Sunday, January 26, 2014

OK Senate Bills Includes an OPT OUT Bill!

In anticipation of the 2014 OK Legislative Session, 291 education bills were filed in the House and Senate last week. Nearly 300 opportunities to deeply affect the classroom work of teachers and students. Nearly 300 attempts to change policy.

Earlier, I wrote about my take on the House bills…and have contacted my Representative about the bills I like and don’t. Not surprisingly, we’re pretty much at odds on each…

So, I’ve now made it through the OK Senate education bills as well…remember, I’m just reading the thumbnail annotations from this link…but you’ll find a link to the full bill for your reading pleasure. Just thought I’d save myself that task for another day.

I see some pushback on OSDE policies, some honest attempts to clear some of the mandated clutter of schools’ lives, and some misguided, “I went to school so I’m an expert” bills. And one bill that has me jumping up and down with joy…

These are the bills that made my “Yes, Hmmm, Eek” criteria – ‘yes’ – I like that, ‘hmm’ – something’s going on here, and ‘eek’ – this could be a disaster. I highly recommend you check my work for mistakes, read the bills for yourself, and contact both YOUR legislators and the authors of these bills if one sends off warning bells in your head.

1143 – Introduced by Standridge – requires the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited once a day in elementary schools, and permits it to be recited once a day in other schools. Big Hmmm for a couple of reasons. First, We already do that every day in Norman schools. I thought it WAS a law, along with the moment of silence. My other Hmmmm reflects my experience: often mine is the only voice in the room reciting…we cannot legislate patriotism – that begins at home. Bottom line, harmless but redundant.

1146 – Introduced by Fields – removes alignment with CCSS.  Not sure of the intent behind this one. Hmmm.

1154 – Introduced by Fields – allows third graders unable to read at grade level to be promoted. My concern here is that’s not what the original bill says. But Yes. Get rid of high stakes!

1156 – by Shaw – prohibits schools from giving homework over the summer…Hmmmm.

1157 – by Fields – requires OSDE to carry over funds for midyear adjustments. I’m not smart enough to understand this, but I’ve heard smarter educators talk about the problems…Hmmm, and maybe yes, when someone explains this.

1169 – by Garrison – prohibits OSDE from adjusting the cut scores of new tests as well as performance levels. This may not go far enough, but it sounds good. Yes.

1179 – by Fields – allows schools to do formative testing to align with state testing…don’t we already do this? Hmmm.

1180 – by Brecheen – another Christmas bill…That’s three total. Don’t these folks talk to each other? My Representative who introduced a similar one assures me it’ll pass the courts. Hmmm.

1320 – by Loveless – modifies the school funding formula…again, I am not smart enough to understand current practice and how this will change it. Lucky for me, I have lots of smart friends! Hmmm.

1321 – by Loveless – seems to consolidate administrations of small districts, under 250 students total. Yes!

1334 – By Bingman – modifies language related to Teacher Retirement…alarm bells are going off. Eek.

1348 – by Stanislawski – provides exemptions for third grade flunk law for ELL kids who’ve been in the country less (sic) than two years. Yes!

1349 – Also Stanislawski – does the same thing for IEP kids. Yes!

1376 – by Sharp – reinstates corporal punishment if parents approve, bringing us back to the 19th century.  Eek!

1378 – by Paddack (aside – I remind her every time I write that I voted FOR HER for State Sup!) – prohibits OSDE from administering any standardized test not mandated by federal law.  Requires that the savings be used to provide teacher raises. YES! And YES!

1381 – by Paddack (see above) – requires that the OSDE retain the services of ‘an established, independent agency or organization that is nationally recognized for its expertise in psychometrics and statistics to conduct a reliability and validity study’ of our A-F grading scheme. Beautiful!! Will not allow OSDE to use its own employees to review. YES YES YES!

1383 – Also Paddack – raises the amount of money the OSDE would pay districts to remediate kids who scored ‘unsatisfactory’ on state tests…to $180-$240 per student. Still not enough, but currently, I think it’s less than $80. Yes.

1422 – by Jolley – permits AP computer science classes to meet math requirements for graduation. Yes.

1460 – by Stanislawski – LONG description about modifying the definition of a private school. I googled and couldn’t see a connection to ALEC, and need those smart friends to figure this one out for me. Hmmmm.

1464 – by Stanislawski – RIF changes involving career teachers. Requires TLE evaluations by used when reducing force. Hmmm.

1470 – by Newberry – “Protection of Parental Education Act” requires ALL instructional materials to be used for an AP course be available by parents prior to the beginning of the course…including any ‘salacious materials’ which must be identified. Consent forms will be required. I wonder what his definition of  ‘instructional materials’ is…just the texts or any teacher-made materials? Hmmm.

1500 – by Boggs – also requires Pledge to be recited. Labels his bill an Emergency. Hmmm.

1653 – by Halligan – permits engineering, technology, math courses to be counted as meeting math and science requirements for graduation. This makes sense. Our kids need as many pathways to success as possible. Yes.

1660 – by Ford – requires private schools operate under rules of the OK Regents and be accredited. This is a ‘well, duh!’ Yes.

1661 – by Ford – seems to mess with Career Tech funds. ‘Transfers all powers…’ from OSDE to Career Tech. This SOUNDS like a good thing…but another one I need friends to translate for me. Hmmm – maybe Yes.
1662 – also Ford – creates ‘Oklahoma Career Promise Act.’ It appears that this expands the Oklahoma Promise Act to cover kids who fulfill the requirements, but want to attend a two-year institution, or obtain training for a career. This sounds…promising. Yes.

1663 – also Ford; he’s on a roll – requires charters who receive D’s or F’s for two or three years to terminate their contract. Yes.

