Yet One More: A poem for Parkland et al

Yet One More

Yet one more shooting
Followed by more thoughts and prayers
To be followed by more rhetoric
With no action anywhere.

Blame guns
Blame the politicians
Blame the NRA
Blame the parents
Blame the system
Blame and blame away.

Refuse to speak of it
Refuse to see the cause
Refuse to take an action
Refuse to take a pause.

Say we need more God
Say we need more guns
Say we need more safety
Say we need more done.

Our words, they hold no meaning
Our words fall empty at our feet
Our words are simply worthless
Our words, they have no meat.

More lives lost through inaction
More lives lost whilst we debate
More lives lost through no reaction
How many more must meet that fate?

We must awaken once again
When tomorrow’s sun breaks the plane
We must rise up and do something now
Or be forced to mourn again.

Speech/Letter To A School Board about Abstinence-Only Education

I come to you this evening as a former teacher, parent, and concerned community member to speak against the present sex education curriculum that emphasizes abstinence only. To put it simply, it does not work. While there is nothing wrong with abstinence, it needs to be seen as a tool for preventing the spread of STDs and unwanted pregnancies and not as the only tool we give to our children. You wouldn’t try to build a house with only a screwdriver, so why would you teach a student that the only way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and STDs is only through abstinence? It makes no sense.
I am a former teacher of both English and health in the states of Florida and South Carolina. I taught at both the middle school and high school levels. In both of those states, abstinence only education is the norm. I personally taught students, 7th and 8th graders in particular, who already had one or two children of their own by the time they reached my classroom. At the high school level, I witnessed the same pattern. Part of this was due to the educational system failing them by only offering abstinence as a way of avoiding getting pregnant. While abstinence is the only way to absolutely guarantee not getting pregnant, it is not the only way. When I saw groups such as the one that comes into our schools come into schools where I taught, it was cringeworthy to say the least.
For one, they painted the girls as the cause for abstinence failure while leaving the boys off the hook. Much like the recent gum demonstration by the group within our schools, female students were painted as promiscuous seductresses who lead boys into having sex as they had sex with one boy, but saw no reason why they should not have sex with another. The males are somehow always seen as the victims. This is not only misogyny, but also mixes in fundamentalist Old Testament blame for the fall of man due to women. Last I checked, it takes both genders to have sex that can possibly result in pregnancy.
Second, as mammals and primates, we humans are naturally curious about our bodies and those of others around us. Teenagers have been experimenting with their sexuality most likely since the dawn of the human race. Many times, it starts as self-exploration, but it can evolve into exploring it with someone else. When and if that occurs, we owe it to our children to give them the tools aside from abstinence to practice safe sex. This means to tell them about contraceptive methods and, if possible, make them easily available for them to obtain. If we do not, they will not know about them or, if they do happen to learn about them, will be too scared to obtain them. In doing so, they will place themselves at risk for an unplanned pregnancy and possibly STDs.
Third, one of the most ludicrous things that the program presently being used suggests is the idea of “reclaimed virginity”. Hate to break it to you, but that is not possible. Once an individual has sexual intercourse, he or she is no longer a virgin. He or she cannot become a virgin again. Maybe celibate, but not a virgin. A girl’s hymen does not miraculously regrown nor does the semen somehow re-enter the boy. An amusing anecdote to this is a conversation I overheard two of my 7th graders having one day. It was shortly after the group there had performed their “education” for the students. One girl told her friend that she was no longer a virgin. The other asked who she had sex with. The first girl responded that she hadn’t had sex, but simply used a tampon, so she was no longer a virgin. They looked up and saw that I was standing behind them. Having built a rapport with my students, I asked them to remain after class. I called in a female teacher from an adjoining room and we explained to them that virginity could only be lost through having sexual intercourse. While I haven’t heard the claim made by the local group, it is made by some. That type of misinformation, aside from being misinformation, can also cause harm to a student psychologically and possibly even socially. Can you imagine if it had gone around a school of 1500 that someone was no longer a virgin when that was not the case?
Fourth, that brings me to the whole shaming that the abstinence only education produces. Making students sign a pledge to remain abstinent and even going as far as encouraging purity rings sets many students up for failure and ridicule from their peers. Well, at least the female students. Male students still get away with breaking them under the whole “boys will be boys” excuse malarkey. Girls face the brunt of the shaming when it comes to this area between self-talk if she should engage in sex to the social gossip that goes on within our schools. The teenage years are painful enough without adding shame to them. An article in Psychology Today from September 2017 brings up the practice of “slut shaming” that is prevalent in these abstinence only programs. One example they gave was one that I personally witnessed as a teacher where the group presenting had each student write whether or not she or he were a virgin. No names were given. The presenter made a similar comment made in the article by saying that “all the students who were not virgins likely had STDs and wouldn’t finish high school”. Seriously?!? The students I mentioned at the beginning of my talk all graduated or earned their GEDs, by the way.
Fifth, these abstinence only programs ignore that there may be some students who are sexually active already and, thus, in doing so, do not give them access to contraceptive methods or ways to prevent STDs. That was also backed up by the article from Psychology Today.
Many students cannot rely on their parent(s)/guardian(s) to educate them about sex or contraception. It is up to the schools to do this. Abstinence only education fails to do this and, by failing to do this, it fails our children. We cannot have groups like the one being used to teach our children. It would be much better to have the local health department send someone to do this or even reach out to the Education, Biology or Medical programs in local universities like Syracuse, LeMoyne, or SUNY Upstate to send in professionals to teach our youth. Theology and religious based programs do not belong in the public schools. If parents want them, then the parents should either have their children in private religious schools or arrange for their faith leaders to teach them and exempt them from science-based sex education. That is what this all boils down to after all. Yes, abstinence is the only sure fire way to prevent pregnancy and reduce the chances of students developing and STD or STI. However, it is not the only way and our students deserve all the tools they may need rather than just a screwdriver.
Thank you.

