Reflecting

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Last week, on December 11th, I attend a “Town Hall” forum where John King, New York State Commissioner of Education and Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, “listened” to 45 different people speak passionately either for or against the Common Core Learning Standards and the high stakes tests that accompany them. It was a depressing evening. Ms. Tisch sat silently while Mr. King gave glib sound bites to any criticism of the CCLS and of the high stakes testing.

As I sat through the two and a half hour meeting, I couldn’t help reflecting on my own teaching career. Didn’t I have high standards for my students? Didn’t I provide a learning environment where children were encouraged to widen their horizons and challenge themselves to reach for the stars? Didn’t the children thrive academically and socially in a classroom where we sang, played, experimented, and wondered? In a very moving speech at my retirement party in 2003, my colleague at the New York City Department of Education, Office of Instructional Support, Gabriel Feldberg, said, “She taught her preschoolers and kindergartners to call on their own senses and observations, to see meaning in everything from paintings in museums to pollution in the Gowanus Canal. She taught them to do what she must have done as a child: she taught them to teach themselves” How did I do this without the Common Core Learning Standards?

There seems to be a stigma attached to any criticism of these standards. The implication appears to be that anyone who questions the CCLS is, ipso facto, not in favor of having high standards for their students. How insulting!

I’m trying to be open to these new standards but I wonder about the legitimacy of micromanaging expectations for young children. In an article on young children learning to read, in the Scholastic publication Early Childhood Today, Sue Bredekamp, author of Effective Practices in Early Childhood Education: Building a Foundation, agreed that, “There is … a huge range of individual variation that is absolutely normal.” Anyone who knows 5, 6 and 7 year olds, particularly those who have raised siblings, will understand the wide range of developmental jumps from one child to another and from one year to another. How can we possibly mandate that every five year old child, by June, will “Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding” or “Isolate and pronounce the initial, medial vowel, and final sounds (phonemes) in three-phoneme (consonant-vowel-consonant, or C VC) words.* ( This does not include CVCs ending with /l/, /r/, or /x/.) “ I might feel more comfortable if the standards were written to say, “By the end of second grade, students should….” and leave it at that. Let there be some acknowledgement of the variety of learning styles and rates of young children. Teachers could see a goal for the future, but not have to lock step the instruction and strangle the joy of learning that we want to instill in our young students.

One of the speakers at the December 11th meeting was Liz Phillips, the principal of P.S. 321 where I taught for many years. She certainly represented a voice of reason as she presented her thoughts on the ill effects of high stakes testing. While we don’t necessarily agree on all issues, I was quite impressed with her talk. I asked her if I could share her speaking notes on my blog. Here they are:

FORUM WITH KING AND TISCH—12/11/13
Liz Phillips PS 321
• I really believe most of us here have the same goal—high quality education for all students; equity in education.
• We have some serious differences about how we reach that goal, and I am deeply concerned that current state policy is moving us so much further from this goal and increasing the achievement gap as some schools feel compelled to give up a rich curriculum to spend increasing amounts of time on test prep in place of the arts, recess, and hands-on activities that develop critical thinking, problem solving and collaborative skills.
• I’m in favor of having high expectations for children, in holding ourselves accountable, in assessing children—we do that daily. I’m not opposed to some standardized testing, used appropriately. I’M EVEN IN FAVOR OF THE COMMON CORE STANDARDS—RICH POSSIBILITIES.
• What I am strongly opposed to is the nature of the current tests; the way cut scores have been manipulated; the way the state is spending a huge amount of money to pay Pearson and outside consultants, and the high stakes decisions being made with very questionable data. I AM VERY SAD THAT SOMETHING THAT HAD A LOT OF PROMISE—THE CCS—HAS BEEN SO TAINTED BY INAPPROPRIATE TESTING THAT IS LABELED AS CCS ALIGNED.
• I DO NOT BELIEVE FOR A MINUTE THAT THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL ELA EXAMS WERE COMMON CORE ALIGNED…Tested recall of minute details, not deeper understanding which the CCS is supposedly going for….SOMETHING VERY WRONG WHEN A LITERATE ADULT ME…CAN READ A PASSAGE AND NOT BE ABLE TO ANSWER A SINGLE QUESITONS WITHOUT REREADING SINCE THE QUESTIONS WERE ALL DETAILS TIED TO PARTICULAR LINES OF THE TEXT.
• THE TESTS ARE UNNECESSARILY LONG. There is no reason that a fourth grader needs to spend close to 5 hours…270 minutes on an ELA test and 5 hours on a math test. We can assess how our kids are doing on much shorter tests.
• FOR SPECIAL NEEDS CHIDLREN WHO GET EXTENDED TIME, WE ARE TALKING ABOUT A 9 HOUR TEST ON ELA AND A 9 HOUR TEST ON MATH. That is just not right.
• AND, BY TYING TEACHER EVALUATION TO MINUTE CHANGES IN TEST SCORES, WE ARE DOING A HUGE DISSERVICE TO STUDENTS. IN NYC.  WE KNOW, FROM OUR EXPERIENCE WITH TDRS, THAT THE DATA SIMPLY IS INACCURATE AND MISLEADING…and that it will lead to a narrowing of the curriculum. We are using numbers that may seem to mean something when they don’t. One example…one year, one of our teachers had an average proficiency level of 3.97 (student’s scores from third grade)…OUT OF 4.5 at the end of the year her average proficiency level was 3.92. No statistician would claim that this is a statistically significant difference—and most of us would agree that kids scoring an average of 3.92 on the test means kids are well on the way to being college ready. This happened to be one of the strongest teachers in my school—by any other measure—parent satisfaction, children’s feedback, and my observations. Yet this insignificant change landed her in the 6th percentile.
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE:
• WE NEED TO CHANGE THE TONE OF THE CONVERSATION…TO VALUE THE VOICES OF TEACHERS, PARENTS, AND PRINCIPALS.…TO MAKE SURE THAT EXPERIENCED EDUCATORS ARE INVOLVED IN ADVISING THE STATE IN MEANINGFUL WAYS. This is essential if we want thoughtful, dedicated people to enter and stay in the teaching profession.
• The exams need to be significantly shorter, not shortened by 6-7 minutes as day as has currently been proposed.
• We need transparency—THE TESTS SHOULD BE PUBLISHED AFTER THE FACT AS THEY WERE FOR SO MANY YEARS…PARENTS REALLY CAN’T KNOW IF THEY ARE VALID IF THEY NEVER HAVE A SENSE OF THEM.
• We need to minimize the impact of test administration and grading by having the state centrally grade the tests…tremendous inequality when wealthy districts can pay outside companies to grade tests but in NYC school pick up the cost by having to send teachers to grade and hire substitutes. In my school we were mandated to send 5 teachers to score for 15 days each….and pay for 75 subs to cover them.
• There needs to be a change overall in the financial priorities of the state, with more money going to schools and less to outside companies and consultants.
• We need to make sure that test scores are not the determining factor in teacher evaluation so that the curriculum is not narrowed out of desperation.
We need to do this so that so that we can truly prepare all children to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, lifelong learners, and effective citizens in a democracy.
Thank you.

