A Mother’s Dream

A Mother’s Dream

As parents, we have dreams for our children’s futures.  We dream that they will be extraordinary — that they will write novels, become virtuosos, or gain the civic and political knowledge necessary to change the world.  Every child should dream of being president, or a movie star, or a world-class athlete, or a famous novelist or composer, or a wildly successful entrepreneur.  Every child should not just dream of the presidency or the Super Bowl or of being the next Lin-Manuel Miranda or Steve Jobs: every child should have access to an education that supports rather than hinders his or her quest to become the best version of the person she or he has the capacity to be. 

But standardized public education has little hope of nurturing passions or encouraging dreams.  Standardized education limits possibilities, and narrows curiosity.  Children who spend all of their times trying to find the right answers to other people’s questions learn to stop asking their own questions — and without questions, curiosity withers and dies.  I read so much about the goal of education being to prepare my child for college or career: but what those articles never drill down on is, “What career?”  Reading between the lines, however, the college or career preparation today’s education reformers imagine is limited in scope: our kids should be, they say, marching in lockstep toward the STEM careers of tomorrow.  

My kid doesn’t dream of a STEM career programming computers in a dusty cubicle.  Is that really the extent of what my child’s aspirations should be?  My child dreams of being the next Lin-Manuel Miranda.  My child dreams of curing cancer.  My child dreams of opening her own interior design firm.  My child dreams of being a prize-winning journalist, exposing corruption and explaining policy issues to the voters whose ballots can influence our futures (or at least of being the next Valerie Strauss).

Providing our children — ALL of our children — with educations that do not standardize them, that do not shut down those dreams before they begin — that is a noble purpose of public education.  Providing our children with the tools necessary to be informed and conscientious citizens — that is a noble purpose of public education.  I dream of public education for children — for ALL children — that equips them with the tools to be thoughtful citizens, and with the encouragement to follow their hopes into the future.  I dream of a public education that imbues children — ALL children — with the tools they need to make a meaningful impact, hopefully for the better, on the world.  

I dream of a world in which public education opens endless possibilities, not of a world in which creativity and passion are sacrificed to the false gods of standardization and faux-rigor.  This weekend is the Network for Public Education’s 3rd Annual Conference.  I arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina a little while ago.  This weekend, what I look forward to is spending time with hundreds of adults from across the country, all of whom share big dreams for our children, our future, and for the possibilities of what public education can and should be.  This weekend, I won’t be dreaming alone.

Our Kids Need to Keep Moving, Not Be Stuck in PARCC

With her permission, I'm sharing Tova Felder's testimony from the public hearing before the Governor's Commission on the PARCC. I know Tova because she teaches in the religious school my kids attend, and from all accounts, she is a gifted teacher of children. My 6 year old is in awe of Tova because of her pink hair. I am in awe of how beautifully and effectively she was able to get her points across — I only wish I'd had the opportunity to see her testify in person. Like Tova, I'm in this fight because I don't want our kids stuck in PARCC; I, too, want them to keep moving.

Good evening. My name is Tova Felder. I am a former elementary school teacher in the Westfield Public School District, a current religious school teacher in Bloomfield, and the mommy of one fabulous, twice-gifted ten year old in Clifton. I am speaking to you with all of my hats on, because they all matter.

Commissioner Hespe, you and I share a bit of history. I came up through the Willingboro school system, kindergarten through high school. I was part of the last graduating class of John F. Kennedy High School. I'm still friends with many of my classmates.

I received my Master's Degree in Early Childhood Education from Boston College in 1997, my heart set on working with children and sharing with them the spark of joy for learning that I myself had. For ten years I did just that.

In Boston, our kindergarten science curriculum was very flexible, so when we studied earthworms, I brought in a bunch and we examined them up close (but didn't hurt them) and we watched how they responded to light and dark. The kids took notes in their developmentally appropriate invented spelling, drew pictures, and asked questions that were in their heads, not in a textbook or on a white board prompt.

Despite a fairly INflexible language arts curriculum in Westfield, since there was no such thing as a pacing chart, I still had lots of room to improvise. My third grade class wrote several letters to the company that published our literature series one year. They'd found grammatical errors in the textbook, you see, so I used it as a jumping off point for teaching formal letter writing. Later, they used that new skill to write to a favorite author. We were so excited when he wrote back!

I taught my students the song “Free To Be” and we had many discussions about the importance of being who you are…not who or what others think you should be. We sang that song every week and proudly wore our tie-dyed t-shirts, which were a first day of school project, every Friday. A few of those kids are now young adults in the arts and are friends with me on Facebook. (Hi Emily, Brian, and Julian!)

Here's where I say: “Evaluate THAT.”

I resigned from my tenured public school position when my son was born and I realized the impossibility of being the kind of mommy I wanted to be and the kind of teacher I needed to be. Watching my son move through kindergarten and the lower grades, I have become distraught by what has become of public education, what enthusiastic educators are now up against.