Works Cited

Mintz, Laurie. “Abstinence-Only Sex Ed: Harmful? Unethical?”. Psychology Today. September 5, 2017. .

Book Promotion

*****Update: I am in the process of revising and renaming my book in order to improve sales and visibility, hopefully. The new title will be “The High School Student’s Guide to life AFTER High School–College and Post-High School. It is still available on Kindle and through Amazon at the reasonable prices of the first edition since I really believe that all students need an affordable book to help them, their parents, and teachers as they navigate their way to college or other post-high school education******

I am not the best at self-promotion, but I am posting this blog entry to promote my first book. It is titled, Professor Otter’s High School Student’s Guide to Life AFTER High School–College and Post-High School. I wrote this book based on my professional experiences as a high school and community college English teacher. I had many students who were the first in their families to attend or even think about attending college. They would talk to their guidance counselors, who were helpful, but were burdened by having to handle all the testing, scheduling, and emotional assistance issues students had.

I wrote this guide in a simple and direct manner to make facilitate clarity. Most chapters have questions at the end to assist potential college/technical college students in their search for colleges/technical colleges as well as ways to succeed once they get to their school. There is an additional chapter written for non-traditional students who are returning to school. As someone who earned his degrees while having to work full time, I understand the challenges of balancing work and school both as an undergraduate and as a graduate students with a job and a family.

I have set the price as affordable as possible so that students can purchase it easily regardless of family financial situation. It is available on Kindle ($2.99) through Amazon as well as a paperback book through Amazon ($5.99). The ISBN numbers for the book are: ISBN-13: 978-1491242971 and ISBN-10: 1491242973. It can be ordered by going to Amazon.com in either Kindle or paperback format.

I am also available to speak with groups of parents and students about the path from high school to college or technical college.

Charter Schools: The Walmarts of Education

The American educational system is in a crisis. If one listens to the pundits and some of the politicians, he or she hears how American students are failing, teacher unions are keeping bad teachers in the classroom, and classrooms around the country are overcrowded and in schools that are dangerous. The solution some are proposing are privatizing our public schools and creating charter schools in their place. Many hear the term ‘charter school’ and think they know what they are and believe the rhetoric that these are the saviors of education. What is not said, though, is far more sinister and far less educational than the public realizes. Charter schools are businesses run using taxpayer dollars. Their business is to indoctrinate students into learning a set and many times rote set of skills that do not encourage much in the way of creativity or thought. It is education in a box. Another way to think of it is to see charter schools as the WalMarts of education—lower costs, cheaper output. There are many reasons why they are this way, but I will touch on only a few.

First, let us start by naming the primary corporations that run charter schools in the United States. Charter Schools USA and Academica are two of the largest players in the area. Other major charter school management companies are EdisonLearning, Mosaica, Achievement First, and Aspire Public Schools. It needs to be noted that these are companies who are accountable to an extent to school boards, but not to the same extent as public schools are held accountable. They are free to select students based on applications and even lotteries to determine which students may attend school at their managed operations. Public schools do not have the option, as they are required to accept any student zoned for their particular school. Essentially, charter schools are private schools using taxpayer dollars to run them, but can use that money with little say from the taxpayers on how they are run. Again, they are an educational business rather than a school.

