Data: What Would J.Evans Pritchard, PhD Say?

There will always be a J. Evans Pritchard trying to force the arts to yield to statistical analysis.

If you’ve been listening, you have heard the conversation. Data, Data. Data.

Standardized tests are the treasure troves of statistics that are driving–oh, excuse me, informing— instruction. # 2 lead pencils are the wands that, with the right sleight of hand, can make you see anything a skilled statistician wants you to imagine you saw.

But like poetry, teaching is an art, a fine art.  Just as it is obvious intellectual farce to reduce the mystery of poetry to the “data driven analysis” spoofed  in the clip, the same could be–no, should be— said for the purely statistical analysis of the instructional artistry that happens in classrooms every day.

Armies of academics going forth to evaluate kids and teachers via mathematical calculations, cold hard data?  Pardon?

Don’t misunderstand; testing has a place in education.  It is one of many tools good teachers use to plan and adjust their instruction. Reliable and valid testing can provide benchmarks of achievement. Sound tests can show teachers where kids need more time on task.

But great teachers know that testing–particularly one-size- fits-all testing– provides only part of the masterpiece that is learning. Learning is about curiosity and confidence. It’s about taking academic risks. It is about the intangibles that make every parent’s child a priority.

Every child who crosses the threshold into our classrooms is a unique and complex individual.They come to us with strengths and challenges, enthusiasm and fears.  No child should ever become a statistic on a bar graph, a mere blip of data on a spreadsheet.  Kids are people, not commodities.

Like poetry,the art of instruction defies scientific deconstruction.  There is just too much happening in classrooms on a day-to-day basis to reduce teaching to a few days of testing, especially flawed testing, especially testing created by one of the biggest text book publishers in the country.

Obviously, you say.

But here’s the rub. Politicians use data mined from classrooms nationwide to further their own ambitions, to promote their personal bureaucratic promises.

Just as J. Evans Pritchard’s method of deconstructing poetry ultimately destroys the beauty of the text, data driven education crushes the joy of learning, stifles creativity on both sides of the desk.  Teachers, fearful of the way test scores now compute into annual performance reviews, are far more likely to play it safe. Meeting Pearson’s benchmarks of  proficiency has become a matter of professional survival.  Kids, too, will stay within the lines because everyone knows standardized tests have no patience for divergent thinkers.

Where’s the data on the data?

P.S. : And big  thanks to all who continue to follow me on all my sites.

Stop # 1 on the Journey: All You Need is Love

I saw this post and couldn’t help but reblog this post. It is just so true!

Life is a Journey, Not a Destination

     Back when I was too young to truly appreciate either the lyrics or the music, Lennon and McCartney said it all: “All you need is love.”  Back then, this was just a catchy tune playing on pop radio,  the big kids singing in the back of  the bus.

Now that I am older–much older– though, I am constantly reminded that what really matters is love: the people you love who love you back.  I know for sure now that the Beatles had it right.

Life isn’t about what you can own: cars and houses and clothes. It isn’t even about the achievements we can boast about.  What good is a Ferrari if you don’t have someone special riding shotgun?  If you have no one cheering for you when you bring home the Pulitzer, it’s just a piece of paper.

         No.  Life is all about people…

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The Kids Albany Doesn’t See

In a supermarket in Quincy, Mass:  a man checking out ahead of me was wearing a school-bus yellow tee shirt emblazoned with the slogan: “The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized.” The image on the back was a No. 2 lead pencil X’ed out in red.

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Last week, in a school in north-central NY state, my great-nephew started first grade.  Ever since kindergarten let out last June, he has been anticipating this momentous occasion.  First grade. The big time.

This little man–all of six years old–boarded the school bus excited. He was sporting his brand new sneakers and toting a superhero backpack. He was going to buy pizza for lunch and do twenty jumping jacks in gym. He was going to write about getting his own library card during summer vacation.

Two days later, this same child was deflated. After some questioning–plied with a few oreos and some milk– he confessed to”failing” first grade. He had sat for a “pre-assessment” and he couldn’t answer the questions; it was all about things he had yet to learn. His teacher very gently tried to tell him it was OK, he wasn’t supposed to be able to answer the questions. But he knew better.  It wasn’t OK.

He doesn’t know that in a month,  by Thanksgiving, by the spring, he will be answering those questions without hesitation. He doesn’t care.  Children live in the present. Tomorrow is important only if it’s someone’s birthday.

My niece is rightfully concerned that her previously happy little boy has developed unexplained weekday headaches and stomachaches.

As adults, we know he will get over it.  We know this first grade angst will pass. Yesterday fades for kids.  He doesn’t know that, though. And today, he is sad.

We are told this is the most expeditious route to education reform. Local and federal politicians, often removed from the day to day process of raising and teaching kids, assure us testing will yield what we need to know in order to make children stronger students, better citizens.  The data will inform instruction and teachers will be better able to effectively meet the needs of students.

That may be true.  I’m just a teacher, neither a seer nor a politician.