I understand that Commissioner Hespe would like input from us about what we should do to address this societal problem where half of the students are graduating without the skills and knowledge they need. That's easy: fix poverty. The millions going to Pearson and Google would make a nice start, I think. That would mean that all of these special interest groups, like the PTA, would have to stop taking money from Bill Gates…but you really want to address the problem of educational inequality, right?

I read through your Interim Report, dated December 31, 2014. Thank you for making it available to the public.

The one thing that leapt out at me, over and over, was the language used in it. It does not read like a manifesto of Looking Out for Our Children. It reads like a business proposal. And while that surprises me not a bit, it does cause my heart to sink and my skin to crawl. My child is not a cog in the Big Machine. My child is not a product, as Dana Egrecsky called them in her interview on NJ101.5. My child's life is about so much more than preparing to fill a seat in a college classroom or a vacancy in one of your companies. In fact, neither of those eventualities was on our minds at ALL when we decided to have a baby.

The thing that struck me the hardest in that long report was the cold detachment from any real humanity.

Somewhere along the way, you have all lost sight of what childhood is supposed to be; what education is supposed to be.

Children are wonderers. They are dreamers and innovators. It's in the DNA. They're born that way. A good education nurtures and encourages that. It speaks to their innate curiosities and leads them down paths of investigation and inquiry.

The classrooms of today are more like boot camp. The teachers are practically given scripts to follow and rigid pacing schedules to ensure that everyone in the country is on page 43 at the same time. That is the opposite of the personalized education we have been promised. It reminds me unpleasantly of Pink Floyd's Another Brick In the Wall, where the children all look the same, march in place, going nowhere, and are not allowed to think for themselves.

That can't possibly be your idea of an outstanding education. I know it isn't our governor's. His kids go to private school.

We don't need PARCC or a battery of any other standardized tests to tell us if our kids are college and career ready. My son is ten. I can tell you with 100% certainty that he is not ready. Neither are his friends. They are ice cream ready, engaging-literature ready, playing make-believe at recess ready.

Commissioner Hespe, members of the Committee, I don't want my child to PARCC. I want him, and every other child, to keep moving.



The Best For Me

by Sarah Blaine

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. I expect my Facebook feed will be replete with one of my pet peeves: “Thank you to the Best Mom in the Whole World!” and “My Mom is #1” and “My Mom is the Most Awesomest Mom Evah!” I hate that. When someone announces that his mom is the BEST mom, he’s implicitly stating that the rest of our moms are the second-best moms. Ugh.

So when one of my daughters told me that I was the best mom, I didn’t just say thank you. Instead, I asked if that meant that Quinn’s mom and Max’s mom and Grey’s mom and Zane’s mom weren’t the best moms for Quinn and Max and Grey and Zane. As a former English teacher, I believe that language matters. So I was thrilled when she altered her language to say what I love to hear: “You are the best mom in the world FOR ME!”

Teachers are the same way. As a high school senior, I took AP Calculus. I had a legendary teacher, Mr. Winkler, and I know that many of my high school friends mourned his loss when we read his obituary a few months ago. There was group work in that class, and challenging assignments intended to help students to really dig into why Calculus worked, and so forth. Many of Mr. Winkler’s students went on to study advanced mathematics and related subjects in college. But I wasn’t ready to buckle down and study, and the bulk of what happened in that class went over my head. He couldn’t get through to me. I was too wrapped up in other things, including but not limited to the nasty nightly battles in my parents’ acrimonious divorce. So in the spring of 1991, I took my “Gentleman’s C,” which Mr. Winkler was kind enough to provide, and my failing score on the AP exam, and I went off to college, fully intending to never study math again.

But as a college sophomore, I had one of those life changing professors, Professor Howard Bernstein, who was a professor who challenged me and taught me and inspired me and transformed me. He was an adjunct, and the class I took with him was Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education. We read Rousseau and Plato and Dewey and John Holt. We read E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch (this was many years before Ravitch’s change of heart). We talked about the canon, and standards, and curriculum, and the whats and whys of education. We talked about what it meant to educate, and what it meant to be educated. We talked about what it meant to teach, and what true learning looked like. Professor Bernstein inspired me, and empowered me, and kindled my interest in education — the interest that sparked this blog more than 20 years later.

One of the things we talked about in Professor Bernstein’s class was the achievement gap between men and women in math and the sciences. I got inspired to examine why I hated math. So the following semester I took calculus. I earned an A+. My college Calculus professor was decent, but he was not, by any means, a better teacher than Mr. Winkler. The difference was me: I, the student, was ready to learn.

Last year, my daughter was in second grade. I’d heard mixed reports about her teacher (some really positive, some less so), but I always begin the school year by assuming the best. Her second grade teacher turned out to be a lousy fit for my daughter. But for some of my daughter’s friends, she was terrific. Thankfully, my daughter’s third grade teaching team has been terrific for her, and she’s gone from, among other things, “hating math” to considering “math teacher” as a future career. But I imagine that there are other kids in the class for whom that is not the case. And that’s okay.