The following is taken from a document produced by a group called The Philanthropy Roundtable entitled, “Investing in Charter Schools. A Guide For Donors.” It defines a charter school as the following:

• is a public school funded with public money.
• is tuition-free for all students.
• is non-sectarian, non-religious, and may not discriminate in student admissions.
• is chosen by families.
• is semi-autonomous, operating under its own charter—hence the name—and thus exempt from many of the regulations and collective bargaining agreements under which traditional district schools operate.
• is free to be a unique school designed to meet the needs of the students it intends to serve.
• is required to meet the same graduation standards as other schools.
• is responsible for improving student achievement and adhering to its charter contract, or face closure.
• receives discounted funding (in most, but not all, states), thus making it partially reliant on philanthropic support.
• can be a stand-alone school or part of a network of charter schools.
• can be nonprofit or for-profit (page 11).

Now, while most of this sounds good, note that charter schools are “exempt from many of the regulations and collective bargaining agreements under which traditional district schools operate.” That means that teachers and staff who work there are not allowed in many cases to negotiate their contracts, their working hours or conditions, or other benefits that traditional educators have. This would also include protections from termination without just cause. Therefore, if the administrator comes in and does not like a particular worker, then they can be fired on the spot with no recourse as would occur in the majority of the jobs, especially in states with “Right-to-Work” laws. It would also include situations where students may not be moving along at the pace required by the standards, which could be caused by the fact that children are individuals who learn at different rates and different styles or their socioeconomic conditions, where the teacher would be held at fault for the student not making learning gains and thus subject to disciplinary actions including dismissal.

This document goes on to call for a priority in “Priming the Human Capital Pipeline” in the form of encouraging more people to teach and lead their charter schools. The exact words they use are that donor are an important source in “supporting the development of a well-primed pipeline of talented human capital for charter schools and helping fund the development of innovative technologies that can decrease the dependence of the sector on finding ever more sources of talent” (21). In plainer English, it is up to those donors to bring people in from wherever they can find them to teach and lead students without relying on colleges and universities to educate their “talented human capital” (21). Teachers and administrators are no longer people, but “talented human capital” (21). Sounds like a business rather than a school, doesn’t it?

It does not stop there as they go on to call those who start up charter schools “education entrepreneurs” (24). Even some of the charter schools are praised for having created a “brand” (25) by which they are known. They make a comparison between industry and charter schools by stating that “consumers come to know a brand and what it signifies…Brands have proven very useful in the marketplace….Charter Management Organizations (CMOs” are the ‘brands’ of the charter sector, with quality control and cost efficiencies” (29). One further aspect they state in this document concerns the differences between these CMOs and their counterparts called EMOs or education management organizations. CMOs are non-profit while EMOs are for profit. One particularly damning piece of evidence states:

…it is important to note that many education reformers believe that EMOs hold real potential for revolutionizing public education. If investors in EMOs are able to deliver consistent student achievement and create a profitable investment vehicle, they will have discovered a highly attractive and sustainable model for charter schools specifically and public education generally. (30).

Did you catch what was said as well as what was not said in that statement? These people believe that education needs to be a business with investors and profits. The goal of the charter movement is to see public education be corporate operated and run. There is no mention of students learning aside from their wanting the delivery of “consistent student achievement”. Consistent does not mean improvement. It does not mean creativity. It means a steady keeping of the status quo. It means having the same results over time. If only 55 percent of the students pass on a consistent basis, then they succeed. Consistency not progress is the key for them.

So, just how do charter schools measure student success? One of the largest donors to the charter school movement is The Walton Family Foundation, founded by the family of Walmart founder Sam Walton. The director of the foundation’s K-12 education reform, Jim Blew, stated in this document that the foundation is

very straightforward with our grantees that we expect them to dramatically increase student achievement, as measured by standardized tests in math and reading. We understand that there are other ways of measuring quality—attendance rates, graduation rates, etc.—and we want to hear about those, too. But, at the end of the day, we want to know that grantees are actually raising student achievement. (79)

Student achievement is not based on anything but how well students score on a standardized test. That is it. They are not deemed successful if they create something new. They are not deemed successful if they finally master something they worked on. They achieve if they can pass a test. World-class bubble fillers are the key to America’s success according to this supporter of charter schools. If a student can fill-in the correct answer, regardless of whether they actually understand why it is the correct answer, then they have learned. Learned what, you may ask. Well, how to fill in the correct answer because that is all that is needed to succeed in life. That is all that is needed to make America great again in the world. Well, at least really good at working in a Walmart where all that is needed is to follow the rules and do what management tells you to do.

