Monday, May 22, 2017

Every Student is a Story...

It's the end of the school year, and teachers have become reflective....asking questions: did I do enough? Did I contribute? Did I make mistakes? Was I who my students needed this year? What do I need to learn to be a better teacher next year?

This is a piece I wrote several years ago when I was still in the classroom...every student who let me learn his or her story gave me a gift. These young people are now adults, making their way in the world...and they still are part of the teacher I was and the teacher I am.

If you are a teacher, think about your students who have shared their stories with you. If you're one of my students, thank you. Thank you for being mine, for reading with me, for sharing who you are...

“Every student is a story. Some will share their stories; some won’t.” 

I always tell young teachers and interns this when they begin teaching. I challenge them to create a climate where students feel comfortable sharing their stories. It makes our relationships more authentic and it makes our classroom a safe place to learn.

I knew this; but I never thought of the fact we, as teachers, are stories as well. We bring all our training and professional experiences into our classroom. We make decisions based on these stories as we add new episodes every day.

So—my story first. My training includes English Language Arts, Reading Education, Library Media, Special Education. Thirty-nine years in the classroom. Three states; seven schools; ten principals. Sixth grade teacher, high school English teacher, special education teacher, elementary librarian, reading specialist. I have taught students from every grade in public education, K-12. In high school, I’ve taught English 1, 2, and 4. I’ve taught remedial classes and advanced classes. Sounds like I can’t make up my mind, huh? But, throughout all this, there is a theme, a thread: literacy.

Every day I’ve spent in the classroom as a student or as a teacher has led me to this moment in my career. My English elective, Reading for Pleasure, is literally the culmination of all my training and all my experience. I use everything I’ve been taught, and everything I’ve ever learned, in this class. Every day of my professional life has led me, inexorably, to this class, to these students, to their stories.

Ben. Last year his special education teacher enrolled him in my class. Ben, a junior, had spent two-and-a-half years in a remedial English class; but that class was being dropped from our schedule and he needed more support in reading. A football player and a wrestler, he had a legitimate chance at a college scholarship if we could improve his 6th grade reading level. Oh, he fought me. Slept, “forgot” his book, sighed, did the minimum whenever possible. Then, he began to listen to Sean and Michael talk about their books and their favorite authors: Hunter Thompson, Chuck Palanuik, Neil Ellis. He saw, in my room, these cool guys (Sean’s a musician in a local band, and Michael was a respected football teammate) were passionate about their books. Ben began to pay attention to these conversations; he began to pick up books with curiosity. He read instead of napped. He talked to the other guys about their books and his own. The next semester, he’d pop into my room to ask about books, to trade out the book he’d borrowed for a new one. He’d tell me the team was going on a trip and he needed something to read. This year when he took a reading test, he scored post high school! He’s back this semester in my class, now being the leader—talking about his books, contributing to the conversations we have about authors. After Hunter Thompson's suicide, Rolling Stone did a retrospective...Ben brought a copy into class, read, and gave us his opinions on the piece and Thompson's ultimate meaning.  Books have made a lasting difference in his life. And he got that scholarship to play football in college!

Steven is a National Merit Scholar. His analysis skills are amazing already. What could I add to his story? Well, not just me, but the author, Chris Crutcher. Steven began to read Crutcher’s books because the author was coming to our school. Although he prided himself on his reading of challenging classics, he had never read books that reflected the life he was living. He read dead white men. In Crutcher's books, the characters struggled with the same battles he does: being accepted, being teased, standing up for justice, finding our values as we mature. Steven was able to read books with characters he recognized. He found a teacher willing to listen as he mulled over important issues not present in his rigorous AP curriculum. As he read Staying Fat for Sarah Burns, he talked about his anger and his need to protect his vulnerable girlfriend from the thoughtless taunts of others. His story was enriched by these books.

Jerry, a freshman, spent the first weeks in class starting book after book, never getting past the first 10 pages. One day, on the floor before my packed bookshelves, I asked him about the books he’d enjoyed. He couldn’t remember ever reading and enjoying a book. I asked what books or magazines his family read at home. His surprised snort was all the answer I needed: none. He had no model at home of reading. We struggled until we found Born Blue by Han Nolan. He read it; his logs were full of wonder. He brought me the book and demanded I read it so we could talk. I did. We did. He invited me to his IEP; because we talked about books, he believed I was the only teacher who liked him. This semester he’s back! He has successfully gotten several classmates to read his favorite book. In less than one school year, Jerry changed from a non-reader to a passionate advocate of his favorites. He now talks to others and loves to find new books to share with me and his friends.

Angie told me she hated the book Cut by Patricia McCormick. She hated the main character, a self-mutilator. She thought the book and the girl was “stupid” and she told me at every opportunity. She kept reading. Kept complaining. Only later did she tell me how close this story is to her own experience. She stopped denying her problem and she found the courage to ask our counselor for help. Angie’s told me she could never read that book again; but she knows it provided the motivation to reach out.

Rosa is an exchange student from South America whose English is not strong yet. She and I searched for books that would show her life in America, and ones she could understand. We found light “chick-lit” novels helped her understand the dynamics of high school drama. She also read Jane Eyre—in Spanish! I so enjoyed our conversations about Jane and loved seeing her through the eyes of another culture. Rosa was able to reach out to our culture while retaining her own through her choice of books.

Diane has been forced to read 30 minutes every day for years. She told me she hates to read, hates it, hates it, hates it. Yet her journals were full of original insights and sensitivity. She read challenging books for her AP English class, and nothing for pleasure. She struggled with her AP teacher, with her family, with her books—not chosen for her own enjoyment. She continued to pour out her soul and her conflicts to me. I knew A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, was the right book for her: a young girl, just finishing high school yearns for her family to understand her love for reading and writing. She is ready to fly, and no one encourages her. Diane recognized herself and her battles. Those logs brought tears to my eyes.

