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.