1690 – by Sparks (he’s my Senator) – amends language in Ok TRS. Hmmm – will be asking him about this.

1734 and 1735 – both by Brinkely – more amendments to TRS. These make me nervous. Hmmm

1765 – by Brecheen – ‘Oklahoma Science Education Act’ – ‘directs [educators]…to create an environment…that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.’ And, ‘…the act only protects the teaching of scientific information ans is not to be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious believe or non-beliefs or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.’ I KNEW there was something 'hinky' here....It's a bill designed to weaken the teaching of science! A link to another review shows how harmful it is. I've revised my response to ICK and EEK.

1766 – by Sykes – directs Career Tech to develop guidelines for working partnerships between schools and businesses to create apprenticeships, internships, or job shadowing. Sounds interesting. Yes.

1805 – by Standridge – ‘Oklahoma American Heritage Education Act.’ I googled this and couldn’t find ALEC ties. Adds a list of primary sources of American history that are available to schools…Requires they be in the school libraries. As far as I know, most schools DO have and use these sources. This one seems frivolous…especially since school libraries haven’t had funding for years. Hmmm.

And my favorite of the year….drumroll, please!!

1827 – by Newberry – permits a parent or guardian to excuse his or her child from any or all parts of OK testing. Requires districts to grant this request. This is the “Opt Out” bill we all want and need! This one is huge! YES, oh YES!

1944 – by Burrage – repeals existing salary schedule, replaces it (with what, he doesn’t say). Establishes what constitutes fringe benefits. Lots of nit-picky things here… Hmmmm.

1960 – by Burrage – creates ‘Oklahoma Teacher Loan Repayment Program Act.’ Teachers who teach in OK public schools for three years would be eligible for an award to the bank holding their college loans, of no more than $5000. This could be helpful to lots of our teachers. Yes.

Whew! Lots here…the bills seem to be pretty thoughtful, and positive for the most part.  As a whole, these bills seem to address real concerns. I think there’s a lot we can get behind.

I’ve found several I just do not understand at all, and have not taken the time to read the full bills.  I’m hoping all those smart friends I have will do that for me and explain!

Our next steps? Contact these Senators. Ask them to talk to you about their bills. Contact YOUR legislators. Tell them which bills you support and why. Tell them which bills you are concerned about and why.

Begin that conversation.  Let them know you’re aware and watching.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

291 Education Bills: Yes, Hmmm, and Eeek. The Good, The Bad, and the UGLY!

291 education bills have been filed for the 2014 Oklahoma Legislative Session. Just let that number sink in. 291 bills written by people who want to leave their mark on Oklahoma education. I’d be intrigued to know how many educators helped craft these bills.

I’ve been through the thumbnail descriptions of the House bills, and several have caught my eye as ones to watch. I have NOT gone to the Oklahoma House site and read the actual bills. This made my head hurt enough.

I saved the link to all the bills, but I know my learning style and knew I needed a hard copy to mark up. So I copied and pasted into a Word document…a 92-page Word document!! Got it down to 50-some by playing with fonts and margins.

There is ample opportunity for mistakes in this post: I could have typed numbers and names wrong. Please correct any mistakes for me! I’m not offended by this kind of help.

I hope I’ve interpreted the language correctly; these sentences are the most convoluted, difficult ones to read. I’m counting on my friends to correct me, to add to the conversation. This is ME, sitting in my comfy chair, with a cat occasionally on my lap, trying to plow through the language.

In chronological order, bills that make me go, ‘hmmm’ or ‘eek’ or ‘yes!’

2313 – introduced by Brown will raise salaries of teachers to regional levels – yes!

2316 and 2317 – Introduced by Cleveland and Boggs and Walker will allow education about celebrations of winter holidays – hmmm

2351 – Introduced by Kern, “Common Sense Zero Tolerance” – this is my “Pastry Emergency!” – eek

2422 – Introduced by Bennett – “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act” – big hmmmm

2427 – Introduced by Condit – re-establishes API as measures of performance for schools – hmmmm

2497 – Introduced by Casey – requires the State Board to complete a study of kids who were retained by Third Grade Flunk Law (RSA) – qualified ‘yes’

2504 – Also introduced by Casey – removed the State Board’s ability to develop and administer criteria-referenced tests in any subject not required by federal law. – Hmmm and yes. This is one to look into more deeply.

2545 – Introduced by Cannaday, an educator and friend of schools! Removed student test scores as part of teacher evaluations under TLE. Requires that the total evaluation be qualitative! YES and YES!

2546 – Also by Cannaday – Delays establishment of READ initiative, and the retention of third graders until State Board disaggregates student data and submits a report of all the reading instruction and practices educators used for these kids. Can I hear another YES??

2582 – Introduced by Thomsen – requires all charter schools to comply with TLE as it is now written. Yes!

2636 – Introduced by Proctor – Increases salaries for career teachers in poverty schools – YES!

2645 – Introduced by Kouplen – requires health education for all middle schools. – hmmm, moving to eek.

2694 – Introduced by Johnson – protects career teachers in time of RIF – yes

2730 – Introduced by Cleveland – this has something to do with OSSAA, but I’m not smart enough to figure it out….hmmmm, for sure

2734 – Introduced by McDaniel – gutting the requirements that students MUST pass third grade reading tests and EOIs in order to be promoted, or to graduate. YES, YES, and YES!

2771 – Introduced by Nollan – delays and modifies A-F accountability for a minimum of three years. 
Requires the Board readopt API in the meantime. Requires Board to hold public meetings…and we know how well they work out! YES!