Sam stopped coming to class last semester—went to work, instead. He enrolled in my class again this semester and has maintained a good grade. He told me he wanted to change my opinion of him from last semester. He’s recognized himself in Nick Hornby’s work. He reads everything by Hunter Thompson he can find. He has shared himself with me generously this semester, almost making up for his earlier desertion.

Robert is an English Language Learner, heavy-set and painfully quiet—shy of his lingering accent. A gifted artist, he couldn’t picture himself ever reading a whole book. As he talked to his family, he discovered his uncle enjoyed Harry Potter. So, what does my quiet ELL boy choose for his first book in my class?? HP #3! He struggled, but he persevered! His logs were short—not surprising since he still lacked confidence; but his responses showed a great empathy for Harry’s conflicts, and a desire to play Quidditch—if it was only a real game! When his English 4 teacher assigned their senior paper, a study of a British author, Robert was ready—Rowling, of course! He gave me a copy of his paper as a gift, and he gave me his cover illustration—a loving portrait of Harry and his friends. Now Robert smiles and greets me in the halls; now he sees himself as a reader! He and his uncle have lively conversations about their books!

Sylvia sauntered into class the second week of the semester—an unwilling addition. Because of our previous friendship, she left her ever-present attitude at the door but still tried to avoid books. She told me proudly she’d never finished a book—ever, not ever. She played around, picking up books clearly inappropriate for her below-level reading. In desperation, I handed her a book from a series called Bluford—contemporary novels all set in an inner-city high school. Written by different authors, some focus on the struggles of young men, some on young women. Sylvia recognized her own California background and experiences within these books, and began reading. Her body language changed; her nose was glued to these books. She was overcome with the sense of accomplishment: she finished a book! A book she loved! It was heartbreakingly touching to watch her carefully consider the other books in the series to read next—she’d never had that experience. What to read next.

I had 300 students this year, and many told me their stories. Some did not. Conrad, an avid fantasy reader, sits in front of me every day, reading. He won’t write logs to me; I don’t know his story. He’s fighting. I hope I have another chance with him. I’m not the person he wants to share with at this time. Alice and Mike also chose to shut me out. I must respect their choice and hope to see them again at another stage of their lives, and of mine.

My background, my training, my experience have all combined to give me tools to help my students. The librarian knows books and is always looking for the perfect book for each student. She knows how to sell a book to kids, and how to match kids with books.  The English teacher pushes their responses, challenges their ideas, supports their attempts. She can also discuss the high school canon with confidence. The reading specialist knows literacy theory.  She recognizes struggling students and can support their efforts, matching appropriate books with students, suggesting strategies for success. The special education teacher individualizes for every student, knowing when to push, when to accept, when to question, when to praise.

Every moment of my life, from those first months being nursed by my mother who held me in one hand, and her book in the other, to the college degrees, to the patchwork teaching experience, has prepared me for this class, for these students, for this challenge. How very lucky I am to be doing this work!

How blessed I am students tell me their stories.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

All I Want for my Birthday... a balanced budget for the state of Oklahoma. Not candy or flowers. Not even a card. I just want a budget for my adopted state.

A budget that does NOT balance itself on the backs of the working poor and middle class, in the form of regressive taxes. A budget that includes raising the Gross Production Tax for horizontal wells in Oklahoma to 7% -- still below the regional average!

A budget that includes raising the income taxes of the highest earners in our state...

A budget that will save us from a Special Session in June...that will cost our state a teacher's salary. Every. Day.

I've been visiting the Capitol every week this session...but that was too late. The fix was already in. Big Oil had already bought and paid for their legislators.

SQ779 failed at the polls, so we knew any teacher raise would be nigh-onto impossible with the tax-hater, Grover-Norquist-pledge-signers in the legislature. All those voters who complained about the regressive nature of the 1% sales tax for teacher raises said, oh-so-piously, they wanted a 'better plan.' They thought our legislators would respond.

We heard legislators say they heard the message, they were committed to teachers, to #oklaed, and to a teacher raise. And some believed them. I did not. I knew a teacher raise was dead.

I went to the Capitol. I talked to legislators. I was told one thing by one, and something different from another. I listened. I asked clarifying questions. And then I asked the same questions of legislators across the aisle. And guess what? I got different answers.

I met hard-working, driven legislators who worked for budget stability. For whom all solutions were on the table. I met legislators who wanted their own plan at any cost.

It became apparent too many were waiting for someone else to blink first.

The Rainy Day Fund was emptied. Let me repeat: The Rainy Day Fund was blinking EMPTIED. To pay the bills.

The courts ruled that the state legislature had incorrectly taken $10 million dollars from the Lottery that belonged to #oklaed.

Revenue failures became old news.

Cuts to schools happened as regularly as career teachers' resignation letters.

I went to the Capitol.

I carried information from Save Our State, from Let's Fix This, from Together Oklahoma. All solid plans with shared sacrifices and down-to-earth solutions. I asked questions. I listened.

Something else I did was to work closely with OSU English student interns...bright, ambitious students who want to teach...and who are looking to cross the Red River and start their careers in Texas. Texas schools came to the OSU Teacher Career Fair, and according to one of my students, prowled like buzzards, knowing they only had to post starting salaries to lure our new teachers. I saw first-hand the loss...just one subject area. Oklahoma students who know they must leave home to start  their careers.

Now, we are faced with a hard deadline: May 19. My 72nd birthday. If we don't have agreement by May 19, the legislature will be forced into Special Session, costing us more money. Money we don't have.

I voted for SQ779 for my friends and former colleagues. I know that neighborhoods of working class voters also supported the measure. They wanted their children's teachers to get a raise, to be happy and well-paid. Towns on the border to Texas and Arkansas voted for 779. They are tired of losing their teachers to these other states.

I voted for new leadership in the legislature. I was frustrated by the 'business as usual' attitude at the Capitol.

The majority of voters disagreed with me. So. No raise. Same leadership. No new ideas.

Revenue Failures.

$1 BILLION hole to fill.

Five working days.

It's not too much to ask, is it? All I want for my birthday is a budget agreement, a balanced budget, and a teacher raise.

Clock is ticking.  And I'm old.

Friday, May 5, 2017

#oklaed Picks Up the Slack -- AGAIN.

This…this is what we’ve come to.

Nearly 10 years of the steepest cuts to education in the nation. In. The. Nation. Ten years, starting before oil went belly-up in Oklahoma. Accusations that education just had to ‘get more efficient, tighten our belts, get rid of the fat, fire all the do-nothing administrators,” Then we’d be back to the Golden Years of #oklaed. Those years when we followed the class size requirements of HB1017. When we had funds for copier ink. When our school libraries actually had, you know, new books.

It’s come to this. Seminole Public School District teachers shuttled into a room and given a ballot…A ballot that gave them two options. Willingly forgo their negotiated step raise for next year, or give it back to the district, to save a colleague’s job. It wasn’t phrased quite that neutrally. In fact this would make an interesting lesson in tone and diction.

  •        I agree to set aside the negotiated agreement, for the 2017-2018 school year only, in order to forgo a step raise to save another teacher’s job.

  •         I do not agree to set aside the negotiated agreement, for the 2017-2018 school year only. I want my step raise. I do not care about another teacher’sq [sic] job.

Teachers forced to decide on the spot if their families can afford a year with no raise. To decide on the spot if they can forgo that car payment, or the electric bill. Or the mortgage. To be told if they voted to receive their negotiated step raise they do not care about other teachers. Selfish boors.

For those who are not acquainted with negotiated step raises, I’m including the Norman Public Schools salary schedule for teachers with a bachelor’s degree. If you look down the left column, you will see that the numbers increase by $200-$400 or so each year. Before taxes. It’s not a lot to give up, but it is giving up something that’s been promised, and something that’s already been budgeted for.

Before you think I’m holding Seminole Schools, the latest district to ask their teachers to make this hard choice, responsible, let me disabuse you. Seminole Schools, Norman Schools, OKC Schools are in this kind of impossible choice because we have been starved by a legislature and other policy makers who have different priorities. A legislature that has cut schools since 2008, even though we have seen an increase in the number of students in our schools. Fewer dollars, more students, more gut-wrenching decisions.

School districts spend over 80% of their budgets on teacher salaries…so, once the efficiencies have been introduced, the belts have been tightened and fat’s been cut, teacher salaries come next. At that point, a district must make tough decisions.  Millwood Schools made that hard decision last year. Everyone took a pay cut. Everyone. The Superintendent, the teachers, the bus drivers. Everyone. It was a district decision for the good of the students. More teachers mean smaller classes, with more individual attention for our students. Millwood did it together. Teachers’ salaries were cut $600. So, no step, and a cut. They saved eleven teaching positions.

Seminole is now facing a similar situation…no cuts, it appears. Just no raise.

Yes, the wording on the ballot is manipulative. The tone is aggressive, a serious case of guilting. That is one issue…and as issues go, it’s not the major one.

We can never lose sight of the reason Millwood voluntarily cut salaries, the reason other districts have laid off teachers, the reason many districts made the drastic decision to cut the school week to four days, the reason Seminole is now facing this painful situation. The legislature has not supported our public schools as it should. As the Oklahoma Constitution demands and expects.

"SECTION XIII-1 Establishment and maintenance of public schools. The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated.:"

The responsibility for these no-win decisions forced onto our schools rests squarely on our elected policy makers who have systematically cut funding and support to our public schools. Responsibility is shared by voters.  Voters who chose not to vote, or chose to believe rhetoric over actions. Voters who did not vote for public education.

We entered this Legislative Session with the promise that education and teacher salaries were the number one priority…that the legislators ‘heard’ the people and would find a ‘better plan’ for teacher raises. That was February. With monthly revenue failures. Lowering of our bond rating. And cuts to core services throughout the state. Cuts to education. More cuts.

We watched, with muted hope, or no hope, as legislators got to work. We hoped a budget would be the major focus.

We saw a bill to mandate teachers’ grading practices. We saw a bill to weaken the science curriculum of the state. We saw a bill that would let schools suspend third graders, with no counseling services. We saw a bill to require high school students to pass the citizenship test in order to graduate. And we saw our Governor veto a bill to end the last End of Instruction exam for high school students, US History. At the cost of $2M+.

What did we not see? Funding for a teacher raise. Revenue ideas with sustaining sources (we have heard of proposals for fees on salon visits, tattoo parlors, dog grooming businesses. Fees on gumball machines).

A nearly ONE BILLION DOLLAR HOLE in our budget – again.

Instead, we see teachers giving and giving. Buying books and supplies for their classroom. Buying snacks to feed hungry students. Choosing to take salary cuts for the good of their district. Other school employees are also giving back in many ways as well.

And so. It comes down to schools begging teachers to give back their negotiated raise for next year to help the district retain teachers and keep class sizes manageable. A heartbreaking decision. A decision teachers should never be called to make. I've heard that the Seminole Superintendent told the teachers that he will ask the Board to renegotiate HIS salary, with a 5% cut, so he is showing that leadership of shared sacrifice. 

A Facebook friend said there’s a third choice on that unfortunately-worded ballot: “I care enough about another teacher’s job, that she can have mine.” Too many teachers are saying just that. We continue to bleed teachers, to underpay teachers, to ask that they return part of their already-lower-than-the-regional-average teacher salary. So schools can stay afloat, survive another year, hoping this Session will see some real progress toward sustainable revenue, real support of our schools, and a teacher raise.

I want to make this crystal clear: I am not blaming all legislators. I am not blaming all legislators of the majority party. I spend one or two mornings at the Capitol all through Session. I sit in on Committee meetings. I've asked for, and been granted private appointments with legislative leaders, who, frankly, don't have to give me the time of day. I have had mostly cordial conversations with many lawmakers. I listen and verify everything they say to me, and sometimes the truth is stretched or massaged. I know where many stand on some of the big, thorny budget issues. I'm grateful that I feel like the Capitol is my House. I know work is happening. 

