Ask us.

I am waiting to see my doctor. I hear her speaking with her front office staff, and my eyes fill with tears. She is having the most kind, respectful conversation with her staff about how to reduce the number of people in the waiting room because of the rise in COVID infections. They discuss setting up their old phone system that requires patients to call from their cars and wait to be called in. They tease the nuances of when to bring patients in for paperwork, how to limit patients in the waiting room by taping chairs. And then the pitfalls.

“Patients come late. Some come early.”

“Who is going to count how many patients are in the waiting room?”

And then I hear my doctor ask her team, “Are you assuming some patients don’t pay attention?”

“Yes!” they exclaim in unison. What she said next hit me hard in the gut.

“What do you suggest?” she asks. She pauses, listens to their ideas, and THANKS THEM. She leaves them to craft solutions that keep patients and staff safe as we tumble into COVID’s biggest tsunami.

You might be wondering right now, why this conversation was so poignant to me. It rests upon the fact that I am in my third school year contending with Covid and not once have decisions about what goes on in classrooms been driven by the people IN the classroom. 

I have been struck, quite often by the parallels between education and medicine. Both rely upon science, training, knowledge, and experience. But, success in both areas is also contingent upon external factors beyond the practitioner’s control. Patients and students are their own entities. We cannot control where they live, how they sleep, eat and care for themselves. These things have huge implications when it comes to health and learning.

Today I witnessed a glimpse of what could be. A system that is rooted in the people it is responsible to. Teachers are in classrooms teaching students. We have carried the brunt of caring for students over the last two years. But we are never a part of the conversation. And clearly, things could look very different.

Once again, I ask that teachers be invited to the table. As leaders of schools and governments of all levels grapple with how to handle COVID’s latest wave, the people who will be sitting in classrooms with students either in person or virtually are the ones who know how to do this best. 

Ask us.


Why is this year so bad?

At the end of last year, I had a sinking feeling that the following year, this year, would be the worst school year teachers had ever seen. At the time, I couldn’t put my finger on it. I thought, perhaps, that the third school year dealing with a pandemic would be a challenge due to fatigue. It was evident our third school year would be a continuation of social distancing, masks, and a general sense of not knowing what was coming next or when we will see the light at the end of the tunnel. Often, it feels like there is a light. The world catches a glimpse before we are enveloped in darkness. Over and over again.

Just when we think we have the right vaccines or the right medication, innumerable uncertainties abound. People have concerns about the efficacy of vaccines and medications, the speed with which these things were developed, and for many people, previous experiences with doctors and scientists have left them fearful of these vaccines. We have people who have made their own choices about what to believe, for many other reasons. People are frustrated. Without significant vaccination rates, we face continued mutations and forms of the virus that will get past our immune systems — particularly the protection vaccines initially offered to those who participated. And we still know so little about a virus that has caused so much harm. Millions of people around the world have lost loved ones and suffered from the virus, and its lasting effects physically, emotionally, and financially.

So where do teachers fit into all of this? Why is this year so hard? To start, it is the nature of our work to be empathetic to our students and their families. And what this means for teachers is that the amount of pain and suffering we have seen and felt is significant in our students’ lives and in our own lives, much like those in the medical profession have experienced.

But what I realized today, is why exactly this year it is excruciatingly hard to be a teacher. It is the third year in a row we have had to completely redo, undo and reinvent everything we know about teaching. The first year we closed. Most had never taught this way before. We worked, from early in the morning until late at night for the last four months of school in 2020  trying everything we could to take what we knew worked in a classroom and reconstruct it in a virtual space. At the same time, many of us, like many parents at home who were not teachers, had to not only reinvent teaching but do so while caring for our own children in our homes. It was exhausting. But we did it. Everyone did.

The second school year, last year, was different. Many of us, like myself, returned to the classroom in September, desperate to just be in a classroom with children. I did not care what I had to do to be there in person with those kids. I told them every day we had to be grateful for each day we got to be together in person. It was a challenging year having to learn new subjects to teach, and figure out how to teach while keeping students six feet apart from one another. Again, I had to completely relearn how I taught in a classroom. 