2723 – Also introduced by Nollan – Requires schools to adopt an appeals process for RSA. Yes

2786 – Also by Nollan – ‘removes the powers of the state Board…to adopt revisions to curriculum adopted by the State Board of ELA and Math…as is necessary to align with Common Core Standards. The bill removes revised curriculum will align with CCSS” There’s a verb missing here, and I’m not sure of the intent. Hmmmmm

2885 – Introduced by Coody – establishes a paid internship…that sounds interesting, but the rest of the bill confuses me. Hmmm

2922 – Also by Coody – Establishes a June 1 deadline for testing results to be available to schools in making decisions about retaining third graders or flunking high school graduates. Yes.

2968 – Also by Coody – Requires four units of math to graduate. But no restrictions on the beginning course. Confusing for kids who’ve taken HS math at the middle schools. Eek. I don’t like 4X4!

2969 – Also Coody – requires dyslexia screening for any child struggling in reading. Requires interventions, including ‘specialized multisensory structured reading therapist.’ Hmmm

2971 – Also Coody – allows schools to rehire retired educators. Hmmm

2984 – NOT by Coody, but by McPeak – “Freedom to Succeed Act.” HS seniors would graduate when they fulfilled the requirements for graduation, even if they didn’t pass the required EOIs. YES!

3167 – Introduced by Blackwell – Removes all references to CCSS and language implementing such. Establishes Local Standards Pilot Programs. Hmmm

3170 – Also Blackwell – Exempts HS students from EOIs after they’ve passed the required ones. Yes! Even better than the bill last year.

3240 – Introduced by Kern – replaces all references of PASS with state curriculum standards. Also included language about ELL kids who don’t pass RSA…confusing to me. Hmmm

3398 – Introduced by Nelson, on behalf of ALEC. Just looking at the thumbnail of this bill makes you know it’s different. It sets off the same bells for me that papers that were obviously plagiarized—too long, too detailed, and slightly off topic. Others have written eloquently about this ‘Oklahoma Education Savings Account Act’ and I’ll refer you to them. Here and here and here. EEEEKKKKKK!

3399 – Also by Nelson – Seems to declare war on federal education groups…and says we won’t play. Haven’t checked ALEC for this one. One good thing…it mentions data collection. I’m horrified by the data that others (not the feds, but Bill Gates!!) will be collecting. Hmmmm

3401 – Introduced by Kern – another curious one. No school employee will refer students to counseling unless parents have been notified. There’s a story here. Hmmm

3416 – Introduced by Shelton – adds dating violence to the list of bullying behaviors. Hmmm – that doesn’t seem to be a school issue.

3419 – Introduced by Shelton – Offers financial literacy to parents. Hmmm

3435 – Also Shelton – Financial literacy in universities. I see a trend. Did he write the bill that requires us to teach a financial literacy class in high schools? Hmmm

3479 – Introduced by Nelson – This one sets off alarm bells! Allows any parent of an IEP student or the student herself to audio record any classroom. Teachers give up ‘reasonable expectation of privacy,’ but the parent or student cannot disclose contents without employee’s permission. This one deserves a closer reading. Hmmm…and perhaps eeek!

Along with these bills are many that ‘modify’ the language of an existing law…I’ll collect them later.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Pop Tart Conversation

I've been emailing, snail mailing, and delivering notes and letters to state representatives for over three years, and am used to being ignored. One elected official WILL respond, a Representative with whom I have almost NOTHING in common: Sally Kern. She steps up and addresses concerns and engages. Here's our latest. I sent a letter to the entire Education Committee of the OK House, and hers was the only response I've gotten so far. I'm including my first note, hers, and my reply. Three different fonts from our original formats. Sorry. 

Email sent to the House Education Committee: 

Two education common sense; one a license to bullies. Please allow me to share my thinking about both by sharing my blog posts.

HB2351 is an extreme reaction to one isolated case of over-reaction on the part of a school staff...weeks after Newtown, a little one played guns with his poptart. As an educator of 39 years, at every level of public education, I say without reservations...the school had many opportunities to choose a different, more appropriate, strategy, and it appears no one did that. It is an example of how ineffective 'zero tolerance' is as a tool.

Representative Kern admits Oklahoma has not had a similar incident, but she still calls her bill 'common sense.' As my friends and I discussed the ramification of this bill, we reached a frightening conclusion...this bill will sanction bullying. No child can be held responsible for brandishing pastries or pencils or fingers, while aiming at another person -- fellow student or teacher -- while pretending to pull the trigger, making gun noises. 

I write about a friend who had that happen to her in the Oklahoma. I see no safeguards in HB2351 that will give schools strategies to keep this kind of intimidation from happening. Please enlighten me if I am wrong.

Why are we wasting precious legislative time on a bill like this when the state has such pressing matters to attend to? I can never support a bill that gives bullies free reign in the classroom to destroy the climate of the school. 

HB2437, authored by Representative McDaniel, is, in my mind, the common sense bill. Ending the high stakes attached to third grade reading tests and End of Instruction exams will allow teachers to teach, and students to learn. It will put assessment back in its place, as a tool for instructional planning. The tests will remain, but will not dominate the work of students and teachers. Common sense, team decisions, and partnerships with families will be the tools for making decisions about students. I strongly support this bill.

As always, I offer my time and effort to the committee if I can be of service. You have thousands of educators whose goals are similar to yours: creating the best education for every child in our state. We can work together.

Response from Sally Kern, author of HB2351:

Thank you for your email regarding the two bills you mentioned.