I wonder: have we taken testing to the extreme? Have we reduced children to raw scores and percentile rankings? Are we taking the thrill of discovery from this generation of kids?

My niece does not see her son as a number on a grid. Reducing a child to data may look fine on paper, but kids are people.  Every child in every classroom is someone’s most precious possession. Mitchell is my niece’s first born. He likes tractors and working on the farm with his dad and uncles. He is protective and proud of his little sister even when she torments him as little sisters like to do.  And now he thinks he has failed first grade.  How effective will his teacher be able to be when this kid feels so bad about himself?

What ever happened to the true joy of teaching and of learning?

And this is not just in here in NY. This article in the Boston Globe suggests that the so-called success stories of education reform in Massachusetts, the tales that have been used to give New Yorkers hope and patience for similar progress across our own state, may have been altered in the retelling.. This article reveals pressure in kindergarten where kids even younger than my great-nephew are feeling let down about the things they are being required to do and their teachers are having trouble finding the simple joy in coming to school.

To achieve real education reform,  we need to reconsider what constitutes education and how we would like that to be measured. We need to remember the ways the in which our children grow and learn. Do we want our kids to be life long independent learners, intellectually curious, wiling to risk academic risks or do we want good test-takers?  There is a difference.

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The man checking out ahead of me in Quincy, Mass left  with his groceries before I could ask him about his tee shirt.  But the slogan has been playing in my mind: “The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized.” But I want one of those shirts.

The Legacy of 9/11

It was a beautiful day, crisp air, clear skies, the ultimate antithesis of what was about to unfold that morning.

Most of us older than 21 clearly remember where we were when we heard the unthinkable: the towers had fallen. I can remember what I was wearing and the sickening fear for the people I loved who were in the city. We were near enough to tragedy to see the smoke and almost everyone I know knows someone who was there. Two people I went to high school with died that day.  A man in our town did not come home to his family. A friend lost his brother-in-law. A neighbor lost her cousin.

It was a day for saying, “I love you” to our children and to each other.

9/11 was a dark defining moment for a generation with memories of neither Pearl Harbor nor Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby.

The juniors I was teaching that Tuesday morning seemed suddenly so very young. Teen swagger and bravado vanished. We huddled around a battery operated radio, anxious for a sign that everything would be OK, that someone was in charge.  When we all heard the unmistakable overhead roar of military pilots en route to the city, they surged toward me with the unconditional collective expectation that I would be able to keep them from harm. I will always remember the helpless dread, knowing that I would do whatever I could, yet equally certain that whatever I could do might not be enough.

The world changed forever that day.

And for our students– though each year, more and more of them are too young to remember this day– this is the only world they have ever known. It’s a world where traveling means removing their shoes and liquids are no-nos. It’s a world in which images of explosions can dominate the evening news. It’s a world of colored-coded security assessment and random acts of terror that we never believed could reach us here.

As adults, we must find ways to make this generation of kids feel safe amid this new reality. We have to provide the pockets of security where they can still be children, where they know they are far from harm’s way.We have to provide quality time for laughter and pride, for anticipation and excitement.

We may not be able to alter the future, but we can, we must, do what is in our power to preserve the present.

Happy New Year!

In NY, Labor Day is New Year’s Eve for families and for teachers.  It’s the anticipation of a fresh start, the excitement of sharpened pencils.   Every student starts the new academic year with an A average; every teacher starts the new year with a repertoire of innovations and insights to see to it that every pupil sustains those A averages.

The great gifts of summer vacation–perspective and rest and vision–make all things possible by Labor Day.  Like the rings that age trees, lessons of past years measure growth and become part of who we are.  We–students and teachers alike– begin anew, ardently focused on making the ring that will mark this year the richest, widest ever.

 So for all those heading back to school this week and next, best wishes for a happy, healthy and productive new year.  There are exciting adventures to be written on the as-yet-blank pages of those spiral notebooks.

Happy New Year!

Back to School

The ads start right after July 4th: notebooks and pens at Staples, jeans at JC Penny, everything else at Target.  Back to school shopping is an American tradition.


…even as those back-to-school butterflies stir in August,  even as we get excited about what the new year will bring, even as we plan the lessons that we hope will hook our students, we know there are families across this country–  maybe even in our own communities– struggling  just to keep their kids sheltered or fed.  For these families, the costs of advertised bargains at Walmart and Office Max may be out of reach.

Yet, we all want to send our kids back to school feeling ready to crush the challenges of a new  year. This is not about the latest fashions or high tech gadgets.  It is not about competition or conformity.  This is about the most basic supplies that help kids start a new year with confidence: a pack of crayons, a new bookbag, comfortable shoes, a windbreaker, maybe a calculator.

Studies tell us that confidence is an important factor in academic and social success. A few seemingly simple new possessions can do so much to enhance that confidence.

Everyone knows that no child should start the school year sad.

