Monday, October 20, 2014

When Do The Children Spend Time Learning?

In Friday's post on a City of Seattle ballot measure that would inflict high-stakes standardized tests on 4-year-olds, I linked to a Christian Science Monitor article entitled, As Overtesting Outcry Grows, Education Leaders Pull Back On Standardized Tests, that quoted President Obama as saying:

I have directed [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools.

He was apparently responding to an effort by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the people who literally own the Common Core State Standards brand (something the reporter does not reveal) and exist solely for the purpose of ramming this untested, faith-based, anti-democratic public school curriculum down our throats, to distance themselves from the onerous testing regime they've created. Apparently, these drill-and-kill salesmen have finally figured out that high-stakes tests are widely despised by teachers, parents, students, and just about anyone else who cares about public education. Instead of admitting that there is a fatal flaw in their product, however, instead of taking it back into the shop for a fix, these education hucksters are now engaged in a marketing campaign to convince us that they're listening while still peddling the same old snake oil.

Now, I don't really see any sort of concession in Obama's words, but apparently the CSM reporter does, and it wouldn't be the first time in recent months that the high-powered politicians and businesspeople who are flogging Common Core and high-stakes standardized testing have pretended to be backing off, just a little. I'm confident that these are merely marketing words, because these high-stakes tests are too firmly embedded in the Common Core/No Child Left Behind product to ever be removed. This is another sign, however, that corporate "reformers" are concerned that the grass roots "opt out" movement is seriously damaging their brand and could potentially kill it. In other words, little by little, we are succeeding.

As it now stands, the average American public school student is being tested once a month (a number that I've had recently confirmed by a local Garfield High School teacher), with many being subjected to these tests twice a month. Good lord, between test preparation and actual testing, when do the children spend time learning?

Of course, the goal is no longer learning, if it ever was: the goal is winning. If it was genuinely about improving pubic education, these guys would be giving more than lip-service to the mountains of evidence that these tests measure very little of importance, are unreliable, are unfair and discriminatory, are incapable of measuring most of what a well-rounded education is all about, eat up valuable classroom time with drill-and-kill rote learning, narrow the curriculum, are unhealthily stressful for young children, and have only managed to cause American students to perform worse on the standardized measures they seem to care most about, such as the international PISA tests

That's right, since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, which was the beginning of this high-stakes federal government intrusion into our schools, US student scores in math have fallen dramatically, from 18th in the world to 36th in the most recent tests. There has been a similar drop in science scores and no change in reading. I personally put no stock in these tests (nor, coincidentally, does the Chinese government which is withdrawing from PISA testing in the name of providing better education), but the corporatists do. So by their own "accountability measures" corporate reformers have failed in dramatic fashion. If they were a school they would have long ago been shut down, the teachers fired, and the kids sent off to for-profit charter schools where their test scores would be no better than before, but, you know, they're private sector so they needn't be held to the same standards as public schools.

When Arne Duncan's office was recently asked by Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss if they were aware of a pair of recent studies that slam the use of high-stakes tests to evaluate teachers, one of his pet projects, they said they were aware while in the same breath doubling down on their commitment to using these tests to evaluate teachers. Until now, this is pretty much how they've responded to all the research about the crap-fest that is high-stakes standardized testing. This tells me they have no interest in improving their product, but rather are committed to foisting it upon us consumers "as is."

Of course, if the folks who brought us the Common Core and the attendant testing fetishism had been interested in honest input from teachers, parents, and students they would have, at a minimum, built feedback mechanisms into the system. They did not. This is a finished, copyrighted product, owned by a cabal of what CSM calls "education leaders," being forced upon teachers, parents, and students. What I'm doing right now -- complaining loudly in public -- is the only avenue for change.