Since the media frenzy  of HB 2351, I have collected over ten examples of lack of common sense regarding children playing at school.  Those schools that have zero tolerance policies do not have the discretion to use the common sense most of our teachers have.  This bill will allow them the freedom to let children be children.  It in no way promotes bullying because we already have bullying statutes on the books and this bill does not negate them.  If a child or a group of children are displaying taunting behavior or any kind toward other children, the teacher should handle that immediately.  But children just playing innocent games or using their imagination, should not be punished.  Of course, if there is actual harm done to another child that should, and probably, already is being dealt with.  We will probably have to agree to disagree on this bill. 

Rep. McDaniel’s bill sound like a good one.  Of course I haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet so can’t say how I will vote on it.  I am a huge proponent of ending EOI’s.

God bless,

Sally Kern

My response:

First, thank you for your response. I seldom hear back from elected officials, and that dismays me.

I feel like we might have an area of agreement: zero tolerance policies do not protect kids from teachable moments. "Lack of common sense" goes both ways. Attempting to legislate your version of common sense seems to have created TOTAL tolerance, as dangerous for the welfare of kids as zero.

You say bullying will not occur with this total tolerance bill..please explain. I see nothing in your bill that speaks to intent of students, and the effects their behavior will have on the psychological welfare of others, students and teachers. I understand we have mandates in place state-wide about bullying behavior, but I am unsure how ONE bill affects ANOTHER. When faced with a situation where a student, as happened to my friend, sits in class, points at the teacher as if with a gun, and makes explosive sounds, which law takes precedent? Which law does the administration invoke? Remember, these things happen in a split second, and decisions must be made.

I truly do not understand the law enough to see how all our students will be protected in your bill.

But I have another, deeper concern. Why THIS bill? Why pop tarts? Why 2nd Amendment tee-shirts? We have true emergency situations in education in our state: 31% poverty in children under the age of 5 -- preschoolers in poverty. 50% of our school children qualify for free and reduced lunches. The deepest cuts in public education in the nation over the past few years. Current laws that are strangling schools, including the A-F law, third grade retention and EOI requirement with continued underfunding of needed remediations. A state Superintendent of Schools who earmarks a 300% increase in charter school incentives while continuing to starve public schools. A Superintendent who continues to send mandates and rule changes to schools nearly weekly...

In the light of all these concerns, why pop tarts? You say you've heard of 10 instances of children being affected. I did the math with 2012 figures:

In 2012, the OSDE reported 666,150 students enrolled in public schools in our state. Each day for those children is a new opportunity to behave appropriately or not. So, there are 118,574,700 student-days in a school year. TEN instances where a child was severely punished for 'brandishing' a toy or a finger or a pencil pales in comparison to the days our children live in poverty that is ignored by our policy makers.

I DO want common sense...schools able to make decisions on a case-by-case basis, without the restrictions of zero tolerance and the unknown of total tolerance.

Please help me understand how bullying is precluded from your bill. 

I would feel marginly better about Kern's bill IF I believed schools still had the power to deal with true bullying situations. I'd still feel like it's frivolous and a waste of legislators' time...but I'd feel better knowing children and teachers would be safe from harassment. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Bill to End High-Stakes for Testing? Please DON'T Wake Me if I'm Dreaming!

A little history…I participated in the infamous ‘public comments’ meeting in 2012 at the OSDE when comments were ‘sought’ about the bill that established school grades based on test scores. I didn’t mean to participate…there was a sign-in sheet and I signed it. Come to find out I signed up to speak.

Even though comments were sought by the Oklahoma State School Board, not one member was present. Superintendent Barresi was in the building, but in another ‘very important’ meeting.  Superintendent Barresi DID send her lawyer with a tape recorder. She promised to send a tape (does anyone have a tape player anymore??) to all Board members and they would (she promised) listen to the hours of comments.

I had written – and delivered – my comments in writing, and had a copy with me. I listened to legislators, superintendents, principals, personnel officers, parents, all speak – to a one against the bill for lots of complicated reasons.

I was against it for one reason, a reason no one else mentioned: the abuse of standardized tests and scores. I know – but most have given up the fight – we are abusing and misusing test scores any time we attach high stakes to the outcomes. A-F does that; so does the third grade flunk law, and the ACE law that requires high school students to pass all their classes, collect credits toward graduation AND pass End of Instruction exams as well.

I ended my remarks with an allusion to the mythological Cassandra, the Trojan princess who was cursed with the ability to see the future, and the double curse of having no one believe her. I told the group…and the tape recorder…I stood there as Cassandra, and that high stakes testing was destined to fail.
I have written about the testing meltdowns from last year, when school districts were blamed for the problems of testing corporations.

I have read everything I can get my hands on about standardized testing…some of the best books are The Myths of Standardized Tests by Harris, Making the Grades by Farley, and Reign of Error by my hero Diane Ravitch.

Imagine my glee when I read about a new bill being introduced. Dare I believe things may be changing?

HB2734, introduced by Democrat Representative Curtis McDaniel, would, if passed, remove the high stakes to tests in our state. Under his proposal, the third grade reading test and the End of Instruction exams will still be administered, and results would be reported within 2 weeks (that actually isn’t new, but somehow it’s been neatly ignored by policy makers for years). EOIs will still be administered online, and students will receive their raw score immediately. But no third grader will be retained based on this score, and no high school senior will be denied his or her diploma because of EOI scores. This is huge – parents and teachers must support this bill and help the author get it passed.

The biggest change is striking down all punitive results of test scores. Rep. McDaniel’s bill puts testing back in its proper place – one piece of information at educators’ hands. One assessment that will yield information that may or may not be useful when planning instruction.

This bill, like many, has been called by its author, District 1 Republican representative for LeFlore and McCurtain counties, an emergency. Unlike other bills which seem so frivolous with this label, I heartily agree…getting rid of high stakes testing is an emergency in our children’s lives. As a member of the Common Education Committee, Rep. McDaniel has seen recent movements to define children and their potential based on one test, one day in April (or March or May), and I assume he’s had enough.

