out that’s the A+ Schools model that incorporates the arts into all disciplines…

The book is worth the price if you care about education and really DO want to help students learn to be passionate, confident adults. The examples of innovations from around the country should inspire some deep conversations about what schools could be…should be…can be. Are, in enlightened pockets.

My favorite quote came from his visit to a school in Hawaii, where the leaders constantly ask themselves, their faculty, and their students: “What does quality look like in your discipline?” What if that was the mission of every district, every school, every department in our country? What if that drove our work in the classroom? Our students’ work? What does quality look like?

BUT, I did not see myself in many of his cool schools with all their technology. It makes me sad to think that schools NOW are not reaching the needs and interests of our students, and I’m equally sad imagining a future where schools ignore other groups of students…

I bought copies of this book for my two state legislators. They’re more expensive than the legal limit to be considered as gifts. So, like works of art in local museums, they will be on permanent loan. Truly, policy makers could learn as much in this book as educators.

“Systems are hard to change. The model is entrenched.”
TFA “ recruit[s] people who excelled in conventional school and want the same for their students…unquestioned commitment to academic hoop-jumping.”
“If state legislators think test scores are so important, they should release their own.”
“Test scores tell us little, charter schools are a mixed bag, and college is a crap shoot. Doing obsolete things better will hardly carry us over the water.”
“Our education system locks in cycles of privilege and poverty/”
“Education should prepare children for life, but we have it backward. We prepare children’s lives for school.”
“NCLB took away teachers’ confidence.”