Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sandy Hook: Celebrating Lives in the Midst of Death

As my husband and I were reading about and processing the news from Newtown, Connecticut my husband pointed me to Dawn Hochsprung’s twitter feed. “People should read that,” he said. I kind of shrugged. I am quite an active user but after reading this 2011 New York Times article I have mixed feelings about social media and what happens with it when we die. Even though twitter feeds are (mostly) public, I feel as if I am vaguely invading someone’s privacy when I look at the feeds of the living, let alone the deceased. But still, I looked.

This was the tweet that really got to me:

Just that Thursday night, my sons had performed in their 4th grade winter concert at the public elementary school that serves our community, also a small town in a rural area, also wearing white tops and black pants. The theme was "December Around the World." I was expecting it to be Christmas- and Santa-carol centric, but it wasn't at all. It was actually, well, international, and the Hannukah story wasn't the usual sanitized version.

While his siblings do, one of my sons doesn't like music class that much. He enjoys listening to music and playing instruments but he doesn't like singing, dancing and performing--he's much more of a visual artist. As he complained more and more about “play practice,” my husband and I empathized with him, but kept telling him what a great experience it was to practice a group of songs and put together a show and to perform it. We reminded him that being exposed to many subjects and experiences was part of elementary school and part of being a well-educated individual. These are the moments when my husband and I tell our children that it's important to do things they don't enjoy all that much, that they serve a greater educational purpose (versus doing test prep worksheets). As he got older, we explained he could dedicate more time to his specific interests, but that all of these broader, more various earlier exposures would help him to figure out what those interests might be. As I watched him the night of the performance, I knew he wasn’t enjoying himself, but I was so proud of him singing and dancing and doing his best all the same.

My husband, like me an education blogger and critic of Obama and Bush administration education policies, felt that people should look at these pictures, at her tweets, to see what Dawn Hochsprung actually did besides giving her life in attempts to stop Adam Lanza, and what it is to be an educator in an elementary school. Her life and the lives of the educators who died alongside her may have been epitomized by their last minutes, but that’s not all they comprised. So I felt like, yes, he's right, it does (unfortunately via a terrible tragedy) shine a light on what schools are to communities and on what many educators do every single day.

And just as the all of the educators who died that day behaved heroically, many of the "small" things that educators do are heroic, too. There is heroism in staying late in the evening to put on the 4th grade winter concert, so that a group of kids, some belting it out happy as can be and some more reluctant can feel what it is to rehearse and perform a body of songs. There is heroism in getting a reluctant and stage frightened kid to sing and dance for an audience as if he weren't. There is heroism in sharing the joy of music as your parents and community watch and maybe sing along together at the end. 

The Sandy Hook  teachers may be heroes to the nation in their deaths, but they were also heroes in their community in life.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sex, Shit 'n Standardized Testing!

First, there was this:
"You get this rage up that we're wasting time testing, and you're making testing shorter and shittier," Coleman said at a Brookings panel Thursday.

That's David Coleman, one of the architects of the Common Core English & Language Arts Standards, and president of the College Board. This isn't the first time Coleman has cursed when speaking publicly about education. Several months ago, he reportedly said in another public speaking engagement, “as you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”

But people do give a shit about what language you use. As I always tell my students, cursing is not wrong, but there's a time and a place for it and an art to it, and school and academic work (making exceptions for creative writing, but you still have to have a justification for it there) are not some of them. Furthermore, I tell them, when you curse instead of using other words, people think you're not smart, that you're not articulate. And, it lets me, as a teacher, know that you need more vocabulary enrichment.

How are we take one of the lead advocates of the more "rigorous" and intellectual ELA Common Core Standards seriously when he doesn't see fit to use appropriate, professional, and specific language when advocating for the standards and for their accompanying tests. Coleman may be thinking I'm brash, but all I can think is, No, you're full of disdain. Disdain for teachers, disdain for students, and disdain for engaging in any process of education reform.

It also epitomizes a chasm in status and experience between reformers like Coleman and the students they are trying to help. What would happen if a student were to use the word "shit" or "shittier" in a Common Core aligned essay exam? How about on the writing section of the SAT? How about on the College Board's AP English exam? What happens when students curse in school, especially at a "no excuses" school with a rigid, zero-tolerance code of conduct? A white elite like Coleman can curse without consequence in public academic or professional settings, while a poor black kid using the same profanity publicly in a KIPP-esque school would likely face severe consequences.

In the same article, there's this other pro-longer and -better testing statement quoted:
Such changes can bring anxiety for the test takers. Gerard Robinson, the former education chief of Florida and Virginia, put it this way: "I won't pretend that tests don't matter and there's no anxiety -- but I also tell people there's anxiety with sex. There's anxiety with sex, but there isn't any talk about getting rid of that."
Standardized testing is just like sex? What? This, from a former state education chief? Are you kidding me?!?! This guy is in charge of people who educate children? First of all, unlike Coleman's statement, this statement is not in any way logical. Second of all, and more gravely, it's indecent. 

Is that what I am supposed to say to my test-stressed children--that their anxiety surrounding high-stakes testing is just like anxiety surrounding sex? Is that supposed to help? What if a K-12 student asked critical questions about standardized testing and their teacher responded in the same fashion that Robinson answered? How would that go over? Wouldn't Campbell Brown come after him with a pitchfork? Finally, this statement indicates that Robinson, too, is disdainful of criticisms of high-stakes testing and that he refuses to engage with the substance of those criticisms. For teachers, for parents, and for students, this anxiety, this stress, is not a joke, and it's not like sex.

If people like Coleman and Robinson expect parents and teachers like me to take seriously what they say, they need show these topics some respect. Save that other kind of talk for the StudentsFirst locker room.