If you care about children in Oklahoma, contact Representative McDaniel –, and thank him for his courageous leadership. I’m sure the OSDE will not look at his bill with the same excitement I do…I’m sure there will be attempts to quiet him, to shut the bill down.

This is NOT the direction predatory reformers want this narrative to go. So, it’s up to us. Write to Rep. McDaniel. Offer your stories of testing woes, stressed children. Offer your support and help bringing this bill through the Education Committee and onto the floor of the House.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Zero to One Hundred -- Tolerance in the Extreme Won't Work

Zero tolerance used to be the rage in schools – no leeway, no ‘yes but.’ The same punishment for a known druggie who brings marijuana to school as the honor student who brings cough medicine. Zero tolerance never works. It traps innocent kids, it forces unintended consequences, and it does not give educators tools to educate. We are forced into knee-jerk reactions without being able to make judgment calls.

Just as zero tolerance is a bad idea, so is Sally Kern’s ‘Common Sense’ bill, that seems to be a ‘One Hundred Tolerance,’ an unlimited tolerance of kids pretending to have weapons at school. It is just as foolish as earlier attempts to legislate the nuanced relationship between teachers and students. More unintended consequences will follow…and they could be much more serious than someone bringing cold pills to school.
My original post about Representative Kern’s bill had a light tone – I really couldn’t take a pastry law very seriously. It just seemed so silly…a law about biting Pop Tarts into shapes?

 In response to ONE incident a half-a-continent away in Maryland, Sally Kern also inserted language that will prohibit any bullying of kids who wear clothes supporting the Second Amendment. I’m not sure whose common sense is driving this move, but I’ve spent 39 years in schools, and I’ve never seen a problem that she seems bent on correcting. No child has ever been suspended for ‘brandishing a pastry,’ or for wearing appropriate clothing extolling the Constitution…I HAVE seen some inappropriate clothing, and we all have no problem distinguishing what is and is not against common decency.  I know of several students who were in possession of weapons at school. No one’s been suspended for making weapon sounds, or playing ‘army’ on the playground.

The incident in Maryland was weeks after Newtown. I hope the little boy who’s the center of this story knew nothing about the shooting. I hope his parents shielded him from the news. But his teachers were understandably on edge, and it sounds like everyone responded badly. Nothing I’ve heard would lead me to support the school’s actions…even though I understand their fears. As educators, they were charged with making the best decision for that child, and helping him make good decisions. They failed all around.

The conversations we’ve been having about my original post have deepened my understanding, and have brought new concerns to the front. It seems like common sense is much more complicated than Sally Kern and I first imagined. I have permission to share my friends’ words while keeping their names private.

One friend is worried about special education students who have been unfairly targeted by teachers and administrators, sending students home who barely understand the reasons they’re being punished. I hope these are isolated instances, like the Maryland case. If this is happening, parents must advocate for their children, and pursue schools’ actions with district-level administrators. This is not my experience, but I must honor and respect others’ experiences. And we must protect our most vulnerable students from this kind of action.

Other friends have taught in high poverty schools, where students see gang activity. My friends’ responses to their students playing ‘gun’ with pencils or their fingers are just what I would hope an educator’s response would be – redirection, explanation of what’s ok and not ok at school. There are sometimes classroom consequences. If these strategies fail, administrators may be brought in.

One friend related a story about a four-year-old student bringing a pellet gun to school…her question: “Let’s see, is a pellet gun a ‘toy’ gun? Good question. Representative Kern? Zero or one hundred?

Another friend who has taught elementary special education said she knows making play-gun sounds and actions is often attention-seeking behavior, or ways to let off steam – she also sees anger issues. She knows better communication and partnerships with parents will go a long way toward a positive, common sense outcome for all. She also suggests more funding for mental health issues in children and families would be a common sense solution to many problems.

Several of us have expressed concern about students at the secondary level who are bigger than the elementary student whose unfortunate experience started this discussion. What does a teacher do if a fully-grown, angry student points a finger at the teacher or others in class and pulls an imaginary trigger? Don’t think that could happen? I’m going to quote a friend:

“I have been on the receiving end of a student using ‘handgun’ motions and noises toward me while I was teaching. The action was intended to be threatening, and I truly felt intimidated and targeted…I felt the student’s action was a liability since we are now so quick to intervene in potential school shooting plots…Be it a pastry or drawing, no one should ever be on the receiving end of targeted gun practice. And trust me, I can lighten up and take a joke, but it was one of the worst teaching scenarios I have ever encountered…This law does not consider the teachers…I would be at a loss and would still have felt threatened if this was law now. People often forget that teachers are…on the receiving end of bullying as well with teenagers who are often unable to make reasonable choices and think through consequences.”

What strikes me about this educator's words, is the last statement. She’s still thinking like a teacher, finding a way to help students, even ones who threaten him, her classroom, and other students. She's looking for ways to do the right thing for all her students, even as she's being intimidated.

If this bill becomes law, what will happen in these situations? Will One Hundred tolerance, total tolerance, give a bully the right to destroy the climate of the class, defy the teacher, threaten him and other students? I see nothing in this ‘common-sense’ bill that would give educators any power to assess consequences and keep their classrooms safe.

Again from my friend: “I’m sure if Kern was speaking in a large crowd and someone made gun motions and noises toward her, she would feel the way I did – threatened…this is not a responsible bill. It is bullying…I think the law should be replaced with a law that protects teachers from bullying. This is an issue I have dealt with more and more…it seems to be a silent epidemic.”

