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!