Monday, May 30, 2016

I Go to Grinnell as THE Teacher.

Awards are fun. Grants are great. Some of us love to compete and win. But for me, as a teacher, there’s something much sweeter than competition and winning. That’s being thanked by a student. Thanked in small ways, and thanked in big ways. And, sometimes being thanked in a way a teacher could not imagine.

My former student, Jennifer Joy, decided her senior year with me at North to attend Grinnell College in Grinnell, IA. Grinnell is a prestigious, demanding, nurturing private liberal arts college smack-dab in the middle of Iowa. Since I’d lived in Iowa and knew how amazing Grinnell is, and since the winters in Iowa are the reason we now live in Oklahoma, I was excited for her…I spent these years ‘imagining’ her in a setting I remembered.

This, her senior year, she contacted me and said she was going to nominate me for an award that Grinnell gives a classroom teacher. We talked, compared notes, and I forgot all about it.

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by Grinnell to tell me I would be THE classroom teacher representing all the teachers Grinnell students had had in their K-12 career. I would come to Grinnell and attend Commencement. I would give a short talk. I would receive an honorary doctorate. ME! English teacher, me.

Reflecting on that honor still makes me weak with gratitude. What a wonderful idea to connect their students back to the schools and teachers who contributed to their early successes, who helped mold them into the thinkers Grinnell College wanted as their own.

The weekend was amazing. I got to hug Jennifer and meet her parents. I had Jennifer her last semester at North, and spring semester, we do not hold parent-teacher conferences, just enrollment conferences, so I never had the opportunity to meet them before. I met her little sister and hugged her big sister who had been a volunteer with me for Special Olympics. I went to a swanky “Heavy hors d’oeuvre” cocktail party at President Kington’s home. Grinnell faculty came to speak to me, saying, “So, you’re THE teacher.” 

I met Zadie Smith, author of novels and brilliant essays. I might have fan-girled a bit. She's intimidatingly talented. I secretly envied her beautiful silk dress that was covered by her gown, and definitely envied her wrapped turban she wore instead of the unflattering mortar board. 

I met Tom Cole, US Congressman from Oklahoma (MY US Congressman)…a Grinnell graduate.  We laughed about our long trip to finally meet.

My favorite question to ask Grinnell students and alumns was, "How DID you find this college?" I loved hearing the answers. This college is a tiny gem that finds the exact right kind of students to thrive. 

I received that honorary doctorate, and I didn’t bungle my words. I made new friends, I visited a beautiful Midwestern town, and a vibrant college campus. I wandered the town (doesn’t take long!), took pictures of the plants that grow there but not in Oklahoma.  I was THE teacher…and I tried to encourage the graduates to thank their own teachers…to reach out and reconnect with a teacher who inspired them, believed in them.

I wish every teacher could have felt the gratitude I did. I wish we could all be reminded as meaningfully as I was, that our work matters. Relationships matter.  Teaching and learning matter. What we do opens the world for our students. 

I have never been so proud to be an educator as I was that weekend.

Here is my short address to the graduates of Grinnell:

Thank you to President Kington, the Board of Trustees, the faculty of Grinnell, and the Honorary Degree Selection Committee, for this recognition. Thank you to Rachel Bly and the Conference Operations staff, for making the arrangements for my visit. But most of all, thank you, Jennifer Joy, for this invitation to return to Iowa and  participate in your graduation.

My husband and I started our post-graduate careers just down the road, in Iowa City. Those years were eventful. I taught at Clear Creek High School, where I learned to make connections with students, and to be reflective and intentional. Our son started school in Iowa. Our daughter was born in Iowa. This state prepared us for our next adventure.

To return now, to be a part of this graduation ceremony, to see Jennifer, to meet my very own US Representative, Tom Cole, a Grinnell graduate, and to listen to Zadie Smith is a thrill. Jennifer made it happen for me.

Jennifer and I met in my English elective, Reading for Pleasure in Norman, Ok. I know some of you are thinking you’d love to join us, and others are wondering how anyone could spend a semester reading for pleasure. But we bonded while reading, writing, thinking, and talking about books.

When Jennifer said she was coming to Grinnell, I knew its splendid reputation and knew she would be challenged and nurtured. I will admit I warned her about the winters.  This was the right place for her to grow as a person. And to be here today as she graduates warms my heart.

Your tradition of honoring a classroom teacher, one teacher who represents all the teachers who contributed to your success, recognizes the unique mission of all educators. I am grateful you were  encouraged to look back and think about your K-12 teachers.

This tradition connects your first day in kindergarten to this, your last day as an undergrad, sitting with friends, ready to leave school…for a while…and find your path.