Teachers Talk Testing

Celia OylerThis past Tuesday, December 3rd, P.S. 321 in Park Slope Brooklyn, hosted a forum titled Teachers Talk Testing. A panel made up of five teachers, a public school principal (Liz Phillips) and a professor from Teachers College (Celia Oyler) all spoke with great passion and knowledge. They presented very specific examples describing the destructive effect that high stakes testing is having on public school children.

The teachers and parents have set up a very impressive website, teacherstalktesting.com.

I hope that you will all visit it often. It will be continuously updated.

New York city residents are URGED to also sign the petition to Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio, which is posted on the site. 
While there are more aspects of high stakes testing that need to be changed, the petition asks that the new mayor take the following actions once in office:
1. End promotion tied to test scores.
2. End middle and high school admissions tied exclusively to test scores.
3. End school report cards based primarily on student test scores.
It is pointed out that these changes won’t fix everything, but they’d be a great start in helping to lower the weight these high stakes tests are currently placing on teachers and their students.
Once again, please do go to teacherstalktesting.com to sign the petition to Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio and read more about actions being taken to oppose these high stakes test.

Here is an article about the meeting that was posted on schoolbook.com:

Brooklyn Teachers Blast Emphasis on Testing
Wednesday, December 04, 2013 – 04:00 AM
By YASMEEN KHAN
A group of veteran teachers described in detail Tuesday night how an emphasis on standardized tests was sucking the joy out of the classroom, adding undue stress to students and educators themselves.
“The tests are kind of ruining what we love,” said Sara Greenfield, a third-grade teacher at P.S. 321 William Penn in Park Slope. She said that the time needed to prepare for the tests has displaced experiential learning.
“At this point it’s a luxury for most New York City teachers to choose to take their classes to a dance performance, instead of read about a dancer and answer multiple choice questions about that dancer,” she said.
Greenfield and others spoke to parents and fellow teachers in the P.S. 321 auditorium at a forum under the umbrella of Teachers Talk Testing, a newly-formed group seeking to reduce the emphasis on testing in three ways: ending grade promotion tied to test scores; ending middle school and high school admissions tied exclusively to test scores; and revising the way test scores factor into school progress reports.
For some, the issue of over-testing was connected to the implementation of the Common Core learning standards. Tuesday’s panel came at a time when the New York education commissioner, John King, has been holding community forums — at times contentious — around the state. The New York City forum has not been scheduled yet.
King recently defended the push for the Common Core — and the new tests aligned to the standards, saying that too many students were graduating high school unprepared for college. But critics have said that the standards and tests are being pushed too fast, especially after less than one third of students statewide passed the tests last spring.
“There’s a lot of good things in the Common Core standards, and I think most good teachers would agree that we want to hold our students to high standards,” said Alex Messer, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 321. “But the Common Core standards have come out quickly,” without enough time to work out the kinks, he said.
P.S. 321′s principal, Liz Phillips, bluntly brought the problem with the Common Core back to testing. “The value of the Common Core has become totally tainted because of the tests,” she said.
Teachers reported that despite their best efforts to avoid test prep, they felt it would be unfair to put students in a testing situation without familiarity with the format and types of questions they would need to answer. And, despite an effort to downplay the importance of the tests, students were fully aware of the stakes involved, they said.
“Children, contrary to popular belief, are observant,” said Sam Coleman, a third-grade teacher at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park. “They pick this stuff up.”
Ronda Matthews, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 321, said watching her students struggle with the tests was painful.
“The high-stakes associated with testing has such unforgiving consequences for my students and myself,” she said. “I find it hard to stomach that such extreme decisions and labels are placed on students and teachers alike based on a few days of a high-pressure situation.”
Now, with student performance on state tests also factoring into teacher evaluations, the system may not only weed out ineffective teachers but also discourage highly effective teachers as well, said Julie Cavanagh, a special education teacher at P.S. 15 Patrick F. Daly in Red Hook.
“I find myself subjecting these kids that I love to this thing that’s not good for them, doesn’t benefit them, doesn’t give me the information that I need — which is supposed to be the purpose of assessments,” she said. “It is the definition of insanity.”