Just as kids are not one-size-fits-all, neither are teachers. Some teachers will inspire some of us. Other teachers will leave us cold. And there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason there. It’s like falling in love. Someone can look great for you on paper, but in real life, you just don’t click.

We all make our way through school: sometimes we have teachers who inspire us, like Professor Bernstein. Sometimes we have terrific teachers we’re just not yet ready to learn from, like Mr. Winkler was for me. And sometimes we have teachers with whom we just don’t click. That’s an inherent part of the human experience. I know it was true when I taught: there were kids I know I reached, and there were kids I know I didn’t reach.

It should go without saying that teaching is an inherently subjective profession, and that different students have different needs at different times in their lives. That’s why I find the attempts to rank and sort teachers by value-added measurement so preposterous. Value-added measurement leaves common sense in the dust.  It forgets that all important prepositional phrase: “for me.”  

There is no more one objectively “best” teacher for all students that there is one objectively “best” mom for all kids. I hope my kids will continue to believe that I am the best mom in the world for them. But when my kids enter a classroom, the most I can realistically ask of their teachers is that their teachers try to differentiate their teaching enough to be the best they can be for my kids. It’s not realistic to expect all of my kids’ teachers to be transformational. But I do expect my kids to learn a little bit about the human experience in many different classrooms with many different teachers, even (and perhaps especially) in the classrooms of the teachers with whom they don’t click. That is where they will learn that humanity comes in many different sizes and shapes and form, and that no human beings, be they teachers or students, are one-size-fits-all. What will remain consistent for my kids are my expectations: each of my kids will be expected to work hard in every classroom, regardless of how well she clicks with the teacher.  

P.S. I love this article, which demonstrates the fallacies that can result when we confuse correlation with causation.

A Wrinkle in Math

My daughter has been quite fortunate this year — she has a terrific math teacher, and she has blossomed and grown in her math skills. Most critically, she’s gone from hating math to loving math, including declarations such as, “When I go to college, I want to major in math.”

But I know that across the country, many children (and their parents) are not having the same experience. Every time I hear elementary school parental frustration about “Common Core math,” I’m reminded of this passage from one of my favorite novels as a child, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time:

“Have you done your homework, Meg?”
“Not quite,” Meg said, going back into the kitchen.
“Then I’m sure Calvin won’t mind if you finish before dinner.”
“Sure, go ahead.” Calvin fished in his pocket and pulled out a wad of folded paper. “As a matter of fact, I have some junk of mine to finish up. Math. That’s the one thing I have a hard time keeping up in. I’m okay on anything to do with words, but I don’t do as well with numbers.”
Mrs. Murray smiled. “Why don’t you get Meg to help you?”
“But see, I’m several grades above Meg.”
“Try asking her to help you with your math, anyhow,” Mrs. Murray suggested.
“Well, sure, “Calvin said. “Here. But it’s pretty complicated.”
Meg smoothed out the paper and studied it. “Do they care how you do it?” she asked. “I mean, can you work it out in your own way?”
“Well, sure, as long as I understand it and get the answers right.”
“Well, we have to do it their way. Now look, Calvin, don’t you see how much easier it would be if you did it this way?” Her pencil flew over the paper.
“Hey!” Calvin said. “Hey! I think I get it. Show me once more on another one.”
Again, Meg’s pencil was busy. “All you have to remember is that every ordinary fraction can be converted into an infinite periodic decimal fraction. See? So 3/7 is 0.428571.”
“This is the craziest family.” Calvin grinned at her. “I suppose I should stop being surprised by now, but you’re supposed to be dumb in school, always being called up on the carpet.”
“Oh, I am.”
“The trouble with Meg and math,” Mrs. Murray said briskly, “is that Meg and her father used to play around with numbers and Meg learned far too many short cuts. So when they want her to do the problems the long way around at school she gets sullen and stubborn and sets up a fine mental block for herself.”

I think that for some kids, what is being marketed as the Common Core’s approach to math is intuitive and makes a lot of sense. But why are we insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach? I’m all for having kids show their work, but why do we insist that all of our kids must show the same work, rather than simply ensuring that the methods they’re using are mathematically correct and make sense to them?

For some kids, subtraction through “counting up” makes sense. For others, the traditional method of borrowing make sense. If both methods are mathematically sound, and both methods produce the same result, then why the insistence on forcing one method on all kids?

And, of course, although Meg may have been labeled “dumb in school,” at least her graduation and her future were not tied to high-stakes exams that forced her to demonstrate her proficiency at “the long way around” of completing a certain math problem (unlike the sample 3rd to 5th grade PARCC math problem that requires the kids to, one-by-one, click 48 boxes in an array to demonstrate their “understanding” of 6 x 8 = 48).

This all reminds me of this oldie but goodie from second grade math last year, with the teacher who inspired last year’s hatred of math: