Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thank you, Betsy DeVos

I'd started to feel afloat and apathetic about education policy and politics. I've wondered if public schools are where I belong, and have even wondered if maybe I haven't been fair to charter schools, that maybe I should step back and understand them more. I spent two years doing special education eligibility paperwork and making sure every i was dotted, every t was crossed, and that legally we don't leave any loop holes in our paperwork for lawyers to come back at us. Most recently I've gotten busy with private clients and my own family, and forgot about my passion. I'd lost my passion.

In college, defending public education is where I found my voice. Although I am usually quiet and reserved, I provoked many debates over public education among my conservative peers. Once I got started on my soap box I couldn't stop. Think you are going to be important to society as a lawyer in NYC? Think again. Some of my friends became teachers even though that wasn't their original plan, and I'd like to think that my constant, ridiculously passionate talk about how important teaching is had something to do with that. 

But recently? Recently I've been elsewhere. It's all felt too hard. Too much to fight. Everyone seems against us, and after awhile you start to think, well, maybe they are right. Maybe the schools are terrible and everything we are going is wrong, and we should just get out of the way and let the charters take over... depression thoughts, really.

So thank you, Betsy DeVos. My anger and outrage towards you has helped me find my passion again. You reminded me of just how much I desperately believe in the importance of public schools, and how essential IDEA is to our students. How our federal programs exist not to punish us as teachers, but to ensure that we serve the needs of all students, despite their economic, cultural, linguistic, or special education background. Public schools are far from perfect, but oh, how important it is that they exist and that we do not stop fighting to make them better. ALL of them, not just the charters.

Because if you don't even take public schools seriously enough to have someone give you an Education 101 crash course on all things public education (like federal mandates, IDEA, and growth vs proficiency) then what are you going to do once you actually have the job? 

If you came to the hearings with passion I might have defended you, even if I disagreed with you. If you had facts and figures on why IDEA should be a states issue, I would at least respect you, although I would strongly disagree. But you didn't even bother to learn what it was.

I'm heartsick, and yet, energized. It feels good to be angry again. Let's go.
A student once drew this of me. It really summarizes my thoughts of someone else right now.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Stress and the lack of it

*I wrote this in December and never hit publish, so I'm hitting the publish button now.*

"So, how's it going with your new business?" 

I've been on my own with my private special education business for about 5 months now. I can't put into words how much I love it. I work with absolutely amazing kids and their incredible, dedicated families. 

I'm probably putting in longer hours than I did last year (and making less money), but I love every moment of it. Even when it's not going well, when I'm stressed, have a sick kid, a lesson didn't go as planned, or I'm having trouble figuring out where to go next with a student, I still find myself in an overall happy place. These challenges are good challenges.

What's surprised me the most is struggling with the guilt of being happy. I've been teaching in Title One schools for a long time, where every single moment you are in the building is valuable. I can't remember the last time I took a legit lunch break at work, especially since I became a mom and had to leave right at the end of the day. In a school building, every open second needs to be about the kids. If you find yourself with extra time on your hands (time that lets you actually plan for a class, check in with a colleague, or answer some emails) you've felt like you've done something wrong. Stress is a way of life. It's been that way at every Title 1 school I've worked in.

On the surface this can be a good thing. It shows the dedication of the teachers. We desperately want these kids to learn and succeed. We know they can learn to read, we just need to push ourselves to get them there. So we do. Every day. 

I was surprised this fall to be so uncomfortable away from the stress. I'm still working hard for my clients. I'm constantly thinking about them, looking for ways to improve my practice and get new ideas. I'm reading and listening to professional books, and doing deep thinking about practices. In fact, I'm probably doing more thinking about being creative than I have in the last few years. It's funny where a lack of emergency stress leaves you.

But I find myself wracked with guilt that I'm not feeling this crazy emergency stress every moment of the day. I feel like I'm missing something. As though I've showed up to school naked. 

Today is the last day of school before winter break in my district, and every teacher I know is filled with jubilee. I know they've had a hard December. Schools are crazy this time of year. I'm still working over the holidays, so I don't have that same since of ending, but I don't need it. I don't feel like I just ran a marathon and I need to take a break to recharge. I am recharged. I've been recharged all fall.

It's hard to even write this, because I'm worried someone will read it and say "HEY! That's not allowed!  You aren't allowed to be in the teaching profession and not be stressed. We're taking away your teaching certificate, or we're going to give you 100 more things to do."

What are we doing to teachers? Why have we created these extremely stressful environments and written them off as normal, and a part of the profession? Did we do it to ourselves from our dedication to the children? Did being stressed and over worked become a competition?

Finding the Girls

A few months ago I wrote a post about looking for the girls in children's literature. It was surprisingly hard to find a book for preschoolers with a girl as the main character. Since then a few more girls have popped up in the children's books I've been reading, and I wanted to share.