Taking Ownership

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I know where I’m going
And I know who’s going with me
Irish Folk Song

Sometimes we think that we know where we are going. We have plans. We have all the tools that we need to get there. We’re well – prepared for the journey.
And yet, something along the way moves us in another direction. It entices us.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a market study that was taking place in a first grade class in East New York, Brooklyn. The children visited many different markets and they were involved in recreating the markets in their classroom. This was their direction…learning about and recreating markets. All was well. Children were absorbed in the study. The teachers understood the roadmap. And then…

The class went on a trip to the Union Square Market, a large farmers market located in Manhattan. “Where’s the market?” the children asked, looking for the sliding doors, the big freezers, the conveyer belts. “Oh, so THIS is the market!” What a discovery!union market smaller

The children were given 2-dollar vouchers that they pooled together and they bought all sorts of new and unknown vegetables…. Brussels sprouts, parsley, kale, spinach, peppers, basil, celery…and brought them back to the classroom to observe and taste.tasting.smallerjpg

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Each child took home a “mystery bag” of vegetables to share with their families. The next day they brought in lists of all that they could name and identify and told each other what they did with the vegetables when they brought them home.

The farm and the produce became a hot topic of conversation. “I wonder if we could make a farm in our classroom?” mused the teacher. Yes!

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The children planted seeds and labeled their crops.

 

They constructed fences between the different vegetables that were in their gardens.

The road turned.

The Market Study has morphed into a study of good nutrition. This was amazingly timely, coinciding with Michelle Obama’s attempt to confront childhood obesity with her “Let’s Move” initiative. Katie Rust, one of the teachers, sent me this message in an email, “we decided, after much pressing …to write to Michelle Obama about our work with fresh produce. Our class is beginning a “Healthy Food Initiative” …. Mr. Mastin and I are taking a teacher pledge to offer only fresh produce as snacks, and parents will be doing the same. Students will be writing letters describing our market study and how it has inspired us to be better decision makers about our food. We hope to complete the package to send within the next two weeks and we’ll keep you up to date. … I’ve attached the parent letter/pledge…. We’ll be having a healthy Thanksgiving party this Wednesday at noon “

 

The children have been reading circulars to see how healthy and not-so-healthy products are advertised. They’re becoming wise consumers.
The teachers and the children have taken ownership of this study and followed a detour leading to a more personal destination. Sometimes we think that we know where we are going. And yet, something along the way moves us in another direction.

December 6, 2013:  New photos added – The Avocado

Just about to taste this avocado

Just about to taste this avocado

I like the avocado!

messy avocado handscompostsprouting

To Market, To Market – Inquiry study in first grade

Questions 1We don’t hear too many good stories about schools, classrooms and teachers these days. The newspapers focus on failing schools, teacher evaluations, low scores…negative, negatives, and negatives. I’d like to occasionally show some examples of teachers who are on a quest for providing the best and most appropriate educational climate for their children. Sometimes this involves taking baby steps towards change. That’s ok. Babies don’t just get up and walk. They first crawl, and then they often “cruise” around a room to build their walking confidence. Then, one day they’re walking their way around their little world.

I’m going to share a little snapshot of Katie and Andy’s classroom. They teach first grade in a UFT sponsored charter school in East New York Brooklyn. This is an economically poor, mainly African American neighborhood. Many children live in shelters or in foster homes.

When I visited Katie’s class last year, children sat at desks that were set up in rows facing the front of the room. The teacher taught. The children listened and copied work written on the wipe board that was behind the teacher. There were no centers. No art center. No blocks. No science center. You can get the picture.

