Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Choose to Refuse: One Year Later

Over the past year, through a grassroots movement, parents, educators, administrators, scholars, community leaders and politicians from New York State have banded together to bring awareness to the dire need for change in our public school education system and to demand a more thoughtful, evidence based approach to getting standardized testing done right. Refusing the tests is the most media attractive and sensationalized component of the movement- but truly it is just a small piece of the larger body of work that is being carried out in the quest for fair education and testing for all of New York State's public school students. Many people have asked me why our family Chooses to Refuse. This is my best attempt- in the midst of a new cycle of testing- to explain some of the reasons behind our stance . If you would like more information about test refusal, please click here. If you would like to read more about how current education reform imposed by the State Education Department is affecting our children, please click here.



Standing up for what we believe is not always easy.  Or in my 6th grade daughter, Annalee’s case, sitting and staring* for her beliefs has been an uncomfortable yet valuable exercise in civil disobedience.

Annalee will sit at her desk for 1.5 hours, three days in a row this week with her hands folded quietly on her desk- contemplating her classroom surroundings, drawing upon her imagination to occupy her mind, and devising goals for the remainder of the school year. She will sit there, the lone dissident in her classroom, while her classmates complete a grueling 5 hours of testing for NYS English Language Arts Assessments this week. She will sit again at the end of the month for an additional five hours as her classmates complete the Math portion of the NYS Assessments. Annalee, like her older brother last year, has chosen- with our support- to refuse the tests this year. While she feels lonely in her stance, she is not alone. The latest tally reports that 26,006  3rd-8th grade students in New York State and Long Island have joined in a movement to protest high stakes testing.

Critics of the Choose to Refuse (otherwise known as Opt-Out) movement accuse parents who refuse of coddling our children. They claim that we do not care about our children’s education- that we don’t want our children to be challenged. They ask, Don’t you want to know if your kid is making the grade? They assert that we are ignorant. Some of Annalee’s classmates heckled her after yesterday’s test- calling her stupid for her decision. But after hearing the facts and seeing the bigger picture, she feels strongly (albeit painfully) that this is something she needs to stand up for- for ALL New York State students.


We protest because our children are more than just a single digit score. My child is challenged appropriately and thoughtfully every day by a very competent and compassionate teacher who has implemented an engaging and rigorous curriculum across all subject areas. We value the knowledge and expertise of our teachers- as professionals- to guide our children along a pathway of success and opportunity. We receive quarterly report cards which indicate that she is doing quite well. We have a solid line of communication to her teacher- who spends 5 days/ week with her, recognizing and accommodating her strengths, weaknesses, her emotional triggers, as well as the things that inspire her to succeed. My faith is in her teacher to let me know whether or not she is ‘making the grade.’ Annalee’s performance on one set of very flawed, unreliable and unproven tests does not truly inform of the depth, breadth and mastery of material she has learned or the areas which need additional support.

 We protest because the State has placed an undue burden on our children by designating their performance on high stakes tests as a hefty determining factor of the quality and ability of our talented and dedicated teachers (or for that matter, those teachers who still have much room to grow). Governor Cuomo has maintained that these tests do not count-that they will have no bearing on student matriculation- that parents who are worried about the tests can sigh in relief. Yet, our students’ performances on these high stakes tests are tied into their teachers’ Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). I would say that these tests do indeed count for something- a big something. 

We protest because valuable learning time has been stolen from our children in order to prepare for the Assessments. Ten years ago children were subjected to 625 minutes of testing. Today 3,200 minutes is devoted to testing- longer than the bar exam or tests administered to prospective city police officers. One third of classroom hours are spent preparing for tests. Teachers are spending less time teaching and more time collecting data which impacts teachable moments in the classroom. Through this drill and kill style of test prep and assessment, we have witnessed the stamping out of our children’s innate love and curiosity of learning.
 
We protest because the tests are flawed and developmentally inappropriate. Last year’s tests did not even reflect the new Common Core model from which the assessments are based. In ELA, for instance, students will take multiple days to read, interpret, dissect, discuss and then write about a selection of text in class. Yet on last year’s ELA Assessments, students were expected to process the same length of text in the severely abbreviated time frame allotted.
 