My tables were gone. 

My books were gone. 

My bean bag chairs were gone. 

My small areas for kids to work were all gone. 

I had to learn how to teach reading without books. And not only how to teach science, but how to conduct science experiments outside where we try to spend as much time as possible. I had to learn to teach outside. I had to learn how to teach students to work outside. In sheer desperation to be in school with students, we did whatever we had to do to be there.

This brings me to our third school year contending with a pandemic. Rather than six feet apart, students are three feet apart. Half of the class at a time gets a fourteen-minute mask break every forty-two minutes. When kids work in groups, we have to figure out how to manage mask breaks. Students don’t know how to work in a group, because it’s been so long since they’ve done this. They are sad, angry, and sometimes destructive because they don’t know what to do with their feelings. We have to manage what they do on their chrome books. Make sure their masks are on when they are not on a mask break. Check the list of students who aren’t supposed to be in school and make sure they are not in our classroom. Monitor who needs virtual instruction while we are teaching in the classroom and devise ways to teach students in the classroom and at home at the same time. We have to contend with students who get so upset when they don’t feel well because they are afraid that the nurse will send them home and they will need a Covid test to return to school. We have to make sure students are not on other personal devices like phones and doing inappropriate things online during our classes. And we have to figure out again what kind of instruction is most effective given these parameters.

And here is where we are breaking. We have done this. We completely re-created ourselves as teachers in the first year of the pandemic to adapt to moving our classrooms online. We transformed yet again to allow us to be back in our classrooms while keeping everyone safe. This year it continues, with social distancing, masking, synchronous learning with students in school and at home. We have adapted, changed, bent over backward, and turned ourselves inside out to do whatever we had to do to meet our students’ needs.

But the system within which we work is static. It is inflexible and immutable. As we have done everything possible to meet our students’ needs, no one has looked at what we have needed in order to do. The system has marched on, seeking reading benchmarks for students,  the creation of midterm exams, or the implementation of state assessments and teacher evaluations. How we are measured, what we are expected to do, has not changed a single bit since before the pandemic. Even as an infinite amount of responsibilities have been added to our workload. We continue to be evaluated by a system researchers deemed a failure. This inflexible thinking goes against all that we know about human behavior.

We cannot continue to ask teachers to rewrite their entire profession while the system within which it exists remains static, relying upon methods that have proven to be failures. Teachers will continue to bend until they break.

A loss for words…

It has been difficult to feel that it is okay to discuss teacher working conditions this year. The United States has lost approximately 600,000 lives in a global pandemic. In addition to lost lives, people have lost their lives. Family. Friends. Jobs. Homes. I have to remind myself often, that while perspective matters, it is not license to relegate my own suffering to unworthiness. What follows comes with a heavy understanding that far worse has happened. Yet what is about to follow is not just in spite of what has happened over the last fifteen months. What follows is what always happens in public schools, where those who make decisions about what goes on there have no understanding, connection nor valuing of the work students and teachers are engaged in every day.

After being closed for the last third of the 2019-2020 school year, my colleagues and I went back to work, full time, in school with students in September of 2020. There were no FDA approved treatments nor vaccines for COVID-19. We were required to teach and learn, wearing masks while maintaining a social distance of six feet. Much of teaching children is based upon close interactions among teachers and students where you can speak, listen and be heard. Teaching in a masked, socially distant classroom is a monumental task. I had to teach five subjects rather than four. Students did not change classrooms, including during lunch. They were not permitted to mix with other groups of students. Sharing outdoor equipment, such as soccer balls, was prohibited.

For a moment, let us cast politics aside. Let us ignore debates about the valuation of these practices. Let us concede that at the time, the powers that be, determined these measures would make reopening schools safe for all. Let us, for the time being agree that children were better off in school. The economy needed to restart. Parents needed school to provide some level of care for their children. These things, I can accept. But what I cannot not accept, is what has always been an issue, our state and federal governments are blind to the reality of the work that goes on in our public schools. What they fail to see, is that in our schools, teachers identify what their students need, and hunt for ways to meet those needs.

