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Posted by on in School Culture

I wrote this a week ago. It doesn't feel any less real today.

So today we had early dismissal so that we could spend the afternoon running active shooter drills.

Loads of local law enforcement and other agencies participated in the drill. We had fifty-ish hand picked students to play the part of student victims. We had several previous PDs to go over how to handle ourselves. And we had two live "bad guys" with blank-firing guns to make it all nice and realistic.

We ran four drills. Because my room is far off in one wing of the building, I missed most of the excitement. I did not even hear the gunfire or the screams, and would not have known what was happening had the office not provided announcements (as part of the drill) like "Shots fired in the science wing." That was for three of the drills.

We were not, of course, told what simulations would be run. I don't know if it would have helped. Probably not. But Scenario #3 turned out to be a lunch shift. My lunch shift.

The shooters prepped the students and put them at ease. Selected some to stand against the wall and be shot dead, a couple of others to be wounded. Administrators, observers, local press stood along the walls to watch.

My usual post is on the wall with the entrance doors. The shooter fired first outside, in the hall. The shots were loud-- we knew they were coming and the students still shrieked in surprise and alarm. The shooter entered and began. My colleagues at the other end yelled for the students to go toward them, to get out. I had to walk the length of the cafeteria to get to an exit, the shooter to my right, executing the four pre-selected victims. Students dove under tables, huddled against the wall. I waved them up, toward the exit. We go out, went around the building to the safe zone.

I don't know if I saw all the students. I don't know if I got them all out. I'm pretty sure I didn't, and even with preparation and the fact that it wasn't real, the choice between shooing them out and lagging back to make sure they were all up and moving while the gun was still shooting- BAM BAM BAM BAM-- was a little bit beyond my processing powers in that moment.

I won't lie. I was shaken. I'm still shaken. We debriefed at the end of the day and the law enforcement folks said we did well. Maybe that's true. All I know is that tonight instead of thinking through how to cover the reading in my classes tomorrow, I'm replaying and wondering how many pretend students I got pretend killed today. Maybe I would do better if the real thing happened, having been through this training. But right now, having this business take up space in my head is, well, troubling.

Is this part of the job now? I suppose it is. Maybe it is. This is certainly not the first occasion to think about it. It's been over a decade since a shooter went to a prom less than an hour away from here. But damn-- all the things you do to get better at the work, at your craft, and then this on top of all that. And now it's not just did I get that concept across, did I reach that student, did I get that planning done, but also, did I get any students killed today. I absolutely cannot imagine how teachers go through the real thing ever deal. I want to find every one of them and give them a huge hug.

I'm springy. I'm resilient and stubborn. I write what bothers me out of my system. I'll be fine tomorrow. But I'm not fine tonight.


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Posted by on in Assessment

Test 1

Recently the Tampa Bay Times reported on a great new program being pursued by Pinellas County schools to raise school ratings. The program could best be described as "Just stop having school and devote your time to test prep instead."

The article focuses on differences that are emerging between biweekly test results for 3-6 grade students and K-2 students. In doing so the article completely breezes past the fact that these schools are giving biweekly tests to K-2 students.

There is so much educational malpractice jammed into this whole stupid package.

2e1ax elegantwhite entry pinellasThe biweekly testing is being done in Pinellas "transformation zone" schools, aka "schools with lousy ratings" aka "poor schools." Pinellas County (that's St. Petersburg etc) schools have seen a transformation common in Florida, with shrinking enrollment and huge piles of money being funneled into mismanaged charter scams. But the story in Pinellas County is even worse than that, because the Pinellas County school board purposefully manufactured these failing schools. Let's pause for a history lesson.

You can read the full story here, or my shorter version here. But let me lay out the short ugly version. But if you remember the story of "failure factories" in Florida from a year or so ago-- well, that's where we are.

So the district created transformation zones in which they promised to focus on these poor schools and get them what they should have had (and used to have) all along. Last spring Pinellas County was looking for "transformational leaders" to run their elementary and middle schools. So what do transformational schools get?

They get Antonio Burt, a roving ronin of school transformation with experience within Tennessee's "innovation zone." What else do they get?

They get testing every other week for their littles. Every other week. What possible justification is there for biweekly testing? Well, according to the Tampa Bay Times:

The tests, which are new this year and are only being given in those schools, are being used to help teachers identify how well they have taught the state standards and to catch students' weak areas earlier in the year. 