What I’m sharing today is the start of a Market Inquiry Project that they are involved with this fall. They’ve visited many markets in and out of the neighborhood. They went to a local community farm and they are planning on visiting a large farmer’s market in Manhattan. What they decide to see and explore is directed by the students’ questions and by their prior knowledge. money and business questions
questions 2
Why are there scanners...

After a trip, the teachers ask the children how they would like to represent their new information. Out of this discussion, the centers for the week are set up.

The class now has a block center and also a nicely stocked art center. Andy and Katie's art center
The desks are arranged in clusters so that children can collaborate on projects. Discussion and collaboration are becoming an important instructional goal this year.

In the block center the children are building a supermarket. Before they began their construction they worked together to draw a plan. This was posted in the center to be used as a building reference. As they made changes in their building, children returned to the original plan to revise it. The day that I visited the classroom, they decided that their market would have a drive-in restaurant!
first grade plan for market building

Revising the market plan

Revising the market plan

Drive-Through Supermarket Restaurant

Drive-Through Supermarket Restaurant

Because they noticed many signs in the market, a sign-making center was set up. These signs were brought to the children working in the block center. Another group of children were making products for the market. There was another center where children were making bilingual circulars. I couldn’t quite understand what was happening at the center until one of the children picked up a pile of advertising circulars to show me. The teacher explained that when they visited a Target store the children noticed that many signs were in English and Spanish. They were studying Spanish in school and decided that their market would have English/Spanish circulars.

I was particularly intrigued by the group of children who were sitting on the floor working on a writing project. They told me that they were writing a play about a mother who was shopping in a market with her child. Now they were writing the script. At the start of the school year, for first graders, so much of the effort at this point was in actually determining how to write each word. The children’s collaborative effort in figuring out the spelling was impressive. A year ago, children telling each other how to spell a word might have been reproached for cheating! Now, it’s considered collaboration and it’s celebrated.

I feel like I would like to celebrate the giant steps that Katie and Andy have taken towards creating an exciting, creative, collaborative first grade classroom!

Listening to the Whispers of the Mind

Simon 5

After working as an early childhood consultant for the past ten years, I’ve finally come to a realization about the true nature of my job. Consultants usually have a fairly defined focus to their work. Often they are working with teachers to refine their writing instruction, reading instruction or math instruction. I originally thought that my consulting work basically concentrated on social studies inquiry and investigative choice time centers. Well, of course that is the area that I’m working on with early childhood teachers. I think, however, that the true nature of my work in the schools is to be a strong advocate for children and childhood.

It’s no secret anymore that teachers and administrators are being forced to structure their curriculums in ways that eliminate opportunities for children to be explorative, playful and creative in their thinking. Children have little opportunity for social interactions with their peers. School days are gridded into neat little boxes. Literacy is believed to exist only in a block of time, usually at the start of the day, often during the entire morning without much of a break.

Somehow, this narrow, boxed-in definition of literacy makes me uncomfortable. Living in a home with an artist and a pianist, I can see how much learning occurs in ways that one might not expect. My husband, Simon Dinnerstein, is an artist but he is also an incredibly intellectually and socially curious person. He listens carefully to everyone and everything – the plumber who is fixing our sink and the scientist who is interviewed on television by Charlie Rose – and he observes the world around him with great intensity. All of this new information somehow works together to inspire a new work of art.

My daughter, Simone Dinnerstein, is a concert pianist who mainly performs classical music but she listens to all different genres of music and lets these different sounds rest within her. In her travels she meets and forms friendships with a variety of people from the neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks, in New York to the Vienna-based theramininist, Pamela Kurstin. As a result of her curiosity and her reflective intellect, her interpretation of the various composers’ work and her performances of their pieces continue to become more expansive and personal.

I thought about this when I recently read a review of Daniel Goleman’s new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. I was particularly taken with his description of open awareness “Always a rare and elusive form of thinking, it seems to be getting rarer and more elusive. Our modern search – engine culture celebrates information gathering and problem solving – ways of thinking associated with orienting and selective focus – but has little patience for the mind’s reveries. Letting one’s thoughts wander seems frivolous, a waste of practical brainpower. Worse, our infatuation with social media is making it harder to hear the mind’s whispers.”

In New York City, there’s a new teacher evaluation tool called Advance. Multiple measures of “teacher effectiveness” are used to rate teachers. Some of the tools that are used include observations of classroom practice, reviews of teachers’ artifacts, student outcome data and student feedback. For the classroom observations, administrators use Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching.

The original purpose of this document was to be used as a tool to support a teacher’s professional development. The NYC Department of Education has turned it into an instrument for rating teachers. Principals observe a teacher for 15 minutes, writing down every word that teachers and children say during this time period. The administrator then spends a few hours (really!) matching up every part of the lesson with the four domains of the Framework. After a lot of paper work, all information is fed into the Advance computer program and a teacher rating is regurgitated back. This does not take into account anything that the principal knows about the teacher or the children. It’s all based on the computer’s data-driven results. Each teacher is rated this way six times during the school year. There’s no place for nuance. There’s no place for the principal’s opinion based on the teacher’s history in the school. Data. It’s all data-driven.