Our teacher evaluation systems base teachers’ performances on an arbitrary set of standards, using assessments that rarely, if ever, have the capacity to measure a student’s growth within said set of standards. Compound this failure with the realities of our students – hunger, sickness, homelessness, anxiety and depression, etc… and it is evident what teachers do has no relationship to the yardstick we use to measure them. And now, wait for it, here is the kicker…

In the fall, the state and federal governments expressed an unwillingness to place the teacher evaluation system on hold this year. We had to be observed by our supervisors who used a rubric that bore little resemblance to what was transpiring in the socially distanced, masked classroom where we were making our students feel safe and dealing with trauma, in my case, with none of my teaching supplies. They had been packed away the previous June. Students had to either take state assessments or take pre and post tests at the beginning and end of the year to track growth in their teachers’ classrooms. It was absurd. No one stood up to say no. But nothing was as ridiculous as what came next. Last week, on June 7th, New York State’s Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Chapter 112 to ease this burden on school districts.

What burden was lifted? Teachers had to prepare and assess students twice during the year to measure student growth in a pandemic. Students had to sit for assessments that ultimately mean nothing. Their teachers spent hours on the exams, reports and observations, ultimately for nothing. The worst part of all of this is the fact that the legislature did this, after all of the work had been done by teachers and their students. This went completely unnoticed.

Millions of dollars go into these mandates, while infinite hours go into the creation, preparation and administration of teacher evaluations. This year, the state’s willingness to throw it away, after all of the time, energy and resources spent on the ludicrous assessment of children and teachers during a pandemic demonstrates the state is willing to own up to the fact that these assessments do not mean anything in the first place.

We cannot have suffered for the last fifteen months in vain. We have to look at what teachers are truly responsible for, our nation’s youth, and ask ourselves how we craft an evaluation system that corresponds with the work teachers actually do, and supports them in providing the very best care and instruction for their students.

The Paradox of “Teaching”

         The teacher education I received, as I am sure the vast majority of teachers receive, was all about preparation. We were taught that the most essential element of being a good teacher was being a well-prepared teacher. The effectiveness of our instruction depended upon our abilities to plan, and anticipate all that students would need to learn what we were required to teach. And twenty years later, I must concede, preparation is worth its weight in gold, if you know what you are preparing for.

         Nothing made this truth more evident than the past fourteen months. Had I known I would leave my twenty years of in-person instruction on a Friday, and be expected to teach remotely on the Monday that followed, preparation certainly would have gone a long way. Had I known that remote instruction would only deepen the chasm between rich and poor students, I would have devised a plan to close this gap. And if I had known that this shift in my job would create a first-year teacher, with the critical mind of a veteran teacher who knew precisely how much she was failing her students, I would have anticipated the pain I felt and mapped out ways to mitigate my own devastation to better support my students.

         On the surface, an outsider would say this inability to know what teachers needed to plan for is what everyone has experienced over the last fourteen months. If we had known there really was enough toilet paper, we wouldn’t have found ourselves panic-buying, creating our own shortage. If we had known schools would remain closed indefinitely, and finally open with a variety of plans that would impact families, parents could have constructed plans to work around their children’s new school schedules. And had we known everything knew about the virus would change on a daily basis, we could have planned for the frightening and often conflicting news about the virus, and been able to roll better with the endless sea of information.

         But, an unavoidable truth about teaching, as a profession, emerged from this pandemic. When governors began the painful decision to close schools for in-person instruction, one thing became very clear. Schools provide childcare. Without this access to care, the economy would be devastated. Workers, dependent upon this care, would be unable to go to work. They would be forced to make an excruciating decision, go to work or care for their own children. Teachers are de facto childcare providers.