If Kern’s ‘common sense’ bill becomes law, common sense will be thrown out the window. Educator judgments will be useless. Classroom climate will be destroyed. Students with serious mental health or anger issues, students wanting revenge for a bad grade, will be given license to bully at will.

So, whom do I trust with decisions about student behavior? The trained, experienced educators or the legislator who escaped teaching? Teachers who know their students and understand their needs, or the legislator who decided she wasn’t a teacher?

Hands down, my friends have my trust and respect.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Sweetheart of a Dance


 I just spent the day with Teen Volunteers from Norman North, and alumns who are now at OU or OSU or Rose State University...students who understand how important it is to give pay rent on all the gifts we've received and often take for granted. I've worked for over 30 years with young people volunteering at Special Olympics. We attend Area and State games. We also host our own semi-formal dance, the Sweetheart Dance, with Special Olympics athletes as guests of honor. This tradition means so much to me and to my volunteers.

Today, 37 high school students gave up a considerable chunk of their Saturday to volunteer. I am in awe of their work. 

This piece was written in 2003, about one of our Sweetheart Dances...The students named here are now adults, with all the responsibilities of adulthood.. But for me, they'll always be teenagers, creating a magic experience for others. We have our date for this year's dance, and I hope to invite some of these 'kids' back.

“This feels so good it hurts.” 

What was this father of a teen-aged mentally-disabled son talking about? Something most of us take for granted for our children. His son was attending a semi-formal dance. There he was, dancing with beautiful girls, all dolled up in slinky, sparkling gowns. He was laughing, having the time of his life. He was posing for candid photos, gulping soft drinks quickly to cut his thirst so he could return to the crowded dance floor. Pretty typical sights for those of us who have attended our share of high school dances, right? Not to this laughing son, or his father who stood next to me with his arms wrapped around his chest.

 Recently, Norman North High School Special Olympics parents and Teen Volunteers joined forces to host the third annual Sweetheart Dance, held in the hearts-bedecked Commons on a cool Saturday night. Unlike other school dances, the invitation list was quite exclusive: Special Olympics athletes from our two high schools and four middle schools, and Teen Volunteers who had worked with these athletes at Special Olympics events.

This father watched in awe as his son, so handsome in his three-piece suit and dress shirt, laughed and flirted. He watched his son participate in his first school dance—and this young man was 18 years old. Never before had father and son felt welcome; Homecomings, Proms had passed them by.  Nearly 140 young people danced the entire evening, never sitting down, never leaving the dance floor. I watched with pride as my volunteers, once again, proved to me why they are precious beyond words.

One athlete bounced over to a sponsor and smiled, “I must be so pretty tonight, because all these boys keep asking me to dance.” Of course she was pretty! Of course she should be asked to dance. Here, she was. Here, this dance was in her honor. She and the other athletes were treated by their peers with friendship and respect, not stared at with curiosity and disdain.

Michael, one of my Teen Volunteers, and a parent compiled an invitation list of every Special Olympics athlete in our district, and all the volunteers. Mike designed the invitations, many of which were saved and brought to the dance. I suspect some parents brought them in suspicion, fearing the invitation was a mistake, or worse, a hoax. Mike arranged for the DJ, and learned more about business dealings and school finances than he ever wanted to know! His mother donated money to cover half of the cost of the DJ. Parent donations placed in a paper cup at the door that night covered the other half.

For weeks before the dance, my room became the headquarters for decorations and meetings. ShaLyn accidentally spilled red paint on my carpet, Laneesha was on scissors patrol. Mike held meetings to talk to the volunteers about how to dress: fancy dress clothes or Sunday best; how to act: natural and friendly; what was expected: dance every dance with the athletes, talk, visit, mingle. No wallflowers allowed—volunteers or athletes. He also made sure volunteers brought cookies for refreshments.

On the night of the dance, he and Chase and Preston arrived over an hour early—they beat me there--to transform our Commons into a Valentine delight. Jessica’s mom came to help—she wanted in on the fun. Boys wore their dress shirts and ties, Nathan came in his good sweater. Girls all came in jeans and sweatshirts, carrying their dresses and killer strappy sandals. With minutes to go before our guests arrived, Katie and Arian led them as they ducked into the restrooms and put on their gowns and shoes, retouched their makeup. And we were ready!

Over 60 athletes and 60 volunteers spent the next three hours dancing. Stephanie, a recent grad, returned bringing her new boyfriend with her. Everyone was there to have a good time. Nick arrived late because he had spent the day at a Speech and Debate contest and had just gotten home. He quickly made up for lost time, diving into the middle of the fun, his dark curls bobbing up and down. 

Unlike many school dances, where parents are eager to disappear, and are expected to disappear, many parents and teachers sat at tables around the dance floor. We visited, watched, occasionally danced. It seemed important to us all to be there, to watch and participate. Our school custodian, Kenny, stood to the side, leaning on his broom, smiling. He comes every year and refuses to report his hours  to be paid for his hours—he comes to have fun, waits for the last of us to leave, then locks up the school. We looked on as a group of teenagers thoroughly enjoyed themselves together.

I tell my volunteers all Special Olympics athletes are like us—they want to be loved, they want to have friends, they want the opportunity to make a good life. That evening, my kids showed me they got the message—loud and clear. So many of them came up to me to tell me they had never had that much fun at a dance, no matter the elaborate preparations and expensive trips to the salon, no matter the fancy dinners or the stretch limos. This dance, with its cardboard painted hearts dangling from fishing line, with its cookies and soda pop refreshments, meant more to them than any other dance. Here they could have fun, not worrying about what impression they make, whether anyone was watching. Even the DJs, unfriendly and business-like at the beginning of the evening, repeatedly told Mike how much they enjoyed themselves, how they sensed the climate of friendship and respect. They begged to be invited back next year. 