But, in less than three weeks, the Session, by law, must end. With a balanced budget. If not, a Special Session will be required, costing Oklahoma a teacher’s salary every day. We wait, with dwindling hope, or no hope. And many teachers are already planning the moves that could bring their families more financial stability.

Happy #TeacherAppreciationWeek to us.

**Note -- I am waiting to find the KFOR link to their story of the ballot. Have not found it online yet. Am publishing this without it and will revise when we find the link.

Friday, April 21, 2017

My Rules for Reading

I was at a presentation by friends Lara Searcy and Josh Flores where they talked about their personal rules for reading...they challenged me to compile my own rules.

My mother always told me on those long middle-of the night feedings when I was a newborn, she'd hold me in one hand, nursing, and hold her current book in the other. I used to joke that I absorbed my love of reading through mother's milk. Years later, I found a line from Steinbeck that said much the same thing, and I gasped in recognition:

"Some literature was in the air around me. The Bible I absorbed through my skin. My uncles exuded Shakespeare, and “Pilgrim's Progress” was mixed with my mother's milk."

I pretended to read before I was in school, memorizing my Golden Book version of Cinderella. I can remember the first word I read by myself: "morning". I used the picture clue in the early reader and the context clues. In our house, everyone had a book...or two, and everyone read.

So, you'd've thought that I'd have my rules for reading right at my fingertips. But no. It took some thinking, combining, crossing come up with my rules. They are eclectic. They will make some readers cringe. Shake their heads. Roll their eyes. And I love that.

Once we learn to read, the very act of reading becomes our own. I learned early on I was not a phonetic reader, so I never tried to sound out words. I'd use pictures and context clues, like I did with "morning". If that didn't work, I *gasp* skipped the word and went on reading. And I did OK.

So, my rules of reading:

1.  Never, ever, apologize for your books. Read whatever you want. Every book makes you a stronger, more insightful reader. I have always read whatever I want. As a teen, I read Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, when my mother wanted me to read Dickens. I read Cherry Ames, and I read Dickens. I reread books. I read books that are too easy, and books that are too hard. I sometimes challenge myself, reading unfamiliar authors, about unfamiliar places.

I read trash and I read treasures. My parents never censored my books...but Mom did try to hide Peyton Place from my sisters and me (unsuccessfully in my case). Reading widely, reading bad writing and good writing, helped me hone my tastes. In my class I made sure my students saw me reading widely and indiscriminately. They saw me read.

2. Have several books going at the same time (now, for me, this includes Audible books). I can then look at my books and decide what I'm in the mood for. I'll usually have at least one novel, a young adult book (or two), a nonfiction, and a professional book, all unfinished, waiting for me. . So, I look at my titles, and grab the book that whispers to me.

3. Read the ends of books without shame. Sometimes I've been known to read the end of a the bookstore, before I buy it.

I met author Norma Fox Mazer years ago and I told her I'd just bought her book, had read the first chapter and the end. She stared in horror and asked me why, in the world, did I do that? I stammered out that I wanted to know where the book was going to take me. She whipped out a tiny notebook from her back pocket and jotted down a note. I always feared I would see myself in a book as the crazy lady who only read the ends of books.

But, that's the truth. I want to know the end of the journey, often before I've taken the first step. No guilt. Just a fast way to sort through all the books competing for my attention. Most of the time I will choose to read the book, knowing the conclusion. That way I can savor the book, the language. I can see the foreshadowing clues. Enjoy my read.

4. Never feel impelled to finish a book. I usually do finish books, but if I don't, I can toss them aside without a qualm. I listened to my students talk about giving a book 10 pages, or 50 pages, or 5 pages. I've got no arbitrary number -- I just know when it's time to put one book down so I have time for another. The two that instantly come to mind for me are Enigma and A Simple Plan. Life's too short to read books that don't engage you.

5. Read actively, with a pen, markers stickies and two (not one) bookmarks. I have one sticky bookmark at the page I started reading that day. I move the second bookmark as I read that day. I learned that trick from a student who placed one bookmark on the last page of the current reading assignment and another marked his progress toward that goal. I just happily hopscotch my bookmarks day by day. I use stickies to mark beautiful passages, insights, figurative language. Good writing. Before I used stickies, I dog-eared the pages I wanted to remember. With not an ounce of regret.

My reading buddy and I have agreed that if we borrow someone else's book and want to mark or highlight, we just do it...and then buy our friend a new book, keeping the one we read and marked.

6. Claim the book as your own. I have intense conversations with the book and the author. I write notes in the margin. Once a book is in my hands, it's my book, and I'm in charge of how I read. One student brought up an old copy of Jane Eyre, laughing. I'd read it, and had made angry comments about Rochester in the margin. On one page I'd written, "Jerk!" She agreed. At that point in the novel, he was a jerk. And I needed to document that fact.

I make a book mean what I need it to mean. I read slowly; I read quickly. I skip the boring parts (long paragraphs of description) and skim until I find dialogue. A conversation reminded me of the books through which I skipped the most: Fellowship of the Rings -- especially the first time I read it. I would warn first-timers to Tolkien that there will be a lot of walking and a lot of's ok to skip. When I read Grisham's The Firm, I skipped and skipped, saying to myself, "OK -- it's a chase. I get it!" And then there's Clancy...Dear Lord. I can never make sense of his techie writing about gadgets and weapons. His books are where I learned to skip and find a conversation. Nowhere in the contract between reader and author does it say I must read every word. My book. My choice.

I reread favorite passages. I reread favorite books and learn something new every time.

I fell in love with Joy Luck Club when it first came out. I read it from cover to cover (yes, after I read the ending). Then I read it again, this time reading all the mothers' stories together, then the daughters' stories. Then I read it again, reading the mother-daughter stories together. Each rereading added meaning for me. I was in charge. I could read as I pleased

7. Respond to books. I laugh out loud. I gasp. I cry. When I read with my students, I always warned them that at least once in the semester I'd cry. Their job, if they saw me, was to roll their eyes and smile indulgently. Once, in class, while reading the ending of Twelve, I just about cried off my makeup. I didn't realize it, but a student had been watching me. When I put the book down and tried to compose myself, she tiptoed out of her desk, crept to my desk, picked up the book, returned to her desk, and started reading. I laughed so often that we began to call those books that elicited laughs, "Snork Books." Students often asked for a Snork Book. My emotional responses to my books did as much to sell books to teens as any book talk.

8.  Return to the beginning of the book and reread or copy your beautiful passages. So often, when I do that, I find I've identified important insights, themes, symbols. Without trying to. I just mark words that sing for me. My students could (and did) decide which of my books was worthwhile by seeing how many stickies I had in the book.

9. Take the time to think about your books and write about them. Once for my birthday a friend gave me a book journal. I loved it. I read and wrote in front of my students. The act of reading became more meaningful because as I read, I was thinking about what I wanted to say about the book. What quotes I might include. This was my last reflection of the book, and it helped me put it in a bright focus. I filled up probably 10 journals until I discovered Long before I joined Facebook, I was showing the site to my students. One told me goodreads sounded like Facebook for book nerds. And it is. It's a place to think about and write about books, and to see what your friends are reading. Just this month, I've had conversations with former students about our books, and what we might read next. More than my solitary journal, goodreads reminds me that reading is very social...when we find a book that moves us, we really want to share it with someone. Goodreads will link to FB and to Twitter, so friends can see what I'm reading.

10. Return to your TBR stack (or, for me, my kindle or my audible application -- yes, I'm an omnivorous reader. Love my audible when I walk, my kindle when I travel -- instead of filling half my suitcase with books so I'd always have one, my 'real' physical books when I want to return over and over to those meaningful favorites) and decide what I'm in the mood for, and grab the next one.

My rules are not particularly academic or systematic or logical. But they're mine.

I'm interested, what are some of YOUR reading rules?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

SB393 Keeps Sailing Through the Legislature.

Just days after watching Representative David Brumbaugh urge and cajole and charm SB393 through committee last Thursday, he died of what I've heard was a massive heart attack. I'd not had reason to speak with him in the past, but seeing the sincere mourning of prominent Oklahomans, I can see he was well-respected. My heart goes out to his family on such a sad day for them.

There are days that leave me scratching my very old grey head, trying to put contradictory stories and experiences into some kind of sense. Today is one. A wacky Thursday.

I attended the General Government Oversight and Accountability Committee meeting today…to hear an education bill. An education bill that was not going to be heard in the Common Education Committee, so it was reassigned to this committee I’d never heard of before. The bill? Senator Brecheen’s ‘Teachers Teaching Intelligent Design and Climate Change Denial’ bill. SB393.  And I read an article about a truly generous Oklahoman who will make a huge difference in our state.

Some history on SB393 from my notes:

I attended the Senate Education Committee when Senator Brecheen introduced his bill. I noticed that he was very distracted at the beginning of the meeting. He conferred with the Assistant Chair of the Committee, Senator Ron Sharp, and then caught the attention of the Ginger Tinney, the Executive Director of Professional Oklahoma Educators, who was sitting in the room. Brecheen and Tinney left the chambers together and returned, talking about a paper the senator held. I wrote in my notebook: “Brecheen and Tinney working something?”

Then minutes later, Senator Brecheen was asked to explain and present SB393. I realized that all the scurrying around made sense. He started his presentation by telling us that Louisiana and Tennessee both have similar bills, and they have not been sued.  Interesting way to introduce your bill, huh? He then got down to business. His bill protects teachers. Empowers teachers. He read from a paper (the one I saw?), quoting a survey from POE that teachers felt pressure when they avoided teaching certain subjects in science. 7% of those surveyed felt ‘pressure’ when they taught climate change denial, and 21% reported ‘pressure’ when they taught a form of intelligent design. No word on the size of the survey. We know POE may have 7000-10,000 teachers as active members. Not all of them would have contacted about a science survey. So, the question I have had since that first day is, “21% of how many returned surveys?” I think it’s a valid question that deserves an answer, since we seem to be about to make law based on those 21% surveyed. Instead of working on the budget.

Lots of lip service was given to ‘both points of view…looking at both sides…the full realm of science.” We were told that “Indoctrination (I assume this is current science teaching) is not critical thinking,” and the pathway to a Leftist-leaning agenda. We were assured this bill allows teachers, with no liability, to share documents about ‘both sides’ of ‘the argument.’ Senator Brecheen promises that this will build better scientists…and even used Galileo as an example…sorry, I lost the thread. Only one senator voted no…thank you, Senator J.J. Dossett. I cannot share the words I wrote in my notebook that day…they were vitriolic.

I was NOT there when the bill passed the Senate, but pass it did. This time, 10 senators voted no. Thank you, Senators Bass, Bice, Dossett, Floyd, Holt, Matthews, Paxton, Pittman, Sparks, and Yen.

The bill was then assigned to the House Common Education Committee, but the Chair chose not to hear the bill. Since this is the last week for bills (that originated in the other House) to be heard in committee I breathed a sigh of relief, hoping we were finished with this bill.

But then Senator Rob Standridge, my senator, wrote an op-ed piece for the Daily Disappointment Oklahoman extolling the merits of the bill, as ‘a man of science. Senator Standridge is a trained pharmacist and runs an international business, Health Engineering Systems, from Norman.

That set off alarm bells…why would a seemingly dead bill get such a glowing review? Well, the answer is the bill wasn’t dead. It wasn’t even badly wounded. It was suddenly reassigned to this committee I visited today: General Government Oversight and Accountability. Which meets on Thursday, the very last day of legislators’ work week (funny how some are Hell-bent to force schools to be in session five days a week, when they’re not).

I did not get the memo that ‘the color’ of the day was red…we were first going to wear green…so I was a mossy blot in a sea of red.

Representative Brumbaugh, a caucus leader, is the House author and he came in armed with lots of hand-written notes. I was close enough to see that, but not the notes themselves. Rep. Brumbaugh extolled the virtues of this bill: It would promote thinking skills while giving teachers immunity. He told us it was about academic freedom. He also told us that Louisiana and Tennessee are leaders in this push (Don’t know about you, but I don’t necessarily want to trip down the lane with those two state’s school law as my guide). He wants teachers to teach ‘all’ theories, promote no doctrine, and somehow keep wackoos from teaching (more on that word later).

He faced questions: Why was this bill, clearly an education bill, assigned to this committee? Lots of soft-soaping about timing, as this is the last committee meeting on Thursday. Discussion of the term “shall prohibit,” questions about limiting school boards and schools’ personnel decisions. Representative Cyndi Munson brought up my biggest concern: our students will be ill-prepared for the ACT and for higher education, for any kind of STEM profession if they’ve been taught by teachers who ignore the standards and curriculum.

Brumbaugh talked about the wonders of learning, of improving education, of open discussions, of critical thinking, of ‘circular thinking’. He promised this would contribute to educated youth.

We are grateful to Rep. George Faught for allowing public comments…five minutes for those opposed to the bill. Five minutes for those in favor. The room was packed with those of us who are opposed, but four chose to speak. One, a trained scientist, spoke of the giant skeleton discussion in her child’s science class. She argued this bill will not enhance critical thinking. Another, a retired educator, spoke to the standards and curriculum that were expected to be taught, and about the loss of local control with this bill. Another, a local science-education professor warned passage of this bill will lead to ill-prepared STEM students in higher education. Another said this bill will open up ideological, non-scientific opinions that will take time away from the classroom.

One speaker supported the bill: Professor Don Ewert, a medical researcher. His field is hearing loss research. He also beat the drum for critical thinking in an ‘intellectually safe place." He extolled freedom of interpretations, and warned about the limitations of the scientific method. Then he attacked current science textbooks as ‘slanted’. He promised that all discussions in classrooms would be fact-based. Then he brought up Neo-Darwinism, which made me scurry to Google. I am grateful to reader, Bob Melton (see comments) for finding Professor Ewert's name on the list of 100 science skeptics. How convenient for Rep. Brumbaugh that he's right here in OK...and since the Chair allowed my friends to speak, Professor Ewert was given five minutes to speak.

At the conclusion, one representative asked Rep. Brumbaugh, point blank, “Do you give your work that nothing wacko will be taught in science classes?” Brumbaugh promised. How very easy that promise came from his lips.

The bill passed the committee 4-3, with one member absent. No votes (I have already sent my thanks): Cyndi Munson, Greg Babinec, and Roger Ford. Representative Tadlock, the other Democrat with Rep. Munson did not attend the meeting.

There was a passionate young high school student at the meeting, who would have also made a great witness. As we stood in the hallway, sharing our frustration, he spoke up. “He kept talking about circular thinking as a good thing. I was taught it’s one of those logical fallacies.” You’re right, young man. That’s not a good thing, circular thinking. On closer inspection, there’s circular reasoning (which, if this is what Rep Brumbaugh meant, is pretty funny), and circular thinking (which sounds kinda…wacky), and circular thinking (now I’m confused), and circular thinking (whaa??).

So, now we have to see if the House leadership has cooler heads…whether it makes it onto the House calendar, and whether we have to drag ourselves up to 23rd and Lincoln one more time to fight for our students’ right to be taught the standards of their discipline, to be prepared for that ‘college and career’ future we all want for them all.

I said this was a head-scratching day.

As I was trying to put SB393 into some kind of sense, a friend shared a story of an Ardmore man who was moved by the fact that the Oklahoma State Science Fair would be unable to hold a contest next year because of state and federal cuts to STEM education.  James Young reached out to his representative, Pat Ownbey, about how to donate to the Science Fair. Mr. Young wrote a check for $50,000! Rep. Ownbey spoke glowingly about the opportunities this donation will afford Oklahoma students to further their education in STEM.

I’m assuming with his great commitment to STEM education, I can count on Rep. Ownbey’s no vote on SB393.

Some days just make you just roll your eyes and scratch your head. Or bang your head on your desk. 

Today was one.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Dear Swish -- Letters About Testing

One of the joys of social media is keeping in touch with my former students...I see pics of their families and get to interact in their lives. Invariably, our conversations come around to books and reading.

I received this message from a former student, Amy...our conversation about testing, and what young parents need to know about testing, grew. I'm sharing (with her permission), our discussion.

Educator friends, What did I miss? What other advice do you have for Amy and other parents sending their children to public schools? I want all 'my' parents to approach public education with their eyes open, asking the right questions. My words to Amy are in italics.

Hello Swish!

I hope everything is going well with you! I want to ask your advice. My son, E,, is six. I've been homeschooling him for preschool and kindergarten. We are wrapped into a great home school group with park days every Tuesday and nature days every Friday, plus he gets to see his all-ages friends in plays, and we do a Shakespeare festival twice a year where the kids act out scenes, recite sonnets... It's awesome.

HOWEVER. I am tired. And I know it's only going to get more academically demanding as the grades go by. I want to be 'just mom' instead of trying to be everything. So I'm putting him into our local public school for first grade in the fall.

We're in California so I'm not sure how similar the standardized testing is to Oklahoma's, but that's what I wanted to pick your brain about. You've had a front row seat to that. I think you and I share the same view of them; they are a poor assessment tool, stressful for kids, undermine a teacher’s methods and take away time from other worthwhile subjects and classroom opportunities.
I'm waffling between starting a local opt-out movement at this school, or just having him take the tests and not worry about it. I don't believe there's any testing here before third grade, but if I'm going to make any waves it's probably better to start early than late.

What's your advice about standardized testing to an individual parent just getting their kids started in today's schools?

Anyway, that's the question. But I'll tell you some fun stuff since I'm already here. E. is six, and he's a bit wild, but very funny. J. is three now, and she's very sweet and sings a lot. E. LOVES to be read to. My husband or I read to him for almost an hour every night. He loves chapter books, especially if they are slightly age inappropriate, and will hardly look at picture books anymore! J. also loves to read, but she loves Dr. Seuss. She loves him so much that she has memorized The Grinch and recites it to me in the car pretty often. We all go to the beach and on little hikes often. There is so much cool stuff to do here, it's a fun place to raise kids.

I've been reading a lot. Finally got the bookshelves of my dreams lining the wall in my bedroom. And now I'm just trying to make a dent in all the books I have on them! It's been wonderful. I'm on a Norse mythology kick right now.

Hope you are doing great. I think of you often, and I'm glad I get to keep up with you a bit on Facebook. 

Love, Amy

AMY!! It doesn't surprise me that you're a hands-on, reflective parent! Your life with your kiddos sounds grand.... You've packed a lot here, and I'll need time to look for resources. There is a national opt-out group, so you might search to see if there's a CA group. You want to know if test scores are used to: *Grade schools *Evaluate teachers *Promote or retain kids. Those are all bad, bad, bad.


Then, we talked about books (as my students know we will!)…Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology—Amy has always been a passionate reader, and I remember with fondness the books we would read together and discuss…I miss her, and all my other students…


So, Have you gotten any info about what test scores will be used for? That's important information, because it predicts the direction of the pressure on parents to NOT opt-out.
If the state has some kind of school grading system (we have A-F), counselors and principals will be after high-performing kids to test...since their scores will contribute to the school's grading system.
 IF there's a 'value-added measure' which evaluates teachers on the 'growth' students show on standardized tests, kids who are 'teachable' -- most apt to show growth (NOT the very low or very high-performing kids) are the ones a teacher will who can show growth. Think of it. Gifted kids who are already at the 98th or 99th percentile have NO room for growth!! So that could adversely affect a teacher's evaluation. Teachers will be 'fighting' for those kids in the middle who have room to grow, but are NOT high-maintenance' to teach.
IF the state requires (as we do) that all 3rd graders pass a specific test to be promoted, then those kids who have NOT had the rich toddlerhood your little ones have, who are just developing a little slower than the norm, who are traumatized in the countless ways kids can be traumatized, will suffer.
In OK, 3rd grade reading and 8th grade reading are high stakes FOR KIDS. No drivers license until you have an 8th grade reading level. NO 4th grade unless you pass the third grade test. Problem is, neither of these are tests that measure a reading level...they just count the number of questions correct, and students must match a 'magic' score to prove proficiency. Oh, but wait!! That magic score, also called a 'cut score?' Teachers and students don't know what that score is when they're testing...everyone takes the test, scores are recorded, AND THEN the cut score (pass score) is set and students learn if they ‘passed’ or not.  Lunacy.

NOW, you need to find out if CA has an opt-out tests are used beyond the intended use: a snapshot of a student's achievement at this moment in time. Then you you want to opt out, or opt in?

One more thing you should know: because many states have stakes for schools, for teachers, and for students, attached to these standardized tests, they add 'benchmark' tests to check identify kids who struggle and lag behind...lots of benchmarks!! LOTS. OF. BENCHMARKS. That's the way schools can be prepared for the bad news of kids not making the grade on a test that will have high stakes for someone. And, these all take valuable time away from teaching and learning, as you mentioned above.

SO, it's not just the 'spring' tests themselves, and how they're's all the “cover-your-a** benchmarks so as not to be surprised at the end” tests. It's all the practice for the tests. That takes more time away from instruction than the actual tests.

ONE MORE THING you need to check is the state's and school's schedule of testing. No Child Left Behind Act (and its replacement, Every Student Succeeds Act – doncha love those titles??) requires states to test all kids in reading and math every year, and one science test, 3-5, 6-8 (reading and math every year, one science test). And then once - reading, math, science- in high school.
Oklahoma added MORE tests – social studies, tests every year 3-8. They also added the high stakes for kids in 3 and 8...and added End Of Instruction tests (SEVEN, when the feds only required three) for kids in high school. And they added the high stakes – students had to pass 4 out of 7 in order to graduate. Last legislative session in OK, they did away with the EOIs and the high stakes, but because of federal law, they still must test reading and math and science one time...we are not sure what this will all look like. But a bill is wending its way through the legislature that will require all high school students to take and pass a citizenship test. One more hurdle place in students’ ways by our state lawmakers, when we have been trying to lighten the load.

You have some homework: ask your school about the testing schedule and any high stakes attached. Ask about benchmark testing (they may call it something's the interim testing before the spring tests.). Google to see if your state has an opt-out group. If so, they will be very helpful in providing information and guidance.

Yeah, I've had a weird educational journey with my kids so far. Preschools out here in CA are crazy expensive, and I met and became close to a homeschooling family while I was actually pregnant with E. So right from the beginning I was researching and reading tons of material on homeschooling methods, educational philosophies (Charlotte Mason!), and curriculums.

There is so much about homeschooling that I love, and think is ideal for learning, but for my particular family it has been just too hard. I spend way too much energy on it, and I feel like for me it's made my children into part of a 'project' instead of just letting them be my kids. So I'm able to see that it's not ideal for ME, but I still have a lot of fear about putting E. into a traditional school. I wonder what is ideal for HIM, and how much sacrifice on my part that should require.

My hope is that our local school will be awesome, and that he will love it. And all the best homeschooling things are things that we can do as a family anyway. Reading, visiting museums, learning about our local plants and animals, artist study, nature journaling... So, I think it's going to work out. And I'm so excited to get a little bit of mental space back when I'm not constantly thinking about homeschooling. So. There's that.

As an English teacher I bet you constantly have old students telling you their life stories, don't you? 