Charter schools are not good for the education of our students. They are standardized test mills. As long as students can pass the test, they are okay. If the student cannot, well, they can currently be tossed back into the public schools. How long that will last is yet to be determined by policy makers and the donors to them. That is unless you who are reading this find the idea of having your child treated like an assembly line worker and their teacher treated like human capital as appalling as many other people do. If that is the case, it is time for you to take a stand as a parent or as a teacher against this movement to privatize our public educational system. Our children are not all the same; therefore, we cannot allow them to be taught or expected to learn the same way.

Here are some ways to combat this growing trend of charter schools and even reliance on high stakes standardized testing. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a small start.

1. Get active in your local schools. Go to school board meetings. Volunteer in classrooms and/or the school office. It does not matter if you have kids there or not so long as you pass a criminal background check and care about the future of our country.
2. Stay informed. Do not rely on the media outlets to tell you everything you hear about our public schools or even charter schools.
3. Attend local public school events. Cheer on the sports teams. Cheer on the non-sports related groups and organizations as well.
4. If you are a parent, find ways to opt out of standardized testing.
5. Look into how the state tests are organized. Speak out if they only cover items that are rote memorization based. Multiple-choice tests do not measure thought, only if the right answers were memorized.
6. If you are a parent, demand more essay tests or tests that allow your child to choose an answer and defend it with logical reasoning skills.
7. Support your teachers. They work far more than what many believe they do. They do not have summers off as they spend that time planning as they do nights and weekends during the school year.
8. Teachers, defend your rights to teach. Abide by your negotiated contract, but if need be, do no more than that if you are not being heard.
9. Administrators, especially those of you who once taught in a classroom, go back into the classroom. Plan a period every day of the year to keep teaching. If you keep teaching, then you stay in touch with the changes that are happening on the front lines. And do not try to teach just the select students, branch out your roster to include all levels of student abilities.
10. Political leaders, listen to the teachers who teach in your district. They are on the front lines every day. They are experienced professionals who know their job, their subjects and their students. Remember that standardized tests are snapshots rather than the big picture of what is happening in our schools.

If you would like to read the entire document referenced in this essay, please use the following address:
http://publicimpact.com/web/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Investing_in_Charter_Schools__A_Guide_for_Donors.pdf

Attention Teachers! It is Time to Take Our Schools Back!

It is almost time for another school year to begin around the United States; in fact, some school districts have already started classes and it is only the end of July. Yet, there is an evil that grows ever more severe as it grows like a shadow over our public education system. Teachers, up to this point, have cowered at the onslaught of this shadow that seeks to place our educational system into eternal darkness. It is time for the cowering to end and for teachers to take a stand for their jobs, but most of all, for the education of the future of our nation. The shadow of darkness comes in the form of the privatization of our schools disguised as education reform legislation and wealthy corporate donors who buy this legislation through our elected politicians. The so-called reform comes from places such as Teach for America, the Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family (Walmart). These entities cite studies that agree with their ideals or even some that they paid for which advocate the corporatization of our educational system through more charter schools and replacing experienced teachers with people indoctrinated into their mindset. These entities and their political cronies advocate high stakes testing rather than the basics our students need to be competitive in the global marketplace. These entities use the media to portray teacher unions as evil organizations bent on keeping inept teachers in their positions. It is time for teachers, and their unions, to stand up and voice their opinions and professionalism to the public. No longer can teachers and teachers unions cower and kowtow to the latest fad to come through the educational pipeline. Teachers must stand up and be heard. Teachers must be advocates for the public educational system that seeks to educate all students who come through the doors of the thousands of schools in our country. Teachers must be advocates for their students as well as themselves.

Teach for America (TFA), the Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family, among others, are pushing an agenda that replaces education with testing and a one-size-fits-all educational approach that they say will help our students to succeed in the global marketplace. The catalysts for their approaches stems from the problems that face our educational system: high dropout rates/low graduation rates, students who graduate yet cannot perform the basic skills needed to be successful, and students with low motivation to succeed. Rather than address underlying reasons for these, which I will discuss further, they take the easy route and blame teachers, teachers unions, and the educational system for these social ills. These three items are not necessarily the fault of our schools, but of our society as a whole. What they are calling education reform does not address these problems; it just blames the teachers for them. It is like blaming the fire department for there being fires. After all, if there were no fire departments, then there would not be any fires, right?