I recently received a box of books from Scholastic as payment for some work I did for them. (Best payment EVER!) The box introduced me to Zoe, an imaginative young girl who sees the simple moments in daily life as real-life adventures. She struggles with the same life challenges my girls do - the overwhelming decisions every morning of choosing what to wear based on what kind of adventures you want for that day, and how to best use the last five minutes of playground time. In fact, while I previously thought of myself as Fancy Nancy's mother, I now think I may have more in common with Zoe's mother. ("Zoe, you have five minutes"...Argue, argue, argue... "Four minutes." Yes, that's pretty  much my life.)

My girls recently received Ada Twist, Scientist for a Christmas present, and it is awesome in so many ways. I think my two year old may have found a new hero other than Curious George.

My newsletter this month is an old favorite, Katy and the Big Snow. You have to love the fact that it was written back in 1974, but Katy is the strongest tractor around - and a girl.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

My Favorite Room

My favorite room in my house is an absolute disaster. Not just right now - all the time. There is glitter stuck to the floor, paint on the tables, and boxes and boxes overflowing with recycling. Abandoned marker tops hide in the dark corners where no one can reach them, nestled next to scraps of paper and those annoying circles from the hole puncher that are impossible to pick up. 
I adore this room.

In my house's previous life it was someone's work room, fully equipped with serious power tools. I imagine the previous owner snuck down to the basement for alone time workroom, away from the fast pace of the family and created beautiful, well planned projects. Not having power tools of our own, we turned the benches and cabinets he'd utilized for his wood working into our art room. 

It is about as unorganized as one can imagine. Every time I attempt to organize it someone comes along to do an art project and the creativity overtakes the room. Typically, by the time the project is complete, we are late to something and nothing gets put away in exactly the "right" spot.

That's OK. I'm making peace with the chaos. 

I love this room. We store cardboard boxes, empty spools of ribbon, toilet paper rolls, sturdy cardboard pieces, and anything else that looks like it could become a project instead of trash. *Note: Only one of the storage bins is actually a store-bought bin. The others are just large cardboard boxes. Even the kids' art table is a large cardboard box covered in white paper. It was a playhouse for awhile and before it made it to recycling it somehow because an art table. Perfect for little hands to kneel and work.
The kids have free access to tape, glue, markers, paper, scissors, stamps, crayons, glitter glue, and tons of other materials. They need to request paints or free flowing glitter from an adult, but that is because one of them is two and a half and is an expert at testing limits. Even with adult supervision we end up with painted floors. Last weekend she stepped on her glitter-glue name that was drying and our floors ended up with a path of glittery 'er' that she stamped with every step.

This summer I dedicated space in the room to my new business. I spend a lot of time here, creating social stories and projects for the kids I work with. I store my book kits here too. This ridiculously messy room is where I become the most creative. Standing here, with a book in hand, I can see what needs to be pulled together so that a particular student can act out a book. I have my two paper cutters and my laminator here to help create all sorts of projects. In the slightly organized area of the room I also have a gift station, where I have easy access to my wrapping supplies. 

I love this room.

On Saturday morning, when we'd planned to clean the house and get organized, somehow my girls and I ended up down there. While my oldest was making a jewelry box out of an egg carton I distracted the two year old with a shoe box. Somehow in our play the box transformed into a school bus. The three of us became consumed with listing the different parts of the bus and then determining how to create them with the supplies we had on hand. The five year old wrote 'stop' for us while the two year old wrote the first letters of their names all over the bus. Even after I'd stepped away to do laundry the two girls worked together peacefully on the project, solving "what if's" and accepting one another's ideas. This does not happen often, so when it does it feels like magic. There is magic in this room.

There is a lot we could do with this space other than covering it with glitter and scraps of construction paper. One day maybe we can turn it into a guest bedroom, or a bathroom, or just use the additional storage space so we can buy more at Costco. But for now, it's our art room. 

A serious mess for serious creativity, problem solving, and learning the power of transforming an idea to reality.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Bloxels and Homework

 A few weeks ago my nephew made the mistake of excitedly showing me his new ipad game, Bloxels, which lets him create his own video game levels. The poor guy... as he showed me all of his creations and how it worked, all I was thinking was how I could use this for his homeschool work. So when I assigned him homework I told him he could complete a worksheet packet or he could use the Bloxels to create levels that showed what we were doing in science. I gave him general topics and told him to be creative. I was pretty sure he could figure something out.  

He did. He built three different levels. In one, the character needs to get across a sink full of water (the character can't swim.) He used the storytelling blocks to show the character's thinking and how if he put salt in the water he would change the salinity, making it possible to float across on a golf ball. 
In another level, he created the ocean floor, with the character navigating his way through the different parts (the vocabulary pops up in the storytelling bubbles). And for yet another one, he made a Harry Potter story.

This week his homework is to demonstrate his knowledge of the parts of a plant cell in a bloxels level. We'll see what he comes up with.

I love this because he is not just writing definitions of what we are learning, or answering questions about it, but applying the knowledge. He has to understand it to be able to manipulate the ideas into a video game level. Then, he is spending much more time on making the levels than he would be if he was just filling out a worksheet. Even if he's spending time making a fancy background or creating a book that flips back and forth, he is still thinking about the science concepts. The more his mind is engaged in the concepts, the more he'll remember them.

I'd never heard of Bloxels before he showed it to me, but there are so many possibilities here to get kids engaged in curriculum topics while doing what they'd be doing in their spare time anyway.

Friday, November 11, 2016

STOP IT! Everyone. Take a breath. In. Out. Quiet.

Every teacher hits a moment once in awhile where their class goes off the wall and needs to be reset. The definition of "off the wall" is different for each teacher, but regardless, most teachers have a moment at some point during the school year where the class is sent back to their seats. The lights go off. The teacher starts off with a firm, strong voice to show how angry she is.

"Sit down. SIT DOWN! No Talking. None!" She becomes Viola Swamp for a few brief moments to regain control and send a message to the class that what they were doing was NOT OK.

After a moment of quiet she starts slowly and calmly explaining why she was angry. What the class did that was not OK. She calmly shows how they were not respecting their friends, the class materials, or her. Once everyone is calm she invites them to try again. Come back to the carpet, without talking or pushing or laughing, and try again.

After reading Facebook this morning I want to use my angry teacher voice at the whole world.

STOP IT! Now. STOP TYPING. Sit down. Put the phones down. Put your heads on your desks. Take a deep breath. This behavior is not acceptable. This is not how we treat our classmates. This is not how we treat our school, our families, where we live. This is not how we treat our country.

The day after the election the Facebook messages were about love. Sadness, but also love. A few of my republican friends expressed excitement over the election, and they had the right to do that. Those messages of excitement were not racist or angry. What they believed should have happened, did. I don't share their belief, but I am not going to tell them not to say it.

The next day? Now? That's a lot of anger out there people. We've moved from the denial stage (well, I still see a lot of those anti-electoral college posts so some of us are still in denial) of grieving to the anger stage. Like I tell my five year old, it is OK to be angry. It is not OK to use mean words or hurt someone else.

We got into this mess from anger. Anger is dividing us and separating us. We're so angry it's turned to rage. We've stopped trying to understand one another. We haven't tried to understand each other for a long time. We've made it impossible for people to express an opinion that we don't share. We're all so shocked by the outcome because we had no idea so many people were actually going to vote for Trump. People were scared to admit it. People outwardly  lied about who they were voting for, and then in privacy voted their heart. We silenced them so that the only way they thought they had a voice was through the polls. We've taken away open discourse. We made it socially unacceptable to express views different than our own. We isolated ourselves and stopped listening to those outside our walls.

I'm married to a republican. A lot of people ask me how I can do that, which confuses me. I enjoy hearing his opinions and thoughts. It makes me grow. We debate politics, question each other, try the other's opinion on for a moment, and then explain why we don't agree. It makes him grow too.

Through him I know a lot of republicans. Republicans who work for republicans. Whose entire lives are about being republicans. They aren't racist. They aren't homophobic. They aren't filled with hate. They truly believe the free markets and smaller governments will help everyone. It's not about letting big business win, or shipping people out of the country, it's about finding a way to help everyone. My husband and my socialist brother actually agree on a lot of issues. They agree on outcomes, just not how to get to those outcomes.

The last few days I've just read posts about pure hatred of republicans. Talking about them in a way that assumes they are Voldemort. Hatred for them coming across in every angrily typed word. I get that we're angry and hurt. But don't let the anger turn to hatred. That's not going to help.

It's OK to be angry. And disappointed. And hurt. And scared. Use those emotions to do good. Pin the safety pin on your shirt, but make sure that when you do it means you are also there to support the republicans. Make it a symbol that you'll listen to everyone regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, and political beliefs. All means all.

Go find a Trump supporter and get them to explain their rationality to you. Don't listen so that you can argue with them. Don't try to find a hole in their argument. Just listen. Understand. Think about where they are coming from. Go for a walk and replay that conversation in your mind. You don't have to change your mind about your own political beliefs to understand what other people think. Understanding both sides of a situation will only make you stronger. Being a republican isn't contagious. You aren't going to come down with some horrible disease from listening to someone's beliefs.

Later, once you understand how they are thinking you may find a counter point. Maybe an article or a podcast that presents a different view. And because you listened to them, they will listen to you and take your data and facts into consideration. No one accepts data that is thrown in their faces as a "Ha! How do you like them apples?" So find another way to get the facts out there.

A few years ago I was helping prepare a group of third grade boy with autism for a Socratic seminar. We had to work hard to get them to understand they could not say things like "I respectfully disagree with you because you are stupid." Or, "I think the author said .... because I know I am right and you are wrong." It was hard to get them to understand that they had to actually listen to one another's positions before responding. Facebook feels like my angry third grade boys before our social skills work. We don't let our kids talk like this to one another.

Before the election a Facebook friend posted about health insurance. She isn't someone I was really ever friends with, but we attended the same rural high school. She's a farmer and from what I see on Facebook runs a small family farm. She and her husband have kids, and because their health insurance went up so much they realized they couldn't afford to be insured anymore. It was cheaper to pay the fine than to be insured. Many other people from the farming community replied to her post and shared their similar situations. These are people doing hard labor every day - putting themselves in situations where they likely will need ER visits, and they are paying to not be insured because they can't afford to pay for their actual insurance. Reading these posts was fascinating to me, because I have no other window into the farming community. It's not a group of people I interact with on a daily basis. I've driven by the Trump signs on the fences of the farms and wondered how these people could possibly vote for him. Must be racists, it's easy to assume. And yet, this post made me realize it's not. They are scared for their families. They are scared about not having health insurance, having a catastrophe, and ending up bankrupt because of the health bills. That makes sense to me. Their votes were not out of racism. It was out of desperation to fix a situation.

Reading this did not make me change my vote, but it did change how I thought about those signs. People have reasons. If we listen to their concerns we can find a way to address them without telling people that their problems are selfish and evil. If we have open conversations we can find solutions. We can't fight hatred with hate.

Please, stop the hate. Stop yelling. Stop assuming anyone who doesn't share your beliefs is wrong or out to get you. Stop telling people that they don't have a right to their thoughts.

Go out and fight. Love your neighbor (all of them, even ones you don't agree with). Get involved. Volunteer. Talk to people. Cry. Listen. Put away the angry Facebook messages that aren't helping anything and look for ways to make a difference in the community.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

College Futures

I begrudgingly got in one of the two open check-out lines at Target, frustrated that on a Saturday evening they would have so few lines open. I had lost track of time and needed to get my five year old home for dinner before the earth melted under us and hangry-ness took over.

Glancing up I realized I knew my cashier and somehow my heart leaped and sank at the same moment. It was the older sister of a group of children I taught and coached years ago. I had not seen her in years. Her family is one of those that will find it's way into your thoughts at strange times when you are not thinking about school at all. I've wondered about them for years, hoping they would all be doing well. It was wonderful to see her, but was she really here working at Target? Please, please, please, I prayed, let this be her job while she is going through school. Please let her be in school.

It turns out she is in school. Nursing school, which is a perfect fit considering her kind nature and how well she took care of her younger siblings. And her siblings are all in school too. Two are at the local community college, one of them is about to transfer to a four year university. The youngest is in her senior year of high school and wants to be a vet.

I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to hear all of this news. Any frustration at the long Target lines vanished, and I became the woman holding up the lines for others as we talked about her family.

There are children you teach who you know will go to college. Their families will make sure of it and financially it has been planned since the day they were born. There are other children whose futures are not so clear. Not because they cannot handle it, but because it will be a financial strain on their families, and they are up against many, many other factors. You desperately hope they will go, but are not surprised when you hear they did not. Heartbroken, but not surprised. Having a family with the financial resources to send you to college is a gift.

This family in particular stuck out to me. We traveled together for a jump rope competition and they were the ones who taught me that Taco Bell is the cheapest fast food by far, and told me exactly what the cheapest items on the menu were. As elementary school students they had a firm grasp on how to maximize their money so they would not be hungry.

I taught one of them in one of my remediation reading classes, back when our school was year round and every 9 weeks we would offer a one to two week optional class at the school during our intersession breaks. That year my class was designed for kids in danger of not passing the 5th grade reading standardized test. (The group did not know this. They thought they were hand picked to be reading coaches for new first grade readers.)

I never did learn if those children passed their tests, but I knew school was a struggle for each child in that class. These were kids who did not just struggle academically, but were also up against many, many challenges in life. School was understandably not a priority.

Yet all these years later I was learning that one of the students is headed to a four year college. Sometimes as educators we forget that passing the end of year tests is not an indication of how well the student will do in life. Struggling in fifth grade does not mean that they will not go to college or have a job in the real world. Not passing a test is not a sign that a child cannot make it in academia. Thank goodness for that. We are not in the business of giving kids a set future. We are there to give them as many skills as we can to get them on their way. We may not even see their successes when they are in front of us, but that does not mean they will not have success down the line.

Ever since Saturday the family has been in my thoughts more and more. I hope everything the older sister said was true. I hope one day the youngest is my vet and that a four year college goes well for all of them.