When I write these posts, there are always a few readers who, with good intentions, suggest that we would be better served to put our heads down and strive to make "change from within." I appreciate the sentiment, and god bless those of you who are subversively giving your students an opportunity for a real education "between the cracks," but this is not a legitimate alternative to engaging in the political fight before us. You don't have to be the sort of hair-on-fire radical that I've become, but democracy only works if people engage in it. These guys like Bill Gates and Arne Duncan are individually more powerful than us, but we have the numbers and they know it. Their lip-service tells us this.

This is not about education. The curtain has been pulled back and we can see it for what it is. This is quite simply about making it possible for corporations like Pearson Education and Microsoft to make money off the labor of children, breaking their spirits in the test score coal mines in the process.

This is what I think needs to happen:

  • We must continue reading, writing, and talking about the dangers of Common Core and high-stakes standardized testing, yelling louder and louder, including spreading the word about the movement to "opt out" of these tests. This is clearly having a positive impact. 

I'm doing my best on the first one. You can too by opting out and telling people why. Please share this video via email and social media and take the time to engage in discussions with people who do not agree:

As for the second, I've been regularly writing and calling my senators and congressman. They may not respond to you personally, but if they get enough messages like this, they will have to pay attention:

Dear Senator Murray,
As a teacher and parent, it has become increasingly clear that the Common Core national curriculum being promoted by the Department of Education was developed in an anti-democratic and possibly un-Consitutional manner, and it is beginning to look as if it was devised simply as a way to line the pockets of education business people. There is very little research or data to support this approach to education and mountains of research and data against it. Children, parents, and teachers are being hurt. The only ones who seem to be benefiting are for-profit corporations. I'm joining those who are calling upon you to advocate for Senate hearings into the development of Common Core and the constitutionality of how it is being implemented. Please pay attention. Our children are being damaged. 
Tom Hobson

As for transforming public education: that has become part of my life's work. So far, I've proposed a large table with room for everyone who wants a seat. For the rest I need you. What's next? Please help.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Vote "No" On Seattle Proposition 1B

Here it comes Seattle. The corporate "reformers" are after our preschoolers with their developmentally inappropriate curricula and abusive high stakes standardized testing. Just as we've begun to enjoy the minor, but nevertheless motivating success of pushing Arne Duncan and the US Department of Education to at least agree to temporarily slow down their educational abuse of our young children and even as President Obama himself is calling for a reduction in high stakes standardized testing, the forces of evil (and I use the word "evil" in a non-hyperbolic sense) have apparently redirected their relentless efforts to the local level. 

These people must be stopped.

Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess' "Preschool For All" plan is now Proposition 1B on the November ballot and if it passes it's going to be a Dickensian hell for many of our youngest children, who will be subjected to the drill-and-kill, test-prep coal mine. Please help us get the word out to vote "No" on this hideous thing, that like the Bill Gates-developed and funded federal Common Core national curriculum, has been developed almost exclusively by corporate profiteers without any meaningful input from child development experts or education professionals. The whole cast of bad actors is involved in this one from the Gates Foundation and Teach for America, to the KIPP charter chain, standardized testing monolith Pearson Education, and Head Start privatizer Acelero.

Oh, and Seattle Public Schools, which will be required to provide space for these programs, is being entirely cut out of the process, which is championed by the aforementioned Tim Burgess, a former Seattle Police detective and journalist, a man with absolutely no educational background.

I'll be honest and apologetic. I've had my head on other things these past few months, traveling Down Under, launching into our school year, and working to get our new Woodland Park developmentally appropriate, democratic kindergarten up and running. This has snuck up on me. Thankfully,  Dora Taylor, founding member and president of Parents Across America has kept her finger on the pulse of what's going on. I'm sure I'll be writing more about this in the coming weeks, but in the meantime I refer you to her post, "11 Reasons Why Seattle's Preschool for All Proposition 1B is a Bad Idea," over on the Seattle Education blog.

This cannot happen in our backyard. Please help. Tell everyone you know to vote "No" on Proposition 1B.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

"They Won't Fall"

Yesterday, we were playing with our large wooden blocks, long cardboard tubes, and tennis balls.

It was the kind of cooperative engineering play I've come to expect from this group, with a dozen or more kids playing together in a small space at any given moment. And for whatever reason, the play was getting a bit wild, with many of our boys in particular seeming to vibrate with barely contained energy.

There was a time in the not too distant past when I would have been right there amidst them, attempting to somehow settle things down, to subtly direct them, in what I now would understand as a misguided attempt to reduce the chance of injury and conflict. On this day I sat off to the side, keeping a close eye on things, loitering with intent, but saying little and allowing the kids' collective executive function space to develop.

Most of them were playing in stocking feet and after hearing several of the heavy blocks slam onto the carpet, I did interject, "If those heavy blocks land on your toes it's going to hurt." Moments later, Gio dropped a block on his foot. He limped over to me, tears in his eyes, where he took a seat on the bench beside me. I said, "You dropped a block on your foot." He answered, "I wasn't careful." I asked, "Do you want me to do anything?" He replied, "No, I'm waiting for it to stop hurting."

Later, Henry pounced on a long tube that several of the kids were attempting to maneuver into place. There were a few shouted cries of, "Hey!" Henry was clearly right on the edge with his wildness, just barely containing himself. He got off the tube, which, in this case, was a sociable response to "Hey!" but for good measure punched the tube quite hard with his fist. As the boys hoisted the tube into place, Henry fell to the floor beside the tube, wincing in pain. I said, "That hurt when you punched the tube." He replied, "I shouldn't have done that."

After a few more incidences like this, most of which were self-inflicted minor bumps and bruises, all in a day's work, the wildness began to subside, almost like a tide turning. 

I noticed a tall stack of these heavy wooden blocks, balanced uncertainly in the midst of what was still very active play.

It loomed over their heads. I said, "When those blocks fall on someone, it's really going to hurt." Three of the boys paused to examine the stack. Ket said, "It won't fall on me." I took it for bravado, but I was wrong. He helped his prediction become true, by removing the top block from the stack. Another of the guys removed the second one. And a third said, "Teacher Tom, they won't fall."

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What To Say Instead Of "Good Job"

"Teacher Tom! Look!"

"Look, Teacher Tom! Look what I can do!"

"I didn't know you could flip your tummy up on the table and balance with your legs up in the air."

"Look what I figured out, Teacher Tom! I can pop the bubbles by tearing my finger through them. Watch."

"You did that. You figured out how to pop it by tearing your finger through it."

"Teacher Tom, I'm popping them by jumping!" 

"I heard it pop! And I heard it again! You're jumping high and coming down hard to make them pop."

"Did you see what I can do? I'm making shapes! Let me show you."

"You're using your finger to hold the plastic circle in place and drawing around it! It looks like you're really concentrating."

"I can do it with other shapes too."

"I have something I want to show you, Teacher Tom. When I pull out these plugs the cars don't race any more and when I plug them back in they work again."

"Hey, you broke the circuit when you unplugged it, and you closed the circuit again when you plugged them in"

"Teacher Tom, Teacher Tom, we made this house."

"Who said that?"

"We did! We're inside here."

"Now I see you. You made a house with a sheet and clothes pins. You must have worked together."

"We did."

"Look what I made."

"You cut out all those shapes with pinking shears and used a glue stick to stick it all together. That was a lot of work. It looks like the two shapes are looking in a mirror."

"A crazy mirror!"

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Naming Ourselves

I know a lot of teachers have foregone circle time in the name of giving children "choice." Not me; not us. 

These community meetings are vital to how we function as a community. This is the one opportunity during the day for us to come together to discuss matters of consequence to all of us, such as making agreements about how we want to treat one another, or planning what we're going to do together. It's when we get to share important news with one another, such as the name of our new baby or that we've decided to be a ghost for Halloween this year. Without these meetings in which we listen to one another, it's hard for me to imagine how we become the kind of community that fosters the sense fairness, compassion, and cohesion necessary for any good democracy to function.

I've heard teachers say that the children get bored or that they'd rather be doing something else. Certainly, a child will occasionally wander off in search of "greener pastures," but it's quite rare for any of them to get out of earshot because what we're discussing is just too important. A couple years ago River and Connor got in the habit of stealing off to the loft during circle time where they flipped through the pages of books, but it was quite clear they were listening intently from afar because the moment matters turned to subjects of significance, they were back in a flash to get in their two cents. A couple weeks ago, one of our three year olds thought he had a better idea only to find himself lured back by a debate over a proposed rule to which he had objections.

I've simply never found that most kids on most days would rather be doing something else. And I think that's simply because our circle time is, by-and-large, a child lead activity, or perhaps more precisely, a community lead activity. As the facilitator of these meetings, I rarely have any sort of plan when we sit down together. I usually start vamping a little, making jokes, singing silly songs, looking for a theme to get things going. Last week, for instance, the first child who entered the room from outdoors was wearing a Seattle Seahawks shirt. I shouted, "Go Seahawks!" to which the reply was, "Go Seahawks!" When the next child scampered in we did it again, "Go Seahawks!" adding a voice to our cheer with each subsequent child, until some asked, "What about the Mariners?"

So we started cheering, "Go Mariners!" until someone mentioned the Sounders. "Go Sounders!"

Then we added the Storm. "Go Storm!"

Someone asked if we had a hockey team. We're not an NHL city, but after some discussion, we remembered our junior team is called the Thunderbirds. "Go Thunderbirds!"

Then we got into the rich vein of university mascots. "What about the Huskies?" "Go Huskies!"

"Go Cougars!"

"Go Ducks!"

"Go Beavers!"

I said, "Those are the mascots of schools."

"We're a school."

"Do we have a mascot?" 

"We should." And we were off, with nearly every child offering up a suggestion:

Sneaky Beans
Medium Sneakies
Awesome Sneakies
Flower Princess Disneys
Police Stations
Five Feet
Rocket Ships
18 Feet
People Grown-Ups
Super Awesome Sneakies
Shark Fire Rockets
600 Feet

As you can see, we inspired each another with regard to things like "sneakies" and "feet." And I'm pretty sure that Abigail was attempting to say an actual word, but I couldn't understand her attempt, so I did what parent educator Dawn Carlson suggests, simply repeating exactly what I thought I heard her say in the hopes of either understanding or being corrected, but she laughingly agreed that "Katillidians" was better than what she was trying to say.

"Those are a lot of ideas," I said, "How are we going to just choose one?"

"Voting!" So we undertook a method with the ones receiving zero or only one vote were eliminated in the first round, which pared our list down to a manageable handful of finalists. To my relief, Flower Princess Disneys barely lost out to Tornados.

This was a meaningful, community process that took the better part of a half hour. The 4-5's class has now named itself: we're the Woodland Park Tornados. And as usual, not a single child felt compelled to get up and walk away. Circle time is just too important.

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Monday, October 13, 2014


Just as we were convening for our afternoon class a couple of Tuesday's back, a fire broke out at a local metal processing plant just down the hill from our school. We heard sirens, of course, but those are pretty commonplace sounds in the city, so it wasn't until parents who had already dropped their kids off at school began returning to tell us, "There's a big fire in Fremont," that we took notice.

Standing on the sidewalk in front of the Fremont Baptist Church where we're located, we could see a huge, black tower of smoke that appeared to be coming from just across the street. We stood there for a time, all of us, kids, parents and siblings, speculating. Yuri's dad Bill suggested we might get a better view from the third story of the building so we migrated together up the stairs into a part of the church most of us had never been before where we could get a better idea of what was burning, even catching a glimpse of the flames.

Lost in the commotion was the fact that we had, only moments before the excitement started, introduced one of our brand new, super tough, waterproof, shockproof, freeze proof digital cameras to the kids. Unbeknownst to any of us, one of the kids -- I don't know who -- was carrying the camera throughout our adventure, snapping the shots illustrating this post, documenting our adventure together as a community.