The problem of high dropout rates/low graduation rates is not the fault of the educational system as a whole, but the fault of our society as it does not value education as highly as other countries in the world. The media constantly bombards us with news of how US students are behind students in Japan, China, Russia, or Finland. What they do not show is the culture of those countries values education as a highly important part of a civilized society. In China and Japan, for example, parents pressure children to do well in school and it is shameful if students slack off when it comes to schoolwork. The homework assigned is much more than in the US, but it is meaningful, it counts, and it comes with the expectation that it will be done on time and correctly. Students are expected to ask for assistance if they need it. As a teacher, I faced numerous times when students would not do their homework or ask for extensions. When I attempted to enforce a no late work policy, they complained to their parents who many times went to administration who then forced me (and other teachers) to give in and allow the student to turn their work in late. When I attended school in the ‘70s and ‘80s, this did not happen unless there were extreme circumstances. Furthermore, students who committed discipline violations that caused them the consequence of an out of school suspension were allowed to make up their work. Also, a rare allowance for my generation.

Another cause for the high dropout rates/low graduation rates is that educational programs, especially at the middle and high school levels, only address the academic areas of success. By this, I mean that many do not offer vocational programs for students who are not academically inclined. Instead, students are told that they all have to go to college in order to succeed. While that is a noble idea, the facts are that some students simply do not want to go to college, but would rather enter a trade. If there are no vocational courses, these students fall through the cracks and many become disruptions in the classroom. They see no need to study the academic areas in depth if they plan to become an auto mechanic or a cosmetologist. Yet, where is the funding cut many times, vocational programs and the arts. The arts are another area that usually faces cuts in funding, as they are not seen as necessary. Many students, including myself when I was in public schools, needed the arts to give me a reason to go to school. The arts connect with every academic area and many students who are gifted with a talent, when allowed to learn and use that talent, will also succeed academically. If you do not believe these to be true, listen the next time when a school board threatens to cut funding. The public remains relatively silent when vocational or arts programs are threatened with cuts, but when cuts to athletics are mentioned, the outrage is tremendous.
The next area consists of those students who manage to graduate without mastering the basic skills needed to succeed in the workforce. Again, those in power want to blame the educational system for this. However, take a closer look at why they are not mastering the basics and you will find another story. Part of it ties in to what I already mentioned prior to this, but another part points to the darling of the so-called reformers—high stakes, standardized testing. Students are taught the test in some places from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Yes, the mantra is that teachers teach to the standards not to the test. Bullshit. When a teacher’s career and salary are tied to how their students do on the tests, then the teacher teaches to the test. That is the reality of it. In addition, the tests themselves, which are products of big businesses such as Pearson, do nothing to measure usable skills. They measure how well students take tests. Most of them are multiple-choice where the student must simply figure out which answer the test makers want them to bubble in. They do not allow for a student to choose an answer and defend why they chose it. That would be placing learning above test taking skills as it calls for critical thinking and reasoning skills rather than bubble completion. Would those tests take longer to grade? Yes. Would they measure student knowledge better? You bet they would. The global workplace demands the ability to think critically and reason, not to fill in a bubble. I taught a great number of students who could bubble in tests with great success, but if assigned an essay where they needed to think critically, they faltered and many failed. The love affair with standardized testing has to end. Good teachers know this. Good teachers know that students must grapple with problems that cause them to think, to research, to reason, and to defend why they come up with the answers they do. That is what made America great over the years. Standardized testing only serves to enable students to work at places like Walmart or fast food because they do not really have to think, but just do what others expect them to do.

The American public laments as to why “Johnny cannot read”, but they also fail to see how Johnny’s parents do not read to him or make him read. Past generations had a parent or someone who read to and with their children. A major form of entertainment for students was to read. It increased vocabulary, enabled the ability to imagine and think about the story lines and the various plots, and it caused the child to have to picture the action in their head. Today, many students are babysat by the television or the video game system. They can text, be entertained, and not have to think because the media barrage of images does it all for them including when to tell them to laugh even if the jokes are not funny. Reading is a skill and needs to be cultivated. Math is another area where we are falling behind. How often do the children of our nation practice it? Obviously, not often enough. It is also a skill that needs nurturing and practice. Science is an area where we are getting our rears kicked. One reason for this is practice, or the lack thereof, but also it goes back to a skill gained though reading—imagination. Think of some of the great scientific discoveries from America’s past and they have their genesis in imagination. Imagine if man could travel to the moon. People did and made it happen. Students do not have to imagine anything if the media just gives it to them. That is a travesty in our society, not in our schools. If more parents would just stop and read to their children, or find ways to incorporate math or science into their child’s life, then the educational gaps would start to disappear. Any good teacher could tell you that, if people would listen to them instead of the corporate donors and their puppet politicians.
Finally, the lack of motivation in our students is lamentable as compared with the rest of the world. Yes, they are motivated by not passing a class—sometimes, if their parents get on their cases. One cause for motivation stems from the lack of support educators and education in general receive from the public, including parents. If students do not see education as valued, then they are not motivated to do the work. Lack of motivation also stems from students not being able to see why all of what they are learning is relevant to them and their goals. I can attest to this as an English teacher. It is hard to convince a student that Shakespeare matters. Yet it does as his plays teach us human nature and psychology. It is up to the teacher to show it. Good teachers find the hooks needed to reel in the student. Do they succeed with every student and every time? No. However, teachers try repeatedly until something clicks. The vast majority of teachers never give up on their students even if the students give up on them. It emotionally hurts teachers when students fail. Teachers take it personally when their students do not grasp a concept when they have tried everything they could to help them to do so.

