BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN

After months of spending the majority of my work time searching for funders (all right guys: “come out come out wherever you are!”) and learning more about what other educators and film makers are contributing in this area, today I began participating more actively in the editing of our video. Ah! Yay!! Tom has pretty much completed the third step in this very complex project. First we narrowed 300 hours down to 100, next we made a stab at picking out some highlights for a 45 minute sampler and a 7 minute sampler, both of which we have used to get feedback. Now he has narrowed 100 down to about 12. He has created assemblies that define a range of activities and themes, and we started reviewing them alphabetically!

Today I saw sections on Afternoon meeting, Animals, Arrivals, Art, Assessment, Bird calls, Bonking, and Campus cleanup. It shakes up my thinking to see the footage as elements to play with, rather than chronologically, as we did with our first pass through. My mind is racing to the next stage, of course, where we create a basic structure for the film, but Tom is helping me learn patience and the importance of careful craft. The sections will not stay in their current forms but they are edited enough to be able to feel their essence, and I find myself picking out easily the parts that matter most to me: shots that show the character of the student, or catch for me that mysterious quantity called “authentic learning.”

I can see that I will have my work cut out for me coming up with just the right amount of commentary to explain the contexts and purposes without making the film too wordy. Tom had just a few shots in the Assessment category, as he also has sections for Math assessment, Reading assessment and Writing assessment as well as Self assessment. He used this section for shots of the small group of students who took the STAR test that is mandated by NCLB and the State. Most of the parents in my class opt their students out of this test. I am not in favor of high stakes standardized tests, and find little value in standardized tests even when they aren’t attached to rewards and punishment. How will I talk about that? How much importance should we give it? Guess I better make some written rough drafts of my own.

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MISTAKES

Tom was recently editing a scene where two girls confront a third about saying something mean. There are many levels present in the scene, including the social pecking order that tempted L to say the mean thing: wanting to ingratiate herself, but having the opposite result.

What I am pondering right now is the moment when L, crying and overcome by the way things have spiraled out of control, emotionally admits she made a mistake. All present then acknowledge that at one time or another they have also. I say: “I’ve made more mistakes that you can possibly imagine!” The girls all nod, with R adding something to the effect that at my age I have had many more years to make mistakes. So true!!!

Well, last week I really made a dumb mistake that I am still recovering from. I was left in charge of the school barnyard while everyone was away on a camping trip. Thumper, the new bunny is very hard to catch, and in the process of getting her to go into her hutch, I tried to corner her in the chicken cage. By the time I finally got her put away, I had forgotten that the chickens’ gate was still open. I didn’t remember until I returned to a scene of carnage the following morning. All 4 of our sweet pet chickens had been killed. It was an awful moment.

I dreaded the children returning. No matter how much I told myself that these things happen, that I needed to forgive myself, I was not getting there. But predictably when I came to be with them on the day they found out, while they mourned the loss tearfully, they forgave me easily. When a child, who has a much bigger loss in her own life, put her arms around me and just held me silently and kindly, I felt the guilt wash off.

I would not wish this on anyone, and yet now there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind that I make mistakes, and that I can be forgiven, as can each of them. Whew.

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WHY ARE WE STILL HERE?