Most of us had never been in these hallways before, which can seem a bit maze-like.

As it turned out, it was a fire of the 5-alarm variety, involving a total of 30 fire vehicles and over 100 firefighters, including our friends at the local Station #9.

After a time, we decided to try to go about our day, returning to the classroom and our regular activities. As we played, parents used their phones to update us on the situation, letting us know when the fire was out. Just before it was time to go outdoors, I slipped away and jogged down the hill to check out the scene, speaking with a police officer and one of the firefighters who happened to be standing on the public side of the caution tape, both of whom felt it would be a sort of cruelty to not bring a class of local preschoolers for a quick tour of the dramatic scene. 

Back at the school, the parent-teachers agreed, so we took an impromptu field trip, where we stood in awe of the display of public servants at work. Not only that, but as we paused at the feet of our neighborhood's Soviet-era statue of Vladimir Lenin, one of the firefighters, in full gear, came over to talk with us, filling us in and answering questions, before sending us on our way because "smoke is poisonous." There wasn't any smoke evident, but it seemed like a good idea.

Later, after the kids went home, I discovered these photos and their amazing documentation of our dramatic afternoon.

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Friday, October 10, 2014

"You Win!"

A handful of kids have continued to experiment with using our planks as "diving boards" since coming up with the idea last week. As you may recall we broke one plank in the process. Well, we broke another this week, prompting us to agree that this probably wasn't the best use for our planks, but in the meantime, this happened . . . 

D and G were taking turns on the diving board when Y arrived on the scene, picking up a bench and calling out, "Okay guys, who wants to play my game?"

D and G said they would, so he placed the bench, upside down, several feet away in the diving board landing zone. "The game is you have to jump onto this bench."

From where I stood, both literally and figuratively, I could see that this was a manifestly risky proposition. The bench was placed at the farthest point I'd seen any of the kids jump. It would require a supreme effort for anyone to launch themselves that far, making it nearly impossible to stick that particular landing, not to mention the fact that the bench, being upside down, was likely to tip over with the merest touch. It didn't take a catastrophic imagination to know that the first kid to try this was going to wind up landing hard on his or her back. 

So here's the classic adult dilemma: could I trust the kids to make a similar assessment of the situation or should I step in with warnings, substituting my thought process for theirs? I've known D for a long time and he was the first one queued up for an attempt. He's physically competent, but no daredevil, and since thinking for ourselves is what school is all about, I decided to keep my mouth shut and give him the chance to noodle this through on his own.

D lined himself up for the attempt with G behind him, watching, awaiting her turn. He leapt high, but not far enough, landing solidly on the ground in front of the bench, which he slapped with the palm of his hand.

There was a moment of silence before Y, the games master, announced, "You win! You touched the bench. That means you get to go again."

G followed suit, also slapping the bench, also winning a second turn.

On a dime, without a word of disagreement, these three children had altered the game to fit the realities they discovered before them, an unspoken adjustment based upon their on-the-fly calculations about their capabilities, accommodating the realities of their risk assessments, and with a sharp regard for the feelings of one another. There was no debate. There was no attempt to urge anyone to go against their own best judgement. There was no shaming. There were no losers.

D and G took several more turns, each time being told, "You win!"

Then D tried something new. He again stuck his landing directly in front of the bench, but this time without slapping it. He stood for a moment staring at Y, not in a challenging way, but rather as if asking a question about the nature of their game. There was a pause as Y thought about his response, then he announced, "You still won! You could have touched the bench. That means you get to go again."

This is one of the primal driving forces behind free play, that is, play untainted by adult interference: the urge to keep the game going, bending and shaping the rules to suit the players, their judgements and their capabilities. This is what happens when the goal of the game isn't winning or losing, but rather playing the game. When left to their own devices, when left to think for themselves, these are the games children play.

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