         When we talk about the work of teachers, and our inability to pay teachers appropriately for the work they do, we fail to recognize this inconvenient truth – we do not, as a society, place value on caring for our young. As much as teaching takes every ounce of strength, energy and thought I have available each day, the years that I stayed home to be a full-time mom of four took infinitely more. There is no remuneration for men and women who stay home to care for their children. And this is just the beginning.

         Amid a pandemic, teaching half the year unvaccinated, while spending much of the day reminding students about masks, maintaining appropriate social distancing and how to be kind to one another, teachers had to continue the tenuous balance of providing care to children while teaching them. Until schools shut down, no one wanted to admit that teachers had any responsibility other than instruction. Federal and state mandates measure teachers’ annual performances using student test scores. This continued this year.

         We cannot, as a culture, devalue our youth, and those who care for them. Teachers know students are not ready to learn until their most basic needs are met. Students performing at the highest academic levels come from families at the highest income levels. Teachers must fill this gap not just academically. We spend much of our days assessing how much sleep our students are getting, whether they have enough food and a safe place to sleep, and suitable clothing to protect them from the elements.

         I could not prepare enough for the day a student arrived at school crying because her stepfather, who had been sexually abusing her, had just thrown her pregnant mother down the stairs. Or the student who was so tired every day was spending her nights resting in a church pew, with her baby brother, while her mother cleaned to earn extra money. Nor the student who was too depressed about his parents’ dying marriage to take advantage of my incentive to allow him to play Guitar Hero after school on any day he completed his work. We have students who are tired, hungry, angry or just plain stressed this year. Preparing for this work is like asking the doctor to devise a plan for all of the patients who need to be seen the next day, before they are seen.

         Conversations about teacher pay need to begin with a conversation about what we are paying teachers to do. Until we acknowledge the vast responsibilities society parlays on its teachers – protection of our economy, preparers of our world’s future and care of our youngest citizens, we cannot contemplate teacher pay nor how teacher performance is assessed. And none of this can happen until we decide to place value in the care of our children.

Why I am not assigning homework this year.

Every day I walk into work feeling like a wounded soldier. I report to my classroom visualizing myself returning to war, day after day, with mounting injuries. I drag myself in, and muster the strength to summon the teacher inside of me who committed herself to rooting her classroom and students in joy this year. And I do it, day after day. Our classroom is a beautiful, magical place despite the devastation caused by masks, distance, continual absences and a vicious enemy we cannot see.

By the end of the day, that teacher who held the smile behind her mask, laughed with the kids and employed a million new tricks to teach in a pandemic, is exhausted. I survey the room and restore order, making sure the seats are nudged into their proper placements for social distancing. I set up for the next day. Eventually I leave, contemplating if crawling is an option. I wonder where I will find the strength for the following day, and the next.

What keeps me grounded and capable of moving forward each day, are the students, and their families who have entrusted me to teach them during this crisis. I know everything I am feeling is also felt by my students and their families. Each of us has been impacted by the pandemic in a multitude of ways. My students leave just as drained as I do. I see it in my own children, whom I often find asleep when I arrive home at four or five in the afternoon.

On the bright side, Covid-19 has eliminated homework in our class. Just getting ourselves to school, masked up and spaced apart, is a huge accomplishment. The fact that we are able to maintain these practices and continue teaching and learning throughout the day is no small miracle. It is exhausting, for all parties involved. Next, we are operating in a dynamic, fluid environment. Students flow in and out. Instruction has to be crafted in ways that make it amenable to both school and home. With no distinguishable lines between home and school, additionally assigned “homework” lacks a place in instruction. But the final reason is this – just getting through the day is a monumental undertaking. By the time I get home, the very last thing I am capable of doing is more school. While I have a home and family to tend to, my students have families they need time to just be with right now. Without the pressures of more school at home.

At this point, coming home from work, after being away from my children all day, and having to wrangle them into doing more school work is yet another disaster. No child should be doing well in school, and be penalized for work assigned to be completed solely at home, in addition to work completed during school hours. Never before have the disparities among our students’ homes been more apparent. It is guaranteed many of our students are suffering at home more than we have ever seen before. To add to this suffering is not in my job description.

I cannot control where the virus travels, who will get it, how sick people will become, who will live or die, when and how people will be vaccinated, nor when this will all end. But I can control the experiences my students have during this time. I can choose to teach with joy. I can craft experiences that fit within the health and safety guidelines I am required to adhere to. Best of all, I can send students home at the end of the day free, with the understanding that their time is their time. I can support my students’ families by refusing to burden them with my job. It is a weight I have no desire to cast upon anyone else, let alone parents, who are struggling like I am, to stay afloat.

Finding Control

I have no control over where I will teach in September, nor the rest of the year, for that matter. I have no control whether I will teach in my classroom, the gym, or my dining room. I have no control over how long I will teach in person, if I do at all.

I have complete control over the experience that my students will have, when we are together, whether it is face to face or through a distance learning platform. Regardless of where our experience together is centered, I am deeply committed to making it the greatest year my students and I can possibly have. 

I am acutely aware of our circumstances. A pandemic the world is struggling to tame, let alone contain. Hunger, joblessness, illness and the catastrophic loss of lives weighs on all of our minds. Especially the minds of our students, who need us now more than ever.

This fall, if we are fortunate enough to meet in person, albeit masked and six feet apart, I will ask parents for one school supply, a yoga mat. We will devise ways to move, breathe and stretch safely throughout the day. Each student will be provided with a craft box containing markers, crayons, colored pencils, paint, paint brushes, pens, pencils, sharpeners, glue, scissors, craft paper, marble notebooks and whatever building supplies I can get my hands on.

Students will not hand in papers. But that does not mean students will stop writing on paper, or completing work in their math books. Our distance learning in the spring taught me innumerable ways to use technology and self-assessment to shape pedagogical practices. Students can take pictures of their work and share it with me, as well as their classmates. I can share digital answer keys inviting them to assess their own work, assessing what they know, and what they need help with. Formal assessments can be completed online.

The same goes for work that they dream and build. They can create independently and share collaboratively online. I am already imagining a classroom space that has us creating as a way of channeling our learning, and all of the thoughts my students will be carrying into that space. Just as we have done in the past.

We will go outside, weather permitting, and read, write, listen, speak, stretch and breathe. I asked my yoga teacher if I could pay her to craft yoga classes that we can follow on a computer outside. Together, the class will co-construct a learning environment that makes the most of our small class size, while using technology to build community in and out of the classroom. 

The greatest joy in all of this is that should the need to close arise again, or if we are unable to meet in person at all, all of the above are possible. After experimenting with all kinds of distance learning experiences through the spring and summer, I have learned a few things. Whole class meetings are great, but need to be short, designed for community-building. Small group instruction via video works unbelievably well. Kids are far more adept at this than I ever realized. The same principles we use to build supportive in person classrooms are what we need to consider online – kindness and support of taking risks. Collaborative tools like Nearpod, edpuzzle, Flipgrid and Quizziz that give students the opportunity to practice new skills are incredibly useful. Should we work from home, I am eager to provide students with creative tools to think, build and share with our class online. And I will visit each home, as I did in the spring, with “Drive-up Teacher Visits”. Interested families received a two hour window, then a ten minute time slot as the visit became imminent, with instructions asking the family to remain at the door while I stayed in the street. 

I have a choice. I can allow my fear, which is certainly grounded in reality, to be my guide. Or, I can lean on the teacher in me who continues to see light, and shine light, on the classroom collaborative space. Wherever that may be. That is what I can control.

Our Students Need Us

Our Students Need Us

Today marks  two weeks away from students. It is in stark contrast to last week, where I found myself lost without them. How would we approach teaching, without the classroom? Students taught me a few things this week, and reminded me of what my experience should have enlightened me to.

The number one thing we can do right now is connect with our students.