I have been corresponding with Howard Katzoff, who has a website called Mr.Katzoff.org He reprinted there an article that was published in Newsday in April of 2008, about the exciting middle school that he taught in in the 1970′s http://mrkatzoff.org/2009/09/once-upon-a-time-in-shoreham, Why did Shoreham Wading River and many successful schools like it die while others, such as the one I taught in, remained?
Standford emeritus professor Larry Cuban views what happened as “yet another skirmish in the ideological wars that have split educators and the public since the first tax-supported schools opened their doors in the early 1800s.” I think there is a lot of truth to that. School Boards reflecting political agendas probably closed down many of the progressive experiments. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they did it in concert with the huge educational publishing business, which would not have been making nearly as much money if schools had stopped buying all those tedious textbooks. Perhaps the testing mania started as a new income source? One that would “prove” that we needed to go back to textbooks?? I hate to be so cynical, yet there can be no doubt that corporations have benefited from this particular skirmish!
In my internet perambulations I have located around 50 public schools whose websites describe programs that sound like our Open Classroom. I have developed a bit of communication with about a dozen of these public schools going against the current. A great majority started in the 70’s, although there is a mini resurgence, usually calling themselves ‘constructivist’.
In our case I think there are some clear reasons why we still exist. First of all, we are located in a very liberal area, and our school board continues to support us. From the beginning there was a decision to create school programs that reflected what parents wanted. So there was not just an open classroom, there was also a back to basics program. Conventional self- contained classrooms were also offered. As time went by, the back to basics model melded with the self contained classrooms, and called itself Academics and Enrichment. Then along came a group of parents who wanted Montessori. They drummed up support, paid for the first year of training a teacher, and convinced the board they had many parents who wanted that.
Eventually A&E dwindled, but the open program continued to draw nearly half of the new enrollees, with the rest going to the Montessori program. A few years after A& E disappeared, at a moment when total school enrollment was down and there were empty classrooms, along came a group of parents who wanted a Waldorf inspired approach. They also raised money, and lobbied hard…and now this tiny community with a total school population of a bit more than 300, has 3 elementary school programs, all of which are unconventional, plus a middle school that all three programs feed into.
Second of all, our staff had longevity, and continued to put in the energy needed to support this approach. The founding teachers stayed a very long time, did not all retire at once, and even after retirement have stayed involved in the school, mentoring and volunteering–even attending school board meetings.
Third of all, the community model, including an emphasis on parent participation, worked in our favor. I notice that is a part of several of the schools that have survived. The teachers did not get isolated once the founding parents moved on. The use of consensus for decision making may not always be pretty, but it keeps people invested.
It may also help that we are an elementary school. I notice it is harder to build community in middle school. There are too few years, the parents tend not to be as involved. The schools I’ve found that go further than 6th grade usually go all the way through high school, and that may be why the middle school has survived: the threat that somehow you have to toughen kids up with lots of tests in middle school to prepare them for high school is not there.
Interestingly, in the private school sector some version of progressive education has always had wide acceptance. Several versions are experiencing rapid growth right now, probably pushed by how regimented public schools have become. Alfie Kohn contends that there never was much of a progressive movement in the public schools. It was so small, given such a limited time to prove itself, that it never got off the ground. but I would add that many of the good ideas did drift into more conventional classrooms, and are only now being stamped out by the testing machine.
How do we turn the tide? Maybe the severity of what has happened via NCLB will do it for us. We’ll have to get more people speaking up if that is to be so!

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REJECTION

Got another rejection letter in my effort to find funding yesterday. That makes three recently. Mostly they remind us that times are tough and there are lots of people hoping for money from shrinking pots. ITVS (the Independent Television Service, which “funds presents and promotes independently produced programs for public television”) was a bit different, in that they offer a 15 minute feedback session along with their rejection. I had talked to several film makers before we submitted our proposal, and knew it was very likely we would be rejected the first time we applied. I applied specifically to hear what the feedback would be. Today was the day. So now we have to figure out what to do with what we heard.

At 10:00 we called Joy Marie Scott, an ITVS programmer, who was very upfront about why the project had been rejected. They didn’t see enough of a narrative in our 7 minute sampler, and imagine the film is similar to To Be and To Have, which turns out to be a negative in their minds, for TV. We do see a relation between what we are attempting and To Be and To Have–but for us it has been a positive. Where is the film in the American context that captures a classroom the way that film did for French audiences?

Ms. Scott feels that To Be and To Have is a theatrical film, not a film for TV. Sounds like an important difference for us to ponder.

Developing a narrative is a no brainer. That has been our goal from the beginning. There are several students we follow where we can define a trajectory from point a to point b (awkward to confident, non reader to emergent reader, outsider to part of the group…) There is an academic narrative around the development of poetic voice through self discovery. There is a teacher reflecting on what she has learned, what she strives for, and how the human equation enters in. There is the unusualness of the relation parents have to the workings of the class. I’m less sure of how well we show that.

So the adrenalin is still flowing through my veins. Did we ask the right questions, listen well enough? What weight do we give to her words? I can only go so far outside my deep connection to the materials, and the investment of time and energy we have devoted. I know from many examples that time and energy don’t necessarily equate to creative success.

Tom has now put together almost all the small sections he wanted to create before we attempted to organize the whole. Soon we start the next stage, filled with curiosity, and some anxiety to see what whole will come from these parts.

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BACK ON THE (WORM) FARM

In a few minutes I’ll leave the windowless workspace where Tom and I edit, and head down the road to the school I taught in for decades, to volunteer. Fridays are still Campus Care time, an outgrowth of cleaning out the animal hutches at the end of the week. It grew so nicely, and had so many benefits that it outlived my time at the school. Here is a time when the students make a very real contribution to their environment by doing everything that comes to mind to care for it. It may be picking up trash, or cleaning the chicken coop, alphabetizing the new additions to the library, or whacking back the blackberry vines that have covered a path. Much of what we do might be considered “Chores.” I love that! Chores are the basis of being part of community. When Tom was filming he captured kids spontaneously singing as they worked. That gave me goose bumps.

Right now I am helping kids with the upkeep of our compost piles and worm bin. We call ourselves the Friends of Worms, and rightly so, as we have quite a breeding community. There is a good bit of science that happens along the way. Last week we took the temperature of the different piles, and got out magnifying glasses to look more closely at our worms. But that is the byproduct of doing something worth doing in its own right: composting leftover lunches and weeds from the garden, turning them into soil for future gardens. Life is good.

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A VOICE IN CONGRESS

Congressman Joe Baca has taken a principled stand on an issue dear to my heart, as you will have gathered if you have been following this blog. High stakes standardized testing threatens to at the least eviscerate the kind of teaching and learning our film demonstrates, and it certainly is in the process of eliminating it from inner city schools. Baca has introduced a bill called HR3384. It calls for a moratorium on high stakes testing. “Since it’s enactment in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act has been a complete and utter failure,” said Rep. Baca. “Instead of ensuring all of America’s children have access to a quality education, the legislation has tied the hands of teachers and school administrators, forced students to learn inane testing strategies instead of real-life skills, and made billions in profits for standardized testing companies. I am proud to introduce this long overdue legislation, which can finally put America’s education policy back in the hands of local officials, teachers and parents, and remove the influence of big corporations and Washington bureaucrats.”

The best way to move this legislation to the forefront of the many bills pending before the House Labor and Education Committee is through phone calls and faxes to committee members from their constituents.

Here are the phone and fax numbers of committee members. If you do not see one from your area, write to George Miller as committee chairperson.

HOUSE EDUCATION AND LABOR COMMITTEE MEMBERS
Democrats Phone # Fax #
George Miller, Chairman (CA-07) 202-225-2095 202-225-5609
Dale E. Kildee (MI-05) 202-225-3611 202-225-6393
Donald M. Payne (NJ-10) 202-225-3436 202-225-4160
Robert E. Andrews (NJ-01) 202-225-6501
Robert C. Scott (VA-03) 202-225-8351 202-225-8354
Lynn C. Woolsey (CA-06) 202-225-5161 202-225-5163
Rubén Hinojosa (TX-15) 202-225-2531 202-225-5688
Carolyn McCarthy (NY-04) 202-225-5516 202-225-5758
John F. Tierney (MA-06) 202-225-8020 202-225-5915
Dennis J. Kucinich (OH-10) 202-225-5871 202-225-5745
David Wu (OR-01) 202-225-0855 202-225-9497
Rush D. Holt (NJ-12) 202-225-5801 202-225-6025
Susan A. Davis (CA-53) 202-225-2040 202-225-2948
Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ-07) 202-225-2435 202-225-1541
Timothy H. Bishop (NY-01) 202-225-3826 202-225-3143
Joe Sestak (PA-07) 202-225-2011 202-226-0280
Dave Loebsack (IA-02) 202-225-6576 202-226-0757
Mazie Hirono (HI-02) 202-225-4906 202-225-4987
Jason Altmire (PA-04) 202-225-2565 202-226-2274
Phil Hare (IL-17) 202-225-5905 202-225-5396
Yvette Clarke (NY-11) 202-225-6231 202-226-0112
Joe Courtney (CT-02) 202-225-2076 202-225-4977
Carol Shea-Porter (NH-01) 202-225-5456 202-225-5822
Marcia Fudge (OH-11) 202-225-7032 202-225-1339
Jared Polis (CO-2) 202-225-2161 202-226-7840
Paul Tonko (NY-21) 202-225-5076 202-225-5077
Pedro Pierluisi (PR) 202-225-6215 202-225-2615
Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (NMI) 202-225-2646 202-226-4249
Dina Titus (NV-3) 202-225-3252 202-225-2185
Judy Chu (CA-32) 202-225-5464 202-225-5467

Republicans Phone Fax
John Kline, Ranking Member (MN-02) 202-225-2271 202-225-2595
Thomas E. Petri (WI-06) 202-225-2476 202-225-2356
Howard “Buck” McKeon (CA-25) 202-225-1956 202-226-0863
Peter Hoekstra (MI-02) 202-225-4401 202-226-0779
Michael N. Castle (DE-At Large) 202-225-4165 202-225-2291
Mark E. Souder (IN-03) 202-225-4436
Vernon J. Ehlers (MI-03) 202-225-3831 202-225-5144
Judy Biggert (IL-13) 202-225-3515 202-225-9420
Todd Russell Platts (PA-19) 202-225-5836 202-226-1000
Joe Wilson (SC-02) 202-225-2452 202-225-2455
Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-05) 202-225-2006 202-225-3392
Tom Price (GA-06) 202-225-4501 202-225-4656
Rob Bishop (UT-01) 202-225-0453 202-225-5857
Brett Guthrie (KY-2) 202-225-3501 202-226-2019
Bill Cassidy (LA-6) 202-225-3901 202-225-7313
Tom McClintock (CA-4) 202-225-2511 202-225-2511
Duncan D. Hunter (CA-52) 202-225-5672 202-225-0235
Phil Roe (TN-1) 202-225-6356 202-225-5714
Glenn “GT” Thompson (PA-05) 202-225-5121 202-225-5796

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ALL TOGETHER NOW

It’s already more than a week since I drove down to Fresno with 3 dynamic women to join the Freedom in Education meeting the father and son team of Rog and Joe Lucido had put together. Rog is a retired high school physics teacher. Joe is a middle school science lead teacher. A few years ago they founded an organization called Educators and Parents Against Testing Abuse. That group started the Cesar Chavez Education Conference at Fresno State University that I have been to twice. This time they were bringing together a small but dedicated group drawn from the larger conference and contacts that has led to. The 22 people in the room included retired and active college professors, high school, middle school, elementary and special ed teachers, and even a retired principal, Lynn Stoddard, who had come all the way from Utah to join us. While we represented a range of approaches and philosophies, what united us was our opposition to high stakes testing, and a desire to find ways to enlarge the effectiveness of our individual efforts.

Going round the table, hearing what each person had done (and why they were ready to spend a beautiful summer Saturday inside a conference room) was inspiring. Several people had risked their livelihood to speak up against practices they felt were harmful to children. Several belonged to groups I had never heard of that were working for change. Seeing each other face to face was a real plus.

We talked about what direct action meant to each of us, about how to listen to and involve parents and community members. From Rosemary Lee I learned that there is a hemispheric education organization doing work in these areas, the Tri-national Coalition for the Defense of Public Education, and that both Mexican and Canadian educators have gotten the ear of their policy makers with ideas that we could learn from!

I think I was most touched by a middle school teacher from the Tahoe area who was just getting her feet wet in being involved outside of her school community. The action she was thinking about was to use the TGIF get together her staff has away from school, to bring up some of her concerns in a low key way. She personified making gradual change that has long lasting consequences. I was probably most energized by Stephen Krashen, whose letter writing campaign is starting to bear fruit, with op eds and letters to the editor not only getting published (mine never have) but responded to online. What I can’t tell is if we can reach beyond the circle of the already convinced. Will AUGUST TO JUNE be a way to do that? I hope many of the ways presented in Fresno will be.

For more about getting active to eliminate high stakes testing, go to www.stopnationalstandards.com

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A BUNNY ON A BUSINESS CARD

After several sometimes enjoyable, sometimes frustrating days of designing business cards for Tom and I to hand people after answering the question “What are you up to?”, I just finished slicing them apart. The day is slowly approaching when I will really understand Photoshop, and remember the commands!

Both of our cards have a plush bunny as the central motif. In Tom’s case, it is sitting on a shelf next to a container of writing implements and a pair of scissors: tools of the teacher’s trade. In my case, the bunny is held by a pair of small hands. This bunny had an important role in the classroom, and will show up frequently in the film. He was our version of the talking stick, passed from person to person to indicate that person and only that person had the right to speak. But a soulful bunny, his big ears seeming to take in every word, was so much more appealing than a stick. In a classroom where students loved to name things–even naming the beanbags we tossed while taking roll (Mooroo, and Dumpy The Dumptruck), the bunny never was given a proper name, being referred to only as the Class Council Bunny.

Most Friday mornings started with Class Council. I borrowed the concept about 10 years before from my friend Jean Luc Bedat, a teacher at Ecole Aujourd’hui, a bilingual elementary school in Paris. Their many ways to empower children impressed me. Each week a different student picked up the class council book, checked for what anyone in the class may have written inside it as a topic needing discussion by the whole class, and led a 30-40 minute meeting. I sat next to the leader, and when needed would give them some support, but as the year went on, that was always less and less necessary,and I could participate as just another voice in the discussion. Topics ranged from the mundane (“people are not putting away their supplies…”) to the complex (many issues around the concept of fairness) to the deeply moving (“if someone says ‘so’ after I say something, it feels like they don’t care about me…”). There was the bunny, listening, nodding, looking out at the group, as the child who was speaking animated him by unconsciously squeezing his soft body.