What the so-called reformers are calling educational reform is the application of business principles to education. This results in a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Many of the ‘reforms’ they call for have teachers reading scripted lessons to students some of which even have maps that prompt them to say certain things as responses to student questions. It is like having a robot teaching classes. Good teachers know that all students are different and they learn in different ways. This is why the vast majority of teachers practice differentiated learning with their students. One form of this is through the use of multiple intelligence theories with students. Multiple intelligence theory basically states there are different ways students learn and if the teacher locates the areas where a student is strongest and gears learning toward using those areas, then the student will learn better. For example, one assignment I would give my students was to read a novel each month. They were then to present the novel to the class in whatever form best suited their abilities. This resulted in the traditional book reports from some; however, it also resulted in student created comic books, artistic works, musical compositions, plays adapted from the novels, videos, collages, and a number of other projects that proved to me that the student read and understood the text. The point is that the student read the novel, but presented their understanding of the concepts, themes, and overall idea the author had in mind through a manner best suited to their way of learning. It took me a longer time to grade them, but the students accomplished my goal, which was to learn. Any parent who has more than one child can tell you their children are different and do things differently, even the same task. The problem is that these so-called reformers do not see this and would rather throw a test where students bubble in an answer as being the solution to the problem.

I do wish to address one thing that always seems to be touted by these so-called reformers before I end this piece. That is the myth that teacher unions protect those in education who cannot teach. While this happens, it is usually not the fault of the union, but the school administration. School administrators are human. Many times, they are become friends with teachers or the teachers do not rock the boat for them, and yet the teachers cannot teach. The administrators protect these teachers to keep things easy for them and reward them with high ratings. I knew Social Studies teachers who relied on showing videos the entire year rather than teach their subject area. These teachers kept getting good ratings regardless of the evaluation system being used. The teachers who took a risk did not always fare very well, especially under evaluation systems that looked for a standard set of skills rather than if the students actually learned anything. I had this happen to me as I presented a lesson where the students were engaged and learned for a formal evaluation one time. I received a low to middle rating in part because the lesson carried over to the next day when the evaluation would not be held. However, a few months later, when the students were taking their final exam, I was again evaluated and received a high rating because the students were demonstrating their skills because they were being tested on a paper test. The first one was active engagement, but it did not fit into the specified period allowed by the evaluation instrument. The second was just students sitting there taking a test. Not something one could really call active engagement with material.

Teachers unions do not want teachers who cannot teach. It is that simple. Many teaching contracts are written with plans in place for teachers who are not performing well to be placed on developmental plans to improve their teaching skills. However, it is up to the administrators to place the teachers on them. If a teacher is placed on an improvement plan, they are expected to improve whatever skills they are lacking within a set amount of time or face further disciplinary measures including being reassigned to an area where they could meet with more success and learn the skills they lack or termination. No professional organization wants people who are not professionals within it as that only make the organization look bad. Unfortunately, the unions do not do a good job of bringing this to light in the media.

A new school year is quickly approaching. Rather than cower in the shadows, teachers need to stand up and speak up for public education. Teachers need to unite and be vocal when politicians and special interests groups try to lament the problems with public education, especially when those problems are societal rather than within the educational system. The problems within the educational system are societal more than with teachers or teacher unions. Are teachers getting more vocal? Yes. There are organizations beyond the unions, such as Badass Teachers Association, who are fighting back with words and protests to those who wish to change the system who have never really been in the system to begin with. Teachers are professionals, let them lead the reforms needed and have the support from the public and politicians and they will reform our educational system and save the future of our country.