 If you find yourself at a loss about what to do next — wondering how to approach that next lesson or unit. Stop. Connect with your students. At the end of last week, I gave my students a survey via Google Forms. I asked them what they liked, didn’t like, what they needed and how they were. It yielded results that were surprising, heartwarming and reminders of what I should have known all along. If you can meet with them via Zoom for Google Meet, do it. If you can’t, use Google Forms, or even Google Docs to share a message and elicit feedback. Post videos of yourself doing ordinary things. They miss us as much as we miss them.

Some students had family members who were sick. Many wanted to know how my family and I were doing. Most wanted more of one of the assignments we had done — a collaborative Google Form where we had the opportunity to read about all of the helpers in one another’s lives. It helped me to know that the virus had encroached on some students’ lives. As much as we are in uncharted territory, we are in the same space we have always occupied – a place of comfort to our students. Their feedback guided my instruction for this week. I will do the same for next week.

Don’t be afraid. At this point, what could possibly scare us about teaching?

Having met with my students on Nearpod, earlier in the week, for a great experience on current events, I had the smartidea of doing a Kahoot game to practice this week’s vocabulary. Five minutes before the session, my co-teacher reminded me that the game required a Smart Board, in a classroom. I said, “You know what? I can’t let these kids down. I promised I would do this with them.” It failed. Big time. The students could not see the available choices to answer the questions. I invited them to have fun and guess. During each question, I posted who was ahead in the Google Classroom. I told them whomever stuck it out to the end would earn a prize. Four students held. I went on Amazon and had prizes shipped to their homes. Did they learn their new vocabulary words? No. But it was a lesson on confronting failure head on.

Make your own commitment to them.

 With or without my classroom, I am committed to doing what is best for my students. At the end of last week, I thought carefully about what my students needed from me. First, they needed me to acknowledge the work they were submitting to me. I told students and their families I would interact with all work submitted to me. That meant providing feedback, and giving the student credit for his or her work. Second, they need to interact with me. While we are not permitted to meet with students via videoconferencing, I can post videos. I can create what I call “Live Events” for us to meet via Nearpod or Quizziz so we can come together at different times throughout the week. I post everything on Monday so students can plan accordingly. I remain steadfast in my commitment to assess what students need and find a way to provide it. That has always been my mantra.

 Respect where we are.

 Everything I am doing with students respects one certain truth – we are in unprecedented times. What we do with them right now needs to respect and honor where they are, find out what they need, and devise ways to give these things to them. Just like we did, when we were in the classroom. Right now, we have the opportunity to cultivate experiences for all of our students that make the best of the situation we are in, while continuing the love and support we delivered in the classroom. In many ways, this time is the gift of a lifetime. A chance to grow in our practice, and learn more about our students.

With the virus breathing down our necks, possibly impacting those we love, and challenging every aspect of life as we knew it, I hope it is possible to see the light when it seeps through the cracks.

Finding Myself Online

It is day four of being home without my students. We knew this was a possibility. For the last eight weeks, we had been tracking the virus’s movements across the globe. Even in sixth grade, they could see its capacity to replicate itself exponentially each day. Where we are today, home, isn’t so much a surprise, as much as it is a huge loss to all of us. The most common sentiment I see in my Google Classroom is “I miss being at school”. I left my classroom on Monday in tears, knowing it was unlikely that the class with which I had built such a beautiful, in person community with, would ever convene in that space again.

The first day home, I worked about twelve hours to load what I could online for the week. My co-teacher and I decided that we wanted our online instruction to bear resemblance to our in-person instruction. This turned out to be a task far more daunting than I had anticipated. And it is still a struggle in progress. Today a good portion of my day was spent helping students. There was a family in need of food. A student struggling with online access. Finally, the more typical online responsibilities – providing feedback to students for work they had submitted electronically. In hindsight, as I write this, today’s experience mirrors the ebb and flow of classroom life for teachers. More often than not, instruction is sidelined by the needs presented by students that supersede the curriculum. Hunger. Illness. Lack of supplies. Anxiety.

I have found myself this week grieving the loss of the teacher, who a week ago, was surrounded by twenty-five faces – some smiling, some angry, some indifferent. I would give just about everything I have right now to have it all back. But I know I am on a search to find me. The me who took eighteen years to become the teacher she was last week, in that classroom, with those students. That me needs to transition fully for the next few weeks and months to an online capacity that honors students in the same way. The teacher who built a classroom that was rooted in agency and authentic learning experiences. I know I will find her online.

In the meantime, I urge all of my colleagues to do the following. Take your time. Honor who you were a week ago in the classroom. Use this window of opportunity to expand your capacity as a professional. And remember, we are all suffering right now. Families are worried about illness. Food. Where the rent is coming from. What we are providing our students right now online needs to be a safe haven for those who have the time and wherewithal to access. We do not know what is going on in our students’ lives right now. But we can be there for them in whatever ways they need us. I told one of the students online today the following: We always want to look for the “silver lining”. There will come a time when you will be running around everywhere, working really hard. And you will be like, man, I wish I was stuck in my house like I was way back in sixth grade… As much as there’s lots to not like, look for the things that are gifts, like being home with your family, with no pressure to be anywhere. But I miss you guys so much!

Teachers, it took you a long time as professionals to become who you were a week ago. Do not be discouraged. What our students need from us right now, more than anything else, is love, encouragement, and online experiences that will make the most of their time at home with their families in the midst of fear and uncertainty. And this is what you have always done –honored where your students were, and what they needed. We’ve got this.

Common Core Review Committee Rated “Ineffective”

It has been almost three months since I first set foot in Albany. I had the best of intentions – to dump the Common Core Standards in New York State and draft standards that are based upon what teachers’ classroom experiences indicate are best practices, supported by what parents know are developmentally appropriate for their own children. Anyone who has followed the process, and reviewed the revise standards will tell you that my mission was a complete failure.

I was warned. Don’t go. Your name will be attached to their “reform” efforts. My answer was the same over and over and over, “If I am invited, how can I say no?”

Twice this summer I went to Albany, with my family in tow, with the goal of doing everything I possibly could to eliminate these standards. I learned two very important things:

  • I was chosen to be on the committee because of my anti-Common Core and anti-state assessment position. They did want to hear from all perspectives.
  • Most committee members share my perspective, but most are unable to speak their true positions.

Think about it. There are seven hundred school superintendents in New York State. Five have had the courage to take a stand to protect students from fraudulent assessments and developmentally inappropriate standards. That number reflects .7 % of superintendents. This means that the vast majority of educators have been silenced. This is reflected in the committee’s lack of significant action to replace the Common Core in New York State.

What were people like me left to do? I came to the conclusion that we could only do two things:

  1. Fight where we could and pick our battles. We fought hard to eliminate the “text complexity” and “grade level text” from the standards. Districts were using this language to restrict children’s access to text, as well as force children to read texts that did not meet their needs. We were adamant about moving play back into the standards for younger children. We also removed examples from the standards so that districts could no longer force teachers to teach the standards in specific ways, regardless of students’ needs.
  2. Keep fighting on the outside. People need to BOMBARD the survey. The New York State Education Department (NYSED) claims that the vast majority of people who responded to its initial survey indicated satisfaction with the current standards – that they were only looking for modifications. They used these results to hold the committee to these standards – rather than throwing them out as they should have been.

If you have looked at the recommended changes, and you believe they are largely the same you, are right. If you believe that the state had no intention of making significant changes to them via the Review Committees, you are right. But please keep in mind, the vast majority of teachers in New York State have been silenced by administrators who lack the knowledge, experience and/or fortitude to do what is right for this state’s children.

Those of us who work in the .7% of districts where children come first, and parents who are able to serve as advocates, we must remain strong in our resolve to tell New York State no thank you.

We do not accept revisions to standards that are simply wrong for our children.

We do not accept assessments that do not support the growth of children in our classrooms.

We will bombard the survey so NYSED understands the standards are wrong.

We will refuse all New York State grade 3-8 assessments that fail to drive instruction.

Dear Governor Cuomo, …

Here is a letter I mailed to Governor Cuomo following this week’s work on revising the Common Core Standards:

I spent this week working on the New York State Education Department’s Standard Review Committee. It was an intensive week for a number of reasons.