Communities across the nation have responded to this too often unseen need with non-profits, neighbors helping neighbors. Some of these grassroots efforts have been initiated by ordinary individuals whose extraordinary efforts and vision are inspiring.  Local businesses act as partners in these endeavors.  Houses of worship, social networks, community centers, even food pantries support the efforts, too.   And in many– if not all– cases, donors and recipients remain anonymous.

Our Social Concerns Committee at church has created a Learning Tree and collects school supplies for families in need.  The community center  in my neighborhood also has a donation box where we can simply drop off  a new binder or a pack of pens or that most wonderful of all school supplies: the box of 64 Crayola crayons with the built-in sharpener.  Those who can, give; those who need, will get.

For those of us who have been able to send our own kids off to school with the basics, helping other families do the same reminds us–and our own kids–of the human community that we all belong to.  For those of us in need, our neighbors can give our kids the boost they need for a great start, helping us to help them be the best they can be.

As they say, it takes a village.

Check local newspapers.  Listen to local radio broadcasts. Organizations are frequently featured as families gear up for a new school year. Check in at your own community center or house of worship. Nationwide, Girl Scout and Boy Scout  and Boys and Girls Clubs often hold school supply drives.

Send a child back to school with a smile.

NOTE: One organization that has solicited not only back to school donations, but also basic necessities of daily living in the Westchester area is Miracle Hands, Inc. Read about this grassroots organization at their web site:

Another children’s charity that operates in Westchester is the Pajama Project. This organization gives new PJ’s to homeless kids and has opened a reading center in Yonkers where kids can hear bedtime stories and leave with books to call their very own.


A Great Legacy, But Such a Great Loss

The world lost a great teacher yesterday.  And I lost a wonderful friend.

I was fresh out of graduate school when I first met Jane. I was brimming with the latest, greatest educational theory, but oh-so-short on instructional practice.  She voluntarily became my mentor at a time when mentors weren’t mandated.   When I was teaching English off a cart, in a different room each period,  she created a home for me in her classroom, sharing her space, sharing her experience, sharing herself.

Like the kids she taught, I loved her, at least in part, because she so clearly loved me.

She was generous and kind, cultured and smart.  If the numbers-game shows I have become a good teacher, it is largely because of what I learned from her.

She taught both the most motivated kids in our building and the most reluctant: senior honors kids and what New York State used to call “Non-Regents” kids.  She prepared them for college and she prepared them for life.  Her students became pharmacists, doctors, musicians, police officers, plumbers, mechanics, accountants, lawyers, contractors, even teachers.  Moreover, they were all forever changed for the time they spent in her classroom, learning living lessons about dignity, pride, integrity.

At the heart of all her lessons was love.  Oh, how she did love her students, all of them. She loved the boy whose hand shook because he feared the permanence of ink. She loved the girl who rewrote her college essay so many times that we both could recite it from memory.  She loved the boy who won first prize in Syracuse for performing the fastest student brake job in the vocational education competitions.  She loved them all.
She began with the premise that kids respond when they know the adults in their lives care about them.  Simple, right? Nurture them. Listen to them.  Celebrate them.  Expect them to do their best because that is what is best for them.

Other words of wisdom:

Be ready to switch gears at a moment’s notice. * The best lessons may not be in your plan book. * Read your students’ cues. * Create a safe classroom where kids will take risks. * Always laugh at yourself, but never laugh at your students.*  Do not allow the bureaucracy  of education to keep you from your real job to inspire and encourage kids.* Oh and yeah, no split infinitives, no sentences ending with prepositions and nothing is ever, ever busted; it is broken or better yet, not functional.

And it  all worked so well.  Jane didn’t need  smartboard lessons or iPads to get kids to buy into The Great Gatsby.   Sometimes she just read to them.  She made them beg John Proctor to just confess.  She made them cry for Holden Caulfield’s dead brother.   She differentiated instinctively because to her, every student was an individual with a personal history, with unique needs.  She tapped into what made each kid tick and somehow got the best of each of them because they knew she loved them.

And they loved her back.  The year that she retired,  after forty-three years of teaching, the kids asked her to be their commencement speaker.  She spoke to them as she had always talked to them: with respect and with passion.

But most of all, to my husband and to me,  Jane has been a great friend, a surrogate grandmother to our own two children.  She traveled to Ithaca and to Boston for both of their college graduations, cheering  loudest of any family member present when their names were read.    She had moved to Texas—I know, right?  What a place for the quintessential New York City gal!—and recently, we saw her when we could.  But she was happy in her new life and that was what mattered most to us.

Jane had an old school wit and could always make us laugh.  She loved Lord and Taylor and The New Yorker and Jane Austin and the New York Giants.  She liked a good chardonnay– slightly chilled– and Mamma Assunta’s  cannelloni.

She will live–and love– on in the many, many lives she has touched, but that is slight consolation for us.  There were so many things we looked forward to doing.  We just assumed that Jane would be there with us.  We are so, so sad to have lost her.

Jane had a way of finding the right words for every occasion and I know she would tell us something about this, too. I will be listening and when I hear it, I will know.