In between meetings, the bunny sat on a shelf where he seemed to survey the action. What better symbol for this film that observes with sympathy the life of a class?

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PIECES OF THE PUZZLE

I had good initial conversations with 3 people from the world of education this week—well, two were email correspondences, and one was a real voice on the other end of the phone. Each is working on a different piece of this same puzzle—how to explain to the general public what we can do in the world of education so the next generation can have happy, productive lives. Vicki Abeles and I talked about the progress of her film, RACE TO NOWHERE. Her main focus is the unintended negative consequences of a system and culture based on competition. Her film is designed around interviews with students, teachers and parents. Our conversation was around what ways we can support each other’s efforts, knowing that it will take a great deal of effort to overcome the current trends. We also sympathized about the difficulty of finding funding when there are so many societal needs going unmet. She may have use for a bit of our footage for some positive visual images.

Jodie Newdelman, a parent in our district’s Montessori program, heard a radio interview with Richard Rothstein, and suggested he was right “up our alley”, so I wrote to him. He teaches at Columbia, and has a book called Grading Education that sounds well worth reading, and I have added it to my list!! The book has an appendix of transcribed interviews with a dozen or so creative teachers in inner city schools, who have been forced by NCLB to abandon successful approaches.

Last, but not least, I chatted with Jerry MIntz. Jerry is the man behind AERO–the Alternative Education Resource Organization. They publish a newsletter called Education Revolution, have an online store full of resources for people looking for alternatives to status-quo education, and host a very successful conference every June in upstate New York. Jerry helped film maker Dorothy Fadiman find progressive public schools for her 1990 film WHY DO THESE CHILDREN LOVE SCHOOL?. The film is an overview of practices that make for a positive school environment, in contrast to AUGUST TO JUNE’s intimate following of one class. In some ways our film is a logical extension of hers, which aired on PBS. As we talked, I realized that at this point I have at least made a dent in identifying many of the players in the world of education who are speaking and writing from perspectives similar to my own. There is still a lot for me to read!!

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STANDARDS #2

Here are three quotations to think about:
“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.” Albert Einstein
“Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of education.” Linda McNeil, Rice University,
“…the main aim of education should be to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people.” Nel Noddings, Stanford University

When we talk about assessing education, do we really know what are the important areas to measure? I’d like to see an assessment model that measures how much time each day the child is smiling. How much time does he or she spend looking alert and involved, eyes twinkling? What percentage of his or her interaction with teachers involves critical thinking skills and means of expressing oneself? When I review a day in my classroom those things are as much on my mind as what concepts I have attempted to teach, or what standards I am focusing on. Childhood is a time of lively engagement. If it doesn’t look like that in the classroom, something is wrong.

Children are genetically programmed to LEARN. They really are sponges. No matter what situation you put them into they will learn. The question is not “will they learn?” but “what will they learn?” They will take in along with the math or reading everything associated with the environment they learn it in. Will they approach new situations with confidence in the future? Will they smile when they see a book or math equation? Will they be devastated by “setbacks” or see them as the natural way of things? Where will the word “school” move the dial on the emotion meter? And how will that manifest in their lifelong attraction to learning?

Alfie Kohn cites a national study of first, third, and fifth grade classrooms in more than 1,000 schools: “Children spent most of their time (91.2%) working in whole-group or individual-seatwork settings” and “the average fifth grader received five times as much instruction in basic skills as instruction focused on problem solving or reasoning; this ratio was 10:1 in first and third grades” (Robert C. Pianta et al., “Opportunities to Learn in America’s Elementary Classrooms,” Science, vol. 315, March 30, 2007, p. 1795) This is what concerns me, not how those classrooms scored on multiple choice tests or what standards those teachers thought they were teaching.

I frequently remind children who are frustrated because it is taking them longer to become fluent readers than some of their peers, that while some babies may have started to walk long before others, in the long run we can’t tell which were the early walkers or the ones who got their teeth first from the ones who got them later. Comparison is the bugaboo of the classroom, even when you don’t give marks, use standardized tests or expect everyone to be on the same page on the same day. It is a typical human reaction to look at your peer group and measure yourself by what you see reflected there. There are times when I accept competition as a positive motivator. Still, the concept of readiness must be remembered. Being “ready” means you have the tools to accomplish the next goal. While there may well be information and concepts we as a society want to see included in every child’s education, I resent the assigning of grade levels to so called “educational standards”. I see them as a continuum. Everyone will get to the important concepts and skills over time, just not in unison.

Take a look at this website: http://stopnationalstandards.org/

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