Getting Ready for School

School starts here on Monday, and normally I would be on an adrenalin rush the week before, getting final details ready for my classes. It’s something similar to the nesting urge I got just before my children were born.

But this year is going to be different.

For one thing, I’m recovering from pneumonia, and there’s a good chance that for the first time in 25 years, I will miss greeting my students on the first days of school.

But that pales against some larger differences I’ll be facing and making as the year unfolds. On the one hand, I have been challenged in my thinking by some great minds in ways that are helping me re-examine some of my own classroom practices, and some larger issues. For example, this piece by Nicholas Meier (son of Deb) that reminded me why Bloom’s Taxonomy can be useful for categorizing, but is actually wrong and dangerous when applied as a hierarchy. Most often, it is used as yet another tool to label poor children as less worthy of high quality education, since these students we label as “struggling” are thought to need more intense doses of basic skills. That’s not just a K12 issue. Community colleges and universities across the country have relegated tens of thousands of students to the bottomless pit of remedial classes based on—wait for it—-placement test scores.

Honest researchers and hard-working teachers have discovered the truth: What most of these students need is not a force feeding of drills (often disguised as technology because they are computer-generated), but rather an opportunity to engage their minds on problems that matter. They need an opportunity to use the skills and knowledge that they DO have (not the ones we wish they already had) to advance their learning.

Along that line, I’ve been helped by discussions here in the Collaboratory that helped me challenge why we do “diagnostic testing” at the start of school. Why do we start the year looking for deficits and defects in our students? Not that we shouldn’t get to know them thoroughly as learners, that’s important. But why is our focus so much on finding their weaknesses and so little on finding their strengths, or more important, helping them find those strengths? Maybe it’s because the concept of hierarchy is stamped onto our thinking, not just about skills, but about people.

Speaking of skills, as the school year approaches, I’m keeping one eye on the developing storm around Common Core implementation, and what it will mean for children and for all of us in education at all levels. Nor can I (or anyone who has any humanity) ignore the closing of schools, even whole districts, by those who believe education is a privilege not a basic right of every child in America.

Being a teacher, however, I always enter every new school year with hope. I’m encouraged by the grassroots movements I see among teachers across the country who are assuming leadership over key aspects of our work—including defining how teaching and learning should be evaluated. And, I’m encouraged that it’s a new kind of leadership, built on collaboration more than competition or individual star power.

Most of all, the young people give me hope. As veteran activist, Ella Baker noted: “Young people have the courage where we fail.”  This year, as we observe the 50th Anniversary of many of the major events of the Civil Rights movement, I’ll be thinking (and teaching) about Ella Baker, affectionately called Fundi, a Swahili word meaning one who passes skills from one generation to the next. Baker, an amazing organizer in her own right, was quietly responsible for some of the most important work of that era. Her primary message, however, was that the real key to freedom is to empower and connect people, not wait for a few charismatic leaders.

For Ella, for Fannie Lou, for all those who have believed,

and taught,

and fought,

this school year will be different.

 

 

 

  • jon hanbury

    despite all odds

    first of all, let me wish you a speedy recovery from pneumonia!  be careful with yourself!

    and now to my thoughts on your comments.  just today, there was an article in today’s paper sharing the adventures of three black men from newark, new jersey on their journey to become physicians despite the odds of their making it out of their crime infested neighborhood.  they had made a pact while in high school and supported one another during their road to becoming doctors.  they told their story in a book that they authored — the pact: three young men make a promise and fullfill a dream.  so we need to get the message out that all students have gifts that should be nurtured by our schools.

    having worked in title schools for the majority of my career, i learned early on that there is an element within our ranks who have low expectations for our children living in poverty.  while researching ways to support our african american male in the school house, i found that those young men who have succeeded had educators who built relationships with their students, had high expectations for all students, and provided a high quality program of instruction.  so i get my dander up when someone feels that low performing students should be given only remedial tasks.

    although i do believe in the practice of pre-assessment to determine what skills my students have prior to instruction, i definitely don’t agree with “diagnostics” testing as you have described.  unfortunately, in our data driven world with high stakes testing and teacher accountability, i see it as an easy route for our districts to take. the teaching of low level skills will not prepare our students to think critically or to problem solve.

    on a final note, for years i was a title I teacher working strictly with groups of youngsters below grade level.  while working with an extended day kindergarten group of youngsters, i was appalled when the homeroom teacher of one of the students we shared said to me, “i just learned that suzie is gifted.  how can that be?  she’s in a title I program!”  then there was the time when my small group math children were denied access to higher thinking problem sets!  i was livid.  needless to say, i provided the rich problems to my students despite objections by others!

    take care of yourself, renee.  and thanks for your thoughts.  i always learn much from you!

     

     

    • ReneeMoore

      Which children deserve education?

      Thanks for the wishes, Jon.

      I’ve seen those same scenarios too many times. The dangerous part is that many of the educators and politicans who have that mentality about “those kids” are often very paternalistic, and think they are being sensitive and “practical.”

      Kylene Beers, former president of National Council of Teachers of English wrote a moving piece on this very topic, “The Genteel Unteaching of America’s Poor.” I’ve cited it many times and highly recommend it to all.

  • BriannaCrowley

    Positivity and Health!

    Renee,

    I’m so sorry to hear that bug you were dealing with at the beginning of the month turned into pneumonia! One year I got food poinsoning during the first week of school and it felt like a double-whammy to not have those first days to get to know my students. My thoughts are with you. 

    I too am feeling so sad at the disparity of educational opportunities as I read more about my state’s funding crisis in Philadelphia. (A blog spelling it out here, and a report about PA’s funding structure here.)

    Basically, white, upper class students and a few lucky minority or poor student who manage to get into a successful charter school are the only students who have school funded in the Philadelphia areas right now. Although I work in a well-resourced district, I feel disgusted by our system here and how we seem to be going backwards–mired in our problems rather that working out way out of them. 

    But you are so right when you encourage us to begin the year with hope. Without it, change is impossible to envision. With it, we can look beyond the problem and begin to imagine the solution. 

    • ReneeMoore

      Backward slide

      I agree, we do seem to be moving backwards in many areas right now (not coincidence that these attacks come on the 50th anniversary of the height of the civil rights movement either). But people of faith and freedom have got to dig in our heels, stand up, and say “Enough!”

      Thanks for the health wishes, I’m slowing coming back. [P.S. I DID go to school today–over the objections of my husband and mother].

  • Shannoncdebaca

    You always make me think

    Renee,

    Thanks for the thought provoking this AM. Sorry you are still recovering..I wish you great health and can send chicken soup (although the envelopes never seem to hold up well.

    I am vexed by the myopic vision of remediation in K-16 education. A wonderful group led by Phil Daro and Elizabeth Stage in the 90’s coined the phrase on ramp. They said kids need an on ramp but we put them on a frontage road that never seems to connect to the superhighway of learning again. I have seen this packetized slow pace of “computer boring as crap” material. The kids show up like zombies and crank off checks on thier list while never really gaining any useful knowledge that will help them in higher level classes. I would have given up if I was a student in one of those classes.

    Many education programs do gravitate towards those flawed heirarchies that put kids in boxes or label them. We need a stronger set of tools that involve the kids in figuring out what helps them learn and how to make classes and schools morph to those kinds of environments. That frightens a few folks because it involves changing funding, schedules, staffing and puting a premium on…yes….teachers (and teacher leadership). Ahhh the joys of being a radical.

    So, I will keep banging the drum for “on ramps” and relationships with good teachers and caring adults who will encourage, give critical feedback, nudge, push, and lead the kids (and schools) to more thoughtful educational experiences. I fear that with the landscape changing to more for profit motives we may have to bring out the old signs and march for freedom again. Thank goodness the marchers of the 60’s showed us the way.

    Shannon

  • ReneeMoore

    Merging Traffic

    Wholeheartedly agree, we need more scaffolding that actually helps students become the independent, creative learners they are, not this force fed zombie-ism that passes for remediation.  But then, that’s the point: Those who force remediation on other people’s children do it because they really don’t believe “those kids” can or should have anything better. (See the Kylene Beers piece I referenced above to Jon).

    Appreciate the chicken-soup thoughts, but my church members have taken care of their pastor’s wife big time. I could stock a shelter with chicken soup!

  • Lorraine Richardson

    Assets Instead of Deficits

    Sorry to read about your pneumonia. PLEASE take care of YOU. Renee FIRST!

    As usual, you are right on!
    In education we tend to focus on a deficits and gaps. Schools  and students have an achievement gap or a knowledge deficit. However, an ASSETS approach assumes that EVERYONE has gifts, skills, talents that can be shared with others and build relationships. By analyzing and identifying students’ strengths, everyone is afforded an opportunity to share and thus to shine. Dr. Howard Gardener (Harvard) defines intelligence as the ability to solve problems and/or to create a product that is valued by a community or a culture (Frames of Mind- Theory of Multiple Intelligences). Translated: ALL students are intelligent.

     

     

  • BillIvey

    What fascinates me…

    … is “Diagnostic testing” need not necessarily focus on deficits, and in fact I’m betting that for most all of us here, the informal and formal diagnosing we do is looking to create as full a picture as possible of who these kids are, where they are, and what plan can be devised to meet them where they are and help them move themselves forward.

    Love the point about Bloom’s Taxonomy not being a hierarchy. I do try to keep my classroom as focused as possible on the five levels that are not “knowledge” (or “remembering”), but beyond that, I just try to make sure I’m not completely neglecting a mode of thinking that they need to develop.

    As I move through my career and my life, I get more and more frustrated with the very existence, never mind application, of hierarchies. Add in stereotyping to the application of hierarchies and I move far beyond frustration into “How *dare* you?” territory.

    Enjoy the chicken soup, and keep going down the road to full recovery!

    P.S. Last year, I had to move classrooms, and when I was done arranging it, I texted a picture to my Head of School. She texted back noting it must be my nesting instinct, which she understood because she had done the exact same thing when she was in the classroom. Must be a teacher thing. 🙂