We protest because one- size- fits-all tests are inherently inequitable. This type of testing does not take into account the learning disadvantages of special education students or non-native English speakers- many of whom have recently immigrated to our country. There is certainly no provision which allows for a comprehensive view of the ‘whole’ child. One of our Buffalo Public Schools was deemed a Priority school (a failing school)  because of poor performance on state tests. But the State had no regard or sympathy for the fact that 75% of the school’s population was comprised of non- native English speakers with very unique learning needs.
 
We protest because there is no evidence to support the use of high stakes test in determining whether or not a child is college and career ready at the age of 9, 10, 11, 12, 13  years old. There is an overall lack of reliability, transparency, validity. In the past, standardized tests were used to determine strengths and weaknesses of student performances. Now the tests are sealed and sent back without providing to parents, teachers, and administrators diagnostic or prescriptive information to address strengths and weaknesses about student performance. Last year, teachers were required to sign an affidavit before the tests were sent back to Albany which stated that they would not speak of the content of these tests or they would risk losing their jobs.

We protest the $2.2 billion being spent on testing in NYS, which has become a financial burden for school districts across the state, especially impoverished districts like the Buffalo Public School district. We are facing cuts to the arts, athletics, after school and enrichment programs in favor of funding a very narrow curriculum of Math and ELA.
  
Just because we do not support the idea that there is any value in excessive testing does not mean that we do not believe in the best education for our children. We simply believe in MORE education for our children- more specifically, we demand a more equitable education for ALL students.

I worry that if we continue to accept the status quo of State mandated assessments (and all that surrounds them), our children will be forced to abandon the necessary critical thinking and problem solving skills that are essential to live, work and cope in the real world- to truly become college and career ready.  We need a better, more comprehensive way to evaluate our students’ progress, achievements and challenges. I want my children to be afforded every opportunity for academic success and growth- allowing them to reach and exceed their potential- to keep striving for answers to the questions that surround them- to keep seeking new ways to improve upon ideas, to innovate, to gain a better understanding of themselves and the world around them through the process of learning rather than process of finding ONE right answer to a question. And we will continue to Choose to Refuse until a fairer and more effective evaluation system for ALL children is developed and adopted.

 *Our school district has enforced the punitive position of 'sit and stare' to deal with students who have chosen to refuse to take the NYS ELA and Math assessments. Other districts are more lenient and accommodating, taking refusers to a separate location to read or study during the examination period. You may read our superintendent's letter and the thoughtful  response by Buffalo Teacher Federation President, Phil Rumore by clicking here.


Friday, March 14, 2014

The Rule of Markers

The Kid wanted juice. She started to follow me to the kitchen but she was distracted by a sparkly pack of markers on the table. "Oooh, can I draw with these?" Blerg, who left those there? I quickly assessed the package: Washable. Non-Toxic. Her last creative venture with non-washable markers  resulted in head to toe body art. I could handle washable.


Our new baby, Bridget, a three year old pitbull mix whom the kids affectionately refer to as Pigbat (due to her insanely large and batty ears and her piggy snorting) is usually at my heels in the kitchen. I didn't realize that she hadn't followed me.


In reality, I came back from the kitchen to find The Kid spit cleaning Pigbat's head to erase the evidence. And, really she only had enough time to sneak in two purple lines on her forehead which blended with her muted brindle coat. I don't doubt for a minute that if given a little more time to herself, she would have 'tatooed' Pigbat's entire body. The Rule of Markers is Never Walk Away from a Kid with Markers.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A-hole in One: The Juggler Who Dropped His Balls

This installment of A-hole in One was sent to me by Karen Song, a blog reader from Northern Virginia (DC Metro). This story, involving her teenage daughter, Kate*, is about a shift in perspective and perception after a brief stumble from the deceptive ways of a class A A-hole, a juggler who really dropped his balls. I chose to post this piece because we often preach to our girls the importance of girlfriends- we study it, we have research behind the benefits of nurturing our female friendships. And yet, we still fall short in supporting the idea of a community of girls/ women continuing to support each other and look out for one another outside of our intimate friendships. There often seems to be a quiet acceptance of the idea that in order to pull ahead in a our competitive world, girls, as they mature, must be especially competitive with each other, undermining each other, accepting  an uneasiness or mistrust of one another instead of celebrating each other’s accomplishments or developing a legacy of sisterhood. Here is Karen's story:

My daughter Kate, a junior in high school, is a really sweet kid.  She is 16 and is still a bit shy and insecure but really seems to be coming into her own.  And she is really blossoming in terms of her appearance and the boys are starting to take notice.  She is on the cheerleading squad and a few months ago a boy named Aaron who is a star football player approached her after cheerleading practice. After chatting for a bit, he asked her out on a date.  She was thrilled beyond belief!  This would be her first date and she couldn’t believe he even knew who she was.  But then after a phone conversation or two, she didn’t hear from him. The days went by and he never followed up on the date that he had set.  She was crushed, though not totally shocked, since her friends had warned her that he was a bit of a jerk.  Then, to add insult to injury, she discovered he just started dating another girl named Valerie who is very pretty, popular and, well, rather buxom too. Fair or not, she was quite resentful toward Valerie and bitter over the whole situation. She also declared to me that she now hated all girls with big boobs.

Well anyway, one day during lunch at the cafeteria, Valerie stopped by Kate's table to talk to her.  She asked if it was true if Aaron stood her up, which of course Kate confirmed.  Then Valerie told Kate that she wanted her to watch something.  Valerie walked over to Aaron's table where he was with all of his football buddies.  There was a brief exchange between the two and Kate overheard Natalie say "you don't get to juggle women!"....and then SMACK!....Valerie slapped his face and walked off.  

Aaron sat there in disbelief, rubbing his cheek. Kate took this all in and of course enjoyed every second of it. Valerie then came back to talk to Kate and told her that the slap was for disrespecting Kate. She told Kate that she also told Aaron that she no longer wanted to date him because he was not a gentleman.   Kate was blown away by all of this. 

This has been the gift that keeps on giving as the girls are now good friends. I’ve met Valerie and she is a lovely girl. She is quite intelligent and has been accepted to Dartmouth. She has been a good role model for Kate. Needless to say, Kate is no longer resentful of buxom girls.


I was also contacted by Valerie who was happy that I was sharing their story.
She wrote, “Also, I feel a need to explain myself a bit, since my reaction that day probably seemed overly dramatic, harsh, etc.  It's hard to describe the swell of emotions I felt at that moment.  The very idea that I was dating a guy who treated women like toys was so disturbing and made me feel "dirty" if you will.  I felt I needed to send a strong message that his behavior was unacceptable.”

* All names have been changes

Monday, February 24, 2014

game over, old man winter


I don't remember having a winter without a break in the disorienting gray-hued, snowy landscape. I was greedy for some green- until we had a mini warm up this weekend and the patches of 'green' in our yard were more like the memory of green. Like wilted spinach left in the pan too long-soggy green brown-with a dump of dog poop. When the kids are done with winter, you know the game is over. Do you hear that, Winter? The game is OVER! We are waiting on some Spring like we wait on Santa. I hope we made it on the Nice list and we get lots of shiny, rainbow-y spring baubles and sunshine soon.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Love Your Pet Day

In case you didn't know, today is Love Your Pet Day. 

Recently my kids have started to notice that I spend an awful lot of time with the dogs. And they have begun to question whether I love my dogs more than I love my human children. That's just nonsense. It's just refreshing to have someone look up to you every day. Seriously, look at them- always looking up.


While I have solid relationships with my children- better than most by traditional standards, the kids fail to acknowledge that they are growing up and inevitably growing away from me. They don't all want to be snuggled under blankets with me watching Sherlock Holmes BBC on the iPad. The dogs relish the eternal maternal warmth that exudes from my body- the kids pull away. The dogs live to please, they are loyal and forgiving even when I am not at my best. The kids- not so much lately. And that's all okay. That's just the nature of their ages.

The Mr. sensing a bit of internal conflict as I pondered the children's accusation, assured me that he knew where my true love lay. "I know that if the kids and the dogs were stuck on train tracks with a train barreling toward them, you would save the children first."

This is true. How else would I have extra sets of hands to save the dogs?

Love your pets a little more today. And throw your kids an extra bone, too.