First, I need to commend the remarkable efforts of members of the New York State Department of Education (NYSED). The work of reviewing the current New York State Standards was organized incredibly well. Operationally, the team that NYSED assembled for this work did an exceptional job grouping committee members by specialty and position (teachers, parents and administrators). In addition, the leadership team provided superb technological and human resource support for all aspects of the task we were given. It is important that this outstanding performance be recognized, especially in light of the challenge the team was assigned.

As a teacher of New York State, I believe in my heart that every single child in this state has a right to a rich and thoughtful educational experience that will prepare him or her for a life long capacity for learning. Our current standard and assessment program makes this an impossible dream. It is clear that socioeconomic status directly impacts the level to which teachers are forced to adhere to these standards and align instruction to the assessment. This is widening the gap between rich and poor in our state. Spending the week with teachers who are from all areas of New York State provided time to think deeply about what the disparate impact of poverty and state pressure to perform on state assessments that measure a narrow slice of the curriculum has on the educational experiences of children in our classrooms. What children experience in their classrooms is directly tied to their own socioeconomic backgrounds. We cannot allow this to continue.

It was evident from the discussions that transpired that the poorer a school district is, the more the teachers are required to teach to the test, the less rich quality instruction the students are receiving. This week I heard stories where teachers have not had students write in journals for years, cases where books have been removed from a child’s hands because it was not on his or her level, situations where teachers have to sneak appropriate books to children, accounts of children who made remarkable gains in reading and writing only to be broken by the assessment and times where English Language Learners have to sit with text they cannot construct meaning of. Teachers are finding themselves in the unfathomable quandary of teaching their students OR protecting their jobs.

We were asked to write standards and ignore the assessments for the time being. We cannot ignore the impact of the assessment, now that we are tying that assessment to teachers’ jobs, and in many cases, student promotion.

In looking carefully, you will see a correlation between poverty and scores on state assessments. Increased poverty is linked to lower scores on state assessments. The lower the students’ scores are on state assessments, the more the school is forced to focus on the limited number of standards that are tested on state assessments.

To help close the achievement gap between rich and poor, we need to close the instructional gap between rich and poor. The only way this can be achieved at this point is by removing high-stakes assessments from the equation. Teachers can use the revised standards that are being developed to provide rich and rigorous instruction for all children. We met Dr. Kyle Snow this week who shared his research that indicates when you craft standards, as they are implemented, they need to be continually assessed to ensure developmental appropriateness. We need to finish revising all the standards. This is going to take time. Upon acceptance by the public and the Board of Regents, only then should they be rolled out to our students without the pressure of teaching to a test. Then can we get back to the purpose of public education — teaching children.

Governor Cuomo, your Common Core Task Force found that we need to engage “New York educators, not a private corporation, to drive the review and creation of State standards-aligned tests in an open and transparent manner.” I urge you to work with our state legislature, the Board of Regents and NYSED to put the brakes on state assessments while the standards are ironed out. At every level of public education, stakeholders will tell you that assessment is driven by curriculum. What we have right now is the reverse. No changes to our standards will be evident, until we remove the current assessment program.

Our existing system is harming the educational process for our children. The premise behind NCLB and ESSA was to close the achievement gap between rich and poor. It is evident that both have only exacerbated the gap while wreaking havoc on all students. Allowing this to continue indicates your consent to widening the achievement gap among children based upon their socioeconomic statuses.

Please keep the momentum of your task force moving forward. NYSED has done an exceptional job beginning the process you requested – revising the standards and assessments. Stop the assessments now so teachers can teach to meet their children’s needs, not the needs of the assessment. They work in opposition to one another right now.

I understand the high-stakes assessment pressure stems from the federal government. But you, as the leader of our state, have a responsibility to protect the children in your state. That responsibility needs to be tantamount to any law passed in this country.

Thank you for moving the task force recommendations forward. Let’s not lose momentum.