I attended your Baccalaureate yesterday and witnessed the strong connections you have to the professors and staff at Grinnell. I was moved by the hugs and smiles, and know your time here is also full of positive relationships.

This honor, bestowed by Grinnell College, and by Jennifer, is the highest honor a teacher can earn. We live our life with students. We create learning communities, and grow together. Students keep us young and you age us prematurely. You challenge us and mystify us. You find your way into our hearts and never leave. This is what it is to be a teacher…to stay awake worrying about a student. To spend hours grading papers, writing notes on each.  To invent a Friday Blessing to remind you how precious you are.  We know you are treasures. Our beacon to a time we will never see.

I’m here today, but I know each of you can name a teacher who believed in you, supported and encouraged you. Someone who deserves to be standing here watching you graduate from Grinnell.

Maybe it was the teacher who taught you to read. Or a school librarian. Or an orchestra teacher, a history teacher, or math teacher. A coach who pushed you to excel.  The teacher who showed you the solar system or the beauty of the sonnet. I know each of you is here today, partially because of classroom teachers.

So, Class of 2016, do me a favor. Promise to write a short note thanking that teacher, telling him or her about your successes here at Grinnell, and your plans after graduation. Reconnect. Let your teacher know what he or she meant to you.

Thank a teacher for me…for yourself. I promise, it will mean the world to your teacher, your mentor. You’re our legacy.

And, read a book for pleasure…I highly recommend you choose a Zadie Smith book!

Thank you again, and congratulations to you all.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Mira Writes a Letter to Gov. Fallin

Last night I found a remarkable letter by an 11 year old the Governor! She is the precious daughter of one of MY students. I've met Mira, I love her mom, and I am grateful they allowed me to share Mira's letter with you. 

"Please look me, an 11 year old student, and explain why we are not worth investing in anymore? Why are our teachers who you called heroes, are not worth investing in anymore? When did you and state leaders decide that reflecting pools, state leaders pay raises are more important than education?"

I'll be at the #LetsFixThis march and rally today. I will bring Mira's letter to share. She's who we're fighting for. She's why we must have a fair budget that supports working families and their children.

The Office of Governor Mary Fallin
Oklahoma State Capitol
2300 N. Lincoln Blvd., Room 212
Oklahoma City, OK 73105

Dear Mrs. Fallin,

My name is Mira and I’m 11 years old. I’m writing you today, because I just don’t understand what you and the other state leaders are thinking. So, I hope maybe you can give me some answers.

I attend school at Briarwood Elementary. That’s in Moore. That name may sound familiar to you because it was one of the two schools affected by the May 20, 2013 tornado. I remember that day better than any other day in my life. I was in my classroom art closest with my 2nd grade teacher Mrs. Glasgow. I remember at the last minute when the teachers decided to move us from under our desks to the bathrooms and art closest. Come to find out, they did that because there was only one wall to protect us from the tornado. ONE WALL!!!! 

Each day I wake up I’m thankful for my teacher. I think about the “What if”. Some students did not make it home that day to hug their mom and dad. That morning was the last time their parents saw them. Their teacher was there to try and protect them.
I remember watching you on TV making promises about storm shelters in schools and about how our teachers where heroes that day and then you decide the State can not afford shelters in all schools and that it is up to the districts to decide how to get them. You remember when you called our teachers heroes??? I do. I know they are because I was there. I’m still here. I see our teachers everyday and I’m reminded of what happened. We are healing and will continue to heal. However, the people you called heroes that day, you have kicked down to pad your pockets!!!

Moore Public Schools is hit with a $10 million budget cut. I know this because I read the letter that went home to my mom. Thank goodness I can read right! Yeah, I passed that test in 3rd grade. Thank you. By what your office and other State Leaders are doing is killing public education. I’ve heard you speak about how kids are the future of Oklahoma but yet you and all the state leaders keep cutting school budgets!! Why???? Do you really need a reflecting pool so bad that it was worth cutting education for and not making us your future anymore?

Do you realize that by all the crazy state school testing, you have created students (me included) who love school, not want to go because we are so stressed out over stupid testing. I say stupid because it is. I know it’s not nice to say, but it is stupid. Really, it is. Our teachers (remember, heroes) work so many extra hours preparing us for these test that they are stressed too. Now with the budget cuts, we will have less teachers but a lot more students in a class. 

Oh, and don’t forget our teachers have to do more work for less money. They pay out of their own pockets for some supplies in their class room. That’s crazy. Teachers only make $35,000 a year. Ok, I know the salary may be a little off, but not by much. You and state leaders are excepting teachers (remember, heroes) to live off of $35,000 a year? Wait, and pay for food, housing, insurance, and whatever else they need. Oh wait, I forgot you want them to pay for SUPPLIES TO TEACH!!!

So, I guess my question is what are you doing??? When did students (remember, “Future of Oklahoma”) and our teachers (heroes) and education became a stepping stone for you guys? I’m 11 years old and I know something is not right. I really think that instead of you and state leaders fighting for the 10 Commandants to be put on the capitol grounds, you should put them on your desk and read them every day and actually comprehend (big word, I know) what they really mean.

Please look me, an 11 year old student, and explain why we are not worth investing in anymore? Why are our teachers who you called heroes, are not worth investing in anymore? When did you and state leaders decide that reflecting pools, state leaders pay raises are more important than education?

5th grade student
Briarwood Elementary

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

When is Plane Travel Like #oklaed Budget?

I spent an amazing weekend in Grinnell, IA, participating in their Commencement at the invitation of one of my former students, but this post is not about that day. I WILL write about it soon.

My four plane trips, connections to Dallas and Des Moines, then back, left me harried and frustrated and downright cranky. I see sad parallels to what’s happening in #oklaed, and I need to get it off my chest.

The airlines have been charging for checked luggage for years now, and it drives up the cost of our travel. I usually just pay the extra so I don’t have to pack exceptionally light, and I don’t have to spend the day maneuvering with my carryon and ‘one personal item’ on and off airplanes, and in the terminal. It’s a choice I’m able to make, and an extra expense I pay grudgingly.

Many travelers, for whatever reason, do not make that choice. Over the weekend I saw some creative labeling of that ‘one personal item,’ and too many duffels and rolling cases to last a lifetime.  

They’re an inconvience for us all. It starts in the terminal. One woman in front of me ordered her lunch, rolled her case while shouldering her backpack through the crowd. But, whoops! She forgot napkins! While continuing her phone conversation, she wheeled back through those of us in line…twice…to get her napkin and return to her seat. It was our job to avoid getting our toes mashed. 

But on the plane it’s even worse! I see games being played by passengers who want to bring more and more into the cabin…roller cases packed to capacity, and the expansion gusset opened to the point the cases won’t even fit in the overhead compartments (wheels in our wheels out? I forget!!) Passengers huff and puff, push and shove trying to convince the line behind them that the case will fit!! Then, I saw a duffle today…longer than the compartment. I lost track of that one, but didn’t notice anyone having to do the ‘walk of shame’ up the aisle with the offending piece of luggage and submit to gate checking! (Gasp! The horror!) So, it must have been averted.

One personal item – to be placed under the seat in front…women jam one large purse inside a slightly larger tote and call it good. Shopping bags filled to the brim. Backpacks that could put out the eye of anyone behind them (more on that later). Smaller duffels…anything to get as much stuff onto the plane for free, thus avoiding that checked-bag fee I paid.

Another game gets played at the gate…by people who hope the agent will announce that the flight is filled to capacity and could 15-20 passengers volunteer to check their carry-on here at the gate, for free. FOR FREE. They avoid lugging everything, and they avoid the fee I paid. If the flight isn’t full, they just lug it all onto the plane. Obviously worth the risk for some.

On my last leg today, I saw a little old lady (Yes, I know. I resemble that remark) nearly get taken out…twice…as she stood in the aisle, just trying to hold her place to get off the plane. Someone wrestled their ‘carryon’ bag out of the overhead compartment and nearly lost hold of the heavy, unwieldy object…it almost hit her. She was spry and avoided it. Moments later, another passenger, shouldering her massive backpack wheeled around and actually did hit my seat mate with the pack. Her cute straw hat slipped down over her eyebrows.

Watching this, I was first ready to be angry at my fellow passengers for trying to cram the cabin with all their worldly belongings…but then I remembered WHY they are doing it. The airline policy and the airline commitment to the bottom line, not passenger comfort. I was frustrated with the wrong people.

This brings me to my #oklaed connection…and yes, there is one.

Our legislature has systematically starved Oklahoma public schools since 2008. Cuts while the state was flush with oil money. They instituted reckless tax cuts, they gifted corporations with tax credits, and they bankrupted our state. When the bottom fell out of oil prices, they cried, “Woe is us!” and blamed the oil market, conveniently forgetting all their deliberate, foolish, decisions.

Here is a comprehensive look at the responses our school districts have been forced to make, in response to a do-less-than-nothing approach to funding our schools. Thanks to Oklahoma Education Journal.

Schools have been cut…and cut…and cut. Norman Public schools let all library aides go, and sent all math and reading instructional coaches back to the classroom. At least one central office position was eliminated. Noble Public Schools closed this year early, and then chose to go to four-day week next year. In the airport today, I learned  through the grapevine that Oklahoma Public Schools will essentially fire all custodial staff, and ‘allow’ them to reapply for their jobs, at a lower salary. Other Metro districts are making equally distasteful decisions. Here and here. Millwood teachers chose a voluntary furlough day, to save colleagues’ jobs.

That teacher shortage we had at the beginning of the year has ‘solved’ itself, as districts have been forced to lay off teachers, including one who’s running for the House District 93, Mickey Dollens.

School leaders know these moves are NOT in the best interest of schools and of students. They KNOW that. But they have been forced to weigh one program against another, one department against another, one teacher against another. They are attempting to survive, to keep schools open, to continue educating children.

I despair at each of these decisions. Cutting the school week will directly will affect student learning, and it will also affect all hourly employees in a district. The bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, classroom aides, clerical workers. They will take a 20% cut in their pay. Families will have to scramble for one day of day care for students, adding expense to their budgets.  Students on free-and-reduced lunches, some of whom eat twice a day in the school cafeteria, will go hungry an extra day every week. Every. Week. Firing, and they rehiring workers for less money will be detrimental to these, our most marginalized workers.

I am furious as I see what is happening to our schools, as leaders have to make agonizing decisions just to stay alive.  BUT I know any anger at these leaders is misplaced. It distracts us from the real issue…the real reason we are suffering. District leaders are not making these decisions because they want to. They’re making these decisions because our legislature and policy makers have strangled schools – and other public services – to the brink of death. Policy makers created this problem and they are fully responsible for every custodian in OKCPS who loses his or her job. They are responsible for hourly workers in schools losing 20% of their salaries, for the teachers who have been laid off, for the parents who must find one day of care for their children, for the overcrowding of our schools. They are responsible for students

Supposedly, there is a state budget today. Forgive me if I don’t cheer. The boast that there will be no ‘more’ cuts to common education ignores the facts…less funding than eight years ago, and more students. That’s a cut, even for this number-challenged English teacher.  Plus, there are cuts in so many of the social services our students’ families rely on. The services that help our students stay healthy, housed, fed. Those cuts will affect our students.

Place the blame on the correct culprit…my seat mate would not have been smacked in the head with an over-stuffed backpack if we could still check luggage for free, or for a nominal fee.

Our schools would not be forced to make draconian choices of services and programs for our students if we had a legislature that cared about our children and their education.  Our social services and safety-net agencies wouldn’t be closing their doors and turning away needy Oklahomans, if our legislature cared about our citizens.

We can’t do much to pressure airlines into ending a profitable practice…we could all fly on Southwest, who doesn’t charge us for one checked bag. But we’d have to sit in those cramped seats.

But we can do something about who represents us at the Capitol. We can search legislators’ voting records – on education bills and on bills that would support and sustain families. We can ask hard questions of candidates. We can show them #oklaed is our priority. Healthy students in our classrooms is a priority.

Our students recently led the way, marching to the Capitol, holding the policy makers who caused the budget failures accountable for the devastation. We must follow their example. Start by planning to attend Let's Fix This at the Capitol, Thursday at 10am. Begin your summer break by reminding legislators for whom they work, to whom they are accountable.

Then we can vote the bums out.

Until we do, I offer George Carlin.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Dear Pro-Education Candidates...

Dear Legislative Candidates,

I have written a Study Guide for you as you prepare to meet the public as a pro-education candidate.
 And then, after you work through the Study Guide, I have an essay test for you. My former students will tell you how much l love essay tests, and how very closely I read them.

Are you ready??

Study Guide for Pro-Education Candidates

First, thank you for taking this exciting, scary step –  running for public office. I can’t imagine the extra stress such a decision will create for you and your family, and I am deeply appreciative. Second, you have a lot to learn in a short amount of time about the state of Oklahoma education. But I can help!

I offer this study guide and ‘exam’ as one way to prepare for questions from voters about your depth of knowledge about public education issues, and your commitment to #oklaed.

1.       Get to know the pro-education groups who have already been working hard for the students of our state: VOICE, a community outreach on several issues touching the lives of Oklahomans; Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education, a dynamic Facebook group dedicated to public education; EFFORT-SOS, another FB group; Oklahoma Education Voters, a FB page that highlights education issues; local Parent Legislative Action Committees (PLAC). Search these sites for clues about what the citizens of our state have already identified as vital issues. Be ready to discuss.

2.     OEV (a page I help organize) surveyed members on their top education issues two years ago, and coded the answers to arrive at our top issues. We then contacted local candidates and asked them to respond…here are our issues from two years ago…nothing much has changed: School Funding, High Stakes Testing, State Politics of Interference, Respect for and Support of Public Education. Be ready to show how you support public education in Oklahoma on all these issues. VOICE has also created a list of issues its members feel strongly about.

3.       Learn as much as you can about how schools in Oklahoma are funded…what the sources of funding are, and what restrictions are placed on what funds. Research the recent downturn in funding, and be ready to discuss. Visit with policy makers and school administrators and be ready to offer ideas that could bring relief to our schools before it’s too late. Steel yourself for lots of vigorous cross-examinations.

4.       Acquaint yourself on the issue of testing and assessment…both federally-mandated tests and state-mandated testing. Know what tests our students take, the purpose of the testing, and how the results are used. Be able to discuss which are high-stakes and why. Learn how test scores are used in teacher evaluation, school grades, and decisions about student placement. Solidify your own position on this issue and be ready to articulate.

5.       Reach out to the public schools in your district. Visit. Volunteer. Talk to students and teachers and parents. Talk to the site and district administrators. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Treat this as a learning opportunity. Always be certain to seek out the real stakeholders, those who can share stories of the ramifications of current policies.

6.       Vouchers, expanding charter schools, forced consolidation, teacher evaluation, teacher recruitment and retention, and deregulation were hot topics this session…voters will expect you to be ready to discuss any and all at a moment’s notice, with facts.

Essay Test for Pro-education Candidates

Please answer the following questions as completely and thoroughly as possible. Use your own paper. Your answers will be scored for original thinking, clarity, insight. Points will be deducted for any whiff of clich├ęs or policy-maker-speak.

As a state legislator, you will be called upon to represent all citizens…the powerful and the vulnerable.  Convince me you’re worthy of my support, my vote.

Part 1

1.       What is your involvement in public education in Oklahoma? What are your accomplishments?
2.       When did your commitment to public education begin? How have you displayed that commitment? How does your work with public education inform your views?  What bills have you advocated for or against in the past? Please provide evidence.
3.       If you have children, where do/did they go to school? What did you learn as a parent that will inform your work as a legislator?
4.       List five references who can vouch for your connection and commitment to education over time. What will each say about your work in #oklaed?
5.       List three sources that have helped you research your positions on education issues. Explain what you have learned from each.
6.       What is your definition of adequate support for our schools? Detail the components of that support.
7.       What are your suggestions for adequate funding for all schools?  How do you intend to bring that adequate support to the schools? How do you plan to assure equity of funding and resources for all Oklahoma public schools? Be specific.
8.       What are you willing to do to assure a highly qualified teacher for every student? How will you contribute to a sustainable overhaul of teacher recruitment and retention. List five suggestions for teacher preparation colleges in our state.
9.       What will you do to end the status quo of test-and-punish in #oklaed? What other failed reform efforts can you list? Why have they been detrimental? Which will be your first priority?
10.   How will you work with other legislators to create a new climate of cooperation among all stakeholders
11.   How many school districts and schools are in your District? Name five principals you’ve visited with, 10 teachers, 10 students, 10 parents. What did you learn? How will that inform your work at the Capitol?
12.   List your legislative agenda if you are elected…what, specifically, will you be prioritizing for #oklaed?
Part 2
Social justice issues are deeply connected to education issues. Please explain your positions on these issues, and your plans to address them as they affect #oklaed:
·         Child poverty
·         Child food insecurity
·         Child homelessness
·         Health, dental, vision insurance for all families
·         Living wage for working parents
·         Affordable mental health care for families
·         Access to hospitals and health clinics for all families
·   Access to free public libraries with adequate technology

(I am having a devil of a time adding one more item in my list, so I'll do it will you address the physical and mental and emotional safety of all LGBT students in public schools?)

Make certain your answers are detailed and complete. As a 39-year veteran in the classroom, I have a built-in BS detector, and I love to read essay answers closely. Expect that I will write all over your paper in preparation for our discussion of your grade.

There will be two deadlines for your answers. If you have a primary, your answers are due in my inbox by no later than two weeks before your primary, June 28. If you do not have a primary opponent, you have until two weeks before November 8. IF you wait until the last minute, I cannot promise to either read your work or take you seriously as a candidate.  Don’t wait until the last minute to complete this test…your future, our kids’ futures depend on your answers.

Don’t TELL me how much you care. SHOW me.