I love it when I can stay close to you all...I'm so stinking proud of all of you and who you've become. Listening to your story, I'm not surprised you threw yourself into being the best teacher/mom you could be. And, yes, it's so tiring. Your first and most important and permanent job is to be their mommy. You'll always be their first teacher and their advocate. BUT you can't be your best if there's nothing left of you at the end of the day. Does that make sense? I love the way you go into a new project with your eyes and heart open, ready to learn. And eager to teach...

Absolutely. They can have many teachers, but they only get one mom. That's exactly the problem, I have nothing left to give them at the end of the day, and nothing left over for myself!
So, I'm taking this thing off my plate and I think we will all be much happier for it.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Member of the "Education Establishment" Responds

Nearly everyone (except some legislators) has attended school, and considers himself or herself an expert. 

Last week, following the latest revenue failure, Secretary of Finance Doerflinger made a statement about all the problems he and his colleagues are having trying to create a budget…and how committed they were to finding raises for teachers (because he knows teachers!), and providing other services for our state.

My colleagues Rob Miller and Rick Cobb have both written eloquently and pointedly about the news conference, and I have little to add to their analyses-Rob and I did see red over the same statement. paragraph from Secretary Doerflinger’s  statement, one, sent me for my blood-pressure pills. In one paragraph he reveals how he really feels about educators, and he dismisses us all, one and all, as greedy, self-serving graspers.  Any good-will his pandering ‘I know teachers’ comment was lost when he said:

“If the agency known as the State Department of Education and if the Education Establishment in general would start coming with more solutions to the problem versus just the answer being solely we need more money, because there are opportunities to realize efficiencies within the common education universe. The problem is that the Education Establishment really is fixated on just maintaining the status quo, which is sick and really disgusting and it doesn’t benefit the children in this state, so enough of that already.”

Two things…three things stand out to me in this statement…”agency known as the State Department of Education.” It’s not ‘known as.’ It IS the State Department of Education. Why the tortured wording? All I can think is he’s trying to deliberately destroy the credibility of the department charged with the public education of our children.

Shall I call the Governor’s office ‘the office known as the Governor?’ Or the official known as the ‘Secretary of so-called Finance?’  Or ‘the so-called Secretary of Finance?’ Words matter and they are chosen to make a point. All I can think is he is trying to delegitimize the entire department… What’s up with the attack on OSDE?

Then he blames all our woes on the ‘Education Establishment.” They are the villains causing all the problems. If they would just stop asking for money to buy books, and repair school buses, and pay the electric bill; if they’d just be grateful for the scraps from his financial table…everything would be just fine. It’s all, obviously, the fault of the Education Establishment.

Who’s the “education establishment?” I guess that would be me. 39 years of teaching in three states, 10 schools. 34 years in Norman – every grade level in public education. Thousands of students, many of whom are still in my life in meaningful ways.  I must be ‘establishment’.

The library media specialist at my Grand’ schools: doing more with less…teaching, planning with classroom teachers, getting to know students and their tastes so well they can say, “Sorry, no new Minecraft books today,” when little Johnnie comes through the door. They must be the education establishment.

Or the principals who’ve gone back to school (on their own dime) to learn more about administering schools, to be more effective.

Or the choir teachers who work with 70+ students at a time, and make magic with all the blended voices singing works they’d never dreamed they could perform.

Or the English interns I work with at Oklahoma State: bright, idealistic young people who are very aware of the challenges that await them in their own classrooms.

You know who else is ‘education establishment?’ Your third grade teacher who works every day with students who may not have the advantages of a stable home, or enough food to eat.

The special education teachers who lose sleep at night trying to find new ways to help their students succeed.

That American History teacher who sees the realities his students face with one or both parents incarcerated. He’s part of the education establishment.

The art teachers who inspire students to believe in themselves and their talents. They’re part of the education establishment.

The counselor at school – who sees the great needs of her students, but she must ignore those needs to plan and implement state testing.

The parents who partners with educators to advocate for their children. 

The Education Establishment is every teacher working in a public school in Oklahoma. Mr. Doerflinger tells us, no doubt with great sincerity, that he knows teachers. He wants teachers to have raises…and then in the next breath attacks all educators as part of the ‘Education Establishment.’ He seemed to be entirely unaware that he both praised and slammed the folks who teach 90%+ of the children in our state.  Or, more likely: he just doesn’t care.

He accuses us of only wanting to maintain the status quo. He must not know what the status quo is in our schools:
  • ·         No new library books in many schools
  • ·         No new electives for high schools
  • ·         Four-day weeks to try to balance the budget
  • ·         Sustained standardized testing and a culture of fear
  • ·         Promising programs being cut
  • ·         Record number of alternative and emergency-certified teachers
  • ·         A-F school grades, punitive accountability
  • ·         Third graders who can be retained on the score of one test
  • ·         Over-crowded classes
  • ·         Students whose needs are not met by over-extended, overworked counselors
  • ·         Smaller custodial staffs
  • ·         Openings for substitutes and bus drivers – and teachers take up the slack
  • ·         Schools losing teachers who take jobs in the prison system, or at high-paying private schools, or out of state
  • ·         More and more unfunded mandates on top of other unfunded mandates.

That is the reality, the status quo, of our schools. I challenge you, Secretary Doerflinger, to find a member of the ‘Education Establishment’ who supports that list…You and your reformer buddies are responsible for the current status quo…it’s YOURS. And we don’t wish to maintain any of it.

OK, I lied. There are four things in that one statement that infuriate me…I think he just called every educator in #oklaed “sick and really disgusting” and lectures us about what does or does not  “benefit the children in this state.” I can’t even.

And he wonders why the best and brightest teachers are ready to abandon this state.
I’ll see my OSU students Thursday…I’ll look into their eyes, I will read their reflections. I will do everything I can do to encourage them to stay – stay in this profession, and stay in their home state to teach. Because we need them. Our children need them.

I reject the Secretary’s assessment. 39 years taught me what really matters. I believe in my profession, and in the educators who show up – every day – to teach.