Oh, baloney. This is training. This is the rankest kind of test prep. This is making the students well-rehearsed little test-taking machines. It is throwing up your hands and admitting that the Big Standardized Tests are not legitimate measures of anything except test-taking prowess, and while I applaud the recognition of reality, this is terrible education malpractice.

First, a generation of students is being taught that you go to school to take a test, and that's all education is. This is the worst kind of lie, a selfish inexcusable lie told to our most vulnerable children.

Second, just what has been cut out of the curriculum to make room for all this testing? If each administration of the test only ate only one day, that would still be eighteen days of school given over to testing, which is a almost four weeks, a month. A month of actual instruction lost to these students.

Third, these are the students who are going to be least helped by an education that is all about doing well on a Big Standardized Test. The deck is already stacked against them, and being well-versed in the taking of standardized tests is not going to help them.

This kind of baloney is most damaging to the small children, but it's bad news for all the students in Pinellas County.

Other misguided "transformational" ideas are hinted at in the article.

Antonio Burt, who is leading the Pinellas transformation effort, said teachers are not waiting to expose students to advanced concepts. For example, a standard usually scheduled to be taught in February — one that could count as much as 40 percent on the Florida Standards Assessment — now is introduced to students in August, giving them more time to practice.

SMH. First of all, this is the very definition of test-centered curriculum, which is an absolutely indefensible practice. Second of all, how does this even work-- students, I know we haven't laid the groundwork for any of this, and it involves concepts you haven't been taught yet, but we're just going to skip to chapter twenty-three on the text-book. I mean, I guess this is genius-- we can just "introduce" the quadratic formula to Kindergartners because if we introduce it sooner, they'll do better on the test, right?

Transformational schools are all about the test. Here's one super-swell motivational piece--

At Sandy Lane Elementary, principal Tzeporaw Sahadeo adds some encouragement for the children. She created the 80 Percent Club to recognize students who scored at least an 80 percent on their biweekly tests. 

Those students get to cut the lunch line for the week and are given 80 "shark shillings" — enough for a bag of coveted Takis spicy chips from the school store. Incentives also are given for children who barely miss the mark and earn 70 percent.

Yes, the school ties when you get to eat to your test score. That's not just a bizarre example of an extrinsic motivator, which we've long known is not a healthy sort of motivation to saddle a kid with. It also means that every day at lunch, students are lined up publicly in the cafeteria according to test results. If you thought a data wall was bad, how do you feel about a data lunch line?

The hook for this article is the mystery of decreasing test scores. The littles do well on the tests, but older kids do not, particularly on the literacy test. What could explain it? The article considers two explanations. One is that the standards get harder and more complex. And Burt suggests that there are "pockets of teachers" who "need reinforcement on what the standards are." I would suggest some other theories. One is that the standards are bunk. Another is that standardized literacy tests don't really test literacy. Yet another would be that the older students get, the less inclined they are to jump compliantly through hoops that they see as useless and pointless and part of an educational system that is not offering to give anything to them, but instead only wants to get them to produce scores for the school's benefit.

Test-centered education is ultimately always backwards. The school is not there to serve the students by providing them with an education. Instead, the students are there to serve the school by generating the numbers the school wants to get.

It is possible to have some understanding for Pinellas school leaders, who are staring down the barrel of Florida's immensely stupid, damaging, and unhelpful test-based school grade system. Throughout Florida, many schools face that one basic choice-- do they actually work at providing students with a real education, or do they make their school test centered in an effort to avoid punishment for low scores? In a state that is determined to break down its public schools, the better to drive parents and students into the arms of the charter industry, that's not a small or easy dilemma for public schools to face.

But Pinellas County has chosen poorly (and the Tampa bay Times has, on this occasion, reported lazily by not asking for evidence that any of these practices actually work). Test-centered education isn't good for anybody except the businesses selling test materials. Pinellas County has lost its way, but it's the students who are getting abandoned in the wilderness.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood


The LA Times recently ran this story aimed directly at the feels. It's the tragic cautionary tale of a poor little five year old who arrived at kindergarten only to discover that she was already behind.

At a kindergarten screening two months before her first day, she happily chattered about her dog Toodles, her favorite color pink, her Santa Claus pajamas, her nickname Gigi, her outings with dad to see SpongeBob SquarePants movies.

But many of her 21 classmates already knew most of the alphabet, colors and shapes. Two of them could even read all 100 words — at, the, there, like — that kindergartners are expected to know by the end of the year.

The story is centered around the Great Suspenseful Question-- can Gigi, who never went to pre-school and was not read to daily, ever hope to catch up?

Teresa Watanabe chronicles the tale, duly noting without question that Gigi is facing what used to be first grade work, a situation created by the Common Core. Gigi also had the great good fortune to be enrolled at Telesis Academy of Science and Math in West Covina, a school that proudly bills itself as the "first ever No Excuses Prep Academy in the nation." You'll be happy to know that thanks to a loving teacher and hard working family, Gigi's academic career was snatched from the jaws of disaster.

The whole story is immensely depressing. The major sin of Gigi's parents is that they wanted to have a childhood, one that apparently included lots of travel and outdoorsiness and familial time. Little did they realize that while they were showering their little four year old with love and attention, they should have been prepping her for the rigors of kindergarten. I mean, I am a huge supporter of reading to your child every day, but of all the reasons to do it, "Get my child ready for rigorous academic kindergarten" does not rank high.

Is there any reason to believe that getting littles jammed full of more academics sooner actually pays off further down the road? The story doesn't address that question, nor does Watanabe consider the issue of how widely Littles differ in developmental speed-- after all, what does it mean for a five year old to "catch up"? Catch up to what? Who sets the mark that she's supposed to hit and is it reasonable to expect her to hit it if she's lived six months fewer than a peer?

I read about her mother's guilt and Gigi's own fears of failure and being wrong or different, and it just makes me sad. This story is a reminder that the transformation of kindergarten into a kindergrinder isn't just about unfounded academic practices, but taking vulnerable young children and parents and making them doubt everything about their family lives even as it teaches them to think of learning and school as something to be feared, something to be approached with dread and caution instead of embraced with joy. The toxic nature of kindergrinding isn't confined to the school building, but spills out into the community-- and all without real evidence to prove that all of these sacrifices are worth it.

I love reading. I loved sharing it with my children growing up. I loved the moments when grew into their own love of it and they pushed forward to learn all about how to do it-- in their own time. But not like this. Books are for children to stand on in triumph and excitement, nor for them to be crushed under.

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Posted by on in School Culture

I knew it was a growing issue. I didn't know it was this bad.

Between 2007 and 2014 the suicide rate for children aged 10-14 doubled. Doubled. That's according to the Center for Disease Control. If you want to put that in perspective, the rate of death by auto accident has been dropping steadily since 1999 (the beginning of the charted data), cut by more than half. In 2014, the suicide rate climbed above the death by car accident rate (homicide was lower than both, and steadily dropping). The suicide rate had held steady with a slight dip up until 2007.

I don't know why; I suspect nobody does. More fragile kids? Tougher, more unkind world? Something to do with the internet? If you tell me that Kids These Days need more grit, I swear I will reach through the internet and slap you. Just this month we had the news of an eleven year old girl who had survived freaking cancer committing suicide over bullying. And NPR has been running a series for a month entitled "A Silent Epidemic: The Mental Health Crisis in Our Schools"

There are people paying attention. In Pennsylvania, we have mandatory suicide prevention training for teachers-- all it amounts to is a run-through-it-yourself on-line slide show with a concluding quiz, but it still gets some hard information to us, which is no small thing. Mental health issues and suicide are issues that everyone has "heard something" about, and often that is bunk. And I can tell you that hoping that instincts and folk wisdom will just kick in when the moment comes-- well, that's a bad plan.

I teach in a small town school system that sits at the heart of a rural area. When you look up "All-American classic small town life" in the dictionary, you find a picture of my town. And I've been getting intermittent training about this issue for four decades, since one of our staff members' children took his own life. I've watched an old friend go through the heartbreak with the loss of his son. And not long enough ago that I can easily set it aside, one of my former yearbook editors came home for Christmas break to the family home situated on the river. They found her footprints leading out across the ice to the water; they found her body downriver many weeks later. Her parents are good, successful people. She was smart, capable, loving, goodhearted. My yearbook students, before they leave senior year, paint a block in the wall of the yearbook room. I see her block every day that I go to work.

It is easy for those of us who deal with students to think that all the drama and fraughtitude and angstiness is SOP. Life is tough and hard and has lots of sharp edges that bruise tender shins, but hey, it's always been that way and always will be and these kids will grow out of it, get over it, and be just fine. And for the majority that is still true. But not for all of them. Again, I am not prepared to say whether life has become harder to deal with or if they are less able to deal. But something has changed, and those of us who work with students have to believe that, and act accordingly.

NPR included a list of six myths, six "pointers" for dealing with this stuff as teachers offered by David Jobes, the head of Catholic University's Suicide Prevention Lab. They are kind of standard issue, much like what we get in our "training," but they are worth repeating here. Hell, they're worth repeating everywhere. Here are some things to remember.

1) Be direct. People are often afraid to talk directly about suicide, as if saying it out loud is like calling Betelgeuse. Experts say no-- just come out with it. Jobes suggests something as simple as "Sounds like you're really down, have you thought about taking your life?"

2) Depression and suicide do not go together like love and marriage. The majority of depressed people don't commit suicide. By Jobes's count, maybe half the people who commit suicide are depressed. Other mental health issues can be a factor. Or not.

3) We can prevent suicides. This is hard to think about; nobody wants the deceased student's friends telling themselves it's their fault. It isn't. There can be other signs like increased stress, insomnia, withdrawal. It's tricky, because all the signs can also occur without being signs of suicidal thoughts, however if we look at the full picture, we can sometimes see what's coming. If we pay attention and get involved, we can make a difference because--

4) Suicides do not always take place in an impulsive moment. It takes time for issues to build up that much pressure, and that can be followed by time to plan and prepare and, sometimes, drop hints like crazy about what the student has planned. They fantasize about it, collect information, drop hints to friends, make mention in class writings. They will generally not talk to parents, but to others-- they often indicate what they have in mind.

5) We've now got suicides on the books by children as young as five, and it breaks my heart just to type that, but like many problems that are overlooked, one of the issues is that we don't believe what we're seeing even as we are looking directly at. If a small child is setting off signals and you're telling yourself, "Well, it just can't be because it just can't-- not with a kid that young." Well, apparently, tragically, gut-wrenchingly, it can be.

6) Afterwards, your school needs small groups to talk and share, not a big auditorium assembly lecture.

There are many guidelines out there, and plenty of trained professionals, so get help when you need it. This is one of those issues that really shouldn't be part of a teacher's job, but we're the ones who are there, with the students, and that makes it our job. Read up on this stuff. And then just pray that the day never comes in your career that you need to know any of it.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood


This afternoon we took the grandsons to a playground. It's a lovely playground, one of many, many lovely playgrounds available in Seattle. Here's a look at just some of the cool playground stuff available there.

And here is how my oldest grandson spent a good chunk of his time.
It's a well-flogged truism that children will throw away the toy and play with the box, that they will reject the finest plastic construction that the toy industry can muster in order to play with ordinary household objects. I suppose that somebody could have forced my grandson to drop the stick and play "properly" but why, unless they were intent on imposing adult will and plans on a child. "I planned on you playing on that jungle gym over there. Now put down that stick and go have fun, dammit, or else."
The bottom line is that children have instincts and interests and involvement of their own. Adults can go nuts trying to direct that, and they can twist children's brains up by hammering them withy messages about what they are "supposed" to do. 
It is certainly true that there is room for adult direction and guidance. My grandson played with some of the equipment and played with his father, who did not try to tell my grandson what to do, but joined wholeheartedly in helping my grandson tap into his transcendent joy over swinging.
But if you go to the playground armed with an adult agenda that allows no room for the voice of the children, you are on the wrong path. The damage is evident by the time students land in my eleventh grade classroom and have trouble writing well because they are more concerned about what they are supposed to write-- what they are supposed to do to meet the requirements of the grown-ups' agenda-- instead of tying to get in touch withy what they actually think.
It is easy as parents or teachers to get caught up in the desire to see the tiny humans make the safest, wisest, best decisions. But that process has to include their own voice, their own aims, their own intentions and inclinations. That's not just how you honor their existent as thinking, feeling, sentient, individual human beings-- it's how you create future entrepreneurs, leaders, creators, makers, employees, employers, and people who are not inclined to elect raging tyrants out of desire to have "strong" leaders who will tell them just what they are supposed to do.
Yes, the world needs a certain amount of order and sense, and I am not advocating unleashing wild anarchic chaos on the universe (not today, anyway). But attempting to impose adult best-laid plans on every minute of children's lives is both evil and foolish. Evil, because every human's voice is a precious thing no matter how young. Foolish because-- well, I will give my grandson the last word with his ideas about how to use carrot slices.
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