Sunday, January 19, 2014

F#23: Fighting the Good Fight

There was an op-ed in the local paper this morning by a middle school English teacher.  In it, she lamented the state of teaching in the US and debates, as so many articles seem to lately, whether or not she should give up the career altogether.

The latest and greatest thing to gripe about in education is the Common Core, a set of standards developed by twenty-three states in an effort to make education more uniform in our country.  The high-stakes test, Smarter Balanced, is also a national test; for the first time, students in different states can be compared against the same set of criteria, and not using the individual state tests that didn't really assess the same things.

I, for one, have been excited about the Common Core.  As I look it over, I see a return to thinking, analysis, and important writing skills; these were lost arts under our previous high-stakes test, which cared much more for the feelings of students and didn't care if your spelling was atrocious or if you didn't capitalize a single word.  (e.e. cummings you aren't, kiddos; please start your sentence with a capital letter.)

The author of the op-ed was most concerned that students will not be reading literature in English class anymore.  False.  The English Language Arts standards actually apply to all subject areas when it comes to reading.  Students read nonfiction in every class they take: science, social studies, math, gym, health.  If you visit the Common Core website (, these other subjects have their own tabs under the ELA standards as a way to point out that reading is a school-wide effort.  We don't have to give up Shakespeare or Babbit (as the author of this article suggests).  

The op-ed writer also laments that the Smarter Balanced test will be on the computer, and that some students don't own computers.  I appreciate this problem, more so perhaps than this particular teacher does.  Many of my students come from computer-less homes.  The world, however, is not computer-less.  Almost every job out there requires interacting with technology.  And while many people out there naively call this generation "digital natives", they are incorrect.  Yes, my students know how to SnapChat and Instagram, but they don't know how to double space a document in Microsoft Word, and some of them don't even have email addresses.  So who, exactly, is going to educate them on how to use the technology that the rest of the world will expect them to use?  Oh, that would be us, their teachers.  

Finally, the op-ed writers bemoans that teachers are no longer being treated as professionals.  This is not new.  Although we must hold advanced degrees to keep our jobs (at least in this state), we are often talked about as if we are all, truly, only in it for July and August.  "They" evaluate us (mostly) on how well our students perform on this one test.  It's not fair.  Would I rather be evaluated by former students, those who have graduated and realize now I was right about a lot of things?  Yes, obviously.  But that's not how the system works.  At least with this new test, "they" will be evaluating student GROWTH, not so much how many kids are "at grade level".  (This is my current understanding.  That may change.  It probably will.  This is the education field, after all.)  I too, op-ed writer, have students reading at the third grade level--and I teach high school.  But, if at the end of the year, I've maybe moved that student to grade five, well, I'd consider that some excellent progress.

I don't mean to sound like a Common Core lemming.  There are problems with the whole system, if for no other reason than it was designed by people who are not educators, or people who haven't been educators for a long time.  But it is so much better than what we've been working with since I started eleven years ago.  It will take many years to see the full effect of these new standards and the op-ed writer and I will see these results later than others, as our students have had the least amount of exposure to the new standards and curricula.

But, as much as they drive me crazy sometimes, I have faith in my students.  I do believe they can succeed, even if they will hate me for pushing them and making them do the work over.  Those of us at the secondary level will have to have faith in our elementary colleagues and their ability to give the students the springboard to do amazing things when my stepson is a high school freshmen.  For now, we do the best we can with what we've got.  We tweak our current lessons to ask less about feelings and more about imagery.  We start counting those misspelled words and every uncapitalized 'i' we see.

At the end of the day, I go home exhausted.  I am only in control of the forty-eight minutes the students are in front of me; I cannot help what goes on with them at home.  I can, and will, continue to be saddened by the choices some parents have made about their child's education before the student walked into my classroom.  But I can't change it now.  I can only work with it.

So, op-ed writer, if you'd like to leave education, that's fine.  I will continue to fight the fight with my under-performing, under-nourished students.  I will be called names and told I'm unreasonable and "too hard".  But I've had enough former students contact me, apologizing, telling me they really did learn a lot from me.  So I know what I'm doing is working.  And I will embrace the Common Core, because it is part of my job now.  And I will do the best I can with what I've got, because at the end of the day, that's really all any of us can do.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

F#22: Fluffy Friends

As the alarm woke me up this morning, I realized I had clumped the blankets between my arms the way a child would cradle a stuffed animal.

I slept with a stuffed animal on and off during my childhood, and Eeyore came with me to college.  I still have the stuffed animals from when I was very little, a polar bear and a monkey my father gave me.

I am so amused to watch my stepson when he comes over, as he gets ready for bed.  The stuffed animals he has with him, from home and here, take up more room in the bed than he does.  He still has a little bear from when he was first born, and we absolutely have to make sure that one is in bed with him before we say goodnight.

Obviously, I love cuddling with my husband and my cats.  But there is something about curling your arms around a stuffed animal, knowing it will be in the exact same place when you wake up in the morning.  Or, if you toss it around, it won't complain; rolling over on Eeyore's ear or tail didn't make him squawk.  (Not that Eeyore would squawk.  I mean, he's Eeyore.)

So, let us bring back the stuffed animal as a perfectly acceptable bed time companion, regardless of age or gender!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

F#21: Flashback...and forward

It's the time of year when we are all supposed to take stock of what has happened, set goals for what WILL happen, and then try to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B.  Since my school district let me out early on account of weather, I thought I would take this unexpected moment to do just that.

2013 was...a weird year.  I went from "in a relationship" to "engaged" to "married" in twelve month period.  More strangely, I went from "Daddy's girlfriend" to "step-mom", a fact around which I am still wrapping my brain.  My confidence in my ability to do my job fluctuated almost daily, and I was alternately excited for the future of humanity and very, very worried.

Those around me suffered a lot of ups and downs as well, and I did what I could to help.  The fear we all felt when my best friend went into labor three months early is now overshadowed by the amazing baby girls she keeps letting me play with.  My father lost a close friend from his childhood; my husband lost a great-aunt and great-uncle.  My brother and his wife have had their own struggles...but the also have a new puppy.

2013 got me diagnosed with high blood pressure, and saw me take up running, something I swore I would never do.  I haven't put on my running shoes since my wedding day, mostly because it is too cold outside and I'm too cheap to join a gym.  I know I am starting to put some of the weight back on, but I also saw real success in weight loss in 2013, so I know it can be done, if I just get off my butt.

2014 is going to present its own set of challenges, some foreseen, some unexpected.  I'm not going to make any resolutions, but I am going to make a list of hopes:  

I hope this year sees myself and my husband continue to grow as a couple, even as we get healthier and shrink as physical beings.  
I hope that I can find the parts of my job that I truly do love and capitalize on them, even as I slowly want to pull my hair out.  
I hope that this year marks the beginning of the end of debt, and the beginning of the beginning of financial solvency.  
Counter to that, I hope we can begin making the improvements to our condo so that it works for us in a better way than it does now.  
I hope this year my cats finally stop peeing in the corner of the living room, as I am at my wit's end with that.  

But I also have hopes for my friends and family: that they stay healthy, wealthy, and wise.  That those of them trying to start families are given the success they deserve, and that the good times out number the bad.  If we do all hit bumps in the road, I hope we can rely on each other to pick us up off the ground and get started again.

These are not new, or profound hopes.  These are not original or particularly exciting.  But when I think about how truly lucky I am in so many ways, I only hope I can keep that in mind whenever things get a little...wonky.

Oh, and I hope that the new seasons of Downton Abbey, Sherlock, and Doctor Who don't let us down.