Standardized testing is NOT the answer

I have been thinking a great deal about education in our country lately. Much of this comes from my own experience teaching at both the middle school and high school levels, although even my experience teaching at the community college level lends itself to some of this as it is there that the results of the K-12 education comes to light. Simply put, high-stakes, standardized testing is not the answer to the problems facing education. I am not saying that standardized testing is not a valuable tool, just that it is being used in the inappropriate manner. It was never meant to be used to prevent students from graduating, nor was it meant to be used to evaluate the ability of the teacher to do their job. It was meant to be used with student grades from their classes to help teachers plan and meet the academic needs of their students for the coming year. For example, a second grade student would take a standardized test in the Spring of their second grade year. When the results arrived, their current teacher would evaluate it in conjunction with the grades the student was earning in the class to determine if the student was on track with the curriculum. That information would then be sent to the teacher the student would have for their third grade year for their use in planning the curriculum for the following year.

All of this sounds pretty logical, right?

However, certain groups started thinking that standardized tests measured the overall student achievement aside from grades. Those groups then convinced politicians that standardized tests could be used instead of teacher assessments and observations to determine if students were learning. This somehow snowballed into believing that all students could learn at the same level if certain pedagogical methods were used. What this fails to take into account is that students are not the same, that is to say that they are not clones of the ideal student. Like every other human being, our students are individuals and their differences in genetics, socioeconomic backgrounds, nutrition, and meeting of other basic needs will affect their ability and motivation to learn. While the threat of being retained in a grade if they fail to pass a standardized test may work to motivate some students to learn, it will not work for all students. Based on my observations in the classroom, many students who have failed a number of times on standardized tests simply give up trying to pass them at all. When faced with the threat of not graduating, they simply stop caring and are either aged out of the educational system or quit on their own. This is a travesty in our educational system. No student is incapable of learning. They just need the right approach to learning in order to learn.

The right approach to learning is complicated to explain. In essence, it is that each student needs to be taught in a way that fits their way of learning the material. In addition to this, students need to be challenged in their learning without being intimidated by what they are learning. An example of this comes from my own experience in the classroom. I want to preface this with the caveat that it is not intended to work in every classroom because every class, even of matched ability students, does not function the same. I even needed to change the approach of what was taught to fit the needs of the class as a whole as well as each student as an individual.

I taught Advanced Placement (AP) English Language and Composition as well as an Exceptional Student Education (ESE) English III class. What I did, though, was teach the same material to both classes. I can hear the gasps from the pedagogical gurus already. How dare I take college-level work and try to teach it to “special education” students? I counter with how dare I not challenge all of my students?!? What I did was present the material to the ESE class in such a way that never told them they were learning at the college-level. More simply put, I did not tell them they were working on material that was meant for those students who were supposedly smarter than they were. I also gave them the safety net of more time to grasp the material and spent more time, in some cases, explaining the material to them more than I did with the students in the AP class. A funny thing happened, the ESE students mastered the material faster than the AP students. In some cases, the ESE students exceeded the AP students in effort and mastery of the material. It was only at the end of the year that I told the ESE students that they learned the same thing that was taught in the AP class. The look of pride on their faces, some of whom had not been proud of what they accomplished in school for years, was priceless. For many of these students, it served as their motivation to work through their senior year and graduate. Many of them also went off to college after graduation, a feat that they never thought was possible when they started their junior year with me.

Now, I will admit there was another component that these students and I had that some teachers either refuse to do or do not have the ability to master. We had a rapport with one another. I set certain ground rules with them when the year started and they followed them. I shared my thoughts and feelings with them and they with me. If a student was having a bad day, they agreed to talk about it rather than act out in my class. If they acted out, we talked about it after class. I did not, or at least tried not, to take on the role of dictator in the classroom, but rather a mentor and teacher for my students. Did I connect with all of them? No. There will always be personality conflicts between people and there were just some students who did not care or wanted to do what they thought was cool rather than learn. They were not ready to learn for a myriad of reasons and were unwilling to confront those reasons in order to prepare themselves for learning.

This leads to a related key in the education of our students, especially at the middle and high school levels. They need to learn not just the material, but about who they are in this world. Students at these levels are trying to find out who they are outside of being their parent’s child. Teachers need to help them with that as well as teach them the subject material. If you can connect the two, then so much the better. Many of our students have parents who either over-direct their lives, try to be their child’s best friend, or are absent from their lives. As teachers, we have the ability to be the authority figure they need, but also the mentor they need to navigate life. It is an awesome responsibility for teachers and some just cannot meet it.

I am not saying we need to be parents to our students, but mentors. There is a difference. We cannot push our personal, moral, or political agendas on them. What we can do is give them the freedom to express their opinions in a safe environment and help them think through why they have those opinions while exposing them to opinions opposite theirs and helping them to understand and respect why others believe differently than they.

But more about that later, I have written enough for today. Peace to all.

Civil Rights Crisis being ignored

There is a civil rights crisis in America that remains unspoken. It has nothing to do with Blacks, Hispanics, or Asians. It concerns the indigenous people of America. The very people who settled here long before the first European landed on the shores of our land. The Native American people remain the most impoverished in our country and rarely do we ever hear about them. Rarely do we find campaigns waged on their behalf finding their way into mainstream media. It is almost as if they do not exist, except for old movies where they are depicted as savages or drunks. It is shameful that we allow these noble and great people to live in squalor that matches or rivals that of third world countries. They were here first. It was our ancestors who drove them from their lands, made treaties that we broke, and continue to keep them locked in a vicious cycle of poverty. They need and deserve to be heard. They need and deserve to be given the skills necessary to achieve a higher standard of living.
According to Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, 25.3 percent of Native Americans live in poverty and 29.9 percent do not have health insurance. They further state that most tribes do not have casinos or even much tourism due to their remote locations. They give a stark example of how bad it is through a reference to the Blackfoot Reservation located in Montana. Here the unemployment rate is a staggering 69 percent. That is unacceptable for a people who once lived prosperously across our country.
Aside from the location of many of the reservations that the United States Government forced upon the Native Americans being remote from urban areas where employment might be found, the problem of low high school graduation rates hinders a better life for Native Americans. According to an article from Diverse-Issues in Higher Education from 2010, “fewer than 50 percent of Native American and Alaska Native students from the Pacific and Northwest regions of the U.S. graduate from high school.” Graduation rates for Native Americans as a whole “average 46.6 percent” across our country while the graduation rate for other ethnicities in the U.S. range from a high of 77.9 percent for Asians to 50.8 percent for Hispanics (Diverse). Among the reasons given for the high dropout rate for Native Americans, according to the article, are “lack of student engagement, perceived lack of empathy among teachers, passive teaching methods, and lack of parent involvement.” These are problems that can be solved in the educational realm provided the funding exists and teachers are well trained for the needs of Native American students. This is not unlike the widespread efforts that continue to assist students who are speakers of other languages that exist in our schools. The article points out a list of strategies needed to “reduce dropout rates. These strategies include avoiding policies that demean, embarrass, harass, or alienate native students; providing opportunities for students’ involvement in their language and culture; and better preparation for educators who work with American Indians.”
Again, this is much like what educators in areas having large Hispanic or other immigrant populations already must learn and practice in order to reach their non-native students. In those situations, we have dual language classrooms in some areas and mandatory workshops on strategies needed to teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). In Florida where I taught, for example, all teachers need at least 60 hours of ESOL training and those teaching English/Language Arts need 300 hours in ESOL training or an ESOL endorsement on their teaching licenses. We also had many schools where the diversity of their students was celebrated through cultural activities highlighting all cultures.
Native American students should be encouraged to learn and share their native culture within their schools. There should be lessons where their cultural diversity should be integrated within the curriculum along with the diversity of the other cultures within their schools. For those Native Americans who are educated on schools located within reservations, they need teachers who are well trained in the culture of the tribe or tribes that are located within the reservation. Those teachers can then embrace that culture and utilize it to enhance the curriculum that will enhance student learning and understanding. Along with this, there needs to be more technology within Native American schools so that the students are able to master the skills necessary for them to bring jobs that are more prosperous to their communities. Native American parents need to be encouraged to get involved in their student’s education through volunteer opportunities. Native American schools need to encourage adults who lack job skills to gain them through classes geared toward their needs. The cycle of poverty that appears rampant on many reservations can be curtailed with education that is delivered in harmony with their cultural beliefs.
Along these lines, more needs to be done to address the severe poverty that grips many who live on the more remote reservations. While tribal laws can sometimes be complicated, surely there must be some way that tribal leaders and those outside the reservations can work together to come to some way to assist those living on reservations in gaining a better infrastructure both physically and technologically. In an ever-increasing global economy, being remote from urban areas should be a bridge that is easily crossed through better technology and technological skills.
Why are we as a country choosing to ignore the situation faced by many Native Americans? Part of their situation is due to our past practices in attempting to exterminate them from what were their lands in the first place; this includes forcing them onto reservation lands that were either far from their native lands or into portions of them that are distant from infrastructure that could assist them in bettering their situation. Therefore, it should fall in part onto us to help them change their circumstances for the better.
As with all of my posts to this blog, I know I do not have the all the answers to the problem. However, I do want to give some food for thought that will hopefully bring about a change for the better.