In a recent meeting with teachers, Michael Mulgrew, the head of the United Federation of Teachers, said that he originally told Charlotte Danielson that her wonderful document would be put through the Department of Education’s system and come out with razor blades attached. So it seems to have happened. If the teacher gets an unsatisfactory rating, his or her job is on the line. This process certainly isn’t encouraging teacher creativity. Towing the line is the order of the day.

As our public schools continue to show signs of this McCarthy-like coercion, how can we expect teachers to give children opportunities to hear the whispers in their minds? Teachers also need to be relieved of the stress imposed by an out of touch bureaucracy so that too they can feel free to incorporate their own experiences and interests in their interactions with children.

Once, when I was teaching kindergarten, I noticed one of the children, Brooklyn, returning to the same book, day after day. This was in September, soon after our summer vacation. I pointed this out to the class and told them that I found this particularly interesting because I did the same thing during the summer. I told them that I read a book called House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. I liked it so much that I began reading it again as soon as I finished the last page. Now, I said, I was looking for other books by the same author. I then wondered if Brooklyn would be looking for more books by Dr. Seuss. This began a class search for Dr. Seuss books to add to Brooklyn’s book pile and it also instigated a temporary class obsession with finding and collecting books by their own favorite authors. The excitement for this activity lasted for a short period of time and then we moved on to something new. I didn’t think about the discussion that led to the author collections until a June day when one of the children asked me if I was going to read them my ghost story. I hadn’t the faintest idea of what he was referring to. “You know, the one that you read two times last summer.” Children listen and think about what we say and do.

We all need to figure out a way of being advocates for children. We need to be sure that we’re saying and doing what is really right for them. They need quality time to for exploring, questioning, playing, creating and theorizing. In a recent email exchange that I had with Charlotte Danielson she wrote: “we seem to have lost that aspect of early childhood education, which should be obvious to anyone who’s watched four-year-olds at “work” – exploring, formulating hypotheses (they don’t call them that of course, but that’s what it is – trying things out to see what happens), etc. For young children it’s all about inquiry!”

I’d like to expand on what Charlotte Danielson wrote and say that it’s all about inquiry for all children, not only four year olds, and that it is important for us to remember that. Without opportunities for inquiry, we open up the possibility of frivolously wasting the brainpower of our future citizens and, it seems, of creating unhappy and stressed – out schoolchildren.

They should be getting dirty counting frogs in ponds!

They shouldn’t count frogs on pages.They should be getting dirty counting frogs in ponds.

This statement says it all.

I’m sharing Monique Dois’ impassioned and articulate letter because she presents such wonderfully clear reasons why this testing mania is inappropriate and misguided. I hope that this is a letter that will go viral on the internet to support a movement that lobbies for a return to appropriate instructional practices in early childhood grades!hard hats at work

October 18, 2013

Dear Commissioner King,

It appears that I have to take some time out of my day to explain to you why my just-turned-five-year-old son shouldn’t be taking your standardized bubble tests as a “Measure of Student Learning” (MOSL) in Kindergarten. I would think that the last sentence that I wrote would stand on it’s own and that I wouldn’t need to elaborate the point any further. (“Kindergarten” and “standardized bubble test” just appeared in the same sentence, in case you missed it.) Unfortunately, it seems that all of the research in best early childhood practices has been thrown out the window in the interest of what you call reform.

I was thinking of writing to you about all of the ways that this kind of testing is inappropriate for 4 and 5 year-old children. For example, I was thinking about how kids in this age range can’t sit still. Or how young kids have the tendency to cry and run away from being forced to do stupid stuff. I was also imagining how my son is much more likely to make an elaborate pattern on your bubble sheet than fill in “right answers.” (And this would be a much better use of his time and mathematical energies, actually.) I was also tearing up thinking about how the wonderfully empathetic minds of young children don’t understand what “cheating” is. I wanted to communicate how painful it is to me as a parent and educator to think about kids trying to help each other on the test, only to be told by their powerless teacher that that is not allowed.

So, I guess what I am saying Commissioner King, is that it crossed my mind to address you on all of the ways that this kind of testing will further degrade kindergarten. But then I remembered hearing that your children go to a Montessori school. And I got angry. Why? Not because I don’t think your children deserve an active, hands-on, developmentally appropriate, loving, playful, and artful experience in school. But I think all children do. Stop bubble testing our babies!

Then I remembered that you don’t like hearing impassioned pleas of educators and parents. When we tried to compel you to stop destroying our children’s tenacity and love of learning at a forum in Poughkeepsie you arrogantly called us “special interest” groups and then canceled the rest of your public hearings. It sounds to me, Commissioner, that you are still developing the stamina, perseverance and grit that it takes to really listen to all the people who disagree with you and take their varying perspectives into consideration while building your own. So instead of going that route and getting all “emotional mom,” I decided to keep it simple and professional:

Commissioner King, you can’t measure student learning in Kindergarten using a pencil and paper bubble test. I’ll give you one example. On one of these Measures of Student Learning (MOSL) you ask children to select the illustration that shows 13 frogs. Something that seems so simple as being able to count thirteen is not really that simple at all. Let me explain.

While children are learning to count they show a number of behaviors in the process of counting actual objects that are not captured on this test. For example, if you give my son 13 buttons and ask him to count them, this is what will happen: First he will get a mischievous grin and say “A lot! So many I can hardly count!” This will tell you that he will probably have to work hard counting numbers in this range (it’s funny how kids will tell you what they need, if you listen). Then he will start counting. He starts by moving the buttons into a line, which shows us that he has some understanding that he needs to keep track of his counting. Then as he gets to 9 he will stop moving them and start just touching them where they are. This tells me that at 9 he has to start working hard to remember the counting sequence and starts attending more to that and less to keeping track. He may loose his one-to-one correspondence as he focuses his effort on the counting sequence and just hover his fingers over buttons as he chants the numbers. If I ask him to do it again, he may line up all of the buttons and accurately count them all, because the first time he tried got him warmed up for the task.

After he shows evidence that he grasps how to count 13, then I would ask him to give me 13 buttons from my collection. It is much more challenging to count out 13 buttons than to count a pile of 13 buttons. It requires my son to be really secure in his understanding of 13 because of different skills being juggled. The inconsistency of his counting 13 will tell us that my son is in the right range for his learning potential and I will look for lots of ways to give him 10-20 real life objects for him to count and manipulate in different contexts. We may call all of this practice in “composing and decomposing numbers to 20”. Though, as opposed to your seriously bewildering Engage NY modules, we don’t usually call it that when we are talking to 4 or 5 year-olds. Doing so doesn’t make our instruction more rigorous, it makes it more ridiculous.

At this point, my son is likely to pick out and start talking about his favorite button and how it is so shiny and how he loves the sparkly, rainbow-y colors. This may seem off task to you, and you may be likely to have me redirect him. But an experienced Kindergarten teacher like my son’s teacher would encourage him to play with the buttons. She would observe what he does, take his lead, help give him language for his play as he sorts the buttons by color, size, number of holes, “sparkliness” and so on. Play is serious work in Kindergarten.

This understanding of the development of number sense in young children is completely lost on your tests. Your system is so riddled in so-called “high standards”, and a can’t-reach-the-ever-moving-bar deficit model of education, that you have completely lost track of what makes for good teaching. I know that my child’s Kindergarten teacher is much better equipped to assess my kid’s counting than your multiple choice questions. I am outraged by the very notion that you will assess her as a teacher using the completely unreliable “data” mined from these MOSL bubble tests.

Early childhood teachers are unfortunately used to being degraded, undervalued and our work rendered invisible. But enough is enough. We have to draw the line with tests that are an insult to our professional as well as common sense. Making teachers use an inappropriate assessment that is tied to their very survival as a teacher, will encourage them to do inappropriate things to kids. Tests that require kids to count frogs on pages will only encourage teachers to have kindergarteners count lots of frogs on lots of pages. Kindergarteners should be given meaningful opportunities to solve real life number problems, build nature collections, make beautiful patterns with buttons, describe objects and live and learn what it feels like to hold numbers of objects in their tiny, precious hands. They shouldn’t count frogs on pages.They should be getting dirty counting frogs in ponds.

Thanks for listening, Commissioner King. I know that you are working on your ability to hear criticism. I appreciate you sticking with me through all of this. I know it required a considerable attention span. Luckily unlike my 5 year old you do have the capacity for such attention, even if you don’t regularly practice using it while listening to teachers and parents. Practice makes perfect!

Sincerely,

Monique Dols, mom to a Kindergartener and early childhood teacher
Bronx, NY

P.S. You know Froebel, right? He’s the guy that like, totally inspired Kindergarten and Montessori. Before he came along people used to think that play in early childhood was a frivolous waste of time. I know, crazy right!? What were they thinking?

A Mother’s Call for Help

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My husband and I have been in Paris for the last three weeks, overdosing on art, food and, of course, delicious wine. The problems at home in the schools seemed so far away. How relaxing it has been to spend my time contemplating Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa and Renoir’s Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette rather than the sickness of high stakes testing or the anxieties caused by an obsession with the Common Core Learning Standards.

However life, real life, has found a way of creeping in to remind me of the educational problems back home. My history as a long time early childhood educator and my present work as a consultant working with early childhood teachers, demands that I help to find a way of confronting the misguided edicts that are polluting our public schools.

Yesterday I received an email from my niece, my sister’s daughter. Joey is the mother of three wonderful, active and inquisitive children. They live in a suburban town in New Jersey. I don’t often hear from Joey and so, when I received her message, I knew at once that this must be something important. Joey and her husband Rob are very involved with their family. They enroll the children in sports programs and dance classes. Joey began reading to them when they were infants. She’s never been a political activist but when I read her note to me I realized that she is about to embark on a major struggle in support of what she knows is best for her children.

Here’s Joey’s note to me:

I would like some advice.
I am not happy with the Common Core. Actually, most parents here are not. I kept telling them, “we can keep complaining to each other, or we can do something”.
I am not 100% sure what to do. I thought start small by getting as many of these parents together and having them speak at the next PTA meeting. Unfortunately, our principal is not one who cares about the students as much as he cares about pleasing those above him.

Robert and Michael are doing well, but does a 3rd – grader need to know about checks and balances? Does a 5th grader need to start being prepped for the SAT test by learning Greek and Latin and getting rid of a second language to push this?
And I fear for Lauren’s education. She is only into one month of kindergarten, and cries that there are no toys. She comes home with work sheets galore.
I ran from NY because I watched my son’s (then in 1st and 3rd grade) come home flushed from sitting in their seat all day working and working. Or how they would come home, after having no recess only having to do more work and not get time to play.

Now, living here, recess has been cut 5 minutes, what will next year bring?

My sons have no time to finish their lunch, because I guess eating is no longer important.

There was nothing sent home over the summer to bridge them into this new curriculum, the teachers are frustrated with their district deadlines, and the kids are stressed. I fear a generation of antidepressants and suicides.

Okay, having said all of that… Where do I begin?
Thanks for reading my rant:) and if you can give me any advice, I would greatly appreciate it.

Thank you,
Joey

I made a plan to speak with Joey when I get back from my vacation on October 22nd. That doesn’t give me much time to come up with a practical solution or advice for action! I’ve sent her a link to the Alliance for Childhood so that she can read about an organization that is advocating to bring play back into the curriculum .I also sent her a link to the New Jersey Common Core Standards so that she can familiarize herself with the standards that teachers must now use to guide their planning and instruction.

I know of principals in New York City who are working diligently to satisfy their higher-ups while also being careful to insure that teachers follow a developmentally appropriate curriculum in their classrooms. These leaders, however, are few and far-between. There seems to be a McCarthy-like
fear that is permeating the system, intimidating administrators, terrorizing teachers, creating stressed-out children and, from what I gather from Joey’s note, frustrating and confusing parents.

I’m reaching out to all of the educators, parents, grandparents and friends of children who read this blog. Do you have suggestions for how I can respond and support Joey and the other parents in her school? What can parents and teachers do to be sure that their children attend public schools where learning is fun, exciting, and explorative? Is it possible for parents, teachers, administrators and other educational leaders to find a common ground where they can dialogue on the role that the Common Core Standards plays in our present educational environment?

The Power of Rituals: The Birthday Circle

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Chloe and Malick celebrating their summer birthdays.

There is your chair, and the birthday child’s chair.
It is almost time.
The children are taking their circle places
while the birthday child goes to the box of birthday books
and makes her choice certainly and without hesitation.
You’ve taught the children to grow up with books
So no wonder a book is at the center of this ritual.
Now you fit the crown upon the birthday child’s head-
a ponytail to manage!–engaging the class all the while.
Okay? Ready?
Ready.
Let the reading commence!

Happy Birthday Little Bear from a year ago
gives way to Just in Time for the King’s Birthday.
In this reading the King will be a Queen, Queen Sophie
to be exact, which extracts a wide smile from the birthday girl
each time you say it.
The children begin to mumble a few words with you,
and now they are reciting large sections of it
as though this is some birthday chorale,
the words some luscious candy
to be eaten once a year.
“Say the words to yourself, boys and girls,” you remind them,
and then you are accompanied by a silent chorus
as ecstatic as if they were singing Bach!

The End. The children are satisfied.
You give a child a smooth birthday stone
you found at Gerritsen Creek. The child knows just what to do.
This is the end of the second year, after all!
From child to child the rock is passed and from each
a message to the birthday child:
“We have been friends since we were little. Do you remember
when the fishtank broke in pre-school?”
“You always have a mischievous look on your face
and when you come into the room, I always think
it is like the sun coming into the room.”
            (You, fearless one, are always apart,
            teacher, negotiator, disciplinarian,
            and part of things,
           swamp walking, jitterbugging, birthday message.)
“Happy Birthday. Good Luck.”
“I want you to know you are a good friend to me.”
this is the time for the messages that bear saying
            (They are so much more sophisticated this year than last
            when the rock nearly flew around the circle.)
I imagine each child listens differently,
shyly, boldly, quietly,
with who knows what private dialogue
as she or he is appointed the center of the universe,
stars and planets revolving around this glittering birthday crown.
The child I am watching listens intently, nods, smiles
Goes into moments of a little reverie.

But isn’t that what the whole thing is about?
A reverie? A meditation on entering this world?
The dream is broken with a chorus of happy birthday,
then, how old are you?
The birthday child responds in song:
I am seven years old.
All together now: One two three four five six seven and,
Arms rolling, a roll for good luck. Napkins! Cupcakes!
“I want chocolate!” “I don’t like chocolate!” “I want red glitter!” “I want green!”
Ah, now we are back to the real world, a group of hungry seven year olds.

Seven! How did this happen? That
these children, so apprehensive, so new, so fresh two years ago
like wriggling tadpoles
should now be these self-assured youngsters,
rulers of their world, master of the ceremonies
that move them along in this classroom, their world,
their world, with you, the one they quote at home
attend to, criticize, praise, listen for, listen to (when all goes well)

For you, Queen Renee, la reine, la regina
We wish a birthday poem that includes the quiet joy
that comes with creation.
If we could gather these children together twenty years from now
to sing to you that birthday song,
we would find a chorus of voices in which,
yes, even after so many years, so many teachers,
so many events that we cannot possibly now know,
we would still hear you.

This beautiful poem, written by Sophie’s mother Barbara Danish,was a gift for me at the end of my second year teaching a class of lovely children. We began our birthday ritual in September of kindergarten and ended it in June of first grade. The poem really says it all.

Our ritual was simple. When the children came in I had a pre-cut but undecorated paper crown waiting on a table and children who wanted to began to “pretty it up” – crayons, markers, glitter – whatever they chose. The morning message contained the first official birthday wish of the school day.

At the end of the day we had our birthday circle. A chair was set up for the birthday celebrant. I had a basket of books with birthday themes for the birthday child to choose from. Some popular books were Just In Time for the King’s Birthday; Happy Birthday Little Bear; A Birthday for Frances; Happy Birthday, Moon; The Secret Birthday Message; Some Birthday!; Birthday Soup (a chapter in the Little Bear book), and A Letter to Amy. The birthday child picked a book for me to read to the class. The children giggled and loved when I substituted the name of the birthday child when I read the story!

I had a smooth stone that was our birthday stone. After the story, the stone was passed from child to child, moving around the circle. When a child held the stone, he/she shared a birthday wish. Some children merely said, “Happy Birthday.” Others shared a personal wish or a memory connected to the birthday child. It was so interesting to observe how the quality (and length!) of each child’s birthday wish changed as the year progressed. Since I had the children for two years, there was so much growth that I could see just by listening to the depth of these shared stories and wishes.

Next came the waited for moment. The birthday child made a silent wish and blew out a candle that was placed in the middle of the birthday cupcake. Cupcakes were usually brought to school in the morning by the child’s parents. On some occasions, I rushed out to buy cupcakes and juice at lunchtime if a child didn’t bring these to school. Parents were told at the start of the school year that they could only bring juice, cupcakes or muffins and, if they liked, some birthday plates and napkins. I did not allow cakes or party bags. Also, if children had parties outside of school that did not involve the entire class, then invitations had to be mailed, not given out in class.

After the candle was blown out, we sang the Happy Birthday song  and then children went to the tables to eat, drink and chat.

This was our ritual. The pattern was the same for each child. The children loved it. I loved it. Nobody had, what my mother-in-law would have called, a hooh-hah extravaganza and I really don’t think that anyone felt deprived. Our birthday ritual was part of the glue of our classroom community, overflowing with love,warm wishes and sometimes the tears of visiting parents!

Gesell Institute on Common Core for Grades K – 1

Here’s something for early childhood educators and parents of young children to ponder.

Gesell Institute Statement on the Common Core Standards Initiative
March 18, 2010
The core standards being proposed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are off the mark for our youngest learners. We at Gesell Institute call for a new set of standards for Kindergarten through Grade 3 that adhere to solid principles of child development based on what research says about how and what young children learn during the early years, birth to age eight. The proposed standards for Kindergarten through grade 3 are inappropriate and unrealistic. Policy must be set based on hard data and not on unrealistic goals surrounding test scores.
If the achievement gap is to be closed, child development must be respected and scientific research surrounding how children learn must be taken into account. Research clearly shows that early readers do not have an advantage over later readers at the end of third grade, and attempts at closing the achievement gap should not be measured in Kindergarten based on inappropriate standards.
The work of Gesell Institute has long been focused on research and best practice in child development and education – our legacy is based on the ground-breaking work of Dr. Arnold Gesell, a pioneer in the field of child development who observed and documented stages of development with normative data reflecting what children typically do at each age and stage. Currently, our national study collecting developmental information on over 1400 children across the country is in its final stages of data collection. This data, to be released in Fall 2010, is expected to further support what we know about how children develop and what they know at various ages, as well as the importance of focusing on appropriate methods for teaching young children.
We urge the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to respect the individual developmental differences of children and revise the K-3 standards based on research and the advice of experts in the field of early childhood. Having endorsed The Alliance for Childhood Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative, we support the call to withdraw the early childhood standards and create a consortium of experts “to develop comprehensive guidelines for effective early care and teaching that recognize the right of every child to a healthy start in life and a developmentally appropriate education.”