Julie, in her beautiful black dress with crinoline petticoats, her hair flowing nearly to her knees, said, “I can’t dance very well, but here it’s about having fun, not having to look cool. I can be myself here. I love this dance.” She was one of several—Mike, Preston, Chase, and Nick included, I had to shoo out the door thirty minutes after the dance was over—they wanted to stay longer!

So, to echo that daddy’s words, it felt so good it hurt. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

"Pastry Emergency" Declared in OK.

In just a few months, students will be free to nibble their Pop-Tarts into gun shapes and point away. Sally Kern has once again found a meaningless issue to make her own. Is she concerned about the appalling level of child poverty in our state? Is she concerned about the number of kids on free-and-reduced lunch in our state? These are kids whose only hot meals may be breakfasts and lunches at school. Is she concerned about the shameful statistic where Oklahoma leads the nation in cuts to public education?  Is she concerned about the unfunded and underfunded mandates she and her colleagues have piled on us?
Apparently not. To her, the pressing issue in Oklahoma education is the right for students to bring toy guns to school, to draw and possess drawings of guns and weaponry, and to chew their pastries into any shape they want.

If I didn’t know her and her own love of weapons, I would be more surprised. As my sainted grandmother used to say, ‘Consider the source.’ Sally Kern, twice, brought a weapon to the State Capitol, and was reminded only when she set off the metal detector. “Oops, I forgot” was her explanation.

I guess her concerns were raised by a bizzare case in Maryland where a boy was suspended for the shape of his Pop Tart. Maryland lawmakers now have a very similar bill to Kern’s “Common Sense Zero Tolerance Act. The Lost Ogle has his own spin on this issue.

Here are the highlights of her bill. It’s really interesting reading…
“No…teacher…shall punish, humiliate, intimidate, be condescending to or bully a student…for
1.       Brandishing a pastry…the remnant [of which] resembles a weapon
2.       Possession of a toy weapon
3.       Using a finger or hand to simulate a weapon
4.       Vocalizing imaginary firearms or munitions
5.       Wearing articles of clothing…that support or advance Second Amendment rights or organizations
6.       Using a pencil or pen, or other writing utensil to simulate a weapon”

And, she’s calling this an emergency: “It being immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health, and safety, an emergency is hereby declared to exist.” A pastry emergency? A pencil emergency? A ‘go boom’ emergency?

Representative Kern, let me offer some real emergencies. These are the issues that deserve your attention, even as you’ve ignored them for years:

Child poverty in Oklahoma is 24% -- children come to school hungry, tired, homeless. They come to school sick with chronic illnesses. They come to school not ready to learn, to be held accountable for all the high stakes tests you and your buddies impose, including your own ‘third grade flunk’ law.

Over 50% of our students in Oklahoma qualify for either free or reduced lunches. They need the support of the state to eat. Many schools provide backpacks full of food for kids to take home on the weekend, between school lunch on Friday and school breakfast on Monday. Snow days for many of our kids means inadequate nutrition until schools are opened again.

Oklahoma has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in recent cuts to education. “We’re number one!” More students every year, less money to educate them. School funding is a disgrace in this state.
Mandates have NOT been cut. More and more unfunded and under-funded mandates crowd the school day, making more and more demands on students and their teachers. Past cuts have never been recovered...since 2008, schools have had $200,000 less funding, while at the same time, serving more and more students. This has resulted in state-wide classroom crowding. Another issue that should be addressed.

Current laws desperately need revision: A-F has been found wanting more than once. We are carefully, and expensively, measuring poverty in our schools. Nothing else. The Third Grade Flunk Law -- Reading Sufficiency -- comes with choking layers of requirements for schools, and precious little support from the state. ACE requirements, which deny high school diplomas to students comes to us severely underfunded. Schools must remediate students with insufficient funding from the state. Both these important programs are funded to a whopping $76 per school district can begin to be successful with that insulting amount, and the State Legislature knows it.

We have some real crises in public education, including the lack of support from the Superintendent of Public Instruction, whose budget request includes a paltry increase for public schools, and a whopping 300% increase requested for charter school initiatives. She routinely demonizes educators and calls us names. Remember, Representative Kern, we go into the classroom every day and look into the faces of our students, the hungry, the sick, the homeless. We see the effects of your capricious laws.

Representative Kern, IF you really care about the ‘public peace, health, and safety of the children of Oklahoma, stop posturing for NRA, and start protecting our children. Provide resources for their schools, fund every mandate, support their parents as they work two or more jobs, just to make ends meet. Ask the governor to work on medical insurance for all our poor.

Truly make children your priority…stop trying to grab headlines.  

We promise not to humiliate any students for the way they eat their pop tarts.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

My Top-Ten Books of the Year...with an Addendum

People who don't read, especially teenagers, think readers are solitary, pale, secretive, anti-social nerds.  They look down on us readers, thinking we're too pathetic to find friends, to have a social life. They believe that's why we read...because we can't live in the real world. My job for years in my class, Reading for Pleasure, was to bust that stereotype. Readers are incredibly social....we love to talk about our books, we love to hear others talk about their books. You can have a dynamic conversation with a stranger by just asking about the book she's reading. I recommend that to my shy students as a great conversation starter.

When readers find a a book we like (or hate), we feel impelled to talk to someone about our books.We find readers who find new books for us, and enjoy talking about books we have in common. I walk every day with a friend, and many of our conversations are about our books. Every summer we choose a classic we haven't read yet and discuss during our early-morning walks.

One of my reading buddies is Nancy Flanagan. Nancy and I have only met face-to-face twice. Once when she visited Oklahoma as a trainer of trainers for National Board, and once at a National Board conference. That has not hindered our deep friendship online. Nancy nudged me into twitter, and encouraged me to blog.

We've had a friendly competition for a couple of years to see who can read the most. We both knew, with my job, I'd read a ton, and I did. This year the field is more level...retirement has meant, ironically, less reading for me. More work in the yard, more work in the house...less reading.

But we both challenged ourselves to read 150 books in 2013...we'd check in occasionally, and keep track of each other's progress on Goodreads, a great site to organize your reading. My students call in 'Facebook for book nerds." She recently wrote a great piece listing her Top Ten...and I see we only share one on our two I know I have more reading to do next year.

I LOVE the analysis that Goodreads will do for you -- how many books, how many pages, genre analysis...but my stats are off, somehow. I read 146 books, including finishing two on New Year's Eve...but my analysis only shows 132...oh well...Of the books Goodreads lists, I rated 34 with the highest rating, "5". SO, I worked to winnow that down to ten..

I was astonished to see that half of my 'top ten' are nonfiction. I am the fiction reader in my family...teased unmercifully I know what my husband (and David Coleman) doesn't: often fiction is much truer than nonfiction.

Because I cannot choose only ten favorites (how do you choose your favorite child??), I have an addendum.

In alphabetical order:

Call Me Zelda, Erika Robuck -- Narrated by a nurse who cared for Zelda Fitzgerald during one of her many breakdowns. A very fair characterization of both Fitzgeralds who were toxic for each other. My mom, as a huge Zelda fan (but not a fan of Scott), would have loved this book!

Children of the Core, Kris Nielsen -- "Why are we telling the state governments that, even tho we can't pay our teachers, buy classroom supplies, pay for field trips, invest in technology, fund scholarships, or fix our school buildings, it's okay to pay Pearson, TFA, ACT and College Board millions of dollars to prepare our kids for narrow, standardized tests?" Why, indeed. And who can read the title without thinking of Children of the Corn? A warning?

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Book Store, Robin Sloan -- How can you NOT love a book whose cover glows in the dark? The book explores books and reading and technology and friendships. There's a bit of Dan Brown in some of the chases, and lots of pop culture. Read for a new book club I've joined. Hoping desperately I don't kill this one by insisting on talking...about the book!

Quiet, Susan Cain -- I used to tell my students that I was once an introvert, but I forced myself to change...Wrong! Reading Cain's book taught me I'm still an introvert; I'll just put myself out there for issues and ideas I care deeply about. I'm a pretend extrovert who can be dynamic, if I have the opportunity to recover my energy at home, quietly. Have shared this book with others...such an important book.

Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, Paul Gorski -- What a difference a preposition makes. NOT 'children OF poverty,' the way we've been conditioned to say. 'Children IN poverty!' Gorski takes the conversation into a new, more respectful direction. He has armed me with new facts and figures to discuss poverty, but more importantly, a new framework (I use this deliberately) to begin adjusting the ways schools -- and society -- work with families and their children.

Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch -- We have waited for this book, and it was worth the wait. This is a fierce defense of public schools, and a handbook for its supporters. I took nine pages of notes to use when talking to politicians who are getting their erroneous facts from ALEC or Bill Gates or Arne Duncan. Ravitch's writing is superb, and she used one of my favorite archaic words: "bugbear'!

The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt -- Oops...I only gave it a "4". But it informs so many of my conversations and my observations about politics, and the deep divide we see now. Haidt takes us through an analysis of the political value systems of all of us...far left to far right. He explores the gulfs in our value systems, and the spots we can agree. I found myself frustrated with his round-about delivery...but the information is something we all need to consider.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte -- My walking buddy and I went on a Bronte Binge this summer and read five or six books by the sisters. This one was the surprise. Anne, as the youngest child, had a fierceness in her that was different than Charlotte or Emily. This story, for its time, must have been shocking: a woman runs away from her abusive husband, takes his son and heir, and establishes a new identity...Helen was a woman far ahead of her times. So was Anne, the only Bronte NOT buried in the family plot in Haworth. Knowing she was dying, she traveled to Scarborough, a beloved spot, and was buried there. It makes me sad she's not with her sisters and brother.

The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin -- This Mary, Mother of God, is NOT the one we're used to. This old woman, beset by her Son's disciples to 'tell her story,' is angry and bitter. She doesn't play along...she won't tell the story the way the disciples want her to. She refuses to say her Son's name aloud. She blames his pig-headed friends for the troubles He endures. This voice is a revelation. I listened to this book, Meryl Streep performed it, and I am sure I'm influenced by her delivery. This is a mom who has lost a child and she has lost her way.

S, J.J. Abrams (concept), Doug Dorst (author) -- This book is a work of art...the box, the library markings. The smell of an old book. The mysterious author of Ship of Theseus, the devoted translator. The readers...the conversation they have about the book, Theseus. the little treasures left between the pages: photos, napkins, postcards. I could read this book ten times and probably miss something. It's a book within a book; a story within a story. It took my breath away.

And then, because I'm a cheater, my next five, also in alphabetical order:

Book Love, Penny Kittle

Ceremony, Leslie Silko

Leverage, Joshua Cohen

Norwegian Woods, Hakuri Murakami

Reading in the Wild, Donalyn Miller

My books tell me I searched for answers this year...why do we act the way we do, how can we change, how can we become better, more caring? Books continue to bring me wonder.

Already this year I've started two: Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, and The Tempest by Shakespeare. I know! I'm an English teacher...why hadn't I already read them? Don't judge.

I wonder what I'll learn this year.